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Deadly New Strain of Bird Flu: Apocalyptic Potential

One Flu Over the Cuck­oo’s Nest

COMMENT: A recent mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the “Bird Flu” virus has made it much more dan­ger­ous for humans and poten­tial­ly, a boon for pri­vate and/or gov­ern­men­tal ele­ments that might be tempt­ed to use such weapon­ry.

In addi­tion to the fact that the mod­i­fi­ca­tion itself rep­re­sent­ed a quan­tum leap for­ward for the pan­dem­ic poten­tial of the virus, the pub­li­ca­tion itself was focus of con­tro­ver­sy.

Some feel that mak­ing this infor­ma­tion avail­able to the pub­lic is itself fool­ish, enabling male­fac­tors who might be so inclined to uti­lize this research for nefar­i­ous ends.

“What Real­ly Hap­pened in Mal­ta this Sep­tem­ber when Con­ta­gious Bird Flu Was Announced” by Kather­ine Har­mon; Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can Blogs; 12/30/2011.

EXCERPT: . . . Just across the hall, how­ev­er, in the can­ni­ly named Eden Are­na, the room was dark, as researchers pre­pared to mount the stage and explain some of the many ways that human­i­ty might soon be threat­ened by a tru­ly ter­ri­fy­ing flu pan­dem­ic.

So maybe it wasn’t quite that dra­mat­ic, but per­haps it should have felt more so. Less than an hour lat­er, a sus­pi­cious­ly sniffly Ron Fouch­i­er, a lanky virol­o­gist from the Eras­mus Med­ical Cen­ter in Rot­ter­dam with a wry smile and reas­sur­ing­ly under­stat­ed man­ner, would announce that he and his lab had found a way to make the dead­ly H5N1 that would like­ly be just as trans­mis­si­ble from one human to the next as the sea­son­al flu.

Cir­cu­lat­ing sea­son­al strains, such as H3N2, are adept at attach­ing to the human nasal cav­i­ty and tra­chea, mak­ing them eas­i­ly trans­fer­able among peo­ple via a sneeze, cough or sigh. But for­tu­nate­ly for us, H5N1, as it has cir­cu­lat­ed in bird pop­u­la­tions, has not yet devel­oped this capa­bil­i­ty. Fouch­i­er and his team want­ed to see if it was pos­si­ble to give it that pow­er.

So they “mutat­ed the hell out of H5N1,” Fouch­i­er said, tow­er­ing over the podi­um at the meeting’s Mon­day morn­ing ple­nary ses­sion. But as it turns out, they hard­ly need­ed to. With just a few genet­ic sub­sti­tu­tions, the virus was able to affix to nose and tra­chea cells—a devel­op­ment “which seemed to be very bad news,” he said.

For­tu­nate­ly for the lab’s test fer­rets, a com­mon ani­mal mod­el for human flu trans­mis­sion, the flu still didn’t seem to pass air­borne from ani­mal to ani­mal.

And that was when “some­one final­ly con­vinced me to do some­thing real­ly, real­ly stu­pid,” Fouch­i­er recount­ed. They put the mutat­ed H5N1 into the nose of one fer­ret, then took a sam­ple of nasal flu­id from that fer­ret and put it in the nose of anoth­er. After 10 fer­rets, the virus began spread­ing from fer­ret to fer­ret via the air just about as eas­i­ly as a sea­son­al flu virus. . . .

Discussion

16 comments for “Deadly New Strain of Bird Flu: Apocalyptic Potential”

  1. Great, so now every­one knows sim­ple tech­niques for weaponiz­ing crazy flu strains using small mam­mals. This is a good time to remind our­selves of anoth­er H5N1 “whoop­sie” a few years ago:

    Bax­ter Sent Bird Flu Virus to Euro­pean Labs by Error (Update2)
    By Michelle Fay Cortez and Jason Gale — Feb­ru­ary 24, 2009 16:20 EST

    Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) — Bax­ter Inter­na­tion­al Inc. in Aus­tria unin­ten­tion­al­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed sam­ples with the bird flu virus that were used in lab­o­ra­to­ries in three neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, rais­ing con­cern about the poten­tial spread of the dead­ly dis­ease.

    The con­t­a­m­i­na­tion was dis­cov­ered when fer­rets at a lab­o­ra­to­ry in the Czech Repub­lic died after being inoc­u­lat­ed with vac­cine made from the sam­ples ear­ly this month. The mate­r­i­al came from Deer­field, Illi­nois-based Bax­ter, which report­ed the inci­dent to the Aus­tri­an Min­istry of Health, Sigrid Rosen­berg­er, a min­istry spokes­woman, said today in a tele­phone inter­view.

    “This was infect­ed with a bird flu virus,” Rosen­berg­er said. “There were some peo­ple from the com­pa­ny who han­dled it.”

    The mate­r­i­al was intend­ed for use in lab­o­ra­to­ries, and none of the lab work­ers have fall­en ill. The inci­dent is draw­ing scruti­ny over the safe­ty of research using the H5N1 bird flu strain that’s killed more than three-fifths of the peo­ple known to have caught the bug world­wide. Some sci­en­tists say the 1977 Russ­ian flu, the most recent glob­al out­break, began when a virus escaped from a lab­o­ra­to­ry.

    The virus mate­r­i­al was sup­posed to con­tain a sea­son­al flu virus and was con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed after “human error,” said Christo­pher Bona, a spokesman for Bax­ter, in a tele­phone inter­view.

    ‘San­i­tized’

    Bax­ter “moved very quick­ly to san­i­tize and pro­tect employ­ees,” Bona said. “Labs have been san­i­tized, poten­tial­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed mate­ri­als have been destroyed and employ­ees were test­ed and con­sid­ered not to be at risk.”

    ...

    You have to watch out for those taint­ed sam­ples when you’re in that busi­ness.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | January 2, 2012, 11:01 pm
  2. [...] New strain of bird flu: Apoc­a­lyp­tic poten­tial [...]

    Posted by Miscellaneous articles for – Articles divers pour 01-04-2011 | Lys-d'Or | January 4, 2012, 12:57 pm
  3. I think the Dooms­day Clock needs anoth­er nudge towards mid­night.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | February 11, 2012, 7:05 pm
  4. That’s cer­tain­ly not good news”:

    Bloomberg
    New Bird Flu Seen Hav­ing Some Mark­ers of Air­borne Killer
    By Sime­on Ben­nett — Apr 6, 2013 7:50 AM CT

    The new bird influen­za that’s killed six peo­ple in east­ern Chi­na has some of the genet­ic hall­marks of an eas­i­ly trans­mis­si­ble virus, accord­ing to the sci­en­tist who showed how H5N1 avian flu could become air­borne.

    The H7N9 strain, which is a new virus formed as a result of two oth­ers merg­ing their genet­ic mate­r­i­al, has fea­tures of virus­es that are known to jump eas­i­ly from birds to mam­mals, and a muta­tion that may help it attach to cells in the res­pi­ra­to­ry tract, said Ron Fouch­i­er, a pro­fes­sor of mol­e­c­u­lar virol­o­gy at Eras­mus Med­ical Cen­ter in the Nether­lands, in a tele­phone inter­view yes­ter­day.

    “That’s cer­tain­ly not good news,” said Fouch­i­er, who reviewed a gene sequenc­ing of H7N9 pub­lished by Chi­nese health author­i­ties. “This virus real­ly doesn’t look like a bird virus any­more; it looks like a mam­malian virus.”

    ...

    “Height­ened vig­i­lance needs to be in place at the moment,” said Ander­son. While no human-to-human trans­mis­sion has yet occurred, once an epi­dem­ic gets estab­lished, the dou­bling time can be very fast. “That’s why much needs to be done very thor­ough­ly at the begin­ning to ascer­tain whether this is a risk or not.”

    Unlike H5N1, which is high­ly lethal for birds, H7N9 is a so-called low-path­o­gen­ic virus in birds, mean­ing it may be wide­spread with­out caus­ing severe sick­ness, Fouch­i­er said. That would make it dif­fi­cult to erad­i­cate, he said. It doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly fol­low that the virus will be mild in humans, he said.

    Span­ish Flu

    The Span­ish flu of 1918, which killed about 50 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide, wasn’t high­ly path­o­gen­ic in birds, he said. He and col­leagues plan to test the new virus in fer­rets to see how dead­ly and how eas­i­ly trans­mis­si­ble it is, and to test vac­cines and antivi­ral drugs against it.

    H7N9 also is more dif­fi­cult to track because it’s not high­ly lethal to birds, said Alex Thier­mann, tech­ni­cal advis­er to the direc­tor gen­er­al of the World Organ­i­sa­tion for Ani­mal Health in Paris.

    “That indi­cates we need to take very care­ful sur­veil­lance mea­sures because it will not be as obvi­ous as in 2001,” Thier­mann said in a tele­phone inter­view yes­ter­day. “Symp­toms are not going to help us. The Chi­nese are doing an inten­sive sur­veil­lance on poul­try, pigs and wildlife. We need to con­tin­ue to do that inten­sive­ly.”

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 6, 2013, 7:03 pm
  5. Aus­tria and Nether­lands... and anoth­er dead­ly flu virus.... Where have i seen that com­bi­na­tion of indi­ca­tors before? Does that mean anoth­er Great War is brew­ing? Which coun­tries and which ass­hats sold nuke tech­nol­o­gy to the dough­boy agi­ta­tor dic­ta­tor in North Korea? Would­nt be the same iden­ti­cal core of ass­hats try­ing to shove anoth­er expen­sive war down Amer­i­ca and the West­’s throats now would it? (Think Rums­feld and Swiss ABB who sold nuke tech to North Korea) Just what we all need... Anoth­er expen­sive Democ­ra­cy crush­ing war. ask Ancient Rome how that worked out. Is it just me or is any­one else notic­ing a pat­tern here? the “pat­tern” being a non­stop assault on West­ern democracy(particularly tar­get­ed against USA) that real­ly took off in 2001? and that seems to involve mul­ti­ple inter­na­tion­al play­ers work­ing togeth­er to breakup democ­ra­cies in order to prop up Authoritarian/Elite rule. maybe author­i­tar­i­an Chi­na, Sin­ga­pore, or Tai­wan can tell us what it is like to be the new emerg­ing Super economies? How did they do it? While the West is busy run­ning around the world swat­ting a nev­er end­ing stream of flies(terrorists) East­ern coun­tries and a cou­ple of Euro­pean ones, are becom­ing the new cen­ters of Eco­nom­ic pow­er. what’s going on in the USA and else­where that they have allowed them­selves to be manip­u­lat­ed into wars and dereg­u­la­tion and unbal­anced free trade agree­ments that have wrecked their economies and desta­bi­lized their democ­ra­cies? Unhinged west­ern pri­va­ti­za­tion has been great for Chi­na. You dont see Chi­na run­ning around the world get­ting sucked into half a dozen wars and bank­rupt­ing itself. And who set Dough­boy up to threat­en the US with nuclear war? There seems to be this back and forth game between North Korea and Iran going bat guano crazy about every six months or so in an attempt to agi­tate the U.S. into overex­tend­ing itself with anoth­er war. It is like those Bin Laden tapes used to suck the USA into war. They must know they would get smashed in a war against the U.S.... but since 2001 they have been cock­sure of them­selves in play­ing this game to agi­tate the USA.

    Posted by Mork | April 7, 2013, 4:20 pm
  6. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/04/01/is_this_a_pandemic_being_born_china_pigs_virus?page=full

    Is This a Pan­dem­ic Being Born?
    Chi­na’s mys­te­ri­ous pig, duck, and peo­ple deaths could be con­nect­ed. And that should wor­ry us.

