Pandora Report 3.14.14

Editor’s note: As Managing Editor, I know my job is never done because the news never stops. As a social scientist, I know there is always more than one side to any story. As such, before we get into the news roundup for March 14, here are two follow up articles from our report last week.

Mount Sinai Scientists Discover How Marburg Virus Grows in Cells

Last week we learned about BCX4430, a drug that could possibly treat Marburg virus. This week, news coming out of Mount Sinai in New York outlines further research findings on the virus that can lead to greater understanding or possible development of virus inhibitors. The full findings of this research are available at Cell Reports.

Newswise — “A protein that normally protects cells from environmental stresses has been shown to interact Marburg virus VP24, allowing the deadly Marburg virus to live longer and replicate better, according to a cell culture study led by scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The investigators say that deciphering the molecular details of how Marburg virus and the host protein interact may help in developing inhibitors of the virus.”

Nazi Scientists May Have Plotted Malaria Mosquito Warfare (Redux)

As was pointed out by our eagle-eyed reader Jean Pascal Zanders, there, of course, is disagreement about the supposed Nazi insect weapons program. Jean writes about it on his blog, and GMU Biodefense’s own, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, is incredulous.

National Geographic – “‘Research to assess the threat posed by different biological agents and vectors, such as May’s research on mosquitoes and malaria, is especially hard to categorize as offensive or defensive,’ Koblentz says. ‘Even if May’s intent was offensive, it was very preliminary-many steps away from actually producing a viable insect-borne biological weapon.’”

And now for our regularly scheduled Friday news…

Highlights include Project BioShield, Destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, and  Clostridium difficile with antibiotics. Happy Friday!

The Only Thing Scarier Than Bio-Warfare is the Antidote

Should we be afraid of bio-terror or bio-error? In this massive, front-page Newsweek story, the author looks at the creation of the Project BioShield Act and its resulting effects including the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act and increased availability of biological threat agents used for scientific research. The Soviet bioweapons program, BSL-4 labs, and the intersection of science and government are also addressed.

Newsweek – “Though BioShield’s initial goals made sense when the threat of biological warfare seemed imminent, the act may have permanently undermined some of the essential protections against unsafe practices in at least one area of science research: the regulations that keep untested drugs off the market, and labs from leaking deadly biological agents into the environment.”

Greeks protest against Syria chemical weapon destruction at sea

Under the UN Security Council backed deal to deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal, provisions are included for this to happen aboard a U.S. cargo ship in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.  Under the plan, hydrolysis systems aboard the ship are to mix heated water and other chemicals to break down the lethal agents, resulting in a sludge equivalent to industrial toxic waste. This plan has prompted protests in Italy, Malta, and Greece despite assurances there will be no negative impact on the surrounding environments.

Agence France-Presse – “‘If this happens it will obliterate the island’s economy, will pollute the sea and will lead the people of the Mediterranean to a grim future.’ Pavlos Polakis, mayor of the city of Sfakia told AFP.”

Severe diarrheal illness in children linked to antibiotics prescribed in doctor’s offices

According to the CDC, an overwhelming percentage of cases of pediatric Clostridium difficileinfection occur in children who were prescribed antibiotics during the 12 weeks prior to illness for unrelated conditions—such as ear, sinus, or upper respiratory infections.  C. difficile is a bacteria that causes severe diarrhea and is potentially life threatening.

CDC – “Taking antibiotics is the most important risk factor for developing C. difficile infections for both adults and children.  When a person takes antibiotics, beneficial bacteria that protect against infection can be altered or even eliminated for several weeks to months. During this time, patients can get sick from C. difficile picked up from contaminated surfaces or spread from a health care provider’s hands.”


(image courtesy of CDC/James Gathany)

Pandora Report 3.7.14

Editor’s note: Greetings Pandora Report subscribers! I hope you enjoyed that goofy video last week. For my first official Pandora Report, I rounded up some great stories (including a look back at history. As a social scientist, I really couldn’t help myself!)

Highlights include Botulism research and development, CDC antibiotic warning, the Nazi insect weapons program, and Marburg. Happy Friday!

Hawaii Biotech awarded $5.5M contract to develop anti-botulism drugs

Hawaii Biotech Inc. received a $5.5 million contract from the Department of Defense to continue development of drugs to treat botulinum toxin—a life threatening disease which currently has no known treatment. This grant was in addition to an existing $7.4 million grant held by Hawaii Biotech to develop anti-anthrax drugs.

Pacific Business News – “Under the contract, Hawaii Biotech will be working to improve its current anti-botulinum toxin inhibitor drug candidates that have demonstrated activity in pre-clinical testing with the goal of enhancing the stability, bioavailability and safety of these drug candidates so they can be used in humans.”

CDC: Antibiotic Overuse Can Be Lethal

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report Tuesday criticizing the overuse of antibiotics in hospitals and the consequences of these actions. Though prescribing practices vary between hospitals and doctors, the report highlights discrepancies across patients with similar symptoms and illnesses and urges caution in use of powerful antibiotics.

The Wall Street Journal – “Overprescribing antibiotics is making many of these drugs less effective because superbugs resistant to them are developing so fast. The practice also can sicken patients, by making them vulnerable to other types of infections such as Clostridium difficile, a bacterial infection.”

Nazi scientists planned to use mosquitoes as biological weapon

In 1942, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, ordered the creation of an entomological institute at the Dachau concentration camp. But why? Supposedly it was to study lice, fleas, and similar pests that were causing problems for German soldiers. However, a recent report offers an additional answer.

The Guardian – “In 1944, scientists examined different types of mosquitoes for their life spans in order to establish whether they could be kept alive long enough to be transported from a breeding lab to a drop-off point. At the end of the trials, the director of the institute recommended a particular type of anopheles mosquito, a genus well-known for its capacity to transmit malaria to humans.

With Germany having signed up to the 1925 Geneva protocol, Adolf Hitler had officially ruled out the use of biological and chemical weapons during the Second World War, as had allied forces. Research into the mosquito project had to be carried out in secret.”

Army one step closer to treatment against deadly Marburg virus

Exciting news, this week, regarding the development of a drug which may be able to prevent Marburg hemorrhagic fever virus from replicating in animals. The drug, BCX4430, was developed in partnership with BioCryst Pharmaceuticals Inc. through a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

The Frederick News-Post – “‘The drug works by using a compound that “tricks” the virus during the RNA replication process by mimicking it,’ said Travis Warren, [a principal researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.] ‘Once the virus incorporates BCX4430 into its RNA, the virus is forced to end further replication. If the virus can’t effectively replicate its RNA genome, it can’t produce more infectious virus. It has no other options than to end that replication cycle.’”

(image courtesy of CDC/ James Gathany)

Friday Levity

As you may have noticed, its been a light week here at the Pandora Report. With Siddha’s departure, we have been working hard on getting our new team up and running. It is my pleasure, for my first post as Managing Editor, to introduce myself–Julia Homstad–and two new writers–Alena James and Chris Healey. 

Alena Marie James is a Masters student in the GMU Biodefense program and a Staff Writer for the Pandora Report. Ms. James currently holds a BA in Political Science, a BS in Biology, and an MS in biology from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She serves as an adjunct instructor at Marymount University where she teaches microbiology and manages several life science laboratories. Ms. James is also currently working on her Masters Project regarding the role of intergovernmental organizations in preventing state actor pursuit of biological weapons programs. She represented George Mason at the 85th Annual Southern Political Science Association Conference this past January presenting preliminary research on the role of intergovernmental organizations in preventing state sponsored BW programs.

Chris Healey is a second-year GMU Biodefense Master’s student and a Staff Writer for the Pandora Report. He graduated magna cum laude from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s in communication and minors in biology and psychology. In 2013, Chris participated in an internship at the Virginia Department of Health’s Chickahominy Health District office. He was mentored by the district epidemiologist and assisted in foodborne illness investigations. His academic interests include vaccines, medical countermeasures, emerging infectious diseases, and foodborne illnesses. He is currently conducting his master’s project on the causes of success and failure of vaccine production for biodefense.

