genome_editing

Pandora Report 12.2.2016

Welcome to December! We hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday. If you’re still craving poultry and happen to be in Sweden, you may want to keep in mind that the first H5N8 case was just detected. Want an overview on genome editing? Check out the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology’s note on it here.

Army Reprimands General Over Anthrax Debacle
Biosafety failures have been an increasing concern over the last few years. Within the last few years, the Pentagon was involved in mistakenly shipping live anthrax to nine U.S. laboratories and an airbase in South Korea after failing to inactive the bacteria. The Army has now reprimanded Brig. Gen. William King, the highest-ranking officer implicated in the events. “A reprimand prevents an officer from receiving another assignment, effectively ending his career, according to a Defense official familiar with King’s case but not authorized to speak publicly about it. ‘Brig. Gen. King was reprimanded for failing to take appropriate action to respond to and mitigate lapses in safety and protocol while serving as commander of Dugway Proving Ground,’ Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokeswoman, said in a statement.” Nine civilians were also demoted and another soldier was disciplined in this attempt to clean up the biosafety mess that has plagued military labs. Investigators at Dugway found several failures – a biosafety officer who lacked training and education needed for the job, failure to conduct routine environmental tests to ensure there was no breach in containment, and staff who “regularly manipulated data” certifying pathogens were safe to for use without PPE and shipment.

The Failure That Was the 8th RevCon epic-failure-thumbnail1-1
The 8th Review Conference of the BWC has closed and with it, the hope of reaching an agreement on a work plan for the next five years to strengthen the intersessional process. You can read the UN Office at Geneva statement here, in which they note that during the RevCon, a Final Document was adopted (including a Final Declaration on the articles of the Convention), renewal of the mandate of the Implementation Support Unit, and this RevCon had higher attendance than previous BWC meetings. If you’d like detailed overviews of each day’s proceedings, you can find them here – in the last day, you can see the frustrations and disappointment voiced by several countries.. The 8th RevCon did decide that States Parties will hold annual meetings in the process up to the next RevCon (2021), with hopes of reaching consensus regarding the intersessional process. You can also read the statement by U.S. State Department’s spokesperson, John Kirby, here, in which he points to the failures of the group to find consensus on a work plan (a plan that was highly supported by the U.S. and would involve much more intensive expert work to make decisions more frequently than every 5 years) to infuse decision-making and expert work into the intersessional process. Kirby’s statement notes that “While the United States does not support the need to negotiate a supplementary treaty, during the review conference, U.S. negotiators were supportive of creating a space in the post-RevCon work-plan for discussion of the full range of proposals to strengthen the Convention, which would have allowed proponents of a protocol to make their case. Although the United States is disappointed that negotiators did not take this opportunity to strengthen the intersessional process, the lack of consensus on a program of work does not damage the international nonproliferation regime.” While many of the official documents note “disappointment”, the realities of those in attendance were marked with frustration at the utter failure that was the 8th RevCon. Some of the noted frustrations including the halting of summer meeting of experts (MX), failure to increase ISU staff, and again, inability to agree on an intersessional process that would facilitate more real-time decision making with the necessary experts. “In their final declarations many countries, especially from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), put the blame squarely on Iran (without naming the country). This country’s obsession with returning to a negotiation format like the Ad Hoc Group to achieve the higher goal of a legally binding instrument—possibly with the sole goal of antagonising the USA—led it to exploit to the fullest to principle of consensus decision-making to torpedo any effort at compromise. Many NAM countries—often developing nations—lost out on concrete opportunities for international cooperation and assistance.” You can read the advanced version of the final report here. While this floundering don’t mean the end of the BWC, the lackluster outcome may indicate a gradual slip in overall confidence.

U.S. Military Preps for Gene Drive Woes genetic_manipulation
The new advances in genome editing and biotech point to a bright horizon for innovation, however the safety components to these advances are in need of response measures. DARPA is now working on a new program to respond to potentially harmful or devastating ecosystem outcomes that may come from engineered genes. Safe Genes will be a means of responding to a situation in which the gene-drive systems produce an outcome throughout generations that may be negatively impacting to the ecosystem. This may make genome editing systems, like CRISPR, sound nefarious, but there are growing hopes that this technology could alter insects or pests that carry diseases like malaria, dengue, etc. The gene-drive systems mean that within 20 generations, the newly altered genes could be passed through an entire population of insects (i.e. within 20 generations, a certain species of mosquito could be unable to carry malaria). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has doubled its spending on gene drive tech and even DARPA has been one of the largest funders of synthetic biology research. While the the rewards may be high, so are the risks. “Kevin Esvelt, head of the Sculpting Evolution lab at MIT Media Lab, which is applying for Safe Genes funding in collaboration with eight other research groups, predicts that eventually, perhaps around 15 years from now, an accident will allow a drive with potential to spread globally to escape laboratory controls. ‘It’s not going to be bioterror,’ he says, ‘it’s going to be ‘bioerror.'” Several research teams, including those at the DARPA program, are looking to remove, replace, or inhibit the unwanted genetic changes that are made in order to best respond to a negative outcome. Getting rid of the engineered genes from a species or habitat is one focus area for DARPA’s new program – the second encourages teams (who received funding from Safe Genes) to create systems for controlling/reversing gene editing tools, and the last focal point is on developing small molecules or antibodies that allow organisms to fight off genome editors at the molecular level. “Evolutionary geneticist Austin Burt, who leads Target Malaria’s research at Imperial College London and has no affiliation with Safe Genes, concurs. The prospect of remediation, he says, ‘shouldn’t give us a cavalier attitude.’ Instead, the goal should be to do the incremental work to anticipate and prevent problems. ‘We have the precedent of biological control,” he says, “where if you have an invasive pest that is destroying your crop, you can release a parasitoid wasp,’ which kills its host. ‘They do a very careful assessment. They don’t have something in their back pocket,’ to delete errors.”

FBI Utilizes Student Bioengineers 
With the growing importance and challenges of biotechnology and genome editing, it’s not surprising the FBI is sponsoring the International Genetically Engineering Machine (iGEM) Competition. iGEM is a way for the FBI to collaborate with the biotech community to better understand the challenges, concerns, and help create a culture of trust and transparency. Stanford senior research scholar, Megan Palmer, highlights this growing relationship and its importance in bioterrorism prevention. Science plays a vital role and to better understand this, why not start with those looking to make a difference in the field? “Bioterror incidents are extremely difficult to predict. In the past governments have built the deadliest biological weapons programs, but one worry is that now small groups may also be able to do serious damage, Palmer says”. The biotech world is constantly evolving and it’s important that law enforcement understand the how’s and why’s of the field so that investigations can be more effective and efficient. In fact, GMU biodefense graduate program director and professor, Gregory Koblentz, is working with Dr. Palmer on a CRISPR project for this very reason. The Departments of Defense and State are even getting in on this approach – create transparency and trust with the biohacker community to better prevent and respond to future threats. Like FBI supervisory special agent, Edward You, Megan is looking to strengthen this relationship prior to “trigger events” (an event in which biologists are suspected to be behind it) to ensure the foundation of communication and trust can combat challenging situations. “But there’s a natural tension between biohackers embedded in fringe communities and government agencies that are traditionally secretive. To Palmer, the key to the collaboration is open communication. So far, it’s going well—Palmer says she has been asking the FBI questions about its involvement, what it sees in the field, and why the agency is spending so much time and effort to be involved, and so far she says they have ‘been willing to have more of those conversations.’”

