Meet Měnglà Virus: the newest cousin in the Ebola and Marburg virus family tree

Ebola virus (EBOV) and Marburg virus (MARV) are two closely-related viruses in the family Filoviridae. Filoviruses are often pathogenic, causing hemorrhagic fever disease in human hosts. The Ebola outbreak of 2014 caught the world by surprise by spreading so quickly and severely that public health organizations were unprepared. The devastating outcome was a total of over 11,000 deaths by the time the outbreak ended in 2016. Research that provides further understanding of filoviruses and their potential for transmission is important in preventing future outbreaks from occurring. But what if the outbreak comes from a virus we’ve never seen before?

Měnglà virus was discovered among filoviruses isolated from Old World fruit bats (Rousettus)

All in the viral family

A recent study published in the journal Nature Microbiology provides evidence of a newly identified filovirus species. Using serum samples taken from bats, a well-known host for filoviruses, Yang et al. isolated and identified viral RNA for an unclassified viral genome sequence using next generation sequencing analysis. This new virus genome sequence was organized with the same open reading frames as other filoviruses, encoding for nucleoprotein (NP), viral protein 35 (VP35), VP40, glycoprotein (GP), VP30, VP24, and RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (L). This new genome sequence shared up to 54% of the nucleotide sequences for the filovirus species Lloviu virus (LLOV), EBOV and MARV, with MARV being the most similar. Their analysis suggested that this novel virus should be classified within the Filoviridae family tree as a separate genus, Dianlovirus, and was named Měnglà virus (MLAV).

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Could This be the Next Generation Ebola Virus Vaccine?

Ebola virus has received a lot of press in the last year due to the extended epidemic outbreak in Africa. Ebola is part of the family of Filioviruses (filamentous virus) and causes hemorrhagic fever that leads to internal bleeding and loss of bodily fluids. As the epidemic in Africa has illustrated so starkly, once the virus infects a large enough population, the human suffering it causes is devastating to individuals and communities. Because no treatment other than palliative fluid support is available to those infected by Ebola virus, virologists have focused attention on potential therapeutics and vaccines. The vaccine strategies now in clinical trials are based on a single Ebola virus glycoprotein, GP, and involve a DNA-based vaccine or innoculation with an Ebola protein expressed from a viral vector. How effective and safe this approach may be for protection from Ebola virus infection is currently under investigation.

Based on the history of effective vaccines, Marzi et al. was interested in testing a whole-virus vaccine for Ebola (EBOV). A whole-virus-based vaccine like smallpox or measles uses an attenuated or inactivated virus. The advantage of this method is that all the proteins as well as the nucleic acid are available for immunological reaction, offering broader-based protection than a single protein. In the recently published Science report from Marzi et al., a replication-incompetent Ebola virus was used as the basis for a whole-virus vaccine that was tested for its efficacy in nonhuman primates.

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