Archive for December, 2011

Monkeypox vaccine?? We don’t need no monkeypox vaccine….

22 December, 2011

An in-press article in Vaccine that was tweeted by MicrobeTweets (well worth signing up to, BTW) has the intriguing title “Whither monkeypox vaccination?”

Now, some background to this: monkeypox virus is a rather nasty relative of smallpox (family Poxviridae; subfamily Chordopoxvirinae, genus Orthopoxvirus), meaning it is a large dsDNA virus (170-250 kb) with a complex structure.  The virus is endemic in remote forest areas in central Africa – principally in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – and naturally infects a number of animal species, including giant pouched rats (Cricetomys sp.), dormice (Graphiurus sp.) and African squirrels (Heliosciurus, Funisciurus), as well as laboratory monkeys, which is how it was isolated and got its name.

Monkeypox gets transmitted to humans by contact with infected animals: this includes by simple handling, as well as by exposure to meat and blood of butchered animals.  It causes a disease in humans that is very similar in appearance to smallpox, with a case fatality rate of 1-10%, but is apparently far less easily transmitted person-to-person.  It caused only sporadic and limited outbreaks in Africa and was of limited interest until an outbreak in the USA in 2003, which was linked to young prairie dogs kept in a pet store in close proximity to an infected Gambian pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus) recently imported from West Africa. Seventy-three people were reportedly infected, among whom there were no fatalities.  The CDC recommends vaccination of people exposed to human or suspected animal cases with smallpox vaccine, as this protects animals from experimental lethal monkeypox challenge.

The Vaccine paper makes the point that the potential for monkeypox virus (MPX) to fill the disease niche recently vacated by smallpox was evaluated in the 1970s – and discounted, largely because human-to-human spread was inefficient enough for outbreaks not be self-sustaining – thus, although smallpox vaccine protected against MPX, the WHO thought there was insufficient justification to continue vaccination.

Now, however, the incidence of the virus in humans

“…appears to have markedly increased. In addition to diminished vaccine-induced orthopoxvirus immunity, there have been profound social and demographic changes that have increased human MPX exposures and the likelihood of severe disease. Recurrent civil war and subsequent economic decline have forced rural residents to flee deep into the rain forests for extended periods of time, disrupted traditional village life and increased dependence on hunting for sustenance, thus increasing exposure to animal reservoirs of MPX.”

So, in other words, people are getting a whole lot more exposure to sick animals.  Increasingly, by eating them.  The paper goes on to say:

“Although orthopoxviruses are relatively genetically stable MPX has diverged into two clades with different levels of virulence. As incidence rises, each new MPX infection provides an opportunity for viral evolution or adaptation that may result in a more virulent or contagious variant capable of sustained person-to-person transmission. These new circumstances merit a re-evaluation of the need for immunizing against MPX”.

So – that should be relatively simple, surely?  I mean, South Africa alone has millions of doses of smallpox vaccine safely frozen away from the 1970s?  Not so fast….

“However, in an era where the threat of smallpox is not imminent and there are conditions such as AIDS, tissue transplantation, and therapies for cancer and autoimmunity that cause immunodeficiency, the adverse events associated with live vaccinia are no longer considered acceptable for the general population.”

The paper goes on to mention how all sorts of supposedly safe new smallpox vaccines have been deposited into biodefence stockpiles, based on animal testing.

And there it is again – that word “biodefence”, in the context of human vaccines – implying that there is a “biothreat” to counter.  Specifically, in this case, the spectre of weaponised smallpox.

The authors go on to make reasonable statements about surveilling for monkeypox in central Africa, and vaccinating people at risk, and say that treatment options should also be investigated given that clinical diagnosis is relatively easy.

They also close with this:

“If immunization studies in developing countries are contemplated to support the licensure of orthopoxvirus vaccines for industrialized countries or for military purposes, then provisions from those countries or organizations should be secured to distribute successful products in endemic regions where the products were tested.” [my emphases]

I should hope so.  I should really, really hope so – because then one country’s biodefence interests could end up benefitting quite a few others, who are the ones who really need the product.  Now, while you’re busy with that, what about vaccines for Rift Valley fever, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever and Chikungunya – which are actually far more serious a problem, in a much bigger geographical area?

 

H5N1: coming soon to a ferret near you?

20 December, 2011

From Nature News today:

“It is a nightmare scenario: a human pandemic caused by the accidental release of a man-made form of the lethal avian influenza virus H5N1.

Yet the risk is all too real. Since September, news has been circulating about two groups of scientists who have reportedly created mutant H5N1 variants that can be transmitted between ferrets merely breathing the same air, generally an indicator that the virus could also spread easily among humans.”

And yet…and yet…we won’t know, will we? Until and unless a human catches the ferret-bred virus, OR one develops all by itself out here in the world, that has the same mutations – which we won’t know about, unless we are told what those are.

Wednesday 21st December
And updating this story: the BBC has an interview with Anthony Fauci - formerly head of the US NIH – on what will be happening with the information.  The answer – it will be “redacted”, so the conclusions are published, but not the methods the groups used to produce their viruses.  Apparently the redacted details will be shared with national health authorities and “reputable” universities and institutes.

I would be very interested to see who makes those decisions, and who is considered ‘reputable” – our group, at the best university in Africa and 103rd best in the world by some rankings, are not even reputable enough to be able to order bluetongue virus genes from DNA synthesis companies, for example.

Watch this space….

Virology Africa 2011: viruses at the V&A Waterfront 2

19 December, 2011

We thank Russell Kightley for permission to use the images

Marshall Bloom (Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID) opened the plenary session on Thursday the 1st of December, with a talk on probing the pathogen-vector-host interface of tickborne flaviruses.   Although thoroughly infected with a rhinovirus, he held our attention most ably while reminding us that while many flaviviruses are tick borne, the hard and soft body ticks that vector them are very phylogenetically different – as different as they are from spiders – meaning that if similar flaviruses replicated in them, these viruses may have much wider host range than we know.

He pointed out that while about 95% of the virus life cycle takes place in a tick, transmission to a vertebrate means suddenly adapting to a very different host.  Infection in ticks is persistent, as befits their vector role – but vertebrate infection generally is not.  It was interesting, as a sometime plant virologist, to hear that they look for dsRNA as a marker for replication, and do Ab staining for it: the technique was invented with plant viruses, and very few other virologists seem to appreciate that dsRNA can be quite easily isolated and detected.

They compared Vero and tick cells for virus replication, and saw significant differences: while tick cells could go out to 60+ days and look fine, Vero cells were severely affected at much shorter times post infection.  There was also 100-fold less virus in tick cells, and prominent tubular structures in old infected tick cells.  He noted that ticks evade host defences quite efficiently: eg they suppress host clotting during feeding, and there is huge gene activation in the tick during feeding.  In another study to envy, they are doing array work on ticks to see what is regulated and how.

 Linda Dixon (Institute for Animal Health, Pirbright, UK) recounted her lab’s work on African swine fever (ASFV), a poxvirus-like large DNA virus.  The virus is endemic to much of Africa, and keeps escaping – and there is no effective  vaccine to prevent spread, so regulation is by slaughter.  There are 3 types of isolate, with the most highly pathogenic causing up to 10% fatality and a haemorrhagic syndrome.  She described how in 2007 the virus had spread from Africa to Georgia, then in 2009 to southern Russia and all way to the far north, in wild boar.

There are more than 50 proteins in the dsDNA-containing virion; two infectious forms similar to the poxviruses with multilayer membranes and capsid layers can form, and neutralising Ab play no part in protection as a result.  They studied the interaction of viruses with cells and the immune system, and compared the genomes of pathogenic and non-pathogenic strains, in order to understand how to develop an effective vaccine.

The biggest differences were large deletions in non-virulent isolates, including genes coding for  proteins responsible for binding to RBC, and various immune evasion multicopy genes.  They planned to target regions to delete to make an attenuated virus for vaccine.  They had found non-essential genes involved in immune evasion, and ones that lower virulence, and had been systematically cutting them out.  She noted that pigs can be protected if they survive natural infection and if vaccinated with TC-attenuated virus, and can be protected by passive transfer of Abs from immune pigs – which indicated that an effective live vaccine was very possible.

Subunit vaccines were being investigated, and they had found partial protection with baculovirus-expressed proteins.  They were doing genome-wide screens for protective Ag, and were pooling Ags expressed from predicted ORFs in immunization trials – up to 47 Ags without reduction in specific  T cell responses.

Discovery One

My former labmate Dion du Plessis (Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, OVI) made a welcome return to Cape Town, with a talk entitled “2011: A Phage Odyssey”.  He explained the title by noting the distinct resemblance of P1 coliphage to the Discovery One spacecraft dreamed up by Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick – and then went on to exuberantly and idiosyncratically recount a brief history of bacteriophages and their use in biotechnology since their discovery.  A revelation from his talk was that the first discovery of phages was probably described by a gentleman named Hankin, in 1896 in Annales de l’Institut Pasteur: he

The 1896 paper from Annales de l'Institut Pasteur

showed that river water downstream of cholera-infested towns on the Jumma river in India contained no viable Cholera vibrio – and that this was a reliable property of the water.  We were also introduced to the concept of turtles as undertakers in the Ganges….

He took us through the achievements of the Phage Group of Max Delbruck and others – where science was apparently fun, but also resulted in the establishment of modern molecular biology – through to the use of phages as exquisitely sensitive indicators immunochemistry studies in the 1960s.

All too soon we got to the modern uses of phages, with 3 types of gene library – random peptide, fragmented gene, and antibody V regions – being used to make recombinant phage tail proteins to be used for “panning” and enrichment purposes, in order to select either specific antibodies or antigens.  Dion manages a research programme at OVI aimed at developing a new generation of veterinary vaccines – and has for some years now been making significant progress in generating reagents from a chicken IgY single-chain Fv phage display library.

Carolyn Williamson (IIDMM, UCT) gave us an update on CTL epitopes associated with control of HIV-1 subtype C infections.  She said that it was now known that genome-wide association studies (GWAS) gives you certain HLAs which are associated with low viral load, and others with high – meaning that to some extent at least, control of infection was down to genetic luck.  She noted that they and others had shown that CTL escape was quick: this generally happened in less than 5 weeks in acute phase infections.

They had looked for evidence of a fitness cost of CTL escape – and shown that it exists.  She noted that this meant that even if one has “bad” HLA genes, if one was infected with a virus with fitness cost mutations from another, that one could still control infection.

It had been shown that “controllers” mainly have viruses with attenuating mutations, or have escapes in the p24 region – and it was a possible vaccine strategy to include these mutated epitopes in vaccines to help people with infections control their infections.

An interesting topic she broached was that of dual infections – there was the possibility of modelling if infection with two different viruses results in increased Ab neutralisation breadth, and if one would get different results if infections were staggered, possibly with increased nAb evolution if isolates were divergent.  She noted it was possible to track recombination events with dual virus infections too.

It was interesting that, as far as Ab responses went, there were independent responses to 2 variants and one could get a boost in Ab titres to the superinfecting virus, but not a boost to Abs reacting with the originally-infecting virus

Carolyn was of the opinion that HIV vaccines needed to include CTL epitopes where escape is associated with fitness cost.  She also reiterated that superinfection indicated that one can boost novel responses, which I take to mean that therapeutic applications are possible.

Ulrich Desselberger (University of Cambridge) is a long-time expert on rotaviruses and the vaccines against them, and it was a pleasure to finally hear him speak – and that he was mentoring young people in South Africa.  He said that more than a third of children admitted to hospital worldwide were because of rotavirus infections, meaning that the viruses were still a major cause of death and morbidity – and they were ubiquitous.

He reviewed the molecular biology and replication cycle of rotaviruses in order to illustrate where they could be targeted for prevention of infection or therapy, and noted that drugs that interfere with lipid droplet homeostasis interfere with rotavirus replication because 2 viral proteins associated proteins of lipid droplets.

He stated that there were lots of recent whole-genome sequences – we already there were many types, based on the 2 virion surface proteins; we  now know that other genes are also highly variable.  As far as correlates of immunity were concerned, VP7 & 4 were responsible for eliciting neutralising Ab.  Additionally, protective efficacy of VP6 due to elicitation of non-neutralising Ab had been shown in mice – but not in piglets, and not convincingly in humans.  Abs to VP2, and NSP2 and 4 were also partially protective in humans.  It was interesting that protection was not always correlated with high titre nAb responses.

He noted that in clinical disease primary infections partially protected against subsequent infections which are normally milder; subsequently no disease was seen even when infection occurred.  Cross-protection occurred at least partially after initial infection, and this got better after more exposure.  There was evidence one could get intracellular neutralisation by transcytosed Ab, and especially to VP6.  Ab in the gut lumen was a good indication of protection.

As far as the live modern vaccines were concerned, Merck’s Rotateq elicited type-specific nAb, with 9% of recipients shedding live virus.  GSK’s Rotarix gets elicits cross-reactive nAb and one gets 50% of recipients shedding virus.

While the vaccines seemed safe, he noted that where vaccines had been introduced, efficacy ranged from 90% in the USA and Europe, down to as low as 48% in Bangladesh, Malawi and SA, due to type mismatch, and that efficacy was correlated inversely with disease incidence and child mortality generally.  He mentioned that there had been much VLP work, but that none of the candidates was near licensure.

Johan Burger (Stellenbosch University) spoke on one of the more important non-human virus problems in our immediate environment – specifically, those affecting wine grape production in our local area.  He opened by stating that SA now produced 3.7% of the world’s wine, making grapes a nationally and especially locally important crop.  Leafroll disease was a major worldwide problem – as well as being the reason for the wonderful autumn reddening seen in grapevines, it also significantly limited production in affected vineyards.  His laboratory has done a lot of work in both characterising viruses in grapevine, and trying to engineer resistance to them.  Lately they were also investigating the use of engineered miRNAs as a response to and means of controlling, virus infection.

His group has for a couple of years been involved in “metaviromic” or high-throughput sequencing studies of grapevines, with some significant success in revealing unsuspected infections.  In this connection, he and Don Cowan pointed out that they had lots of data that they ignore – but which we should keep and study, as a resource for other studies not yet thought of.

As far as Johan’s work went, novel viruses kept popping up, including grapevine virus E (GVE), which hitherto had only been found in Japan.  They were presently looking at Shiraz disease, which was unique to SA, and was still not understood.  This was infectious, typified by a lack of lignification which led to rubbery vines, and kills plants in 5 years.  It also limits the production of the eponymous grapes – a crime when SA shirazes seem to be doing so well!

Veterinary Virology and Vaccines parallel session.

I again dodged the clinical / HIV session because of my personal biases, and was again treated to a smorgasbord of delight: everyone spoke well, and to time, and I was really gratified to see so many keen, smart young folk coming through in South African virology.  It was also very interesting to see highly topical subjects like Rift Valley fever and rare bunyavirus outbreaks being thoroughly covered, so I will concentrate on these.

P Jansen van Veeren (NICD, Johaanesburg) was again a speaker, this time representing his absent boss, Janusz Paweska.  He gave an account of the 2010 Rift Valley fever outbreak in SA, and epidemiological findings in humans – something of keen interest to me.  He said there had been some forecasting success for outbreaks in East Africa; however, there were long gaps between outbreaks, which were generally linked to abnormal rainfall and movement of mosquito and animal hosts.  RVFV isolates differed in pathogenicity but were structurally and serologically indistinguishable – because virulence was due to the NSs protein, and not a virion component.  He recounted how artificial flooding of a dambo in Kenya resulted in a population boom in the floodwater Aedes mosquitoes responsible for inititating an outbreak, and then of the Culex which maintained the epidemic.  He said there was a strong correlation between viral load and disease severity.

In terms of South African epidemiology, there had been smaller outbreaks from 2008 round the Kruger National Park (NE SA), then in the Northern Cape and KZN in 2009.  People had been infected from autopsy of animals, and handling butchered animal parts.  The 2010 outbreak started in the central Free State after an unusually wet period, and had then spread to all provinces except Limpopo and KZN.  In-house serological methods at the NICD were validated in-house too: these were HAI screening and IgM and IgG ELISAs and a virus neutralisation test.  They had got 1600+ samples of human serum, and confirmed 242 cases of disease and 26 deaths for 2010.

He noted that with winter rains there was a continuous outbreak in the Western Cape, and in 2011 the epidemic had started again in the Eastern and Western Cape Provinces, but has since tailed off.  Some 82% of human cases were people who occupationally handled dead animals, although there was some possibility of transmission by mosquitoes.

In human cases there was viraemia from 2-7 days, with IgM present transiently from 3 days at low level.  They had sequenced partial GP2 after PCR from 47 isolates, and showed some recombination occurring.  The 2010 isolates were very closely related to each other, and to a 2004 Namibian isolate.  There had been no isolation from mosquitoes yet.

Two talks on FMDV followed: Belinda Blignaut (OVI and Univ Pretoria) spoke on indirect assessment of vaccine matching by serology, and Rahana Dwarka (OVI) on a FMDV outbreak in KZN Province in 2011.  Belinda’s report detailed how 6 of 7 serotypes of FMDV occur in SA, with SAT-1 and -2 and O the most common – and that vaccines needed to be matched to emerging strains.  This was done by indirect vaccine matching tests such as serological r-value, determined by the ratio of the reciprocal serum titre to the heterologous virus against that to the homologous virus.  They had put 4 different viruses into cattle and got sera to test a range of 26 newly isolated viruses.  While they had not got sequence from the test panel viruses, indications were that topotype 3 viruses are antigenically more disparate and that a vaccine consisting of topotype 1 or 2 antigens may not be effective in the control of FMD.

In introducing Rahana’s talk, the chair (Livio Heath, OVI) mentioned that there had been 5 different major animal pathogens causing outbreaks in SA over the last 3 years – and that they had to produce reagents and validate tests for ASFV, classical swine fever (CSF) and FMDV, etc, with each outbreak.  Rahana described how they had neutralisation assays and blocking and competition ELISA for FMDV, as well as a big database of isolates from buffalo in KZN – so they were well-placed to type viruses found in cattle in the region.

C van Eeden (Univ Pretoria) had an intriguing account of their investigation of the occurrence of an orthobunyavirus causing neurological symptoms in horses and wildlife.  Horses seem to be particularly vulnerable to many of the viruses involved in such disease, and so are a useful sentinel species.  Shuni virus was first isolated from Culicoides midges and sheep and a child in Nigeria in the 1960s.  SA workers subsequently found it in some livestock and Culex mosquitoes and in horses.  The virus was shown to be a neurologic disease agent in horses and wildlife – then disappeared for some 30 years, much like Ebola.  There is apparently a new research unit at UP with a BSL3 lab, so they are well equipped to do tests with the virus.

Ms van Eeden noted that the incidence of encephalitic disease in humans and animal in SA is underreported, and the causes are mainly unknown – a revelation to me!  Horses are susceptible to many of the agents, and are useful sentinels – workers have identified flavi- and alphaviruses in some outbreaks, but many are not IDed.  They had done cell culture and EM on samples from an ataxic horse: they got a bunyavirus-like virus by EM, and did bunya-specific PCR, and got Shuni virus back.  Sequence relationships showed no linkage to type of animal or date, in subsequent samplings from horses, crocodiles,  a rhino and a warthog, and from blood, brain and spinal cord.  All positive wildlife were sampled in Limpopo Province; horses only from most other provinces.

She noted that latest cases were neurological, whereas previously these were mainly febrile.  The virus accounted for 10% all neurological cases, with a 50% fatality rate.  She noted further that vets often work without masks or gloves, and so had no protection from exposure in such cases….  There was no idea on what the vector was, but they would like to test mosquitoes, etc.  Ulrich Desselberger suggested  rodents may be a reservoir, but they don’t know if this is true.

