The remarkable Scottish professor who discovered the Zika virus

Alok Jha

Former Science Correspondent

Written in thin red pen, the words "Zika virus" appear almost as an afterthought in the margins of a log book belonging to the University of Glasgow doctor and epidemiologist, Professor Alexander Haddow.

Left hidden in the university archive for almost 40 years, the papers were re-discovered by senior archivist Moira Rankin a few months ago after watching coverage of the Zika epidemic spreading across south America.

As of today, Zika has spread to much of South America and is expected to arrive in some parts of Europe by the summer.

In healthy people, it is usually a harmless infection and often non-symptomatic. Only in rare cases is it thought to cause Guillain–Barré syndrome, a muscle weakness caused when the immune system damages the body’s peripheral nervous system.

It seems most deadly in unborn children, though, leading to the devastating developmental problem, microcephaly.

Credit: University of Glasgow archives

Alexander Haddow was a professor at the University of Glasgow, having studied zoology and medicine before he became an epidemiologist.

His work took him to Uganda in the 1940s and 1950s, where he became known for the steel towers that he built in the forests, in which he caught local mosquitoes as they flew at different heights at different times of the day.

Those catches allowed him to uncover their habits: what times they bit, where, and when. All of it was public health data useful for combating the mosquitoes that spread disease.

Among the meticulous data he recorded from these steel towers, there was a catch of Aedes Africanis, from which he extracted samples of Zika virus.

Credit: University of Glasgow archives

The red pen in the margin of his log book, where he recorded the find, isn't particularly conspicuous.

Indeed, Haddow didn’t seem to have made much of the find, probably because it was one of several viruses he had found in the area and his group’s main research focus was on finding a cause and cure for yellow fever.

Haddow deposited his research records in the University of Glasgow archive in the final years of his life.

"He realised the importance and wanted to make sure that they were preserved," said Moira Rankin. "So they came here and have been on the shelves since 1978."

Rankin began looking for Haddow's archive after hearing news reports about the Zika outbreak in February.

Moira Rankin Credit: ITV News

"They started talking about Alexander Haddow having been one of the pioneers of Zika research. That name rang a bell with me, I looked it up, and sure enough we did have his research papers and I started to look, it was Africa material and digging a little bit deeper Zika virus was mentioned."

For now, the discovery of Zika virus in Haddow's research notes is a curiosity for historians but Rankin said that, in studying where the virus has come from, scientists today might be well placed to predict where it is heading to.

And the work is part of a long history of research tying Zika virus to Glasgow.

A few miles across the city, scientists at the Center for Virus Research (CVR) are urgently working on ways to understand the virus and develop ways to tackle it.

Virologist Alain Kohl's group, for example, is fighting Zika on multiple fronts.

He's got researchers looking at how the virus interacts with infected cells and how it counteracts the response from the host. By examining the proteins on the surface of the virus, he hopes to develop new diagnostic tools.

Credit: ITV News

"We also have a pretty big effort going on into sequencing the Zika virus understanding different elements in the virus genome," he said. "Another important part of our work through research is working with colleagues in Brazil trying to help them set up patient cohorts and improve diagnostics to really analyse the virus in the field as well."

It's still early days and Kohl said scientists at Glasgow, and many colleagues around the world who have been mobilised to tackle Zika, have a lot of catching up to do with the virus.

"We'll learn a great deal about Zika in the next few years quite clearly in terms of fundamental research. I think we of course hope that this will translate into results that can be of use to physicians, that can be of use to public health," he says.

"I think we’re all putting in our best possible effort to get to this point ...and yes of course we hope that we will have something we can deliver that can makes a direct impact but of course it's extremely difficult to make any promises."