Three countries endemic for poliovirus

poliovirusI cannot let September pass without noting that 34 years ago this month, I arrived at Columbia University to start my laboratory to do research on poliovirus (pictured). That virus is no longer the sole object of our attention – we are wrapping up some work on poliovirus and our attention has shifted elsewhere. But this is a good month to think about the status of the poliovirus eradication effort.

So far this year 26 cases of poliomyelitis have been recorded – 23 caused by wild type virus, and three caused by vaccine-derived virus. At the same time in 2015 there were 44 reported cases of polio – small progress, but, in the words of Bill Gates, the last one percent is the hardest.

One of the disappointments this year is Nigeria. It was on the verge of being polio-free for one year – the last case of type 1 poliovirus in Nigeria had been recorded in July of 2014. In August the government reported that 2 children developed polio in the Borno State. The genome sequence of the virus revealed that it had been circulating undetected in this region since 2011. Due to threats from militant extremists, it has not been possible for vaccination teams to properly cover this area, and surveillance for polioviruses has also been inefficient. The virus can circulate freely in a poorly immunized population, and as only 1% of infections lead to paralysis, cases of polio might have been missed.

The conclusion from this incident is that the declaration that poliovirus is no longer present in any region is only as good as the surveillance for the virus, which can never be perfect as all sources of infection cannot be covered.

Of the 26 cases of polio recorded so far in 2016, most have been in Afghanistan and Pakistan (9 and 14, respectively). It is quite clear that conflict has prevented vaccination teams from immunizing the population: in Pakistan, militants have attacked polio teams during vaccination campaigns.

Recently 5 of 27 sewage samples taken from different parts of the province of Balochistan in Pakistan have tested positive for poliovirus. Nucleotide sequence analysis revealed that the viruses originated in Afghanistan. The fact that such viruses are present in sewage means that there are still individuals without intestinal immunity to poliovirus in these regions. In response to this finding, a massive polio immunization campaign was planned for the end of September in Pakistan. This effort would involve 6000 teams to reach 2.4 million children. Apparently police will be deployed to protect immunization teams (source: ProMedMail).

The success of the polio eradication program so far has made it clear that if vaccines can be deployed, circulation of the virus can be curtailed. If immunization could proceed unfettered, I suspect the virus would be gone in five years. But can anyone predict whether it will be possible to curtail the violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria that has limited polio vaccination efforts?

Why do we still use Sabin poliovirus vaccine?

VAPPThe Sabin infectious, attenuated poliovirus vaccines are known to cause vaccine-associated paralysis in a small number of recipients. In contrast, the Salk inactivated vaccine does not cause poliomyelitis. Why are the Sabin vaccines still used globally? The answer to this question requires a brief visit to the history of poliovirus vaccines.

The inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) developed by Jonas Salk was licensed for use in 1955. This vaccine consists of the three serotypes of poliovirus whose infectivity, but not immunogenicity, is destroyed by treatment with formalin. When prepared properly, IPV does not cause poliomyelitis (early batches of IPV were not sufficiently inactivated, leading to vaccine-associated outbreaks of polio, the so-called Cutter incident). From 1955 to 1960 cases of paralytic poliomyelitis in the United States dropped from 20,000 per year to 2,500.

While Salk’s vaccine was under development, several investigators pursued the production of infectious, attenuated vaccines as an alternative. This approach was shown to be effective by Max Theiler, who in 1937 had made an attenuated vaccine against yellow fever virus by passage of the virulent virus in laboratory mice. After many passages, the virus no longer caused disease in humans, but replicated sufficiently to induce protective immunity. Albert Sabin capitalized on these observations and developed attenuated versions of the three serotypes of poliovirus by passage of virulent viruses in different animals and cells. In contrast to Theiler’s yellow fever vaccine, which was injected, Sabin’s poliovirus vaccines were designed to be taken orally – hence the name oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV). As in a natural poliovirus infection, Sabin’s vaccines would replicate in the intestinal tract and induce protective immunity there and in the bloodstream.

Sabin began testing his attenuated vaccines in humans in 1954. By 1957 there was evidence that the virus that was fed to volunteers was not the same as the virus excreted in the feces. As Sabin writes:

It was evident, however, that as in the young adult volunteers, the virus in some of the stool specimens had a greater neurovirulence than the virus originally swallowed in tests in monkeys.

