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The world’s biggest collection of Zika virus is housed in a tan concrete building, rising up from the flat campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch here in Galveston. Inside, armed guards watch the lobby, and access to certain floors requires special clearance. These safeguards are in place because other viruses, including those that cause Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), are also on the premises.

Zika is not as easily spread as deadly Ebola, so the laboratories that work with the mosquito-carried virus do not require spacesuit-like protection gear. On a recent visit I held a clear plastic bag containing the complete virus collection in my bare hands. Inside the bag the 17 vials of pure, freeze-dried virus resembled old glue. They did not look like the material of a global health crisis that has panicked entire nations. (The scientist who handed me the bag did keep one hand hovering nearby, presumably ready to catch if I dropped it.) Despite the modest appearance, experiments with the collection may be researchers’ best hope of understanding how the virus got so out of control—and what to do about it.

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Scientific American

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