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Recently, alarming news have spread indicating that the amount of insects in Germany declined by 75%. Notwithstanding, insects remain one of the most dangerous sources of infectious diseases, in particular in this country where other routes of transmission have largely been curtailed by elaborate means of infection control. Three years ago, we have launched a biosafety insectary. Sealed by sluice and air shower, we can, for example, infect mosquitoes with viruses without risking that the beasties fly away and cause an outbreak. The investment paid off. Our scientists could answer urgent questions on the risks of an introduction of Zika and West Nile viruses in the course of their recent transcontinental spreading.
The Ross River virus, endemic in Australia and the Pacific region, is transmitted by mosquitoes. It causes flu-like symptoms, but often also joint inflammation, which may persist over surprisingly long periods and may repeatedly recur over years.
Like any other creature, viruses collect mutations in their genomes successively, only faster because, due to their short reproductive cycles, they multiply so rapidly. The mutations mostly have no functional effects but they can be used to construct family or pedigree trees: Related virus isolates carry the same mutations, and additional ones accumulate in subsequent generations.
In the beginning of the century, West Nile virus spread all over North America within a few years and caused an estimated 100,000 disease cases and 1,500 fatalities. The virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, birds are the natural hosts, and it is assumed that migratory birds carry it across countries and continents. In southeast Europe, too, outbreaks are recorded, more recently also single cases in Austria. Germany remained unaffected as yet.
The Zika virus is of global concern since it spread epidemically in Latin America and caused severe birth deformities in pregnan-cies. In our biosafety insectary, we studied domestic mosquito species (Culex spp.) as well as the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), which is currently invading Germany from the south, with regard to their competence to transmit Zika viruses.