The Pandora Report 12.13.13

Highlights include pneumonic plague in Madagascar, ricin as a biological weapon, H7N9 in live markets in Hong Kong, Myanmar’s ratifying the BWC, and destroying sarin at sea. Happy Friday!

Madagascar hit by ‘pneumonic and bubonic plague’

In addition to the death of approximately 20 villagers who died of bubonic plague last week, a further two cases of pneumonic plague have been discovered. Pneumonic plague can be spread via aerosol. It must be treated within 24 hours; any later and the fatality rate approaches 100%. Understandably, there is concern amongst health officials in Madagascar that the disease will spread to neighboring villages and towns.

BBC – “Pneumonic plague is caused by the same bacteria that occur in bubonic plague – the Black Death that killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe during the Middle Ages. But while bubonic plague is usually transmitted by flea bites and can be treated with antibiotics, pneumonic plague is easier to contract and if untreated, has a very high case-fatality ratio, experts say. Madagascar’s health ministry director-general Dr Herlyne Ramihantaniarivo confirmed to the BBC that two cases of the plague had been reported”

Texas woman pleads guilty to ricin letters sent to Obama, Bloomberg
A Texan woman has been charged in the case involving ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg. We’ve discussed the debate surrounding the classification of  ricin as a weapon of mass destruction before, so we do think its interesting they’ve charged her with use of a biological weapon.

CNN – “A Texas woman pleaded guilty Tuesday to a biological weapons charge after she was accused of sending ricin-laced letters to President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, prosecutors announced. Shannon Guess Richardson, 35, pleaded guilty to possession of a toxin for use as a weapon, prosecutors said in a statement. She could be sentenced to up to life in prison. A sentencing date has not yet been scheduled. Richardson, an actress, was accused of sending the letters earlier this year.”

Shenzhen Finds H7N9 Flu Virus in Markets Near Hong Kong
Three of 70 samples taken from 13 of Guangdong’s  live poultry market have tested positive for H7N9. For some reason, one of the vendors whose stall tested positive for H7N9 was still allowed to sell chickens. China is usually extremely vigilant concerning containment and effective biosurveillance, so the hesitation to shut the live poultry markets is a little baffling.  However, the stalls are  apparently being disinfected daily.

Bloomberg Businessweek –  “The 12 live poultry stalls at the Hengan Paibang market in Longgan district, one of the markets where authorities found a positive sample, were open today. The stalls get their chickens from the Buji Poultry Wholesale Market in Longgan, according to the market’s manager. ‘There’s been no order yet to shut down,’ said Zhang Jinghui, manager of the Paibang market. ‘We need to wait for instructions from the village committee. We are disinfecting the stalls everyday.’ About 30 chickens, ducks, pigeons and geese were stored in metal cages at his stall, next to a shed for slaughtering the poultry and a metal-spinning vat for defeathering.”

Myanmar Prepares to Ratify Chemical, Biological Weapons Treaties
While Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has signed both the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention, it has yet to ratify either treaty. There is still some debate over whether the military junta previously in charge had used chemical weapons on the rebels. Myanmar has been cooperating with IAEA inspectors to increase overview of its nuclear program.

Radio Free Asia – “Myanmar’s government asserts the country has no chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons programs. But ethnic armed rebel groups including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have accused the Myanmar military of using chemical weapons as recently as last year in their long-running war in the country’s borderlands. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. government voiced suspicions of a possible chemical weapons program under the military junta in Myanmar, naming China and North Korea as possible suppliers. Since then the U.S. has been less vocal in its concern about the issue. According to global security nonprofit organization the Nuclear Threat Initiative, there is currently ‘no evidence’ to suggest Myanmar has a chemical weapons program.”

Scientists raise alarm over plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons at sea
The Department of Defense’s plan to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons, through hydrolysis, at sea, is coming under sharp criticism. The use of the technology at sea is unprecedented, and requires a tremendous deal of very careful estimating. Of course, when dealing with agents like sarin and VX, very careful estimating is not always enough. News of the criticism comes at the same time as the UN confirmed the repeated use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. 

Washington Times – “‘There’s no precedence. We’re all guessing. We’re all estimating,’ said Raymond Zilinskas, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who worked as a U.N. biological weapons inspector in Iraq in 1994. ‘For example, you don’t know if the sarin is pure. The Iraqi sarin was rather impure, and had a lot of contaminants, and we don’t know if that’s amenable to hydrolysis,’ said Mr. Zilinskas, a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies at Middlebury College. Under the Pentagon plan, the toxic stockpile would be transported to the Syrian port of Latakia, loaded onto a non-U.S. vessel and shipped to a third country. From there, a U.S. cargo ship would take the arsenal to sea for destruction. Richard M. Lloyd, a warhead technology consultant at Tesla Laboratories Inc. who tracks weapons being used in Syria, said he has little confidence in the regime’s ability to transport the weapons safely.”

In case you missed it
Drug Resistant H7N9 Retains Pathogenicity

(image: Wmeinhart/wikimedia)

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