Thursday, October 23, 2014

Chikungunya, eh?

 by Joe
            What’s the buzz aboot in Canada? Well, not the mosquitos, but mosquito-borne Togavirus that causes rashes, aches and fatigue among other symptoms (including hemorrhaging in rare instances). Health Canada recently reported that more than 200 Canadians were infected, most likely while traveling. The Caribbean suffered an outbreak earlier this year in which almost 200,000 people became infected. Saint Martin, a Francophone Island, was one of the islands affected.

Luckily, Aedes mosquitos aren’t native to Canada, but this kind of incident makes one wonder what it takes for these mosquitos to get into the country, and for a virus to get established. All these mosquitos have to do is get into the country with some infected travelers, and technically they could infect other people. The CDC has an interactive map that shows the spread of Chikungunya in the Western Hemisphere since last December.

The mosquitos (or at least their eggs) have to survive winters, which is a formidable task in Canada.
How can we prevent this? Should we fumigate all planes and cargo like airlines going to Hawaii and the Gal├ípagos do? Airlines are all worried about Ebola, but they don’t seem to be too concerned about Chikungunya.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Giant Virus Discovered in Permafrost

Scientists have revived a giant virus that was buried in Siberian ice for 30,000 years. Surprisingly, the virus is still infectious, although its targets are amoebae. Named Pithovirus sibericum, this newly thawed virus is the largest viral particle ever found, at 1.5 micrometers longs, rivaling small bacterium.

Evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel lead efforts in studying this giant virus. Under a microscope, Pithovrius appears as a thick-walled oval with an opening at one end. It has a “cork” with a honeycomb structure capping its opening. It copies itself by building replication factories in its host’s cytoplasm rather than by taking over the nucleus. Interestingly, only one-third of its proteins are similar to those of other known viruses. Additionally, its genome is surprisingly small for its size.

The discovery of the virus brings up an interesting concern, however, regarding the effects of global warming on virology. Claverie and Abergel are concerned that rising global temperatures, along with mining and drilling operations in the Arctic, could thaw out many more ancient viruses that are still infectious and that could potentially pose as a threat to human health.

-Niraj Punjya

$6.6 Million Awarded to Study Lassa Fever Virus

Given our recent discussion of Lassa Fever Virus, I decided to focus this week’s blog post on a $6.6 million NIH grant to the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego to study Lassa fever virus.   Lassa fever virus is a hemorrhagic fever virus that is spread by rodents and people.  It kills 30,000 to 40,000 people in Africa each year, or 10-15% of those infected, making it more deadly than Ebola in terms of number of deaths.  Furthermore, it is the most common hemorrhagic fever virus in the region. 
The grants’ principal investigator is Michael Oldstone – a name we’ve heard in class quite a few times in reference to lymphocytic choriomeningitic (LCMV).  Interestingly enough, LCMV and Lassa fever virus are structurally similar, so our knowledge on LCMV can contribute to a deeper understanding of Lassa fever virus – a virus that is considered more dangerous than LCMV.

 The research will take place in La Jolla and Sierra Leone, and the grant will allow researchers to study immune responses in Lassa fever patients and compare responses in those who survive and those who die.  Another area of interest for this group of researchers concerns the LARGE gene, which encodes for a protein necessary for viral infection.   Such research can help us discover potential drugs and vaccines, as well as shed light on to what extent immune response actually contributes to death.

--Andrew Duong

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gain of Function or Loss of Funding?

Hey everyone!

I was just looking through some news articles today and came across this one talking about the White House's decision to stop funding research that involves "gain-of-function" viruses, specifically the influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses. 

For reference, gain-of-function viruses are those that feature increased pathogenicity or transmissibility; these viruses are particularly useful for experimentation regarding disease pathogenesis and understanding the specific pathways of disease. Specifically, studies that propose protocols that would increase viral pathogenicity will not be funded. Naturally found viral experiments involving influenza, MERS, and SARS are not subject to these constraints. 

This isn't the first time that research related to gain-of-function viruses has been under fire; in 2011, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked Nature and Science to not public studies about mutated strains of the bird flu virus because this information could be used inappropriately for bioterrorism. 

I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts about whether this is an appropriate step to take at this point! How can those researchers who are working hard to understand the effects of increased viral pathogenicity take precautions to avoid mistakes and severe consequences? Where is the line between conducting important research and developing potentially dangerous pathogens, and how can this be effectively be regulated by the US government and other research and funding entities? Do scientists have the power to create mutant viruses with such harmful negative impact in order to "predict" future strains and how to combat them? There are a ton of associated ethical questions, and I'm looking forward to our discussion in class about it!

