Pandora Report 3.3.2017

Welcome to March! On Tuesday, Russia cast its seventh veto and China cast its sixth veto to aid in protecting the Syrian government from UNSC actions and sanctions regarding chemical weapons attacks.

DIY Gene Editing Gets Faster, Cheaper, and More Worrisome
CRISPR/Cas-9 lab projects may not have been a possibility when I was in high school, but today’s students are getting a taste for genome editing. The technology has allowed relative amateurs to easily and cheaply learn gene editing tactics. “The question is, can we rely on individuals to conduct their experiments in an ethical and appropriately safe way?” says Maxwell Mehlman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, who is working with do-it-yourself scientists to develop DIY Crispr ethical guidelines. “The jury is out,” he says. “Crispr is too new. We have to wait and see.” GMU’s Dr. Koblentz has noted dual-use research is a wicked problem, and it seems that CRISPR/Cas-9 is one as well. Do-it-yourself (DIY) CRISPR kits can be purchased online for $150 and you can even get a handful of tutoring sessions for $400. While these products and experiments utilize harmless organisms, it’s not hard to see why so many are worried about the potential for misuse. Harvard University’s Dana Bateman visits high school classrooms for a lesson on CRISPR and during her time, she poses several ethical questions to the students. Dr. Bateman “asked a group of seventh-grade students whether Crispr should be deployed to bring extinct animals back to life. After a spirited discussion, one student asked, ‘How can we decide if we aren’t sure what will happen?’ Ms. Bateman replied that such questions will increasingly be part of public debate, and that everyone, including 12-year-olds, can benefit from learning about Crispr.” Learning the ins and outs of CRISPR isn’t so easy that it’s comparable to switching batteries in a remote, but probably closer to a complex set of IKEA instructions (ok, that’s a bit of an over simplification, but you catch my drift). Simply put, CRISPR does make DIY gene editing easier and cheaper, but foundational knowledge or instruction is still necessary. In this moment, we’re racing to catch up with the pace of innovation and understanding the risks versus rewards is proving more difficult. What are your thoughts on this hot topic?

China’s New BSL-4 Lab Plans 10729_lores
The Chinese mainland is hoping to see the construction of at least five BSL-4 labs by 2025. A laboratory in Wuhan is currently in the accreditation and clearance phase to work with the most deadly pathogens we face. While many celebrate the building  of this new lab, others are concerned about the biosafety and biosecurity risks. The increase in biodefense labs and programs has created several trade-offs for work with such high-risk pathogens.  Each new lab presents a new risk – for both biosafety failures and biosecurity failures. Biosafety failures are already plaguing U.S. labs – will this be the case with China’s labs? “The Wuhan lab cost 300 million yuan (US$44 million), and to allay safety concerns it was built far above the flood plain and with the capacity to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake, although the area has no history of strong earthquakes. It will focus on the control of emerging diseases, store purified viruses and act as a World Health Organization ‘reference laboratory’ linked to similar labs around the world.” Skeptics have pointed to several escapes of SARS from a high-level containment facility in Beijing. Several biosafety and biosecurity experts are highlighting the need for transparency and an open and responsible culture. Addressing issues with staff at all levels and opening the floor for an honest and frank discussion regarding concerns from those working in the environment is vital to addressing the issues that may not be seen at a higher level.

WHO’s List of Superbug Super Offenders  screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-10-19-28-am
If there was an A-list for multi-drug resistant organisms, this would be it. This first-of-its-kind list, highlights the “priority pathogens” that comprise of twelve families of bacteria “that pose the greatest threat to human health”. “The list was developed in collaboration with the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Tübingen, Germany, using a multi-criteria decision analysis technique vetted by a group of international experts. The criteria for selecting pathogens on the list were: how deadly the infections they cause are; whether their treatment requires long hospital stays; how frequently they are resistant to existing antibiotics when people in communities catch them; how easily they spread between animals, from animals to humans, and from person to person; whether they can be prevented (e.g. through good hygiene and vaccination); how many treatment options remain; and whether new antibiotics to treat them are already in the R&D pipeline.” Not only is the publishing of this list an indicator as to the seriousness of the issue, but it signals a desperate plea for the pharmaceutical industry to develop new antibiotics. The three most critical bacteria on the list are carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, carbapenem-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacteriaceae that are both carbapenem-resistant and ESBL-producing.

