The Pandora Report

Highlights include H5N1: to mutate or not to mutate, the Galveston Lab we’ve all shaken our heads at this week (we all lose a vial of virus sometimes), the UK stepping-up its bioterror prevention, the new foot-and-mouth vaccine (cloven-hoofed animals matter too – a lot, actually), antibiotic-resistant jumping from farm animals to us, and what may soon be a mumps outbreak in Richmond. Happy Friday!

short-tailed cane mouse aka Guanarito target #1
short-tailed cane mouse aka Guanarito target #1

H5N1 viral-engineering dangers will not go away

Technically we tweeted this story on Wednesday, but it presented such a nice summation against the gain-of-function research that we wanted to include it here. Not because we agree, but because the points are coherent and well-argued.

Nature – “Rather than use the avian flu moratorium to seek advice, listen and foster debate, many influenza scientists engaged in an academic exercise of self-justification. There was a single large open meeting, at the Royal Society in London, which engaged a wider audience, including bioethicists. The recent calling off of the moratorium by 40 flu researchers alone — not funders, governments or international bodies — says it all. The flu community simply hasn’t understood that this is a hot-button issue that will not go away.”

Texas Biolab Loses Deadly Virus

Before everyone freaks out, it’s only Guanarito virus – yes, losing a vial of any virus from a BSL-4 lab is not great, and yes, if you’re going to lose a vial of something, it would be better if it didn’t cause hemorrhagic fever, but 1) Guanarito virus’ natural host is thought to be  Venezuelan “short-tailed cane” mice, 2) it doesn’t replicate in US rodents, and 3) it’s not transmissible person-to-person.  And before we start a heated discussion about the disturbingly impressive ability of viruses to evolve and adapt to new hosts, 4) the vial in question is thought to have been destroyed internally.

ABC News – “The Galveston National Laboratory lost one of five vials containing a deadly Venezuelan virus, according to the University of Texas Medical Branch, which owns the $174 million facility designed with the strictest security measures to hold the deadliest viruses in the country. Like Ebola, the missing Guanarito virus causes hemorrhagic fever, an illness named for “bleeding under the skin, in internal organs or from body orifices like the mouth, eyes, or ears,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

UK: Biological attacks ‘getting easier for terrorists’

Intelligence officials in the United Kingdom have prioritized the fight against bioterrorism, using lessons from the 2012 London Olympics to inform their revamped strategy.

The Telegraph – “Charles Farr, the Director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism [in the United Kingdom], said that extremists have ever greater access to the information and technology required to create and spread germ agents or other biological weapons…Factors facilitating such attacks include the availability of formulae and other information on the internet; increasing teaching of biological sciences at universities, and ‘greater availability of technology,’ he said. Mr Farr, a former MI6 officer, declined to give further details of the threat, but the Home Office report hints at a range of new precautions.

Scientists develop new foot and mouth vaccine

Foot-and-mouth disease is like the be-all-end-all of animal diseases – it’s tremendously infectious, has a high mortality rate, and because we don’t vaccinate (for trade reasons – when you vaccinate an animal, when that animal is later tested for FMD it’s impossible to tell whether it has the antibodies because it was vaccinated or because it actually had the disease – if the latter, no one wants to eat it), the disease would spread like wildfire. Also, current policy dictates “containment” (read: mass culling) rather than “treatment”, which means mountains of burning carcasses. Very scary and very possible.

The Guardian – “Scientists have developed a new kind of vaccine that could prevent devastating outbreaks of foot and mouth disease among livestock. The “synthetic” vaccine was created by taking protein shells that encase the virus and strengthening them, so the vaccine can be used in warm countries without refrigeration. The technique overcomes major shortcomings of existing foot and mouth vaccines, which are made with live virus. The infectious risk means the conventional vaccine must be produced in high containment facilities, which are costly to build and maintain. Vaccines made from the live virus are also fragile, and degrade unless they are kept cool.”

Study Shows Bacteria Moves From Animals to Humans

Bessie the cow might just be another weapon in the arsenal of the superbug. This possibility is especially disturbing given our ongoing difficulties countering antibiotic-resistant bacteria we make ourselves.

The New York Times – “A new study used genetic sequencing to establish that a strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been transmitted from farm animals to people, a connection that the food industry has long disputed. Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York, said the study by researchers in Britain and Denmark, which drew on data from two small farms in Denmark, ‘ends any debate’ about whether giving antibiotics to livestock is a risk to humans”

LOCAL: Mumps virus infiltrates Richmond, VA campus

Before this launches a debate about the importance of vaccination, all but just six students on the Richmond campus have had  the MMR vaccine. What this illustrates instead is that no vaccine is 100% efficacious in every instance (MMR is approximately 95%).

The Collegian – “As of Tuesday, 15 cases of mumps have been confirmed on campus, said Dr. Lynne Deane, the director of the Student Health Center. Mumps is a communicable viral illness and typically carries symptoms like fever, head and body aches, tiredness and swollen or tender glands in the jaw, according to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) Web site.Tests administered to other students are still being processed, she said. In total, 39 students have been tested for the virus since January, Deane said…The cluster of mumps outbreaks has not been limited to Richmond. Loyola University, Maryland, has seen at least 12 cases of mumps arise in the past month, according to CBS news Baltimore.”

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