Pandora Report 5.9.14

The stories this week cover topics that I am especially interested in: avian flu in Antarctica, wild poliovirus, and the Russia biological weapons program. Have a great weekend!

Avian Influenza Present in Antarctic Penguins

A team of international researchers have discovered a new strain of avian influenza among Adelie penguin populations in Antarctica which has been identified as H11N2. Presence of this strain of influenza was found in eight penguins from a sample size of 301 swabbed penguins and 270 penguins who had had blood drawn. Though the six adult penguins and two chicks only represent 2.6% of the total group, approximately 16% of the samples contained antibodies for H11N2, indicating the virus has likely been present in the population for “some length of time.”

Guardian Liberty Voice—“There has already been a theory posited which might explain how the H11N2 virus was transmitted to the Antarctic region. Due to both the relatively small incidence of the virus in the sample population, and the region from which the sample size was drawn. Hurt has posited that the introduction of the virus into the Antarctic ecosystem was conducted by migratory birds from South America, such as the yellow-billed pintail duck. This conclusion has been supported by the fact that distant similarities between the H11N2 strain of the virus and South American AIVs, primarily from Brazil and Chile, do in fact exist.”

Wild Poliovirus Making a Comeback, WHO says

In a statement made on Monday, the WHO applauded worldwide efforts to eradicate polio while cautioning that the wild poliovirus is spreading and may negate the hard fought eradication efforts. They declared this spread of wild poliovirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and warned that if the spread remains unchecked “this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases.” The WHO declared that Pakistan, Cameroon, and Syria pose the greatest risk of wild poliovirus exportation while Afghanistan, Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria are infected with wild poliovirus but are not exporting it.

National Geographic—“The effort is to break the chains of transmission. The WHO is recommending that countries currently infected with polio ensure that their people who are traveling outside the country get vaccinated. About 72 percent of the people who are infected with the polio virus have no symptoms, but they can still spread the disease. Polio is now in just a few countries. The concern is not to re-infect the countries that have gotten rid of polio.”

Lawmakers Mull Biological Weapons Threat from Russia

Providing an opportunity for me to majorly geek out, the U.S. House of Representatives held a committee hearing this week regarding the biological weapons threat from Russia and beyond. Witnesses included Dr. Christopher Davis, a biomedical weapons expert and former member of the U.K.’s Defense Intelligence Staff; Dr. Amy E. Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies; Milton Leitenberg, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland and author of The Soviet Biological Weapons Program; and Dr. David Franz, former Commander of USAMRIID.

Time—“Leitenberg said it’s almost impossible to evaluate the extent of the Russian biological weapons stockpile because three Russian laboratories remain closed to outside inspection. “We don’t know what they’re doing,” Leitenberg said. ‘They may or may not have an active offensive program—I presume they do. I do not believe that the U.S. government thinks they are producing and stockpiling agent any more, but we don’t know that.’”

A recording of the hearing is available here.


Image Credit: Andrew Mandemaker/ Wikimedia Commons

Pandora Report 4.25.14

While Ebola Viral Disease still rages in West Africa and MERS continues to spread, let’s take this Friday to look at some other stories.

Highlights include Polio eradication in Southeast Asia, Manure and Antibiotic Resistance, Chemical weapons in Syria (yes, again), and the 28th anniversary of Chernobyl. Have a great weekend!


80% of the World Polio Free

If you’re anything like me, you hang on every word Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC and active tweeter, says. This week he lauds polio eradication in the 11 countries of Southeast Asia as a “remarkable achievement.” The countries include Bangladesh, Bhutan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Timor-Leste and are home to 1.8 billion people.  While he applauds the work that has already been done, he highlights Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria as countries where there is still work to be done.

Huffington Post—“The lessons of Southeast Asia are being applied in these last three countries — improving immunization activities, outreach to underserved populations, special approaches in security-compromised areas, outbreak response, improved routine immunization and disease tracking — so the world can get to the finish line in the fight against polio.”


Cow Manure May Lead to Antibiotic Resistance

Using five stool samples collected from four cows at a dairy farm in Connecticut, scientists at Yale University found 80 unique antibiotic resistance genes, approximately three quarters of which were unfamiliar. Genetic sequencing showed that the AR genes were only distantly related to those already known to science. When applied to a lab strain of E. coli, the genes made the bacteria resistant to certain well-known antibiotics, including penicillin and tetracycline.