    BY LAURIE GARRETT | APRIL 1, 2013

    Here’s how it would hap­pen. Chil­dren play­ing along an urban riv­er bank would spot hun­dreds of grotesque, bloat­ed pig car­cass­es bob­bing down­stream. Hun­dreds of miles away, angry cit­i­zens would protest the ris­ing stench from piles of dead ducks and swans, their rot­ting bod­ies col­lect­ing by the thou­sands along riv­er banks. And three unre­lat­ed indi­vid­u­als would stag­ger into three dif­fer­ent hos­pi­tals, gasp­ing for air. Two would quick­ly die of severe pneu­mo­nia and the third would lay in crit­i­cal con­di­tion in an inten­sive care unit for many days. Gov­ern­ment offi­cials would announce that a pre­vi­ous­ly unknown virus had sick­ened three peo­ple, at least, and killed two of them. And while the world was left to won­der how the pigs, ducks, swans, and peo­ple might be con­nect­ed, the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion would release delib­er­ate­ly terse state­ments, offer­ing lit­tle insight.

    It reads like a movie plot — I should know, as I was a con­sul­tant for Steven Soder­bergh’s Con­ta­gion. But the facts delin­eat­ed are all true, and have tran­spired over the last six weeks in Chi­na. The events could, indeed, be unre­lat­ed, and the new virus, a form of influen­za denot­ed as H7N9, may have already run its course, infect­ing just three peo­ple and killing two.

    Or this could be how pan­demics begin.

    On March 10, res­i­dents of Chi­na’s pow­er­house metrop­o­lis, Shang­hai, noticed some dead pigs float­ing among garbage flot­sam in the city’s Huang­pu Riv­er. The vile car­cass­es appeared in Shang­hai’s most impor­tant trib­u­tary of the mighty Yangtze, a 71-mile riv­er that is edged by the Bund, the city’s main tourist area, and serves as the pri­ma­ry source of drink­ing water and fer­ry trav­el for the 23 mil­lion res­i­dents of the metrop­o­lis and its mil­lions of vis­i­tors. The vision of a few dead pigs on the sur­face of the Huang­pu was every bit as jar­ring for local Chi­nese as porcine car­cass­es would be for French strolling the Seine, Lon­don­ers along the Thames, or New York­ers look­ing from the Brook­lyn Bridge down on the East Riv­er.

    And the night­mar­ish sight soon wors­ened, with more than 900 ani­mal bod­ies found by sun­set on that Sun­day evening. The first few pig car­cass num­bers soon swelled into the thou­sands, turn­ing Shang­hai spring into a hor­ror show that by March 20 would total more than 15,000 dead ani­mals. The riv­er zigza­gs its way from Zhe­jiang province, just to the south of Shang­hai, a farm­ing region inhab­it­ed by some 54 mil­lion peo­ple, and a major pork-rais­ing dis­trict of Chi­na. Due to scan­dals over recent years in the pork indus­try, includ­ing sub­sti­tu­tion of ren­dered pig intestines for a tox­ic chem­i­cal, sold as heparin blood thin­ner that proved lethal to Amer­i­can car­diac patients, Chi­nese author­i­ties had put iden­ti­ty tags on pigs’ ears. The pig car­cass­es were swift­ly traced back to key farms in Zhe­jiang, and ter­ri­fied farm­ers admit­ted that they had dumped the dead ani­mals into the Huang­pu.

    Few Chi­nese asked, “What killed the pigs?,” because riv­er pol­lu­tion is so heinous across Chi­na that today peo­ple sim­ply assume man­u­fac­tur­ing chem­i­cals or pes­ti­cides fill the nation’s water­ways, and are respon­si­ble for all such mys­te­ri­ous ani­mals demis­es. The Yangtze, which feeds Shang­hai’s Huang­pu, has cop­per pol­lu­tion lev­els that are 100 times high­er than U.S. safe­ty stan­dards, and leather tan­ning facil­i­ties along the riv­er have noto­ri­ous­ly been respon­si­ble for tox­ic waste, includ­ing chromi­um. And across Chi­na — espe­cial­ly in Bei­jing — air pol­lu­tion was so bad in Jan­u­ary and Feb­ru­ary that pol­lu­tion par­tic­u­late lev­els rou­tine­ly peaked at high­er than 10 times the U.S. safe­ty stan­dards set by the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. When I was in Bei­jing in late Jan­u­ary, the air pol­lu­tion was so thick that it visu­al­ly looked like fog, obscur­ing all sun­light and even sky­scrap­ers locat­ed less than three city blocks away. So, hideous as the pig car­cass­es might be, Shang­hai res­i­dents tend­ed to shrug them off as yet anoth­er exam­ple of the trade-offs Chi­na is mak­ing, pit­ting pros­per­i­ty against pol­lu­tion.

    But 12 days after the first Shang­hai porcine death flow was spot­ted, pig car­cass­es washed up along the shores of Chang­sha’s pri­ma­ry riv­er, the Xiang — also a Yangtze trib­u­tary, this one locat­ed hun­dreds of miles west of Shang­hai. Known as “the Sky City” for its 2,749-foot-tall cen­tral tow­er, Chang­sha is home to more than 7 mil­lion peo­ple and cap­i­tal of Hunan province. Along with some 50 dead pigs, author­i­ties col­lect­ed a few thou­sand dead ducks from the Xiang on March 22 and 23.

    Two days lat­er, anoth­er mass duck and swan die-off was spot­ted, this time along the Sichuan Riv­er hun­dreds of miles to the north, near Lake Qing­hai. The lake is the most impor­tant tran­sit and nest­ing site for migra­to­ry aquat­ic birds that trav­el the vast Asia fly­way, stretch­ing from cen­tral Siberia to south­ern Indone­sia. In 2005, a mass die-off of aquat­ic birds in and around Lake Qing­hai result­ed from a muta­tion­al change in the long-cir­cu­lat­ing bird flu virus, H5N1 — a genet­ic shift that gave that virus a far larg­er species range, allow­ing H5N1 to spread for the first time across Rus­sia, Ukraine and into Europe, the Mid­dle East and North Africa — it has remained in cir­cu­la­tion across the vast expanse of Earth for the last sev­en years.

    On March 25, Chi­nese author­i­ties seized man­u­fac­tured pork buns that were found to be made from Zhe­jiang pigs that had died of the mys­te­ri­ous ail­ment. The pos­si­bly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed pork was in the Chi­nese food sup­ply. By the end of March, at least 20,000 pig car­cass­es and tens of thou­sands of ducks and swans had washed upon river­banks that stretch from the Lake Qing­hai area all the way to the East Chi­na Sea — a dis­tance rough­ly equiv­a­lent to the span between Mia­mi and Boston. Nobody knows how many more thou­sands of birds and pigs have died, but gone uncount­ed as farm­ers buried or burned the car­cass­es to avoid rep­ri­mands from author­i­ties.

    While envi­ron­men­tal clean-up and agri­cul­tur­al author­i­ties scram­bled to remove the unsight­ly corpses and pro­vide the anx­ious pub­lic with less-than-believ­able expla­na­tions for their demise, a seem­ing­ly sep­a­rate human dra­ma was unfold­ing. On Feb. 19, a man iden­ti­fied by Xin­hua, Chi­na’s state news agency, only as Li, an 87-year old retiree, was hos­pi­tal­ized in Shang­hai with severe res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­tress and pneu­mo­nia. On March 4, Li went into severe car­dio-res­pi­ra­to­ry fail­ure and suc­cumbed.

    On Feb. 27, a man iden­ti­fied only as Wu, a 27-year-old butch­er or meat proces­sor, fell ill with res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­tress, was hos­pi­tal­ized, and died on March 10. The day Wu suc­cumbed a third indi­vid­ual, a 35-year-old woman iden­ti­fied as Han, was hos­pi­tal­ized in the city of Nan­jing, though she came from dis­tant Chuzhou City, in Anhui province, about 300 miles north­west of Shang­hai. Han is report­ed­ly in crit­i­cal con­di­tion, in inten­sive care. To date, no con­nec­tion between the three indi­vid­u­als has been found.

    The elder­ly Li may have been part of a fam­i­ly clus­ter of ill­ness, as his 55-year old son died of pneu­mo­nia in March, and anoth­er 67-year-old son suf­fered res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­tress, but has sur­vived.

    On March 31 — East­er in the Unit­ed States — Chi­na’s new­ly cre­at­ed Nation­al Health and Fam­i­ly Plan­ning Com­mis­sion (which includes the for­mer Min­istry of Health) announced that 87-year-old Li, Wu, and Han all were infect­ed with a form of influen­za denot­ed as H7N9 — a type of flu nev­er pre­vi­ous­ly known to infect human beings. The com­mis­sion insist­ed that Li’s two sons (one dead, the oth­er a sur­vivor) were not infect­ed with the flu virus — their ail­ments were report­ed­ly coin­ci­den­tal, though they occurred at the same time as the elder Li’s demise.

    So much for the back­sto­ry: What is going on?

    Accord­ing to Chi­nese author­i­ties, some of the dead pigs test­ed anti­body-pos­i­tive for cir­covirus­es, or PCV‑2, and sam­ples of the virus were iso­lat­ed from Huang­pu Riv­er. The impli­ca­tion was that the Shang­hai pigs died of PCV‑2, a type of virus that is harm­less to human beings, as well as birds. Pho­tographs of the car­cass­es reveal that the ani­mals were large adult hogs, but PCV‑2 does not kill adult pigs — it is lethal to fetus­es and new­born piglets.

    The Chi­nese health author­i­ties have to date offered no cause of death for the ducks and swans, failed to describe any unusu­al genet­ic fea­tures that might have turned the PCV‑2 into an adult pig-killer virus, and insist­ed there is no con­nec­tion between the pigs, peo­ple, and birds. Though the sur­viv­ing woman, Han, had some con­tact with live chick­ens, accord­ing to Xin­hua, nei­ther Li nor Wu had any known con­tact with birds. Wu has been iden­ti­fied var­i­ous­ly as a butch­er, meat proces­sor, and employ­ee of a meat plant — all of which might imply he had con­tact with pigs.

    Influen­zas are named accord­ing to the spe­cif­ic nature of two pro­teins found on the virus — the H stands for hemag­glu­n­tinin and the N for neu­raminidase. These pro­teins play var­i­ous roles in the flu-infec­tion process, includ­ing latch­ing onto recep­tors on the out­side of the cells of ani­mals to trans­mit the virus into their bod­ies. Those recep­tors can vary wide­ly from one species to anoth­er, which is why most types of influen­za virus­es spread­ing now around the world are harm­less to human beings. As far as any sci­en­tists know, the H7N9 forms of flu have nev­er pre­vi­ous­ly man­aged to infect human beings, or any mam­mals — it is a class of the virus found exclu­sive­ly in birds. It is there­fore extreme­ly wor­ry­ing to find two peo­ple killed and one bare­ly sur­viv­ing due to H7N9 infec­tion.

    One very plau­si­ble expla­na­tion for this chain of Chi­nese events is that the H7N9 virus has under­gone a muta­tion — per­haps among spring migrat­ing birds around Lake Qing­hai. The muta­tion ren­dered the virus lethal for domes­tic ducks and swans. Because many Chi­nese farm­ers raise both pigs and ducks, the ani­mals can share water sup­plies and be in fight­ing prox­im­i­ty over food — the spread of flu from ducks to pigs, trans­form­ing avian flu into swine flu, has occurred many times. Once influen­za adapts to pig cells, it is often pos­si­ble for the virus to take human-trans­mis­si­ble form. That’s pre­cise­ly what hap­pened in 2009 with the H1N1 swine flu, which spread around the world in a mas­sive, but thank­ful­ly not ter­ri­bly vir­u­lent, pan­dem­ic.

    If the pigs, peo­ple, and birds have died in Chi­na from H7N9, it is imper­a­tive and urgent that the bio­log­i­cal con­nec­tion be made, and exten­sive research be done to deter­mine how wide­spread human infec­tion may be. Shang­hai health author­i­ties have test­ed dozens of peo­ple known to have been in con­tact with Wu and Li, none of whom have come up pos­i­tive for H7N9 infec­tion. Assum­ing the tests are accu­rate, the mys­tery of Li and Wu’s infec­tions only deep­ens. More­over, if they are a “two of three,” mean­ing two dead, of three known cas­es, the H7N9 virus is very vir­u­lent.

    “At this point, these three are iso­lat­ed cas­es with no evi­dence of human-to-human trans­mis­sion”, the WHO rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Chi­na, Dr. Michael O’Leary, told reporters on Mon­day. But, O’Leary added, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a fam­i­ly clus­ter of ill­ness could not be ruled out, and, “We don’t know yet the caus­es of ill­ness in the two sons, but nat­u­ral­ly, if three peo­ple in one fam­i­ly acquire severe pneu­mo­nia in a short peri­od of time, it rais­es a lot of con­cern.”

