ASM Biothreats 2018

We’re the source for all things biodefense and the annual ASM Biothreats conference is no different. GMU’s biodefense program was fortunate to send several students to attend and report back on some of the enlightening and captivating sessions during the biothreat event. Below you’ll find several commentaries from each student who attended – happy reading!

Mariam Awad – Biodefense MS Student
Mariam is a graduate student with a background in biochemistry and foreign affairs and is reporting on breakout sessions on the international landscape of biodefense and artificial intelligence for biosurveillance. “During this talk, speakers addressed both bilateral and multilateral research projects in various regions around the world led by various US agencies including State Department and defense threat reduction agency.” Next, Awad discusses “how we can utilize machine learning for creating situational awareness of both intentional and naturally occurring biological incidents. One of the current hurdles in conducting biosurvillance for Bacillus Anthracis and pandemic influenza include lack of tools that can rapidly structure, integrate and analyze large, disparate data with little human exposure and intervention.”

Jessica Smrekar – Biodefense MS Student
Jessica has a background in biology and biotechnology and is giving us insight into one of the keynote speakers, Dr. Ilaria Capua, and her frank talk about the relationship between the government and science. “This particular keynote described her story of shame, falsification, and the effects populism on the scientific community. She began by stating this was the hardest speech she has ever had to give and that we would understand why by the end of it.  She then set the scene by speaking of the turmoil of the modern age and how this age has brought along hard times for everyone.” Next, Smrekar evaluates one of the more controversial discussions – the future of P3C0, noting that “A large portion of the session was dedicated to analyzing the risk of gain of function studies with PPPs and how these risks compare to the benefits from such research.”

Anthony Falzarano – Biodefense MS Student
Anthony, having just attended the GHSA Kampala summit, delves into global approaches to threat reduction through OneHealth. “This new concept that we must consider all the health-related disciplines to truly understand and address the challenges faced in public health has grown to be the backbone of forward-thinking health initiatives like the Global Health Security Agenda.” Next, Falzarano is also giving his perspective on the panel on the international landscape of biodefense. “While these threats may be from natural or man-made infectious disease events, they all share a similar connection in that pathogenic diseases do not respect borders or political lines. This session featured speakers from the United States Department of State, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center. These entities are working both together and in parallel to address the biosecurity risks posed against our country and to the world.”

Justin Hurt – Biodefense PhD Student
Justin is providing us with a detailed account of the breakout session on planning for the future and the DoD programs to help inform biodefense policy. “One such player that has not only significant expertise, but also a robust research and development capability in countering biological threats is the Department of Defense (DoD). Joined by its partner agencies in the national security enterprise, the DoD leads a wide-ranging portfolio of projects geared toward preventing, preparing for, and mitigating the possibility of a future biological attack or public health crisis.”

Stephen Taylor – Biodefense MS Student
Stephen, also a GHSA Kampala Summit attendee, is delving into the talk from DARPA and BARDA researchers regarding prevention planning against the next pandemic. “Justin Yang, a project officer at BARDA, spoke about BARDA’s vision to shrink the gap between patients and treatment, both physically and temporally. For instance, U.S. healthcare providers have access to a myriad of influenza diagnostics. Using these tools in a timely manner, however, is problematic.” Stephen also provides an overview of Dr. Robert Kadlec’s keynote address. “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, though in retreat, still poses a multi-state threat in the Middle East.  Additionally, pandemics such as Ebola and Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza have become increasingly common in our interconnected world.  Dr. Kadlec also acknowledged that global climate change will continue to contribute to unpredictable and intense weather events with potentially disastrous consequences.  The post-Cold War days of peppermint, ponies, and unicorns, Dr. Kadlec emphasized, were short-lived.”

 

Pandora Report: 5.18.2018

 Ebola Outbreak Update
As the DRC continues work on containing an outbreak of Ebola, the question of response measures and vaccine deployment has come up, especially in light of the recent confirmation of a third case in Wangata, a different health zone. The WHO is calling the confirmation of a patient in a metropolitan area, a “game changer” and has initiated emergency meetings. The recent outbreak data now reports a total of 44 cases, 3 of which are confirmed, 20 probable, and 21 suspected. “‘This is not a health issue alone but a crisis that has negative impact on the socio-economic and political situation of the country and the region at large,’ said Lazare Sebitereko Rukundwa. Rukundwa, is the founder of the Eben-Ezer University of Minembwe in Congo, a Hubert Humphrey Fellow and a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government”. In response to these cases, the vaccine (VSV-EBOV) has been deployed to the DRC as of May 16th. 4,000 units of it will be used to help stop the outbreak. “DRC Health Minister Oly Ilunga, MD also tweeted that the vaccines will be kept in special vaccine cold rooms in Kinshasa until they’re ready to be shipped to Mbandaka and Bikoro in the coming days. The Merck-produced unlicensed vaccine will be used to squelch an Ebola virus outbreak currently ongoing in three health zones of the DRC. Health officials will use a ring vaccination strategy, giving the vaccine to close contacts of patients first.”

GMU Workshop on Global Health Security – Don’t Miss Out!
Speaking of an Ebola vaccine…did you know that that Dr. Jens Kuhn (but seriously, he has an MD, PhD, PhD, and MS…so he’s as close to Bruce Banner as you’ll get) will be one of our speakers at the summer workshop? Dr. Kuhn is “a Lead Virologist in the Division of Clinical Research at the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Allegery and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility at Fort Detrick. Dr. Kuhn specializes in highly virulent viral human and animal pathogens”, specifically filoviruses. “Dr. Kuhn was the first western scientist with permission to work in a former Soviet biological warfare facility, SRCVB ‘Vektor’ in Siberia, Russia, within the US Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program” – which means he’s not only a wealth of knowledge, but has some pretty amazing stories to tell. Don’t miss the chance to learn from and chat with experts like Dr. Kuhn at our workshop in July!

Rhodesia’s Chem-Bio Warfare History
Have you gotten the dirt on the Rhodesian chemical and biological warfare program? If you’re looking for a summer read to boost your knowledge on it, GMU Biodefense PhD alum Glenn Cross’s new book, Dirty War: Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare 1975-1980, is just for you. “Glenn Cross’s Dirty War: Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare 1975–1980 is a welcome addition to the small, but growing scholarly literature on the history of chemical and biological warfare. In 1965, the minority white community in the British territory of Rhodesia (officially Southern Rhodesia) rejected demands that it transfer political power to the majority black population. By the mid-1970s, white Rhodesians found it increasingly difficult to counter the growing power of native African nationalists fighting the government. As with many insurgencies, the guerrillas lacked the resources to defeat government security forces in direct combat, but Rhodesian forces were stretched too thin to suppress the insurgents, especially once they had established base camps in neighboring countries. Amidst the conflict, Rhodesian military and intelligence services employed what would now be considered chemical and biological agents against the guerillas with unknown results.”

 Dangers of the Rising DIY Biohacking
It’s likely not the first time you’ve heard about growing concerns regarding the rising popularity of do-it-yourself (DIY) gene editing. From the horsepox de novo synthesis to public stunts at conventions where biohackers injected themselves with HIV treatment, it’s becoming difficult to ignore why these actions are dangerous. The concern regarding the DIY gene editing community is that there are very little restrictions or regulations surrounding what they can or can’t do in a homemade lab. Sure, you can’t go buy Ebola online, but you can start stitching together horsepox, which is pretty scary. “The study’s publication in the journal PLOS One included an in-depth description of the methods used and — most alarming to Gregory D. Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University — a series of new tips and tricks for bypassing roadblocks. ‘Sure, we’ve known this could be possible,’ Dr. Koblentz said. ‘We also knew North Korea could someday build a thermonuclear weapon, but we’re still horrified when they actually do it’.” NYTimes reporter Emily Baumgaertner points to several DIY biohackers who show an unsettling willingness to inject themselves with things they’ve made in their garage labs and that there are fundamentally large gaps in any kind of regulatory system. It’s important to remember that the stop-gap measures in place, imperfect as they are, are for academic researchers, and don’t pertain to those DIY’ers doing it at home. “Authorities in the United States have been hesitant to undertake actions that could squelch innovation or impinge on intellectual property. The laws that cover biotechnology have not been significantly updated in decades, forcing regulators to rely on outdated frameworks to govern new technologies. The cobbled-together regulatory system, with multiple agencies overseeing various types of research, has left gaps that will only widen as the technologies advance. Academic researchers undergo strict scrutiny when they seek federal funding for ‘dual-use research of concern’: experiments that, in theory, could be used for good or ill. But more than half of the nation’s scientific research and development is funded by nongovernmental sources.” As Baumgaertner notes, there are, of course, those in the DIY community who want to ensure biosecurity/biosafety and are just experimenting however, even biohacker celebrity Josiah Zayner has admitted an accident could happen, which would lead to negative outcomes. Whether you’re at home with your mail-order CRISPR kit or you’re working on policies to implement regulations on the biotech industry, we can all admit that the potential for nefarious actors or laboratory accidents is one that warrants safety measures and a hardcore cultural evaluation within the DIY biohacking community. Check out the latest BBC Radio5Live with Rhod Sharp, in which Dr. Koblentz discusses genome editing, biodefense, CRISPR, and biosecurity issues

