Pandora Report 4.21.2017

If you missed the Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge webinar last week, you can catch the recording here! Ongoing reports are highlighting that the Trump administration is unprepared for a global pandemic.

How Prepared Is The U.S. For Disease Threats?
Scientific American sat down with former CDC director Tom Frieden to discuss his experiences and what he worries may be on the horizon for public health threats. When asked about immediate health issues facing the current administration, Frieden highlights the ongoing Zika outbreak, antibiotic resistance, emerging infections, and the ever-present risk of influenza. In terms of CDC preparedness, Frieden says that, “It’s a big problem that when there is an emerging threat, we are not able to surge or work as rapidly as we should, as a result of a lack of additional funding and legislative authority. When there is an earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t have to go to Congress and say, ‘Will you give us money for this?’ But the CDC does. We have made a really good start working with 70 countries to strengthen lab systems, rapid-response and field-monitoring systems, but it is going to take a while before countries around the world are adequately prepared. A blind spot anywhere puts any of us at risk.”

Bill Gates Warns of Increased Bioterrorism Threat
The entrepreneur and philanthropist has been drawing increasing attention to the threat of infectious diseases, especially in regards to bioterrorism. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London (RUSI), Gates stated that, “bioterrorism is a much larger risk than a pandemic.” “All these advances in biology have made it far easier for a terrorist to recreate smallpox, which is a highly fatal pathogen, where there is essentially no immunity remaining at this point.” He goes further to point out the unique aspects of infectious disease threats that make them more deadly than nuclear bombs. “When you are thinking about things that could cause in excess of 10 million deaths, even something tragic like a nuclear weapons incident wouldn’t get to that level. So the greatest risk is from a natural epidemic or an intentionally caused infection bioterrorism events. Whether the next epidemic is unleashed by a quirk of nature or the hand of terrorist, scientists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. So the world does need to think about this.” Gates pointed to the insufficient public health response in countries that are likely to experience emerging infections and the importance of foreign aid. Moreover, he highlights two major advancements since the 1918 pandemic – globalization and genetic editing. The DIY biohacker and potential for a single infectious person to travel around the globe in a day are all making the threat of a pandemic that much more real. Lastly, Gates emphasizes that the stability of a country and that of its health systems are vital in that an outbreak is more likely to become an epidemic in a country where both qualities are poor.

Biopreparedness – Developing Vaccines For An Eradicated Disease
Speaking of smallpox and the risk of bioterrorism…Filippa Lentzos is pointing to the smallpox vial discovery at the NIH and that despite the eradication of the disease, a biotech company, Bavarian Nordic, is still working to develop a vaccine. She notes that “possible avenues for the re-emergence of smallpox, including the impact of developments in synthetic biology, and it gives an inside view on the biodefence industry and its unusual business model.” Lentzos is an expert in the field of biodefense and focuses her work on the governance of emerging technologies like synthetic biology.

A Scope, A Resistant Germ, and Missing Data Walk into a Bar
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking into the rise of the resistant bug and how medical equipment can pose increased risks for such infections. In 2015 several outbreaks occurred in patients following a procedure with a type of duodenoscopes made by Olympus. These scopes are “flexible medical devices that look like thin tubes and are inserted through the mouth, throat, and stomach into the small intestine—are reusable $40,000 medical devices that contain many working parts, including a camera, and are used for more than half a million procedures a year. The successful dynamics of the device also make it challenging to clean and disinfect. Just over two years ago, cases of drug-resistant infections started popping up in patients who had recently had the procedure that commonly uses duodenoscopes (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography or ERCP).” Following an outbreak of the highly resistant carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) at UCLA Medical Center, the scopes were recalled and interim cleaning guidance was provided by the CDC. Unfortunately, there is growing concern that the issues with the scope weren’t fully remedied. “In fact, Sen. Murray highlighted a recent outbreak in Europe (location not disclosed within the US Food and Drug Administration report) tied to the modified scopes. Although, modifications made by Olympus were done in response to the previous outbreaks and meant to reduce the risk of bacteria getting into the device’s channels and preventing proper cleaning and disinfection, Sen. Murray is now questioning Olympus regarding the devices and the role they played in this most recent outbreak. The senator is specifically asking for data proving that the repaired scopes could be properly disinfected between patient use.” As the threat of antibiotic resistance rises, the role of medical devices and manufacturer accountability will become increasingly relevant.

