Posts Tagged ‘pandemic’

An ACTUAL killer virus that could rise from the grave

1 May, 2014
Section through Variola virus.  Copyright Russell Kightley Media

Section through Variola virus. Copyright Russell Kightley Media

Having poo-pooed the possibility of killer viruses roaring out of the tundra to kill as all – see here – I find myself having to reconsider my words.  Just slightly, mind, but a reconsideration nonetheless.

This is because of an excellent post in Nature News recently, entitled “Infectious diseases: Smallpox watch“, by Sara Reardon.  This has raised quite a stir in the Twittersphere, as people speculate on just how likely this is, but I think the article itself does a very good job of discussing the possibility that smallpox could come back from the grave(s).

I have discussed smallpox a number of times in this blog, with one of the most read posts being this one by my PhD student (and now postdoc) Alta van Zyl.  I recall a while back a discussion around just how likely it was that people working on expanding what was the Rietfontein Infectious Diseases Hospital (now Sizwe Hospital)’s premises in Johannesburg, would find live smallpox in coffins of people who died of it at the old Hospital and were buried nearby.

The verdict then was “No” – Johannesburg is too hot, and the was seen to be NO chance of the virus surviving the rapid putrefaction that occurs in these parts.

Sara Reardon’s essay, however, raises the real, if rather remote, prospect of there being live smallpox in mummified corpses which have either dried out at low temperatures, or been frozen soon after death, in permafrost.  She says that

“A more likely source of infectious virus would be frozen bodies. Influenza viruses seem to be able to survive freezing in lakes and may thereby infect migrating birds…”

Now the good thing is that people have actually gone out looking for live virus in just such potential sources, and found nothing except fragments of DNA.

However, she also says:

“Another concern is that smallpox could escape from a secret cache. Few biosecurity specialists believe that the two stocks kept at the CDC and VECTOR are the only ones in existence. For instance, variola could very well be in the freezer of someone who defected from the Soviet Union…”

Now, the old Soviet Union had an active programme on weaponising smallpox, with some sources claiming than “several tonnes” of material were eventually made.  There is even evidence that smallpox escaped from a facility in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, in 1971.   What is not so clear is where any of this material is NOW, and in what state it is.

Time to work on the emergency-response smallpox vaccines and strategies, folks – even if you use the potential threat of monkeypox as the reason!

 

 

ViroBlogy: 2012 in review

1 February, 2013

So: thank you, anyone who clicked in, and regular visitors.  You make it worthwhile!!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 33,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 8 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

Pandemic 2009 H1N1 vaccination produces antibodies against multiple flu strains

27 May, 2012

See on Scoop.itVirology News

“The pandemic 2009 H1N1 vaccine can generate antibodies in vaccinated individuals not only against the H1N1 virus, but also against other influenza virus strains including H5N1 and H3N2.”

 

And a possible reason for this could be that the H1N1pdm virus’ haemagglutinin is a natural “ancestral” sequence – the kind that HIV vaccine researchers are looking for for gp120/160, which have been shown to elicit a wider spectrum of cross-reacting antibodies than “evolved” proteins, or ones that have been selected for antigenic escape in humans for a good few viral generations.

 

Flu vaccine graphic by Russell Kightley Media

See on www.eurekalert.org

African monkey meat that could be behind the next HIV

25 May, 2012

See on Scoop.itVirology News

Eighty per cent of the meat eaten in Cameroon is killed in the wild and is known as “bushmeat”. The nation’s favoured dishes are gorilla, chimpanzee or monkey because of their succulent and tender flesh. According to one estimate, up to 3,000 gorillas are slaughtered in southern Cameroon every year to supply an illicit but pervasive commercial demand for ape meat .

“Everyone is eating it,” said one game warden. “If they have money they will buy gorilla or chimp to eat.”

Frankie, a poacher in the southern Dja Wildlife reserve who gave a fake name, said he is involved in the trade because he can earn good money from it, charging around £60 per adult gorilla killed. “I have to make a living,” he said. “Women come from the market and order a gorilla or a chimp and I go and kill them.”

 ————————————————————-

This is a big deal – and not because as, in the words of the article, “Britain is at risk from an outbreak caused by the lethal Ebola or Marburg viruses contained in illegal imports of bush meat from Africa”.

 

Because AFRICA is at risk from such diseases – and the death toll will be much higher here, where the standard of care is so much lower than in Europe.

 

And because we are losing the closest relatives that we as humans have – to human greed for meat.  How despicable, and how sad, is that?

See on www.independent.co.uk

Flu shot offers surprising benefits for pregnant women; Vaccine may fight stillbirth, preterm birth, and very low birth weight

25 May, 2012

See on Scoop.itVirology News

A new study announced Tuesday finds the H1N1 flu vaccine not only can protect you from getting sick but can actually benefit your baby.

