Lethal bird flu cocktail sent out of lab accidentally, went unreported – CDC

China out / AFP Photo

China out / AFP Photo

A scientist with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declined to tell superiors that a worker had mixed a lethal strain of bird flu with a more benign one, even though that mixed strain was shipped out to another laboratory.

According an internal investigation into the matter, the dangerous bird flu cocktail was then administered to chickens as part of a US Department of Agriculture (USDA), in which all of the chickens ended up dying. As a result, USDA officials took another look at the bird flu samples in May and notified the CDC that a deadly strain of the virus was detected inside.

No people fell ill due to the bird flu strain, the Associated Press reported, but it apparently remained in circulation for months – it was originally concocted in January – before scientists picked up on what was wrong.

After the CDC confirmed the USDA’s findings, the team member in charge chose not to notify those higher in the chain of command, reportedly because “the viral mix was at all times contained in specialized laboratories and was never a threat to the public.”

However, when another lab reported similar problems – a Maryland facility reported that more than 300 vials containing influenza, dengue, and other pathogens were discovered in an unused storage room – the team leader brought the dangerous bird flu strain to the attention of more senior officials.

Although it’s unclear exactly how the bird flu strain was created, the report did clarify a couple of things. The lethal strain was supposed to be handled separately from the less dangerous one, and the entire process should take at least 90 minutes. The scientist involved, however, completed his work in only 51 minutes in order to rush to a meeting, meaning that it’s very likely “shortcuts” were taken. The CDC told the AP “it’s possible the scientist worked on both strains at the same time.”

This revelation comes in the wake of previous reports about lax safety at CDC laboratories. As RTreported in June, about 84 scientists were potentially exposed to anthrax after employees failed to properly sterilize the deadly bacteria. Although no one became sick and no reports of exposure have been filed, the eye-opening incident sparked an investigation that revealed multiple failures in safety protocol.

“These events revealed totally unacceptable behavior,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said at the time. “They should never have happened. I’m upset, I’m angry, I’ve lost sleep over this, and I’m working on it until the issue is resolved.”

Both the flu lab and the anthrax lab have been closed, and the anthrax lab director has since resigned.

Another investigation, meanwhile, found that dangerous microbes and “unidentified materials” were transported between labs in plastic Ziploc bags – containers which fail to meet the CDC’s “durability” requirement. In some cases, anthrax samples were found to be missing and had to be tracked down, while others were placed in unlocked labs not authorized to store the deadly bacteria.

“An internal investigation found serious safety lapses, including use of an unapproved sterilization technique and use of a potent type of anthrax in an experiment that did not require a live form of the germ,” the Associated Press reported in July.

Nightmare bacteria

Published time: August 01, 2014 17:11
Edited time: August 03, 2014 16:10

This photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows one form of CRE bacteria, sometimes called "nightmare bacteria."

This photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows one form of CRE bacteria, sometimes called “nightmare bacteria.”

Deadly, nearly untreatable superbugs known as CRE, dubbed “nightmare bacteria,” have spread at an alarming rate throughout the southeastern region of the US in recent years, new research indicates.

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have found cases of antibiotic-resistant CRE – or carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae – increased by at least a factor of five in community hospitals across the region from 2008 to 2012.

“We’re trying to sound the alarm. This is a problem for all of us in health care,” said Deverick J. Anderson, lead author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at Duke, according to USA Today.“These (bacteria) are just about as bad as it gets.”

CRE are a family of bacteria that live in one’s guts, often without causing illness. Yet when the bacteria escape – during ICU treatment, for example – they often cause major hospital-induced infections. One in 25 hospitalized patients contract at least one health-care-related infection on any given day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The bacteria prey mostly on vulnerable, hospitalized patients, killing nearly half of those who catch bloodstream infections.

“Carbapenems,” according to Wired, are a group of potent antibiotics that target infections that have proven resistant to other antibiotics. They are considered drugs to be used as a last resort. And since only a few antibiotics – riddled with side effects and other problems for a patient – have been proven successful against CREs, the bacteria family’s strong emergence indicates the dawn of a post-antibiotic era.

That is, unless overuse of antibiotics is curbed and infection control at hospitals and long-term care facilities is improved, experts say. Many in the health community see the rise of superbugs as fueled by the impulse to use antibiotics, both with and without a patient’s urging, for common ailments like a sore throat.

“That needs to stop,” said Kevin Kavanagh, an infection-control activist who heads the watchdog group Health Watch USA. “It’s creating a huge problem.”

Last year, the CDC said CREs have spread from one medical facility in 2001 to many facilities in 46 states by 2013.