The Diseases That Worry Public Health Officials 
CDC Director, Thomas Friden, and Susan Desmond-Hellman, Chief Executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sat down to discuss the infectious diseases outbreaks that keep them up at night. Frieden noted that every year we identify a new pathogen and every day the CDC starts a new investigation to find a new pathogen. Frieden admits that his biggest worry is pandemic influenza. “Even the 1957 influenza pandemic, which most people haven’t heard of, cost 3% of the world’s gross domestic product. Even SARS, a relatively small outbreak, cost about $30 billion. We don’t know when the next one will come, where it will come from or what it will be. But we’re certain there will be a next one.” Dr. Desmond-Hellmann noted that, “What we learned from Ebola is that there are a couple things that are underutilized and not ready. One is governance. Who makes the call when things happen? The second thing is having the right tools, which is why global health research-and-development is a big focus of our foundation.” Both emphasized the importance of faster and more effective prevention and the role of country accountability in global health security. Truly, Dr. Frieden notes, there is no way to know if a country is ready to handle a health emergency, which is where the GHSA’s Joint External Evaluation has come in as a means of objective, third party, accountability and readiness assessments.

Advances in Radiation Biodosimetry for Mass Casualty Events Involving Radiation Exposure 
GMU biodefense PhD student, Mary Sproull, is looking at the modeling and development of new medical countermeasures for CBRN events. “To respond to large-scale population exposures from a nuclear event or radiation dispersal device (RDD), new methods for determining received dose using biological modeling became necessary. The field of biodosimetry has advanced significantly beyond this original initiative, with expansion into the fields of genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and transcriptomics.” Cytogenetic assessment methods are also being utilized with ramping up laboratory surge capacity. In this assessment, Sproull looks to the progress being made regarding field-deployment readiness in the event of radiation exposure. She notes that the most promising and immediately useful mechanisms for biodosimetry are pointing towards cytogenetic assessment using surge capacity lab networks, proteomics, and genomics-based technologies. “Greater collaboration within each field of biodosimetry would benefit the development of a standardized panel of biological markers for dosimetry assessment. Assessing the application of radiation biodosimetry in special populations, and development of a rapid assay for assessment of partial-body exposures is needed. Critical organ-specific markers of radiation toxicity also need to be identified and validated.”

Zika News 
Shortly after the WHO declared that Zika is no longer a global health emergency, the first case of locally acquired Zika sprung up in Texas. While investigations are ongoing, the latest news points to the importance of maintaining vigilance towards vector control and continued education. The UK has reportedly found its first case of sexually transmitted Zika. You can find the latest updates from the Florida Department of Health here, which reveal two new travel-related cases and four new locally acquired cases on November 30th. A recent study found microcephaly in older babies who were exposed to Zika in the womb. “A study published in the U.S. journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reportinvolved 13 babies in two Brazilian states born with small heads, but not small enough to be diagnosed with microcephaly. The babies tested positive for Zika. Imaging scans of the babies’ heads soon after birth showed brain abnormalities. Researchers then followed the infants. Around the time of their first birthday, 11 of the 13 babies were diagnosed with microcephaly. Their heads and brains had not developed in proportion to their growth and size.” Some are saying that the WHO’s move of declaring Zika no longer a public health emergency was a mistake. The CDC has reported 4,496 cases of Zika in the U.S. as of November 30th,

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Trump Picks HHS Lead – President elect Trump, has selected Republican congressman, Dr. Tom Price, as the US Health Secretary to oversee CDC, NIH, etc. This selection has been met with a mixture of concern while many worry about the challenges to public health under the new administration.
  • New Viral Discoveries– a international research team has found the jackpot of viral discoveries – 1,500 new viruses! Looking for infection in invertebrates (think insects and spiders), the expansion of the catalogue of viruses will help us better understand viral diversity. Genetic sequencing helped these researcher delve deep into the world of viruses – the virosphere. “Next generation sequencing allows researchers to quickly determine the sequence of these letters. And if you work out the order of the letters on any chain of RNA, you can determine if it belongs to a virus and whether or not the virus is new. Its potential for virus discovery is huge.”
  • Traces of MDRO’s Found in Polluted City Air- recent research from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg looked at hundreds of environmental samples worldwide. The results revealed that the samples taken from Beijing, had high levels of antibiotic resistant genes. “‘We studied only a small number of air samples, so to generalize, we need to examine the air from more places,’ explains lead researcher Joakim Larsson. ‘But the air samples we did analyze showed a wide mix of different resistance genes.’ The research doesn’t show whether the bacteria in Beijing’s smog is actually alive – which would significantly increase the threat – but Larsson says it’s ‘reasonable to believe that there is a mixture of live and dead bacteria, based on experience from other studies of air’.”

 

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Pandora Report 11.18.2016

 Welcome to World Antibiotic Awareness Week! We all have a part in reducing microbial resistance, including companies like McDonalds, KFC, and large chain restaurants. A recent report from Clinical Microbiology is reanalyzing the threat of bioterrorism. The EU has released their action plan for combatting antimicrobial resistance and you can read the roadmap here. Leishmaniasis infections are on the rise in the U.S. due to ecotourism and military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. CRISPR gene-editing was just tested in a person for the first time. The Chinese research group delivered modified cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer as part of a clinical trial. The cells were modified to disable a gene that codes for protein PD-1 (this normally would restrict immune response and is frequently manipulated by cancer) and the hope is that without the PD-1, the edited cells will be able to overcome the cancer. Did you know that your birth year can help predict how likely you are to get extremely sick from an outbreak of an animal-origin influenza virus? Don’t miss the Next Generation Global Health Security Network Info Session – today at 11a EST!

ISIS Forces Fired Toxic Chemicals in Iraq
Three chemical attacks were launched by ISIS against the Iraqi town of Qayyarah in September and October. The use of chemical weapons was in retaliation after Iraqi government forces retook the town in late August. “ISIS attacks using toxic chemicals show a brutal disregard for human life and the laws of war,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director. “As ISIS fighters flee, they have been repeatedly attacking and endangering the civilians they left behind, increasing concerns for residents of Mosul and other contested areas.” Victims of the attacks experienced painful symptoms of blister agents, or “vesicants”. The use of chemical weapons is in direct violation of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The use of these weapons would be classified, under the Rome Statue, as a war crime.

What Will Be the Next Pandemic?
Researchers at the recent International Meeting on Emerging Diseases and Surveillance discussed what the next SARS or Zika-like disease will be. Kevin Olival of EcoHealth used a predictive formula and pointed to flaviviruses that we normally don’t hear about – Usutu, Ilheus, and Louping. “All three have on rare occasions infected people, but they also infect a number of other animal species, which suggests they may have what it takes to jump species. Virologists sometimes call viruses that can do this ‘promiscuous.’ That means ‘it’s more flexible in its ability to infect across hosts, including mammals,’ Olival said.” While the scarcity of human cases proves difficult for gaining funding, emerging diseases tend to hit us by surprise, pointing to the need to expand the scope of surveillance and preparedness.

PCAST Letter to the President to Protect Against Biological Attacks
In a letter to the President, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) points to the to the unique challenge of bioterrorism threats in that they could be exacerbated by the rapid pace of biological science and technology developments. PCAST emphasizes the need for a renewed effort since Federal leadership can help state and local infrastructure share data and identify patterns during such an event. “Continuing scientific, technical, and regulatory developments allow the medical community to respond to new outbreaks faster than ever before. Developing medical countermeasures to naturally occurring outbreaks today lays the groundwork for responding to potential engineered biological threats in the future. PCAST supports extending this progress into the foreseeable future, setting the ambitious ten-year goal that, for infectious organisms for which effective approaches to creating vaccines exist, the United States should have the ability to accomplish, within a six-month period, the complete development, manufacture, clinical testing, and licensure of a vaccine. ”

Comic Book Explores a World Without Antibiotics  screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-8-40-41-am
A new, dystopian comic book is transporting us to 2036 London. The world is a bleak place where antibiotics have run out. Surgeon X looks at a time where simple infections and hospitalization means certain death, while the government cracks down to maintain selective control over the few drugs that are available via  a”Productivity Contribution Index”, which determines who gets access to medication. Readers follow a surgeon, Rosa, through her work at a secret clinic and the internal dialogue that comes with a repressive government, Hippocratic oath, and constant threat of infectious disease. Sara Kenney, the author of Surgeon X, notes that her own experiences with two premature children frame much of her comments on microbial resistance. Kenney noted that “it was only when she started building for herself what she calls the ‘story world’ that she realized antibiotic resistance is such a threat to medicine that it needed to be in her narrative as the obstacle the protagonist must overcome. ‘I realized the antibiotics crisis we’re facing is probably one of the most extreme obstacles you could throw at a surgeon,’. She found the complexities of the problem—resistance is believed to kill 700,000 people around the world each year—to be staggering.”