GMU Biodefense May Graduates and Awards
Congrats to our graduating GMU Bidoefense graduate students – we’re so proud of your hardwork and are excited to see what kind of amazing biodefense work you’ll do in the future! Congrats to two new Biodefense PhDs – Christopher K. Brown (Protecting Critical U.S. Workers from Occupational Exposure to Emerging Infectious Diseases: Toward A Universal Personal Protective Equipment Selection Matrix for Early Outbreak Response) and Jomana Musmar (The Path to PAHPRA: The Evolution of Pediatric Biodefense Legislation and Medical Countermeasure Development). We’re also excited to announce the following Biodefense MS graduates – Zamawang Almemar, Mariam Awad, Laramie Bradford, Michael Conway, Alexander Dowsett, Sarah Doyle, Stephanie Ellis, Haziq Ghani, Zachary Goble, Stephanie Kiesel, Alexander Rowe, Stephanie Smith, and Alexandra Williams. We’d also like to congratulate three of our biodefense graduate students for their student achievements – Stephanie Smith (Outstanding Biodefense Student), Saskia Popescu (Frances Harbour Award- Biodefense Community Leadership), and Christopher Brown (Outstanding Doctoral Student in Biodefense).

Broad-Spectrum Antibiotic Use in Sub-Saharan Africa: Risk Versus Reward
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu evaluated a recent study that analyzed childhood mortality following a widespread distribution of Azithromycin. Popescu not only looks to the experiment and long-term implications of prophylactic antibiotic use, but she also interviewed the PI of the study. “What this study ultimately shows is the considerable impact that mass distribution of a broad-spectrum antibiotic can have against childhood mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Following the publication of the study, however, many have flagged the moral dilemma that follows such results. Although the authors make note of the need for policy implementation for future practices and the potential for antimicrobial resistance, the study has nonetheless posed unique ethical questions. The benefits of mass distribution were supported by their research; however, what sort of long-term costs will such communities pay?”

Restoring Restraint: Enforcing Accountability for Users of Chemical Weapons – Event
Don’t miss out on this panel discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies on June 19, 2018 from 9:30-11:30am. The keynote address will be given by H.E. Mr Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. “In 2012 a 20-year moratorium on state employment of chemical weapons use was broken. Since then there have been more than 200 uses – against civilians, military targets, and political enemies. These attacks have broken norms against the use of weapons of mass destruction and create a gap in the nonproliferation fabric – despite the robust international architecture of laws, treaties, agreements, and norms designed to restrain the proliferation and use of these weapons. Accountability for these recent attacks has been limited or non-existent, which threatens the credibility of the nonproliferation regime and only encourages further use. Leaders must find the political and moral strength to use a full spectrum of tools to re-establish this system of restraint. This event will discuss ways in which the international community is working to rebuild the system of restraint against chemical weapons, and CSIS will also launch on a report on this topic.”

Clade X Exercise
If you missed out on the live-stream of this table-top exercise hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, don’t worry, you can check out the recording or  awesome live-stream Twitter activity by searching #CladeX. This was a wonderful exercise involving experts like Tara O’Toole, Julie Gerberding, Tom Daschle, etc. Responding to a biological incident, whether intentional, natural, or accidental, is challenging on a good day, but Clade X revealed very serious complications and gaps in our response measures. The Clade X exercise showed real-time decisions and questions that occurred during such an event. From quarantine to MCM and even healthcare worker refusals to work, there were several injects that made this an evolution in infectious disease response across multiple sectors and agencies. Even wild card moments occurred, like Arizona trying to close itself off, which is what made this exercise so engaging and rewarding.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Hotel Pools – Icky: it’s something we all knew but didn’t want to admit…hotel pools are pretty dirty. “Today’s report is based on data from the last 15 years said that hotel pools and hot tubs are to blame for one third of waterborne disease outbreaks. The parasite Cryptosporidium and the bacteriaPseudomonas and Legionella cause most outbreaks that begin in swimming venues in the United States. Though chlorine can kill Cryptosporidium, both Pseudomonas and Legionella can survive disinfectants in slimy areas (called biofilm) of hot tubs, pools, and water playgrounds, the CDC said. From 2000 to 2014, public health officials from 46 states and Puerto Rico recorded 27,219 illnesses associated with 493 outbreaks (two or more cases) that originated in treated recreational water. Included in those illnesses were eight deaths.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 5.11.2018

Have you registered for the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security? Don’t miss out on the early registration discount if you sign up before June 1st! Wondering if it’s safe to go back to romaine lettuce? Make sure to check the farm location as officials are saying this E. coli outbreak has a bigger footprint than that of the 2006 spinach outbreak.

White House Nixes Global Health Security in NSC
Just as Ebola hits the DRC, the National Security Council team responsible for global health security has been disbanded. “The top White House official responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic has left the administration, and the global health security team he oversaw has been disbanded under a reorganization by national security adviser John Bolton. The abrupt departure of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer from the National Security Council means no senior administration official is now focused solely on global health security.” Following comments from Bill Gates about our lack of pandemic preparedness and Michael Osterholm’s on the challenges of predicting the next pandemic, a lack of health security coverage in the NSC is extremely worrisome. “Two members of Ziemer’s team have been merged into a unit in charge of weapons of mass destruction, and another official’s position is now part of a unit responsible for international organizations. White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, who had called for a comprehensive biodefense strategy against pandemics and biological attacks, is out completely. He left the day after Bolton took over last month.” Global health security threats, whether it be outbreaks, bioterrorism, or laboratory incidents, are only growing in complexity, which makes this particular shake-up deeply concerning for many in the biodefense world.

 New Ebola Outbreak in the DRC
Unfortunately, Ebola is rearing its head again in the DRC. Over the past five weeks, there have been reports of 21 suspected cases and 17 deaths. Two cases have been laboratory confirmed as Ebola and there are dozens of people under observation and contact tracing. “The DRC has become very good at controlling Ebola. The INRB in Kinshasa is more than capable of doing diagnostic tests without having to ship samples out to the United States. Its director, Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, was the first scientist to encounter Ebola at a time when he was the DRC’s only virologist, and has been involved in every outbreak response since. He and his colleagues have also trained a crack-team of researchers and disease detectives. ‘We’re advanced in public health,’ said Gisèle Mvumbi, a CDC-trained Congolese epidemiologist at the INRB, whom I met when I visited the DRC earlier this year. ‘If you compare us with Europe or the United States, eh, but here in Africa, we are high. We have experience’.” The WHO has officially declared the DRC cases as an outbreak, so now many are wondering if the vaccine will be deployed. The timing of the outbreak though, coincides with Trump’s plans to rescind $252 million that was set aside for Ebola response, citing that the outbreak was declared over in 2016 and that it is excessive spending.

The Characteristics of Pandemic Pathogens
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has just released their new report on the characteristics of naturally occurring microorganisms that could cause a global catastrophic biological risk (GCBR). “The overarching aim of the study was to provide an inductive, microbe-agnostic analysis of the microbial world to identify fundamental principles that underlie this special category of microorganisms that have potential to cause global catastrophe. Such principles could refine pandemic preparedness by providing a new framework or lens through which to survey the threat landscape of infectious diseases in order to better anticipate, prepare for, and respond to GCBR threats.” Within the report, they compile information from 150 experts to discuss modes of transmission, host population dynamics, how human factors and/or complex disasters can elevate pathogens to GCBR, etc.

