Pandora Report 6.16.2017

Temperatures may be soaring but we’ve got all your biodefense news, including a frosty story on frozen diseases coming to life!

Big Data Takes on Epidemics
The potential applications for big data are vast and we’re just now starting to get a taste for how it can be utilized during an outbreak. Rapid access to data sets and available personnel to handle modeling is a challenge during emergent situations however, many are pointing out just how the data science revolution can be used to fight diseases. Metabiota Senior Director of Data Science Nita Madhav has put together a list of the five ways big data analytics are changing the fight against epidemics. First, better genetic data through genome sequencing that can help speed up genetic analysis during an outbreak. Second, cell phone mobility data. This is particularly interesting as it was used during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, which allowed experts to tract contacts of cases as a means of prevention. Cell phone mobility data also provides information on movement during outbreaks. Third, social media data, which can be used to predict peaks and perform sentiment analysis (think vaccination skepticism), but also as a means of pushing public health messaging. Fourth, mapping high risk areas. “Machine learning techniques can now yield global, high-resolution maps pinpointing where epidemics are likely to emerge and take hold. These techniques make use of remotely-sensed and other geographic data about environmental, human and animal factors to estimate how many people live in the riskiest places. For example, this type of analysis helped map likely locations for Zika virus to thrive and even identified areas where the virus would later establish itself, including southern Florida.” Last but not least, large-scale simulations, which allow epidemiologists to take all the data we currently have and generate tons of simulations to reveal gaps in response mechanisms. “These simulations help fill in gaps in observed data using synthetic outbreaks and deliver novel insights into possible outcomes of outbreaks, including expected numbers of illnesses, hospitalizations, deaths, employee absences and monetary losses. Ultimately, these insights can help inform the world about epidemic risks and the best ways to mitigate them.”

Chemical Weapons & ISIS
New analysis from Conflict Monitor by IHS Market is drawing attention to a significant reduction in chemical weapons used by ISIS in Syria in 2017 as well as a concentration of the chemical attacks in Iraq. The report highlights that 71 allegations of ISIS CW attacks have occurred since 2014 (41 in Iraq and 30 in Syria) however, the only alleged use in Syria in 2017 was on January 8th at Talla al-Maqri. “The operation to isolate and recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul coincides with a massive reduction in Islamic State chemical weapons use in Syria”, said Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit. “This suggests that the group has not established any further CW production sites outside Mosul, although it is likely that some specialists were evacuated to Syria and retain the expertise.” In response to ISIS use of chemical weapons, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is taking action against ISIS leader, Attallah Salman ‘Abd Kafi al-Jaburi (al-Jaburi), who was involved in several attacks ranging from vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) to the development of chemical weapons. OFAC is also taking action against Marwan Ibrahim Hussayn Tah al-Azaw, an Iraqi ISIS leader. “As a result of today’s action, all property and interests in property of these individuals subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.” OFAC Director John E. Smith noted that “today’s actions mark the first designations targeting individuals involved in ISIS’ chemical weapons development,” and that “the Department of the Treasury condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons by any actor, and will leverage all available tools to target those complicit in their development, proliferation, or use.”

Pandemics, Bioterrorism, & Global Health Security Workshop Instructor Spotlight
This week we’re excited to share that Sanford Weiner will be our instructor spotlight! Sanford is a Research Associate in the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Visiting Fellow at Imperial College, University of London. For several decades he has done international comparative policy studies of public health agencies, and research on national security policies and environmental policies. He has published on policymaking at the Centers for Disease Control, the phase-out of CFCs, toxic substance control, and innovation in the Air Force. He is currently studying responses to pandemic flu in Europe and the United States, and the politics of alternative energy projects. He directs a Professional Education summer course at MIT on “Technology, Innovation and Organizations.” He has also taught in professional education courses for the Royal Society Technology Fellows (London), the National University of Singapore, UC San Diego, and in Stockholm. Before MIT he was on the research staffs of the School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, the Health Policy Center at Brandeis, and the Harvard School of Public Health. Sanford looks to the need for organizational innovation and adaptation to address new threats, the politics of public health emergencies, and the importance of risk assessment and making evidence-based public health decisions. If you’re looking to talk about taking lessons from pandemic flu and applying them to polio, Zika, bioterrorism, and even Ebola, you won’t want to miss his lecture during our workshop!

The Awakening of Frozen Permafrost Diseases
Climate change has an undeniably impact on infectious diseases. Whether it be the vectors that spread them, movement of animals that act as hosts, or an increasing encroachment of humans into animal habitats, we simply can’t deny that the two are wholly interconnected. Unfortunately now we get to add zombie diseases to the list. Well, maybe not a zombie virus, but a bacteria or virus that has been trapped in the icy permafrost for thousands of years and is now waking up. “Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.” Last year we saw anthrax cases in the Arctic Circle due to exposure from infected reindeer carcasses that were exposed due to the melting of the frozen soil and snow. “As the Earth warms, more permafrost will melt. Under normal circumstances, superficial permafrost layers about 50cm deep melt every summer. But now global warming is gradually exposing older permafrost layers. Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time, perhaps as long as a million years. That means melting ice could potentially open a Pandora’s box of diseases.” Nothing like a good permafrost to keep the bacteria happily frozen and alive! What is so worrying about the melting permafrost is a range of threats – buried bodies of people who died from smallpox, unknown viruses or bacteria that we’ve never seen before, or even a resistant organism that changes the course of antibiotics forever.

