The Pandora Report 1.10.14

Highlights include PEDv thriving in the polar vortex, H5N1 in Canada, archaeological epidemiology,  H7N9 in China, and MERS in Oman. Happy Friday!

Cold, wet weather may help spread deadly pig virus: USDA
Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv) has officially spread to 22 states, helped in part by the colder weather, and affecting over 2,000 hogs. The virus, which causes diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, and death in piglets, reaches as far west as California. The cooler weather enables the hardy virus freezes on clothes and on the bottom of shoes, enabling spread.

Baltimore Sun – “‘The virus likes cold, wet and cloudy days,’ said Rodney Baker, a swine veterinarian at Iowa State University at Ames, Iowa, the top pork producing state in the United States.Earlier this week several hog producing states experienced double digit sub zero temperatures, and forecasters now are calling for warmer temperatures as highs climb toward 30 degrees Fahrenheit by the weekend. Baker told Reuters the virus can remain viable after a single, maybe even a couple of freeze-thaw cycles. Cold weather and cloudy conditions protect the virus, but heat and sunlight will deactivate it, Baker said. The spread of the disease has heightened scrutiny of the U.S. trucking industry as livestock transport trailers are seen as a means of transmission.”

H5N1 bird flu death confirmed in Alberta, 1st in North America
The first H5N1 fatality in North America occurred in Canada last week. A Canadian woman returning from China became symptomatic on December 27th, was hospitalized January 1st, and died January 3rd. The woman had not visited any live farms, not had she come in contact with poultry – the method of transmission remains unclear. Remember, while H5N1 has a fatality rate of 60%,  there is currently no indication the virus is readily transmissible person-to-person. It’s just not well adapted to our immune system – for now at least, it prefers the birds.

CBC – “Dr. Gregory Taylor, deputy chief public health officer, said the avian form of influenza has been found in birds, mainly poultry, in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East….The officials added that the woman was otherwise healthy and it’s not yet clear how the person contracted H5N1. Speaking to Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network’s Power & Politics, Taylor said the patient was relatively young. ‘This was a relatively young — well, a young person compared to me, with no underlying health conditions,’ he said. Taylor is 58 [reports have listed the girl as 20 years old]. Officials emphasized that this is not a disease transmitted between humans.”

Scientists unlock evolution of cholera, identify strain responsible for early pandemics
The next time you’re in Philadelphia, instead of visiting the well-trod landmarks, consider visiting the Mütter museum, home to the 200-year old intestinal samples. Those samples, taken during a cholera epidemic at the turn of the 18th century, has helped scientists characterize the classical biotype of cholera, thought to be responsible for seven outbreaks during the 19th century. Scientists had thus far been unable to study the classical biotype, due to its preference for the intestines – unlike bones which can linger for millennia, the transience of intestines makes collecting DNA samples over time challenging.

Medical Express – “Researchers carefully sampled a preserved intestine from a male victim of the 1849 pandemic and extracted information from tiny DNA fragments to reconstruct the Vibrio cholera genome. The results, currently published in The New England Journal of Medicine, could lead to a better understanding of cholera and its modern-day strain known as El Tor, which replaced the classical strain in the 1960s for unknown reasons and is responsible for recent epidemics, including the devastating post-earthquake outbreak in Haiti. ‘Understanding the evolution of an infectious disease has tremendous potential for understanding its epidemiology, how it changes over time, and what events play a role in its jump into humans,’ explains Poinar, associate professor and director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and an investigator with the Michael G. DeGroote Institute of Infectious Disease Research, also at McMaster University.”

WHO: China Reports Eight New Cases of H7N9
China reported eight new cases of H7N9 in the last five days, including three cases in which exposure to live poultry could not be confirmed. Again, a slight increase in case numbers was expected with the cooler weather, and as of yet, there remains no confirmed, ongoing transmission person-to-person.  For a full breakdown of the seven cases (the eighth case was announced by health authorities in Hong Kong), see the GAR above.

WHO – “The National Health and Family Planning Commission of China has notified WHO of seven additional laboratory-confirmed cases of human infection with avian influenza A(H7N9) virus. On 4 January 2014, WHO was notified of an 86-year-old man from Shanghai City became ill on 26 December and was admitted to hospital on 30 December. He is currently in critical condition. He has a history of exposure to live poultry. On 5 January 2014, WHO was notified of 34 year old woman from Shaoxing City, Zhejiang Province became ill on 29 December and was admitted to hospital on 2 January. She is currently in critical condition.”

New Case of MERS in Oman
A 59-year-old man has died of MERS in Oman, bringing the total number of cases globally up to 178. The patient became symptomatic on December 24th, was hospitalized on December 28th, and died on December 30th. The patient had extensive exposure to camels, including participation in camel racing events.  It looks more and more like camels, everyone.

WHO – “Globally, from September 2012 to date, WHO has been informed of a total of 178 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS-CoV, including 75 deaths. Based on the current situation and available information, WHO encourages all Member States to continue their surveillance for severe acute respiratory infections (SARI) and to carefully review any unusual patterns.”

(Image depicting jar of intestine, credit: McMaster University)

Image of the Week: Virus Art

We shared this a couple years ago, but it’s making the internet rounds again, so we don’t feel bad re-posting it. Our image is:

Glass sculptures of pathogens!

Pictured below is H5N1, the strain of HPAI currently appearing in birds across China’s Guizhou province. The sculpture is done by artist Luc Jerram. Check out the rest of his gallery here.


The Pandora Report 1.3.13

The first Pandora Report of the new year, and it’s (unsurprisingly) flu heavy. Highlights include H1N1 attacking the young, new MERS-CoV cases, H7N9 in Taiwan, H5N1 in China, and the gain-of-function debate (so more H5N1). Happy Friday!

Notice to Clinicians: Early Reports of pH1N1-Associated Illnesses for the 2013-14 Influenza Season
The CDC has a health alert out, detailing the tendency of this season’s predominant flu strain (which, as we’ve said before, looks like its going to be H1N1) to disproportionately affect the young. This is possibly because the elder amongst us are more resilient, due to cross-reactive immunity – they’ve been around longer, which means there’s a greater chance they have been exposed to similar viruses. The upshot is if you’re young and healthy, get a flu shot.

CDC – “From November through December 2013, CDC has received a number of reports of severe respiratory illness among young and middle-aged adults, many of whom were infected with influenza A (H1N1) pdm09 (pH1N1) virus. Multiple pH1N1-associated hospitalizations, including many requiring intensive care unit (ICU) admission, and some fatalities have been reported. The pH1N1 virus that emerged in 2009 caused more illness in children and young adults, compared to older adults, although severe illness was seen in all age groups. While it is not possible to predict which influenza viruses will predominate during the entire 2013-14 influenza season, pH1N1 has been the predominant circulating virus so far. For the 2013-14 season, if pH1N1 virus continues to circulate widely, illness that disproportionately affects young and middle-aged adults may occur.”

Six new cases of MERS virus hit Saudi Arabia, UAE
The WHO has reported six new cases of MERS-CoV. Of the six, five are Saudi nationals, with one case in the United Arab Emirates. Three of the cases, including one involving a wife tending to an ill husband, are reportedly asymptomatic. Ages of the new patients range from 59 to 73 years old, with the latter succumbing to the virus. The new cases bring the global total to 176, with 74 deaths. There is still no substantive information on the virus’ source, transmission, or vector. Sadly, “it might be camels” remains our most conclusive evidence to date – which is not to impugn the work of the scientists involved, which has been fastidious, but rather to bemoan the complexity of the virus itself.

Reuters – “MERS emerged in the Middle East in 2012 and is from the same family as the SARS virus. It can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia. Although the worldwide number of MERS infections is fairly small, the more than 40 percent death rate among confirmed cases and the spread of the virus beyond the Middle East is keeping scientists and public health officials on alert. Cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Tunisia as well as in several countries in Europe, and scientists are increasingly focused on a link between the human infections and camels as a possible ‘animal reservoir’ of the virus.”

Hundreds monitored in Taiwan after H7N9 strain of bird flu after infected tourist discovered
A tourist infected with H7N9 spent over a week travelling through Taiwan from mainland China before being hospitalized. Health authorities in Taiwan are scrambling to reach all people he potentially came in contact with during his tour. Three medical personal who had dealings with the infected patient have subsequently developed symptoms of upper respiratory infections themselves. However, it should be emphasized that there remains no conclusive evidence of sustained person-to-person transmission of the virus.

Channel Asia – ”  As many as 500 people may have had contact with him, all of whom are being asked to report to doctors should they develop possible symptoms, the statement added. The 149 people who may have had close contact include two family members accompanying him on the tour, the tour guide, bus driver, medical personnel and patients sharing the same hospital ward, it said.”

China confirms H5N1 bird flu outbreak in Guizhou
Following the death of approximately 8,500 birds on a farm in Southwest China,  health authorities have confirmed an outbreak of H5N1 amongst poultry in the area. The area has subsequently been sealed off, with a further 23,000 birds culled for safety. As of yet, no human cases have been reported in the area.

Xinhua – “The southwest China province of Guizhou has reported an outbreak of H5N1 in poultry, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) announced Thursday. Some chickens at a farm in a village of Libo County in the prefecture of Qiannan in Guizhou showed symptoms of suspected avian flu and 8,500 chickens died on Dec. 27, 2013. The National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory confirmed the epidemic was H5N1 bird flu after testing samples collected at the farm, according to the MOA.”

