Tuesday, February 18, 2020

African swine fever virus news

As of Friday, Feb. 14, South Korea reported finding 19 more wild boars infected with African swine fever (ASF) virus, all of them near the border with North Korea.  The total number of infected boars is now 204.

Of the 19 cases, 18 were found dead in areas along the DPK border, including the eastern county of Hwacheon as well as the border city of Paju and a county north of Seoul (in western South Korea).  A wild boar captured alive in Cheorwon also was infected with the virus.

The first-ever outbreak of ASF was confirmed in September of 2019; around 400,000 domestic pigs have been euthanized to help prevent its spread.

No additional cases on farms have been reported since last October, but as noted above, authorities continue to find dead wild boars infected with the virus.  All confirmed cases so far, both wild and domestic, have occurred along the border.  The DPK announced its first case of ASF at a pig farm near its border with China last May.

African swine fever is a highly contagious and deadly disease affecting both domestic and wild pigs. ASF cannot be transmitted from pigs to humans, and it is not a food safety issue.  There are currently no vaccines or cures for ASF.  Unlike diseases like hoof-and-mouth disease, ASF is spread through direct contact with infected animals or their remains. 

ASF is found in countries around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. More recently, it has spread through China, the Koreas, Mongolia, and Vietnam, as well as parts of the E.U.

~~ Steve Blasberg

Excuse Me, But is that a Virus in Your Gut?

In recent years the “microbiome” has gotten a lot of good press.   News articles variously describe it as a complex community of bacteria and fungi that colonizes the human body.  Most people think of the microbiome as being in their gut, but it in fact also inhabits your lungs, skin and even blood.  These trillions of bugs help control digestion and benefit your immune system.   Now that you’ve heard of the microbiome, the next discovery you should know about is the “virome” — which is the name for the new realization that viruses are also a key part of your microbiome.

One of the most common viruses in your gut is a recently discovered family of viruses called Anelloviridae.   These viruses seem to be present in all humans.   So far there are no known diseases that are caused by these viruses.   In fact, instead of causing disease, scientists think these viruses help the human body by modulating your body’s immune system.

The first bacteria, fungi and viruses in your microbiome and your virome first entered your gut immediately after birth, and have persisted and flourished there ever since.   Little was known about the viruses in your body until the last two decades.  In fact, Anelloviridae was not even discovered until 1997 and even then its discovery was a bit of an accident when Japanese scientists found the Torque Teno virus (TTV) in a single patient.   Since then scientists have learned that there are at least a couple hundred different types of Anelloviridae, and that they are found in a variety of mammals.

To date there is no hard evidence that Anelloviridae cause any diseases, but there is some data that indicates that certain Anelloviridae are coincident with diseases such as hepatitis and might be associated with higher mortality rates.  Whether they are harmfully “pathogenic” is sure to be a future hot research topic.

~~ Robert Carr

Quick Speed-to-Market Ebola Vaccine – Hope for COVID-19?

As COVID-19 rages on, the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is finally showing signs of slowing down. In the last two days, no new cases have been reported. It is a breakthrough. WHO has downgraded the risk assessment for Ebola outbreak from Very High to High.

Since the outbreak began in August of 2018, the disease has plagued DRC’s war-torn North Kivu and Ituri provinces. As of February 11, 2020, there were 3,432 cases and 2,249 deaths, with a fatality rate of 66% (1, 3). For a disease where treatment is available and vaccines have recently been approved, it is a tragedy that more people couldn’t have been saved (2).

Treatment and vaccines for Ebola have been developed in record times. Ebola first burst onto the scene in 1976; but development for treatment and vaccines was slow to gain traction because the outbreaks were confined to West Africa, a region far away from Europe and North America. The threat to the moneyed and powerful part of the global, where bioscience development happens, was minimal. In the early 2000s, a confluence of events occurred that pushed the scientific work on Ebola treatment and prevention to the top of the agenda for Europe and US. 9/11 brought terrorist threats close to home for the Americans. At this time, confirmation that Soviet Union had been developing Ebola as a bioweapon came to light. The 2013 to 2016 outbreak further demonstrated the deadliness of this virus without antidote and vaccine. Finally, the post-9/11 anthrax letters that killed five people and infected 17 others prompted the US government to invest heavily and openly in biodefense research that focused on Ebola.

On December 19, 2019, FDA approved the vaccines for Ebola developed by Merck and Public Health Agency of Canada (2, 4). The speed to market for the Ebola vaccines gives hope to many that a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 could be developed and tested quickly, if scientists work and share their work together.

 ~~  You Jia Zhu

1.Lisa Schelin, “WHO, the Ebola Epidemic is DR Congo May Be Nearing its End”, Voice of America, February 9, 2019.

2. FDA Press Release: First FDA-approved vaccine for the prevention of Ebola virus disease, marking a critical milestone in public health preparedness and response, December 19, 2019

3. Ebola health update – DRC, 2019, World Health Organization.

4. Monica Villamizar, Despite outbreak, Ebola treatment and vaccine represent ‘resounding scientific success’, PBS Newshour, January 16, 2020.

How a Pharmacy Handles Mask Hoarders and Coronavirus Fears

 Isabella Kwai’s article titled, How a Pharmacy Handles Mask Hoarders and Coronavirus Fears, focuses on a small pharmacy, Kit Pharm in Hong Kong and how they are dealing with the Coronavirus. The article reveals that the demand of masks has increased to the point where there are shortages. The demand has also caused the prices of masks to double. Kit Pharm is a smaller store that does not have the large quantities of goods like a bigger chain store would have. The owner of the pharmacy cannot believe the prices to replace her diminished stock of masks. Due to short supplies, the owner is encouraging her customers to not panic and only buy what you need. A common practice throughout virus-stricken area involves people stockpiling masks and buying them in massive bulks. The coronavirus also has created lifestyle changes for the owner. For example, she no longer takes public transportation to limit her exposure to various germs. 

