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Scientists are producing deadly zoonoses on this tiny German island
The German island of Riems is home to some of the most dangerous virology research on the planet.
- The Friedrich Loeffler Institute in Germany is a biosafety level 4 facility where scientists conduct dangerous research on zoonoses.
- Zoonoses are diseases that can be spread from animals to humans, or vice versa.
- These diseases not only pose a major threat to humans, but also to animals.
On a small, unassuming German island called Riems lies one of the oldest virus research institutes in the world. And also one of the most dangerous.
The Friedrich Loeffler Institute is closed to the public. To access the island, approved visitors must first cross a small stretch of the Baltic Sea via a dam, which can be closed immediately in case of an outbreak. To enter the facility, they must take a shower and put on protective clothing. Inside, scientists study some of the world's most deadly viruses, including bird flu, Ebola and mad cow disease.
One of their many focuses is zoonoses, which are diseases that can be spread from animals to humans, or vice versa. But the facility was originally founded in 1910 to study foot-and-mouth disease. Over the following decades, the Friedrich Loeffler Institute was used for various purposes, including the development of chemical weapons during World War II, vaccine research during the Cold War, and the study of animal welfare and husbandry. It eventually earned the nickname the "island of plagues."
In 2010, the Friedrich Loeffler Institute completed construction on a series of new laboratories that are classified as biosafety level 4, one of the most dangerous distinctions. Today, there are only a handful of level-4 facilities worldwide.
Map of level-4 facilities
The institute is also one of only two facilities worldwide with the ability to conduct large-scale animal studies, such as with swine and cattle. Robin Holland, a student in the Veterinary Medical Scholars Program at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, described her experience studying pathology at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute like this:
"I learned how these diseases are managed, controlled, and diagnosed in real-world scenarios, their prevalence globally, and their potential for economic impact if outbreaks were to occur in a naïve population."
University of Greifswald
Holland also described the containment procedures at the institute.
"Alongside engineers and biorisk officers, I saw the massive infrastructure of the FLI, including HEPA filtration of exhaust air, room decontamination by dry fogging, waste water treatment, and carcass rendering to animal byproducts. I learned how the level 2 through 4 facilities are managed, protocols for containment in the event of an emergency, and how facilities are designed and personnel are trained in order to ensure that—especially considering work with highly contagious pathogens such as FMDV—all pathogens are contained within the facility."
Zoonoses: A bigger threat to humans or animals?
Zoonoses pose a major threat to humans. From malaria to rabies, they account for about 60 percent of all infectious diseases contracted by humans, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that "3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people are spread from animals." But as scientists continue to study how to treat, prevent and contain these infectious diseases, it's also worth noting the threats they pose to animals.
"The animal toll has been much greater," neurobiologist and public health physician Professor Charles Watson from Curtin University told Abc.net. "When the Nipah virus broke out in Malaysia in the late 1990s there were relatively few human deaths but five million pigs had to be slaughtered in order to wipe it out."
One reason zoonoses are so deadly for animals is that some mysteriously don't hurt humans, even when we contract them.
"It is really unpredictable, however many viruses are successful because they do not kill their human hosts and therefore get better transmission from person to person."
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Some mysteries take generations to unfold.
- In 1959, a group of nine Russian hikers was killed in an overnight incident in the Ural Mountains.
- Conspiracies about their deaths have flourished ever since, including alien invasion, an irate Yeti, and angry tribesmen.
- Researchers have finally confirmed that their deaths were due to a slab avalanche caused by intense winds.
a: Last picture of the Dyatlov group taken before sunset, while making a cut in the slope to install the tent. b: Broken tent covered with snow as it was found during the search 26 days after the event.
Photographs courtesy of the Dyatlov Memorial Foundation.<p>Finally, a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-020-00081-8" target="_blank">new study</a>, published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, has put the case to rest: it was a slab avalanche.</p><p>This theory isn't exactly new either. Researchers have long been skeptical about the avalanche notion, however, due to the grade of the hill. Slab avalanches don't need a steep slope to get started. Crown or flank fractures can quickly release as little as a few centimeters of earth (or snow) sliding down a hill (or mountain). </p><p>As researchers Johan Gaume (Switzerland's WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF) and Alexander Puzrin (Switzerland's Institute for Geotechnical Engineering) write, it was "a combination of irregular topography, a cut made in the slope to install the tent and the subsequent deposition of snow induced by strong katabatic winds contributed after a suitable time to the slab release, which caused severe non-fatal injuries, in agreement with the autopsy results."</p><p>Conspiracy theories abound when evidence is lacking. Twenty-six days after the incident, a team showed up to investigate. They didn't find any obvious sounds of an avalanche; the slope angle was below 30 degrees, ruling out (to them) the possibility of a landslide. Plus, the head injuries suffered were not typical of avalanche victims. Inject doubt and crazy theories will flourish.</p>
Configuration of the Dyatlov tent installed on a flat surface after making a cut in the slope below a small shoulder. Snow deposition above the tent is due to wind transport of snow (with deposition flux Q).
Photo courtesy of Communications Earth & Environment.<p>Add to this Russian leadership's longstanding battle with (or against) the truth. In 2015 the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation decided to reopen this case. Four years later the agency concluded it was indeed a snow avalanche—an assertion immediately challenged within the Russian Federation. The oppositional agency eventually agreed as well. The problem was neither really provided conclusive scientific evidence.</p><p>Gaume and Puzrin went to work. They provided four critical factors that confirmed the avalanche: </p><ul><li>The location of the tent under a shoulder in a locally steeper slope to protect them from the wind </li><li>A buried weak snow layer parallel to the locally steeper terrain, which resulted in an upward-thinning snow slab</li><li>The cut in the snow slab made by the group to install the tent </li><li>Strong katabatic winds that led to progressive snow accumulation due to the local topography (shoulder above the tent) causing a delayed failure</li></ul><p>Case closed? It appears so, though don't expect conspiracy theories to abate. Good research takes time—sometimes generations. We're constantly learning about our environment and then applying those lessons to the past. While we can't expect every skeptic to accept the findings, from the looks of this study, a 62-year-old case is now closed.</p><p> --</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
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Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.