The Latest News from Laub BioChem               Dec 2011 | Issue 3


Dr. Richard J. Laub


In This Issue:
New Flu Strain?
Microbe of the Month: Influenza, Part II - The Bird Flu

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Wikipedia: Humic Acid

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New Flu Strain Makes Health Experts Nervous


Is a new strain of H3N2 swine flu a danger to public health or just to the reputations of public health experts?


By Helen Branswell | December 2, 2011 | Scientific American



Posted by Huffpost Healthy Living, December 2, 2011



   A new variant of an influenza virus that circulates in pigs has been jumping occasionally into people, providing a surprisingly early opportunity for public health officials to test out some of the lessons learned from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
   Since the virus was first spotted in July, there have been 10 cases, all but one of which were children under the age of 10. (The exception was a 58-year-old.) All the cases have been in the U.S.; there have been no reports of this virus in people or pigs anywhere else.

   The most recent infections, in three young children in Iowa, almost certainly involved person-to-person spread. The Iowa cluster is likely larger-no one in the first child's family had exposure to pigs, suggesting an unidentified person was the source of virus.

   The cases leave public health authorities in the U.S. and elsewhere wondering if a new swine-origin flu virus is circulating at low levels among humans-and what needs to be done if that is indeed happening. (Read "Flu Factories" in the January 2011 Scientific American (preview) to learn why health authorities fear the next pandemic virus may emerge as a result of industrial farming  practices.)

   Given the mercurial nature of flu viruses-which can easily mutate into lethal pathogens-ignoring the new virus is not an option, even though to date there have been no deaths and most of the infections have produced only mild symptoms. But the widespread perception that the 2009 swine flu pandemic was much ado about nothing means health authorities risk further damage to their already battered credibility if they sound an alarm and this virus turns out to be a dud. And they know it.

   The World Health Organization is working to be ready to react if needed, but wants to make sure it neither underplays or overplays its response to this potential new threat, which is technically known as a swine origin influenza A virus of the H3N2 subtype. The new virus has acquired the M gene of the 2009 pandemic H1N1 virus; studies suggest that this gene may enhance transmissibility of the virus.

   "We are closely following the information coming out of the U.S. And we just are making sure that if we need to be more active, we will be more active, or if we need to stand down we can do so," says Keiji Fukuda, the UN health agency's assistant director-general for health security and environment.

   Among the things the WHO is working on is finding a scientifically correct yet politically sensitive name to call this virus. Sales of pork plunged in 2009 when the new H1N1 was identified as swine flu, a reference to the fact it was comprised mainly of genes from flu viruses that circulate in pigs.

   This H3N2 poses similar naming challenges. There is already a human H3N2 - a distant cousin of this pig virus - so some way to differentiate the viruses is needed. Pork producers are concerned about how communications about the virus will be handled, admits Paul Sundberg, vice-president for science and technology for the National Pork Board, who says his group has already met with officials at the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control in Atlanta to discuss the naming challenge.

   Fukuda says the WHO is trying to draw on the experience of 2009 as it maps out its response to the new virus. "It frequently comes up as a question: 'What did we learn from that pandemic that we ought to be thinking about in terms of this situation?'"

   One of the lessons was that there may be a fair amount of cross-protective immunity in the human population to a number of the viruses currently circulating in swine, some of which were introduced into pigs from people in the past. In 2009 most people 60 or older had some degree of protection: it came from previous exposure to past human H1N1s that were genetically closer to the pandemic virus than are more recent strains.

   In this case, there's likely more protection still. Testing at the CDC shows that the new H3N2 is similar to human H3N2 that circulated in the early 1990s. That suggests many people over the age of 21 probably have some antibodies that could recognize this virus if it starts to spread.

   The age cut-off is reminiscent of the immunological situation in 1977, the year of the so-called Russian flu. That year H1N1 viruses unexpectedly reappeared after a 20-year absence. More surprising still was the fact the viruses appeared to have been almost frozen in time; they looked like H1N1 viruses that circulated in the early 1950s. It's widely believed the virus re-emerged as the result of a laboratory accident.

   In 1977, the newly re-emerged H1N1 viruses initially infected younger people as they began to circle the globe. But the strain managed to re-establish itself, eventually infecting more broadly across age groups. While a few scientific papers list 1977 as a pandemic, most flu experts do not consider it one.

   If this new H3N2 continues to circulate, it's conceivable it could do what H1N1 did in 1977 and re-establish itself, says Arnold S. Monto, a flu researcher at the University of Michigan.

   But Malik Peiris, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, points to an important difference between 1977 and now. Back then, people younger than 20 were completely naive to H1N1 viruses. This time many people under 20 will have had exposure to human H3N2 viruses. Though the genetic distance between the human and the swine viruses is significant, Peiris says there may be some cross-protective antibodies that will come into play.

   There may also be a lesson to be learned from another outbreak of the 1970s, the original swine flu incident. Human infections with a swine H1N1 virus at Fort Dix, N.J. in the spring of that year triggered fears that the world might be in for a replay of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The U.S. mounted an emergency vaccination program, but the virus didn't take off. Officials know this one might not as well. 

   In case it takes a different course, the CDC asked the laboratory that makes candidate vaccine viruses to make one for the swine H3N2. That work is completed and the seed strain is in the hands of vaccine manufacturers. Here's hoping that they won't need to use it.

Microbe of the Month: Influenza, Part II


From CBC News: The Bird Flu


Bird Flu's Path from Poultry to People

  Is avian influenza still a threat to humans?


