The Pandora Report

Using bat genes to stay healthy

Merry Holiday Season to all! And stay tuned Monday for George Mason Biodefense’s “year in review”, examining the most interesting and relevant developments in biodefense over 2012.  For now, highlights include the ongoing mystery of the Spanish Flu, bats as the elixir of eternal good health, the fiscal cliff (it’s inescapable) interrupting post-Sandy aid,  the inevitably of another global flu pandemic (yes, this is news. Sort of. Read the article), and the ongoing uncertainty regarding the causes of this year’s West Nile epidemic. Happy Friday and a safe and happy New Year!

The Worst Pandemic in History

Slate has a really interesting piece on the study of the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, which I’ll be the first to admit, legitimately frightens me. In just under a year, the virus infected nearly 40% of the world’s population, resulting in over 50 million deaths.

Slate – “Ninety-five years ago in the little town of Brevig Mission, Alaska, a deadly new virus called Spanish influenza struck quickly and brutally. It killed 90 percent of the town’s Inuit population, leaving scores of corpses that few survivors were willing to touch. The Alaskan territorial government hired gold miners from Nome to travel to flu-ravaged towns and bury the dead. The miners arrived in Brevig Mission shortly after the medical calamity, tossed the victims into a pit two meters deep, and covered them with permafrost. The flu victims remained untouched until 1951, when a team of scientists dug up the bodies, cracked open four cadavers’ rib cages, scooped out chunks of their lungs, and studied the tissue in a lab. But they were unable to recover the virus and threw out the specimens. Nearly 50 years later, scientists dug up another victim from the same site, this time a better preserved, mostly frozen, obese woman, and successfully extracted viral RNA. In 2005, a team of scientists finally completed the project, sequencing the full genome of the viral RNA. But they still don’t know exactly why it caused the Spanish flu pandemic.”

How Bat Genomes Could Help Make You Healthy

A group of scientists with possibly the best team name ever – the Bat Pack – have determined that it may be bats’ ability to fly that helps inure them from of the nastier zoonotic bugs (ebola, SARS, etc). Maybe Batman was on to something?

Popular Science – “A new genetic analysis shows how bats avoid disease and live exceptionally long lives–information researchers could use to design drugs for people. Though they can rapidly spread pathogens that afflict humans, bats somehow avoid getting sick from viruses like Ebola, SARS, and other deadly bugs. A new genetic analysis of two very different bat species shows how the animals avoid disease, and live exceptionally long lives. It may all be related to their ability to fly, researchers say. This research comes from the “Bat Pack,” a team of scientists at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, and the Beijing Genome Institute. The team sequenced the genomes of a huge fruit bat and a tiny insectivorous bat and found both were missing a gene segment that can cause extreme immune reactions to infection. In most mammals, the so-called ‘cytokine storm’ that results from an invading virus is actually what kills, not the virus itself. This inflammatory response doesn’t happen in bats.”

Fiscal Cliff Discussions Get in Way of Post-Sandy Relief Measure

Homeland Security Newswire – “The post-Sandy rebuilding effort in the northeast has been stalled by the debate going on in Congress about a solution to the national debt…Lawmakers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and several other states are still waiting for support for a measure which would allow speeding up of clean-up efforts construction, but with the focus on the fiscal cliff, the $60 billion White House Sandy relief request has taken a back seat. Last Thursday legislators from the affected states pleaded with their colleagues to separate the disaster relief package — which, when the states’ requests are added, could total $100 billion — from the fiscal cliff conversations”.

Global Flu Pandemic ‘Inevitable,’ Expert Warns

By “expert” they mean head of the pharmaceutical company currently attempting to manufacture a universal flu vaccine. Which isn’t to say he’s wrong! Rather, as one GMU Biodefense faculty member is fond of saying (and quite rightly),  always check your sources.

USNWR – “A new global flu pandemic within the next couple years is inevitable, one prominent flu vaccine manufacturer says. Joseph Kim, head of Inovio Pharmaceuticals, which is currently working on a “universal” flu vaccine that would protect against most strains of the virus, says the world is due for a massive bird flu outbreak that could be much deadlier than the 2009 swine flu pandemic. ”I really believe we were lucky in 2009 [with the swine flu] because the strain that won out was not particularly lethal,’ he says. ‘Bird flu kills over 60 percent of people that it infects, regardless of health or age. It is a phenomenal killing machine—our only saving grace thus far is the virus has not yet jumped to humans.'”

West Nile Virus Surge Unexplained

Although the specific causative agents have yet to be pinpointed, scientists have established that this year’s epidemic was not a result of significant viral mutation. Silver lining?

Medpage – “During the summer, the CDC realized that this year was on track to be one of the worst for West Nile virus infections, and as reported cases continue to be tallied the reason for the resurgence remains unclear. As of Dec. 11, the official case count was 5,387, the second highest total since the mosquito-borne virus first emerged in New York in 1999. There were 9,862 total cases reported in 2003, a number padded by excessive testing in one state that year. Human infections have now been identified in all 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia, with the hardest hit being Texas (32%), California (8%), and Louisiana (6%). Current numbers of neuroinvasive disease cases (2,734) and deaths (243) rank third behind those recorded for 2002 and 2003.”

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