Forget Ebola, Americans may have an even more viral threat, mutating close to home. Months ago we reported on the death of a Kansas man who had been bitten by ticks and died from complications with what appeared to be a virus-what researchers called the "Bourbon Virus". Now, health officials say that the virus is not anything like which they have ever seen, and as a member of an entirely novel genus of viruses, it may pose significant health risks throughout the United States.
In a new study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detailed not only the death of patient zero, but also the emergence of an entirely new class of virus-one that may be particularly lethal and transmutable through contact with ticks.
"We were not looking for a new virus" Kansas state epidemiologist, Charles Hunt says. "We are surprised. We really don't know much about this virus."
"It's important to find out more from a public health perspective. Is it possible that other persons have been infected with this and not known it?"
Late this past summer doctors at the University of Kansas Hospital received a unique case of multiple organ failure, after a patient from Fort Scott, Kansas revealed that he had been recently bitten by a tick. John Seested, the patient, did not respond to traditional therapies, and while researchers conducted an array of standard tick-borne illness tests, all reports came back negative for Seested's affliction.
After several days in the intensive care unit (ICU), Seested died from organ failure, that doctors with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now believe was indeed caused by a tick-borne virus.
"It was a very frustrating case" lead doctor for the University of Kansas Hospital's team, Dr. Dana Hawkinson says. "That's one of the biggest problems with my job, which I love-when we can't answer those questions; when we can't help the patients or their families."
After the death of Seested, researchers with the hospital passed the samples onto the CDC hoping that their lab in Fort Collins, Colorado may find a clue that they had missed. While the Fort Collins lab particularly is looking for cases of the "Heartland Virus" which was only seen once in 2011, technicians with the CDC ran an array of tests that all came back negative. That is, until CDC microbiologist Olga Kosoy noticed a virus growing within the blood sample. Kiosk asked colleague Amy Lambert to sequence its genome, and through advanced molecular detection techniques the team was able to reveal that the virus was something that they, nor the world had ever seen before.
"It took months to find out that this is a novel virus that belonged to a genus of viruses called Thogotovirus" CDC spokesperson, Dr. Erin Staples says. "Thogotoviruses have been described throughout the world and I think it has probably been present for a while." But they are rare, and almost never are the cause of human disease. Staples believes that while Seested may have been marked patient zero, others have also been infected but never knew what they had.
Researchers say that as the weather warms up they will continue searching for the source of the virus by looking for ticks, animals, mosquitos and even humans that may be carrying the virus or carry antibodies to the strain that they uncovered. And while they believe that general public should not fear an infectious outbreak, the CDC warns that citizens avoid ticks by wearing long sleeves and by using insect repellant when staying outside.