Just a few genetic changes could create a new health threat.
Unsettling new research at the University of Kent has revealed that we could be faced with the emergence of a new form of the Ebola virus.
At the University’s School of Biosciences, a team of scientists investigated the differences between the Ebola virus, which is known to cause severe disease, and the Reston virus, which currently does not pose a lethal threat to humans.
The Reston virus is one of five known viruses within the genus Ebolavirus, but unlike the other four, the Reston virus is the only member of the Ebolavirus group that hasn’t been reported to cause life-threatening disease in humans — at least for now.
The researchers say that the Reston virus is known to circulate in domestic pigs in Asia, and although it has been known to cause occasional infection in humans, it’s never been a cause of serious worry.
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The scientists used computation analysis of the sequenced genomes of Ebolaviruses, as well as a computational prediction of the effects of sequence variations on the function of the virus.
Along with their research teams, Dr. Mark Wass, a senior lecturer in computational biology, Professor Martin Michaelis, a professor of molecular medicine, and Dr. Jeremy Rossman, a lecturer in virology, identified characteristic differences in a number of virus proteins.
The results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, reveal that only a few changes to an Ebola virus protein, called VP24, could be enough to render the Reston virus into a virus that can cause human disease.
The researchers warn that this means there may be a risk that the Reston virus will acquire the few mutations necessary to be capable of causing disease in humans and therefore develop into a novel health threat.
Considering the global panic that ensued as a result of the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014 — as well as the current panic over the Zika virus — all we can do is hope that the Reston virus doesn’t mutate into a potentially life-threatening viral outbreak among humans. Or if it does, fingers crossed that scientists and doctors will be prepared to fight it.