The Pandora Report

It’s been a slower week for biodefense news – highlights include ricin – barely lethal?, MERS update, the Australia Group and Syria, stopping bacterial cell division, and the ongoing H1N1 outbreak in Venezuela. Happy Friday!

Ricin: Barely Lethal?

GMU Adjunct Faculty member and FAS Senior Fellow for State and Non State Threat Charles Blair comments on the true nature of the ricin threat in his thought-provoking column with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – “The June 7th arrest of actress Shannon Richardson for allegedly sending ricin-tainted letters to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama comes after two other ricin-related incidents earlier this year. In May, five letters testing positive for the toxin were mailed from Spokane, Washington, with one each bound for an Air Force base, a local judge, and the Central Intelligence Agency, and two addressed to the White House. All were intercepted and authorities arrested a suspect. In April, another alleged perpetrator PDF mailed letters containing ricin to a US senator, a Mississippi judge and, once again, the White House. In short, more individuals have used ricin in the past three months than in any three-month period ever before. So what explains ricin’s growing use? The answer is two-fold.First, though the toxin is difficult to weaponize for mass casualty attacks, it is relatively easy to produce on a small scale. The ease of acquisition and manufacture strengthens the allure of the poison for those seeking revenge or public attention. Second, ricin exerts a strong cultural pull on its users.”

MERS has potential to cause pandemic, WHO says

The WHO has issued health alerts for MERS, H7N9, and H5N1 in recently released guidance based on lessons learned from the H1N1 2009 pandemic. The case number for MERS continues to grow, with another two fatalities in the last day. The source of the virus is still unknown.

NBC News – “The United Nations agency, which issued new, long-awaited guidance to countries on influenza pandemics, said the world was also in the same “alert phase” for two human strains of bird flu – H5N1, which emerged a decade ago, and H7N9, first detected in China in March. ‘International concern about these infections is high, because it is possible for this virus to move around the world. There have been now several examples where the virus has moved from one country to another through travelers,’ the WHO said of MERS, which causes coughing, fever and pneumonia.”

Chair of Australia Group Comments on Syrian Chemical Weapons Use

(image courtesy of Freedom House)
(image courtesy of Freedom House)

The Australia group is a informal consortium of states participating in voluntary export controls of materials which may be used to develop biological or chemical weapons. In a statement released following the conclusion of the Group’s annual Plenary meeting, the Group called on all states to participate in similar voluntary export control to prevent the further or future proliferation of weapons materials.

Press Release – “Australia Group members are gravely concerned by the growing body of evidence pointing to the use of chemical weapons and by the danger of more and larger-scale use. The threat of chemical weapon use on the people of Syria underlines the necessity for the complete eradication of chemical weapons for all time and for the universalisation of the CWC…The Australia Group underlined that the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances is unacceptable and against the legal norms of the international community. The Group urged support for the UN mission to investigate all allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria”.

Compound Freezes Bacteria Mid-Division

Developing antibiotics is unsurprisingly a pretty trick affair, with the complexity of bacterial cell division being a big part of the difficulty. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have found a molecule capable of throwing a figurative wrench in bacterial division. The discovery of the molecule, an enzyme inhibitor named divin, may help develop more effective antibiotics.

Chemical and Engineering News – “When a bacterium divides in two, it enlists a cast of more than a dozen proteins to help. The proteins assemble at the dividing line, arriving either in an early phase or a late one. And basically, that’s where biologists’ understanding stops…To help solve the mystery, Weibel and colleagues searched for small molecules that could gum up the works of these division proteins. Using a high-throughput screening process, they found divin, a weak inhibitor of an enzyme called MipZ that coordinates where the cell splits in two. The researchers tested divin’s effect on cell division by treating Caulobacter crescentus bacteria with the molecule. They saw something they’d never seen before: The cell starts to divide, but the two daughter cells never separate.”

H1N1 flu cases rise sharply in Venezuela

Venezuela’s H1N1 outbreak continues apace, with a sixty percent increase in case numbers in the last week.  The total numbers of laboratory confirmed cases is now at 1,138.  However, throughout May Venezuelan health authorities vaccinated nearly three million people, leading local health authorities to describe the situation as “under control”.

China Daily – “The report covering the week of May 26 to June 1 showed an increase of 414 cases, with the most affected states located along the northern coast and western Venezuela. The H1N1 virus first appeared in 2009 in Venezuela, infecting about 900 people and causing eight deaths. In Venezuela, test methods now are short of quickly determining whether a patient has been infected by the virus, but the country reportedly has a good reserve of medicine needed to combat the disease.”

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