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Researchers at the Pandemic Sciences Institute (PSI) are closely monitoring the current outbreak of deadly Nipah virus in Kerala, India. To date, there have been five confirmed cases and two deaths reported, with many of those affected being family members of the first patient. The Institute has collaborations with scientists involved in the response, including virologists at the National Institute of Virology in Pune.

A bat hanging upside down

Nipah virus belongs to the same family of paramyxoviruses as more well-known pathogens such as measles. Although symptoms of Nipah virus infection can be mild, more severe cases result in devastating disease involving the central nervous system (encephalitis, coma), respiratory system, or death. Severe disease is fatal in up to 75% of cases and survivors can be left with long-term neurological complications.

Nipah virus is carried by fruit bats and infects people when they eat food that is contaminated with bat urine or saliva containing the virus. It may also be transmitted by contact with infected animals (such as pigs) or from person-to-person via close contact. To date, Nipah outbreaks have occurred in countries in South-East Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India. Seasonal outbreaks have occurred annually in Bangladesh since 2001. India has seen four outbreaks including the current outbreak in Kerala, with a virus that is related to but distinct from the strain circulating in Bangladesh.

It is a World Health Organization and UK Vaccine Network priority pathogen based on the severity of the illness, the high risk of mortality, the possibility of person to person spread, and the lack of vaccines and treatments. There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for Nipah virus infection.

Professor Miles Carroll, Professor of Emerging Viruses at the Pandemic Sciences Institute, University of Oxford said: "Scientists here in Oxford are working with local partners in endemic countries to find out more about Nipah so we can ensure the world is better protected from outbreaks of this kind. This includes a partnership with icddr,b in Bangladesh for collaborative research, including vaccine development. Our researchers are currently in the advanced stages of preparing for an Oxford clinical trial of a Nipah vaccine using the ChAdOx1 vector, and are also working with partners to develop antivirals and monoclonals to treat those infected.”