Kim Jong Un and the Case of the of VX Nerve Agent 
Last week saw the shocking revelation by Malaysian police that Kim Jon-nam, half-brother to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, had been assassinated with the nerve agent, VX. The use of VX has left many wondering gif Kim Jong-un decided to use this overt form of assignation to signal his possession and willingness to use it or was this a botched assassination that was supposed to look like a natural death? Since this event has taken us into uncharted territory, many chemical and biological weapons experts are weighing in on what this means. GMU biodefense professor and graduate program director, Gregory Koblentz, pointed out that “it’s very hard to make an accurate intelligence assessment”. The dual-use nature of bio-chem weapon production facilities and materials makes intelligence gathering that much more difficult. “While Kim Jong-un is unpredictable, seasoned Korea watchers see method in what may sometimes seem like madness. And that leads them to doubt that he actually intends to use nuclear weapons — which make more sense as a bargaining chip in dealing with the US and other powers. Pyongyang’s chemical arsenal is a different prospect, however. ‘If there’s a conflict on the Korean peninsula, North Korea would probably use chemical weapons early on,’ Koblentz said.”

PHEMCE Review: Accomplishments and Future Areas of Opportunity 
GMU Biodefense PhD student and VP of Marketing at Emergent BioSolutions, Rebecca Fish, is looking at the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE) and their recent strategic implementation plan. Highlighting their four goals and sample accomplishments, Rebecca looks at their work on emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) like Ebola response and Zika. While PHEMCE has made great progress, there is still room for engagement and opportunity. Rebecca points to their plans to incentivize innovation, “while biotechnology is increasing at an exponential rate, and the opportunity for misuse (bioterrorism) is increasing, the number of companies interested in making significant investment in medical countermeasures development is decreasing. There are important MCM innovation gaps that need to be addressed.” She notes that PHEMCE activity encompasses a great deal of federal agencies, which can make work that much more challenging. “However, the PHEMCE effort still requires strong, centralized leadership and a comprehensive strategic plan with measurable outcomes against which progress can be reported. It’s impressive that so many groups are working on these challenges, but who is determining the overall strategic plan? How does it come together? Which single individual has responsibility for the entire biodefense strategic effort? Who is managing the enterprise U.S. biodefense budget? No one. No one has clear accountability for the U.S. biodefense strategy, and this puts our country at risk.”

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Announces 2017 Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity
The Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University has announced the new class of emerging leaders in biosecurity. GMU is happy to announced that one of our Biodefense PhD students, Saskia Popescu, was named among the 2017 emerging leaders. “The program’s goal is to build a multidisciplinary network of biosecurity practitioners and scholars. ELBI is supported by a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project. As part of its commitment to grow and support the field of biosecurity, the Center has selected 28 Fellows from the US, the UK, and Canada. As in previous years, this year’s Fellows have backgrounds in government, the biological sciences, medicine, national security, law enforcement, public health preparedness, and the private sector.” Congrats to the new class of emerging leaders!

Multivariate Analysis of Radiation Responsive Proteins to Predict Radiation Exposure in Total-Body Irradiation and Partial-Body Irradiation Models
GMU Biodefense PhD student, Mary Sproull, is working to strengthen medical countermeasures in the event of a radiological or nuclear attack. Advanced screening and medical management of those exposed are vital during such an event. “In such a scenario, minimally invasive biomarkers that can accurately quantify radiation exposure would be useful for triage management by first responders. In this murine study, we evaluated the efficacy of a novel combination of radiation responsive proteins, Flt3 ligand (FL), serum amyloid A (SAA), matrix metalloproteinase 9 (MMP9), fibrinogen beta (FGB) and pentraxin 3 (PTX3) to predict the received dose after whole- or partial-body irradiation.” Researchers found that the novel combination of radiation responsive biomarker proteins are an efficient and accurate tactic for predicting radiation exposure. You can read the paper here.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • OPCW Call for Nominations For A Workshop on Policy & Diplomacy for Scientists – The OPCW Technical Secretariat is organizing a workshop, “Introduction to Responsible Research Practices in Chemical and Biochemical Sciences”, from September 12-15, 2017. “The objective of the workshop is to raise awareness among young scientists on the policy and diplomacy aspects that are related to the use of chemicals in various scientific disciplines, including chemistry, biochemistry, biotechnology, and other related fields.” Check out their link for more info on applying for admission and/or a scholarship.
  • Epidemic Tracking Tool Wins Open Science Grand Prize – A new prototype, Nextstrain, has won the new Open Science Prize. This tool analyzes and tracks genetic mutations during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks and they’re hoping to use it for other viruses. “Everyone is doing sequencing, but most people aren’t able to analyze their sequences as well or as quickly as they might want to,” Bedford said. “We’re trying to fill in this gap so that the World Health Organization or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — or whoever — can have better analysis tools to do what they do. We’re hoping that will get our software in the hands of a lot of people.”

