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Singapore Conference Explored Global Threat of Nipah Virus

Deadly virus may travel easily by air in bats, airplanes and coughs

A black flying fox (Pteropus) feeding on a palm tree in Queensland, Australia. Bats and palms can both carry Nipah virus to humans. (Andrew Mercer via Wikimedia Commons)
A black flying fox (Pteropus) feeding on a palm tree in Queensland, Australia. Bats and palms can both carry Nipah virus to humans. (Andrew Mercer via Wikimedia Commons)

SINGAPORE -- Nipah virus experts and stakeholders gathered at an international conference in Singapore Dec. 9 and 10 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the virus’ discovery and to discuss innovative and effective solutions to combat the threat to global health security posed by Nipah.

The two-day session was co-hosted by Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

Nipah virus was first identified in 1999 following a large outbreak affecting Malaysia and Singapore. The virus is one of eight categories of diseases that the World Health Organization has identified as epidemic threats in need of prioritization. Over the past 20 years, the virus has continued to spread over thousands of kilometers to Bangladesh and India.

The virus causes severe disease, including respiratory symptoms and inflammation of the brain leading to coma and death. Recorded mortality rates in Malaysia, Bangladesh and India are between 40 and 90 percent. In 2001, the virus was detected in Bangladesh and since then, frequent outbreaks have occurred in the country. An outbreak in Kerala, India, in 2018 claimed 17 lives.

“There are currently no specific drugs or vaccines for Nipah virus infection, even though the WHO has identified Nipah as a priority disease for the WHO Research and Development Blueprint,” said Professor Wang Linfa, director of Duke-NUS’ emerging infectious diseases . “Through the conference, we aim to stimulate dialogue between experts and stakeholders to bring about innovative and effective solutions to boost efforts in fighting Nipah virus.”

Nipah is a zoonotic virus, which means that it can be spread to humans from animals. It is spread primarily by bats (specifically Pteropus fruit bats) and pigs. It can also be transmitted through contaminated food and directly from person to person.

“Outbreaks of Nipah virus have so far been confined to South and Southeast Asia, but the virus has serious epidemic potential, because Pteropus fruit bats that carry the virus are found throughout the tropics and sub-tropics, which are home to more than 2  billion people,” said Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI. “Nipah virus can also be transmitted from person to person, so in theory it could spread into densely populated temperate areas too.”

The conference brought together Nipah experts and global health stakeholders to review past Nipah outbreaks, discuss the latest developments in diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics, and foster greater international collaboration. Discussions centered on communication, cooperation and collaboration between animal and human public health agencies to ensure that Nipah never becomes a global pandemic.

The growing use of global travel makes it crucial to strengthen outbreak preparedness and response against infectious diseases such as Nipah.

“Twenty years have passed since its discovery, but the world is still not adequately equipped to tackle the global health threat posed by Nipah virus,” Hatchett said. “This needs to change. Strengthening collaboration and knowledge-sharing between Nipah virus experts, industry and key public-health stakeholders is crucial to the development of novel interventions against Nipah.”

Conference guests included leaders and representatives from the Ministry of Health (Singapore), the World Health Organisation (WHO), Ministry of Health (Malaysia), the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Ministry of Social and Family Development (Singapore), Duke-NUS, CEPI, SingHealth and other key stakeholders from the healthcare and biomedical ecosystem in Singapore. The conference was also co-sponsored by WHO and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Guest-of-honour Dr. Lam Pin Min, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Health, Singapore, delivered the opening address.