Pandora Report 10.9.15

Happy Friday! Since we’ve made it through Hurricane Joaquin, let’s celebrate with some biodefense news by way of air defense, Ebola, some amazing original work from the GMU Biodefense clan, and all the fun in between. Fun fact: On October 8, 2001, President George W. Bush established the Office of Homeland Security. Let’s start your weekend off right with some zombies, shall we?

Zombies & Air Defense?
With Halloween around the corner and The Walking Dead about to premiere, it’s time for some zombies – Pentagon style! Ever heard of JLENS? This $2.7 billion radar blimp was initially designed to act as an early warning system for low-flying weapons, drones, etc. Unfortunately, this system has been plagued with problems (pun intended) as it failed to detect the low-flying aircraft piloted by Florida postal worker, Douglas Hughes. We’ll let that slide since JLENS wasn’t deemed operational that day but that hasn’t stopped many from calling it a “zombie” program, meaning it’s “costly, ineffectual, and seemingly impossible to kill”. Check out the LA Times investigation into whether this defense technology is really “performing well right now” as claimed by Raytheon.

2016 Presidential Candidates on Nonproliferation- Part I

GMU’s Greg Mercer has churned out another fascinating commentary in a new series related to what 2016 presidential candidates are saying about nonproliferation. His series will pull together candidate stances and comments to take an in-depth look into the role nonproliferation is taking in this race. Greg notes, “Lucky for us though, there’s been a major nonproliferation news event to drive the foreign policy debate: the Iran nuclear deal.  So this is a rundown of what’s been said and being said about nonproliferation and WMD policy in the 2016 election.” This week we’ll be looking at the Republican Party, so make sure to check in over the next few months to see how everyone’s stance has changed or strengthened.

Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever Spike in Pakistan
Pakistan is currently seeing a spike in their cases of CCHF with the most recent death of a patient in Quetta at the Fatima Jinnah Chest and General Hospital. The death toll is now 3 in 3 days and a total of 15 patient mortalities this year. There are 9 other CCHF patients under observation and treatment at the regional hospitals. The WHO’s Diseases Early Warning System (DEWS) in Pakistan tracks these seasonal spikes in hopes to also prevent its spread. The concerning aspect is the high amount of deaths this year so far when compared to other years.

Iran’s Shifting Preference?
How lucky are we to have two amazing GMU Biodefense commentaries this week? Scott McAlister is discussing the Iranian nuclear deal and the potential consequences. He hammers out a topic we biodefense folks are all too familiar with – dual-use and the hiding-in-plain-sight reality of so many programs. Scott points out that, “the scary thing about biological and chemical weapons programs is their ability to hide in plain sight.  Due the dual use of much of today’s biotechnological advancements, an offensive weapons program can be disguised as a facility to create vaccines or research centers for diseases with minimal effort.” Take a look at his notes on nuclear weapon capabilities and Iranian perspective on biological weapons.

Tacit Knowledge & Biological Weapons Proliferation
On a scale of 1-10, having your research cited during a meeting of the State Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of Biological Weapons, is pretty much a 12. What can we say, GMU Biodefense professor, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, did just that! At the meeting of experts in August, the State parties met to discuss the field of science and technology while emphasizing tacit  knowledge in relation to bioweapon proliferation. When discussing tacit knowledge, the U.S. noted at the conference, “the concept of communal or collective tacit knowledge has been explored extensively, particularly in the work of Donald Mackenzie and Graham Spinardi, who examined its role in the context of nuclear weapons creation, and Kathleen Vogel and Sonia Ben Ouagrham- Gormley, who examined it with respect to biological weapons creation.” During this meeting, the role and relevance of tacit knowledge as a risk modulator was heavily discussed, pointing to its corresponding role of increasing the risk of bioweapon proliferation.

Bioweapons for Dummies?
Speaking of tacit knowledge and the rise of the biotechnology revolution… Zian Liu from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists goes through the five steps of building a biological weapon to address the barriers to weaponization. Broaching the topic of “biohacking”, Zian points to the concern within the biodefense industry related to synthetic biology and fourth generation bioweapons. From ordering the synthetic genes to recently published research that discusses the developments of genetic modification, this commentary hits on the very real barriers that a fourth-year bioengeneering undergraduate student identifies -even with the available tools. Between the need for increased regulations on synthetic DNA and the dual-use concerns, Zian notes that “novice biologists are not likely to construct advanced weapons any time soon.”

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Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Guinea outbreak region goes a full week without a new Ebola case! We’re all holding our breaths in hope this means the outbreak is nearing an end in this hard-hit region. Sierra Leone has reached 3 weeks (a full incubation period) of no new cases and the last healthcare worker infection was back in August. The WHO and local public health workers are still maintaining door-to-door case finding efforts and contact tracing.
  • PPD Awarded Contracts with US Army & BARDA – Pharmaceutical Product Development (PPD) was just awarded two US government contracts to address health outcomes in armed forces and test the efficacy of the national strategic stockpile’s supply of avian influenza vaccine.
  • Findings of the 7th WHO Ebola Emergency Committee Meeting – Last week this committee met to discuss the ongoing outbreak in West Africa. They provided updates and furthering advisement regarding the disease and international travel as 34 countries “continue to enact measures that are disproportionate to the risks posed.”

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