Concept: Biological warfare
Ebola virus disease (EVD) is a contagious, severe and often lethal form of hemorrhagic fever in humans. The association of EVD outbreaks with forest clearance has been suggested previously but many aspects remained uncharacterized. We used remote sensing techniques to investigate the association between deforestation in time and space, with EVD outbreaks in Central and West Africa. Favorability modeling, centered on 27 EVD outbreak sites and 280 comparable control sites, revealed that outbreaks located along the limits of the rainforest biome were significantly associated with forest losses within the previous 2 years. This association was strongest for closed forests (>83%), both intact and disturbed, of a range of tree heights (5->19 m). Our results suggest that the increased probability of an EVD outbreak occurring in a site is linked to recent deforestation events, and that preventing the loss of forests could reduce the likelihood of future outbreaks.
Background Ebola virus has been detected in the semen of men after their recovery from Ebola virus disease (EVD), but little information is available about its prevalence or the duration of its persistence. We report the initial findings of a pilot study involving survivors of EVD in Sierra Leone. Methods We enrolled a convenience sample of 100 male survivors of EVD in Sierra Leone, at different times after their recovery from EVD, and recorded self-reported information about sociodemographic characteristics, the EVD episode, and health status. Semen specimens obtained at baseline were tested by means of a quantitative reverse-transcriptase-polymerase-chain-reaction (RT-PCR) assay with the use of the target-gene sequences of NP and VP40. Results A total of 93 participants provided an initial semen specimen for analysis, of whom 46 (49%) had positive results on quantitative RT-PCR. Ebola virus RNA was detected in the semen of all 9 men who had a specimen obtained 2 to 3 months after the onset of EVD, in the semen of 26 of 40 (65%) who had a specimen obtained 4 to 6 months after onset, and in the semen of 11 of 43 (26%) who had a specimen obtained 7 to 9 months after onset; the results for 1 participant who had a specimen obtained at 10 months were indeterminate. The median cycle-threshold values (for which higher values indicate lower RNA levels) were 32.0 with the NP gene target and 31.1 with the VP40 gene target for specimens obtained at 2 to 3 months, 34.5 and 32.3, respectively, for specimens obtained at 4 to 6 months, and 37.0 and 35.6, respectively, for specimens obtained at 7 to 9 months. Conclusions These data showed the persistence of Ebola virus RNA in semen and declining persistence with increasing months since the onset of EVD. We do not yet have data on the extent to which positivity on RT-PCR is associated with virus infectivity. Although cases of suspected sexual transmission of Ebola have been reported, they are rare; hence the risk of sexual transmission of the Ebola virus is being investigated. (Funded by the World Health Organization and others.).
A suspected case of sexual transmission from a male survivor of Ebola virus disease (EVD) to his female partner (the patient in this report) occurred in Liberia in March 2015. Ebola virus (EBOV) genomes assembled from blood samples from the patient and a semen sample from the survivor were consistent with direct transmission. The genomes shared three substitutions that were absent from all other Western African EBOV sequences and that were distinct from the last documented transmission chain in Liberia before this case. Combined with epidemiologic data, the genomic analysis provides evidence of sexual transmission of EBOV and evidence of the persistence of infective EBOV in semen for 179 days or more after the onset of EVD. (Funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and others.).
Variola Virus in a 300-Year-Old Mummy This letter describes a distant lineage of the variola virus (the agent of smallpox) that was identified in a mummy found buried in the Siberian permafrost.
Anthrax is a zoonotic disease that occurs naturally in wild and domestic animals but has been used by both state-sponsored programs and terrorists as a biological weapon. A Soviet industrial production facility in Sverdlovsk, USSR, proved deficient in 1979 when a plume of spores was accidentally released and resulted in one of the largest known human anthrax outbreaks. In order to understand this outbreak and others, we generated a Bacillus anthracis population genetic database based upon whole-genome analysis to identify all single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) across a reference genome. Phylogenetic analysis has defined three major clades (A, B, and C), B and C being relatively rare compared to A. The A clade has numerous subclades, including a major polytomy named the trans-Eurasian (TEA) group. The TEA radiation is a dominant evolutionary feature of B. anthracis, with many contemporary populations having resulted from a large spatial dispersal of spores from a single source. Two autopsy specimens from the Sverdlovsk outbreak were deep sequenced to produce draft B. anthracis genomes. This allowed the phylogenetic placement of the Sverdlovsk strain into a clade with two Asian live vaccine strains, including the Russian Tsiankovskii strain. The genome was examined for evidence of drug resistance manipulation or other genetic engineering, but none was found. The Soviet Sverdlovsk strain genome is consistent with a wild-type strain from Russia that had no evidence of genetic manipulation during its industrial production. This work provides insights into the world’s largest biological weapons program and provides an extensive B. anthracis phylogenetic reference.
Evidence for minimally symptomatic Ebola virus (EBOV) infection is limited. During the 2013-16 outbreak in West Africa, it was not considered epidemiologically relevant to published models or projections of intervention effects. In order to improve our understanding of the transmission dynamics of EBOV in humans, we investigated the occurrence of minimally symptomatic EBOV infection in quarantined contacts of reported Ebola virus disease cases in a recognized ‘hotspot.’