“Our strongest antibiotics don’t work, and patients are left with potentially untreatable infections,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, who called CREs “nightmare bacteria.”

The Duke study, released in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, found that CRE detection went up fivefold within the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network, a group of 25 community hospitals in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia.

Anderson said rates have probably gone up just as much nationally at such small community hospitals,“the main type of hospitals in the US.”

Wired’s Maryn McKenna described the implications of the study’s findings and what it would mean if CRE spread beyond hospital settings:

“[H]ospitals where this resistance factor was identified were what is called ‘community’ hospitals, that is, not academic referral centers. That’s an important distinction, because academic medical centers tend to be where the most cutting-edge care is performed, and where the sickest people are. As a result, they are where last-resort antibiotics are used the most, and therefore where resistance is most likely to emerge. That CRE was found so widely not in academic centers, but rather in community hospitals, is a signal that it is probably moving through what medicine calls ‘the community,’ which is to say, anywhere outside healthcare. Or, you know, everyday life.”

And if CRE are not controlled, activist Kavanagh told USA Today, medicines currently relied on to combat bacterial infections will become increasingly impotent against them.

Meanwhile, last month, researchers found one of the deadliest antibiotic-resistant bacteria for the first time in a food product, raw squid, as reported by the CDC.

Earth is headed for its sixth mass extinction – study

AFP Photo / NASA

The rapid depletion of Earth’s biodiversity indicates that the planet is in the early stages of its sixth mass extinction of life since becoming habitable 3.5 billion years ago, according to a new study published in Science.

Human activity, including a doubling of its population in the past 35 years, has driven the decline of animal life on Earth, the researchers concluded.

There has been a 25 percent average decline rate of remaining terrestrial vertebrates, and a 45 percent decline rate in the abundance of invertebrates. These losses will continue to have innumerable impacts on species that depend on the delicate balance of life on Earth for their own survival.

“We tend to think about extinction as loss of a species from the face of Earth, and that’s very important, but there’s a loss of critical ecosystem functioning in which animals play a central role that we need to pay attention to as well,” said Rodolfo Dirzo, lead author of the study and a biology professor at Stanford University.

“Ironically, we have long considered that defaunation is a cryptic phenomenon, but I think we will end up with a situation that is non-cryptic because of the increasingly obvious consequences to the planet and to human wellbeing.”

The “Anthropocene defaunation,” as some researchers have dubbed this era, is hitting large animals such as elephants, polar bears, and rhinoceroses the hardest, as these megafauna are the subject of some of the highest rates of decline on Earth. This trend matches previous mass die-offs of the Big Five extinction periods.

Megafauna usually have lower population growth rates that need larger habitat areas to maintain their populations, thus they are particularly affected by human growth and desire for their meat mass. Losses among these animals often mean dire impacts for other species that depend on them within an ecosystem.

Past studies have found that the loss of larger animals means a spike in rodents, as grass and shrubs proliferate and soil compaction decreases, all while the risk of predation also declines, Futurity.org notes. As rodent populations increase, so do the disease-transporting ectoparasites that come with them.

“Where human density is high, you get high rates of defaunation, high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission,” said Dirzo.

“Who would have thought that just defaunation would have all these dramatic consequences? But it can be a vicious circle.”

About 16 to 33 percent of all vertebrate species are considered threatened or endangered, the review found.

Invertebrate loss also has far-reaching ripple effects on other species. For example, the continued disappearance of vital honeybee populations across the globe will have bleak consequences for plant pollination, and thus on the world’s food production, as RT has previously reported.

Insects pollinate about 75 percent of the world’s food crops, according to Futurity.

Overall, of the world’s more than 71,000 species, 30 percent of them are threatened, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Based on this assessment – and without drastic economic and political measures to address the current die-off – the sixth mass extinction could be cemented by 2400 A.D., University of California, Berkeley geologist Anthony Barnosky told Harper’s magazine.

Solutions to the die-off are complicated, the study posits, as reducing rates of habitat change and overexploitation of lands must come through regional and situational strategies.

“Prevention of further declines will require us to better understand what species are winning and losing in the fight for survival and from studying the winners, apply what we learn to improve conservation projects,” said Ben Collen, a lecturer at the University College of London and a co-author of the study.“We also need to develop predictive tools for modelling the impact of changes to the ecosystem so we can prioritize conservation efforts, working with governments globally to create supportive policy to reverse the worrying trends we are seeing.”

Researchers from University of California, Santa Barbara; Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil; Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico; the Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in England; and University College London are coauthors of the new study.