Scientists from the University of Manitoba and the National Biomedical Research Institute in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are joining forces to investigate the recent global spread of mpox (formerly known as monkeypox) and the evolving virus that causes the illness.
The multi-pronged study has received a total of $2.8 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Centre for Research on Pandemic Preparedness and Health Emergencies and Canada’s International Development Research Centre.
The team is co-led by Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, UM Canada Research Chair in molecular pathogenesis of emerging viruses and assistant professor of medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the Max Rady College of Medicine, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, and Dr. Placide Mbala, head of the epidemiology department and pathogen sequencing laboratory at the institute in the DRC.
Their study goals include measuring the effectiveness of a current mpox vaccine and working with community organizations in both countries to raise awareness of the disease and disseminate research findings about it.
“Investment by the CIHR in Dr. Kindrachuk’s forefront research on mpox virus will not only yield important research advances but will result in improved training for the global health-care workforce of the future,” said UM Vice-President (Research and International) Dr. Mario Pinto.
Mpox was first identified in humans more than 50 years ago. The virus causes a rash or skin lesions and can lead to symptoms such as fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, headache, muscle aches and sore throat. Some people develop complications that can lead to severe outcomes.
“Unfortunately, we saw a global outbreak of mpox in 2022,” Kindrachuk said. “That has increased the spotlight on the virus, which is helpful for us to combat it, but we can’t let scientific interest fade now that cases are decreasing across most of the globe.
“We need a better understanding of the similarities and differences across mpox clades (groups of similar viruses) and how this relates to the severity of disease in infected individuals.”
In 2022, mpox (the name recently adopted by the World Health Organization) spread beyond the endemic regions of West and Central Africa. There were more than 1,450 confirmed cases in Canada as of the end of November. More than 70,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide.
The research team will study why mpox moved out of the endemic regions and spread quickly across the world. They will examine how the virus has changed and if there is a new mpox variant.
The scientists will also conduct an assessment to see if mpox cases have been missed by looking for antibodies in the population that may indicate undetected transmission. Kindrachuk said this is important in trying to contain the virus and get a better handle on strategies to prevent further outbreaks.
Another aspect the team will investigate is the effectiveness of the Imvamune mpox vaccine, which was provided to Canadians during the recent outbreaks. The researchers want to see how effective the vaccine is at blocking severe symptoms of the disease and stopping transmission.
The team will work with community-based organizations in Canada and West, Central and East Africa to provide information, data and updates in a transparent and respectful way that considers how different communities communicate.
“COVID-19 has created momentum for virus research,” Kindrachuk said. “We need to harness some of that for mpox, not only for our own country, but importantly, for those who live in areas of Africa where the virus is endemic and continues to have an impact year after year. This study is a step in that direction.”