European Researchers Urge H5N1 Caution
The debate over gain-of-function (GOF) research continues to rage in the scientific community – in the most recent move, fifty scientists have drafted an open letter to the head of the European Commission, urging him to hold a press conference to discuss the merits of GOF research. For those of you not interested in macropolitics within the scientific community, gain-of-function research involves experiments in which viruses are carefully but deliberately mutated to increase pathogenicity in some way – in this case, by increasing transmissiblility between mammals. The research which launched the current maelstrom was Ron Fouchier’s  mutation of H5N1 to make it more transmissible between ferrets (and therefore, also, humans). We’ll leave the polemic arguments to those who are better informed, but in the meantime, the  letter is available here.

Science – “Fouchier’s struggles, which included the Dutch government using export regulations to bar him from publishing his results, compelled the European Society for Virology (ESV) to write its own letter to the EC in October. That letter expressed concern that the Dutch government’s tactics were inappropriate and threatened to set a precedent that could stymie the dissemination of research findings elsewhere. On the scientific side of the debate, some have argued that gain-of-function research, especially those studies that engineer deadly strains of the bird flu virus, can potentially result in inadvertent escapes from the lab and widespread infection. Proponents of the work argue that studying how mutations confer the ability to infect new individuals via novel routes can yield key insights into how the pathogens spread.”

(image of H1N1 via CDC/ Doug Jordan, M.A.)

The Pandora Report 11.29.13

Highlights include a new Q-fever vaccine, MERS in Qatari camels, revised 2009 H1N1 deaths, black silicon the bacteria slayer, and the new, FDA-approved, H5N1 vaccine. Happy Friday!

Eyeing Terrorist Potential, Pentagon Seeks Vaccine Against Cold War-Era Bioweapon

The Pentagon is pushing forward with plans to develop a vaccine against Q-fever, the disease caused by the bacterial agent Coxiella burnetii. While the majority of Q-fever cases are asymptomatic, C.burnetti is a spore former, and is therefore both hardy and stable. However, as the primary reservoirs of the disease are sheep, goats and cattle, the disease tends to be confined within slaughterhouse workers. The acute form of the disease has a fatality rate of less than one percent, while the chronic form ranges from five to 25%.

National Journal – “The United States investigated the agent’s warfare potential and the Soviet Union fully weaponized it decades ago, long before both countries formally denounced biological arms in the 1970s. The disease also occurs in nature and has affected hundreds of U.S. troops deployed overseas. It can produce fever, pneumonia, and numerous other symptoms associated with a variety of pathogens. Certain antibiotics are considered effective against the bacteria, but no vaccine is presently sold in the United States, according to the Federation of American Scientists. An existing vaccination available abroad reportedly can cause side effects such as abscesses and swollen joints.”

MERS virus found in camels in Qatar, linked to human spread

The Middle Eastern Respiratory virus has been detected in three Qatari camels, according to an unpublished study. While the press release does not detail whether live virus or antibodies to the virus were detected, there have been two confirmed cases of human infection related to the barn housing the infected camels. Although camels and bats are the leading candidates for potential reservoirs of the virus, there still exists too little conclusive evidence supporting either.

Reuters – “British researchers who conducted some of the very first genetic analyses on MERS last September said the virus, which is from the same family as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, was also related to a virus found in bats…Ab Osterhaus, a professor of virology at the Erasmus Medical Centre in The Netherlands that worked on the camel study, told Reuters the results were confirmed by a range of tests including sequencing and antibody testing. Dutch scientists said in August they had found strong evidence that the MERS virus is widespread among one-humped dromedary camels in the Middle East – suggesting people who become infected may be catching it from camels used for meat, milk, transport and racing.”

W.H.O. Estimate of Swine Flu Deaths in 2009 Rises Sharply

The WHO has significantly revised its fatality estimates for the 2009 outbreak of H1N1, which are estimated be ten times too low. It’s original numbers were just over 18,000 – according to a study published this week, the number of fatalities from the virus alone was actually closer to 203,000. When fatalities resulting from secondary conditions because of the virus are counted, the number approaches 400,000. There are a couple of  important reasons for revising fatality counts, the first of which is it remedies accusations of sensationalizing the potential threat to sell vaccines.

New York Times  – “The estimated death toll closely matches that of a study published in June 2012 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That study, based on early data, estimated that 201,000 people died of flu and respiratory causes and another 83,000 died of related cardiac problems. Both counts were many more than the 18,449 laboratory-confirmed cases that the W.H.O. stood by as its official count in 2009 because agency officials were reluctant to guess at fatality rates. Some politicians, particularly in Europe, used the low official W.H.O. death rate to argue that fear of the pandemic had been overblown. They accused vaccine companies of fanning the public’s fears to sell more of their product.”

Bactericidal activity of black silicon

From dragonfly’s wings to black silicon? In a recent study originating from Australia, scientists discovered that dragonfly wings were absolute shredders of bacteria. The structure of the wings destroys bacterial cell walls of both gram positive and gram negative bacteria upon contact. Now, shown that black silicon has similar bactericidal properties as well. While black silicon is not readily mass produced, there are several substances with similar nano features which can be. Our first thoughts here are hospitals and doorknobs.

