The Pandora Report

Highlights include the ricin letters case developments, a slew of H7N9 updates (chickens are the reservoirs, it’s popping up in Tawain, and it’s more lethal than previous strains), and we’re mutating H5N1 (again). Happy Friday!

A poultry market in rural China (image via Sonya/Flickr)

Developments in the Ricin Letters Case

All charges have been dropped against Paul Kevin Curtis due to lack of evidence. A second person of interest, Everett Dutschke, has been identified and continues to cooperate with authorities. No charges have been brought against Dutschke, who maintains his  innocence.  Investigators have not disclosed any new information in the case.

USA Today – “A Mississippi man whose home and business were searched as part of an investigation into poisoned letters sent to the president and others has dropped out of sight in order to escape the news media spotlight, but is cooperating with authorities, a friend and his attorney said. Everett Dutschke, 45, had his home and former business in Tupelo, Miss., searched in connection with the letters, which allegedly contained ricin. They were sent last week to President Obama, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and earlier to an 80-year-old Mississippi judge, Sadie Holland.”

(H7N9) Bird Flu Seen Beyond Mainland, in Taiwan

The first case of H7N9 outside mainland China was recorded this week, with a 53-year old Taiwanese man testing positive for the virus Wednesday. Three healthcare attendants treating the man have also developed “undiagnosed respiratory symptoms” fueling concerns about human-to-human transmission. However, with all evidence currently ruling out human-to-human transmission, it seems more plausible the workers are (understandably) more likely “worried well”. To date, the virus has caused 108 cases with 22 fatalities.

Wall Street Journal – “Taiwan reported the first case of a new form of avian flu found outside China’s mainland on Wednesday and said that three health-care workers who treated the patient had developed undiagnosed respiratory symptoms, raising concerns over the virus’s potential for spreading by human-to-human contact. At a news conference earlier in the day in Beijing, global health officials stressed that there had been no confirmed cases of transmission of the virus, called H7N9, between humans. However, they said, researchers were still struggling to understand how the virus was spread and hadn’t ruled out the possibility of human-to-human transmission.”

WHO: New flu passes more easily from bird to human

In his testimony before the WHO, one of the world’s top H7N9 experts has praised China’s response to the emergent flu strain while simultaneously cautioning against it’s lethality.

Post Bulletin – “A new strain of bird flu that emerged in China over the past month is one of the ‘most lethal’ flu viruses so far, worrying health officials because it can jump more easily from birds to humans than the one that started killing people a decade ago, World Health Organization officials said Wednesday. Scientists are watching the virus closely to see if it could spark a global pandemic but say there is little evidence so far that it can spread easily from human to human.”

Scientists confirm new H7N9 bird flu has come from chickens

Chickens have been identified as the reservoir of the new H7N9 strain of flu. China’s closing of its open-air poultry markets soon after the strain’s emergence has been accredited with the decrease in case numbers.  However, scientists remain uncertain as to the strain’s exact mechanism of spread, as a number of cases have had no contact with poultry.

Reuters – “Chinese scientists have confirmed for the first time that a new strain of bird flu that has killed 23 people in China has been transmitted to humans from chickens. In a study published online in the Lancet medical journal, the scientists echoed previous statements from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Chinese officials that there is as yet no evidence of human-to-human transmission of this virus. The H7N9 strain has infected 109 people in China since it was first detected in March. The WHO warned on Wednesday that this strain is ‘one of the most lethal’ flu viruses and is transmitted more easily than the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has killed hundreds around the world since 2003.”

Mutant version of H5N1 flu virus found to be more preferential to human infection

In a study that will no doubt reignite the gain-of-function research debate, scientists have determined that a laboratory-mutated strain of H5N1 has a much stronger human-cell binding affinity than the wild-type virus. Should we be doing this research in the first place? Do the benefits of being more prepared for a pandemic outweigh the costs of potentially causing the pandemic?

Medical Express – “An international team of bio-researchers has found that a mutant strain of the H5N1 influenza virus (created in a lab) has a 200-fold preference for binding with receptors in human cells, over those found in birds. In describing their research and conclusions in their paper published in the journal Nature, the researchers suggest that the mutant variant is much more like the strains of viruses that caused pandemics in 1918, 1957 and 2009, than it was in its native state.”

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