Friday News Roundup!

Highlights this week include crowd-sourcing biological warfare (um…), West Nile (is anyone else freaked out that the mozzies still haven’t died off?) Biowatch’s now-very-public flaws, bonds and bioterrorism, wishing Mr. Salk Happy Birthday, and, for good measure, marburg. Keep an eye on Hurricane Sandy, have a plan handy (see what I did there?) – Happy Friday!

Hacking the President’s DNA: When Synthetic Biology Meets National Security

One of the many perks of studying biodefense are those moments when you have to take a break from a given article, textbook, or powerpoint slide because it’s starting to legitimately scare you.  So, in time for Halloween (and the election – don’t forget to vote!), voila:

Forbes – “While no use of an advanced, genetically targeted bio-weapon has been reported, the authors of this piece—including an expert in genetics and microbiology (Andrew Hessel) and one in global security and law enforcement (Marc Goodman)—are convinced we are drawing close to this possibility. Most of the enabling technologies are in place, already serving the needs of academic R&D groups and commercial biotech organizations. And these technologies are becoming exponentially more powerful, particularly those that allow for the easy manipulation of DNA.”

West Nile Cases Pass 4,700 Mark Nationwide: CDC

You would imagine with the behemoth storm they’re predicting this weekend (“snow to the left! rain to the right!”) (which is in no way a belittlement of preparedness – at the very least have an emergency kit ready) and the cold front coming in, the mosquitoes all be gone. No such luck.

HealthDay/the CDC – “The number of West Nile virus cases this year has surpassed 4,700, U.S. health officials reported Thursday, and the number of deaths has reached 219, up from 183 last week. The 4,725 cases mark the highest number reported through the fourth week of October since 2003. The best way to avoid the virus is to wear insect repellent and support local programs to eradicate mosquitoes. Typically, 80 percent of people infected with the virus develop no or few symptoms, while 20 percent develop mild symptoms such as headache, joint pain, fever, skin rash and swollen lymph glands, according to the CDC.”

BioWatch technology couldn’t detect lethal germs, tests found

No editorial needed here – the title pretty much says it all. Good grief.

Los Angeles Times – “For two years, the nationwide BioWatch system, intended to protect Americans against a biological attack, operated with defective components that left it unable to detect lethal germs, according to scientists with direct knowledge of the matter. The federal official who oversaw installation of the components was quietly shifted to a position with no responsibility for BioWatch, and the entire episode was kept out of public view. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees BioWatch, opened an internal investigation, whose status remains confidential.”

U.S. agency rejects using bonds to develop drugs for bioterrorism threats

In other news, the US government remains unsure how best to fund bioterrorism research and prevention (it’s all the PhDs – no one ever knows what to do with a PhD). Prodigal child, anyone?

Washington Post – “A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services office has rejected an industry proposal to use government bonds to fund the development of drugs countering bioterrorism threats. Small biotechnology companies, including Annapolis-based PharmAthene, asked the federal government last year to switch to bond financing from contracts, which are seen in the industry as costly and a sometimes unreliable revenue source when used for drug development… Using bonds to pay for drug development would allow scientific research to continue uninterrupted without being subject to the costs and delays associated with competing for federal contracts, Eric Richman, Pharm­­Athene’s president and chief executive, said in interviews last year.”

Marburg Reaches Kampala

The marburg outbreak continues in Uganda, reaching its capital of Kampala. However, according to the WHO and the Ugandan health minister, the epidemic “is under control” and the city remains safe for travel. So far, marburg has been confirmed in  four of the six suspected cases. More here.

October 24th: World Polio day

Let’s all take a moment to silently thank Jonas Salk (born October 24), the talented virologist who developed the polio vaccine in 1955. Before Salk’s vaccine, polio crippled thousands annually – in the 1952 epidemic, nearly 60,000 cases were reported in the US alone. Using Salk’s vaccine polio was completely eradicated from the US by 1979, and from the entire Western Hemisphere by 1994. Why hasn’t polio been eradicated globally? Why indeed.

UN News – ” ‘We have all the necessary tools to eradicate this disease, so now there is the question of political and societal will to make sure that the emergency plans are fully implemented and that they are fully financed,’ said the spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Oliver Rosenbauer…’We have seen time and time again that this is a virus which spreads to polio free areas and causes devastating outbreaks. If we don’t finish the job now we could see within the next decade 200,000 new cases every single year all over the world. Given that we are under two hundred cases now we consider this a true humanitarian catastrophe that has to be averted at all costs.’ ”

For an interactive timeline of the emergence and eradication of polio, see here.


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