Microbe of the Month: A malevolent beast outfoxed: Genetic engineering could be the means of at last ridding Europe of rabies, says Bernard Dixon

MEMBER states of the European Community are about to fail to meet another deadline. They are supposed to have eliminated the rabies virus from the wildlife in their countries by the end of the year, but pockets of infection remain.

The turmoil in Eastern Europe has not helped; for instance, collaboration between Italy and the former Yugoslavia in exterminating rabies from their borderlands has all but broken down. It seems, therefore, that the precautions, including quarantine, that have kept Britain virtually free of rabies since the First World War will need to remain in force a little longer.

The eradication campaign now rests in part on a genetically engineered vaccine that has been successful in eliminating the virus from foxes in a large part of Belgium. Alarmists may associate genetic engineering with unspeakable horrors, but it is on the verge of clearing from an entire continent one of humankind's most loathsome infections.

The rabies virus is a lethal and malevolent microbe. In one recent case, a man in Texas was bitten on the right index finger by a bat. More than a month later, his hand became weak and he sought medical attention. Six days of increasing pain and torment followed.

Before he slipped into a coma and died, the man suffered hallucinations and high fever, continuous drooling, frequent spasms in the face, mouth and neck, severe breathlessness and difficulty in swallowing.

Although humans can be protected by a series of injections, even after being bitten by a rabid animal, the inoculations are expensive and can have side-effects. And many people are immunised unnecessarily, not knowing whether the animal concerned was in fact carrying the disease.

The main eradication effort in Europe is focused on foxes. The first strategy was to cull them, but measures such as gassing, poisoning and trapping only partially achieved the target.

The alternative approach has been immunisation. An injectible vaccine, of the sort used to protect domestic animals, is hardly practical. Researchers therefore developed weakened strains of the rabies virus that, when taken by mouth, trigger disease-fighting antibodies, without causing the disease itself.

Baits carrying these vaccines were used first in Switzerland, then in France and Germany.

However, two worries have emerged: these live, attenuated viruses retain some degree of virulence towards rodents; and they could, in theory, regain their virulence against foxes and other animals.

This prompted researchers at Transgene SA, in Strasbourg; Rhone Merieux, in Lyon; and the University of Liege to investigate the feasibility of a genetically engineered vaccine lacking such drawbacks. Instead of trying to modify the virus, the genetic engineers harnessed only the part of it that induces the protective antibodies and cannot cause the disease. They selected one component of the virus's protein coat and transferred the gene - a unit of hereditary material - responsible for producing this protein into vaccinia, the virus formerly used to immunise us against smallpox.

The hope was that this hybrid virus would grow in the cells of the fox, making the rabies protein and thereby provoking the animal to make antibodies against the disease.

It worked well. After helicopters had dropped 25,000 baits carrying the vaccine over a 2,200sq km area of southern Belgium, 81 per cent of foxes later sampled had become immune to rabies. And as predicted from a model of the percentage immunity required to block transmission of the virus, the disease disappeared accordingly.

The continental rabies epidemic that necessitated the familiar posters and quarantine measures at British ports began in Poland during the Second World War. Now, thanks to the new vaccines, what once appeared to be an inexorable movement towards the coast of France has been arrested, and the UK and Ireland may soon be free of this hideous threat from across the Channel.

(Photograph omitted)

Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits