Pandora Report 1.15.2016

Welcome back to the Pandora Report! Miss us? We hope you had a lovely holiday and with so much going on in the world of biodefense, there’s not a moment to waste! Before we venture down the rabbit hole of bioweapons, outbreak response, and Ebola, here is Fun History Fact Friday: on January 12, 1965, scientists conduct a nuclear test, or what they called a “controlled excursion”, in Nevada that produced a radioactive cloud over Los Angeles, CA.

The Civil-Military Response to the 2014 Ebola Outbreak
The University of Sydney recently published the report, “Saving Lives: The Civil-Military Response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa”. Co-authored by biodefense professor, Dr. Frank Smith III, the report discusses the international civilian response and eventual deployment of military personnel to fight the outbreak. “Strong leadership from the President and the health sector in Liberia was recognised as key to the country’s effective response, whereas weak leadership and patronage within the health sector was seen to hurt the response in Sierra Leone. Limited trust in government undermined public health, inhibiting behavioral change and social awareness campaigns (particularly in Sierra Leone).” The report includes eight recommendations that range from addressing gaps in national health systems to enhancing civilian and military response training. While many reports have focussed on civilian response, this provides actual statistics for military personnel, funds spent, PPE, military aircraft, international civilian personnel, etc. The University of Sydney summary sheds new light on the civilian and military successes and failures within outbreak response and how the 2014 Ebola outbreak revealed few organizations were truly prepared to handle a public health emergency of this magnitude.

5,300-Year-Old Gut Bacteria
Imagine you’re spending a lovely afternoon hiking and enjoying the great outdoors, when you stumble along a body in a snowfield. That’s exactly what happened to a German couple in 1991 in the Italian Alps. After days spent recovering the 5,300-year-old body (named Ötzi after the area he was found in) and 24 years worth of scientific work, researchers were able to reconstruct the genome of a bacterial species that was found in his stomach. Ötzi is unique in his level of preservation, which made this microbial discovery that much more possible. Interestingly, scientists found Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) in Ötzi’s stomach. While H. pylori is known for causing stomach ulcers and gastric acid, it was fascinating to find that despite the bacteria being 5,3000 years old, they were “pretty much the same as ones carried by humans today.” Matching H. pylori strains from different points around the world has allowed epigeneticists to understand the introduction and transmission of certain organisms. While Ötzi was a rare find, his gut bacteria is helping researchers understand how certain strains combined and survived throughout history.

IMG_3512The Rocks – Sydney’s First Plague Sighting
During my adventures in the land down under, I couldn’t resist checking out the Rocks. A wonderful historical section of Sydney’s harbor, it’s famous for not only the preservation of buildings, but also it being the location of where the bubonic plague first broke out in Australia. Given the plague’s historical success via nautical enterprises, it’s not surprising that it would first rear its ugly head in this large harbor. Arriving in 1900, the bubonic plague was already anticipated to hit Australia, given the 1894 outbreak in Hong Kong and shipping trade routes. Officials were bracing for the outbreak when it finally reached Australian shores on January 19, 1900 via a 33-year-old delivery man by the name of Arthur Paine.

Since we’re on a history kick (and if you happened to read Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs from our holiday reading list), you may enjoy learning about ancient Roman sanitation. While their latrine and sewage system was highly advanced, researchers have pointed out that they didn’t keep people safe from intestinal parasites and a host of other hygiene-related illnesses.

Project SHAD: Veteran Exposures to CBW Agents
A recently published report discusses the US military testing performed between 1963 and 1969 for Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense). Project SHAD addressed naval vulnerabilities to chemical and biological weapons. “Approximately 5,900 military personnel, primarily from the Navy and Marine Corps, are reported to have been included in Project SHAD testing.” Initially disclosed in 2000, the first medical report was then released in 2007 after concerns related to veteran health. The push for further epidemiological studies prompted the 2016 report that reviewed health outcomes of the veterans that were exposed more than 50 years ago. While there are temporal limitations to the studies, they evaluate a range of concerns like frequency of exposure and reported health anomalies. With this new report, there may be future requests for research related to the US bioweapons program and its impact on those involved in field tests.

Solving the Geometrical Problem of Terrorism
GMU Biodefense PhD alum and SPGIA Distinguished Alum award recipient, Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein, discusses the components of terrorist organizations that make US response challenging. Dr. Gerstein points out that no single approach or tactic will ensure American safety, but rather that we need to see “terror organizations as being composed of four elements, organized in concentric circles with the leaders at the center bull’s eye, operational elements in the second ring, supporters in the third and sympathizers in the fourth.” By changing our outlook on terrorist organizations, separate strategies can be developed to address each unique feature and more effectively respond to terrorist threats.

One Step Closer to Ending West Africa’s Ebola Outbreak
On January 14, 2016, WHO declared “the end of the most recent outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Liberia and says all known chains of transmission have been stopped in West Africa.” This isn’t the first time Liberia has been declared free of the disease, however shortly after the country found itself with a new flare-up. Laboratory-confirmed cases soared beyond 15,000 and over 11,300 deaths have been reported in this outbreak, which is the worst since the identification of the disease. All three of the hardest hit countries (Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone) have reported zero cases for two incubation periods (42 days). WHO’s Special Representative for the Ebola Response, Dr. Bruce Aylward, notes that this is the critical point in the epidemic and flare-ups are anticipated but preparedness will determine the scope and brevity of future cases. While airport screening for returned travelers from the affected regions has ceased, many health departments have encouraged hospitals to continue with their screening questions and surveillance. *Update: Sierra Leone has reported a death due to Ebola on 1/15/2016.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Zika Virus Outbreak UpdatesReaching Puerto Rico (bringing the total to 14 countries) and with a newly identified case in Texas (not locally acquired, but due to recent travel), the outbreak has caused almost 3,000 cases in Brazil alone. Along with the growing geographical distribution, public health officials worry about the 20-fold increase of microcephaly in infants that may be associated with Zika virus infections.
  • Burkholderia pseudomallei Concerns –Mostly found in Southeast Asian and Australian soil, a recent study predicts that B. pseudomallei could move into southern parts of the US. While not a new concern in the biodefense community, B. pseudomallei worries many as it is highly resistant to antibiotics and may be remarkably underreported.
  • What Else Is Hiding in Laboratory Freezers? Biosecurity issues aren’t new, but what else is lurking in the depths of laboratory freezers? Recent WHO warnings to clear out freezers of Rinderpest virus point to the growing concern that once eradicated diseases may rear their ugly heads via lab safety failures.

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