The biodefense world was pretty busy this week – between Zika funding, cloning, and debates over dual-use technologies, we’ve got a lot to recap! Check out this great infographic on mosquitoes and the diseases they spread. The “State of Innovation” report revealed a decrease in biotech patents in 2015, with many pointing to the correlation between three U.S. Supreme Court decisions that limited patentability of some biotechnologies. If you were wondering how the sale of Plum Island is going, the House has actually temporarily halted any transactions.
Congrats GMU Biodefense Graduates!
We’re so happy to announce the convocation of some of our phenomenal graduate students. Earning a MS in Biodefense- Julia Homstad (also awarded the Frances Harbour Award for Community Leadership), Brittany Linkous (earning the Outstanding Biodefense MS Student Award), Francisco Cruz, Mary Dougherty, Moneka Jani, Sadaf Khan, Brittany Ferris, Michael Smith, and Robert Smith. Graduating with their PhD’s – Jonathan Gines (also the recipient of the Outstanding Biodefense PhD Student award and his dissertation was: Designing Biorisk Oversight: Applying Design Science Research to Biosafety and Biosecurity, Patricia Kehn (Flu News You Can Use? An Analysis of Flu News Quality 2008-2010), and Mittie Wallace (Emergency Preparedness in Virginia, Maryland and DC: Using Exchange Theory to Identify Government-Nonprofit Incentives and Barriers to Collaboration). Congrats to all our Biodefense graduates in the hard work and dedication they’ve put forth to contribute to such a diverse and exciting field!
Evaluation of DoD Biological Safety & Security Implementation
The Inspector General of the Department of Defense (DoD) has released their report regarding the biosafety and biosecurity policies and practices within DoD laboratories working with select agents. The report also evaluated DoD oversight of these laboratories and compliance with Federal, DoD, and Service Policy, with careful consideration to recent GAO (among others) recommendations. Several findings were reported, which include: “DoD has not maintained biosafety and biosecurity program management, oversight, and inspections of its BSAT laboratories according to applicable Federal regulations. BSAT laboratories in Military Services were inspected according to different guidance, standards, and procedures, risking dangerous lapses in biosafety practices. Lack of coordinated oversight of DoD laboratories led to multiple, missing, and duplicative inspections, and, therefore, an excessive administrative burden that could interfere with scientific research performance.” The report also noted that public health and safety was put at risk due to the poor protection of these agents. Recommendations pushed for better internal and external tracking of inspections, coordination of external technical and scientific peer reviews, standardized training for inspectors, the creation of site-specific laboratory security vulnerability assessments, etc. Overall, the report addresses several key failures within select agent laboratories that have been gaining increasing attention. While these recommendations are a necessary first step, there is definitely an up-hill battle to better secure and work with select agents.
Public Health & Emerging Disease Outbreaks – The Importance of Communication
Outbreak prevention and response isn’t a new concept…in fact it’s something we’ve been perfecting since John Snow took off the Broad Street pump handle. Sometimes, the fastest spreader isn’t the disease, but rather poor communication and fear. In every after-action report, communication tends to be the biggest failure. Not only do people fail to talk to each other enough, but information dissemination and comprehension tends to be poorly emphasized, when in fact it could save lives. “In particular, healthcare workers may benefit from knowing about newly found transmission risks or disease findings from a novel case under intensive care. Knowledge drives behavioural change that can save lives. We live in a global community. Even if the lives saved are not citizens of our country, withholding information because it is unlikely to benefit our own countrymen, or even delaying dissemination of important information until it is published in a scientific journal is a poor choice.” Dr. Ian Mackay and Katherine Arden point to communication failures regarding the zoonotic transmission of MERS-CoV and the illness of a nurse from the UK who recovered from Ebola and was later hospitalized for meningitis. Both instances involved poor communication, especially to healthcare workers. “Good communicators and reliable communications are vital. Create a dialogue with the public now to build a partnership for later, to reduce distrust when an outbreak, epidemic or pandemic occurs. In this way, communities know which voices to trust and where to turn for their information. Leaving an information void invites others to fill it and more often than not, it is those who delight in titillation, invention, make-believe and fear-mongering.”
