When the word “bioterrorism” comes up in conversation, an anthrax-laced envelope might come to mind. But what about terrorists utilizing mosquitos to spread a virus?
That’s the type of bio-warfare the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research is focusing on fighting.
A $7.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, allows researchers to accelerate the development of drugs and vaccines against alphaviruses, a group of about 30 different viruses that are mainly transmitted by mosquitoes.
“The goal is to protect people from either natural outbreaks or potential man-made outbreaks of these viruses,” said Amy Hartman, assistant professor in the Center for Vaccine Research at Pitt.
These alphaviruses attack the brain and are found in regions of North and South America, according to Hartman. Outbreaks occur sporadically in horses and humans, occasionally leading to severe illness or death. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, the most severe type of alphavirus has a mortality rate of up to 35 percent.
Pitt’s CVR is made up of a team of experts who study these viruses and other infectious diseases. According to Hartman, Pitt and the CVR have “invested heavily” in a world-class facility which is one of the only facilities in the entire country that can do this type of study.
Hartman said the goal is to enable the faster development of drugs to protect people from national or international outbreaks.
“Countermeasures can be either a vaccine or a therapeutic drug, and so the defense department is funding us to be able to accelerate that process and get new drugs and vaccines into the FDA drug approval pipeline,” she said.
Even though these alphaviruses haven’t been weaponized in the past, they are easily aerosolized and easily inhaled, which leads to safety concerns, she said.
“When they’re inhaled, they cause severe disease," Hartman said. "Though I can’t speak to the motivations behind the department of defense, they are concerned about the potential use of these viruses as bio-warfare agents.”
The Pitt center is no stranger to working with the DOD. The government awarded a similar grant of $1.9 million in 2010 to explore treatments for Rift Valley Fever, which is a fever-causing viral disease that affects domestic animals and humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.