A well-done and comprehensive article on Der Spiegel online by Veronika Hackenbroch, Samiha Shafy and Frank Thadeusz confirmed a few things but also raised more questions.

By the numbers: This E. coli O104:H4 outbreak is the third largest that I have found (behind Japan’ E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 1996 and Canada’s E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 2000). To date, 1,200 are reported ill in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands. There have been others reported ill with E. coli infections in both Switzerland and Spain, but as yet not confirmed as part of this larger outbreak. Two U.S. residents who recently traveled in northern Germany appear to be among victims of a massive outbreak, federal health officials confirmed Tuesday.  373 have been confirmed with acute kidney failure (hemolytic uremic syndrome) and there are 16 deaths. Nearly 70% of those sickened have been women. The numbers in this tragedy seem clear, the cause, perhaps less so.

Arion_vulgaris_Orth.jpgEarlier reports from Germany officials linked the outbreak to Spanish cucumbers after the lab at the Hamburg Institute for Hygiene and Environment found “four positive results … on three cucumbers from Spain and one from somewhere else, possibly the Netherlands … Two of the cucumbers were organic … [However, the lab] isn’t sure about the other ones yet.”

Then today Hamburg’s health minister announce that “Spanish cucumbers were probably not the source … [as] the bacteria on two of the four cucumbers did not match” the bacteria in stools of ill patients. However, warnings against eating cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce have not been lifted.

Speculation has also arisen as to the original method of contamination (assuming it is cucumbers, tomatoes and/or lettuce). Liquid manure, water contamination have been discussed. However, apparently now the lowly slug is being fingered, albeit the Spanish slug, Arion vulgaris.

Whatever the source, this bug is nasty. Mr. E. coli in Germany, Dr. Helge Karch, reported that “the O104:H4 bacteria responsible for the current outbreak are a so-called “chimers” that contains genetic material from various E. coli bacteria. It also contains DNA sequences from plague bacteria which makes it particularly pathogenic.”

I can only imagine what is happening in hospitals throughout Europe (and now in the U.S.). The health and agricultural ministries from the various countries involved are talking past each other and shifting blame when they can. There clearly seems to be some confusion as to the vector of the outbreak, but there should be no confusion that public health comes first.

  • John

    So who can you sue when an outbreak is caused by a government-sanctioned genetically modified and weaponized bacteria?

  • Minkpuppy

    When I was in college, I worked in a plant genetics lab that introduced plant disease resistance genes into harmless strains of E. coli bacteria in order to replicate the genes into a large enough amount to analyze and isolate the sequence. They used E.coli because it was so easy to introduce foreign DNA into the bacterial plasmid. I never thought about it much until I learned that E. coli bacteria and several other bacteria can readily exchange genetic information with each other.

    I now question the wisdom of using these “harmless” bacteria for genetic studies. Did scientists unwittingly engineer superbugs while trying to discover and understand the mechanics of disease resistance in plants and animals?

  • Gabrielle Meunier

    Perhaps they will have impetus to develop their own Food Safety Modernization Act throughout Europe.

  • On question/concern I have had about this whole matter is this: the original suspected Spanish cucumbers (since cleared) were stated to be organic? The suspected source: manure.
    But highly antibiotic resistant e. coli would logically be more likely to occur in the manure of animals routinely fed antibiotics.
    I don’t know the EU regulations regarding what food can be sold as “organic”, but shouldn’t it include the requirement that the amendments be organic? Not just manure instead of petrochemical fertilizers, but manure from organically raised animals?
    (Never minding that, IIRC, manure should be cured in the sun for at least 90 days, or composted, precisely to kill off pathogens.)

  • I find absolutely weird those organic vegetables “may be the cause” and nobody has been able to identify the sure source of this epidemic spread of the bacteria. Also noticeable to me, is that the blame is on Spain, especially when there are no Spanish consumers reported ill, and when the Spain economy is stumbling. It smells like a dirty move to me…

  • Bacteria are mutating, keeping one step ahead of us. The necessity for vaccines for live animals becomes more pronounced, and must be pursued. We also need to develop other interventions for use at slaughter plants, if we want to stay ahead of the mutating bugs. FSIS should place low dose/low penetration “irradiation” of carcasses towards the top of its list. Such treatment does NOT use radioactive isotopes, but a mere electronic treatment which admittedly is not a kill step, but will lower the numbers of microbes. All our other existing interventions also lack a kill step, but are authorized because they act in tandem with each other to lower the numbers of pathogens.

  • Minkpuppy

    I just remembered something else about that plant genetics lab: They also inserted genes for antibiotic resistance into that generic E.coli so they could treat the cell cultures with antibiotics to kill off any undesirable bacteria and isolate the bacteria containing the gene sequence they were studying.

    It seems to me that this tinkering with bacterial genomics could also lead to antibiotic resistance but no one ever mentions it. The focus is always on feeding animals antibiotics (ignoring the fact that some doctors and humans also overuse them). What if it’s more than that?

    A sloppy lab worker could theoretically take this bug home to the kids or to their own cattle if they farm also. Once in the wild, the bacteria will start exchanging DNA with it’s pathogenic cousins, creating an antibiotic resistant bug that goes on to do the same with the other nasties out there. It’s another angle to think about at least and probably one that rarely is considered.

    I wonder if researchers have looked at whether some of these bugs carry markers associated with the common E.coli bugs that are used for genetic studies. Probably not.

  • G.

    Re: Minkpuppy. The antibiotics resistance they introduce in GM work is not agains any antibiotic that is relevant for clinical practice; researchers are well aware of the risks with regards to lateral transmission.

  • Minkpuppy

    Beg to differ with you on that. The lab I was working in was definitely using antibiotics commonly used in human medicine. I very clearly remember penicillin and amphicillin resistance as the markers and as the individual tending to the cultures, it was my responsibility to treat them with the antibiotics.