Julia Homstad is a Master’s student in the GMU Biodefense program and the Managing Editor of the Pandora Report. Julia graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Government and International Politics from George Mason University. Julia also holds a Master of Arts degree in European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies from the University of Toronto where she focused on the development of civil society in post-Communist countries. Since 2009, Julia has worked full-time at American Councils for International Education as a Program Officer for Secondary School Programs. With full funding from the U.S. Department of State, the programs Julia works on bring high school students from over 50 countries around the world to live in the U.S. with a host family for an academic year to help build mutual understanding between their home countries and the United States.

And since its Friday, I will leave you with a quirky video from Aimee Mann, David Wain and Dave Foley.

In her song titled “I’m Cured,” Aimee Mann plays the “common cold” who is forlorn after David Wain, a scientist, discovers a cure for her. The song is available as a digital download both as a single song and as a music video. This July, the song will be available as part of an album, 2776: A Millennium Of American Asskickery. Proceeds from the sale of the track go to OneKid OneWorld, an international organization that uses micro-loans to make a difference in the educational lives of impoverished children. Thank you to Annah Slack for bringing this song to my attention!

I hope everyone has a great weekend and I will see you back here next week for your regularly scheduled programming!

The Pandora Report 1.31.14

Highlights include abrin poisoning, norovirus on another couple cruises, a B. anthracis bacteriophage, and H7N9 fears in Hong Kong. Happy Friday!

Bank worker, 36, ‘spiked her Magistrate mother’s Diet Coke with deadly poison’
A woman in the UK is standing trial for attempting to poison her mother with abrin, by spiking her Diet Coke soda with the toxin. As we mentioned last week after a man tried to sell abrin hidden in candles, abrin is 75 times more toxic than it’s bean-derived cousin, ricin. No word yet on the source of the toxin in the case. The woman was arrested following a counterterrorism effort in the UK – she will not, however, be charged with acts of terrorism or violations of the BWC. She maintains her innocence.

London Evening Standard – “Abrin strikes at the liver, stomach and kidneys and is potentially fatal. It costs between £600 and £900. Kuntal Patel, 36, is accused of spiking a Diet Coke with abrin…Patel was arrested after a hunt for toxic chemicals at her home following information passed to the Met from the US. She has said the substance was intended for a suicide bid which she later abandoned.”

Cruise ship back in Houston after nearly 200 fall ill
We’d like to say upfront that we have a degree of admiration for anyone still willing to go on cruise ships. While we understand that hundreds of ships plow through various bodies of water without issue everyday, when things go wrong on a cruise ship, they have the unique capacity to go spectacularly wrong. In 2013 alone, there were nine outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses on US-based cruise ships  – 7 caused by norovirus and one caused by E. coli (the cause of the ninth case rather ominously remains “unknown”). Compared to, for instance, last February’s incident involving a week of no power or working toilets, this week’s two incidents – one norovirus outbreak on a ship sickening 170, and another sickening 700, seem relatively tame.

Houston Chronicle – “The Caribbean Princess left the Port of Houston on Jan. 25 bound for the Western Caribbean with more than 4,200 people on board. The vessel was scheduled to return on Saturday. According to CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant, 162 of the 3,102 passengers and 11 of the 1,148 crew members had reported illness by late Thursday afternoon. Ship employees implemented some of the agency’s recommendations for preventing further infections, he said…Caribbean Princess passengers will remain on the ship until they are cleared by U.S. Customs authorities, which will take several hours, according to Princess Cruises spokeswoman Julie Benson. Besides overnight accommodations in Houston, the cruise line said passengers would be offered a 20 percent credit toward a future cruise.”

