The Pandora Report 8.2.13

Highlights include H5N1 raging in Nepal, using your phone to detect toxins,  Honduras battling dengue, mutated polio in Pakistan, West Nile rearing its ugly head early, and Ebola, gorillas, and tourism. Happy Friday!

Nepal Avian flu situation “getting out of hand” 

H5N1 is currently raging in Nepal, which is experiencing its 15th outbreak of the poultry-transmitted flu virus in the last couple weeks alone. Local health officials are calling on the government to step in and help stop the virus’ spread, following the death of nearly 25,000 chickens in three districts in the last 20 days. Meanwhile, there are disturbing rumors surrounding the government’s hesitancy to intervene, including lobbying on the part of the Nepali poultry association. With the virus spreading to another two districts in the last week, containment is critical.

eKantipur – “According to the experts, farmers selling the potentially infected chickens in the market in the absence of effective monitoring has worsened the situation. ‘There is total impunity; the authorities know who is at fault, but still they have failed to take immediate action,’ said Dr Shital Kaji Shrestha, General Secretary of the Nepal Veterinary Association. While some farmers have dumped dead birds openly in public places, others have buried them secretly without following the standard procedures. Such practices have increased the chances of the epidemic spreading, experts said. The police on Monday seized 426 chickens that were being transported to Birgunj for sale from a flu-affected farm in Bhaktapur.”

Smartphone cradle, app detect toxins, bacteria

This app/cradle combo turns your average smartphone into a mini biosensor. It was developed for people with food allergies in mind, but we think it could be tweaked for more homeland security/non proliferation purposes (not that allergies are to be taken lightly, peanuts are everywhere these days).

The Sacramento Bee – “The handheld biosensor was developed by researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. A series of lenses and filters in the cradle mirror those found in larger, more expensive laboratory devices. Together, the cradle and app transform a smartphone into a tool that can detect toxins and bacteria, spot water contamination and identify allergens in food. Kenny Long, a graduate researcher at the university, says the team was able to make the smartphone even smarter with modifications to the cellphone camera.”

Honduras declares state of emergency over dengue fever

Honduras has declared a state of emergency in an effort to bolsters its attempts to contain its dengue outbreak. To date, the outbreak has caused approximately 12,000 cases, of which approximately 1,800 are serious. According the the WHO, 40% of the world’s population, or nearly 2.5 billion people, are at risk for dengue infection.

BBC – “Honduras has declared a state of emergency after an outbreak of dengue fever that has killed 16 people so far this year. The government has promised to step up its fight against the mosquitoes that spread dengue fever. Health Minister Salvador Pineda said more than half of Honduras’ municipalities have registered cases of the viral infection this year.”

Mutated virus heightens polio worries

This is depressing for a couple of reasons. First, Pakistan is one of just three countries in the world where polio is endemic. The last thing they need is a mutated strain. Second, public health officials attempting to halt the virus’ spread do so at tremendous personal risk – tribal leaders earlier this month declared their support for the Taliban’s ban on polio vaccination, as a protest against US drone strikes in the area.  Absurd, yes, but not without possible provocation – keep in mind a 2011 US vaccination campaign in Abbottabad was actually a covert CIA operation, in which the doctors, rather than administering vaccines, were collecting DNA from locals. This resulted in those administering legitimate polio vaccines being labelled as “Western spies”, and refused entry into villages.

DAWN – “Dr Alias Durray, chief of the World Health Organisation’s polio eradication programme in Pakistan, confirmed to Dawn that the strain, which has close genetic similarities with the globally eradicated P2 strain, has paralysed a baby boy in Mastung district of Balochistan…The polio virus has three types of strains termed P1, P2 or P3 strain. Immunity from any one strain does not protect a person from the other strains. The P2 virus had been eradicated globally in 1998, and only the P1 and P3 strains remain. What is sad is that a strain similar to the mutated polio virus had been stopped after it first broke out and struck 15 children in Qila Abdullah area of Balochistan in 2011.”

West Nile Virus Making Early Appearance This Summer

A big part of our job is keeping a close eye on any biodefense-related news (duh), and lately our inbox has been full of West Nile updates. Every day another US county seems to be reporting the virus appearance. With it already active in 29 states, and the worst months in terms of spread to come, it looks like West Nile is fast on the way to a very strong year. If you’re going to be outside at all, now is definitely the time, if you haven’t already, to invest in some mosquito repellent.

The Wall Street Journal –  “West Nile virus is transmitted through bites from infected mosquitoes. Although only one in five people who contract the virus develop symptoms such as fever, headache, body aches or vomiting, the virus can cause serious neurological illnesses that can be fatal, such as encephalitis or meningitis. The 2012 West Nile virus outbreak was the deadliest on record since the illness was first detected in the United States in 1999: 5,674 cases of West Nile virus were reported nationwide, including 286 deaths. Health officials expect the disease to continue to be a formidable public health issue. Because no human vaccine exists, preventing mosquito bites is the most effective way to avoid contracting West Nile virus…”

Saving the Gorillas—and Launching a Nation’s Tourism Economy

There was a very interesting piece in the Atlantic yesterday looking at Ebola in Congolese gorilla populations, and the disease’s impact on preservation efforts. Understanding local populations interaction with potentially infected animals helps create a more complete picture of the virus’ potential spread during an outbreak. Check it out if you have a spare minute and are need to read a news piece with a happy(ish) ending.

The Atlantic – “In November 2002, gorilla trackers outside the village of Mbomo, in the Republic of the Congo, came upon a group of apes that were stressed. One of the trackers described the females as crying. Then the men began finding carcasses in the forest: heaps of matted hair and liquefied organs oozing blood. In a period of four months, 130 of the 143 gorillas the trackers were following died. Later that same year, another 91 of 95 gorillas they were studying were gone. Few words cause a greater chill in any language than ‘Ebola,’ the hemorrhagic fever and lethal virus first detected in equatorial Africa in 1976. Most initial human cases come from contact with infected animals, including consuming them as bush meat–often the most-accessible source of protein in places where there aren’t cattle.”

(A Nepali woman sells chickens in Kathmandu – image via Flickr/oliphant)

The Pandora Report

Highlights include: patenting viruses pt. II, BioWatch Gen 3 or the lack thereof, West Nile, Dengue detection, and US live hog imports restricted as PEDV rages. Happy Friday!

Why a Saudi Virus Is Spreading Alarm

A less discussed aspect of studying novel microorganisms is the corporate red tape often involved. We talked about this a couple weeks ago, but the most recent case of this is the patenting (or at least, creating of a Material Transfer Agreement) of the MERS virus by Ron Fouchier’s Dutch laboratory. Under the MTA, all labs who request samples of the virus are contractually bound not to develop vaccines or products without first asking for permission from the Dutch lab. As you can imagine, this creates extra hurdles for Saudi scientists trying to stem the virus’ spread across Saudi Arabia. Lest one believe this is simply “the way things are done” in virology, China released samples of its H7N9 virus to open source sites within a month of the first case being identified.

Council on Foreign Relations – “But impeding an effective response is a dispute over rights to develop a treatment for the virus. The case brings to the fore a growing debate over International Health Regulations, interpretations of patent rights, and the free exchange of scientific samples and information. Meanwhile, the epidemic has already caused forty-nine cases in seven countries, killing twenty-seven of them…’The virus was sent out of the country and it was patented, contracts were signed with vaccine companies and anti-viral drug companies, and that’s why they have a MTA [Material Transfer Agreement] to be signed by anybody who can utilize that virus, and that should not happen,’ [Saudi Arabia’s deputy health minister] Memish said.”

Autonomous Detection Sought For BioWatch Surveillance Systems

BioWatch Gen 3 is currently on the back burner, as officials explore alternative options (analysis of alternatives, or AoA). Everyone agrees that some form of detection is necessary, everyone agrees that 24 hours is too long of a lag time, and everyone definitely agrees that local and state health officials need to be involved, but not everyone agrees that the current funding proposals for BioWatch are feasible. Does anyone else feel like this is a disaster waiting to happen?

