Virologists, start your poliovirus destruction!

I have worked on poliovirus for over thirty-six years, first as a posdoctoral fellow with David Baltimore in 1979, and then in my laboratory at Columbia University. The end of that research commences this year with the destruction of my stocks of polioviruses.

In 2015 there were 70 reported cases of poliomyelitis caused by wild type 1 poliovirus, and 26 cases of poliomyelitis caused by circulating vaccine derived polioviruses (cVDPV) types 1 and 2. The last case of type 2 poliovirus occurred in India in 1999, and the virus was declared eradicated in 2015. Consequently the World Health Organization has decided that all remaining stocks of wild type 2 poliovirus should be destroyed by the end of 2015.

My laboratory has worked extensively with type 2 polioviruses. Before we produced transgenic mice susceptible to poliovirus, we had studied the Lansing strain of type 2 poliovirus because it had the unusual ability to infect wild type mice (polioviruses normally only infect certain primates). We determined the nucleotide sequence of the viral genome, identified the capsid as a determinant of the ability of the virus to infect wild type mice, and showed that swapping an eight amino acid sequence of capsid protein VP1 from a type 1 strain with that from Lansing conferred the ability to infect non-transgenic mice. These findings indicate that the ability of the Lansing strain of poliovirus to infect mice is likely due to recognition by the viral capsid of a receptor in the mouse central nervous system. In the past year we took advantage of the ability to produce mouse neurons from stem cells to attempt to identify the murine cellular receptor for Lansing virus.

To prevent further cases of poliomyelitis caused by cVDPVs, WHO has decided that there will be a synchronized, global switch from trivalent OPV to bivalent OPV in April 2016. By July of 2016 all remaining stocks of the Sabin type 2 poliovirus strains, which are used to produce OPV, will also be destroyed.

No wild type 3 poliovirus has been detected since November 2012, and it is likely that this virus will be declared eradicated within the next several years. At that time we will have to destroy our stocks of type 3 poliovirus. That leaves wild poliovirus type 1, which circulates only in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Given the small number of cases of paralysis caused by this type, it is reasonable to believe that eradication will occur within the next five years. If this timeline is correct, it means that I will be destroying my last vials of poliovirus around 2020.

It is of course necessary to destroy stocks of wild and vaccine polioviruses to prevent reintroduction of the virus and the disease that it causes. The 1978 release of smallpox virus from a laboratory in the United Kingdom, which caused one death, lead to requests for reducing the number of laboratories that retained the virus. Today there are just two official repositories of smallpox virus in the United States and Russia.

It is rare for an investigator to be told to destroy stocks of the virus that is the subject of his or her research. Over the years we have published 81 papers on poliovirus replication, vaccines, and pathogenesis. While I realize that it is absolutely essential to stop working on this virus, I do so with a certain amount of sadness. What other emotion could I have for a virus on which I have expended so much thought and effort?

Image: Poliovirus by Jason Roberts

Correction: The synchronized switch in April 2016 is from trivalent to bivalent OPV, not OPV to IPV. Consequently I have removed comments related to an OPV-IPV switch.

TWiV 322: Postcards from the edge of the membrane

On episode #322 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiVodes answer listener email about hantaviruses, antivirals, H1N1 vaccine and narcolepsy, credibility of peer review, Bourbon virus, influenza vaccine, careers in virology, and much more.

You can find TWiV #322 at

Treatment of Ebola virus infection with brincidofovir

brincidofovirThe Liberian man who was diagnosed with Ebola virus infection after traveling to Dallas, Texas, was treated with an antiviral drug called brincidofovir. This drug had originally been developed to treat infections with DNA-containing viruses. Why was it used to treat an Ebola virus infection?

Brincidofovir (illustrated) is a modified version of an antiviral drug called cidofovir, which inhibits replication of a variety of DNA viruses including poxviruses and herpesviruses. When cidofovir enters a cell, two phosphates are added to the compound by a cellular enzyme, producing cidofovir diphosphate. Cidofovir is used by viral DNA polymerases because it looks very much like a normal building block of DNA, cytidine. For reasons that are not known, incorporation of phosphorylated cidofovir causes inefficient viral DNA synthesis. As a result, viral replication is inhibited.

Cidofovir was modified by the addition of a lipid chain to produce brincidofovir. This compound (pictured) is more potent, can be given orally, and does not have kidney toxicity, a problem with cidofovir. When brincidofovir enters a cell, the lipid is removed, giving rise to cidofovir. Brincidofovir inhibits poxviruses, herpesviruses, and adenoviruses, and has been tested in phase 2 and 3 clinical trials. The antiviral drug is being stockpiled by the US for use in the event of a bioterrorism attack with smallpox virus.

Ebola virus is an RNA virus, so why was brincidofovir used to treat the Dallas patient? According to the drug’s manufacturer, Chimerix,  with the onset of the Ebola virus outbreak in early 2014, the company provided brincidofovir, and other compounds, to the CDC and NIH to determine if they could inhibit virus replication. Apparently brincidofovir was found to be a potent inhibitor of Ebola virus replication in cell culture. Based on this finding, and the fact that the compound had been tested for safety in humans, the US FDA authorized its emergency use in the Dallas patient.