The Slow Death of Nonproliferation Norms
Charles Blair is taking a hard look at the global shifts in norms regarding the possession and use of chemical weapons. Blair, a GMU biodefense adjunct professor, points to two specific events over the span of just under two weeks, that challenged how the U.S. responds to foreign leaders who take a relaxed approach to CW. Trump’s congratulations to Putin on his re-election and the willingness to meet Kimg Jung-un are “in line with a broad, ominous shift in international attitudes toward chemical weapons and their use. The shift is alarming enough in its own right—but changes in norms that stigmatize chemical weapons directly affect other, and collectively far more important, pillars of the nonproliferation regime.” The rapid international degradation within the nonproliferation regime is surprising, notes Blair, but there were signs starting in 2012 that may have given us a heads up as to the future fissures. Telling moments for norms erosion has been repeatedly seen in the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war and how the international community handles the continued possession and utilization of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Russia, especially, has been an enabler for Assad and whose actions have been corrosive to the nonproliferation regime. Blair’s interviews include “Gregory Koblentz—director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University— (who) discussed ‘just how little Russia cares about these norms and treaties.’ As evidence he cited Russia’s willingness to discount Syrian violations of international norms and to actively shield Damascus from the consequences of violations—by, for example, undermining the Joint Investigative Mechanism, the Fact-Finding Mission, and the overall investigative process in Syria. Koblentz said that because of Russia’s willingness to undermine the chemical weapons regime, he is concerned that Moscow might also be willing to undermine the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Russia, Koblentz said, is ‘the principle vector for the erosion of norms across all the nonproliferation regimes’.” Lastly, Blair underscores the important role the United States has in enforcing nonproliferation norms and the potential for Trump’s recent withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, to become a trigger for proliferation. “The irony, of course, is that any US military action against Iran, North Korea, or both would come wrapped in the cloak of norm enforcement—when, quite likely, Trump’s own pursuit of non-normative policies would cause North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons program and Iran genuinely to pursue a program of its own.”

Clade X Table Top
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security will be hosting the Clade X exercise next week “to illustrate high-level strategic decisions and policies that the United States and the world will need to pursue in order to diminish the consequences of a severe pandemic. It will address a pressing current concern, present plausible solutions, and be experientially engaging. Clade X is designed for national decision-makers in the thematic biosecurity tradition of the Center’s two previous exercises, Dark Winter (2001) and Atlantic Storm (2005).” The event will run from 9am to 5pm on Tuesday May 15th and while seats are invitation only, you can livestream it on their Facebook page.

North Korean Ties with Hamas?
Following the assassination of a Palestinian academic with ties to the Hamas resistance, Malaysian police are working to find two Israeli Mossad agents who are considered the culprits.”With elections underway in Malaysia, the murder has been downplayed, but the investigation is in full-on mode. ‘If Israel is behind it, that seems to be an extension of their policy regarding Iranian nuclear scientists,’ said Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, associate professor at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government’s Biodefense Program in Virginia, via email. ‘In the past few years, several Iranian nuclear scientists were killed, and many suspected Israel of being behind those killings. The problem with assassination is that it is counterproductive: it can cause the scientists to work harder at reaching a working weapon’.”

NASEM Bio, Chem, and Health Security Luncheon – May
Don’t miss out on this May 21st luncheon held by the National Academies. “May’s event will be chaired and moderated by the National Academies’ Board on Health Sciences Policy. Itfeatures Greg Measer, Regulatory Counsel in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats. He will discuss FDA’s initiative to build a national capacity for post-dispensing monitoring and assessment of medical countermeasures. The session also builds on issues discussed at a 2017 National Academies’ workshop on Building a National Capacity of Monitor and Assess Medical Countermeasure Use in Response to Public Health Emergencies.” If you’re unable to attend the event, we’ve got you covered, as one of our GMU Biodefense graduate students will be attending and reporting out.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Clinical Outcomes and Trends of Patients with Carbapenem-Resistant Infections – What are the outcomes of patients with carbapenem-resistant infections? GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu discusses a recent study that evaluates similarities between those with such resistant infections. “The study was conducted in a single-center tertiary-care hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, at which researchers reviewed differences between patients with carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) or carbapenem-resistant non-Enterobacteriaceae (CRNE). Patients with positive CRE or CRNE cultures found from January 2012 to December 2015 were analyzed. However, researchers sought to avoid inclusion of those with colonization instead of true infection, so patients without sepsis and cystic fibrosis were excluded, as were those who were discharged without having received targeted antimicrobial therapy.”

  • Experts Discuss 1918 Pandemic and Global Flu Threat – The CDC and Emory University partnered up to hold a symposium in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 1918 pandemic, to discuss the next pandemic and how we can prepare. Michael Osterholm and Arnold Monto debated regarding a universal flu vaccine. “Nancy Messonnier, MD, head of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said that despite gaps in preparedness, the CDC is better equipped to handle a flu pandemic now than it was in 2009, when a novel H1N1 flu strain first emerged. Technologies, including mobile apps that help consumers find flu shots, and antivirals are putting the power to prevent and fight flu into patients’ hands, she said.

 

Pandora Report – 5.4.2018

Happy Friday and May the Fourth Be With You!

Bill Gates Talks Universal Flu Vaccine, Pandemic Preparedness, and Bioterrorism
Bill Gates has been making the rounds this week discussing the slow progress that has been made in terms of pandemic preparedness. Gates recently spoke at the New England Journal of Medicine’s Shattuck Lecture, where he noted that “We are on the verge of eradicating polio. HIV is no longer a certain death sentence. And half the world is now malaria-free. So usually, I’m the super-optimist, pointing out that life keeps getting better for most people in the world.There is one area, though, where the world isn’t making much progress, and that’s pandemic preparedness. This should concern us all, because if history has taught us anything, it’s that there will be another deadly global pandemic. We can’t predict when. But given the continual emergence of new pathogens, the increasing risk of a bioterror attack, and how connected our world is through air travel, there is a significant probability of a large and lethal, modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes.” You can find the full transcript here, but in his speech, Gates also underscores the risk of biological weapons, noting that “biological weapons of mass destruction become easier to create in the lab, there is an increasing risk of a bioterror attack. What the world needs – and what our safety, if not survival, demands – is a coordinated global approach. Specifically, we need better tools, an early detection system, and a global response system.” He also recently sat down with STAT News to discuss a new initiative he is supporting to facilitate the development of a universal flu vaccine, as well has his time in the Oval Office. “The Gates Foundation is offering $12 million in seed money for projects that would help the world develop a universal flu vaccine. Gates said he thinks that when a universal flu vaccine is developed, it will be made in one of the newer vaccine constructs attracting so much research attention these days.” Gates also noted that when meeting with President Trump, he discussed the need for a universal flu vaccine and sparked the president’s interest through the notion of inspiring American innovation. While Gates isn’t likely to take on a scientific advisor role, he continues to vocalize concerns about global health security and the gaps in preparedness/response efforts.

GMU Biodefense – Food Security 
Interested in biodefense and food security? GMU’s Biodefense graduate program is just the place, as we’re proud to announce that Philip Thomas will be teaching BIOD726 this fall. This course “analyzes threats to food security globally including those related to climate change and environmental degradation; animal and plant diseases; access to clean water; agricultural terrorism; and antimicrobial resistance. Explores the national and global health, economic, social, and ethical impacts of these disruptive forces. Examines strategies for enhancing the security of the global food production and supply systems.”

Avoiding Soviet-Era Disarmament Mistakes With North Korea’s Bioweapons Program
GMU Biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley is trying to get the United States to avoid making the same mistakes when it comes to disarmament. Ouagrham-Gormley notes that with new talks between North Korea and the United States, it is important for the Trump administration to learn from our historical failures and previous disarmament talks. She points to the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), which was launched in 1991 and worked to secure weapons, like nuclear and chemical, that were stored in former Soviet states. Unfortunately, the CTR program was only mildly effective in regards to biological weapons. Ouagrham-Gormley provides some “do’s and don’ts” for our bio-engagement with North Korea. Do engage as many facilities as possible. Don’t adopt a cookie-cutter approach to bio engagement – “Probably the greatest failure of the CTR program was its adoption of a one-size-fits-all approach that did not take into account the particular circumstances of the facilities and individuals engaged. For example, the CTR usually provided former Soviet facilities with biosafety equipment, which was much needed, as scientists sometimes worked with dangerous agents with no ventilation system to prevent the spread of disease should a laboratory accident occur.” She also notes that “without strategies to help scientists exit the bioweapons field and efforts to erode their expertise, a bio-engagement program in North Korea risks maintaining a bioweapons threat and possibly allowing resumption of the program in the future.”

Summer Workshop – Early Registration Discount Extended!
We’re happy to announced that the early registration discount for the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security, has been extended to June 1st. Register before then get the reduced rate for this 3-day workshop on all things health security. Join the conversation with experts regarding pandemic preparedness policy, dual-use research oversight, CRISPR, protecting the bio-economy, and more.

15 Years of Hospital Preparedness
It’s interesting to think that the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) has been working to strengthen U.S. healthcare preparedness for 15 years now. Check out this infographic for some interesting facts – HPP is the only source of federal funding for health care delivery system readiness and 98% of those awarded funds have said that the funding was critical to their response and preparedness efforts. From Hurricane Katrina to the bombings at the Boston Marathon, to Ebola in Dallas, and Zika virus, there is an utter need for supporting healthcare response and preparedness efforts within the United States.

