Needle stick infects lab worker with Zika virus

Researcher with syringe
Researcher with syringe

demaerre / iStock

In another unusual twist in Zika developments, a woman experimenting with the virus in a laboratory contracted an infection after a needle stick injury, officials from Pennsylvania's Allegheny County reported today.

Meanwhile, experts from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) yesterday weighed in on genetically modified organisms, including mosquitoes, for battling public health threats such as Zika virus, saying the technology still needs more research and careful assessment before the new tools are deployed.

Lab worker on the mend

The Zika case is unique, because the lab worker had not traveled to an affected area and wasn't infected through sexual transmission, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) said in a statement.

The woman's symptoms have resolved and she is doing well, according to the ACHD.

Karen Hacker, MD, MPH, director of the ACHD, said in the statement that despite the rare incident, there is still no risk of contracting Zika virus from mosquitoes in Allegheny County. "For those traveling to countries affected by Zika, we urge caution. Pregnant women particularly should avoid travel to affected countries," she added.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is aware of the individual conducting Zika research at a facility in Allegheny County, Ben Haynes, a CDC spokesman, told CIDRAP News. He said the person tested positive on a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test following the needle stick.

He said the CDC encourages healthcare workers who handle Zika virus to take precautions to prevent needle sticks and other exposures. On Apr 22 the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released interim guidance for protecting workers, including those in labs, from occupational exposure to Zika virus.

Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, said other arboviruses have been involved in needle stick lab infections, including dengue and West Nile virus. CIDRAP is the publisher of CIDRAP News.

More research needed for genetically modified organisms

In a statement yesterday, the NAS said a study supported by several groups, including the National Institutes of Health, said developments with gene drives—such as genetically modified mosquitoes to help battle Zika and similar diseases—have the potential to address environmental and public health threats, but the organisms aren't ready to be released and need more research, including highly controlled field trials.

The authors of the study recommended a collaborative, multidisciplinary, and cautionary approach to researching and governing gene drive technologies. They emphasized that through newer and more efficient gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9, gene modifications can spread through living organism populations more intentionally, quickly, and thoroughly, some of which could cause unintended consequences.

"Preliminary evidence suggests that gene drives developed in the laboratory could spread a targeted gene through nearly 100 percent of a population of yeast, fruit flies, or mosquitoes," the NAS said.

The group emphasized the importance of considering values and public engagement and recommended a phased testing approach to guide the research. They also noted that the current regulatory environment isn't yet adapted to assessing the potential risks.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently weighing input on a draft environmental assessment and preliminary finding of no significant impact regarding a field trial of Oxitec's genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.

Mosquitoes and money

  • CDC-based researchers today published new maps showing county-level locations of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes that can spread Zika and other arboviruses. The findings, published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, pull information from a variety of sources, covering a span from January 1995 to March 2016. The team reports that A aegypti was reported by 183 counties, 26 states, and the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, 1,241 counties, 40 states, and the District of Columbia detected A albopictus during the same period.

  • Senators yesterday agreed on a voice vote to begin House-Senate conferencing on an appropriations bill that includes $1.1 billion in Zika virus funding, The Hill reported yesterday. The task for lawmakers is to reconcile the $1.1 billion Senate bill with a $622 million version covering the current fiscal year from the House.

See also:

Jun 9 ACHD statement

Apr 22 CDC/OSHA media statement on worker protection

Jun 8 NAS statement

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