Zika virus is being tested in Fort Collins lab

Posted at 12:54 AM, Feb 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-13 03:08:47-05

The Zika virus is not in Colorado, but possible samples of the virus are being shipped to Fort Collins.

The Centers for Disease Control houses the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases in a facility just north Colorado State University's Hughes Stadium and next to Horsetooth Reservoir.

"We've been involved with Zika basically since the first known outbreak was ever recorded," said Dr. Ann Powers, the CDC Director of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases.

The Fort Collins facility has been studying Zika since an outbreak in the Yap Islands in Micronesia in 2007. The latest outbreak in Brazil has the CDC facility concentrating on the new strain.

"This is ground zero for CDC Zika virus research," said Powers. "We could actually infect the mosquitoes with Zika virus and then we can understand how the virus is moving to the mosquito, how rapidly it is transmitted (and) what levels of virus are coming out in the saliva of the mosquito when they would bite a person."

On Friday afternoon, Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet toured the facility that tests for and helps train state and international health labs on how to perform testing to detect the Zika virus.

"We have about 80 to 85 people in the arboviral diseases branch, there is not one of them who is not working on Zika virus right now," said Powers.

"We always are reminded, when something like this happens, is how reliant the rest of the world is on the work that's done by the CDC," said Bennet.

The two Colorado Senators admitted that they contacted the CDC separately for a tour of the operations, before it was suggested they simply tour together.

"When you see a sign behind us that says 'CDC 24/7,' it really does highlight the work that is taking place here. It's not a weekend endeavor, it's around the clock," said Gardner.

On the part of the tour that was not open to the media, Gardner said he saw boxes that had been shipped overnight for the CDC to test samples to check for Zika.

"To see a pile of boxes that has been flown in to this laboratory overnight, to understand whether or not these samples are indeed infected with the Zika virus, it's an incredible responsibility that they have on their shoulders," said Gardner.

According to the CDC, the Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda. There were relatively few exposures until an outbreak in 2007. Now, with this new outbreak in Brazil, the focus of the Fort Collins facility is on Zika.

"One thing that's important to remember is there are about 550 distinct mosquito transmitted viruses, so to be prepared for all of those is obviously very challenging, and we try to look at the ones that we think are going to be the public health risks," said Powers.

At the time of the Senators tour, there were no mosquitoes infected with Zika virus. It got us wondering how the CDC makes sure it never gets out, once they are infected.

"You would have to have a badge, you would have to have a fingerprint and you would have very strict requirements on how you would gown up," said Ron Rosenberg, the Acting Director of the Fort Collins CDC Division of Vector-Borne Diseases.

The research that takes place inside the facility isn't limited to just diseases. There are biologists that are also trying to find the best chemical-free bug, and in this case Zika, repellent. The biologists are focusing on "Nootkatone."

"It essentially is what gives grapefruit its essence, so it smells like grapefruit. It's used as a flavoring agents in sodas, such as Fresca and Squirt," said CDC Research Biologist Marc Dolan. "If we can offer people something that is all natural, food grade; smells like grapefruit, smells nice on the skin and is effective, I think people in the public would be more apt to use something like that,"

Dolan said the best bug repellent is the kind that someone will use. He said the CDC is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to get products containing Nootkatone.

"It also is very effective in killing ticks and fleas that transmit such things as Lyme disease and Plague," said Dolan.