The Pandora Report 8.16.13

Highlights this week: MERS in India, Ebola!, new swine flu, a universal flu vaccine?, and not mad cow. Happy Friday!

Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Reaches India

With a population of over 1.2 bilion people, India has understandably been on high alert for Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus. Last week a 40-year-old man who had just returned from Saudi Arabia became the country’s first case. The patient spent three day in his home in Vashi, a small town less than two hours south of Mumbai, before being admitted into the local hospital. No word yet on whether he has a family or close relatives living with him, but no new cases have been detected.

Times of India – “In the first suspected case of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in the city, a Vashi resident has been quarantined at Kasturba Hospital in Chinchpokli. The 40-year-old man was admitted to the hospital’s ward 30, meant for infectious diseases, on Wednesday afternoon with complaints of fever and a progressing pneumonia (inflammation of lungs). The patient had returned to India on August 12 after spending 35 days in Saudi Arabia.”

Scientists Reveal How Deadly Ebola Virus Assembles

Just when you thought you knew Ebola, its proteins go and change shape on you. Scientists have discovered that the molecule responsible for the virus’ release of virions (VP40) is capable of changing shape to perform new functions.  This is a big deal, as up until now, proteins were generally believed to only be possible of forming one shape – one shape, one function. Researchers will be able to use this surprising piece of information to build antivirals tailored specifically to the VP40’s different shapes, enabling them to selectively target different points in the virus’ assembly. Which would be nice, because Ebola is scary.

Science Daily – “The results, five years in the making, revealed the Ebola VP40 protein exists as a dimer, not as a monomer as previously thought, and it rearranges its structure to assemble filaments to build the virus shell or “matrix” to release countless new viruses from infected cells. The study showed the protein also rearranges itself into rings in order to bind RNA and control the internal components of the virus copied inside infected cells. This “shape-shifting” or “transformer” behavior explains how the Ebola virus can control a multi-step viral lifecycle using only a very limited number of genes.”

New swine flu virus found by University of Hong Kong researchers

Scientists at the University of Hong Kong have unearthed a new influenza virus, nimbly dubbed porcine parainfluenza virus 1(PPIV-1), in 386 pig carcasses collected from slaughterhouses around Hong Kong. Despite the virus’ close similarity to existing human flu viruses, as long as meat is thoroughly cooked there is no immediate health threat to us. The stability of the virus’ genome suggested its primary host is pigs, in which it is also found to cause respiratory symptoms. However, study researchers have called for greater surveillance of imported animals – Hong Kong imports 3,000 pigs from mainland China daily – as well as a more thorough investigation into the virus’ source.

South China Morning Post – “But a top researcher behind the study, microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, warned it might mutate and jump from pigs to humans. ‘The new virus is closely related to some human influenza viruses,’ Yuen said. ‘We should watch for possible cross-species transmission from pigs to humans, just as in the case of [human] swine influenza H1N1 and the Nipah virus.'”

Universal Flu Vaccine: Pandemic Viruses May Give Clues

The best safeguard for beating the newest pandemic flu seems to be having lived through a couple already. According to new research, individuals who had been exposed to both the 1957 H2N2 and the 1977 H1NI pandemic influenza viruses had higher levels of broadly neutralizing antibodies.  These antibodies are better able to target the flu viruses’ “stalk” portion (rather than their “head”) which remains relatively conserved across strains. Before you start counting the number of times you’ve been laid up with the flu (or smartly got a flu shot), antibodies produced against seasonal flu won’t confer the same protection. For some reason, our body tends to produce antibodies against the “head” portion of regular winter flu viruses. However, researchers hope that by creating a seasonal flu shot which tricks your immune system into thinking it’s facing a pandemic virus,  a universal flu vaccine may be possible.

Live science – “Levels of broadly neutralizing antibodies increased modestly over time in the study participants, and were highest among those who’d been exposed to more than one pandemic. Levels of broadly neutralizing antibodies were 3.8-fold higher in those who had been exposed to both H2N2 and H1N1, compared with those exposed to only H1N1, the study found. The finding suggests a strategy for making a universal flu vaccine: create a vaccine that contains flu viruses with very different heads, but highly similar stalks, Miller told LiveScience.”

New virus could help rule out mad cow

We don’t spend a lot of time talking about pathogens which affect  exclusively agricultural and food security here at the Pandora Report, which isn’t to say they’re not critically important. Scientists have discovered and successfully characterized an astrovirus which produces symptoms similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. Although the new virus is not zoonotic, researchers can use its sequenced genome to develop a quick an easy diagnostic test capable of ruling out BSE.  Currently, testing for BSE and other neurological diseases in cattle is very cost and labor intensive.

Futurity – “’Neurologic disease in cattle can be difficult to diagnose because there are a number of different causes, and pre-mortem sampling and analyses can be cumbersome and/or expensive,’ says corresponding author Patricia Pesavento, a veterinary pathologist in the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine…’Understanding the role of this virus is crucial for veterinarians as well as for the dairy and beef cattle industries,’ she says. ‘Additionally, finding new viruses helps us identify other, more remote viruses because it builds our knowledge of both the depth and breadth of viral family trees.'”

(image courtesy of Axel Drainville/Flickr)

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