The Rapid Spread of a Deadly Virus

Virus on the rise:  The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in China has jumped to 4,515, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reports Nature.  At least 106 people have died from the respiratory illness—which belongs to the same family as the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. There have been no deaths outside of China, but more than 80 cases of infection have been reported in other countries, including five in the U.S., 14 in Thailand and eight in Hong Kong, according to The New York Times.  Chinese authorities have quarantined major cities in the province that includes Wuhan, where the virus emerged in December, to try to stop the outbreak’s spread, affecting some 56 million people. The virus is believed to have come from a wholesale market where vendors legally sold live animals from stalls in close quarters with hundreds of others, Steven Lee Myers reports for The New York Times. Nearly two decades ago, SARS had a similar origin story, jumping from bats to Asian palm civets, and then to humans involved in the wildlife trade.

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Deadly greens: Since 2017, leafy greens have become the leading cause of E. coli infections in the United States, but a six-month Boston Globe investigation found the FDA’s response lacking: slow to investigate or publicize reports of E. coli outbreaks; reluctant to warn consumers of the risks; and protective of the names of growers linked to multiple outbreaks. Since 2017, there have been 500 documented illnesses and six deaths from leafy green vegetables contaminated by E. coli, but because it can be difficult to diagnose an E. coli infection, the number of cases is probably much greater. “There is no oversight,” said food safety lawyer Shawn Stevens. “There is no one watching (lettuce) being harvested or distributed or transported to the processing facility or being washed or being packaged.” The source of E. coli on lettuce and other vegetables is often from manure or contaminated water from nearby livestock operations, writes The Wall Street Journal. “With every outbreak, there’s a cow somewhere,” Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who has tracked food-poisoning incidents linked to greens for almost 20 years, told Consumer Reports.

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Drug ring: The billionaire founder of the pharmaceutical company Insys Therapeutics, John Kapoor, was sentenced to 66 months in prison for bribing physicians to prescribe large amounts of a fentanyl spray called Subsys, meant to alleviate pain from cancer, to patients without the disease. USA Today reported that it was the longest prison term imposed on seven former Insys executives sentenced in the past few weeks: former vice president Michael Gurry and national director of sales Richard Simon each received 33 months in prison; former Insys CEO Michael Babich was sentenced to 30 months; the company’s regional sales director Joseph Rowan to 27 months; and Sunrise Lee, former regional sales director, to one year and a day in prison. After its former executives were found guilty last year, the company agreed to pay $225 million to settle federal fraud charges and to divest its ownership of Subsys, and then filed for bankruptcy. At the sentencing, victims and relatives described the pain and suffering that resulted from the conspiracy: Deborah Fuller said her daughter, Sarah Fuller, was prescribed Subsys even though she didn’t have cancer, and blamed Kapoor and his co-conspirators for her overdose death. “She was robbed by Kapoor of her wedding day,” she said. “The impact of his actions has forever broken our family and Sarah’s fiancé. The actions of John Kapoor and his conspirators have been a sentence of hell for our family.”

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Scammers to slammer: Three men behind an $11 million telemarketing scam that targeted the elderly were sentenced to prison last week by a federal judge in North Carolina. Donald Dodt, 76, Thomas Sniffen, 58, and Michael Saxon, 50, were sentenced to 90 months, 114 months and 75 months in prison, respectively. The judge also ordered restitution in the amount of $7 million for Dodt, $11,236,857.65 for Sniffen and $2,593,574.02 for Saxon. As part of the scam, Dodt, Sniffen, and Saxon convinced their victims that they had won a sweepstakes and stood to receive a large amount of money. They then told them that they needed to make a series of up-front cash payments before collecting, purportedly for items like insurance, taxes and import fees.

  • Also: Scammers are posing as FedEx and other delivery companies, sending texts about fake package deliveries, and then asking people to complete a customer satisfaction survey and provide credit card details in order to claim a reward, Taylor Telford reports for The Washington Post. The reward, by the way, is a fat recurring monthly charge of nearly $100.

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Backpedaling: Toyota and Honda have recalled more than 6 million vehicles worldwide because of two different problems with vehicle air bags, writes the AP’s Tom Krisher. Toyota is recalling 3.4 million cars because the air bags may not inflate on impact; Honda is recalling 2.7 million vehicles in the U.S. and Canada with Takata air bag inflators because the air bags could explode a metal canister and hurl shrapnel at drivers and passengers. The news follows an announcement earlier this month that Takata will recall 10 million air bag inflators in the largest single auto safety recall in history, Reuters reports. Prior to the latest recalls, U.S. vehicles equipped with 56 million defective Takata air bags were recalled because the inflators can explode when deployed. At least 25 deaths and more than 290 injuries have been linked to faulty Takata air bag inflators across the globe.

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Fatal flight: A team of reporters from the Los Angeles Times pieced together the itinerary of the helicopter ride that ended in tragedy this weekend, killing Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna as well as seven others. A light fog in the morning thickened to heavier cloud cover, enough for the Los Angeles Police Department to ground their helicopter units. The pilot asked flight controllers to keep an eye on them. As he approached the hills of Calabasas at 150 miles per hour, they told him he was too low for them to see on radar. The helicopter rose 765 feet in 36 seconds, enough to clear adjacent hills. What caused the helicopter to veer off course and subsequently drop 325 feet in 14 seconds remains a mystery. Federal investigators have begun looking into the cause of the crash.

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A sticky nonstick situation: There is a surprising culprit spreading per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, also known informally as the “forever chemicals”: A lightning-fast ski wax marketed to skiers and snowboarders. As Bill Donahue reports for Outside Magazine, the key chemical ingredient was rejected for commercial use by the EPA in late 2018, and then later approved by the same agency last June—in a (perhaps not-so-surprising) about-face—via an opaque and inscrutable decision-making process. The manufacturer, Swix Sport, avoided scrutiny because of a loophole called the low volume exemption because it planned to produce less than the EPA’s threshold of 10,000 kilograms (approximately 22,000 pounds) of material a year. The consequences may be low for those who rarely come into contact with the substance, but for professionals it is a different story: Donahue writes that in a 2010 study, World Cup ski technicians had around 45 times as much fluorocarbon in their blood as nonskiers.

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Dialing out: A Vice investigation by Molly Taft found that Vermont doctors and hospital staff are increasingly, and illegally, relying on police interference to manage situations with mental health patients. At least nine of Vermont’s 14 emergency rooms, including six of its eight hospitals serving rural populations, have been cited by national regulators over the past five years for improperly calling police to help with mental health patients. In 2016, police tackled a patient who had been seeking treatment for anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts; in two separate incidents in 2018, county sheriffs called by hospital staff tasered patients seeking treatment for mental health issues. Under federal rules, only hospital staff should handle psychiatric patients, and private security guards should be trained and supervised by the hospital at all times; police officers “cannot lay hands on an individual who is committing (or has committed) a crime in the emergency department unless they are going to arrest and remove the individual,” according to Vermont’s Department of Mental Health.

Jessica McKenzie is an independent journalist. Find more of her work at jessicastarmckenzie.com.

 

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