RAFAEL DE LA Barrera reaches into a freezer and pulls out a plastic jug of rusty-red liquid. He wipes frost off the label: “Zika Virus – Puerto Rico strain. 24Mar16.” The liquid—stored at -80 degrees F to keep the malicious virus inert—is a solution isolated from monkey liver cells. If the US Army pulls off this ambitious research effort, it’ll be one of the ingredients in a vaccine for the microcephaly-causing disease sweeping through the Americas.
Barrera, a lab supervisor at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., has a personal stake in this work. He’s a native of Colombia, where Zika has been ravaging much of the countryside, including his hometown. “I have family members who are infected,” Barrera says. “This is one of the reasons why we spend hours and hours working on this.”
Barrera and his team of about 10 scientists and technicians have been working full-time on Zika for the past six months. “It’s the virus du jour,” he jokes.
So why is this Army research lab working on Zika when 15 other academic or government labs are doing the same thing? Soldiers, Marines and sailors aren’t like business travelers. They can’t telecommute or come home if they get sick. They have to be ready to go anywhere, anytime. And they get a lot of vaccinations.
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