Happy Monday!


You can see the news brief here from the White House:

Other sources:

Screening for Ebola at Airports - Effectiveness?

As many of us are starting to make travel plans back to our hometowns for Thanksgiving, one thing that may be on our minds is how safe is it to travel on airplane these days. With Ebola still making many media headlines, the thought of potential infection is still a scary one that many of us have. Airplanes are particularly a source of concern, with recycled air and oftentimes lack of thorough sanitation.

Professor James Barbaree of Auburn University has long studied bacteria on airplanes. From what he has discovered, when improperly cleaned, many of the airplane surfaces, such as chairs, tray tables, toilets, etc, can all harbor bacteria pathogens for sometimes more than a week. When it comes to Ebola though, the CDC has said that at least on surfaces, Ebola is only able to survive for a few hours. However, if the virus is in some sort of bodily fluid, the virus survival time is extended to several days.

The CDC also claims that Ebola can only transmitted to another person if the infected person is exhibiting symptoms, such as fever. The viral titer in a patient drastically increases as the patient becomes more and more ill, and experiences more symptoms, making their bodily fluids that much more infectious. The spread of Ebola only happens through direct contact with bodily fluids containing the virus. By properly disinfecting with hospital grade disinfectants, such as bleach, it is possible to inactivate Ebola virus.

Given all this information, the CDC supports that the chances of being infected by an Ebola carrier who has no symptoms is low. Given this information, should we be screening people who board planes for fever and other symptoms? Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, believes it is worth our time to continue screening. While screening patients for Ebola might not help curb the spread of the virus to other countries, as intended, if the patient doesn't develops symptoms after they exit the plane, perhaps what the screen can be useful for is preventing the spread of disease to people on the airplane itself. At least if nothing else, screening people may reduce any panic people may have about contracting Ebola while traveling home for Thanksgiving!

-Anna Duan

Nigeria Ebola Virus Free

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now officially declared Nigeria free of Ebola virus transmission.  The first Ebola case in Nigeria was reported on July 23rd in Lagos.  The greater community was alarmed because Nigeria has the population size of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone combined.  Furthermore the unsanitary and crowded conditions of this country and of Lagos in particular provides an optimal environment for Ebola virus transmission.  The US consul in Nigeria Jeffery Hawkins, said " The last thing anyone in the world wants to hear is the 2 words, 'Ebola' and 'Lagos' in the same sentence."  Despite these facts, Nigeria has proven to be a success story that many countries can learn from.  Earlier this year Nigeria also eradicated guinea worm disease.  So is Nigeria just lucky or is there a secret weapon?

This success story can be attributed to the strong and united leadership and cooperation that followed this epidemic.  The Nigerian response to the outbreak was quick and coordinated.  Within days an Emergency Operations Center was established by the CDC and accepting patients.  The government and other economic entities were able to provide resources and financial support to different organizations and hospitals.  Another important factor to consider is Nigeria's premiere virology lab under the Lagos University Teaching Hospital.  The lab was prepared and stocked to respond to Ebola virus disease; this response included diagnosis and treatment by competent staff members.  In addition there was efficient contract tracing conducted by WHO, the CDC, and other health organizations.  These different parties found 100% of known contacts, which is a feat in itself.  Another factor that contributed to this success story is Nigeria's success with trying to eradicate polio.  For quite some time the President Goodluck Jonathan has pushed polio eradication; with his support the country is expected to eradicate wild type polio by the end of the year. When the first case of Ebola virus was reported the country switched their polio eradication techniques over to the Ebola virus; the foundation for viral eradication was already in existence.  GPS assisted real time contract tracing, and daily mapping of transmission were two techniques used by epidemiologists to study the epidemic.  

What most health officials and government leaders in Nigeria want the world to know is that if an African country with it's own set of issues can eradicate the Ebola virus, then it is possible for another African country to do the same.

-Nalani Wakinekona


Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Hot Zone: Why We Are in the Midst of a Critical Opportunity to Improve Scientific Literacy

Twenty years ago, author Richard Preston published The Hot Zone, a non-fiction thriller about the Ebola virus.  Even back then, before thousands of people had died from the virus and before its name was splashed across news headlines around the globe, the book sold like hotcakes.  It was rhetorically engaging, scientifically interesting, and downright terrifying.  In the context of the current Ebola outbreak, there has been an understandable spike in purchases of Preston's book.  According to the New York Times, today the book is ranked the 23rd most popular on Amazon and its publisher, Anchor Books, has released 150,000 new copies for sale in anticipation of renewed public interest and purchases.