Pandora Report 12.7.14

I hope all of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! There were a lot of stories to consider for this extra long (extra late) week in review. We cover the AIDS pandemic, Avian Influenza, Polio in Pakistan, and, of course, Ebola. For those of you in school, I hope your papers and exams aren’t too overwhelming! For everyone else, have a wonderful week, hopefully paper and exam-free week!

AIDS Campaigners Say Pandemic Has Finally Reached Tipping Point

A report released by the ONE campaign to mark World AIDS Day on December 1 said that “the world has finally reached “the beginning of the end” of the AIDS pandemic that has infected and killed millions in the past 30 years.” What is the tipping point? The number of newly infected HIV patients is lower than the number of HIV positive patients who have access to retroviral medications that keep AIDS at bay. However, this doesn’t mean the fight is over.

Reuters—“‘We’ve passed the tipping point in the AIDS fight at the global level, but not all countries are there yet, and the gains made can easily stall or unravel,” said Erin Hohlfelder, ONE’s director of global health policy.”

FAO, OIE Warn of Avian Influenza’s Rapid Spread

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organization for Animal Health have warned that the new avian flu strain detected in Europe is similar to those found in Asia and pose a significant threat to the poultry sector. Evidence of H5N8 has been found in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, as well as China, Japan, and South Korea. So far, it doesn’t appear this strain is infecting people, however, this week there were reported human cases and deaths from H5N1.

The Poultry Site—“The new virus strain provides a stark reminder to the world that avian influenza viruses continue to evolve and emerge with potential threats to public health, food security and nutrition, to the livelihoods of vulnerable poultry farmers, as well as to trade and national economies. Therefore extreme vigilance is strongly recommended while progressive control efforts must be sustained and financed.”

Pakistan Polio Outbreak ‘Will Probably be Fixed Next Year’ says WHO Official

So far this year there have been 262 cases of polio detected in Pakistan, which is the highest number of cases in 14 years. Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world, including Afghanistan and Nigeria, where the virus remains endemic. Despite these numbers, a WHO official in Pakistan says the disease will “most probably be fixed in the first half of 2015.” Military campaigns around the country have not only made vaccination more difficult but have faced tribal militants who banned all vaccinations.

The Guardian—“Persistent public awareness campaigns have not fully quashed popular fears that the drops given to children – a solution of highly weakened polio virus – are part of a western conspiracy to make Muslims infertile.

The Pakistani Taliban have attacked and killed health workers who conduct door-to-door campaigns, forcing the government to mount massive security operations during major vaccination drives.”

This Week in Ebola

We’ve got a lot of news from the last two weeks, so today, let’s start stateside.

The CDC says you can stop worrying because it is very unlikely that Ebola will become airborne, so you can stop cancelling your African safaris. Ebola anxiety has left the U.S. buying up all the PPEs leaving little for workers in West Africa, while the Director of the Harvard School of Public Health Emergency Preparedness has said that U.S. quarantine policy could discourage volunteers from going to help the outbreak. However, recently, no one has been caught in quarantines entering New York and New Jersey airports. 35 American hospitals have been designated as Ebola centers and already the U.S. government is looking past Ebola for the next health disaster. Meanwhile, the first human trial of an experimental vaccine for the virus has produced promising results.

