Kerala Nipah Virus Outbreak: NIV completes testing of 141 bats

Union Health Ministry today announced that 18 out of 141 bats that were tested for Nipah Virus following last months’ outbreak in Kerala tested positive for the presence of Nipah virus as well as for relevant antibodies.

About ten days ago, the ministry had said that the National Institute of Virology at Pune had found the virus in 12 out of the 36 bats it tested, adding that more tests were ongoing.

Only 10-12 samples can be tested at one time.

At the time, the institute had confirmed that all the samples found were the same as the viral type detected in Kozhikode in 2018, indicating that it is not a new strain.

Worryingly, it also indicates that the virus has spread to bat population across the state, if not to those in neighoring states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Bat samples have been taken from areas such as Thrissur, Paravoor, and Thodupuzha.

No information is available as to which of the samples turned out to have higher rates of infection.

However, the NIV is planning to conduct further tests to pin point the localities where the infection is most prevalent.

Most experts in the field believe that the tests establish that the virus is now endemic to the Kerala, and potentially, to South India.

This means that further outbreaks can occur at any time if and when humans interact too closely with bats. The virus can be spread via direct contact, as well as by consuming fruits and toddy contaminated by bat saliva.

National Institute of Virology, Pune established an operational field unit at Alleppey, Kerala in 2008, considering the high number of viral infections reported from the area.

The health ministry said the field unit has been upgraded to a state of art modern laboratory equipped with BSL-3 (bio-safety level 3) facility.

Bio-safety level 3 facilities, however, are not considered safe enough for handling deadly pathogens such as Nipah, which require BSL 4 laboratories, such as the one at NIV, Pune.

The Center also said that the Department of Health Research has recently established a state level Virus Research & Diagnostic Laboratory (VRDL) at Alleppey.

“This in turn has augmented the capacity of the field unit in terms of staff, recurring budget and equipments. Additionally, an experienced senior scientist of ICMR with relevant expertise has been transferred to Alleppey to ensure effective functioning,” said Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan.

Kerala Government has been trying to set up a BSL IV facility within the state to handle any future Nipah outbreaks.

In the latest outbreak, one case was reported from Ernakulum district of Kerala, while close to 20 people died in the outbreak in 2018.

During the latest outbreak, contact tracing was done for 330 contacts and 50 symptomatic contacts were quarantined, but none of them tested positive.

It is believed that the absense of coughing by the Ernakulam patient saved the lives of the people he came into contact with while he was infected.

The Kozhikode patients exhibited severe respiratory symptoms, including coughing, which is expected to have helped spread the disease.

Nipah currently has no cure or vaccine, and causes death in about 75% of the people it infects.