Maryland Branch ASM Annual Poster Session & Student Oral Presentation
Don’t miss out on this chance to attend the Maryland ASM branch meeting on Monday, June 4th from 5:30-8:30pm. This is a great opportunity for students to present posters, meet other ASM members, and learn more about the organization.

Trends in Reported Vectorborne Disease Cases
Mosquitos and ticks are major trouble-makers in the United States.  The threat of vectorborne diseases is becoming an increasing issue within the United States, according to a new CDC report. Researchers reviewed data reported through the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System for 16 notifiable vectorborne diseases (West Nile virus, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, etc.) from 2004 to 2016. “A total 642,602 cases were reported. The number of annual reports of tickborne bacterial and protozoan diseases more than doubled during this period, from >22,000 in 2004 to >48,000 in 2016. Lyme disease accounted for 82% of all tickborne disease reports during 2004–2016.” Tickborne diseases accounted for more than 75% of reports and West Nile virus was the most commonly transmitted mosquitoborne disease. “During 2004–2016, nine vectorborne human diseases were reported for the first time from the United States and U.S. territories. The discovery or introduction of novel vectorborne agents will be a continuing threat.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • FDA Recommends Approval for TPOXX– The FDA Advisory Committee recently voted unanimously to recommend approval for TPOXX for the treatment of smallpox. “While TPOXX is not yet approved as safe and effective by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, it is a novel small-molecule drug of which 2 million courses have been delivered to the Strategic National Stockpile under Project BioShield.”
  • Biodefense World Summit– Don’t miss this June 27-29 event in Bethesda, MD! “Biodefense World Summit brings together leaders from government, academia, and industry for compelling discussions and comprehensive coverage on pathogen detection, point-of-care, biosurveillance, sample prep technologies, and bio recovery. Across three days of programming, attendees can expect exceptional networking opportunities in the exhibit hall, engaging panel discussions, and shared case studies with members of the biodefense community from technology providers to policy makers. The 2017 summit saw more than 250 participants with 35% of attendees titled as scientist/technologist, 30% as executive/director, and 11% as professor.”

Pandora Report 4.27.2018

Happy Friday! To start the weekend right, let’s take a walk down memory lane with this list of deadly epidemics throughout history. In fact, March 25th, was World Malaria Day!

 Inside the Strategic National Stockpile
Warehouses filled with millions of doses of medical countermeasures to protect Americans against infectious disease outbreaks or bioterrorism – that’s what makes up the SNS. The national stockpile is not new, but ownership will soon change as the Trump administration moves oversight from the CDC to a separate department within HHS. ASPR (Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response) is set to take charge of choosing and purchasing what products go into the SNS, come October. “But some public health officials and members of Congress in both parties worry the move will disrupt a complex process that relies on long-standing relationships between the federal program and the state and local agencies responsible for distributing the medicine. During a congressional hearing last week, lawmakers expressed concern that a change could risk the government’s ability to deliver lifesaving medical supplies to what public health officials call ‘the last mile’ — to people in need during a disaster.” While some are opposed to the shift in oversight, others say it will streamline processes. Unfortunately, there is also increasing concern that this move will encourage biotech companies to lobby for specialized, more expensive drugs.

Elevating CRISPR-Cas9
GMU Biodefense graduate student Janet Marroquin is delving into a world of CRISPR and artificial intelligence. “The contentious debate regarding the precision of the commercially available gene-editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9, continues as Nature recently retracted a study published last year on the unintended effects of off-target mutagenesis. The 2017 study used CRISPR-Cas9 to edit a genetic mutation causing blindness in mice but the researchers observed CRISPR-induced mutations in other genes due to off-target editing at higher rates than previously documented.” Marroquin asks – what does this mean for evaluating off-target effects on gene editing? “Joining independent research teams in the application of data analytics and machine learning to gene-editing is Microsoft’s artificial intelligence tool, Elevation, designed specifically for the prediction and reduction of off-target effects by CRISPR.”

Facing the Myths Surrounding Proliferation Financing
A recent report from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) was released regarding the financing of WMD proliferation however, an assessment by the Panel of Experts left many with a dismal feeling. “This assessment detailed several shortcomings in global sanctions implementation that have allowed North Korea to stay connected to international banking channels. The report concluded that North Korea is ‘flouting the most recent resolutions by exploiting oil supply chains, complicit foreign nationals, offshore company registries, and the international banking system’.” The report highlights North Korean actions to skirt financial sanctions, but many are pointing the task force guidance as being misaligned with the findings from the panel. The UNSC resolutions underscore two approaches to proliferation financing – the first is found in Resolution 1540 and requires member states to implement prevention measures for non-state actors, and the second requires states to create and maintain processes to implemented targeted financial sanctions. Implementing targeted financial sanctions and monitoring activities can be challenging though, so what should be done? Information-sharing relationships could be hugely beneficial. “In fact, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley—an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and one of the first to write about the challenges of addressing proliferation financing—recommended in 2012 that governments increase information-sharing relationships with the private sector. This recommendation has since been championed in several other outlets, including an April 2017 report by the Royal United Services Institute and an October 2017 report by King’s College London.” Ultimately, as Aaron Arnold noted, “To make real gains in countering proliferation financiers, policy makers need a fresh approach—one that addresses the institutions that enable proliferation financing and allow proliferator networks to hide behind anonymous corporate registries. Perhaps a good place to start is at home—the United States is one of the world’s biggest secrecy jurisdictions.”

Health Security Workshop – Are You Prepared For The Next Pandemic?
Worried you’re not prepared for the next zombie apocalypse or pandemic influenza? Attend our workshop on health security, bioterrorism, and pandemics to understand the full spectrum of biological threats. We can’t guarantee you’ll survive zombies, but we can guarantee you’ll walk away with more biodefense knowledge and a healthy dose of excitement for all things health security. Don’t miss the early bird registration discount that ends on May 1st!

Attacking Health Facilities – Syria
Critical health infrastructure is vital to national stability and security. Just as we view laboratory capacity and surveillance as crucial components to health security, the ability for people to seek medical care comes into play. What if these facilities were targeted though? A public health research team from UC-Berkley has been monitoring reports in Syria of attacks on healthcare facilities since 2016. “Over 2016 that averages out to more than one attack every other day, says Haar. In the attacks her team analyzed, 112 health-care staff and 185 patients died. Haar and her team found that the majority of attacks occurred via aerial bombing, so it was difficult to identify a perpetrator. These attacks from above nearly always damaged structures. As a result of the attacks, eight clinics and hospitals were permanently closed; 41 other health-care facilities closed temporarily.” You can read the publication here. The researchers were shocked to find out how many health care facilities were attacked. 33 of the hospitals experienced more than one attack in 2016 alone. In fact, two hospitals in Aleppo were attacked over ten times. The notion of health security is a newer one and as threats and technology evolve, attacks like these may come into the dynamics of what it means to establish global health security. As Filippa Lentzos noted – perhaps it’s time to expand the definition of biosecurity to include deliberate threats to healthcare infrastructure.

The Relationship Dynamics of Public Health, Health Care, and Journalism
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu recently sat on a panel at the Association of Health Care Journalists regarding pandemic preparedness. Discussing outbreaks like Ebola and the 1918 influenza pandemic, the panel included physicians and journalists who brought forth experiences in the field and working with the press. “In a world that is led by eye-catching headlines, how can we relay the necessary (and critical) information that may not be as ‘headline-worthy’? Moreover, how can we provide information to the public that can help stop both disease transmission and the spread of fear? There are 2 sides to this challenge; for journalists, they need to understand the basics of epidemiology and infectious diseases transmission, and also the impact of their words. For health care providers and public health officials, ensuring that you emphasize the critical points that can help dissuade fear (ie, specifics of exposures, incubation times, etc) and work with journalists to ensure the right message is being put out.”

 Cargo Ships – The Trojan Horse of Antibiotic Resistance
I fear the cargo ships, even when they bring gifts?  In hindsight, it’s not surprising to think that ships that travel around the world bringing cargo from all over, would also carry germs with them. Buried in the bowels of cargo ships, researchers found 44 species of bacteria and 10 antibiotic resistant genes. It doesn’t help that in some cases, antibiotics are actually painted into the hulls of the ships to reduce growth of barnacles. “Dame Sally Davis, the British Chief Medical Officer, told the ministers that the common antibiotic Tetracycline, which is used to treat common infections in patients, was being added to paint for use on the hulls of ships to prevent the build up of algae and barnacles, known as fouling.” In the larger struggle against antimicrobial resistance, things like this are no longer surprising – the battle against the resistant bug is complex, challenging, and almost humorously persistent.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Australia Battles HTLV-1 – “B is talking about a sickness that has killed her family member and is a potential tragedy facing Aboriginal communities in central Australia, who have the world’s highest rates of a fatal, human immune virus for which there is no current cure, no treatment and no coordinated public health response. Human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1) is transmitted through sexual contact, blood transfusion and from mother to child by breastfeeding. It can cause a rapidly fatal form of leukaemia. Some people die within weeks of diagnosis. HTLV-1 also causes inflammation of the spinal cord leading to paralysis, severe lung disease known as bronchiectasis and other inflammatory disease. In five communities around Alice Springs, more than 45% of adults tested have the virus, a rate thousands of times higher than for non-Indigenous Australians.”

