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Why a treatment used for over a century on diseases like measles, mumps and influenza could work to treat the new coronavirus strain.

USA TODAY

A team of researchers, including two from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has solved a long-running biological mystery, reporting the discovery of the first two viral relatives of rubella, also known as German Measles.

“Rubella was this lone wolf, this mystery, this virus that never had any relatives,” said Tony Goldberg, an epidemiologist at UW, who maintains a research project in Uganda’s Kibale National Park. It was at Kibale that one of the two new viral relatives was found in the aptly named cyclops leaf-nosed bat. The bat virus has been named ruhugu.

Goldberg and his former doctoral student Andrew J. Bennett teamed up with U.S. and German researchers to report the two rubella relatives in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature.  

The German researchers discovered the second relative of rubella, a virus called rustrela.

Rustrela was found at an unidentified German zoo in three animals — a donkey, a Bennett’s tree-kangaroo and a capybara, the largest rodent in the world. All three zoo animals died after suffering severe neurological disease. The virus also was found in yellow-necked field mice in and around the zoo. The mice appear to have remained healthy.

UW-Madison scientist Tony Goldberg peers inside a tree where bats live and where filtered air samples were taken in the Kibale National Park in Uganda in January. The sample was to be analyzed for pathogens. (Photo: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

The major rubella breakthrough comes at a time when interest in the nature of viruses and in the threat they pose is perhaps higher than ever because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Rubella is more of an orphan virus because so few people work on it,” said Roberto Cattaneo, a researcher and measles expert at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Cattaneo, who was not involved in the study, called it “great work,” adding “I think this will sure help with understanding the fundamental virology of rubella.”

The discovery of the two rubella relatives may also aid efforts to develop treatment for more than 100,000 babies around the world stricken each year with congenital rubella syndrome.

The syndrome, in which the virus passes from mother to fetus during pregnancy, can result in the baby suffering loss of hearing, loss of sight, heart disease or other birth defects.

Many cases of congenital rubella syndrome result in stillbirths, miscarriages and fetal malformations. 

The last major epidemic of rubella in the U.S. took place in 1964 and 1965, infecting 12.5 million people and causing 11,000 pregnant women to lose their babies. 

The rubella vaccine was approved for widespread use in 1969, and infections then declined rapidly. In 2004, the Pan American Health Organization declared rubella eliminated from the