Pandora Report 1.6.2017

Welcome to 2017 and a whole new year of biodefense news! While you’re heading back to work, make sure to wash your hands and stay safe – the CDC has reported increasing flu activity.

The Best of Bio and Chem Weapons Coverage in 2016
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has put together their “five best articles” for bio-chem weapons in 2016 and we were happy to see two familiar faces – GMU PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein and GMU Biodefense professor, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. Daniel Gerstein’s article, How genetic editing became a national security threat, discusses the threatening components of gene drive, like low cost and growing availability. “Armed with the proper genetic sequences, states or bioterrorists could employ genome editing to create highly virulent pathogens for use in such attacks. They could, for example, change a less dangerous, non-pathogenic strain of anthrax into a highly virulent form by altering the genome, or recreate pathogens such as the deadly smallpox virus, which was eradicated in the wild in 1980.” Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley teamed up with Kathleen Vogel to discuss the good, bad, and the hype of gene drive. They emphasize the importance of understanding gene drive to really discern the benefits and risks of the technological process. Looking at all angles, their article gives a wholistic approach to better appreciate the complexities of gene drive for biodefense. “Without a clear and detailed understanding of the range of social and technical factors that cause scientists to succeed or fail in their gene-drive endeavors, threat estimates can only rely on speculation and fantasy rather than fact.”

GMU Biodefense Students – Win Registration for 2017 ASM Biothreats Conference!
Calling all GMU Biodefense students – the program will be offering free registration to four lucky students to attend this premier biodefense event at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, DC on February 6-8th. This year, the meeting incorporates three major tracks, “Research, Response, and Policy” to cover relevant topics in basic and applied research; public health, emergency response and preparedness; and biosecurity, government, and policy responses. The exchange between these multidisciplinary communities will shape the future of this very important field. The keynote session on February 6 will be given by Thomas M. Countryman, Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security and Assistant Secretary to the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the Department of State.  Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of NIAID Director at the National Institutes of Health, will be presenting at a special session on February 7. You can find the rest of the agenda here. As an attendant for the 2016 conference, I can tell you that it’s a great experience for not only learning, but also networking. Please check your GMU email for the information Dr. Koblentz sent out. To apply: students are required to submit a 250-word essay about how attending the conference will benefit your education/professional aspirations by 5pm today (Friday, January 6th) to Dr. Koblentz. Winners will be announced the following Monday and those selected will be asked to write up summaries of at least two panels for publication in the Pandora Report.

USGS Disease Maps
screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-6-04-01-amLove maps and diseases? Or do you simply like knowing what kinds of vectored diseases are transmitted around you? Check out the USGS disease maps that also allow you to interact with them. Utilizing data from CDC’s ArboNET, you can look at transmission among humans, mosquitoes, birds, sentinel animals, and veterinary transmission. The observable diseases include West Nile Virus, St. Louis Encephalitis, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Western Equine Encephalitis,  La Crosse Encephalitis, Powassan Virus, Dengue fever (locally acquired and imported), and Chikungunya (locally acquired and imported). The USGS disease maps allow us to not only have a better understanding of vectored disease transmission, but also landscape epidemiology.

CRISPR Off-Switch
CRISPR is going to be a hot story in 2017 and here are the seven things to look for. The burgeoning concerns regarding CRISPR technology involve the rapid pace of development and lagging DURC policies, not to mention the inability to predict future outcomes. The interest and unease over this new form of genome editing has left many searching for an “off button”, but thankfully, researchers are believed to have found one.  While the new “off switch” isn’t capable of reversing changes that were already made, it can stop the system from making additional edits. “The switch is a series of ‘anti-CRISPR’ proteins that were discovered inside viruses that attack bacteria, where they’re used to disable the gene editing tool and sneak into the bacterial DNA. ‘Just as CRISPR technology was developed from the natural anti-viral defence systems in bacteria, we can also take advantage of the anti-CRISPR proteins that viruses have sculpted to get around those bacterial defences,’ said lead researcher Benjamin Rauch. The team isolated these anti-CRISPR proteins from Listeria bacteria that had been infected by viruses. The team isolated the proteins that appeared to be involved and tested whether any of them could stop CRISPR editing from taking place in human cells. They found that two of these proteins, AcrIIA2 and AcrIIA4, worked together to inhibit the CRISPR systems commonly used by scientists.”

CDC Concludes CDP Ricin Exposure Inspection
The CDC just finished their inspection of the lab that sold the ricin toxin that was used by the Centers for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) training facility. The ongoing debate between the CDP and lab regarding the mishandling or misunderstanding points to bigger, systemic issues in regards to select agents. CDP states that the lab is to blame, noting that they ordered a less toxic version of ricin, while the lab rebutted by pointing out that the ricin was always properly labeled as the toxic version and they, in fact, never offered the less toxic version. The site visit and inspection findings are under review as the CDC determines if the lab is responsible and violated federal regulations. The conclusion of the inspection also comes at a challenging time for the CDC as the agency is taking heat for blacking out many details in reports recently released via the Freedom of Information Act. The released laboratory reports were requested by USA TODAY and only fuel the attention to lab incidents and poor biosafety practices.