What Sabin did not know was whether the change in neurovirulence of his vaccine strains constituted a threat to the vaccine recipients and their contacts, a question that could only be answered by carrying out larger clinical trials. Many felt that such studies were not warranted, especially considering the success of IPV in reducing the number of paralytic cases. Sabin notes that his friend Tom Rivers, often called the father of American virology, told him to ‘discard the large lots of OPV that I had prepared into a suitable sewer’.

Despite the opposition to further testing of OPV in the US, others had different views. An international committee of the World Health Organization recommended in 1957 that larger trials of OPV should be carried out in different countries. Sabin’s type 2 vaccine was given to 200,000 children during an outbreak of polio in Singapore in 1958, and follow-up studies revealed no safety problems. In Czechoslovakia 140,000 children were given OPV and subsequent studies revealed that the virus spread to unimminized contacts but did not cause disease.

Perhaps the most important numbers came from trials of OPV in the Soviet Union. Sabin had been born in Russia and had close contacts with Soviet virologists, including Mikhail Chumakov, director of the Poliomyelitis Research Institute in Moscow. Chumakov was not satisfied with the results of IPV trials in his country and asked Sabin to send him OPV for testing. By the end of 1959 nearly 15,000,000 people had been given OPV in different parts of the Soviet Union with no apparent side effects. Dorothy Horstmann, a well known virologist at Yale University, was sent to the Soviet Union to evaluate the outcome of the trials. Horstmann writes:

It was clear that the trials had been carefully carried out, and the results were monitored meticulously in the laboratory and in the field. By mid-1960 approximately 100 million persons in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany had received the Sabin strains. Of great importance was the demonstration that the vaccine was safe, not only for the recipients, but for the large numbers of unvaccinated susceptible who must have been exposed as contacts of vaccines.

The results obtained from these trials in the Soviet Union convinced officials in the US and other countries to carry out clinical trials of OPV. In Japan, Israel, Chile, and other countries, OPV was shown to be highly effective in terminating epidemics of poliomyelitis. In light of these findings, all three of Sabin’s OPV strains were approved for use in the US, and in 1961-62 they replaced IPV for routine immunization against poliomyelitis.

As soon as OPV was used in mass immunizations in the US, cases of vaccine-associated paralysis were described. Initially Sabin decried these findings, arguing that temporal association of paralysis with vaccine administration was not sufficient to implicate OPV. He suggested that the observed paralysis was caused by wild-type viruses, not his vaccine strains.

A breakthrough in our understanding of vaccine-associated paralysis came in the early 1980s when the recently developed DNA sequencing methods were used to determine the nucleotide sequences of the genomes of the Sabin type 3 vaccine, the neurovirulent virus from which it was derived, and a virus isolated from a child who had developed paralysis after administration of OPV. The results enumerated for the first time the mutations that distinguish the Sabin vaccine from its neurovirulent parent. More importantly, the genome sequence of the vaccine-associated isolate proved that it was derived from the Sabin vaccine and was not a wild-type poliovirus.

We now understand that every recipient of OPV excretes, within a few days, viruses that are more neurovirulent that the vaccine strains. This evolution occurs because during replication of the OPV strains in the human intestine, the viral genome undergoes mutation and recombination that eliminate the attenuating mutations that Sabin so carefully selected by passage in different hosts.

From 1961 to 1989 there were an average of 9 cases (range, 1-25 cases) of vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis (VAPP) in the United States, in vaccine recipients or their contacts, or 1 VAPP case per 2.9 million doses of OPV distributed (illustrated). Given this serious side effect, the use of OPV was evaluated several times by the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Each time it was decided that the risks associated with the use of OPV justified the cases of VAPP. It was believed that a switch to IPV would lead to outbreaks of poliomyelitis, because: OPV was better than IPV at protecting non-immunized recipients; the need to inject IPV would lead to reduced compliance; and IPV was known to induce less protective mucosal immunity than OPV.

After the WHO began its poliovirus eradication initiative in 1988, the risk of poliovirus importation into the US slowly decreased until it became very difficult to justify routine use of OPV. In 1996 the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices decided that the US would transition to IPV and by 2000 IPV had replaced OPV for the routine prevention of poliomyelitis. As a consequence VAPP has been eliminated from the US.

