Bas-Congo virus
September 28, 2012

New Genetic Snooping Technique Finds New Deadly Virus

John Neumann for - Your Universe Online

An intriguing new virus from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been identified as the cause of a deadly outbreak of acute hemorrhagic fever, which killed two people and left one gravely ill in the summer of 2009.

Described this week in the open-access journal PLoS Pathogens the new microbe has been named Bas-Congo virus (BASV) after the province in the southwest corner of the Congo where the three people lived.

The virus was first discovered when a teenager, living in the rural village of Mangala in the DRC, suddenly fell ill and developed symptoms of a hemorrhagic fever, including bleeding from mucous membranes and blood in the vomit. This victim died within three days of the first signs of illness.

A week later, a 13-year-old girl who attended the same school and lived in the same neighborhood came down with a similar illness and also died within three days, writes Nathan D. Wolfe, Joseph Fair, and Charles Chiu for National Geographic.

“Known viruses, such as Ebola, HIV and influenza, represent just the tip of the microbial iceberg,” explains Joseph Fair, PhD, a co-author and vice president of Metabiota. “Identifying deadly unknown viruses, such as Bas-Congo virus, gives us a leg up in controlling future outbreaks.”

“These are the only three cases known to have occurred, although there could be additional outbreaks from this virus in the future,” said Charles Chiu, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF and director of the UCSF-Abbott Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center, who spearheaded the UCSF effort to identify the virus.

As a first step, Metabiota enlisted the help of close collaborator Dr. Eric Delwart at Blood Systems Research Institute (BSRI). Using sophisticated genetic sequencing techniques, Dr. Delwart detected a fragment of genetic information related to the rhabdovirus family.

Rhabdoviruses are a large family of viruses that infect plants, insects, and mammals, including humans. The most famous member of the family is the virus that causes rabies.

Unable to derive further information from the sample, Metabiota then brought the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF) on board to employ its extensive experience in identifying unknown viruses.

UCSF´s approach involves reading the complete genetic material of a sample and identifying and assembling that information into genomes — the genetic codes of organisms. Technology that has become available only in the past few years.

Researchers were able to reconstruct nearly 100 percent of the genome of BASV from less than one-tenth of one milliliter of the third patient´s blood with these new methods. The viral genome is so distinct from any other known virus that it would likely not have been detectable by any other method.

Fortunately, programs like those supported by USAID and the DoD have begun to create robust systems for identifying viruses like BASV and curbing epidemics at their earliest stages. Discoveries like this are essential to the maintenance of a globally sensitive and responsive public health system.

Such systems are vitally needed in an interconnected world like ours, where a virus can circumnavigate the globe in less than 24 hours. BASV represents only one of perhaps thousands of potential threats which must be identified before they strike.