TGIF! It looks like biodefense and genetic engineering are the new hot topics in Hollywood. Inferno will be opening in theaters next week, but it was also reported that Jennifer Lopez will be starring in a new bioterror TV drama, “C.R.I.S.P.R.“, that takes on topics like genetic assassination. That’s right, JLo will be a CDC scientist exploring “the next generation of terror”. You can get an epidemiological update on the cholera situation in the Americas here. A new Ebola vaccine will be tested by researchers in Canada next month.
Biological Threats in the 21st Century Book Launch
Last Friday we celebrated the book launch of Biological Threats in the 21st Century. For those who attended, thank you and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did! For those unable to attend, don’t fret – we’ll have the recording up ASAP, but in the meant time, here’s a brief recap… We were fortunate to have Dr. Koblentz MC’ing the event, with Andrew C. Weber discussing the threats we face in the 21st century and that the topic is really the orphan of the bunch as nuclear weapons tend to get all the bandwidth. Weber noted that we learned the wrong lesson from Amerithrax and need to remember that one person did it all by himself and despite a very primitive delivery mechanism, it took us eight years to find him. He emphasized the lessons learned from 9/11 and the use of imagination in regards to potential attacks, specifically that we should all challenge ourselves to think about these things and be imaginative. Filippa Lentzos, the editor of the book, took us through her journey to bring together the politics, people, and science of biological warfare. Her goal was to create a one-stop shop for issues regarding bioweapons and socio-politics. Incorporating narratives from people that are both advocates and negotiators of biological disarmament, she highlighted the importance of scientists in building the agenda and biological risk management. Perhaps one of the highlights of the event was the expert panel comprised of Jo Husbands, GMU’s Sonia Ben Ougrham-Gormley, GiGi Gronvall, and Nancy Connell. The panel took questions from the audience and each expert discussed a range of topics – the role of scientists in DURC, GoF experiments and governance efforts, talking to US and Soviet bioweapons specialists from the days of offensive programs, and the efforts to engage scientists and make them part of the solution. Overall, the event was a wonderful mixture of experts, students, and industry people who are all passionate about the world of biodefense.
How Do You Know Your Flu Shot is Working?
GMU Biodefense MS student Greg Mercer is tackling the topic of flu shot performance. Despite the challenges of antigenic drift and forecasting, there has to be a way to check how well the vaccine is performing..right? “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a guide to how they assess flu vaccine effectiveness and efficacy in the United States. These are two slightly different measurements. Efficacy is measured with randomized controlled trials. This is a classic, high rigorous scientific setup designed to eliminate research biases. Effectiveness is measured with observational studies. These are more reflective of real world conditions, since they rely on self-identifying subjects seeking care.”
On Patrol with a Bioterror Cop
For biodefense students, Edward You is pretty much our crime-fighting role model. Supervisory special agent in the WMD directorate in the FBI’s DC headquarters, You monitors the growth of lab tech to help prevent bioterrorism. Trying to find the gaps within the detection chain is no easy feat, but You helps to improve FBI and interagency efforts to identify, assess, and respond to biological threats. What makes his approach so unique is that prior to the FBI, he worked for six years in graduate research focusing on retrovirology and human gene therapy at USC. Simply put, You knows the science, tech, and culture that make biocrimes and emerging biotechnologies worrisome. You’s background and perspective has helped shift FBI credibility within the science community after incidents like the detainment of Buffalo bio-artist, Steve Kurtz. The FBI is now helping to sponsor events like the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, and is helping build a network where scientists share concerns. “You is often the first to hear about scientists’ darkest worries. Lately some of these have been connected to the gene-editing method CRISPR, which can be used to create self-spreading gene alterations in insects or DNA-slashing viruses.” You notes that “a threat implies intent, and we haven’t seen that yet,” he says. “But as things become more widely available, more widely distributed, the bar gets lower, and the possibility of an incident gets higher.”
Infection Prevention & Control Week
Hand hygiene, PPE, and vaccines, oh my! Infection prevention doesn’t take breaks, so this week we’re celebrating the importance of reducing the spread of infections, specifically in healthcare. The Ebola outbreak lifted back the curtain as to just how impacting minor breaches in infection control can be, but as the threat of antibiotic resistance grows, we need to invest more into this field. Here are a few things you can do to help fight the battle of the bug in healthcare – need to wear PPE? Make sure you’re donning and doffing correctly. Wash your hands! Know about infection preventionists, follow rules of isolation if visiting a sick friend (or you’re sick!), get your annual flu shot and stay up to date on vaccines, make sure to follow directions and finish antibiotics appropriately if you’re taking them, and keep your work environment clean.
Public Health: Biosecurity and the GHSA Distance Learning Opportunity
Don’t miss out on this great opportunity for a 2-hour webinar session on Wednesday, December 7th, 2016 at 11am CST. The U.S. has taken the lead on a global campaign to fortify both public health and international security. The Public Health: Biosecurity and the Global Health Security Agenda webinar will review the nexus between public health and biosecurity, through the context of the developing Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). We will learn how modern threat management concepts can be efficiently employed by the GHSA to augment both public health response and preparedness in the event of a natural outbreak, or from the perspective of an intentional attack. The webinar will be presented by Ryan N. Burnette, PhD, Director, International Biosecurity & Biosafety Programs, At Risk International. Upon completion of this webinar, participants will be able to:
- Define the methods and goals of the GHSA
- Paraphrase how threat management techniques can be applied at a macro level to augment global security in the context of epidemics and bioterrorism
- Describe how biosecurity plays a vital role in public and global health
Gene Drives – the Good, the Bad, and the Hype
GMU Biodefense professor, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, and Kathleen Vogel are discussing the advances in life sciences and what these new gene-editing techniques could mean for biodefense. “The absence of clear safety guidelines, coupled with ambiguous government regulations, has nurtured fears of an accidental or voluntary release of a gene drive in nature that could cause irreparable damage. On the security front, the presumed simplicity and accessibility of Crispr raise the possibility that states, terrorists, or rogue scientists might use the technology to modify genomes to develop malicious gene drives and create novel bioweapons that could spread more quickly, cheaply, and globally than traditional bioweapons agents.” Caution is always a good strategy, but Ouagrham-Gormley and Vogel emphasize the importance of approaching these new technologies with a realistic approach grounded in empirical findings, rather than the hype of a shiny new toy. Understanding gene drive and the capabilities of CRISPR are necessary to not only proceed with advancements, but also fully assess the risks versus rewards. Gene drive does have some potential benefits, especially in terms of vectors and pest-control, in trying to impact the population of disease-transmitting mosquitoes and invasive mouse species that wreak agricultural havoc. There is also potential for gene drives to aid in endangered species and environmental conservation work as “gene-drive rodent control on islands can mitigate the environmental impact of invasive species, which disrupt island ecosystems by bringing in invasive plants, or eating plants and insects essential for other species’ survival.” Like anything, there is a potential for mis-use or neglect. In the wake of any new exciting innovation, the spread of CRISPR and gene drive technology has amplified concerns over lab safety and establishing a fundamentally better understanding of the technology before such rapid innovative leaps. Concerns over adverse effects on target species and damage to non-target species is crucial and regulators are racing to keep up with this constantly evolving technology. “These two cases show that Crispr-induced alterations have outpaced and continue to defy current regulations, leaving governments around the world to play catch-up. In this context, fears that an altered organism might escape the laboratory to potentially eradicate a whole species, or unexpectedly jump into another population and cause unpredictable economic and environmental damage, do not seem far-fetched.” Lastly, from the viewpoint of a bioweapons threat, the authors note that the perceived low cost, easy availability, and self-propagating nature of gene drives make it appealing to would-be bioterrorists. There are significant technical challenges that do form substantial roadblocks, not to mention that gene drives only work with organisms that produce sexually (in other words, they’re unable to alter a virus or bacteria). “However, to accurately evaluate their potential misuse, one needs to rigorously assess the state of the technology and consider its limitations. Current fears (and hopes) related to gene drives are based on projections of what gene drives could in theory do if they spread in nature. At the moment, these are still anecdotal, speculative claims and are not based on in-depth empirical research and analysis. One needs to keep in mind that the techniques under debate are still in their infancy, and in spite of their apparent progress, they may not prove to be as dangerous or promising as expected.” In the end, it is important to identify the risks when it comes to a lack of Cas enzyme control, capabilities of potentially a state-level gene-editing technology based bioweapons program, and slow regulatory catch-up. Threat estimates are speculative and the authors point to problematic historical security assessments of emerging biotech. Overall, it’s important to have a better understating of the complex and unique factors that push state and non-state actors to develop biological weapons and in the wake of this uncertainty, the authors “are engaged in a project that aims to understand the social and technical factors for how Crispr scientists around the world actually work in the lab.”
