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  • johnspikowski johnspikowski Sep 15, 2012 1:39 PM Flag

    U.S. government takes threat of bird flu pandemic seriously; spends $25 billion for medical countermeasures

    Evidently the U.S. government is taking the threat of a global bird flu pandemic very seriously, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has awarded five contracts collectively worth as much as $25.36 billion for medical countermeasures to the H5N1 avian influenza virus.

    There is ample reason to take the threat of an H5N1 bird flu pandemic seriously, too. Over the last decade there have been 608 confirmed cases of H5N1 in humans, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. Of those, 359 died; that's nearly a 70 percent mortality rate.

    Of those confirmed cases of H5N1 and their resulting deaths, most have been in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Egypt. No cases have been reported in the U.S. -- yet.

    All contract awards are the maximum amount possible. The contract duration is three years with options for two additional years. Awarding the contracts was the HHS Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

    In 1957 and 1958 an Asian Flu pandemic involving the H2N2 virus killed an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people. The 20th century's worst flu outbreak was the 1918 to 1920 Spanish Flu pandemic, which involved the H1N1 virus and killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

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    • Ostrich industry in crisis
      Sep 06 2012 09:01 Sapa
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      Cape Town - The government has spent R60m on killing 50 000 ostriches in a bid to stop the spread of avian flu, but the virus is still present, it was reported on Thursday.

      The Western Cape agriculture department said it was time to admit the policy of blanket killing of entire flocks was not working and to look at other methods, the Cape Times reported.

      Agricultural MEC Gerrit van Rensburg said the focus was no longer on getting the export industry reopened but on the survivial of the entire South African ostrich industry.

      He said killing of the ostriches would be futile as the virus could still be present in the wild bird population.

      He wrote to national Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Petterson on Wednesday to urge a "quick response" to the crisis.

      According to the report the export ban, in place for the last 18 months, has cost the industry more than R1bn.

      More than 40% of the producers have left the industry. The size of the national ostrich flock has decreased from a million birds to 250 000.

    • Giant Viruses Are Ancient Living Organisms, Study Suggests

      Researchers have debated whether viruses, which have genes but no cellular structure, should be considered forms of life. A new study suggests they should, showing that giant viruses have some of the most ancient protein structures found in all organisms on the planet.

      The researchers conducted a census of all the protein folds occurring in more than 1,000 organisms in the three traditional branches on the tree of life — bacteria, microbes known as archaea and eukaryotes. Giant viruses, which are considered "giant" based on the size of their genomes, also were included in the study because they are large and complex, with genomes rivaling some bacteria, University of Illinois researcher Gustavo Caetano-Anollés said in a statement.

      For instance, the ocean's largest virus, a giant virus called CroV, has genes that let it repair its genome, make sugars and gain more control over the very machinery the virus hijacks in host cells to replicate itself. (Since viruses are essentially DNA wrapped in a protein coat, they need the goods of a host to replicate themselves.)

      Caetano-Anollés said his team looked at protein folds instead of genetic sequences because these structural features are like molecular fossils that are more stable over time. They assumed the folds that appear more often and in more groups are the most ancient structures.

      "Just like paleontologists, we look at the parts of the system and how they change over time," Caetano-Anollés said.

      They found that many of the most ancient protein folds in living organisms were present in the giant viruses, which "offers more evidence that viruses are embedded in the fabric of life," Caetano-Anollés said. The tree his team created had four clear branches, each representing a distinct "supergroup" — bacteria, archaea, eukaryotes and giant viruses.

      The researchers said the study, which was published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, also bolsters claims that giant viruses were once much more complex than they are now. A dramatic decline in their genomes over time likely reduced them to their current parasitic lifestyle, Caetano-Anollés said.

    • A research team that analyzed the strain of H3N8 influenza linked to a baby seal die-off in New England last year found that it originated in birds and has adapted to mammals, signaling a possible threat to humans and animals alike.

      Also, she noted that the possibility that an avian flu virus could infect seals hadn't been considered before, which highlights the point that pandemic influenza can emerge in unexpected ways.

      "Flu could emerge from anywhere, and our readiness has to be much better than we previously realized. We need to be very nimble in our ability to identify and understand the potential risks posed by new viruses emerging from unexpected sources," says Moscona.

