Highlights this week include MERS in the UAE, H5N1 and dual-use research, giant Pandoravirus, implications of giant Pandoravirus, and pandemics and national security. Happy Friday!
The Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, first appearing in Saudi Araia has spread to the neighboring United Arab Emirates, with four new cases identified in Abu Dhabi. It is thought that one patient contracted the virus earlier subsequently infected these four new cases.
Washington Post – “The new cases also could offer investigators fresh leads on the transmission of the virus, which has claimed more than 40 lives since September. Most of the deaths have been in Saudi Arabia…The virus is related to SARS, which killed some 800 people in a global outbreak in 2003. It belongs to a family of viruses that most often cause the common cold.”
The Council on Foreign Relations has a new working paper out, by Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, examining the furious debate around gain-of-function, potentially dual-use H5N1 research.
CFR – “Biological research is inherently dual-use, in that a great deal of the scientific knowledge, materials, and techniques required for legitimate research could also be used for harm. The potential for a bioterrorist to misuse legitimate research is particularly acute for scientific studies of contagious pathogens. In order to find out how pathogens function—how they are able to get around the human body’s immunological defenses, replicate in great numbers, and go on to infect other people in a continuous chain of infection—scientists necessarily learn what conditions make pathogens more deadly or difficult to treat. This research is widely shared. But the fear that this openness could be exploited has sparked concerns about specific scientific publications, prompting media storms and even congressional disapproval, as in the 2002 case when poliovirus was synthesized from scratch in a laboratory.”
Breaking news everyone, the world’s largest virus has the world’s coolest name – the Pandoravirus. However, unless you live primarily underwater, it shouldn’t pose a big threat to you. The virus is, however, raising big questions about the origins of viruses – the Pandoravirus‘ are thought to originate in a prehistoric cell type now extinct. For an interesting examination of what larger viruses may mean for virology, check out the New York Times piece “Changing View on Viruses: Not So Small After All“.
NPR – ” ‘We believe that those new Pandoraviruses have emerged from a new ancestral cellular type that no longer exists,’ [discoverer, Jean-Michel Claverie] says. That life could have even come from another planet, like Mars. ‘At this point we cannot actually disprove or disregard this type of extreme scenario,’ he says. But how did this odd cellular form turn into a virus? Abergel says it may have evolved as a survival strategy as modern cells took over. ‘On Earth it was winners and it was losers, and the losers could have escaped death by going through parasitism and then infect the winner,’ she says.”
An interesting argument for the correlation between national security and pandemics. Whether international health events should be classified as issues of national security is a very interesting and nuanced question, and this piece presents one side (“yes, they should”) well.
UN Chronicle – “”Pandemics are for the most part disease outbreaks that become widespread as a result of the spread of human-to-human infection. Beyond the debilitating, sometimes fatal, consequences for those directly affected, pandemics have a range of negative social, economic and political consequences. These tend to be greater where the pandemic is a novel pathogen, has a high mortality and/or hospitalization rate and is easily spread. According to Lee Jong-wook, former Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), pandemics do not respect international borders.2 Therefore, they have the potential to weaken many societies, political systems and economies simultaneously.”
(image courtesy of Jeff Black)