Researchers from the University of Ottawa in Canada examined data from more than 55,000 child births in Ontario during an outbreak of H1N1, comparing mothers who were vaccinated to those who weren’t.

While prior research has found that pregnant women can safely get the flu shot at any stage of their pregnancies — something many doctors vehemently support — the new findings associate H1N1 vaccinations with a significantly reduced risk of stillbirth, preterm birth, and very low birth weight.

“These are all significant results, but especially interesting is the finding that the vaccinated mothers were one-third less likely to have a stillborn child,” said study researcher Deshayne Fell, a graduate student at McGill University who works with the birth record database. “This is one of the only studies large enough to evaluate the association between maternal flu vaccination and stillbirth — a very rare event.”

 

So much for the disinformation about dangers to pregnant women: in fact, Spanish Flu and the recent H1N1 pandemic were both especially dangerous for unprotected pregnant women.

See on www.nydailynews.com

Engineered H5N1: the wheels grind on, and on, and on….

19 April, 2012

The Scientist has a nice collection of articles on this topic, which I have commented on all over the place, so I though I might consolidate some of it in one place.

In response to the article entitled “Deliberating Over Danger“, I wrote the following:

The point I and others have made before is that H5N1 and other influenza viruses are not waiting for us to let engineered versions loose, before they cause pandemics: all of the mutations noted by the Fouchier and Kawaoka groups are almost certainly present in the several environments where H5N1 viruses are now endemic – and all it takes for all of them to be present together is a little more mixing.

Don’t discount other flu subtypes, either: while everyone is obsessing about H5N1, H3N2 is busy popping out of pigs in the USA; H9N2 in birds in Bangladesh; H5N2 in ostriches in South Africa – and all it would take is one or a couple of fortuitous reassortments, and a whole new flu virus could be unleashed.

While the “deadly” H5N1s are being worked on in lockdown facilities.

If we don’t know what the virus does, we won’t know what it can do. If we don’t know what to look for, we may be taken unawares, when the next 1918-type pandemic strikes.

I want to have universal flu vaccines by then – so we won’t HAVE to worry about a new flu

.

There are also three newer articles covering the controversy: these are

  • H5N1 Researcher to Defy Dutch Gov’t?
  • (with my comment – “Export permit to publish something?  Really?  A complete misapplication of laws to material that should not be subject to them.”)
  • White House Weighs in on H5N1
  • Flu Review Criticized
  • (with my comment – “So after a full and frank hearing did not go his way, after changes had been made to the paper in question (Fouchier’s), Osterholm complains.  Such is life….”

There is the slightly older article – “Bird Flu Papers to Publish” – describing the reversal of the NSABB’s decision to ask for redaction of the two papers describing mammal-to-mammal aerosol-transmissible H5N1.

An interesting article also describes Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s results:

“First, he introduced two mutations—N224K and Q226L—into the haemagglutinin (HA) protein of H5N1 that made the virus capable of sticking to receptors on human tracheal cells. Then he created a chimeric virus by combining the mutated HA protein with genes from the H1N1 virus, which sparked a pandemic in 2009. Kawaoka identified another HA mutation, called N158D, that allowed the virus to spread between ferrets that were not in direct physical contact. A fourth mutation, T318I, also showed up in the H5N1 strain, but its role in making the virus more transmissible among mammals is less clear.”

So there you are: an actual recipe for aerosol-transmissible H5N1.  It was always going to come out somehow, and now these two papers will probably the most cited flu papers ever.  Nothing like a little hype!  Meanwhile, H5 and its brothers and sisters are out there mutating away, with no help needed from anyone.  Roll on universal flu vaccines!!

Killer Flu hype grinds on

16 January, 2012

The Independent today has a story entitled”Killer flu doctors: US censorship is a danger to science” – thanks, AJ Cann! – which details how the folk in the Netherlands who did the work do not think the USA should not be “…be allowed to dominate the debate over who controls sensitive scientific information that could be misused in biowarfare terrorism”.

Influenza A viruses mixing in susceptible hosts

 

Well, yes, join the club, guys!  The article is quite reasonable – apart from a couple of points, noted below – but it ends on a suitably alarmist note “…the chances of a laboratory strain of H5N1 escaping into the wild remain high if it is stored in conventional flu-virus labs”, and “Regulators should not be sitting idly by, while the threat of a man-made pandemic looms”.  Really?  The undoubtedly very small amount of mutated flu that exists, relative to any engineered bioweapon in US or Russian labs, represents a clear and present threat to world health?

What dismayed me most, however, was how horrifyingly uninformed most of the commenters are – about H5N1 in particular, and science and science funding in general….!  As I could not comment there – Disqus broke, apparently – I will do so here.