The New Zealand Herald—“Further study is needed to probe whether cow manure may harbour a major reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes that could move into humans.

“This is just the first in a sequence of studies – starting in the barn, moving to the soil and food on the table and then ending up in the clinic – to find out whether these genes have the potential to move in that direction,” Jo Handelsman, senior study author and microbiologist at Yale said.”


As Syria Closes in on Chemical Weapons Disarmament, New Concerns Arise

Like Russia, it seems Syria cannot stay out of the news lately. While Reuters reported this week on an apparent chemical attack in the province of Idlib (which followed a chemical attack in Hama earlier in April), news outlets are cheering Syria’s commitment to meeting their deadlines for disarmament of their chemical weapons stockpiles. Reports estimate that 85-90% of the Syrian stockpile has been shipped for dismantlement and destruction.

Los Angeles Times—“Under a revised plan, Syria has promised to remove all of its chemical weapons material by April 27. In the last two weeks, Syria has shipped out six batches, “marking a significant acceleration in the pace of deliveries,” the OPCW said. Russia provided armored vehicles and other equipment to assist the chemical convoys, which sometimes traversed roads near contested zones where rebels were present.

The U.N. set June 30 as a deadline for destruction of the chemicals.”


28th Anniversary of Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

What is there to say, as we approach the 28th anniversary of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster? This event remains one of the most catastrophic nuclear disasters in the history of mankind. The ongoing after effects have harmed the environment, people, and there are consequences still yet unknown.

As the media looks back on this event, there are many good stories that cover the effects of this meltdown that happened in the early hours of April 26. Some focus on the lasting impact on the environment.

Birds Adapt to Long-Term Radiation Exposure

What’s Wrong With Chernobyl’s Trees?

Radiological Damage Still Poses ‘Catastrophic’ Threat to Ukraine

Some focus on the risks of nuclear power and call for greater awareness.

Ban marks Chernobyl anniversary with call for greater support for recovery efforts

Some focus on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and its effect on Chernobyl.

Chernobyl Radiation Shield Under Threat Amid Ukraine Crisis

But the one of the most interesting remembrances of this event was from the 10th anniversary of the meltdown in 1996. It is the tale of the Swedish scientist who alerted the world to the uptick in radiation…since the Soviet Union did not.

Chernobyl haunts engineer who alerted world


(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons Firef7y)

Increasing Refugees, Increased Risk of Communicable Diseases

by Alena M. James

Since the start of the Syrian crisis three years ago, refugees have fled to camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon. Last week the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported the number of refugees from Syria to Lebanon has passed one million.  According to the report, this influx has stretched Lebanon’s social and economic infrastructure thin in public services such as electricity, water, sanitation services, education, and the public health sector. Tourism, trade, and investment within the country has also decreased significantly. The increase in the population has led to decreased wages among competing workers.  Lebanese residents find themselves struggling financially; while the refugees find themselves struggling to build better lives.

The competition for depleting resources is not the only concern facing both residents and refugees.  A high influx of refugees into any state can lay the ground for increases risk of communicable diseases or outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases. With small Lebanese communities overwhelmed by the drastic increase in the population, public health services struggle to provide adequate health care, antibiotic treatments, immunizations, and other medical aid to those in need. Not only are critical public health services overextended, but the high volume of individuals seeking services creates the ideal transmission grounds for microbial organisms and viral agents.

In overcrowded populations with limited health resources, the risk of spreading diseases is incredibly high and transmission can occur in a variety of mediums. Direct or indirect contact, the release of respiratory droplets, ingestion of contaminated food and water sources, contact with mechanical  or biological vectors are all various modes by which pathogenic agents spread from person to person.