WHO Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance cxt8sslxgaajprd-jpg-large
The WHO has just released their action plan to fight antimicrobial resistance. Countries have committed to having a national action plan by May of 2017 to better support the radical shift that is needed to combat antibiotic resistance. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) threatens the foundation of modern medicine and public health capacity. There have been little advancements in the world of antibiotics, however we continue to see a growth of AMR. The WHO global action plan has five objectives: to improve awareness and understanding of antimicrobial resistance through effective communication, education and training; to strengthen the knowledge and evidence base through surveillance and research; to reduce the incidence of infection through effective sanitation, hygiene and infection prevention measures; to optimize the use of antimicrobial medicines in human and animal health; and to develop the economic case for sustainable investment that takes account of the needs of all countries and to increase investment in new medicines, diagnostic tools, vaccines and other interventions.

BWC RevCon 
While the 8th Review Conference is underway, there have been some reports from attendants that civil society/NGO’s were asked to leave the room, which goes against precedent for the last two RevCon’s. Some have noted that Iran was seeking to deny NGO’s access to Committee of Whole by using rules of procedure but there has not been consensus yet. While these comments have been coming in from attendants’ Twitter accounts, as of Tuesday afternoon, it appears that the issue has been resolved – as news continues to trickle in, we’ll keep you posted. You can get daily updates on RevCon here, with the most recent one covering the cross-cutting plenaries that are focusing on implementation, article III, solemn declaration and more. These daily reports are the best way to get detailed play-by-play information as to how RevCon is going.

Zika Updates
A recent study found that women are at greater risk for Zika infections due to suppressed vaginal immune response. “Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes discovered that the vaginal immune system is suppressed in response to RNA viruses, such as Zika. The delayed antiviral immune response allows the virus to remain undetected in the vagina, which can increase the risk of fetal infection during pregnancy.” The Brazilian state of Parana has banned aerial spraying of pesticides in urban areas. Florida’s Department of Healthy has their daily Zika updates here, which shows three new locally acquired cases as of 11/16. The CDC has reported 4,255 cases in the U.S. as of November 16, 2016.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • How NY Hunts for Early Hints of an Outbreak– the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has a secret weapon in the war against infectious disease outbreaks – a computer program called SaTScan.  This program utilizes big data to help detect and model infectious diseases. It monitors, maps, and detects disease outbreaks throughout the state by utilizing the data that is reported to the health department daily. “It is just not possible to effectively monitor every communicable disease in real time with human eyes alone,” Sharon Greene said. “To be able to quickly and effectively and precisely detect an outbreak, to kick off an outbreak investigation process — the earlier that you can begin this it helps to limit sickness, it helps to limit death, and it makes it more likely that you will successfully solve the outbreak.”
  • Exposure Patterns in 2014 Ebola Transmission – Researchers are presenting new information regarding the largest Ebola outbreak in history by looking at the drivers of transmission and where control efforts could be strengthened. They reviewed data from over 19,000 cases across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. “We found a positive correlation (r = 0.35, p < 0.001) between this proportion in a given district for a given month and the within-district transmission intensity, quantified by the estimated reproduction number (R). We also found a negative correlation (r = −0.37, p < 0.001) between R and the district proportion of hospitalised cases admitted within ≤4 days of symptom onset. These two proportions were not correlated, suggesting that reduced funeral attendance and faster hospitalisation independently influenced local transmission intensity. We were able to identify 14% of potential source contacts as cases in the case line-list. Linking cases to the contacts who potentially infected them provided information on the transmission network. This revealed a high degree of heterogeneity in inferred transmissions, with only 20% of cases accounting for at least 73% of new infections, a phenomenon often called super-spreading.” Future Ebola outbreak response will need to consider super spreaders, safe funeral practices, and rapid hospitalization.
  • Rick Bright Selected as New BARDA Director – DHHS recently announced that Dr. Rick Bright will be the new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and Director of BARDA. Dr. Bright has been with BARDA since 2010 and served in their Influenza and Emerging Infectious Diseases division.

 

Week in DC: Events 11.14-18.2016

Monday, November 14th, 2016
Global Security: Russia, China, Europe And Latin America– Center for Economic and Policy Research
Time: 9-10am
Location: Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill400 New Jersey Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001, USA(map)
Following one of the most unusual presidential and congressional elections in US history, a panel of senior specialists will present ideas for improving prospects for peace, and growth with fairness for all Americans. The topic of the panel, part of the Economists for Peace and Security Symposium: Policy Challenges for the New US President, is “Global Security: Russia, China, Europe and Latin America.”

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 Spillover: Zika, Ebola, And Beyond Film Screening And Discussion- National Museum of Natural History
Time: 6:30-8:30pm
Location: National Museum of Natural History10th Street & Constitution Ave, NW Washington D.C(map)
Room: Baird Auditorium (Ground Floor)
Over the last half century, a number of diseases have spilled over from animals to humans with increasing frequency. What’s behind the rise in spillover diseases? What can we do to stop them? PBS documentary Spillover, produced by Tangled Bank Studios, is a harrowing documentary that follows scientists into the world’s hot zones in a search for answers. And it does so while providing much needed scientific context for the most recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks. The film extends to the new frontiers of disease detection, prevention, and containment, and travels the world with virus hunters who are tracking old enemies while vigilantly looking out for new foes. A discussion after the screening will focus on Zika and how scientists have tracked the disease globally and locally, how the disease affects people, and what we need to know to help manage and prevent an outbreak in DC and beyond. Continue reading “Week in DC: Events 11.14-18.2016”

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Pandora Report 11.11.2016

The U.S. Election has concluded and whether your candidate is now our presidential elect or you’re just glad it’s all over, here’s something to celebrate – President Obama signed an executive order last week, cementing the GHSA as a national, presidential-level priority. Commitment to GHSA and fighting outbreaks on a global scale is a huge step forward to combating the health crises we’ve seen and will continue to battle in the future. Since researchers recently debunked the myth of Gaëtan Dugas as a primary source for HIV/AIDS in the U.S., check out more stories regarding the misunderstood “patient zero”.  World leaders are starting to realize that the antibiotic clock is ticking away.

Trump and the Issues Within Science
Donald Trump is the new president elect, but where does he stand on issues like Zika? Here’s a compilation of sources that cover his comments and plans for some of the top issues in science. NPR is looking at his comments on global health and humanitarian aid, while some are trying to figure out what Trump’s administration will mean for them and the need for a transition team tutorial. STAT is asking five questions regarding what the Trump administration will mean for science. Sources close to the Trump campaign have stated that two of the “best-known climate skeptics will lead his U.S. EPA transition team“.

It’s Time to Modernize the BWC 
GMU Biodefense graduate program director and professor, Gregory Koblentz teamed up with Filippa Lentzos to discuss why it’s so important for the BWC to modernize. They tackle the reality that while the convention isn’t failing, it’s definitely not flourishing. Despite its dedication to ban a whole class of weapons, the BWC is a somewhat toothless dog. “It lacks a dedicated forum to assess treaty implications of scientific advances, a robust institutional capacity, organized means of helping member nations meet their obligations, provisions for verifying compliance, and an operational role to respond in cases of a serious violations. The upcoming review conference provides a welcome opportunity to begin rectifying some of these shortcomings.” Koblentz and Lentzos point to the consistent challenges of science and technology reviews. Despite a rapidly evolving industry, the BWC hasn’t been able to keep up and maintain an international forum for the debates that are needed. Lagging behind the biotech times means the BWC is running the risk of irrelevance, not to mention the slow shift from the convention towards UNSCR 1540. In this climate, it doesn’t help that there is an even greater need for transparency. Biodefense programs have surged the last two decades, which means that transparency is increasingly important to ensure these programs aren’t biosecurity risks or being perceived as threats and becoming justifications for initiated offensive programs. The reform process is pivotal and this includes organizing a review of relevant S&T developments more systematically, renewing the mandate of an implementation unit, and setting up an Open-Ended Working Group on Providing Reassurance to encourage transparency and engagement in peer review exercises. “The Eighth Review Conference provides an opportunity to revitalize the bioweapons treaty by taking concrete actions to expand its relevance, enhance its capacity to review developments in science and technology, and strengthen the confidence of nations in the peaceful intentions of their fellow treaty members.”