CBC News


Posted: Dec 21, 2011 6:35 PM ET

Last Updated: Dec 21, 2011 6:34 PM ET


   Bird flu, or avian influenza, is an infectious disease that in most cases affects only birds. But a subtype of the virus called H5N1 can migrate to humans and is sometimes fatal.

   H5N1 is one of several hundred subtypes of the Type A influenza virus and is not the only one to have infected humans. The H7N7 and H9N2 subtypes

have also been found in humans, but it is a highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 that showed up in Asia in 1996 and caught the attention of public health authorities around the world.

   Human cases of H5N1 "remain rare and sporadic events, occurring mostly in areas where H5N1 viruses circulate regularly in poultry," according to the World Health Organization (WHO). But a recent controversial case involving H5N1 research has again raised fears about the virus.

   U.S. and Dutch scientists managed to mutate the H5N1 virus to make it more transmissible in ferrets, raising concerns that similar mutations could make the virus easily transmissible in humans.

   The highly pathogenic H5N1 subtype was first isolated in farmed goose in Guangdong province in China and within a year it had made its way to poultry farms and live-animal markets in Hong Kong.

   This strain distinguished itself from other bird flu viruses, which are common in wild ducks and geese but are mostly "low pathogenic," meaning they don't usually cause illness or kill large numbers, because it

could jump from wild waterfowl to domesticated poultry and kill large numbers of birds immediately.

   The first human infections of H5N1 occurred in 1997 in Hong Kong from the same strain of the virus that caused the bout of bird flu in Hong Kong poultry. Eighteen people developed severe respiratory disease caused by the virus, and six died.

   The symptoms of avian flu in humans are similar to other types of flu and include:




     Sore throat

     Eye infections

     Muscle aches

   Health officials determined that close contact with live infected poultry was the source of human infection in Hong Kong. It was also the first evidence that the H5N1 virus had been transmitted directly from birds to humans. In the wake of the infections, officials ordered the destruction of Hong Kong's poultry population. More than 1.5 million birds were killed over three days.

   Since then, more than 300 people have died from H5N1 and almost 600 are known to have been infected with the virus. According to the World Health

Organization, human cases of H5N1 "remain rare and sporadic events, occurring mostly in areas where H5N1 viruses circulate regularly in poultry."

   Humans usually contract H5N1 by touching sick or dead domestic poultry infected with the virus.

   Since it was first identified, H5N1 has migrated to at least 15 countries, with human cases showing up throughout Asia and Southeast Asia and also in Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Djibouti and Nigeria. Bird cases have spread even more widely, and the number of reported outbreaks of H5N1 in poultry and wild birds has increased since mid-2008, mostly in Asia, according to the WHO.

   In November 2005, a less pathogenic strain of H5N1 was found in wild ducks in Manitoba and in a duck on a commercial farm in Chilliwack, B.C. Another case was reported in P.E.I. in June 2006. There have also been outbreaks of other types of avian flu in Canada that have attracted more than the usual attention because of H5N1 fears.

   In February 2004, an outbreak of the H7N3 virus swept through B.C.'s poultry industry. The province ordered more than 17 million birds killed, and it was six months before B.C. was declared free of avian flu. In 2010, a flu outbreak on a Manitoba turkey farm raised alarms about the possible spread of H5N1 and resulted in the cull of 8,200 turkeys. It turned out to be a different subtype of bird flu called H5N2.

   Meanwhile, as human cases of H5N1 continued to turn up around the world, the WHO began warning of a possible pandemic. On Jan. 22, 2007, the agency's executive board opened its meeting with a warning about bird flu and said that as long as the virus continues to circulate among birds, the threat of a human pandemic will persist. The WHO also said that the world was still years away from effec-tively controlling the illness in the agricultural sector.

   Since then, the agency has dialed back its warnings and classified H5N1 as being only in the third phase of the WHO's six-phase pandemic alert system. Phase 3 means that the virus has "caused sporadic cases or small clusters of disease in people but has not resulted in human-to-human transmission sufficient to sustain community-level outbreaks."

   To date, 2006 has been the worst year in terms of absolute number of human deaths from bird flu (79 out of a total 115 human cases, a death rate

of 69 per cent), but 2008 had the highest death rate (33 deaths out of a total 44 cases - a 75 per cent death rate). In 2011, 53 per cent of people who contracted the virus died from it.

   Since it was first spotted, the virus has also been found in animals other than birds. In December 2003 and January 2004, two tigers and two leopards at a Thai zoo that had fed on chicken carcasses died from H5N1.

   It has also mutated into different strains, which is normal for a virus, whose characteristics change rapidly and often. That makes development of vaccines to stop the spread more difficult.

   No bird flu vaccine has been approved for commercial sale, but in 2007 and 2008, some European countries and the U.S. - but not Canada - purchased H5N1 vaccines developed by GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur for use in the event of a pandemic. However, there were doubts about how effective such stockpiling would be as the vaccines were based on strains existing at the time, which would not necessarily be the strains circulating during a pandemic. Generally, it takes at least four to six months to develop vaccines to combat new strains of flu that emerge.

   The WHO says influenza pandemics can be expected to occur three or four times each century, when new virus subtypes emerge and are readily transmitted from person to person. The last great pandemic occurred in 1918-19, when the Spanish flu swept the world, killing 40-50 million people, including more than 50,000 in Canada. But while experts agree that another pandemic is inevitable, whether it'll be caused by bird flu remains an open question.


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 Dr. Richard J. Laub

 Laub BioChemicals Corp.