Lauren Meyers

A UT professor and a postdoctoral fellow said in a letter published in The Lancet medical journal Tuesday that Ebola could be silently infecting people through contact with bodily fluids without displaying any symptoms and making them immune to the disease.

Steven Bellan, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, and integrative biology professor Lauren Meyers hypothesized in their letter that, while the disease may be infecting people silently, it is not enough to be harmful. Furthermore, they reported that it could potentially render anyone affected immune to future infection.

“This is a hypothesis that, if true, could help us improve our projection for what is going to happen in the outbreak,” Meyers said. “It also might help us improve the control effort to help save more lives with the limited resources.”

Other diseases have shown that infection can result in immunity, but research has not confirmed whether this is true for Ebola as well, according to Bellan.

“Immunity is very complicated and varies a lot between different diseases,” Bellan said. “What is known from previous outbreaks is that people do get infected with Ebola without ever getting sick. … What we don’t know is if the immune response will result in protective immunity.”

There have been a total of three confirmed cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reports, since the beginning of the outbreak, which started in West Africa, there have been a total of 8,997 confirmed cases and 4,493 deaths. Bellan said this outbreak is bigger than all previous Ebola outbreaks combined.

“The question is, ‘Why did this one get so big?’” Bellan said. “The hypothesis that most people think is most possible is the fact that it’s spread to more dense populations than it ever has before, in an area that there is a lot more movement between cities.”

Meyers hopes her and Bellan’s published letter will bring light to their hypothesis, which she says can help contain the disease in all regions of the world.

“The reason for the publication is to call the hypothesis to the attention of the public health community and discuss what can be done to test these ideas,” Meyers said. “To determine if silent infection is actually immunizing, we’ll have to do studies on the ground in the midst of an outbreak.”

Although flu season only comes around in the fall, researchers on campus are continually working to learn more about the virus and how it spreads.

Several UT professors focus their research on the influenza virus, including studying the virus itself and tracking and forecasting new strains. Lauren Meyers, director of statistics and scientific computing, works with the Texas Department of State Health Services to help predict pandemic flu outbreaks. After the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the department funded the Texas Pandemic Flu Toolkit, which Meyers’ research team created.

This month Meyers’ research team began four new flu-related projects. The team is creating two new tools for the online toolkit: an interface public officials can use to run exercises for simulated pandemic outbreaks and a new surveillance system for early detection of seasonal flu.

“It’s only been a few months since the full toolkit became available online and we haven’t been through flu season yet, but we are funding additional research and development of new tools for the toolkit,” department spokesperson Chris Van Deusen said.

The toolkit allows members to create their own simulations and forecasts or look at archived data. The toolkit is free for the public to access.

“The toolkit was created to look at pandemic flu, which are new strains that can spread from person to person,” Meyers said. “We’re probably still going to see H1N1 this year, but it’s not going to be a pandemic. It’s going to be seasonal since it’s not a new strain.”

Meyers said there won’t be another pandemic until a new strain begins to spread rapidly.

Meyers said her research is monitoring two strains, the H5N1 and H3N2V strains, for possible pandemics. She said the strains have been reported in humans, but neither strain has spread from person to person.

The reported cases have been in people who work in close proximity to livestock, including chickens and pigs.

Robert Krug, chair of the department of molecular genetics and microbiology, said flu pandemics caused by new strains like H1N1 can surprise researchers with unexpected molecular changes. Krug’s 13 years of research at UT has focused on the NS1A protein of the flu virus, which he said is common to every flu strain.

In his research on seasonal flu, Krug said he occasionally finds possible antivirals, which could be used to create preventative medicines for all flu strains with the same NS1A protein. However, he said the information is seldom used because the production of antivirals is expensive and unprofitable. 

“This is very basic research, but in the process we identify targets for antivirals.” Krug said. “It’s not easy to make antivirals. We don’t have the resources to do it right. That is something a pharmaceutical company could do, but they don’t.”

Printed on Wednesday, September 26, 2012 as: UT professors focus research on flu virus

Three years ago, swine flu diagnoses swarmed the nation’s hospitals, resulting in thousands of deaths. This flu season, Texas will have more tools to forecast such outbreaks.

Biology and statistics professor Lauren Meyers, worked with a team of UT researchers to create the Texas Pandemic Flu Toolkit, a web-based development that is able to forecast flu activity within the state. The new technology can be used to predict the amount of people who will need hospitalizations and the amount of medical equipment needed during the outbreak of a disease. Meyers said the kit can also be used to run different scenarios in order to predict the effectiveness of strategies used to battle pandemic flu.

Meyers said she spoke with national organizations about developing similar technology on a larger scale and will be leading a team to develop four additional pandemic tools this fall for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which helped fund the pandemic flu kit.

