Pandora Report 1.22.2016

In anticipation of the impending snow apocalypse (that may be a tad dramatic, but coming from this Arizona import, this snow business is quite harrowing), we’re serving up a warm cup of global health security news. While you’re staying inside, check out the upcoming book from Sonia ShawPandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, which travels through time to investigate the impact of emerging diseases. Dreaming of warmer temperatures? You may want to avoid some tropic locations as imported cases of Zika virus are cropping up in the US, and the CDC issued warnings for pregnant women to postpone travel to Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other affected countries. Fun History Fact Friday: as we learned last week, on January 19, 1900 the bubonic plague reached Australia’s shores and on January 20, 1981, the Iran hostage crisis ended.

Dugway Insights Raise New(-ish?) Biosafety Concerns
Dugway Proving Ground is one of the largest Army biodefense labs and while lab biosafety issues are becoming a more prevalent headline, new findings point to the severity of these failures. GMU Biodefense professor and graduate program director (and all around biodefense-guru), Dr. Gregory Koblentz, noted that “the systemic disregard for biosafety at Dugway as revealed by the investigative report is appalling and alarming. Without strong leadership, an organizational culture that prizes safety and security, a well-trained staff, and a robust oversight mechanism, we can expect more such accidents to occur in the future.” Lacking accountability and oversight, Dugway is another in the laundry list of labs that became complacent (or as Dr. Richard Ebright stated, their actions are that of “criminal negligence”). It seems that the time of calling these biosafety failures, “serious mistakes”, has passed and we’re sadly moving more into an era of habitual practice. Dugway is a hotspot (pun intended) for chemical and biological defense work however, findings within the report note improper qualification of certain employees, erroneous environmental sampling of labs, etc. Brigadier General William E. King IV oversaw Dugway from 2009-2011 and was directly called out in the report – “Colonel King repeatedly deflected blame and minimized the severity of incidents – even now, Brigadier General King lacks introspection and fails to recognize the scope and severity of the incidents that occurred during his command at (Dugway).” If you have around 26 minutes to spare, you can also watch the Army media brief on the investigations here.

food-production-chain-650pxFarmers Markets and Food Safety
Farmers markets are often a great place to find local, organic vegetables and fruits. Growing in popularity, it’s not surprising that concerns over food-borne illness and safety issues would be raised. Researchers (applied economists in this case) are reporting preliminary data regarding the potential association between farmers markets and food-borne illness. Reviewing data from 2004-2011, they found “a positive relationship between the number of farmers markets per capita on the one hand, and on the other hand, the number of reported outbreaks of food borne-illness, cases of food borne-illness, outbreaks and cases of Campylobacter jejuni. Our estimates indicate that a 1% increase in the number of farmers is associated with a 0.7% (3.9%) increase in the total number of reported outbreaks of food-borne illness (Campylobacter jejuni), and a 3.9% (2.1%) increase in the total number of reported cases of food-borne illness (Campylobacter jejuni) in the average state-year.” While these correlations were found, there wasn’t a statistically significant relationship between farmers markets and reported outbreaks or cases of salmonella, E. coli, or staph. Given the recent Chipotle outbreaks, there has been increasing attention to the concerns over farm-to-table food safety. While some illness can be related to farm safety practices, a lot of food-borne illness is related to improper handling or cooking of food.

Retaking Ramadi and the “Afghan Model”
GMU Biodefense student, Greg Mercer, has mined through the internet to provide some commentary on the recapturing of Ramadi from ISIS control. In his recap, Greg points to works in the New York Times, via authors Phil Ewing and Stephen Biddle, and several other security studies gurus. Greg notes, “many questions remain about the conflict- where it will go, how it will resolve, the political effort it will require from intervening forces, and ultimately what kind of conflict this is.”

