The latest outbreak of a deadly virus has scientists racing to create a vaccine

The new normal.
The new normal.
Image: AP Photo
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The Nipah virus outbreak in southern India this week has prompted the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global alliance of governments and non-profits, to step up efforts to find a cure for the deadly disease.

The virus has claimed the lives of at least 12 people over the past many days in the western coastal state of Kerala, sparking global concerns as the World Health Organization (WHO) has listed the Nipah infection as a public health risk with epidemic potential.  

On May 24, CEPI said it would grant up to $25 million over the next five years to US pharma firms Profectus BioSciences and Emergent BioSolutions to advance the development of a vaccine against the viral infection, which has proved to be fatal in 70% of cases. Over the past few weeks, many in Kerala have been kept under observation as they are suspected to have contracted the virus. Two persons in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, too, are under observation.

“The current outbreak of Nipah in India, the government of which is one of CEPI’s founders, demonstrates that this is a deadly pathogen that has already travelled thousands of kilometres, (and) has serious epidemic potential and the ability to surprise us,” Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, said in a statement. 

The Nipah virus is spread through contact with the saliva, urine, or excreta of fruit bats, which are its natural hosts. These animals are found all over south and southeast Asia. The first outbreak of the disease occurred in a Malaysian village in 1998, leading to over 100 deaths, including those of many farmers who had contracted it through their pigs.

Since then, outbreaks have occurred almost every year in Bangladesh, and twice before in the Indian state of West Bengal. More worryingly, doctors found that the virus could spread among humans via contact with infected patients. Between 1998 and 2015, over 600 cases have been recorded in total, according to the WHO.

In 2015, the WHO added the virus to its list of diseases that require urgent research attention. But so far there’s been no cure. The Nipah virus infection’s early symptoms are similar to those that come with influenza, notably fever and muscle ache, but it can then seriously affect the respiratory and central nervous systems, and even lead to encephalitis (brain inflammation). Without a dedicated vaccine, doctors can only treat the fever and neurological symptoms.

The CEPI, set up in 2017 to fund the development of the world’s most crucial vaccines, identified the Nipah virus as one of its key targets from the start. With its funding, Profectus BioSciences and Emergent BioSolutions will be working on a vaccine for humans based on virus technology developed over 15 years ago by researchers Christopher Broder and Katharine Bossart at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Since 2012, a formulation of the vaccine has reportedly been used in Australia to prevent infections in horses from the Hendra virus, which like Nipah comes under the bat-borne Henipavirus genus. 

But it could take many years before the vaccine is ready for humans.