Researchers are hunting for viruses that could cause the next pandemic

Scientists around the world are looking for the next SARS or MERS virus in wildlife from disease emergence ‘hotspots’.

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In late 2002, a new kind of lung infection began to emerge in the Guandong province of southern China. Patients came down with a fever, headaches and muscle pains, before developing a cough and difficulty breathing. As the disease began to spread further afield, images of people in surgical facemasks became a common sight on the news, and soon SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) developed into the first global pandemic of the 21st century. In total, the outbreak infected more than 8,000 people in 27 countries, leaving over 700 dead.

By July 2003, human-to-human transmission chains of SARS had been successfully broken, and the WHO announced that the pandemic was over. But scientists still didn’t know where the virus had come from. Initial theories focused on infected animals sold in Guandong’s markets. SARS was detected in ferret-badgers, raccoon dogs and mongoose-like creatures known as civets, which were slaughtered in their thousands when SARS returned to the country in 2004.

Large numbers of civets are farmed for food in China (they are used to make a delicacy called “dragon tiger phoenix soup”), but further research cast doubt on the idea that they were the original source of the disease. Although civets from animal markets tested positive for SARS, both farmed and wild populations of these animals were largely virus-free. This ruled them out as the natural reservoir for the virus, and implied that the overcrowded mixing of animals in the markets could have led to civets becoming infected by another, unknown host.

Researchers began searching local wildlife species for related pathogens that belonged to the same family as SARS – the coronaviruses. Primates, rodents and bats all seemed like possible suspects, and then, in 2005, two teams independently discovered SARS-like viruses in Chinese horseshoe bats. Their suspicions weren’t confirmed until 10 years after the initial outbreak, when a live coronavirus 99.9% similar to SARS was found inside a bat, confirming these flying mammals as the most likely origin of the deadly disease. Continue reading

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Microbiology Society Prize Medal 2017: Professor Michael Rossmann

At the Microbiology Society’s Annual Conference 2017, Professor Michael Rossman from Purdue University was awarded our Prize Medal. You can watch his talk ‘A personal history of structural virology’ below. In this post, David Bhella gives an overview of Michael’s talk and the research it contains.

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Yemen is facing “the worst cholera outbreak in the world”

Yemen, on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, is in the middle of a cholera epidemic, with 5,000 new cases being reported every day. The country is in the midst of a devastating civil war that has claimed the lives of thousands and left millions of people without access to food, water and basic sanitation.

These conditions have contributed to the outbreak of the disease, which the WHO has described as being the worst in the world. As of June, they estimate that there have been over 260,000 cases and that the epidemic has claimed the lives of 1,300 people, a quarter of whom were children.

Image credit: releon8211/Thinkstock

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Microbiology Society Marjory Stephenson Prize 2017: Professor Steve Busby

In April at the Microbiology Society Annual Conference 2017, Professor Steve Busby from the University of Birmingham was awarded the Marjory Stephenson Prize. He gave his talk on ‘Transcription activation in bacteria: ancient and modern’. In this post, Lorena Fernández-Martínez gives us an overview of the lecture, which you can watch below.

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Podcast: Going viral online

In 2008, researchers from Google announced that they could predict outbreaks of the flu up to two weeks before the US authorities, by monitoring people’s Google search behaviour.

The algorithm tracked searches for flu symptoms and remedies, which would increase in the build-up to an outbreak. Flu is a serious disease that can cause up to half a million deaths each year – so Google flu trends caused a lot of excitement in the field when it emerged.

But for all the hype, it didn’t actually work. In the end, Google flu trends failed pretty badly. So what went wrong? Continue reading

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Microbiology Society Unilever Colworth Prize 2017: Professor Martin Ryan

Earlier this year, Professor Martin Ryan from the University of St Andrews was awarded the Microbiology Society’s Unilever Colworth Prize at our Annual Conference.

In this post, Rebecca Hall gives us an overview of Martin’s talk, entitled ‘The 2A protein co-expression system: a lesson learnt from viruses to make therapeutic proteins, transgenic plants and animals, cures for cancer and pluripotent stem cells’ which you can watch below.

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Microbiology Society Fleming Prize 2017: Professor Stephen Baker

Earlier this year, Professor Stephen Baker from the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit (OUCRU) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, was awarded the Microbiology Society’s Fleming Prize at our Annual Conference.

In this post, Dr Freya Harrison gives us an overview of the talk, entitled ‘The collateral damage of antimicrobial access in Asia’. You can watch the full lecture below.

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