Pandora Report 2.7.15

Whatta week, right?! Let’s jump right in to the stories. We’ve got the Subway, flu forecasting, American chemical weapons, and stories you may have missed.

Have a great weekend and a safe and healthy week!

A Close Look at the Germs Crawling Around the Subway

Every single day I ride the metro to work, and every single day, the first thing I do when I get to the office is wash my hands. And, really, that’s what everyone should be doing. A research team from the Weill Cornell Medical College spent the summer of 2013 swabbing turnstiles, subway poles, kiosks, benches, and other “human penetrated surfaces” in all 466 NYC subway stations.

Gothamist—“And they found quite a few signs of life—15,152 types of DNA, in fact—nearly half of which they identified as bacteria. Shocking!

[They] did manage to find some scary stuff, with E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus (skin infections, respiratory disease and food poisoning), Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), and even Yersinia pestis, which is associated with the bubonic plague, popping up in some swabs. Nearly all the stations harbored an antibiotic resistant bacteria called Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, one that often causes respiratory infections in hospitals.”

Forecasts May Soon Predict Flu Patterns

What if we could predict the flu like we predict the weather? That is what teams of researchers are looking at; devising and testing methods to predict the start, peak, and end of flu season. How will they do this? By combining data from the present with knowledge of past patterns to project what might happen in the future.

The Boston Globe—“If the CDC had a flu-season preview in hand, the agency could better time messages on use of vaccines and flu-fighting drugs.

Hospitals could plan staffing for patient surges or make sure key personnel are not on vacation when it appears the epidemic will probably peak. Parents could even take flu forecasts into account in scheduling birthday parties and play dates.”

U.S. to Destroy Largest Remaining Chemical Weapons Cache

Syria isn’t the only country working on destruction of its chemical weapons cache. The Pueblo Chemical Depot, in Southern Colorado, will begin neutralization of 2,600 tons of aging mustard agent in March. This action moves towards American compliance with a 1997 treaty that banned all chemical weapons.

USA Today—“‘The start of Pueblo is an enormous step forward to a world free of chemical weapons,” said Paul Walker, who has tracked chemical warfare for more than 20 years, first as a U.S. House of Representatives staffer and currently with Green Cross International, which advocates on issues of security, poverty and the environment.”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pandora Report 1.18.15

For those who’ve been reading for awhile, you’ve probably surmised that one of my personal health interests is seasonal and pandemic flu. There were plenty of stories about that this week, so that’s what we’ll focus on. We’ll also look at Ebola and other stories you may have missed. My apologies for posting delays this week, I’m dealing with some rotator cuff and carpal tunnel issues in my right arm, and let me tell you, it is HARD to type with your dominant arm in a sling!

Enjoy your holiday Monday (if you have one) and have a safe and healthy week!

Texas Health Experts Say Universal Flu Vaccine Could be a Reality

The CDC has said that this year’s seasonal flu vaccine was only 23% effective due to unanticipated antigenic drift—meaning the predicted strains in the vaccine didn’t match the dominant strains of the virus that are currently circulating. In order to combat this in the future, scientists at Mount Sinai health system in New York are in the process of testing a universal flu vaccine which will go into clinical trials this year.

KLTV.com—“‘There is work going on to see if, perhaps a different kind of vaccine could be developed maybe against a different part of the flu virus, one that is not so subject to this antigenic drift or to change as readily from one year to the next,” [Dr. Levin of UT Health Northeast] says.”

Scientists Find Brain Protein Aids Influenza Recovery

Scientists at Washington State University in Spokane have found a brain protein that boosts the healing power of sleep and speeds recovery from the flu in mice. Professor James M. Kruger said this discovery could lead to alternative treatments for flu and other infectious diseases by stimulating production of the brain protein called AcPb. This discovery comes at a time where avian influenza is prevalent in Taiwan, Japan, Nigeria, China, Egypt, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

Washington State University—“Krueger showed this recovery involves AcPb and an immune system signaling chemical called interleukin-1. AcPb links up with interleukin-1 to help regulate sleep in healthy animals. It also prompts infected animals to spend more time sleeping during an illness.