The genus Burkholderia consists of diverse species which includes both “friends” and “foes.” Some of the “friendly” Burkholderia spp. are extensively used in the biotechnological and agricultural industry for bioremediation and biocontrol. However, several members of the genus including B. pseudomallei, B. mallei, and B. cepacia, are known to cause fatal disease in both humans and animals. B. pseudomallei and B. mallei are the causative agents of melioidosis and glanders, respectively, while B. cepacia infection is lethal to cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. Due to the high rate of infectivity and intrinsic resistance to many commonly used antibiotics, together with high mortality rate, B. mallei and B. pseudomallei are considered to be potential biological warfare agents. Treatments of the infections caused by these bacteria are often unsuccessful with frequent relapse of the infection. Thus, we are at a crucial stage of the need for Burkholderia vaccines. Although the search for a prophylactic therapy candidate continues, to date development of vaccines has not advanced beyond research to human clinical trials. In this article, we review the current research on development of safe vaccines with high efficacy against B. pseudomallei, B. mallei, and B. cepacia. It can be concluded that further research will enable elucidation of the potential benefits and risks of Burkholderia vaccines.
Background In the wake of the recent outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in several African countries, the World Health Organization prioritized the evaluation of treatment with convalescent plasma derived from patients who have recovered from the disease. We evaluated the safety and efficacy of convalescent plasma for the treatment of EVD in Guinea. Methods In this nonrandomized, comparative study, 99 patients of various ages (including pregnant women) with confirmed EVD received two consecutive transfusions of 200 to 250 ml of ABO-compatible convalescent plasma, with each unit of plasma obtained from a separate convalescent donor. The transfusions were initiated on the day of diagnosis or up to 2 days later. The level of neutralizing antibodies against Ebola virus in the plasma was unknown at the time of administration. The control group was 418 patients who had been treated at the same center during the previous 5 months. The primary outcome was the risk of death during the period from 3 to 16 days after diagnosis with adjustments for age and the baseline cycle-threshold value on polymerase-chain-reaction assay; patients who had died before day 3 were excluded. The clinically important difference was defined as an absolute reduction in mortality of 20 percentage points in the convalescent-plasma group as compared with the control group. Results A total of 84 patients who were treated with plasma were included in the primary analysis. At baseline, the convalescent-plasma group had slightly higher cycle-threshold values and a shorter duration of symptoms than did the control group, along with a higher frequency of eye redness and difficulty in swallowing. From day 3 to day 16 after diagnosis, the risk of death was 31% in the convalescent-plasma group and 38% in the control group (risk difference, -7 percentage points; 95% confidence interval [CI], -18 to 4). The difference was reduced after adjustment for age and cycle-threshold value (adjusted risk difference, -3 percentage points; 95% CI, -13 to 8). No serious adverse reactions associated with the use of convalescent plasma were observed. Conclusions The transfusion of up to 500 ml of convalescent plasma with unknown levels of neutralizing antibodies in 84 patients with confirmed EVD was not associated with a significant improvement in survival. (Funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program and others; ClinicalTrials.gov number, NCT02342171 .).
Background Malaria treatment is recommended for patients with suspected Ebola virus disease (EVD) in West Africa, whether systeomatically or based on confirmed malaria diagnosis. At the Ebola treatment center in Foya, Lofa County, Liberia, the supply of artemether-lumefantrine, a first-line antimalarial combination drug, ran out for a 12-day period in August 2014. During this time, patients received the combination drug artesunate-amodiaquine; amodiaquine is a compound with anti-Ebola virus activity in vitro. No other obvious change in the care of patients occurred during this period. Methods We fit unadjusted and adjusted regression models to standardized patient-level data to estimate the risk ratio for death among patients with confirmed EVD who were prescribed artesunate-amodiaquine (artesunate-amodiaquine group), as compared with those who were prescribed artemether-lumefantrine (artemether-lumefantrine group) and those who were not prescribed any antimalarial drug (no-antimalarial group). Results Between June 5 and October 24, 2014, a total of 382 patients with confirmed EVD were admitted to the Ebola treatment center in Foya. At admission, 194 patients were prescribed artemether-lumefantrine and 71 were prescribed artesunate-amodiaquine. The characteristics of the patients in the artesunate-amodiaquine group were similar to those in the artemether-lumefantrine group and those in the no-antimalarial group. A total of 125 of the 194 patients in the artemether-lumefantrine group (64.4%) died, as compared with 36 of the 71 patients in the artesunate-amodiaquine group (50.7%). In adjusted analyses, the artesunate-amodiaquine group had a 31% lower risk of death than the artemether-lumefantrine group (risk ratio, 0.69; 95% confidence interval, 0.54 to 0.89), with a stronger effect observed among patients without malaria. Conclusions Patients who were prescribed artesunate-amodiaquine had a lower risk of death from EVD than did patients who were prescribed artemether-lumefantrine. However, our analyses cannot exclude the possibility that artemether-lumefantrine is associated with an increased risk of death or that the use of artesunate-amodiaquine was associated with unmeasured patient characteristics that directly altered the risk of death.
The 1977-1978 influenza epidemic was probably not a natural event, as the genetic sequence of the virus was nearly identical to the sequences of decades-old strains. While there are several hypotheses that could explain its origin, the possibility that the 1977 epidemic resulted from a laboratory accident has recently gained popularity in discussions about the biosafety risks of gain-of-function (GOF) influenza virus research, as an argument for why this research should not be performed. There is now a moratorium in the United States on funding GOF research while the benefits and risks, including the potential for accident, are analyzed. Given the importance of this historical epidemic to ongoing policy debates, we revisit the evidence that the 1977 epidemic was not natural and examine three potential origins: a laboratory accident, a live-vaccine trial escape, or deliberate release as a biological weapon. Based on available evidence, the 1977 strain was indeed too closely matched to decades-old strains to likely be a natural occurrence. While the origin of the outbreak cannot be conclusively determined without additional evidence, there are very plausible alternatives to the laboratory accident hypothesis, diminishing the relevance of the 1977 experience to the modern GOF debate.