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The Other Virus Of Concern In Asia (And How Scientists Work To Prevent It From Causing Another Pandemic)

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It was January 3, 2020, and Supaporn Wacharapluesadee was waiting for a delivery. Word had spread that there was some kind of respiratory illness affecting people in Wuhan, China. With the arrival of the Lunar New Year, many Chinese tourists headed to neighboring Thailand to celebrate. For this reason, the Thai government began to screen passengers arriving from Wuhan at the airport, and some laboratories, including the one in Wacharapluesadee, were chosen to process the samples with which they wanted to detect the problem. He directs the Center for Health Sciences and Emerging Infectious Diseases of the Thai Red Cross in Bangkok.

For the past 10 years, he has been part of Predict, a global project to detect and stop diseases that can be passed from animals to humans. She and her team have sampled many species, but their main focus has been on bats, which are known to harbor many coronaviruses. Could understand the disease within a few days, detected the first case of c Ovid-19 outside of China. They found that, in addition to being a new virus that did not originate in humans, it was more closely related to the coronaviruses they had already found in bats.

Thanks to the preliminary information, the government was able to act quickly to quarantine patients and advise citizens. Despite being a country of almost 70 million inhabitants, a year later, on January 3, 2021, Thailand had registered 8,955 cases and 65 deaths. The next threat but as the world grapples with covid-19, Wacharapluesadee is already looking towards the next pandemic. Asia has a large number of new infectious diseases. The tropical regions have a rich variety of biodiversity, which means that also house a large number of pathogens.

This increases the chances of a new virus emerging. The growth of human populations and the increased contact between people and wild animals in these regions also increase the risk factor. In the course of a project that sampled thousands of bats, Wacharapluesadee and his colleagues have discovered many new viruses. They have mostly found coronaviruses, but also other deadly diseases that can spread to humans. The mortality rate of 40% -75%Among these viruses is Nipah. bats that eat fruit are its natural host. It is of great concern because there is no treatment and this virus has a high mortality rate,” says Wacharapluesadee. Nipah’s death rate ranges from 40% to 75%, depending on where the outbreak occurs.

But the scientist is not alone in her concern. Every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) reviews the long list of pathogens that could cause a public health emergency to decide how to prioritize its research and development funding. They focus on those who pose the greatest risk to human health, those with epidemic potential, and those for whom there are no vaccines. The Nipah virus is in the top 10.

A Sinister Virus

And since there have been several outbreaks in Asia already, we probably haven’t seen the last one. There are several reasons why the Nipah virus is so sinister. The long incubation period of the disease, which can go up to 45 days, means that there is a high chance that an infected animal or person, without knowing that they are sick, will spread it. It can also infect a wide range of animals, increasing the possibility of it spreading. And it can be spread by direct contact or by eating contaminated food . Someone with the Nipah virus may experience respiratory symptoms including cough, sore throat, aches and pains and fatigue, and encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can cause seizures and death.

It Is Clearly A Disease That The Who Would Like To Prevent From Spreading. But Contagion Is Possible Anywhere. Danger Lurks

At the market in Battambang, a city on the banks of the Sangkat River in northwestern Cambodia, motorcycles pass by shoppers, kicking up dust in their wake. Carts filled with merchandise and covered with colored sheets are placed next to makeshift stalls selling misshapen fruit. The locals walk in and out of the stands, plastic bags full of their purchases. Old ladies in wide-brimmed hats crouch on blankets covered with vegetables for sale. In other words, it’s a pretty normal morning market. That is until you look at the sky.

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Hanging silently in the trees above are thousands of bats eating fruit, defecating, and urinating on anything that passes below them. On closer inspection, the roofs of the market stalls are covered in bat feces. People and stray dogs walk every day under buildings exposed to the urine of bats,  says Veasna Duong, head of the virology unit at the Pasteur Institute scientific research laboratory in Phnom Penh and a colleague and collaborator of Wacharapluesadee. Battambang Market is one of many places where Duong has identified fruit bats and other animals that come into contact with humans daily in Cambodia. Any place where humans and fruit bats are near is considered a high-risk trade for your team, meaning that contagion is highly possible.

