H1N1 virus deadlier than before: MIT

Written By Unknown on Jumat, 13 Maret 2015 | 22.23

MUMBAI: Contrary to claims by two of the country's premiere research institutes, the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, and the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), New Delhi, two biologists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have detected important changes in the genetic make-up of the H1N1 virus. They believe it could explain the virulence of the ongoing epidemic in India, which has already surpassed the casualties in the country during the 2009 pandemic. NIV has dismissed the MIT findings.

The Indian-origin MIT scientists studied two samples of strains that were circulating in 2014 and found three mutations, which add to the virus's capacity to affect respiratory cells in the lungs and the throat more virulently, and also add to the severity of the disease. One of the mutations empowers the virus to neutralize the efficacy of the vaccine based on the 2009 virus strain.

MIT scientists Ram Sasisekharan and Kannan Tharakaraman wrote in their paper published in the Cell Host and Microbe Journal on March 11 that one of the mutations has been associated with hospitalizations and deaths in previous studies. While they could not comment on whether the mutated strains are currently in circulation, they stated that the "severity of the current outbreak seems to suggest it could be". This year, over 25,000 people have been affected by the disease in India and 1,500 deaths have been recorded.

Despite MIT's near-unassailable reputation in the world of science, Indian experts are not smitten by the paper. "We have studied the complete genetic make-up of five swine flu virus isolates in 2015. They do not differ much from the original 2009 strain. Its virulence level is also the same. NCDC has also observed the same. The virus is fully susceptible to oseltamivir, which is an active ingredient of the drug Tamiflu. The H1N1 isolates from the current outbreak do not show any mutations as mentioned in the MIT publication," said a senior NIV official.

"We have observed a number of small-point mutations. But no harmful mutation has been detected so far. We submitted our denial of the MIT report to the Union health ministry on Thursday," the official said.

Director of Haffkine Research Institute Dr Abhay Chowdhary said the mutations are minor changes and not major ones like gene re-assortment. "While the MIT findings are significant, they are based on limited samples. India is a vast country and at any given point there may be many sub-groups in circulation," he said.

The MIT scientists said India's contribution to the global database of viruses was miniscule. "An examination of the geography of the isolated strains show that a majority of the deposited influenza sequences come from the US (38.4%), China (7.2%), UK (6.5%) and Singapore (6%). Unfortunately, India (1.5%) ranks low (14th) on the list." It reflects poor surveillance and limited response to a deadly outbreak, they said.

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