Popular media coverage of the current Ebola outbreak has been widely criticized for its inaccuracies and inflammatory language that exacerbate challenges to epidemic control by encouraging and misdirecting public fears.  However, many of these criticisms fail to address the deeper underlying crisis:  a deplorable lack of public scientific literacy.  According to a report published by the National Science Foundation on February 14th of this year, one in four Americans do not know that the earth orbits the sun, only 39% think the universe began with a big explosion, and the majority struggle when asked to provide a rationale for the use of a control group or to explain what makes a fact scientific.

The Hot Zone offers a perfect gateway to this conversation because while it is marketed as a non-fiction book---in fact, its subheading reads "The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus"---it is somewhat outdated (having been published 20 years ago to elucidate a field that is evolving almost as fast as its subject matter) and includes inaccuracies of imaginative language and description.  Preston himself acknowledged in an interview with the New York Times published today, "In the original Hot Zone, I have a description of a nurse weeping tears of blood. That almost certainly didn’t happen. When a person has Ebola, the eyes can turn brilliant red from blood vessels leaking and blood oozing out of the eyelid. That’s horrifying, but it’s not someone with tears of blood running down their face."  With book purchases on the rise, a new host of readers are being misled.  Preston says he is, in a slightly inappropriate and surely unintentional double entendre, "dying to update the book."  But when his corrections and planned contextualizing preface will be incorporated remains unclear.

It would be unfair to criticize this author on his use of colorfully descriptive language, for not only does it make the book engaging but also imagination and creativity play an important role in scientific thought.  The generation of new ideas that revolutionize scientific paradigms is an inherently creative process and utilizing curiosity and imagination to encourage public interest in science can be quite effective.

Fortunately, while scientific literacy remains low scientific interest is high.  The same National Science Foundation report that published the aforementioned worrying statistics on public knowledge of science also released statistics on how many Americans reported having visited a zoo, aquarium, natural history museum, or museum of science and technology in the previous year:  the majority!  The Ebola outbreak has further garnered public interest in scientific phenomena and constitutes a critical opportunity for increasing scientific literacy.  If Preston can correct the inaccuracies of The Hot Zone, if the families who visit zoos and museums can come away with an understanding of how science happens and not just the knowledge it produces, and if we can channel the current public curiosity about Ebola into positive learnings rather than fear-mongering, perhaps we can capitalize on widespread public scientific interest to improve scientific literacy.

If public interest in science was high even before the Ebola outbreak why are we not generally more well-informed about scientific subject matter?  The problems lie in our approaches to science education and science communication.  One misconception, even among some educators, is that the content must be embellished to elicit excitement---that tears of blood would be interesting whereas explaining that a tiny questionably-living thing that contains only a few genes can cause leaky blood vessels and wreck a human population might not be enough to keep readers engaged.  We need a structured way to support our innate scientific inquisitiveness and channel it into an understanding of the scientific method and how it has been applied to reveal principles that describe natural phenomena.  One strategy would be to employ the scientific method earlier and more deeply in science education by empowering students to make discoveries themselves, in the context of a scaffolded learning environment.  Another element of the disconnect between our pubic scientific interest and scientific literacy could be a dehumanization of scientific discovery.  Though scientific experiments themselves are necessarily structured and employ carefully-crafted controls and manipulations, the overarching process of scientific discovery is often more disordered, more frustrating, more explorative and more exhilarating.  We tend to detach the facts from the people---apart from giving credit where it is due---and lose rich opportunities for scientific storytelling:  sharing the compelling narratives of the humans behind the scientific discoveries.  (As a relevant aside, if you haven't yet, read Microbe Hunters.)

This brings us back to The Hot Zone, an effective piece of scientific literature (despite a few outdated facts and mild hyperbole) because it couples the science with the human experience.  Scientific storytelling and young science students participating in the scientific process rather than simply memorizing facts would both be attempts at the same.  It is a beautiful thing that our minds run wild with imagination, propelled by a natural curiosity!  It is precisely that curiosity that must be harnessed productively through scientific education and science communication to improve scientific literacy.  With the word "Ebola" whispered and shouted by so many mouths these days, we are in the midst of a critical opportunity to channel public concern into meaningful learnings and bridge the gap between science and the populous.

(I apologize for the long post---this subject matter is close to my heart!)
--Laurie Rumker

P.S. You can read the full NSF report on scientific literacy here (
and the full interview with Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone here (