The Marburg Virus and Marburg Virus Disease

If you have been actively following the news recently, you probably have heard a lot about the recent avian flu (H5N1) outbreaks that have been taking the world by storm. However, you might not have heard nearly as much about the recent Marburg virus outbreaks in Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania. If that’s the case, we are here to tell you more about this virus and why we think it’s important to pay attention to these developments, even when they appear to be very far away.

This blogpost is part of our ongoing synopses on the viral threats that we want to keep you up to date about. If you haven’t read our blog from March on the state of the Avian Flu (H5N1) outbreaks, you can head over and read about it here!

What is the Marburg Virus? Marburg virus (“MARV”) is a virus of the Filoviridae family that was first identified in 1967, after laboratory personnel, as well as some of their family members and doctors, in Germany and Yugoslavia came down with haemorrhagic fever. The virus would eventually be named after the site of its discovery, the Philipps University of Marburg in Marburg, Germany. (1)

While it is believed that these laboratory workers became sick because they were exposed to infected Ugandan African green monkeys and their tissues, these monkeys are not the natural reservoirs for the Marburg virus. (They actually get sick, too!) Instead, the virus is best associated with the Egyptian rousette bat, which can be found in caves across the African continent.

What is Marburg Virus Disease and Its Symptoms? As a filovirus, MARV is genetically very similar to its better known cousin, the Ebola virus. Like Ebola Virus Disease, Marburg virus disease is punctuated by a high haemorrhagic fever. This typically manifests in infected people as fever in addition to internal and external bleeding, as well as muscle aches, weakness, diarrhea and vomiting.

Index cases have historically arisen because mine workers were occupationally exposed to the Egyptian rousette bat in their cavernous natural habitats for prolonged periods of time. After zoonotic transmission to the index case, the disease is very easily transmitted between humans through direct or indirect contact with the infected person and their bodily fluids. (2)

The virus has an incubation period of 21 days. There is no workable vaccine or known cure for the disease, and all available treatments are directed at the symptoms, such as electrolyte and blood transfusions. (3) The World Health Organisation (“WHO”) stipulates a fatality ratio of up to 88%. (4)

What Makes These Two Outbreaks So Special? The reason that these outbreaks had been described as “unprecedented” is because this was the first time that there had been two simultaneous Marburg virus outbreaks. (5) Further, these outbreaks were the first of their kind for both Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania. (6) Perhaps most concerning of all, these outbreaks have been following a troubling epidemiological pattern: in recent years, outbreaks of the MARV (and Ebola) have been happening more and more frequently.

The combination of these factors have put international health groups like the WHO on high alert. Once viewed as sporadic occurrences, these outbreaks may become part of a shifting paradigm.

There is some good news, though: the outbreak in Tanzania has been contained. Yet, the outbreak in Equatorial Guinea remains stubbornly persistent. (7)

If I’m Not in or Near to the Affected Countries, Why Should I Care? While it is true that these outbreaks may not be as close in proximity as the ongoing avian flu outbreaks, the COVID-19 pandemic should remind us that dangerous viruses can travel quite rapidly and quite far under the right circumstances. Additionally, we know that the more that people encroach on previously uninhabited land, the more likely it is that human populations will encounter animals that carry viruses like Marburg or Ebola.

Given that we already know how the MARV spreads and how dangerous it can be, any outbreak of this virus can be seen as incredibly worrisome. Thus, it is hard to understate how important it is for people and governments to stay vigilant in monitoring and surveilling this disease.

We hope that the outbreak in Equatorial Guinea is contained swiftly and that those who are impacted get the lifesaving medical treatment that they need.

While we are glad that the threat of the Marburg virus remains low for people in unaffected countries, especially those outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, public health is always about exercising caution – that is why Virax Biolabs is always ready to assist governments and agencies alike by providing quality and cost-effective diagnostic tools to facilitate public health efforts in impacted regions.

As part of our ViraxClear distribution platform, the MARV real-time PCR kit is intended to be available in locales that accept the CE mark and could be a useful tool in containing current or future Marburg virus outbreaks.