Pandora Report 4.14.2017

Greetings from your favorite source for all things biodefense! Have you ever thought about debugging the details on biological warfare?

Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge Calling all undergraduate and graduate students who have an affinity for infectious diseases, maps, and global health security! The Infectious Disease (ID) Mapping Challenge, piloted in 2015 and 2016 on college campuses by interns with the U.S. Department of State’s Virtual Student Foreign Service program, has evolved into a project to promote the use of geospatial mapping to address the objectives of the Global Health Security Agenda, a global effort to create a world safe and secure of the threat of infectious disease. The challenge is jointly sponsored by the Next Generation Global Health Security Network and DigitalGlobe Foundation. There will be a webinar at 11am ET today about this great challenge and GMU partnership. 

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Kill Chain    GMU Biodefense professor and graduate program director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, is looking at Syria’s chemical weapons chain of command and who decides when to pull the nerve gas trigger. “The Syrian chain of command for chemical weapons is composed of four tiers: the senior leadership, which is responsible for authorizing the use of these weapons and providing strategic guidance on their employment; the chemists, who produce, transport, and prepare the chemical weapons for use; the coordinators, who provide intelligence on targets and integrate chemical weapons with conventional military operations; and the triggermen, who deliver the weapons to their targets. Together, these individuals and organizations form a chemical weapons kill chain that has so far claimed roughly 1,500 lives and caused more than 14,000 injuries.” Assad is the end-all in terms of deciding if and when to use chemical weapons. Intelligence reports note that he and a handful of close advisors are ultimately the only people able to order such attacks. After reviewing those decision makers, Koblentz turns to the chemists and head of the Syrian chemical weapons program, the SSRC. Interestingly led by Amor Najib Armanazi, a computer scientist, the program has its headquarters in Barzeh and utilizes several entities that have already been sanctioned as front companies. After the development of such weapons, the Syrian military institutions play a vital role in coordinating between the SSRC and the units conducting the attacks. “At the end of the Syrian chemical weapons kill chain are two military organizations in charge of delivering the weapons: the Syrian Artillery and Missile Directorate and the Syrian Arab Air Force. The Syrian Artillery and Missile Directorate was responsible for conducting the 2013 chemical strike on Ghouta. That attack involved approximately eight to 12 Syrian-made 330 mm Volcano rockets, each carrying approximately 50 liters of sarin nerve agent, and at least two Soviet-era M-14 140 mm artillery rockets filled with sarin.” Where is justice in terms of this chain of terror? We know there are intelligence gaps in the chain of command and the identities of several commanders are unknown, which makes bringing them to justice that much more challenging. “Attribution is the first step to accountability, which forms the basis for deterrence. But attribution without consequences will only embolden the perpetrators, demonstrate to other dictators that the use of chemical weapons is tolerable, and badly damage the global norm against the use of these barbaric weapons.” Ultimately, Koblentz notes that long-term efforts to dissuade the use of chemical weapons have to incorporate legal and economic steps that make accountability unavoidable.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
From Anthrax to Zika, we’ve got the place to be in July for all things biodefense. This three-day workshop will provide you with not only seminars from experts in the field, but also discussions with others interested in biodefense. You can check out the flyer and register for the event here. Don’t miss out on the early-bird registration discount of 10% if you register before May 1st. A returning participant, GMU student/alumni, or have a group of three or more? You’re eligible for an additional discount! Check out the website to get the scoop on all our expert instructors and the range of topics the workshop will be covering.

Salad With A Side of Bat This sounds like a menu item from the Little Shop of Horrors, doesn’t it? The CDC and FDA are currently assisting the Florida Department of Health to investigate the finding of a decomposing bat in a packaged salad. Two people who bought the salad came across the bat body after they had already been consuming the lettuce. “According to a CDC statement, the two people who bought the salad have been prophylactically treated for rabies, a potentially deadly disease. The CDC said the bat’s remains were too deteriorated to test for rabies, so the agency could not rule out the disease. ‘It’s extremely rare for rabies to be transmitted through mucosal membrane contact with a dead animal,’ CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told CIDRAP News. ‘The likelihood of transmission is a theoretical risk, but we’re taking every precaution’.” The producer of the salad mix, Fresh Express, has recalled the salads that were sold exclusively in Walmart stores.

Sarin and sentimentality: Trump and Assad’s emotional chemistry GMU Schar School professor, Dr. Charles Blair, and biodefense MS student, Brooke Higgins, are looking into the complicated reversal of Trump’s “no intervention” stance on Syria and why chemical weapons are such a game changer. The belief that Syria had destroyed its chemical weapons stash is all but nonexistent after this latest attack. “The virtually global taboo against using chemical weapons developed relatively recently. The United States, for example, largely accepted chemical weapons ‘as an unavoidable fact of war‘ throughout most of the 20th century.” “In the modern era, a new objection has emerged—that poisons (used on a wide scale) do not discriminate between combatants and civilians. Of course, the same can be said of nuclear weapons, but nuclear weapons’ advanced technology largely grants them a perceived status as ‘modern’ tools in the arsenals of ‘sophisticated’ states.” The ongoing use of chemical weapons is also placing strain on the viability of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the lack of international community response. Blair and Higgins note that while Trump’s actions uphold the CWC and were rationalized via a humanitarian lens, the unpredictable nature of Trump means this is most likely an isolated case and highlights the emotional nature behind chemical weapons. Speaking of chemical weapons and history…on Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer claimed that Adolf Hitler failed to ever use chemical weapons.

Growing Bird Flu Worries This past season saw more H7N9 deaths related to bird flu than in any season since the strain was identified in humans. H7N9 is responsible for killing 162 people since September of 2016 and is worrying many scientists. Researchers, like Hong Kong University’s Guan Yi, have noticed the increasing lethality of H7N9 in chickens over the years. In the beginning, the strain barely affected chickens however, now it has become more lethal and can kill them within 24 hours. “Guan says this is very bad news for a global poultry industry that’s worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and he says China’s government is already looking into vaccinating chickens. What worries Guan more, though, is that H7N9 has proved an ability to mutate quickly. There’s no evidence that the virus has become more deadly in people. But already, in the rare cases when humans catch it from birds, more than a third of them die.” While disease transmission has been limited between humans, there is concern that a mutation could change this. Between the growing H7N9 bird mortality and poor global public health response, it’s not much of a stretch to think that bird flu could be the next pandemic.

Battelle and Nanotherapeutics Form Alliance to Accelerate Medical Countermeasures Development 
In the fight against Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) threats, two giants have joined together to strengthen research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) for medical countermeasures. The Department of Defense (DoD) relies on such efforts to protect troops against these threats, which has only been reinforced with the recent chemical attacks in Syria. “Battelle has provided RDT&E facilities and expertise to support DoD CBRN medical countermeasure programs for decades. Nanotherapeutics operates a U.S.-based state of the art BSL-3 capable facility offering extensive capabilities, including a pilot facility for performing optimization of upstream, downstream and formulation functions, bulk cGMP manufacturing, and analytical development for proteins, antibodies, viral vaccines and gene therapy drug products.” The plan is that such a partnership between these heavyweights will not only speed up processes, but also facilitate more effective testing and development.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 7 Reasons We’re More At Risk for A Pandemic – If you missed last week’s Unseen Enemy film, here are some of the reasons we’re at an increased risk for a pandemic now more than ever…growing populations and urbanization, encroaching into new environments, climate change, global travel, civil conflict, fewer doctors and nurses in outbreak regions, and faster information.
  • British Special Forces in Syria Now Have Chemical Warfare Suits– Amid fears they could be exposed to sarin nerve gas based off President Bashar al-Assad’s recent use of the chemical weapon, British special forces are now equipped with the suits. “New equipment including man-portable chemical agent detector systems, known as MCAD, have already been flown forward to SAS troops operating with a US-led Joint Special Operation Task Force.A source said: ‘The threat is live, therefore we have deployed new equipment to ensure they are protected. It includes everything from detectors to new suits’.”


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