researcher long supported by AIHS.
Normally, research funding can take
up to a year to be approved. That means
scientists must wait to respond to a
global health emergency. Immediate
funding allows scientists to push
forward with their work—and help
Right now, Hobman’s team is
developing tools to study the virus in the
lab. They’re close to completing what he
calls “an infectious clone” of Zika, which
will be used in a variety of experiments.
The most immediate need is to protect
pregnant women who can’t avoid areas
where the risk of infection is high.
Hobman’s team will look for clues to
how the virus operates in the body and
why it affects babies’ brains in the womb.
Their work could lead to the discovery
of medications that prevent the transfer
of the virus from a mother to her
While a vaccine for widespread use is
likely years away, Hobman says it could
be possible to find a drug that prevents
infection in the short term (similar to
anti-malaria drugs given to travellers).
The team is also looking for a better
way to diagnose Zika, whose symptoms
can be mistaken for dengue. Right now,
the only accurate means of diagnosing
the virus is a lab test that can take days
or a week for results, due to the large
numbers of people needing diagnosis.
A better option would be a hand-held
device that provides results within
about an hour.
As Zika continues its rapid spread,
speed is essential in finding answers.
“You’re not going to prevent viral
outbreaks, but we can strive to be
prepared so we can limit the disease
and illness caused by these outbreaks,”
He adds it’s critical to have
knowledgeable people who can be
mobilized quickly. This is the value of the
Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, which
attracts scientists from around the world
and has the resources needed to kick-start research, fast.
Hobman has no doubt such support
has helped his team’s research surge
ahead. “We’re probably much further
ahead of this virus than anybody else in
Canada,” he says.
That advantage will help his team
gain crucial ground in the battle
43 applemag.org SUMMER 2016
Zika was discovered in Ugandan monkeys in 1947;
it first infected humans in 1952 in Nigeria. For the next
five decades, the virus lived solely in Africa and Asia.
Between 2007 and 2014, Zika affected thousands of people
throughout the French Polynesian Islands. In 2014, it reached
Yet Zika’s rapid march across South America still gave no
cause for alarm. Most people experienced mild symptoms and
recovered within a week; no deaths were linked to the virus.
Zika disease is spread by mosquitos
and caused by a virus in the same
family as West Nile and dengue.
Symptoms are generally flu-like (fever,
joint pain and headache) and typically
last up to a week.
In December 2015, Brazil declared
a state of emergency when scientists
found a link between Zika and a
sudden increase in babies born
with microcephaly—an abnormally
small head and incomplete
The World Health Organization
declared the Zika virus an international
public health emergency in February
2016. In Brazil, the virus has infected
some 1.5 million people and caused
microcephaly in more than 5,000
babies. Zika is also likened to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a condition that
causes a person’s immune system
to attack the peripheral nerves.
As many as four million people
could contract the virus by year’s
end, mostly in South America and
In Alberta, five people have contracted
Zika after travelling abroad. The risk of
contracting the virus in Alberta is very
low as the mosquitos that spread it
can’t survive in Canada’s climate.