Direct contact occurs from direct exposure to the pathogenic source, for example, when a patient is bit by a rabid dog and develops rabies. Indirect contact occurs via exposure to septic fomites, for example, when an unsterilized syringe is used to dispense a treatment or drug intravenously into a patient.  Respiratory droplets allow illnesses like the common cold, influenza, and measles to spread at a rapid pace through sneezing or coughing on and around others. Ingestion of contaminated water and foods lead to major gastrointestinal complications and other illnesses. Mechanical vectors, like insect bodies, indirectly spread diseases. For example, flies feeding on fecal material can pick up and spread pathogens, via their feet, after landing on a patient’s untreated injury or open wound. Biological vectors like mosquitos transmit viral, bacterial, and other parasitic organisms to patients. The chances of these transmission modes being employed by pathogens remain high among densely packed populations lacking in substantial health care resources.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there are several diseases that migrants to Lebanon are susceptible to if the proper vaccinations are not sought. Such diseases include Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid, Polio, and Rabies. Refugees from Syria also pose a dangerous risk of transmitting communicable diseases if they have not received proper immunizations before fleeing from their country. Malnourished refugees deprived of food and clean water are at risk of developing weakened immune systems which makes them even more susceptible to virulent pathogens.

Despite the three-year Syrian conflict, many humanitarian workers continue to immunize children against preventable diseases. UNICEF in particular is actively working towards the vaccination of more than 20 million children against Poliomyelitis. Last October, the WHO confirmed at least 10 cases of children infected with Polio in Syria. This past weekend UNICEF re-launched its campaign to help control the spread of this virus among other states impacted by Syrian refugees.  Iraq, Turkey, Jordan also pledged to join the campaign due to the threat of incidences of the virus occurring in their countries.  So far Iraq has reported one case of the disease while the UN has reported 27 cases among Lebanese children.

Approximately 500,000 Syrian refugees to Lebanon have been children–who are at the greatest risk of acquiring polio if no vaccination has been administered. The war in Syria and the displacement of refugees has made it difficult for medical personal to provide vaccinations needed to control the spread of this and other communicable diseases.  The continued fighting in Syria is likely to lead to more bloodshed, the displacement of more refugees, the depletion of public service resources in several states, and the spread of more communicable diseases if efforts to resolve the conflict are not soon reached.


Image Credit: AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

Pandora Report 3.28.14

It’s been a busy week between Ebola and Ricin! Friday highlights include a Polio-free India, tuberculosis transmission from cat to human, and mandatory vaccines in Croatia. Have a great weekend!

India is Polio-Free after 3 years of no new cases

On March 27, 2014, India was declared Polio-Free by the World Health Organization after three years of no new cases. The last case of polio in India was Rukhsar Khatoon, a 4 year old girl who became ill as a baby when her parents forgot to vaccinate her.

The Huffington Post—“Being declared polio-free once was considered all but impossible in a nation hobbled by corruption, poor sanitation and profound poverty. Although the disease could return, eradicating it is a landmark public health achievement.

This is “a day that we have dreamt about,” said Poonam Khetrpal Singh, a WHO official at a ceremony in New Delhi to declare the entire Southeast Asian region free of the disease. Singh described it as ‘a day that all countries fought hard for, and a day when all stakeholders come together to celebrate the victory of mankind over a dreaded disease.’”

Pet cats infect two people with TB

Two people in England have contracted tuberculosis from a house cat infected with Mycobacterium bovis—a form of tuberculosis normally found in cattle. Nine cats in the Berkshire and Hampshire areas have tested positive for M.bovis which is extremely uncommon in cats and usually affects livestock.

BBC—“‘These are the first documented cases of cat-to-human transmission, and so although PHE has assessed the risk of people catching this infection from infected cats as being very low, we are recommending that household and close contacts of cats with confirmed M. bovis infection should be assessed and receive public health advice’ said Dr. Dilys Morgan, head of gastrointestinal, emerging and zoonotic diseases department at Public Health England.”

Thank You, Croatia: All Hail Mandatory Vaccinations

This week, the Constitutional Court of Croatia passed a law that mandates all children must receive childhood vaccinations for diphtheria, pertussis, measles, polio and others. This decision comes at a time when lively debate rages, in the U.S. and abroad, about vaccination and its importance or harm. This step by Croatia, in the words of the court, is a victory for children’s health over parents (wrong) choices.