RevCon began this week in Geneva and you can catch the U.S. opening statements by Thomas Countryman, Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. You can also read Mr. Kim Won-soo’s remarks as High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) vice president, Christine Beerli, has also commented, noting that “States Parties should not become complacent; it remains their collective and individual responsibility to ensure that the treaty is implemented effectively. Over the past five years of annual meetings, a great deal of information has been shared and many proposals have been made on how to implement the treaty and improve its effectiveness. Disappointingly, however, there has been little collective agreement.” RevCon experts will also be focusing on new threats that may arise from technology. Guinea just became the 178th State Party to the BWC!

armas-biologicas-2NSABB Meeting on DURC and Other Hot Topics
On Friday, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) hosted a call to review policy updates, new activities, updates from the working group on institutional oversight of the life sciences DURC policy stakeholder engagement, and updates from the Blue Ribbon panel that is currently reviewing the 2014 NIH variola incident. The conference call was fast-paced but covered substantial ground – most of it you can find on the Power Point slides. The policy updates focused on initiatives to strengthen biosafety/biosecurity stewardship. The 2016 NSABB report recommended additional, multidisciplinary evaluation prior to funding decisions and appropriate, ongoing oversight if funding were given to projects. It was noted that this is a particularly exciting time for science as we’re seeing so many advancements in human health, however the applications of these technologies are testing the oversight and policies we currently have in place to ensure science is performed safely (and securely). While they may or may not all be under the purview of the NSABB, the emergence of CRISPR and evolution of genomic sequences and gene drive techs, and abilities to create next gen of chimeras – are all examples of biotech that are evolving very rapidly and we may need to rethink how they fit our current policy and framework. NSAAB has been a part of the DURC conversation with policy focus on research responsibilities and institutional approaches. NSABB is also working on how to increase and approach stakeholder engagement in DURC polices. There were several listed strategies and topics, ranging from regional meetings at universities or panel sessions at conferences like ASM and ASV. The biggest focus was on getting dialogue and metrics across institutions, not to mention the need for feedback to evolve an objective oversight system. The Blue Ribbon panel is working on the review of the NIH variola incident but they did note that the event was handled very well and while there were obvious gaps, they were all addressed and that the interagency work between the FBI, NIH, and CDC went very smoothly.

Sverdlovsk, Three Mile Island, and Government Oversight of Biological Safety
Greg Witt is talking to us about government oversight of biological research and the lessons learned from the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (did I mention that Greg is a nuclear systems engineer?). Pointing to the biosafety failures that have happened recently (remember that time a Pasteur Institute employee improperly took MERS samples on a commercial airline???), Greg pulls together the pieces to paint a bigger mosaic of systemic failure to properly control biological agents. Pointing to similarities between these events (they even happened days apart) he notes that “both were caused, in large part, by errors in maintenance: at Sverdlovsk, technicians neglected to replace an exhaust system filter, while at TMI, staff had isolated an auxiliary feedwater pump during routine maintenance in violation of US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rules.”

The Glamor of Bad Science02-ebola-w529-h352
Yours truly is talking about the disparaging addiction we have to dramatic science. I’m a fan of any movie that involves an outbreak, but the truth is that an overwhelming majority of these films depict infectious disease outbreaks so outrageously and dramatically, they have become anti-science. After watching the latest, Inferno, it became increasingly apparent that we’ve created a false threshold for science, specifically infectious diseases, in film. By painting the picture of diseases and outbreak response like that of Outbreak, I Am Legend, and more, we’re creating an increasingly de-sensitized culture. The result of this de-sensitization means that it takes a lot more for people to take infectious disease outbreaks seriously in real life. It’s not a genetically engineered airborne organism that will make flesh rot? Meh – not that big of a deal. Our love of bad infectious disease science in film and television could easily create a culture of poor public health support.

Ebola Was Just the Beginning…Are We Ready?
Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is highlighting the realities that we simply aren’t ready for the next big virus epidemic. Piot discusses his work during the early days of Ebola in the 1970s, pointing to the challenges of attempting to figure out a novel virus while trying to put out the fires of an outbreak. Describing the 2014 outbreak as a perfect storm, he notes that the WHO response was too slow to act. The globalization of our interconnected world has made the capabilities of an outbreak much greater than 50 years ago. “Piot also believes there will be a ‘Big One’, a big influenza, similar to the likes of the Spanish Flu in World War One and we’re not quite ready for it. Yet. ‘Are we ready?’ Piot asked. ‘A little bit better than a few years ago but we’re not yet up to the job. We can’t afford to wait but we have a plan, and that’s the good news. The world has learnt from the problems of mobilisation around Ebola and we are now in a better situation; there is better technology to allow for more rapid diagnosis’.” Piot stresses the importance of investment in infrastructure, stronger global governance, and vaccine development incentives.

All Things Zika
The Florida Health Department has released their Zika updates here. PAHO has recommended that Bolivian women delay pregnancy to avoid Zika. “Fernando Leanes, PAHO representative in Bolivia, said at a press conference that it was one of several advised measures to avoid the proliferation of microcephaly cases. ‘The epidemic of Zika, from what we have seen in other countries, will have a rise and fall in Bolivia. Therefore, there are options such as delaying the decision to get pregnant in areas where Zika is spreading. This will avoid the dreaded microcephaly and the complications it represents,’ explained Leanes.” An $18 million plan was just announced to release Zika-resistant mosquitoes into urban areas of Colombia and Brazil.  “A swarm of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes–the species that transmits dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya and Zika, have been modified to carry a bacterium called Wolbachia pipientis, which inhibits their ability to spread the viruses. Scientist released these ‘good mosquitoes’ in Brazil as part of a successful international program called ‘Eliminate Dengue’.” Many researchers are wondering why Colombia has had such few Zika-associated birth defects. They are the second largest outbreak in the world, yet have much fewer cases of microcephaly than Brazil. Researchers have noted that adult women in Puerto Rico were significantly more likely to develop Zika than men. The CDC has reported 4,175 cases of Zika in the U.S. as of November 9th, 2016.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • How Trauma Explains Civil War– Don’t miss this event today at GMU’s Arlington campus, Founders Hall, Room 602. Eric Goepner will be discussing his research as to why “hurt people hurt people” and hypothesizing that a population’s prior traumatization predicts future civil war onset.
  • Searching for Ebola’s Hideout – The recent ebola outbreak is over, but this doesn’t mean the disease is gone. In fact, ebola is known for hiding out..so where has it gone? Leigh Cowart and other researchers are looking to stop future Ebola outbreaks by finding its hiding spot. “Such a long-term host, the quiet refuge of a pathogen, is known as a reservoir species. If a reservoir species is Ebola’s safe house, we are its luxury retirement property, a place for it to live out its last days with a bang. The trouble is that we aren’t sure where the safe house is. If we are going to be vigilant against Ebola’s re-emergence, we need to find it.”
  • The UK Forms Special Outbreak Response Team– with a five-year £20m funding, the UK is setting up a specialist team of health experts who will be able to respond to outbreaks around the world within 48 hours. “Public Health England will run the project with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, said: ‘Speed is key in tackling infectious disease and with this new capability we can now deploy specialists anywhere in the world within 48 hours, saving and protecting lives where an outbreak starts and helping to keep the UK safe at home.'”