NAS DURC Committee Meeting 
This week the National Academies held the Committee on Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC): Option For Future Management. You can get not only the webcast recording (check out 2:42:00 in and you’ll see GMU Biodefense director and professor, Gregory Koblentz, talk about the zero sum game in terms of regulating DURC research – to regulate or not to regulate, that is the question!), but also the full presentations. Since the 2011 H5N1 controversies, “it remains unclear as to whether there are practical mechanisms or approaches for managing such dual use research of concern (DURC) and, specifically, how to deal with situations where there is a pressing need, for public health reasons, to publish research findings while limiting, due to national security concerns, the dissemination of certain details that ordinarily would be published. This is especially true in cases where an initial assessment of proposed research does not anticipate results that would warrant such consideration.”

Zika Outbreak Updates
Scientists are currently unveiling the key proteins in the virus that made it so deadly. The first comprehensive description of the Zika genome has identified seven key proteins that are helping researchers understand the devastation the virus does to the human body. “To test the virus, Dr. Zhao used fission yeast, a species that in recent years has become a relatively common way to test how pathogens affect cells. Fission yeast was originally used to make beer, particularly in Africa, where it originated. (Its species name is Schizosaccharomyces pombe; pombe means beer in Swahili.) Over decades, fission yeast has been used by many scientists to find out mechanisms and behavior of cells. For the experiment, Dr. Zhao and his colleagues separated each of the virus’s 14 proteins and small peptides from the overall virus. He then exposed yeast cells to each of the 14 proteins, to see how the cells responded. Seven of the 14 proteins harmed or damaged the yeast cells in some way, inhibiting their growth, damaging them or killing them.” The Entomological Society of America has noted that socioeconomic factors provide protection against a large scale Zika outbreak in the U.S., but that small outbreaks are an ongoing concern. As of January 4th, the CDC reported 4,618 cases of Zika in the U.S., of which 216 were locally-acquired.

Does the CDC’s New Quarantine Rule Violate Civil Liberties?
With a new vaccine and hopeful approach to emerging infectious diseases, have we buried Ebola? Back in August, the CDC proposed a new rule regarding its powers to respond to potential outbreaks via screening, testing, and quarantining people traveling into or within the U.S. You can read the new rule here, but it focuses on “non-invasive public health prevention measures” and reporting requirements for commercial passenger flights of death or illness to CDC, etc. While this may seem pretty reasonable given health emergencies like Ebola and SARS, many ” epidemiologists, lawyers, and health organizations say that the rule, in its current form poses a serious threat to civil liberties, allowing authorities to detain and examine people with little heed to due process and informed consent.” Attempted in 2005, this rule was initially met with criticism, however the recent Ebola outbreak has changed the way we approach travel during times of infectious disease outbreaks. Public health emergencies are defined as ‘communicable disease events’ that the director believes could be high risk for death or serious illness. “It is already authorized to detain people suspected of carrying diseases like plague, Ebola, and (somewhat improbably) smallpox. But the new rule does away with a formal list. It extends the same powers to any “quarantinable communicable disease,” and uses wider range of symptoms (from a list that federal agents can update as the need arises) for defining ‘ill’ people.” While the CDC can detain travelers prior to decision to quarantine, it notes that this shouldn’t last longer than 72 hours and fails to make provisions for a lawyer if the person can’t afford one. “The rule also gives the CDC ultimate authority to carry out medical tests and treatments, stating that ‘the individual’s consent shall not be considered as a prerequisite to the exercise of any authority’.” What are your thoughts? We’d love to hear from our readership – please email or tweet @PandoraReport to give us your thoughts!

USDA ARS 4th International Biosafety & Biocontainment Symposium Registration Deadline
Don’t miss the January 13th registration deadline for this event in Baltimore, Maryland! From February 6-9, the focus of the symposium will be Global Biorisk Challenges-Agriculture and Beyond. Seven presymposium courses will address topics including unique biocontainment challenges, decontamination and inactivation, and institutional governance. Topics include biorisk management challenges in a One Health World, arthropods, HPAI, risk assessments, and more!