“This type of exposure could cause the virus to mutate, which could cause a pandemic,” Duong says. Despite the dangers, the examples of proximity are endless. We observe [fruit bats] here and in Thailand, in markets, places of worship, schools and tourist places like Angkor Wat, where, for example, there is a big nest of bats there,” he says. In a normal year, Angkor Wat receives 2.6 million visitors. And that’s 2.6 million chances a year for the Nipah virus to pass from bats to humans in one place. From 2013 to 2016, Duong and his team launched a GPS tracking program to understand more about fruit bats and the Nipah virus, and to compare the activities of Cambodian bats with bats in other hotspot regions. Two of these places are Bangladesh and India.

Both countries have experienced outbreaks of the Nipah virus in the past and are likely related to the consumption of date palm juice. At night, the infected bats fly over the date palm plantations and lick the juice that spilled from the tree and that the locals collect through a bowl attached to the tree. Bats are likely to urinate near the bowl. The next morning, locals who buy juice from their street vendors can become infected with the disease. In 11 different outbreaks of Nipah in Bangladesh between 2001 and 2011, 196 people with Nipah were detected. Of them, 150 died. Date palm juice is also popular in Cambodia, where Duong and his team have discovered that fruit bats in Cambodia fly far, up to 100 km each night, to find fruit.

That means humans in these regions need to worry not only about being too close to bats but also about consuming products that the bats could have contaminated. Duong and his team also identified other high-risk situations. The feces are a popular fertilizer bat in Cambodia and Thailand and in rural areas with few job opportunities to sell bat droppings can be a way to make a living. Duong identified many places where locals encouraged fruit bats, also known as flying foxes, to perch near their homes to collect and sell their guano. But many guano collectors have no idea of ​​the risks they face in doing so.

60% of the people we interviewed did not know that bats transmit disease. There is still a great lack of knowledge,” says Duong. Back at the Battambang market, Sophorn Deun sells duck eggs. When asked if he had heard of the Nipah virus, one of the many risk diseases that bats could carry, he said: “Never. Flying foxes don’t bother villagers, I’ve never gotten sick.”Educating locals about the threats posed by bats should be an important initiative, Duong believes. Changing the world avoiding bats might have been easy years ago, but as the human population expands, changing the planet and destroying wild habitats to meet the increasing demand for resources, increases the spread of disease.

The spread of these zoonotic ​​pathogens and the risk of transmission accelerate with changes in land use such as deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural intensification, write authors Rebekah J. White and Orly Razgour in a report. 2020 from the University of Exeter on Emerging Zoonotic Diseases. Changing the world avoiding bats might have been easy years ago, but as the human population expands, changing the planet and destroying wild habitats to meet the increasing demand for resources, increases the spread of disease. The spread of these [zoonotic] ​​pathogens and the risk of transmission accelerate with changes in land use such as deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural intensification,” write authors Rebekah J. White and Orly Razgour in a report. 2020 from the University of Exeter on Emerging Zoonotic Diseases.

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Nipah in the past the destruction of bat habitats has caused Nipah infections in the past. In 1998, an outbreak of the Nipah virus in Malaysia killed more than 100 people. The researchers concluded that wildfires and local drought had dislodged the bats from their natural habitat and forced them to search for fruit trees grown on the same farms as pigs. Under stress, bats have been shown to shed more viruses. The combination of being forced to relocate and being in close contact with a species they would not normally interact with allowed the virus to pass from bats to pigs and then to farmers. Furthermore, although Asia is home to almost 15% of the world’s tropical forests, the region is also a focus of deforestation.

The continent is among the first in the world to lose biodiversity. Much of this is due to the destruction of forests in plantations for products such as palm oil, but also the creation of residential areas and space for livestock. Fruit-eating bats tend to live in thickly wooded regions with many fruit trees to feed on.

Alternative Shelters

When their habitat is destroyed or damaged, they find new solutions, such as the chicken coop in a house or the cracked towers of Angkor Wat. The destruction of bat habitat and human interference through hunting prompts flying foxes to seek alternative shelters says Duong. The bats Duong’s team has monitored traveling up to 100 kilometers a night in search of fruit are likely doing so because their natural habitat no longer exists. But bats have recently learned, are home to several nasty diseases N IPAH and c ovid-19, but also ball and SARS.

Should We Just Eradicate Bats?

Not unless we want to make things worse, says Tracey Goldstein, institute director of the One Health Institute Laboratory and laboratory director of Project Predict. Bats play an enormously important ecological role says, Goldstein. They pollinate more than 500 species of plants. They also help keep insects at bay, playing a huge role in disease control in humans, for example, reducing malaria by eating mosquitoes, Goldstein says. They play a very important role in human health. He also points out that killing bats are detrimental from a disease perspective. What a population does when the number of babies decreases is have more babies that would make a human more susceptible,” he says.