    But Hong Kong author­i­ties, smart­ing from years of out­breaks spread from main­land Chi­na includ­ing H5N1 (1997) and SARS (2003), have put the ter­ri­to­ry on health alert. “We will height­en our vig­i­lance and con­tin­ue to main­tain strin­gent port health mea­sures in con­nec­tion with this devel­op­ment,” the Cen­tre for Health Pro­tec­tion in Hong Kong stat­ed in a press release on Mon­day.

    The Chi­nese Nation­al Influen­za Cen­ter has post­ed the H7N9 genet­ic sequences of virus­es from Li, Wu, and Han on the WHO flu site. A num­ber of H7N9 sequences found in birds over the last few years are also post­ed: The human and bird strains do not match, though none of the birds strains were obtained from ani­mals in 2013.

    The mys­tery is deep, the clock is tick­ing, and the world wants answers.

    If we were imag­in­ing how a ter­ri­ble pan­dem­ic would unfold, this could cer­tain­ly serve as an excel­lent script.

    Posted by Vanfield | April 8, 2013, 9:50 pm
  7. Ummm...

    How Chi­na’s bird flu infects humans remains unclear
    Experts from World Health Orga­ni­za­tion to vis­it Chi­nese labs, affect­ed areas
    The Asso­ci­at­ed Press
    Post­ed: Apr 18, 2013 1:30 PM ET
    Last Updat­ed: Apr 18, 2013 1:28 PM ET

    Almost three weeks after Chi­na report­ed find­ing a new strain of bird flu in humans, experts are still stumped by how peo­ple are becom­ing infect­ed when many appear to have had no recent con­tact with live fowl and the virus isn’t sup­posed to pass from per­son to per­son.

    The uncer­tain­ty adds to chal­lenges the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment is fac­ing in try­ing to con­trol the spread of the H7N9 bird flu virus that has already killed 17 peo­ple and infect­ed 70 oth­ers in the coun­try, most­ly along the east­ern seaboard.

    “To me, the biggest ques­tion is the link between the virus in birds and how it gets to humans. This is not clear,” said Dr. Bai Chunx­ue, a promi­nent res­pi­ra­to­ry expert in Shang­hai who treat­ed one of the first cas­es of the virus, a fam­i­ly clus­ter involv­ing an 87-year-old man and his two sons. Bai said oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers he talked to said the patients had no con­tact with birds or poul­try.

    “So this is indeed a mys­tery,” Bai said in a tele­phone inter­view.

    The­o­ries among experts about how the virus may be spread­ing run from the ways poul­try is slaugh­tered in mar­kets to infect­ed drop­pings from migra­to­ry birds. Under­stand­ing how the H7N9 bird flu virus is spread­ing is a goal of inter­na­tion­al and Chi­nese experts assem­bled by the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion as they begin a week­long inves­ti­ga­tion Fri­day.

    Helen Yu, the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion’s spokes­woman in Chi­na, said the experts, who start­ed arriv­ing Thurs­day, will vis­it lab­o­ra­to­ries and affect­ed areas in Bei­jing and Shang­hai.

    Chi­na announced the first known cas­es on March 31, spark­ing con­cern among experts world­wide because it was the first time the H7N9 strain of bird flu has been known to infect humans. They fear the virus could mutate in a way that allows it to spread eas­i­ly among peo­ple, but so far there has been no sign of sus­tained human-to-human trans­mis­sion.

    Chi­nese health offi­cials have said peo­ple may be get­ting sick from direct con­tact with infect­ed live birds, point­ing to cas­es of patients who have been work­ing in the poul­try trade. The virus has been detect­ed in live poul­try, lead­ing to mass slaugh­ters and clo­sures of live fowl mar­kets.

    Bird con­tact ques­tions

    How­ev­er, as Chi­na con­tin­ues to report new cas­es, about 40 per cent of patients have no appar­ent his­to­ry of expo­sure to poul­try or oth­er birds, mak­ing the virus “very dif­fi­cult to under­stand,” said Dr. Masato Tashiro, direc­tor of WHO’s influen­za research cen­ter in Tokyo.

    Tashiro not­ed that proof of the asser­tion that con­tact with birds is caus­ing the cas­es is miss­ing. “They did­n’t show any direct evi­dence. That’s only spec­u­la­tion still. It’s pos­si­ble, like­ly, but there’s no evi­dence,” he said.

    ...

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 18, 2013, 12:32 pm
  8. “When we look at influen­za virus­es, this is an unusu­al­ly dan­ger­ous virus for humans”. Time for human­i­ty to dodge anoth­er bio­log­i­cal bul­let:

    WHO says new bird strain is “one of most lethal” flu virus­es

    By Sui-Lee Wee and Kate Kel­land

    BEIJING/LONDON | Wed Apr 24, 2013 7:13am EDT

    (Reuters) — A new bird flu strain that has killed 22 peo­ple in Chi­na is “one of the most lethal” of its kind and trans­mits more eas­i­ly to humans than anoth­er strain that has killed hun­dreds since 2003, a World Health Orga­ni­za­tion (WHO) expert said on Wednes­day.

    The H7N9 flu has infect­ed 108 peo­ple in Chi­na since it was first detect­ed in March, accord­ing to the Gene­va-based WHO.

    Although it is not clear exact­ly how peo­ple are being infect­ed, experts say they see no evi­dence so far of the most wor­ri­some sce­nario — sus­tained trans­mis­sion between peo­ple.

    An inter­na­tion­al team of sci­en­tists led by the WHO and the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment con­duct­ed a five-day inves­ti­ga­tion in Chi­na, but said they were no clos­er to deter­min­ing whether the virus might become trans­mis­si­ble between peo­ple.

    “The sit­u­a­tion remains com­plex and dif­fi­cult and evolv­ing,” said Kei­ji Fuku­da, the WHO’s assis­tant direc­tor-gen­er­al for health secu­ri­ty.

    “When we look at influen­za virus­es, this is an unusu­al­ly dan­ger­ous virus for humans,” he said at a brief­ing.

    Anoth­er bird flu strain — H5N1 — has killed 30 of the 45 peo­ple it infect­ed in Chi­na between 2003 and 2013, and although the H7N9 strain in the cur­rent out­break has a low­er fatal­i­ty rate to date, Fuku­da said: “This is def­i­nite­ly one of the most lethal influen­za virus­es that we’ve seen so far.”

    Sci­en­tists who have ana­lyzed genet­ic sequence data from sam­ples from three H7N9 vic­tims say the strain is a so-called “triple reas­sor­tant” virus with a mix­ture of genes from three oth­er flu strains found in birds in Asia.

    Recent pan­dem­ic virus­es, includ­ing the H1N1 “swine flu” of 2009/2010, have been mix­tures of mam­mal and bird flu — hybrids that are more like­ly to be milder because mam­malian flu tends to make peo­ple less severe­ly ill than bird flu.

    Pure bird flu strains, such as the new H7N9 strain and the H5N1 flu, which has killed about 371 of 622 the peo­ple it has infect­ed since 2003, are gen­er­al­ly more dead­ly for peo­ple.

    UNSETTLING

    The team of experts, who began their inves­ti­ga­tion in Chi­na last week, said one prob­lem in track­ing H7N9 is the absence of vis­i­ble ill­ness in poul­try.

    Fuku­da stressed that the team is still at the begin­ning of its inves­ti­ga­tion, and said that “we may just be see­ing the most seri­ous infec­tions” at this point.

    Based on the evi­dence, “this virus is more eas­i­ly trans­mis­si­ble from poul­try to humans than H5N1”, he said.

    Besides the ini­tial cas­es of H7N9 in and around Shang­hai, oth­ers have been detect­ed in Bei­jing and five provinces. On Wednes­day, Tai­wan’s Health Depart­ment said a busi­ness­man had con­tract­ed H7N9 while trav­el­ling in Chi­na and was in a seri­ous con­di­tion in hos­pi­tal.

    Sam­ples from chick­ens, ducks and pigeons from poul­try mar­kets have test­ed pos­i­tive for H7N9, but those from migra­to­ry birds have not, sug­gest­ing that “the like­ly source of infec­tion is poul­try”, said Nan­cy Cox, direc­tor of the influen­za divi­sion at the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

    John Oxford, a flu virol­o­gist at Queen Mary Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don, said the emer­gence of human H7N9 infec­tions — a com­plete­ly new strain in peo­ple — was “very, very unset­tling”.

    “This virus seems to have been qui­et­ly spread­ing in chick­ens with­out any­one know­ing about it,” he told Reuters in Lon­don.

    ...

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 25, 2013, 6:59 am
  9. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/appalling-irresponsibility-senior-scientists-attack-chinese-researchers-for-creating-new-strains-of-influenza-virus-in-veterinary-laboratory-8601658.html

    ‘Appalling irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty’: Senior sci­en­tists attack Chi­nese researchers for cre­at­ing new strains of influen­za virus in vet­eri­nary lab­o­ra­to­ry

    Experts warn of dan­ger that the new viral strains cre­at­ed by mix­ing bird-flu virus with human influen­za could escape from the lab­o­ra­to­ry to cause a glob­al pan­dem­ic killing mil­lions of peo­ple.
    Steve Con­nor Author

    Thurs­day 02 May 2013

    Senior sci­en­tists have crit­i­cised the “appalling irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty” of researchers in Chi­na who have delib­er­ate­ly cre­at­ed new strains of influen­za virus in a vet­eri­nary lab­o­ra­to­ry.

    They warned there is a dan­ger that the new viral strains cre­at­ed by mix­ing bird-flu virus with human influen­za could escape from the lab­o­ra­to­ry to cause a glob­al pan­dem­ic killing mil­lions of peo­ple.

    Lord May of Oxford, a for­mer gov­ern­ment chief sci­en­tist and past pres­i­dent of the Roy­al Soci­ety, denounced the study pub­lished today in the jour­nal Sci­ence as doing noth­ing to fur­ther the under­stand­ing and pre­ven­tion of flu pan­demics.

    “They claim they are doing this to help devel­op vac­cines and such like. In fact the real rea­son is that they are dri­ven by blind ambi­tion with no com­mon sense what­so­ev­er,” Lord May told The Inde­pen­dent.

    “The record of con­tain­ment in labs like this is not reas­sur­ing. They are tak­ing it upon them­selves to cre­ate human-to-human trans­mis­sion of very dan­ger­ous virus­es. It’s appalling­ly irre­spon­si­ble,” he said.

    The con­tro­ver­sial study into viral mix­ing was car­ried out by a team led by Pro­fes­sor Hualan Chen, direc­tor of China’s Nation­al Avian Influen­za Ref­er­ence Lab­o­ra­to­ry at Harbin Vet­eri­nary Research Insti­tute.

    Pro­fes­sor Chen and her col­leagues delib­er­ate­ly mixed the H5N1 bird-flu virus, which is high­ly lethal but not eas­i­ly trans­mit­ted between peo­ple, with a 2009 strain of H1N1 flu virus, which is very infec­tious to humans.

    When flu virus­es come togeth­er by infect­ing the same cell they can swap genet­ic mate­r­i­al and pro­duce “hybrids” through the re-assort­ment of genes. The researchers were try­ing to emu­late what hap­pens in nature when ani­mals such as pigs are co-infect­ed with two dif­fer­ent strains of virus, Pro­fes­sor Chen said.

    “The stud­ies demon­strat­ed that H5N1 virus­es have the poten­tial to acquire mam­malian trans­mis­si­bil­i­ty by re-assort­ment with the human influen­za virus­es,” Pro­fes­sor Chen said in an email.

    “This tells us that high atten­tion should be paid to mon­i­tor the emer­gence of such mam­malian-trans­mis­si­ble virus in nature to pre­vent a pos­si­ble pan­dem­ic caused by H5N1 virus,” she said.

    “It is dif­fi­cult to say how easy this will hap­pen, but since the H5N1 and 2009/H1N1 virus­es are wide­ly exist­ing in nature, they may have a chance to re-assort,” she added.

