USU Scientists Develop Vaccine Candidate for Deadly ‘Contagion’ Virus

A mock movie poster that looks like the Contagion movie poster that says "USU Scientists Develop Vaccine"
By Sharon Holland

An American woman died after a business trip to Hong Kong and her husband and doctors had no idea why. Shortly afterwards, there was an outbreak of a mysterious virus in Hong Kong, which then began to spread throughout the world. Teams from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization worked feverishly to determine exactly what the biological pathogen was and how it spread. It was eventually traced back to pork served in a Chinese restaurant in which the woman had eaten. The pig had been bitten by a fruit bat and when butchered, its blood infected the chef who then passed it on to the woman when shaking her hands, and she, in turn, spread it to others until it spread out of control.

Although a scene from the movie “Contagion,” the scenario is not too far-fetched. The virus, which wasn’t named in the movie, was based on the real-life Nipah virus. Nipah, it turns out, is actually spread by the Pteropid fruit bats (flying foxes), the largest bats in the world. The virus is a highly infectious and deadly agent that results in acute respiratory distress syndrome and encephalitis, person-to-person transmission, and greater than 90 percent case fatality rates among humans.

Nipah virus infection was first recognized in Malaysia in the late 1990s when more than 250 citizens were infected. The majority of those with the virus had been in contact with pigs that were infected, or with other Nipah-infected patients. As a result, more than one million pigs were killed, causing significant economic loss and panic. Nipah also infected people in India and Bangladesh, killing hundreds more.

The World Health Organization has named Nipah as one of a handful of viruses most likely to cause a global pandemic. Earlier this year, millions of dollars were set aside by philanthropists and governments to develop a vaccine for Nipah because of the significant threat it poses. A call for proposals went out to scientists around the globe.

However, USU scientists are already ahead of the curve. Dr. Christopher Broder, professor of Microbiology and Immunology (MIC), and his colleagues at USU and the National Cancer Institute isolated an antibody – m102.4 – that proved effective against the deadly Nipah virus and the closely-related Hendra virus, also spread by fruit bats. A vaccine was successfully developed for Hendra based on their work, and Broder and his team have submitted their proposal for funding for Phase 2 human clinical trials for their Nipah vaccine candidate.