Hope rises as scientists use portable device to identify virus strains in Lassa Fever

Patient with Lassa Fever

Following a breakthrough made by a team of scientists with a rapid portable genomic sequencing technology to identify viruses without prior knowledge of the cause of a disease, the chances of curtailing and nipping in the bud the outbreak of killer disease, Lassa Fever in Nigeria has received a boost.

The breakthrough, which was made by scientists from Public Health England (United Kingdom), the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, Germany and Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital, Edo State, in a research conducted during the 2018 Lassa Fever epidemic in Nigeria, in collaboration with the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), was contained a report published in the Journal Science yesterday.

According to the report, the device enabled the researchers to allay fears and direct the public health interventions to limit the spread of the virus and help to protect more people from diseases.
The disease, which is caused by a virus carried in the urine or faeces of infected rats, causes fever, weakness, muscle pain and seizures, and is frequently fatal. The virus occurs endemically in West Africa, while it regularly causes small outbreaks.

An outbreak of the virus in early 2018 led to 376 confirmed cases within a few months – more than the combined total for the three previous years. The sudden upsurge in cases raised concerns that a new, highly transmissible form of the virus had evolved, able to pass from person to person more effectively than previous strains.

In order to better understand the reasons for the heightened number of cases, the NCDC, together with the WHO, commissioned the research team to analyse patient samples to understand if the virus had an increased transmission potential. The research builds on work that was carried out by PHE and BNITM during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreaks.

The team, working at the Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital (ISTH) in Irrua, Edo State, used Oxford Nanopore Technology‘s portable device to rapidly sequence the genetic code of 120 virus samples. The analysis revealed a great deal of diversity and indicated mixing with Lassa virus strains of the previous year’s outbreaks.

Explaining the results, head of the Virology Department at BNITM Prof. Stephan Günther said, “By using this technology to look at the Lassa virus family tree and comparing samples from this outbreak to those from previous years, we were able to exclude human-to-human transmission as the reason for the surge in cases.”

The Chief Medical Director of ISTH, Prof Sylvanus Okogbenin, said “the result of the sequencing reassured managing Clinicians in ISTH, the main centre for the diagnosis and treatment of Lassa fever in Nigeria. I’d like to congratulate the team for the feat. The institution is very willing to collaborate further to ensure that on-site sequencing is a regular feature of its institute of Lassa fever research and control.”

Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu the Director General of NCDC added that “the results from this study, which were made available to NCDC as they became available, were critical in enabling us provide answers to questions during the outbreak and focus response measures appropriately. We are proud that all the sequencing was done onsite in ISTH, and will work with our partners to increase capacity for metagenomics in Nigeria.”

Head of Research and Development of the National Infection Service at Public Health England, Professor Miles Carroll, noted that a frequent transmission from animals to humans seems to be the cause of the high case numbers.

“Viruses are constantly changing, becoming more or less infectious and deadly over time. By studying their genetic code, we can better understand where the virus has come from and how it spreads,” Carroll said.

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