In the study, mice who lacked the gene for AcPb slept less after being infected with influenza virus. They also became chilled, grew sluggish, lost their normal circadian rhythms and ultimately died in higher numbers than the mice who slept longer.”

This Week in Ebola

As GMU students return to classes, so do students in Ebola affected Guinea. Schools in Guinea will re-open Monday, and schools in Liberia are set to re-open “next month.” No date has been set for schools in Sierra Leone. Despite this, the President of Sierra Leone has declared that there will be zero new confirmed Ebola cases by the end of March the country will be Ebola-free, by WHO standards, by May. These announcements come at a time when Dr. Thomas Frieden, Director of the CDC, has said he was “very confident we can get to zero cases in this epidemic if we continue the way we’re going and nothing unexpected happens” and the outbreak appears to be slowing down. Last week brought record low numbers—for Guinea, the lowest total since mid-August; for Liberia, the lowest total since the first week of June; for Sierra Leone the second week of declines and the lowest level since the end of August. However, there are still “at least 50 micro-outbreaks” underway throughout West Africa.

Pauline Cafferkey, the Scottish nurse infected with Ebola, is “showing signs of improvement” and an American soldier who was found dead in Texas after his deployment in West Africa reportedly showed no signs of Ebola leaving officials to remark that there was “no evidence of a public health threat.”

A seemingly large amount of good news this week left space for new ruminations on Ebola and outbreaks in general. Wired  had an interesting piece on Nanobiophysics and how it could stop future global pandemics while The Chicago Tribune looked at bats and their likely role in Ebola outbreaks and CNBC looked at the price of protection from global pandemics—would you believe $343.7 billion?

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: NBC News

Pandora Report 10.4.14

This week the round up includes Russian bird flu, pregnancy and flu, ISIS threats to British troops, and of course, an Ebola update.

Have a great weekend, don’t forget your flu shot, and keep smart about your news!

Russia Reports First Cases of Deadly Bird Flu in Two Years

Domestic chicken, geese, and ducks in the Altai Krai region of Russia, near the border of Kazakhstan, were found to be infected with the H5N1 serotype of bird flu. These are the first cases of the highly pathogenic flu in this area in nearly two years.

Reuters—“The latest outbreaks in Russia, which led to the death or culling of 344 birds, were thought to have come from wild birds. “Probably, hunted ducks and geese trophies had been placed in backyards where mortality occurred later in domestic birds,” the farm ministry said in its report.”

Why is Flu Virus Higher Risk for Pregnant Women? 

While HHS continues to prepare for pandemic flu, which could kill 60 million people, researchers at Stanford University have looked at the effects flu has on pregnant women. A pregnant woman’s immune system is strongly suppressed, but researchers say this alone cannot explain vulnerability to influenza. Researchers looked at the proportion and behavior of natural killer cells and T cells, which in the presence of flu increased and changed in function. These findings offer a possible treatment path—changing inflammatory response rather than just fighting replication of the virus.

Star Tribune—“Women who get the flu while pregnant have a much higher risk of hospitalization and death and are four times more likely to deliver a premature baby. During the 1918 epidemic, in fact, the death rate among pregnant women was at least 28 times that of the general population.”

ISIS Threatens to Gas British Troops in Iraq: Soldiers Ordered to Carry Chemical Suits

British Special Forces training Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and identifying RAF bombing targets in Northern Iraq have started carrying chemical protection suits. Intelligence sources warned that ISIS fighters may have stolen poison gas from Syrian forces who withheld the agents from destruction. ISIS is thought to have stolen sarin and chlorine gases when they raided a Syrian Air Force base two months ago.

The Mirror—“The [British] soldiers now carry nuclear and biological warfare protection and respirators. All vehicles are being fitted with gas detectors and an RAF Regiment trained in chemical warfare is on standby to fly to the region.”