Ebola Updates- Quarantines After Sierra Leone Death 
The day after the WHO declared the three hardest-hit countries Ebola free, a death in Sierra Leone hit the panic button for public health officials. As of January 21, 2016, a second case was reported in an individual that cared for this initial case. Over 100 people archive been quarantined after coming into contact with the woman who died of Ebola last week. During the course of her illness, she is reported to have stayed in a house with 22 other people. Five people later helped to wash and prepare her body for burial. Many homes of those high-risk patients under quarantine were attacked, pointing to increasing frustration. Close observation is being maintained on the 100+ people involved in this exposure.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Neglected Dimension of Global Security – The National Academies Press will soon be releasing this hard-copy publication as a Framework to Counter Infectious Disease Crises, but the good news is that you can download it today for free! Authored by the Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future; National Academy of Medicine, Secretariat, it discusses the Ebola outbreak’s far-reaching consequences that range from human rights to transportation and commerce disruption.
  • CBRN Crimes & The Sordid History of Litvinenko – GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Dr. Daniel Gerstein, discusses the recently released Owen Report and the details surrounding the finding of radioactive polonium-210 in Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko’s body following his death. The troubling details surrounding the report “highlights the links between Litvinenko and the Russian government, even pointing the finger at President Vladimir Putin himself as likely having approved the alleged murder.” While CBRN weapons are not a new concept, these new details may shine light on the realistic applications and threats they pose.
  • ISIS Tularemia Plans – Recent Turkish intelligence reports revealed that that the group had plans to use biological weapons. Aimed at Turkish water supplies, the report noted that the main bioweapon discussed was Francisella tularensis, which causes tularemia.
  • Lassa Fever Hits Nigeria – 30 confirmed, 140 suspected, and 53 deaths have been reported in the outbreak of Lassa viral hemorrhagic fever hitting 14 states within Nigeria. The case fatality rate is being reported at 37.9%.
  • Online Drama in the CRISPR Universe – a recent perspective article by Eric Lander (president of the Broad Institute) in Cell noted the heroes in CRISPR but failed to account for a potential conflict of interest. Needless to say, the Twitterverse erupted in a scientific outcry with many also calling out Lander’s failure to include several key contributors to the biotechnology.

Enjoying your weekly dose of the Pandora Report? Sign up to receive it every week so the fun never ends! 

3 thoughts on “Pandora Report 1.22.2016

  1. I have to ask why these reports from George Mason on Dugway Proving Ground and biodefense labs across the USA are so dependent on Alison Young’s “reporting” in _USA Today_. Every scientist I know who has actually worked in biodefense and knew of Alison Young has not had anything good to say about her. It seems her mission in life is to shut down biodefense labs across the USA with inflammatory articles that do not get all the facts right. Just compare the Army’s 15-6 report to her “news reports”.

    For example, Young often quotes Dr. Richard Ebright of Rutgers, but I have yet to find _a single work on select agents or on biodefense_ that he authored in his list of publications. Therefore, what exactly makes him a safety expert on BSL3 or on Tier 1 agents? Furthermore, what improvements have occurred in biosafety as a result of all _USA Today’s_ reports on biolabs?

    One loses credibility when on cites yellow journalism and self-anointed “experts”.


    1. Hi Wales-
      Thanks for the info on USA Today and Alison! Dr. Koblentz was quoted in this article, so not only was it a great interview, but they covered the Dugway concerns pretty in-depth. I did make sure to include that additional video based off our last conversation regarding USA Today – have you had any luck touching base with Ms. Young about her sources? Thanks so much for your feedback!


      1. Hi, Saskia!

        I am not interested in contacting Ms. Young because of her behavior during the early stages of the events, when I was still a federal employee at Dugway. We were officially enjoined from speaking on the events, which anyone who has dealt with any sensitive investigation in any formal institution should expect. Apparently she was not interested in official sources because she tried to get comments from various employees anyway. I guess it was unimportant to her that we could lose our jobs if we spoke to her.

        While this took place, we employees felt we had been “hung out to dry”. First, someone (we were 99+% certain it was an employee at CDC) leaked the early results to the press, probably illegally. CDC is notorious to those I know in biodefense for failing to follow up on leaks when the information embarrasses someone else.

        The next day, SecDef Ash Carter followed up by throwing a temper tantrum yelling, “Heads will roll!”. That political theater showed that he was not interested in getting the facts and had no downward loyalty whatsoever to us. That latter point is very important to anyone like me who has served in uniform in the military. DepSecDef Robert Work’s little fit was no better. By contrast, when the EPA team let the contaminated water spill into the Colorado River, no one at the EPA childishly ranted that heads would roll. All this led us to believe that we had already been tried and convicted with no chance to defend ourselves. Now you see why Ms. Young’s report was so galling.

        What disturbs me about Ms. Young and Dr, Ebright is that it appears they have no familiarity whatsoever with biodefense work in general and Dugway in particular, yet are eager to try to ruin the careers of strangers to advance their career goals.

        I do not deny the lapses in judgment and in performance that the 15-6 investigation revealed. I have great respect for MG Ostrowski (whom I met when he first visited Dugway). However, look at the tone of the 15-6 report versus the yellow journalism of Ms. Young and the accusations of Dr. Ebright. _USA Today_ got labeled “McPaper” by other journalists decades ago for a reason. If Ms. Young were to try to get a statement from me, I would hang up and probably report it to my local media. The issues in this event are fairness and integrity.

        Thank you for contacting me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s