As for labelling the article “Killer Flu Doctors” – really!  A little sensationalism, anyone??  Concerning the comment “…the details could be misused by rogue states or by biowarfare terrorists with access to rudimentary scientific knowledge and fairly standard laboratory equipment”: as a practicing molecular virologist, I can tell you that you would need a lot more than “rudimentary scientific knowledge” – you’d need skill in molecular biology, and especially in reverse genetics of (-)strand RNA viruses, as well as more than “fairly standard equipment” to even BEGIN to hope to make anything like a “killer” H5N1 from published details.

Additionally, a H5 N1 flu virus that is  aerosol transmitted in ferrets – and how efficient was that, I ask? – may NOT be similarly transmissible or as easily (if it was easy) between humans.  I will point out that people thought the SARS CoV outbreak was the “Big One” flu pandemic – but although it was aerosol transmissible, it wasn’t nearly as efficiently transmitted as the common flu, so did not spread as fast.

Thus, most of what the doomsayers are predicting could be simply hype – meanwhile, in countries far away from the US which seeks to regulate such work, the virus is already endemic, and mutating freely – and it would be VERY useful indeed to know what to look for!

Influenza virus migrations – a lesson from 1961

13 January, 2012

Influenza A viruses carried by birds

I have been doing quite a lot of digging into virus history recently, and it was interesting to pick up – while checking on who had published what from our University on viruses – a paper from 1966 describing “The isolation and classification of Tern virus: Influenza Virus A/Tern/South Africa/1961″ by WB Becker of the Virus Research Unit here at UCT.  It is interesting because it was isolated from sick migratory Common Terns along the south coast of South Africa, which were infected as part of an “explosive epizootic” which resulted in many deaths.  It became more interesting when it was shown in 1967 to cause few or no symptoms in Swift Terns but was shed in large amounts, to be highly pathogenic in chickens, and was subsequently typed as H5N3.

The discussion of the original paper was not only highly prescient, but may be completely valid today: a significant quote follows.

The isolation of Tern virus raises interesting epidemiological possibilities. The outbreak in chickens in Scotland caused by Chicken/Scot. virus preceded the Tern epizootic by about 17 months and occurred during stormy weather which drove sea-birds a little inland to take shelter. Large numbers ofHerring Gulls (Larus argentatus) were at that time working thef arm at which the out break in chickens occurred in November 1959 (J. E. Wilson, personal communication). The chickens might have contracted the infection from sea-birds, a viewpoint possibly supported by the preceding mass mortality in Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) and Fulmars (Fulmaris glacialis) from February to August 1959 (Joensen, 1959) off the coast of Britain and Scandinavia. Unfortunately the aetiology of the last-mentioned outbreak was not investigated, but it is tempting to think it was caused by the Tern virus which was isolated at Cape Town some 18 months later in 1961, from migrant European Common Terns.

One might postulate: that certain sea-birds suffer latent or sporadic infection with avian influenza; that epizootics may be precipitated in them by conditions of stress, e.g. poor feeding under unfavourable weather conditions such as pre- ceded the Tern epizootic; and that spread to other sea-birds or domestic poultry may occur. [my emphases - Ed]

The 1967 tern infection paper continues this theme:

The outbreak in chickens in Scotland in 1959 (Dr J. E. Wilson, personal communication) and the Tern epizootic in 1961 were caused by influenza A viruses with closely related strain specific antigens which were unrelated to those of any previously known influenza A viruses. Recently strains of influenza A related to the Tern and Scottish viruses were isolated from turkeys in Canada (Dr G.Lang, personal communication). This lends further support to the hypothesis that migrating sea-birds such as the Common Tern may transmit avian influenza A viruses to domestic poultry.

This was followed up more recently (2002) by a paper describing transmission of the tern virus to laughing gulls:

This investigation detailed the clinical disease, gross and histologic lesions, and distribution of viral antigen in juvenile laughing gulls (Larus atricilla) intranasally inoculated with either the A/tern/South Africa/61 (H5N3) (tern/SA) influenza virus or the A/chicken/Hong Kong/220/97 (H5N1) (chicken/HK) influenza virus, which are both highly pathogenic for chickens. Neither morbidity nor mortality was observed in gulls inoculated with either virus within the 14-day investigative period. Gross lesions resultant from infection with either virus were only mild…. Antibodies to influenza viruses …at 14 DPI were detected only in the two tern/SA-inoculated gulls and not in the two chicken/HK-inoculated gulls.

