Researchers identify “airborne” H5N1 birdflu virus properties


New knowledge may help to prevent pandemics

Researchers at Erasmus MC Rotterdam have discovered which changes can make an H5N1 virus airborne transmissible. In the leading scientific journal Cell, they report today which combinations of mutations are responsible for virus transmission via the airways of mammals. They also identified the biological properties of the mutated virus. This is the first research into the genetic changes and the associated biological properties of the airborne transmissible H5N1 birdflu virus.

In previous work, the researchers discovered that the H5N1 birdflu virus required only few mutations to become airborne transmissible. Now, they identified which combinations of mutations are essential for virus transmission. Two mutations were found to improve the attachment of the virus to cells in the upper respiratory tract of mammals. A third mutation increased the stability of the virus, which is relevant for penetration of the cells. The two remaining mutations were responsible for subsequent efficient virus multiplication.

Some of these mutations can arise spontaneously when mammals become infected, and have already been found to occur in nature. ‘This means that the virus might evolve in nature to become transmissible via couching, sneezing, talking, or breathing. As a consequence, the H5N1 virus still represents a pandemic threat’, says virologist Ron Fouchier.

By increasing fundamental knowledge of virus transmission, it will be possible to improve surveillance programs and to identify potential pandemic threats as early as possible. In addition, the researchers will be able to better evaluate existing and new vaccines and drugs against a birdflu virus that is airborne transmissible between mammals.

The research was primarily funded through the EU FP7 programs ANTIGONE and EMPERIE and a contract with NIAID/NIH.  A link to the manuscript in Cell is here

11th HKU-Pasteur Virology Course on Emerging Viral Zoonoses: Call for Applications Open (Deadline 30 April 2014)


11th HKU-Pasteur Virology Course on Emerging Viral Zoonoses: Call for Applications Open (Deadline 30 April 2014)
We are happy to inform you about the 11th HKU-PASTEUR VIROLOGY COURSE (July 13-25, 2014). The Course will focus on Emerging Viral Zoonoses to continue our exploration of viruses and the animal/human interface. There is no need to over-emphasize the relevance of this topic, as two novel respiratory viruses, MERS-CoV and avian influenza H7N9 are making headlines around the world. The programme will address current concepts to understand the mechanisms underlying emergence and transmissibility of zoonotic viruses, with special emphasis on how zoonotic viruses can successfully cross species barriers.


For more information about thuis course please visit HKU-Pasteur:

Call for papers – NEW and EMERGING ZOONOSES

The journal “Epidemiology and Infection” intends to publish a Themed Issue on the topical and important subject of New and Emerging Zoonoses, which is the core interest of ANTIGONE. Researchers are invited to submit Original, Short or Review papers on this theme. Examples of subjects for papers  include emerging zoonosis aspects of influenza, MERS-CoV, Nipah, Schmallenberg, Henipah, Lyssa viruses, Echinococcosis , leptospirosis, and other infections on any aspect of this theme. Papers warning of possible emerging zoonotic infections and papers on risk factors associated with zoonosis emergence will also be welcome.

The co-editors for this issue will be Professor Dilys Morgan, Professor Katharina Stärk, and Professor Anthony Fooks, one of the principal investigators in the ANTIGONE Consortium. The planned date for paper publication is January 2015. Papers sent earlier, and accepted, will be published electronically several months earlier.

Papers should be submitted as soon as possible, and latest by 31 July 2014. Papers should be sent to the Editor-in-Chief in the usual way. All papers submitted will be assessed initially by one of the Co- Editors and if suitable, by independent reviewers.

Please ensure that all papers follow the Journal’s house style: journal titles must be in full in the reference list, use English spelling, and abstracts must not have sub-headings. What the paper adds to existing knowledge of the subject, and its potential usefulness, should be included in the Abstract. They should be clearly specified as being for the New and Emerging Zoonoses issue.

Instructions for contributors can be accessed on

Please note that the deadline for submission is: July 2014

Dromedaries infected with MERS-Coronavirus

dromedary 2dromedary 3Scientists from the Netherlands, the U.K., and Qatar proved for the first time that dromedary camels can be infected with MERS-coronavirus. In a study co-funded by ANTIGONE and Emperie—two E.C. FP7 projects—researchers detected RNA of MERS-coronavirus in three dromedaries at a location where two people also were infected with the virus. The study was published this week in Lancet Infectious Diseases (article).

The samples were collected at a small farm in Qatar. Two people with a link to this farm, the owner and a worker, were infected with MERS-coronavirus. Within a week, the farm was investigated by the Supreme Council of Health and the Ministry of the Environment in Qatar, in cooperation with the World Health Organisation. They collected samples from the 14 dromedaries present on the farm, and submitted them to the Erasmus MC and the State Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands.

Genetic analysis showed that the MERS-coronavirus was present in three of the dromedaries. The viral RNA from these dromedaries was very similar to that from the two patients, who had been examined by researchers from Public Health England. All the dromedaries had antibodies to MERS-coronavirus, indicating that they had been infected with the virus and had mounted an immune response.

According to the authors, this is “definite proof that dromedaries can be infected with MERS-coronavirus”. However, they caution that “we cannot conclude whether people were infected by the animals, or vice versa. A third possibility is that both people and dromedaries were infected by another, as yet unknown source. For this it is important to know the precise temporal sequence of the infections, both in people and in dromedaries. We do not have that information for this outbreak.”

They added that “a more extensive analysis of this outbreak is ongoing, including testing of multiple animals and of the environment. We are also trying to obtain the complete genome of the MERS-coronaviruses from people and animals. We cannot exclude that other common domestic animals, such as cattle, sheep, or goats, or other animal species are involved in the spread of this virus. In the meantime, we recommend that outbreaks are monitored in detail. Such monitoring should include exposure to animals and animal products and specific serological examination in order to determine risk factors for human infection, other than contact with an infected person.”