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 85 People Suspected to Have Contracted Rabies– Like something out of a zombie movie, 85 people are suspected of having contracted wild rabies after being bitten by bats in Peru. “Regional director of Health of Cusco, Julio César Espinosa La Torre said that among the group of victims with a bat bite are the 15 soldiers transferred to Lima, of this group, two cases were confirmed, of which one is deceased. Espinoza la Torre said that to date, more than 912 civilians and 680 soldiers have been vaccinated in Alto and Bajo Urubamba, in the district of Megantoni, who must receive up to four doses, every 7 and 14 days.”
  • Anticipating Epidemics Using Computational Models – the White House recently released a report to strengthen the capacity for outbreak prediction. Spearheaded by the National Science and Technology Council, Toward Epidemic Prediction: Federal Efforts and Opportunities in Outbreak Modeling, looks to predictive modeling and data utilization to better understand the “processes that drive disease emergence and transmission could help to predict and prevent large-scale outbreaks. These programs range from foundational research into disease emergence and spillover, to predictive modeling contests, to the development of decision-support technologies for public health responders.”
  • Pandemic Chats – Struggling to chat to a younger generation about diseases? Check out how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is talking to the next generation about the next pandemic.

Pandora Report 12.23.2016

microbiallsnowmanHappy Holidays from your friends at the Pandora Report and GMU Biodefense! If you’re starting a New Year’s resolutions list for things to improve, it sounds like you’ve got company – the WHO is rethinking how it responds to outbreaks.

The Grim Forecast of Antimicrobial Resistance 
In the wake of the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance, it seems that the worried voices are getting louder but the barriers are growing higher. The return to colistin use points to a growing desperation as physicians are forced to use antibiotics that were previously avoided due to such harsh side effects. Many hospitals have shared their tales of MDRO outbreaks – some stopping as mysteriously as they began, while others have clear culprits. Some hospitals have even begun initiating isolation for any patient who was hospitalized abroad within the last couple of years. It’s also becoming increasingly common for hospitals to pre-emptively test patients via MDRO screening to more rapidly isolate them. The concern is also that few truly new antibiotics have been developed in recent years. “Thirty-seven antibiotics are currently undergoing clinical trials, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which keeps track of the U.S. pipeline. Most, however, are based on existing drugs. While these derivatives are cheaper and easier to develop than new classes of drugs, bacteria have a head start in developing resistance to them.Further, most drugs in the pipeline target so-called Gram-positive bacteria, a group that includes the well-known superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). But recently, the main emerging threats have come from the group known as Gram negatives, which are harder to treat because they are encased in tough membranes that repel many drugs.” Many are pointing to a tipping point in 2017 – antibiotics will be consumed by farm animals more than humans worldwide. The UN General Assembly is calling for countries to start getting smart in terms of antibiotic usage but hasn’t set specific goals. Sadly, it seems that there aren’t many more ways this impending reality can be shared – data, shocking titles, future predictions, etc. Check out this factsheet on the use of antibiotics in agriculture and why it impacts resistance. The report has some great suggestions for future work, like refining antibiotic labels and working to collect and report better data. Here’s a spot of good news in this dismal truth – the FDA has just cleared a new one-hour MRSA test to help rapidly identify the lead bug in healthcare-associated infections.

Homeland Biodefense: Science & Technology Capability Review
Just in time for the holidays, it’s like the National Science and Technology Council just knew what biodefense geeks wanted. This report is the product of a comprehensive review of U.S biodefense capabilities, which aided in the prioritization of S&T issues to better strengthen response. The end result is a product of two phases- stage 1: “The goal of this activity was to identify S&T needs articulated by Federal subject matter experts including both science program managers and agency officials in charge of operational programs, to elicit feedback on where additional S&T investments could address operational needs.” Stage 2: “The goal of this activity was to provide coordinated interagency feedback on which needs represent the highest priority to the interagency working group, and to identify which Department or Agency should recommend or coordinate on actions to respond to each of those priority needs.” Scenarios were limited to a handful of events like aerosolized anthrax, avian influenza outbreak (possibly deliberate), food-borne attacks, etc. Perhaps some of the most notable findings were the need to improve abilities to systematically assess how much risk has been mitigated by biodefense investments, understand the impact of bioattacks on companion animals and wildlife, several deficiencies in regards to technical staff and lab infrastructure, etc.

Greek Food Terrorism Threats 
Member of an eco-anarchy group in Greece, FAI/IRF, are announcing their threats for food terrorism over the holiday. The time frame for attacks is December 22nd – January 5th, 2017 and the group has said that their focus is on causing economic disruption, not poisoning people. FAI/IRF has shown their process for poisoning various food and beverage items as their targets include Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever, and Delta. Many of these companies have chosen to withdraw specific products from an area in Greece. The group has shown how they can poison foods/beverages with chlorine and hydrochloric acid while leaving the packaging in place. “The four companies that withdrew products were named in the FAI/IRF statements. The eco-anarchists claim to be opposed to both capitalism and Marxism. They contend in their statement that Coke profits from ‘forced labor’ in China and Nestle is ‘held responsible’ for the death of 1.5 million children in the third world. No substantiation was provided for either claim.”

