Abbott’s virus-hunters: Ever ready to catch a new strain of virus

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on December 01, 2019 Published on December 01, 2019

Mary Rodgers of the Abbott Global Viral Surveillance programme

Scientist explains the importance in having diagnostic tools to map mutating strains of HIV, hepatitis and other bugs

With the HIV virus mutating and evolving rapidly, “we need to be proactively looking for new strains,” says Mary Rodgers, whose area of expertise is “virus hunting”.

Rodgers manages the Abbott Global Viral Surveillance programme and external collaborations for the infectious disease research division. And just last month, a team of researchers with the programme announced the identification of a new subtype of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), called HIV-1 Group M, subtype L — a first in close to 20 years.

“If you don’t know something exists, you cannot detect it,” Rodgers told BusinessLine, giving the backdrop on the identification and its significance in a world grappling with HIV/AIDS and the resistance that viruses were developing to anti-retroviral drugs used to treat them. “Now that we are sharing the sequence, anyone can take the work and see if there is potential mismatch to a test reagent and can understand how this might affect their diagnostic test that may need to be altered to detect this strain,” she said.

On the World Aids Day on Sunday, the World Health Organisation further stressed the importance of HIV testing — key to ensuring that people are diagnosed early — so they could start treatment early as well. “Good testing services also ensure that people who test HIV negative are linked to appropriate, effective prevention services. This will help reduce the 1.7 million new HIV infections occurring every year.” WHO said. At the end of 2018, about 37.9 million people were estimated to be living with HIV worldwide.

New subtype

“We work everywhere... we don’t know where a new strain is going to pop-up,” says Rodgers. “There could be a unique pandemic in a very different part of the world,” she said, explaining the importance in having diagnostic tools to map these strains and treating them. In Thailand, the research programme had picked up a Hepatitis genotype that was not known to the country earlier, she said.

The Abbott surveillance programme has been running for about 25 years, she said and added that “we have been looking in 45 countries, we have over 78,000 samples in our laboratory today. It’s one of these samples we noticed from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that did not match the other known strains of HIV.”

To establish a new HIV subtype, three cases need to be discovered independently. The first two samples of this subtype were discovered in the DRC in the 1980s and the 1990s. But the third, collected in 2001, was difficult to sequence then because of the amount of virus in the sample and the prevailing technology, the company had said while announcing the new strain. This time around, researchers used next generation sequencing technology to develop the entire genome.

Describing the excitement on identifying a new subtype, Rodgers said, “This does not happen very often at all,” in the life of scientists.

Interestingly, Abbott was involved with the Elisa test used to detect HIV in the US in the 1980s. And with the latest identification of a new subtype, the story has become a full circle.

“Potentially, having a test that is able to accommodate many diverse strains is the first step to finding new strains... We can identify positives with our tests. We are also working on samples that have tested negative just to make sure that we are working and potentially not missing anything,” she said.

The Abbott programme partners in India with Chennai-based YR Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education where it does similar work to improve HIV and Hepatitis diagnostics and treatment.

Published on December 01, 2019
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