Pandora Report 8.17.14

Another 12 hours at Dulles Airport on Friday and, fortunately, no new travel alerts. This week we look at TB detecting rats, an experimental Chikungunya vaccine, and the latest from West Africa.

Giant Rats Trained to Sniff Out Tuberculosis in Africa

APOPO, the Belgian nonprofit organization known for using rats to sniff out land mines, has been training the African giant pouched rat to detect tuberculosis since 2008 in Tanzania and 2013 in Mozambique. The trained rats are used in medical centers in Dar es Salaam and Maputo to double check potential TB samples. The rats are unable to differentiate between standard and drug-resistant strains of the disease however, the cost of training and maintenance of the rats is significantly cheaper than the new GeneXpert rapid diagnostic tests.

National Geographic—“‘What the rats are trained to do is associate the smell of TB with a reward, so it’s what they call operative conditioning,’ [Emilio] Valverde [manager of the APOPO Mozambique TM Program] said.

It is the same principle applied to detecting land mines, only the rats are trained to recognize the scent of specific molecules that reflect the presence of the tuberculosis germ—not the explosive vapor associated with land mines.”

Experimental Chikungunya Vaccine Shows Promise

Chikungunya, of course, is one of the diseases included in the CDC’s travel alerts, and this week we learned of a promising vaccine for the disease that causes fever and intensely painful and severe arthritis. After the vaccine’s first human trials, the next step is to test in more people and more age groups, including populations where the virus is endemic. The trial leader said that it could be more than five years before a finished vaccine could be offered to the public.

CBS News—“‘This vaccine was safe and well-tolerated, and we believe that this vaccine makes a type of antibody that is effective against chikungunya,’ said trial leader Dr. Julie Ledgerwood, chief of the clinical trials program at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.”

WHO: Ebola Outbreak Vastly Underestimated

The news from West Africa seems to be getting worse and worse. Earlier in the week there was good news when a new quarantine center opened in Liberia. Then two days later, that same center was destroyed and looted. All of this comes, too, when the World Health Organization has said there is evidence that numbers of cases and deaths are far lower than the actual numbers and MSF has said that the outbreak will take at least six months to get under control.

Al Jazeera—“‘Staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak,’ the organization said.

‘WHO is coordinating a massive scaling up of the international response, marshaling support from individual countries, disease control agencies, agencies within the United Nations system, and others.’”

Image Credit: James Pursey, APOPO

Pandora Report 7.20.14

I feel like its been a bad week, right? Between the crash—or shoot down—of MH 17 (with nearly 100 WHO HIV/AIDS researchers aboard) and events in Gaza with Israel, it sort of seems like it couldn’t get much worse. Well, turns out, it could. This week we have the first cases of Chikungunya in the U.S. and Ebola still raging. However, no one, in the biodefense world, had a worse week than the CDC.


First Chikungunya Case Acquired in the U.S. Reported in Florida

So far, in 2014, there have been 243 travel-associated cases of Chikungunya reported in 31 American states and two territories. This week, the infection numbers grew. The difference in this case, was that the man in Florida who was diagnosed, had not travelled outside the U.S. recently. This makes it the first case of the disease that had been acquired domestically.

WALB—“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working closely with the Florida Department of Health to investigate how the patient contracted the virus; the CDC said they will also monitor for additional locally acquired U.S. cases in the coming weeks and months.

“The arrival of Chikungunya virus, first in the tropical Americas and now in the United States, underscores the risks posed by this and other exotic pathogens,” said Roger Nasci, Ph.D., chief of CDC’s Arboviral Diseases Branch.”


WHO Can’t Fully Deal with Ebola Outbreak, Health Official Warns

With the death toll from the ebola outbreak in West Africa at 603 (at least), more bad news emerged this week when we learned that budget cuts to the WHO make it for difficult for the organization to respond to the ongoing medical emergency. Beyond funding issues, efforts to stem the outbreak have been hindered by some countries failure to implement the WHO’s International Health Regulations which outline methods of reporting disease outbreaks.

The LA Times—“‘The situation in West Africa should be a wake-up call to recognize that this weakening of this institution on which we all depend is not in anybody’s interest,” Scott Dowell, director of disease detection and emergency response at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a briefing in Washington. “In my view, there’s no way that WHO can respond in a way that we need it to.’”


Update on the Found Vials: There Weren’t 6; There Were 327.

In last week’s Pandora Report we learned about unsecured vials of smallpox that were found in an FDA cold storage room in a Maryland lab. This week we learned that it wasn’t just smallpox and it wasn’t just six vials—it was 327. Some of these vials contained select agents other than smallpox, like dengue, influenza, Q fever and rickettsia. Whoops!

Wired—“Here’ is the gist of the FDA’s external announcement, “…this collection was most likely assembled between 1946 and 1964 when standards for work with and storage of biological specimens were very different from those used today. All of the items labeled as infectious agents found in the collection of samples were stored in glass, heat-sealed vials that were well-packed, intact, and free of any leakage, and there is no evidence that anyone was exposed to these agents.”


Image Credit: Eduardo