A group of insect scientists in Canada are at the forefront of a new study that will test whether mosquito native to the country can potentially become carriers of the Zika virus, as well as the chances of the native mosquitoes transmitting the virus to locals.

Brock University, which is the only academic institution in Canada that contains a Level 3 containment lab with an insectary, received a shipment of the mosquito-borne virus from the National Microbiology Laboratory this week.

Incidentally, the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg is also the only other facility in the country with a similar high-security capacity where such research can be conducted safely.

Always One Step Ahead

Veterinary entomologist and Fiona Hunter, the study's lead researcher, said working in the CL3 lab has turned them proactive.

"We don't have to wait until some traveller comes back to Canada with Zika virus, gets bitten by a local mosquito and wait on tenterhooks to see whether or not there will be local transmission," Hunter said.

Hunter, who is also a professor at the university, will spend the coming months with her students infecting approximately a dozen of native mosquitoes with a strain of Zika that is similar to the strain that is rapidly spreading in Central and South America.

The team is hoping to determine whether any species of the insect in Canada could become infected with the virus. "The fact is, we just don't know," said Hunter.

She said scientists were somehow blindsided by the rapid emergence of Zika in Brazil and its link to microcephaly in newborn babies. Ever since the association was established, researchers have been scrambling to respond to what the World Health Organization has declared a "public health emergency of international concern."

The Aedes Aegypti's Cousins

In Brazil, the primary vector that spreads Zika is the day-biter Aedes aegypti which is native to the tropics and subtropics because of the warmer climate. The A. aegypti can lay its eggs in nooks and crannies filled with water.

The A. aegypti is not present in Canada because it cannot survive the country's winters, but another invasive mosquito species that lives in as far as New Jersey, southern New York, and Pennsylvania have been identified as possible carrier and transmitter of Zika.

Hunter said it is only a matter of time before the Asian tiger mosquito or Aedes albopictus establishes its species in Canada, particularly in the Niagara region where Brock is located. She said this area is a "gateway" for invasive species into the country.

For the insect species to spread in Canada, it would have to first bite a traveller with high enough levels of the virus in their blood, Hunter said.

Meanwhile, aside from A. albopictus, its cousin Aedes japonicus is also a concern for scientists.

"Since 2012, when we got the containment Level 3 lab, we're actually able to work on live mosquitoes, infect them with various viruses and see whether or not they're capable of transmitting by bite," said Hunter. "That's the important thing: the mosquito may test positive during the outbreak, but is it actually capable of transmitting?"

Once the snow melts, Brock and her team will begin collecting mosquitoes from traps in the region until summer.

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