Scientists at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton who study the world's deadliest pathogens recently received their latest challenge: a sample of a new virus that emerged this year on the other side of the globe and has sickened six people, two of whom died.
The virus, called a coronavirus for its crown-like appearance under the microscope, is relatively common. Like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or SARS, this new coronavirus also causes respiratory distress severe enough to require hospitalization. Other than that, little is known about it.
The virus emerged in Saudi Arabia and Qatar last June. How it arrived in Hamilton earlier this month is a story of scientific collaboration, and the result of an aggressive global defense against an influenza pandemic that never emergednot yet, anyway, according to Heinz Feldmann and his colleague, Vincent Munster, the two RML scientists researching this new coronavirus.
Feldmann serves as chief of RML's Laboratory of Virology, known more colloquially as the "biolevel four lab" where scientists study deadly pathogens for which there currently are no treatments, such as Ebola, Marburg and Lassa. Munster is chief of the Virus Ecology Unit, the most recent addition to the Hamilton biolevel four lab.
In the late 1990s, Feldmann says the H5N1 influenza virus threatened global public health and the World Health Organization prepared an enormous, coordinated effort to combat it. Scientists around the world, combining their considerable pools of knowledge and expertise, and preparing for an expected influenza pandemic, began communicating via methods not previously used in the notoriously competitive world of scientific research, working cooperatively, and in a virtual sense, with their far-flung peers.
The viral threat posed by H5N1 has not emerged, though fear of it remains. The worldwide scientific gear-up to fight the pandemic that wasn't soon proved to be a valuable exercise, however, because by 2003, the world was faced with SARS. By then, thanks to the preparation for H5N1, scientists and public health officials were well prepared, and the SARS outbreak was relatively quickly identified and stopped, although not before sickening more than 8,000 people and killing more than 900.
"SARS was a prime example of how a global response should happen," says Feldmann. "It was a tremendous effort. And I think communications played a big role. Everyone who wanted to be a part of it was a part of it."
Both Feldmann and Munster are from Europe, where the emergence of the new coronavirus was treated with more concern there than it has been in North America. It was Munster and his personal connection with Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Holland, that allowed Rocky Mountain Labs to obtain a sample of the new coronavirus. With sample in hand, Feldmann and Munster, working with a committee of their peers, established research protocols using Syrian hamsters and rhesus macaques to determine the progression of the disease and its transmissibility. Their work will complement research being conducted in Europe.
As a result of the global preparations for H5N1 and SARS, the Rocky Mountain Laboratories now finds itself well positioned globally to respond to emerging threats to human health. It's an important step considering how quickly a virus can travel. For instance, the Hajj, the fifth pillar of wisdom in the Muslim faith and the world's largest pilgrimage, in October 2012 drew approximately 3.4 million people from around the world to Meccaonly a month after the first two human cases of the new coronavirus became known in Saudi Arabia. This is the type of convergence of events that keeps public health officials up at night. It's also an event for which the relatively new Laboratory of Virology was constructed.
"I think this is the mission of a lab like this," said Feldmann. "We work on dangerous viruses, but this one may turn out to be a level two. We don't know much about the patients and the potential of this virus to cause large damage to public health. Should it turn out to be mild, you could maybe argue that it's a waste of time and money to work on it. But this is exactly what labs like the Hamilton one are built for."
Though six cases and two deaths probably won't register on public awareness, consider that at one time, there were only a half-dozen HIV cases in the world. It took only days to sequence the genome of the new virus and determine that it was a coronavirus. Compare that to the length of time it took scientists to figure out the origin of HIV. "Years," said Feldmann.
Answers to the many questions swirling about this new coronavirus won't be known until the data are in, of course. But Feldmann notes that whatever the outcome, Mother Nature always seems to bat last and viruses, like all living things, adapt or die.
"We're always running after these (viruses)," he says. "Nature will always be ahead of us."