Homeland Security Newswire – “Options for upgrading the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) BioWatch biosurveillance program monitoring systems for biological agents to autonomous detectors is continuing to be explored — and the department plans eventually to do so in collaboration with state and local officials. But DHS currently has no formal program to produce the next generation of BioWatch monitoring technology, said BioWatch Program Manager Michael Walter in remarks at the National Academies of Science (NAS) Tuesday.”

West Nile Virus Logs Deadliest Year After Hotter Summer

Last year was a bad year for West Nile, with 286 deaths and 5,674 cases. The CDC is closely monitoring the number of cases as we enter the peak season (July through September), as reasons for last year’s large case number remains unclear. However, a warmer, wetter summer is thought to be a big part of it.

Bloomberg –  “While there are only six reported cases of the virus this year through June, according to the CDC’s website, more than 90 percent of infections from last year occurred between July and September.’West Nile virus is going to be a factor in the U.S. every year now,’ Marc Fischer, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC’s arboviral diseases branch, said in a telephone interview. ‘People need to take precautions and protect themselves.'”

The ‘Gold’ Standard: A Rapid, Cheap Method of Detecting Dengue Virus

Scientists are using gold nanoparticles to develop cheap, quick diagnostics for detecting dengue. While we understand this is very important in terms of helping reduce the spread of a globally present (50-100 million cases annually) and deadly virus, we also are a little pleased by the “gold” standard pun.

Science Daily – “The development of an easy to use, low cost method of detecting dengue virus in mosquitoes based on gold nanoparticles is reported in BioMed Central’s open access journal Virology Journal. The assay is able to detect lower levels of the virus than current tests, and is easy to transport and use in remote regions…Researchers from the University of Notre Dame, USA, used a DNAzyme linked to gold nanoparticles which recognises a short sequence of the viral RNA genome common to all four types of Dengue. Once bound, adding magnesium and heating to 37C causes the DNAZyme to cut the RNA leaving the gold nanoparticles free to clump together. This aggregation can be easily seen as a red to clear/colourless colour change.”

USDA working for removal of Mexican restrictions on live hog imports

The USDA is scrambling to get restrictions on US live pigs lifted by Mexico, following an outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV). The outbreak of PEDV has spread to 13 states in couple weeks since the virus’ first emergence.

Reuters – “A spokeswoman for the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said on Thursday the agency has sent Mexico information requested in connection with the outbreak of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus, a swine virus deadly to young pigs never before seen in North America. She did not state what information had been requested.”

Image of the Week

West Nile virus (the mosquito/tickborne encephalitic virus) has been in the news a lot recently (albeit in a much quieter way than it’s flashier cousins) – last year alone there were 5,674 confirmed cases of the virus, the highest since 2003. What is less commonly known is that West Nile virus (WNV) was only introduced into the US in 1999. Pictured below are three maps illustrating the virus’ incredible (and alarmingly rapid) spread across the country.

(all maps courtesy of the CDC)


Introduced in New York State, notice that by the end of 1999 all human cases of WNV were limited to the state of New York.

First introduced in NY, here we have the 1999 map of all cases of WNV in the US.
First introduced in NY, here we have the 1999 map of all cases of WNV in the US.


By 2001, the virus had spread to nearly 30 states, with human cases in 10 states.

WNV cases in 2001
WNV cases in 2001 – the disease exists in humans across the North East and Southern states.


By 2003, the virus was present in humans in 45 of the 48 contiguous states, with just Oregon and Washington remaining  WNV-free.

WNV cases in 2003
WNV cases in 2003

Today, cases of West Nile Virus have occured in all 48 contiguous states, with the numbers of cases often continuing to grow. The moral of the story? Viruses are very resilient. In order to so effectively and quickly spread across the country, the virus had to survive several brutal winters (known as “overwintering”) – remember, this is virus originating in the significantly warmer climates of the African continent.  We were very lucky that while WNV has the capacity to be severely pathogenic (encephalitis is no joke), 80% of those infected are asymptomatic. What if it had been Rift Valley Fever instead?