Overseas, the German airline Lufthansa adapted an A340-300 to transport Ebola patients. In Liberia, the President has banned election rallies and mass gatherings under the reasoning that they risk worsening the spread of the virus and Ebola moves out of the cities, it is ‘pingponging’ into rural areas. In Sierra Leone there are approximately 80-100 new cases of Ebola daily, they are running out of beds, and in protest of non-payment, burial workers are dumping bodies in public in the city of Kenema. One piece of good news coming out of this outbreak that has affected more than 16,000 people is that female genital mutilation is on the decline. Also, a new 15-minute test for Ebola is being tested in Guinea, which, if it works, will help medical staff identify and isolate Ebola patients sooner.

The UN warns that the longer the disease is allowed to spread unchecked in West Africa, the more likely it is that Ebola will appear in new places in the world but EcoHealth journal notes that closer study of zoonotic diseases could help prevent Ebola and other diseases from affecting humans. Don’t worry though, according to North Korea Ebola isn’t a zoonotic disease, it is a bioweapon created by the U.S.

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Free Internet Pictures

Pandora Report 11.2.14

For this edition of the Pandora Report we look at Jonas Salk, avian influenza in China, TB and diabetes as a co-epidemic, and, of course, an Ebola update. As the weather is turning cooler, don’t forget to get your flu shot, and remember to protect yourself by washing your hands!

Have a great week!

On Jonas Salk’s 100th Birthday, A Celebration of his Polio Vaccine

If you visited Google.com on Tuesday you may have seen one of their famous doodles dedicated to Jonas Salk. Salk’s polo vaccine was declared safe and effective in 1955 and was, interestingly enough, never patented. “The notion handed down to us is that Salk decided not to patent the vaccine as a noble act of self-abnegation.”

The Los Angeles Times—“But the more important reason the vaccine went unpatented, as related by David M. Oshinsky in his 2005 book, “Polio: An American Story,” is that legally it was thought to be unpatentable. The National Foundation and the University of Pittsburgh, where much of the work was done, had looked into patenting the vaccine. They were dissuaded by Salk, who informed them that his techniques weren’t novel and his work had been based on years of prior work by others.”

Five Strains of H5 Avian Flu Reported Across China 

The Chinese veterinary authority reported outbreaks of five different subtypes of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) to the World Organization of Animal Health (OIE) on October 24. There were a total of 51 positive findings of the following strains; H5N3, H5N8, H5N2, H5N6, and H5N1. A map of all strain outbreaks is available here.

CIDRAP—“Two of the strains—H5N8 and H5N3—have not been reported by China to the OIE before. Two outbreaks of the former were reported in September, each involving one bird (a duck and an unspecified bird) sampled during a national surveillance plan. One was at a slaughterhouse and the other in a wetland area; both were in Liaoning province in the northeast.”

Unlikely Marriage of Diseases: TB and Diabetes Form a ‘Co-Epidemic’

A white paper presented on Wednesday at the 45th Union World Conference on Lung Health in Barcelona, Spain, warns, “diabetes is fueling the spread of TB.” The paper warns that having diabetes increases the risk that a person will become sick with TB will make TB more difficult to manage, adding that a patient with both diseases is more likely to have complications that do not exist when only one disease is present.

NPR—“The TB/diabetes double-whammy has at least two important differences from the TB/HIV co-epidemic. [1.] It involves the interaction of an infectious disease (TB is the world’s second-deadliest, next to HIV/AIDS) and a non-communicable chronic disease, rather than two infections. [2.] It has potentially more global impact. The TB/HIV co-epidemic was concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, where 18 countries saw TB rates quadruple because of HIV. Many more countries have high rates of TB and, increasingly, of diabetes.”

This Week in Ebola

Not sure if it was because of Halloween or what, but it seemed to me there were fewer Ebola stories this week. Dallas nurse Amber Vinson, was finally released from Emory Hospital, free of the Ebola virus. Many other stories this week focused on quarantine. Kaci Hickox, the nurse who worked treating patients in Sierra Leone, first protested over her isolation in New Jersey, and then broke her quarantine in Maine, was reportedly ‘humbled’ when a judge in her home state of Maine ruled she can come and go as she pleases. She was still in this news this weekend as it was reported that her roommate in Africa tested positive for Ebola and there was a skit about her on SNL. President Obama has said that quarantines may dissuade doctors and nurses from traveling to West Africa, while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said that U.S. military personnel returning from West Africa will be subject to a 21-day quarantine. The WHO reported that Ebola infections are slowing in Liberia, and the New England Journal of Medicine says they have a suspect zero for this whole outbreak.