OPV continues to be used in mass immunization campaigns for the WHO poliovirus eradication program, because it is effective at eliminating wild polioviruses, and is easy to administer. A consequence is that neurovirulent vaccine-derived polioviruses (VDPV) are excreted by immunized children. These VDPVs have caused outbreaks of poliomyelitis in areas where immunization coverage has dropped. Because VDPVs constitute a threat to the eradication campaign, WHO has recommended a global transition to IPV. Once OPV use is eliminated, careful environmental surveillance must be continued to ensure that VDPVs are no longer present before immunization ceases, a goal after eradication of poliomyelitis.

As a virologist working on poliovirus neurovirulence, I have followed the vaccine story since I joined the field in 1979. I have never understood why no cases of VAPP were observed in the huge OPV trials carried out in the Soviet Union. Had VAPP been identified in these trials, OPV might not have been licensed in the US. Global use of OPV has led to near global elimination of paralytic poliomyelitis. Would the exclusive use of IPV have brought us to the same point, without the unfortunate cases of vaccine-associated paralysis? I’m not sure we will ever know the answer.

Update: As recently as 1997 DA Henderson, architect of smallpox eradication, argued that developed countries should not use IPV, because it ‘implies accepting the potential of substantial penalties while reducing but not eliminating, an already extremely small risk of vaccine-associated paralytic illness’.

TWiV 353: STING and the antiviral police

On episode #353 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiVniacs discuss twenty-eight years of poliovirus shedding by an immunodeficient patient, and packaging of the innate cytoplasmic signaling molecule cyclic GMP-AMP in virus particles.

You can find TWiV #353 at

Shedding poliovirus for 28 years

Glass PoliovirusAn immunodeficient individual has been excreting poliovirus in his stool for 28 years. Such chronic excreters pose a threat to the poliovirus eradication program.

Since its inception in 1988 by the World Health Organization, the poliovirus eradication program has relied on the use of the infectious, attenuated vaccine strains produced by Albert Sabin. These viruses are taken orally, replicate in the intestine, and induce protective immunity. During replication in the gut, the Sabin strains lose the mutations that prevent them from causing paralysis. Nearly every individual who receives the Sabin vaccine strains excretes so-called vaccine-derived polioviruses (VDPVs) which are known to have caused outbreaks of poliomyelitis in under-immunized populations.

Immunocompromised individuals who produce very low levels of antibodies (a condition called agammaglobulinemia) are known to excrete VDPVs for very long periods of time – years, compared with months in healthy individuals. Seventy-three such cases have been described since 1962. These individuals receive the Sabin vaccine in the first year of life, before they are known to have an immunodeficiency, at which time they must receive antibodies to prevent them from acquiring fatal infections.

The most recently described immunocompromised patient was found to excrete poliovirus type 2 vaccine for 28 years (the time period is determined by combining the known rate of change in the poliovirus genome with sequence data on viruses obtained from the patient).  The VDPV is neurovirulent (causes paralysis in a mouse model), antigenically drifted, and excreted in the stool at high levels.

Because the polio eradication plan calls for cessation of vaccination at some future time, these immunocompromised poliovirus shedders pose a threat to future unimmunized individuals. The global number of such patients is unknown, and there is no available therapy to treat them – administration of antibodies does not clear the infection. The development of antivirals that could eliminate the chronic poliovirus infection is clearly needed (and ongoing). It will also be necessary to conduct environmental surveillance for the presence of VDPVs – they can be identified by properties that distinguish them from VDPVs produced by immunocompetent vaccine recipients.

While the WHO eradication plan now includes a shift to using inactivated (Salk) poliovaccine, this strategy would not impact the existing immunocompromised poliovirus shedders. Should a VDPV from these individuals cause an outbreak of polio in the post-vaccine era, it will be necessary to control the outbreak with Salk vaccine, or an infectious poliovirus vaccine that cannot revert to virulence during replication in the intestine. Polioviruses with a recoded genome are candidates for the latter type of vaccine.