      In 2009, the emergence of a novel H1N1 virus—a reassortment of flu viruses found in birds, pigs, and humans—at the US-Mexico border surprised global health experts, who had predicted that the next flu pandemic would emerge from a country like Indonesia in which the H5N1 virus is endemic.

    • Flu pandemics don't happen very often. So many people might feel the relative fizzle of a flu pandemic three years ago somehow immunizes the globe against another one for awhile.

      But don't relax, say the authors of a report published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

      The scientists detail how a swine flu virus currently circulating in Korea — without apparently making the pigs sick — quickly changed into a deadly flu virus when it was put into ferrets. That mammal is considered most like humans when it comes to influenza.

      Once in ferrets, the virus acquired two new mutations that somehow conferred unusual virulence. Infected ferrets died within 10 days and transmitted the virus easily to other animals in respiratory droplets. The mutations occurred in all three ferrets infected with the Korean pig virus.

      "It turned into a really nasty virus," study author Rob Webster told Shots.

      To be sure, this nasty mutant poses no immediate public health threat and may never pop up outside the Korean lab.

      "We scanned the database to look whether or not this particular mutation is showing up in swine influenza viruses or viruses transmitted from pigs to people and we don't find that mutation in nature," chief flu researcher Nancy Cox of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention told Shots.

      Still, the PNAS authors say the Korean experiment sounds a clear warning that swine flu viruses could transform again into human flu bugs with pandemic potential, as they did in 2009.

      The 2009 pandemic officially killed 18,500 deaths but the death toll may have been as high as 285,000. It was caused by a so-called triple-reassortant virus with elements of pig, human and bird viruses. It began to circulate widely in North American pigs during the late 1990s.

      "The message from this paper and from what's going on with swine in the U.S. is that these viruses are very prone to pick up new genes and produce viruses that are a threat to humanity," Webster told Shots. He's a leading flu expert at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

      By "what's going on with swine in the U.S." Webster is referring to swine flu infections among people at state and county fairs this summer. Two new flu viruses have emerged in pigs and infected people who have close contact with them — farmers, their families and fair-goers.

      Most of the victims have been children. "Let's suppose that one of the triple reassortants circulating in the US picks up these two mutations they've picked up in Korea," Webster says. "My God, those kids would be dead!"

      So far, nearly 300 people have caught one of these new swine flu infections, caused by a strain called H3N2 that swapped genes with the pandemic H1N1 virus, which emerged in 2009 and is now widely circulating in US swine herds. A 61-year-old woman died from the new strain, but others have had largely mild bouts of illness.

      Last week the CDC said a different swine flu, a type called H1N2, infected three people at the Minnesota State Fair.

      Cox says one reason these new swine viruses are turning up is that the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are looking much more closely at pig flu viruses since the pandemic of 2009. "I haven't seen the same increase in surveillance from other countries," Cox says. The new Korean evidence "increases the importance of doing swine influenza surveillance globally."

      But Cox says the CDC isn't too worried about the Korean ferret virus because it probably would have trouble gaining a foothold in human populations should something like it emerge outside the lab.

      Cox says the Korean ferret virus is similar enough to viruses already circulating in humans that "we would expect the pandemic potential of these viruses to be low."

      That's because most humans already have antibodies to similar viruses, either from flu vaccines or from having been infected with the pandemic H1N1 and its close cousins. But experimental ferrets don't have these antibodies.

      That's not to say there isn't a pig flu virus out there that's only a mutation or two away from a new flu dangerous to humans. "With the pandemic H1N1 virus entering the pig population and reassorting like mad," Cox says, "we may have a different dynamic. We're having new gene constellations develop in pigs."

    • SARS feels like as much a distant memory of the 2000s as Sean Paul songs, but it’s still very much alive. In fact, it’s breeding in labs around the world — and our own research could trigger the next epidemic.

      According to a recent, chilling report published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we might be making a terrible mistake by putting so much work into beating SARS. It might be our very magnitude of scientific effort that gets people sick.

      Smallpox, for example, is only kept alive in two facilities in the entire world — one in the US, and one in Russia — where samples can be held to the highest possible quarantine levels and every possible safety mechanism is applied. We do that because we sure don’t want a smallpox outbreak that could kill millions.

