Public health

  • The number of labs handling deadly germs grows, and so do calls for regulating lab safety

    The number of labs handling dangerous pathogens continues to grow, and so does the number of accidents involving dangerous pathogens. The number of reported accidents involving dangerous microbes grew rapidly from just sixteen in 2004 to 128 in 2008, and 269 in 2010, the last year reported.Experts note that currently there is no single federal agency responsible for assessing overall laboratory needs — instead, departments and agencies only assess the needs for labs relative to their respective missions.

  • Chinese authorities seal off city after bubonic plague death last week

    Chinese authorities have sealed off the city of Yumen, in the north-western province of Gansu, and 151 people have been quarantined since last week after a man died of bubonic plague. The 30,000 residents of the city are not being allowed to leave, and police at roadblocks on the perimeter of the city are preventing people from going into the city, instructing motorists to find alternative routes.

  • Sewage treatment contributes to antibiotic resistance

    Wastewater treatment plants are unwittingly helping to spread antibiotic resistance, say scientists. Researchers found that processing human, farm, and industrial waste all together in one place makes it easier for bacteria to become resistant to a wide range of even the most clinically-effective antibiotics. This is because so many different types of bacteria come together in sewage plants that it gives them a perfect opportunity to swap genes that confer resistance, helping them live. This means antibiotic-resistant bacteria are evolving much faster than they would in isolation.

  • Researchers create safe, resistant material to store waste

    Storing industrial waste has never been a pretty job, and it is getting harder. New techniques for refining such metals as aluminum and vanadium, for example, also yield new byproducts that have to be sealed away from human and environmental contact. Also, the practice of “scrubbing” the exhaust of coal-fired power plants keeps chemicals like sulfur dioxide from entering the air, but produces a more concentrated residue. Now, many of these wastes are proving too acidic, basic or concentrated for commonly used storage materials.

  • How existing cropland could feed billions more

    Feeding a growing human population without increasing stresses on Earth’s strained land and water resources may seem like an impossible challenge. According to a new report, focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops, and actions could make it possible both to meet the basic needs of three billion more people and decrease agriculture’s environmental footprint. The report focuses on seventeen key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption on a global scale.

  • Concerns grow about CDC’s tracking, securing dangerous pathogens under its supervision

    Last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) officials reported that the same federal scientist who found vials of smallpox in a Food and Drug Administration(FDA) cold storage room at the National Institutes of Healthfacility in Bethesda, Maryland, also found a collection of 327 vials which could contain pathogens like dengue, influenza, and rickettsia. The new revelation adds to growing concerns about the government’s ability to track and secure dangerous pathogens under its supervision.”It is ironic that the institution that sets U.S. standards for safety and security of work with human pathogens fails to meet its own standards,” says a security expert. “It is clear that the CDC cannot be relied upon to police its own select-agent labs.”

  • Killing malaria parasites dead with anti-tank missile detection technology

    Malaria kills 1.2 million people every year. Existing tests look for the parasite in a blood sample. The parasites, however, can be difficult to detect in the early stages of infection. As a result the disease is often spotted only when the parasites have developed and multiplied in the body. Scientists say that state-of-the-art military hardware could soon fight malaria: they have used an anti-tank Javelin missile detector, more commonly used in warfare to detect the enemy, in a new test rapidly to identify malaria parasites in blood.

  • Head of biosecurity advisory panel: Board is stalling as a result of slow fed policy work

    The head of a federal biosecurity advisory committee says delays in the development of a national policy on institutional oversight of risky life-sciences research are the main reason the committee has been inactive for close to two years. The dormancy of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) was pushed into the spotlight this week with the revelation that the eleven remaining original members of the 23-member board are being replaced. The board was set up in 2005 to advise the government on biosecurity and dual-use research, meaning research that can be exploited for harm as well as good.

  • New assay spots fake malaria drugs, could save thousands of lives

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that about 200,000 lives a year may be lost due to the use of counterfeit anti-malarial drugs. Chemists have created a new type of chemical test, or assay, which is inexpensive, simple, and can tell whether or not one of the primary drugs being used to treat malaria is genuine — an enormous and deadly problem in the developing world.

  • Investigation finds serious violations of safety rules in CDC’s handling of deadly germs

    An investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service(APHIS) conducted a review, from 23 June to 3 July, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), and cited the agency for failing to follow proper procedures before and after the anthrax scare which led to the potential exposure of more than eighty lab workers to live anthrax viruses in June.APHIS found multiple violations of federal rules for handling dangerous microbes.

  • Following accidents, CDC shuts down anthrax, flu labs

    Federal officials announced on Friday that they had temporarily closed the flu and anthrax laboratories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and halted shipments of all infectious agents from the agency’s highest-security labs. The announcement followed revelations about two recent accidents involving deadly agents at the CDC campus in Atlanta. Critics said the accidents highlighted an even greater danger – the efforts at some labs to create superstrains of deadly viruses (what is called “gain of function” research). “You can have all the safety procedures in the world, but you can’t provide for human error,” a critic of gain-of-function research said.

  • NIH employees not notified of smallpox virus vials found at NIH Md. campus

    When Food and Drug Administration(FDA) workers the other day discovered decades-old vials of smallpox virus in Building 29A on the Bethesda, Maryland campus of the National Institutes of Health(NIH), NIH officials reached out to Montgomery County officials, Maryland health officials, and senior NIH executives.No notification, however, was sent to the roughly 18,000 NIH employees who work at the agency’s main campus.

  • Disagreement over use of experimental drugs in desperate effort to contain Ebola outbreak

    The efforts to contain the largest Ebola outbreak in history have so far failed. International response teams, desperate to limit the toll of the fast-spreading epidemic in three West African countries, have been calling for the use experimental drugs or vaccines to try to stop the deadly virus. Many experts, however, including the scientist who led the work on a Canadian-made Ebola vaccine, say that using untested medications in the current West African outbreak could be disastrous. Other scientists disagree. The World Health Organization reports that the current outbreak, which is the first in West Africa, has so far infected 844 people, causing the death of 518 of them. This is double the size of the next largest outbreak, in Uganda in 2000, and this outbreak has just begun.

  • Smallpox vials found unguarded at NIH campus in Bethesda, Md.

    Earlier this month workers clearing out a Food and Drug Administration(FDA) branch office at the National Institutes of Health(NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland, discovered vials containing smallpox, an eradicated agent feared for its bioweapons potential. The last smallpox samples in existence were thought to be held at tightly guarded facilities in Atlanta and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnologyin Novosibirsk, Russia. The vials appear to date from the 1950s.

  • Convergence of chemistry and biology raises concerns about designer toxins

    The convergence of chemistry and biology is providing major benefits to humankind, particularly in health care, alternative energy sources, and in environmental control – and when combined with other advances, particularly in nanotechnology, it is also being exploited in developing improved defensive countermeasures against chemical and biological warfare agents. This convergence, however, has also raised concerns that biotechnology could be applied to the production of new toxic chemicals, bioregulators, and toxins. A new report from OPCW says that the potential for scaling up biological processes for large scale production of chemicals of concern is still limited, but biomediated processes might still be effective for producing weaponizable quantities of toxins which are lethal to humans in microgram or lower dosage.