    The study, which was car­ried out in a lab­o­ra­to­ry with the sec­ond high­est secu­ri­ty lev­el to pre­vent acci­den­tal escape, result­ed in 127 dif­fer­ent viral hybrids between H5N1 and H1N1, five of which were able to pass by air­borne trans­mis­sion between lab­o­ra­to­ry guinea pigs.

    Pro­fes­sor Simon Wain-Hob­son, an emi­nent virol­o­gist at the Pas­teur Insti­tute in Paris, said it is very like­ly that some or all of these hybrids could pass eas­i­ly between humans and pos­sess some or all of the high­ly lethal char­ac­ter­is­tics of H5N1 bird-flu.

    “Nobody can extrap­o­late to humans except to con­clude that the five virus­es would prob­a­bly trans­mit rea­son­able well between humans,” Pro­fes­sor Wain-Hob­son said.

    “We don’t know the path­o­genic­i­ty [lethal­i­ty] in man and hope­ful­ly we will nev­er know. But if the case fatal­i­ty rate was between 0.1 and 20 per cent, and a pan­dem­ic affect­ed 500 mil­lion peo­ple, you could esti­mate any­thing between 500,000 and 100 mil­lion deaths,” he said.

    “It’s a fab­u­lous piece of virol­o­gy by the Chi­nese group and it’s very impres­sive, but they haven’t been think­ing clear­ly about what they are doing. It’s very wor­ry­ing,” Pro­fes­sor Wain-Hob­son said.

    “The viro­log­i­cal basis of this work is not strong. It is of no use for vac­cine devel­op­ment and the ben­e­fit in terms of sur­veil­lance for new flu virus­es is over­sold,” he added.

    An increas­ing num­ber of sci­en­tists out­side the influen­za field have expressed con­cern over attempts to delib­er­ate­ly increase the human trans­mis­si­bil­i­ty of the H5N1 bird-flu virus. This is done by mutat­ing the virus so that it can pass by air­borne droplets between lab­o­ra­to­ry fer­rets, the stan­dard “ani­mal mod­el” of human influen­za.

    Two pre­vi­ous stud­ies, by Ron Fouch­i­er of Eras­mus Med­ical Cen­tre in Rot­ter­dam and Yoshi­hi­ro Kawao­ka of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, Madi­son, caused uproar in 2011 when it emerged that they had cre­at­ed air­borne ver­sions of H5N1 that could be passed between fer­rets.

    The crit­i­cism led to researchers to impose a vol­un­tary mora­to­ri­um on their H5N1 research, ban­ning trans­mis­sion stud­ies using fer­rets. How­ev­er they decid­ed to lift the ban ear­li­er this year, argu­ing that they have now con­sult­ed wide­ly with health organ­i­sa­tions and the pub­lic over safe­ty con­cerns.

    How­ev­er, oth­er sci­en­tists have crit­i­cised the deci­sion to lift the mora­to­ri­um.

    Posted by Vanfield | May 3, 2013, 2:02 pm
  10. A few hun­dred mil­lion dead gooks and chinks would only be a good thing.

    Posted by Ian Santiago | May 4, 2013, 5:29 pm
  11. And the Dooms­day Clock goes tick tock tick tock:

    Drug resis­tance in new Chi­na bird flu rais­es con­cern

    By Ben Hirschler

    LONDON | Tue May 28, 2013 10:10am EDT

    (Reuters) — The new bird flu strain that has killed 36 peo­ple in Chi­na has proved resis­tant to Tam­i­flu for the first time, a devel­op­ment sci­en­tists said was “con­cern­ing”.

    The H7N9 virus was found to be resis­tant to Roche’s wide­ly used flu drug in three out of 14 patients who were stud­ied in detail by doc­tors from Shang­hai and Hong Kong.

    Tam­i­flu, which is giv­en as a pill, belongs to a group of med­i­cines known as neu­raminidase inhibitors that cur­rent­ly offer the only known treat­ment option for bird flu. Glax­o­SmithK­line’s inhaled med­i­cine Relen­za has the same mode of action.

    In one patient, the gene muta­tion respon­si­ble for resis­tance appears to have arisen after infec­tion took hold, prob­a­bly as a result of treat­ment with Tam­i­flu, lead­ing to con­cerns that med­ica­tion may be the trig­ger for resis­tance to devel­op.

    “The appar­ent ease with which antivi­ral resis­tance emerges in A/H7N9 virus­es is con­cern­ing; it needs to be close­ly mon­i­tored and con­sid­ered in future pan­dem­ic response plans,” the researchers wrote in an arti­cle pub­lished online by The Lancet med­ical jour­nal on Tues­day.

    Ear­li­er genet­ic stud­ies had raised wor­ries about drug resis­tance but this is the first time that the prob­lem has been doc­u­ment­ed in clin­i­cal cas­es.

    For most of the 14 patients stud­ied, Tam­i­flu suc­cess­ful­ly reduced the amount of virus found in throat swabs and helped speed clin­i­cal recov­ery. But it had no impact on the amount of virus found in swabs from three patients who became severe­ly ill.

    A spokes­woman for Swiss-based drug­mak­er Roche said rates of Tam­i­flu resis­tance remained low glob­al­ly, but it took the issue of resis­tance “very seri­ous­ly” and was col­lab­o­rat­ing with health author­i­ties to mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion.

    ...

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | May 28, 2013, 7:45 am
  12. What time is it? Well, as of Jan­u­ary of 2014 it’s 5 min­utes to mid­night. Tick tock tick tock...

    Los Ange­les Times
    Dead­ly H5N1 bird flu needs just 5 muta­tions to spread eas­i­ly in peo­ple

    By Monte Morin This post has been updat­ed, as indi­cat­ed below.

    April 10, 2014, 3:14 p.m.

    It’s a flu virus so dead­ly that sci­en­tists once halt­ed research on the dis­ease because gov­ern­ments feared it might be used by ter­ror­ists to stage a bio­log­i­cal attack.

    Yet despite the fact that the H5N1 avian influen­za has killed 60% of the 650 humans known to be infect­ed since it was iden­ti­fied in Hong Kong 17 years ago, the “bird flu” virus has yet to evolve a means of spread­ing eas­i­ly among peo­ple.

    Now Dutch researchers have found that the virus needs only five favor­able gene muta­tions to become trans­mis­si­ble through cough­ing or sneez­ing, like reg­u­lar flu virus­es.

    World health offi­cials have long feared that the H5N1 virus will some­day evolve a knack for air­borne trans­mis­sion, set­ting off a dev­as­tat­ing pan­dem­ic. While the new study sug­gests the muta­tions need­ed are rel­a­tive­ly few, it remains unclear whether they’re like­ly to hap­pen out­side the lab­o­ra­to­ry.

    “This cer­tain­ly does not mean that H5N1 is now more like­ly to cause a pan­dem­ic,” said Ron Fouch­i­er, a virol­o­gist at Eras­mus Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Cen­ter in Rot­ter­dam, Nether­lands, and coau­thor of the study pub­lished Thurs­day in the jour­nal Cell. “But it does mean that we should not exclude the pos­si­bil­i­ty that it might hap­pen.”

    As with many oth­er influen­za stud­ies, the sci­en­tists used fer­rets as the stand-in for humans, because their immune sys­tem responds sim­i­lar­ly to the dis­ease.

    Pri­or research had estab­lished that H5N1 could become con­ta­gious in fer­rets if the virus was passed through a suc­ces­sion of ani­mals, essen­tial­ly forc­ing the virus to evolve at an accel­er­at­ed rate. In those exper­i­ments, Fouch­i­er and his col­leagues found that the new­ly con­ta­gious virus­es had accu­mu­lat­ed nine or more muta­tions.

    In the new study, the authors set out to deter­mine the min­i­mum num­ber of muta­tions nec­es­sary for air­borne infec­tion.

    ...

    By expos­ing fer­rets and human tis­sue sam­ples to a vari­ety of genet­i­cal­ly altered virus­es, study authors iden­ti­fied five key gene muta­tions.

    ...

    Richard Web­by, a virol­o­gist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hos­pi­tal in Mem­phis, said that although the study pro­vid­ed a valu­able list of genet­ic traits to look for, the most impor­tant ques­tion for sci­en­tists and health offi­cials remained unan­swered.

    “The biggest unknown is whether the virus­es are like­ly to gain the crit­i­cal muta­tions nat­u­ral­ly,” Web­by said. “If they can appear read­i­ly, then it is very wor­ri­some. If not, then there’s still a major hur­dle that these virus­es have to get over to become human-trans­mis­si­ble.”
    ...

    So, basi­cal­ly, with a hand­ful a muta­tions can be induced by spread­ing the virus nose to nose from one mam­mal to anoth­er. But we’re not sup­posed to wor­ry too much because that kind of sce­nario is SO unlike­ly to hap­pen in nature. Espe­cial­ly amongst humans. Noth­ing to wor­ry about folks!

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 11, 2014, 7:48 am
  13. http://thebulletin.org/threatened-pandemics-and-laboratory-escapes-self-fulfilling-prophecies7016

    Threat­ened pan­demics and lab­o­ra­to­ry escapes: Self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cies
    Mar­tin Fur­man­s­ki

    Mar­tin Fur­man­s­ki is a med­ical doc­tor and med­ical his­to­ri­an whose major research inter­ests are inves­ti­gat­ing the devel­op­ment, use, and alle­ga­tions of use of chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal weapons.

    The pub­lic health dan­ger from the escape, from lab­o­ra­to­ries, of virus­es capa­ble of caus­ing pan­demics has become the sub­ject of con­sid­er­able, well-mer­it­ed dis­cus­sion, spurred by “gain of func­tion” exper­i­ments. The osten­si­ble goal of these exper­i­ments— in which researchers manip­u­late already-dan­ger­ous pathogens to cre­ate or increase com­mu­ni­ca­bil­i­ty among humans—is to devel­op tools to mon­i­tor the nat­ur­al emer­gence of pan­dem­ic strains. Oppo­nents, how­ev­er, warn that the risk of lab­o­ra­to­ry escape of these high-con­se­quence pathogens far out­weighs any poten­tial advance. These argu­ments appear in a vari­ety of recent research papers, includ­ing Rethink­ing Biosafe­ty in Research on Poten­tial Pan­dem­ic Pathogens; The Human Fatal­i­ty and Eco­nom­ic Bur­den of a Man-made Influen­za Pan­dem­ic: A Risk Assess­ment; Con­tain­ing the Acci­den­tal Lab­o­ra­to­ry Escape of Poten­tial Pan­dem­ic Influen­za Virus­es; and Response to Let­ter by the Euro­pean Soci­ety for Virol­o­gy on “Gain-of-Func­tion” Influen­za Research.

    The risk of a man­made pan­dem­ic sparked by a lab­o­ra­to­ry escape is not hypo­thet­i­cal: One occurred in 1977, and it occurred because of con­cern that a nat­ur­al pan­dem­ic was immi­nent. Many oth­er lab­o­ra­to­ry escapes of high-con­se­quence pathogens have occurred, result­ing in trans­mis­sion beyond lab­o­ra­to­ry per­son­nel. Iron­i­cal­ly, these lab­o­ra­to­ries were work­ing with pathogens to pre­vent the very out­breaks they ulti­mate­ly caused. For that rea­son, the trag­ic con­se­quences have been called “self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cies.”

    Mod­ern genet­ic analy­sis allows pathogens to be pre­cise­ly iden­ti­fied, and because all cir­cu­lat­ing pathogens show genet­ic changes over time, the year that a par­tic­u­lar exam­ple of a pathogen emerged can gen­er­al­ly be deter­mined, giv­en a suf­fi­cient data­base of sam­ples. If a pathogen appears in nature after not cir­cu­lat­ing for years or decades, it may be assumed to have escaped from a lab­o­ra­to­ry where it had been stored inert for many years, accu­mu­lat­ing no genet­ic changes; that is, its nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion had been frozen.