“Ultimately, these tools may lead to more effective strategies for preventing influenza-related hospitalizations and deaths,” she said.

Bruce Clements, community preparedness director of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the department contributed to the project in order to develop technology that will allow for the enhanced prevention and control of future flu outbreaks. Clements said in addition to the 2,300 Texans hospitalized for swine flu, 585 were admitted to intensive-care units and 240 people died.

Clements said a future pandemic flu is inevitable, making this technology very valuable.

Greg Johnson, a research associate who also worked on the toolkit at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, said the possibilities of this technology are very open and can be easily applied to other health threats.

“I definitely think it could be adapted to other types of diseases, pandemics and threats,” he said. “For now, this is funded by the state of Texas, so it is used primarily by them, but it would be very easy to adapt all of these tools to work on a larger scale.”

Sherry Bell, consumer education and outreach coordinator at University Health Services, said the swine flu pandemic hit UT hard during the fall through summer semesters.

“During the 2009-2010 school year, 1,198 UHS patients received influenza or influenza-like illness diagnoses,” she said. “There were five weeks when over 10 percent of UHS patient visits were due to influenza or influenza-like illness, with the highest weekly percentage being 13.7 percent.”

Bilingual education and Spanish senior Daniela Galvan-Ortiz said she thinks the most important aspect of the Texas Pandemic Flu Toolkit is its real-world impact.

“It’s good because it could potentially save a lot of lives,” she said.

Director Steven Soderbergh’s new film “Contagion” opens Friday and follows a virus from inception to pandemic. Similarities between the film’s fictional pathogen and recent high-profile viral outbreaks have impressed critics.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

[Corrected Sept. 11: Changed Lauren Meyers title]

Monster movies are scary, but they aren’t that scary. Sharks, snakes, spiders, mutant beasts — sure, they can kill you, but that’s about all they can do. Viruses, on the other hand, are a whole different beast. Not only can they kill you, but they’re far too small to see and work by invading your own body’s cells and using them against you. And they’re everywhere, including on the silver screen in Steven Soderbergh’s latest movie, “Contagion,” opening today.

Not that this is any new territory. It’s been explored before in “Outbreak” and “The Andromeda Strain,” among others, but it’s a cautionary tale worth repeating. The seasonal flu, in an average year, hospitalizes some 200,000 people in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, with some years being worse than others. The infamous 1918 Spanish flu, for instance, killed an estimated 50 million people, making it responsible for more deaths than World War I.

The virus in “Contagion,” however, puts the 1918 epidemic to shame. And, though the trailer suggests something along the lines of an obsessive-compulsive’s alarmist nightmare, the final result seems a bit more consistent with reality. The virus is scary, but well within the realm of believability, which makes it all the more frightening.

The speed at which it spreads is much lower than it could have been in a more brainless Hollywood movie, with a reproduction number, or R0, of four or so. This means that a given individual who has contracted the virus will, on average, spread it to four people. Thanks to exponential growth, however, that’s more than enough to generate a full-blown epidemic. If one person passes the virus on to four people over the course of a few days and then they pass it over to another four and so on and so forth, there could be a million people infected in less than a month.

However, not all viruses spread from human to human. For instance, the ongoing H5N1 (avian flu) scare hasn’t yet caused a pandemic. So far, it has only spread from infected chickens to people who come in close contact with them, but not from those people to other humans. The fictional virus in “Contagion,” rather, follows a similar trajectory to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic: it originally spread among pigs on Mexican farms, then from pigs to humans and ultimately from humans to humans.

Like the seasonal flu or common cold, the “Contagion” disease spreads through direct contact with an infected individual, though not all interactions with infected people lead to transmission. The book “Understanding Viruses” by Teri Shors explains that viruses have a tough time getting through our skin since it is dry, acidic and contains bacterial flora designed to protect the body from infection. The skin could, however, be used as a transport to somewhere on your body where it’s easier for a virus to get inside. If you shake an infected person’s hand after he coughed in it, for instance, and then use that hand to rub your eyes, the virus can get inside you that way.

“Contagion,” while definitely science fiction, has enough scientific fact behind it to address genuine issues and suggest a very real and scary possibility. “The 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic turned out to be relatively mild, and, consequently, the general public and funding agencies may have lost sight of the importance of pandemic preparedness,” said Director for the Division of Statistics and Scientific Computation, Lauren Meyers.

“There will be a next pandemic, which could be much more severe than the one in 2009. This movie reminds us of the importance of a quick and effective medical and humanitarian response.”

The virus itself is just a jumping-off point to explore a very human story about paranoia and fear. However, “Contagion” will still hopefully raise awareness of how delicate we humans are. Though we may feel like we’re the dominant species on this planet, something we can’t even see could take us out in the blink of an eye.