80140100189470lThe Commandant’s Reading List 
In the latest Army Chemical Review (Professional Bulletin of the Chemical Corps) you can find the Commandant’s Reading Program, compiled by Lieutenant Colonel James P. Harrell, which contains a great assortment of books to add to your reading list (or last minute shopping list!). From Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague to Michael Oldstone’s Viruses, Plagues, & History, you can pick up some top CBW books. GMU Biodefense’s very own director and professor, Gregory Koblentz, had his book, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security, make this list, so make sure not to miss it!

Test Driving Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes
Take a tour through the world of genetically engineered mosquitoes at Imperial College London with genetic engineer, Andrew Hammond. What makes these particular mosquitoes especially unique is the use of gene drive to ensure virtually all offspring acquire the desired effects. “Hammond’s team is genetically engineering the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, which is the primary species that spreads the malaria parasite. Nearly all of the offspring of the modified mosquitoes inherit mutations that knock out the genes females need to make eggs. ‘If we can sterilize the females,’ he says, we ‘can actually eliminate a whole mosquito population without affecting those mosquitoes that don’t have the capability to transmit malaria’.” Hammond gives a great tour of the process for creating gene-drive mosquitoes while discussing the dangers of gene drive and genetic engineering. While there is a wealth of opportunity to do good with tools like CRISPR, there’s also the concern that there could be unintended consequences or events we can’t even imagine. To combat the potential risks, there are also research teams working to keep CRISPR in check.  “A team of scientists that previously identified genes within bacteriophage genomes that code for anti-CRISPR proteins has now discovered phages that harbor an antidote to the Cas9 enzyme that is a key component of the predominant CRISPR system that is today used as a gene-editing tool. The team, led by the University of Toronto’s Alan Davidson, described three bacteriophage-encoded, anti–Cas9 genes and showed that the corresponding proteins are able to block the activity of CRISPR-Cas9—derived from bacterial type II CRISPR-Cas systems—in human cells.”

FEMA’s Ricin Mishap 
Going through the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) training a few years back was a fascinating experience – how many times do you get to train with ricin or anthrax and then move into a pandemic preparedness exercise? For this biodefense student, that’s what I call a good time! Sadly, CDP just announced their entry into the club of biosafety failures. The facility is blaming an outside lab for shipping the wrong form of ricin powder…since 2011. “The training center says it submitted order forms asking for a type of ricin extract that is unlikely to cause serious harm. But officials from Toxin Technology, the Florida company that sent nine shipments to the center since 2011, told USA TODAY that its ricin products were all accurately labeled as ‘RCA60’ – a scientific name for the whole ricin toxin, which can be deadly. It’s unclear why training center staff didn’t recognize for years that they were working with a far more dangerous substance.” The news broke late last week and on Saturday, I received an email from CDP regarding the suspension of those classes and some comments on the incident. Here are some of the highlights:
-In November 2016, while making a purchase of ricin A-chain for training, CDP staff recognized an ongoing discrepancy in the documentation related to the type of ricin being provided. The vendor has now said the more toxic holotoxin version of the materials was provided since 2011. It was previously believed that all remaining ricin on campus had been destroyed. This week, it became known that, while CDP had indeed destroyed all of the ricin in question, additional ricin training material, a solution marked A-chain remains securely stored on the premises. This material was not received from the vendor in question and we are working with the appropriate authorities to safely dispose of the additional ricin material.
-As an example, the protective gear you wore exceeded what would be required for working with ricin slurry.  Students who trained with the agent were in full Level C personal protective equipment at all times when training.  We have no indication that students were exposed directly to the holotoxin or harmed by it.

Zika Outbreak Updates
Not surprisingly, researchers are pointing to the impacts of climate change on infectious diseases. Recently, many have noted the role of climate change and El Niño on laying the groundwork for Zika to spread so quickly and proficiently throughout South America. A new study describes interworking of the virus and the mechanisms it utilizes for damage in pregnant women and developing babies. The CDC has reported 4,756 cases in the U.S. as of December 21st.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Public Health Preparedness Assessment for Each State – The Trust For America’s Health assessment was just released for each state based on 10 indicators for preparedness. Sadly, it seems that most states are not prepared for disaster. Twenty-six states and Washington, D.C. scored a six or lower on the indicators for public health preparedness. “The most striking are gaps in the ability of the health care system to care for a mass influx of patients during a major outbreak or attack and lack of a coordinated biosurveillance system. ‘Biosurveillance does remain a major ongoing gap,’ Segal said. Given all the recent technological advances, there is the potential for a ‘near real-time’ surveillance system to detect outbreaks and to track containment effort, yet the dream eludes our government, she said.”
  • How A Pandemic Might Play Out Under Trump – The Atlantic’s Ed Yong is looking at how the incoming administration will handle the growing threat of emerging infectious diseases. Outbreaks can make or break leaders and often are canaries in the coal mine for systemic weaknesses. “They demand diplomacy, decisiveness, leadership, humility, and expertise—and they quickly unearth any lack of the same. ‘As far as I can tell, Trump has zero experience on this,’ says Jack Chow from Carnegie Mellon University, who has worked at both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the State Department under Colin Powell. ‘If I asked him, ‘What is your stance on global health?,’ I don’t know what he’d say. I don’t think anyone really does’.”