    The swine flu scare of 1976 and the H1N1 human influen­za pan­dem­ic of 1977. Human H1N1 influen­za virus appeared with the 1918 glob­al pan­dem­ic, and per­sist­ed, slow­ly accu­mu­lat­ing small genet­ic changes, until 1957, when it appeared to go extinct after the H2N2 pan­dem­ic virus appeared. In 1976, H1N1 swine influen­za virus struck Fort Dix, caus­ing 13 hos­pi­tal­iza­tions and one death. The specter of a reprise of the dead­ly 1918 pan­dem­ic trig­gered an unprece­dent­ed effort to immu­nize all Amer­i­cans. No swine H1N1 pan­dem­ic mate­ri­al­ized, how­ev­er, and com­pli­ca­tions of immu­niza­tion trun­cat­ed the pro­gram after 48 mil­lion immu­niza­tions, which even­tu­al­ly caused 25 deaths.

    Human H1N1 virus reap­peared in 1977, in the Sovi­et Union and Chi­na. Virol­o­gists, using sero­log­ic and ear­ly genet­ic tests soon began to sug­gest the cause of the reap­pear­ance was a lab­o­ra­to­ry escape of a 1949–1950 virus, and as genom­ic tech­niques advanced, it became clear that this was true. By 2010, researchers pub­lished it as fact: “The most famous case of a released lab­o­ra­to­ry strain is the re-emer­gent H1N1 influenza‑A virus which was first observed in Chi­na in May of 1977 and in Rus­sia short­ly there­after.” The virus may have escaped from a lab attempt­ing to pre­pare an atten­u­at­ed H1N1 vac­cine in response to the US swine flu pan­dem­ic alert.

    The 1977 pan­dem­ic spread rapid­ly world­wide but was lim­it­ed to those under 20 years of age: Old­er per­sons were immune from expo­sures before 1957. Its attack rate was high (20 to 70 per­cent) in schools and mil­i­tary camps, but mer­ci­ful­ly it caused mild dis­ease, and fatal­i­ties were few. It con­tin­ued to cir­cu­late until 2009, when the pH1N1 virus replaced it. There has been vir­tu­al­ly no pub­lic aware­ness of the 1977 H1N1 pan­dem­ic and its lab­o­ra­to­ry ori­gins, despite the clear anal­o­gy to cur­rent con­cern about a poten­tial H5N1 or H7N9 avian influen­za pan­dem­ic and “gain of func­tion” exper­i­ments. The con­se­quences of escape of a high­ly lethal avian virus with enhanced trans­mis­si­bil­i­ty would almost cer­tain­ly be much graver than the 1977 escape of a “sea­son­al,” pos­si­bly atten­u­at­ed strain to a pop­u­la­tion with sub­stan­tial exist­ing immu­ni­ty.

    Small­pox releas­es in Great Britain. Erad­i­ca­tion of nat­ur­al small­pox trans­mis­sion made the prospect of rein­tro­duc­tion of the virus intol­er­a­ble. This risk was clear­ly demon­strat­ed in the Unit­ed King­dom, where from 1963–1978 only four cas­es of small­pox (with no deaths) occurred that were import­ed by trav­el­ers from areas where small­pox was endem­ic, while dur­ing this same peri­od at least 80 cas­es and three deaths result­ed from three sep­a­rate escapes from two dif­fer­ent accred­it­ed small­pox lab­o­ra­to­ries.

    The first rec­og­nized lab­o­ra­to­ry escape, in March 1972, occurred with the infec­tion of a lab­o­ra­to­ry assis­tant at the Lon­don School of Hygiene and Trop­i­cal Med­i­cine. She had observed the har­vest­ing of live small­pox virus from eggs used as a grow­ing medi­um; the process was per­formed on an uncon­tained lab table, as was then rou­tine. Hos­pi­tal­ized, but before she was placed in iso­la­tion, she infect­ed two vis­i­tors to a patient in an adja­cent bed, both of whom died. They in turn infect­ed a nurse, who sur­vived, as did the lab­o­ra­to­ry assis­tant.

    In August of 1978, a med­ical pho­tog­ra­ph­er at Birm­ing­ham Med­ical School devel­oped small­pox and died. She infect­ed her moth­er, who sur­vived. Her work­place was imme­di­ate­ly above the small­pox lab­o­ra­to­ry at Birm­ing­ham Med­ical School. Faulty ven­ti­la­tion and short­com­ings in tech­nique were ulti­mate­ly impli­cat­ed.

    Inves­ti­ga­tors then re-exam­ined a 1966 small­pox out­break, which was strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar. The ini­tial 1966 infec­tion was also a med­ical pho­tog­ra­ph­er who worked at the same Birm­ing­ham Med­ical School facil­i­ty. The ear­li­er out­break was caused by a low-vir­u­lence strain of small­pox (var­i­o­la minor), and it caused at least 72 sub­se­quent cas­es. There were no deaths. Lab­o­ra­to­ry logs revealed var­i­o­la minor had been manip­u­lat­ed in the small­pox lab­o­ra­to­ry at a time appro­pri­ate to cause the infec­tion in the pho­tog­ra­ph­er work­ing a floor above.

    Venezue­lan equine encephali­tis in 1995. Venezue­lan equine encephali­tis (VEE) is a viral dis­ease trans­mit­ted by mos­qui­toes. It inter­mit­tent­ly erupts in region­al or con­ti­nen­tal-scale out­breaks that involve equines (hors­es, don­keys, and mules) in the West­ern Hemi­sphere. There are often con­cur­rent zoonot­ic epi­demics among humans. VEE in humans caus­es a severe febrile ill­ness; it can occa­sion­al­ly be fatal or may leave per­ma­nent neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­abil­i­ty (epilep­sy, paral­y­sis, or men­tal retar­da­tion) in 4 to 14 per­cent of clin­i­cal cas­es, par­tic­u­lar­ly those involv­ing chil­dren.

    There were sig­nif­i­cant out­breaks of VEE every few years from the 1930s to the 1970s. Mod­ern analy­sis revealed most out­breaks were genet­ic match­es to the orig­i­nal 1938 VEE iso­la­tion used in inac­ti­vat­ed vet­eri­nary vac­cines. It was clear that many batch­es of the vet­eri­nary VEE vac­cines had not been com­plete­ly inac­ti­vat­ed, so resid­ual infec­tive virus remained.

    From 1938 to 1972, the VEE vac­cine caused most of the very out­breaks that it was called upon to pre­vent, a clear self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy.

    In 1995 a major VEE ani­mal and human out­break struck Venezuela and Colom­bia. There were at least 10,000 human VEE cas­es with 11 deaths in Venezuela and an esti­mat­ed 75,000 human cas­es in Colom­bia, with 3,000 neu­ro­log­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions and 300 deaths. VEE virus was iso­lat­ed from 10 still­born or mis­car­ried human fetus­es.

    Genom­ic analy­sis iden­ti­fied the 1995 virus as iden­ti­cal to a 1963 iso­late, with no indi­ca­tion it had been cir­cu­lat­ing for 28 years. It was anoth­er case of frozen evo­lu­tion, but unlike the vac­cine-relat­ed VEE out­breaks, the 1963 virus had nev­er been used in a vac­cine. Sus­pi­cion fell on an inad­ver­tent release from a virol­o­gy lab, either by an unrec­og­nized infec­tion of a lab work­er or vis­i­tor, or escape of an infect­ed lab­o­ra­to­ry ani­mal or mos­qui­to. The major sci­en­tif­ic group work­ing on VEE pub­lished a paper in 2001 stat­ing the 1995 out­break most like­ly was a lab­o­ra­to­ry escape, with con­sid­er­able cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence: The out­break strain was iso­lat­ed from an incom­plete­ly inac­ti­vat­ed anti­gen prepa­ra­tion used on the open bench in the VEE lab­o­ra­to­ry locat­ed at the out­break epi­cen­ter. But clear proof was lack­ing, and the group sub­se­quent­ly said it was recon­sid­er­ing this con­clu­sion.

    SARS out­breaks after the SARS epi­dem­ic. The 2003 Severe Acute Res­pi­ra­to­ry Syn­drome out­break spread to 29 coun­tries, caus­ing more than 8,000 infec­tions and at least 774 deaths. Because 21 per­cent of cas­es involved hos­pi­tal work­ers, it had the poten­tial to shut down health care ser­vices wher­ev­er it struck. It is par­tic­u­lar­ly dan­ger­ous to han­dle in the lab­o­ra­to­ry because there is no vac­cine, and it can be trans­mit­ted via aerosols.

    More­over, about five per­cent of SARS patients are “super-spread­ers” who infect eight or more sec­ondary cas­es. For instance, one patient spread SARS direct­ly to 33 oth­ers (reflect­ing an infec­tion rate of 45 per­cent) dur­ing a hos­pi­tal­iza­tion, ulti­mate­ly lead­ing to the infec­tion of 77 peo­ple, includ­ing three sec­ondary super-spread­ers. A super-spread­er could turn even a sin­gle lab­o­ra­to­ry infec­tion into a poten­tial pan­dem­ic.

    SARS has not re-emerged nat­u­ral­ly, but there have been six escapes from virol­o­gy labs: one each in Sin­ga­pore and Tai­wan, and four sep­a­rate escapes at the same lab­o­ra­to­ry in Bei­jing.

    The first was in Sin­ga­pore in August 2003, in a virol­o­gy grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Nation­al Uni­ver­si­ty of Sin­ga­pore. He had not worked direct­ly with SARS, but it was present in the lab­o­ra­to­ry where he worked. He recov­ered and pro­duced no sec­ondary cas­es. The World Health Orga­ni­za­tion formed an expert com­mit­tee to revise SARS biosafe­ty guide­lines.

    The sec­ond escape was in Tai­wan in Decem­ber 2003, when a SARS research sci­en­tist fell ill on a return flight after attend­ing a med­ical meet­ing in Sin­ga­pore. His 74 con­tacts in Sin­ga­pore were quar­an­tined, but again, for­tu­nate­ly, none devel­oped SARS. Inves­ti­ga­tion revealed the sci­en­tist had han­dled leak­ing bio­haz­ard waste with­out gloves, a mask, or a gown. Iron­i­cal­ly, the WHO expert com­mit­tee called for aug­ment­ed biosafe­ty in SARS lab­o­ra­to­ries the day after this case was report­ed.

    In April 2004, Chi­na report­ed a case of SARS in a nurse who had cared for a researcher at the Chi­nese Nation­al Insti­tute of Virol­o­gy (NIV). While ill, the researcher had trav­eled twice by train from Bei­jing to Anhui province, where she was nursed by her moth­er, a physi­cian, who fell ill and died. The nurse in turn infect­ed five third-gen­er­a­tion cas­es, caus­ing no deaths.

    Sub­se­quent inves­ti­ga­tion uncov­ered three unre­lat­ed lab­o­ra­to­ry infec­tions in dif­fer­ent researchers at the NIV. At least of two pri­ma­ry patients had nev­er worked with live SARS virus. Many short­com­ings in biose­cu­ri­ty were found at the NIV, and the spe­cif­ic cause of the out­break was traced to an inad­e­quate­ly inac­ti­vat­ed prepa­ra­tion of SARS virus that was used in gen­er­al (that is, not biose­cure) lab­o­ra­to­ry areas, includ­ing one where the pri­ma­ry cas­es worked. It had not been test­ed to con­firm its safe­ty after inac­ti­va­tion, as it should have been.

    Foot and mouth dis­ease in the UK in 2007. Foot and Mouth Dis­ease (FMD) infects cloven-hoofed ani­mals such as pigs, sheep, and cat­tle. It has been erad­i­cat­ed in North Amer­i­ca and most of Europe. It is high­ly trans­mis­si­ble, capa­ble of spread­ing through direct con­tact on the boots of farm work­ers and by nat­ur­al aerosol that can spread up to 250 kilo­me­ters. Out­breaks in FMD-free areas cause eco­nom­ic dis­as­ter because meat exports cease and ani­mals are mas­sive­ly culled. A 2001 UK out­break result­ed in 10 mil­lion ani­mals killed and $16 bil­lion in eco­nom­ic loss­es.

    In 2007, FMD appeared again in Britain, four kilo­me­ters from a biosafe­ty lev­el 4 laboratory—a des­ig­na­tion indi­cat­ing the high­est lev­el of lab security—located at Pir­bright. The strain had caused a 1967 out­break in the Unit­ed King­dom but was not then cir­cu­lat­ing in ani­mals any­where. It was, how­ev­er, used in vac­cine man­u­fac­ture at the Pir­bright facil­i­ty. Inves­ti­ga­tions con­clud­ed that con­struc­tion vehi­cles had car­ried mud con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed with FMD from a defec­tive waste­water line at Pir­bright to the first farm. That out­break iden­ti­fied 278 infect­ed ani­mals and required 1,578 ani­mals to be culled. It dis­rupt­ed UK agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion and exports and cost an esti­mat­ed 200 mil­lion pounds.

    Fed­er­al law bans FMD virus from the con­ti­nen­tal Unit­ed States, and it is held only at the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture Plum Island facil­i­ty off Long Island. Cur­rent­ly, how­ev­er, its replace­ment, the Nation­al Bio and Agro-Defense Facil­i­ty, is under con­struc­tion in Man­hat­tan, Kansas, under the aegis of the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty. Mov­ing FMD research to the agri­cul­tur­al heart­land of the Unit­ed States was opposed by many groups, includ­ing the Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­i­ty Office, but Home­land Secu­ri­ty decid­ed on the Kansas loca­tion. In upgrad­ing facil­i­ties to counter the threat of agro-bioter­ror­ism, the depart­ment is increas­ing the risk to US agri­cul­ture of unin­ten­tion­al release.

    Dan­ger­ous themes. These nar­ra­tives of escaped pathogens have com­mon themes. There are unrec­og­nized tech­ni­cal flaws in stan­dard bio­con­tain­ment, as demon­strat­ed in the UK small­pox and FMD cas­es. Inad­e­quate­ly inac­ti­vat­ed prepa­ra­tions of dan­ger­ous pathogens are han­dled in lab­o­ra­to­ry areas with reduced biose­cu­ri­ty lev­els, as demon­strat­ed in the SARS and VEE escapes. The first infec­tion, or index case, hap­pens in a per­son not work­ing direct­ly with the pathogen that infects him or her, as in the small­pox and SARS escapes. Poor train­ing of per­son­nel and slack over­sight of lab­o­ra­to­ry pro­ce­dures negate pol­i­cy efforts by nation­al and inter­na­tion­al bod­ies to achieve biose­cu­ri­ty, as shown in the SARS and small­pox escapes.

    It is hard­ly reas­sur­ing that, despite step­wise tech­ni­cal improve­ments in con­tain­ment facil­i­ties and increased pol­i­cy demands for rig­or­ous biose­cu­ri­ty pro­ce­dures in the han­dling of dan­ger­ous pathogens, poten­tial­ly high con­se­quence breach­es of bio­con­tain­ment occur near­ly dai­ly: In 2010, 244 unin­tend­ed releas­es of bioweapon can­di­date “select agents” were report­ed.

    Look­ing at the prob­lem prag­mat­i­cal­ly, the ques­tion is not if such escapes will result in a major civil­ian out­break, but rather what the pathogen will be and how such an escape may be con­tained, if indeed it can be con­tained at all.

    Exper­i­ments that aug­ment vir­u­lence and trans­mis­si­bil­i­ty of dan­ger­ous pathogens have been fund­ed and per­formed, notably with the H5N1 avian influen­za virus. The advis­abil­i­ty of per­form­ing such exper­i­ments at all—particularly in lab­o­ra­to­ries placed at uni­ver­si­ties in heav­i­ly pop­u­lat­ed urban areas, where poten­tial­ly exposed lab­o­ra­to­ry per­son­nel are in dai­ly con­tact with a mul­ti­tude of sus­cep­ti­ble and unaware citizens—is clear­ly in ques­tion.

    If such manip­u­la­tions should be allowed at all, it would seem pru­dent to con­duct them in iso­lat­ed lab­o­ra­to­ries where per­son­nel are sequestered from the gen­er­al pub­lic and must under­go a peri­od of exit quar­an­tine before re-enter­ing civil­ian life. The his­tor­i­cal record tells us it is not a mat­ter of if but when ignor­ing such mea­sures will cost health and even lives. Per­haps many lives.

    Edi­tor’s note: This essay sum­ma­rizes a more detailed review of the his­tor­i­cal record with appro­pri­ate sci­en­tif­ic ref­er­ences; it is avail­able on the web­site of the Cen­ter for Arms Con­trol and Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion. The author thanks Lynn Klotz and Ed Sylvester for help with con­dens­ing the longer report for this arti­cle.

    Posted by Vanfield | April 14, 2014, 9:24 am
  14. 2349 vials of SARS on the wall, if one of the vials hap­pens to fall...

    Vf

    http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/sars-research-lab-loses-2000-tubes-killer-virus-1444924
    Sars Research Lab Los­es 2,000 Tubes of Killer Virus

    Umber­to Bac­chi
    By Umber­to Bac­chi
    April 15, 2014 13:55 GMT
    4690 499 25

    France’s Research Insti­tute Lost 2,000 Tubes Sars Virus
    The Pas­teur Insti­tute in Paris report­ed it lost 2,349 tubes con­tain­ing Sars virus­Reuters

    A pres­ti­gious research insti­tute in France said it had lost thou­sands of tubes of sam­ples of the dead­ly Sars coro­n­avirus.

    A rou­tine inven­to­ry check at Paris’ Pas­teur Insti­tute revealed that 2,349 tubes con­tain­ing frag­ments of the virus respon­si­ble for the deaths of 774 peo­ple in 2002 were miss­ing, the cen­tre named after French chemist Louis Pas­teur said.

    The insti­tute was quick to reas­sure the pub­lic and said that the con­tents of the miss­ing vials had no infec­tious poten­tial. They con­tained only part of the virus and had no abil­i­ty to spread.

    “Inde­pen­dent experts referred by health author­i­ties have qual­i­fied such poten­tial as ‘non-exist­ing’ accord­ing to the avail­able evi­dence and lit­er­a­ture on the sur­vival of the Sars virus,” the insti­tute said.

    In 2002 more than 8,000 peo­ple were infect­ed by a pan­dem­ic of Sars — severe acute res­pi­ra­to­ry syn­drome. The virus spread from Chi­na through Hong Kong and on to oth­er coun­tries before it was even­tu­al­ly brought under con­trol.

    It is not clear how the tubes dis­ap­peared from one of the insti­tute’s safest lab­o­ra­to­ries. Man­age­ment were made aware of the loss in Jan­u­ary, Le Monde news­pa­per report­ed.

    For weeks, staff at the insti­tute tried to find the miss­ing vials, gen­er­al direc­tor Chris­t­ian Bré­chot said.

    “We’ve looked for those box­es [con­tain­ing the tubes] every­where,” Bré­chot explained.

    “We went thought the lists of all the peo­ple who have worked here in the past year and a half, includ­ing trainees. We have scru­ti­nised their pro­file to check if there was any con­flict.”

    Bré­chot said that foul play was “high­ly improb­a­ble” but had not been ruled out.

    The tubes were stored in a high-secu­ri­ty lab­o­ra­to­ry ded­i­cat­ed to research into high­ly infec­tive virus­es.

    Access to the lab is lim­it­ed to a restrict­ed num­ber of per­son­nel, who have to go through a dis­in­fec­tion process before they can leave.

    Bré­chot sug­gest­ed that the tubes, which were moved from one freez­er to anoth­er in March 2013, might have been destroyed by a mem­ber of staff who for­got to record the pro­ce­dure.

    Sars is an air­borne virus, which spreads in a sim­i­lar way to flu and the com­mon cold.

    The Agency for the Safe­ty of Health Prod­ucts has opened an inves­ti­ga­tion into the miss­ing tubes.

    Posted by Vanfield | April 20, 2014, 12:25 pm
  15. Here’s a reminder that nuclear weapons aren’t the only form of tech­nol­o­gy where a sin­gle ‘oops’ inci­dent (or inten­tion­al mali­cious inci­dent) can result in a mass cat­a­stro­phe: The State Research Cen­ter of Virol­o­gy in Siberia expe­ri­enced an explo­sion on Mon­day. The explo­sion report­ed­ly hap­pened when a gas bot­tle explod­ed, spark­ing a 30-square-meter fire that severe­ly burned one work­er and destroyed glass through­out the build. Oh, and this lab hap­pens to be one of the two labs in the world known to house the small­pox virus.

    There’s no indi­ca­tion any pathogens were released dur­ing the explo­sion, and the pro­ce­dures for stor­ing some­thing like small­pox are pre­sum­ably extreme­ly strict and designed to han­dle worst-case sce­nar­ios. But as the fol­low­ing arti­cle describes, the fact that extreme care is done when stor­ing and han­dling extreme­ly dan­ger­ous pathogens should not be seen as some sort of guar­an­tee that worst case sce­nar­ios aren’t going to hap­pen. Espe­cial­ly since acci­dents involv­ing pathogens are actu­al­ly quite com­mon and this isn’t the first time there’s been a small­pox release scare:

    Vox

    A Russ­ian lab con­tain­ing small­pox and Ebo­la explod­ed

    It almost cer­tain­ly won’t cause a pan­dem­ic, but the acci­dent is a reminder that dead­ly pathogens aren’t as secure as we’d like them to be.

    By Kelsey Piper
    Sep 18, 2019, 1:20pm EDT

    Russia’s State Research Cen­ter of Virol­o­gy, in the city of Koltso­vo in Siberia, has one of the largest col­lec­tions of dan­ger­ous virus­es any­where in the world. Dur­ing the Cold War, the lab devel­oped bio­log­i­cal weapons and defens­es against them, and it report­ed­ly stored dan­ger­ous strains of small­pox, anthrax, and Ebo­la among oth­er virus­es.

    So lots of peo­ple were con­cerned when an explo­sion ripped through the facil­i­ty on Mon­day.

    Accord­ing to Russ­ian inde­pen­dent media, the lab­o­ra­to­ry was under­go­ing repairs when a gas bot­tle explod­ed, spark­ing a 30-square-meter fire that left one work­er severe­ly burned. Glass through­out the build­ing was report­ed­ly destroyed in the blast, and the fire report­ed­ly spread through the building’s ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem.

    The lab is one of only two in the world known to still have sam­ples of small­pox, which was erad­i­cat­ed from the wild in 1977. The oth­er is in the Unit­ed States.

    Experts say that under cer­tain cir­cum­stances, an explo­sion could lead to the release of dead­ly pathogens. “Part of the wave of the force of the explo­sion would car­ry it away from the site when it was first stored,” Joseph Kam, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Stan­ley Ho Cen­tre for Emerg­ing Infec­tious Dis­eases at the Chi­nese Uni­ver­si­ty of Hong Kong, told CNN.

    That said, stor­age pro­ce­dures for dead­ly pathogens like small­pox are extreme­ly strict. The city’s may­or has stat­ed that there is no threat to the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, and a spokesper­son for the cen­ter has said that no haz­ardous pathogens were stored in the room where the blast occurred. (Of course, Russ­ian pub­lic reports on safe­ty inci­dents are not always accu­rate.)

    Will dan­ger­ous dis­eases escape the lab and infect the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion? Almost cer­tain­ly not; the vast major­i­ty of lab acci­dents, even seri­ous lab acci­dents, don’t sick­en any­one, and none yet has sparked a pan­dem­ic in humans.

    But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t give us pause. Out­right explo­sions are rel­a­tive­ly rare, but dis­as­trous acci­dents that release dan­ger­ous pathogens are actu­al­ly shock­ing­ly com­mon — and not just in Rus­sia, but in the Unit­ed States and Europe as well. From acci­den­tal small­pox and anthrax expo­sures to mis­tak­en trans­mis­sion of dead­ly flu strains, slip-ups with some of the world’s most dan­ger­ous sub­stances occur hun­dreds of times every year.

    What should we do about that? The answer cer­tain­ly isn’t that we should cut back on virol­o­gy and pathogen research — research that has saved count­less lives. It’s by study­ing the Ebo­la virus, for exam­ple, that researchers were able to devel­op the cur­rent cock­tail of Ebo­la treat­ments that may reduce it from a death sen­tence to a mild, treat­able ill­ness.

    But our track record of dis­as­ters such as what just hap­pened in Rus­sia sug­gests that cer­tain kinds of research — into mak­ing pathogens dead­lier, say — might not be worth its risks. As long as virus­es keep escap­ing the lab — in freak acci­dents, fires, explo­sions, equip­ment mal­func­tions, and human mis­takes — we run a risk of cat­a­stro­phe. And we could reduce that risk with­out sig­nif­i­cant­ly imped­ing crit­i­cal sci­ence.

    Dead­ly acci­dents

    In 1977, the last case of small­pox was diag­nosed in the wild. That moment came at the end of a decades-long cam­paign to erad­i­cate small­pox — a dead­ly infec­tious dis­ease that killed about 30 per­cent of those who con­tract­ed it — from the face of the earth. Around 500 mil­lion peo­ple died of small­pox in the cen­tu­ry before it was anni­hi­lat­ed.

    But in 1978, the dis­ease cropped back up — in Birm­ing­ham, in the Unit­ed King­dom. Janet Park­er was a pho­tog­ra­ph­er at Birm­ing­ham Med­ical School. When she devel­oped a hor­ri­fy­ing rash, doc­tors ini­tial­ly brushed it off as chick­en pox. But Park­er got worse and was admit­ted to the hos­pi­tal, where test­ing deter­mined that she had small­pox. She died of it a few weeks lat­er.

    How did she get a dis­ease that was sup­posed to have been erad­i­cat­ed?

    It turned out that the build­ing that Park­er worked in also con­tained a research lab­o­ra­to­ry, one of a hand­ful where small­pox was stud­ied by sci­en­tists who were try­ing to con­tribute to the erad­i­ca­tion effort. Some­how, small­pox escaped the lab to infect an employ­ee else­where in the build­ing. Through sheer luck and a rapid response from health author­i­ties, includ­ing a quar­an­tine of more than 300 peo­ple, the dead­ly error didn’t turn into an out­right pan­dem­ic.

    Could some­thing like that hap­pen today?

    All over the world, bio research labs han­dle dead­ly pathogens, some with the poten­tial to cause a pan­dem­ic. Some­times, researchers make pathogens even dead­lier in the course of their research (as Sci­ence Mag­a­zine report­ed this spring, the US gov­ern­ment recent­ly approved two such exper­i­ments after years of keep­ing them on hold).

    In 2004, the same Russ­ian virol­o­gy lab that just suf­fered an explo­sion was the site of anoth­er inci­dent: a sci­en­tist died after acci­den­tal­ly infect­ing her­self with Ebo­la. Sev­er­al weeks passed before Rus­sia acknowl­edged the event had occurred.

    Research into virus­es can help us devel­op cures and under­stand dis­ease pro­gres­sion. We can’t do with­out this research. And there are lots of safe­ty pre­cau­tions in place to ensure that the research doesn’t endan­ger the pub­lic. But as a long series of inci­dents show, stretch­ing from 1978 all the way to Monday’s explo­sion in Rus­sia, con­tain­ment has some­times gone dan­ger­ous­ly wrong.

    How pathogens can find their way out of the lab

    The US gov­ern­ment con­trols research into “select agents and tox­ins” that pose a seri­ous threat to human health, from bubon­ic plague to anthrax. There are 66 select agents and tox­ins reg­u­lat­ed under the pro­gram and near­ly 300 labs approved to work with them.

    ...

    So this research can be real­ly impor­tant, and a crit­i­cal part of pub­lic health efforts. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the facil­i­ties that do such work can also be plagued by a seri­ous prob­lem: human error.

    The 1978 small­pox death was, most analy­ses found, caused by care­less­ness — poor lab safe­ty pro­ce­dures and bad­ly designed ven­ti­la­tion. Most peo­ple would like to think that we’re not so care­less today. But scary acci­dents — caused by human error, soft­ware fail­ures, main­te­nance prob­lems, and com­bi­na­tions of all of the above — are hard­ly a thing of the past, as the inci­dent in Rus­sia shows.

    In 2014, as the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA) did cleanup for a planned move to a new office, hun­dreds of unclaimed vials of virus sam­ples were found in a card­board box in the cor­ner of a cold stor­age room. Six of them, it turned out, were vials of small­pox. No one had been keep­ing track of them; no one knew they were there. They may have been there since the 1960s.

    Pan­icked sci­en­tists put the mate­ri­als in a box, sealed it with clear pack­ag­ing tape, and car­ried it to a supervisor’s office. (This is not approved han­dling of dan­ger­ous bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als.) It was lat­er found that the integri­ty of one vial was com­pro­mised — luck­i­ly, not one con­tain­ing a dead­ly virus.

    The 1978 and 2014 inci­dents, like the dis­as­ter in Rus­sia, grabbed atten­tion because they involved small­pox, but inci­dents of unin­tend­ed expo­sure to con­trolled bio­log­i­cal agents are actu­al­ly quite com­mon. Hun­dreds of inci­dents occur every year, though not all involve poten­tial­ly pan­dem­ic pathogens.

    In 2014, a researcher acci­den­tal­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed a vial of a fair­ly harm­less bird flu with a far dead­lier strain. The dead­lier bird flu was then shipped across the coun­try to a lab that didn’t have autho­riza­tion to han­dle such a dan­ger­ous virus, where it was used for research on chick­ens.

    The mis­take was dis­cov­ered only when the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC) con­duct­ed an exten­sive inves­ti­ga­tion in the after­math of a dif­fer­ent mis­take — the poten­tial expo­sure of 75 fed­er­al employ­ees to live anthrax, after a lab that was sup­posed to inac­ti­vate the anthrax sam­ples acci­den­tal­ly pre­pared acti­vat­ed ones.

    The CDC’s Select Agents and Tox­ins pro­gram requires that “theft, loss, release caus­ing an occu­pa­tion­al expo­sure, or release out­side of pri­ma­ry bio­con­tain­ment bar­ri­ers” of agents on its watch­list be imme­di­ate­ly report­ed. Between 2005 and 2012, the agency got 1,059 release reports — an aver­age of an inci­dent every few days.

    Now, the vast major­i­ty of these mis­takes nev­er infect any­one. And while 1,059 is an eye-pop­ping num­ber of acci­dents, it actu­al­ly reflects a fair­ly low rate of acci­dents — work­ing in a con­trolled bio­log­i­cal agents lab is safe com­pared to many occu­pa­tions, like truck­ing or fish­ing.

    But a truck­ing or fish­ing acci­dent will, at worst, kill a few dozen peo­ple, while a pan­dem­ic pathogen acci­dent could poten­tial­ly kill a few mil­lion. Con­sid­er­ing the stakes and worst-case sce­nar­ios involved, it’s hard to look at those num­bers and con­clude that our pre­cau­tions against dis­as­ter are suf­fi­cient.

    The chal­lenges of safe han­dling of pathogens

    Why is run­ning labs with­out such errors so hard?

    A look at the CDC’s records of Select Agent con­tain­ment fail­ures helps answer that ques­tion. Errors come from many direc­tions. With wor­ry­ing fre­quen­cy, peo­ple han­dle live virus­es think­ing they’ve been giv­en deac­ti­vat­ed ones.

    Tech­nol­o­gy that’s a crit­i­cal part of the con­tain­ment process can fail unex­pect­ed­ly. It’s not that there’s a sin­gle “prob­lem” piece of tech­nol­o­gy — it’s that there are so many that are a part of the con­tain­ment process, and all of them have some small risk of fail­ing.

    These prob­lems don’t just occur in the US. In the Unit­ed King­dom, a recent inves­ti­ga­tion found:

    more than 40 mishaps at spe­cial­ist lab­o­ra­to­ries between June 2015 and July 2017, amount­ing to one every two to three weeks. Beyond the breach­es that spread infec­tions were blun­ders that led to dengue virus — which kills 20,000 peo­ple world­wide each year — being post­ed by mis­take; staff han­dling poten­tial­ly lethal bac­te­ria and fun­gi with inad­e­quate pro­tec­tion; and one occa­sion where stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the West of Eng­land unwit­ting­ly stud­ied live menin­gi­tis-caus­ing germs which they thought had been killed by heat treat­ment.

    Severe acute res­pi­ra­to­ry syn­drome, or SARS, had an out­break in 2003. Since then it hasn’t reoc­curred in the wild, but there have been six sep­a­rate inci­dents of it escap­ing the lab: one in Sin­ga­pore, one in Tai­wan, and four times at one lab in Bei­jing.

    “These nar­ra­tives of escaped pathogens have com­mon themes,” argued an analy­sis of con­tain­ment fail­ures by med­ical his­to­ri­an Mar­tin Fur­man­s­ki in the Bul­letin of the Atom­ic Sci­en­tists. “There are unrec­og­nized tech­ni­cal flaws in stan­dard bio­con­tain­ment, as demon­strat­ed in the UK small­pox [case]. ... The first infec­tion, or index case, hap­pens in a per­son not work­ing direct­ly with the pathogen that infects him or her, as in the small­pox and SARS escapes. Poor train­ing of per­son­nel and slack over­sight of lab­o­ra­to­ry pro­ce­dures negate pol­i­cy efforts by nation­al and inter­na­tion­al bod­ies to achieve biose­cu­ri­ty, as shown in the SARS and small­pox escapes.”

    It’s easy to see why these prob­lems are hard to address. Adding more rules for those han­dling pathogens won’t help if the peo­ple who become infect­ed are usu­al­ly not the ones han­dling the pathogens. Adding more fed­er­al and inter­na­tion­al reg­u­la­tions won’t help if the reg­u­la­tions aren’t con­sis­tent­ly fol­lowed. And if there are still unrec­og­nized tech­ni­cal flaws in the stan­dards for con­tain­ment, how would we know until an inci­dent made those flaws appar­ent?

    This is a wor­ry that’s recent­ly back in the news because the US gov­ern­ment has approved research aimed at mak­ing cer­tain dead­ly influen­za virus­es more vir­u­lent — that is, mak­ing it eas­i­er for them to spread from per­son to per­son. The researchers involved want to learn more about trans­mis­si­bil­i­ty and vir­u­lence, in order to bet­ter equip us to com­bat these dis­eases. The labs con­duct­ing such research have tak­en unusu­al steps to ensure their safe­ty and to reduce the risk of an out­break.

    But have they reduced it enough? “We imag­ine that when there’s an acci­dent, it’s because a ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem fails or some­one just for­gets to do some­thing, or that it’s sort of avoid­able mechan­i­cal or human error,” Marc Lip­sitch, a pro­fes­sor of epi­demi­ol­o­gy at Har­vard, told me.

    Yet many of the recent fail­ures don’t fit that pat­tern. “Rather, it was peo­ple doing some­thing that they thought was the right thing and was neu­tral­iz­ing a dan­ger­ous pathogen by killing it, and in fact they still had some dan­ger­ous pathogen or con­t­a­m­i­na­tion with a dan­ger­ous pathogen,” he said. “My con­cern is not real­ly that one of these peo­ple will do some­thing that’s fool­ish or reflects poor train­ing. My con­cern is that there’ll be human error of the kind that’s not real­ly avoid­able.”

    Lip­sitch does not think we should tight­en stan­dards for most research. He argues that our cur­rent approach, while its error rate will nev­er be zero, is a good bal­ance of sci­en­tif­ic and glob­al health con­cerns with safe­ty — that is, for most of the pathogens biol­o­gists research. But for the most dan­ger­ous pathogens, the ones with the poten­tial to spark a glob­al pan­dem­ic, he points out that that cal­cu­lus doesn’t hold.

    So far, too much biose­cu­ri­ty pol­i­cy has been reac­tive — tight­en­ing stan­dards after some­thing goes wrong. Giv­en how bad­ly things can go wrong, that’s not good enough. It’ll be excep­tion­al­ly chal­leng­ing to make our labs safer, but when it comes to the riski­est pathogens, we sim­ply have to be up to the chal­lenge.

    ———-

    “A Russ­ian lab con­tain­ing small­pox and Ebo­la explod­ed” by Kelsey Piper; Vox; 09/18/2019

    “Accord­ing to Russ­ian inde­pen­dent media, the lab­o­ra­to­ry was under­go­ing repairs when a gas bot­tle explod­ed, spark­ing a 30-square-meter fire that left one work­er severe­ly burned. Glass through­out the build­ing was report­ed­ly destroyed in the blast, and the fire report­ed­ly spread through the building’s ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem.”

    An explo­sion that man­aged to break glass through­out the build­ing. A build­ing hous­ing small­pox virus sam­ples. That sure sounds like a near-worst-case sce­nario. And this is just the lat­est instance of a near-small­pox release. There was the 1978 acci­dent, one year after small­pox in the UK that infect­ed and killed a work­er in a research build­ing. And then there was the 2014 inci­dent when the FDA found small­pox sam­ples in an unla­beled box that had been sit­ting in cold stor­age since the 1960s. One of the vials in the box that thank­ful­ly did­n’t con­tain small­pox was com­pro­mised:

    ...
    Will dan­ger­ous dis­eases escape the lab and infect the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion? Almost cer­tain­ly not; the vast major­i­ty of lab acci­dents, even seri­ous lab acci­dents, don’t sick­en any­one, and none yet has sparked a pan­dem­ic in humans.

    But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t give us pause. Out­right explo­sions are rel­a­tive­ly rare, but dis­as­trous acci­dents that release dan­ger­ous pathogens are actu­al­ly shock­ing­ly com­mon — and not just in Rus­sia, but in the Unit­ed States and Europe as well. From acci­den­tal small­pox and anthrax expo­sures to mis­tak­en trans­mis­sion of dead­ly flu strains, slip-ups with some of the world’s most dan­ger­ous sub­stances occur hun­dreds of times every year.

    What should we do about that? The answer cer­tain­ly isn’t that we should cut back on virol­o­gy and pathogen research — research that has saved count­less lives. It’s by study­ing the Ebo­la virus, for exam­ple, that researchers were able to devel­op the cur­rent cock­tail of Ebo­la treat­ments that may reduce it from a death sen­tence to a mild, treat­able ill­ness.

    But our track record of dis­as­ters such as what just hap­pened in Rus­sia sug­gests that cer­tain kinds of research — into mak­ing pathogens dead­lier, say — might not be worth its risks. As long as virus­es keep escap­ing the lab — in freak acci­dents, fires, explo­sions, equip­ment mal­func­tions, and human mis­takes — we run a risk of cat­a­stro­phe. And we could reduce that risk with­out sig­nif­i­cant­ly imped­ing crit­i­cal sci­ence.

    Dead­ly acci­dents

    In 1977, the last case of small­pox was diag­nosed in the wild. That moment came at the end of a decades-long cam­paign to erad­i­cate small­pox — a dead­ly infec­tious dis­ease that killed about 30 per­cent of those who con­tract­ed it — from the face of the earth. Around 500 mil­lion peo­ple died of small­pox in the cen­tu­ry before it was anni­hi­lat­ed.

    But in 1978, the dis­ease cropped back up — in Birm­ing­ham, in the Unit­ed King­dom. Janet Park­er was a pho­tog­ra­ph­er at Birm­ing­ham Med­ical School. When she devel­oped a hor­ri­fy­ing rash, doc­tors ini­tial­ly brushed it off as chick­en pox. But Park­er got worse and was admit­ted to the hos­pi­tal, where test­ing deter­mined that she had small­pox. She died of it a few weeks lat­er.

    How did she get a dis­ease that was sup­posed to have been erad­i­cat­ed?

    It turned out that the build­ing that Park­er worked in also con­tained a research lab­o­ra­to­ry, one of a hand­ful where small­pox was stud­ied by sci­en­tists who were try­ing to con­tribute to the erad­i­ca­tion effort. Some­how, small­pox escaped the lab to infect an employ­ee else­where in the build­ing. Through sheer luck and a rapid response from health author­i­ties, includ­ing a quar­an­tine of more than 300 peo­ple, the dead­ly error didn’t turn into an out­right pan­dem­ic.

    ...

    The 1978 small­pox death was, most analy­ses found, caused by care­less­ness — poor lab safe­ty pro­ce­dures and bad­ly designed ven­ti­la­tion. Most peo­ple would like to think that we’re not so care­less today. But scary acci­dents — caused by human error, soft­ware fail­ures, main­te­nance prob­lems, and com­bi­na­tions of all of the above — are hard­ly a thing of the past, as the inci­dent in Rus­sia shows.

    In 2014, as the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA) did cleanup for a planned move to a new office, hun­dreds of unclaimed vials of virus sam­ples were found in a card­board box in the cor­ner of a cold stor­age room. Six of them, it turned out, were vials of small­pox. No one had been keep­ing track of them; no one knew they were there. They may have been there since the 1960s.

    Pan­icked sci­en­tists put the mate­ri­als in a box, sealed it with clear pack­ag­ing tape, and car­ried it to a supervisor’s office. (This is not approved han­dling of dan­ger­ous bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als.) It was lat­er found that the integri­ty of one vial was com­pro­mised — luck­i­ly, not one con­tain­ing a dead­ly virus.
    ...

    But there’s anoth­er part of this sto­ry that makes it so dis­turb­ing: while small­pox is one of the dead­liest virus­es known to man, man is also work­ing on mak­ing dead­ly virus­es even dead­lier. Specif­i­cal­ly, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion gave the green light for research that was halt­ed in 2014 that involved mutat­ing the H5N1 bird flu virus and mak­ing it eas­i­er to infect humans. That research is now free to pro­ceed. Now, as the arti­cle points out, we should­n’t act like there is no val­ue in this kind of research. There’s poten­tial­ly immense val­ue. It’s the kind of research that allows us bet­ter under­stand how these kinds of virus­es func­tion and antic­i­pate what might erupt in nature. But that poten­tial­ly immense val­ue has to be paired with the poten­tial immense dam­age that could be cre­at­ed by the release of these ‘enhanced’ man-made virus­es. It’s a per­ilous cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis. For exam­ple, SARS, anoth­er extreme­ly dead­ly form of bird flu, has­n’t been found in the wild since 2003. But it has escaped from labs 6 times since then. So while the research on SARS tak­ing place in these labs was prob­a­bly poten­tial­ly quite use­ful, we can’t ignore the poten­tial cost of the release of SARS — or worse, a mod­i­fied form of super-SARS — which would prob­a­bly vast­ly out­weigh any ben­e­fits from that research. That’s the gam­ble inher­ent in this area of research:

    ...
    Could some­thing like that hap­pen today?

    All over the world, bio research labs han­dle dead­ly pathogens, some with the poten­tial to cause a pan­dem­ic. Some­times, researchers make pathogens even dead­lier in the course of their research (as Sci­ence Mag­a­zine report­ed this spring, the US gov­ern­ment recent­ly approved two such exper­i­ments after years of keep­ing them on hold).

    ...

    Research into virus­es can help us devel­op cures and under­stand dis­ease pro­gres­sion. We can’t do with­out this research. And there are lots of safe­ty pre­cau­tions in place to ensure that the research doesn’t endan­ger the pub­lic. But as a long series of inci­dents show, stretch­ing from 1978 all the way to Monday’s explo­sion in Rus­sia, con­tain­ment has some­times gone dan­ger­ous­ly wrong.

    ...

    In 2014, a researcher acci­den­tal­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed a vial of a fair­ly harm­less bird flu with a far dead­lier strain. The dead­lier bird flu was then shipped across the coun­try to a lab that didn’t have autho­riza­tion to han­dle such a dan­ger­ous virus, where it was used for research on chick­ens.

    The mis­take was dis­cov­ered only when the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC) con­duct­ed an exten­sive inves­ti­ga­tion in the after­math of a dif­fer­ent mis­take — the poten­tial expo­sure of 75 fed­er­al employ­ees to live anthrax, after a lab that was sup­posed to inac­ti­vate the anthrax sam­ples acci­den­tal­ly pre­pared acti­vat­ed ones.

    The CDC’s Select Agents and Tox­ins pro­gram requires that “theft, loss, release caus­ing an occu­pa­tion­al expo­sure, or release out­side of pri­ma­ry bio­con­tain­ment bar­ri­ers” of agents on its watch­list be imme­di­ate­ly report­ed. Between 2005 and 2012, the agency got 1,059 release reports — an aver­age of an inci­dent every few days.

    ...

    Severe acute res­pi­ra­to­ry syn­drome, or SARS, had an out­break in 2003. Since then it hasn’t reoc­curred in the wild, but there have been six sep­a­rate inci­dents of it escap­ing the lab: one in Sin­ga­pore, one in Tai­wan, and four times at one lab in Bei­jing.
    ...

    Addi­tion­al­ly, we have to acknowl­edge that, while ‘human error’, tech­ni­cal fail­ures, or oth­er acci­dents are the kinds of risks that can poten­tial­ly be min­i­mized through extreme­ly rig­or­ous train­ing and pro­to­cols, there’s anoth­er form of risk that can’t real­ly be con­trolled for at all: being sim­ply mis­tak­en about what the ‘right thing’ is to do when work­ing with these dan­ger­ous mate­ri­als. In oth­er words, do the ‘right thing’ per­fect­ly but still be dan­ger­ous­ly wrong. We can’t con­trol for this:

    ...
    But have they reduced it enough? “We imag­ine that when there’s an acci­dent, it’s because a ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem fails or some­one just for­gets to do some­thing, or that it’s sort of avoid­able mechan­i­cal or human error,” Marc Lip­sitch, a pro­fes­sor of epi­demi­ol­o­gy at Har­vard, told me.

    Yet many of the recent fail­ures don’t fit that pat­tern. “Rather, it was peo­ple doing some­thing that they thought was the right thing and was neu­tral­iz­ing a dan­ger­ous pathogen by killing it, and in fact they still had some dan­ger­ous pathogen or con­t­a­m­i­na­tion with a dan­ger­ous pathogen,” he said. “My con­cern is not real­ly that one of these peo­ple will do some­thing that’s fool­ish or reflects poor train­ing. My con­cern is that there’ll be human error of the kind that’s not real­ly avoid­able.”

    Lip­sitch does not think we should tight­en stan­dards for most research. He argues that our cur­rent approach, while its error rate will nev­er be zero, is a good bal­ance of sci­en­tif­ic and glob­al health con­cerns with safe­ty — that is, for most of the pathogens biol­o­gists research. But for the most dan­ger­ous pathogens, the ones with the poten­tial to spark a glob­al pan­dem­ic, he points out that that cal­cu­lus doesn’t hold.
    ...

    So while the near-cat­a­stroph­ic inci­dent in Siberia is a reminder of the ongo­ing risk that these old super virus­es like small­pox that were thought to be van­quished could reemerged more eas­i­ly than we might sus­pect, we also have to keep in mind that our strat­e­gy for pro­tect­ing against the out­break of new super virus­es involves the cre­ation of new super virus­es. Is that ben­e­fit of pro­tect­ing against future super virus­es by pre­emp­tive­ly cre­at­ing them worth the risk of those super virus­es escap­ing? Thats’ the kind of hor­ri­ble cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis soci­ety can’t avoid and the answers aren’t obvi­ous.

    We also can’t for­get that some of the peo­ple with access to these high­ly dan­ger­ous mate­r­i­al might actu­al­ly be neo-Nazis are are ok with their release and the death of mil­lions or bil­lions. So when think­ing about things we can do to min­i­mize the risk of release of these super virus­es, the need to min­i­mize Nazis and oth­er apoc­a­lyp­tic extrem­ists with a track record of rev­el­ing in mass death and destruc­tion should be fac­tored into that risk analy­sis.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | September 18, 2019, 3:07 pm
  16. @Pterrafractyl–

    A fire aboard a Russ­ian nuclear sub­ma­rine, the explo­sion of a nuclear com­po­nent of one of their weapons sys­tems and this “mishap” make me won­der if the cyber-weapons that Oba­ma placed on Russ­ian com­put­er sys­tems may have some­thing to do with this.

    I also won­der if the pres­ence in Rus­sia of CIA offi­cer Edward Snow­den may be relat­ed to this dynam­ic.

    Food for thought.

    Best,

    Dave

    Posted by Dave Emory | September 18, 2019, 4:17 pm

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