Pandora Report 8.18.2017

ECDC Tool for Prioritizing Biothreats
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has released their tool for the prioritization of infectious disease threats. “This qualitative tool, implemented as an Excel workbook, is based on multi-criteria decision analysis. It ranks infectious disease threats in a transparent, comparable and methodologically reproducible manner. The tool enables the relative ranking of different infectious disease threats. It is intended as a supplement to other methods that also support decision-making in preparedness planning.” Part of the tool involves a scoring of diseases, in which it suggests that a multidisciplinary expert group works to establish reliable information and adequate scoring. The ECDC tool also includes a handbook and manual for users to get the most out of it.

 Long Ignored: The Use of CBW Against Insurgents
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Glenn Cross investigates the use of chemical and biological weapons in counterinsurgency campagins like that of Rhodesia, South Africa, and Syria. Cross notes that history has shown the efficacy of CBW against ill-equipped and often poorly trained insurgents. He points to the debate regarding application of use – some say that these weapons are used when conventional forces are ineffective and often a last resort, while others note that the lack of an international and effective response have given insurgents incentive. “The conclusion from these examples is that regimes in extremis — when the battle is for their very survival — seem to have little compunction about resorting to chemical and biological weapons use. The much-heralded international norms and conventions prohibiting and condemning chemical and biological development and use go out the window when a regime’s survival is at stake. The examples of Rhodesia and Syria show that the international community must be united and demonstrate the requisite political will to enforce norms if the use of chemical and biological weapons is to be prevented.” Cross highlights two case studies, Rhodesia and Syria, pointing to the use of biological weapons by Rhodesian forces as being the only example of a nation using bioweapons since the end of WWII. While the regime was aware of treaty obligations, it had no bearing on their decision to use such weapons. So what are effective constrains on the use of CBW? The case studies reveal that regimes care little about their efficacy, international norms, or international agreements, but it is really deterrence that likely prevents the use of such weapons. The credible threat of military action is the strongest deterrent and realistically, until international norms include uniform enforcement amongst nations, they won’t be as effective. “As we’ve seen in Syria, such consensus is elusive, and the international community has failed to act. As a consequence, the world faces a sad, but inevitable conclusion. The Syrian regime is unlikely to ever face justice for its use of chemical weapons.”

A View from the CT Foxhole: Edward You, FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit
As if we need any more reasons to think Edward You is a biosecurity action hero! The Combating Terrorism Center recently sat down with Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI’s WMD Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit, and discussed not only his role within the FBI but also their work and coordination with partners. You notes that hisprimary mission is to support outreach and engagement, but probably most importantly it is to backstop the WMD Coordinators who are positioned in the field. They have to cover the whole broad range of modalities—chem, bio, nuke, explosives. They do the initial engagements, the partnerships, the initial response, but they can always call back to headquarters where we leverage all of our expertise as subject matter experts. We can bring in the laboratory division; we can bring in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if necessary, the Department of Homeland Security to support them when they run into an incident out in the field.” He emphasizes the importance of the relationship the FBI has with the private sector, not only in terms of shared interests, but also communicating security problems to help get more buy-in and coordination. When asked about the DIY biohacker, You notes that “We look at these community labs as a big positive force in the economy and engines of innovation. That has helped us overcome the natural tendency for such outfits to be a little bit anti-establishment. By engaging with them, we’re helping them to raise their level of awareness that they could potentially be targeted by malicious actors seeking to subvert their work, steal their technology, or recruit insiders on their staff. By helping them establish a form of ‘neighborhood watch,’ they will be best positioned to identify and report on instances of suspicious activity both internal and external to their community. Who better to identify threats than the community members themselves?” While the partnerships with DIY labs haven’t garnered any leads to potential threats, they help the FBI understand the direction biotech is heading, which allows them to flag areas of concern faster than if they used a top-down approach. You also addresses the 2016 Europol warning of potential ISIS experimentation with bioweapons, commenting that “With ISIS, al-Qa`ida, or any other threat actor for that matter, we are faced with two significant challenges. The first is ideology. What happens if that lone individual that becomes persuaded by their ideology happens to be a microbiologist or a biochemist? The counter WMD mission has always proceeded by identifying the actors expressing the intent to acquire, develop, or use WMDs (e.g., counterproliferation efforts). And historically, significant effort and investments have been made to counter the biological weapon threat ranging from state/non-state actors to individual level biological crimes (e.g., attempted ricin poisonings). But this introduces the second challenge. Unlike the chemical and radiological/nuclear realms where materials of concern are highly regulated and the expertise is almost arcane, biology could be classified as dual use or multi-use. The strength of the field is based on the fact that it is inherently open in nature (e.g., peer-reviewed scientific journals), which has led to significant advances in areas such as healthcare.” Lastly, You points to what he considers the greatest biosecurity threat facing the U.S. – the concerns of non-state actors, but also the role of data in terms of gene editing and other biotech, noting that “we may have have been short-sighted. Most of our legal frameworks have been focused on privacy and not on security.” “Because there’s a lack of understanding about where bio is going, we’re in danger of falling behind, and my biggest concern is that for lack of our foresight and being strategic in this space, I think China is going to become a potential biological superpower.” Did I mention that Edward You is frequently a speaker at our summer workshops?

North Korea’s Chemical Arsenal Complicates U.S. Options 
As concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program grows, the threat of chemical weapons has seemingly been downplayed. Tackling nuclear threats through preemptive strikes could push North Korea to utilize their chemical weapons program and sizable stockpile, which is considered to be one of the largest. “Experts are also disturbed by Kim Jong-un’s brazen public assassination of his half-brother using the nerve agent VX, saying it demonstrates the regime’s willingness to use deadly toxins. ‘I think if people paid more attention to the chemical side, they’d be less inclined to talk about preemption and going first against North Korea,’ said Greg Koblentz, a researcher of weapons of mass destruction at George Mason University.” In the event that chemical weapons are deployed, the South Korean capitol of Seoul would surely take a hit, which is home to 25 million people. While details of North Korea’s biological weapons program have given little insight into what is actually going on, there is considerably more knowledge regarding their chemical weapons initiatives. “The exact composition and size of North Korea’s chemical arsenal is unclear, but it’s believed to include everything from antiquated chlorine gas all the way up to sarin, VX, and other highly lethal nerve agents. These weapons are distributed at facilities across the country, often tucked away in underground bunkers or other sites unknown to U.S. and allied intelligence. The weapons are also deployed along the armistice line, which sits just 35 miles north of Seoul.” While there are limits to their chemical weapons capabilities, they surely provide little comfort to South Korean citizens and those living in Seoul.

 Chatting With the WHO
New WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke with Foreign Affairs’ regarding his plans for the future of the WHO and efforts to combat global disease. Tedros notes that epidemics or pandemics keep him up at night, especially something like the 1918 pandemic and the “serious gaps we have”. He comments that “I think the world should unite and focus on strong health systems to prepare the whole world to prevent epidemics—or if there is an outbreak, to manage it quickly—because viruses don’t respect borders, and they don’t need visas.” In regards to irrational beliefs as a public health threat, Tedros highlights the role of governments (and the WHO in supporting them) to communicate with communities and use media as a tool for teaching. Tedros discussed the WHO’s response to Ebola and when asked about hesitancy governments may experience regarding raising the alarm for an outbreak, he noted that “it’s not an issue between the WHO and the member state in question; it’s about the overall implementation of the International Health Regulations [the rules that govern how states respond to outbreaks]. That involves not only the country in question but other countries, as well. For instance, a country may fear the impact on the economy if it reports a certain disease. And if the other countries, instead of banning travel or other measures, could be supportive and implement the IHR, then the country could be encouraged to report immediately.”

Book Review – Barriers to Bioweapons
As the summer winds down, you may find yourself needing a new book to delve into. GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ougrham-Gormley‘s book, Barriers to Bioweapons, is a great addition to any lover of health security and the realities of biological experiments. This latest book review gives a witty and entertaining overview of her work, noting that “Barriers to Bioweapons argues that actually, we’re not all living on borrowed time – that there are real organizational and expertise challenges to successfully creating bioweapons. She then discusses specific historical programs, and their implications for biosecurity in the future.”

Pandemic Preparedness & A Global Catastrophic Biological Risk By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu tackles the importance of pandemic preparedness and the latest publication from the Center for Health Security regarding global catastrophic biological risks. “We may think written plans and the occasional table-top exercise are making us more prepared to handle a pandemic, but true preparation goes far beyond that. The ability to prevent, detect, respond, and control outbreaks is a hefty investment that countries are still struggling to make, and as a new report recently revealed, a paltry amount of countries may be ready for a pandemic.” She highlights the latest World Bank report that only six countries have truly taken efforts to evaluate their readiness to handle a pandemic. Like many things, the devil is in the details, and often that is as simple as a real name for a problem. A recent publication from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security sought to fix this by establishing a working definition for global catastrophic biological risks (GCBR). “What makes this definition unique, aside from it being the first working definition for GCBRs, is that it highlights several components, such as sustained catastrophic damage, and instead of highlighting a specific number of deaths, it looks to a range of negative outcomes, such as infertility. The challenging task of defining such a globally feared, but poorly understood risk was daunting; however, the Center for Health Security has provided us with a working tool that can now be applied to policy, and future preparedness and response efforts.”

H5 Hits the Philippines and Plague in Arizona
The Philippines is reporting its first highly pathogenic H5 avian influenza outbreak. Hitting a commercial poultry farm in Luzon, the outbreak began in July and killed 36,485 of the 190,000 birds. “A report today in the Manila Times, based on a media briefing with Emmanuel Pinol, the country’s agriculture secretary, said the outbreak was confirmed in the city of San Luis and that six poultry farms were affected. Most of the poultry deaths were in layer chickens. Pinol told reporters that the outbreak may have begun as early as April when deaths were reported in quail housed above ducks. He said ducks are the likely source of the outbreak, since they had contact with migratory birds. The Manila Times report said the outbreak site is 37 miles north of Manila and is close to swamps that are stopovers for migratory birds from the Asian mainland.” Public health officials in Arizona have announced that fleas in two counties have tested positive for plague (Yersinia pestis). While plague is endemic in the southwest, public health officials still work to ensure residents are aware that there is an increased risk. Officials are warning residents to be mindful of the potential for exposure via pets. “Fleas can bite rabbits, prairie dogs and other rodents — and anything that may eat them — and transfer the disease to pets, who in turn can infect humans. Cats who get plague transmit it through their cough. Dogs typically carry the fleas on their fur. Health officials cautioned county residents and visitors to keep their pets leashed and to avoid touching dead animals. Evidence of a large die-off could indicate plague is present, they say.”

Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology
Don’t miss out on these events by the National Academies Committee on Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology:

  • August 21 – the committee’s interim report and proposed framework will be released at 11am EDT here
  • August 22 – a public release webinar and report briefing will be held from 11am-12pm EDT. Committee Chair Michael Imperiale and committee members Patrick Boyle and Andrew Ellington will be reviewing the interim report and the proposed framework. This webinar is free to attend and open to the public, but you must register to attend. You can register at the following link:  https://nasevents.webex.com/nasevents/onstage/g.php?MTID=e39277a767b1f0190db4f7ee491c01271  You will be able to submit questions and comments during this webinar through a text-based feature but will not be able to speak directly with the presenters.
  • August 23-24: The meeting will be held at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Keck Center at 500 5th Street NW, Washington, DC Room 208. You must register to attend the meeting in person; the Keck Center is a secure building and we will need to have your name on the guard’s list to enter the building. You can register by emailing synbiodefense@nas.edu. If you would like to attend via teleconference, you can access the conference by dialing the following: to listen, please dial 1-(866) 668-0721 and use conference code 380 454 1676.

The committee is also soliciting feedback from the public on the interim report and the associated framework. You can submit questions or comments through September 5, 2017 at the following link:  http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/3758337/A-Proposed-Framework-For-Identifying-Potential-Biodefense-Vulnerabilities-Posed-By-Synthetic-Biology  Due to the anticipated volume of questions, the committee may not explicitly address every comment received but all comments will be considered and reviewed. PLEASE NOTE: if you submit a question, your question and any associated identifying information you provide will be added to the study’s public access file as per the National Academies’ requirements to comply with FACA.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Uganda Ebola-like Illness Demystified- Public health officials in Uganda are sighing with relief as results from the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) have reported the death of a 20-year-old woman in Luweero was due to carbon monoxide poisoning and not the suspected Ebola virus. “There are currently 3 female cases admitted at Bishop Asili hospital, Luweero. However, results from UVRI indicate that all cases were negative for Ebola, Marburg, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Rift Valley fever, and Sosuga viruses. ‘The ministry of health team is working closely with the District Health Team to monitor, review, and manage these cases as well as orienting health workers on management and referral protocols of suspected cases,’ reads the statement.”

Pandora Report 8.11.2017

Norovirus may be plaguing athletes in London for the World Championships, but we’re making sure to deliver the latest biodefense news to you (germ free)! Check out these WHO courses for managing public health emergencies.

CDC Invests $200 Million For Infectious Disease Preparedness
Last week the CDC announced that it awarded more than $200 million to help prevent, detect, respond to, and control biothreats posed by emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. The funds will go through the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity for Infectious Diseases (ELC) cooperative agreement and reach all fifty state health departments and several local health agencies in large metropolitan areas. The CDC announcement noted that the “CDC and states work together to improve local surveillance, laboratory diagnostic capabilities, and outbreak response. The CDC has awarded more than $200 million through the Epidemiology and ELC cooperative agreement to help states, cities, counties, and territories prevent, detect, respond to, and control the growing threats posed by emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. State programs are the foundation of the U.S. public health system and are integral to the nation’s efforts to combat infectious disease threats. CDC and states work together to improve local surveillance, laboratory diagnostic capabilities, and outbreak response.” This also includes $77 million to help state health departments combat antibiotic resistance in their areas. The 2017 funding enhances current Antibiotic Resistance Laboratory Network (AR Lab Network) activities by increasing testing nationwide for Candida fungal threats, strengthening national TB surveillance and infrastructure, and enhancing detection of drug-resistant gonorrhea. This surge of funds, mixed with a new strategy that combines market entry rewards with population-based payments from insurers, could help bring us ahead in the battle against the resistant bug. “The proposal, dubbed the Priority Antimicrobial Value and Entry (PAVE) award, would use limited public funds to cover the majority of revenue for the first 1 to 2 years a new antibiotic is on the market, but that revenue would be phased out over 5 years and replaced by revenue from population-based contracts with health insurers. The purpose of the PAVE award, the authors said in their recent Journal of the American Medical Association paper, is to guarantee a return-on-investment for antibiotic developers by ‘de-linking’ the revenue of new antibiotics from the volume used and to promote stewardship of those drugs, so that thy remain effective and available.”

A Short History of Biological Warfare: From Pre-History to 21st Century
Don’t miss out on the latest bioweapon gem from W. Seth Carus – a history on biological warfare! “It covers what we know about the practice of BW and briefly describes the programs that developed BW weapons based on the best available research. To the extent possible, it primarily draws on the work of historians who used primary sources, relying where possible on studies specifically focused on BW. By broadening our knowledge of BW, such studies have enabled us to write about the topic with more accuracy and detail than could have been done even a few years ago.” Carus breaks BW history into three sections – prehistory to 1900, 1900-1945, and then 1945-modern day. He focuses on the agents covered by the BWC and looks at the history of state-sponsored programs, the role of scientific advances in understanding microorganisms, use of BW in warfare, and more.

What It Means To Militarize Biotechnology
Biotechnology is a fickle beast and a frequently debated topic. While many focus on the security implications of gene-editing and other biotechnologies in the hands of nefarious actors, there has been an increasing militarization of the field. Military research and investment in biotechnology can be a bag of mixed outcomes and there has been little discussion regarding the growing military interest in it. “One such issue is the risk that military investment in biotechnology will adversely affect research priorities. Another is the possibility that military investment into defensive or public health projects by one state might be misinterpreted by other states as having offensive potential. In the same vein, the scarcity of publicly available information about military research into biotechnology might fuel public distrust of valuable and well-intended work. It is clear, for example, that research into preventing, identifying, and treating infectious diseases by various militaries around the world will continue to provide broader spin-off benefits—but publics in some states might be unsure why military rather than public health institutions lead such work.” Progress in fields like synthetic biology has brought forth almost a renaissance of research and also engagement in security discussions. Brett Edwards highlights the role of the Amerithrax attacks in bringing biology into the forefront of American terrorism worries. He notes that the synbio community has been heavily engaged in the debate of misuse and its implications for innovation and regulation. Working in the synbio field inherently carries with it a forced sensitization to these issues. Edwards emphasizes that the future should include international dialogue with researchers regarding biotechnology militarization. “This sort of dialogue might allow shared principles regarding state investment in biotechnology to be identified and articulated—principles that would both guide research priorities and establish hard limits about what is permissible. Such discussions could draw upon relevant principles in international human rights, humanitarian, and arms control law—including, but not limited to, treaties specifically dealing with biological, chemical, and environmental warfare.”

Air Travel or Bug Travel?
We’ve all been on that flight with one (or more) people who are visibly and audibly ill…and there’s nothing like that ominous feeling of “I’m definitely getting sick after this flight.” A new study investigated disease transmission on airplanes and found that things like plane size and boarding method can have some pretty profound implications for disease transmission. Sure, jamming ourselves into a metal box where it’s cold and we’re in close quarters should already be a redflag for disease transmission, but there are many more variables that impact airborne disease spread. Researchers started first with how Ebola might be transmitted on a plane. “Unfortunately for current fliers, the commonly used three-section boarding technique, where passengers board by first class, middle zone and back section, is actually the worst strategy for reducing the number of infected. The reason this works so poorly is that it forces passengers to stand together in the aisle while they all wait to get to their seats, which means more time for a tightly packed group to be exposed to the contagious passenger”. They found that changing the boarding method to a two-section, random method is much more protective. Also, the speed at which we all race off the airplane once we’re landed appears to have little impact. “For plane size, you might think the bigger the plane, the smaller your odds, right? Not quite. In fact, the study found that planes with less than 150 seats are better at reducing new infections; there are fewer susceptible people present overall, fewer people within a given person’s contact radius and less time spent moving through the plane to reach assigned seats. ‘Using smaller airplanes during an outbreak, instead of completely banning flights to a specific destination, can drastically reduce the probability of introduction of infection,’ Mubayi said.” The investigative team found that if airlines stuck to their existing boarding strategies during an ebola outbreak, there would be a 67% chance of infection rates reaching 20 air-travel-related cases per month. Regardless of plane size, if airlines modified their boarding strategies, the change for infection drops to 40%. Such work gives us great insight into strategies to help slow the rate of transmission during outbreaks through the powerful vector that is international air travel.

Computer Security and DNA Sequencing
A recent article on the implications of DNA sequencing and big data highlights investigations into the “robustness of such tools if (or when) adversarial attacks manifest”. Researchers noted that DNA synthesis can provide attackers with arbitrary remote code execution and highlight the need to look at the feasibility of such attacks. Performing their own attacks on a modified down-stream sequencing utility, they found data leakage and used such lessons to evaluate security hygiene of the more common DNA processing programs. Such work is especially prudent given that biohackers recently encoded malware in a DNA strand. University of Washington researchers revealed at the USENIX Security conference this week that it’s actually possible to encode malware into DNA strands, “so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer. While that attack is far from practical for any real spy or criminal, it’s one the researchers argue could become more likely over time, as DNA sequencing becomes more commonplace, powerful, and performed by third-party services on sensitive computer systems.” The researchers are calling it the “the first ‘DNA-based exploit of a computer system‘.” This new finding sounds like something out of a science fiction film, but points to the unexpected threats within DNA sequencing and data processing. Thankfully, the process was pretty unreliable and the researchers had to take some significant shortcuts, which means attacks like this may be not be in the immediate future. Nonetheless, it brings forth the need to consider the security implications of information stored within DNA.

Next Generation Global Health Security Network & the Nuclear Threat Initiative Webinar 
Don’t miss out on this webinar today, at 2pm EST regarding the Next Generation for Biosecurity in GHSA Competition! This webinar will provide an overview of eligibility and submission requirements for the NTI-sponsored biosecurity competition to develop regional and global partnerships among next generation professionals. Participants will also have an opportunity ask questions about the competition. Click here to add the event to your calendar.

Bio-Labs of the Future – The Promises & Perils of the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program takes a deep-dive into the bio-labs of the future . The rise of the biotech revolution and advances in gene-editing DNA synthesis, AI, etc. are all helping laboratories grow in connectivity and intelligence. “While this may be a boon for the development of novel vaccines and therapeutics by parties that have traditionally not had access to the necessary tools, it also opens the risk of nefarious use to engineer or edit biological agents or toxins. While there have been attempts at governance to limit the avenues by which a bad actor may gain access to the pathogens or tools to create biological weapons, the ever-increasing pace of innovation has left gaps that may be exploited.” Many are calling this time a Fourth Industrial Revolution, and with technologies like portable genomics sequencers, there is a need to examine the vulnerabilities, which includes things like growing accessibility. The Wilson Center paper highlights the need to evaluate threat, potential for exploitation of gaps, and provides policy recommendations.

Combating Biological Terrorism Roundtable Discussion
Don’t miss out on this event put on by the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies on Thursday, August 24th, noon-2pm at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (901 N Stuart Street, Suit 200, Arlington, VA 22203). Roundtable speakers include Professors Rita Colwell, S. Gerald Sandler, Rashid Chotani, and Normal Kahn. “Biological security concerns are a permanent fixture of history, ranging from Mother Nature’s infectious diseases to man-made threats. Recent epidemics, such as Ebola and Zika, and the potential dangers of biological terrorism urgently need to be addressed through international partnerships to reduce the gravest health risks at home and abroad. Experts with governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental experience will provide an assessment of future challenges and offer recommendations for an international comprehensive biosecurity strategies.” RSVP is required (please email icts@potomacinstitute.org).

The Future of the GHSA Matters for US Clinicians
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu discusses the importance of the GHSA and why it should matter to U.S. clinicians. “Fundamentally, the GHSA is a crucial component to ensuring a solid and reliable global foundation exists for responding to, detecting, and preventing public health crises. Whether you are a physician in an urgent care, a nurse in a major hospital, a public health epidemiologist, or working in national policy, the importance of the GHSA and its work is apparent and a future without it will only serve to weaken US and global health security.”

CBRN Insurance Approaches
GMU biodefense MS alum Zamawang F Almemar is looking at a new actuarial approach to a CBRN insurance policy. A WMD attack against a major city would have devastating consequences but countries often struggle with the realities of costly prevention efforts. It’s important to truly analyze the threats of national security and develop countermeasure infrastructure accordingly. Drawing parallels to homeowners insurance, “investing national resources to prevent and recover from the effects of a nuclear attack is an appropriate choice for national policymakers, but what level of protection is warranted to guard against non-state actor developed and employed chemical or biological weapons, or against a radioactive attack.” The authors looked to factors that may help determine how much should be spent on WMD “insurance” and a method for evaluation. While calculating some factors, like societal fears, are challenging, there are things to consider, like economic cost of property cost damage and recovery costs, economic and societal costs of injuries, deaths, disruption, and changes to society, etc. “Factors affecting the cost of implementing a protection action include the difficulty of taking the action, the equipment needed, and the extent of the measure being taken”. Regarding policy recommendations, the authors focus on the imminent threat from terrorist organisations, noting that “it is now of utmost importance for the new administration to prioritize cWMD efforts within the national defense strategy and to ensure there is a balance in appropriations investing in these cWMD efforts.”

A Shadow Network of Science Experts
At first glance, this sounds like an elusive club of James Bond-esque scientists. In reality, the truth gives a startling look into the White House. In effort to combat several science gaps within the new administration, there are reports that an unofficial network of Obama loyalists is working to continue the Obama science agenda. “Participants have provided counsel to Democratic lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill, and they have held group-wide strategy sessions much in the same fashion as they did when they worked out of a fourth-floor wing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House.” “In interviews, members of the new Obama group — which numbers in the dozens — said they have remained more engaged than they expected to before Trump’s victory in November. Beyond fielding policy questions from congressional offices, they have consulted with scientific societies, and advised organizers of the March for Science, among other activists — a few have even made those organizations their new professional homes. They have also assisted in analyzing the impact of White House budget proposals — which have outlined deep cuts to federal research agencies — and the impact of policies including Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords.”

Using Vaccines to Fight Antimicrobial Resistance
While we’re working to find new antimicrobials, reducing antibiotic use, and stopping the spread of AMR, there may be another strategy – vaccines. Many are pointing to the prevention of disease via vaccines as a means of countering infections in the first place, which are frequently misdiagnosed and treated with unnecessary antibiotics. Consider pneumococcal conjugate or influenza vaccines. “A study published in the Lancet led by Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy found that if every child under 5 years old in the 75 countries studied received pneumococcal conjugate vaccines, the resulting reduction of pneumonia would avert 11.4 million days of antibiotic use each year.” Vaccines can be an effective tool in reducing illness and these infections often lead to not only the missuse of antibiotics, but also hospitalizations that often result in exposure to resistant organisms. We know the benefits of vaccines against specific viral infections however, perhaps it’s time we start adding them to the arsenal against antibiotic resistance? Overcoming AMR will not be a result of a singular effort, but rather a mosaic of combined practices and changes as diverse as the reasons resistance occurred in the first place.

A Silent Anthrax Outbreak Within The Chimpanzee Population
Researchers in the Tai forest within the Ivory Coast are working to find out why chimpanzees are dying from anthrax. The anthrax strain, a new form of Bacillus cereus, known as Bcbva, has been responsible for 38% of local wildlife deaths in the forest. Anthrax in the rainforest environment is unique and this outbreak is challenging the ways we traditionally think about such infections. “In the savannah, anthrax almost always infects hoofed grazing mammals, which ingest soil laced with bacterial spores. Although it can spill over into humans, until 2001, there was no record of it afflicting wild primates. Now, we know that the Taï strain hits chimpanzees, as well as other unusual hosts like mongooses and porcupines. It even affects monkeys that spend all their time in the treetops, far away from contaminated soil. ‘We don’t know how they get infected,’ says researcher Fabian Leendertz. ‘How do the spores make it up in the trees?’” Fortunately, Bcbva isn’t active in other parts of Africa. Chimpanzees, like many great apes in this region are already fighting off disease like Ebola, so this new surge of an unsual disease is worrying researchers.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Hot Topics In Biodefense –  What would you consider the hottest topics? GMU’s Biodefense program has students just as diverse as the topics we face in global health security, which makes the classroom discussions pretty fantastic. One of our PhD students recently sat down and wrote about the biggest issues we face in biodefense and why this field is so crucial – check it out here.
  • Graphic Design – A New Public Health Tool?– A new exhibit at London’s Welcome Collection is drawing attention to the role of graphic design during outbreaks and epidemics. The designs range from ambulances, hospital interiors, posters, cigarette packaging, and street art. “Rebecca Wright, who has co-organised the show with graphic designer Lucienne Roberts, says that exhibits in a section about contagion are especially dramatic. An Italian ‘plague notice’ from 1681 ‘uses bold typography to give authority in time of panic,’ she says, adding that it is a beautiful object. Graphic design responding to the early spread of HIV/Aids is included, such the historic and controversial, ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign launched by the British government in 1986. ‘It was the first time every household in the UK received a health leaflet, Wright says.”
  • China & the U.S. Battle for Biotech – Check out this latest article on FBI Supervisory Special Agent, biosecurity guru, and GMU summer workshop instructor, Ed You on the U.S.-China dispute over genetic data and its implications for biotechnology. FYI – You’ll need access to the Financial Times.

Pandora Report 8.4.2017

We all know that kitchen sponges are like little densely populated germ cities, but did you know that cleaning them could make it worse?

Only Six Nations Have Evaluated Pandemic Readiness
A new report from the World Bank is calling out how little work has been done to evaluate and prepare for pandemic readiness. The report notes that only six countries have evaluated their capacity and capabilities for responding to a pandemic. Of these countries, three are wealthy (Finland, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.) and are were poor (Eritrea, Pakistan, and Tanzania). All six countries had gone under external evaluations and developed funding plans to rectify their inadequacies. “The annual number of disease outbreaks around the globe has more than tripled since 1980, and air travel spreads contagions across oceans far more often. To convince countries that preparedness pays, the report included estimates of the economic damage various epidemics had done. For example, the viral pneumonia SARS — which ultimately killed only 774 people — shrank China’s gross domestic product by 0.5 percent in 2003.” We’re seeing an increasing emphasis on the financial aspect of pandemics and as this report points out, knowledge is power. The report includes an entire section on incentivizing countries to prioritize allocation of funds to preparedness, assessment of economic vulnerability, sovereign credit rating, etc. It was interesting to see that antimicrobial resistance was not considered a pandemic. What would happen if a fully resistant bacteria swept the world?

We Don’t Need Another Biodefense Strategy
Al Mauroni is taking a deep dive into the history of American biodefense strategies and why Thomas Bossert’s recent comments about a new one aren’t exactly promising. White House homeland security advisor Bossert announced this during a security forum in Aspen, noting that until the development of a new plan, the U.S. lacked a comprehensive biodefense strategy. When this was announced there was a collective “um….about that..” from many within the biodefense community. Mauroni points to the three recent biodefense strategies within the last fifteen years, highlighting what we’re all thinking – this won’t be the first comprehensive strategy. First, there was the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10 in 2005, then the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats (Presidential Policy Directive 2) in 2009, and most recently, the National Strategy for Biosurveillance in 2012. So, if we’ve had strategies for the better part of two decades, why is there a demand for a new one? Increased outbreaks and concern for biothreats have many calling for further funding of biodefense efforts, like that of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. Funding is one thing though, but a whole new strategy? “A recent article on the ‘proliferation’ of national strategies suggests that strategic guidance only adds to the confusion, allowing executive agencies to pick and choose what they want to implement.” Mauroni notes that “Going back to Bossert’s statement at the Aspen Security Forum, he referenced the 2001 anthrax-filled letters, pandemic influenza outbreaks, genetic engineering research, and the Global Health Security Agenda. He didn’t reference the protection of US military forces against adversarial use of biological warfare agents. All of these fall under the area of ‘biodefense,’ and there is no one agency that comprehensively addresses all of these threats. Because US government funding, authorities, and capabilities for biodefense reside in different agencies, it is very difficult to articulate objectives and responsibilities in one single strategy. There is no single point of authority to execute the strategy, and very often, no incentive to change given an inability to redirect resources or authorities”. Biodefense is a unique term though as it is often considered in a singular context and while the DoD plays a significant role in countering biological threats, there are other players. Biosafety and biosecurity is a large component, which rests heavily on both the private and public sectors. The DHHS leads in times of public health concerns (even if some of these efforts are duplicated by the DoD) and we can’t forget the role of public health surveillance and health security efforts like that of the GHSA. Mauroni leaves us with several points – “there cannot be one national biodefense strategy because there are at least three distinct policy areas that, while overlapping, are significantly different in execution of their policy objectives.” He notes that “I am not optimistic that the US government will consider a more diverse and complex policy process that articulates these differences. Having one national biodefense strategy offers a façade of simplicity and organization that three separate strategies will not.”

