Pandora Report: 2.19.2016

TGIF! We hope you had a lovely week while avoiding RAW Meal Organic Shake and Meal Replacement products. The FDA recently reported an outbreak of Salmonella Virchow linked to the moringa powder within these products. 11 people across nine states were impacted by the outbreak, leading to an expanded recall due to the contamination. In this week’s Pandora Report, we’re covering Zika virus, CRISPR, GMU’s Biodefense Open House, ISIS use of chemical weapons, and much more. Before we begin, you’ll be happy to hear that as of today, airline passengers flying from Guinea to the US will no longer have to fly through designated airports and undergo screening for Ebola.

Zika Response Plans 
The WHO just released their Zika Strategic Response Framework & Joint Operations Plan for January-June 2016. Within the report, readers can find a timeline of the outbreak, a current situation report (sitrep) and the three objectives, which include surveillance, response, and research. Response strategies include community engagement, control efforts for the Aedes mosquito, and efforts to support and guide “the potential impact on women of childbearing age and those who are pregnant, as well as families with children affected by Zika virus.” The WHO estimates that the community engagement components requires $15.4 million, 10 partners, and will involve public health risk communication, community engagement, and health care personnel. Overall, the WHO estimates that to “kickstart” the international response, it will take $56 million. Fortunately, the World Bank announced it’s commitment of $150 million to combat the growing epidemic. The FDA just released blood donation recommendations related to the outbreak to mitigate risk of contamination. They are recommending that “those at risk of having been infected with the Zika virus should not donate blood for four weeks. These include those who have had Zika virus symptoms or sexual contact with people who have traveled to countries known to have ongoing transmissions.” According to the CDC, as of February 10th, there have been 52 travel-associated Zika virus associated cases in the US. On Thursday, Pope Francis suggested that women could justifiably use contraception to avoid pregnancy in Zika affected countries.

Upcoming Events: SPGIA Master’s Open House and Biodefense Seminar!Biodefense_320x180
Interested in furthering your education and getting to study topics like bioweapons, disease outbreaks, and terrorism? Check out the GMU Master’s Open House on Thursday, February 25th, 6:30pm at our Arlington Campus in Founder’s Hall, Room 126. Dr. Koblentz, GMU biodefense program director and one of our amazing professors, will also be holding an informational session at 7pm. You can even virtually attend if you’re looking to get more details on the biodefense graduate program and what kinds of adventures it entails. Once you’ve gotten your feet wet by attending one of the Open Houses, try our Biodefense Course Sampler on Wednesday, March 2nd, at 7pm in Founders Hall (GMU Arlington Campus), room 502. Dr. Koblentz will be hosting the event to discuss the unique challenges the US faces when it comes to global health security. Ranging from biosafety to natural disasters, and even zombies, this is a great way to get a taste of the GMU Biodefense program! Make sure to RSVP though, since space is limited.

Workshop on Women’s Health in Global Perspective
GMU’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs will be hosting this engaging and informational workshop on March 3, 2016 (8:45am-4:45pm), at our Arlington campus, in Founders Hall 111 and 1113. The keynote address will be from Dr. Nancy Lee, director of the Office of Women’s Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. Panels will discuss contraception and prenatal care, violence against women, dealing with disease, cross border concerns, and the role of gender disparities in women’s health outcomes. Lunch will be provided and while this event is free and open to the public, you’ll need to register here.

ISIS Use of Chemical Weapons
On Friday, CIA director John Brennan, confirmed that ISIS fighters have not only utilized chemical weapons, but also have the means and capabilities to make them. Reports indicate that ISIS is capable of making small quantities of chlorine and mustard gas. Brennan also pointed to potential exportation of chemical weapon to the West for financial incentives, noting that “there’s always a potential for that. This is why it’s so important to cut off the various transportation routes and smuggling routes they have used.” Confirmatory lab results from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) established the definitive presence of mustard gas in the attacks on Kurdish forces last year. “The OPCW will not identify who used the chemical agent. But the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the findings have not yet been released, said the result confirmed that chemical weapons had been used by Islamic State fighters. The samples were taken after the soldiers became ill during fighting against Islamic State militants southwest of Erbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.” Given their successful use of mustard gas and growing concerns over development capabilities, Brennan noted that “US intelligence is actively involved in being part of the efforts to destroy ISIS and to get as much insight into what they have on the ground inside Syria and Iraq.”

Ongoing Challenges and Future Considerations for DHS Biosurveillance Efforts 
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published their findings regarding the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) biosurveillance efforts, specifically the National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) and the BioWatch program. Initial findings in 2009 found that NBIC wasn’t “fully equipped to carry out its mission because it lacked key resources—data and personnel—from its partner agencies, which may have been at least partially the result of collaboration challenges it faced.” Recommendations were made and then in August 2012, NBIC released its Strategic Plan in response to the deficiencies, of which focal points included clarification of its mission and efforts to fulfill its roles of analyzer, coordinator, and innovator. Since 2012 though, GAO has noted several challenges DHS has faced in attempts to justify the BioWatch program. In 2015, “GAO found that DHS lacks reliable information about the current system’s technical capabilities to detect a biological attack, in part because in the 12 years since BioWatch’s initial deployment, DHS has not developed technical performance requirements for the system. GAO reported in September 2015 that DHS commissioned tests of the current system’s technical performance characteristics, but without performance requirements, DHS cannot interpret the test results and draw conclusions about the system’s ability to detect attacks.” Based off their findings, GAO recommended DHS not pursue the upgrades it was considering to the program. Some of the changes NBIC will be pursuing include its modification to the Daily Monitoring List  and better integration of projections and forecasts. You can find the report here, which also includes a table regarding benefits and challenges for structural changes within NBIC. Coincidentally, there was a webinar this week on “Defending Against Bioterror with Improved BioWatch Standards”. During the webinar, the presenters (Dr. Georges Benjamin and Dr. Bruce Budowle) emphasized that BioWatch is an integrated system that “needs to be used with care and caution, but it’s really a marvelous piece of technology.” They also spent time discussing how PCR results may pose problematic for end users and how BioWatch “is a good investment that should continue”.

Mental Health Challenges in Ebola Fighters
The 2014 outbreak left untold damages upon the affected countries. Unfortunately, mental health is one that may have gone unnoticed. While doctors and nurses raced to respond to the outbreak, the response to mental health was given little thought. Fighters in the Ebola battle are now fighting personal struggles with alcoholism, depression, and drug addiction. In countries that have even fewer mental health professionals than medical doctors, many are in desperate need. Some of these include young men that signed up to bury the bodies of Ebola patients in the grassy mud within Liberia. Drew Hinshaw discusses how these “burial boys” found themselves digging graves for their own children and are now left struggling to find work and are suffering from severe PTSD and the emotional effects of such an ordeal. “Liberia has just one psychiatrist for a population of four million, according to the health ministry. Sierra Leone, home to seven million, also has only one. The mental-health wing of the Liberian health ministry has just two staffers on payroll.” The truth is simple- the impact of an outbreak of this magnitude, especially within impoverished countries, has rippling effects that go on for years. Perhaps future outbreak response and preparedness models should include mental health support during and following the outbreak?

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Future of CRISPR– CRISPR technology has been making headlines since it’s initial discovery, especially with Science naming it the Breakthrough of the Year. Its ease of use has raised many red flags for those within the science and biosecurity community. One of its discoverers, Jennifer Doudna, worked to answer questions and dispel concerns regarding mis-use, stating that “she considers it one of her responsibilities as a researcher to ensure that she educates people about the technology and listens to their questions and concerns about its use. She says one of her biggest fears is “waking up one morning and reading about the first CRISPR baby, and having that create a public backlash where people ban or regulators shut this down, and I think that could be very detrimental to the progress of the field.”
  • UK Parliament Report – Lesson Learned from Ebola – The UK Parliament has released their findings on the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the UK’s response efforts. Pointing to the necessity of strong and reliable communication, they emphasized that research must be started swiftly during such events. “The willingness of Government agencies, third sector organisations, health and aid workers, universities, and pharmaceutical companies to go above and beyond to help tackle the outbreak was phenomenal. The swift pace at which clinical trials were approved and conducted particularly stood out.” For updates on the outbreak, you can see the WHO sitrep here.
  • MERS-CoV Updates – A new report from Emerging Infectious Diseases discusses the infection of alpacas in a region where MERS-CoV is endemic. Given the susceptibility of alpacas, this could broaden the geographical distribution of potential cases. Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) has started a Phase 1 clinical trial (the first to be tested in humans) for a MERS-CoV vaccine.

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