Biodefense in 2012: Year in Review

2012 has been an interesting year, and contrary to all apocalyptic predictions and Hollywood blockbusters, here we still stand. And look back.  Here, in no uncertain terms, is the best and worst of 2012 for the broad and beautiful field of biodefense (all further alliteration will be kept to a minimum). Check out the slideshow below for a quick view, with all of our carefully selected choices explained in detail below.

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Biggest Controversy
While this technically started in December of last year, enough of the saga also known as “To Publish or Not to Publish” occurred this year that we don’t feel bad including it. The uproar surrounding the potential publication of two studies involving H5N1 and ferrets (“Airborne Transmission of Influenza A/H5N1 Virus Between Ferrets” and “Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets “) was unprecedented. Setting aside for one moment the claims regarding exaggeration, the more controversial of the two studies sought to genetically engineer a strain of H5N1 to make it capable of aersolized transmission between humans (the virus as it occurs currently in nature isn’t effectively transmitted through aerosol). For the first time ever, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity stepped in and asked the authors of both papers (one of which was based in the Netherlands) to hold publication while they reviewed them  for reasons of security.  Although both papers have subsequently been published, the controversy brought the issue of dual-use research into sharp detail.

2nd Biggest Controversy
#2 was a close enough runner-up to merit mention. The decision on the part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to include SARS on the select agent list, as well as the potential inclusion of H5N1, has created a good deal of contentious debate within the scientific community. Critics argue that the new regulations will significantly shrink the number of labs allowed to work with the pathogens, limiting both the reaction capacity in a pandemic and the general progression of knowledge. Proponents, however, argue that the more stringent regulations limit the likelihood of dangerous information on weaponizing the pathogens falling into the hands of terrorists. Will 2013 bring a resolution? We’ll see.

Most Exciting New Technology
While there were many honorable mentions (sensing the smallest virus particlesmRNA vaccines) the one which struck us most was Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s military uniforms capable of repelling both biological and chemical agents. The uniforms are made of a carbon nanotube fabric which is capable of switching quickly from a breathable “open” state to a more rigid, “protective” state when an agent is detected. The fabric is still a ways away from large-scale production, but the potential of the idea to be adapted for civilian use landed it on our list.

Most Beleaguered Government Program
BioWatch. With or without the L.A. Times’ laser-like interest in the program, BioWatch has had its fair share of troubles. Developing a good assay means finding the ideal place along the two axises of  sensitivity and selectivity, and BioWatch seems to have difficulty with both. First came news that the program’s multiplex assays, which were used for two years before being phased out, were  not selective enough to distinguish between virulent pathogens and their innocuous cousins. This was followed by news that the sensitivity of many of the detectors led to an “unacceptable number of false positives”. While the Department of Homeland Security seems to be standing by the program, funding for its Generation 3 iteration remains uncertain.

Best New(ish) Legislation
Although it hasn’t passed the Senate yet, in December the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act (H.R. 6672) passed the House handily, in a 383-16 vote. The Act, which seeks to bolster medical countermeasures in response to a potential CBRN attack, reauthorizes portions of  Bioshield and the 2005 PAHPA.

Most Disturbing Rumor
It’s not often that governments admit to possessing secret stockpiles of biological weapons, so when they do it tends to be noteworthy. Especially if said government also happens to be embroiled in a bloody civil war. Despite the insistence of Bashar al Assad’s regime that “no chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used”, the announcement of the stockpiles sparked immediate debate in the international community. Pundits weighed in from all sides (“Syria’s Assad Will Use Chemical Weapons, Says Former General, Now Defector” vs “Why Assad Won’t Use Chemical Weapons“). Meanwhile the war has raged on, with concerns mounting as to the ongoing security of the stockpiles, and unconfirmed rumors emerging that Assad has used chemical weapons on rebel forces.

Here’s a few things we’re watching out for in 2013

Second Least Popular Day in April: the 3rd
April 3rd, 2013 is the day on which new Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) guidelines regarding labs working with Tier 1 pathogens go into effect. Under the new rules, non-Tier 1 labs have one week to handle samples of  Tier 1 agents before they must either destroy them or pass them along to a Tier 1 – licensed lab. This is all fine and dandy until further verification or comparison of those destroyed samples are needed. Between this and the SARS addition, neither HHS nor the CDC is in contention for most popular government agency.

Best Pieces from the GMU Biodefense Blog

– Destroying Rinderpest: Dr. Roger Breeze, Former Director of Plum Island, Comments – Dr. Breeze is the former Director of Plum Island, current President of the Centuar Science group, and GMU adjunt faculty member.

– An Evolving Threat vs A Stodgy Bureaucracy  – Julia Duckett is a current GMU Biodefense PhD student – her review of the NRC report, “Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Science and Technology”, is both incisive and fair.

Most Exciting Upcoming Film
In the spirit of the festive season, we’d like to end on a happier note (please notice Ebola was not mentioned once this entire post, despite the outbreak in Kampala and the rumors of aerosol transmission via pigs). The resurgence of zombies in popular culture definitely gives us better street cred here at GMU Biodefense (our unofficial tagline is “Preventing the Zombie Apocalypse since 2003”).  And while I’m certain many of you biodefense enthusiasts out there are more excited about seeing the film World War Z (global virus leads to zombie apocalypse), if you only see one zombie film next year, make it Warm Bodies. Can love cure the walking dead? See it and let us know (or better yet, send us a review!)

fireworks02And that’s our list! Thank you to all you faithful readers (hi to those of you in the UK and Russia!), it’s been a pleasure writing for you.

As always, send us your comments, suggestions, and/or questions. Otherwise, wishing everyone a pathogen-free New Year!

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