UC Davis Experts on Zika Virus

Magnified closeup of a mosquito piercing a person's skin
The Aedes aegypti mosquito can transmit Zika virus and related viruses when it pierces a person's skin to feed on blood. (Courtesy CDC)

Quick Summary

  • Mosquito-borne diseases
  • Human health risks
  • Lessons from HIV/AIDS

Zika virus, first identified in monkeys in 1947 and in humans in 1952, has become a major health concern since 2015, when health officials in Brazil began to notice that an outbreak of the virus coincided with a significant increase in newborn babies with microcephaly, or abnormally small heads. Zika virus was previously known only to cause relatively mild symptoms, including fever and rash, in infected people. The virus is transmitted to people by the Aedes group of mosquitoes and is known to be present in Africa, South America, Central America and the Western Pacific.

The UC Davis researchers below, whose expertise ranges from mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases to maternal and fetal health, are available to provide information related to Zika virus. For further information or sources, contact Pat Bailey, UC Davis News and Media Relations, (530) 219-9640, pjbailey@ucdavis.edu; or Karen Finney, UC Davis Health System Public Affairs, (916) 734-9064, klfinney@ucdavis.edu.

Epidemiology of Zika and related viral diseases

Chris Barker, a researcher in the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology, studies the epidemiology of mosquito-transmitted diseases. Much of his work focuses on invasive mosquitoes, including Aedes aegypti, the species that carries Zika virus as well as dengue and chikungunya viruses. Until the recent outbreaks in Latin America and apparent links to birth defects, Zika virus had received much less research attention than the other two viruses because it had caused relatively few outbreaks of human disease. Barker is conducting a NASA-funded study focused on the threat that these three viruses pose to the U.S., and is part of collaboration, funded by the National Institutes of Health, on the epidemiology of dengue in Peru. He notes that UC Davis, with its strong programs in epidemiology, entomology and comparative medicine, has the capacity to contribute considerably to the knowledge base on Zika virus.

Contact: Chris Barker, Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, School of Veterinary Medicine, cmbarker@ucdavis.edu, office (530) 752-0151, cell (530) 848-4624

Mosquito-borne diseases, mosquito control and DEET

Chemical ecologist Walter Leal, a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, is an expert on mosquitoes, the Zika virus, and mosquito control and repellents, including DEET. He collaborates with colleagues in his native Brazil on Zika virus research. DEET had for more than six decades been  considered to be the gold standard of mosquito repellents. In 2008, Leal and colleagues discovered the exact odorant receptor that repels them. His lab also identified a plant defensive compound that might mimic DEET, a discovery that could pave the way for better and more affordable insect repellents. Leal and his lab, in groundbreaking research published in 2008 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that mosquitoes avoid DEET because they dislike the smell, not because it masks the smell of the host or jams the senses. He is a fellow in the Entomological Society of America and is co-chairing the 2016 International Congress of Entomology meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Contact: Walter Leal, Molecular and Cellular Biology, wsleal@ucdavis.edu, 530-752-7755

Ecology and evolution of mosquito-borne diseases

Lark Coffey is a virologist in the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology. She studies mosquito-borne viruses including West Nile virus, which is in the same family as Zika virus, and is developing experiments with Zika virus.

Her research focuses on the ecology and evolution of disease-causing viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes. Coffey aims to better understand the genetics and molecular evolution patterns that lead to epidemics of different variations of a virus and to develop better surveillance systems and vaccines for such diseases.

Coffey directs UC Davis’ biosafety level 3 laboratories, which are equipped to house studies with mosquito-borne viruses in mice, birds and mosquitoes.

Contact:  Lark Coffey, Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, School of Veterinary Medicine, lcoffey@ucdavis.edu, (530) 752-2946

Viral diseases, insects and global health

Distinguished Professor Thomas W. Scott is a leading expert on the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits Zika virus, and an authority on the ecology, epidemiology and prevention of mosquitoes and how they transmit diseases such as dengue fever, chikungunya, yellow fever, St. Louis encephalitis and West Nile fever. He can discuss surveillance and control for these diseases, factors that influence the spread of viral diseases into new areas, and tools and strategies for preventing insect-transmitted diseases. His research group is involved in research projects in various countries including Peru, Thailand and Mexico. 

Contact: Thomas W. Scott, Entomology, (530) 304-5132, twscott@ucdavis.edu

Nonhuman primate models of viral diseases

Koen Van Rompay is a virologist at the California National Primate Research Center. His research has focused on using nonhuman primate models of HIV/AIDS to understand viral mechanisms that cause disease and to develop antiviral interventions, both drugs and vaccines. He has extensive expertise in using rhesus macaque models that mimic mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and has helped to discover antiviral drug strategies that are now used worldwide to prevent infection of human infants, or treat them effectively to avoid disease.   

He will soon start some pilot studies — in close collaboration with other experts — aimed at developing a macaque model of mother-to-child transmission of Zika virus. If successful, such an animal model will be valuable for testing novel vaccines and drugs to protect mothers and infants against the complications of Zika virus infection.

Contact: Koen Van Rompay, California National Primate Research Center, (530) 752-5281, kkvanrompay@ucdavis.edu

Viral risks for pregnant women and unborn babies

Veronique Taché is a maternal-fetal medicine physician with UC Davis Health System. She specializes in treating women with high-risk pregnancies, including pregnancies complicated by viral exposure. Her clinical interests include fetal growth abnormalities, multiples fetuses, preventing preterm birth, and maternal coagulation and endocrine disorders. Her research interests include placental-based diseases such as fetal growth restriction and improving fetal imaging techniques.

To schedule an interview with Dr. Taché, contact: Karen Finney, UC Davis Health System Public Affairs, (916) 734-9064, klfinney@ucdavis.edu

Risks of viral infectious diseases

Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital and head of infection control at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Northern California, is a leader in controlling transmission of infectious disease. He can address the risks and treatments of specific viral and bacterial infections, together with current research and policies aimed at prevention. He is the former chair of the California Immunization Committee, an advisory committee to the Immunization Branch of the California Department of Public Health.

To schedule an interview with Dr. Blumberg, contact: Tricia Tomiyoshi, UC Davis Health System Public Affairs, (916) 734-9706, ttomiyoshi@ucdavis.edu

Media Resources

Pat Bailey, News and Media Relations, (530) 752-9843, pjbailey@ucdavis.edu

Karen Finney, UC Davis Health Public Affairs, 916-734-9064, klfinney@ucdavis.edu

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