Pandora Report 7.26.15

Mason students are working through their summer courses and I’m happy to say mine is OVER! Let the summer begin (two months late)! This week we’ve got great news about Polio in Nigeria and a somber anniversary in Japan. We’ve also got other stories you may have missed.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend and have a great week!

A-Bomb Victims Remembered in Potsdam, Where Truman Ordered Nuclear Strikes

Coming up on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, German and Japanese citizens in the city of Potsdam held a remembrance ceremony for both the victims that died in the blast and the future. Japan has become, according to the former President of the International Court of Justice, the world’s conscience against nuclear weapons and power. Why? Japan is “the only country in the world to have been the victim of both military and civilian nuclear energy, having experienced the crazy danger of the atom, both in its military applications, destruction of life and its beneficial civilian use, which has now turned into a nightmare with the serious incidents of Fukushima.”

Japan Times—“The Potsdam Conference was held between July 17 and Aug. 2 in 1945. The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and another bomb on Nagasaki three days later. On Aug. 15 that year, Emperor Hirohito announced to the nation that Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration, in which the United States, Britain and China demanded the nation’s unconditional surrender.”

Nigeria Beats Polio

Very, very, very exciting news: Nigeria has not had a case of polio in a year. A year! This makes Nigeria polio free and the last country in Africa to eliminate the disease. The achievement was possible with contributions from the Nigerian government (where elimination of the disease was a point of “national pride”), UNICEF, the WHO, the CDC, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, and other organizations. With Nigeria’s accomplishment, there are only two other countries in the world where polio still exists—Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Voice of America—“Carol Pandek heads Rotary International’s polio program. She told VOA via Skype that a year being polio-free is a milestone for Nigeria, but noted that it is not over. “Now they need to continue to do high quality immunization campaigns for the next several years,” she said, as well as have a strong surveillance system so, should there be any new cases, they can be identified as soon as possible.”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Fg2

Pandora Report 6.21.15

Changing things up this week, our lead story is a nuclear photo essay. We’ve also got Russian nuclear posturing and a bunch of other stories you may have missed.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there and enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Next Exit, Armageddon: Photos of America’s Nuclear Weapons Legacy

I love a good photo essay, especially those focused on abandoned places—so this is the perfect* combination of that and nuclear history. Many times on the blog I’ve made somewhat flippant comments about visiting nuclear sites on summer vacation. However, evidently there is great public interest in this. As such, the National Park Service and the Department of Energy will establish the Manhattan Project National Historical Park that will include sites as Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford.

VICE News—“Elsewhere in the US, the ruins of the Manhattan Project and the arms race that followed remain overlooked. In North Dakota, a pyramid-like anti-missile radar that was built to detect an incoming nuclear attack from the Soviet Union pokes through the prairie grass behind an open fence. In Arizona, a satellite calibration target that was used during the Cold War to help American satellites focus their lenses before spying on the Soviet Union sits covered in weeds near a Motel 6 parking lot. And in a suburban Chicago park, where visitors jog and bird watch, nuclear waste from the world’s first reactor — developed by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi for the Manhattan Project in 1942 — sits buried beneath a sign that reads ‘Caution — Do Not Dig.’”

*Check out the photos. They’re truly extraordinary.

Putin: Russia to Boost Nuclear Arsenal with 40 Missiles

Everything old is new again, it seems. This week Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will put more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles into service in 2015. It is said that the new missiles are part of a military modernization program. However, the announcement comes on the heels of a US proposal to increase its own military presence in NATO states in Eastern Europe.

BBC—“Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the statement from Mr. Putin was “confirming the pattern and behaviour of Russia over a period of time; we have seen Russia is investing more in defence in general and in its nuclear capability in particular”.

He said: “This nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia is unjustified, it’s destabilising and it’s dangerous.” He added that “what Nato now does in the eastern part of the alliance is something that is proportionate, that is defensive and that is fully in line with our international commitments.’”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Federal Government of the United States

Pandora Report 11.16.14

Its getting pretty cold outside, right? So what better way to spend your Sunday than catching up on all the best stories of the week! This week we’ve got Wikipedia as a predictive took for the spread of disease, a catchy new name for Chikungunya, MERS CoV in Saudi Arabia, some stories you may have missed, and, of course, an Ebola update.

