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Pitt Center for Vaccine Research Joins Global Task Force to Address Urgent Viral Threat

PITTSBURGH, April 7, 2014 – Causing victims to suffer severe fever and pain, chikungunya virus has reached the Caribbean and South America — and is predicted to soon cause outbreaks in the United States. For many years the mosquito-borne virus has remained primarily in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. In response to the arrival of the virus in the Western Hemisphere, the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research announced today that it will be part of the new Global Virus Network (GVN) Chikungunya Task Force, composed of top virologists from around the world.

The announcement of the new task force coincides with World Health Day 2014 on April 7. This year’s theme is vector-borne diseases, which are infections spread to humans through mosquitos, ticks and other insects. Chikungunya is a vector-borne disease that is quickly spread by mosquitoes.

“Viruses are among the leading causes of death and disability in the world. Being able to quickly bring together the most knowledgeable researchers without regard to borders and political agendas to address viral threats such as chikungunya is paramount,” said GVN co-founder and scientific director Robert Gallo, M.D., who also is director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

There is no specific antiviral drug treatment for chikungunya, which can resemble dengue fever, another threatening mosquito-borne infection. Treatment of those infected with chikungunya is directed primarily at relieving symptoms, which include a very high fever and joint pain. The joint pain often is debilitating and, in some cases, persists for several months or years. While chikungunya does not cause death directly, it can contribute to a fatal outcome in people who become infected and have other medical problems.

The GVN Chikungunya Task Force is composed of 16 virologists representing nine countries. William B. Klimstra, Ph.D., and Kate D. Ryman, Ph.D., associate professors at Pitt, along with others, will represent the United States. The additional participating countries include the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Sweden, Grenada, Estonia, South Africa and Thailand. All of the participating members are affiliated with GVN Centers of Excellence. Much of the group’s effort will focus on issues related to more rapid identification of infections, improved treatment options and development of an effective vaccine.

“By being part of this new global collaboration, we will have to the opportunity to exchange information that will help in developing not only an effective response to chikungunya, which may begin to be seen in the U.S. within the next few years, but also an improved response to other emerging viruses,” said Dr. Klimstra.

Chikungunya was first described following an outbreak in southern Tanzania in 1952. Since then, the virus has been identified in dozens of countries across Asia, Europe, Africa and now the Americas.

A vaccine against chikungunya does not yet exist; however, it is a focus of work at Pitt in both Drs. Klimstra’s and Ryman’s laboratories. Dr. Ryman recently was lead author on a publication in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases describing a new method for creation of live-attenuated chikungunya vaccines and identification of a promising vaccine candidate. Both researchers also are developing animal disease models for testing of vaccines, as well as therapeutic interventions for chikungunya disease.

The Caribbean’s first cases of chikungunya occurred last October. It is estimated that in those few months, approximately 15,000 cases have occurred. With the area’s high level of tourism, the virus would have many opportunities to quickly spread to other locations. In addition, the type of mosquito connected to the Caribbean cases is common in the United States, Mexico and parts of South America.

“The GVN Chikungunya Task Force will help speed the process of creating vaccines and much-needed diagnostic tools,” said GVN President Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D. “We look forward to working with public health agencies, including the Pan American Health Organization, to prevent the spread of chikungunya and mitigate human suffering.”

More information about the Global Virus Network’s Chikungunya Task Force is available by visiting www.gvn.org.

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