Aurora researchers doing their part in the fight against Zika


AURORA | Inside a secure lab at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, behind several security doors — including one that requires an eye scan to open — sits a few vials of the Zika virus in a freezer set at -80 degrees.

While the virus that recently made its way to south Florida is unlikely to spread to Colorado — the most-common mosquitoes that carry it don’t live here — researchers at the university’s division of infectious diseases have been studying Zika since last year.

David Beckham, an associate professor of medicine in the school’s Division of Infectious Diseases, has been studying mosquito-borne illness, in particular the West Nile virus, for more than a decade. So, when Zika popped up last year, he reached out to colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and said he would like to tackle this one, too.

“It was kind of a natural progression for us to work with this virus,” he said.

Today, Beckham’s team of four researchers are working with another team to try to figure out the virus on a genetic level. The goal, he said, is to find Zika’s weaknesses and hopefully create a vaccine.

The team has a second project that is exploring how the disease spreads from a pregnant woman to a fetus.

While the researchers are battling the virus from their hyper-secure lab at the Anschutz Medical Campus, Beckham said it’s unlikely Zika will become a problem in Colorado.

There have been cases around the country, but those are people who were infected when they traveled to a Zika-infected area, including parts of the Caribbean, South America and Central America. Only Florida has seen cases where people contracted the illness from a mosquito in the United States.

Beckham said those mosquitoes don’t stretch to Colorado. Another mosquito that researchers believe could carry the disease — though not as efficiently as the mosquito that have infected people in Florida — has a small population in northern Colorado, but Beckham said that isn’t much of a worry.

“Since it’s an isolated pocket it’s very unlikely that mosquito population could become infected with Zika,” he said.

What is a concern, he said, is whether Congress will sign off on funding for research like his.

Beckham has already sent a grant request to the National Institutes of Health and despite the request already being reviewed and graded by scientists there, the money has yet to flow.

“It’s just sitting there,” he said.

Lawmakers left Washington in mid-July for a seven-week recess without approving any of the $1.9 billion that President Barack Obama requested in February to try to develop a vaccine and control the mosquitoes that carry the virus.

Obama, Clinton and Democrats blame Republicans for politicizing the legislation by adding a provision to a $1.1 billion take-it-or-leave-it measure that would have blocked Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving money.

Republicans, in turn, say the administration has not spent money that has already been provided and it’s the Democrats who are playing politics in an election year.

Beckham said that if his lab can secure funding it would help cover some equipment costs. Waiting on that financing has been among the biggest challenges the researchers face, he said.

“That’s actually been the hard part, the financial stress,” he said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.