Stephanie van Niekerk (Univ Pretoria) investigated alphaviruses as neurological disease agents in African wildlife.  The most common alphaviruses in SA are Sindbis and Middelburg viruses.  Old World alphaviruses are usually not too bad, and cause arthritic and febrile symptoms, while New World cause severe neurological diseases.  Sindbis was been found in SA outbreaks in 1974.  However, Stephanie noted that a severe neurological type had appeared since 2008 in horses.  Accordingly, they looked at unexplained cases in wildlife in the period 2009-2011: brain and spinal cord samples were investigated for all cases.  They found alphavirus in a number of rhinos, buffalo, warthog, crocodiles and jackal – and all except for one rhino were Middelburg virus.  They want to isolate viruses in cell culture, and increase the size of regions used for cDNA PCR.  Stephanie said the opinion was that the values of the animal involved justifies the development of vaccines.

 

Virology Africa 2011: viruses at the V&A Waterfront 1

12 December, 2011

We thank Russell Kightley for permission to use the images

Anna-Lise Williamson and I again hosted the Virology Africa Conference (only the second since 2005!), at the University of Cape Town‘s Graduate School of Business in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.  While this was a local meeting, with just 147 attendees, we had a very international flavour in the plenaries: of 18 invited talks, 9 were by foreign guests.  Plenaries spanned the full spectrum of virology, ranging from discovery virology to human papillomaviruses to HIV vaccines to tick-borne viruses to bacteriophages found in soil to phages used as display vectors, and to viromes of whole vineyards.  There were a further 52 contributed talks and 41 posters, covering topics from human and animal clinical studies, to engineering plants for resistance to viruses.

A special 1-day workshop on “Human Papillomaviruses – Vaccines and Cervical Cancer Screening” preceded the main event: this was sponsored by Merck Sharp & Dohme, Roche and Aspen Pharmacare, and had around 90 attendees.  Anna-Lise Williamson (NHLS & IIDMM, UCT) opened the workshop with a talk entitled “INTRODUCTION TO HPV IN SOUTH AFRICA – SCREENING FOR CERVICAL CANCER AND VACCINES”, and set  the stage for Jennifer Moodley (Community Health Dept, UCT) to cover health system issues around the prevention of cervical cancer in SA, and the newly-minted Dr Zizipho Mbulawa (Medical Virology, UCT) to speak on the the impact of HIV infection on the natural history of HPV.  This last issue is especially interesting, given that HIV-infected women may have multiple (>10) HPV types and progress faster to cervical malignancies, and HPV infection is a risk factor for acquisition of HIV.  The Roche-sponsored guest, Peter JF Snijders (VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam), gave an excellent description of novel cervical screening options using primary HPV testing, to be followed by two accounts of cytological screening in public and private healthcare systems in SA, by Irene le Roux (National Health Laboratory Service) and Judy Whittaker (Pathcare), respectively.  Ulf Gyllensten (University of Uppsala, Sweden) described the Swedish experience with self-sampling and repeat screening for the prevention of cervical cancer, especially in groups that are not reached by standard screening modalities.  Hennie Botha and Haynes van der Merwe (both University of Stellenbosch) closed out the session with talks on the effect of the HIV pandemic on cervical cancer screening, and a project aimed at piloting adolescent female vaccination against HPV infection in Cape Town.

The next part of the Workshop overlapped with the Conference opening, with a Keynote address by Margaret Stanley (Cambridge University) on how HPV evades host defences (sponsored by MSD), and another by Hugues Bogaert (HB Consult, Gent, Belgium)) on comparisons of the cross-protection by the two HPV vaccines currently registered worldwide (sponsored by Aspen Pharmacare). Margaret Stanley’s talk was a masterclass on HPV immunology: the concept that such a seemingly simple virus (only 8 kb of dsDNA) could interact with cells in such a complex way, was a surprise for all not acquainted with the viruses.  Bogaert’s talk was interesting in view of the fact that the GSK offering, which has only only two HPV types, raises far higher titre antibody responses than the MSD vaccine with four HPV types, AND seems to elicit better cross-protective antibodies: this should help inform choice of product from the individual point of view.  However, the fact that MSD seems able to respond better to national healthcare system tenders in terms of price per dose is also a major factor in the adoption stakes.

The Conference proper started with a final address by Barry Schoub, long-time but now retired Director of the National Institute of Virology / National Institute of Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg, and also long-time CEO of the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation (PRF): this is possibly the premier funding agency for anything to do with viruses in South Africa, and a major sponsor of the Conference.  He spoke on the history of the PRF, and how it had managed to shepherd an initial endowment of around 1 million pounds in the 1950s, to over ZAR100 million today – AND to dispense many millions in research project and bursary funding in South Africa over several decades.

The first session segued into a welcoming cocktail reception and registration at the Two Oceans Aquarium in the V&A Waterfront: this HAS to be one of the only social events for an academic conference where the biggest sharks are the ones in the tank, and not in the guest list!  I think people were suitably blown away – as always, in the aquarium – and the tone was set for the rest of the meeting.  The wine and food were good, too.

