Pandora Report 4.22.2016

Happy Friday from your friends at GMU Biodefense! We’ve got some great updates in your weekly dose of global health security. First, check out this wonderful infographic on the hurdles ahead for Zika virus response. France, Myanmar, and Taiwan have all recently reported avian influenza outbreaks. Good news- researchers have found that a new technique of low-energy nuclear reaction imaging is able to detect concealed nuclear materials (weapons-grade uranium and plutonium).

Findings of Investigations into 2014 NIH Smallpox Discovery
Following the recent GAO report on security of U.S. bioresearch labs, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations released its own memo ahead of the hearing on Wednesday, April 20, 2016 (you can watch it here). The hearing addressed the investigations that surrounded the finding of potentially live smallpox in cardboard boxes in cold storage rooms within the NIH.  Some of the issues that were identified and discussed were: failure to account for regulated select agents, failure to conduct comprehensive inventory of all select agent material, and failure to restrict unauthorized access to select agents. “There’s a problem when the government somehow loses track of smallpox and other deadly agents, only to have them turn up in a soggy cardboard box. What’s worse, the urgency that should accompany such a discovery has failed to spur absolutely necessary changes,” said full committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-PA). “Today serves as an important opportunity to ask some of the agencies in question about their next steps to ensure safety for those working in the labs, as well as the general public.”

Re-Wiring the Funding of Pandemic Response 
Jeremy Farrar, head of biomedical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, believes that governments should invest in fighting and defending against pandemics the same way they invest in the military. “We spend gazillions to defend ourselves from military attacks, but from the beginning of the twentieth century far more people have died from infection. We are hugely vulnerable from a public health perspective,”. He emphasizes that public health funding shouldn’t be left to private companies, as they will ultimately make decisions based upon commercial return. Globalization means that a disease can jump from one country to the next through a single flight and we need to be able to respond just as quickly. “We’ve had Ebola for the last two to three years, now Zika. Since 1998 I’ve been involved in about eight major epidemics including SARS and bird flu. This is the new world. These are not rare events,”. If nothing else, it’s important to consider the economics of an outbreak. The financial cost of an epidemic is staggering – cited at $60 billion annually. He notes that now is the time to share information and work towards quicker vaccine and diagnostic interventions.

Neglected Dimensions of Global Security
Researchers are discussing the Global Health Risk Framework Commission’s strategy to defend human and economic security from pandemic threats. Global health threats, like that of SARS and Ebola, have forced leaders to consider not just response, but also preparedness. “In each case, governments and international organizations seemed unable to react quickly and decisively. Health crises have unmasked critical vulnerabilities—weak health systems, failures of leadership, and political overreaction and underreaction.” Global coordination in the event of a health crisis is extremely challenging, as we saw with Ebola, and these authors are pointing to the need for “international norms and well-functioning institutions”. The recommendations also include public accountability for timely reporting and multilateral financing for pandemic preparedness and response resources.

GMU Biodefense Students Earn Prestigious Fellowship
We’re excited to provide an official announcement and interview with GMU Biodefense students, Fracisco Cruz and Siddha Hover, regarding their acceptance into the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity (ELBI) Fellowship. Francisco earned his MS in 2015 and Siddha is a current PhD student in GMU’s Biodefense program. Check out their comments on both the ELBI Fellowship and their experiences within GMU’s Biodefense graduate programs. “For two George Mason Biodefense students to be selected for this prestigious fellowship is a great recognition of the contribution that our students and alums are already making to biodefense and global health security and the potential they have to play even stronger roles in the future,” said Associate Professor Gregory D. Koblentz, director of the Biodefense program in Mason’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs.

Federal Research Database on Genomic Data 
The new GenPort database will allow researchers to access enormous amounts of genomic data from research studies. The benefit of the new system is that it will allow people to review several studies at the same time and track individuals within different trials, creating “synthetic cohorts”. “The Health and Human Services Department is currently looking for small businesses who can help build that hub, so even researchers without informatics or genomics training can make ‘practical use’ of data from cohort studies other scientists have already conducted.” The plan is for GenPort to be open source, transportable, and freely shared via a cloud. Let’s just hope genomic data from certain deadly pathogens doesn’t make its way onto the cloud!

Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea Sparks Concern
While Zika virus and Ebola are quick to grab the headlines, there is another global health security threat we should be worried about. Antibiotic resistance may not have the hype that emerging infectious disease outbreaks do, but the realities of a world without effective antibiotics are pretty terrifying. Consider the re-emergence of diseases we had long eradicated and now have no effective treatment methods. With the rising incidence of multi-drug resistant organisms, the threat of a drug-resistant sexually transmitted infection is pretty terrifying. Public health officials in England are urging the public to practice safe sex with the growing rates of Azithromycin-resistant gonorrhea. Cases initially started in November 2014 however, they have been increasing. The CDC has also issued information about the threats of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.

The Fight Against Zika VirusScreen Shot 2016-04-19 at 8.59.38 AM
Where are we with Zika? What does the future hold for this ever-changing  outbreak? Some are saying that it is a delayed epidemic. The long-term effects of the disease means we’re all trailing behind it. The lack of a vaccine or commercially available test makes it even more challenging. “Human Zika virus infection appears to have changed in character while expanding its geographical range,” the WHO paper concludes. “The change is from an endemic, mosquito-borne infection causing mild illness across equatorial Africa and Asia, to an infection causing, from 2007 onwards, large outbreaks, and from 2013 onwards, outbreaks linked with neurological disorders.” With Zika, it seems like we’re constantly rushing to catch up. Shifting U.S. funds from Ebola to Zika is just another example of the reactive approach public health tends to take. Why are we constantly rushing from fire to fire? The recent cuts to public health funding are also being highlighted since the Zika outbreak began. Many are pointing to the inability to truly prepare or respond with limited public health resources. In the mean time, many cities, like New Orleans, are organizing preparedness plans as the rainy season approaches. There are also concerns regarding the growing threat of Zika as new maps reveal 2.2 billion people reside in “at risk” areas. The Senate may also be closer to an agreement regarding emergency funding for Zika virus response. 

Americans Want More Biosecurity Preparedness Investment
A survey performed by the Alliance for Biosecurity, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense and Trust for America’s Health, looked at the general public’s perception of preparedness and where they think we should be. Findings noted that eight out of ten Americans are concerned about naturally-occurring diseases like Ebola and Zika, and nine out of ten are concerned about the use of chemical or biological weapons by terrorists against the U.S. The survey found that only half of Americans have confidence that the U.S. government is prepared to address the next biosecurity threat. The survey also found that 88% of Americans support increasing the budget for preventative measures for biological threats.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Health Security Special Issue on Climate Change – Check out the special edition of Health Security that includes articles on adapting to health impacts of climate change and the potential for Zika and microcephaly epidemics in post-Ebola West Africa. 
  • Science Perfects the Art of Hand-Sanitizing Techniques – infection prevention researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University recently released a report on the most effective way to use alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Reviewing bacterial count, they published in hopes of reducing the spread of disease in healthcare through better hand hygiene.
  • MERS Contamination – MERS-CoV has caused considerable concern regarding transmission in healthcare settings since the large 2015 outbreak in South Korea. Researchers have found that MERS-CoV contamination occurred in the air and surrounding environment within the MERS outbreak units. MERS-CoV was found in 4/7 air samples from two patient rooms, one patient’s restroom, and one common corridor. “In addition, MERS-CoV was detected in 15 of 68 surface swabs by viral cultures. IFA on the cultures of the air and swab samples revealed the presence of MERS-CoV. EM images also revealed intact particles of MERS-CoV in viral cultures of the air and swab samples.”
  • California Salmonella Outbreak– California continues to investigate a five-month long Salmonella outbreak. Public health officials are considering a Mexican-style soft cheese and are currently testing samples from a woman’s home. These specific samples are being considered as the woman imported cheese from Mexico (via family members) and was selling it online.

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