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6 Things You Might Not Know About Ebola

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More than 3300 people have died of an Ebola outbreak in Africa, and now, the virus has made the jump to United States: In Dallas, Texas, 100 people who came in contact with a Liberian national who has the disease have been quarantined. Here are some things you might not have known about the haemorrhagic fever.

1. It’s not even alive.

The criteria to be considered a living organism includes being able to eat and to reproduce on your own. Ebola can reproduce aggressively inside an infected host, but it needs to insert itself into the host cells to do it—no host cell, no more new viruses. (Just don’t call it a prion: bits of protein that influence other proteins to adopt their misshapen forms, causing diseases. Ebola has genetic material held inside a protective protein coat, while prions don’t.) Ebola doesn’t metabolize anything on its own, either, making it not dead but not really alive. Ebola is something like a zombie—a bundle of genetic programming with replication skills and bad intentions.

2. This is not the first U.S. outbreak.

There’s a whole family tree of Ebola. There are 5 species that have been identified, each named after the place they sprung up: Zaire, Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston and Taï Forest. The current outbreak is the Zaire strain—which is creepy because the crisis is not in Zaire. The Reston subtype is named after a town in Virginia, where an outbreak occurred in 1989, followed by incidents in Texas and Pennsylvania. These all had one thing in common: infected monkeys exported by a single facility in the Philippines. These outbreaks are different than the current patient in Dallas for one big reason: No humans suffered illness in any of the previous cases.

3. It has a military mindset for invasion.

Researchers are finding out just how clever Ebola is as they reveal some of the virus' murderous Modus Operandi. One key to its lethal success is the stealth way it shuts down immune system defenses, the same way an air force will disable air defenses before sending in the bombers. Ebola obstructs parts of an immune system that are activated by molecules called interferons. These interferons have a vital role in fighting Ebola, usually with scorched earth tactics. “It makes a variety of responses to viral infection possible, including the self-destruction of infected cells,” says Christopher Basler, professor of microbiology at Mount Sinai and co-author of recent studies done by a consortium of Ebola researchers. That group also said, in a paper published in the August 13 edition of the journal Cell Host & Microbe, that they figured out exactly how Ebola craftily disables signals the cells use to defend against attack: An Ebola protein called VP24 binds to a specific protein that takes signaling molecules in and out a cell’s nucleus. Without communication, the cell can’t call for help or kill itself. The virus then hijacks the cell, uses it to make more viruses, and spreads them to more cells. Next thing you know, the infected victim is bleeding from every orifice.

4. No one knows how it came to infect people.

There is a lot we think we know about Ebola’s origins. For starters, human beings are not its natural host, what epidemiologists charmingly call a “reservoir.” Scientists believe that Ebola’s reservoirs are fruit bats. Infected bats can pass the virus to a bunch of other mammals, like rats, primates, and other bats. No one is sure how people became exposed to Ebola, but the best guess is that the monkeys were the conduit. Local hunters in Africa likely became infected while butchering the animals. Anyone who became sick likely infected their family and, if hospitalized in an unsanitary facility, other patients.

5. Gumshoe detective work is the only way to stop an outbreak.

For all the biotech and medical savvy, it takes the investigative skill of a homicide detective to stop an outbreak. Professionals call it “contact tracing,” but it’s really man hunting. Here’s how it works: Ebola victim A is isolated and interviewed. Anyone who had close contact with A is put into isolation for 21 days. (In Texas, there are emergency medical technicians in this quarantine limbo right now.) If they exhibit no symptoms, they’re free to go. If they come down with Ebola, they become victim B, and another contact trace begins. If the investigators miss anyone, the outbreak will continue. The CDC even put out a cool poster of the process.

6. You can order it from a catalog.

The home page of BEI Resources has an interesting tab that reads “Ebola reagents available.” With a couple of clicks of the mouse, you reach a catalog of infectious disease materials available for order. Just what is going on here?

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has set up BEI to make sure research facilities have access to microbiological materials that can help them develop diagnostics and vaccines for emerging diseases. Scientists must be registered with BEI to request materials. The real key here is the word “reagent,” which means the virus is not an active threat. For example, they have Gamma-irradiated Sudan Ebola virus that has been spun in a centrifuge to separate out cell fragments. Reagents won't spread, but they can serve as stand-ins during the development of tests. (On the Biosafety Level, or BSL, scale—which ranks the severity of infectious disease and sets baselines of which safety protocols need to be enforced to work with them in a lab—reagents are treated at Biosafety level 1; Ebola is a BSL-4, the top of the scale for risky bugs.) The best part of the catalogue is the disclaimer: “BEI Resources products are intended for laboratory research purposes only. They are not intended for use in humans.”

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Medicine
Bill and Melinda Gates Will Repay Nigeria's $76 Million Polio-Fighting Loan
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

Not long after announcing a $100 million donation to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, Bill and Melinda Gates have agreed to pay off Japan's $76 million loan to Nigeria to stamp out polio, Quartz reports.

Polio has been eradicated in most countries around the world, but it's still present in Nigeria, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2008, according to The Conversation, Nigeria accounted for 86 percent of all polio cases in Africa. This high number was thanks in part to low immunization rates and calls from extremists to boycott polio vaccinations out of fear that they were tainted with anti-fertility steroids.

National and international campaigns were launched to lower polio rates in Nigeria, and in 2014 the nation received the loan from Japan to boost disease-fighting efforts. Progress has been made since then, with no new cases of polio reported in Nigeria in 2017. Two children had contracted polio in 2016, two years after Nigeria's last known case.

Nigeria's loan repayments to Japan were slated to begin in 2018. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to cover the costs after Nigeria met its goal of "achieving more than 80 percent vaccination coverage in at least one round each year in very high risk areas across 80 percent of the country's local government areas," Quartz reports. The loan will be repaid over the next 20 years.

While the Gates Foundation is lending a hand to Nigeria, the Associated Press reports that health officials in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province recently launched a new chapter in the nation's ongoing struggle against the disease. Health workers will engage in a week-long, door-to-door vaccination campaign, though efforts like this are risky due to threats from the Taliban and other militant groups, who view vaccinations as a Western conspiracy and believe they sterilize children. Anti-polio efforts in Pakistan also suffered after the CIA used vaccinations as a cover to get DNA samples from the Bin Laden compound.

[h/t Quartz]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 Amazing Things Discovered During the Expansion of the London Underground
Crossrail
Crossrail

In 2009, the city of London embarked on a massive infrastructure project: a 73-mile underground railway network called the Elizabeth Line that will ultimately boost urban train capacity by 10 percent. Slated to be up and running by 2018, the undertaking allowed archaeologists to take an unprecedented peek at swathes of subterranean London, and yielded plenty of cool historic treasures from various periods. Here's a small sampling of the finds.

1. A GRAVEYARD CONTAINING VICTIMS OF THE BLACK DEATH

A skeleton belonging to a victim of the Black Plague, unearthed by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While excavating London's Charterhouse Square in 2013, archaeologists unearthed dozens of skeletons. Scientists analyzed the remains and discovered that some of them belonged to victims of the Black Death—a.k.a. bubonic plague—who succumbed to pandemics that swept 14th- and 15th-century England.

Teeth contained traces of DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, and radio-carbon dating indicated that the burial ground had been used during two outbreaks of plague, one from 1348 to 1350 and another during the 1430s. The skeletons also showed signs of poor diets and hard lifestyles, which might have been contributing factors for why Londoners were so susceptible to the plague.

But the so-called plague pit didn't just contain those who'd succumbed to disease. Not only were some bodies plague-free, "what they found was, not bodies tumbled together as they'd expected, but rather orderly burials with people laid in rows with their bodies orientated in one direction," historian Gillian Tindall told The Guardian. This suggests not all of them died due to plague but from other, more everyday causes.

2. AN 8000-YEAR-OLD STONE TOOL

An 8000-year-old piece of flint, discovered by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While digging at North Woolrich, in southeast London, archaeologists discovered a Mesolithic-era site along the Thames where early humans are thought to have crafted tools around 8500 to 6000 years ago. The encampment had traces of campfires and flint scatters, and experts recovered 150 pieces of flint, including an 8000-year-old stone tool.

"This is a unique and exciting find that reveals evidence of humans returning to England and in particular the Thames Valley after a long hiatus during the Ice Age," Crossrail lead archaeologist Jay Carver said in a news release. "It is one of a handful of archaeology sites uncovered that confirms humans lived in the Thames Valley at this time. The concentration of flint pieces shows that this was an exceptionally important location for sourcing materials to make tools that were used by early Londoners who lived and hunted on Thames Estuary islands."

3. A VULGAR VICTORIAN CHAMBER POT

A bawdy Victorian chamber pot, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future London Underground sites.
Crossrail

While excavating the Stepney Green station in East London, archaeologists came across a 19th-century cesspit dating to sometime after 1850. The waste hole was filled with tobacco pipes and fragments of pots, including a raunchy Victorian chamber pot. It was once likely kept under a bed, and allowed for its owner to do their business in private during the evening hours.