The first morning session of the conference featured virus hunting and HIV vaccines, as well as plant-made vaccines and more HPV.  W Ian Lipkin (Columbia University, USA) opened with “Microbe Hunting” – which lived up to its title very adequately, with discussion of a plethora of infectious agents.  As well as of the methods newly used to discover them, which include high-throughput sequencing, protein arrays, very smart new variants on PCR….  I could see people drooling in the audience; the shop window was tempting enough to make one jump ship to work with him without a second thought.  He said that probably 99% of vertebrate viruses remain to be discovered, and that advances in DNA sequencing technology were a major determinant in the rapidly-increasing pace of discovery.  He made the point that while the emphasis in the lab had shifted from wet lab people to bioinformatics, he thought it would move back again as techniques get easier and more automated – meaning (to me) that there is no substitute for people who understand the actual biological problems.  It was interesting that, while telling us of his work on the recently-released blockbuster “Contagion” – where “the virus is the star!” – he showed a slide with a computer in the background running a recombination detection package called RDP, which was designed in South Africa.  It can also be seen in the trailer, apparently.  Darren Martin will not be looking for royalties or screen credits, however.

Don Cowan (University of the Western Cape) continued the discovery theme, albeit with bacteriophages as the target rather than vertebrate viruses.  It is worth emphasising that phages probably represent the biggest source of genetic diversity on this planet – and given how even the most extreme of microbes have several kinds of viruses, as Don pointed out, it is possible that this extends to neighbouring planets too [my speculation - Ed].  He occupies an interesting niche – much like the microbes he hunts – in that he specialises in both hot and cold terrestrial desert environments, which are drastically understudied in comparison to marine habitats.  He made the interesting point that metagenome sequencing studies such as his own generate data that is in danger of being discarded without reuse, given that folk tend to take what they are interested out of it and neglect the rest.

Anna-Lise Williamson (NHLS, IIDMM, UCT) then described the now-defunct SA AIDS Vaccine Initiative vaccine development project at UCT.  It is rather sobering to revisit a project that used to employ some 45 people, and had everything from Salmonella, BCG, MVA, DNA and insect cell and plant-made subunit HIV vaccines in the pipeline – and now employs just 5, to service the two vaccines that made it into into clinical trial.  The BCG-based vaccines continued to be funded by the NIH, however, and the SA National Research Foundation funds novel vaccine approaches.  Despite all the funding woes, the first clinical trial is complete with moderate immunogenicity and no significant side effects, and two more are planned: these are an extension of the first – HVTN073/SAAVI102 – with a Novartis-made subtype C gp140 subunit boost, and the other is HVTN086/SAAVI103, which compprises different commbinations of DNA, MVA and gp140 vaccines.

It was clear from the talk that if South Africa wants to support local vaccine development, the government needs to support appropriate management structures to enable this – and above all, to provide funding.  However, all is not lost, as much of the remaining expertise in several of the laboratories that were involved in the HIV vaccine programme can now involve themselves in animal vaccine projects.

Plant-made HPV16 VLPs

Ed Rybicki made it an organisational one-two with an after-tea plenary on why production of viral vaccines in plants is a viable rapid-response option for emerging or re-emerging diseases or bioterror threats.  The talk briefly covered the more than 20 year history of plant-made vaccines, highlighting important technological advances and proofs of concept and efficacy, and concentrated on the use of transient expression for the rapid, high-level expression of subunit vaccines.  Important breakthoughs that were highlighted included the development of the Icon Genetics TMV-based vectors, Medicago Inc and Fraunhofer USA’s recent successes with H5N1 and H1N1 HA protein production in plants – and the Rybicki group’s successes with expression of HPV L1-based and E7 vaccine candidates.  The talk emphasised how the technology was inherently more easily scalable, and quicker to respond to demand, than conventional approaches to vaccine manufacture – and how it could profitably be applied to “orphan vaccines” such as for Lassa fever.

Ulf Gyllensten had another innings in the main conference, with a report on a study of a possible linkage of gene to disease in HPV infections – which could explain why some people clear infections, and why some have persistent infections.  They used the Swedish cancer registry (a comprehensive record since the end of the 1950s) to calculate familial relative risk of cancer of the cervix (CC): relative risk was  2x for a full sister, the same for a mother-daughter pair and the risk for a half sister was 50% higher while risk was not linked to non-biological siblings or parents, meaning the link was not environmental.  A preliminary study found HLA alleles associated with CC, and increased carriage of genes was linked to increased  viral load.   A subsequent genome wide association study using an Omni Express Bead Chip detecting700K+ SNPs yielded one area of major interest, on Chr 6 – this is a HLA locus.  They got 3 independent signals in the HLA region and can now potentially link HPV type and host genotype for a prediction of disease outcome.  Again, the kinds of technology available could only be wished for here; so too the registry and survey options.

Molecular and General Virology contributed talks parallel session

I attended this because of my continued fascination with veterinary and plant viruses – and because Anna-Lise was covering the Clinical and Molecular session – and was not disappointed: talks were of a very high standard, and the postgraduate students especially all gave very good accounts of themselves.