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Google

Pandora Report 7.26.14

Highlights this week include, Dr. Frieden goes to Washington, top Ebola doc comes down with the virus, a TB patient on the loose in California, and a plague based shut-down in China. Have a great weekend!

CDC Director to Tackle MERS, Measles, Global Health Threats

It was my absolute pleasure to be able to attend a talk given by Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the National Press Club on Tuesday.  Though Dr. Frieden briefly covered the stated topics, he spoke primarily about the dangers of growning antibiotic resistance and hospital acquired infections. He urged everyone, including the CDC, to work hard(er) to combat these issues that may usher us into a “post-antibiotic era.” The entire speech is available here. (You may even notice me in the lower left corner chowing down on a CDC cupcake!)

USA Today—“‘Anti-microbial resistance has the potential to harm or kill anyone in the country, undermine modern medicine, to devastate our economy and to make our health care system less stable,” Frieden said.

To combat the spread of resistant bacteria, Frieden said the CDC plans to isolate their existence in hospitals and shrink the numbers through tracking and stricter prevention methods.”

 

Sierra Leone’s Top Ebola Doctor Infected as the Worst Outbreak in History Continues

You may have seen this story pop up earlier this week in our facebook or twitter, but it certainly bears repeating. Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, who has been credited with treating more than 100 Ebola victims, has come down with the virus too. He is now one of hundreds who have been affected by the virus in West Africa, which has killed over 600.

The Washington Post-“In late June, Khan seemed keenly aware of the risk he faced. “I am afraid for my life, I must say, because I cherish my life,” he told Reuters. “Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease. Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you are at risk.’”

 

California Police Seek Man Who Refused Tuberculosis Treatment

Prosecutors in Northern California have obtained an arrest warrant for Eduardo Rosas Cruz, a 25 year old transient, who was diagnosed with TB and disappeared before he started treatment. Rosas Cruz needed to complete a nine-month course of treatment. Tuberculosis spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is not known if Rosas Cruz is currently contagious. By law, health officials cannot force a patient to be treated but courts can be used to isolate an infectious individual from the public at large.

FOX News—“County health officials asked prosecutors to seek the warrant, in part, because Rosas Cruz comes from a part of Mexico known for its drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis. County health officials are searching for Rosas Cruz, and his name is in a statewide law enforcement system, San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Stephen Taylor said.”

 

In China, A Single Plague Death Means an Entire City Quarantined

Parts of Yumen City, in Gansu Province, were quarantined after a farmer died from bubonic plague. The man developed the disease after coming in contact with a dead marmot on a plain where his animals were grazing. According to experts, Chinese authorities categorize plague as a Class 1 disease, which enables them to label certain zones as “infection areas” and seal them off. 151 people were affected by the quarantine, which was lifted after none developed symptoms.

The Guardian—“The World Health Organization’s China office praised the Chinese government’s handling of the case. “The Chinese authorities notified WHO of the case of plague in Gansu province, as per their requirements under the International Health Regulations,” it said in a statement to the Guardian. “The national health authorities have advised us that they have determined this to be an isolated case, though they are continuing to monitor the patient’s close contacts.’”

 

Image Credit: RT

The Pandora Report 1.17.14

Just a quick note that the Biodefense Policy Seminars are back on! Our February speaker is Charles Duelfer, former Special Advisor to the Director of Central Intelligence for Iraq WMD and former Deputy Executive Chairman of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM). Free and open to the public – click here for more information!

Highlights include Salmonella,  H5N1 in Canada, H7N9 picking up in China, and Chikungunya in St. Martin. Happy Friday!

Why Salmonella bacteria is a near perfect killer
Much like an action film protagonist, Salmonella biofilms are notoriously difficult to kill. According to new research from the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, once Salmonella bacteria are able to form biofilms on a given surface, three different common disinfectants all are rendered ineffective. Salmonella’s ongoing hardiness explains in part the difficulty in effectively containing outbreaks.

