Media outlets across the Northwest United States began reporting on April 24 that a strange, previously unknown strain of virulent airborne fungi that has already killed at least six people in Oregon, Washington and Idaho is spreading throughout the region. The fungus, according to expert microbiologists, who have expressed alarm about the emergence of the strain, is a new genotype of Cryptococcus gatti fungi. Cryptococcus gatti is normally found in tropical and subtropical locations in India, South America, Africa and Australia. Microbiologists in the United States are reporting that the strain found here, for reasons not yet fully understood, is far deadlier than any found overseas.
Physicians in the Pacific Northwest are reporting that an undetermined number of people in the region are ill from the effects of the strange strain. Physicians also say that the virulent strain can infect domestic animals as well as humans, and symptoms do not appear until anywhere from two to four months after exposure. Symptoms in humans include a lingering cough, sharp chest pains, fever, night-sweats, weight-loss, headaches and shortness of breath. The strain can be treated successfully, if detected early enough, with oral doses of antifungal medication, but it cannot be prevented, and there is no preventative vaccine. Undiagnosed, the fungus works its way into the spinal fluid and central nervous system and causes fatal meningitis.
The estimated mortality rate is about 25 percent of 21 cases analyzed. Several newspapers and media outlets in the US and overseas quote a researcher at Duke University’s Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Edmond Byrnes, as stating: “This novel fungus is worrisome because it appears to be a threat to otherwise healthy people. Typically, we see this fungal disease associated with transplant recipients and HIV-infected patients, but that is not what we are seeing.”
Microbiologists and epidemiologists studying the strain say the mystery fungus came from an earlier fatal fungus that was first found on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island in the fall of 2001, and perhaps as early as 1999. There the fungus infected and killed dogs, cats, horses, sheep, porpoises and at least 26 people. The disease spreads through spores carried by breezes and wind and when people and animals encounter infected ground where the fungus is present. A number of microbiologists say that the disease has “the potential to essentially travel anywhere the wind or people can carry it.” Reads an alarming study authored in part by Duke University’s Edmond Byrnes: “The continued expansion of C. gatti in the United States is ongoing, and the diversity of hosts increasing.”
Several researchers in California also note that the Cryptococcus gatti fungus has been researched for decades, extending back to the 1950’s, at the US Army’s biological warfare center, Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Maryland. One microbiologist at the University of California at Los Angeles recounted that the fungus was first brought to the attention of Fort Detrick researchers by British scientists experimenting with the bark of eucalyptus trees from Australia. Army biological warfare reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that beginning around 1952 the Army mounted a huge research program involving numerous plant and fungi products, and that well over 300 long-term contracts and sub-contracts were let with over 35 US colleges and universities to carry out this multifaceted research. Examples of this early research in California included experiments and projects at Camp Cooke; Port Huemene; Harpers Lake; Oceanside, and extensive experimentation with wheat stem rust and “various spores” including “several from tropical locations” and cereal rust spores and dyed Lycopodium spores. Several Army reports reveal that private-sector corporations that participated or assisted in these projects were the American Institute of Crop Ecology; the American Type Culture Collection Inc.; University of California; Bioferm Inc. and the Kulijian Corporation.