The Daily Beast—“… public health imperatives and individual rights are often at odds: a country like the U.S. that values the rights of the individual always has trouble with laws that remind us that not everything is a choice. Kids must go to school. People must pay taxes. Children must be vaccinated. It is called living in modern society.”


Image Credit: Dwight Sipler/ Wikimedia Commons

Pandora Report 3.21.14


Positive Tests for Ricin at Georgetown University

Earlier this week, a white, powdery substance that tested positive for ricin, was found in a dorm room at Georgetown University. The 19 year-old student suspect who lived in the room reported that he made it and the Georgetown Voice spoke with a source who indicated the suspect possibly “intended to use the substance on another student.” Weapons-grade ricin is an extremely lethal toxin that has no available anti-toxin.

The Washington Post– “In an e-mail sent campus-wide, the university said there was no danger to the community. Law enforcement officials said they did not think that the case was connected to terrorism. School officials received no reports of anyone being exposed to the toxin, authorities said. D.C. health officials advised the school that symptoms of ricin exposure typically present themselves within 24 hours. “This window has passed and there are no reports consistent with ricin exposure,” the statement said.”

And now, our regularly scheduled Friday news…

Highlights include Polio-like virus in California, destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, the cost of Anti-Vaxxers, and domestic illness in pigs (or…the end of bacon?!) Happy Friday and have a great weekend!

Doctors continue the hunt for a Polio-like virus in California

Since September 2012, over two-dozen children in California have displayed symptoms of a rare Polio-like illness that has caused sudden paralysis, while doctors and health officials are still hunting for the cause. One possible suspect may be some sort of enterovirus, but more testing is required as the mystery continues.

San Francisco Chronicle—“Viruses can be difficult to detect after patients have been sick for a couple of weeks, and especially if they’ve already undergone treatment that can muddy test results. In the California cases, most children weren’t tested until many weeks or even months after they became sick. Waubant, a UCSF neurologist, said she is hoping to get funding to conduct immunoglobulin testing, which would determine whether the patients with polio-like illness have certain antibodies suggesting that they’d all been infected with the same virus.”

PEDv threatens future of pork industry

Are the days of available bacon coming to an end? A report coming out of the Dakotas paints a scary picture of the effect porcine epidemic diarrhea virus is having on the entire domestic pork industry. PEDv is a relatively new disease afflicting pigs but is has become widespread and with little known about the virus containment has become a top priority of both the pork industry and scientists.

Farm Forum—“‘PEDv has a significant economic impact,” Dr. Oedekoven, South Dakota State veterinarian said. “There is a high death rate in the naïve (newborn) population where 80 to 100 percent death losses are reported. The young piglets have no natural immunity and there is no vaccine. It’s a pretty terrible recipe. Biosecurity and sanitation are the tools being used in the industry to prevent the introduction of the disease into herds.’”

A Medical opinion on the anti-vaccination movement

With celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari appearing in the media on an almost daily basis loudly championing the virtues of being “anti-vaxxer,” a medical doctor weighs in on the cost of that movement.

Forbes—“The result is an erosion in health gains, both individual and collective. And in some parts of the country, we are witnessing a reversal of what many believe is one of the greatest advances in medical science in the last century. And as a society, before we allow misinformation to threaten public health, we must recognize that vaccines today are safe and effective. Anything less is irresponsible. We owe it to our children and our communities to make vaccination universal.”

Will Syria meet the deadline for chemical weapon disarmament?

A deadline of June 30 has been set for Syria to hand over and destroy their chemical weapons arsenal. However, there are concerns that rocket strikes in Syria could delay this process and means the deadline will pass without completion.

Al Bawaba—“The Syrian government has repeatedly blamed security issues for its failure to meet the specified deadlines for removing its chemical weapon stockpile from the country. Damascus said last month that convoys carrying chemical weapons were subject to two attempted attacks while they attempted to transport the materials to Latakia.”

But, the U.S.-Russian brokered deal is not in danger, Russian authorities say.

ITAR/TASS—“‘We are not inclined to dramatize the fact that the milestone for their removal, February 5 this year, was not met, as it was planned by the decision of the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW),” the ministry said. “It can be explained by the objective security situation around chemical weapons storage facilities and on the route of convoys’ movement, as well as by problems related to the logistical support of the operation. However, there is no reason at all to call into question the deadline for the liquidation of the Syrian chemical weapons potential – the first half of the current year.’”

(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Pandora Report 11.22.13

Highlights this week include dengue in New York, detecting ricin, a suspected al Qaeda biological weapons expert, the evolution of flu, and polio and the Taliban. Happy Friday, and have a bacteria-free Thanksgiving!

‘Locally-Acquired’ Dengue Fever Case Reported In New York

For the first time, a locally-acquired case of dengue fever has popped up in the state of New York. The infected individual had not left the region at any point during the incubation period. This suggests that the probable route of infection was a mosquito which had taken a blood meal from an infected person before biting the New York patient. The patient has made a full recovery. However, this case highlights the truly global nature of infectious disease today. Dengue  is considered a “neglected disease” by the WHO, meaning its research on its treatment and cure receive comparatively less funding. This is especially unfortunate as the virus, which is considered “pandemic-prone” causes an estimated 100 million infections every year in 100 different countries. It’s easy to dismiss dengue as a disease which affects other people in far-flung parts of the world, but this simply isn’t the case anymore.  The prevalence of international travel means relative geographical isolation is no longer the protective boundary it once was.

Global Dispatch – “‘Given the recent introduction of Aedes albopictus into New York State and the high level of travel in New York to areas of the world endemic for dengue, it is not surprising that a locally acquired case of dengue has been found in the state,’ said State Health Commissioner, Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H. ‘This finding emphasizes the need for physicians to be aware of signs and symptoms of diseases common in tropical countries, but may occasionally present themselves in New York.'”

Army Scientists Improve Methods to Detect Ricin

The CDC has sponsored research on decontaminating ricin. While the utility of spending large amounts of money on vaccine development against certain pathogens can sometimes be questionable, decon is an area of real importance that is under-researched. A letter containing ricin may not kill a lot of people, but its particles can linger for a very long time at each of the mail facilities it traveled through.

Military News – “The paper, which is entitled, ‘Surface Sampling of a Dry Aerosol Deposited Ricin,’ examines swab materials commonly used to sample biological threat agents from surfaces. The paper documents his studies, which demonstrates the need for accurate dissemination techniques to effectively evaluate sampling technologies in an environment mimicking the ‘real-world’ environment where the toxin may be present.”

Israel Holding Suspected al-Qaida Bio Weapons Expert

Israel is currently in a bit of a bind over it’s holding of a suspected biological weapons expert. According to court documents released this week,  Samer Hilmi Abdullatif al-Barq was trained as a microbiologist in Pakistan, had military training in Afghanistan, and eventually was recruited by Ayman al-Zawahiri into the al Qaeda weapons program. Israeli courts have yet to try al-Burq, due to lack of sufficient evidence, but his actions in the area, including attempted recruitment of others into al Qaeda, render him too dangerous to release. Moreover, attempts to release him into the custody of neighboring states have been politely declined. It’s clearly a complicated case.

New York Times – “In a document presented to the court, the military prosecutors described Mr. Barq as an operative in the global Qaeda organization with ‘a rich background in the field of nonconventional weapons, with an emphasis on the biological field,’ having studied microbiology in Pakistan. The prosecutors argued that Mr. Barq’s release at this time to the West Bank, where he is a resident, would constitute ‘a point of no return in the development of a significant global jihadist infrastructure in the area.'”

Scientists zero in on flu virus defenses

A recent study published in the journal Science details novel research on the hemagglutinin protein (HA) of the H3N2 flu strain. The work examined mutations in the protein between 1968 and 2003 which prompted structural changes.  In doing so, researchers were able to pinpoint changes in seven key amino acids that prompted evolutionary change in the virus.  Better understanding the virus’ points and methods of evolution could help in the creation of more efficacious vaccines.

ABC Australia – “The researchers confirmed their findings by engineering changes to these seven amino acids and testing the antibody response to the new virus in ferrets. Importantly, the amino acids singled out by Barr and colleagues are close to the site on the HA protein that binds to host cells. This limits the number of amino acid substitutions that are possible as many changes will alter the protein’s structure, interfering with the virus binding process. ‘The virus can evolve in a number of different directions,” says Barr. “If we can narrow that down to a small number of directions then we’ve got a better chance of trying to work out which particular virus might be the one which is going to turn up in a year’s time.'”

The Surge

Wired has an excellent long-form piece on polio vaccinations and the Taliban. The six-part article is interactive, and includes audio interviews, photo galleries, and infographics on why eradicating polio is so important and so challenging. Obviously, we highly recommend it!

Excerpts – “The virus typically infects only the mucosal tissues of the gastrointestinal system for a few weeks, where the immune system clears it before any harm is done. After that, the infected person would be immune to future infections from the same strain. However, in less than 1 percent of infections, the virus attacks the central nervous system and causes paralysis. Typically this affects just the legs. But in 5 to 10 percent of paralytic cases (that is, 0.05 percent of total infections), polio paralyzes the breathing muscles, meaning that without artificial respiration the patient will suffocate. All this explains why polio is so difficult to annihilate. For every one person who actually gets sick, nearly 200 are carrying the virus and infecting others…

“[T]he math of cost-benefit analyses runs aground when it comes to eradication campaigns, because the benefits, in theory, are infinite. That is: No one will ever die from—or spend a dime on vaccinating against—smallpox for the remainder of human history, barring a disaster involving one of the few lingering military stockpiles. According to a 2010 study, polio eradication would generate $40 billion to $50 billion in net benefits by 2035.”

(image:  Sgt. Mike R. Smith, National Guard Bureau)

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)

The Pandora Report 11.1.13

Highlights include polio in Syria (really not a highlight), bats and SARS (surprise, bats carry everything!), rabies in a French kitten, MERS in Oman, and cholera in Mexico. Happy Friday!

Polio outbreak in Syria threatens whole region, WHO says
For the first time since 1999, a polio outbreak has occurred in Northern Syria. This is not a spontaneous re-emergence of the otherwise eradicated disease. This is the same strain found in the recent Iraqi outbreak, as well as that found in sewage in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, a strain which originates in Pakistan. Pakistan is one of just three countries globally in which polio remains endemic. Pakistan is also a country in which the Taliban has banned administration of the vaccine, and routinely kills the poor, often women, workers who administer the vaccine anyway. As a result of this tremendous bit of stupidity, polio is re-emerging in Syria, a country in the middle of a civil war, and therefore a ripe breeding ground for the crippling virus’ spread.

Reuters – “‘This virus has come over land which means the virus is not just in that corner of Syria but in a broad area,’ Bruce Aylward, WHO assistant director-general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration, told Reuters in an interview.’We know a polio virus from Pakistan was found in the sewage of Cairo in December. The same virus was found in Israel in April, also in the West Bank and Gaza. It… is putting the whole Middle East at risk quite frankly,’ he said by telephone from Oman.”

Bat virus clues to origins of SARS
Researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation have discovered two viruses closely related to SARS in the Chinese horseshoe bats. The viruses both bind to the same receptor in humans as SARS does, the ACE2 receptor, which is primarily expressed in endothelial cells of the kidney and heart. The use of the same receptor in both species suggests that coronaviruses may be able to jump directly from bats to humans without a vector species. Our first thought here is MERS?

BBC – “According to Gary Crameri, virologist at CSIRO and an author on the paper, this research ‘is the key to resolving the continued speculation around bats as the origin of the Sars outbreaks’. This Sars-like coronavirus is around 95% genetically similar to the Sars virus in humans, the research shows. And they say it could be used to develop new vaccines and drugs to combat the pathogen.

WHO: Middle East respiratory syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) – update

The WHO has confirmed another four cases of the Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus, including the first case in Oman. The three other cases, including one fatality, were all located in Saudi Arabia. While none of the three had recent contact with animals, one of the Saudi cases had been in recent contact with an infected patient. All three however were immunocompromised. The Omani case had no recent contact with animals or travel to Saudi Arabia.

WHO – “The patient in Oman is a 68-year-old man from Al Dahkliya region who became ill on 26 October 2013 and was hospitalized on 28 October 2013…Globally, from September 2012 to date, WHO has been informed of a total of 149 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS-CoV, including 63 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.”

France issues rabies warning after kitten’s death
It is no secret that rabies is scary. We’ve all joked at one point or the other about what a zombie apocalypse would look like, which is all fun and games until someone mentions rabies.  While our vaccine is very good, in order for it to be effective, you have to know you’ve caught rabies. The virus itself usually has an incubation period of a few weeks, although cases have occurred in which the virus lay dormant for years.  At that point it’s of course too late. So we definitely understand Paris health authorities preemptively vaccinating five people, setting up a public hotline, and imploring anyone who may have handled or come near the kitten to contact authorities to be vaccinated.

BBC – “France was first declared a rabies-free zone for non-flying terrestrial mammals 12 years ago following the elimination of fox rabies. The 2008 canine rabies outbreak led to that status being suspended for two years. The BBC’s Christian Fraser in Paris said that the urgent appeal seeking anyone who came into contact with the infected animal is likely to be fuelled by fears of a repeat of the 2008 outbreak. The rabies virus is present in the saliva of an infected animal and is usually transmitted to humans by a bite.”

Haitian Cholera in Mexico
The cholera strain introduced to Haiti three years ago has spread to Mexico, which has seen 171 cases of the disease since September 9th of this year. The Haitian epidemic has infected as many as 600,000 people and caused nearly 8,500 deaths in Haiti, before spreading to the Dominican Republic and causing a further 31,000 cases there.

IBT – “Mexico has reported 171 cases of the disease, which has been identified as the same strain that arrived in Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba and one that is different from the strain that circulated in Mexico during a 1991-2001 epidemic. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is warning that the illness could spread worldwide. Mexican health authorities reported the 171 cases in Mexico City and in the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Veracruz and San Luis Potosí between Sept. 9 and Oct. 18. According to the Mexican Ministry of Health, there has been only one fatality, while 39 other cases have required hospitalization. The recent devastation caused by hurricanes Ingrid and Manuel contributed to the spread of the disease, which had not been reported in Mexico since the previous epidemic.”

(image: CDC Global Health/Flickr)

Two Killed in Polio Vaccination Drive in Pakistan

A bomb killed two and injured 20 others during a polio vaccination drive in Pakistan. Pakistanis one of just three remaining states where polio remains endemic. An anti-Taliban group member and police officer comprised the fatalities. This is just the latest in a long campaign against aid workers, doctors, nurses, and public health officials working to try and eradicate the crippling disease in the region. The vaccinators, often relatively poor women, often work to inoculate local populations at great personal risk, usually travelling door-to-door in an attempt to reach as many children as possible.

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is an often fatal disease spread by the poliovirus. Once contracted, the disease is incurable, and can result in complete paralysis of the legs. The disease is easily preventable through a vaccine administered as oral drops.

The Independent – “When the authorities are unable to provide sufficient security, these women bear the brunt of the Taliban attacks. Last year, gunmen killed four female polio workers in the city of Karachi on the same day, and two women were killed in Peshawar, very close to where Monday morning’s bomb was detonated, apparently by remote control. In Nigeria, Islamist gunmen killed nine health workers in February.”

Read more here.

The Pandora Report 9.6.13

Highlights: The Syrian BW “threat”, MERS vaccine, Nipah, biological weapons in the Philippines, and al Shabaab contributing to polio. Happy Friday!

On Not Falling Prey to Syrian Biological Weapons Alarmism

There have been a lot of articles (starting with the WaPo, and snowballing to the Telegraph, VoR, etc) discussing the “emerging threat” of Syrian biological weapons. Before the rumors grow and plant seeds, we strongly recommend you take a moment to check out Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormely’s excellent rebuttal. Here’s an excerpt from her piece:

“A September 5 Washington Post article raises concern that Syria might resort to biological weapons in retaliation for a Western military strike. The article states that intelligence reports indicate that Syria engaged in bioweapons development in the 1970s and 80s and since then has maintained a “dormant capability,” which some experts interviewed by the Post believe can easily be reactivated to produce biological weapons. it is important to inject a little bit of reality in regard to the question of whether or not Syria might be able to successfully reactivate a “dormant program” and effectively develop and use biological weapons.”

Read the full post here.