Newly-discovered virus has voracious appetite for anthrax
The Tsamsa virus, a surprisingly large, newly-discovered bacteriophage (bacteria-eating virus), seems to have a preferential appetite for Bacillus anthracis. This appetite can hopefully be one day harnessed  The virus was discovered in a zebra carcass in Namibia by an international team of scientists, led by researchers from Universities Berkeley and KwaZulu-Natal  from universities around the world. And people say academia isn’t glamorous.

UC Davis PR– “The virus was isolated from samples collected from carcasses of zebras that died of anthrax in Etosha National Park, Namibia. The anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, forms spores that survive in soil for long periods. Zebras are infected when they pick up the spores while grazing; the bacteria multiply and when the animal dies, they form spores that return to the soil as the carcass decomposes.”

Hong Kong reports third H7N9 death
China has culled 22, 604 birds following a batch of poultry testing positive for H7N9. Adding to fears over the virus’ spread, yesterday another patient died following an H7N9 infection, the third in the last month. Hong Kong has also shut it’s live poultry market for three weeks to allow for thorough disinfection. The most recent death, which comes just one day before the Chinese new year, has definitely not helped assuage fears. Still no sign of sustained person-to-person transmission

Economic Times – “The 75-year-old man had previously travelled to the neighbouring Chinese city of Shenzhen and died Wednesday morning, a Department of Health spokesman confirmed to AFP without elaborating. Fears over avian flu have grown following the deaths of two men from the H7N9 strain of the virus in Hong Kong since December. A 65-year-old man with H7N9 died on January 14 and an 80-year old man died on Boxing Day last year. Both had recently returned from mainland China.”

(image courtesy of Matt Wade/Wikicommons)

The Pandora Report 12.6.13

Highlights this week include the second case of H7N9 in Hong Kong, WHO ramping up calls for increased surveillance for MERS, EEE in Vermont, why that one friend never gets sick, and the Philippines ramping up its biosecurity. Happy Friday!

Hong Kong sees second case of H7N9 bird flu in a week

Hong Kong has seen its second case of H7N9 in the last week. An 80-year old man with diabetes sought medical attention after experiencing minor heart failure, and within a couple days of hospitalization developed symptoms consistent with the flu virus strain. He has subsequently been isolated for further treatment – it remains unclear if he came into contact with poultry prior to his hospitalization. However, don’t freak out yet –  the two cases are consistent with expected resurgent flu numbers following the onset of winter. According to all literature and available case evidence,  the virus still cannot effectively transmit person-to-person.

South China Morning Post – “It was unclear whether the man had come into contact with birds and live poultry and which district in Shenzhen he lived in. The three family members coming with him to the city had been back in Shenzhen and the city had contacted the Shenzhen health authority for subsequent medical monitoring…Border checks have been stepped up after the first confirmed case, and three people, who stayed in the same ward as the helper but had had no symptoms, are being isolated at the Lady MacLehose Holiday Village in Sai Kung.”

WHO calls for action on Mers following death in Abu Dhabi

Earlier this week, a Jordanian woman infected with MERS died from the virus shortly after giving birth to her second child. Her eight-year old son and husband are both also infected, and are still under surveillance in Jordan. It is unclear if the newborn is also infected with the  virus. None of the family had any travel history, any prior contact with animals, or any contact with infected persons, further confounding public health officials trying to determine the virus’ vector. In response to the mother’s death, the WHO has strongly encouraged countries to ramp up their surveillance and monitoring efforts. To date, there have been 163 cases of the virus worldwide, with a case fatality rate of approximately 42% causing 70 deaths.

The National – “More must be done to stop the spread of the deadly Mers coronavirus, the World Health Organisation has warned. Countries must strengthen their surveillance, increase awareness and try to find out how people are infected, the WHO’s emergency committee said on Wednesday…But Mers-CoV is not yet considered an international public health emergency. ‘After discussion and deliberation on the information provided, the committee concluded that it saw no reason to change its previous advice to the director general,’ the WHO said. The 15-member committee, which includes the deputy health minister of Saudi Arabia, Ziad Memish, said the situation continued to be of concern, in view of new cases and of information about the presence of the virus in camels in Qatar last month. It called for more support for countries that are particularly vulnerable, such as Saudi Arabia – where most of the cases have been confirmed – and urged for more studies to investigate exactly how people become infected with Mers-CoV.”

Vt. testing deer samples to test for EEE virus

Biologists in Vermont have begun testing over 700 blood samples collected from local moose and deer in order to track the spread of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE). The virus was first introduced to Vermont in 2011, following the importation of an emu flock. EEE is a zoonotic alphavirus virus which primarily affects horses. The virus’ natural reservoir is wading birds, and it is spread, like so many horrible diseases, by mosquitoes. Although in the US there are usually less than 15 human cases of EEE, the virus’ fatality rate can approach 60%. As an encephalitic virus, symptoms are typically nasty – first fever, splitting headaches, photophobia (aversion to light),  then irritability, coma, and death. Among those lucky enough to survive, the virus often causes permanent sequelae, including severe brain damage.

Seattle PI – “Biologists say that mapping where the virus is found will help broaden the state’s understanding of the spread of the virus — which killed two people in Vermont in 2012 and two horses this year. EEE antibodies detected in deer and moose have been found in every Vermont country. Biologists hope that by looking for antibodies in the deer and moose, they’ll be able to determine if infected animals are more commonly found near certain bodies of water or wetlands.”

A genetic defect protects mice from infection with Influenza viruses

Everyone has that one friend/relative/colleague who not only never gets sick, but also thinks the best time to discuss their fabulous immune system is when you’re knee deep in tissues and throat lozenges. It turns out there may be a genetic reason for their immunological smugness. According to a new study from researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig, mice who possess a mutation in the gene which encodes for the Tmprss2 protease (a catalytic enzyme) are resistant to infection from the H1 influenza A viruses. While the virus still infects the mice, it is unable to produce mature, infectious virus particles, and the infection is quickly cleared from their symptoms. This opens up a potential new field for drug development, and by targeting the host system rather than the virus, concerns over drug-resistance fade.

Medical Express – “The virus uses haemagglutinin as a key to enter the host cell which is then captured to build new virus particles. To reach its final shape, the coating protein has to be cleaved by a molecular scissor. This is done by an enzyme of the infected host. Otherwise, the protein is not functional and the virus particles are not infectious. A variety of host enzymes, so-called proteases, that process the haemagglutinin have been identified using cell cultures. Scientists from the HZI have now been able to show how important those enzymes are for the progression of the infection. Mice with a mutation in the gene for the protease Tmprss2 do not become infected by flu viruses containing haemagglutinin type H1. They are resistant against H1N1, the pathogen responsible for seasonal influenza epidemics, the ‘swine flu’ and the ‘Spanish flu’, which caused an epidemic in 1918. ‘These mice do not lose weight and their lungs are almost not impacted,’ says Professor Klaus Schughart, head of the Department ‘Infection Genetics’ at the HZI.”

Philippine airports on alert for bird flu

The Philippines is on high alert for the H7N9 strain of avian influenza found in Hong Kong for the first time last week. Manilla has  banned the import of all Chinese poultry products, and  airports across the island nation already screen inbound travelers to prevent the virus’ spread. This is an interesting form of biosecurity, which is something we don’t often talk about on the PR, mostly because it’s not as much of a concern for us as our colleagues in say, Australia.In this instance, the human body itself is seen as the vector for pathogen movement, rather than a kiwi or tomato plant.

Xinhua – “The Philippine government has alerted airport authorities to ensure that the deadly bird flu H7N9 could not enter the country following the recent discovery of first case in Hong Kong, the Philippines’ Department of Health ( DOH) said Wednesday. To date there are 141 cases of bird flu and 47 deaths worldwide. Deaths were due to severe pneumonia with multi-organ failure. So far, two-thirds of bird flu H7N9 cases were males and two-thirds were more than 50 years old.”

(image via Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Pandora Report 10.11.13

A briefer report this week due staff illness (one of the many drawbacks of studying biodefense is the crippling hypochondria that comes with it  – we’re pretty sure we’ve come down with MERS). Highlights include actual cases of MERS, Hajj starting and outbreak fears, dengue in Houston, and the government shutdown leaving us exposed. Happy Friday!

