By Carlotta Grandstaff
In the family of common viruses known as Coronaviridae, a new coronavirus, recently emerged in Saudi Arabia, is positioned somewhere between the common cold and the decidedly more dangerous and potentially deadly SARS. Where this new coronavirus sits in the pantheon of viruses – whether it causes largely asymptomatic infections, whether it has the potential to cause widespread human misery, or whether it results in something in between – is unknown.
Coronaviruses normally infect the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts of birds and mammals, including humans, causing syndromes such as the common cold and gastroenteritis. This new virus may be zoonotic, that is, it may spread from animals to humans, since it resembles a similar virus found in bats, but that’s not entirely clear. The precise transmission method is unknown.
What is known about this newly emerged virus is precious little: Only nine human cases of this new coronavirus have been reported, but of those cases, five patients died. All nine cases emerged in Saudi Arabia and Qatar between June and November of this year. The symptoms resulting from this novel virus, technically called HCoV+EMC/2012, resembled those in SARS patients: respiratory infections severe enough to require hospitalization. One patient also suffered renal failure, which is not a hallmark of the SARS virus.
In classic scientific research, a scientist researching this novel virus would obtain a sample and, working in isolation, would propagate the sample in a lab, run a variety of serological and molecular tests, and share the results of the work only when it was ready for publication.
But that was then. In the late 1990s, when the H5N1 influenza virus threatened global public health, 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 the expected influenza pandemic, began communicating via methods not previously used in the notoriously competitive world of scientific research. They shared data online and conferred daily via conference calls, working cooperatively, and in a virtual sense, with their far-flung peers.
The H5N1 threat never emerged – not yet, anyway. It remains a significant concern. The worldwide scientific gear-up to fight the pandemic that wasn’t, soon proved to be a valuable exercise, however, because by 2003 another coronavirus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, emerged and infected more than 8,000 people around the world and killed more than 900 before it was identified and stopped.
Dr. Heinz Feldmann, who researched the SARS virus, remembers the profound economic impact SARS had when it surfaced in Hong Kong. “The Hong Kong airport is one of the busiest in the world,” he said. “And to see the entire Cathay Pacific fleet on the ground, to see all the empty hotels . . .”
Feldmann is Chief of the Laboratory of Virology at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton. Known more colloquially as the biosafety level 4 lab, the Laboratory of Virology is a research center for the study of emerging, deadly pathogens for which there are no treatments – hemorrhagic viruses like Ebola, Marburg and Lassa – and which pose a high risk of aerosolized infection.
The preparation for H5N1, and the coordinated global response to SARS established the template for how researchers and their partners in public health deal with emerging viruses. “SARS was a prime example of how a global response should happen,” said 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.”
“It was a blueprint for how to respond,” added Feldmann’s colleague, Dr. Vincent Munster, Chief of Virus Ecology, the most recent addition to the Hamilton biolevel 4 lab.
Both Feldmann and Munster are from Europe, where the emergence of the new coronavirus was treated with more concern 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. U.S. biosafety authorities recommended a biosafety level 3 classification for work with this new virus. (Biosafety levels are established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Biosafety level 3 pathogens include SARS, tuberculosis, encephalitis and West Nile virus, among other viruses, bacteria and pathogens. Treatments exist for pathogens classed as biosafety level 3.) No coronaviruses are classified as biosafety level four. “I think three is a justified and safe classification,” said Feldmann, “maybe even a little conservative.”
With sample in hand, Feldmann and Munster, working with a committee of their peers, established research protocols, including the use of Syrian hamsters and rhesus macaques as models to determine the progression of the disease, and its transmissibility. Their work will complement research being conducted in Europe.
With the global preparation for H5N1 and SARS, with the personal and professional connections developed over long careers, and with the willingness of otherwise competitive scientists to share their data via technology, the Rocky Mountain Laboratories finds itself well positioned globally to respond to emerging threats to human health in an age when, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a virus can travel halfway around the world while the scientist is putting his boots on.
Consider the Hajj, the fifth pillar of wisdom in the Muslim faith and the world’s largest pilgrimage, which in October 2012, drew approximately 3.4 million people from around the world to Mecca – only a month after the 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.” With only nine patients so far, the data are slim. “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 wok on it. But this is exactly what labs like the Hamilton one are built for.”
It took only days to sequence the genome of the new virus to learn that it was a coronavirus, most likely spread from bats. Compare that to the length of time it took scientists to figure out the origin of HIV. Munster looked to Feldmann for an answer. “Years,” he answered.
Answers to the many questions swirling about this new coronavirus won’t be known until the data are in, of course. “That’s what these facilities are built for,” Feldmann repeated.
“If there are no more cases, fine,” said Munster. “But it could be a small knock on the door. Should it hit big, we’ll be much faster. We’re ready. Twenty-four seven, we’re ready for these things.”
Mother Nature always seems to bat last, however, and viruses, like all living things, adapt or die, said Feldmann. “We’re always running after these (viruses). Nature will always be ahead of us.”