The pot's bottom contains a cartoon of a grimacing man, encircled by the phrase "Oh what I see/I will not tell." Witty cursive lines once covered the exterior of the broken vessel. Archaeologists were able to decipher one line, which read "… when you in it want to p-s/ Remember they who gave you this."

4. A TUDOR ERA BOWLING BALL (OR SKITTLES BALL)

A Tudor-era bowling or skittles bowl, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future sites for the London Underground's expansion.
Crossrail

In addition to the aforementioned cesspit, excavations at Stepney Green also revealed a 15th-century Tudor manor house, complete with moat. Originally home to a rich family named Fenne, it was once called King John's Court or Palace, and later became known as the Worcester House after its owner the Marquis of Worcester.

In 2013, archaeologists excavated the home's foundations, moat, and boundary walls. Inside the moat they discovered a wooden ball made from willow, which was likely either used for bowling or skittles, a European lawn game. Other recovered items included fine glassware, tableware, and cooking and storage vessels, all of which were buried when the moat was either destroyed or filled in.

5. A 55-MILLION-YEAR-OLD PIECE OF AMBER

55-million-year-old amber, retrieved by engineers while expanding the London Underground
Crossrail

Slated to open in late 2018, London's new Canary Wharf business district station is located deep below a mixed-use development called Crossrail Place. While tunneling at Canary Wharf was too deep to disturb any buried relics, engineers were still able to retrieve a piece of 55-million-year-old amber from nearly 50 feet below the site's dock bed before construction began. It's the oldest amber to have ever been found in London, and is also notable considering that amber isn't often found in the UK to begin with.

Amber, or fossilized tree resin, takes millions of years and proper burial conditions to form. These preserved relics often contain prehistoric plants and creatures, suspended in the clear material. Experts said they plan to analyze the Canary Wharf amber to learn more about prehistoric environmental conditions and vegetation. The fossil also contained bubbles of trapped gas, which scientists said might yield new scientific insights about global warming.

6. A RARE ROMAN MEDALLION

A rare Roman medallion dating back to 245 CE, found by archaeologists during the London Underground expansion.
Crossrail

Archaeologists excavating Crossrail's Liverpool Street site discovered more than 100 mostly-copper Roman coins, along with a handful of silver currency. They ranged in date from 43 CE, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, to 348 CE.

One of the most exciting discoveries among these coins was a rare bronze medallion that was issued to mark the New Year in 245 CE. Presented by Emperor Phillip I (also called Philip the Arab) to a high-ranking government official, it's only the second example of its kind that's ever been found, according to The Guardian.

"You wonder how it got there, who brought it with them, and then how did they lose it—were they heartbroken?" speculated Jackie Keily, a curator at the Museum of London who organized an exhibition of 500 Crossrail artifacts in 2017.

7. A CLUSTER OF ROMAN SKULLS

A Roman skull, uncovered by archaeologists during the expansion of the London Underground.
Crossrail

In 2013, Crossrail workers found Roman pottery and around 20 Roman skulls while working on the Liverpool Street station site. Other Roman skulls had been found in the area, along the historic River Walbrook, and some speculated that they belonged to rebels led by the Iceni warrior-queen Boudicca, who revolted against the Roman Empire during the 1st century CE. But since the newly unearthed skulls were found in sediment that had accumulated in a bend of the river, archaeologists believe that they likely washed out of an eroded Roman cemetery long ago. Moreover, the skulls appear to date to after the uprising.

8. HEADSTONES OF VICTIMS OF THE GREAT PLAGUE

The gravestone of plague victim Mary Godfree, discovered at Liverpool Street in London during the Crossrail excavations.
Crossrail

On September 2, 1665, a girl named Mary Godfree succumbed to the plague—one of 95 people from the same church parish who died from the disease that day. She was remembered solely by a line in a burial register until October 2015, when archaeologists discovered her limestone burial stone while excavating the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station site.

The area was originally home to the historic New Churchyard burial ground, also called the Bedlam burial ground. There, archaeologists discovered a mass grave, along with the remnants of 10 stone markers. Godfree's headstone didn't mark the presence of her actual grave, as the headstone had been removed sometime during the 18th century and reused in the foundation of a wall. Still, it revealed new insights into how and where the rediscovered Londoner was buried, and what burial conditions were like during the Great Plague.

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