Pandora Report 12.4.2015

This week, Washington, DC hosted the Summit on Human Gene Editing, where the ethical and legal implications of gene editing technologies, like CRISPR-Cas9, were heavily discussed. In this week’s report, Greg Mercer works his magic, revealing the internet and social media trends following the shootdown of a Russian SU-24 on November 24th. We’re also reporting updates in the Zika virus and dengue fever outbreaks as well as the Harvard-LSHTM Panel Report on Global Response to Ebola. France is currently experiencing an increase of highly pathogenic avian influenza cases while a Black Angus beef cow in Alberta was discovered to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Fun history fact Friday – on December 3, 1967, the first human heart transplant was performed in Cape Town, South Africa and on December 4, 1945, the Senate approved US participation in the UN. Before we start our weekly roundup, make sure to mark your calendars to attend GMU’s seminar on Ebola surveillance and laboratory response this Monday, December 7th from 4:30-6pm at our Fairfax campus (details below!).

Zika Virus Outbreak – Updates
The growing outbreak of Zika virus has now seen locally acquired cases reach ten countries, causing the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to issue an alert, “urging countries in the region to be on the lookout for the disease and to watch for unusual patterns in newborn.” Brazil has been hit hard with a rise from 739 on November 27th, to 1,248 cases reported on November 30th. Six of the ten countries saw cases occur in November, hinting that the outbreak could just be starting. The growing concerns regarding the outbreak are also related to the newest evidence linking microcephaly and maternal cases. Zika virus genome was found in the amniotic fluid of two pregnant women and fetal diagnosis of microcephaly was performed via ultrasound. Even more so, French Polynesian health officials reported an unusual spike in nervous system malformations in babies that were born during a Zika virus outbreak in the region from 2014 to 2015. The concern regarding neurological conditions raises red flags as Brazilian health officials are reporting neurological complications, like that of Guillain-Barre syndrome, in Zika virus patients. The WHO reported 739 Brazilian microcephaly cases in newborns and while there is only ecological evidence linking the virus and microcephaly, investigations are ongoing. The outbreak first started in February 2014, on Easter Island (Chile) and has seen been identified in Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, Paraguay, Panama (confirmed cases as of December 4, 2015), Suriname, and Venezuela. Spread by Aedes mosquitoes, this vector-borne organism has similar symptoms to dengue fever and illness tends to last between four and seven days.

Event: Ebola Surveillance & Laboratory Response – Lessons for Global Health SecurityScreen Shot 2015-12-03 at 9.34.57 AM
Time/Location: Monday, December 7, 2015 from 4:30pm-6pm in Robinson A-203 at George Mason University.
As the recently released Harvard-London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Independent panel on the Global Response to Ebola indicates, the West African Ebola epidemic highlighted
many gaps in national and international health and response systems that are critical for protecting global health security.  Join leaders and experts who helped to lead the U.S. response for Ebola to discuss the international response to the epidemic, the importance of robust biosurveillance systems, and how the experience with Ebola influences our approach to Global Health Security. Speakers:

  • Dr. Matthew Lim, Senior Policy Advisor for Global Health Security, HHS, fmr Civil-Military Liaison Officer to WHO
  • May Chu, Ph.D. fmr Assistant Director for Public Health, Office of Science Technology and Policy, White House; Senior Science Advisor, CDC
  • Jeanette Coffin, Manager U.S. mobile laboratory deployment, MRIGlobal

It’s Definitely Maybe World War 3
GMU’s Greg Mercer breaks down the November 24th Turkish shootdown of a Russian SU-24. Greg reviews the media attention following the event and the “immediate buzz about declarations of war, what exactly NATO owes Turkey vis-à-vis Russia, and the possibility of military confrontation between Russia and the West.” Through his use of google trends and Twitter, Greg shows just how much hype and concern the notion of WWIII got during this time. Take a look at his recap and debunking of the WWIII buzz and how quickly it caught like wild fire.

Reporting from the Panel on the Final Report of the Harvard-LSHTM Independent Review of the Global Response to Ebola
If you missed the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Global Health Policy Center’s Launch of the final report of the Harvard-LSHTM Independent Panel on the Global Response to Ebola, don’t worry! I was fortunate to attend and a great deal of the report (we reported on last week) heavily emphasized “on the ground” capacity. Dr. Peter Piot, Director and Handa Professor of Global Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), joined via video link and started by saying that this would not be a WHO-bashing event. As one of the original researchers on Ebola during its 1976 discovery, he mentioned that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a great example of local capacity in their success of ridding themselves of the disease within a few months of the outbreak starting. Dr. Piot heavily emphasized the work of several countries and how the WHO brought together multiple ethicists to review research during such a terrible outbreak. Lastly, Dr. Piot noted that “we risk focussing too much on global and not enough on local” in our future efforts. Dr. Suerie Moon, Research Director and Co-Chair of the Forum on Global Governance for Health at Harvard Global Health Institute, then spoke on the “weak coordination of global response” and how it severely aided the spread of Ebola. Dr. Moon highlighted the need for a global strategy to ensure adequate funding (external financing for the poorer countries and transparent tracking of financing) and the necessity for external assessment of country capacity. She pointed to the need for political and economic incentives and disincentives to not only report cases but also discourage the hiding of outbreaks. Reviewing each recommendation, the panel noted that “human health is a vital part of human security”. In one of her closing comments, Dr. Moon stated that “there are many unanswered questions regarding ebola response and we need to address a number of aspects that went wrong” and “a major theme is accountability at all levels, across all types of players.” Dr. Moon pointed out that the necessity of so many reforms shows just how much work is needed and that now is the time to see political support occur. Muhammad Pate, former Nigerian Minister of State for Health, expressed that “one of the lessons, at the national level, in terms of surveillance and accountability to respond, was missing and something that national leaders need to own up to is building their own public health systems.” Dr. Sophie Delaunay, Doctors Without Borders/MSF, then discussed the role of medical innovations and how the outbreak provided us with a unique opportunity to collect data. Dr. Delaunay said it will “be a complete nightmare to connect all the dots” in this outbreak and there is a desperate need for better R&D regarding disease outbreaks and response. “We ask for governments and policy makers to support collaboration on R&D to demonstrate their willingness to be more effective in the next outbreak” noted Dr. Delaunay. She heavily pushed for global financing efforts to facilitate investment in R&D and response. After the initial panel, there was a secondary group that shared their thoughts on the report, including Dr. Tom Frieden (CDC Director), Julie Gerberding (Exec. VP for Strategic Communications, Global Public Policy and Population Health, Merck) and Ron Klain (Former US Ebola Response Coordinator, White House and General Counsel, Revolution LLC). Ron Klain pointed to the failure of the WHO and “if institutions failed us, individuals shined. We did see extraordinary compassion from the rest of the world and tremendous outpouring of support. ” Mr. Klain mentioned that “the scariest thing about Ebola is the warning signs of how badly we failed this when the threat could’ve been worse and the epidemic we face could be much much more dangerous in the future.” Dr. Frieden emphasized the need of human resources management improvement at the WHO and how global outbreak response could work to support each other better. Lastly, Dr. Frieden emphasized a topic near and dear to my heart; infection control and it’s necessity in global disease prevention. Overall, the panel touched on several key points to the outbreak, emphasizing the need for the biggest players (including MSF) to lead by example via data sharing, etc. The push for political support on incentives and local capacity/accountability was perhaps one of the biggest recommendations and points emphasized from this event.

Gene Editing and CRISPR!
This was a busy week in the biotech world. The International Gene Editing Summit kicked off in Washington, DC. Bringing together experts from around the world, the summit touched on the newest technical innovations, ethical and legal concerns, and even social implications of genome editing advances. Genome Web has provided a great overview of the summit. Nature also published their Four Big Questions related to genome editing, touching on points related to editing the human germline and the ethical implications for technology that “researchers are still grappling with the known unknowns”. Recently, biologist, Emmanuelle Charpentier, discussed CRISPR-Cas9 and that it’s simply too early to begin gene editing as “the tools are not ready” and “as of today, I’m in favor of not having the manipulation of the human germlines. As long as they’re not perfect and ready, I think it’s good to have this ban against editing the germline.” Buzzfeed noted that over the course of the conference, there was a substantial push for a delay in the use of genetic engineering in fertility clinics due to the risk of making “designer babies”. Given the heavily debated nature of this topic it’s not surprising that the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the UK’s Royal Society, and the Chinese Academy of Science, all agreed that it “would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing.” While the future is left open to gene editing on humans, there was heavy accentuation throughout the conference on the ethics and societal views of these scientific breakthroughs and the necessity to revisit their applications on a regular basis.

Dengue Fever Outbreak in Hawaii 
The Dengue fever outbreak on Hawaii Island is still growing. Now at 122 confirmed cases, this is one of the biggest outbreaks they’ve seen with local transmission. As of 12/2, the confirmed cases involved 106 Hawaii Island residents and 16 visitors. The Hawaii Department of Health (HDOH) has published information, hoping to aid prevention efforts, regarding the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitos that are responsible for spreading the disease. There have been 313 reported potential cases and you can even find a map of the case distribution here!

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 2015/2016 Flu Season- Where Are We?– The CDC 2015/2016 influenza activity showed a bit of a spike during the November 15-21 week. Influenza A (H3) is still the predominant species in laboratory confirmed cases. If you’re looking to keep an eye on seasonal flu, Google Flu Trends may no longer be operational, but you can still keep an eye on Flu Near You or the CDC’s page.
  • MERS-CoV Severity and Incubation Period– The CDC & Emerging Infectious Diseases published a report regarding the association of severe MERS-CoV illness and a shorter incubation period. Analyses of 170 patents in South Korea revealed a longer incubation period associated with a decreased risk for death while “patients who died had a shorter incubation period.” This mirrors the results of a previous study that had similar results with SARS coronavirus.
  • Salmonella Outbreak Associated With Recalled Nut Butters – The CDC is currently investigating 11 illnesses across nine states that may be linked to recalled nut butters. The Salmonella serotype is Paratyphoid B variant L (+) tatrate (+) (previously called Salmonella Java) and has caused illness in California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, and New Jersey.
  • Taiwan CDC Holds Bioterrorism Drill – Involving 70 participants, the course utilized a subway union station to allow people to simulate first responders and real-life operations. “CDC bioterrorism teams are tasked with the investigation and identification of biological threats and attacks. Members take on containment and mitigation of damage for any individuals that are harmed during and as a result of an attack.” Go Taiwan!

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