How Wikipedia Reading Habits Can Successfully Predict the Spread of Disease

In my absolute favorite story of the week, researchers have identified a link between the spread of disease and the corresponding page hits of those diseases on Wikipedia. No, the Internet isn’t giving people E-bola, but page views seem to have a predictive effect on infectious disease spread. During the three-year study, looking at readers’ habits, the researchers could predict the spread of flu in the U.S., Poland, Thailand, and Japan, and dengue in Brazil and Thailand at least 28 days before those countries’ health ministries.

The Washington Post—“Official government data—usually released with a one- or two-week lag time—lagged four weeks behind Wikipedia reading habits, according to Del Valle; people, she said, are probably reading about the illnesses they have before heading to the doctor.”

The ‘Vacation Virus’

As Chikungunya makes it way through the Americas, awareness of the disease becomes more important—including the creation of a catchy nickname! The vector, transmissibility, and symptoms are similar to Dengue and with Chikungunya being relatively new to the western hemisphere, a story like this one may be helpful in putting a human face on a growing problem.

The Atlantic—“It might be parochial to call Chikungunya a “vacation virus”; however, as Americans prepare to hit the Caribbean beaches in the coming winter months, awareness campaigns are ramping up. Last week, the travel section of the New York Times ran a feature on Chikungunya highlighting how tourism agencies and organizations are both downplaying the scope of the outbreak and advising simple measures to deal with the virus. (Avoid mosquitos.)”

MERS Cases on the Rise in Saudi Arabia

Since September 5, there have been 38 new cases of MERS-CoV in Saudi Arabia, bringing the total number of cases in Saudi Arabia to 798. The WHO said that due to the non-specific symptoms of MERS, it is critical that health care facilities consistently apply standard precautions with all patients regardless of their initial diagnosis. Furthermore, until more is understood about MERS, immunocompromised individuals should practice general hygiene measures, like hand washing, and avoid close contact with sick animals. Nearly one third of the new cases were reported by patients who had recently had close contact with camels.

Outbreak News Today—“The continued increase in cases prompted Anees Sindi, deputy commander of the Command and Control Center (CCC) to say, “MERS-CoV is active and we need to be on full alert.” In addition, the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health launched a new public information campaign in Taif in response to the recent spike in new cases of MERS-CoV in the region. Medical professionals will be made available at public locations with the aim of educating citizens on the need to avoid unprotected contact with camels because of the risk of infection with MERS-CoV, underlining the crucial role of the community in preventing the spread of the disease in the Kingdom.”

This Week in Ebola

Ebola is on the rise again in Sierra Leone bringing the number of deaths to 5,147 and cases to 14,068. It appears that the virus is finding new pockets to inhabit including villages outside the Liberian capital and in Bamako, the capital of Mali (eclipsing earlier success in that country at containment.) Despite these new infections outside of Monrovia, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has ended the state of emergency in that country. Unsurprisingly, the epidemic has imposed a financial burden on the affected countries including losses in agricultural trade and the service industries. Elsewhere in Africa, Ugandan health officials have declared the country free of an Ebola-like Marburg virus. Stateside, a new report from the CDC outlines steps taken in Dallas to prevent further virus spread and a third Ebola patient headed to the bio containment unit at the Nebraska Medical Center for treatment. Finally, 80 U.S. Military personnel helping to fight Ebola in Liberia returned home this week, and though none are displaying symptoms, they will be monitored for 21 days at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Pandora Report 11.9.14

We’ve got some timely stories this week: just in time for Veteran’s Day, we look at military exposure to chemical agents in Iraq, and at the beginning of flu season we look at the newest suspension of Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s H5N1 research. We’ve also got an Ebola update.

Have a great week!

More Than 600 Reported Chemical Exposure in Iraq, Pentagon Acknowledges

With Veteran’s Day on Tuesday, The New York Times uncovered an unfortunate military oversight that could affect over 600 service members. Originally, NYT found 17 soldiers who had been exposed to abandoned, damaged, or degraded chemical weapons in Iraq. Later 25 more came forward, and after a review of Pentagon records, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that hundreds of troops told the military they were exposed. The Pentagon says it will now expand outreach to veterans who believe they may have been exposed.

The New York Times—“Phillip Carter, who leads veterans programs at the Center for a New American Security, called the Pentagon’s failure to organize and follow up on the information “a stunning oversight.” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the military must restore trust by sharing information.”

