Amanda Maxwell

Feb 7th 2017

Big Data, Drones and Other High-Tech Tools to Fight the Zika Outbreak


Even if you’re a spontaneous traveler, getting ready for a trip requires planning. That’s the fun part. Just don’t forget about your health; with global alerts such as the Zika outbreak making headlines, it’s wise to pay attention. Mosquito repellent — check; long sleeved shirts, long pants, bed net — check.

What about drones and genetic modification in warding off Zika-carrying mosquitoes? Or drilling down into the virus genome for answers? With companies like Northrop Grumman supporting clinical research data hubs, high technology has indeed entered the battle against the outbreak … but let’s start from the beginning.

What Is Zika?

Zika virus (ZIKV), an arbovirus (arthropod-borne) transmitted by primary vector, the Aedes species of mosquitoes, was first discovered in monkeys in Uganda in 1947. Scientists realized it was a zoonosis when it moved into humans a few years later. Since then, evolution through viral mutation has enhanced ZIKV’s ability to spread; infection usually causes a low-grade fever with aches and a rash that decline within a week.

While not dangerous for most, infection during pregnancy can cause brain damage in the developing fetus. For this reason, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a Public Health Emergency of International Concern alert for the Zika outbreak in February this year. More recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its first domestic travel advisory for an area near Miami. Confirmation of ZIKV sexual transmission in people also came this summer.

What Makes Zika Hard to Contain?

Human-to-human transmission and its mild presentation mean that the Zika outbreak is hard to combat. Additionally, more international travel increases the risk of Zika and similar diseases such as dengue, Ebola and SARS spreading. Indeed, a consensus statement issued by the INDUSEM joint working group on the Zika outbreak states: “The first public health approach is the incorporation of strategies that acknowledge the recent ‘urbanization’ of zoonotic diseases secondary to population expansion, globalization of trade, and increased ease of travel …” As infected travelers return home, they unwittingly spread the disease to intimate partners, and also into local mosquito populations.

Currently there is no specific treatment and no effective vaccine. Although traditional measures for host and vector/reservoir populations do work to a degree — e.g. pesticide spraying, environmental modification to mosquito habitats, personal protection and travel advisories — scientists are developing new tools for greater precision in both public health management and vector control.

High-Tech Pre-emptive Strikes

However, instead of waiting for disease, why not take to the air to spot the pathogen first in the mosquito vector populations? Environmental monitoring traditionally involves laborious trap-and-test programs; however, Project Premonition takes a high-tech step forward deploying smart robotic insect traps equipped with biosensors that monitor wing movements. The traps get smarter over time with machine learning to recognize and capture only the mosquitoes. Furthermore, rapid wireless data-uploads to the cloud enable instant access. Once back in the lab and without the traditional insect soup to sift through, more algorithms help researchers spot disease outbreaks faster from mosquito pathogen detection. The next step is drone technology as eyes-in-the-sky to identify mosquito hot spots and then place the traps remotely.

Other researchers look to mosquito breeding for answers. As a spin-off from dengue research, scientists found that eggs laid by females mated to males infected with Wolbachia — intracellular bacteria that attack only arthropods — do not hatch. Moreover, infection persists and reduces ZIKV transmission — a useful side effect since it’s the females that bite!

Genetic modification is another approach that manipulates male reproduction. One biotech project uses recombinant DNA technology to create a heritable lethal gene that male mosquitoes pass on during mating. In the lab, simple addition of tetracycline antibiotic to mosquito food keeps this gene in check; however, without it in the wild, the gene activates. Offspring larvae die quickly as do the male carriers.

Flooding an area with modified insects could out-compete wild males for effective population control without using pesticides. Moreover, selecting only males avoids the irritation of releasing blood-hungry females.

Big Data to the Rescue

Although software and virology may seem unrelated, software engineers and communications specialists play vital roles in the fight against Zika virus. Northrop Grumman teams are actively engaged in supporting CDC Zika initiatives, from virus tracking applications to a pregnancy database. Software programming expertise connects remote CDC agencies and departments so they can ‘talk’ to each other, delivering data efficiently to make a difference.

Clinical research teams hunting for effective treatments often use databases such as those provided by the Bioinformatics Resource Centers for Infectious Diseases run by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The Virus Pathogen Resource (ViPR) centralizes valuable information as a comprehensive resource for translating basic research into effective drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests. Supported by informatics technology and architecture from Northrop Grumman, ViPR collects ongoing genomic research on the Zika virus, giving researchers access to data and tools. Information from bioinformatics support hubs like this enables more rapid develop of new strategies such as DNA-based vaccines, for example.

Early-warning systems, another application for robust information technology integration, allows officials to use public health surveillance to spot disease moving into a new area. Currently, the CDC compiles ZIKV case numbers filed with ArboNET, using source of infection data to show when local mosquito control is needed. From here, IT interfaces and networks mean that when a Zika-infected mosquito is picked up by environmental monitoring, or a patient checks in at a rural hospital, the IT pipes hum with data reaching out to warn pregnant women and their caregivers. Northrop Grumman support services and software programming mean that no information falls through the cracks.

Newer strategies in development may soon replace traditional methods to halt the Zika outbreak — but for now, just don’t forget the mosquito repellent. Bon voyage!

If you’re a software engineer, learn about the amazing roles you can play as part of Northrop Grumman’s health IT team.