The Pandora Report 1.31.14

Highlights include abrin poisoning, norovirus on another couple cruises, a B. anthracis bacteriophage, and H7N9 fears in Hong Kong. Happy Friday!

Bank worker, 36, ‘spiked her Magistrate mother’s Diet Coke with deadly poison’
A woman in the UK is standing trial for attempting to poison her mother with abrin, by spiking her Diet Coke soda with the toxin. As we mentioned last week after a man tried to sell abrin hidden in candles, abrin is 75 times more toxic than it’s bean-derived cousin, ricin. No word yet on the source of the toxin in the case. The woman was arrested following a counterterrorism effort in the UK – she will not, however, be charged with acts of terrorism or violations of the BWC. She maintains her innocence.

London Evening Standard – “Abrin strikes at the liver, stomach and kidneys and is potentially fatal. It costs between £600 and £900. Kuntal Patel, 36, is accused of spiking a Diet Coke with abrin…Patel was arrested after a hunt for toxic chemicals at her home following information passed to the Met from the US. She has said the substance was intended for a suicide bid which she later abandoned.”

Cruise ship back in Houston after nearly 200 fall ill
We’d like to say upfront that we have a degree of admiration for anyone still willing to go on cruise ships. While we understand that hundreds of ships plow through various bodies of water without issue everyday, when things go wrong on a cruise ship, they have the unique capacity to go spectacularly wrong. In 2013 alone, there were nine outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses on US-based cruise ships  – 7 caused by norovirus and one caused by E. coli (the cause of the ninth case rather ominously remains “unknown”). Compared to, for instance, last February’s incident involving a week of no power or working toilets, this week’s two incidents – one norovirus outbreak on a ship sickening 170, and another sickening 700, seem relatively tame.

Houston Chronicle – “The Caribbean Princess left the Port of Houston on Jan. 25 bound for the Western Caribbean with more than 4,200 people on board. The vessel was scheduled to return on Saturday. According to CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant, 162 of the 3,102 passengers and 11 of the 1,148 crew members had reported illness by late Thursday afternoon. Ship employees implemented some of the agency’s recommendations for preventing further infections, he said…Caribbean Princess passengers will remain on the ship until they are cleared by U.S. Customs authorities, which will take several hours, according to Princess Cruises spokeswoman Julie Benson. Besides overnight accommodations in Houston, the cruise line said passengers would be offered a 20 percent credit toward a future cruise.”

Newly-discovered virus has voracious appetite for anthrax
The Tsamsa virus, a surprisingly large, newly-discovered bacteriophage (bacteria-eating virus), seems to have a preferential appetite for Bacillus anthracis. This appetite can hopefully be one day harnessed  The virus was discovered in a zebra carcass in Namibia by an international team of scientists, led by researchers from Universities Berkeley and KwaZulu-Natal  from universities around the world. And people say academia isn’t glamorous.

UC Davis PR– “The virus was isolated from samples collected from carcasses of zebras that died of anthrax in Etosha National Park, Namibia. The anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, forms spores that survive in soil for long periods. Zebras are infected when they pick up the spores while grazing; the bacteria multiply and when the animal dies, they form spores that return to the soil as the carcass decomposes.”

Hong Kong reports third H7N9 death
China has culled 22, 604 birds following a batch of poultry testing positive for H7N9. Adding to fears over the virus’ spread, yesterday another patient died following an H7N9 infection, the third in the last month. Hong Kong has also shut it’s live poultry market for three weeks to allow for thorough disinfection. The most recent death, which comes just one day before the Chinese new year, has definitely not helped assuage fears. Still no sign of sustained person-to-person transmission

Economic Times – “The 75-year-old man had previously travelled to the neighbouring Chinese city of Shenzhen and died Wednesday morning, a Department of Health spokesman confirmed to AFP without elaborating. Fears over avian flu have grown following the deaths of two men from the H7N9 strain of the virus in Hong Kong since December. A 65-year-old man with H7N9 died on January 14 and an 80-year old man died on Boxing Day last year. Both had recently returned from mainland China.”

(image courtesy of Matt Wade/Wikicommons)

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