The Pandora Report

Highlights include BioWatch’s murky future, MERS in hospitals, norovirus at Yellowstone, the WHO simplifying its alert mechanisms, and ricin in Spokane. Happy Friday!

BioWatch Gen-3 may be too costly, CDC official says

The beleaguered BioWatch program faced congressional hearings this week. Congress has refused to authorize the $40 million President Obama requested for the program, citing ongoing concerns over rising costs and program efficacy. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations chairman Murphy expressed skepticism on the program’s ability to detect pathogens, claiming that the United States is  less prepared to handle a bioterrorist attack today than it was five years ago (we disagree, but to each their own we suppose). We do agree, however, that cutting funding for public heath departments is definitely not helping preparedness.

BioWatch Gen 2 in NY
BioWatch Gen 2 in NY

Fierce Markets – “Once the technology is rolled out, it’s unclear what the burden would be on public health agencies at all levels of government, Merlin said during the hearing, held by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), the subcommittee chairman, said he was concerned about the cost of BioWatch, especially considering the cuts to public health agencies in recent years. At the state and local level, more than 46,000 health department jobs have been lost since 2008.”

Investigation Follows Trail of a Virus in Hospitals 

The mechanism of infection with the Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus is being carefully examined, with useful and interesting results. According to a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine, it takes approximately 5.2 days for prodromal symptoms to appear in the average person following infection with MERS. The study also revealed that one person was able to infect seven others. While some scientists believe the virus may be less pathogenic than originally believed, public health officials continue to monitor it closely.

New York Times – “A detailed investigation of the viral illness first detected last year in Saudi Arabia has revealed the chilling ease with which the virus can spread to ill patients in the hospital — and its ability to infect some close contacts like hospital staff and family members who were in good health…The apparently high death rate from the disease has worried health experts. More than half of the confirmed cases have been fatal. However, it is possible that milder cases have gone undetected and that the disease is not as deadly as it may initially appear, said Dr. Trish M. Perl, an author of the new report, and a senior hospital epidemiologist and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, who traveled to Saudi Arabia to investigate the outbreak.”

Virus sickens 200 at Yellowstone, Grand Teton parks

Summer is finally here (almost) which naturally means norovirus is busy ruining all sorts of vacation plans. This time it’s campers at Yosemite and Grand Teton parks, with almost 200 campers and park employees. Norovirus is notoriously  contagious, and is able to remain infectious as a fomite for months on door handles and common spaces.

Reuters – “The rare health advisory, tied to a suspected outbreak of the highly contagious norovirus, comes in the early weeks of a season that drew about 6 million people to the parks last year. A tour group visiting Yellowstone, home to the Old Faithful geyser, first complained June 7 of symptoms linked to norovirus, the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

WHO simplifies pandemic alert system

After receiving severe criticism for its management of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the World Health Organization has revised its pandemic alert system. Within the new systems, the focus of the alert has shifted from raw numbers to potential risk. The new system uses just four phases, ranging from interpandemic to transition (post pandemic) to describe pandemic progression in place of the prior seven.

Courier Mail – The WHO announced H1N1 swine flu had reached pandemic proportions on June 11, 2009, first sparking panic-buying of vaccines and then anger when it turned out the virus was not nearly as dangerous as first thought. Swine flu killed more than 18,449 people and affected some 214 countries and territories, but the world had been bracing for far worse, and governments stuck with millions of unused vaccine doses were especially upset. In March 2011, a WHO evaluation committee called on the organisation to simplify its description of a pandemic to make it more precise and consistent and to assess the risks and severity of a pandemic.

Spokane man charged with sending ricin-laced letters

Matthew Ryan Buquet of Spokane, Washington has been charged with “developing and sending poison-laced letters”  (ricin is a toxin, but moving along) to President Obama, the CIA and others. Rather than have us wax lyrical about the nature of the ricin threat, check out Charles Blair of FAS and GMU  excellent piece on the subject here.

The Spokesman Review – “Federal prosecutors Wednesday charged a 38-year-old Spokane man with developing and sending poison-laced letters to President Barack Obama and a federal judge in Spokane.The court documents say Matthew Ryan Buquet produced ricin, an illegal biological toxin, and mailed the substance in threatening letters between April 29 and May 14. He was arrested May 22 after agents raided his Browne’s Addition apartment. He is jailed without bond on the charges as the case unfolds.”

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