Written by Staff Writer at CNN, Allison Lampert
The latest variant of the so-called “Covid” virus (first detected by the Geneva-based World Health Organization in 2002) which is out of the control of its current host, Sudan, has generated fears among scientists around the world that it could be unleashed on global aviation.
How did it originate?
Some experts believe the virus was introduced into Sudan during a 2013 cholera outbreak in the country’s capital, Khartoum. When tests on a dead Indian human in 2015 confirmed the presence of Zika virus genes in her body, scientists began looking for clues about how the virus spread and died.
“We cannot use our technology to protect ourselves from genetic material from Zika but we can use it to identify new viruses that might threaten to develop into full-blown pandemics,” Juan Lubroth, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on Virology said.
Zika and Chirp viruses can be transmitted by infected individuals and spread through bites by mosquitoes. A male Zika virus dies a slow death from certain age, but female humans can also pass the virus to their sexual partners. It can be detected by antigen count and incubation period, which is how long an infected person has an elevated viral load or infection.
Covid-19 is unusual in that it appears to infect humans in a different way: The virus is distributed through infected cells that consist of the nucleic acid (DNA) and proteins of both Chirp and Zika. By far the biggest difference between the two viruses is that Zika has an abundance of proteins within its DNA, while this is not the case with the Covid virus. The contrast in which molecules are distributed through the virus can cause differences in shape and ability of the virus to replicate.
The mutation in Covid-19 currently appears to be short lived and, even though it has been difficult to isolate, there are no cases of human infection currently reported in Africa or Asia. However, the fear is that if the variants found in Sudan continue to evolve, they could jump to humans and cause new epidemics.
Could this crossover happen quickly?
The mutation is so frequent that it is hard to predict what will happen next. Because of the speed at which a species changes and evolves, it can take a long time to identify new threats. However, within a few decades, the virus can become transmissible from animal to human.
“What is now considered to be a relatively unusual variant of the Zika virus may one day emerge as an emerging pandemic strain and create a global health threat,” Lubroth said.
The last time a risk of this type arose, during the 2007 outbreak of SARS, virus samples were introduced into China and the Aedes mosquito. “Given the lack of epidemic appearance and devastation that SARS is now remembered for, there are fears among scientists and public health officials that the virus variants that emerged in China could very well be re-introduced into the United States or other countries,” Lubroth said.
Could the possibility of an aircraft mutation lead to new rules on travel?
That remains to be seen. The security risk is small. Overall, most health and safety tests do not detect the presence of the virus in people traveling on flights. Additionally, it is not known how and when humans would become infected with the variants emerging in Sudan.