A Threat to the U.S. Food System
Food safety is often a forgotten component of biodefense when Anthrax and Ebola tend to steal the spotlight. Sadly, this is America’s soft underbelly as a threat to U.S. food production and security could have devastating economic ramifications. While the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense report in 2015 did mention the vulnerability of the agriculture system, it’s easy to forget just how damaging such an event could be. “The agriculture sector in the U.S. is a $1 trillion business and employs approximately 9.2 percent of American workers. In 2012, domestic animal agriculture – livestock and poultry production – generated approximately 1.8 million jobs, $346 billion in total economic output and $60 billion in household income.” Consider even a disease that impacts crops – wheat and rice account for 39% of the world’s total calorie consumption. It’s important to consider the devastation that crop or livestock attacks could have on not only the U.S. system, but also on an international level.
Zika Virus Weekly Updates
Venezuela is struggling to respond to and support cases of Zika-related microcephaly as the government refuses to acknowledge a single case. “Some doctors accuse Venezuela’s unpopular government of hiding the Zika problem amid a deep recession that has everything from flour and rice to antibiotics and chemotherapy medicines running short and spurred fierce criticism of Maduro. They also say government inaction means kids are missing out on targeted state-sponsored therapy programs that would help to stimulate them”. HHS recently announced how the Zika funds will be allocated among players. “According to Caitlyn Miller, director of the division of discretionary programs for HHS, $394 million will go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), $152 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and $387 million toward the public health and social services emergency fund. Within that $387 million, $75 million will be used to reimburse healthcare providers who treat uninsured Zika patients, $40 million will be used to expand Zika resources in US territories, and $20 million will go to regional and national projects, such as creating microcephaly registries.” Public health officials have created a color-coded map of Zika zones in Florida. As of October 19th, the CDC has reported 5,016 cases of Zika in the U.S.
Stories You May Have Missed
- EU Reports Animal Antibiotic Use Is Up– Despite a drop in overall sales, a recent report from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has revealed the worrisome reality that there has been an increase in the use of medically important antibiotics. While there was a 2.4% drop from 2011-2014 in sales of veterinary antibiotics, there was a sharp increase in “critically important” antibiotic usage. The usage of “fluoroquinolones, macrolides, and polymyxins sold for use in food-producing animals rose significantly—14%, 13%, and 19%, respectively.” The report does note that responsible-use campaigns in some countries could be effective in countering antibiotic resistance, however the increase in usage is raising many red flags.
- Global Civil Society Coalition for the Biological Weapons Convention – last week Kathryn Millet, on behalf of the Global Civil Society Coalition for Biological Weapons, delivered a statement to the UN General Assembly First Committee. The statement points to the importance of the BWC but also the challenges and necessity of avoiding complacency. The coalition statement emphasizes the importance of recognizing the evolving threat posed by malign use of the life sciences since the last Review Conference and the need for more systematic advice for BWC State Parties on S&T. Further recommendations include the need for States to ensure that the interval between Review Conferences is used more effectively, reexamination and improvement on dealing with compliance with the BWC, and the application of more resources to support work that is necessary to fulfill the BWC’s objectives.