What Pliny Said

By DrKSSMDPhD, February 12, 2016


Ed. Note: Dr. KSS writes about medicine and biotech stocks for the Irregulars. He has agreed to our trading restrictions and his words and opinions are his own. You can see his biography and past articles here.

Rousseau. “The Dream.” 1910

In the beginning, there was a canopy, verdant and succulent, given to inky-black nights punctuated by the utterances of wildlife tenanting a Henri Rousseau painting. The canopy was several storeys above the ground in a Ugandan jungle. Idi Amin’s rule was still decades off. The area was by then place-named for an adjective in local language Luganda (which uses Latin script) for “overgrown”: zika. 

Virologists from the Rockefeller Foundation had set up a research station in nearby Entebbe to study yellow fever, a serious viral infection. The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmitted it were suspected to loiter in a comfort zone 80-100 feet above the forest floor. The virologists had set up a dragnet in the form of cages dangling in the canopy, each cage occupied by a single Rhesus monkey.

On the night of 18 April 1947, the system got a ping.

The next morning, subject 766 was febrile. The scientists, George Dick and Alexander Haddow, drew blood from the monkey in question, let it clot, and collected the clear, extruded serum. That didn’t test out as consistent with yellow fever infection, however. In a Koch postulates kind of infectious disease enquiry, they inoculated the brains of laboratory mice with the serum of Rhesus 766.

A lab rodent is more justifiably sacrificed than a non-human primate, and studies of tissues and fluid from their mice so infected conferred clarity on Dick’s and Haddow’s findings. This was a new virus, christened “Zika” for the jungle and nearby Lake Zika. Time and the growing molecular sophistication of passing years would allow scholarly classification of clades of African viruses. You may remember from early biology classes how all life on earth is taxonomically ranked: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and then Species. Zika belongs to the family Flaviridae and the genus Flavivirus.  The Star Trek-sounding Flavus is actually Latin for yellow or blonde. (If you’re an etymologic nerd like me, the origin of “flavor” is unrelated: Latin flatus (blowing) was conflated with Latin foetor (stench) to afford the Old French word flaor. Flaor klanged with Middle English’s savor to morph into “flavor,” originally denoting “aroma.” Rapper Flavor Flav is….well, let’s not.)

At first, Zika virus ...

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