Their conclusions, too, were rather disturbing:

The positive isolation of the tern/SA and chicken/HK viruses from the OP and cloacal swabs suggests that, with adequate exposure, gulls could serve as hosts for these and possibly other HPAI viruses. Isolation of the A/gull/Germany/79 (H7N7) virus during a HPAI outbreak in Eastern Europe provides further evidence to support the potential for pelagic birds to serve as biological vectors for (HP)AI viruses (D. J. Alexander, pers. comm., originally referenced in 29). This is a significant finding in terms of the epidemiology of AI viruses, especially considering the fact that the chicken/HK virus was a zoonosis (26,27). Moreover, pelagic birds have been implicated as the source for other AI viruses that transmitted to and may have caused disease in mammals (8,13).

Everybody is obsessed with H5N1: maybe we should be a little more concerned with what may be raining down from above, as seabirds carry recombinant / reassortant viruses from areas of high H5N1 endemicity around the world.

 

Help! We’re all going to die! Or – are we??

5 December, 2011

My son has just alerted me to a news item from the Russia Today site, which reports the following dry little item:

“A virus with the potential to kill up to half the world’s population has been made in a lab. Now academics and bioterrorism experts are arguing over whether to publish the recipe, and whether the research should have been done in the first place.

The virus is an H5N1 bird flu strain which was genetically altered to become much more contagious. It was created by Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who first presented his work to the public at an influenza conference in Malta in September.”

Right – nothing to get upset about, then?  Or….

Some background: what researchers did was to passage – that is, repeatedly infect new animals with virus from another animal – H5N1 influenza virus from birds, in ferrets.

Why ferrets?  Well, it was discovered by accident some 70+ years ago, that human flu viruses are very infectious in ferrets, and the reaction of ferrets to some extent predicts what will happen in humans – although they tend to die rather often from lab infections.

The result of the passaging was that the H5N1 became aerosol-transmissible – in other words, via droplets produced by sneezing – which was a new property.  From the article:

“After 10 generations, the virus had mutated to become airborne, which means ferrets became ill from merely being near other diseased animals.

A genetic study showed that the new, dangerous strain had only five mutations compared to the original one, and all of them were earlier seen in the natural environment – just not all at once. Fouchier’s strain is as contagious as the human seasonal flu, which kills tens of thousands of people each year, but is likely to cause many more fatalities if released.

“I can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,”
Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist who has worked on anthrax for many years, told Science Insider. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.””

Hence the rather alarming headline on RT – which was

“Man-made super flu could kill half humanity”

Nothing scare-mongering there, then!

Let us dissect this so called apocalypse bug, though.

“Fouchier’s strain is as contagious as the human seasonal flu, which kills tens of thousands of people each year, but is likely to cause many more fatalities if released.”

In ferrets.  No-one has shown that it causes disease in humans at all.  And there’s another problem: the article reports that:

“…the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB)…[has] a very difficult decision to make. Fouchier wants his study to be published. So does virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who led similar research in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo, and reached comparable results. And it is up to NSABB to give them the green light.”

Pardon me for being confused, but…the NSABB is a US body, right?  And Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka are Dutch and Japanese, respectively?

And pardon me again, but isn’t it a good idea to know which mutations would turn H5N1 into a ravening, destructive supervirus?  So we can look for it??  I would also think the cat is at least half out of the bag, because didn’t Ron Fouchier report the thing at a large conference already?

Letting paranoid folk in one country decide what is in the best interests of world science is NOT a good idea, in my opinion – but as has already been made abundantly clear, the developed world does not much care about our opinion.

So it goes.

H5N1 just rolls on, and on, and on….

31 August, 2011

It is a very interesting phenomenon, in the annals of influenza viruses, that avian H5N1 just keeps rolling on, and on, and on.  It was already the longest-lasting and most serious animal pandemic several years ago, and has caused immense economic damage.  And now – it seems to just get worse.  From Vaccine Nation:

H5N1 kills up to 60% of the people it infects. It has resurfaced in recent months, most notably in Cambodia where it has infected eight people this year, killing all of them.

Reuters report that the call came after the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned on Monday of a possible resurgence of bird flu and said a mutant strain of the H5N1 was spreading in Asia and beyond.

While scientists are uncertain if this new strain — called H5N1-2.3.2.1 — is more virulent in people, they said it was different enough from its predecessor to escape a human H5N1 vaccine that can tackle the parent strain.

recombining flu viruses

I have blogged a lot on influenza viruses and their vaccines – search this site via the facility to your right! – and I can only reiterate what I have said a few times already: we really, really need to have some way of rapidly responding to emerging flu viruses, including new and nasty variants of H5N1.

And a very good way of doing that, given a VERY low barrier to entry in terms of manufacturing cost compared to conventional vaccines, is via plants.  Several companies, including Medicago Inc, have embraced the use of transient expression in plants as a means of rapidly producing both seasonal and pandemic flu vaccines – and I will blog on that technology soon.

Meantime, let’s just hope the new technologies can keep pace with the evolution of the viruses they are aimed at combatting.  And that someone will actually fund us to do something for our country!

 


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