After almost a week in the lab setting up, running samples, and discussing high throughput operations with students and faculty, a few key themes seem to be emerging.
First, the situation is very dire, so much more so than is being portrayed in the US media. Zika is a hard surveillance target, present for only short times and at low titer in serum. Duration might be longer in saliva and urine, although these are not regularly taken and may not be appropriate for other potential viral targets. The serology is a mess because of co-circulating Flavivirus Dengue and syndromic look-alike Chikungunya. Watching so many samples fly around from so many sick and terrified people (especially mothers!) really tugs at the heart strings.
Second, the amount of misinformation and speculation labeled as fact is appalling. For example, a recent molecular clock analysis of Zika in Brazil has been bandied about in the media (not by the authors, who make very reasonable claims in with an admittedly fluid data environment), suggesting that the virus was introduced during a specific event in late 2013. The science is good within its known limitations, but the idea that it came from the right fullback of a soccer team from Country X is nothing short of absurd. Similarly, an article in The Globe and Mail seems to try to refute (with no facts in evidence) the well-established fact that Aedes aegypti mosquito is in fact a competent vector for Zika. It also seems to imply that there is little or no investigation in Brazil on the front of other potential competent vectors of the disease, which is interesting since I am working with an interdisciplinary group of scientists doing exactly that.
Can we please have a hype-free discourse on the subject, appropriately labeled by strength of proof to separate conjecture from hypothesis from fact? Kindly resist the temptation increase your social media footprint with increasingly salacious articles and tweets. This really needs to be a data-driven response, and right know nearly identical “what we know” articles outnumber actual scientific articles. And while we are at it, can we acknowledge that there really are no “Zika experts” outside of places like the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal who have been working with the virus for decades?