Coordinator receives Excellence Award from American College of Veterinary Pathologists

Thijs Lyon 2012Last week, Dr. Thijs Kuiken received the Mid-Career Excellence Award from the American College of Veterinary Pathologists (ACVP) at its annual meeting in Montreal, Canada. Dr. Kuiken is Professor of Comparative Pathology at the Department of Viroscience of Erasmus MC and Coordinator of the FP7-funded Antigone project. The ACVP, of which Dr. Kuiken is a Diplomate since 2002, established this award to recognize and reward outstanding ACVP Diplomates in the middle phase of their careers who have made exceptional contributions to the veterinary pathology profession in research, education, mentoring or leadership.

Maxey Wellman, President of the ACVP, wrote about Dr. Kuiken’s selection: “Your excellent scholarship includes publications in numerous high impact journals and broad involvement in aspects of pathology that integrate across species from wildlife to humans. You have mentored veterinary students, graduate students, medical professionals and bioscientists and helped them recognize the importance of veterinary pathology in their own professions.”

Several nominators referenced his work in comparative pathology and One Health as reasons for recommending him for this award. “In comparative pathology, we must break down the borders between human pathology and veterinary pathology,” notes Dr. Kuiken. “Working together with human pathologists and being member of the postgraduate education committee of the Dutch Association of Pathologists, it became clear that human pathologists and veterinary pathologists have much to learn from each other, and that there is much to be gained in the gap between the two disciplines.”

On One Health, which attempts to anticipate and combat serious challenges to the health of people, domestic animals, and wildlife and to the integrity of ecosystems, Dr. Kuiken said:“I believe that One Health is a valuable concept that breaks down the barriers between different scientific disciplines, allows us to take a truly interdisciplinary approach, and so helps us to make the transition to a sustainable society.”

Research reveals details of how flu evolves to escape immunity

picture influenza press releaseStudy shows that seasonal flu escapes immunity with single amino acid substitutions

Scientists have identified a potential way to improve future flu vaccines after discovering that seasonal flu typically escapes immunity from vaccines with as little as a single amino acid substitution. Additionally, they found these single amino acid changes occur at only seven places on its surface – not the 130 places previously believed. The research was published today, 21 November, in the journal Science.

“This work is a major step forward in our understanding of the evolution of flu viruses, and could possibly enable us to predict that evolution. If we can do that, then we can make flu vaccines that would be even more effective than the current vaccine,” said Professor Derek Smith from the University of Cambridge, one of the two leaders of the research, together with Professor Ron Fouchier from Erasmus Medical Center in The Netherlands.

The flu vaccine works by exposing the body to parts of inactivated flu from the three major different types of flu that infect humans, prompting the immune system to develop antibodies against these viruses. When exposed to the actual flu, these antibodies can eliminate the flu virus.

However, every two or three years the outer coat of seasonal flu (made up of amino acids) evolves, preventing antibodies that would fight the older strains of flu from recognising the new strain. As a result, the new strain of virus escapes the immunity that has been acquired as a result of earlier infections or vaccinations. Because the flu virus is constantly evolving in this way, the World Health Organisation meets twice a year to determine whether the strains of flu included in the vaccine should be changed.

For this study, the researchers created viruses which had a variety of amino acid substitutions as well as different combinations of amino acid substitutions. They then tested these viruses to see which substitutions and combinations of substitutions caused new strains to develop.

They found that seasonal flu escapes immunity and develops into new strains typically by just a single amino acid substitution. Until now, it was widely believed that in order for seasonal flu to escape the immunity individuals acquire from previous infections or vaccinations, it would take at least four amino acid substitutions.

They also found that such single amino acid changes occurred at only seven places on its surface – all located near the receptor binding site (the area where the flu virus binds to and infects host cells). The location is significant because the virus would not change so close to the site unless it had to, as that area is important for the virus to conserve.

“The virus needs to conserve this, its binding site, as it uses this site to recognize the cells that it infects in our throats,” said Bjorn Koel, from Erasmus Medical Center in The Netherlands and lead author of the paper.

Seasonal flu is responsible for half a million deaths and many more hospitalizations and severe illnesses worldwide every year.

This study was partly funded by EC FP7 projects Antigone and Emperie

Two European programs reinforce the fight against emerging diseases

PREDEMICS-ANTIGONE consortia_11 2013 (2)The 31 partners involved in the two major European research programs PREDEMICS and ANTIGONE are to meet for a joint seminar at the Institut Pasteur on November 6th. These two programs will respectively receive €11.7 million and €12 million funding of the European Union over five years to study the emergence mechanisms of infectious diseases in order to strengthen existing treatment and prevention. Since their launch, PREDEMICS and ANTIGONE have been active in various areas, in particular for modeling the spread and evolution of emerging pathogens and for studying host-pathogen interactions.

Read the entire pressrelease

H7N9 Virus Has Potential for Both Virulence and Transmissibility in Humans

Attachment of H7N9 virus (red) to the epithelium (blue) of human nasal cavity.

A new study by ANTIGONE investigators has found that a novel avian-origin H7N9 influenza A virus, which has recently emerged in humans, attaches moderately or abundantly to the epithelium of both the upper and lower respiratory tracts. This pattern has not been observed before for avian influenza A viruses. The report, published in the October issue of The American Journal of Pathology, suggests that the emerging H7N9 virus has the potential to cause a pandemic, since it may transmit efficiently in humans and cause severe pneumonia. For the complete press release follow this link.