“Do you want to see Zika?” Robert Tesh asked the question not ten minutes after I stepped into his office. He whisked me next door to his lab and pulled a box of glass ampoules out of the fridge, each half-full of what looked like dirty snow. Here was Zika, frozen and dried: the virus causing panic in the Americas because of its increasingly likely link to brain defects in babies.
For Tesh, Zika has long been one of his “orphan viruses,” of only fleeting interest even to the people who make the study of mosquito-borne illnesses their specialty. As director of the World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Tesh and his predecessors have amassed 7,000 virus strains, freeze-dried for long-term storage. About ten of those are versions of Zika, and they have spent years in the reference center, to little attention.
Then came the epidemic in Brazil, the photos of babies born with heads too small to seem real, the World Health Organization’s declaration of a public health emergency.