Event Note: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the efforts in destroying chemical weapons. Our October Biodefense Policy Seminar, happening Wednesday Oct. 16th, features Dr. Paul Walker, who was recently rewarded the prestigious Swedish Rights Livelihood Award for his personal contributions to the destruction of chemical weapons. Join us and Dr. Walker as we discuss disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile Wednesday evening

Virus hangs over Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca

Hajj is finally upon us, will millions of pilgrims flooding the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca for the annual muslim pilgrimige, culminating on October 15th. Doctors in hospitals across Southern California have been alerted by state health departments to watch for fever and respiratory symptoms in individuals returning from the Middle East. Here’s to hoping for the best.

LA Times – “The hajj, which typically draws more than 10,000 from the U.S. and culminates Oct. 15 this year, is just the sort of environment where a virus can spread efficiently. Conditions can be hot and crowded, said Jihad Turk, a religious advisor for the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles and president of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school in Claremont. Pilgrims retrace the steps of the biblical Abraham, his wife Hagar and their son Ishmael, considered the founders of the Islamic people. In one key ritual, they march seven times around the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca, said to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael.’You have a million people all at the same time walking around the Kaaba,’ said Turk, who has participated in the hajj twice. ‘It’s like being in a crowded subway in New York for hours and hours at a time.”

Genome studies link MERS origin to bats

Speaking of MERS, another study has emerged linking the virus’ origins to bats. To date there have been 136 cases of the resipatory syndrome, with 58 fatalities.

Infectious Disease News – “Previous research suggested that MERS uses the DPP-4 receptor to enter the cell. Researchers from Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at the University of Sydney in Australia analyzed seven bat genomes to determine the sequence of the DPP4 gene. They compared these findings with those from other mammalian species. They found three residues in bat DPP-4 receptors that directly interact with the viral surface glycoprotein. The mutations in the bat genes also occurred at a faster rate, which suggests that the virus existed in bats for a long period and has evolved before it began to infect humans.”

Study: Dengue fever found in Houston

Dengue, the mosquito-borne virus which ravages so much of the developing world, has re-emerged in Houstan. According to a new study from Baylor College, antibodies to the disease where present in 47 individuals sampled as part of a larger West Nile study, suggesting an outbreak in 2003.

Houston Chronicle – “‘Dengue virus can cause incredibly severe disease and death,’ [study researcher] Murray said. ‘This study shows that Houston may be at risk of an outbreak, that people need to be on the lookout.’ While no blood and cerebrospinal fluid samples from after 2005 are available for study, Murray said the virus likely is still in Houston. Dengue fever is widespread in other parts of the world. Whenever it appears in the U.S., local officials hope to contain it. It can cause severe body aches, high fever and rash. Its most severe forms can cause severe bleeding and death. In central Florida, 20 cases of dengue fever have been reported this year.”

Idle CDC Worries Experts as Flu Season Starts

We can attest first hand that flu season has definitely started. As we mentioned last week, it’s happening without the watchful eye of the CDC surveillance system. While there has been some private industry pull-through, the supplemental surveillance isn’t enough to provide a good national picture of flu trends.

MedPage – “But it’s not just data and it’s not just flu, according to Gregory Poland, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.’There are an endless number of infectious disease threats that, as we often say, are an airplane ride away from us,’ Poland said. And the CDC is the ‘only entity’ that tracks infectious disease on a national scale, he added. ‘So now you’ve got a week, 2 weeks, who knows how long, where there’s no one really responsible for watching what’s happening nationally.’ He painted a grim picture of what might happen while the agency is all-but-shuttered.

“‘Worst-case scenario is a novel infectious disease is imported into the U.S.,’ he said, with cases scattered at first across a dozen states. ‘Nobody understands that it’s happening simultaneously in real time and we don’t have 12 cases, we have 1,200 cases before we realize what’s going on.'”