By Lt. Cmdr. Gabriel Defang
As I promised in my last blog I’m going to tell you more about our virology program activities and about another fairly new virus we’ve been working on.
You may have heard of this novel virus, it is called MERS-CoV; which stands for “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus” (quite a long name). It emerged in the Middle East in 2012 and kills one in three people it infects. All known cases are either Middle East residents or have a history of travel to the region. Camels and bats are thought to be reservoirs of the virus, but more research needs to be done regarding this aspect. Because of the disease surveillance networks we’ve had in place in the region, we were able to identify and isolate this virus earlier on. We were one of a handful of groups to successfully grow the virus in tissue culture, as well as generate a full genome sequence of the virus. As a matter of fact, the virus we isolated is now known to be the earliest form of the virus that emerged in 2012. Isn’t this amazing? It’s a feather in our cap, for sure.
We are currently working on new diagnostics and therapies for this virus. One such therapy is a fully human anti-MERS-CoV plasma product collected from genetically-engineered cows vaccinated with MERS-CoV. These cows produce large amounts of human antibodies that are eventually purified. This product will need to be tested in clinical trials. If successful, it could be used to treat people infected in the region.
We also do disease surveillance for pathogens that cause fever (a lot you would imagine), and we develop and optimize new field diagnostic analyses to detect these pathogens more efficiently and consistently. We’ve had much success in this realm; detecting RVF when it was introduced in Egypt in the 70’s and again in the 90’s, identifying CCHF in clusters in Afghanistan and Mauritania, Dengue in Sudan and Burkina Faso, MERS-CoV in Jordan and Lebanon. We transfer this technology to partner countries for public health strengthening through lab capacity building and training efforts. In this way, we empower partner countries to act as first line of defense for new and reemerging public health threats. With the world so interconnected, these efforts go a long way in achieving global health security. Case in point: after NAMRU-3 participated in the Navy’s Ebola response efforts in Liberia, we are now training Liberians to perform Ebola diagnostics by themselves; so next time this ugly disease rears its head Liberians will be able to easily detect it and quickly notify the global community.
The most amazing thing about our program is the staffs who accomplish the day-to-day mission. NAMRU-3 is both Egyptian and American, active duty and civilian scientists and lab technologists working side-by-side in collaboration with our colleagues from partner countries. It’s an awesome job. If you have a chance to be stationed or to visit NAMRU-3 Cairo, Egypt, I say take the opportunity. You’ll love the experience. If you’d like to know more about what we do, just send us your questions.