Elevating CRISPR-Cas9

By GMU Biodefense graduate student Janet Marroquin

The contentious debate regarding the precision of the commercially available gene-editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9, continues as Nature recently retracted a study published last year on the unintended effects of off-target mutagenesis.  The 2017 study used CRISPR-Cas9 to edit a genetic mutation causing blindness in mice but the researchers also observed CRISPR-induced mutations in other genes due to off-target editing at higher rates than previously documented.  In their report, the researchers expressed their concern over the alarming target imprecision of the widely-used gene-editing tool and its effect on unwanted mutations in gene therapy.  However, further evaluation of the study by other researchers raised questions about the validity of the study results given the possibility of natural genetic variation introducing mutations independent of CRISPR use.  After eight months of deliberation, Nature determined the cause of the unexpected mutations to be natural genetic variability, as the mice were not genetic clones, and not the pronounced off-target effects of the CRISPR-Cas9 system used, ultimately leading to the retraction of the study from the journal. Continue reading “Elevating CRISPR-Cas9”

Pandora Report: 4.20.2018

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika
The early-bird registration discount deadline is fast approaching, so make sure you’re signed up for the workshop on all things health security from July 18-20! Whether it’s the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, SARS and avian influenza, Ebola in West Africa, or dual-use research of concern, we’ll be covering it all in this three-day workshop. Where else can you mingle with some of the top minds in the field, engage with other passionate health security professionals, and learn about the latest issues in biodefense?

80,000 Hours Interview With Dr. Tom Inglesby – Careers & Policies That Can Prevent Global Catastrophic Biological Risks
If you’re not listening to the 80,000 Hours podcast, make sure to add it to your list. This is a wonderful podcast on making the right career choices and lucky us, they’re covering global health security jobs. In October, NTI’s Dr. Beth Cameron spoke about fighting pandemics and the challenge of preparing an entire country. Cameron spoke about the current state of American health security, what we’ve learned, new technologies, and more. This week, they spoke with Dr. Tom Inglesby from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security on how passionate health security gurus can pursue a career in the field, the top jobs, worrisome scientific breakthroughs, etc. You’ll even catch Dr. Inglesby discuss PhD programs and advisors in the field, in which he names GMU’s very own Dr. Gregory Koblentz! During his talk, Inglesby notes that “I don’t think it’s a good approach to think about it [catastrophic biological risk] as zero sum with other epidemic problems and here’s why: I think in many cases it’s gonna be similar communities that are thinking about these problems. I don’t think it’s likely, even if we really decided to get very serious as a world, I don’t think it’s likely that there will be a community solely dedicated. I don’t want to say never, because it could happen, but I don’t think it’s likely that there will be a robust enduring community of professionals that would only, solely be dedicated to global catastrophic risk, biological risks alone.”

An Afternoon with ASPR – Dr. Robert Korch and Dr. Dana Perkins
GMU Biodefense MS student Anthony Falzarano is reporting on his time at the National Academies monthly series on biological, chemical, and health security issues. “This luncheon – consisting of an open forum session with a two-member panel and a moderator – featured Dr. George W. Korch and Dr. Dana Perkins, both from the Department of Health and Human Services office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). Drawing from their current roles with ASPR as well as their illustrious careers and vast experiences, two presenters made for a compelling afternoon discussing health security issues and the work being done by ASPR to prepare for and address them.” Make sure to read his report-out on this luncheon to learn Dr. Korch’s favorite priorities for ASPR!

Chemical Weapons Attack on Douma – Update
Last Saturday, 105 missiles were fired against three Syrian chemical weapons facilities in a joint effort by the U.S., UK, and France. While this is unlikely to have completely removed Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities, many are wondering how effective the airstrike truly is. “‘This is now part of their standard combat doctrine’,” said Gregory Koblentz, a chemical weapons expert at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The attack April 7 that triggered the U.S.-led retaliatory strikes forced the surrender of a rebel group holed up in a suburb of Damascus. ‘It changed the course of battle on the ground,’ Koblentz said.” Social media is also increasingly playing a large role in the U.S. and Russian dialogue of the attacks. “The heavy reliance of President Donald Trump’s administration on publicly available information marks a shift from his predecessor’s, which insisted on obtaining physical evidence of chemical weapons use with an established chain of custody before considering the use of force. It also highlights the difficulties Western intelligence agencies have faced in obtaining such evidence — blood, hair, or soil samples — from the Damascus suburb of Douma in the days following the April 7 chemical weapons attack that left nearly 50 dead and hundreds wounded.” The Director-General of the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) recently provided an update on the fact-finding mission (FFM) in Douma, which you can find here. Challenges were found in OPCW actually getting into the site. “The United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) has made the necessary arrangements with the Syrian authorities to escort the team to a certain point and then for the escort to be taken over by the Russian Military Police. However, the UNDSS preferred to first conduct a reconnaissance visit to the sites, which took place yesterday. FFM team members did not participate in this visit.On arrival at Site 1, a large crowd gathered and the advice provided by the UNDSS was that the reconnaissance team should withdraw. At Site 2, the team came under small arms fire and an explosive was detonated. The reconnaissance team returned to Damascus.” “The delay in the inspectors’ arrival, 10 days after the attack, will raise fresh concerns over the relevance of the OPCW investigation and possible evidence-tampering. The efforts to investigate the attack, which has been blamed on Bashar al-Assad’s government and sparked a joint operation by the US, Britain and France to bomb chemical weapons facilities near Damascus, has been repeatedly delayed despite Syria’s claim to have established full control over Douma and the surrounding region.” Koblentz notes that “Douma has been completely surrounded by the Syrian government and has been subject to intensive bombardment as part of the regime offensive since February,. The problem is that the territory is now occupied by the Syrian government and the crime scene is no longer secure. It doesn’t lend itself to a credible investigation. It’s like the criminals came back to the scene of the crime and they can do whatever they want with the evidence before the cops show up.”

CRISPR, Avengers, & Super Soldiers, Oh My! 
As we get closer to the release of Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, discussions about super soldiers and genome editing are growing like a mean, green, fighting machine. A frequent topic of conversation during the December 2017 Meeting of States Parties (at least among the ELBI attendees!), Matt Shearer posed the question – is Captain America a biological weapon? What about the other Avengers though – like Hawkeye, who is one of the few “normal” humans in the group? “Hawkeye’s accuracy with a bow and arrow is heavily dependent on his eyesight, which is clearly more advanced than the average human’s. As far as we know, his genome has not been intentionally altered, leading us to believe that Hawkeye has inherited his extraordinary eyesight from his parents. This theory is strengthened by the fact in the Marvel comic books, Barney Barton, Clint’s brother, is also an accomplished archer thanks to his enhanced vision. Perhaps Hawkeye’s advanced eyesight is the result of thousands of years of genetic evolution in the form of adaptation, genetic drift, or mutation of his ancestor’s DNA.” Writers at Synthego decided to look at which genes would need CRISPR modification to improve vision – like targeting specific opsin genes OPN1SW, OPN1MW, etc.

Survey – Most Americans Favor More Funding to Support Biosecurity Capabilities
A new survey by Alliance for Biosecurity has found that public confidence in US preparedness to address biosecurity has dropped. “Nationally, 73% of the 1,612 Americans surveyed say they would have a favorable reaction ‘if Congress decided to increase the budget this year for developing preventive measures for biological and chemical threats.’ How elected officials act on biosecurity issues is important enough to affect voters at the ballot box, according to the survey. A majority of Americans – 52% –  say they are more likely to support their elected representative if that representative is ‘actively engaged in promoting and supporting biosecurity.’ Similarly, 52% say they would become less likely to re-elect a representative who voted AGAINST providing additional funding to the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Only 20% say voting against the additional funding would make them more likely to re-elect that representative.” The survey found that only 31% of Americans are confident in our national preparedness, which is a drop from the 50% found in a March 2016 survey.