Kawaoka’s Controversial Flu Research at UW-Madison On Hold Again

Once again, Yoshihiro Kawaoka has halted his research of H5N1 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kawaoka created an altered version of the H5N1 flu virus to look at transmissibility between mammals. On October 17, the Obama administration said they would postpone federal funding for gain-of-function studies, including those involving flu, SARS and MERS. Roughly 50% of Kawaoka’s work involves gain of function, and he paused all experiments that “might enhance pathogenicity or transmissibility.”

Wisconsin State Journal—“The White House announcement comes in response to incidents this year involving anthrax, flu and smallpox at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. “The incidents occurring at federal facilities this summer have underscored the importance of laboratory safety, and they also prompted calls for a reassessment of the risks and benefits that are associated with research involving dangerous pathogens,” Samuel Stanley, chairman of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, said during a meeting of the group Oct. 22.”

This Week in Ebola

The Ebola ‘outbreak’ in Texas is over and MSF has confirmed the decline of cases in Liberia, however, Ebola cases have risen ‘sharply’ in Sierra Leone. While Kari Hickox remained in the news explaining the reasons she fought against quarantine, it appears, as feared, that mandatory quarantine for volunteers returning from West Africa is causing some to re-consider their commitments. Meanwhile the U.S. Army has identified five possible bases for returning troop quarantine and the Pentagon has awarded a $9.5 million contract Profectus BioSciences, Inc. for development of an Ebola vaccine. President Obama asked Congress for $6 billion to fight Ebola in the U.S. and West Africa. NBC News reported that “The U.S. is keen to be seen as leading the international response to Ebola” but there is another country in the Americas contributing to the fight—Cuba. Also in the Americas, Canada’s policy of denying visas for people coming from West Africa is called into question, and five American airports are learning a lot about infection control. Back in West Africa, Nigeria’s success in fighting Ebola has been attributed to their fight against polio. Lastly, on the heels of Mark Zuckerberg’s $25 million donation to fight Ebola, he launched a button at the top the newsfeed that links users to places where they can donate, too.

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Image Credit: NBC News

Pandora Report 9.6.14

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

Canine Influenza Cases Spreading in Manhattan

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

This Week in Ebola

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

 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Abrin: More Deadly and Less Common than Ricin

By Chris Healey

Abrin was among toxins found during an apartment search of a San Francisco man charged with possessing explosive material. An FBI affidavit states the suspect told investigators he acquired abrin to ease the suffering of cancer patients.

Abrin is a protein-based toxin from the jequirity bean, colloquially known as a rosary bead. The toxin is lethal in minute doses and causes serious symptoms in even smaller amounts. It is almost identical to a better-known toxin—ricin. Abrin is more lethal than ricin. Toxicologists estimate abrin’s lethal dose between .1 and 1 microgram per kilogram. In comparison, ricin is lethal between 5 and 10 micrograms per kilogram.

Both abrin and ricin consist of two proteins, A chain and B chain, linked by a disulfide bond. The proteins work together to enter the cell and disrupt its activity. B chain grants cell entry, while A chain transports to the ribosome and destroys it. Cells die shortly after ribosome destruction.

Abrin’s nonuse despite toxic superiority to ricin is ostensibly due to a matter of availability. As a byproduct of castor oil, an ingredient in soap and mechanical lubricant, ricin is very common. Conversely, rosary beads serve a limited purpose in prayer and are not consumed or destroyed in their role. One set of rosary beads can last for years before replacement is necessary. Their limited and reusable role makes them uncommon.

Availability also contributes to abrin and ricin’s historical precedence. According to a study conducted by the Federation of American Scientists, ricin has been maliciously used 37 times since 1983. Malicious abrin use is almost nonexistent except for several reports in India and Sri Lanka in the early 20th century.

Abrin is released from crushed jequirity beans. Individuals who handle beans whole and unaltered, as in prayer, are not exposed. Even in cases of jequirity bean ingestion, intoxication is dependent on how thoroughly beans are chewed. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and colic. Some less common symptoms include irregular heartbeat, irrationality, hallucinations, and seizures. In fatal cases, cause of death has been traced to gastrointestinal damage.

Abrin is a select agent designated by the Department of Health and Human Services. It is illegal to manufacture or possess any quantity of the toxin. Although jequirity beans contain abrin, they are not illegal. The law is broken when abrin toxin is isolated from a bean.

 

(Image Credit: Satdeep gill)

Pandora Report 05.24.14

Highlights include the CIA and their “Immunization Campaigns,” Ricin Sentencing, Dengue Warning for the World Cup, and Bacteria and E-Cigarettes. Have a safe and wonderful Memorial Day weekend!!

