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SummaryBackgroundA multidrug resistant co-lineage of Plasmodium falciparum malaria, named KEL1/PLA1, spread across Cambodia c.2008-2013, causing high treatment failure rates to the frontline combination therapy dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine. Here, we report on the evolution and spread of KEL1/PLA1 in subsequent years.MethodsWe analysed whole genome sequencing data from 1,673 P. falciparum clinical samples collected in 2008-2018 from northeast Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. By investigating genome-wide relatedness between parasites, we inferred patterns of shared ancestry in the KEL1/PLA1 population.FindingsKEL1/PLA1 spread rapidly from 2015 into all of the surveyed countries and now exceeds 80% of the P. falciparum population in several regions. These parasites maintained a high level of genetic relatedness reflecting their common origin. However, several genetic subgroups have recently emerged within this co-lineage with diverse geographical distributions. Some of these emerging KEL1/PLA1 subgroups carry recent mutations in the chloroquine resistance transporter (crt) gene, which arise on a specific genetic background comprising multiple genomic regions.InterpretationAfter emerging and circulating for several years within Cambodia, the P. falciparum KEL1/PLA1 co-lineage diversified into multiple subgroups and acquired new genetic features including novel crt mutations. These subgroups have rapidly spread into neighbouring countries, suggesting enhanced fitness. These findings highlight the urgent need for elimination of this increasingly drug-resistant parasite co-lineage, and the importance of genetic surveillance in accelerating elimination efforts.FundingWellcome Trust, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UK Medical Research Council, UK Department for International Development.Research in contextEvidence before this studyThis study updates our previous work describing the emergence and spread of a multidrug resistant P. falciparum co-lineage (KEL1/PLA1) within Cambodia up to 2013. Since then, a regional genetic surveillance project, GenRe-Mekong, has reported that markers of dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine (DHA-PPQ) resistance have increased in frequency in neighbouring countries. A PubMed search (terms: “artemisinin”, “piperaquine”, “resistance”, “southeast asia”) for articles listed since our previous study (from 30/10/2017 to 05/01/2019) yielded 28 results, including reports of a recent sharp decline in DHA-PPQ clinical efficacy in Vietnam; the spread of genetic markers of DHA-PPQ resistance into neighbouring countries by Imwong and colleagues; and multiple reports associating mutations in the crt gene with piperaquine resistance, including newly emerging crt variants in Southeast Asia.Added value of this studyWe analysed P. falciparum whole genomes collected up to early 2018 from Eastern Southeast Asia (Cambodia and surrounding regions), describing the fine-scale epidemiology of multiple KEL1/PLA1 genetic subgroups that have spread out from Cambodia since 2015 and taken over indigenous parasite populations in northeastern Thailand, southern and central Vietnam and parts of southern Laos. Several newly emerging crt mutations accompanied the spread and expansion of KEL1/PLA1 subgroups, suggesting an active proliferation of biologically fit, multidrug resistant parasites.Implications of all the available evidenceThe problem of P. falciparum multidrug resistance has dramatically worsened in Eastern Southeast Asia since previous reports. KEL1/PLA1 has diversified and spread widely across Eastern Southeast Asia since 2015, becoming the predominant parasite group in several regions. This may have been fuelled by continued parasite exposure to DHA-PPQ, resulting in sustained selection after KEL1/PLA1 became established. Continued drug pressure enabled the acquisition of further mutations, resulting in higher levels of resistance. These data demonstrate the value of pathogen genetic surveillance and the urgent need to eliminate these dangerous parasites.

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