Pandora Report 9.27.14

This week the round up includes concern of growing antibiotic resistance, MERS CoV transmission, and of course, an Ebola update.

Have a great weekend (and don’t forget to get your flu shot)!

White House Orders Plan for Antibiotic Resistance

On Thursday, President Obama signed an executive order to form a government task force and presidential advisory council to address antibiotic-resistant germs. The order calls for new regulations of antibiotic use in hospitals and urges the development of new antibiotics. Scientists at MIT are looking at creating a new class of antibiotic that targets and destroys resistance genes within bacteria.

WTOP—“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic-resistant infections are linked to 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses in the United States annually. The impact to the U.S. economy is as high as $20 billion, the White House said, or more, if you count lost productivity from those who are sickened. And the problem is worsening.”

Camels are Primary Source of MERS-CoV Transmission 

A study designed by scientists from Colorado State University and NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease has transmitted a strain of MERS CoV from human patient to camels. The camels developed a respiratory infection and showed high levels of virus in nasal secretions for up to a week after the infection. Though the camels recovered quickly, the nasal secretions could be the source of transmission to people who handle these animals.

Business Standard—“The researchers theorized that vaccinating camels could reduce the risk of MERS-CoV transmission to people and other camels; NIAID and others are supporting research to develop candidate vaccines for potential use in people and camels.”

This Week in Ebola

This week, the CDC estimated that there could be 500,000 to 1.4 million cases of Ebola by January if the outbreak continues unchecked. Meanwhile, a professor teaching at Delaware State University is telling Liberians that the U.S. Department of Defense, among others, has manufactured Ebola and warns them that doctors are not actually trying to treat them. Claims like this make it even more difficult for those on the ground to relay accurate information about the virus. However, a reverend in Monrovia is working to spread awareness of proper hand washing and social distancing within his congregation and alumni from a State Department funded exchange program help to spread news of the virus throughout neighborhoods. Unsurprisingly, the Ebola outbreak has essentially crippled the fragile Liberian health system which means people are dying from routine medical problems.

Stories You May Have Missed


Image Credit: Wikimedia

Abrin: More Deadly and Less Common than Ricin

By Chris Healey

Abrin was among toxins found during an apartment search of a San Francisco man charged with possessing explosive material. An FBI affidavit states the suspect told investigators he acquired abrin to ease the suffering of cancer patients.

Abrin is a protein-based toxin from the jequirity bean, colloquially known as a rosary bead. The toxin is lethal in minute doses and causes serious symptoms in even smaller amounts. It is almost identical to a better-known toxin—ricin. Abrin is more lethal than ricin. Toxicologists estimate abrin’s lethal dose between .1 and 1 microgram per kilogram. In comparison, ricin is lethal between 5 and 10 micrograms per kilogram.

Both abrin and ricin consist of two proteins, A chain and B chain, linked by a disulfide bond. The proteins work together to enter the cell and disrupt its activity. B chain grants cell entry, while A chain transports to the ribosome and destroys it. Cells die shortly after ribosome destruction.

Abrin’s nonuse despite toxic superiority to ricin is ostensibly due to a matter of availability. As a byproduct of castor oil, an ingredient in soap and mechanical lubricant, ricin is very common. Conversely, rosary beads serve a limited purpose in prayer and are not consumed or destroyed in their role. One set of rosary beads can last for years before replacement is necessary. Their limited and reusable role makes them uncommon.

Availability also contributes to abrin and ricin’s historical precedence. According to a study conducted by the Federation of American Scientists, ricin has been maliciously used 37 times since 1983. Malicious abrin use is almost nonexistent except for several reports in India and Sri Lanka in the early 20th century.

Abrin is released from crushed jequirity beans. Individuals who handle beans whole and unaltered, as in prayer, are not exposed. Even in cases of jequirity bean ingestion, intoxication is dependent on how thoroughly beans are chewed. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and colic. Some less common symptoms include irregular heartbeat, irrationality, hallucinations, and seizures. In fatal cases, cause of death has been traced to gastrointestinal damage.

Abrin is a select agent designated by the Department of Health and Human Services. It is illegal to manufacture or possess any quantity of the toxin. Although jequirity beans contain abrin, they are not illegal. The law is broken when abrin toxin is isolated from a bean.