ANI – “Mary Corcoran, a researcher on the study, said that they found that it was not possible to kill the Salmonella cells using any of the three disinfectants if the biofilm was allowed to grow for seven days before the disinfectant was applied, asserting that even soaking the biofilms in disinfectant for an hour and a half failed to kill them.”

H5N1 strain from Alberta nurse resembles Chinese strain
The strain of H5N1 which killed a nurse in Canada closely resembles a Chinese strain of the virus. The nurse, in her early 20s, had recently returned from a three-week visit to Beijing. However, as she had no reported contact with poultry, and Beijing has not reported any recent outbreaks of H5N1, the source of infection and method of transmission remain unclear.

CBC – “Virologist Kevin Fonseca of Alberta Health Services and his colleagues said the patient experienced symptoms of malaise, chest pain, and fever during the return flight on Dec. 27 and went to the local emergency department on Dec. 28…After a chest X-ray and CT scan suggested a diagnosis of pneumonia, the woman was prescribed an antibiotic and discharged home. The patient came back to the same emergency department on Jan. 1 with worsening inflammation of the membrane surrounding the lung, chest pain, shortness of breath, a mild headache that felt worse when she moved her head, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms, Fonseca’s team said in their posting on ProMed, an internet-based disease alert system. On Jan. 2, the patient reported visual changes and a continuing headache. As oxygen needs increased, doctors admitted her to the ICU for intubation and ventilation. In the early morning of Jan. 3, she had sudden tachycardia or fast heart rate and severe hypertension, followed by hypotension. Doctors took steps to keep her heart beating. At this point, the patient’s pupils were dilated and there was no response to pain. Further tests and a neurologic exam indicated brain death.”

New cases put H7N9 pace near last year’s peak
The number of H7N9 cases in China are picking up again, with nearly 35 cases reported in the last week. This is just three under peak numbers during the height of the infection at the virus’ initial emergence. Health officials monitoring the situation remain split on the implications of the increased numbers – however, the prevailing opinion seems to be that as long as the virus remains poorly transmitted between people, we don’t panic.

CIDRAP – “The steady stream of new cases could mean that Chinese health officials are better at detecting cases, but he added that it doesn’t look like they missed many cases last year in the early months of the outbreak. ‘There must be a similar widespread circulation in poultry,’ said Osterholm, who is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, publisher of CIDRAP News, Recent H7N9 developments raise questions about what’s being done to minimize the risks to humans and should be setting off bells, whistles, and sirens warning about the threat, he said. ‘Each one [case] is another throw at the genetic roulette table’.”

Chikungunya virus spreads in Caribbean just weeks after breaking out in tiny St. Martin
In the two weeks since Chikungunya made it to the Caribbean, it has quickly spread to over 200 people. The virus can cause febrility, joint pain, and intense myalgia. Trouble in paradise (it had to be said)?

FOX – “The virus then spread to neighboring Dutch St. Maarten, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says new cases have also been confirmed in the French Caribbean islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Barthelemy. The British Virgin Islands reported three cases Monday. CDC epidemiologist Erin Staples said Tuesday that ‘further spread to other Caribbean islands and to the surrounding mainland areas is possible in the coming months and years’.”

The Pandora Report 8.16.13

Highlights this week: MERS in India, Ebola!, new swine flu, a universal flu vaccine?, and not mad cow. Happy Friday!

Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Reaches India

With a population of over 1.2 bilion people, India has understandably been on high alert for Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus. Last week a 40-year-old man who had just returned from Saudi Arabia became the country’s first case. The patient spent three day in his home in Vashi, a small town less than two hours south of Mumbai, before being admitted into the local hospital. No word yet on whether he has a family or close relatives living with him, but no new cases have been detected.

Times of India – “In the first suspected case of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in the city, a Vashi resident has been quarantined at Kasturba Hospital in Chinchpokli. The 40-year-old man was admitted to the hospital’s ward 30, meant for infectious diseases, on Wednesday afternoon with complaints of fever and a progressing pneumonia (inflammation of lungs). The patient had returned to India on August 12 after spending 35 days in Saudi Arabia.”

