International efforts to develop a vaccine are underway following the Nipah virus outbreak in southern India earlier this week.


Image via Pixabay.

The global threat that Nipah poses has determined the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) — an international alliance of governmental and non-profit organizations — to act against the deadly virus. In a statement released yesterday, CEPI announced it would grant up to $25 million over the next five years towards the development of a vaccine.

A Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, western India, has sparked global concerns. The virus had previously been placed on the watchlist of risky, potentially epidemic pathogens by the World Health Organization (WHO), and the death toll continues to rise: currently, it seems to be over 12, but it’s hard to find sources that agree on the exact number as the outbreak is still ongoing. Many more are kept under observation as they are suspected to have contracted the virus. Two persons in the neighboring state of Karnataka are also under observation.

In an effort to nip the thread in the bud, CEPI will grant up to $25 million over the next five years to US-based pharma firms Profectus BioSciences and Emergent BioSolutions in order to develop a vaccine against Nipah. Currently, there is no known treatment against the virus, which proved fatal in 70% of recorded cases.

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“The current outbreak of Nipah in India, the government of which is one of CEPI’s founders, demonstrates that this is a deadly pathogen that has already travelled thousands of kilometres, (and) has serious epidemic potential and the ability to surprise us,” Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, said in a statement.

Nipah first spread through contact with the saliva, urine, or feces of fruit bats. The first recorded outbreak occurred in a Malaysian village in 1999, causing over 100 deaths. The event also showed Nipah’s ability to infect and spread from pigs. Further outbreaks have occurred almost every year in Bangladesh, and twice in West Bengal, an Indian state. Between 1998 and 2015, over 600 cases have been recorded in total, according to the WHO.

Although the outbreaks revealed that Nipah can be spread by contact with infected patients, fruit bats are currently considered to be one of its most prolific spreaders. Local authorities reported finding mangoes bitten by bats in the home of three suspected Nipah victims.

Early symptoms resemble those of influenza — fever, muscle ache, headache, drowsiness, respiratory illness, disorientation and mental confusion. If the disease progresses, it can seriously affect the respiratory and central nervous systems, and even lead to encephalitis (brain inflammation). The symptoms can progress to coma within 24-48 hours.

Without a dedicated vaccine, doctors can currently only treat the fever and neurological symptoms. The WHO recommends avoiding contact with sick pigs or bats in endemic areas, as well as not drinking raw date palm sap as precautions against infection.

With funding from CEPI, Profectus BioSciences and Emergent BioSolutions will be working on a vaccine for humans based on virus technology developed over 15 years ago by researchers Christopher Broder and Katharine Bossart at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, writes Quartz. However, it could take years before the vaccine is ready for clinical use.