Image credit: Jason Roberts

WHO will switch to type 2 inactivated poliovirus vaccine

Poliovirus by Jason RobertsThe World Health Organization’s campaign to eradicate poliomyelitis made impressive inroads in 2012: only 212 cases were reported, compared with 620 the previous year; moreover, India remained polio-free. The dark side of this story is that as wild polio is eliminated, vaccine-associated poliomyelitis moves in to take its place. The landmark decision by WHO to replace the infectious, type 2 Sabin poliovaccine with inactivated vaccine is an important step towards eliminating vaccine-associated polio.

A known side effect of the Sabin poliovirus vaccines, which are taken orally and replicate in the intestine, is vaccine-associated poliomyelitis. During the years that the Sabin poliovirus vaccines (also called oral poliovirus vaccine, or OPV) were used in the US, cases of poliomyelitis caused by vaccine-derived polioviruses (VDPV) occurred at a rate of about 1 per 1.4 million vaccine doses, or 7-8 per year. Once the disease was eradicated from the US in 1979, the only cases of polio were caused by VDPVs. For this reason the US switched to the Salk inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) in 2000.

The main vaccine used by WHO in the global eradication effort has been a trivalent preparation comprising all three serotypes. When type 2 poliovirus was eradicated in 1999, many countries began immunizing only against types 1 and 3 poliovirus. As a consequence of this immunization strategy, population immunity to type 2 poliovirus declined. This switch, together with poor routine immunization coverage in some areas, has lead to polio outbreaks caused by cVDPV2 in countries such as Pakistan.

Alan Dove and I suggested in 1997 that it would be necessary to switch from OPV to IPV to achieve polio eradication. However, WHO did not agree with our position:

Dove and Racaniello believe that the reliance of the WHO on the live Sabin oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV) means that there will be a continuing threat of release of potentially pathogenic virus into the environment. They therefore recommend a switch to the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). In response, Hull and Aylward explain why a switch from OPV is not necessary and describe the studies being sponsored by the WHO to determine how and when immunization can safely be ended.

I remember well the words of DA Henderson, the architect of smallpox eradication, when I proposed a switch to IPV at a conference in 2001:

There is no way it is going to come about and as an end-game strategy it is dreaming to believe that this is reasonable. So, it is just not on.

Apparently I was not dreaming: in May 2012 the 65th World Health Assembly requested that the Director-General “coordinate with all relevant partners, including vaccine manufacturers, to promote the research, production and supply of vaccines, in particular inactivated polio vaccines, in order to enhance their affordability, effectiveness and accessibility”. Later last year the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on immunization (SAGE) called for a global switch from trivalent to bivalent OPV, eliminating the type 2 component. To ensure that circulating type 2 VDPVs do not pose a threat, SAGE also recommended that all countries introduce at least one dose of inactivated poliovaccine. This decision was announced in the 4 January 2013 Weekly Epidemiological Record (pdf).

The fact that WHO believes it is necessary to switch from type 2 OPV to IPV surely means that in the future, when types 1 and 3 polioviruses are eradicated, types 1 and 3 OPV will be replaced with IPV. This is the correct endgame strategy for eradicating polio. Once circulating VDPVs are no longer detectable on the planet – something that will probably not happen before 2020 – then we may safely stop immunization with IPV.

Poliovirus image courtesy of Jason Roberts.

Poliovirus type 2 returns

polio-immunizationThe global battle to eradicate poliomyelitis is already 9 years behind schedule. To make matters worse, type 2 poliovirus, which was declared eradicated in 1999, has returned.

There are three serotypes of poliovirus, each of which causes poliomyelitis. The vaccine used by WHO in the global eradication effort is a trivalent preparation comprising all three serotypes. When type 2 poliovirus was eliminated, many countries began using monovalent type 1 and type 3 vaccines: one vaccine for type 1 and another for type 3. As a consequence of this immunization strategy, population immunity to type 2 poliovirus declined. But if type 2 poliovirus was eradicated, where has it come from?

It came from the poliovirus vaccine.

The trivalent vaccine that is used in the eradication effort is an infectious vaccine. The vaccine is ingested, the viruses replicate in the intestine, and immunity develops. Viruses of all three serotypes undergo genetic changes during replication in the alimentary tract. As a consequence, the vaccine recipient excretes neurovirulent polioviruses. These so-called vaccine-derived polioviruses (VDPV) can cause outbreaks of poliomyelitis in non-immune people, as described in Polio among the Amish.

