Nation roundup for Aug. 30
US fears the return of extremists from Syria
WASHINGTON (AP) — The case of Mehdi Nemmouche haunts U.S. intelligence officials.
Nemmouche is a Frenchman who authorities say spent 11 months fighting with the Islamic State group in Syria before returning to Europe to act out his rage. On May 24, prosecutors say, he methodically shot four people at the Jewish Museum in central Brussels. Three died instantly, one afterward. Nemmouche was arrested later, apparently by chance.
For U.S. and European counterterrorism officials, that 90-second spasm of violence is the kind of attack they fear from thousands of Europeans and up to 100 Americans who have gone to fight for extremist armies in Syria and now Iraq.
The Obama administration has offered a wide range of assessments of the threat to U.S. national security posed by the extremists who say they’ve established a caliphate, or Islamic state, in an area straddling eastern Syrian and northern and western Iraq, and whose actions include last week’s beheading of American journalist James Foley. Some officials say the group is more dangerous than al-Qaida. Yet intelligence assessments say it currently couldn’t pull off a complex, 9-11-style attack on the U.S. or Europe.
However, there is broad agreement across intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the immediate threat from radicalized Europeans and Americans who could come home to conduct lone-wolf operations. Such plots are difficult to detect because they don’t require large conspiracies of people whose emails or phone calls can be intercepted.
The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings were like that, carried out by radicalized American brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev acting on their own. So was the 2010 attempt to bomb New York’s Times Square by Faisal Shahzad, who received training and direction in Pakistan but operated alone in the United States.
On Friday, Britain raised its terror threat from “substantial” to “severe,” its second highest level, citing a foreign fighter danger that made a terrorist attack “highly likely.” The U.S. didn’t elevate its national terrorist threat level, though White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration was closely monitoring the situation.
Florida’s manatees may lose endangered status
MIAMI (AP) — As they do whenever they visit Florida, Greg Groff and his young daughter stopped by the manatee pool at Miami Seaquarium, where the speed bump-shaped marine mammals placidly swim in circles.
They noted the pink scars and disfigured tail on one manatee, damage from a boat propeller that left it unable to survive in the wild.
Florida’s manatees need even more stringent protections than their listing on the federal endangered species list, Groff said, adding that boaters should go elsewhere if they don’t like speed limits in waters where manatees swim.
“There’s plenty of places they can go faster,” the Chicago man said. “They can go out in the middle of the ocean if they want to go much, much, much quicker, and you won’t have to worry about them running the manatees over.”
Groff’s comments are representative of the environmentalist and general public side of an ongoing fight with a group of boaters, businesses and conservatives over whether the manatee should retain its 1967 federal listing as an endangered species, the most protective classification.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether the manatee should be reclassified as a “threatened” species, which would allow some flexibility for federal officials as the species recovers while maintaining most of the protections afforded to animals listed as endangered.
As part of the lengthy review process, the agency is seeking public comment on its finding that a petition to reclassify the manatee has merits. The deadline is Tuesday. A decision on whether a change is warranted won’t be made until the agency completes its review, which could take a year.
Manatees are vegetarian giants that average nearly 10 feet long and 2,200 pounds and live near the shore and in coastal waterways around much of Florida. Among the animal’s biggest threats are boats and fishing debris.
Experimental Ebola drug showing promise
An experimental Ebola drug healed all 18 monkeys infected with the deadly virus in a study, boosting hopes that the treatment might help fight the outbreak raging through West Africa — once more of it can be made.
The monkeys were given the drug, ZMapp, three to five days after they were infected with the virus and when most were showing symptoms. That is several days later than any other experimental Ebola treatment tested so far.
The drug also completely protected six other monkeys given a slightly different version of it three days after infection in a pilot test. These two studies are the first monkey tests ever done on ZMapp.
“The level of improvement was utterly beyond my honest expectation,” said one study leader, Gary Kobinger of the Public Health Agency of Canada in Winnipeg.
“For animal data, it’s extremely impressive,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which had a role in the work. It’s not known how well the drug would work in people, who can take up to 21 days to show symptoms and are not infected the way these monkeys were in a lab.
Several experts said it’s not possible to estimate a window of opportunity for treating people, but that it was encouraging that the animals recovered when treated even after advanced disease developed.
The study was published online Friday by the journal Nature.
ZMapp had never been tested in humans before two Americans aid workers who got Ebola while working in Africa were allowed to try it. The rest of the limited supply was given to five others.
There is no more ZMapp now, and once a new batch is ready, it still needs some basic tests before it can be tried again during the African outbreak, Fauci said. “We do need to know what the proper dose is” in people and that it’s safe, he said.
Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people this year and the World Health Organization says there could be as many as 20,000 cases before the outbreak is brought under control. On Friday, it spread to a fifth African country — Senegal, where a university student who traveled there from Guinea was being treated.
There is no approved vaccine or specific treatment, just supportive care to keep them hydrated and nourished. Efforts have focused on finding cases and tracking their contacts to limit the disease, which spreads through contact with blood and other fluids.
ZMapp is three antibodies that attach to cells infected with Ebola, helping the immune system kill them.
Of the seven people known to have been treated with ZMapp, two have died — a Liberian doctor and a Spanish priest. The priest received only one of three planned doses. The two Americans recovered, as have two Africans who received ZMapp in Liberia — a Congolese doctor and a Liberian physician’s assistant who were expected to be released from a treatment center on Saturday. A British nurse also got the drug, reportedly the two unused doses left over from treating the Spanish priest.
Doctors have said there is no way to know whether ZMapp made a difference or the survivors recovered on their own, as about 45 percent of people infected in this outbreak have.
ZMapp’s maker, Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., of San Diego, has said the small supply of the drug is now exhausted and that it will take several months to make more. The drug is grown in tobacco plants and was developed with U.S. government support.
Kobinger said it takes about a month to make 20 to 40 doses at a Kentucky plant where the drug is being produced. Officials have said they are looking at other facilities and other ways to ramp up production, and Kobinger said there were plans for a clinical trial to test ZMapp in people early next year.
The monkey study involved scientists from the Canada health agency, Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease.
Eighteen monkeys were given lethal amounts of Ebola in a shot, then received three intravenous doses of ZMapp, given three days apart starting three to five days after they were infected. Some were showing severe symptoms such as excessive bleeding, rashes and effects on their liver.
All treated with ZMapp survived; three other infected monkeys who did not get the drug died within eight days.
Primates have been good stand-ins for people for many viral diseases, but how well they predict human responses to Ebola, “we just don’t know,” said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, a Duke University infectious disease specialist. The study also “tells us nothing about side effects” people might have, he added.
Still, it was encouraging that even monkeys with severe symptoms got better, said Wolfe and Erica Ollmann Saphire, a Scripps Research Institute professor who has worked with some of the study leaders on antibodies to Ebola.
“The treatment window in humans needs to be established in a well-controlled trial” that also would explore the correct dose of ZMapp in people, Saphire wrote in an email. “Given its tremendous efficacy in the nonhuman primates, I don’t see how it couldn’t be helpful in people.”
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