Scientists Reveal How Deadly Ebola Virus Assembles

Just when you thought you knew Ebola, its proteins go and change shape on you. Scientists have discovered that the molecule responsible for the virus’ release of virions (VP40) is capable of changing shape to perform new functions.  This is a big deal, as up until now, proteins were generally believed to only be possible of forming one shape – one shape, one function. Researchers will be able to use this surprising piece of information to build antivirals tailored specifically to the VP40’s different shapes, enabling them to selectively target different points in the virus’ assembly. Which would be nice, because Ebola is scary.

Science Daily – “The results, five years in the making, revealed the Ebola VP40 protein exists as a dimer, not as a monomer as previously thought, and it rearranges its structure to assemble filaments to build the virus shell or “matrix” to release countless new viruses from infected cells. The study showed the protein also rearranges itself into rings in order to bind RNA and control the internal components of the virus copied inside infected cells. This “shape-shifting” or “transformer” behavior explains how the Ebola virus can control a multi-step viral lifecycle using only a very limited number of genes.”

New swine flu virus found by University of Hong Kong researchers

Scientists at the University of Hong Kong have unearthed a new influenza virus, nimbly dubbed porcine parainfluenza virus 1(PPIV-1), in 386 pig carcasses collected from slaughterhouses around Hong Kong. Despite the virus’ close similarity to existing human flu viruses, as long as meat is thoroughly cooked there is no immediate health threat to us. The stability of the virus’ genome suggested its primary host is pigs, in which it is also found to cause respiratory symptoms. However, study researchers have called for greater surveillance of imported animals – Hong Kong imports 3,000 pigs from mainland China daily – as well as a more thorough investigation into the virus’ source.

South China Morning Post – “But a top researcher behind the study, microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, warned it might mutate and jump from pigs to humans. ‘The new virus is closely related to some human influenza viruses,’ Yuen said. ‘We should watch for possible cross-species transmission from pigs to humans, just as in the case of [human] swine influenza H1N1 and the Nipah virus.'”

Universal Flu Vaccine: Pandemic Viruses May Give Clues

The best safeguard for beating the newest pandemic flu seems to be having lived through a couple already. According to new research, individuals who had been exposed to both the 1957 H2N2 and the 1977 H1NI pandemic influenza viruses had higher levels of broadly neutralizing antibodies.  These antibodies are better able to target the flu viruses’ “stalk” portion (rather than their “head”) which remains relatively conserved across strains. Before you start counting the number of times you’ve been laid up with the flu (or smartly got a flu shot), antibodies produced against seasonal flu won’t confer the same protection. For some reason, our body tends to produce antibodies against the “head” portion of regular winter flu viruses. However, researchers hope that by creating a seasonal flu shot which tricks your immune system into thinking it’s facing a pandemic virus,  a universal flu vaccine may be possible.

Live science – “Levels of broadly neutralizing antibodies increased modestly over time in the study participants, and were highest among those who’d been exposed to more than one pandemic. Levels of broadly neutralizing antibodies were 3.8-fold higher in those who had been exposed to both H2N2 and H1N1, compared with those exposed to only H1N1, the study found. The finding suggests a strategy for making a universal flu vaccine: create a vaccine that contains flu viruses with very different heads, but highly similar stalks, Miller told LiveScience.”

New virus could help rule out mad cow

We don’t spend a lot of time talking about pathogens which affect  exclusively agricultural and food security here at the Pandora Report, which isn’t to say they’re not critically important. Scientists have discovered and successfully characterized an astrovirus which produces symptoms similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more commonly known as mad cow disease. Although the new virus is not zoonotic, researchers can use its sequenced genome to develop a quick an easy diagnostic test capable of ruling out BSE.  Currently, testing for BSE and other neurological diseases in cattle is very cost and labor intensive.

Futurity – “’Neurologic disease in cattle can be difficult to diagnose because there are a number of different causes, and pre-mortem sampling and analyses can be cumbersome and/or expensive,’ says corresponding author Patricia Pesavento, a veterinary pathologist in the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine…’Understanding the role of this virus is crucial for veterinarians as well as for the dairy and beef cattle industries,’ she says. ‘Additionally, finding new viruses helps us identify other, more remote viruses because it builds our knowledge of both the depth and breadth of viral family trees.'”

(image courtesy of Axel Drainville/Flickr)