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

Human strain of the virus found in South American monkeys

capuchin monkey

FILLING THE RESERVOIR  Zika virus circulating among people in Brazil had been found to also infect pet capuchin monkeys (Sapajus libidinosus, shown) and wild marmosets (Callithrix jacchus). Other primates may also be at risk of contracting the virus. Scientists worry the animals could serve as a Zika reservoir for future outbreaks

Tiago Falótico/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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