Pandora Report: 3.18.2016

Spring is upon us! Whether you’re suffering from allergies or enjoying the bloom of the cherry blossoms, we’ve got you covered from the biodefense side. Don’t forget to add our GMU SPGIA Master’s Open House to your calendar next week (Wednesday, March 23rd at 6:30pm at our Arlington Campus). We’ll also be hosting a biodefense breakout session at 7pm with Dr. Koblentz (bonus: you can attend virtually! Extra bonus: our MS program is offered online, so you can learn to be a biodefense guru from anywhere in the world!). Bioarchaeologists are at it again in their quest to determine the fall of ancient Rome (hint: Yersinia pestis may have played a larger role than you’d think). Here’s hoping that with the announcement of the new Indiana Jones movie we’ll see Indy doing some bioarchaeology on ancient biowarfare!

The Real Lessons of Ebola and Zika 
Emerging infectious diseases are not a new concept for global public health, so why did Zika and Ebola catch us so off guard? Where was prevention – the backbone of public health- in this fight? After the pledging of billions of dollars and deployment of countless health professionals, the reality of reaction versus proactive prevention was never more apparent than during the Ebola outbreak. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Now, as we trudge our way through the Zika virus outbreak, many wonder why the Aedes mosquitoes are continuing to cause devastation when their role in outbreaks is so well known. “Controlling this mosquito would by itself ameliorate all these disease threats. Ironically, in South America, control of Aedes aegypti was largely successful earlier in the 20th century (with great expenditure of effort), only to be abandoned once the immediate threat receded.” So again, we must ask ourselves, why public health prevention measures are so frequently ignored. Inexpensive in comparison to the cost of an outbreak, these tools (surveillance, diagnostics, worldwide communication, etc.) are increasingly becoming stronger and more available. Zika and Ebola have proven the efficacy of these strategies and the damage of failing to use them, so what more will it take to get global public health measures a seat at the cool kids’ table? A recent study addressed the biosocial approaches to the Ebola outbreak, concluding that “biomedical and culturalist claims of causality have helped obscure the role of human rights failings (colonial legacies, structural adjustment, exploitative mining companies, enabled civil war, rural poverty, and the near absence of quality health care to name but a few) in the genesis of the 2013-16 pandemic.” Globally, we’re still struggling to recover from the outbreak – whether you’re on the the ground in the affected countries or in the public health agencies that attempted to help. In many ways, the lessons from this pandemic will continue to be identified and understood for years to come. The CDC has also just released an article regarding the perspectives on the outbreak here, where they discuss the factors that delayed disease detection, the role of civil instability, and the impact of historically limited ebola experience.

GMU Biodefense Alumni Career Services
Are you a GMU Biodefense alum? Don’t forget to sign up for the SPGIA CareersNow so you can get updates on job postings that are right up your alley! GMU has close ties within the biodefense industry and we love joining students with employers, so please make sure to sign up and utilize this great resource!

ISIS Chemical Weapons Attack
Officials are reporting on that on Saturday, terrorists linked to ISIS fired rockets into a residential part of Taza, a northern Iraqi town. These rockets are reported to have contained unspecified chemical substances that caused numerous deaths and injuries related to burns, dehydration, and suffocation. An American special forces team previously captured the lead ISIS chemical weapons engineer, however, “his capture has not stopped alleged chemical attacks by ISIS or other terrorists associated with the Islamist militant group. Earlier this week, for instance, officials in Iraq’s Kirkuk province claimed that around 100 people were injured in suspected chemical attack, also in Taza.” The attacks are recently reported to have injured 600 people and killed a 3-year-old girl. Many are now asking, where is ISIS getting their chemical weapons from?

Preventing “A Virological Hiroshima”: Cold War Press Coverage of Biological Weapons Disarmament
Since we’re in the middle of an election year, it has become even more apparent the massive role media plays in not just politics, but also security. A recent analysis was published utilizing written pieces from the US New York Times, UK Times, and the Guardian, during the period of the Biological Weapons Convention negotiation in 1972. Representations of biological weapons during this time not only reflect the societal ideologies, but the the high-stakes environment that the journalists were experiencing. “We argue that a conventional discourse can be found wherein biological weapons are portrayed as morally offensive, yet highly effective and militarily attractive. Interwoven with this discourse, however, is a secondary register which depicts biological weapons as ineffective, unpredictable and of questionable value for the military.” Interestingly, at the time of these news reports, journalists only knew of WMD’s via nuclear and chemical weapons. According to the authors, no biological attacks had been documented and the state sponsored programs were still buried in the depths of secrecy. Biological weapons could only be considered in terms of historical pandemics like the Black Death and the 1918 Influenza pandemic. The authors note that “this negative portrayal of biological weapons as unpredictable and ineffective was certainly flagged in the context of downplaying the significance or value of the BWC. But where it was put to more nuanced use, exemplified in the interview with Matthew Meselson in the wake of the Nixon decision to abandon the US offensive programme, biological weapons were indeed portrayed as useless, not because they were innocuous but because they were redundant: the USA already had access to the horrific, indiscriminate means to annihilate entire cities.”

A Little Bit of Zika Goes A Long Way
Recent CDC data reports 258 travel-associated cases within the US. Laura Beil with the New York Times describes the worry that pregnant women are now facing after they traveled to affected regions and later were found to have Zika. You can also find a timeline and map of the outbreak here. Here’s a spot of good news though – the European Commission announced on Tuesday that the European Union released $11.1 million for Zika virus research. Rob Stein from NPR discusses the unique cry of babies with Zika-associated birth defects and the stories from the pediatricians and health professionals that are working to help the affected families. “It’s not just that they cry more easily, and longer — which they do. There’s also something strange — harsher and more pained — about the cries of many of these babies.Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 1.02.48 PM The realization that they even cry differently than normal babies drove home how many mysteries the world is facing because of the Zika virus.” Not surprisingly, ticket sales for the 2016 Summer Olympics have dropped since the announcement of the outbreak. Olympic-related event ticket revenues dropped 56.4% since mid-January. A new research article was just published regarding the seasonal occurrence and abundance of the Aedes mosquito and it’s role in potential Zika transmission within the US – specifically in regards to local transmission. Here’s a great map regarding the estimated risk of transmission within the US. 

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Use of Microbial Forensics in the Middle East/North Africa Region – The Federation of American Scientists (FSA) prepared a report for the Department of State Bureau of Arms Control and Verification regarding the use of microbial forensics as a means of combating biosecurity challenges. Whether naturally occurring or man-made, biological threats can pose a major challenge. Source recognition is “the key pre-condition that determines how a country will respond to a biological event, or take action in order to interrupt a potential emerging threat, ultimately centers around the ability to properly attribute the culpable sources (pathogens); in other words, governments need to determine the return address of the culpable microbe(s), be they from countries, individuals, or nature itself.”
  • Rice Krispies Food Safety Attack? An employee was recorded urinating on the production line for the cereal manufacturing company in 2014. Kellogg is now under investigation regarding the criminal activity and potential impact of the employee’s actions. I wonder, would you consider this a small-time biological attack?
  • Determinants and Drivers of Infectious Disease Threat Events in Europe – Researchers identified 17 drivers of infectious diseases threat events (IDTEs), categorizing them into 3 groups: globalization and environment, sociodemographic, and public health systems. They found that a combination of two or more drivers was responsible for most of the IDTEs and the driver “category of globalization and environment contributed to 61% of individual IDTEs, and the top 5 individual drivers of of all IDTEs were travel and tourism, food and water quality, natural environment, global trade, and climate.”

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