Fourth Case of H7N9 in China

Chinese health officials have confirmed the fourth case of H7N9 in China in the last three weeks. The most recent case, involving a 64-year-old woman, was confirmed on October 30th in the Zhejiang province on China’s eastern shore.  At this point, the scattered cases are in keeping with expected patterns of infection, and are not yet a cause for concern. It remains too early to tell if this is simply indicative of normal numbers of H7N9 cases due to cooler weather, or if another outbreak may occur. We’ll keep you posted.

(Image: A Chinese poultry shop, via Jing Photography/Flickr)

The Pandora Report 9.20.13

Highlights include anthrax anti-toxin, the Pentagon and Ebola, antibiotics and global pandemics,  MERS baffling researchers, and a H7N9 vaccine. Happy Friday!

HHS replenishes nation’s supply of anthrax antitoxin

Rest assured, in case of an anthrax attack Uncle Sam has you covered. HHS, through BioShield, has renewed contracts with GlaxoSmithKline, replenishing our nation’s expiring supply of inhalation anthrax anti-toxin in the Strategic National Stockpile. Under the renewed contracts, we’ll be covered until 2018. The renewed contract also include a surge capacity, lest an anthrax attack occur and boosted production of anti-toxin is necessary. Believe it or not, surge capacity was not built into previous contracts.

KOAM – “To create surge capacity, the contracts allow HHS to place future delivery orders if an anthrax attack occurs, in addition to replenishing the current stockpile as needed over the next five years. The cost of future orders would be determined on a case-by-case basis, up to a maximum of $350 million per order. To receive a future order, the company must have antitoxin that is eligible for emergency use authorization or is FDA-approved at the time of the order. The replenishment and surge capacity are part of a governmentwide effort to prepare the nation to respond to security threats from chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. Federal agencies, including HHS agencies and the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, and Veterans Affairs coordinate closely to ensure programs and requirements are aligned.”

Pentagon puts Ebola virus on bio-threat research list

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is actively soliciting research in therapeutics development against a slew of deadly bacterial and viral threat agents, ranging from our favorite Ebola to Burkholderia pseudomallei, the causative agent of melioidosis. Drug companies and the US government have had a tumultuous relationship when it comes to developing vaccine/therapeutics for select agents. The solicitation is encouraging, if only as a recognition of the critical importance of researching these pathogens (if we do say so ourselves).

USA Today – “DTRA officials, the document says, are concerned about the potential use of ‘aerosolized filoviruses or alphaviruses’ that could be delivered through the air. Some of the illnesses, such as Meloidosis, affect people in areas where the Pentagon is devoting more attention. For example, a contingent of Marines is now based in Darwin, a city in northern Australia. While there are some vaccines that can treat some of these conditions, the document says, ‘they have inherent limitations and a suitably effective vaccine has to be approved.’ That’s why it’s critical for more research to be conducted to find ways to prevent and treat them, DTRA says.”

Antibiotics Could Cause the Next Global Pandemic

The invention of antibiotics was understandably a big deal – before penicillin, scraping your knee could kill you. Now, we take for granted that infections are cured by a visit to the doctor and a prescription for antibiotics. Which is why this recent CDC report is so concerning.

PolicyMic – “In a press briefing about his recent research, Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, warned ‘If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era … And for some patients and for some microbes, we are already there.’ The confidence in his statement reflected the very first hard numbers for the incidence, deaths, and cost of all the major resistant organisms gathered by the CDC. The urgent worry gripping national health organizations like the CDC is that our current ‘gaps in knowledge’ and continued inadvertent strengthening of antibiotic-resistant bacteria could lead to the evolution of new vicious, contagious diseases with no current ways to combat them.”

MERS virus transmission continues to baffle

Maybe it wasn’t the camels after all. Scientists working together in the UK and Saudi Arabia are having difficulty determining the MERS virus’ route of tranmission. Yes, some camels possess the antibodies, yet most of those who contracted MERS had no contact with animals. Researchers are in agreement about one thing – the virus outbreak’s “focal point” is Riyadh. With hajj occurring next month, discovering more about the virus is becoming increasingly important.

Aljazeera – “The genetic history of the virus suggests repeat infections may have occurred since then, but what the animal source was, or is, remains unclear, it said. Tests are being carried on mammals in Saudi Arabia ranging from camels and bats to goats. The cluster in al-Hasa, in contrast, shows that viral strains there were closely related, which is consistent with spread from human to human. The samples in Riyadh have a broad genetic diversity, the paper said. This could mean that the virus is being transmitted through an animal source that is continuously being brought in from elsewhere, it said.

