AFRICA – Scientists from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in collaboration with research partners from Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, and Tanzania, have developed a faster and more cost-effective method for generating genomic data on the Rift Valley fever virus (RVFV), the pathogen responsible for RVF outbreaks.

RVF is a climate-driven disease that poses a severe threat to both human and animal populations. The World Health Organization (WHO) highlights that RVFV, transmitted by mosquitoes, can cause a range of symptoms in humans, from fever and headaches to liver damage and blindness.

Moreover, it is highly contagious among animals, leading to devastating effects on livestock.

In a recent publication in the journal Viruses, the research team introduced a molecular tool based on a method initially developed for detecting viruses like Zika, Ebola, and SARS-CoV-2.

The scientists successfully adapted this method for RVFV, marking a significant advancement as it is the first application for a segmented virus.

The technique employs amplicon polymerase chain reaction (PCR) enrichment to detect the presence of RVFV genetic material in clinical samples.

By amplifying three segments of RVFV (large, medium, and small) using overlapping short DNA sequences called primers, the process becomes faster and more cost-effective than traditional virus culture methods that take up to 14 days.

After amplification, the segments are sequenced and analyzed to identify mutations and determine their origin.

Advantages and potential impact

The multiplex amplicon PCR technology used in this method allows for efficient and timely generation of RVFV sequence data for genomic surveillance.

By running two parallel PCR reactions simultaneously, the researchers achieved up to 99% recovery of the RVFV genome through amplification. This breakthrough facilitates a better understanding of the virus and its behavior during outbreaks.

Compared to the gold standard test of RVFV sequencing, which involves virus isolation in cell culture and can only be performed in specialized biosafety laboratories, the new molecular technique offers several advantages.

It is faster, more affordable, and has the potential to be utilized in regions where RVFV outbreaks are frequent and resources are limited.

A promising tool for public health officials

The ability to generate RVFV genomic data in a timely manner is crucial for effective response and prevention of epidemics. By obtaining genetic information early, healthcare providers and public health officials can respond swiftly, curbing the spread of the virus and saving lives. The new technique represents a significant step forward in the battle against RVFV and its impact on public health and the economy.

The majority of human infections result from direct or indirect contact with the blood or organs of infected animals.

The virus can be transmitted to humans through the handling of animal tissue during slaughtering or butchering, assisting with animal births, conducting veterinary procedures, or from the disposal of carcasses or fetuses.

Certain occupational groups such as herders, farmers, slaughterhouse workers, and veterinarians are therefore at higher risk of infection.

The virus infects humans through inoculation, for example via a wound from an infected knife or through contact with broken skin, or through inhalation of aerosols produced during the slaughter of infected animals.

There is some evidence that humans may become infected with RVF by ingesting the unpasteurized or uncooked milk of infected animals, according to WHO.

Future prospects and funding

With further testing and refinement, the molecular tool developed by ILRI and its partners holds great potential as an essential resource for healthcare providers and public health officials in combatting RVFV.

Its successful implementation could enhance surveillance efforts, allowing for early detection and response to RVF outbreaks, ultimately preventing devastating epidemics.

The research leading to this breakthrough was supported by funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development through the ILRI-led Boosting Uganda’s Investments in Livestock Development (BUILD) project. Additional funding was received from the Rockefeller Foundation, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency through the ILRI-led Co-infection with Rift Valley fever virus, Brucella spp., and Coxiella burnetii in humans and animals in Kenya

For all the latest food safety news from Africa and the World, subscribe to our NEWSLETTER, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel.