Zika virus ‘spillback’ into primates raises risk of future human outbreaks

Tina Hesman Saey
marmoset
Common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus). Photo: Leszek Leszczynski
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WASHINGTON — Scientists usually worry that animal diseases could spill over into humans. But “spillback” of Zika virus into monkeys in South America could be just as dangerous.

In areas where Zika infections are prevalent among humans and mosquitoes are abundant, the virus may be transmitted to wild primates, disease ecologist Barbara Han said February 6 at the American Society for Microbiology Biothreats meeting. If the disease gets established in monkeys or other wild primates, the animals may serve as reservoirs for future human outbreaks. That could make it nearly impossible to get rid of the virus, said Han, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

Han and colleagues calculated the risk of Zika entering South American primate populations using criteria that include species range, body size and diet.

Two contenders on her list of at-risk species — black-striped capuchin monkeys and common marmosets — had been found by other researchers to be infected with Zika viruses matching the human strain in Brazil. The finding indicates the spillback has already started. Capuchins are of particular concern because they are often kept as pets and used to attract tourists. “The possibility for close contact with humans is already there,” Han said.

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