Two plague victims in Aschheim-Bajuwarenring cemetery in Bavaria, Germany who died some 1500 years ago have been unearthed and are able to help provide an international team of scientists with a better understanding the type of virus that was responsible for their deaths sometime between 541 and 543. Thanks to the dental remains of these two unearthed plague victims, researchers using very sophisticated methods were able to extract DNA fragments of plague from the teeth from the skeletal remains and reconstruct the genome of what is now the oldest pathogen obtained to date. Yersinia Pestis or Y. Pestis is also known as plague. This bacterium was found to be responsible for the Justinian outbreak and the results showed that this was unique and distinct from various other strains that would later become the Black Death and other plague pandemics that would follow.
“This study raises intriguing questions about why a pathogen that was both so successful and so deadly suddenly died out. One testable possibility is that human populations evolved to become less susceptible,” says Edward Holmes, an NHMRC Australia Fellow at the University of Sydney.
Up until now little has been known about the exact cause of the Justinian epidemic’s origins or cause. The Justinian plague is thought to have been instrumental in bringing about the end of the Roman Empire and was, until the recent findings were too discover, responsible for the Black Death. The Justinian Plague is believed to have killed 30 to 50 million people, estimated to have been at least half of the world’s population at that time. Later the Black Death would emerge to ravage the medieval population killing 50 million Europeans between 1347 and 1351 some 800 years later. These recent findings now show that the Justinian plague was a unrelated strain from the plague that caused the Black Death.
The new results that are published in online edition of The Lancet Infectious Disease, show that the Justinian Plague was a distinct and separate genome of the same Pathogen know as Yersinia Pestis and not an evolutionary forefather or related to the same Yersinia Pestis strains responsible for the Black Death. Another pandemic that had taken hold in Hong Kong and spread across the globe is now more likely to be considered the precursor to the Black Death.
These findings would suggest that the Justinian pandemic strain also originated in Asia and not in Africa as some scientist originally thought. This would lead them to theorize that earlier epidemics, such as the Plague of Athens (430 BC) and the Antoine Plague (165 – 180 AD) may have also been unique and distinct emergence of related Yersinia Pestis strains.
“We know the bacterium Y. Pestis has jumped from rodents into humans throughout history and rodent reservoirs of plague still exist today in many parts of the world. If the Justinian plague could erupt in the human population, cause a massive pandemic, and then die out, it suggest it could happen again. Fortunately we now have antibiotics that could be used to effectively treat plague, which lessens the chances of another large scale human pandemic” says Dave Wagner, an associate professor in the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at Northern Arizona University.
These studies would suggest that the threat of an outbreak of Yersinia Pestis can occur at any time now, or in the future, is quite possible. Add to this, the possibility of some individual or person intent to using the pathogen as a weapon to wreck terror on an unsuspecting population raises the stakes even higher. New technologies are now available to health and safety teams in the early detection of such possible natural outbreaks and first responders now have the capabilities to be able to equip themselves with the latest tools required to easily and reliably detect not only Yersinia Pestis, but other possible pathogens that could be used as weapons against humanity. This ability to provide early detection is essential in containing and maintaining control of a terrorist planned outbreak and is crucial to preventing another full scale global population pandemic such as those seen in the past.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in rapid and reliable early detection of pathogens that can be utilized against terrorist is the BADD line of bio-warfare detection tests produced by AdVnt Biotechnologies LLC. Developed in response to the white powder incidents that occurred after 9/11, the tests were used in the detection of bio-warfare pathogens during the Iraq War. This line of tests gave first responders the ability to arrive at a possible bio-threat scene and test for powders and liquids left by suspected terrorist and ascertain within 15-minutes or less if the material held the potential of becoming a cause of wide spread contamination. This rapid testing with their on-the-scene detection capabilities helped to open windows of opportunities for immediate containment and control of a possible pandemic. AdVnt Biotechnologies was also the first to revolutionize the hand held assays when they were the first to develop a testing platform that allows for the collection of one suspicious sample of unknown origin to be tested against multiple targets on one detection test cassette. In the not too distant past, responders would have to collect up to 5 samples and run 5 tests one at a time to discover what active agent provided the danger of contamination. If there was very little or sparse material left behind, the residue would have to be sent off site to be examined while the clock was ticking. With the invention of AdVnt Biotechnologies ground breaking PS-5T Pro-Strip multi-agent rapid screening system, for the first time, responders have the ability to hit five different targets from one collected bio-threat sample. Saving time, saving resources, saving lives.