MERS Vaccine Passes First Test

The confirmation of another two cases of the Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus in the last week, bringing the global total to 110 cases and 52 fatalities, has the scientific community scrambling to develop a viable vaccine. Now researchers at Loyola Marymount University, working in conjunction with the Erasmus lab in Rotterdam (the same lab who refused to play nice in sharing the MERS genome), have developed a candidate vaccine which can be used in case of a pandemic. However, while the candidate has passed the first pre-clinical trials, if proven efficacious in humans  it would still be at least a year before the vaccine would be ready for production.

Medical Xpress – “The starting point for the new vaccine was a related virus known as Modified Vaccinia virus Ankara (MVA). MVA is an attenuated strain of the virus that causes smallpox, and has been used for more than 30 years for the manufacture of smallpox vaccine. Indeed, MVA is at the heart of a worldwide effort to design and generate vaccines not only against viral pathogens but also against cancers. In this context, MVA serves as the carrier for specific antigens that elicit the production of protective antibodies in the immunized host. MERS-CoV is known to bind to human cells via its so-called spike (S) protein, which is exposed on the surface of its membrane envelope. Sutter and his team therefore used molecular biological methods to introduce the gene for the MERS S protein into the MVA genome.”

Bats spreading deadly virus, Stanford scientist warns

If there’s one thing we’ve learned here at GMU Biodefense, it’s stay good and far away from bats. Whether it’s rabies or MERS, the creatures of the night are bastions for all sorts of nasty diseases.  Now it looks like Pteropus bats in Bangladesh are in the “villain of the week” spotlight. A researcher at Stanford University is voicing concerns over the bats, which range across South East Asia, spreading the deadly virus Nipah.

Stanford News – “Among Nipah’s worrisome traits: Many strains are capable of limited person-to-person transmission, and it is a ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus, which has the highest known rate of mutation among biological agents. If a more efficient human-adapted strain developed, it could spread rapidly in highly populous South Asia before spilling into other regions. The global community must do a better job of estimating and managing the risk, Luby said. That will require stepped-up study of how the virus is transmitted, closer observation of infected people and consideration of vaccinations for at-risk communities.”

Military claims NPA has ‘biological weapons’; Reds laugh off claim

Moving away from the existence, or lack thereof, of Syrian BW, a rebel leader in the Philippines has been accused by the government of using biological weapons. According the Filipino government,  the device in question tested positive for both Enterobacter cloacae and Streptococcus agalacteiae. The government claims the rebels smeared the unexploded landmines with feces. The rebels deny the claims outright. We’ll leave it there.

Inquirer Mindanao – “The military insisted Thursday that the New People’s Army now uses ‘biological weapons’ to further its goal of toppling the government. In a press statement, the Eastern Mindanao Command based here said laboratory examination of unexploded land mines seized from NPA camps in Southern Mindanao showed the presence of ‘deadly toxin’ and bacteria ‘not usually found in steel rebars and nails used as shrapnel.’ The NPA unit operating in the region laughed off this claim, calling it ‘malicious and wildly concocted military propaganda.'”

Somalia: Polio Widespread in Regions Under Al-Shabaab Control

Polio eradication is a bit of a soapbox around here, maybe because as a planet we’ve been so close for so long and because it’s often security issues which hamper efforts. For those of you who have managed to miss our various rants, all but three states – Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – have eradicated the virus. Somalia, despite its numerous failings, worked extremely hard to become polio-free in 2007. The news that the terrorist organization al-Shabaab, which controls large swathes of Southern Somalia, is refusing to allow supplies into territory it controls, while also telling local populations that the vaccine causes AIDS and sterility, is infuriating.

All Africa – “Al-Shabaab’s refusal to allow the supply of the polio vaccine in areas under its control is causing panic among residents at a time when aid workers are struggling to contain an outbreak of the crippling virus.’The polio outbreak plaguing Somalia has spread despite significant efforts to curb the disease,’ the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement August 15th, adding that insecurity is hampering efforts to contain the virus. Six years after Somalia was declared free of the virus, at least 105 cases have been confirmed in the country, the ‘worst outbreak in the world in a non-endemic country’, according to OCHA.

(image: Hakan Dahlstrom/Flickr)