The outbreak of type 2 poliovirus in Nigeria began in 2006. There have been 126 cases of paralytic disease reported so far in 2009. Before 2003, the year that Nigeria began a boycott of polio immunization, the trivalent vaccine was used. Immunization resumed with monovalent types 1 and 3 vaccine in 2004. Therefore the source of the VDPV type 2 is most likely the trivalent vaccine used before 2003.

The resurrection of type 2 polio highlights the difficulties involved in using an infectious viral vaccine to eradicate the disease. In reality, type 2 poliovirus was not eradicated in 1999, because that virus was still present in the trivalent vaccine that was being used. Clearly the virus was still circulating in humans, despite the fact that no type 2 poliomyelitis was observed.

In response to the type 2 outbreak in Nigeria, trivalent vaccine is being used again. It’s not difficult to imagine that this will lead to another cycle of eradication and emergence of type 2 polio. What’s the solution to this apparently endless circle? Use inactivated poliovirus vaccine, which I’ve been dreaming about for some time.

Roberts, L. (2007). Vaccine-Related Polio Outbreak in Nigeria Raises Concerns Science, 317 (5846), 1842-1842 DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5846.1842

Roberts, L. (2009). Type 2 Poliovirus Back From The Dead in Nigeria Science, 325 (5941), 660-661 DOI: 10.1126/science.325_660

Jegede, A. (2007). What Led to the Nigerian Boycott of the Polio Vaccination Campaign? PLoS Medicine, 4 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0040073

Polio among the Amish

amishThe last outbreak of poliomyelitis in the United States occurred in 1979, when a type 1 strain imported from the Netherlands caused 13 paralytic cases among unvaccinated Amish communities in three states. Twenty years later, use of the live, attenuated poliovirus vaccine (OPV) was discontinued in the United States, and was replaced with the inactivated vaccine, IPV.  How do we explain the 2005 outbreak of polio in an Amish community in Minnesota?

The infant in this case was five months old when it was hospitalized for fever, irritability, bloody diarrhea, and recurrent infections. Vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV) type 1 was isolated from a stool specimen, but paralysis did not occur. VDPVs are excreted by individuals who receive OPV; they have been shown to circulate for long periods and cause outbreaks of paralytic disease in undervaccinated populations. Similar VDPVs were subsequently isolated from four other children in the same Amish community, none of whom were ill. A total of 8 out of  23 children tested had virologic or serologic evidence of type 1 poliovirus infection.

Sequence analysis of the VDPVs was used to estimate that the virus had probably circulated for 2 months in the community before infecting the infant. Such estimates are based on the known rate of sequence change in the poliovirus genome as it moves through the human population. The origin of the VDPV was not identified, despite extensive virological and serological studies of other communites in the US and Canada which might have had contact with the individuals in Minnesota. The source of the virus is probably a recipient of OPV outside of the US and Canada – these countries stopped using this vaccine in 2000 and 1995-96, respectively.

The infant was subsequently diagnosed with severe combined immunodeficiency, a disease characterized by defects in B and T cell immunity and frequent infections. Poliovirus was detected in her stool until January 2006, after which the immunodeficiency was corrected by bone marrow transplant and the virus was eliminated.

All previous outbreaks of poliomyelitis caused by VDVP were in undervaccinated communities in underdeveloped countries. The outbreak in Minnesota underscores the need to maintain high vaccination coverage: until OPV is replaced with IPV globally, circulating VDPVs pose a threat to unimmunized individuals. The outbreak is a harbinger of what could occur in countries where immunization with OPV is halted after the eradication of poliomyelitis. As the number of susceptible newborns increases, circulating VDVPs could spark an outbreak of poliomyelitis.  Another reason for switching to IPV rather than stopping immunization altogether.

James P. Alexander, Kristen Ehresmann, Jane Seward, Gary Wax, Kathleen Harriman, Susan Fuller, Elizabeth A. Cebelinski, Qi Chen, Jaume Jorba, Olen M. Kew, Mark A. Pallansch, M. Steven Oberste, Mark Schleiss, Jeffrey P. Davis, Bryna Warshawsky, Susan Squires, Harry F. Hull (2009). Transmission of Imported Vaccine‐Derived Poliovirus in an Undervaccinated Community in Minnesota The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 199 (3), 391-397 DOI: 10.1086/596052