TWiV Special: Vincent Munster on MERS-coronavirus and Ebolavirus

At the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton, Montana, Vincent speaks with Vincent Munster about the work of his laboratory on MERS-coronavirus and Ebolaviruses.

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TWiV 415: Ebola pipettors and the philosopher’s clone

Jeremy Luban, Aaron Lin, and Ted Diehl join the TWiV team to discuss their work on identifying a single amino acid change in the Ebola virus glycoprotein from the West African outbreak that increases infectivity in human cells.

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Increased infectivity of Ebola virus glycoprotein from West Africa

filovirionWhen viruses cross species, serial transmission may lead to the selection for mutations that confer improved replication or transmission in the new host. Identifying such mutations in human viruses is extremely difficult: we cannot conduct the appropriate experiments in humans, and often do not have viral isolates spanning the time from spillover through prolonged circulation. The 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa is unique because viral genome sequences were obtained early and throughout the epidemic. The results of two new studies (link to paper one, link to paper two) suggest that some of the observed mutations increase infectivity for human cells. The impact of these mutations on infection of humans, and their role in the West African outbreak, remain unknown.

Many mutations have been identified among the many hundreds of genome sequences obtained during the recent Ebola virus epidemic. One stands out: a mutation that leads to a single amino acid change in the viral glycoprotein, from alanine to valine at position 82 (A82V). This change arose early in the outbreak (it was first observed in Guinea in March 2014) and was subsequently found in most of the isolates. It has never been observed in previous Ebolavirus outbreaks.

The effect of the A82V change on viral infectivity was determined by building pseudotyped viral particles – in this case, HIV particles with the Ebola virus glycoprotein. Human cells in culture were infected with pseudotyped viruses with the Ebola virus glycoprotein with either alanine or valine at position 82. Infectivity was measured by quantifying the production of a protein from the HIV genome. The results show that A82V increases infectivity by twofold. The effect is also observed in cells from non-human primates, but not from rodents, dogs, or cats. However, the A82V change decreased infectivity in bat cells.

The A82V change is located at the binding site of the Ebola virus glycoprotein with the cell fusion receptor, NPC1. It appears to increase the fusion activity of the viral glycoprotein.

Other amino acid changes in the Ebola virus glycoprotein were also observed to increase infectivity in human cells, and decrease infectivity in bat cells.

The pattern of increased infectivity in primate cells, and decreased infectivity in bats, is consistent with the hypothesis that the outbreak virus came from bats, and after circulation of the virus in humans, it lost some ability to infect bat cells while becoming better at infecting human cells. However there is still no solid proof that bats are a reservoir of Ebolaviruses.

What does increased infectivity have to do with infection of humans? The idea is that the mutation increases the efficiency of virus entry into cells, and hence increased viral gene expression is observed. Fewer viruses needed to infect a cell, the better chance of initiating an infection. But is the two-fold increase observed in cells enough to impact infection in humans?

The assays used in these papers measure protein production from an HIV genome. The experiments need to be repeated using bona fide Ebola virus, to make sure that the mutations have the same effect. The changes might have impacts on other stages of viral replication. Furthermore, the impact of the changes in the viral glycoprotein should be assessed in animal models, to determine if improved infectivity has any impact on pathogenesis and transmission. Ultimately, we can’t prove that these mutations have any effect in humans – the needed experiments cannot be done.

I’m curious about why the A82V change was not seen in previous Ebola virus outbreaks. Those were in different parts of Africa – could the changes be driven by population genetics, ecology, or other factors? It will be important to determine if the same change is selected in future outbreaks.

The authors are sufficiently cautious in their conclusions. From paper #2:

Despite the experimental data provided here, it is impossible to clearly establish whether the adaptive mutations observed were in part responsible for the extended duration of the 2013–2016 epidemic. Indeed, it seems likely that the prolonged nature of the outbreak in West Africa was primarily due to epide- miological factors, such as an increased circulation in urban areas that in turn led to larger chains of transmission.

From paper #1:

Our findings raise the possibility that this mutation contributed directly to greater transmission and thus to the severity of the outbreak. It is difficult to draw any conclusions from this hypothesis, though…

As I feared, press coverage of these findings has been inaccurate. For example, a BBC headline proclaims “Ebola adapted to easily infect people”. Even the journal Cell, which published both papers, made an incorrect conlcusion: see the screen capture below from the journal website.key mutations ebola virusBoth Cell and the BBC might have taken too literally the unfortunate title of one of the papers,  “Human adaptation of Ebola virus during the West African Outbreak.” The results suggest adaptation to human cells, not to humans. The title of the second paper is sufficiently careful: “Ebola virus glycoprotein with increased infectivity dominated the 2013-2016 epidemic”. But that’s not a BBC headline.

TWiV 413: Partnerships not parachutes

From the EIDA2Z conference at Boston University, Vincent, Alan and Paul meet up with Ralph Baric, Felix Drexler, Marion Koopmans, and Stacey Schultz-Cherry to talk about discovering, understanding, protecting, and collaborating on emerging infectious diseases.

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TWiV 408: Boston Quammens

Four years after filming ‘Threading the NEIDL’, Vincent and Alan return to the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory BSL4 facility at Boston University where they speak with science writer David Quammen.

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TWiV 364: It’s not SARS 2.0

On episode #364 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Rich, and Kathy speak with Ralph Baric and Vineet Menachery about their research on the potential of SARS-like bat coronaviruses  to infect human cells and cause disease in mice.