This Week in Ebola

Oh, Ebola. The big story this week is that the virus arrived on American shores, with the first confirmed case in Dallas and potential cases of Ebola in the DC area being ruled out, the CDC is using contact modeling to help track potential cases in Texas. Arrival in the U.S. has caused an absolute avalanche of news stories and opinion pieces throughout the media. They have ranged from fear mongering about an epidemic in the U.S. and how quarantines would be ineffective, to why you shouldn’t worry about Ebola as a bioweapon. We saw the White House urging calm (and making awesome infographics) and medical facilities saying the average American citizen has nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, there were reports that Ebola poses a greater risk than SARS and AIDS and Louis Farrakhan tweeted that Ebola is a bioweapon against Africans. Use of hyperbole and misinformation do a disservice to those trying to responsibly inform Americans. We saw a case of a doctor in Liberia who quarantined herself in order to keep others safe and another Liberian doctor who seems to have effectively treated Ebola using HIV drugs. And, of course, the biggest problem was that Ebola could affect the cocoa trade. Oh wait, no, that’s what we in “the biz” call a #champagneproblem.

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Pregnant In The City

Pandora Report 9.6.14

This week we cover dengue in Japan, dog flu in NYC, more forgotten lethal specimens in government labs, and of course, an Ebola update.

Canine Influenza Cases Spreading in Manhattan

Flu season is rapidly approaching, and evidently, it doesn’t only affect humans. Veterinarians in Manhattan have reported cases throughout the borough. The cases are likely due to dogs playing with other infected dogs at parks and dog runs. Vets warn owners to watch for coughing dogs and if they are present to take their dog to another area. The good news is, just like their human counterparts, dogs, too, can receive a flu vaccine.

The Gothamist—“According to the ASPCA, symptoms include coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing, fever, lethargy and loss of appetite; most dogs will recover within a month, but secondary infections like pneumonia can be problematic.”

 

New Cases of Dengue Fever Should be a Wake-Up Call for Japan

As many as 70 people in Japan have been infected with Dengue fever—traditionally, a disease found in tropical climates—the country’s first outbreak since 1945. The diagnoses prompted authorities to fumigate an area of Yoyogi Park in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, which was the apparent source of the infections. Dengue fever is transmitted by mosquitos and produces an extremely high fever and pain in the joints. The disease is not transmitted person to person.

The Asahi Shimbun—“The most effective way to deal with a global dengue epidemic is to step up the efforts to exterminate mosquitoes in countries with a large number of patients, especially in urban areas.”

 

Forgotten Vials of Ricin, Plague, and Botulism found in U.S. Government Lab 

A strong feeling of deja vu hit this week when we learned about yet another case of forgotten vials of dangerous pathogens at U.S. labs. In this case, the containers were discovered during an investigation of NIH facilities after scientists found vials of smallpox earlier this summer. This search discovered a century (!!) old bottle of ricin, as well as samples of tularemia and meliodosis. The FDA also reported they found an improperly stored sample of staphylococcus enterotoxin.

The Independent—“The NIH does have laboratories that are cleared to use select agents, and those pathogens are regularly inventoried, the director of research services Dr. Alfred Johnson said. However, these samples were allowed to be stored without regulation.”

 

This Week in Ebola

We learned that new cases of Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo are genetically unrelated to the West African strain and that researchers from the Broad Institute and Harvard are working to sequence and analyze virus genomes from the West African outbreak. Senegal is working hard to manage contacts with the Guinean student who tested positive for the virus in the capital, Dakar. Human trials of an Ebola vaccine continued in the U.S. and are planned to take place in Mali, the U.K., and Gambia. A third American infected with Ebola will return to the U.S. and will be treated at a Nebraska medical containment unit which was built for the SARS outbreak. I read an article that hypothesized that Ebola may be able to be transmitted sexually which could account for a high number of cases, while the Washington Post pointed to the fact that the West Africa outbreak is drawing attention from diseases which are more widespread and kill more people—it’s the Kardashian of diseases. Lastly, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said that this outbreak of Ebola is “threatening the stability” of affected and neighboring countries, and Dr. Daniel Lucey, of the Georgetown University Medical Center, predicts that the current outbreak “will go on for more than a year, and will continue to spread unless a vaccine or other drugs that prevent or treat the disease are developed.”