CRISPR Breakthrough Gives Hope for Disease Diagnostics 
CRISPR technology news often comes with a bit of controversy, but research recently published in Science is pointing to exciting new diagnostic capabilities. Feng Zhang and eighteen colleagues “turned this system into an inexpensive, reliable diagnostic tool for detecting nucleic acids — molecules present in an organism’s genetic code — from disease-causing pathogens. The new tool could be widely applied to detect not only viral and bacterial diseases but also potentially for finding cancer-causing mutations.” If you’re a fan of 221b Baker Street, you’ll be pleased to hear that the new tool is named SHERLOCK – Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing. The SHERLOCK tool utilizes the viral-recognition within CRISPR to detect genetic pathogen markers in some one’s urine, blood, saliva, or other body fluids. “They report that their technique is highly portable and could cost as little as 61 cents per test in the field. Such a process would be extremely useful in remote places without reliable electricity or easy access to a modern diagnostic laboratory.” This new finding has amazing potential for public health and rapid disease detection in rural areas to improve time to treatment, isolation, and prevention efforts.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity May 2017 Meeting
Don’t miss this May 11th meeting (2-4:30pm EST)! Items include presentations and discussions regarding: (1) the Blue Ribbon Panel draft report on the 2014 variola virus incident on the NIH Bethesda campus; (2) stakeholder engagement on implementation of the U.S. Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC); and (3) other business of the Board.  A detailed agenda and other meeting material will be posted on this website as they become available. This meeting will be a conference call only; there will be no in-person meeting. To join the call as a member of the public, please use the dial-in information below. The toll-free teleconference line will be open to the public at1:30 P.M. to allow time for operator-assisted check-in.  Members of the public planning to participate in the teleconference may also pre-register online via the link provided below or by calling Palladian Partners, Inc. (Contact: Carly Sullivan at 301-318-0841).  Pre-registration will close at 12:00 p.m. Eastern on May 8, 2017. Make sure to check the website for the public conference line and passcode.

Synthetic Bioterrorism – US Developing Medical Response 
Preparedness efforts against biological threats are now expanding to include synthetic biological threats. “Dr. Arthur T. Hopkins, acting assistant secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), testified that…’emerging infectious diseases, synthetic biology and engineered diseases…[is] an area where we are focusing and we have to continue to focus.’ To counter such current and emerging threats, DOD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program is developing new strategies to more rapidly respond, especially in the area of medical countermeasures, Hopkins said.” He noted that the DoD has commissioned the National Academy of Science to lead a study on the potential for such an event and its impact on national security.

Chemical Reaction: North Korea’s Chemical Weapons Are A Big Threat- And China Needs to Help Deal With Them
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is looking at the “role that China could play with respect to North Korea, in particular dissuading the use of chemical weapons. While tensions are high, the use of chemical weapons could be the “spark that could bring the region to war.” Gerstein notes that while the focus in Syria is internal, if Kim Jong Un used chemical weapons it would most likely be external- against South Korea or Japan (or even the U.S.). It is vital that there be a clear-cut response to the use of chemical weapons and action from China may just be the clear message that’s needed. “To prevent the unthinkable from occurring, the North Koreans must be dissuaded from using chemical weapons. They must be convinced that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that cannot be crossed. China should consider being the messenger for this message. China also should consider taking an active, forward-looking approach to prevent the use of chemical weapons by North Korea. When Syria deployed chemical weapons, there was speculation that Russia may have been complicit or at least aware of plans to conduct the attack.” Or perhaps some friendly games of volleyball are in order?

Wildlife Disease Biologists – An Unstoppable Force 
Neither rain nor sleet could keep APHIS wildlife disease biologists out of the field collecting samples. Animal diseases are a major source for infections coming down the pipeline for humans (i.e. spillover events) and these researchers are on the front lines trying to make sure we have a heads up. APHIS’ Wildlife Services (WS) program includes 36 wildlife disease biologists who work diligently to collect samples from wild birds for avian influenza testing (among other things). “‘By monitoring the avian influenza strains circulating in wild birds, WS and its partners are able to provide an early warning system to America’s poultry producers,’ states Dr. Tom DeLiberto, Assistant Director of WS’ National Wildlife Research Center. ‘Our experts focus their sampling on waterfowl species and locations where we are most likely to detect avian influenza. This ensures our efforts are as efficient and informative as possible’.” I think we can all appreciate the brave few who venture into frigid waters to help trap and test wild birds to help detect the spread of infectious diseases.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Trends in Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction – Writers frequently use an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic backdrop for fictional stories. The Doomsday Clock is a visual representation of the general mood and often represents the fear and unease in the environment. Whether it be an environmental event or a killer virus, the end of humanity has been a frequent topic for many writers. “Often it is a fear of a naturally-evolving virus, as in Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014). Yet, with the advent of new biotechnologies, authors also considered the impact a malignant engineered virus would have on humanity, as seen in Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy (2003 onwards) and Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy (2010 onwards).”
  • Ebola Theme Issue – The Royal Society – Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B is focusing their latest biological sciences journal on the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In this edition, you can find opinion pieces discussing the contribution of engineering and social sciences, old lessons on new epidemics, and a wealth of information on outbreak evaluation and notes from the field.

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