Unfortunately the Dallas patient passed away on 8 October. Even if he had survived, we would not have known if the compound had any effect. Furthermore, the drug is not without side effects and these might not be tolerated in Ebola virus-infected patients. It seems likely that the drug will also be used if other individuals in the US are infected.

Looking at the compound, one could not predict that it would inhibit Ebola virus, which has an RNA genome. RNA polymerases use different substrates than DNA polymerases – NTPs versus dNTPs. NTPs have two hydroxyls on the ribose sugar, while dNTPs have just one (pictured). The ribose is not present in cidofovir, although several hydroxyls are available for chain extension. I suspect that the company was simply taking a chance on whether any of its antiviral compounds in development, which had gone through clinical trials, would be effective. This procedure is standard in emergency situations, and might financially benefit the company.

Update: The NBC news cameraman is being treated with brincidofovir in Nebraska.

TWiV 288: ebircsnart esreveR

On episode #288 of the science show This Week in Virology, the Twivsters discuss how reverse transcriptase encoded in the human genome might produce DNA copies of RNA viruses in infected cells.

You can find TWiV #288 at

Should variola virus, the agent of smallpox, be destroyed?

variola virusLater this month (May 2014) the World Health Assembly will decide whether to destroy the remaining stocks of variola virus – the agent of smallpox – or to allow continued research on the virus at WHO-approved laboratories.

After the eradication of smallpox in 1980, the World Health Organization called for destruction of known remaining stocks of variola virus. The known remaining stocks of the virus are closely guarded in the United States and Russia. These consist not of a single vial of the virus, but of hundreds of different strains, many of which have not been fully characterized, nor has their genome sequence been determined.

It can be argued that there still remains a good deal of work to be done on variola virus, including development of newer diagnostic tests, and identification of additional countermeasures (antivirals and vaccines have been stockpiled in the US). Damon, Damaso, and McFadden have written a summary of the research on variola virus that should be done. We also discussed whether the remaining variola virus stocks should be destroyed on episode #284 of This Week in Virology.

We are interested in what readers of this blog think about this issue – please fill out the poll below.

Should all known remaining stocks of variola virus, agent of smallpox, be destroyed?

TWiV 284: By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes

On episode #284 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiV team discusses how skin scarification promotes a nonspecific immune response, and whether remaining stocks of smallpox virus should be destroyed.

You can find TWiV #284 at

TWiV 270: Homeland virology

On episode #270 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent and Rich discuss avian influenza virus and an antiviral drug against smallpox with Dennis and Yoshi at the ASM Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting in Washington, DC.

You can find TWiV #270 at

TWiV #170: From variolous effluvia to VLPs


On This Week in Virology #170, hosts Alan, Rich, and Dickson discuss Edward Jenner’s paper on cowpox vaccine, then move 200 years later to modern vaccines against norovirus, influenza H5N1, and more.

You can find TWiV #170 at

TWiV 130: Rhino tracking, wrestling pox, and HCV in the crosshairs

organ culture hrv cHosts: Vincent Racaniello, Alan Dove, and Rich Condit

Vincent, Alan, and Rich discuss growth in culture of newly identified rhinovirus C, vaccinia transmission among wrestlers and martial artists, and results of phase III clinical trial of boceprevir, a new inhibitor of hepatitis C virus replication.

Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV #130 (45 MB .mp3, 93 minutes).

Subscribe to TWiV (free) in iTunes , at the Zune Marketplace, by the RSS feed, by email, or listen on your mobile device with the Microbeworld app.

Links for this episode:

Weekly Science Picks

Rich – Rock-paper-scissors vs computer (thanks, Megan!)
Alan –
Vincent – Edward Jenner Museum (EID)

Listener Pick of the Week

Derek Tolly  – A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America (IMDb)

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.

TWiV 129: We’ve got mail

rich unwindsHosts: Vincent Racaniello, Alan Dove, Dickson Despommier, and Rich Condit

Vincent, Alan, Dickson and Rich answer listener questions about XMRV, yellow fever vaccine, virus-like particles, West Nile virus, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and human endogenous retroviruses, multiplicity of infection, and how to make a poxvirus.

Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV #129 (67 MB .mp3, 93 minutes).

Subscribe to TWiV (free) in iTunes , at the Zune Marketplace, by the RSS feed, by email, or listen on your mobile device with the Microbeworld app.

Links for this episode:

Weekly Science Picks

Rich – Polyxeni Potter and EID covers
Dickson – American Museum of Natural History
Alan –
Moon Trees (EurekAlert! article)
Vincent – Infection Landscapes

Listener Picks of the Week

Didier  – The Vaccines (MySpace)
/Sven-Urban –
The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett
GarrenOmega Tau podcast

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.