US makes it easier for scientists to make viruses more deadly

The National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday that it would allow the federal government to resume funding controversial research that makes viruses more contagious and deadly—despite scientists’ concern that the risks of such experiments outweigh potential advantages.The federal government will lift a three-year pause, instituted in October, 2014, on funding the research projects.The so-called “gain-of-function” experiments involve genetically altering viruses including bird flu, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) to make them more transmissible and pathogenic, in order to study the kinds of genetic changes that can make a disease more transmissible from person to person.But scientists are leery of the testing—suggesting that there might be less risky ways to draw conclusions.The moratorium was imposed after government employees mishandled anthrax and avian flu, suggesting that labs’ biosafety and security standards were inadequate.Scientists worry that if an enhanced virus were to escape from the lab, it could spread quickly and increase the toll of an outbreak, STAT news reports.Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, insists the new policy results in a minor change in procedure, since the NIH continued to fund some gain-of-function experiments even during the moratorium, according to STAT news.But scientists are still doubt the experiments’ efficacy.“I am not persuaded that the work is of greater potential benefit than potential harm,” molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University told STAT.He argues that working with dangerous pathogens regularly results in serious biosafety breaches.A lab worker could unknowingly become infected and walk out the lab’s door—releasing the pathogens.Marc Lipsitch of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said humans spread viruses faster than aerosol does.“The Continue Reading

CDC confirms first case of MERS virus in the U.S.

NEW YORK — Health officials on Friday confirmed the first case of an American infected with a mysterious Middle East virus. The man fell ill after arriving in the U.S. about a week ago from Saudi Arabia where he is a health care worker. The man is hospitalized in Indiana with Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is investigating the case along with Indiana health officials. Saudi Arabia has been the center of an outbreak of MERS that began about two years ago. At least 400 people have had the respiratory illness, and more than 100 people have died. All had ties to the Middle East or to people who traveled there. Infections have been previously reported among health care workers. MERS belongs to the coronavirus family that includes the common cold and SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which caused some 800 deaths globally in 2003. The MERS virus has been found in camels, but officials don't know how it is spreading to humans. It can spread from person to person, but officials believe that happens only after close contact. Not all those exposed to the virus become ill. But it appears to be unusually lethal — by some estimates, it has killed nearly a third of the people it sickened. That's a far higher percentage than seasonal flu or other routine infections. But it is not as contagious as flu, measles or other diseases. There is no vaccine or cure for MERS. The CDC on Friday released only limited information about the U.S. case: The man flew to the United States about a week ago, with a stop in London. He landed in Chicago and took a bus to the neighboring state of Indiana. He didn't become sick until arriving in Indiana, the CDC said. Symptoms include fever, cough, breathing problems, which can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure. CDC officials say they are sending a team to investigate the man's Continue Reading

Deadly MERS virus is very serious, but not an emergency: World Health Organization

LONDON - Concern about the deadly new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus has "significantly increased" but the disease is not yet a global health emergency, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday. The virus, which causes coughing, fever and sometimes fatal pneumonia, has been reported in more than 500 patients, mainly in Saudi Arabia, and has spread to neighboring countries, as well as in a few cases to Europe, Asia and the United States. It kills about 30 percent of those who are infected. The WHO's emergency committee, which met for five hours in Geneva on Tuesday, said on Wednesday that the seriousness of the MERS situation had increased in terms of public health impact, but there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus. Because of that, "the conditions for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) have not yet been met," the WHO said in a statement. The virus is from the same family as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed around 800 people worldwide after it first appeared in China in 2002. The WHO's assistant director general for health security, Keiji Fukuda, said the main reason for not declaring MERS an emergency was that despite a surge in cases, the evidence did not suggest it was spreading easily from person to person. "It's the (viruses) that can really sustain transmission in communities which pose the greatest danger of spreading around the world and causing large numbers of illnesses and deaths," Fukuda told reporters on a telephone briefing. "(And) there is no convincing evidence right now for an increase in the transmissibility of this virus." Ben Neuman, a virus expert at Britain's University of Reading, said the WHO committee's decision was "a measured and sensible reaction to an evolving epidemic". "It is important to remember that MERS still does not spread very efficiently between people," he Continue Reading

Health officials confirm second case of MERS virus in the U.S.