Melanie Platz (Univ Koblenz-Landau, Germany) kicked off with a description of a fascinating interface between mathematics and virology for early warning, spatial awareness and other applications.  She gave an example using a visual representation of risk using GIS for Chikungunya virus, based on South African humidity and temperature data going back nearly 100 years: this had a 3D plot model, into which one could plug data to get predictions of mosquito likelihood.  They could generate risk maps from the data, to both inform public and policy / planning.  They had a GUI for mobile devices for public information, including estimates of risk and what to do about it, including routes of escape.

Cover Illustration: J Virol, October 2011, volume 85, issue 20

This was followed by one of my co-supervised PhD students, Aderito Monjane – who recently got the cover of Journal of Virology with his paper on modelling maize streak virus (MSV) movement and evolution, so I will not detail more here.  However, even as a co-supervisor I was blown away by the fact that he was able to show animations of MSV spread – at  30 km/yr, across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

Christine Rey of Wits University provided another state-of-the-art geminivirus talk, with an account of the use of siRNAs and derivatives for silencing cassava-infecting geminiviruses.  They were using genomic miRNA precursors as templates to make artificial miRNAs containing viral sequences, meaning they got no interference with nuclear processing and there was less chance of recombination with other viruses, a high target specificity, and the transgenes would not be direct targets of virus-coded suppressors.  They could also use multiple miRNAs to avoid mutational escape.  The concept was successful in tobacco, and they had got transformation going well for cassava, so hopes were high for success there.

Dionne Shepherd (UCT) spoke on our laboratory’s 15+ year work on engineered resistance in maize to MSV.  She pointed out that the virus threatens the livelihood of 200 million+ subsistence farmers in Africa, and is thought to be the biggest disease concern in maize – which is still the biggest edible crop in Africa.  Most of the work has been described elsewhere with another journal cover; however, new siRNA-based constructs still under investigation were even more effective than the previous dominant negative mutant-based protection: the latter gave 50-fold reduction in virus replication, but silencing allowed > 200-fold suppression of replication.

2-colour surface rendition of HcRNAV

Arvind Varsani – a former UCT vaccinology PhD who is now a structural biology and virology lecturer at Univ Christchurch (NZ) – described what is probably the first 3D structure of a virus to come out of Africa.  This was of a 30 nm isometric ssRNA virus – Heterocapsa circularisquama RNA virus (HcRNAV) – infecting a dinoflagellate, which is one of the most noxious red tide bloom agents and is a major factor in killing farmed oysters.  The virus apparently controls the diatom populations.  There are two distinct strains of virus, and specificity of infection is due to the entry process, as biolistic bombardment obviates the block.  The single capsid protein probably has the classic jelly-roll β-barrel fold, but they observe a new packing arrangement that is only distantly related to the other ssRNA (+) virus capsids known.  They will go on to look at structural differences between strains that change cell entry properties.

FF Maree from the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute and the Univ Pretoria spoke on structural design of FMDV to improve vaccine strains: they wished to engineer viruses by inserting the cell culture adapted HSPG-binding signature sequence and to mutate capsid residues to increase the heat stability of SAT-2 subtype virus vaccines.  If they put the signature sequence in a SAT1 virus, they found it could infect CHO cells – which do not express any of 4 integrins that FMDV binds to, but are far better for large-scale production of the virus than the BHK cells used till now.  It was also possible to increase hydrophobic interactions in the capsid by modeling: eg a VP2 Ser to Tyr replacement gave a considerably better thermal inactivation profile to the virus.

Daria Rutkowska (Univ Pretoria) detailed how African horsesickness orbivirus (AHSV) VP7 protein had significant potential as a scaffold that could act as a vaccine carrier.  The native protein formed as trimers assembled in a VP3+VP7 “core” particle; however, the VP7 when expressed alone could form soluble trimmers – and the “top” domain hydrophilic loop can tolerate large inserts.  The group had very promising FMDV P1 peptide responses from engineered VP7 constructs, including protection of experimental animals.

P Jansen van Veeren of the National Institute of Communicable Disease in Johannesburg finished off the session, with a description of the cellular pathology caused by Rift Valley fever bunyavirus (RVFV) in mice in acute infections.  The virus seems to have been of particular international interest recently as a potential bioterror agent; however, global warming is also responsible for its mosquito vector spreading outside of its natural base in Africa to the Arabian peninsula, and there are fears of the virus getting into Europe soon.  While there are vaccines against the virus, including a live attenuated version, none are licenced for human use.  It was interesting to hear that the viral NP appears to be the main immunogen, as there are massive amounts of NP produced in infection, and huge responses to it in infected animals – and NP immunisation protects mice.  There is a good Ab response but it is not neutralising, while NP is released independently of other proteins from infected cells.  The liver is the major target of virus infection, with a bias to apoptosis of hepatocytes and severe inflammatory responses.  Viral load is linked to these effects and is much lower in vaccinees.  Immunisation reduces liver replication markedly; that in the spleen less so.  A screen of cytokines and other gene responses showed a big down-regulation of many genes in non-vaccinated mice to do with cytokines, and down-regulation of B and T cells and NK cells.  He thinks recombinant vaccine candidates should have both the surface glycoproteins and the NP in order to be effective – and that there is a major need for proper reagents for big animal studies.

Ebola: ex tobacco, semper a vaccine novi

6 December, 2011

Or: just when you thought Ebola was going to get you – tobacco to the rescue!

My second-favourite (hey: I work on this stuff too!) group of plant-based vaccine producers have just got a paper into Proc Natl Acad Sci Sci USA which describes the successful testing in animals of a candidate Ebola virus envelope glycoprotein (GP) vaccine as a fusion partner with an Ebola GP-binding monoclonal antibody.

Waranyoo Phoolcharoen and co-workers, from the Arntzen-Mason lab in the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, describe the following results:

Ebola hemorrhagic fever is an acute and often deadly disease caused by Ebola virus (EBOV). The possible intentional use of this virus against human populations has led to design of vaccines that could be incorporated into a national stockpile for biological threat reduction. We have evaluated the immunogenicity and efficacy of an EBOV vaccine candidate in which the viral surface glycoprotein is biomanufactured as a fusion to a monoclonal antibody that recognizes an epitope in glycoprotein, resulting in the production of Ebola immune complexes (EICs). Although antigen– antibody immune complexes are known to be efficiently processed and presented to immune effector cells, we found that codelivery of the EIC with Toll-like receptor agonists elicited a more robust antibody response in mice than did EIC alone. Among the compounds tested, polyinosinic:polycytidylic acid (PIC, a Toll-like receptor 3 agonist) was highly effective as an adjuvant agent. After vaccinating mice with EIC plus PIC, 80% of the animals were protected against a lethal challenge with live EBOV (30,000 LD50 of mouse adapted virus). Surviving animals showed a mixed Th1/Th2 response to the antigen, suggesting this may be important for protection. Survival after vaccination with EIC plus PIC was statis- tically equivalent to that achieved with an alternative viral vector vaccine candidate reported in the literature. Because nonreplicating subunit vaccines offer the possibility of formulation for cost-effective, long-term storage in biothreat reduction repositories, EIC is an attractive option for public health defense measures.

And while this is a VERY worthwhile result, and especially in view of the fact that plants were used to make a vaccine, there it is again: “biothreat” and “public health defense”.  Like US citizens are more likely to die than people in Uganda and the DRC.

Ah, well: if we had a Department of Homeland Security, we’d apply to them for money too…B-)

Help! We’re all going to die! Or – are we??

5 December, 2011

My son has just alerted me to a news item from the Russia Today site, which reports the following dry little item:

“A virus with the potential to kill up to half the world’s population has been made in a lab. Now academics and bioterrorism experts are arguing over whether to publish the recipe, and whether the research should have been done in the first place.

The virus is an H5N1 bird flu strain which was genetically altered to become much more contagious. It was created by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who first presented his work to the public at an influenza conference in Malta in September.”

Right – nothing to get upset about, then?  Or….

Some background: what researchers did was to passage – that is, repeatedly infect new animals with virus from another animal – H5N1 influenza virus from birds, in ferrets.

Why ferrets?  Well, it was discovered by accident some 70+ years ago, that human flu viruses are very infectious in ferrets, and the reaction of ferrets to some extent predicts what will happen in humans – although they tend to die rather often from lab infections.

The result of the passaging was that the H5N1 became aerosol-transmissible – in other words, via droplets produced by sneezing – which was a new property.  From the article:

“After 10 generations, the virus had mutated to become airborne, which means ferrets became ill from merely being near other diseased animals.

A genetic study showed that the new, dangerous strain had only five mutations compared to the original one, and all of them were earlier seen in the natural environment – just not all at once. Fouchier’s strain is as contagious as the human seasonal flu, which kills tens of thousands of people each year, but is likely to cause many more fatalities if released.

“I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,”
Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist who has worked on anthrax for many years, told Science Insider. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.””

Hence the rather alarming headline on RT – which was

“Man-made super flu could kill half humanity”

Nothing scare-mongering there, then!

Let us dissect this so called apocalypse bug, though.

“Fouchier’s strain is as contagious as the human seasonal flu, which kills tens of thousands of people each year, but is likely to cause many more fatalities if released.”

In ferrets.  No-one has shown that it causes disease in humans at all.  And there’s another problem: the article reports that:

“…the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB)…[has] a very difficult decision to make. Fouchier wants his study to be published. So does virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who led similar research in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo, and reached comparable results. And it is up to NSABB to give them the green light.”

Pardon me for being confused, but…the NSABB is a US body, right?  And Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka are Dutch and Japanese, respectively?

And pardon me again, but isn’t it a good idea to know which mutations would turn H5N1 into a ravening, destructive supervirus?  So we can look for it??  I would also think the cat is at least half out of the bag, because didn’t Ron Fouchier report the thing at a large conference already?

Letting paranoid folk in one country decide what is in the best interests of world science is NOT a good idea, in my opinion – but as has already been made abundantly clear, the developed world does not much care about our opinion.

So it goes.


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