Nature – “Both surfaces are highly bactericidal against all tested Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria, and endospores, and exhibit estimated average killing rates of up to ~450,000 cells min−1 cm−2. This represents the first reported physical bactericidal activity of black silicon or indeed for any hydrophilic surface. This biomimetic analogue represents an excellent prospect for the development of a new generation of mechano-responsive, antibacterial nanomaterials.”

FDA approves H5N1 bird flu vaccine

The FDA has approved the first adjuvanted H5N1 vaccine, designed primarily for those who have frequent interactions with poultry. As the vaccine is adjuvanted, less antigen is required to stimulate an immune response. The vaccine, which is administered in two doses three weeks apart, is designed to support existing vaccine supplies in the national stockpile.

Disaster News – “The vaccine, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, was developed in partnership with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is under the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.’This vaccine could be used in the event that the H5N1 avian influenza develops the capability to spread efficiently from human to human, resulting in the rapid spread of disease across the glove.’ Dr. Karen Midthun, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in the news release. Among people who have become infected with H5N1, mortality is about 60%, according to WHO. Health officials have determined the H5N1 strain of influenza has ‘pandemic potential’ because it continues to affect wild birds and poultry populations, and most humans have no immunity to it.”

(image: Bahman Farzad/Flickr)

The Pandora Report 11.8.13

Highlights include MERS in Spain and Abu Dhabi, a possible H1N1 fatality in Alaska, polio potentially spreading to Europe, and differing containment strategies for H5N1 outbreaks in Cambodia and Vietnam. Be sure to check out this week’s “Delving Deeper”, in which GMU Biodefense’s Yong-Bee Lim explores the threats and challenges of synthetic biology. Happy Friday!

MERS in Spain; Abu Dhabi

Both Spain and Abu Dhabi have identified their first cases of the Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus (MERS). The Spanish case involved a Moroccan citizen who lives in Spain and recently returned from hajj-related travel to Saudi Arabia. Health officials with Spain and the WHO are attempting to determine if the patient was treated in Saudi Arabia, whether she had contact with animals, and whether she flew commercially or by private plane (hopefully the latter). In Abu Dhabi, a 75-year-old Omani man has contracted the virus – it remains unclear where or how he became infected. In both cases, concerns over infection stemming from contact during the Muslim pilgrimage of hajj remain. If the two cases do involve hajj-related transmission, we may start to see similar cases popping up in regions with no prior incidence of the virus (North America, anyone?)

Spain reports its first MERS case; woman travelled to Saudi Arabia for Hajj

Vancouver Sun – “In its press release, the ministry said it is following up with people who were in contact with [the patient] to determine if others have contracted the sickness. That will likely involve tracking people who travelled on the same plane or planes with the ill woman, who journeyed back to Spain shortly before being hospitalized. The woman was already sick before she left the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a World Health Organization expert said Wednesday. ‘She became symptomatic while she was in KSA,’ said Dr. Anthony Mounts, the WHO’s point person for the new virus, a cousin of the coronavirus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Mers coronavirus diagnosed in patient in Abu Dhabi hospital

The National (UAE) – “The victim, who was visiting the UAE, began to suffer from respiratory symptoms last month and is now in intensive care. The diagnosis of Middle East respiratory syndrome was revealed by the Health Authority Abu Dhabi today, reported the state news agency Wam. The health authority is coordinating with the Ministry of Health and other organisations as it treats the patient. The authority said it had taken the necessary precautionary measures in line with international standards and recommendations set out by the World Health Organisation (WHO).”

H1N1 Fatality in Alaska?

A young adult patient in Anchorage has died from what is thought to be the 2009 strain of H1N1. According to Alaskan health officials, it is still too early to tell if H1N1 will be the dominant strain for their flu season – however, the majority of flu cases reported to health officials in the area involved the H1N1 strain. People, even sometimes young, healthy people, die of flu – get vaccinated.

Alaska Dispatch – “The hospital sent out an email Wednesday informing employees of the death of a young adult who had tested positive for what in-depth results could reveal as H1N1. The email also noted that some of the patients admitted to the medical center during the past week who tested positive for flu are ‘seriously ill’…It’s the time of year when flu cases increase, although flu is difficult to predict, said Donna Fearey, a nurse epidemiologist in the infectious disease program with the state of Alaska. There’s no way to know how severe the flu will be or how long it will last, she said.”

Polio emergence in Syria and Israel endangers Europe

In an article published in the Lancet today, two German scientists argue that the outbreak of wildtype poliovirus 1 (WPV1) in Syria, as well as the discovery of the virus in Israeli sewage, may pose a serious threat to nearby Europe. The vast majority of polio infections are asymptomatic – only one in 200 cases results in acute flaccid paralysis. Therefore, the flood of refugees streaming out of Syria and seeking asylum in European countries may serve as a large pool of asymptomatic carriers, resulting in the virus’ silent spread. Following polio’s eradication in Europe in 2002, many states limited their vaccination campaigns, resulting in large, unprotected populations, and a recipe for reintroduction of the crippling disease. This is why we should all care about eliminating polio from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria – because the one thing an asymptomatic virus can do well is spread

The Lancet – “It might take more than 30 generations of 10 days (5) —nearly 1 year of silent transmission—before one acute flaccid paralysis case is identified and an outbreak is detected, although hundreds of individuals would carry the infection. Vaccinating only Syrian refugees—as has been recommended by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (6)—must be judged as insufficient; more comprehensive measures should be taken into consideration. Oral polio vaccination provides high protection against acquisition and spreading of the infection, but this vaccine was discontinued in Europe because of rare cases of vaccination-related acute flaccid paralysis. Only some of the European Union member states still allow its use and none has a stockpile of oral polio vaccines.2 Routine screening of sewage for poliovirus has not been done in most European countries, (2) but this intensified surveillance measure should be considered for settlements with large numbers of Syrian refugees.”

H5N1 Epidemics in Cambodia; Vietnam

Both Cambodia and Vietnam are experiencing small outbreaks of H5N1, with the Cambodian outbreak infecting over 23 humans and the Vietnamese outbreak concentrated mainly within farm animals in two regions. To date, twelve of the 23 Cambodian cases have resulted in fatalities, compared with just two cases of human H5N1 in Vietnam. Vietnamese containment of the virus is attributed to the prevalence of larger, commercial farms, in which culling can occur quickly and effectively. This is unfortunately not the case in Cambodia, in which farming is largely sustenance-driven.  The differing methods of spread and containment in two otherwise similar countries help shed light on what practices can be undertaken to limit the virus’ reach.

Cambodia Daily – “But managing [the virus] in backyards, we are dealing with free-range poultry who run around villages and transmit it from one poultry to another,” he said, adding that 80 percent of Cambodian poultry are kept in people’s backyards. In all 23 avian influenza cases reported this year, the victims had contact with dead or sick animals. The Cambodian government also does not provide compensation for farmers whose poultry needs to be killed, which many experts say provides a disincentive to report sick birds.”

Tuoitre News (Vietnam) -“The southern Tien Giang Province People’s Committee on Wednesday declared an epidemic of the H5N1 avian flu in two communes, where the disease spread widely with most of the 557 affected ducks having died. The declaration was issued by deputy chairwoman of the Committee, Tran Thi Kim Mai, who asked the local Veterinary Sub-Department and other concerned agencies to take measures to control and drive back the epidemic in accordance with the Ordinance on Veterinary. All concerned agencies are required to tighten control over poultry-related activities and absolutely ban transporting of poultry into or out of epidemic areas, the authorities said.”

In case you missed it:
Delving Deeper: Synthetic Biology and National Security Policy
Fourth Case of H7N9 in China

(Image: Syrian refugees on the Turkish border, via Henry Ridgwell/VOA/Wikimedia Commons)

New developments in legal battle over H5N1 research

Ron Fouchier, the virologist at the center of the last year’s controversial gain-of-function H5N1 research, is back in the media following the ruling on his research in Dutch courts this week. The ruling surrounded the legality of the Dutch government’s decision to request Fouchier to first obtain an export licenses before sending his H5N1 research out to the magazine Science. The government did so after classifying Fouchier’s work as dual-use research of concern, the dissemination of which could be perceived as potential proliferation. This week’s ruling not only supported the government’s requirement of an export license, but extended the requirement to all future work on H5N1 transmission. Needless to say, Fouchier is not pleased. He’s accused the Dutch government of disadvantaging Dutch scientists and mitigating their academic freedom.

Read more at Science.

(Image: Selbe B./Flickr)

The Pandora Report 8.9.13

Highlights include camels as MERS’ vectors, anti-bacterial chemicals hiding Salmonella, a new malaria vaccine, BioWatch in DC, H5N1 in Nepal, African Swine Fever in Belarus, and in case you missed it: mutating H7N9. Happy Friday!

Camels may be source of Middle East’s Sars-like virus

Can we all just take a moment to appreciate the level of epidemiological sleuthing which went in to uncovering this? Researchers attempting to determine the vector of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) ended up sampling 50 Omani racing camels, and 105 Canary Islander tourist camels. All camels sampled from Oman, and 15 of those from the Canary Island, possessed antibodies to MERS, indicating prior infection. While the presence of antibodies is compelling, the virus itself was not found in any of the dromedary (vocab word of the day, meaning an Arabian camel with one hump) camels sampled. Also, Oman has reported no human cases of MERS. However, with camels as a possible vector, follow up investigations into whether those people infected had any contact with camels, their meat, or their milk can be conducted.  MERS has infected 94 people to date, killing almost half.

The Guardian – “The scientists said the virus could be slightly different – maybe more transmissible in Oman – or the camels might have been kept in circumstances that made it less likely to spread in the Canaries. But it is also possible that the virus was brought in by one of the three oldest Canary Island camels, who arrived from Morocco more than 18 years ago. ‘We cannot rule out that the population might have once had an outbreak but that by the time of sampling, antibody titres had waned and no new introductions of the virus had occurred,’ they write. ‘The camels have contact with wild rodents, pigeons, and other doves, and possibly also bats. Seven insectivorous bat species, including three pipistrellus [species], are native to the Canary Islands, while Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) have been introduced.'”

USDA reviews whether bacteria-killing chemicals are masking Salmonella

According to recent research, the use of stronger anti-bacterial chemicals at poultry-processing plants may be cloaking the presence of Salmonella and other foodbourne pathogens which remain on the processed meat. Apparently the more stringent chemicals are too strong for current Salmonella tests, potentially resulting in false negatives. The USDA has stepped in to further investigate the research’s claims. For those of you who (like me) didn’t know, apparently the bird is treated with four different chemicals on average.

Washington Post – “To check that most bacteria have been killed, occasional test birds are pulled off the line and tossed into plastic bags filled with a solution that collects any remaining pathogens. That solution is sent to a lab for testing, which takes place about 24 hours later. Meanwhile, the bird is placed back on the line and is ultimately packaged, shipped and sold. Scientists say in order for tests to be accurate, it is critical that the pathogen-killing chemicals are quickly neutralized by the solution — something that routinely occurred with the older, weaker antibacterial chemicals. If the chemicals continue to kill bacteria, the testing indicates that the birds are safer to eat than they actually are.”

Investigational malaria vaccine found safe and protective

A new, live-attenuated malaria vaccine has successfully completed Phase I clinical trials. The vaccine, known as PfSPZ Vaccine, has been shown in a recent NIH to be safe, immunogenic, and  effectively confer immunity. However, a significant drawback of the new vaccine is its intravenous administration – most vaccines are administered subcutaneously, intradermally, or, ideally, orally.  Nonetheless, researchers are optimistic, and a set of follow-up studies are scheduled. According the the WHO, in 2010 (most recent sampling year), malaria caused an estimated 219 million cases globally, with 660,000 deaths, predominantly amongst African children.

Medical Xpress – “The Phase I trial, which took place at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, received informed consent from and enrolled 57 healthy adult volunteers ages 18 to 45 years who never had malaria. Of these, 40 participants received the vaccine and 17 did not. To evaluate the vaccine’s safety, vaccinees were split into groups receiving two to six intravenous doses of PfSPZ Vaccine at increasing dosages. After vaccination, participants were monitored closely for seven days. No severe adverse effects associated with the vaccine occurred, and no malaria infections related to vaccination were observed…Based on blood measurements, researchers found that participants who received a higher total dosage of PfSPZ Vaccine generated more antibodies against malaria and more T cells—a type of immune system cell—specific to the vaccine.”

DHS wants LRS Federal to continue collecting BioWatch air samples for another six months

BioWatch isn’t dead yet, at least if you live in the DC metro region. The Department of Homeland Security has decided to award LRS Federal a six-month contract extension for maintenance of BioWatch in the DC metro area. The $759,000 awarded in the renewal will go towards maintenance of the program, including salaries of those who collect the daily samples and upkeep. No new developments on Gen 3 writ-large.

Government Security News Magazine – “LRS Federal currently manages the teams that perform daily sample collections and routine equipment maintenance on portable air sampling units located throughout the National Capital Region’s ‘BioWatch Jurisdiction,’ in Washington, DC; Baltimore, MD; Richmond, VA; and elsewhere. The notice says that LRS is the only firm that can continue supporting the program’s immediate requirements. ‘Otherwise, the Government will be without support to detect and mitigate the threat of biological air-borne pathogens,’ it added.”

International Recap:

Nepal: H5N1 is still raging in Nepal, with the government considering an extension of the current ban on poultry-product sales. In the weeks following this most recent outbreak, the  Nepali government had come under fire for apparently pandering to poultry groups, resulting in an increase in the virus’ spread. However, it has since began a widespread campaign of restriction of poultry sales and culling. Fears of the virus spreading south to neighboring India remain.  Read more here.

Belarus: It’s not often we get to write about Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship (no Putin jokes, please). The Eastern European country is currently experiencing an outbreak of African Swine Fever, which only affects pigs. Belarus has admitted difficulty in containing the outbreak. We’ve been unable to track down official numbers (it’s Belarus), but concerns over the disease spreading to Western Europe are mounting. Read more here.

In case you missed it:

– Researchers Mutating H7N9, increasing virulence and able to transmit person-to-person

(image courtesy of Jason Wain/Flickr)

The Pandora Report 8.2.13

Highlights include H5N1 raging in Nepal, using your phone to detect toxins,  Honduras battling dengue, mutated polio in Pakistan, West Nile rearing its ugly head early, and Ebola, gorillas, and tourism. Happy Friday!

Nepal Avian flu situation “getting out of hand” 

H5N1 is currently raging in Nepal, which is experiencing its 15th outbreak of the poultry-transmitted flu virus in the last couple weeks alone. Local health officials are calling on the government to step in and help stop the virus’ spread, following the death of nearly 25,000 chickens in three districts in the last 20 days. Meanwhile, there are disturbing rumors surrounding the government’s hesitancy to intervene, including lobbying on the part of the Nepali poultry association. With the virus spreading to another two districts in the last week, containment is critical.

eKantipur – “According to the experts, farmers selling the potentially infected chickens in the market in the absence of effective monitoring has worsened the situation. ‘There is total impunity; the authorities know who is at fault, but still they have failed to take immediate action,’ said Dr Shital Kaji Shrestha, General Secretary of the Nepal Veterinary Association. While some farmers have dumped dead birds openly in public places, others have buried them secretly without following the standard procedures. Such practices have increased the chances of the epidemic spreading, experts said. The police on Monday seized 426 chickens that were being transported to Birgunj for sale from a flu-affected farm in Bhaktapur.”

Smartphone cradle, app detect toxins, bacteria

This app/cradle combo turns your average smartphone into a mini biosensor. It was developed for people with food allergies in mind, but we think it could be tweaked for more homeland security/non proliferation purposes (not that allergies are to be taken lightly, peanuts are everywhere these days).

The Sacramento Bee – “The handheld biosensor was developed by researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. A series of lenses and filters in the cradle mirror those found in larger, more expensive laboratory devices. Together, the cradle and app transform a smartphone into a tool that can detect toxins and bacteria, spot water contamination and identify allergens in food. Kenny Long, a graduate researcher at the university, says the team was able to make the smartphone even smarter with modifications to the cellphone camera.”

Honduras declares state of emergency over dengue fever

Honduras has declared a state of emergency in an effort to bolsters its attempts to contain its dengue outbreak. To date, the outbreak has caused approximately 12,000 cases, of which approximately 1,800 are serious. According the the WHO, 40% of the world’s population, or nearly 2.5 billion people, are at risk for dengue infection.

BBC – “Honduras has declared a state of emergency after an outbreak of dengue fever that has killed 16 people so far this year. The government has promised to step up its fight against the mosquitoes that spread dengue fever. Health Minister Salvador Pineda said more than half of Honduras’ municipalities have registered cases of the viral infection this year.”

Mutated virus heightens polio worries

This is depressing for a couple of reasons. First, Pakistan is one of just three countries in the world where polio is endemic. The last thing they need is a mutated strain. Second, public health officials attempting to halt the virus’ spread do so at tremendous personal risk – tribal leaders earlier this month declared their support for the Taliban’s ban on polio vaccination, as a protest against US drone strikes in the area.  Absurd, yes, but not without possible provocation – keep in mind a 2011 US vaccination campaign in Abbottabad was actually a covert CIA operation, in which the doctors, rather than administering vaccines, were collecting DNA from locals. This resulted in those administering legitimate polio vaccines being labelled as “Western spies”, and refused entry into villages.

DAWN – “Dr Alias Durray, chief of the World Health Organisation’s polio eradication programme in Pakistan, confirmed to Dawn that the strain, which has close genetic similarities with the globally eradicated P2 strain, has paralysed a baby boy in Mastung district of Balochistan…The polio virus has three types of strains termed P1, P2 or P3 strain. Immunity from any one strain does not protect a person from the other strains. The P2 virus had been eradicated globally in 1998, and only the P1 and P3 strains remain. What is sad is that a strain similar to the mutated polio virus had been stopped after it first broke out and struck 15 children in Qila Abdullah area of Balochistan in 2011.”

West Nile Virus Making Early Appearance This Summer

A big part of our job is keeping a close eye on any biodefense-related news (duh), and lately our inbox has been full of West Nile updates. Every day another US county seems to be reporting the virus appearance. With it already active in 29 states, and the worst months in terms of spread to come, it looks like West Nile is fast on the way to a very strong year. If you’re going to be outside at all, now is definitely the time, if you haven’t already, to invest in some mosquito repellent.

The Wall Street Journal –  “West Nile virus is transmitted through bites from infected mosquitoes. Although only one in five people who contract the virus develop symptoms such as fever, headache, body aches or vomiting, the virus can cause serious neurological illnesses that can be fatal, such as encephalitis or meningitis. The 2012 West Nile virus outbreak was the deadliest on record since the illness was first detected in the United States in 1999: 5,674 cases of West Nile virus were reported nationwide, including 286 deaths. Health officials expect the disease to continue to be a formidable public health issue. Because no human vaccine exists, preventing mosquito bites is the most effective way to avoid contracting West Nile virus…”

Saving the Gorillas—and Launching a Nation’s Tourism Economy

There was a very interesting piece in the Atlantic yesterday looking at Ebola in Congolese gorilla populations, and the disease’s impact on preservation efforts. Understanding local populations interaction with potentially infected animals helps create a more complete picture of the virus’ potential spread during an outbreak. Check it out if you have a spare minute and are need to read a news piece with a happy(ish) ending.

The Atlantic – “In November 2002, gorilla trackers outside the village of Mbomo, in the Republic of the Congo, came upon a group of apes that were stressed. One of the trackers described the females as crying. Then the men began finding carcasses in the forest: heaps of matted hair and liquefied organs oozing blood. In a period of four months, 130 of the 143 gorillas the trackers were following died. Later that same year, another 91 of 95 gorillas they were studying were gone. Few words cause a greater chill in any language than ‘Ebola,’ the hemorrhagic fever and lethal virus first detected in equatorial Africa in 1976. Most initial human cases come from contact with infected animals, including consuming them as bush meat–often the most-accessible source of protein in places where there aren’t cattle.”

(A Nepali woman sells chickens in Kathmandu – image via Flickr/oliphant)

The Pandora Report 7.19.13

Highlights this week include MERS in the UAE, H5N1 and dual-use research, giant Pandoravirus, implications of giant Pandoravirus, and pandemics and national security. Happy Friday!

United Arab Emirates identifies 4 new cases of SARS-like respiratory virus

The Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, first appearing in Saudi Araia has spread to the neighboring United Arab Emirates, with four new cases identified in Abu Dhabi. It is thought that one patient contracted the virus earlier subsequently infected these four new cases.

Washington Post –  “The new cases also could offer investigators fresh leads on the transmission of the virus, which has claimed more than 40 lives since September. Most of the deaths have been in Saudi Arabia…The virus is related to SARS, which killed some 800 people in a global outbreak in 2003. It belongs to a family of viruses that most often cause the common cold.”

H5N1: A Case Study for Dual-Use Research

The Council on Foreign Relations has a new working paper out, by Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, examining the furious debate around gain-of-function, potentially dual-use H5N1 research.

CFR – “Biological research is inherently dual-use, in that a great deal of the scientific knowledge, materials, and techniques required for legitimate research could also be used for harm. The potential for a bioterrorist to misuse legitimate research is particularly acute for scientific studies of contagious pathogens. In order to find out how pathogens function—how they are able to get around the human body’s immunological defenses, replicate in great numbers, and go on to infect other people in a continuous chain of infection—scientists necessarily learn what conditions make pathogens more deadly or difficult to treat. This research is widely shared. But the fear that this openness could be exploited has sparked concerns about specific scientific publications, prompting media storms and even congressional disapproval, as in the 2002 case when poliovirus was synthesized from scratch in a laboratory.”

World’s Biggest Virus May Have Ancient Roots

Breaking news everyone, the world’s largest virus has the world’s coolest name – the Pandoravirus. However, unless you live primarily underwater, it shouldn’t pose a big threat to you. The virus is, however, raising big questions about the origins of viruses – the Pandoravirus‘ are thought to originate in a prehistoric cell type now extinct. For an interesting examination of what larger viruses may mean for virology, check out the New York Times piece “Changing View on Viruses: Not So Small After All“.

NPR – ” ‘We believe that those new Pandoraviruses have emerged from a new ancestral cellular type that no longer exists,’ [discoverer, Jean-Michel Claverie] says. That life could have even come from another planet, like Mars. ‘At this point we cannot actually disprove or disregard this type of extreme scenario,’ he says. But how did this odd cellular form turn into a virus? Abergel says it may have evolved as a survival strategy as modern cells took over. ‘On Earth it was winners and it was losers, and the losers could have escaped death by going through parasitism and then infect the winner,’ she says.”

National Security and Pandemics

An interesting argument for the correlation between national security and pandemics. Whether international health events should be classified as issues of national security is a very interesting and nuanced question, and this piece presents one side (“yes, they should”) well.

UN Chronicle – “”Pandemics are for the most part disease outbreaks that become widespread as a result of the spread of human-to-human infection. Beyond the debilitating, sometimes fatal, consequences for those directly affected, pandemics have a range of negative social, economic and political consequences. These tend to be greater where the pandemic is a novel pathogen, has a high mortality and/or hospitalization rate and is easily spread. According to Lee Jong-wook, former Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), pandemics do not respect international borders.2 Therefore, they have the potential to weaken many societies, political systems and economies simultaneously.”

(image courtesy of Jeff Black)