Weekly Dose of Zika Virus
H.R. 5243 – Zika Response Appropriations Act of 2016 is the hot topic of discussion this week, as President Obama’s Administration is opposing the act. “While the Administration appreciates that the Congress is finally taking action to address the Zika virus, the funding provided in H.R. 5243 is woefully inadequate to support the response our public health experts say is needed. Specifically, the Administration’s full request of $1.9 billion is needed to: reduce the risk of the Zika virus, particularly in pregnant women, by better controlling the mosquitoes that spread Zika; develop new tools, including vaccines and better diagnostics to protect the Nation from the Zika virus; and conduct crucial research projects needed to better understand the impacts of the Zika virus on infants and children.” On May 17th, the Senate voted to provide $1.2 billion to fight the growing outbreak. A team from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston has traveled into uncharted territory – they are the first to genetically engineer a clone of the Zika virus strain. Their work could help speed up vaccine development and research of the virus. As the Zika outbreak rages onwards, many are pointing to the need to understand how and why it mutated from Africa to Asia and then to the Americas. “‘Like many arboviral agents, given the appropriate environmental and human conditions, new pathogens can be easily moved around the globe,’ Ann Powers said. And that’s what Zika did. The virus began to ripple across the Pacific—and as it traveled, it seemed to change.” The Olympic Games are fast approaching and the debate about the safety of the games has been spreading (see what I did there?). Last week you read about how some are saying the games should be cancelled, while others say it poses a minimal threat. You can also find a snapshot of Zika virus here. The WHO reported that the overall risk of Zika virus moving across the WHO European region is low to moderate during late spring and early summer. Rutgers is taking the lead on an IBM-sponsored project that will utilize supercomputing resources to identify “potential drug candidates to cure the Zika virus.” The Wilson Center is hosting an event, “Zika in the U.S: Can We Manage the Risk?” on Tuesday, May 24th, at 11am. Many are also wondering why humans and not mice are susceptible to the virus. Lastly, as of May 18th, the CDC has reported 544 travel-associated cases and 10 sexually transmitted cases within the U.S.
Governance Structures for Reducing Dual-Use Technology Risks
The American Academy of Arts & Sciences has published an examination of dual-use technology governance and the state of current efforts to control the spread of potentially dangerous technologies. “Governance of Dual-Use Technologies examines the similarities and differences between the strategies used for the control of nuclear technologies and those proposed for biotechnology and information technology. The publication makes clear the challenges concomitant with dual-use governance.” The report looks at the potential objectives of these measures, what they translate to in a technical format, and if these measures are even feasible.
Global Avian Influenza A H5N1 Trends
Researchers recently looked at the epidemiology of human H5N1 cases from 1997-2015. This was the first comprehensive analysis of human cases on a global scale. The number of affected countries rose between 2003 and 2008, traveling from east Asia into west Asia and Africa. “Most cases (67·2%) occurred from December to March, and the overall case-fatality risk was 483 (53·5%) of 903 cases which varied across geographical regions. Although the incidence in Egypt has increased dramatically since November, 2014, compared with the cases beforehand, there were no significant differences in the fatality risk, history of exposure to poultry, history of patient contact, and time from onset to hospital admission in the recent cases.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Health Security Available – The newest volume of Health Security is now available online. The recent issue includes pieces on Zika and microcephaly, preparing for climate disruption, adapting to health impacts of climate change in the DoD, and more!
- Secret Genome Meeting – Last week saw a meeting hosted by Harvard Medical School’s George Church, to discuss “feasibility and implementation of a project to synthesize entire large genomes in vitro.” Initially the meeting was open to the public and media however, the decision was made to keep it private (from the media) so that researchers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and government officials could speak freely without fear of being misquoted. “Our ability to understand what to build is so far behind what we can build,” said Jeremy Minshull, chief executive of DNA synthesis company DNA2.0, told The New York Times. “I just don’t think that being able to make more and more and more and cheaper and cheaper and cheaper is going to get us the understanding we need.”
- Four Countries Fend Off Avian Influenza- Cambodia, Ghana, and Indonesia have been battling H5N1 and Italy has just reported its second H7N7 occurrence this month. Ghana and Cambodia have reported significant bird mortalities, with the virus killing 155 of 505 susceptible birds. “In Ghana, the H5N1 virus turned up in four commercial layer and breeding farms in three of the country’s regions: two in Greater Accra and one each in Eastern and Central regions.”
- Bavarian Nordic Smallpox Vaccine Contract – the pharmaceutical company announced that BARDA has ordered a bulk supply of their new IMVAMUNE smallpox vaccine. The $100 million supply of the non-replicating vaccine requires Bavarian Nordic to manufacture and store the bulk supply. “The freeze-dried version of IMVAMUNE is expected to reduce the life cycle management costs based on a longer shelf life and will replace the liquid-frozen version that is currently stockpiled in the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile (SNS).”
- Early Detection Lyme Disease Test Successful – GMU researchers have proven that their early-detection urine test works to rapidly identify Lyme diseases. “The National Institutes of Health funded the research that led to Mason’s patented technology, which traps tell-tale clues (such as the Lyme bacteria protein) that a disease is present. The Mason technology, which is licensed to Ceres, works during the earliest stages of disease and finds the tiniest traces missed by most diagnostic tests.”