The Pandora Report

Highlights include funding for detecting bioterror, how pandemics come to be, MERS: overblown?, antibiotics funding, and not Ebola. Happy Friday!

Funding shortfall could shut down bioterrorism lab

 (image courtesy of Sandia National Labs)

The ability of the Seattle area to detect its recent ricin letters was due entirely to a regional bioterrorism lab, the same lab which is now at risk of closure. Local officials were quick to point out that without the local lab, the suspicious substance would have had to be shipped to a different lab nearly 10 hours away. “If you have an instance where you have possible exposure minutes and hours count,”  said the local Sheriff, Ozzie Knezovich. Bioterrorism labs are critical points of first response.

KXLY – “With just one full time employee the lab costs $170,000 to operate each year. It serves not only Spokane but bioterrorism services for all of Eastern Washington and North Idaho. In the last seven years its tested more than 70 samples including the suspicious backpack found at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity March in 2011. State Representative Marcus Riccelli from Spokane said its not just the high profile cases we hear about, but the tests that come back negative that justify keeping the lab. However the most recent work done at the lab in the Ricin investigation is the perfect example of why these local officials keeping the lab open is worth fighting for.”

How Nature Builds A Pandemic Flu Virus

Why isn’t H7N9 ravaging across the planet? Or MERS, for that matter? Not for want of capability. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, conducted a study examining the genomes of past pandemic flu strains. The results? It turns out that since 1957, all our most virulent pandemic strains have evolved from the 1918 Spanish ( H1N1) strain.  Which isn’t to say the H7N9 can’t still mutate.

NPR – “Here’s a sobering thought: Wild birds — including city pigeons and ubiquitous Canada geese — carry 170 different types of bird flu. You know, all those viruses with the Hs and Ns in their names, like H1N1 and H5N1. Only a dozen of these viruses have infected humans so far, but many of those have been deadly, and three of them have caused global flu pandemics.Does every bird flu that leaps into people have the potential to turn into the next “big one” that spreads rapidly around the world?”

MERS Virus May Never Become Big Threat in U.S., Experts Say

The WHO recently reported another death from the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), bringing the total number of case fatalities to 31. With just 55 total cases, there is no question of the virus’ virulence. In fact, the Obama Administration has declared the virus a public health emergency – not due to fears of a significant outbreak, but so as to speed up testing and diagnostic capabilities.  However, there has been significant recent debate surrounding the virus’ pandemic potential. While significant mutations leading to easier transmission remain possible, MERS in its current form does not seem to pose a significant pandemic threat.

USNWR – “‘Anytime there is a new virus that has the potential to kill people, we ought to take it seriously,’ said Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. But while Siegel believes the virus’s spread should be tracked and studied, he doubts it will ever become a real threat. ‘Fear is the biggest virus going,’ he said. ‘The amount of concern is already outweighing the risk. People have seen Contagion too many times.'”

Obama Administration Seeks To Ease Approvals For Antibiotics

While not as attention-grabbing as MERS or H7N9 (bacteria always get the shaft), the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections is a growing concern. One of the ongoing difficulties in developing new drugs is lack of sufficient financial incentives – antibiotics tend to be less profitable than drugs for more common concerns (high blood pressure, etc).

NPR – “[The Obama Administration is] investing tens of millions in private drug companies to foster new germ-killing drugs. It’s setting up a new research network to develop new antibiotics. And, most controversially, federal health officials are pushing to loosen up the approval process for new antibiotics targeted at patients with life-threatening infections and dwindling treatment options. ‘Where we’re talking about life-threatening illnesses, you can do much less study and get those drugs out there — if in fact they’ll be limited to those kinds of uses,’ Dr. Janet Woodcock, the chief drug official at the Food and Drug Administration, tells Shots.”

Health officials rule out Ebola outbreak in DR Congo

News because it’s not Ebola. Last week, the UN announced six suspected cases of Ebola in the DRC, with three fatalities. However, following testing at the National Institute of Biomedical Research in Kinshasa, Ebola was ruled out, despite symptoms including severe hemorrhaging.  Possibly yellow fever?

Channel News Asia – “A senior health ministry official in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday ruled out an Ebola outbreak in the northeast of the country, after possible cases were reported by United Nations staff. OCHA  [UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] had announced suspect cases recorded between May 1 and May 12 at Mongo in the Bas-Uele district of the northeastern Orientale province, about 240 kilometres (150 miles) from Isiro, where the last Ebola outbreak killed 34 people out of 62 confirmed cases between May and November 2012.”


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