In July 2023 The Indian Express reported that the Pune-based Indian Council of Medical Research’s National Institute of Virology (ICMR-NIV) nationwide survey had found evidence of Nipah virus in circulation in the bat population across nine states and one Union Territory. Nipah is a priority pathogen with pandemic potential, and its case fatality rate is a “big concern”. The research is being conducted at the Maximum Containment Laboratory, inaugurated at the end of 2012. With the contributions of experts, the team identifies viral diseases, builds capacity, develops diagnostics and vaccines, and guides responses to known and unknown pathogens.
Nipah virus (NiV) is a zoonotic virus and has its reservoir in fruit bats or flying foxes. It is known to cause illness in pigs and people, with infection causing encephalitis, severe illness, or death. CDC suggests that outbreaks occur “almost annually” in parts of Asia, including India. NiV was first discovered in 1999 after an outbreak in pigs and people in Malaysia and Singapore. It is a member of the Paramyxoviridae family, genus Henipavirus.
Research in India
India reported its first outbreak in 2001, which resulted in 45 deaths among 66 cases. The Indian Express suggests that, at the time, the country “lacked the containment facilities to handle high-risk pathogens and diagnostic tests” to detect the outbreak. With support from the US CDC the outbreak was confirmed in 2006. When a Biosafety level (BSL) -3 facility was established in Pune in 2005, India was better equipped to detect the second outbreak in 2007.
ICMR-NIV has previously identified Nipah virus in fruit bats across various districts, and scientists are carrying out a nationwide survey to assess its prevalence in different regions. Dr Sheela Godbole, Director-in-charge of ICMR-NIV reportedly told The Indian Express that an information lacuna on the status of virus prevalence among Pteropus bats necessitated this survey.
Dr Pragya Yadav, group leader at the Maximum Containment Laboratory, stated that the survey has been completed in 14 states and 2 Union Territories. The presence of Nipah viral antibodies will enable the group to identify areas at risk of spillover.
“This will help in taking necessary precautionary steps to prevent future outbreaks in the country.”
The areas where viral antibodies have been detected are Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, and Meghalaya, as well as the Union Territory of Pondicherry.
CEPI shared the article by The Indian Express on Twitter, commenting that the “risk of viral spillover may be higher than once thought”. The data show that the virus is prevalent, “emphasising the need for enhanced surveillance”, CEPI suggests.
“Despite the threat posed by Nipah virus, there is currently no preventative vaccine, and encounters with these bats are likely to increase due to climate change and habitat loss.”
So, what is CEPI doing about the “need” for a vaccine? Tweeting that it is a “leading funder”, CEPI states that the organisation is “enabling research that will get us there”. Of the 3 vaccine candidates in development that CEPI is supporting, 2 are in clinical trials.