Opening Statements for ASPR Nominee
The nomination hearing for Dr. Robert Kadlec as Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began on August 1st. You can check out the transcript here, in which Kadlec highlights five priority issues he wishes to pursue if confirmed. His priorities include providing stable leadership and clear policy direction, creating a “national contingency health care” system, supporting the sustainment of robust and reliable public health security capabilities, re-invorgorating and advancing an innovative MCM enterprise, and working to reauthorize the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act in 2018. You can watch the nomination hearings here. Reports are pointing to his likely confirmation as his nomination “lacks controversy“.

European Report on Drug Resistance
Is the food we eat helping antimicrobial resistance take over? A new joint report from several European public health agencies notes that “To contain antibiotic resistance we need to fight on three fronts at the same time: human, animal and the environment. This is exactly what we are trying to achieve in the EU and globally with our recently launched EU Action Plan on antimicrobial resistance. This new report confirms the link between antibiotic consumption and antibiotic resistance in both humans and food-producing animals.” The impact of consuming antimicrobial agents is increasingly becoming an area of concern. While there are many factors that contribute to the rise of antimicrobial resistance, it’s not surprising that antibiotic use in food-producing animals would become a topic of interest. “Although consumption is defined differently in humans and animals, to make the comparison as consistent as possible, the report expresses consumption in milligrams of active substance per kilogram of estimated biomass (mg/kg). Human antimicrobial consumption is typically reported as defined daily doses per 1,000 inhabitants. Overall, the report found that average antimicrobial consumption was higher in food-producing animals than in humans, although the difference was largely influenced by a handful of countries with significant animal populations.” Analysis points to a relationship between consumption and antimicrobial resistance (seen in isolates in certain species of bacteria). This latest report underscores the complexity of antimicrobial resistance and the challenges in truly addressing this hydra-like problem. Perhaps we are what we eat?

Australian Raid Finds Chemical Weapon Attempts
The Sydney police raids across four properties, which resulted in four arrests, found components for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and construction on an “improvised chemical dispersion device”. Two men were ultimately charged with building the military-grade device and were reportedly supported by ISIS operatives but their attack plans were foiled. “Police will allege that components for an improvised explosive device (IED) were sent to Australia in air cargo from Turkey via Isis operatives in Syria. Two men, who remained in custody after facing court on Friday, then allegedly assembled the devices with instruction from ‘a senior Isis operative’, according to the Australian federal police deputy commissioner Mike Phelan.” In response to the attempt, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are working to improve screening. Fortunately, the chemical weapon was in the early stages of development.

Biothreat Worries Over Cancer Research
At last week’s DEF CON hacking conference in Las Vegas, Intel’s chief medical officer John Sotos brought forth a somewhat surprising topic – bioweapons. Building on his discussion of the cancer moonshot, Sotos discussed the same technology (DNA manipulation) having the potential for misuse and development into biological weapons. “’The reason you haven’t heard much about bioweapons is that they’ve been held back by a pretty severe limitation, which is the potential for blowback’,” Sotos said. It is hard for any attacker to use weaponised diseases because they spread beyond their initial distribution range: destroy your neighbouring nation and you destroy your own as well. Sotos noted, ‘the cancer moonshot is going to really drive new technologies to manipulate DNA because cancer is a disease of DNA. [And] the same exquisite targeting that allows it to attack only your cancer cells also overcomes the blowback potential for bioweapons’.” While this level of precision medicine isn’t available yet, it draws parallels to gene-editing tools like CRISPR, in which targeted application is becoming more real. Soto hones in on the fear that such genetic engineering capabilities will not only be possible, but used for nefarious purposes like stealing genetic codes or rewriting DNA to tamper with fertility. Soto’s points are valid and it is important to consider the full spectrum of use for biotech developments in the future however, we must not lose sight of the consistent and growing threat that is natural disease.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Saliva Secretions & Zika Transmission – A recent study found that rhesus monkeys, when infected with high levels of the virus, could theoretically transmit via saliva. When compared to rhesus monkeys with more common viral loads, it was possible, although extremely unlikely, that the highly infected monkey could spread via saliva “All three monkeys who were exposed to high doses of Zika virus (20-fold higher than that typically found in saliva) applied directly on their tonsils developed the disease. Another group of 7 monkeys were exposed to the virus via the saliva of monkeys who had received subcutaneous infections, representing a typical virus count. None of the monkeys exposed to doses typically found in saliva contracted the disease when their tonsils (5 animals), conjunctivae (1), or nasal passages (1) were exposed. ‘We tried to simulate sneezing, sharing utensils, and other mucosal exposures,’ said Friedrich. ‘But the amount of virus typically founding saliva was not enough to infect a monkey or suggest any seroconversion [development of detectable antibodies]’.”
  • Biodefense World Summit Coverage – Get the latest overview of the Biodefense World Summit here, with a focus on biosurveillance! Topics range from DHS work to enhancing situational awareness for global disease surveillance.

Pandora Report 7.28.2017

Happy Friday! As we close out the month of July, Texas has reported its first local case of Zika in 2017. If you’re not convinced about the threat of antimicrobial resistance, check out this video on the ability for bacteria to resist even new antibiotics.

The Reality of Trump’s R&D Cuts 
There’s been a steady stream of reports regarding the hits to global health spending that the new administration is making. The proposed 2018 “A New Foundation for American Greatness” budget hits financing of global health security, which is already poorly funded. While Bill Gates met with president Trump several times in efforts to persuade him of the importance of investing in global health and the R&D that goes into it, it seems that the continued assaults to funding aren’t going anywhere. A recent report by the Global Health Technologies Coalition and the Policy Cures Research of Australia took a different approach to swaying the president – money and fear. “The report explains that between 2007 and 2015 an investment of $14 billion (£10.7bn) in global health R&D resulted in a $33 billion injection back into the economy and the creation of 200,000 jobs. Spending since 2000 resulted in 42 successful products, including 11 for malaria and ten for TB. Want to ‘Make America Safe Again?’ Start by investing in R&D.” Just like the Nuclear Threat Initiative highlighted last week in their focus on the GHSA and importance of investment in global health, this report drives home the economics of global health security. We know that an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere, but for many, it can be difficult to see that when we’re not experiencing a major outbreak on American soil. Despite the impact of Ebola cases in the U.S. in 2014, the rise of antimicrobial resistance, and growing concerns regarding dual-use research and biosafety, there is a consistent struggle to truly get support for not only global public health, but also the R&D that supports biodefense efforts. The report notes that “Between 2007 and 2015, the US government invested nearly US$14 billion dollars in R&D for global health. In comparison, in 2015 alone, the US government spent $1.05 trillion on Medicare and health, $609 billion on the military, and $102 billion on education. Despite relatively limited investment, US government support was essential in helping advance 42 new technologies approved since 2000 – including 11 new products for malaria, 10 for tuberculosis (TB), and 1 for HIV/AIDS.” The U.S. is not an island – we rely on global cooperation and R&D alliances to help fight off current and future microbial threats. Global health security means that we must invest in efforts at home and abroad and to decimate an already limited budget for such efforts would have worldwide ramifications. FYI – the DoD released their guidance on global health engagement  (hint: global health cooperation and engagement is important).

Worry About Water Bugs, Not Sharks
While everyone is up in arms about Michael Phelps not really racing a great white shark, some are saying, “hey…there’s actually a lot of microscopic water germs that are way scarier!” “You’re 75 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark. On average, one person dies of a shark attack every other year in the United States.” The real danger rests in our love of water activities during the summer, whether it be a public pool, water park, private pool, or lake. FYI, I’ve seen one too many presentations on outbreaks associated with splash pads…they are diarrheal disease hotspots.  Here are some of the bugs you should actually be worried about in water – crypto, pseudomonas, shigella, legionella, norovirus, cyanobacteria, and the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri. How can we dodge these party-crashers? Avoid swallowing the water…don’t go swimming if you’ve had diarrhea recently, check those chlorine and pH levels, and make sure to rinse off from time to time.

Emergent Biosolutions Goes On A Spending Spree
While the future of global health R&D is a little bleak, Emergent Biosolutions is sprinkling some funding around to expand its drug portfolio. “Five days after the company agreed to pay $97.5 million to acquire the smallpox vaccine assets of pharmaceutical giant Sanofi it handed another $96 million to GlaxoSmithKline, one of biggest healthcare providers in the world, to acquire raxibacumab, an antibody that treats a form of anthrax that can be inhaled. Both deals are part of a broader expansion plan that Emergent’s executives hope will turn it into a $1 billion-a-year company by 2020.” These investments are more in the direction of defense against high-consequence biothreats, and their Chief Executive, Daniel Abdun-Nabi, is pointing to not just nefarious biological events, but also those related to climate change. Abdun-Nabi notes that “There’s a real worry starting to grow across the globe about the re-emergence of pathogens that we might not have seen for a number of years,”.

Infection Control vs. MERS
Not surprisingly, infection control failures are a big source for MERS-CoV transmission. Despite ongoing outbreaks and training on PPE and isolation precautions, there’s a pretty significant trend in healthcare – poor infection control practices. A recent WHO report revealed the findings of a risk assessment regarding 199 MERS cases in four countries. Since December, 1/3 of MERS cases have been linked to healthcare facilities and while initial signs and symptoms are non-specific, they found that simply improving standard precautions (also known as universal precautions) could make a difference. Using basic infection control practices, like putting a mask on a patient with a cough, or utilizing isolation precautions when caring for a febrile patient, are all easy and critical components to preventing the spread of disease. “How MERS-CoV spreads in hospitals still isn’t clear and is the topic of scientific studies. The WHO, however, said observations suggests transmission occurs before infection prevention and control steps are applied and patients are isolated. The agency added that hospital outbreak investigations suggest that aerosolizing procedures done in crowded emergency department or medical wards without adequate control measures may have led to human-to-human spread and environmental contamination.” This is an interesting finding for several reasons. Firstly, infection control steps should be applied the second a patient walks into a healthcare facility. During measles outbreaks (and influenza season), many hospitals put kiosks in the hospital entrance that contain alcohol-based hand sanitizer and masks, with signs highlighting the importance of such practices and to wear one if you have a cough. Secondly, utilize your triage staff. Either isolate or ask patients to wear masks during their triage process to prevent the spread of infection. We often wait until patients are in rooms to use PPE but the truth is that it can start a lot earlier. Also, emphasizing hand hygiene from the beginning can be monumentally helpful for everyone involved in patient care. Yes, healthcare workers are a significant part of the transmission chain, but visitors and the patients themselves play a big role. Overall, this study draws attention to infection control failures however, these aren’t new for those of us working in healthcare, and MERS is just a good example of how we can improve them. Preemptively isolating a patient won’t hurt, but delayed isolation can kill.

First Human Embryos Edited in U.S. 
Researchers in Oregon are now the first team to attempt creating a genetically modified human embryo in the U.S. “The effort, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, involved changing the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, according to people familiar with the scientific results.” Such work has not been previously done in the U.S. and Mitalipov’s team has shown it can be successful. While the embryos weren’t allowed to develop past a few days and there were never intentions of implantation, the altering of DNA codes within human embryos is a significant leap for biotechnologies like CRISPR. While many highlight concerns with the future of such work and the risk of “designer babies”, the NAS report in February has been seen as a green light to test germline modification. “The advisory committee drew a red line at genetic enhancements—like higher intelligence. ‘Genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if available only to some people,’ said Alta Charo, co-chair of the NAS’s study committee and professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In the U.S., any effort to turn an edited IVF embryo into a baby has been blocked by Congress, which added language to the Department of Health and Human Services funding bill forbidding it from approving clinical trials of the concept.”

MSF Lessons Learned During the DRC’s Recent Ebola Outbreak
There have been dozens of analyses since Ebola burned through West Africa in 2014/2015 however, a latest report from Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is providing insight regarding the 2017 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The small outbreak (which seems odd to say about a disease like Ebola, but that was until 2014) resulted in the deaths of four people in a remote part of the DRC. When news first sprung up that cases were identified, the world waited with bated breath as the memories of the the last horrible outbreak were all too fresh. Fortunately, rapid field team and resource deployments aided in the quick response that halted the disease in its tracks. MSF was a part of such efforts and since the outbreak was declared over, they have identified five major lessons. Firstly, train frontline health workers. This one is music to my ears, especially in terms of the poor infection control practices among healthcare workers that made them 21-32 times more likely to acquire the diseases. “Healthcare workers play a crucial role not only for the health of the people they serve directly, but also for general epidemiological surveillance for outbreaks like Ebola, but also for more common deadly infectious diseases such as measles and cholera. A health system cannot rely on just one person to play the crucial role of on-the-ground surveillance. What is needed are proper surveillance systems in resource-poor countries, which were clearly lacking in West Africa at the beginning of the epidemic.” Secondly, a forgotten disease finally taken seriously – this is all too true in that many did not know of Ebola until it sent shockwaves through West Africa. Now, the disease is top of the agenda and rapid mobilization is triggered. Third, back to basics, which means that while we can focus on vaccines and new drugs, we can’t forget the basic pillars of outbreak control, like surveillance, isolating and treating the sick, looking for new cases, contact tracing, burying the dead safely, and engaging and mobilizing the local community. Fourth, location matters. The recent outbreak occurred in a very remote and forested area, which impacts movement of contacts, as well as acquisition of supplies. “As in all previous outbreaks before West Africa isolation played a key factor for the containment of the virus.” Lastly, medical interventions are not the magic bullet. “MSF was willing and actively preparing to use the Ebola treatments that are still in development. However the outbreak was over before the process to allow the use of experimental products was complete, so none could be used this time. This outbreak however acted as a booster to speed up the process of preparing medical protocols so that new drugs, still in the experimental phase, can be used in a way that is as safe and ethical as possible.” In the end, the rapid control and early response measures, coupled with the limited size of the outbreak, helped prevent its spread before the vaccine could even really make a difference.

Global Catastrophic Biological Risks Definition – Center for Health Security
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security released their working definition for global catastrophic biological risks (GCBR) in efforts to draw attention to this special category of global threats and focus future efforts to combat them. The definition is: “Those events in which biological agents—whether naturally emerging or reemerging, deliberately created and released, or laboratory engineered and escaped—could lead to sudden, extraordinary, widespread disaster beyond the collective capability of national and international governments and the private sector to control. If unchecked, GCBRs would lead to great suffering, loss of life, and sustained damage to national governments, international relationships, economies, societal stability, or global security.” You can read the article and ten commentary pieces written by a variety of leading scientists and public health experts here.

How Infectious Diseases Shape Culture
When we think of infectious diseases, we tend to imagine morbidity and mortality. While this is accurate, there’s a lot more that these microbes impact, like language, culture, etc. We know that during the European bubonic plague in the 14th century, urbanization and economic development were slowed, but those skilled laborers who survived were highly valued. Consider even the food we eat, which has several cultural dynamics within it. We avoid raw meat, raw milk, and even stopped eating raw cookie dough or cake batter (ok, let’s be honest, we still lick the bowl, right?). “Many words and expressions commonly used in English have origins linked to an infectious disease. One such common phrase, used for a person who may not have symptoms of an infectious disease but can transmit it, is to call them a Typhoid Mary. In 1906 Mary Mallon, a cook, was the first healthy person identified in the USA as a carrier of the typhoid bacilli that causes typhoid fever, a serious disease for the Western world in the 19th century (but which globally exists and has often existed in poor communities).” Consider even the term, “feeling lousy”, which originated in conjunction to those with lice who became anemic and experienced general malaise. “In the late 1880s Tunisia experienced severe infectious disease epidemics of cholera and typhoid, and famines, which so badly depleted its economy that it was unable to pay off its debts. This made it vulnerable to French occupation and then colonisation.” There’s been a substantial body of literature that looks to the security implications of disease and how it may leave countries open to political and military disputes (check out Andrew Price-Smith’s Contagions and Chaos). The recent outbreak of Ebola has even changed the way American healthcare handles preparedness. Long thought a rare disease that we would never see, hospitals around the country now have Ebola Response plans and work to train front-line staff in case an outbreak occurs again.

Reports of Pediatric Deaths Following UN Sanctions Is Untrue 
A recently article in BMJ Global Health is highlighting the fictitious statements made by Saddam Hussein’s government during the UN sanctions in 1990. “The United Nations Security Council imposed the sanctions in 1990 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions remained in place after the Iraqi army was expelled, on the grounds that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction would need to be destroyed before they could be lifted. The sanctions greatly restricted Iraq’s ability to export oil and therefore to import supplies of food and medicines, prompting international concerns that the country’s children were being particularly hard hit.” Following these sanctions, a 1999 national survey was conducted by UNICEF and the Iraqi government, which reportedly found that “children in the centre and south of the country were dying at over twice the rate of 10 years earlier”. These results were used by several outlets for either support or refusal to invade Iraq. The researchers in BMJ Global Health have found that the results were “a deception” and studies done since 2003 have found no evidence of such high rates. The researchers concluded that “The rigging of the 1999 Unicef survey was an especially masterful fraud. That it was a deception is beyond doubt, although it is still not generally known.”

Stories You May Gave Missed:

  • CARB-X Awards $17.6M To Fight Global Antimicrobial Resistance – the private initiative, CARB-X, was established with the purpose of facilitating global efforts to combat antimicrobial resistance. This week they announced $17.6 million will fund research efforts by scientists in India, Ireland, France, Switzerland, the U.S., and the U.K. “The seven supported projects include five potential antibiotics targeting Gram-negative bacteria, a new treatment for drug-resistant gonorrhea, a new drug molecule that targets resistance in cystic fibrosis infections, and Phase I development of an oral, broad-spectrum antibiotic. The latest round of awards is part of a $455 million commitment by the U.S. Government and the Wellcome Trust over five years. The first 11 projects to receive funding were confirmed in March, and additional funding announcements are expected later this year.”
  • Biodefense World Summit – If you missed this event in June, check out some of these highlights that include talks on pathogen detection, food safety, and the importance of biodefense in the U.S.!
  • Papaya-linked Salmonella Outbreak – Just went you thought it was safe to go back to the summer fruit salad…. Sadly, salmonella is a current risk for papaya-lovers across the U.S. as an outbreak of Salmonella Kiambu has sickened 47 people across 12 states. “Most of the cases were reported in five eastern states: New York (13), New Jersey (12), Virginia (6), Maryland (5), and Pennsylvania (4).  Seven states across a wide swath of the country, however, have each reported 1 case: Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas, and Utah. So far, 12 people have been hospitalized. The death involved a person from New York City. Illness onsets began May 17, with the most recent on Jun 28.Patient ages range from less than 1 year to 95 years, with a median age of 27. About two-thirds are female, and, of 31 patients with available information, 18 (58%) are Hispanic. The epidemiologic and lab investigations both point to tainted papayas as the source of the outbreak. Interviews with 25 sick patients found that 11 (44%) had eaten papayas, a significantly higher proportion of papaya consumption than in healthy Hispanic people (16%) interviewed around the same time.”

Pandora Report 7.21

Beat the heat and cool down with your weekly report on all things biodefense! Have you ever wondered how researchers become bug-chasers? Check out this story on what turned a wildlife biologist into a plague-chaser in the Southwest.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
Thanks to our amazing faculty and attendees for a successful (and fun) summer workshop this week. We heard from Ed You on safeguarding the bio economy, Dave Franz explained the dual-use dilemma in life sciences, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley discussed barriers to bioweapons, Andy Kilianski explained the ins and outs of biosurveillance, Kendall Hoyt discussed the role of innovation and MCM, Sandy Weiner highlighted the social and cultural disease amplifiers, and so much more! Did I mention that Greg Koblentz brought the house down by discussing why biosecurity is a wicked problem? You can check out the Twitter stream here to see some amazing photos and dialogue during the three-day event. Participants from all over the globe, with backgrounds in everything from infectious diseases to defense and academia, participated in talks that truly ranged from anthrax to Zika, with pit stops on influenza and Ebola. With the 1918/1919 pan-flu centennial anniversary next year, we’re already starting to put together a great workshop for the summer of 2018, so keep on the look-out for more info in the future.

The Future of the GHSA and American Biodefense
Next week in Seoul, a meeting will be held for the Steering Group of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) to discuss what exactly the future entails for the group. While its five-year run will expire in 2019, many are pushing for the GHSA to be extended as it is a highly valuable piece to global health security and IHR compliance. “Recognizing that the GHSA’s work has never been more vital and would be impossible to replace, more than 100 health and health security organizations and companies operating in over 150 countries, including the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), this week banded together to urge GHSA’s extension for at least another five years.” The NTI signed on for several reasons – the world is still not prepared to handle a pandemic of a lethal/easily transmittable disease and frankly, the GHSA provides measurement, accountability, and transparency, which are all desperately needed in global health security efforts. The NTI recently released a statement regarding their support for extending the GHSA beyond 2019, highlighting its irreplaceability and proven ability to help measure and support change in countries working to strengthen their prevention and response to biothreats. Next week’s meeting with be the first since President Trump took office, which makes its outcome that much more important. NTI cites several GHSA successes in efforts to highlight the desperate need we have for it – commitment of more than 75 countries, developing and implementing the first agreed set of global metrics for national health security, mobilizing the private sector to engage in pandemic preparedness and response, etc. Discussions regarding the future of the GHSA comes at a poignant time as the House Appropriations Subcommittee approved FY 2018 State and Foreign Operations (SFOPs) and Health and Human Services (HHS) Appropriations Bills. The approval supports efforts to maintain global health funding. The bill includes funding for the State Department and USAID through the Global Health Program (the bulk of global health assistance) and despite President Trump’s FY2018 request (which would have cut it by $1.8 billion, or 28%), it’s providing $3.8 billion, which is roughly 5% less than FY 2017. Also within the bill – “funding provided to CDC for global health matched the FY 2017 enacted level ($435.1 million) and was $85.1 million (24%) above the President’s FY 2018 request. Funding for the Fogarty International Center (FIC) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) totaled $73.4 million, a slight increase above the FY 2017 enacted levels ($72.5 million); FIC was eliminated in the FY18 Request.” Despite the cuts that are suggested in his proposed FY 2018 request, the Trump administration is reportedly developing the first comprehensive strategy on biosecurity. A top White House homeland security official reportedly said that such efforts are underway and involve retired Admiral Tim Ziemer. “We have not had as a country a comprehensive bio-defense strategy ever,” White House homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert told the annual Aspen Security Forum, in Aspen, Colorado. “It’s high time we had a bio-defense strategy.” While Bossert points to the need for a biodefense strategy, it is crucial to remember that the U.S. has already gone through two biodefense strategies – the 2004 Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10 (Biodefense for the 21st Century) and 2009’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats. This news comes on the heals of Trump’s nominee for a key biosecurity position. Guy B. Roberts of Virginia was just nominated to be an Assistant Security, Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs within the DoD. “Mr. Roberts is currently president of GBR Consulting, a national security consulting firm. In that capacity, Mr. Roberts has provided subject matter expertise on arms control, non-proliferation, international legal issues and strategies to combat terrorism to over 30 international and domestic organizations and institutions. In addition, he is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct professor teaching courses on homeland security, international terrorism, non-proliferation, and arms control at Mary Washington University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Mr. Roberts previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Weapons of Mass Destruction Policy and Director of Nuclear Policy for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” You can catch some of his talks via C-SPAN here, and while there’s not a lot on his work in biodefense, you can read this paper within the USAF Institute for National Security Studies, entitled, “Arms Control Without Arms Control: The Failure of the Biological Weapons Convention Protocol and a New Paradigm for Fighting the Threat of Biological Weapons“. His paper notes that despite the 2001 U.S. rejection of the BWC protocol for more stringent compliance mechanisms, there was still substantial focus on biological weapons and potential threats (especially after the 2001 Anthrax attacks). Roberts notes that “The time for ‘better-than-nothing’ proposals is over. A united world, acting in concert across a broad front of areas utilizing the full panoply of financial, diplomatic, economic, and military resources at our disposal, with the firm determination to rid the world of these weapons of terror, is our best hope for success.” In all, with talks next week on the GHSA, presidential hopes of cutting health funding, and a supposed biosecurity plan in the works, the future of health security is seemingly in the air.

The Case of the Reconstituted Horsepox and Other Dual-Use Adventures 
Last week we, like so many others, were engrossed in the news that a Canadian research team had reconstituted horespox with $100,000 worth of supplies and mail-ordered DNA. The news of this unpublished study has raised a lot of red flags for those in the dual-use research community, as well as the debate on the remaining smallpox stockpiles. What’s most concerning about the project, led by virologist David Evans as the University of Alberta, is that it wasn’t stopped earlier on for DURC concerns and risk reviews. Gregory Koblentz, biodefense guru and director of the GMU graduate program, “says the work should never have been done. His worry isn’t so much that terrorists will cook up smallpox anytime soon. ‘My concern is that we have opened up the door to the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to synthesize [such] viruses without any oversight,’ Koblenz says. And if the necessary technology and expertise spread, it will become “that much easier at some point for those capabilities to be turned from peaceful uses to hostile uses’.” This project and the resulting discussions will surely play a pivotal role in the future of DURC and oversight, so we’ll make sure to keep you updated!

North Korea’s Bioweapons Program
GMU Biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley is taking a deep dive into the realities of North Korea’s potential bioweapons program. Working backwards from the 2015 photo tour with Kim Jun-un at a pesticide facility that certainly had dual-use potential and was a seemingly obvious attempt to send a message to the U.S.,  Ouagrham-Gormley highlights the sordid history that is North Korean bioweapons. While South Korea has repeatedly claimed North Korean maintains an active program, there have been inconsistent reports elsewhere and Ouagrham-Gormley hones in on realities about this well-publicized dual-use equipment and facility. She notes critical aspects that would be missing from an active bioweapons program (even if you have all the shiny equipment), like consistent electricity, economic stability, and an effective laboratory/research management. While there are gaps in intelligence regarding the conditions that would truly facilitate an active (and successful) bioweapons program, “analyses of past state and terrorist bioweapons programs indicate that the continuity and stability of scientific and production work must be ensured over a long period of time to allow scientists and technicians to accumulate the knowledge necessary for development of a working bioweapon.” While many suspect that a North Korean bioweapons program was launched in the 1960s and then new infrastructure was built in the 1970s, there are a lot of questions regarding the continuity of such efforts. Were there breaks in between? Changing research teams and inconsistent management/organization all severely impact the efficacy of such secretive work. Perhaps one of Ouagrham-Gormley’s most critical points (and why you should check out her book, Barriers to Bioweapons), is that to truly assess the alleged bioweapons program, one has to understand the state of natural and medical science in North Korea. “Without a solid foundation in natural and medical sciences, a bioweapons program cannot succeed. When Soviet authorities issued a decree to expand the country’s bioweapons program in the early 1970s, they had to face the reality that Soviet science had fallen behind and needed modernization. Years of Stalin’s purges, along with the policy of Lysenkoism—which negated the role of genetics in science—had resulted in the elimination of a whole generation of competent scientists. Decades of economic sanctions, and the desperate state of North Korea’s economy and society, have undoubtedly had an effect on the scientific sector.” With these notions, Ouagrham-Gormley questions if the North Korean bioweapons program is more of a Potemkin village. While there is limited information on the organized scientific research in North Korea or real potential for such a program to exist, more information is needed, which would be a great task for a BWC verification regime.

Center for Biosecurity ELBI Research and Policy Symposium 
This week the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security held their first research symposium for the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI). The current ELBI class and several alumni presented on research and projects they’re working on. The topics ranged from dual-use research to risk assessments, biosecurity, and more. During this time they also toured the Johns Hopkins Medical Center’s Biocontainment Unit. Two GMU biodefense students attended – Francisco Cruz (MS alumni and ELBI class of 2016) and Saskia Popescu (PhD student and ELBI class of 2017), who presented on the role of infection prevention in biodefense efforts.

Tackling the Next Epidemic With Big Technology
In an age of globalization and increasing spillover, the threat of naturally occurring outbreaks spreading from one corner of the globe to the other is a real fear. Fortunately, we also live in a time of great technological advances and a wealth of data. A recent article from B.Next highlights the availability of data technologies and how such big data can be woven into the fabric of public health prevention and intervention. Outbreaks and pandemics threaten global security and perhaps one of the biggest hurdles is matching the data needs with the limited supplies on the ground. Data gaps and lags are a massive problem when responding to an outbreak, especially in terms of specialized personnel and resource constraints. There are several technologies though, that could be applied to response efforts – novel data or means of collection, crowdsourcing methods, data cleansing, analytics, and visualization. “Improving response times for activities that have proven to be effective (i.e, non-pharamceutical interventions) need to be prioritized. The full potential of surveillance and advanced analytics for improving outbreak management has not yet been realized and, unfortunately, is not yet adequate to the task. We need a fundamental reconsideration of how to use combinations of data technologies for effective response management. Accomplishing this reconsideration and implementing it effectively will allow for faster, better, stronger responses. Past outbreaks have threatened national security, but they do not need to be as significant a threat in the future. Current and emerging data technologies can help tackle the next epidemic.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • USDA Test Finds Atypical BSE In Alabama Cow – A recent announcement from the USDA reported the finding of atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in an 11-year-old cow in Alabama. This would be the 5th case in the U.S. since 2012 and the cow did in fact have symptoms of the disease, which was picked up by routine surveillance. “The animal never entered the slaughtering process and has not posed a threat to the food supply or to human health. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) said in a press release yesterday that cow died after it was delivered to the livestock market and that routine tissue samples were taken and sent for testing. Tony Frazier, DVM, Alabama’s state veterinarian, said ‘This instance proves to us that our on-going surveillance program is working effectively’.”
  • Three Antibiotics Discovery Projects You Should Know About: With the threat of antimicrobial resistance only growing bigger, BARDA, CARB-X, and big pharma are bringing out the big guns with the Superbugs & Superdrugs USA this November. “Understanding the translational link between animals and humans; navigating the pitfalls of early drug discovery; and evaluating the potential of immunotherapies will be a major focus, as will hearing from a selection of biotech and pharma companies currently undertaking clinical research. This will include case studies from Pfizer, MedImmune, Merck, Visterra and ContraFect. Event highlights will include a keynote presentation by Tim Opperman, Senior Research Scientist from Microbiotix. The talk will discuss advances in the three-prong approach taken by Microbiotix to address the problem of MDR Gram-negative pathogens. It is claimed that all three discovery projects have demonstrated efficacy in murine models of infection.”
  • Stanford Hospital – A Canary In A Coal Mine: Stanford Healthcare is coming under increasing public scrutiny as a battle between members of an affiliated union have highlighted hospital infection rates as evidence for unsafe working conditions and patient safety. GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu takes a deeper dive into this situation and what it really means for healthcare infections and patient safety. “The healthcare industry is always in a battle against cutting costs, keeping patients safe, and maintaining high patient satisfaction; all while following federal regulations and requirements. Despite the alarmist nature that comes across in the media coverage on the Stanford case, we need to realize that this is only a glimpse through the window that is healthcare infection control and the struggle to follow best practices while working in an increasingly stressful environment. In this case, Stanford Health Care is the canary in the coal mine, alerting us that there’s a problem. They just happened to get the media scrutiny that comes with being pulled into a union debate involving the safety of employees.”

Pandora Report 7.14.2017

Welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense! We’ve got a lot of global health security goodies for you this week, so grab a coffee and let’s get our biodefense on!

Canadian Researchers Reconstitute Horsepox With Online DNA Order
Friday was an exciting day in the world of dual-use research of concern (DURC) and biosecurity efforts. News of a Canadian research team and their successful experiment in reconstituting horsepox, brought to light several concerns and gaps within DURC oversight. Led by virologist David Evans, the team was able to synthesize horsepox, a relative of smallpox, which is no longer found in nature. What is really concerning so many about this experiment is that Evans and his team were able to do this with little specialized knowledge, $100,000, and using mail-order DNA fragments. While the study hasn’t been published, it is drawing a lot of attention, not only for the potential that such a process could be applied to smallpox, but also that it failed to trigger more reviews at an institutional level for DURC risks. While the U.S. DURC oversight only applies to federally funded research with fifteen select agents, the Canadian processes cover such research that could disseminate knowledge, regardless of what organism is being used. GMU’s Dr. Gregory Koblentz spoke to Science and discussed DURC oversight, noting, “That should have captured the horsepox synthesis,”. “But as far as I understand, they did not engage in a systematic review of the broader dual-use implications of synthesizing an orthopox virus,” says Koblentz. “I don’t think this experiment should have been done.” Researchers and biosecurity experts around the world are weighing in on this study, especially since its publication is immiment. Tom Inglesby of the Center for Health Security pointed to three serious questions and concerns that this work raises – whether experimental work should be performed for the purpose of demonstrating that a dangerous or destructive  outcome could be created by using biology, how much new detail will be provided in the forthcoming publication regarding the processes for constructing an orthopox virus, and the international biosecurity and biosafety implications regarding the approval process for such experimental work. Perhaps one of the most startling aspects of all the commentary and reports on the horsepox experiment has been Evans own opinion on it all – “Have I increased the risk by showing how to do this? I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe yes. But the reality is that the risk was always there.” Where ever you might stand on the topic of dual-use research, bioethicist Nicholas Evans of the University of Massachusetts (of no relation to David Evans), said it best regarding this debated experiment – “an important milestone, a proof of concept of what can be done with viral synthesis. Aside from the oversight and life science research questions that this experiment brings to light, it also stirs the embers of the fiery debate regarding the destruction of the remaining smallpox stockpiles. The most recent blue ribbon panel review regarding the 2014 NIH variola incident sheds some light on the biosecurity and biosafety challenges of maintaining the stockpiles. You can check out the report of the Blue Ribbon Panel to Review the 2014 Smallpox Virus Incident on the NIH Campus  here. The report goes through the event itself, as well as their findings on the incident, response to the incident, and policy changes. Some of the contributing factors they identified included lack of responsibility for infectious materials in shared space, failure to find all variola samples in the 1980s, lack of complete and regular inventory of potentially hazardous biological materials, lack of policy for abandoned materials, history of NIH lapses following implementation of the Select Agent Regulations, etc.

Summer Workshop – Last Chance to Register!
Our Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security starts on Monday, July 17th, which means you still have time to register! Don’t miss out on this wonderful opportunity to discuss everything from Ebola to the concerns surrounding the horsepox dual-use dilemma. This three-day workshop will feature experts across the field of biodefense and will provide participants with a wonderful opportunity for networking and brainstorming!

The Pentagon Weighs the Threat of Synthetic Bioweapons 
While the topic of synbio and DURC is still fresh in our minds, how is the Pentagon considering gene-editing as a potential threat? Sure, we prepare for natural outbreaks and acts of bioterrorism, but how does CRISPR come into the mix? “Pentagon planners are starting to wonder what happens if the next deadly flu bug or hemorrhagic fever doesn’t come from a mosquito-infested jungle or bat-crowded cave. With new gene editing tools like Crispr-Cas9, state enemies could, theoretically, create unique organisms by mixing-and-matching bits of genetic information.” In response to these questions and potential scenarios, deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense, Christian Hassell, is working to get some answers. Hassell and other Pentagon colleages funded a year-long review by the National Academies of Sciences to evaluate the health security threats of synbio. While the review is still going on, a preliminary report is undergoing “classified review” before it can be publicly released. This review will be vital to consider the future of gain-of-function research and other dual-use research of concern in the context of biodefense. “Scientists at the meeting expressed a range of ideas about how the military could best defend against biological threats. Sriram Kosuri runs a synthetic biology lab at UCLA that has developed libraries of DNA sequences that can be developed into new kinds of organisms. While he understands the possibility of a lab-engineered threat, he believes the Pentagon and federal health officials should focus on responding to emerging public health menaces rather than monitoring academic labs that use genetic manipulation tools. ‘There’s a legitimate threat of emerging viruses and we need to be prepared for those things,’ Kosuri said during a break in the meeting. ‘The tiny threat of engineered viruses is miniscule compared to that’.” The challenging part in all of this is that there’s no precedent – this is a new field of threat and risk analysis where historical examples are lacking. Hypothetical situations and response scenarios are the best we can offer, but some of the most valuable tools are the ones we already have, like surveillance or early-stage review processes.

Trump Appoints A Key Bioterrorism Position But Still Leaves Dozens Open
Biological threats aren’t just acts of bioterrorism, but also natural outbreaks or laboratory accidents. If the latest horsepox experiment hasn’t convinced you already, we live in a time of quite unique and diverse biothreats. The spectrum of threats requires an array of agencies and personnel with the skills and resources to prevent and respond to such an event. Unfortunately, we’re currently at a national disadvantage in terms of biodefense. If we look at just one small facet of biothreats (bioterrorism), the U.S. has twenty-six (now twenty-five with the nomination of Kadlec) major and vital roles that are vacant and have not been filled by the Trump administration. While some are awaiting confirmation, there are vacancies without even a nominee like the White House position of Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Department of Health and Human Services is missing a surgeon general and assistant secretary for health (awaiting confirmation), while the U.S. Agency For International Development lacks a nominee for the assistant administrator for global health. There are just a few of the vital positions we rely upon for preventing and responding to acts of bioterrorism. In the wider context of all biological threats, it may not seem like much, but the truth is that these vacancies leave the U.S. in a dangerously vulnerable position. Fortunately, President Trump announced on Monday his plans to nominate Robert P. Kadlec of New York to be the Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Preparedness and Response. “Currently, Dr. Kadlec is the Deputy Staff Director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Previously, he served as a Special Assistant to the President for Biodefense Policy for President George W. Bush. Dr. Kadlec holds a B.S. from the U.S. Air Force Academy; a M.D. from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and a M.A. in National Security Studies, Georgetown University.” He was also the Director for the Biodefense Preparedness on the Homeland Security Council and aided in drafting the Pandemic and All-Hazard Preparedness Act, as well as conducting the biodefense end-to-end assessment (culminating in the National Biodefense Policy for the 21st Century). You can even watch Dr. Kadlec speak on C-SPAN at the Bipartisan Policy Center & Kansas State University forum on biodefense in October of 2016. Dr. Kadlec also directed the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense during their efforts to establish guidance during critical biothreats.

Public Health Preparedness and Response National Snapshot 2017
The CDC just released their 2017 snapshot regarding U.S. public health preparedness and response, noting that “this year has shown us, once again, that we can’t predict the next disaster. But it has also shown us clearly how being prepared protects health and saves lives. Emergencies can devastate a single area, as we saw with Hurricane Matthew, or span the globe, like Zika virus. Disasters from 9/11 to Ebola have demonstrated that we absolutely must have people, strategies, and resources in place before an emergency happens.” Within the snapshot, there are four main sections- Prepare, Respond, Connect, and Looking Forward. Within these sections, you can look at Zika, laboratories as the front lines of America’s health, global training programs, delivering results through partnership, etc. I found the section on Health Security: How Is The U.S. Doing, quite interesting. They note that “as part of the Global Health Security Agenda, teams of international experts travel to countries to report on how well public health systems are working to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks. This process is known as the Joint External Evaluation.” The CDC and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) work together to establish evaluators , etc. Thankfully, this position is in the process of being filled so that these efforts can move forward. While this snapshot captures the range of issues that must be covered in public health preparedness, it also draws attention to how vital the roles in each agency are, which makes the vacancies that much more impacting.

Summary of Key Recommendations – Meeting to Solicit Stakeholder Input on Forthcoming 2017 National Biodefense Strategy
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, supported by the Open Philanthropy Project, recently held a meeting to discuss and consider the landscape of biological threats to the United States and what response measures, programs, and policies are in place, etc. Featuring members from across academia, industry, and government, these subject matter experts weighed in on this honest and frank discussion about U.S. biodefense strengths and weaknesses. There were several recommendations and topics that were discussed but some of the highlights include improving biosurveillance capabilities and laboratory network, performing risk assessments and characterizing threats, strengthening emergency response capabilities including decontamination efforts, prevention-related efforts, building global capacities for bio-threat preparedness and response, etc. They noted several components to improving U.S. biodefense – “internationally, laboratory and surveillance systems for early detection of new outbreaks will be most effective when they serve the needs of countries where they are housed. It will not work for the US to create systems to gather and export data that the US needs from countries if those countries do not get the information themselves and find it to be valuable.” In regards to healthcare system response and strengthening the workforce, the group pointed out that “national and international preparedness for biological threats requires a strong workforce, including public health experts and animal and plant disease scientists. To some degree, success at controlling infectious diseases in the US may have inadvertently resulted in workforce attrition in these fields. Federal support for developing the workforce in these fields is important”.

Strategies for Effective Biological Detection Systems: A Workshop
Don’t miss this workshop put on by the National Academies of Sciences on Monday, September 18th – Tuesday, September 19th. “The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will host a two-day public workshop on strategies for effectively updating biological detection systems. The workshop will explore alternative effective systems that would meet requirements for the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch Program as a biological detection system for aerosolized agents. There will be a focus on systems or strategies that could be deployed by 2027, and enable indoor surveillance and dual-use with day-to-day environmental surveillance that would be of value to the public health and medical communities. There will also be a focus on the integration of improvements and new technologies into the existing biological detection architecture.”

MRSA Screening – Healthcare Prevention Methods for Resistant Germs & Swabbing Our Way To A Solution for Antibiotic Resistance
Antibiotic resistance is a growing global issue and one of the hotspots for transmission of resistant germs is in hospitals. Given that MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is now a common bacteria in the community and healthcare world, hospitals are working to screen patients to ensure those with MRSA are isolated appropriately and they can stop the spread of infection. GMU biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu looks at MRSA screening practices within hospital intensive care units (ICUs) and the cost analysis that can make or break a program. Most hospitals utilize one of two approaches – preemptive universal precautions (isolate all ICU patients until microbiology labs can prove they are negative for MRSA) or targeted isolation (wait until labs come back and then isolate). Each tactic has benefits and weaknesses. Delays in isolation can translate to further spread of MRSA, while longer periods in isolation mean additional costs associated with isolation. A recent study evaluated these very two strategies and the “researchers found that the total cost of preemptive isolation ‘was minimized when a PCR screen was used ($82.51 per patient). Costs were $207.60 more per patient when a conventional culture was used due to the longer turnaround time.’ For ICUs that used targeted isolation, the researchers found that costs would be lowest when chromogenic agar 24-testing was used and not PCR.” What this study highlights is that there is inherently no best practice and that depending on laboratory capability, hospitals may have to plan their MRSA screening and isolation protocols off their microbiology department and cost centers. While hospitals are working to screen patients as a means of responding to microbial resistance, researchers are working against the clock to find solutions. Dr. Adam Roberts is one such innovative microbiologist in the UK who is using an old-school approach to respond to a new problem. Popescu was able to interview him regarding his Swab and Send program, which utilizes citizen scientists from around the world to collect samples that may help produce new antimicrobials from the environment. Roberts is working to utilize environmental samples that hold microorganisms which produce compounds that can help build new antibiotics. “The initiative also helps create a microbial database. For £30, Dr. Roberts’ team will send anyone a handful of sample tubes, a mailing envelope, and directions for what to swab (for example: a nutritious area bacteria would likely grow, likely something unsanitary). After you send back your swabs, you can check out Swab and Send’s Facebook page and see what microbes grew from the samples.” Check out Dr. Roberts’ comments on trends he’s seeing and how even GMU biodefense students are getting in on the swabbing!

Naval Research Lab Find High Prevalence of Antibiotic Resistance in Kenya
Microbial resistance has a way of popping up in even the most unexpected places and projects. The U.S. Navy Research Laboratory (NRL), U.S. Army Medical Research Directorate-Kenya (USAMRD-K), Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), and University of Washington, led a joint effort to evaluate intestinal tract bacteria and its resistance in patients across Kenya. The NRL-developed microarray they used is capable of detecting over 200 difference antimicrobial resistant genes. “These results suggest that there is selective pressure for the establishment and maintenance of resistant strains,” said Dr. Chris Taitt, research biologist, NRL Center for Bio/Molecular Science and Engineering. “This is potentially due to agriculture and prophylactic use of antibiotics and further suggests the need for more effective public health policies and infection control measures than those currently implemented.” “Specific to Kenya, widespread use of tetracycline in livestock production, use of trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (SXT) and chloramphenicol as first line therapeutics for typhoid, and prophylactic use of SXT in persons exposed to or infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) might have contributed to the high prevalence of resistance.” Surveillance of antimicrobial resistance has been a struggle on an international level however, joint efforts like this are vital to not only establishing global standards and processes, but also highlighting the importance it has for military personnel abroad.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Agroterrorism Bill – a new bill was recently introduced by U.S. Rep. David Young (R-IA) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) regarding the preparedness of the U.S. agriculture, food, and veterinary systems. “The Securing Our Agriculture and Food Act requires the DHS Secretary, through the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs, to ensure food, agriculture, animal, and human health sectors receive appropriate attention and are also integrated into the DHS’s domestic preparedness policy initiatives. The legislation specifically addresses issues seen after the 2015 avian influenza outbreak, which killed millions of turkeys, backyard flocks, and layer hens. It was the deadliest outbreak of avian influenza in Iowa’s history.”
  • What The G-20 Needs To Do To Fight The Next Ebola– The G-20 summit occurred last week in Hamburg and many were hoping for a renewed passion surrounding biological threats. While much attention was focused on climate change, there is also a call for efforts to prevent the next outbreak that will produce a pandemic. “Ultimately, strong health systems depend on communities, health workers, managers, researchers and other local stakeholders being empowered to respond to the inevitable, future waves of change we all face. At Health Systems Global, our members represent these multiple groups. Strengthening everyday resilience demands that we all — governments, donors, researchers, communities, health professionals — work with the resources that health systems already have — their people and relationships. This must be done as we take wider action to confront inequality at all levels. If we do not do that, then efforts to safeguard disease outbreaks will be meaningless.”

Pandora Report 7.7.2017

WHO Leadership Prioritization
There are six key positions the new WHO director general should prioritize, according to Mukesh Kapila of The Atlantic. The newly elected, first ever African director general has a lot on his plate and his future efforts will surely be evaluated against the mistakes and successes of his predecessors. Dr. Tedros comes into the position with somewhat of a dark cloud following him – during the election an advisor to his opponent made public comments accusing  Tedros of intentionally covering up outbreaks within his home country of Ethiopia. Kapila’s proposed to-do list for Tedros includes six main components. Firstly, promote home-grown national solutions, which focuses on sustainability and developing models that fit them and not a standardized solution for all countries. Secondly, remember that the WHO does not have a monopoly on health wisdom. “Delivering change will require a revisioning of WHO’s long-presumed position as the centre of the global health ecosystem. Today we have many well-resourced international bodies and national institutions with highly-qualified experts. Thus, WHO does not have a monopoly on health wisdom and its norm-setting and convening authority is questioned. It’s high time that the humbleness that has endeared Tedros to many people rubs off on the organisation.” Third, hire diverse talent that helps restore trust throughout member states instead of pulling from just a select few. Fourth, don’t get bogged down in international reform. “Tedros can’t afford to waste his five-year tenure on simply rearranging institutional furniture. All his recent predecessors as director general have huffed and puffed but ultimately failed to reform WHO. An effective and efficient organisation is just a means towards an end. So, Tedros only has to do enough to make WHO fit for the purpose of delivering his vision.” Fifth, look beyond traditional thought leaders – tackle the exhaustive list of issues by thinking outside the box and approach such challenges with a different vantage point. Lastly, accept that the WHO has to live within its means. “WHO is broke with budget gaps in priority areas and excessive reliance on ad hoc voluntary funding. But he should resist setting out with a begging bowl and instead reform the budgetary architecture and agree a new compact for consistent and predictable funding.” WHO headquarters alone are in an expensive location, but overall Tedros must work to truly budget accordingly while re-establishing the WHO as a leader in global health with a reputation that encourages participation and support.

Public Transit Emergency Preparedness Against Ebola and Other Diseases
Globalization and innovative developments in transit allows us to travel around the world within hours rather than days or months. Unfortunately, we’re not the only ones that travel with such new capabilities. Outbreaks like SARS, MERS, and even Ebola have all bubbled outside of their origins thanks to the ability of global travel. What can be done though? “The Transportation Research Board’s Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Legal Research Digest 50: Public Transit Emergency Preparedness Against Ebola and Other Infectious Diseases considers federal and state laws and available court decisions affecting transit agencies’ responses to infectious disease outbreaks, including potential cohesiveness among transit agencies’ procedures and federal and state guidance”. This finding highlights major topic areas like closures of major traffic generators, quarantine and isolation, employee protocols, etc. Overall, the TCRP digest investigates the legal basis for closures or emergency regulations on transit agencies as a response mechanism to pandemics or outbreaks. One particularly interesting component to the report is section VIII, which discusses infection control and disinfection measures related to transit.

Summer Workshop – Don’t Miss Out!
With just over a week before our Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security begins, don’t miss out on the last remaining spots! We’ll have instructors from all over the realm of biodefense discussing a range of topics as diverse as the threats themselves. Biotechnology and medical countermeasures? We’ve got it! Dual-use research and biosecurity? Got it. Don’t worry – we’ve got all the topics covered. You won’t want to miss this three-day workshop filled with wonderful topics and some of the top names in the biodefense field.

How Bill Gates Got Bioweapons Wrong
Following Bill Gates’s comments on bioterrorism, Filippa Lentzos points out that while his intentions were good, his comments about a terrorist wiping out 30 million people with a weaponized disease are wrong, especially as they draw such attention to amateurs as terrorists. Lentzos specifically highlights the tacit knowledge that would be needed for such an act and that frankly, it’s a stretch for terrorists to take advantage of biotech advances. “Available evidence shows that few terrorists have ever even contemplated using biological agents, and the extremely small number of bioterrorism incidents in the historical record shows that biological agents are difficult to use as weapons. The skills required to undertake even the most basic of bioterrorism attacks are more demanding than often assumed. These technical barriers are likely to persist in the near- and medium-term future.” Moreover, Lentzos points out that by making such comments, Gates distracts from those who are more concerning in terms of bioweapons – state-sponsored groups and national militaries. It’s within these groups that the capacity to develop and deploy weapons lies, not within the small DIY garage bioterrorist. “Another factor significantly limiting the use of biological weapons is their lack of perceived military utility. In the near-to-medium term, however, advances in science and technology may enable the development of more capable and more accessible biological weapons. These weapons might allow attacks to be targeted more precisely. Attribution would become more difficult. These technical developments—paired with changes in the social context around biological weapons—may lower barriers to the development and use of biological weapons.” To defend against these degrading barriers, Lentzos urges several things – modernizing the Biological Weapons Convention, use of a collective and convincing response for any breaches in norms against bioweapons or actual use of one, and development of national biodefense capacities. Lentzos leaves the reader with a final plea – within these biodefense programs, ensure biosafety and biosecurity, implement the BWC, declare the program to ensure confidence-building measures are submitted, and regularly review your program to ensure compliance with the BWC. In the end, it’s the state-sponsored or military bioattacks we should worry about rather than drawing attention to the potential for bioterrorists.

Bio: Separating Fact From Fiction
GMU biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein evaluates the good, bad, and ugly of DIY biotechnology. Drawing on a range of events and even films, Gerstein first describes what exactly DIY biotechnology is as there is frequently confusion. He highlights the freedom that DIY biologists have in terms of their projects, especially since they aren’t driven by grants or deadlines that companies or universities place on such projects. The promises and perils of DIY bio has been met with an array of critics and supporters – some say that this freedom is how scientific discovery occurs, while others point to the lack of oversight and that people without fundamental understanding of scientific ethics may abuse such technology. “The DIY spirit is embedded in humankind’s quest for discovery and knowledge. As DIY bio continues to evolve, two ‘courses of action’ are available. The first would be to place harsh limitations on such activity, but that would ultimately be counterproductive and likely fail. The second would be to embrace DIY, understand its risks and limitations and work collaboratively with the community to shape activities to ensure the safety of those conducting the experiments and the general population. If and when boundaries are breached, swift and appropriate actions must be taken to remediate the actions and even discipline the offenders. Finally, important outreach will be important to ensure law enforcement and society at large understands DIY bio. The image of DIY bio in the movie Quarantined must be replaced with a more nuanced understanding of the benefits and risks of the use of biotechnology.”

Scientists Utilize Old School Approach Against Resistant Bacteria
In the fight against resistant bacteria, an old strategy may be worth a try – bacteriophages. Using viruses to kill bacteria is an old strategy but it may be effective for our new problem – resistance. While the strategy was first discovered in the early 20th century, isolating and truly utilizing bacteriophages was challenging. Fortunately, now we have technology and advances in medicine on our side. “As a result, scientists are taking a fresh look at what is called phage therapy. ‘They are starting to dust off their old laboratory notes and re-explore the use of bacteriophages as a ‘new’ way to treat serious, life-threatening infections,’ says William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Increasingly, specialists in infectious diseases believe phage therapy holds promise against bacterial diseases, especially in cases where antibiotics have failed. In 2016, the approach saved a San Diego man who otherwise would have died. Several similar successes have been reported since then.” While phage therapy isn’t yet FDA-licensed for humans, it can be used in life-threatening situations (like the San Diego case), but researchers are working to combat the challenges with getting it approved. Despite its use in other countries as a means of treatment, there is limited phage data within the U.S. There’s a long road ahead for harnessing the power of phage therapy, but it just may be one of the greatest tools in the fight against the resistant germ.

Stories You May have Missed:

  • How the DRC Beat Ebola in 42 Days – After the destruction that the virus left in its wake in 2014/2015, the news that the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had a case, triggered PTSD for many. With the news of their initial case in May, public health response teams were dispatched and within 42 days, the outbreak was over. So how did the DRC manage such a feat? “This swift resolution was partly a matter of luck. The virus hit the remote and sparsely populated Likati region, which is 1,300 kilometers away from the capital city of Kinshasa, and nestled deep in equatorial rainforest. ‘People weren’t moving around in the way they were during the West African outbreak,’ says Anne Rimoin from the University of California Los Angeles, who has worked in the DRC for 15 years. ‘So it was a very small outbreak in and of itself’.”
  • The Trouble With Ticks– traditionally, we’ve seen ticks as a source for Lyme disease and not much else. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case as a bad tick season is afoot. “Experts say the Northern United States may be in for a bad tick season this summer, raising concerns about Lyme and other scary tick-borne diseases, including the Powassan virus, which causes encephalitis and can leave people with permanent neurological damage. ‘This spring definitely seems worse than others I remember,’ said Dr. Catherine Wiley, chief of general pediatrics at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. ‘People are coming in from the yard with numerous ticks on them’.”
  • Ebola Exhibit – While we all remember the fear and frustration surrounding the most devastating outbreak of Ebola, a new exhibit is taking viewers through a visual journey of the epidemic. “A new and poignant special exhibit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the agency’s David J. Sencer CDC Museum. Sencer, who died in 2011, happens to have been the CDC’s director in 1976, when the first known outbreak of Ebola occurred in Yambuku, Zaire — now the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Pandora Report 6.30.2017

Happy Friday to all our amazing readers – we hope you have a lovey holiday weekend! Don’t miss the July 1st deadline for an early registration discount to the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security.

Preventing Pandemics and the Necessity of Funding Prevention
Next January will mark the centenary of the 1918-1919 pandemic influenza, but what have we really learned since then? The looming threat of antimicrobial resistance is slowly surrounding us, as is the increasing biothreat of zoonotic disease. Globalization, encroachment into animal habitats, and recent models that predict a 60-day global spread for a virulent strain of airborne flu virus, all paint a rather gloomy reality for the future of health security. So what are we doing? Not enough. That’s usually the answer in public health- a field of which you can comfortably say society likes to contribute the bare minimum. A highly pathogenic influenza virus that could engulf the globe in a pandemic isn’t the storyline for a horror movie, but rather something that even UN panels note is “not an unlikely scenario”. “Pathogens are not only terrifying, they’re expensive. The 2003 SARS epidemic cost $30 billion in only four months. A flu pandemic of a severity that occurs every few decades could contract the global economy by 5 percent — some $4 trillion”. Here’s where the economics of preventative public health come into play – vaccines are expensive to make and there’s little incentive when we’re not in the eye of a disease storm. Moreover, global health security is challenging. Politics makes disease response and preparedness a sensitive topic, especially during an outbreak. The key lesson to remember though, is that an outbreak anywhere is really an outbreak everywhere. So what preparedness tactics can we start utilizing? “The project is called CEPI — the Center for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. After the world’s failure to control Ebola quickly in 2014 and 2015 cost 11,000 lives and at least $6 billion, three global experts proposed a vaccine development organization with $2 billion in start-up funding. Harvard, the National Academy of Medicine and the United Nations all created commissions that proposed ways to avoid another catastrophe. Among other steps, all endorsed vaccine development.” CEPI aims, in the next five years, to develop vaccine candidates for Lassa fever, Nipah, and MERS. “Creating vaccines is not the same as guaranteeing that people who need them can get them. CEPI will require its awardees to sell vaccines to the poorest and lower-middle-income countries (more likely, to donors who will buy vaccine for them) at the lowest possible price.” Perhaps one of the most poignant comments from this article was that the threat to this goal is not scientific, but rather political, highlighted by short attention spans. The World Bank has initiated it’s “pandemic bond” to aid in outbreak response should there be a public health crisis like that of Ebola in 2014. “The catastrophe bond, which will pay out depending on the size of the outbreak, its growth rate and the number of countries affected, is the first of its kind for epidemics. It should mean money is disbursed much faster than during West Africa’s Ebola crisis.” The Pandemic Emergency Fund (PEF) will offer coverage to those countries eligible for financing from the IDA (International Development Agency), which is dedicated to helping the poorest countries. Head of derivatives and structured finance at the World Bank’s capital markets department, Michael Bennett, noted that “if a trigger event occurs, instead of repaying the bond in full, some or all of the principal is transferred to the PEF trust fund. So essentially the investors are acting like insurance companies. The objective of offering the risk in both forms is that the bonds and swaps appeal to different types of investors, and therefore … we are creating the broadest possible investor pool for this risk,”. The PEF would provide more than $500 million in coverage over the next five years. Efforts to provide financial support to outbreaks before they reach pandemic potential are vital. It is estimated that had the PEF been available during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, $100 million could have been mobilized as early as July 2014, which may have prevented the outbreak spreading so rapidly and costing $2.8 billion. “The annual global cost of moderately severe to severe pandemics is estimated at roughly $570 billion, or 0.7 percent of global income, the World Bank said.”

Ebola Burial Teams 
The 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was not only the worst in history, but taught us a great many lessons about outbreak control. One of the most extraordinary lessons learned was just how valuable burial teams could be. Funerals became a significant source for disease exposure and transmission, especially for loved ones of the deceased, as washing and handling the body was customary. In effort to combat this high-risk activity, public health responders established burial teams comprised of paid volunteers, who would collect the bodies from homes and aid in their burial. The teams would don PPE and work with families to ensure they avoided exposure. Dignified burial through these teams helped ease much of the concern for families regarding the treatment of their loved one. A recent study published in the PLOS Neglected Tropical Disease Journal evaluated the impact of these burial teams using modeling and data from 45 unsafe community burials and 310 people who were identified as having contact with the infected bodies. Researchers found that those who cared for the Ebola patient just before their death were at greatest risk, meaning that caring for an infected loved one at home was far riskier than bringing them to a healthcare facility. The study estimates that the safe and dignified burials performed by Red Cross volunteers (the burial teams) prevented between 1,411 and 10,452 cases of Ebola. “Hundreds of paid volunteers took on the grim task of collecting bodies from people’s homes in full personal protective gear, while also having to manage the grieving families and communities. They were ordinary West Africans, such as teachers and college students. Many carried out the relentless and dangerous work for months. Some were stigmatised in their communities, because people became scared they might bring the virus home with them. In reality, they were helping to stem world’s worst ever Ebola outbreak.” In the end, the Red Cross burial teams managed over 47,000 burials, carried out more than 50% of all burials during the outbreak, and consisted of 1,500 volunteers.

Instructor Spotlight – Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, & Global Health Security
We’re nearing the last few weeks before our workshop and your opportunity to get the early registration discount, so don’t miss out! This week we’re happy to show off not only the director of this workshop, but also of our GMU biodefense graduate program – Dr. Gregory Koblentz. If there was a biodefense Jeopardy, Dr. Koblentz would not only be the reigning champion, but would also have Alex Trebek doubled over in laughter. Gregory Koblentz, PhD, MPP, is an Associate Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University. During 2012-2013, he was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Koblentz is also a member of the Scientist Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. He previously worked at Georgetown University, the Executive Session for Domestic Preparedness at Harvard University, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Strategic Stability in the Second Nuclear Age (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014), Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security (Cornell University Press, 2009) and co-author of Tracking Nuclear Proliferation (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1998). He serves on the editorial boards of Nonproliferation Review, World Medical and Health Policy, and Global Health Governance. His teaching and research interests focus on international security, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and homeland security. He received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his Master in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and his BA from Brown University. For more information, see https://schar.gmu.edu/about/faculty-directory/gregory-koblentz. Don’t miss your chance to not only learn from Dr. Koblentz, but also chat with him and other experts in the field at our workshop July 17-19th!

Can CRISPR Tackle Zika?
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking at CRISPR and its application as a vector-borne disease prevention tool. “Whether it be the latest announcement that CRISPR reversed Huntington’s Disease in mice or that it could provide rapid diagnostic improvements, the technology is being considered a breakthrough for many diseases and conditions, including vector-borne diseases.” Drawing on a recent TED Talk by famed molecular biologist, Dr. Nina Federoff, she highlights the potential for GMO mosquitoes to be used as a biological control tool. Federoff points to the public perception issues that come with GMO products, which was seen in Key Haven, Florida when GMO mosquitoes were to be trialed as a means to prevent dengue and Zika cases. “Concluding her talk with a plea to the audience, Dr Federoff emphasized the need to dig past misinformation and hype to truly look at the science of this work and the substantial benefits that can come from biological control efforts and the science of genetic modification.”

The Case of the Missing Sarin
Dugway Proving Ground is under the spotlight again for mishandling of dangerous substances. The same Army lab was responsible for mishandling Anthrax in 2015, during which they sent 575 shipments of live samples across the U.S. Unfortunately, the latest reports are looking to Dugway as the source for potentially losing a small amount of sarin. The inspector general for the DoD released a report highlighting the findings that a contractor used by the facility was not maintaining inventory properly. “Dugway stored its sarin in a two-container system. The sarin was stored in a primary container, which is then stored inside a secondary container. But officials only checked the secondary containers when doing inventory, and did not check inside the primary container, so they did not know if all the sarin was still in the containers, the inspector general found. ‘Therefore, custodians cannot identify and account for leaks, evaporation, or theft that may have occurred,’ the inspector general found. ‘Furthermore, Dugway officials did not immediately notify the chemical materials accountability officer of a 1.5-milliliter shortage of … sarin identified during an April 19, 2016, inventory nor did they properly document the results of that inventory,’.” The report found that the contractor and Dugway used varying methods for container sealing but that the amount missing is relatively small. Fortunately, sarin evaporates and degrades very quickly. Overall the report highlights the operations and procedures for handling the chemical agent put workers at an increased risk and encouraged the Army to evaluate and improve practices immediately.

The Moral Question of Bioengineering
The financial and technical hurdles for biotechnology and gene-editing have been decreasing over the years and Stanford is taking a unique approach to their budding bioengineers – asking moral questions. During their final exams for the university’s Intro to Bioengineering course, the students are asked several questions – at what point will the cost of printing DNA to create human life equal the cost of teaching a student at Stanford?  If you and your partner are planning to have kids, would you start saving for college tuition, or for printing the genome of your offspring? These questions represent much of the debate and concern regarding gene editing – the rapid decrease in cost and the morality of just how far the technology can and will take researchers. Many note that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Stanford professor Drew Endy emphasizes the decrease in costs, which was initially prohibitive when the technology was developing. Regarding the last question, “about 60 percent say that printing a genome is wrong, and flies against what it means to be a parent. They prize the special nature of education and would opt to save for the tuition. But around 40 percent of the class will say that the value of education may change in the future, and if genetic technology becomes mature, and allows them to secure advantages for them and their lineage, they might as well do that. There is clearly no right answer to the second question, and students are graded on their reasoning rather than their conclusion. But when both questions are considered together, they suggest, Endy says, that ‘in the order of a human generation, we’ll have to face possibilities that are much stranger than what we’re prepared for’.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • John Oliver Takes on Anti-Vaxxers – If you’re a fan of the HBO host, make sure to check out his recent episode of  “Last Week Tonight” in which he points out just how dangerous the anti-vaccine movement really is. “Some have even developed an ‘alternative vaccine schedule’ in which the inoculations can be delivered less frequently and over a longer period of time. ‘That sounds like a decent compromise because it’s the middle-ground position, right?”’Oliver said on ‘Last Week Tonight’ on Sunday. ‘The problem is, it’s the middle ground between sense and nonsense. It’s like saying, ’It would be crazy to eat that entire bar of soap, so I’ll just eat half of it’.”
  • Yemen’s Growing Cholera Outbreak– Yemen is currently experiencing the worst international outbreak of cholera, with 200,000 suspected cases and an average of 5,000 new cases reported daily. The WHO and UNICEF have gotten involved as there have already been 1,300 deaths in the past two months. “By calling the outbreak the “world’s worst” UNICEF and WHO hope to speed international aid efforts to the war-torn country. “This deadly cholera outbreak is the direct consequence of two years of heavy conflict,” said a press statement from UNICEF. ‘Collapsing health, water and sanitation systems have cut off 14.5 million people from regular access to clean water and sanitation, increasing the ability of the disease to spread.’ In addition to a lack of public health infrastructure, UNICEF estimated that 30,000 dedicated local health workers who play the largest role in ending this outbreak have not been paid their salaries for nearly 10 months.”

 

Pandora Report 6.23.2017

TGIF! Before we begin our weekly dose of all things biodefense, have you ever wondered the traits that predict animal or host spillover?

What Does A Post-Polio World Look Like?
Decades of battling diseases in eradication efforts has been a struggle throughout public health history, but what happens when you finally reach the finish line? Donors around the world have worked to eliminate polio and in the final stretch and last ditch efforts, many are asking what will happen when polio is eradicated and the donors are gone? The truth is that many polio eradication programs (which include vaccination and surveillance campaigns) actually form the foundation of public health for many countries and rural areas. These programs have been the backbone of establishing some semblance of public health for areas that many not receive it otherwise. “If and when polio is gone, however, much of the transition may fall to national governments. International funding stands to shrink dramatically. About 27 percent of WHO’s $587 million in spending in 2016 went to polio eradication efforts. The African region would also be particularly hard hit. Forty-four percent of WHO spending there went to polio efforts, and about 90 percent of all immunization staff and infrastructure on the continent are funded through the WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative.” We haven’t really considered what it means to eradicate a disease like polio and how the withdrawing of funds and personnel might impact countries. Moreover, many of the polio eradication programs are closely tied to other vaccination programs (measles, tetanus, pertussis, etc.) and if funds are lost because polio is eradicated, these other vaccination programs could take a hit. Aside from vaccination initiatives, if stable public health programs are not established prior to eradicating polio, there is also a risk for loss of disease surveillance. Current polio eradication programs highlight the role of surveillance, which is also used to facilitate laboratory development, all of which could impact pandemic preparedness and global health security. It is vital that efforts to eradicate polio are also met with work from political leadership to ensure a transition occurs that maintains public health efforts. “The transition as polio is eradicated will be complex, and needs to be carefully managed, country specific and country led. Polio surveillance systems can provide an important foundation, and are tremendous assets to health care systems, said Irene Koek, the deputy assistant administrator of global health at the United States Agency for International Development. Civil society organizations will have a role to play in advocating to keep local governments and ministries on target, said John Lange, the United Nations Foundation‘s senior fellow for global health diplomacy.”

Instructor Spotlight – Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
We’re getting closer to the July 17th start date for our workshop (and the July 1st early registration discount expiration!) and this week we’re excited to show off one of our very own GMU Biodefense professors, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. An economics and defense expert, biodefense guru, and world traveler, Dr. Ouagrham-Gormley is the kind of professor whose class you spend the entire time on the edge of your seat. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She holds affiliations with GMU’s Biodefense Program, Center for Global Studies, and the Department of History and Art History’s Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) program. Prior to joining the faculty at George Mason in 2008, Professor Ben Ouagrham-Gormley was a Senior Research Associate with the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). While at CNS, she spent two years at the CNS Almaty office in Kazakhstan, where she served as Director of Research. She also was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the International Export Control Observer, a monthly publication focusing on proliferation developments and export controls around the globe. From 2004 to 2008, she was an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development (Cornell University Press, 2014). She received her PhD in Development Economics from the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris; a graduate degree in Strategy and Defense Policy from the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes Internationales in Paris; a master’s degree in Applied Foreign Languages (triple major in economics, law, and foreign languages —Russian, and English) from the University of Paris X-Nanterre, and a dual undergraduate degree in Applied Foreign Languages and English Literature from the University of Paris X-Nanterre. She is fluent in French, English, Russian, and spoken Arabic, and possesses beginner competence in Kazakh. For more information, visit https://schar.gmu.edu/about/faculty-directory/sonia-ben-ouagrham-gormley

President’s Budget Would Leave U.S. Vulnerable to Global Health Security Threats and Why We Need An Emergency Fund For Future Outbreaks
Cuts to public health, health research, and international aid have some pretty far-reaching implications and faculty from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security are pointing to the inherent vulnerability that would come from Trump’s proposed budget. Health security incorporates several programs and the reality is that an epidemic anywhere means an epidemic everywhere – simply put, the outbreaks that could pose a threat to the U.S. commonly begin abroad. “The proposed budget would cut $76 million from CDC’s Global Health programs, including cuts to Global Disease Detection and other programs that train and prepare countries to diagnose and respond to emerging diseases, and to the Global Immunization Program. It would reduce by $65 million CDC’s Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases programs, which aim to prevent and control outbreaks of diseases such as Zika. It cuts by $136 million the CDC Preparedness and Response Capability budget, which includes the funding for CDC’s Emergency Operations Center and the deployment of its people abroad to emergencies such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.” The CDC, among other agencies with biodefense positions, has a significant volume of vacancies that haven’t been filled.  More over, the authors point to the gap within the president’s budget regarding the future work of the GHSA, which is a vital multi-lateral effort to strengthen global health security. The budget has many worried because together, these cuts paint a bleak future for health security efforts – impacting surveillance, preparedness, and response efforts across the board. Global health security is simply not an investment we can afford to ignore. Did I mention that co-author Jennifer Nuzzo is also an adjunct professor at GMU’s biodefense program? Even if you’re not worried about the impact of the budget on health security, Ebola and Zika revealed just how necessary an emergency fund for outbreaks really is. “Creating a similar ‘rainy day’ fund—and providing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with permission to use it in advance—could save lives and money, both at home and overseas. The idea behind an emergency fund is not to displace efforts to combat infectious disease but to ramp them up to meet a crushing temporary need. During an outbreak the CDC can call on many doctors and nurses to work without pay, but the costs of transportation, medical supplies and protective equipment still have to be covered.” While the president’s 2018 budget includes such a fund, it fails to give a specific dollar figure and is already cutting into public health funding, which may be counterintuitive. “Lawmakers need to follow through by approving one or both of the proposed measures for the president to sign to ensure that the money will be there when the next public health emergency strikes.”

North Korea & A Sea of Sarin
The threat of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles from North Korea is a growing concern and while many focus on their nuclear and ballistic missile ambition, Reid Kirby is examining North Korean chemical weapons. Looking at the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and South Korean capital of Seoul, which houses more than 10 million people, many worry about North Korea’s ongoing vague threats. “Proponents of preemptive military action against North Korea’s nuclear program, along the lines of Israel’s 1981 Operation Opera against Iraq’s nuclear program, typically ignore North Korea’s history of asymmetrical responses. But North Korea’s capacity to inflict mass chemical casualties on the Seoul area in a ‘sea of sarin’ attack rivals its capacity for nuclear destruction.” In 2010, it was estimated that North Korea possessed 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons (mostly sarin and VX) and maintains roughly eight manufacturing facilities, which could ramp up production to 12,000 tons. Kirby addresses estimates of rounds per minute and calculations of how much sarin Seoul might receive in such an attack, noting that “a heuristic approach to estimating the total quantity of sarin required to inflict 25 percent casualties on a city such as Seoul under the specified conditions simplifies the problem into a box model of 600 square kilometers, with casualty rates integrated by area to find the necessary quantity. Using this approach, a ‘sea of sarin’ attack on Seoul would require about 400 kilograms of sarin per square kilometer”. He highlights the consequences of a 240-ton sarin attack on Seoul, noting that it would kill around 6.5% (higher lethal dosage) or potentially 25% of the population (if lower lethal dosage assumed). “If publicly stated intelligence estimates are to be believed, North Korea’s chemical arsenal represents a credible and present threat. How North Korea could apply this threat as a deterrent is speculative. But the destructive potential of the threat should give reasonable cause to hesitate regarding preemptive military options against North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions.”

Pandemic Flu Plan – A New Approach
The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) just released their updates to pandemic flu plans. “The original plan was geared toward a more severe scenario and set a goal of delivering pandemic vaccine within 6 months of a pandemic declaration. The new document incorporates lessons learned from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which resulted in a less severe event. It also spells out the goal of having the first vaccine doses ready within 3 months of pandemic strain emergence, along with approved broad-spectrum antivirals.” Within the plan there are now seven domains of focus, which include objectives, goals, and key steps. The domains are: surveillance, epidemiology, and lab activities, community mitigation measures, medical countermeasures, healthcare system preparedness and response, communications and public outreach, scientific infrastructure and preparedness, domestic and international response policy, incident response, and global partnerships. You can read the plan here, in which HHS notes that they are exploring several innovative approaches to pandemic flu preparedness like re-conceptualizing respiratory protection, accelerating vaccine and antiviral development, building on emerging technologies for innovative diagnostic and diagnostic testing, etc. “Taken together, the updated domains reflect an end-to-end systems approach to improving the way preparedness and response are integrated across sectors and disciplines, while remaining flexible for the conditions surrounding a specific pandemic. This more-nuanced and contemporary approach recognizes the interdependence of domain areas, which should lead to a better understanding of how the system functions as a whole.” The updated HHS pandemic plan emphasizes that while the nature of influenza and pandemics may change, the importance of planning and strengthening critical infrastructure will always be necessary.

DoD Tick-Borne Disease Research Program
There’s been increasing attention to the threat of tick-borne diseases and the DoD is ramping up research efforts. Their Tick-Borne Disease Research Program (TBDRP) looks to help increase not only treatment efforts, but also diagnostic capacity. Created in 2016, the TBDRP works to fill the gaps within tick-borne disease research through programs like the Idea Award which encourages and supports investigators in the early stages of their career. The New Investigator aspect of this award aims at those postdoctoral fellows working to develop independent research and in the early stages of faculty appointments. “There are currently at least 16 known tick-borne illnesses, with emerging diseases being discovered all the time. In the United States, the yearly cases of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, including spotted fever rickettsiosis, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis, have been increasing steadily for years, currently totaling tens of thousands of people diagnosed annually, with more likely undiagnosed. Globally, the US Military prioritizes tick-borne Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever as an operational threat abroad. The FY17 TBDRP intends to support conceptually innovative, high-risk/potentially high-reward research in the early stages of development that could lead to critical discoveries or major advancements that will accelerate progress in improving outcomes for individuals affected by Lyme disease and/or other tick-borne illnesses.”

Health Sector Resilience Checklist for High- Consequence Infectious Diseases
Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the CDC jointed together to take the lessons learned from Ebola and build a checklist to strengthen the U.S. in the event of such high-consequence outbreaks. This checklist focused on high-consequence infectious diseases (HCIDs), which are novel, moderate to highly contagious, moderate to highly lethal, not easily controllable by MCM or non-pharmaceutical intervention, and cause exception public concern (think Ebola, MERS, H5N1, etc.). “The principal aim of this project was to develop evidence-based recommendations to enable communities to build health sector resilience to events involving HCIDs based on the domestic response to confirmed cases of EVD in the United States.” Aside from the checklist, their findings highlight issues with governance and coordination, communication, public health issues, health-care specific issues, EMS, and laboratories.  The general checklist itself includes sections on preparedness, leadership, creative flexibility, command structure, public trust, managing uncertainty, and crisis and emergency risk communication. There are also checklists for public health, healthcare, EMS, and elected officials, which includes things like a collaborative relationship with partners at other healthcare facilities and awareness of resources related to public health law expertise.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Anthrax: DoD Develops Biological Select Agents & Toxins Surrogate Solution – “The Defense Biological Product Assurance Office (DBPAO), a component of the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, has announced the development of a Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) surrogate solution that will mitigate the risks associated with shipment and use of Bacillus anthracis. In addition to risk mitigation for Department of Defense (DoD) stakeholders and the community at large, this product demonstrates DBPAO’s commitment to providing quality reagents to the DoD and to the biodefense community. To accomplish this task, the DBPAO developed a Bacillus anthracis surrogate strain named Recombinant Bacillus anthracis with Assay Targets (rBaSwAT) using a recombinant DNA approach to create a BSL-2-level genetically modified organism that will allow continuation of operations with reduced risk. The strain is built in a novel, non-virulent Bacillus anthracis background and carries a comprehensive complement of anthrax specific molecular and immunological markers.”
  • Bioviolence- Matt Watson from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, is taking us through the history of bioviolence aka using infectious diseases for violent purposes. While not everyone truly sees the immediate threat of biological agents, Watson highlights the newer threats like synbio and biotechnologis that have growing potential for misuse. He also takes care to highlight the history of bioweapons to truly show the range of their application. “Of all the scourges of mankind, plagues and warfare are almost certainly the most dreaded and dangerous. Several times throughout history—and more frequently than most people are aware of—there have been attempts by individuals, organizations, and nation-states to harness the former in service of the latter.” If you want a brief overview of historical biological weapons and to truly understand the future of biothreats, don’t miss out on this great op-ed.
  • New York City Legionnares’ Cluster – Health officials are scrambling to investigate the source of a NYC Legionnaires’ cluster in Manhattan. “In a Jun 16 statement, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) said seven illnesses have been confirmed over the past 11 days. Four people are recovering in the hospital, two have been discharged, and one person in his or her 90s with underlying health conditions has died. Authorities are sampling and testing all cooling tower systems within a half-kilometer radius of the affected area of Lennox Hill. The health department is urging New Yorkers who have respiratory symptoms such as fever, cough, and chills to promptly seek medical care. In a typical year, about 200 to 400 Legionnaires’ cases are reported in New York City.” Legionnaires’ can be deadly for immunocompromised patients and is often a result of water treatment issues or poor disinfecting processes with spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, condensers, etc.

 

Pandora Report 6.16.2017

Temperatures may be soaring but we’ve got all your biodefense news, including a frosty story on frozen diseases coming to life!

Big Data Takes on Epidemics
The potential applications for big data are vast and we’re just now starting to get a taste for how it can be utilized during an outbreak. Rapid access to data sets and available personnel to handle modeling is a challenge during emergent situations however, many are pointing out just how the data science revolution can be used to fight diseases. Metabiota Senior Director of Data Science Nita Madhav has put together a list of the five ways big data analytics are changing the fight against epidemics. First, better genetic data through genome sequencing that can help speed up genetic analysis during an outbreak. Second, cell phone mobility data. This is particularly interesting as it was used during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, which allowed experts to tract contacts of cases as a means of prevention. Cell phone mobility data also provides information on movement during outbreaks. Third, social media data, which can be used to predict peaks and perform sentiment analysis (think vaccination skepticism), but also as a means of pushing public health messaging. Fourth, mapping high risk areas. “Machine learning techniques can now yield global, high-resolution maps pinpointing where epidemics are likely to emerge and take hold. These techniques make use of remotely-sensed and other geographic data about environmental, human and animal factors to estimate how many people live in the riskiest places. For example, this type of analysis helped map likely locations for Zika virus to thrive and even identified areas where the virus would later establish itself, including southern Florida.” Last but not least, large-scale simulations, which allow epidemiologists to take all the data we currently have and generate tons of simulations to reveal gaps in response mechanisms. “These simulations help fill in gaps in observed data using synthetic outbreaks and deliver novel insights into possible outcomes of outbreaks, including expected numbers of illnesses, hospitalizations, deaths, employee absences and monetary losses. Ultimately, these insights can help inform the world about epidemic risks and the best ways to mitigate them.”

Chemical Weapons & ISIS
New analysis from Conflict Monitor by IHS Market is drawing attention to a significant reduction in chemical weapons used by ISIS in Syria in 2017 as well as a concentration of the chemical attacks in Iraq. The report highlights that 71 allegations of ISIS CW attacks have occurred since 2014 (41 in Iraq and 30 in Syria) however, the only alleged use in Syria in 2017 was on January 8th at Talla al-Maqri. “The operation to isolate and recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul coincides with a massive reduction in Islamic State chemical weapons use in Syria”, said Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit. “This suggests that the group has not established any further CW production sites outside Mosul, although it is likely that some specialists were evacuated to Syria and retain the expertise.” In response to ISIS use of chemical weapons, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is taking action against ISIS leader, Attallah Salman ‘Abd Kafi al-Jaburi (al-Jaburi), who was involved in several attacks ranging from vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) to the development of chemical weapons. OFAC is also taking action against Marwan Ibrahim Hussayn Tah al-Azaw, an Iraqi ISIS leader. “As a result of today’s action, all property and interests in property of these individuals subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.” OFAC Director John E. Smith noted that “today’s actions mark the first designations targeting individuals involved in ISIS’ chemical weapons development,” and that “the Department of the Treasury condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons by any actor, and will leverage all available tools to target those complicit in their development, proliferation, or use.”

Pandemics, Bioterrorism, & Global Health Security Workshop Instructor Spotlight
This week we’re excited to share that Sanford Weiner will be our instructor spotlight! Sanford is a Research Associate in the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Visiting Fellow at Imperial College, University of London. For several decades he has done international comparative policy studies of public health agencies, and research on national security policies and environmental policies. He has published on policymaking at the Centers for Disease Control, the phase-out of CFCs, toxic substance control, and innovation in the Air Force. He is currently studying responses to pandemic flu in Europe and the United States, and the politics of alternative energy projects. He directs a Professional Education summer course at MIT on “Technology, Innovation and Organizations.” He has also taught in professional education courses for the Royal Society Technology Fellows (London), the National University of Singapore, UC San Diego, and in Stockholm. Before MIT he was on the research staffs of the School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, the Health Policy Center at Brandeis, and the Harvard School of Public Health. Sanford looks to the need for organizational innovation and adaptation to address new threats, the politics of public health emergencies, and the importance of risk assessment and making evidence-based public health decisions. If you’re looking to talk about taking lessons from pandemic flu and applying them to polio, Zika, bioterrorism, and even Ebola, you won’t want to miss his lecture during our workshop!

The Awakening of Frozen Permafrost Diseases
Climate change has an undeniably impact on infectious diseases. Whether it be the vectors that spread them, movement of animals that act as hosts, or an increasing encroachment of humans into animal habitats, we simply can’t deny that the two are wholly interconnected. Unfortunately now we get to add zombie diseases to the list. Well, maybe not a zombie virus, but a bacteria or virus that has been trapped in the icy permafrost for thousands of years and is now waking up. “Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.” Last year we saw anthrax cases in the Arctic Circle due to exposure from infected reindeer carcasses that were exposed due to the melting of the frozen soil and snow. “As the Earth warms, more permafrost will melt. Under normal circumstances, superficial permafrost layers about 50cm deep melt every summer. But now global warming is gradually exposing older permafrost layers. Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time, perhaps as long as a million years. That means melting ice could potentially open a Pandora’s box of diseases.” Nothing like a good permafrost to keep the bacteria happily frozen and alive! What is so worrying about the melting permafrost is a range of threats – buried bodies of people who died from smallpox, unknown viruses or bacteria that we’ve never seen before, or even a resistant organism that changes the course of antibiotics forever.

Angry Birds – The Flu Version
While this isn’t the title of the latest game, the projectile you should be worried about is actually avian influenza droplets. China is currently battling against HPAI H7N9  outbreaks in poultry across three provinces. “Chinese health officials detailed four outbreaks in two OIE reports. Two occurred in different locations in Inner Mongolia province in the north, one at a large layer farm that began on May 21, killing 35,526 of 406,756 susceptible poultry. The remaining birds were culled to curb the spread of the virus.The other outbreak began Jun 5 at a poultry farm in Inner Mongolia’s Jiuyuan district, which led to the loss of 55,023 birds, including 2,056 that died from the disease.” These outbreaks spark fear for a number of reasons – the mass culling of birds is always economically devastating, the risk to human life, and really, the potential for sustained human-to-human transmission due to a few genetic tweaks that could result in a pandemic. That’s right, just three mutations should switch H7N9 into a lethal human-killing virus that has pandemic potential. H7N9 is one of the more concerning avian influenza strains because it’s already been known to do damage in terms of human cases (of the 1,500 cases, 40% died). “‘As scientists we’re interested in how the virus works,’ says Jim Paulson, a biologist at The Scripps Research Institute. ‘We’re trying to just understand the virus so that we can be prepared.’ That’s why he and his colleagues recently tinkered with a piece of the H7N9 flu — a protein that lets the virus latch onto cells. It’s thought to be important for determining which species the virus can infect. ‘So it’s not the whole virus,’ says Paulson. ‘It’s just a piece — just a fragment — that we can then study for its properties’. What they studied is how different changes affected the virus’ ability to bind to receptors found on the surface of human cells.” Paulson’s group found that just three tiny mutations made it able to sustain human transmission. This brings about the dual-use research of concern (DURC) and gain-of-function (GoF) research dilemma though – while we’re using it for good, couldn’t a person with bad intentions come along and turn it into a weapon? Or a lab error that results in an outbreak? While some argue for the need of GoF research, others agree with the 2014 White House moratorium that halted federal funding for such work. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands notes that, “‘The rest of the world is moving forward with this type of experiment already,’ says Fouchier, whose genetic experiments with a different bird flu virus sparked a public outcry in 2011. And so the U. S. can either join or not join. It’s up to them, but the work will continue,’.” Topics like avian influenza, pandemics, and dual-use/GoF research are all issues we’ll be discussing in the workshop this July, so don’t miss out!

Boston University’s BioLab Nears Approval
This hotly debated BSL-4 lab has been a source of contention between researchers and surrounding neighbors for over a decade. Boston University received a $200 million federal grant nearly 15 years ago to build the regional lab as a new source for work with deadly pathogens however, neighborhood activists have been halting work since the beginning. Despite the ongoing debate, the lab is just one vote away from approval. “Supporters say it will speed the development of new vaccines and cures.  But after 15 year of fighting, the neighborhood that’s home to the lab is making a final push to keep the diseases away from the busy urban hub.”

The Scary Reality Behind WHO’S Updated Essential Medicine List
GMU Biodefense PhD student, Saskia Popescu, is taking a deeper dive into the recent announcement by the WHO regarding their reformatting of the EML list. The antibiotics sections haven’t seen an overhaul like this for 40 years, so what’s really afoot? Last week we discussed the changes- the categorization of antibiotics into three groups (ACCESS, WATCH, and RESERVE). Each list has a series of antibiotics and recommendations (i.e. for RESERVE, these are antibiotics which should be treated as the last resort of accessible antibiotics and should be used in “tailored” situations when other medications have failed. RESERVE antimicrobials should be targeted in national and international stewardship programs). While the updates make sense, they reveal a much deeper concern for developing countries and the growing threat of microbial resistance. “This extensive change to the EML highlights the dire situation that we are progressing towards in terms of microbial resistance. The EML provides the most basic medicine needed for patient care and its focus on antibiotic stewards highlights the stark reality even in the most dire of environments.”

Stacking Countermeasures for Layered Defense 
DTRA’s Joint Science and Technology Office’s (JSTO) Toxicant Penetration and Scavenging (TPS) research program is working to better defend us against chemical and biological weapons. “One such weaponized threat is the use of organophosphonates in an attack. These nerve agents inhibit acetylcholinesterase (AChE), an essential enzyme responsible for neurological function. Irreversible inhibition of AChE may lead to muscular paralysis, convulsions, bronchial constriction and death by asphyxiation. One of the projects in the TPS uses engineered DNA-enzyme nanostructures to create multi-enzyme pathway biocatalysts. These new biocatalysts are designed to process the destruction of chemical agents and their degradation compounds.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • MERS and Infection Control – There are endless opportunities when working in infection prevention & control to say, “I told you so” and the ongoing hospital MERS outbreaks only fuels that fire. “The World Health Organization (WHO) today provided new details on three MERS-CoV clusters in Saudi Arabia involving 32 out of the 35 cases reported between Jun 1 and Jun 10. The clusters are in three different hospitals in Riyadh. Cluster 2 is related to cluster 1, as the first case-patient in a second hospital initially visited the emergency room of the hospital implicated in cluster 1. According to the WHO, he was asymptomatic following the visit in hospital 1, and he continued to receive kidney dialysis sessions in the second hospital. The cluster involves the index case plus five healthcare workers and household contacts.The third cluster is not related to clusters 1 or 2. To date four cases are associated with this hospital; the index case involves a patient who had camel contact. Three healthcare workers have also been diagnosed.”