CIA Drops Vaccination Cover Story in the Wake of Polio Outbreak

Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor, provided polio vaccinations in the city of Abbottabad as a cover for the CIA-backed effort to obtain DNA samples from children at a compound where Osama bin Laden was later found and killed in 2011. This week, however, the White House assured the deans of prominent U.S. Public Health Schools that the CIA will no longer use vaccination programs as a cover for spy operations. The agency also agreed not to use genetic materials obtained through such programs.  This announcement comes at a time when Polio cases are growing and spreading in Pakistan—in 2013 cases in Pakistan accounted for more than 20% of all new polio cases worldwide.

CBC—“The CIA’s use of a polio vaccine program to spy on bin Laden’s compound undercut Obama’s own high-profile speech to the Muslim world in 2009, in which he touted U.S. efforts to slash the growth of polio in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. With Obama administration assurances, Muslim scholars in two international groups issued religious decrees urging parents to vaccinate their children.”

Mississippi Man Sentenced in Ricin Letter Investigation

This week, James Dutschke was sentenced to 25 years in prison for developing and possessing Ricin. Dutschke mailed the ricin-laced letters to the President, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, and a Lee County Mississippi Judge.

FBI—“Following an investigation, Dutschke was arrested on April 27, 2013, and indicted by a federal grand jury on June 3, 2013. A superseding indictment was filed on November 20, 2013. Dutschke pled guilty on January 17, 2014, to one count of developing and possessing ricin and three subsequent counts of mailing threatening letters laced with the substance. According to the plea agreement between Dutschke and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that was filed in U.S. District Court in Oxford, Dutschke had agreed to serve a 300-month prison sentence and had waived his right to appeal.”

Scientists Warn of Dengue Fever Risk during Brazil’s World Cup

This topic has been circulating for weeks, if not months, but with the beginning of the World Cup a few weeks away, this story has been popping up in the news on a daily basis. Of the 12 World Cup host cities, the risk of Dengue fever has prompted a high alert in three—Natal, Fortaleza, and Recife—and an increased risk in four—Rio, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, and Manaus.

Dengue fever, sometimes called “breakbone fever,” is a viral infection transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It can range from a mild, flu-like illness to a potentially deadly one, which occurs in approximately 5% of patients. There are no vaccines or effective treatments for Dengue Fever. Brazil has had more cases of the disease than anywhere in the world—more than seven million infections between 2000 and 2013.

Chicago Tribune—“Rachel Lowe, from the Catalan Institute of Climate Sciences in Barcelona, who helped develop the warning system, said the possibility of an outbreak during the World Cup large enough to infect visitors and spread back to their home countries will depend on a combination of factors. This include having large numbers of mosquitoes, a susceptible population and a high rate of mosquito-human contact, she said.”

Here’s Why Bacteria Like E-Cigs

Many, including everyone’s favorite anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy, claim that e-cigs are safer for their health than traditional cigarettes. However, it addition to the harm cigarettes inflict on the immune cell, it turns out that either type of cigarette may be just as bad for the body’s natural bacteria.

Time—“Dr. Laura Crotty Alexander, from the University of California at San Diego and the VA San Diego Healthcare System, found that the vapor from e-cigs prompts bacteria to become more resistant to antibiotics. In the presence of e-cig vapor, for example, methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) became more resistant to the natural anti-microbial agents that the body makes. Cigarette smoke also produces the same effect, but Crotty Alexander was surprised that the e-cig vapors did as well, given that they were not supposed to contain the health-harming carcinogens that tobacco smoke does.”

 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Breaking News

The news never stops, not even on the weekend.

We’re covering two breaking stories about two extremely serious biological threat agents: ricin and ebola.


Ebola in West Africa

In early February 2014, health agents began tracking a case of viral hemorrhagic fever in Guinea, in Western Africa.  On March 21, Drs. Sylvain Baize and Delphine Pannetier from the National Reference Center for Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers at the Pasteur Institue in Lyon, France were able to identify the Ebola virus, subtype Zaire, in 6 of 7 clinical case samples from the outbreak. Since February 9, there have been 59 deaths from 80 reported cases of Ebola Zaire virus.

Over this weekend there has been growing concern that the virus may have crossed over into neighboring Sierra Leone. “Sierra Leone’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brima Kargbo said authorities were investigating the case of a 14-year-old boy who died in the town of Buedu in the eastern Kailahun District. The boy had travelled to Guinea to attend the funeral of one of the outbreak’s earlier victims.”

Ricin in Pennsylvania

A 19 year old Pennsylvania man was arrested last week and charged with attempted murder and risking catastrophe for allegedly sending a scratch-and-sniff birthday card laced with ricin to a man now dating his ex-girlfriend. Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler stressed that the toxin was extremely potent.

When the suspect was initially questioned about the card in early March, he told police he had coated the card with sodium hydroxide because it resembles Anthrax toxin. It was during lab testing that the card tested positive for ricin toxin. The man is being held without bail in Bucks County, PA.

For more on Ricin, check out Dr. Alexander Garza’s backgrounder.