Anthrax outbreak in Ugandan Hippopotamuses

Dead hippopotamus in Lake George, Uganda. (Source: New Vision)
Dead hippopotamus in Lake George, Uganda. (Source: New Vision)

In late June, 30 hippopotamuses died of anthrax in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, a popular safari location. These hippopotamuses likely contracted Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax, from spores that had been lying dormant in the lake shore soil for 6 years, originating from an anthrax outbreak in 2004 which killed approximately 300 hippos. Because B. anthracis spores are hardy and can survive for decades in the soil, proper disposal of infected carcasses is very important to control future outbreaks. The New Vision reports that the State Minister for the Animal Industry in Uganda, Major Rwamirama, recommended that the carcasses should be moved and the infected areas sprayed – the article did not mention with what. Major Rwamirama also mentioned that burying the carcasses was expensive, ~$440 per carcass, and unreliable, since burial does not kill the hardy spores.
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Aflatoxin Contamination of Maize in Africa

Aspergillus flavus
Aspergillus flavus seen under an electron microscope. (Credit: Cornell University Dept. of Animal Sciences)

2.3 million bags of maize are contaminated with aflatoxins this year in Kenya, according to afrol News.  Aflatoxins are produced by the Aspergillus species of fungus, most notably Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, and are highly carcinogenic and damaging to the liver.  This natural outbreak in Kenya has made a large portion of “maize unfit for human and livestock consumption and trade, to the dismay of the millions of small-scale farmers that depend on the crop for food and income.”   Government officials in Kenya are offering to buy the contaminated maize in effort to keep it off the market. Aflatoxin contamination cannot be seen without the aid of UV light, leading some farmers to doubt that their crops are contaminated.  With the aid of a black light, one can see the presence of the B1 and B2 aflatoxins, which fluoresce blue, and the G1 and G2 aflatoxins, which fluoresce green.  Continue reading

Future Treatment: Immune Modulation

Septic Infection (Credit: CDC)

Instead of strictly offensive measures (e.g. antivirals, antibiotics, and siRNA treatments), scientists are developing ways to improve our own natural defense against pathogens, our immune system.  This can be done both by enhancing immune function and preventing immune overreactions.

Enhancing the Immune System

A study released last month found a way to protect mice from deadly doses of Yersinia pestis (plague), Burkholderia pseudomallei (melioidosis), Brucella abortus (brucellosis), and Francisella tularensis (tularemia).  All of these agents are Select Agents and possible bioweapons agents.  Researchers from a branch of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) branch in Montana were able confer this protection by enhancing the immune response in mice, priming it to fight an infection.  Continue reading

Future Treatment: siRNA

Penicillin WWII Advertisement. (Credit: Schenley Laboratories, Inc., Lawrenceburg, Indiana)

During 1940s, penicillin, the first commercially available antibiotic, was hailed as a “wonder drug.”  Penicillin helped make WWII the first American war where infection was not the major cause of death.  But by the 1950s, antibiotic resistance became widespread.  Scientists were engaged in a veritable arms race, constantly modifying and developing new classes of antibiotics to beat resistance while bacteria, literally generations ahead, continued to defeat their advances.  The same story is true for antivirals, such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir).  Multidrug-resistant bacteria and viruses are an increasing problem, especially in hospital settings.  Scientists are now looking to develop new methods, beyond standard antibiotics and antivirals, to combat bacterial and viral diseases.  Within the past month, many new treatments have been discussed, including the use of small interfering RNA (siRNA). Continue reading

Emerging Disease Threatens Cassava Crop

Cassava Roots (Credit: Wikimedia)
Cassava Roots (Credit: Wikimedia)

The New York Times reported today on the emergence of Cassava Brown Streak Virus in regions of Africa where the tuber is a key food crop.  Emphasizing the food’s importance, the Times notes:

“After rice and wheat, cassava is the world’s third-largest source of calories. Under many names, including manioc, tapioca and yuca, it is eaten by 800 million people in Africa, South America and Asia.”

