January 13, 2020

Research Roundup: New coronavirus in China, app to detect and identify mosquitoes, and single dose of HIV antibodies can knock out virus in newborns

Ansley Kahn
Senior Program Assistant
PATH/Gabe Bienczycki

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Last week, Chinese authorities confirmed that a previously unidentified lung infection that affected 59 people in the city of Wuhan in December is a novel coronavirus—a member of a family of viruses that jump from animals to humans. To date, only six coronaviruses have ever been identified in humans, so the emergence of a new one may be cause for concern. Coronaviruses are fairly common and cause upper respiratory tract illnesses with mild to moderate symptoms, such as colds and coughs. However, two coronaviruses have proven to be particularly deadly— severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). The major focus of Chinese authorities will be to identify how easily the virus is transmitted from person to person, though right now it does not yet appear to be easily spreading. Information on the new virus in China is limited as preliminary tests have only been carried out on 15 patients.

Scientists at Oxford University and the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens have developed a smartphone app to detect and differentiate disease-carrying mosquitoes using the acoustic signature of their flight tone. The app, Humbug, records the time and location at which the insect was identified, along with the mosquito flight tone and uploads the data to a central server where the species is identified using a suite of algorithms. This new technology provides researchers the ability to quickly upload, analyze, and share large amounts of data showing where mosquitoes can be found—a historically difficult process that requires trained mosquito experts to trap the insects and evaluate them under microscopes to identify the species. Thus, some countries have only a handful of samples measuring the prevalence of mosquitoes. Once mosquito distribution has been measured, this data can be compared with rainfall and temperature patterns to allow researchers to study and predict what causes the insect to spread and multiply. Humbug is currently being trialed in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

For the first time, primate research shows that a single dose of an antibody-based treatment can prevent HIV transmission from mother to child; however, timing of the dose is key. A study evaluating rhesus macaque monkey newborns found that they did not develop the monkey form of HIV, SHIV, after receiving a combination of two antibodies 30 hours after being exposed to the virus. In comparison, delayed treatment until 48 hours after exposure to the virus resulted in half of the baby macaques developing SHIV when they were given four smaller doses of the same antibody cocktail. The study also found that newborns who received antiretroviral therapy (ART) remained SHIV-free when they started a three-week regimen of that therapy 48 hours after exposure—suggesting a much shorter course of ART given after exposure could prevent transmission. Next, researchers plan to see if different antibodies, or a combination of antibodies and ART, could be even more effective in preventing HIV transmission from mother to child, and also aim to determine if the antibodies actually eliminate HIV or only prevent it from replicating.