 

Sverdlovsk, Three Mile Island, and Government Oversight of Biological Safety

To those of us who follow the world of biodefense, it seems as though every week brings news of a high-profile lapse in biosafety. In just the past month, we’ve seen an employee from the Pasteur Institute Korea transport samples of the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) on a commercial airliner and reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shipped chikungunya virus without first performing tests to ensure that the specimens had been completely inactivated. These come on top of such disturbing stories as the US Army’s Dugway Proving Ground accidentally shipping live anthrax to almost 200 facilities and slip-ups at the CDC involving ebolavirus and avian influenza.

While each of these incidents would be alarming in its own right, collectively they imply a systemic failure to properly control biological agents. Determining the extent and severity of the problem is made even more difficult because consistent rules for reporting these types of biosafety events do not exist under the government’s Select Agent Program (SAP). For example, a review this year by the Government Accountability Office found that the number of incidents of incomplete inactivation between 2003 and 2015, similar to what occurred with the Dugway anthrax samples, was at least twice as high as initially reported. Clearly, a more comprehensive and thorough accounting is needed.

The corrosive impact that a lack of oversight can have on biosafety is apparent in the admittedly extreme case of the Sverdlovsk anthrax leak in 1979, in which a Soviet biological weapons facility near present-day Yekaterinburg, Russia unintentionally infected the city with a cloud of anthrax spores. Coincidentally, the incident occurred only five days after the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, and the two events actually contain a number of similarities. Both were caused, in large part, by errors in maintenance: at Sverdlovsk, technicians neglected to replace an exhaust system filter, while at TMI, staff had isolated an auxiliary feedwater pump during routine maintenance in violation of US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rules. Both resulted in the release of toxic materials into the environment: about a gram of anthrax at Sverdlovsk and 370 PBq of (biologically-inert) radionuclides from TMI. The consequences of both were severe as well: casualty estimates from the anthrax release range from 60 to over 100, and while no direct health effects from the Three Mile Island accident have been conclusively documented, the economic cost may have been in excess of $1 billion, in addition to the permanent damage done to the US nuclear industry’s public image.

If the events themselves bear similarities, the official responses to them could not have been more different. The Soviet government responded to the Sverdlovsk incident in its typical manner with a campaign of disinformation, blaming the anthrax cases on contaminated meat and destroying associated hospital records. Biopreparat, the Soviet biological weapons program, added yet more layers of secrecy to hide its involvement, making it even less accountable to the government of the Soviet Union, let alone its people. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, the government had almost entirely lost operational control over the bioweapons program.

In stark contrast, the Three Mile Island accident prompted the NRC to make significant changes to how US nuclear power plants are regulated and operated. The agency instituted a number of policies such as tracking significant events and safety system actuations to determine which initiating events that might result in a radiological release were most common and issuing guidance to operating plants to reduce their frequency. In the years since TMI, accident precursors, reactor trips, and occupational radiation exposures at nuclear plants have decreased precipitously, in some cases by an order of magnitude. The NRC has also taken steps to increase transparency in its findings, such as publishing safety and performance assessments for all operating plants. This allows for public scrutiny and an informed conversation regarding the risks associated with civilian nuclear power.

What lessons can we take away from Sverdlovsk and Three Mile Island? The most obvious insight is that operational safety can be greatly enhanced by effective oversight, and effective oversight requires a well-informed regulator. A consistent and uniform mechanism for tracking biological safety incidents, perhaps through the SAP, would provide regulatory agencies with a better idea of the nature of the problem and allow them to spot trends. By publishing data on laboratory failures, organizations could be held accountable for poor performance and best practices could be more easily identified. The real lesson from Three Mile Island and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s response is that with enhanced scrutiny, the likelihood and severity of an accidental release drops and biological research can become safer and more secure. And in the end, isn’t that what biodefense is all about?

Week in DC: Events 11.7-11.11.2016

Monday, November 7th, 2016
Enhancing U.S.-Georgia Security Cooperation: The Way Forward– Heritage Foundation
Time: 10:30-11:30am
Location: Heritage Foundation214 Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington, D.C. 20002 (map)
Located in the South Caucasus, Georgia sits at a crucial geographical and cultural crossroads and has proven to be strategically important for military and economic reasons for centuries. Today, Georgia’s strategic location is also important to the United States. In 2008 Georgia was promised eventual membership at the NATO summit in Bucharest. Since then few countries in the Euro-Atlantic region express as much enthusiasm for NATO as Georgia – even though it is not yet inside NATO. After the Russian invasion in 2008 and the subsequent Russian occupation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, Georgia has transformed its military and has contributed thousands of troops to overseas military operations – all in the hopes of speeding up its application to join NATO. What is Georgia’s prospect of joining the Alliance? How will the new Georgian government and the next U.S. president handle the issue of NATO membership? Join us as we address these issues and more.

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016
U.S. Election – Go Vote! 
Wednesday, November 9th, 2016
Biodefense Master’s Open Houses
We invite you to attend an open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government. The session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs, an introduction to our world-class faculty and research, and highlights of the many ways we position our students for success in the classroom and beyond. Our admissions and student services staff will be on hand to answer your questions.

  • Thursday, November 10: 6:30pm-8:30pm—Master’s Open House, Founders Hall, Room 126

Continue reading “Week in DC: Events 11.7-11.11.2016”

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Pandora Report 11.4.2016

Happy Friday! We’ve got some great news – you can now watch our book launch and panel from the Biological Threats in the 21 Century event via YouTube here. Whether you missed out on attending or want a recap, you can get all the biodefense goodies there. UNMC was recently awarded $19.8 million to build an Ebola and advanced infectious disease training center. Their new center will include a training, simulation, and quarantine section, with the hope of training healthcare workers to treat patients with Ebola and other highly infectious diseases. A recent study found that limited access to Ebola diagnostic and supportive pathology assays facilitated the failure of initial 2014 outbreak control efforts, regardless if the setting was a resource-rich or resource-poor location.  Shocking news – hand hygiene is one of the biggest issues in norovirus infections.

3rd Annual Summit on Global Food Security and Health 
GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government will be hosting this informational event on Wednesday, November 16th from 10:30am-5:30pm. Speakers include experts from organizations such as the Association of Public Land Grant UniversitiesBread for the World, the International Medical Corps and the US Agency for International Development: Academics will discuss their research on Food Security with an eye to improving access, addressing challenges and developing partnerships to improve global food security and related health outcomes. Organized with the support of the Center for Strategic and International StudiesThe Farm Journal FoundationThe Global Harvest Initiative, Policy Studies OrganizationWorld Medical & Health Policyjournal; Center for the Study of International Medical Policies and Practices (CSIMPP) in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George MasonUniversity; American Public University; and World Food Policy. The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Contact Professor Bonnie Stabile bstabile@gmu.edu with any questions.

FDA Manipulation of Media
A new report from the Scientific American is drawing attention to the FDA’s arm-twisting of journalists “into relinquishing their reportorial independence”. Their investigators found that NPR and a series of other news outlets had a deal with the FDA-  get news announcements early but the FDA would dictate whom their reporters could and couldn’t interview. “This kind of deal offered by the FDA—known as a close-hold embargo—is an increasingly important tool used by scientific and government agencies to control the behavior of the science press. Or so it seems. It is impossible to tell for sure because it is happening almost entirely behind the scenes. We only know about the FDA deal because of a wayward sentence inserted by an editor at the New York Times.” The Scientific American was able to obtain supportive documents via the Freedom of Information Act, which revealed that despite their public demeanor, the FDA denies many reporters access and grows their own group of journalists that will follow their rules. Much of this is held together with the journalistic practice of embargo – a deal between source and journalist that the story won’t be published prior to a specific date/time. This is actually pretty common in the science world, but it can actually create an aura of favoritism and bias. The issue with the FDA situation is far deeper though – aside from getting early access to stories and agreeing not to publish before the agreed date/time (embargo), the other rules stated that journalists could not seek outside comment and in a nutshell, had to give up the ability to do independent reporting. In the end, this kind of control of the media and journalistic favoritism reveals things about both sides of the agreement, but also emphasizes the need for transparency and re-thinking of the embargo system.

