Every morning since I arrived in Brazil to cover the Zika outbreak, the first thing I do is douse myself with insect repellent before venturing outside.
I know the chances I'll catch Zika are pretty low, and the disease tends to be relatively mild for most healthy adult males. But with all the alarm about the virus, it's hard not to start to get a little paranoid about catching Zika from a mosquito.
Nevertheless, as I was wandering through Zika-infested neighborhoods to talk with women who had babies with birth defects that may have been caused by the virus, and doctors trying to help them, I found myself with an odd impulse:
I started to want to actually get close to the mysterious Zika virus — to see it somehow.
So I visited the biggest scientific laboratory nearby — the FIOCRUZ research center in Recife, Brazil.
There, I met Lindomar Pena, a virologist, one of hundreds of scientists in Brazil and around the world who are racing to learn as much as they can about the once obscure virus.
Pena agreed to introduce me to the Zika virus.
"We have this cryopreservation room," Pena said as he led me into a cramped room filled with huge freezers.
He pulled open the door to one freezer, snapped on a rubber glove and slid out a cardboard box covered in frost.
"In each box we have cryovials," he said.
There were dozens of these tiny plastic vials with orange caps. Each contained millions of samples of the virus obtained from human blood, semen, urine and spinal fluid, he said.
I asked him if it's dangerous to handle the virus.
"No, it is not," he assured me. "The virus is transmitted mainly by mosquito bite."
He quickly added: The lab is taking "extra caution" because the "routes of transmission" remain somewhat unclear.
"We know that the main route of transmission is through insect bite. But there are other possible routes, like sexual routes. So we still don't know. Because of this doubt, we are taking maximum precaution possible," he said.
Only the most experienced scientists handle the virus, he said. The researchers always wear protective gear. And they only study the pathogen in special rooms equipped with cabinets that prevent it from escaping.
Next, Pena took me to one of two small rooms set aside to study the Zika virus. He picked up a large plastic flask sitting in a tub of ice. At the bottom there was a pool of pinkish liquid.
"So this is a cell culture flask that has the Zika virus," he said, explaining that the flask contained monkey cells that have been infected with the virus for study. "We must have like 30 million virus in this flask. So it's lot of virus."
The lab needs a lot of virus for all the experiments being conducted. Scientists are performing a wide range of studies simultaneously, Pena said, including deciphering and analyzing the viral genes.
Scientists are also trying to understand how the virus might be causing birth defects known as microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with small heads and damaged brains. Others are analyzing the human immune response to the virus for clues that might help develop a vaccine and testing chemicals they hope could be used as anti-viral drugs to treat patients.
"I'm very optimistic because we have a lot of scientists working with Zika virus now. And the more people, the more scientists we have studying the virus, the faster to get an answer," he said.
And with that, I said goodbye to Pena — and the Zika virus — and headed back into the streets of Brazil.
But not before first dousing myself with more bug spray.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Zika virus has gone from being relatively unknown to an international health emergency in a matter of months. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is in Brazil with researchers trying to understand the disease. He recently got up close and personal with it.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Every morning since I got to Brazil, I start the day by soaking myself with bug spray. I mean, I'm here covering this big Zika outbreak and I can't help but be a little paranoid I'll end up catching it from some mosquito. But as I was wandering through Zika-infested neighborhoods to talk to moms who had babies with birth defects that may have been caused by the virus, I found myself wanting to actually get close to this mysterious virus, to, well, see it somehow. So I paid a visit to the biggest scientific laboratory around, the FIOCRUZ Research Center in Recife, Brazil.
LINDOMAR PENA: Hello.
STEIN: Hi, I'm Rob Stein from NPR.
PENA: I'm Lindomar Pena, nice to meet you.
STEIN: Nice to meet you too.
Lindomar Pena. He's a virologist, one of dozens of scientists in Brazil and over the world racing to learn as much as they can as fast as they can. I ask him if he can show me some Zika virus. He says OK, and leads me down the hall.
PENA: We have this cryopreservation room.
STEIN: Inside the cryopreservation room are gigantic freezers. He pulls one open, snaps on a rubber glove and slides out a cardboard box covered in frost.
PENA: In each box we have cryovials.
STEIN: There are dozens of tiny vials of each box. He holds one up.
So each of those little tubes contains Zika virus.
STEIN: So how much virus is in there?
Millions, he says. Millions of individual frozen but living Zika virus.
And is it dangerous to handle the virus?
PENA: No, it is not. The virus is transmitted mainly by mosquito bites, but we are taking extra caution to this virus because the routes of transmissions are still unclear. We know that the main route of transmission is through insect bite. But there are other possible routes, like sexual routes, so we still don't know. Because we have this doubt, we are taking the maximum precaution possible.
STEIN: Only the most experienced scientists handle the virus. They always wear protective gear, and they only study it in special rooms equipped with special cabinets that prevent it from escaping. I ask Professor Pena to show me. He put the virus back and leads me into the virus room down the hall and picks up a big plastic flask.
PENA: So this is a culture flask that has the Zika virus.
STEIN: So - I'm sorry, what is inside that?
PENA: The Zika virus. We have cells - these are viral cells, the monkey cell line, which was infected with a Zika virus isolate. So in this liquid that you see, this red liquid, we must have, like, 30 million virus this flask. So it's a lot of virus.
STEIN: They need a lot. They're trying to do all sorts of things - decipher the virus's genes, figure out how it might cause birth defects, find vaccines and drugs to protect people.
PENA: I think I'm very optimistic because we have a lot of scientists working with the Zika virus now. And the more people, the more scientists we have studying the virus, I think the faster the chance for us to get an answer.
STEIN: So with that, I say goodbye to Professor Pena and the Zika virus, and head back into the streets of Brazil. But not without a little more bug spray first. Rob Stein, NPR News, Recife, Brazil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.