Find answers, create questions but for each answer, more questions always arise. One is why hasn’t Cambodia yet experienced a Nipah virus outbreak, given all the risk factors? Is it a matter of time, or are the fruit bats of Cambodia slightly different than the fruit bats of Malaysia, for example? Is the virus in Cambodia different from Malaysia?

Is The Way Humans Interact With Bats Different In Every Country?

Duong’s team is working to find the answers, but he does not yet know all aspects of the subject. Of course, Duong’s team isn’t the only one looking at these questions. The Virus Search is a massive global collaborative effort, with scientists, veterinarians, conservationists, and even citizen scientists coming together to understand what diseases we are dealing with and how to avoid an outbreak. When Duong finds the Nipah virus in one of the samples taken from bats, he sends it to David Williams, head of the Emergency Disease Laboratory Diagnostic Group at the Australian Center for Disease Preparedness. Because the Nipah virus is so dangerous – governments around the world consider it to have bioterrorism potential – only a handful of labs around the world can grow and store it.

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Williams’ Laboratory Is One Of Them.

Their team is made up of some of the world’s leading Nipah virus experts, with access to a wide range of diagnostic tools that are not available in most laboratories. By wearing airtight containment suits, they can grow more highly dangerous viruses from a small sample and then, working with a larger load, run tests to understand how it replicates, transmits, and causes disease. It’s quite tricky to get to this point First, Duong collects bat urine by spreading a plastic sheet under a chicken coop in Cambodia.

This avoids having to catch the bats, which can be traumatizing for them. He takes your samples to the lab, decants them into tubes, labels them, and safely packages them in cold boxes. These are collected by a special courier service that is approved to ship dangerous goods and are flown to Australia, where the virus samples go through customs for the appropriate licenses and permits to be approved. They finally arrive at Williams’ lab. After the tests, he will share the results with Duong in Cambodia.

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Research Funds

I ask Williams if building more high-security labs like his around the world could accelerate the detection of harmful diseases. Potentially yes, by putting more [biosecurity] labs in places like Cambodia that could speed up the characterization and diagnosis of these viruses,” however, they are expensive to build and maintain. Often that’s the limiting element. The financing of the work being carried out by Duong and Wacharapluesadee has been spotty in the past. The Trump administration allowed the 10-year-old Predict program to expire, although US President-elect Joe Biden promised to restore it.

Meanwhile, Wacharapluesadee has funding for a new initiative called the Thai Virome Project, a collaboration between his team and the government’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation in Thailand. This will allow you to sample more bats and a wider range of wildlife to understand the diseases they harbor and the threats to human health. Duong and his team are seeking funding for their next pathogen detection trip . One to fund ongoing surveillance of bats in Cambodia and one to understand if there have been human infections that have not been reported so far. They have yet to secure the money to continue their work against the Nipah virus. Without it, they say, a potentially catastrophic outbreak is more likely.

“Long-term surveillance helps us inform authorities [to enact] preventive measures and to avoid an undetected contagion that would cause a larger outbreak, Duong says. And without ongoing training, scientists may not be able to quickly identify and characterize new viruses, as Wacharapluesadee did with covid-19 in Thailand. This information is necessary to begin work on a vaccine.

When we spoke in June 2020 via video call, I asked her if Wacharapluesadee was proud of her team’s remarkable achievement. “Proud?” He said. Yes, I am. But the Predict project was an exercise in how to diagnose new viruses from wild animals. So when my team and I found the genome of the coronavirus pathogen it was not a big surprise because of the research project. a lot of experience. It strengthened our capacity, “he said.

Duong and Wacharapluesadee hope to continue collaborating to combat the Nipah virus in Southeast Asia, and the pair have come up with a proposal to jointly monitor the Nipah virus in the region. They plan to send it to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a US government organization that funds work aimed at reducing the threats posed by infectious disease agents once the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

In September 2020, I asked Wacharapluesadee if he thinks he can stop the next pandemic. She was sitting in her office in her white lab coat has processed hundreds of thousands of samples for COVID-19 testing in recent months well above the usual capacity of her lab in any other year. Despite everything, a smile appeared on his face. “I’ll try,” He said.

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