      SARS, along with the 1918 Influenza and Bird Flu, is in the exact same category as smallpox — “potential pandemic pathogens” — which means it poses an enormous potential risk on another level entirely from, say, HIV. And unlike smallpox these three PPPs are everywhere: there are 42 labs currently conducting treatment research, 30 on SARS alone. This presents a catch-22. Why? Maths, of course:

      Simple mathematical analysis gives real reason for concern about the handling of these dangerous viruses. Consider the probability for escape from a single lab in a single year to be 0.003 (i.e., 0.3 per cent), an estimate that is conservative in light of a variety of government risk assessments for biolabs and actual experience at laboratories studying dangerous pathogens. Calculating from this probability, it would take 536 years for there to be an 80 per cent chance of at least one escape from a single lab. But with 42 labs carrying out live PPP research, this basic 0.3 per cent probability translates to an 80 per cent likelihood of escape from at least one of the 42 labs every 12.8 years, a time interval smaller than those that have separated influenza pandemics in the 20th century. This level of risk is clearly unacceptable.

      Pair this increased likelihood of a PPP escaping (which has happened in the past) with the fact that SARS carries over a 9 per cent fatality rate, and you’ve got one hell of a horrible hypothetical on your hands:

      [Last decade], one woman infected [with SARS] in Hong Kong flew to Toronto, a city with outstanding public health capabilities. The woman initiated infections in 438 people in Canada, and 44 of them died. What if the next infected person flies to a crowded city in a poor nation, where surveillance and quarantine capabilities are minimal? Or to a war zone where there may be no public health infrastructure worthy of the name? In such settings, an all but unstoppable pandemic could be seeded before SARS were even identified.

      Tens of millions, if not a hundred million people, could die across the globe, all as a result of simple human error by the same hands trying to eradicate these viruses. The report concludes that biohazard safety needs to be seriously cranked up and monitored internationally, and it suggests that researching these “natural” threats might be more threatening than any chance occurrence from nature. In other words, it might not be worth letting a shot at the cure kill us. The full report is absolutely worth reading, and the debate absolutely worth having. [Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists]

    • Human-to-human Transmitted Avian Flu - We Have To Move From A Cure Strategy To A Prevention Strategy Before It Is Too Late

      Sat Dec 29 15:04:50 GMT 2007 by Dr David Hill

      The strategy to prevent hundreds of millions of people dying across the globe from the Avian Flu pandemic is totally flawed. This reliance that governments around the world have placed on predominantly vaccination (cure) only is a decision that history will record as one of the most insane and insidious decisions that has ever been taken by our political leaders. This assertion is based upon the facts that the eventual human-to-human killer virus that will emerge will be a new strain due to the fact that viruses constantly mutate and that owing to the initial incubation period for bird flu to show its ugly face, the virus will have spread like wildfire across the world through millions traveling internationally on a daily basis. Indeed, the avian flu strain is 20 times more virulent than the 1917 Spanish flu that killed between 50 million and 100 million people, but where this time, literally hundreds of millions will literally perish with this ill thought out strategy by our political leaders and governments. What should have been undertaken is that this highly contagious disease should have been addressed at its source (prevention) and where history again will confirm this eventual conclusion. Unfortunately by then, this terrible event will have taken place. Governments should rethink therefore before it is too late and adopt predominantly a 'field' strategy, for this is the only strategy that will work and stop the unimaginable happening. Governments have been warned continuously, but where they do not wish to listen due to the powerful overtones delivered to our political leaders by the giant pharmaceuticals in their quest for profits (or selfish greed dependant on which point-of-view one wishes to take). One has to remember also that since 2003 the human mortality rate through the bird flu virus has been 62% and where only 38 people on average out of every hundred has survived. Overall therefore it has to be said that these vast profit-orientated pharmaceutical companies have not stopped any of these deaths through their highly expensive drugs and where things will be no different when the eventual pandemic arrives. It is hoped therefore that for the sake of humankind, that a major sea change takes place within the thinking of our political leaders in 2008, from one of cure to prevention, and before time literally runs out on us all. These are not fear factors but factors derived from pure logic and facts determined by some of the leading authoritive thinkers on the subject.

      Dr David Hill

      World Innovation Foundation

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