Nipah virus could cause the next major epidemic

Singapore banned the import of all live pigs from Malaysia from 1999 to 2017 due to the previous Nipah outbreak

Experts are warning of the re-emergence of the Nipah virus, some 20 years after it swept through Malaysia and Singapore during a 1999 outbreak.

The pathogen’s return could result an even more deadly epidemic, according to a recent conference hosted by Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified it as an epidemic threat in need of prioritisation.

The Nipah virus is spread primarily by pigs and bats — specifically Pteropus fruit bats. It can also be transmitted through contaminated food and directly from person to person.

With global travel being more prevalent than ever, the disease can spread rapidly across borders. Over the past 20 years, it has spread to Bangladesh and India, even as it dropped off the radar of most Singaporeans.

“Outbreaks of Nipah virus have so far been confined to South and Southeast Asia, but the virus has serious epidemic potential,” said Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, a Norway-based non-profit organisation that develops vaccines against potential epidemic diseases.

Pteropus fruit bats that carry the virus are found throughout the tropics and sub-tropics, which are home to more than two billion people. Nipah virus can also be transmitted from person to person, so in theory it could spread into densely populated temperate areas too.”

Fruit bat.jpg

Fruit bats are one of the main carriers of the Nipah virus, which can also be spread through pigs

The consequences are deadly for those infected. Data from Malaysia, Bangladesh and India shows that between 40 per cent and 90 per cent of victims will die from the disease.

Singapore banned the import of all live pigs from Malaysia from 1999 to 2017 in the wake of the 1999 outbreak, which killed 100 pig farmers and a slaughterhouse worker in Malaysia. Singapore in 2017 allowed the purchase of live pigs from one farm in Sarawak — which remains the only approved source for live pig imports from Malaysia. Malaysian raw pork remains banned in Singapore due to concerns over other pathogens.

Stopping Nipah in its tracks

To ensure that Nipah never becomes a global pandemic, the Nipah Virus International Conference 2019 on 9 and 10 December facilitated interaction between clinicians, veterinarians, scientists and public health experts from the region and beyond.

The discussions aimed to help animal and human public health agencies combat the rising threat.

“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 Programme, as he stressed the urgency of tackling the problem.

See press release.