The new virus, a recently characterized emerging variant in East Africa, renders the crop inedible.  The estimated $50 million in research funding aimed at deterring the disease is a small fraction of the amounts spent on diseases that infect humans in the developing world.  Though there are some resistant Cassava plants, researchers have begun work on developing transgenic cassava plants that improve resistance to the virus while remaining desirable as crops.  Unfortunately, this work could take years.  In the interim, famine and disorder could result. Continue reading

“Dr. Death”–Head of South Africa’s Biological & Chemical Weapons Program

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa Credit: NASA

The South African chemical and biological warfare program, called “Project Coast,” was established in 1981 under the apartheid regime, violating the Biological Toxins and Weapons Convention of 1972.  The project’s researchers studied Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), Vibrio colerae (cholera), salmonella and Botulinum toxin, in addition to a variety of chemical agents, such as MDMA (ecstasy), PCP, muscle relaxants and nerve agents.  Unlike the chemical agents, the biological agents were not produced on a large scale and were neither weaponized nor meant for combat.   Instead, the program focused on using biological agents for assassination of those who challenged the government.  The agents produced were used by the South African Defense Force and police.   The secretive Project Coast had no civilian and extremely limited military oversight.  Only the former head of Project Coast, Dr. Wouter Basson, knew the agents being studied, how they were used and how much they cost.   Dr. Basson was nicknamed “Dr. Death,” and allegedly arranged the killing of many political dissidents.  In one case, he arranged for the South West African People’s Organization’s (SWAPO) water supply to be contaminated with V colerae, killing 200 people.  Court testimonies indicate that Dr. Basson directed work on contraceptives, with the intent to deliver them to unknowing individuals.  Project Coast ended in 1993 due to diplomatic pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom.  Continue reading

Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genome: A Future Biosecurity Concern?

Colonies of the transformed Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium. Credit: J. Craig Venter Institute

J. Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Rockville, MD announced last week that his team was able to successfully create a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically assembled, man-made genome. This breakthrough discovery in the emerging field of synthetic genomics raises some concern in the biosecurity community and prompted President Obama to call for “… a study of the implications of this scientific milestone, as well as other advances that may lie ahead in this field of research” at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues held on Thursday, May 20, 2010.

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Unauthorized Brucellosis Experiments, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Brucella sp
Brucella (Credit: CDC)

Professor of pathobiological sciences, Gary Splitter, DVM, PhD, was suspended from laboratory work above BSL-1 until 2013 because unauthorized work was conducted with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Brucella, a select agent, by his graduate student in 2007. The University was also fined $40,000 because this work broke federal regulations.  Brucella bacteria can cause the disease brucellosis, which presents as  a prolonged non-specific febrile illness in humans accompanied by chills, sweats, headache, fatigue, myalgias (muscle pain), arthralgias (joint pain), and anorexia.  The Wisconsin State Journal reports that Dr. Splitter, a member of UW-Madison’s Biosafety Committee, denies knowledge of his graduate student’s experiments – but email records indicate otherwise.   Continue reading

The Rise of a New Smallpox Vaccine

Reuters is reporting that the US Strategic National Stockpile will begin acquisition of a new smallpox vaccine.  The new product, Imvamune, promises reduced side-effects and potentially improved protection for patients who are treated after exposure to the virus.  These traits could make the vaccine much more effective as a countermeasure against a biological attack using smallpox.

Though the story of Imvamune ultimately demonstrates that improved countermeasures to biological threats can be developed, the story also illustrates some of the challenges involved in the process.

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BIO 2010 Biosecurity Conference Wrap-up

Our complete coverage of the Biotechnology Industry Organization(BIO)’s 2010 Biosecurity Conference, which occurred in Chicago on May 5-6th, can be found in the FAS Biosecurity Blog archives at:

Several recurring themes emerged in the presentations by the world’s experts in fields like public health, national security, food defense, biological weapons, and new advances in research.  Here is our analysis of some of the trends observed at the conference. Continue reading