Monday, December 5, 2011

H5N1 transmission experiment stirs concern - A national biosecurity board that monitors "dual use" research is apparently worried about an as-yet-published study in which a mutant form of H5N1 avian influenza virus was found to be easily transmissible in ferrets, which are considered good models for flu in humans. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is scrutinizing the research. The board provides guidance on biological research that has a legitimate purpose but could be misused to endanger public health. "We have now been directed by OBA staff that we can acknowledge that a review process on the H5N1 transmissibility in mammals is under way. We are not allowed to provide additional details."
The H5N1 virus causes human illness relatively rarely, but it is often deadly when it does, with a CASE-FATALITY RATE OF ABOUT 60% among cases confirmed by the World Health Organization. Though the virus has circulated in poultry in many countries since 2003, it has not gained the ability to spread easily in humans. Scientists worry that if it did gain that ability, it COULD SPARK A FEARSOME PANDEMIC. With the goal of identifying genetic changes that could lead to greater person-to-person transmissibility, a number of researchers have introduced mutations in the virus and studied how the mutant strains behaved in animals. With as few as five single mutations, the virus could bind to nasal and tracheal cells.
But when tested in ferrets, this mutant virus still didn't spread very easily through close contact. The team then undertook to let the virus evolve naturally — A PROJECT DESCRIBED AS "REALLY, REALLY STUPID." They inoculated one ferret with the mutant virus, and after it got sick, they exposed a second ferret to infectious material from the first one. After they repeated this process 10 times, "H5N1 became as easily transmissible as seasonal flu." They concluded from this that H5N1 viruses "can become airborne" and do not need to reassort with other mammalian flu viruses to do so. Another expert said the individual mutations that were introduced have already occurred naturally in animals, but not together. Further details about the study have been hard to come by.
The study is the subject of a "fierce debate" among disease experts and is being reviewed by the NSABB. The experiment was criticized by some experts quoted in the NPR report. "IT'S JUST A BAD IDEA FOR SCIENTISTS TO TURN A LETHAL VIRUS INTO A LETHAL AND HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS VIRUS, and it's a second bad idea to publish how they did it so others can copy it." While biology has a culture of openness and relies on the full sharing of findings, occasional exceptions to this policy are warranted, and this study calls for an exception. It was not immediately clear just how the NSABB might influence whether and in what form the findings would be published.
Some other recent studies have tested the ability of mutant or reassortant strains of H5N1 to replicate and spread in animals, but the findings were less dramatic. For example, researchers at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis inserted the hemagglutinin gene from a 1997 Hong Kong strain of H5N1 virus into a pandemic 2009 H1N1 virus. When this hybrid was grown serially in human lung epithelial cells, it became more pathogenic in mice, "suggesting that these viruses may easily adapt to humans and become more virulent." The authors concluded that natural reassortment between circulating 2009 H1N1 and H5N1 viruses could lead to viruses with increased pathogenicity in mammals. The type of reassortant the scientists created could occur in nature.

**You gain strength, courage, and confidence
by every experience in which
you really stop to look fear in the face.
You are able to say to yourself, 'I lived through this horror.
I can take the next thing that comes along.' **
Eleanor Roosevelt

This morning -

Yesterday -
12/4/11 -

Earthquakes keep New Zealand shaking - New Zealand was hit by a series of earthquakes last night, a day after the BIGGEST QUAKE IN 45 YEARS to hit the Marlborough region. At 10.46pm the North Island was rocked by a 4.8 magnitude quake centred 150km east of Te Araroa at a depth of 33km. There was no tsunami threat from the quake. Shortly after 5pm a 4.9 quake west of Taupo was felt in Wellington and Hawke's Bay. Three weaker quakes were felt in the South Island within about three hours of each other. At 7.09 pm a 2.5 quake hit near Christchurch, followed by a 3.4 quake centred 10km northwest of Oxford at 8.15pm and a 3.3 magnitude quake centred 20km northeast of Cromwell at 9.33pm.
On Saturday Wellington and Picton residents were rattled by the biggest quake since the Seddon earthquake of 1966. The 5.7 magnitude earthquake was centred 30km east of Picton in the Marlborough Sounds at 7.19pm, at a depth of 60km. Wellington and Picton escaped major damage due to the depth of the quake. The quake was felt from New Plymouth to Christchurch. Many described hearing a loud "thunder-like" noise as the ground swayed, before the jolt hit, lasting about 20 seconds.