NIH-funded pandemic preparation: Baylor investigates bird flu vaccine

Researchers are testing vaccines against H7N9, in case the virus develops effective human-to-human transmission. H7N9 struck China in March of this year, infecting 135 and killing 44. With a fatality rate of nearly 1/3 in a totally naive population, the virus definitely has pandemic potential. H7N9 may reemerge again in the cooler fall and winter seasons.

MedScape – “Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study being conducted at Baylor will recruit up to 1,000 adults nationally who are 19 to 64 years old and in good health. Study participants will receive different dosages of an investigational vaccine given with or without one of two adjuvants, which are substances added to a vaccine to increase the body’s immune response. Researchers at each site will gather safety information, risks and benefits of vaccinations and the effectiveness of the vaccines to trigger an immune response.”

(image: LA Department of Public Health)

Using AI to Predict a Pandemic

Researchers are using “machine learning”, a process by which computers use compiled data to develop algorithms, to try and determine distinctive characteristics of viruses with pandemic potential, like H7N9. It’s hoped that being able to identify these properties will help alert virologists when new strains emerge containing them. Machine learning enables researchers to cross-reference tremendous amounts of data – “hundreds of thousands of flu strains” – to look for similar markers of pathogenicity.

Wired – “‘It’s changing the field radically,’ said Nir Ben-Tal, a computational biologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Researchers are also using these approaches to investigate a broad range of viral mysteries, including what makes some viruses more harmful than others and the factors that influence a virus’s ability to trigger an immune response. The latter could ultimately aid the development of flu vaccines. A study published in July analyzed differences in the human immune system’s response to flu, identifying for the first time genetic variants that seem to influence an individual’s ability to fight off H1N1. Machine learning techniques might even accelerate future efforts to identify the animal source of mystery viruses.”

Read more here.

(image: Axs Deny/Flickr)

The Pandora Report 8.23.13

Highlights this week include MERS in tomb bats, H7N9 and its lurking cousins, Ebola of CCHF?, the history of CW and BW, and nanotech. Happy Friday!

Reservoir of MERS may be Egyptian Tomb Bat. Yes tomb bat, as in, mummies, curses, and tomb bats.

Researchers may have uncovered the reservoir of the recently emerged Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome virus (MERS). Scientists took DNA samples from 96 bats living at an abandoned site just 12 kilometers from the MERS index case. Once the DNA samples were sequenced, the scientists involved discovered that the fecal pellet of one bat species, the Egyptian tomb bat, shared a 182-nucleotide snippet of DNA with MERS. It’s possible that more of viral genome was present; however, when the frozen bat samples were clearing US customs, the customs officers opened and left the samples out, at room temperature, for two days (don’t even get us started on all the things wrong with that situation). Still, this latest development brings us a step closer to understanding the virus and its mechanism of action.

Science Magazine – “Sequencing the nucleic acids isolated from the samples yielded a clue: The fecal pellet of the insect-eating Egyptian tomb bat (Taphozous perforatus) contained a piece of viral RNA identical to that of the virus isolated from the patient in Bisha, the scientists reported online in Emerging Infectious Diseases yesterday…Still, the finding is another interesting piece in the MERS puzzle, says Marion Koopmans, an infectious diseases researcher at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the work. She points out that the fragment is not only short but also comes from one of the least variable parts of the viral genome, so the full genomes of bat and human virus could still differ significantly. Nonetheless, the finding ‘points at bats as a reservoir for this virus,’ Koopmans writes in an e-mail.”

China bird flu analysis finds more virus threats lurking

Scientists in China have analyzed other strains of H7 flu, and have determined that several of the strains are capable of jumping to humans. A couple strains have already been shown to successfully infect ferrets. It’s thought that H7N9, like other pandemic strains of avian influenza, began in water fowl, was transmitted to domestic poultry,  reassorted with H9N2, and then infected people. The moral of the story? Other avian pandemics may be waiting in the wings (pun only slightly intended).

Reuters – “To trace the evolution of H7N9 and its path into humans, researchers led by Maria Huachen Zhu and Yi Guan of the University of Hong Kong conducted field surveillance around the main H7N9 outbreak region and mapped out, or sequenced, genetic codes of a large number of bird flu viruses they found…They also found another previously unrecognized H7N7 virus strain had emerged and is circulating in poultry in China. In experiments testing this strain, they discovered it has the ability to infect ferrets – an animal model often used by scientists to find out more about what flu might do in humans – suggesting it could jump into people in future.”

