A new two-year award from the Medical Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund aims to understand the mystery of how highly virulent viruses that cause lethal outbreaks in humans can continue to be present in bat populations without apparently causing death and disease in these animals.
If we understood how the viruses persist in them, we could identify how the virus gets transmitted to humans and could develop better means of reducing the likelihood of outbreaks occurring in people.
This programme will characterise the Ebola- and Marburg-like viruses (termed filoviruses) that infect bats in Ghana, West Africa, where preliminary testing has provided evidence of infection with both viruses.
Working with collaborators in the Ghanaian wildlife services in an international collaboration, they will screen infected bat roosts to obtain a picture of how viruses transmit amongst and between different species of bats in Ghana. This phase of the work will provide important information for strategies to control these viruses, such as how these viruses are transmitted and the effectiveness of medical interventions.
The researchers will also study the presence of past infection of people in Ghana, particularly in those with livelihoods that bring them into close contact with bats, for example when hunting. The work will be delivered through a collaboration between the Universities of Westminster, University of Cambridge and University of Ghana, and the ZSL Institute of Zoology, with a strong capacity building focus, namely to tackle barriers in dealing with a future outbreak.
The second award, funded by Innovate UK for one year, is to make a trivalent Lassa, Ebola and Marburg viral vaccine. These haemorrhagic fever viruses have a significant impact on human health in low income countries and developing economies.
Lassa fever is endemic to Western Africa with estimates ranging between 300,000 to a million infections, resulting in 5,000 deaths per year. Its overlapping geographic distribution with other viral haemorrhagic fevers (VHFs) caused by filoviruses complicated the early clinical diagnosis of Ebola virus disease in the 2013-2016 West African outbreak.
The consortium, comprising the Universities of Westminster, University of Cambridge, University of Regensburg, University of Oxford and Public Health England, will produce a single vaccine to protect against all three of these regionally important VHFs that is economic, easy to produce, readily deployable and temperature stable in the absence of continuous cold chain storage.