ECUADOR - There was no sign Sunday that eruptions at Ecuador's Tungurahua volcano would cease any time soon, geologists monitoring the activity said. Experts with the Geophysical Institute said that since dawn "powerful roars and explosions sounding like cannon blasts" coming from the volcano could be heard in the area, rattling windows and shaking the ground in nearby towns.Geologists also reported a columns "with a moderate to high load of ash" rising four kilometers (2.5 miles) above the crater. Ash was reported to have spread to a dozen nearby villages.
On Saturday, and again on Sunday, there were two eruptions in which the volcano spewed gas, ash and red-hot rock, with lava pouring some 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) below the crater. The volcano is located about 135 kilometers (84 miles) south of the capital Quito. The volcano has been active since 1999 but its thermal activity has steadily increased since November 27. The Geophysical Institute on Tuesday recommended people leave high-risk areas around the volcano. Several communities near Tungurahua, including the tourist town of Banos with 15,000 people, were forced to evacuate during the volcano's violent eruption in 1999. Residents could only return to their homes one year later.

INDONESIA - Mount Gamalama volcano has erupted in eastern Indonesia, forcing the closure of a nearby airport and blanketing villages with thick ash. No injuries have been reported.
Gamalama, in North Maluku province, spewed clouds of thick grey ash into the air late yesterday at 23:00 local time on Sunday (1400 GMT), releasing volcanic ashes. Slow moving red lava was also visible at its peak. There is no death or material loss due to the eruption. Gamalama's last major eruption was in 2003. No deaths were reported then. Indonesia has about 500 volcanoes. Of these, 128 are active and 65 are listed as dangerous.

TRINIDAD - Piparo mud volcano awakens after 14 years. Residents of Piparo are living on the edge as the mud volcano that ravaged the village 14 years ago, has begun to threaten their community again. Residents are subjected to sleepless nights as they are haunted with memories of February 22, 1997, when steaming mud crushed houses and swept away cars, livestock and all else in its path. When the Sunday Guardian visited the site off Old Piparo Road yesterday, two new mounds had surfaced, spewing mud several feet into the air at five minute intervals. A nearby resident came to see what was happening as he had been kept awake by strange sounds issuing from the volcano.
“It sounded like gunshots and this morning when I awoke it was still making noise. This is the same sound it made before it erupted in 1997. It is possible that we can have a repeat and maybe this time it could be worse.” He said it only took ten minutes on that fateful day for the massive amount of mud spewing from the volcano to wreak havoc." "We usually get a little noise now and then, especially when it rains because gas is trying to escape. But now the noise has been coming frequently like it have plenty gas down there.” The rain softens the mud which causes minor explosions. However, over the past few days the noise levels had increased significantly occurring at an alarming rate. Another resident recalled the drama that unfolded in 1997, saying that a wave of mud several feet high was crumbling any house in its path. Suratt said his home was saved as another house that crumbled was able to forge a barrier in front of his. He said on February 22, 1997, he awoke to mud spewing some 200 feet into the air.

In the Pacific -
-Tropical depression 25w, located approximately 235 nm east-northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The system is expected to dissipate as a significant tropical cyclone within the next 12 hours as it encounters the Vietnam coast.

-Tropical cyclone 01s was located approximately 525 nm west of the Cocos Islands. The system is expected to gradually intensify.

SRI LANKA - Lack of help killed fishermen in storm. Fishermen in the southern coast of Sri Lanka have accused the government of failing to take action to save their lives when a tropical storm hit several districts, last week. The storms have left 19 people dead and 43, mostly fishermen, missing. A fisherman in Mirissa who managed to swim through the tropical waves to safety said that many lives could have been saved if the authorities sent rescue helicopters. "Even the navy and the coastguard that arrived in the scene were afraid of the strong currents. Some fishermen had been swimming against the strong currents for 4-5 hours. If the navy or air force sent a helicopter, many lives could have been saved."
From 25 fishermen went missing from Mirissa after the storm, 14 bodies were already found. Eleven fishermen are still missing from the area. "We saw people were struggling in the sea but our boats were not strong enough for a rescue mission." Sri Lankas navy later said it had deployed three vessels searching at sea for missing people. The deaths and missing people from sudden gales and rainstorms have been mostly in the southern district of Matara. But the bad weather has hit central and western areas as well, and some were killed while trying to cross swollen rivers. About 5,000 homes have been damaged.


