TWiV 183: Bats out of hell

On episode #183 of the science show This Week in Virology, Connor Bamford joins the TWiV team to discuss bats as hosts for major mammalian paramyxoviruses.

You can find TWiV #183 at

TWiV 167: It starts with a cough

Lipkin in ContagionHosts: Vincent Racaniello, Dickson DespommierRich Condit, and Alan Dove

The complete TWiVome deconstructs the movie Contagion.

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Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV 167 (53 MB .mp3, 88  minutes).

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Weekly Science Picks

DicksonGuinea Pig Doctors by Jon Franklin
RichLearn to appreciate technology and Everythings amazing and nobodys happy (YouTube)
Alan – JD Hooker slide collection
VincentiTunes U app and iBooks Author

Listener Pick of the Week

JudiMakers of Many Things by Eva March Tappan

Send your virology questions and comments (email or mp3 file) to, or call them in to 908-312-0760. You can also post articles that you would like us to discuss at and tag them with twiv.

Contagion, the movie

Contagion (2001)Contagion is the name of a new action-thriller movie about a global outbreak of a deadly viral disease. Slated to be released in 2011, it is directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lawrence Fishburne. That’s certainly an outstanding crew, but will they get the science right?

According to Beyond Hollywood, “the film will have most of the big names playing doctors who are called to duty by the Centers for Disease Control when a major viral outbreak starts killing people around the world. The cast will then be split up and jet off to different continents.” Dread Central calls it ‘the deadly viral outbreak film of the decade’. Apparently Jude Law will play “a kind of unbridled blogger who’s a sort of scaremonger. Basically, it’s about a deadly virus unleashed and you see it from many different points of view, whether it be the public, medical care, politicians.”

The particular virus involved in Contagion has not been identified, but I have a good source which tells me that it’s a paramyxovirus. That’s not too hard to believe since the lethal Hendra and Nipah viruses are both members of the same family.

We’ll have to wait for more information to determine if the science in the film is credible. I do know that a prominent virologist, for whom I have a great deal of respect, has been hired as a script consultant. Whether or not the director and writer actually listen to that virologist is another question.

Moviegoers may know about the eponymous 2001 sci-fi movie (pictured) in which a group of terrorists concocted a seemingly unstoppable strain of Ebola. The first target is the President of the United States. Scientific reality just isn’t exciting enough for the movies.

TWiV 58: Nipah virus in ferrets

twiv-200Hosts: Vincent Racaniello, Dick Despommier, Alan Dove, and Joshua Stillman

In episode 58 of the podcast “This Week in Virology”, Vincent, Dick, and Alan are joined by emergency medicine physician Dr. Joshua Stillman to talk about passive antibody therapy for Nipah infection in ferrets, annual influenza immunization of children, facemasks to prevent influenza, predicting dengue outbreaks by the weather, and the amazing viral communities in an icy Antarctic lake.

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Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV #58 (52 MB .mp3, 73 minutes)

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Links for this episode:

Weekly Science Picks
Dick Science News article: Enter the Virosphere
Alan WHO H1N1 timeline interactive map
Cheap Google accounts storage and How CDC estimates flu cases

Send your virology questions and comments (email or mp3 file) to or leave voicemail at Skype: twivpodcast. You can also send articles that you would like us to discuss to delicious and tagging them with to:twivpodcast.

TWiV #24: Viroids

twiv_aa_2001In episode #24 of the podcast This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, and Hamish Young discuss bacteriophages in viral vaccines, enteroviruses and diabetes, inhibition of Hendra and Nipah virus replication by the malaria drug chloroquine, and viroids.

Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV #24 or subscribe in iTunes or by email.

Ebola in pigs – Nipah redux?

10816_loresEbola virus infection was reported in Phillipine pigs in 2008. This past week it was revealed that the virus was apparently transmitted from Phillipine pigs to a pig farmer. Why do these events bring Nipah virus to mind?

The Ebola virus that was found in 4 of 6,000 pigs in the Phillipines last year is the Reston strain. This isolate was first identified in Reston, VA, in 1989, in monkeys in a primate facility that had been shipped from the Phillipines. It infected at least 20 lab workers, but did not cause severe disease. In contrast, African strains of Ebola, such as Zaire and Sudan, are associated with high fatality rates.

It is not known how Ebola-Reston infected the Phillipine pigs. There is evidence that the reservoir for African Ebola strains is the fruit bat (or flying fox). It is possible that the virus is transmitted to primates in Africa through contaminated fruit (upon which the bats urinate or defecate while feeding) or bat meat. A recent article in Microbe Magazine explores bats as reservoirs of viruses.

Yes, there are similar fruit bats in the Phillipines. And they have been implicated previously in the transmission of other virus diseases. For example, Nipah virus, a member of the Paramyxoviridae, was first identified as the agent of respiratory illness and encephalitis in Malaysian pig farmers in 1999. This outbreak lead to 105 human deaths; one million pigs were slaughtered to stop the spread of infection. It is believed that fruit bats infected the pigs by contaminating them with urine, feces, or fruit. The pigs, in turn, infected their handlers, who are in close contact with them each day.

Given the Nipah virus scenario, it is not difficult to imagine the spread of Ebola-Reston from fruit bats, to pigs, and then to pig farmers. The pig farms are here to stay, and they only grow larger – increasing the contact between pigs and mobile wild animals. The conclusion is inescapable – more frequent contact between pigs and wild animals, more  future infection of pigs with Ebola.

Dr. Pierre Rollin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that “This virus is very stable, not like flu or HIV”. He indicated that there is no change of the virus when it travels from primates to humans. Limited genetic change is typical of a dead-end zoonotic infection: one example is the identical genome sequence of the NYC 1999 West Nile virus isolate with that of a virus from a goose in Israel. Since then, West Nile virus has undergone enormous variation as it has spread across the United States. This is typical of RNA viruses, whose genomes undergo extensive mutation. I seriously doubt that Ebola is genetically ‘very stable’ as implied by Dr. Rollin’s statement above. Rather, we have not yet seen extensive circulation in humans which would lead to a more diverse sequence pool.

I also find curious the statement by Dr. Thomas G. Ksiazek, from the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston, that “It’s probably a rare event that pigs get infected”. Perhaps so far it has been rare. But the rapid growth of farming is leading to more overlap between bat habitats and pig farms. It seems likely that farm animals will be taking more frequent dips in the zoonotic pool, with dire consequences.