NEW YORK — Health officials have confirmed a second U.S. case of a mysterious virus that has sickened hundreds in the Middle East. The latest case is not an American — he is a resident of Saudi Arabia, visiting Florida, who is now in an Orlando hospital. He was diagnosed with MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Sunday night. It is a respiratory illness that begins with flu-like fever and cough but can lead to shortness of breath, pneumonia and death. Fortunately, the U.S. cases so far have not been severe. The first case, a man in Indiana, was released from a hospital late last week. And the second patient is doing well, officials said. The two cases are not linked, officials said. "The risk to the public remains very low," said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. MERS is a respiratory illness that begins with flu-like fever and cough but can lead to shortness of breath, pneumonia and death. Most cases have been in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Middle East. But earlier this month a first U.S. case was diagnosed in a man who traveled from Saudi Arabia to Indiana. That man, an American, was a health-care worker at a hospital in Saudi Arabia's capital city who flew to the United States on April 24 on a plane that originated in Riyadh, stopped in London and then landed in Chicago. The man took a bus to Munster, Indiana where he became sick and went to a hospital on April 28. He improved and was released from a Munster hospital on Friday. Tests of people who were around the man have all proved negative, health officials have said. Health officials now must track down fellow travelers who were around the newest case, and this time it will be more challenging: There were more flights involved. This man also was a health-care worker at a hospital where MERS cases were being treated, the CDC said. He traveled on May 1 on flights from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, first to London, then to Boston, Continue Reading

Saudi Arabia issues warning about MERS virus linked to camels

Saudi Arabia on Sunday warned those dealing with camels to take precautions as the number of infections in the kingdom from a respiratory illness linked to the animals rises further. The Ministry of Agriculture urged people who come in contact with camels to “exercise caution and follow preventive measures,” according to a report from the official Saudi Press Agency. It said the ministry issued the advice after scientific studies commissioned by the Health Ministry proved a connection between camels and the virus that causes the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Join the Conversation: Continue Reading

New Middle East coronavirus MERS a deadly threat in hospitals: Saudi study

The new Middle East coronavirus that has killed 38 people after emerging late last year is a serious risk in hospitals because it is easily transmitted in healthcare environments, infectious disease experts said on Wednesday. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers said the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)was not only easily transmitted from patient to patient, but also from the transfer of sick patients to other hospitals. Nine infected patients in Saudi Arabia had received dialysis treatment at the same hospital, some at the same time. The international investigative team of specialists, who went to Saudi Arabia to analyze the outbreak in May, said it was even more deadly than a similar outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, in Canadian hospitals in 2003. MERS is related to SARS because the virus that causes it is from the same coronavirus family. The MERS virus, which can cause coughing, fever and pneumonia, has spread from the Gulf to France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia and Britain. The World Health Organization puts the latest global toll at 38 deaths from a total of 64 laboratory-confirmed cases. The team, which included Saudi, Canadian and other scientists, was invited by Saudi officials to help investigate the outbreak in several Saudi hospitals. For the study, they compared it to an outbreak of SARS in Toronto in 2003 which the same team had also investigated. Trish Perl, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the United States and a member of the international team, said the investigation "showed some surprising similarities between MERS and SARS". "Both are very deadly viruses and easily transferred between people, and even between healthcare facilities," she said in a statement about their findings. Initially, 23 people in Saudi Arabia were infected with MERS at the time of the investigation, and 11 died. Saudi health officials now put the Continue Reading

MERS virus death toll rises in Saudi Arabia as Muslim hajj approaches

It is the kind of scenario that keeps virologists up at night. Health officials in Saudi Arabia announced Tuesday that two more people died after contracting the MERS virus, bringing the global death toll to 42 as an estimated 3 million Muslims will converge on Mecca in October to attend the annual hajj. In a statement released to the press, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health said that a 75-year-old citizen in Al-Ahsa governorate and a 63-year-old Saudi female from Riyadh were the latest victims. Sixty-three people from Saudi Arabia, the country hit hardest by the outbreak, have not died. Since June of 2012, MERS is known to have infected 77 people, killing 42 of them. The exact number of cases is not known, and the Saudi Ministry of Health said Tuesday that three more people who had contracted the virus had recovered. The global health community is keeping a close eye on Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, MERS for short, as known cases of the illness have quadrupled since April. With Muslims from all around the world — including 11,000 U.S. citizens — set to descend upon Saudi Arabia to participate in Islam’s holiest rite, the potential for the virus to become widespread is serious. “A person from New York could go to Saudi Arabia for business and carry the virus home on the way back,” Matthew Frieman, a virologist at the University of the Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, told the Los Angeles Times. “There's zero reason why that couldn't happen.” Given that the known MERS death rate now exceeds 50 percent, a far greater number than were killed during the SARS outbreak of 2003, it is no wonder that health officials are eyeing the hajj with heightened concern. “We need to get the facts clear and get the appropriate advice to all your countries where your pilgrims want to go to Mecca. It is something quite urgent,” World Health Organization head Continue Reading