 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pandora Report 8.22.14

Did you see that the destruction of Syria’s most lethal chemicals is now complete? Well, it is! Its good news among so many biodefense stories covering Ebola. I have no interest in making the Pandora Report the “All Ebola, All the Time” newsletter. As such, we will look at one Ebola story as well as stories covering new discoveries in tuberculosis and influenza.

Have a fabulous weekend, and students, enjoy your last one before classes start on Monday!

Tuberculosis is Newer Than Thought, Study Says

A recent study published in Nature reports that tuberculosis originated less than 6,000 years ago and was carried to the new world by seals. Seals! This new research contradicts original timeline and species genesis and some scientists think this study provides more questions than answers.

The New York Times—“In the new paper, the team proposes that humans acquired tuberculosis in Africa around 5,000 years ago. The disease spread to people across the Old World along trade routes. Meanwhile, Africans also spread the disease to animals such as cows and goats. Seals that hauled out onto African beaches to raise their pups became infected. The bacteria then spread through seal populations until reaching South America. Ancient hunters there became infected when they handled contaminated meat.”

Enzyme Holds the Door for Influenza

As the fall season and semester approach, the flu season travels with it. I was delighted to read that Walgreens, in addition to CVS, will now offer seasonal flu shots in their stores. More interesting news about flu came out of Vanderbilt University, too. Researches have investigated enzyme phospholipase D (PLD) and it ability to help the influenza virus escape immune response. Blocking PLD could assist in preventing the flu.

Bioscience Technology Online—“Normally the virus slips into its host cell in the epithelial lining of the lungs through internalized membrane compartments called endosomes. By delaying this process, the researchers propose, PLD2 inhibitors may give the cell’s innate immune response more time to destroy it.”

Patient Checked for Ebola Virus in Sacramento

Internationally, the good news is that quarantines have been set up in Liberia, in attempt to contain the spread of Ebola. The bad news is that they have become fairly violent. Stateside, this week Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were released from Emory University Hospital after recovering from Ebola infections acquired in West Africa.

There was news of a possible case in Northern California. With few details provided as to the patient and transmission route, we learned that there is a patient being tested for Ebola in Sacramento. California Department of Health reported that the cases is low risk but that testing is being done out of “abundance of caution.”

San Francisco Chronicle—“‘In order to protect our patients, staff and physicians, even though infection with the virus is unconfirmed, we are taking the actions recommended by the CDC as a precaution, just as we do for other patients with a suspected infectious disease,” said Dr. Stephen Parodi, an infectious disease specialist at Kaiser Permanente North California. “This includes isolation of the patient in a specially equipped negative pressure room and the use of personal protective equipment by trained staff, coordinated with infectious disease specialists.’”

 

Image Credit

Image of the Week: Influenza!

11825_loresThis illustration provides a 3D graphical representation of a generic influenza virion’s ultrastructure, and is not specific to a seasonal, avian or 2009 H1N1 virus. 

There are three types of influenza viruses: A, B and C. Human influenza A and B viruses cause seasonal epidemics of disease almost every winter in the United States. The emergence of a new and very different influenza virus to infect people can cause an influenza pandemic. Influenza type C infections cause a mild respiratory illness and are not thought to cause epidemics.

Influenza A viruses are divided into subtypes based on two proteins on the surface of the virus: the hemagglutinin (H), and the neuraminidase (N). There are 16 different hemagglutinin subtypes and 9 different neuraminidase subtypes. Influenza A viruses can be further broken down into different strains. Current subtypes of influenza A viruses found in people are influenza A (H1N1) and influenza A (H3N2) viruses. In the spring of 2009, a new influenza A (H1N1) virus emerged to cause illness in people. This virus was very different from regular human influenza A (H1N1) viruses and the new virus has caused an influenza pandemic.

Influenza B viruses are not divided into subtypes, however, influenza B viruses also can be further broken down into different strains.

 

Image and Caption Credit: CDC