Curious 2018
Are you planning on being in Germany July 16-18? Don’t miss out on the Curious2018 Future Insight conference in Darmstadt. “The Curious2018 Future Insight conference is a world-renowned event around the future of science & technology and its application to build a better world for humanity. The best minds in science, technology, and entrepreneurship will come together to make great things happen and join forces to realize the dreams of a better tomorrow.” Topics will include healthy lives, materials & solutions, life reimagined (synthetic biology!), vibrant digital, and bright future.

Foodborne Illness Outbreaks – Romaine Lettuce and Eggs
Cobb salads may be taking a beating this week as two main ingredients are setting food epidemiologists into overtime with E.coli and Salmonella outbreaks. Three days ago, it was announced that the source of a 16-state E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, had been identified as a romaine lettuce farm in Yuma, AZ. The CDC recently announced that 53 people have been sickened and the common ingredient amongst them was chopped romaine lettuce, which was traced back to the Yuma region. If that wasn’t bad enough, over 206 million eggs have been recalled across 9 states due to a Salmonella outbreak linked back to eggs from a farm in Hyde County, N.C., and distributed by an Indiana company. “The FDA said the voluntary recall is the result of 22 illnesses reported in East Coast states, which led to extensive interviews and an inspection of the Hyde County farm. The outbreak involves the Salmonella Braenderup subtype. Federal and state officials have been investigating the outbreak since early March.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Holding Russia Accountable in Salisbury– During this week, the UN Security Council and the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) met to discuss the most recent OPCW findings. Per the U.S. State Department – “The OPCW’s independent report, released last week, confirms the UK lab analysis regarding the identity of the chemical used in Salisbury. We applaud the OPCW’s expeditious support and technical efforts to uncover the facts. We fully support the UK and the need for today’s special meetings of the OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council to discuss the chemical weapons attack in Salisbury and the OPCW’s detailed independent analysis.”
  • Apartment Mice: Harborers of Disease? “In a study today in mBio, the researchers report that a genetic analysis of droppings collected from house mice in New York City detected several types of bacteria capable of causing gastrointestinal disease, including Shigella, Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Clostridium difficile. They also found genes that confer resistance to fluoroquinolones, beta-lactam antibiotics, and methicillin. Overall, more than a third of mice carried at least one potentially pathogenic bacterium, and nearly a quarter carried at least one antibiotic resistance gene.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

An Afternoon with ASPR – Dr. Robert Korch and Dr. Dana Perkins

Anthony Falzarano, GMU Biodefense graduate student 

Last week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine held another event in their monthly series on biological, chemical and health security issues. This luncheon – consisting of an open forum session with a two-member panel and a moderator – featured Dr. George W. Korch and Dr. Dana Perkins, both from the Department of Health and Human Services office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). Drawing from their current roles with ASPR as well as their illustrious careers and vast experiences, two presenters made for a compelling afternoon discussing health security issues and the work being done by ASPR to prepare for and address them. Continue reading “An Afternoon with ASPR – Dr. Robert Korch and Dr. Dana Perkins”

Pandora Report 4.13.2018

Welcome to your Friday biodefense fix! Have you registered for the summer workshop on pandemics, bioterrorism, and global health security? Don’t miss the chance to learn from the top minds in the field on everything from anthrax to Zika.

Blue Ribbon Study Panel Meeting – Transnational Biological Threats & Global Security
On April 25th, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense will be hosting a meeting regarding transnational biological threats. From 10am to 3pm, you can attend (or watch live!) this event. “Biological threats to the Nation increase continuously, recognizing no borders. As emerging and reemerging naturally occurring diseases continue to spread throughout the world, terrorists continue to pursue biological weapons to add to their arsenal, and nation states are establishing new and reinvigorating old offensive biological weapons programs. This meeting of the Study Panel, chaired by former Senator Joe Lieberman and Governor Tom Ridge, will provide the Study Panel with a better understanding of: Current transnational biological threats, Homeland defense and security in the global context, Global security efforts to combat these threats, International public health security efforts; and the need to elevate global health security as a national and global priority”.

Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria
This past weekend saw a horrific suspected chemical weapons attack upon the rebel-held Syrian city of Douma. Victims began seeking medical care on Saturday evening with the telling signs of chemical weapons exposure. Rough estimates are that 500 people sought medical care related to the attack and the WHO has demanded “immediate unhindered access to the area to provide care to those affected, to assess the health impacts, and to deliver a comprehensive public health response.” Healthcare workers on the ground have reported patients with symptoms, “which included frothing at the mouth, suffocation, dilated and constricted pupils, corneal burns, central cyanosis – a blue tinge to the skin – and a chlorine-like odour, were consistent with exposure to an organophosphorus compound. Sarin gas is such a chemical”. Sadly, the use of chemical weapons is becoming increasingly common in Syria, as the Assad regime has revealed an appreciation for the abhorrent tactic. “Gregory D. Koblentz, the director of George Mason University’s Biodefense Graduate Program, said the attack appeared to reflect how much the clout of U.S. policy has faded in Syria. ‘Assad is less concerned about Beltway politics, less concerned by who is in the White House. His calculation is based on whether it will help his chances in achieving gains on the ground, or punishing the rebels,’ he said.” “The possibility of western intervention against Assad was heightened on Tuesday after Russia and its western opponents, the US, UK and France, respectively vetoed duelling resolutions at the UN security council over the latest atrocity. The UN high commissioner for human rights said the world must react to the use of chemical weapons or risk dire consequences. ‘After decades when we thought we had successfully outlawed the use of chemical and biological weapons, the world is sitting idly by while their use is becoming normalised in Syria,’ said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. ‘This collective shrug to yet another possible use of one of the most ghastly weapons ever devised by man is incredibly dangerous’.” What is to be done? President Trump’s recent Twitter activity points to planned use of “smart” missiles, but U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday that the U.S. is still assessing intelligence about the suspected chemical weapons attack. The OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) is set to meet on April 16th to discuss the “alleged use of chemical weapons” in Syria. The OPCW team is also currently en-route to Syria for investigation into the suspected attack. “‘I think it looks pretty clear that a chlorine weapon was used’ on the civilians, said Charles Duelfer, former deputy head of the U.N. inspections team in Iraq, in an interview with NPR.”

Who Owns Smallpox?: The Nagoya Protocol and Smallpox Virus Retention
This week the Center for the Study of WMD held a talk on smallpox stockpiles. Spotlight speaker Michelle Rourke discussed her article regarding the convention on biological diversity and the Nagoya Protocol. If you missed the event, GMU biodefense graduate student Morasa Shaker was able to attend and has provided a detailed account of the day. “While the case can be made that endangered species pose an intrinsic value to the world’s genetic diversity, it is has proven less feasible to make the same case for a virus, specifically the variola virus—the causative agent of smallpox. Nevertheless, Michelle Rourke, a Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for Domestic and Global Health Law, led an in-depth educational seminar organized by the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction to support that very case—the smallpox virus is worthy of our conservation efforts.”

Controlling Dangerous Biological Research
Filippa Lentzos is asking a question we’ve been trying to avoid for a while – how can we control biological research that is inherently dangerous? The desire to advance technologically and in the life sciences pushes researchers and defense programs to invest in biological sciences, like synthetic biology. Just as we make gains in such research, we also worry that adversaries could use the same technologies against us. “Washington, Moscow, and other governments say they are focused only on ‘defensive’ biosecurity activities, but there is a fine line between ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ in this realm, and the alarming military focus on synthetic biology may cause people to wonder if there is some way to control the weaponization of biology.” Lentzos calls upon the international community to face the monster head on – let’s discuss how to address biological research that pushes the boundary of defense into offense. “To accomplish any of this, we have to be able to both characterize and evaluate biological research with high misuse potential. This is exceptionally difficult to do, and continues to elude both the international community and national policymakers.” Lentzos points to the horsepox synthesis experiment as a good example of the failures that occurred along the way and that ultimately, risk-benefit analysis is the wrong approach to biosecurity review. “Good security rests not on evaluating risks and benefits, but rather on managing uncertainty, ambiguity, and ignorance—sometimes even situations where we don’t know what we don’t know. Standard risk-benefit calculations are the wrong approach to evaluating biological research with high misuse potential.”