(Image Credit: Satdeep gill)

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)

The Pandora Report 1.23.14

Highlights include dengue in Texas, H7N9 spiking ahead of the Chinese New Year, renaming the 1918 influenza, and a man selling abrin on the black market. Happy Friday (stay warm)!

Rare Disease Linked to Dengue Virus Caused Texas Woman’s Death
A Texan woman thought to have been infected and died with West Nile Virus has been discovered to have actually succumbed to   dengue. The woman’s case was recently published by the CDC, which warned of the need for effective surveillance. Dengue thankfully remains relatively rare in the US – the woman represented just the third case in nearly a decade.

LiveScience – “The woman died after her dengue infection brought on another condition called hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), in which white blood cells build up in the skin, spleen and liver, and destroy other blood cells. HLH is most frequently associated with Epstein Barr virus infection, but also has been linked to dengue, according to the researchers, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

H7N9: Bird flu cases surge ahead of Chinese New Year
As the Chinese New Year approaches, the number of H7N9 cases has steadily increased, with  73 cases in the last three weeks alone. This is making people very nervous  – Chinese New Year often means millions of people travelling in very close quarters, over long periods of times. However, health officials are careful to point out that influenza case numbers, across strains, increase in the colder months. As long as the virus remains poorly transmitted person-to-person, things are fine.

BBC – “Proffesor John McCauley, the director of a WHO collaborating centre on influenza in London, said: ‘I’ve been worried all the time about H7N9; it’s highly virulent and the case fatality is about one in three, so it poses a threat.’ The range of the virus had also spread, he added, with cases in Guangdong province, further south and east than previously. He said the winter might not be the whole explanation, particularly in southern provinces closer to the equator. ‘It may be seasonal, or an alternative is more poultry exposure in the build-up to Chinese New Year, and more poultry going through the markets. They might need to reconsider closure of the markets’.”

1918 Flu Pandemic That Killed 50 Million Originated in China, Historians Say
The 1918 Spanish influenza, like so many strains of the virus, has apparently suffered for decades under an egregious misnomer. According to a new hypothesis, proposed by historian Mark Humphries, the grandfather of modern H1N1 strains may have originated in China. Humphries published his research in the journal War in History, in it arguing that the importation of almost 100,000 Chinese laborers to support the British and French lines may have introduced the virus to Europe. For those of you wondering, the pandemic strain was dubbed the Spanish flu apparently because Spain was one of the only countries to report on its heavy case numbers during the otherwise heavily censored WWI.

National Geographic – “In the new report, Humphries finds archival evidence that a respiratory illness that struck northern China in November 1917 was identified a year later by Chinese health officials as identical to the Spanish flu. He also found medical records indicating that more than 3,000 of the 25,000 Chinese Labor Corps workers who were transported across Canada en route to Europe starting in 1917 ended up in medical quarantine, many with flu-like symptoms…Writing in the January issue of the journal War in History, Humphries acknowledges that his hypothesis awaits confirmation by viral samples from flu victims. Such evidence would tie the disease’s origin to one location.”

Feds: Fla. man sold deadly toxin to NJ agent
A 19 year old in Florida has been apprehended after selling to toxin abrin to an undercover FBI agent. The deal was agreed upon online, with the FBI agent posing as a buyer on an intermediary cyber black market. The suspect was arrested after directing the FBI agent to two candles filled with the toxin, left in a fast food bag at a rest stop in Florida. A McDonalds bag, for those of you wondering about the culinary preferences of illicit toxin sellers. On a less flippant note, abrin is tremendously potent – while it presents similarly to ricin, it is 75 times more toxic.

The Grand Island Independent – “Prosecutors said Korff negotiated over the Internet with the undercover agent in New Jersey.’He allegedly peddled the poison on a virtual black market of illegal and dangerous good, hidden in the shadow of a secretive computer network favored by cybercriminals,’ said New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman. Korff received $1,500 over the Internet from the agent and left the toxin hidden in two candles at a rest stop near Fort Myers, Fla., authorities said. Korff was arrested after the candles were found to contain abrin.”

(image:Calvin Teo)