BWC 8th Review Conference sheet-1
The eighth RevCon is fast approaching and if you’re behind as to what’s happened since the last RevCon, check out UNLOG’s (The United Nation’s Office at Geneva) Think Zone and the latest information. You’ll also find some great articles from GMU’s Biodefense faculty in there – like Dr. Koblentz’s article on dual-use and Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley’s article on gene drive. Better yet, check out the BWC RevCon Series from the International Law and Policy Institute. These three papers discuss a series of issues related to the BWC and RevCon. The first, Divide and Delegate: the Future of the BWC, focuses on the pursuit of BWC aims outside RevCons and the normative strengths and operational weaknesses. LPI2, Keeping Up With the Science, looks to support enhanced science and technology review processes. LPI3, is a joint effort by GMU’s very own Biodefense Director, Gregory Koblentz, and the author of your favorite new book (Biological Threats in the 21st Century), Filippa Lentzos. The third paper, Risks, Trade-Offs & Responsible Science , looks at the security trade-off risks of the increasing volume of labs and scientists working on dangerous pathogens. They note that “the 2016 BWC Review Conference must encourage states to implement stringent national biosafety, biosecurity and dual-use research regulations; task the science advisory group to develop clear, internationally- recognized guidelines governing dual-use research of concern (DURC); establish a working group to revise the CBMs; and encourage states to participate in the CBM mechanism as well as more interactive information exchanges such as peer review and compliance assessment.”

RevCon will take place from November 7-25th in the Palais des Nations and a general agenda is available here. Gabrielle Tarini writes that this RevCon will be a “pivotal opportunity for countries to take action to ensure that the treaty remains a relevant and useful tool for preventing the development, spread, and use of biological weapons. A failure by member states to invest the necessary attention, time, and political capital in the conference could mean decreased interest and weakened multilateral engagement in a treaty that was the first to ban an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.” Moreover, the BWC should have a dedicated process, like that of the CWC, to inform and advise member states, pointing to the need for a great capacity to have expert-led meetings and continuous monitoring. Lastly, Tarini highlights that this RevCon will be an opportunity to strengthen and revise the intersessional process and framework. “The treaty should be restructured, with a stronger steering body and increased time for preparation and multilateral engagement. Adding more meetings, and limiting what gets discussed at each of those meetings, would allow the BWC to begin operating more like an international organization and would provide oversight equivalent to that for other nonproliferation treaties.” Can everyone help verify the BWC? Some are saying open source monitoring may just be that sweet spot.

Increasing Transparency in Biodefense: A 2016 Visit to a German Military Medical Biodefense Facility  screen-shot-2014-09-22-at-21-57-41
Filippa Lentzos is taking us on a journey through German biodefense practices and why transparency is so vital for these programs. Citing Germany as a prime example of countries going above and beyond their voluntary BWC efforts, she delves into the world of Germany’s biodefense activities. She notes the visitors were highly encouraged to review Germany’s most recent CBM submission and briefed on the Institute of Microbiology’s safety and health regulations. “Few restrictions were placed on us other than those related to safety and security. We were free to view rooms, lab equipment and installations. The type and scope of access was to be determined by Institute staff on a case-by-case basis. Any access denials could derive from national security, biosafety and health regulations, data privacy issues, unpublished scientific results or ongoing lab work. If access or certain information was refused, the Institute would explain the particular considerations and o er alternatives.” The Bundeswehr institute focuses on three main CBRN tasks – ensuring protection and an ability of the armed forces to act under CBRN threats, preventing vulnerability to potential CBRN threats and weapons via preventative measures, and limiting the consequences should a CBRN event ever occur. The medical biodefense responsibilities focus more on the ability to rapidly diagnose and identify pathogens, distinguishing natural outbreaks from intentional, and controlling outbreaks. The official noted on their visit that within the institute, there are 65 staff and 18 externally funded fixed-term positions over three departments (bacteria/toxins, viruses/intracellular pathogens, and medical biological reconnaissance and bioforensics). From genome sequencers to electron microscope rooms, check out Filippa’s report for a virtual tour of this amazing biodefense facility.

Assessing the Epidemic Potential of RNA and DNA Viruses  screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-7-19-56-am
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh are looking at zoonotic viruses and their transmissibility. The Ebola outbreak in 2014 highlighted the needed to better understand what kinds of pathogens, especially zoonotic, were likely to emerge as potential epidemics. Given the vast diversity and high rates of viral evolution, this was no easy task. “Of human transmissible virus, 37 species have so far been restricted to self-limiting outbreaks. These viruses are priorities for surveillance because relatively minor changes in their epidemiologies can potentially lead to major changes in the threat they pose to public health.” Researchers used the basic reproductive number, R0, as a means of answering this question. They looked at hundreds of viral species and then categorized them into 4 levels with epidemic potential in humans. They found that the taxonomic diversity is wide, but bounded and most human infective viruses are closely related to viruses of other mammals. Transmissibility within the human population is a key determinant, as well as the R0 threshold of>1. “We currently have few clues to help us predict which mammalian or avian viruses might pose a threat to humans and, especially, which might be transmissible between humans. One argument in favor of experimental studies of these traits, including controversial gain of function experiments, is that they could help guide molecular surveillance for high-risk virus lineages in nonhuman reservoirs.The first line of defense against emerging viruses is effective surveillance. A better understanding of which kinds of viruses in which circumstances pose the greatest risk to human health would enable evidence-based targeting of surveillance efforts, which would reduce costs and increase probable effectiveness of this endeavor.”

Spikes in C-diff and MDRO’s 
Halloween may be over but the rise of the resistant bugs is still going on. A recent study looked at the changing epidemiology of MDRO’s (multi-drug resistant organisms) within a specific healthcare network. While they were able to observe a significant reduction in MRSA, there was a sharp rise in other MDRO’s and C-diff (Clostridium difficile). Examining eight years of data from a Utah-based health network, researchers looked at 22 hospitals clinics to establish trends in C-diff and other MDRO’s. Of the 900,000 patient admissions, 1.4% tested positive for an MDRO and/or C-diff. MRSA was by far the most common MDRO (51% of MDRO infections) but they did see a 32% decrease in MRSA infections over the eight years. “Researchers, however, observed a 222% increase in C difficile and a 322% increase in ESBL-positive bacteria. The data also showed that 70% of all MDROs and C difficile cases originated from an ambulatory setting.” There has also been a significant rise in ESBL’s, which points to a need to refine and revise screening protocols. Overall, this points to the complexity and ever-changing habits of infection prevention and control.

Zika Updates
A recent study is showing that Zika infections have caused reduced fertility and low testosterone in male mice. The ECDC has updated their Zika epidemic rapid risk assessment, noting that “although continuing, vector-borne transmission seems to be slowing down in Central American countries and the Caribbean. The outbreak continues to evolve in Mexico and the southern part of the US, as weather conditions still favour seasonal vector activity. In addition to the Americas, cases have been reported in some Asian countries.” Researchers are working to use the Wolbachia bacteria (which naturally infect several mosquito species) against diseases like Zika and dengue. Overcoming the hurdle of infecting Aedes (a species not naturally infected with Wolbachia), they found that the bacteria was able to survive in the mosquito and then was a passed down through generations…but the best news is that those mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia weren’t able to pass dengue. When the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes were infected with dengue, the virus couldn’t replicate and spread in the mosquito’s salivary glands (i.e. couldn’t be transmitted). This new technique shows some pretty remarkable abilities to reduce the capabilities of Aedes species to spread diseases like Zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever. The CDC has reported, as  of November 2nd, 4,128 cases in the U.S.  Interestingly 53 people in Minnesota have been found to be infected.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Pandemic Simulations – The Ebola outbreak in 2014/2015 taught us a great many lessons regarding international preparedness and response to infectious disease outbreaks. As a result of this, the World Bank Group and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is starting a new project to conduct the first set of pandemic simulation exercises. “President Jim Yong Kim, Bill Gates and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany will jointly host simulation exercises on pandemic preparedness for the Heads of State and private sector leaders during the next World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017 and the G-20 Heads of State meeting in July 2017.  In preparation for the two major events, the World Bank will collaborate with the technical team from WHO, WEF and the German government to conduct similar exercises for G20 technical staff and and G20 Ministers of Health. Simulation exercises help make a theoretical possibility real, by allowing policymakers to role-play and map out gaps and concrete solutions to those gaps along with their peers.”
  • New Genetic Mutations in Antibiotic BW Agent– Researchers at Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) recently found a new genetic mutation in antibiotic-resistant tularemia (Francisella tularensis). Tularemia is a Category A Select Agent, which means it is a prime concern for bioterrorism and public safety. “This perspective allows you to see mutations that are new that we didn’t know about. If you don’t do this type of study, you’re going to miss other mechanisms that cause resistance in the bacteria. So by doing a genome-wide study, it gives you a much more complete picture about what’s going on,” said LLNL biologist and lead author Crystal Jaing. “The study found resistance-conferring mutations in a hypothetical protein, an asparagine synthase, and a sugar transamine/perosamine synthetase in addition to observing known variants.”

Week in DC: Events 10.31-11.4.2016

Monday, October 31st, 2016
Nuclear Arms Control Choices For The Next Administration– Brookings Institution
Time: 2-3:30pm
Location: Brookings Institution1775 Massachusetts Avenue N.W., Washington, DC (map)
Nuclear arms control has been a feature on the U.S.-Soviet/Russian agenda for nearly five decades. While discussions between Washington and Moscow currently are at a standstill, the limitations, transparency, and predictability provided by agreements such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty are more important than ever in times of tense bilateral relations. The next U.S. president and her or his administration will face a number of choices about nuclear weapons, nuclear policy, and arms control. On October 31, the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative will host a discussion on nuclear arms control choices for the next administration. Following the discussion, the speakers will take questions from the audience.

Tuesday, November 1st, 2016
2nd International Who’s Who in One Health Webinar – Don’t miss the One Health Commissions’ upcoming webinar on November 4th, 2016. This webinar is a great place to take part in dialogue with One Health leaders, advocates, professionals, and students The webinar is set to start at 7:45am EST and seeks to create new strategic partnerships and networks for collective, purposeful and coordinated action and educate participants about the One Health paradigm and ways of thinking towards improved health outcomes Continue reading “Week in DC: Events 10.31-11.4.2016”

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Pandora Report 10.28.2016

A leaked report to the UN Security Council from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, states that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave the order for the use of chemical weapons in 2015. The ECDC is seeing the initial cases for the 2015/2016 flu season, so make sure to get your flu shot! Science is sharing six science lessons for the next president. A new study finds that the correct antibiotics are only given half the time for common infections. Make sure to celebrate One Health Day on November 3rd!

Spillover: Ebola & Beyond Film Screening and Discussion
Don’t miss this great event at the National Museum of Natural History on Tuesday, November 15th from 6:30-8:30pm. If you loved the PBS documentary this summer, now is your chance to listen to a panel of experts discuss how they track diseases internationally and locally. “The film extends to the new frontiers of disease detection, prevention, and containment, and travels the world with virus hunters who are tracking old enemies while vigilantly looking out for new foes.” Featured speakers will include Vanessa van der Linden, Anthony Fauci, Yvonne-Marie Linton, and LaQuandra S. Nesbitt. Make sure to register before the event if you’d like to attend.

iow-zoonoses-onpgIf you enjoyed the Spillover documentary, check out this one (from the same team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute who brought you Spillover) on Nipah virus hunters and their use of bat populations to track the disease. It’s a great film on epidemiology, One Health, and how we can study diseases in bat populations to predict outbreaks in humans. The HHMI has all sorts of wonderful disease-tracking goodies, like this one on the patterns of zoonotic diseases or an interactive on viruses. HHMI has some great interactive and fascinating learning tools for adults and children alike. Nothing like a little zoonotic disease lesson before bedtime, right?

MetaBiota Presentation for GMU Students 14875059_1343053735705798_1059784359_n
This week GMU was fortunate to hold an informational session by MetaBiota in which Dr. Kimberly Dodd discussed the organization and what life is like working on shifting emerging infectious disease response to prevention. GMU Biodefense MS student Greg Mercer was able to  listen to her experiences that range from the front lines of virus chasing to work on PREDICT and the factors that lead to zoonotic spillover. Dr. Dodd deployed to Uganda as part of the CDC’s response to the 2012 Marburg virus outbreak and to Sierra Leone during the West African Ebola outbreak. She described the challenges of trying to set up a BSL-4 equivalent laboratory in the field and the stressed of working with dangerous pathogens and noted that even in an outbreak of a high fear-factor disease like Ebola, there is often an international outpouring of volunteers. Experts are enthusiastic to help both for humanitarian reasons and the promise of cutting edge research to be done. Her experiences responding to outbreaks in the field prompted her interest in what preventative measures can be taken to forecast, identify, and mitigate outbreaks faster. She described her work on USAID’s PREDICT project, which seeks to catalogue viruses with potential to become pandemics. In its first 5 years, PREDICT sampled 56,000 animals, ran 400,000 diagnostics, and detected 984 unique viruses, 815 of which were novel. This new data was fed into Healthmap. In later pahses, PREDICT will go on to more closely examine the human-animal dynamics of spillover events.

Fears and Misperceptions of the Ebola Response System during 2014/2015 Outbreak in Sierra Leone
We’re still learning lessons from the worst Ebola outbreak in history, but will we actually apply this knowledge or continue to make the same mistakes? Public perception of public health response systems is a vastly important aspect of any outbreak response, however researchers are pointing to the severity it had on containment in 2014/2015. This study focuses on Sierra Leone and the barriers that prevented people from trusting and utilizing the Ebola response system that was established during the height of the outbreak. Researchers found that most people feared calling the national hotline for some one they believed to have Ebola as it would result in that person’s death. People tended to self medicate if they developed a fever and assumed it was not Ebola. “Fears and misperceptions, related to lack of trust in the response system, may have delayed care-seeking during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. Protocols for future outbreak responses should incorporate dynamic, qualitative research to understand and address people’s perception”

Estimating the BioTech Sector’s Contribution to the U.S. Economy screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-2-44-22-am
While the biotech sector has opened the floor for questions over dual-use, there’s no denying its growth. U.S. biotech sector revenue is estimated to have grown on average more than 10% per year over the past decade, which is faster than the rest of the economy..much faster. Data collected from various public and private sources allowed Robert Carlson to pain a much larger picture of what biotech is contributing to the U.S. economy. He found that total domestic U.S. revenue generated by biotech in 2012 reached at least $324 billion, which is the equivalent of >2% of GDP. Biotech revenue growth was >5% of annual U.S. GDP growth every year between 2007 and 2012. While the field is obviously growing, the rapid acceleration also means that there will be decreasing costs and more access to more powerful technology. “Governments around the globe are grappling with the desire to benefit from biotech-driven economic development, while simultaneously facing questions about who should have access to which technology and under what circumstances.” It’s important to not only support and monitor the technologies, but also facilitate data and reporting within the industry as these measurement deficiencies fuels biosecurity concerns. “Alongside the preexisting bioeconomy, we are building a system composed of inherently ‘dual-use’ engineering technologies that will constitute critical infrastructure for the future economy. Assuming that the revenue and growth estimates above are borne out with improved measurement and analysis, biosecurity is now clearly synonymous with economic security. The focus of biosecurity policy must shift from protecting specific targets from specific threats to securing the bioeconomy as a system that increasingly drives economic growth and employment and, ultimately, enables humans to thrive on a global scale.”

Hospitals Add Sinks to Help Fight Infections – Bad Move
Adding more easily accessible hand washing stations is one of the strategies to combating poor compliance and growing infection rates. Unfortunately, there have been some unintended consequences of upping the sink volume. Several hospitals throughout Baltimore, the Netherlands, and Shanghai have noted an increase in infections after adding more sinks (especially in patient rooms). Biofilms were a growing issue, which draws attention to the importance of facility and environmental service maintenance. I was a bit disparaged to see that the article points to the presence of non-sterile water from sinks in rooms with immunocompromised patients. Patients that are severely neutropenic are usually placed into positive pressure rooms (under protective precautions) and almost all hem-oncology units have special water filters on everything in the patient’s room (shower, sink, etc.). The concern for legionella is always an issue for those with weakened immune systems and while it’s important to cut down as much environmental exposure as possible, it’s impractical to think there should be sterile water. Another aspect of this is that patients in pre-op immune-suppression or post-op recovery will be exposed to germs – it’s a simple fact. If you’re concerned about sinks, then the patient should either be in a protective precautions room or you should not allow visitors. A sink is a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to patients that aren’t severely neutropenic. Sink design and cleaning is hugely important, which is another component to hospital infection control as anytime water is temporarily shut off, there needs to be water treatment plans in place, etc. It’s nice to see attention being brought to the environmental aspects of sinks and infection control, however one big aspect of the problem is also that people typically don’t wash their hands correctly. Yes, most people don’t spend the 15-20 seconds correctly lathering, washing all the nooks and crannies of their hands, etc. Needless to say, it takes a village to stop an infection and just one tiny moment to cause one – sinks are just one piece of the pie.

Terrorists Hamper Polio Eradication Efforts in Africa salk_headlines
Global eradication of a disease is never easy, however efforts to rid Africa of polio have encountered barriers that are allowing the disease to resurge. Nigeria has seen lingering polio as a result of “porous borders and shifting populations where travel has been blocked by terrorism.” Despite consistent work and effort to eradicate the disease from Nigeria, it was re-declared endemic in August, which leaves many concerned about it spilling over borders into neighboring countries. While Nigeria has always been a hotspot for polio, there has been increasing religious preaching that parents should not allow vaccination, specifically Muslim imams in Kano state in 2003, claiming that the vaccine had been contaminated to hurt Islamic children. Distrust compounds into lagging vaccination rates and during this time there was a spike in cases, which was coupled with terrorist activity by the Book Haram militia. “They cut off entire provinces, blocking the access needed by teams vaccinating children and epidemiologists counting cases. When the Nigerian military forced the militia out of parts of Borno state, in Nigeria’s northeast corner, the polio campaign discovered that wild polio virus had been circulating there for years.” The area around Lake Chad – Chad, Cameroon, and Niger – all pose problematic for vaccination efforts as the WHO calls the situation a “complex emergency” with more than 150,000 people fleeing across national borders. Despite these challenges, the governments of Nigeria and five nearby countries have initiated a massive emergency vaccination campaign that covers more than five million children per round, of which they’ll perform six rounds. “That may be an even more difficult task than in Afghanistan or Pakistan. In those countries, most of the areas where polio survives are remote, with little traffic in or out. Nigeria, on the other hand, is the most populous country in Africa, and a crossroads for the rest of the continent. There is no quick fix that can make the risk of onward spread go away; it requires yet more of the hard, grinding, repetitive work that eradication campaigners have been doing for almost 30 years.”

Zika Virus – What’s the Latest?
Brits are being warned not to travel to Florida after two British journalists contracted Zika during their travel to the state. The Florida state health department has released their Zika data– there are four new travel associated cases and nine non-travel associated cases. Wellcome Trust medical research charity is warning that we should expect Zika to reach India and Africa. “I think we can anticipate global spread,” said Jeremy Farrar, speaking to the Guardian alongside Sue Desmond-Hellmann, the chief executive officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “Given the [Aedes aegypti] mosquito’s availability across the world, I think the spread will next be across Asia and I think we really have to be prepared for it spreading in Africa. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t.” The WHO has released their Zika Research Agenda here, with a goal of “supporting the generation of evidence needed to strengthen essential public health guidance and actions to prevent and limit the impact of Zika virus and its complications”. Scientists are still bewildered by Zika’s path through Latin America as cases continue to grow. The CDC has reported 4,091 cases of Zika in the U.S. as of October 26th.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Antibiotic Era Review – Infectious disease physician Amesh Adalja is discussing Dr. Scott Podolsky’s most recent book on antimicrobial resistance. As the realities of microbial resistance grows larger and gains more attention, it’s important to understand that this isn’t a solely modern issue. Dr. Adalja notes that the book should be required for anyone in the field as it takes great care to incorporate details that paint the larger picture of infectious diseases and antibiotics. “As Podolosky illustrates, in the post WWII era, civilization caused infectious diseases to recede in the US at the same time scores of new treatments (i.e. antibiotics) were coming to the market and experts who knew the (now rare) bug and the drugs used to treat them were valuable.” Adding it to our holiday reading list, thanks for the tip Dr. Adalja!
  • Climate & Evolutionary Drivers of Phase Shifts in Plague Epidemics of Colonial India – A recent study is looking at the climatic and evolutionary forces that impact plague epidemics. Researchers looked at the arrival of plague in colonial India through archival data and were able to identify the evolution of resistance in rats as a significant driver of the shifts within seasonal outbreaks. The findings “substantiate the rapid emergence of host heterogeneity and show how evolutionary responses can buffer host populations against environmentally forced disease dynamics.”
  • 2nd International Who’s Who in One Health Webinar – Don’t miss the One Health Commissions’ upcoming webinar on November 4th, 2016. This webinar is a great place to take part in dialogue with One Health leaders, advocates, professionals, and students The webinar is set to start at 7:45am EST and seeks to create new strategic partnerships and networks for collective, purposeful and coordinated action and educate participants about the One Health paradigm and ways of thinking towards improved health outcomes

Week in DC: Events 10.24-10.28.2016

Monday, October 24th, 2016
The U.S. Military And Commercial Space Industry– Center for Strategic and International Studies
Time: 2-3:30pm
Location: Center for Strategic and International Studies1616 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036 (map)
Please join us for the inaugural event of the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. This panel discussion will explore how the U.S. military can better leverage commercial space capabilities and what policy measures can be taken to support a thriving U.S. commercial space industry.
The event will also include a brief introduction of the Aerospace Security Project. The purpose of this project is to examine the technological, budgetary, and policy issues affecting the air and space domains. The project’s focus will be in three areas: space security, air dominance and long range strike, and commercial and civil space.

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016
War And Tweets: Terrorism In America In The Digital Age– New America Foundation
Time: 3-5pm
Location: New America740 15th St NW #900 Washington, D.C. 20005 (map)

“Here in Orlando, we are reminded not only of our obligations as a country to be resolute against terrorists,” President Obama said in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, “we’re also reminded…that what unites us is far stronger than the hate and the terror of those who target us.”
In the past year, terrorists have struck not only in Orlando, but in cities all over the world, from Beirut to Brussels, seeking to generate fear and anger. But what really determines public reaction? Is it, indeed, possible to be resolute in the face of terrorism?
Join us on October 25th at New America as we examine these questions and launch a new report as part of the “Building Civic Resilience to Terrorism” project, a partnership between New America and the charitable organization Democracy Fund Voice.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer will join the Hon. Sharon Burke, Director of the Resource Security program at New America, Juliette Kayyem, CNN National Security Analyst, and Dr. Peter Singer, Senior Fellow of the International Security Program at New America to discuss how political rhetoric, news media, and social media shape the public reaction to terrorism. The panel will also look at how to use strategic communications to build community resilience in the aftermath of an attack.
Wednesday, October 26th, 2016  Continue reading “Week in DC: Events 10.24-10.28.2016”