HHS Large-scale Exercise Moving Highly Infectious Patients
How do you transport a highly-infectious patient? The care of Ebola patients in the United States during the 2014/2015 outbreak highlighted the challenges of moving such patients to regional treatment centers. HHS sponsored a large-scale exercise that took place this week, with a hot-wash today. “The exercise focuses on moving seven people acting as patients with Ebola symptoms in different regions of the country. The patients, including one pediatric patient, first present themselves at one of the following healthcare facilities: CHI St. Luke’s Health-The Woodlands Hospital in The Woodlands, Texas; Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, South Carolina; Norman Regional Hospital in Norman, Oklahoma; St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho, and St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho.At each facility, healthcare workers will collect and ship samples for diagnostic tests to state laboratories, which in turn will practice running the necessary laboratory tests to diagnose the patients with Ebola. As part of the exercise, each patient will receive a positive diagnosis. Using appropriate isolation techniques and personal protective equipment, health care workers then must take steps to have six of the patients transported by air to designated Regional Ebola Treatment Centers. These patients will be placed into mobile biocontainment units for these flights. The pediatric patient will be placed into protective equipment and transported by ground ambulance.” The drills will also involve several airports, which include LAX, Charleston International, etc.

NASEM Bio, Chem, and Health Security Luncheon: April
Don’t miss the National Academies-hosted lunch today from noon to 1:30PM EDT. “April’s event features features George Korch, Senior Science Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) in the Department of Health and Human Services and Dana Perkins, Senior Science Advisor in ASPR’s Office of Policy and Planning. Dr. Korch will discuss recent developments and ASPR strategic priorities in support of the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE). Dr. Perkins will talk about implementation of the recommendations arising from the Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP) and current activities for 2018. This event is free and open to the public, but you must register to attend. This event will not be webcast, and a summary will not be provided after the fact, so please register to attend in person if you are interested! A light lunch and beverages will be provided for all attendees.”

Cyberbiosecurity – A New Way To Protect The Bioeconomy and Gene Editing for Good
How can we better ensure cybersecurity and biosecurity? Researchers are bringing forth this emerging hybrid field that we should be giving more attention to. Life sciences and biotech are heavily engrained in cyber systems. Consider 3-D printing, personalized genomics, medical labs and surgical robots, etc.  “We propose ‘Cyberbiosecurity’ as an emerging hybridized discipline at the interface of cybersecurity, cyber-physical security and biosecurity. Initially, we define this term as ‘understanding the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of comingled life and medical sciences, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness and resilience’.” Promoting this field and strengthening educational strategies is key to inform people on cyberbiosecurity and ensure a trajectory that can be supported. How do we move cyberbiosecurity forward though? “Academia, industry, government or non-profits (including policy, regulatory and legal experts) need to begin to learn to communicate with and educate each other, harmoniously identify and develop priorities, opportunities and specify ‘next steps.’ A major opportunity exists right now to propose a unified structure and common vernacular. Lastly, while definition and assemblage of Cyberbiosecurity is occurring, national or international strategies should be pursued to harmonize the emerging enterprise and foster measurable value, success and sustainability.” As the talks surrounding cyberbiosecurity grow, it’s hard not to consider some of the technologies we’re discussing and their potential. Bill Gates recently wrote for Foreign Affairs regarding the good that CRISPR could do. “the next decade, gene editing could help humanity overcome some of the biggest and most persistent challenges in global health and development. The technology is making it much easier for scientists to discover better diagnostics, treatments, and other tools to fight diseases that still kill and disable millions of people every year, primarily the poor. It is also accelerating research that could help end extreme poverty by enabling millions of farmers in the developing world to grow crops and raise livestock that are more productive, more nutritious, and hardier. New technologies are often met with skepticism. But if the world is to continue the remarkable progress of the past few decades, it is vital that scientists, subject to safety and ethics guidelines, be encouraged to continue taking advantage of such promising tools as CRISPR.” Gates points to several avenues for good – feeding the world, ending malaria, etc. He also notes though that there are legitimate questions regarding the potential for misuse and risks, and that regulations for genetic engineering are decades old and need revision to remain applicable. Part of the process for truly utilizing CRISPR is also to responsibly assess risks and communicate openly.

3MT Competition 
The George Mason University 3-Minute Thesis competition took place this past weekend and we’d like to congratulate Biodefense PhD student Chris Brown on his participation in this exciting event! He was one of ten finalists who competed to explain their dissertation to a non-specialist audience in 3 minutes. Chris described his dissertation regarding protecting critical workers against emerging infectious diseases – “Many different types of workers, including those who provide essential services the rest of us frequently depend on, are at risk of exposure to emerging infectious diseases that spread through the general population. Although many factors play into these types of workers being exposed on the job, protective gear—equipment like gloves, gowns, goggles, and respirators—is an essential part of infection prevention programs aimed at keeping workers healthy. During recent outbreaks, the public health enterprise has tended toward reinventing guidelines for each new infectious disease we face. That can lead to confusion about what guidelines for worker protection should be followed, as well as delays in implementing protective measures as science works to understand the disease agent and its transmission mechanisms. Pivoting toward a system based on worker exposures associated with various job tasks instead of one built around accurately characterizing transmission routes, my research offers a guideline for protective gear that is applicable to a wide range of diseases and that can be used as soon as outbreaks begin. It serves as an off-the-shelf solution for worker protection until empirical evidence supports using disease-specific infection prevention practices.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • In Pictures: Decades of Navy Efforts To Combat Malaria – “Malaria is ranked by the Department of Defense as the number one infectious disease threat to military personnel deployed to areas where malaria is endemic. This includes countries spanning the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, including most of sub-Saharan Africa and larger regions of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, central Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America and the Caribbean.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Who Owns Smallpox?: The Nagoya Protocol and Smallpox Virus Retention

Overview by: Morasa Shaker, GMU Biodefense graduate student

Who Owns Smallpox?: The Nagoya Protocol and Smallpox Virus Retention
By Center for the Study of WMD
Spotlight Speaker: Michelle Rourke

It is more than likely that most people would not be opposed to efforts conserving the critically endangered Borneo elephant found on the island of Borneo in Sabah, or the Radiated Tortoise near extinction on the island of Madagascar. However, it would take a lot more convincing to reach a unanimous consensus that we should conserve a fatal virus. While the case can be made that endangered species pose an intrinsic value to the world’s genetic diversity, it is has proven less feasible to make the same case for a virus, specifically the variola virus—the causative agent of smallpox. Nevertheless, Michelle Rourke, a Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for Domestic and Global Health Law, led an in-depth educational seminar organized by the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction to support that very case—the smallpox virus is worthy of our conservation efforts.

This discussion, based on her article “Never Mind the Science, Here’s the Convention on Biological Diversity: Viral Sovereignty in the Smallpox Destruction Debate,” published in the Journal of Law and Medicine, addressed the smallpox virus retention controversy that has ensued since the disease was declared eradicated in in 1980. Rourke, a PhD candidate at Griffith Law School in Nathan, Australia, found it increasingly more difficult to access virus samples for research purposes while studying both dengue viruses and Ross River virus. These major hindrances in her studies served as the context for her research on the international law around ‘who owns virus samples’ and then using those principles of international law and extending them to a specific case: Who owns the smallpox stocks maintained in the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States in Atlanta, GA and in Koltsovo, Russia? Continue reading “Who Owns Smallpox?: The Nagoya Protocol and Smallpox Virus Retention”

Pandora Report 4.6.2018

Are You Prepared For the Next Pandemic?
Attend the GMU biodefense workshop on pandemics, bioterrorism, and global health security from July 18-20 to learn about pandemic preparedness, vaccine production, health security, and more!  From anthrax to Zika, we’re covering all things biodefense. Register before May 1stand you’ll even get an early-bird discount!  

Recounting the Anthrax Attacks
Wanting a new book for your biodefense book club? Look no further than Scott Decker’s account of the Amerithrax attacks in 2001. One of the chief scientific lead investigators, Decker provides a first hand look into the investigative process and innovative forensics that were used. “Decker provides the first inside look at how the investigation was conducted, highlighting dramatic turning points as the case progressed until its final solution. Join FBI agents as they race against terror and the ultimate insider threat—a decorated government scientist releasing powders of deadly anthrax. Walk in the steps of these dedicated officers while they pursue numerous forensic leads before more letters can be sent until finally they confront a psychotic killer.” This is a great account of one of the largest FBI investigations in the past two decades, the science behind it, and what it was like from the inside of Amerithrax.

 Russia Proposes Joint Investigation Into Salisbury Attack
As if it couldn’t get more uncomfortable…tensions are running high after a meeting of the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) between London and the Kremlin. “Russia had demanded the emergency gathering of the OPCW’s top body in The Hague, after being blamed by the UK Government for the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.” Following this meeting, the UK delegation to the OPCW tweeted “Russia’s proposal for a joint, UK/Russian investigation into the Salisbury incident is perverse. It is a diversionary tactic, and yet more disinformation designed to evade the questions the Russian authorities must answer.” In response, Russian officials are pushing back and stating that their position is “fact-driven” and supported by 14 other nations.