Deadly Hemorrhagic Fever Appears in Uganda

Local health officials are scrambling to identify a small outbreak of hemorrhagic fever in Uganda, with conflicting reports seperately identifying the causative virus as Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF) and Ebola. Four patients have been hospitalized, with a fifth already dead from the virus. In a disturbing complication, one patient has apparently “escaped from the hospital” following collection of blood samples, prompting understandable fears of exacerbation of the virus’ spread. Both CCHF and Ebola are highly pathogenic, causing body pain, severe hemorrhaging, and death.

Daily Monitor – “Efforts to verify with the Health ministry whether the disease is Ebola or the Crimean- Congo haemorrhagic fever were futile as the officials did not answer our telephone calls. ‘The four patients have been put in isolation for close monitoring,’ Dr Otto said. The district health officer said the first patient at the hospital presented symptoms similar to that of Ebola which prompted him to take blood samples to Entebbe. Dr Otto urged the public to remain calm, saying a medical team was on the ground to handle the situation.

Scientific American In-Depth Report: The Specter of Chemical and Biological Weapons

Scientific American just put up a good overview of both recent developments in and the broad history of chemical and biological warfare. The pieces included are more chem-heavy (unsurprisingly), but it’s still a good refresher, especially with Syria apparently escalating again. Take a moment to check it out.

Nano Breakthrough For Navy Lab; Tiny Sensors To Detect Explosives, Bio Weapons, Rotten Food

Researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory want to use nanowires to detect everything from biological weapons to spoilt food. For the first time, researchers were able to overcome the difficulty associated with creating the wires. Until now, nanowires have had to be grown, making mass production extremely difficult. However, researchers have found a way to etch the wires, rather than grow them, making embedding them in uniforms or refrigerators possible.

Breaking Defense – “‘The big thing with getting to this point is finding a way to produce this in a scaleable and reproducible fashion,’ principal investigator Christopher Field told me… Basically, the Navy scientists etch a cluster of nanowires and put a small amount of power pulsing through them. When a molecule from an explosive’s gas or a chemical weapon brushes against the nanowires this disrupts the charge. Then scientists analyze the disruption to discover what caused it.”

(image courtesy of Marie and Alistair Knock/Taraji Blue/Flickr)

Researchers mutating H7N9, increasing virulence and P2P transmission

Twenty-two researchers from labs across the world submitted a letter to Nature and Science yesterday detailing their proposed “gain-of-function” research on the avian influenza virus H7N9. Their work would genetically engineer H7N9 to make it both more virulent and more readily transmissible person-to-person. The research sounds controversial, not the least because one of the scientists involved is Dr. Ron Fouchier, whose on gain-of-function work on H5N1 ingnited furious debate over what should research should and shouldn’t be published. However, there is a very real possibility that H7N9 will naturally mutate to transmit effectively between people. We already know that the virus is just a single amino acid mutation away from becoming easily transmissible between people. Indeed, news of the first confirmed case of such transmission was published in the British Medical Journal this week. With a 60% fatality rate and a completely naive global population, the results would be catastrophic. The proposed research would give us an idea of potential pandemic scenarios, giving us a head start on potential vaccine and antiviral development.  It may be controversial, but it’s absolutely necessary.

For the full letter, see here.

(image credit: Yoshihiro Kawaoka University of Winsconsin, Madison)

The Pandora Report 7.12.13

Highlights: the Science, Safety, and Security newsletter, wild polio in Israel, proliferation concerns in Syria, H7N9 – the pandemic?, and H1N1 in Chile. Happy Friday!

S3 Newsletter June 2013

For those of you who may have missed it, the Science, Safety, and Security Quarterly June newsletter is out, and features articles on dual use research of concern, HHS’ recent international participation in BWC activities, and the International Biological Threat Reduction program. It’s an excellent resource for anyone working in fields related to biodefense, biosecurity, or non-proliferation.

WHO Sends Mission to Israel Following Detection of Wild Poliovirus in Sewage

The World Health Organization last week completed a five-day mission in Israel, following detection of wild polio virus in the sewage of the country’s Southern District. Despite detection of the virus, no new polio cases have emerged. In response to the virus’ detection, Israel is starting a supplemental oral vaccination campaign, in addition to existing vaccination matters.  This isn’t an overreaction. For those of you who may not know, polio eradication remains a top priority of the international health community, with the eradication efforts rendering the virus’ endemic in just 3 countries. Therefore any time it pops up naturally, people get understandably nervous.

WHO – “Israel has systematically conducted environmental sampling for many years, and the poliovirus was detected thanks to this vigilance. Public health authorities continue to monitor the situation carefully, and measures have been taken to increase surveillance and reporting for possible human cases, regardless of age. The aim of the supplementary immunization campaign is to protect any children in the country who may have missed routine vaccinations for any reason. In southern areas, adults are also being assessed and those thought to be susceptible are being immunized.”

Proliferation concerns mount in Syria

As the civil war in Syria continues, the United Kingdom is considering supplying the rebels with protective equipment against  biological and chemical agents. UK intelligence reports have listed ricin, VX, mustard gas, and sarin as all possible chemical and biological agents in Assad’s armory. Concerns over proliferation of the agents and weapons to terrorist organizations were fueled by last month’s report that al Qaeda had attempted to access chemical weapons stockpiles in support of the Syrian rebels. Does anyone else feel like that “red line” is looking pretty darn thin?

Irish Times – “The danger was underlined by MI6 chief Sir John Sawers who told the committee there was the risk of ‘a highly worrying proliferation around the time of the regime fall’. The committee said: ‘There has to be a significant risk that some of the country’s chemical weapons stockpile could fall into the hands of those with links to terrorism, in Syria or elsewhere in the region – if this happens, the consequences could be catastrophic.’ British prime minister David Cameron disclosed last month that al-Qaeda-linked elements fighting the regime had already attempted to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria.”

Scientists: H7N9 Avian Flu Has Pandemic Potential

Just when you thought it was gone! In a piece published in Nature on Wednesday,  an international team of scientists determined that H7N9 could be just a couple amino acid mutations away from effective person-to-person transmission pandemic potential. The two teams, from  the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Tokyo, determined that H7N9 replicates effectively in several mammamlian hosts with immune systems similar to humans, among them monkeys and ferrets. The good news? Most of the strains tested are susceptible to standard antivirals.

Rianovosti – “They also established that approximately one third of ferrets became infected by droplet spread.’H7N9 viruses combine several features of pandemic influenza viruses, that is their ability to bind to and replicate in human cells and the ability to transmit via respiratory droplets,’ [flu expert Yoshihiro Kawaoka] said. These two features are necessary, although not sufficient, to cause a pandemic.’ In monkeys, the virus could efficiently infect cells in both the upper and lower respiratory tract. Conventional human flu viruses are typically restricted to the upper airway of infected nonhuman primates.”

Chile confirms 33 deaths from H1N1

The Chilean health ministry confirmed Wednesday that of the 33 H1N1 deaths this year, nearly half had occurred in the last few weeks. The South American nation is currently experiencing a small  outbreak, with a large and effective vaccination campaign halting the virus’ spread.

APA – “‘Today it appears to be under control, I say this with extreme caution. In epidemiologic week number 27, we do not have serious new cases,’  [Health Minister] Manalich said at a press conference. ‘We just have three patients with the flu in the intensive care unit of the hospital of the town of Iquique,’ said Manalich, adding ‘walk-in consultations due to the flu have fallen 25 percent from what we had before.'”

(image courtesy of the Polio Eradication Initiative)

The Pandora Report 7.5.2013

Hope everyone’s fourth was happy and safe! Highlights this week include MERS,  lifting BW sanctions against China, H7N9 in the lungs, and personnel security questions at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Study finds MERS virus has not yet reached pandemic potential

A recent study by France’s Institut Pasteur has found that the likelihood of the recent outbreak of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) developing into a pandemic is “low”. The researchers compared MERS to SARS extensively, and determined that a number of factors, including which cell receptors each virus affect, rendered MERS less likely to spread.  Arnaud Fontanet, lead scientist on the study, also pointed out that it took SARS just months to adapt to humans as hosts, whereas MERS still struggles after almost a year in humans. The virus’ high fatality rate and limited person-to-person transmission nonetheless makes it a threat to hospitals caring for  infected patients.

Reuters – “Ian Jones, a professor of virology at Britain’s University of Reading, said the findings confirmed what appeared to be happening on the ground – ‘that the current MERS coronavirus transmits poorly, below the threshold required to become widely spread. Benjamin Neuman of Reading University’s microbiology research group, said it appeared from the research that the MERS virus is ‘slowly dying out’. But he cautioned that other studies into the biology of the virus suggest it is changing. ‘That change makes it difficult to predict the future of MERS,’ he said.”

Lifting of Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) Proliferation Sanctions Against Chinese Entities

The State Department has lifted its chemical and biological weapons proliferation sanctions against China first imposed in July of 2002. That’s it really, no press release, just a blurb in the Federal Register.

Federal Register – “Pursuant to Section 81(e) of the Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2798(d)) and Section 11C(e) of the Export Administration Act of 1979, as amended (50 U.S.C. app. 2410c(d)), the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security determined and certified to Congress that lifting sanctions on the following Chinese entities, their sub-units and successors is important to the national security interests of the United States: 1. China Machinery and Equipment Import Export Corporation; 2. China National Machinery and Equipment Import Export Corporation; 3. CMEC Machinery and Electric Equipment Import and Export Company Ltd.; 4. CMEC Machinery and Electrical Import Export Company, Ltd.; 5. China Machinery and Electric Equipment Import and Export Company’

H7N9 flu infiltrates victims’ lungs

Everyone remember H7N9? A new study confirms that H7N9 replicates primarily within the lower respiratory tract, where it often triggers a cytokine storm, damaging tissue and causing inflammation and fluid in the lungs. The virus’ poor adaptation to the trachea is thought to explain in part its lack of effective transmission through coughing and sneezing.

Bangkok Post – “The H7N9 bird flu virus is a peril for humans because it replicates deep in the lungs where it can trigger a dangerous response from the immune system, a study said Wednesday. In addition, no one is likely to have pre-existing immunity to H7N9 and so-called seasonal vaccines cannot protect against it, the study said, confirming suspicions among many virologists. And while lab tests show that leading anti-flu drugs are effective, there are concerns the virus may acquire gene mutations to blunt these weapons, it added.”

Army engineer put on leave for alleged white supremacist ties

News for a couple reasons. First, he has a security clearance. Second, he has a security clearance at Aberdeen Proving Ground’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, a BSL-3 lab which works on everything from synthetic biology to synthesis of chemical agents to  toxicology of chem/bio agents. It’s worth noting that the final suspect in the nation’s most deadly biological terrorist attack was a security-cleared USAMRIID scientist. However, while allegations have been made by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the investigation in this case is ongoing, the engineer in question has not yet commented.  The case raises the question, how free is free speech when you work in a security-cleared or very sensitive US government job?

Baltimore Sun – “The Southern Poverty Law Center, a national non-profit organization that tracks hate groups, wrote on May 23 that mechanical engineer John Stortstrom was one of ‘150 white nationalists’ who attended an April conference for the American Renaissance Journal, a magazine focused on studying a biological basis for race. Stortstrom, who is the vice president of the Route 40 Republican Club in Harford County, is also a member of the former Youth for Western Civilization student group, the SPLC wrote.’There’s no question that Stortstrom is very much a part of the racist white nationalist scene, as well as an up-and-coming young GOP operative,’ the SPLC wrote. ‘But it is Stortstrom’s top-security clearance job at the U.S. Army research facility on the Aberdeen Proving Grounds [sic] in Maryland that is really raising eyebrows.’ The allegations against Stortstrom appear to have come to light after he arranged for the Route 40 Republican Club to host Matthew Heimbach, the controversial founder of a White Student Union at Towson University.”

Image of the Week

News reports are indicating that in at least two cases, H7N9 seems resistant to the antiviral Tamiflu. This troubling development prompted our image of the week – yes we’ve all heard of it, have followed the case counts closely, have written about it week after week, but who amongst us has stared the virus down, mano-a-mano? Now’s your chance  –

Here’s looking at you,  H7N9  (image courtesy of CDC)

Um, is anyone else reminded of a different highly pathogenic virus? Starts with an “E” and ends with hemorrhaging? No?  Just us? Filamentous morphology aside, the virus’ ability to evade a key antiviral is definitely not good news.

The Pandora Report

Highlights include patenting the NCoV, swine flu’s preference for the young, H7N9 and ferrets (always ferrets), getting closer to a universal flu vaccine, synthetic biology and a H7N9 vaccine, and ricin. Happy Friday!

SARS-like virus patent complicating diagnosis: Saudi

If you’re shaking your head at recent news detailing the spread of the novel coronavirus, and wondering why officials in these countries can’t seem to keep the virus contained, wait a second. One of the reasons health officials in the Middle East are struggling with quick diagnosis is that Saudi Arabia already entered into bilateral agreements with certain drug companies, resulting in the patenting of the virus. This means that every time a new lab (say in a new country or region) wants to work with the virus (due to its emergence locally), they need to get permission. Now, the virus was patented for reasons of vaccine and anti-viral drug development. However, instances like this get to the heart of the ongoing difficulties in the relationship between big pharma and government in relation to vaccines and drug development.

AFP – “WHO chief Margaret Chan expressed outrage at the information. ‘Why would your scientists send specimens out to other laboratories on a bilateral manner and allow other people to take intellectual property right on new disease?’ she asked. ‘Any new disease is full of uncertainty,’ she said…’I will follow it up. I will look at the legal implications together with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. No IP (intellectual property) should stand in the way of you, the countries of the world, to protect your people,’ she told the [WHO] delegates to thundering applause.”

Swine Flu Pandemic of 2009 More Deadly for Younger Adults

It’s good to be young, unless a swine flu pandemic happens to be raging. According to new study, the 2009 H1N1 virus was especially virulent in the population under 65. Why? Those over 65 years had some degree of prior immunity, due to exposure to similar strains in their past – a phenomena known as “antigenic recycling”.

Science Daily – “The bulk of pneumonia and influenza deaths typically occur in people older than 65, but when H1N1 became the dominant flu strain in 2009, the accompanying rise in pneumonia and flu deaths took place within age groups that usually have low mortality rates. Overall, there were 53,692 pneumonia and influenza deaths in 2009, of which 2,438 were considered “excess,” or above the number expected. In 2010, there were about 50,000 deaths from pneumonia and flu, of which 196 were considered excess.”

H7n9 Bird Flu Virus Is Capable of Human Spread, Ferret Studies Show

Life is hard for ferrets (image credit: B. Lilly/Flickr)

In case you were wondering, H7N9 is in fact entirely capable of spread between humans. In a study which will no doubt launch another round of polemic debate, researchers in China infected ferrets with the virus strain, and recorded transmission of the virus to other ferrets located four inches away. The research is expected to help Chinese containment and response efforts, should the virus become more virulent. The last new case of H7N9 occurred on May 8th.

Bloomberg – “The findings support the need to reconsider management of live poultry markets, especially in urban areas, in case H7N9 becomes endemic in poultry, increasing the opportunities for the virus to evolve ‘to acquire human-to-human transmissibility,’ the authors said. ‘If this virus acquires the ability to efficiently transmit from human-to-human, extensive spread of this virus may be inevitable, as quarantine measures will lag behind its spread,’ the Chinese researchers said.”

Universal flu jab ‘edges closer’

The pharmaceutical company Sanofi has developed a virus/protein hybrid that may protect against multiple strains of flu. The vaccine fuses the highly conserved H1 glycoproteins to a “transporter protein”, which then (for some reason) form spontaneous spheres. In ferret trials, the vaccine offered protection to numerous different H1 strains. Still, flu viruses are notoriously good at mutating – no word yet on if the virus would remain viable in instances of antigenic drift.

BBC News– “Prof Sarah Gilbert, who works on universal vaccines at Oxford University, told BBC News: ‘It is an improvement on the current vaccine. It’s not a ‘universal vaccine’ but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.’ She said it might be able to get over the problems of ‘mis-match’ when there are differences between the seasonal vaccine and the flu being targeted. However, the vaccine has not yet been tested in people. Clinical grade vaccine has not yet been developed so even safety trials are thought to be a year away.”

Synthetic Biologists Engineer A Custom Flu Vaccine In A Week

Within a week of receiving a strain of H7N9 close to the one circulating in China, researchers at Novartis and the J. Craig Venter Institute had synthesized a vaccine. Yes, there are still hurdles to effective mass production, and no the FDA has not yet approved the new strategy, but a week turnaround time is phenomenal. It is significantly easier to send a virus’ genetic code around the world, and have scientists build their own vaccine than to it is to carefully package and send the virus itself.

Popular Science – “That turnaround time is weeks faster than the current best vaccine-making methods…The new method uses synthetic biology, or the creation of biological materials, such as viruses, without using nature’s usual reproductive methods…’I think it does have great potential for more rapidly preparing vaccines for new strains as they evolve,’ Robert Finberg, chair of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a flu researcher, told the Boston Globe.”

 In case you missed it:

Man arrested in Spokane ricin letter scare