LINCOLN, Neb., July 22 (UPI) -- With the recent emergence of Zika virus as a threat to human health, and discovery of two new strains of HIV in 2009, researchers say the threat of animal viruses jumping to humans is not as a big a concern as it should be.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found simian immunodeficiency viruses, or SIV, often easily move to humans because of quick mutations once they encounter human cells, suggesting the threat animal viruses may pose to humans deserves more attention that it gets.
HIV is rooted in SIV ancestors sometime in the early 1900s acquired by a hunter or bush meat vendor, a theory that UNL researchers say was confirmed by their new study showing SIVs can infect human cells.
They say HIV-1 M, the strain responsible for the global pandemic of the last 40 years, and the recently emerged Zika virus -- which was first discovered in a monkey in 1947 -- have the potential to cause problems for humans, if not become the next HIV-like infection.
"I think this analysis of the disease is very important for public health," Zhe Yuan, a doctoral student of biological sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in a press release. "We want to explore this platform for evaluating new, emerging infectious diseases."
For the study, published in the Journal of Virology, researchers tested the ability of SIV strains to invade human cells in the lab, including the ancestor of HIV-1 M.
During the experiments, the researchers found the same viral gene in two different SIV strains, including the HIV-1 M ancestor, underwent mutations allowing them to overcome human-specific barriers to infection with 14 weeks of repeated exposure.
The researchers suggest their approach to experimenting with the viruses be used to asses more animal-carried viruses for their potential to cause epidemics or pandemics.
"The emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases has become a constant threat to global health, social stability, safety and economic systems," said Qingsheng Li, an associate professor of biological sciences at UNL. "Bill Gates recently said that nuclear war is no longer the [biggest] threat to our safety -- emerging infectious diseases are. That's probably true."