You can find TWiV #364 at

Lassa virus origin and evolution

arenavirusI have a soft spot in my heart for Lassa virus: a non-fictional account of its discovery in Africa in 1969 inspired me to become a virologist. Hence papers on this virus always catch my attention, such as one describing its origin and evolution.

Lassa virus, a member of the Arenavirus family, is very different from Ebolavirus (a filovirus), but both are zoonotic pathogens that may cause hemorrhagic fever. It is responsible for tens of thousands of hospitalizations, and thousands of deaths each year, mainly in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, and Nigeria. Most human Lassa virus outbreaks are caused by multiple exposures to urine or feces from the multimammate mouse, Mastomys natalensis, which is the reservoir of the virus in nature. In contrast, outbreaks of Ebolavirus infection typically originate with a crossover from an animal reservoir, followed by human to human transmission. Despite being studied for nearly 50 years, until recently the nucleotide sequences of only 12 Lassa virus genomes had been determined.

To remedy this lack of Lassa virus genome information, the authors collected clinical samples from patients in Sierra Leone and Nigeria between 2008 and 2013. From these and other sources they determined the sequences of 183 Lassa virus genomes from humans, 11 viral genomes from M. natalensis, and two viral genomes from laboratory stocks. All the data are publicly available at NCBI. Analysis of the data lead to the following conclusions:

  • Lassa virus forms four clades, three in Nigeria and one in Sierra Leona/Liberia (members of a clade evolved from a common ancestor).
  • Most Lassa virus infections are a consequence of multiple, independent transmissions from the rodent reservoir.
  • Modern-day Lassa virus  strains probably originated at least 1,000 years ago in Nigeria, then spread to Sierra Leone as recently as 150 years ago. The lineage is most likely much older, but how much cannot be calculated from the data.
  • The genetic diversity of Lassa virus in individual hosts is an order of magnitude greater than the diversity of Ebolavirus. Furthermore, Lassa virus diversity in the rodent host is greater than in humans, likely a consequence of the longer, persistent infections that take place in the mouse.
  • The gene encoding the Lassa virus glycoprotein is subject to high selection in hosts, leading to variants that interfere with antibody binding.
  • Genetic variants that arise in one rodent are not transmitted to another.

Perhaps the most important result from this work is the establishment of laboratories in Sierra Leone and Nigeria that can safely collect and process samples from patients infected with Lassa virus, a BSL-4 pathogen.

TWiV 347: Rose rosette and squirrel roulette

On episode #347 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, and Rich discuss the virus behind rose rosette disease, and fatal human encephalitis caused by a variegated squirrel bornavirus.

You can find TWiV #347 at

TWiV 327: Does a gorilla shift in the woods?

On episode #327 of the science show This Week in Virology, the eTWiVicators review evidence that the HIV-1 group O epidemic began with a single cross-species transmission of virus from western lowland gorillas.

You can find TWiV #327 at

Yet another avian influenza virus, H10N8, infects humans

chicken market

To the collection of avian influenza viruses known to sporadically infect humans – H5N1, H7N9, H7N2, H7N3, H7N7, H9N2, and H10N7 – we can now add H10N8, recently found in two individuals in China.

Avian influenza virus H10N8 was first detected in tracheal aspirates from a 73 year old woman who was hospitalized in November 2013 for severe respiratory illness. The patient, who died, had previously visited a live poultry market. A second infection with this virus was detected in January 2014.

Virus isolated from tracheal aspirates on day 7 of illness was named A/Jiangxi-Donghu/346/2013(H10N8). Nucleotide sequence analysis of the viral genome reveals that it is a reassortant. The HA gene most closely resembles that of a virus isolated from a duck in Hunan in 2012, while the NA gene resembles that of a virus isolated from a mallard in Korea in 2010. All six other RNA segments resemble those from circulating H9N2 viruses in China. These viruses have also provided genes for H7N9 and H5N1 viruses.

Examination of the viral protein sequences provides some clues about virulence of the virus. The HA protein sequence reveals a single basic amino acid at the cleavage site, indicating that the virus is of low pathogenicity in poultry, like H7N9 virus. The sequence in the sialic acid binding pocket of the HA protein indicates a preference for alpha-2,3 linked sialic acids, typical  for avian influenza viruses (human influenza viruses prefer alpha-2,6 linked sialic acids). A lysine at amino acid 627 in the PB2 protein is known to enhance the ability of the virus to replicate at mammalian temperatures; the H10N8 virus has a mixture of lysine and glutamic acid, the residue associated with less efficient replication. The sequence of the M2 protein indicates that the virus is resistant to the antiviral adamantanes. In vitro testing indicated sensitivity to NA inhibitors Tamiflu and Relenza.

It is not known if this novel H10N8 virus will spread further in the human population. A novel influenza H7N9 virus was first detected in humans in early 2013 and has since caused 250 human infections with 70 deaths. Similar incursions of avian influenza viruses into humans have probably taken place for as long as humans have had contact with poultry. We are now adept at detecting viruses and therefore we are noticing these infections more frequently.

Live poultry markets are clearly a risk factor for humans to acquire infections with avian influenza viruses, as noted by Perez and Garcia-Sastre:

Live bird markets in Asia are undoubtedly the major contributor in the evolution of avian influenza viruses with zoonotic potential, a fact for which we seem to remain oblivious.

Given their role in transmitting new viruses from animals to humans, I wonder why live poultry markets are not permanently closed.

Update: George Gao agrees that the live poultry markets in China should be closed.