This article relates directly to our “Virus in the News” class because it focuses on the social response to the coronavirus. The shortage of masks in China is alarming, but I do not think you can place blame on individuals stock piling masks. If they have access to them and the virus is currently presenting more questions than answers I would also buy as many masks as I could to protect my family and myself.

~~ John Sikora


Complexity of Phages Blurs Line Between Virus and Life

Large bacteria-killing viruses with capabilities usually attributable to living organisms have been discovered,  confusing the separation between microbes, considered life, and viruses. These bacteriophages are of bigger and more complex than previously known phages, and contain genes typically seen in bacteria, which these large phages deploy versus the bacterial host. The genome of the largest phage is 735,000 base-pairs long, meaning roughly 15 times larger than previously known phages, and even larger than the genomes of many bacteria.

The genomes of these large phages include components of the CRISPR system that bacteria use to fight viruses, including the Cas9 protein that has been utilized for gene editing. It appears these phages implant their own CRISPR components into bacterial cells to redirect the bacterial CRISPR system against other viruses in a kind of interviral warfare.

In addition to coding for many previously unknown proteins, these large phages contain genes that code for tRNAs and initiate translation. Herein lies one of the ways these newly discovered large phages blur the line between virus and life. “Typically, what separates life from non-life is to have ribosomes and the ability to do translation; that is one of the major defining features that separate viruses and bacteria, non-life and life,” said Berkeley researcher, Sachdeva.

~~ Pete Dailey

Disease name vs. virus name for the coronavirus

Last week I reported that the WHO proposed COVID-19 as the official name for the new coronavirus. This week, reports came to my attention distinguishing the name of the disease vs. that of the virus causing the outbreak.

COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus. The virus responsible for the disease is slated with the name SARS-CoV-2.  The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) proposed “SARS-CoV-2” in a preprinted article awaiting peer review, as reported by Wired.

“SARS-CoV-2” seems like an apt candidate for a secure password rather than a name that is easily remembered. However, it does point to the similarities of COVID-19 with the previous outbreak of SARS and MERS.

A separate article reports that a team of biologists has annotated three genomes of the current coronavirus, identifying the differences and similarities with the previous outbreaks of SARS (2003) and MERS-CoV (2012). Researchers have found that “there are only five nucleotide differences—in a total genome of about 29,800 nucleotides,” suggesting a similarity in the viruses’ pathogenicity and transmissibility.

Furthermore, the researchers determined that the current coronavirus is more closely related to SARS and more distantly related to MERS. The study could help scientists understand how coronaviruses can jump into humans, and whether or not transmission to humans in the virus’ final jump. One researcher cited that control of SARS was partially due to the fact that SARS didn’t get into other animals such as dogs and cats.

The WHO has stated that case fatality rates of COVID-19 are at 2% or less.

SARS: Severe acute respiratory syndrome

 Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus

~~ Janette Canare


“Coronavirus Has a Name: The Deadly Disease Is Covid-19," WIRED. Accessed February 17, 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/coronavirus-has-a-name-the-deadly-disease-is-covid-19/.

“Scientists Compare Novel Coronavirus with SARS and MERS Viruses,” The Scientist Magazine. Accessed February 17, 2020. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/scientists-compare-novel-coronavirus-to-sars-and-mers-viruses-67088.

“How COVID-19 Kills: The New Coronavirus Disease Can Take A Deadly Turn,” NPR.org. Accessed February 17, 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/02/14/805289669/how-covid-19-kills-the-new-coronavirus-disease-can-take-a-deadly-turn.

The Licensing of Ebola Vaccine in Africa

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), four countries in Africa have licensed the use of a recently approved vaccine for Ebola.1 They are the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burundi, Ghana, and Zambia. The Vaccine has just recently been approved by WHO. According to WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the approval for the use of the Vaccine is a milestone in the fight against this "unforgiving" disease and is a sign of African countries’ commitment to protecting their people. Moreover, according to the WHO, the accelerated certification for the licensing and approval of this vaccine has been the fastest vaccine pre-qualification ever.

The vaccine is manufactured by Merck and is marketed under the name "Ervebo" and is administered in the form of an injection. Based on preliminary studies, it is very efficient. The efficacy rate is estimated to be around 97.5%. There are also signs that it reduces the mortality rate in those who are already infected with the Ebola virus.

The introduction of this vaccine is a great relief for countries and communities which have been devastated by the disease. At the same time, the whole process shows the critical importance of an international effort when it comes to fighting the disease. Because of the deadly nature of the disease, the approval process has relied on simultaneous studies of the vaccine running in parallel in several countries. Without such parallel studies, the approval could have taken many years, allowing for numerous preventable deaths.

On a more general note, this could be another case of success in humans’ fight against deadly infectious diseases. While there is no guarantee that this success can be duplicated for all other outbreaks, it certainly provides hope. Scientists worry about catastrophic events that could endanger the human civilization and even existence. For example there are programs that trace the trajectory of big asteroids that might be on a collision course with earth. Infectious diseases could pose at least a similar (if not more serious) threat, not from the macro-scale external universe, but as a result of the internal working of life on a micro-scale on earth.

~~ Moe Azadeh

Source: https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/14-02-2020-four-countries-in-the-african-region-license-vaccine-in-milestone-for-ebola-prevention