Public health

  • 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.

  • CDC says anthrax infection “highly unlikely,” but reassigns bioterror lab chief

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) has advised some of its employees to stop taking antibiotics meant to fight a possible anthrax infection after preliminary tests suggest that it is “highly unlikely” those employees were exposed to live anthrax following an incident in June. Michael Farrell, head of the CDC bioterror lab, has been reassigned.

  • John Tull, whose 2002 bubonic plague illness raised bioterrorism fears, dies

    In November 2002, John Tull, a New Mexico lawyer, was visiting New York when he was found to have bubonic plague. The discovery occurred a year after the fall 2001 anthrax attacks – which, at the time, were still unresolved – raising fears that Tull was a victim of bioterrorism. Those concerns were alleviated when it was determined that Tull’s case was linked to fleas in northern New Mexico, where Tull and his wife had a five-acre property outside Santa Fe. Tull, 65, died last week of cancer not related to the 2002 illness.

  • Foreign investment in agriculture increases productivity of subsistence farming

    The improved infrastructure brought about by foreign investment could increase the productivity of subsistence farmlands in countries such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and could mean these lands can feed at least 300 million people around the world. This is compared to about 190 million people that could be fed if the land was left tended to by the local population. The most targeted countries for land grabs are Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and the former Sudan. Altogether, these nations account for around 82 percent of the total food calories that can be produced by acquired croplands worldwide.

  • Congress debates BioShield funding while medical schools debate bioterrorism training

    Just as researchers urge medical schools across the United States to include bioterrorism preparedness courses in their curricula, Congress is debating whether to continue spending on Project Bioshield, an initiative launched in 2004 to incentivize otherwise unprofitable research on treatments for rare outbreaks or bioterror agents such as anthrax and botulinum toxin.

  • WIPP radiation leak investigation focuses on Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)

    The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) accident investigation team reviewing the leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico has turned its focus to the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Communications between LANL and EnergySolutions, the contractor which packaged LANL’s waste for shipment to WIPP, have revealed that EnergySolutions switched from using an inorganic clay-based absorbent in the storage drums to an organic wheat-based mixture. Scientists are now trying to determine whether the switch to the organic substance is to blame for the chemical reaction that led to the explosion.

  • Better tools for tracing food-borne illness to source

    Research could make it easier for public health investigators to determine if a case of food poisoning is an isolated incident or part of a larger outbreak. The study focuses on a test called multi-locus variable number tandem repeats variable analysis (MLVA). The test, which is increasingly used in the detection and investigation of foodborne outbreaks, analyzes specific sequences of DNA (called loci) that change rapidly enough over time to distinguish outbreak strains from other circulating strains of the bacteria but not so rapidly that connections could be masked by changes arising during the course of an outbreak.

  • Congress may modify the amount, manner by which Project BioShield procurements are funded

    In 2004, Congress passed the Project BioShield Act to provide the federal government with new authorities related to the development, procurement, and use of medical countermeasures against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism agents. Among other things, the authority allows the government to guarantee a market for CBRN medical countermeasures. Under this provision, the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) may obligate funds to purchase countermeasures that still need up to ten more years of development. Since 2004, HHS has obligated approximately $3.309 billion to guarantee a government market for countermeasures against anthrax, smallpox, botulism, radiation, and nerve agents. Another provision established a process through which the HHS secretary may temporarily allow the emergency use of countermeasures which lack Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The 113th Congress may also consider modifying the amount and manner by which it funds Project BioShield procurements.

  • Canadian dirt containing Kryptonite for superbugs

    A fungus living in the soils of Nova Scotia could offer new hope in the pressing battle against drug-resistant germs that kill tens of thousands of people every year, including one considered a serious global threat. A team of researchers has discovered a fungus-derived molecule, known as AMA, which is able to disarm one of the most dangerous antibiotic-resistance genes: NDM-1 or New Delhi Metallo-beta-Lactamase-1, identified by the World Health Organization as a global public health threat.