The Pandora Report 10.18.13

Highlights include a MERS-free hajj?, Craig Venter and bioterrorism, coronaviruses in hedgehogs,  DoD contributing to key biodefense infrastructure, bacteriophages eating superbugs, and (briefly) the Ebola cure and the oh-so-secret botulinum toxin. Happy Friday!

Hajj Numbers Down In 2013 By 1 Million Over MERS Virus Fears

Public health officials globally have kept a nervous eye on Saudi Arabia over the last week, as hajj brought 1.5 million pilgrims into Mecca, and potentially into contact with MERS. However hajj is concluding, and so far, not  a single case of MERS has emerged from the Muslim holy city. While it’s too early to tell with certainty whether this year’s hajj has been totally MERS-free, credit where credit is due.  Saudi Arabia was careful to institute a slew of preventative measures designed to prevent the virus’ spread, including severely limiting visas to susceptible populations, mandating mask-wearing in high density spaces, and a broad information campaign emphasizing good hygiene. We’re impressed (and grateful!).

International Business Times – “Hajj placed 1.75 million foreign pilgrims in contact with 1.4 million Saudi pilgrims last year, and officials feared that such contact could prove a deadly mix for a disease that has been, thus far, largely contained within the kingdom. Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef said international numbers were down 21 percent to 1.37 million pilgrims from 188 countries this year, while the number of pilgrims from within the kingdom is believed to be half of what it was last year…Saudi Minister of Health, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Rabeeah, announced late Saturday that all health facilities were ready for hajj pilgrims, with some 22,000 health workers (3,000 more than previous years) on standby to help the ill or injured. He added that there had been no epidemic or coronavirus cases among pilgrims thus far.”

Craig Venter (briefly) Discusses Bioterrorism 

If you’re even tangentially involved in the biosciences, you already know that Craig Venter was the lead scientists of the Human Genome Project, which was the first to successfully characterize an entire human genome. It took Venter and his team thirteen years and nearly three billion dollars to sequence his genome. Today, it’s possible to sequence a human genome in less than a month at under $5,000, leading many scientists to worry about the potential of terrorists simply sequencing highly pathogenic bugs. Popular Mechanics caught up with Venter in advance of his new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, and asked him about, amongst other things, synthetic biology and biological terrorism.

Popular Mechanics – [Venter, on his biggest concern for synthetic biology] “Certainly the biggest concern is the potential for bioterrorism. But using synthetics for bioterrorism is a huge, huge, huge, challenge. Right now there are so many sources of materials for bioterrorism that it’s unlikely that somebody would go to all the difficulty to synthetically make it. For example, anthrax exists on most cattle farms. Any dead cow has a good chance of having anthrax in it, so it’s not like you need to get anthrax from some high security lab. But certainly, in theory, people could make things like smallpox that aren’t readily available. My main concern is people doing biology in their kitchens. It’s great that so many people are curious about biology, but without proper training these DIY biologists don’t learn the right safety approaches and mechanisms. Someone could inadvertently cause harm to a lot of people. Like any new frontier with powerful technology, people have to think about it carefully. What are its implications? How can we regulate it without over-regulating it?”

Bacteria-eating viruses ‘magic bullets in the war on superbugs’

Researchers at the University of Leicester have isolated a new strain of bacteriophage – viruses which infect and kill bacteria – which specifically targets the bacteria Clostridium difficile. The use of phages instead of comparatively indiscriminate antibiotics in treatment would help diminish the over-prescription antibiotics, reduce the likelihood of antibiotic resistance, and preserve healthy host bacteria. One of the researchers raises a very good point – with fewer and fewer new antibiotics discovered, and more and more cases of antibiotic resistance, an earnest search for viable alternatives is necessary.

University of Leicester – “Dr. Clokie and her team have achieved the remarkable feat of isolating and characterising the largest known set of distinct C. diff phages that infect clinically relevant strains of C. diff. Of these, a specific mixture of phages have been proved, through extensive laboratory testing, to be effective against 90% of the most clinically relevant C. diff strains currently seen in the U.K. As a testament to their therapeutic potential, these phages, that are the subject of a patent application, have been licensed by AmpliPhi Biosciences Corporation – a US-based biopharmaceutical company and pioneers in developing phage-based therapeutics. AmpliPhi have already made progress in developing phages targeted against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a pathogen that causes acute, life-threatening lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients. They were also the first biopharmaceutical company to demonstrate the effectiveness of Pseudomonas phages in controlled and regulated human clinical trials.”

DOD Funding Contributes to U.S. Biodefense Infrastructure

The Department of Defense has co-funded the Texas A&M Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing, which was created in response to the 2009 influenza pandemic. The Center’s primary focus is flexible and fast development of therapeutics in response to novel disease outbreaks. Its primary investigator, Dr. Brett P. Giroir, formerly of DARPA, describing the need for the Center explained that “[l]iterally, what once took weeks during medical school to produce in a multimillion-dollar laboratory can be done [today] in an afternoon on a benchtop by someone with a relatively less degree of scientific training…So the barriers to entry have decreased’. We couldn’t agree more.

DoD – “The facility is called the National Center for Therapeutics, or NCTM, and a key feature there is the use of modular and mobile stand-alone biopharmaceutical clean rooms, called modular clear rooms, or MCRs. The initial MCR concept was funded by DOD through DARPA and the Army Research Office, Giroir said. NCTM is the core facility and main site for developing and manufacturing medical countermeasures and vaccines against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats for the Texas A&M Center for Innovation, he added. Another part of the Center for Innovation’s biomanufacturing infrastructure is the Caliber Biotherapeutics Facility, Giroir said. Caliber was developed and built through Texas A&M and G-CON Manufacturing, with funding from the DARPA Blue Angel Program. According to a 2012 DARPA news release, the Blue Angel Program demonstrated a flexible and agile capability for DOD to rapidly react to and neutralize any natural or intentional pandemic disease.”

Characterization of a novel betacoronavirus related to MERS-CoV in European hedgehogs

It’s understood that bats are the established hosts for viruses similar to human coronaviruses, which prompted researchers to wonder if hedgehogs, which are closely related to bats, carry similar viruses. Researchers at the  University of Bonn in Germany acted on this hunch, and discovered a  novel “sister” betacoronavirus species in European hedgehogs. We’re disappointed – staying away from bats is fine because we don’t want rabies and bats are odd-looking, but hedgehogs? Really?

Journal of Virology – “58.9% of hedgehog fecal specimens were positive for the novel CoV (EriCoV) at 7.9 Log10 mean RNA copies per ml. EriCoV RNA concentrations were higher in the intestine than in other solid organs, blood and urine. Detailed analyses of the full hedgehog intestine showed highest EriCoV concentrations in lower gastrointestinal tract specimens, compatible with viral replication in the lower intestine and fecal-oral transmission. 13 of 27 (48.2%) hedgehog sera contained non- neutralising antibodies against MERS-CoV. The animal origins of this betacoronavirus clade including MERS-CoV may thus include both bat and non-bat hosts.”

In Case You Missed It:

Working on Ebola: We are very supportive of any treatment which helps mitigate our very real fear of Ebola. 
– Scientists Withhold Details of New Botulinum Toxin: We get it. We even agree. We’re curious if you do too.

(image credit: Michael Gäbler)

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