In Focus periodically highlights an area of practice or a speciality of CBRD’s services, providing a more in-depth look at our activities. This month, we are looking at our smallest but arguably one of our most exciting practice area, the High Consequence Pathogens branch. 

With only a handful of employees, High Consequence Pathogens (E/HCP) is one of the smallest branches (sub-sections) of CBRD, but one of the oldest – it has been part of CBRD’s practice since the beginning, as well as of its precursor. It arguably also gets a disproportionate share of press for its size.

Chief Epidemiologist Chris von Csefalvay, who also heads E/HCP, describes the unit as a small but unique outfit. “We focus on low-incidence, high-impact diseases – mainly viral diseases that occur rarely, but have the potential to grow into devastating epidemics,” von Csefalvay describes his working group’s focus. “Among our concerns are the viral haemorrhagic fevers – Ebola, Marburg, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever and the hantavirus haemorrhagic fevers.” But it’s not all blood and gore: recently, they have set their eyes on another target.

Henipaviruses comprise the related bat-borne viruses, Hendra virus and Nipah virus. The latter has been causing sporadic outbreaks of often fatal encephalitis in South East Asia. “We are very concerned about Nipah in particular. While the annual incidence is less than twenty cases on average, mortality rates typically exceed 75% and have at times risen above 90%. It’s spread by a range of fruit bats, through saliva and urine. Food contaminated with Nipah virus then transmits the infection to humans. The recent spate of outbreaks in Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated parts of the planet, are especially worrisome.”

Like their object of study, the members of the High Consequence Pathogens branch punch significantly above their weight. “We are primarily a research division, but we have been prolific not only in research but in devising easy, actionable strategies to help locals minimise the risk of infection.”