The Pandora Report 8.23.13

Highlights this week include MERS in tomb bats, H7N9 and its lurking cousins, Ebola of CCHF?, the history of CW and BW, and nanotech. Happy Friday!

Reservoir of MERS may be Egyptian Tomb Bat. Yes tomb bat, as in, mummies, curses, and tomb bats.

Researchers may have uncovered the reservoir of the recently emerged Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome virus (MERS). Scientists took DNA samples from 96 bats living at an abandoned site just 12 kilometers from the MERS index case. Once the DNA samples were sequenced, the scientists involved discovered that the fecal pellet of one bat species, the Egyptian tomb bat, shared a 182-nucleotide snippet of DNA with MERS. It’s possible that more of viral genome was present; however, when the frozen bat samples were clearing US customs, the customs officers opened and left the samples out, at room temperature, for two days (don’t even get us started on all the things wrong with that situation). Still, this latest development brings us a step closer to understanding the virus and its mechanism of action.

Science Magazine – “Sequencing the nucleic acids isolated from the samples yielded a clue: The fecal pellet of the insect-eating Egyptian tomb bat (Taphozous perforatus) contained a piece of viral RNA identical to that of the virus isolated from the patient in Bisha, the scientists reported online in Emerging Infectious Diseases yesterday…Still, the finding is another interesting piece in the MERS puzzle, says Marion Koopmans, an infectious diseases researcher at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the work. She points out that the fragment is not only short but also comes from one of the least variable parts of the viral genome, so the full genomes of bat and human virus could still differ significantly. Nonetheless, the finding ‘points at bats as a reservoir for this virus,’ Koopmans writes in an e-mail.”

China bird flu analysis finds more virus threats lurking

Scientists in China have analyzed other strains of H7 flu, and have determined that several of the strains are capable of jumping to humans. A couple strains have already been shown to successfully infect ferrets. It’s thought that H7N9, like other pandemic strains of avian influenza, began in water fowl, was transmitted to domestic poultry,  reassorted with H9N2, and then infected people. The moral of the story? Other avian pandemics may be waiting in the wings (pun only slightly intended).

Reuters – “To trace the evolution of H7N9 and its path into humans, researchers led by Maria Huachen Zhu and Yi Guan of the University of Hong Kong conducted field surveillance around the main H7N9 outbreak region and mapped out, or sequenced, genetic codes of a large number of bird flu viruses they found…They also found another previously unrecognized H7N7 virus strain had emerged and is circulating in poultry in China. In experiments testing this strain, they discovered it has the ability to infect ferrets – an animal model often used by scientists to find out more about what flu might do in humans – suggesting it could jump into people in future.”

Deadly Hemorrhagic Fever Appears in Uganda

Local health officials are scrambling to identify a small outbreak of hemorrhagic fever in Uganda, with conflicting reports seperately identifying the causative virus as Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF) and Ebola. Four patients have been hospitalized, with a fifth already dead from the virus. In a disturbing complication, one patient has apparently “escaped from the hospital” following collection of blood samples, prompting understandable fears of exacerbation of the virus’ spread. Both CCHF and Ebola are highly pathogenic, causing body pain, severe hemorrhaging, and death.

Daily Monitor – “Efforts to verify with the Health ministry whether the disease is Ebola or the Crimean- Congo haemorrhagic fever were futile as the officials did not answer our telephone calls. ‘The four patients have been put in isolation for close monitoring,’ Dr Otto said. The district health officer said the first patient at the hospital presented symptoms similar to that of Ebola which prompted him to take blood samples to Entebbe. Dr Otto urged the public to remain calm, saying a medical team was on the ground to handle the situation.

Scientific American In-Depth Report: The Specter of Chemical and Biological Weapons

Scientific American just put up a good overview of both recent developments in and the broad history of chemical and biological warfare. The pieces included are more chem-heavy (unsurprisingly), but it’s still a good refresher, especially with Syria apparently escalating again. Take a moment to check it out.

Nano Breakthrough For Navy Lab; Tiny Sensors To Detect Explosives, Bio Weapons, Rotten Food

Researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory want to use nanowires to detect everything from biological weapons to spoilt food. For the first time, researchers were able to overcome the difficulty associated with creating the wires. Until now, nanowires have had to be grown, making mass production extremely difficult. However, researchers have found a way to etch the wires, rather than grow them, making embedding them in uniforms or refrigerators possible.

Breaking Defense – “‘The big thing with getting to this point is finding a way to produce this in a scaleable and reproducible fashion,’ principal investigator Christopher Field told me… Basically, the Navy scientists etch a cluster of nanowires and put a small amount of power pulsing through them. When a molecule from an explosive’s gas or a chemical weapon brushes against the nanowires this disrupts the charge. Then scientists analyze the disruption to discover what caused it.”

(image courtesy of Marie and Alistair Knock/Taraji Blue/Flickr)

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