AMED-funded projects

FEATURE

Trilateral collaboration detects emerging viruses in Gabon

As countries struggle to overcome the coronavirus pandemic, multilateral organizations are calling for greater investment in public health to prepare for future epidemics. In Africa, international researchers have been building a surveillance system to discover new viral diseases.

© Steeve Jordan/ AFP via Getty Images

In Gabon, on central Africa’s west coast, rainforest covers about 80% of the country, and a significant proportion of the population lives in close contact with the forest. As the world has learned from SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, contact with wild animals increases the risk that a virus will make the leap to infecting humans. A number of dangerous viruses have been detected in Gabon, including dengue, Chikungunya, yellow fever, Zika, and Ebola — which kills on average about half of those infected. As of 2015, infectious diseases accounted for 41% or more of the causes of death in Gabon. While malaria and tuberculosis have been actively investigated, there has been less insight into the problem of viral diseases.

To help safeguard public health, researchers from Gabon, Europe and Japan are developing the capacity to quickly detect emerging viral diseases by examining samples from people and wildlife. Under an international project launched in 2015, they have been screening blood samples of feverish patients and have found hepatitis A, cytomegalovirus and lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus.

The aim of the Gabon surveillance project is to identify and control viral diseases that can cause serious symptoms including haemorrhagic fever. It’s being carried out by researchers from Nagasaki University, Japan, in collaboration with the Centre de Recherches Médicales de Lambaréné (CERMEL) and the Institut de Recherche en Écologie Tropicale (IRET), both in Gabon. A diagnostic laboratory was built in Japan, taken apart and put in a container for shipping, then reassembled in Gabon.

“The project is noteworthy for enhancing local research capacity, installing a biosafety-level 2/3 laboratory and advanced equipment, including a quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) device, and a next-generation sequencer,” says Jiro Yasuda, a professor at Nagasaki University’s Institute of Tropical Medicine who is one of the project’s leaders. “Samples can be smoothly investigated by local researchers, leading to quick feedback to the country. We also expect to identify novel viruses and viral diseases from humans and wildlife.”

The project has screened for 15 viruses using more than 1,200 samples collected from febrile patients since 2015, and found that approximately 10% were infected with viruses such as dengue, West Nile and hepatitis A, B, and C. Investigation of viral genomic sequences revealed continued viral circulation and their transmission routes. A number of viruses with zoonotic potential have also been identified using samples from local wildlife. With these results, Gabon can bolster its battle against infections, visitors can take preventive countermeasures, and other countries can recognize the risks of virus infections. But the work has had additional benefits.

“The capacity that had been built up in the course of the project proved essential during the COVID pandemic,” says Bertrand Lell, CERMEL co-director. “During the first four months of the epidemic, our centre was one of just two diagnostic labs in the country. We were able to quickly set up the diagnostics capacity because several members of our team had been trained in lab techniques in Nagasaki and Lambaréné.”

Partnering for SDGs

The Gabon project is part of Japan’s Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development (SATREPS), which aims to put people from Japan and other countries together to find solutions to global problems such as infectious diseases. It’s also part of the Japanese government’s commitment to support the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include the goal of ending, by 2030, epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases, and fighting hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases.

In addition to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, SATREPS is funded by the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED), which was established by the Japanese government in 2015 to support medical R&D and make advances available to patients as quickly as possible. AMED organizes its programmes into six modalities: drugs; medical devices and healthcare; regenerative, cellular, and gene therapies; genome data infrastructure; basic disease research; and seeds development and research infrastructure. With a 2020 budget of 126.8 billion yen (US$1.15 billion), AMED is under the supervision of the prime minister and other relevant cabinet members. Gabon is one of 14 countries where AMED has supported 12 projects aimed at tackling critical problems.

“Global issues such as climate change, bio-resource decline, natural disasters and infectious diseases become more and more complex every year, and they tend to hit low- and middle-income countries particularly hard,” says Masahiko Noda, managing director at AMED’s Department of International Strategy. “They have gone beyond the stage where they can be resolved by any single country acting alone. Solving these challenges will require international cooperation, and for innovative science and technology research outcomes to be fed back into the community. Development of human resources and upgrading of research capabilities will also be necessary.”

For the Gabon project, Yasuda, Lell and their colleagues are now focused on establishing a rapid diagnosis system for viral infections and distributing it nationwide. They’re using loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP), a rapid and highly sensitive method to detect pathogens. LAMP tests can be performed with battery-powered portable devices, ideal for rural areas without medical facilities or electricity. In a study published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, the researchers have shown that portable LAMP devices can be used to detect coronavirus within 20 minutes. They have also developed LAMP assays for viruses including Marburg, Lassa, Zika, dengue, Chikungunya, and five species of ebolaviruses.

“The project will continue to develop the rapid diagnosis system for the viruses identified to contribute to viral disease control in Gabon,” says Yasuda. “We expect that our diagnostic system will be distributed to other African countries, and to other regions.”

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