GAO Report on Ebola Recovery & USAID Funds
The 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak was not only devastating, but also severely financially impacting. Response efforts alone cost billions, but what about recovery? USAID (US Agency for International Development) was given the task of supporting recovery efforts in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone however, their fiscal responsibility is being called into question. A new GAO report found that USAID was provided with $1.6 billion for Ebola recovery, of which $411.6 million was obligated for 131 recovery projects. “As of September 2017, USAID had completed 62 of its 131 planned Ebola recovery projects, had 65 projects that were ongoing, and had 4 planned projects that it had not yet started. Of the 62 completed projects, USAID had completed 39 within original time frames and budgeted costs and extended 23. Of the 65 ongoing projects, USAID expected to implement 46 within original time frames and costs, but had extended 19. USAID extended projects, in part, to complete host-government actions, hire staff, finalize project activities, and continue and expand food assistance.” The GAO report found several discrepancies in the data between USAID and its contractors. “In addition, as of December 2017 USAID has not ensured that the contractor has a complete and accurate inventory, which it said is also useful for informing and improving its ability to respond to future global health emergencies. The GAO said it looked at the contractor’s evaluation plan and found some incomplete or unclear elements, which have since been addressed by USAID and the contractor. The report also recommended that the USAID administrator ensure that a complete and accurate inventory of Ebola recovery project is compiled for ongoing evaluations.”

Enhancing Global Health Security Through Biosecurity and Engagement Programs 
The National Academics of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) will be hosting this event April 23rd (12:30-5:30pm) and April 24th (9am-5pm) at the Keck Center of NASEM. “For over two decades, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP) has endeavored to reduce the threat posed by especially dangerous pathogens and related materials and expertise, as well as other emerging infectious disease risks. Through collaboration with other U.S. government agencies and international partners, CBEP identifies and addresses gaps in human and animal public health systems, enhance biosafety and biosecurity standards and procedures, and strengthens the ability of human and animal public health laboratories to detect, diagnose, and report outbreaks of infectious disease. Recently, CBEP collaboration has increased with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), enabling CBEP to advance its security goals across the GHSA countries. Recognizing that it must coordinate with a host of domestic and international agencies and organizations, CBEP has requested a consensus study to be conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAESM) to engage key partners of biological and health-security support, and to assist in articulating a vision for a coherent and harmonized set of programs that align with the larger DTRA, DOD, and USG missions. The overall objectives of the NASEM study are to help CBEP and its sister programs to be as effective as possible while ensuring that critical opportunities are not inadvertently missed.”

 ProMed April Fool’s
If you’re a subscriber to the International Society for Infectious Disease’s ProMed email alerts, you may have come across this little gem on Monday. Little did people realize, the source from the Scotland Sunday Herald was a satirical article. Regarding Anthrax Island in the UK and a possible purchase- “A group of Russian oligarchs is bidding to buy Gruinard Island off the north west coast of Scotland.” “One British source said: ‘If Gruinard had an active volcano under which they could build a lair, replete with shark tank, lasers and dozens of goons in uniform, then this move would make sense. As Gruinard is basically a contaminated hell-hole where we once bombed sheep to death with bio-weapons in the hope of doing the same to Germans, then I cannot for the life of me understand what these oligarchs would want with the place.’ A Kremlin source said: ‘Why should a group of shadowy billionaires not buy up your land of Scotch and haggis? To raise questions about this is typical of lick-spittle imperialist lackeys who see conspiracies by Russia at every turn.’ When asked how anyone could survive on an island contaminated with anthrax, the source initially said that Russia ‘had years of experience with this type of thing’, before adding: ‘You cannot report that. We didn’t say that’.” ProMed issued an alert the following day, after it was notified by readers that the Scottish Herald article was in fact, an annual April Fool’s joke. Who says we don’t have fun in biodefense?

CARB-X Specific Diagnostics Award
A novel partnership may help the battle against antimicrobial resistance. A new $1.7 million award to Specific Diagnostics will help support the company’s antibiotic susceptibility testing (AST), which would significantly help early screening and rapid diagnostics, as well as lowering costs. “CARB-X funding will support the development and testing of Specific’s product, which is designed to quickly detect the emitted volatile molecules that are the first sign of bacterial growth in the blood and to determine which antibiotic is most suited to kill the bacteria. Rapid diagnostics provide quick answers to doctors and can take the guesswork out of treatment decisions in the first critical few hours and days of illness, reducing the chance of life-threatening sepsis and other urgent complications of blood infections. Currently, it can take days of laboratory testing to diagnose a lethal bacterial infection in the bloodstream. Faster diagnosis will enable medical staff to treat the patient quickly with appropriate antibiotics.”

NextGen Happy Hour
Looking to meet other people who are passionate about global health security? Next Generation Global Health Security Network is hosting a happy hour at Penn Commons (700 6th St NW, Washington, DC 20001) on April 26th at 5pm. This is a great opportunity to meet other NextGen members, the 2018 Next Generation Global Health Security Proteges, and other health security colleagues. Please confirm your attendance by April 20th by emailing nextgenghsa@gmail.com.

CDC Makes Gains in AMR Struggle
The CDC is reporting containment of new multidrug-resistant organisms in their latest MMWR. Utilizing data from the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) regarding infections, researchers calculated changes in annual proportion of specific organisms that were highly resistant (CRE and ESBL). “The percentage of ESBL phenotype Enterobacteriaceae decreased by 2% per year (risk ratio [RR] = 0.98, p<0.001); by comparison, the CRE percentage decreased by 15% per year (RR = 0.85, p<0.01). From January to September 2017, carbapenemase testing was performed for 4,442 CRE and 1,334 CRPA isolates; 32% and 1.9%, respectively, were carbapenemase producers. In response, 1,489 screening tests were performed to identify asymptomatic carriers; 171 (11%) were positive.” The new strategy the CDC is relying on (and unveiled in 2017) involves rapid detection, on-site infection control assessments, screening of exposed contacts to identify asymptomatic colonization, coordination of the response among facilities, and continuing these interventions until transmission has been controlled. “The proportion of Enterobacteriaceae infections that were CRE remained lower and decreased more over time than the proportion that were ESBL phenotype. This difference might be explained by the more directed control efforts implemented to slow transmission of CRE than those applied for ESBL-producing strains. Increased detection and aggressive early response to emerging antibiotic resistance threats have the potential to slow further spread.”

Prepare For Pandemics – Reauthorize the Preparedness Act
The CDC’s elite team of disease detectives, the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), is one of our greatest tools against microbial threats, so why do we keep cutting funding? The EIS program was initially established in the 1950s, when biological weapons programs were at trending and smallpox was not yet eradicated. EIS officers are deployed to public health events, and that doesn’t just mean infectious diseases, but can include natural disasters as well. “Over the last decade, however, cuts in funding for hospital and public health programs have diminished resources and capacities to identify and contain infectious disease outbreaks. Rising costs of graduate medical education, combined with disparities between public sector and private salaries for physicians have resulted in fewer physicians applying to the EIS fellowship program. While CDC once had the authority to offer student loan repayment to EIS fellows (as the National Health Service Corps and the National Institutes of Health and do for clinicians in underserved areas and scientists), CDC’s authority expired in 2002.” This can be challenging though as EIS fellows serve two years and repayment requires three years of service. In response to these budgetary cuts, Congress could, within the reauthorization of the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA), “reinstate CDC’s loan repayment authority and conform the commitment to CDC employment to the term of current fellowship programs.” This would encourage and better support the development of more EIS officers, as they are vital to global health security, but also a critical component to public health after their service is completed.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • One Health Day 2018 Promotional Launch– November 3rd is the official day we celebrate global One Health Day, and three global partners are launching promotional activities to make sure we get the word out. “Anyone, from academia to government to corporate to private individuals can plan and implement a One Health Day Event which can be organized any time of the year and does not have to fall right on 3 November (unless participating in the student events competition). The global One Health Day Events webpage and map provides an impressive account of registered One Health Day events. Online registration is free of charge and yields special benefits: promotion on the One Health Day website, free use of the One Health Day logo and other materials and –anew benefit in 2018 – the chance for a surprise visit by a renowned One Health leader at selected One Health Day events.”
  • Department of Health and Human Services FY2019 Budget Request – “This report provides information about the FY2019 budget request for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The report begins by reviewing the department’s mission and structure. Next, the report offers a brief explanation of the conventions used for the FY2018 estimates and FY2019 request levels in the budget documents released by the HHS and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The report also discusses the concept of the HHS budget as a whole, in comparison to how funding is provided to HHS through the annual appropriations process. The report concludes with a breakdown of the HHS request by agency, along with additional HHS resources that provide further information on the request. A table of CRS key policy staff is included at the end of the report.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport