The Pandora Report 10.11.13

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

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

Virus hangs over Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca

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

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

Genome studies link MERS origin to bats

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

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

Study: Dengue fever found in Houston

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

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

Idle CDC Worries Experts as Flu Season Starts

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

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

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

The Pandora Report 10.4.13

Highlights include our shutdown soapbox, more rumors of Syrian BW, the WHO’s pandemic influenza preparedness plans, Boston’s BSL-4 lab, and a real-life zombie apocalypse. Happy Friday!

CDC Director: ‘Microbes Didn’t Shut Down’

As we wrap up our first week of the shutdown, we thought we’d take a second to assess the damage. Many critical biomedical experiments are hemorrhaging money. Health and Human Services has furloughed 52% of its employees. DHS has furloughed over 31,000 employees. The number that concerns us most, however, involves the CDC. We tweeted earlier this week that the CDC has had to furlough 8, 754 people, or 68% of its staff. This means that flu season is starting, and no one is watching. If we’re hit with a novel strain, a mutated strain, a particularly virulent strain,  we’d have no idea. This giant blind-spot isn’t limited to the US – CDC employees are some of the world’s top epidemiologists, often helping with investigations at outbreak hotspots globally. What are we currently very worried about in the Middle East? MERS. Hajj is around the corner, which means an influx of millions of people from around the world to the virus’ epicenter. Is it inconceivable that a pilgrim travels from New York to Mecca, picks up the virus and brings it back? Absolutely not. What’s inconceivable is that because of the shutdown, we might not know.

Wall Street Journal – “The CDC won’t be able to conduct routine inspections of high security labs around the nation that work with ‘select agent’ pathogens that pose severe threats to human and animal health such as Marburg virus or hemorrhagic fevers, said spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds. Most of the CDC’s own lab work has been stopped. The agency is not conducting surveillance for flu outbreaks. Only one CDC staffer is tracking reports of dangerous foodborne pathogens rather than the usual six staff – not a lot given that 48 million Americans develop foodborne illnesses every year.”

The World Hasn’t Tackled Syria’s Real WMD Nightmare

Foreign Policy has a piece out discussing Syria’s alleged biological weapons program. “Forget the nerve gas,” the byline states, “It’s Assad’s bioweapons program that should keep you up at night.” We disagree. For the many, clearly elucidated reasons why, please see Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley’s excellent piece, “On Not Falling Prey to Biological Weapons Alarmism in Syria” here.

Foreign Policy – “A recent U.N. report on chemical weapons use in Syria has strengthened claims that the regime killed more than a thousand innocent Syrians, including hundreds of children, with the nerve agent sarin. Video images after the Aug. 21 attacks showed victims frothing at the mouth, convulsing, and suffering tortured deaths. But the effects of a chemical attack, horrible as they are, can be minuscule compared with a worst-case assault with a biological weapon.”

WHO Group To Discuss Plan For Industry Use Of Pandemic Flu Viruses

A group of WHO experts is meeting next week to work on a plan, Pandemic Influenza Preparedness, for companies to pay for use of flu virus strains in development of patented treatments.  The meetings will include members of a special WHO Advisory Group, as well as key industry stakeholders. The funds gathered would then be used primarily for pandemic preparendess (70%), with the remaining funds used for global response efforts.

Intellectual Property Watch – “The focus of the three-day meeting will be to discuss the draft implementation plan for the use of Partnership Contribution funds through the end of 2016, a WHO source said. WHO is aiming for final completion of the process by year’s end. The second day of the meeting will be dedicated to consultations with industry and other stakeholders, the source said. Other issues to be discussed include the status of SMTA-2 negotiations (Standard Material Transfer Agreement), and ‘technical matters’ in the PIP Framework, the source said.”

Federal judge OKs Boston U disease research lab

Boston University’s proposed BSL-4 lab has cleared another hurdle to construction, with a federal judge dismissing the case against the lab’s construction. Residents of Boston’s South End have obstructed the lab’s construction for years, citing fears of exposure to pathogens like Ebola. While we can sympathize with any and all fears of Ebola exposure, in this case we think the judge was right. The research conducted in BSL-4 labs are critical to helping us detect, prevent, and treat some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens.

Seattle PI – “A Boston University laboratory built to study some of the world’s most dangerous diseases is one step closer to opening following a federal judge’s decision issued this week that it poses little risk to the public…The lab now only needs a final review from the Boston Public Health Commission. Some portions of the 192,000-square foot building have already opened to study less dangerous germs. The court’s decision “affirms our view that this type of research can be done safely in Boston,” BU spokesman Steve Burgay told The Boston Globe.”

Our Puff Piece of the Week: Scientists Discuss The Reality Of A Zombie Apocalypse

RedOrbit reached out to a bunch of microbiologists and asked them to imagine what a “real” zombie virus might look like. We approve.

In case you missed it:

Dr. Paul Walker, October Biodefense Seminar Speaker, Wins Prestigious Rights Livelihood Award
– Chemical Weapons Team Arrive in Syria: Blair on Why the End in Not Nigh
DTRA’s New, Highly Sensitive Bio-agent Detector
– Using an Army of Fish to Fight Dengue

(image: Rich Renomeron/Flickr)