Scientists from across the University of Oxford joined a seminar this week to mark 25 years since the first deadly Nipah virus outbreaks in Malaysia and Singapore.
Hosted by the Pandemic Sciences Institute’s Henipavirus Programme, participants heard from two leading global experts on Nipah virus, alongside presentations from early-career researchers from the University of Oxford.
Commenting after the seminar, PSI Director Professor Sir Peter Horby said: “Scientists here at PSI are working with our partners in endemic countries to help develop practical tools, such as vaccines and treatments, so we can ensure the world is better prepared for future outbreaks.
“Researchers in our programme are not only providing world-leading biomedical research on Nipah virus, but are also developing ethical frameworks and tools to minimise stigma, facilitating the human response to future pandemics.”
About Nipah virus
Nipah virus is a devastating disease that can be fatal in around 75% of cases.
Outbreaks have occurred in countries in South-East Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India, with a recent outbreak in Kerala, India where six people have been infected and two have died.
The virus, which is a World Health Organization priority pathogen, belongs to the same family of paramyxoviruses as more well-known pathogens such as measles. There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for Nipah virus infection.
Convening global expertise
Participants heard from Professor CT Tan, Emeritus Professor of Neurology, University of Malaya who led the team that identified Nipah virus as the cause of the outbreak of a new disease in Malaysia in 1998.
The outbreak affected around 300 patients, 40% of whom died, and was initially thought to be Japanese encephalitis, a disease spread by mosquitos. It was eventually tracked down to a reservoir of two bat species which transmitted the virus to pigs – most likely because the bats migrated to human habitats due to deforestation of their natural habitat – and then on to humans.
This was followed by a talk from Dr Pragya Yadav, Scientist 'F' and Group Leader, Maximum Containment Laboratory, Indian Council of Medical Research – National Institute of Virology.
Dr Yadav presented on how India has improved surveillance since the first outbreak in 2001. This includes developing a point-of-care diagnostic assay and training healthcare workers in handling outbreaks. She has also developed mobile biosafety level 3 (MBSL3) units, which were recently mobilised to help curtail the outbreak in Kerala.
PSI’s research programme
PSI has launched a Henipavirus Programme to develop and expand research across the University of Oxford on Nipah virus. Managed by Dr Tara Hurst, the programme includes work across the breadth of pandemic sciences.
Presentations at the seminar included:
- Tess Johnson set out both the public health and ethical issues in Nipah virus control and response. For example, what are the ethically accepted methods to prevent transmission?
- Amy Paterson explored assessing and addressing stigma (defined as prejudice and discrimination) around Nipah virus, including developing a rapidly-available stigma assessment tool to pilot with communities in Bangladesh in collaboration with icddr,b.
- Rachel Kenneil spoke about the immunological assays being developed in Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert’s research group, to enable scientists to interpret the results from future Nipah vaccine trials.
- Esra Balikci-Akil and Franziska Guenl presented work on the underlying biology of the virus – how it replicates inside cells – and the state-of-the-art technologies that researchers are using to identify small molecules that could be developed as antiviral compounds.
Researchers at PSI are currently in the advanced stages of preparing for an Oxford clinical trial of a Nipah vaccine using the ChAdOx1 vector, and are also working with partners to develop antivirals and monoclonals to treat those infected.