“The ideal combination of disciplines for zoonoses research”

Prof Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit discusses collaboration between human and veterinary medicine experts, and a newly identified bornavirus

Prof Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit is head of virus diagnostics at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, in Hamburg, Germany, and leads a work group that focuses on arboviruses. However, one of his most recent publications, in the New England Journal of Medicine, identifies and describes a new bornavirus that is transmitted to humans by the variegated squirrel.

Prof Schmidt-Chanasit, what exactly is the publication about?

For a long time, people have debated whether or not bornaviruses can cause disease in humans. The past ten years or so, we have generally agreed that, no, bornaviruses are not human pathogens. Now, our study suggests that this new bornavirus can, in fact, cause disease in people. However, the same is not true of the more familiar, previously described Borna disease virus that primarily infects horses.


What is the significance of this finding?

We have identified an entirely new, previously unknown, bornavirus. This strain is very different. We detected it in both animals and people; specifically, in variegated squirrels and three patients who died of encephalitis. The discovery has re-opened the bornavirus issue. We now need to investigate whether there are other strains that pose a hazard to humans. As a result, we are broadening our scope of study to include other vectors, such as other rodents and insectivores. It’s not my main research focus, but I’m responsible for virus diagnostics – every day we deal with samples where the cause of patient death is unknown.


The experts involved in the study come from diverse backgrounds – how did this collaborative approach come about?

The new bornavirus was identified within the scope of a joint project of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine and the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, both based in Germany. It was the ideal combination of disciplines for zoonoses research, involving specialists in human and veterinary medicine, and biology. This close collaboration made it possible to discover the new bornavirus.



hunt for mosquitoes
(© Alex Tomazatos)

And what prompted the study in the first place?

Three patients died of encephalitis. But we did not know the cause. Those of us with a background in human medicine examined the deceased using a variety of methods. However, all our tests came back negative, and there was little more we could do on our part. But all three patients had bred variegated squirrels, and the veterinary medicine experts tested one of the animals, and discovered the new bornavirus. Subsequently, we were able to re-examine the patient samples and look for the virus. We found it – and have since described it in greater detail.


So it’s likely the patients were infected via the squirrels?

Exactly. It highlights the importance of zoonoses research and sheds light on a major issue today: the patients were all breeders of an exotic squirrel, which normally lives in the wild, and certainly should not be imported into Germany. But it appeals to some people as an unusual hobby. And when someone is in close contact with these animals – whose natural habitat is the tropical rainforest in Latin American – then it’s possible he or she may contract a disease, and even die. And there are other scenarios involving novel pathogens – because situations combining people and exotic, wild animals that would not naturally mingle are increasingly common.



Dog with mosquitoes
(© Alex Tomazatos)

What was the working relationship among the various experts like?

It was very good. The exceptionally good thing was that we all knew each other. We’ve worked together for many years. And in studies of this type, trust is key. It’s important that no one feels that a colleague is taking something away from them. This basic understanding was firmly in place – and it helped create an open environment where results, samples, etc. could be shared. This is only possible when you know you aren’t going to be taken for a ride.

In addition, the case was time-critical. For a matter of such urgency, everything else is put on hold – we had to complete the necessary tests and examinations in just a few days. Otherwise, someone else might be faster; the competition never sleeps. Our working relationship was excellent. There was no delay because we all knew that we had an urgent and important issue on our hands. We finally have the evidence that bornaviruses can cause disease in humans. And that makes the entire virus family much more interesting for zoonoses research. Against this background, we have something that is highly publishable. And publications are the international currency used to measure the value of research.

Our joint efforts enabled the veterinary specialists to publish in prestigious journals, including an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. We pooled all our data, for the patients, animals, etc. That is the only way to have the opportunity of publishing in NEJM or in journals like The Lancet. Our interdisciplinary approach made this possible. It’s really great. Otherwise, you are always missing part of the picture. In addition, it benefited the patients’ nearest and dearest: we prevented further infections, and found the cause of death.


So trust is just as important as pipette and scalpel?

Trust is critical. When everyone involved feels their work is valued and appreciated – that they aren’t simply being pushed aside, or forgotten when it comes time to publish – that is key. But that trust wasn’t built in a week; we had known each other for some time.

Communicating in-person is also important, and the German National Symposium for Zoonoses Research is ideal for promoting face-to-face exchange. The Symposium in Berlin always generates a lot of excitement. A number of my medical colleagues, whom I brought along to the event, said: “This is a fantastic symposium. It’s has such an open atmosphere.” A student might sit next to a professor, and they can have a frank discussion – without having to consider status.


The title of the next Zoonoses Symposium is Research Meets Public Health – what can we expect?

We are placing greater focus on public health agencies. This is really important. We need to meet with these professionals, and collaborate more closely. Many people in clinical roles or involved in basic research are quick to dismiss public health staff as pen pushers and bean counters. But I always make clear in my presentations: this is simply not true. Collaboration with public health agencies is essential to achieving truly excellent research, particularly with regard to emerging pathogens in Germany. German public health agencies played a crucial role in identifying Japan’s first case of autochthonous dengue fever since the Second World War, for example. The case was subsequently published in leading scientific journals. And I could cite other cases that could not have been resolved without the involvement of public health professionals. That is why I believe it is important that we better understand our colleagues in public health, what they do, and how we can support them. That’s the whole point of the October Symposium – it’s a step in the right direction.


What would you like to see happen with the German Research Platform for Zoonoses; what do you want it to achieve?

Ideally, I would like to see the German Research Platform for Zoonoses strengthened. We really need a platform of exactly this type in Germany, as it allows us to conduct high-quality studies. I would want better funding for the platform, and would like to see it support more interdisciplinary projects. It is already possible to apply for project funding via the zoonoses platform, but the amount available is relatively modest, usually limited to 100,000 euros. If it was possible for the platform to support larger projects, with multiple stakeholders, to the tune of millions of euros, as the German Research Foundation (DFG) does, that would be a huge step forward. The corresponding ministries would have to play their part, of course. But I think the platform is moving in the right direction.

In addition, I hope that the zoonoses platform will grow beyond Germany, and involve more disciplines. I believe that’s in the works, and find it extremely important. What’s already working well in Germany – promoting exchange amongst experts in veterinary and human medicine, climatology and biology – can now be taken to the European level. I have not seen the degree of collaboration there that we have in our German Research Platform for Zoonoses. It is still to some extent every person for him or herself. Perhaps we can lead the change internationally – I would really like to see that happen.


Prof Schmidt-Chanasit, thank you for this interview.  


Interview by Christina Sartori on behalf of the German Research Platform for Zoonoses.


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Einblick in die Datenbank der Zoonosenplattform

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