Zika virus: Delaware braces for unlikely outbreak

Pregnant women are wary of what's to come. Mosquito-spraying businesses have seen more interest. And state officials are renewing calls to rid backyards of standing water — prime mosquito-breeding grounds — just to be safe.It's not likely Delaware will see a Zika outbreak this summer, but the threat isn't being ignored. Three Delawareans have tested positive after being bitten by infected mosquitoes abroad. No one was pregnant."It’s a little unnerving knowing that something as small as a mosquito, that is so uncontrollable, can cause such a dramatic change or effect to someone's body," said Alexis Reider, 24, of Clayton, who is 15 weeks pregnant and recently had a pest control company spray her heavily wooded property. "It's something you can't control."The mosquito-borne Zika has spread across the Caribbean and Latin American, and isolated cases have been reported in the U.S.The virus, which typically spreads through the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is especially dangerous for pregnant women because it can lead to miscarriages and serious birth defects. It also can be sexually transmitted by infected males.The CDC reported 426 cases in the U.S. in its latest report on April 27, all acquired through international travel, and the rate is expected to grow. No vaccine or antiviral medications is available to threaten the virus, which in most cases results in a mild fever, but can be more serious in the sick, elderly and expecting moms.It's expected the Gulf Coast region will be hit hardest because of the high prevalence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, although there's some indication the related Asian tiger mosquito — which is extremely prevalent in Delaware — could also be a carrier.Delaware Division of Public Health Director Dr. Karyl Rattay said they're closely monitoring the situation."Our guidance will evolve based on Continue Reading

2 South Koreans dead from MERS respiratory virus, 24 cases diagnosed nationwide

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea on Tuesday confirmed the country's first two deaths from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome as it fights to contain the spread of the virus that has killed hundreds of people in the Middle East. South Korea has reported 24 cases of the disease since diagnosing the country's first MERS illness last month in a man who had traveled to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. South Korea's cases have largely connections to the first patient, either medical staff who treated him, or patients who stayed near the man at the hospital before he was diagnosed and isolated and their family members. Tests on a 58-year-old woman who died of acute respiratory failure Monday showed she had been infected with the disease before her death, the Health Ministry said in a statement. A 71-year-old man who tested positive for the virus last week has also died, it said. The statement said both stayed at the same hospital with the first patient. Health officials said Monday more than 680 people in South Korea were isolated at their homes or state-run facilities after having contact with patients infected the virus. They said the number could rise. Last week, the son of one of the patients ignored doctor's orders to cancel a trip to China, where he was later diagnosed as that country's first MERS case. China isolated the South Korean man at a hospital, and Hong Kong authorities said Sunday that 18 travelers were being quarantined because they sat near him, but they were not showing symptoms. MERS was discovered in 2012 and has mostly been centered in Saudi Arabia. It belongs to the family of coronaviruses that includes the common cold and SARS, and can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure. The virus has spread primarily through contact with camels, but it can also spread from human fluids and droplets. There have been about 1,170 cases of the virus worldwide and about 480 of the patients have died, Continue Reading

South Korea reports 10th death from MERS virus; officials say disease has peaked

SEOUL, South Korea  — South Korea reported a 10th death from the MERS virus on Thursday, although officials say they believe the disease has peaked. The victim was a 65-year-old man who had been treated for lung cancer and was hospitalized in the same facility as another MERS patient, the Health Ministry said. The outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome has caused panic in South Korea. It has infected more than 120 people since the first case, a 68-year-old man who had traveled to the Middle East, was diagnosed on May 20. About 3,800 people remained isolated Thursday after possible contact with infected people, according to the ministry, and more than 2,600 schools and kindergartens across South Korea were closed. On Wednesday, experts from the World Health Organization and South Korea urged the schools' reopening as the outbreak in the country has so far been contained to hospitals and there is no evidence of sustained transmission in the community. South Korean officials believe the outbreak may have peaked, although they say the next few days will be crucial to determining whether their efforts to isolate patients and control the disease have worked. Three people diagnosed with MERS were released from hospitals Thursday, bringing the total discharged to seven. President Park Geun-hye postponed her planned U.S. visit scheduled next week to focus on coping with the outbreak. Most of the deaths so far have been of people who had been suffering from pre-existing medical conditions, such as respiratory problems or cancer. Experts think MERS can spread in respiratory droplets, such as by coughing. But transmissions have mainly occurred through close contact, such as living with or caring for an infected person. MERS has mostly been centered in Saudi Arabia and has a death rate of about 40 percent among reported cases. It belongs to the family of coronaviruses that includes the common cold and SARS, Continue Reading