Global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by THE LARGEST AMOUNT ON RECORD last year, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery. Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003. The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.
The researchers said the high growth rate reflected a bounce-back from the 1.4 percent drop in emissions in 2009, the year the recession had its biggest impact. They do not expect the extraordinary growth to persist, but do expect emissions to return to something closer to the 3 percent yearly growth of the last decade, still a worrisome figure that signifies little progress in limiting greenhouse gases. The growth rate in the 1990s was closer to 1 percent yearly. The combustion of coal represented more than half of the growth in emissions.
In the United States, emissions dropped by a remarkable 7 percent in the recession year of 2009, but rose by just over 4 percent last year, the new analysis shows. This country is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, pumping 1.5 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere last year. The United States was surpassed several years ago by China, where emissions grew 10.4 percent in 2010, with that country injecting 2.2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
The new figures come as delegates from 191 countries meet in Durban, South Africa, for yet another negotiating session in a global control effort that has been going on, with minimal success, for the better part of two decades. “Each year that emissions go up, there’s another year of negotiations, another year of indecision. There’s no evidence that this trajectory we’ve been following the last 10 years is going to change.” Scientists say the rapid growth of emissions is warming the Earth, threatening the ecology and putting human welfare at long-term risk. But their increasingly urgent pleas that society find a way to limit emissions have met sharp political resistance in many countries, including the United States, because doing so would entail higher energy costs.
The new figures show a continuation of a trend in which developing countries, including China and India, have surpassed the wealthy countries in their overall greenhouse emissions. Emissions per person, though, are still sharply higher in the wealthy countries, and those countries have been emitting greenhouse gases far longer, so they account for the bulk of the excess gases in the atmosphere. The level of carbon dioxide, the main such gas, has increased 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution. On the surface, the figures of recent years suggest that wealthy countries have made headway in stabilizing their emissions. But in a sense, the rich countries have simply exported some of them. The fast rise in developing countries has been caused to a large extent by the growth of energy-intensive manufacturing industries that make goods that rich countries import. “All that has changed is the location in which the emissions are being produced."
Many countries, as part of their response to the economic crisis, invested billions in programs designed to make their energy systems greener. While it is possible those will pay long-term dividends, the new numbers suggest they have had little effect so far. The financial crisis “was an opportunity to move the global economy away from a high-emissions trajectory. Our results provide no indication of this happening.”


GROWING THREAT OF FLARES - Sunspot AR1363 is growing rapidly, almost tripling in size since Friday. The active region has a "beta-gamma-delta" magnetic field that harbors energy for X-class solar flares. Because of AR1363's location near the center of the solar disk, any such eruptions in the days ahead would be Earth-directed. (48-hour movie from NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory)


Rising antibiotic-resistance threat - New surveillance data in Europe show a steep rise in the percentage of carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumonia, a drug-resistant issue seen as a growing threat in the United States as well. Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase (KPC) is an enzyme that can make bacteria resistant to carbapenem and most other antibiotics. It was first found in K pneumoniae but has spread to other species of the Enterobacteriaceae family. NDM-1 is another resistance enzyme that has been recognized as a growing public health threat. Some US-based health experts have said that, of the two resistance enzymes, KPC is the bigger concern, having spread to Southern and Western locations after first appearing on the East Coast 6 years ago. However, they warn that NDM-1 bears watching as well.
EU member states are reporting that 15% to nearly 50% of K pneumonia from bloodstream infections are resistant to carbapenems, the major category of LAST-LINE antibiotics to treat multi-drug resistant Gram-negative bacterial infections, which are often linked to pneumonia and urinary tract infections in hospitals. The need to curb antibiotic resistance is critical. "Failure to act will mean that treatment options for patients with bloodstream infections, pneumonia, and urinary tract infections in hospitals will be severely limited." Up to 50% of all antibiotic use in hospitals is inappropriate. A risk assessment for CPE released in September follows an increasing number of healthcare facility outbreaks across the EU involving the highly drug-resistant pathogen. The report said transferring patients between hospitals, and especially between countries, boosts the risk of spreading CPE. 13 EU countries have reported 106 NDM-producing Enterobacteriaceae cases through the end of March, an increase of 77 since October 2010.
In other drug-resistance findings, some European countries are reporting a decrease in methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) cases, though one-fourth are reporting that 25% of invasive S aureus infections are MRSA. "This brings hope that national efforts on infection control and containment of resistance may in some cases slow down the development of resistance. Nevertheless, MRSA remains a public health priority, since significantly increasing trend of MRSA was observed in four countries (Italy, Hungary, Germany, and Slovenia)."