Angry Birds – The Flu Version
While this isn’t the title of the latest game, the projectile you should be worried about is actually avian influenza droplets. China is currently battling against HPAI H7N9  outbreaks in poultry across three provinces. “Chinese health officials detailed four outbreaks in two OIE reports. Two occurred in different locations in Inner Mongolia province in the north, one at a large layer farm that began on May 21, killing 35,526 of 406,756 susceptible poultry. The remaining birds were culled to curb the spread of the virus.The other outbreak began Jun 5 at a poultry farm in Inner Mongolia’s Jiuyuan district, which led to the loss of 55,023 birds, including 2,056 that died from the disease.” These outbreaks spark fear for a number of reasons – the mass culling of birds is always economically devastating, the risk to human life, and really, the potential for sustained human-to-human transmission due to a few genetic tweaks that could result in a pandemic. That’s right, just three mutations should switch H7N9 into a lethal human-killing virus that has pandemic potential. H7N9 is one of the more concerning avian influenza strains because it’s already been known to do damage in terms of human cases (of the 1,500 cases, 40% died). “‘As scientists we’re interested in how the virus works,’ says Jim Paulson, a biologist at The Scripps Research Institute. ‘We’re trying to just understand the virus so that we can be prepared.’ That’s why he and his colleagues recently tinkered with a piece of the H7N9 flu — a protein that lets the virus latch onto cells. It’s thought to be important for determining which species the virus can infect. ‘So it’s not the whole virus,’ says Paulson. ‘It’s just a piece — just a fragment — that we can then study for its properties’. What they studied is how different changes affected the virus’ ability to bind to receptors found on the surface of human cells.” Paulson’s group found that just three tiny mutations made it able to sustain human transmission. This brings about the dual-use research of concern (DURC) and gain-of-function (GoF) research dilemma though – while we’re using it for good, couldn’t a person with bad intentions come along and turn it into a weapon? Or a lab error that results in an outbreak? While some argue for the need of GoF research, others agree with the 2014 White House moratorium that halted federal funding for such work. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands notes that, “‘The rest of the world is moving forward with this type of experiment already,’ says Fouchier, whose genetic experiments with a different bird flu virus sparked a public outcry in 2011. And so the U. S. can either join or not join. It’s up to them, but the work will continue,’.” Topics like avian influenza, pandemics, and dual-use/GoF research are all issues we’ll be discussing in the workshop this July, so don’t miss out!

Boston University’s BioLab Nears Approval
This hotly debated BSL-4 lab has been a source of contention between researchers and surrounding neighbors for over a decade. Boston University received a $200 million federal grant nearly 15 years ago to build the regional lab as a new source for work with deadly pathogens however, neighborhood activists have been halting work since the beginning. Despite the ongoing debate, the lab is just one vote away from approval. “Supporters say it will speed the development of new vaccines and cures.  But after 15 year of fighting, the neighborhood that’s home to the lab is making a final push to keep the diseases away from the busy urban hub.”

The Scary Reality Behind WHO’S Updated Essential Medicine List
GMU Biodefense PhD student, Saskia Popescu, is taking a deeper dive into the recent announcement by the WHO regarding their reformatting of the EML list. The antibiotics sections haven’t seen an overhaul like this for 40 years, so what’s really afoot? Last week we discussed the changes- the categorization of antibiotics into three groups (ACCESS, WATCH, and RESERVE). Each list has a series of antibiotics and recommendations (i.e. for RESERVE, these are antibiotics which should be treated as the last resort of accessible antibiotics and should be used in “tailored” situations when other medications have failed. RESERVE antimicrobials should be targeted in national and international stewardship programs). While the updates make sense, they reveal a much deeper concern for developing countries and the growing threat of microbial resistance. “This extensive change to the EML highlights the dire situation that we are progressing towards in terms of microbial resistance. The EML provides the most basic medicine needed for patient care and its focus on antibiotic stewards highlights the stark reality even in the most dire of environments.”

Stacking Countermeasures for Layered Defense 
DTRA’s Joint Science and Technology Office’s (JSTO) Toxicant Penetration and Scavenging (TPS) research program is working to better defend us against chemical and biological weapons. “One such weaponized threat is the use of organophosphonates in an attack. These nerve agents inhibit acetylcholinesterase (AChE), an essential enzyme responsible for neurological function. Irreversible inhibition of AChE may lead to muscular paralysis, convulsions, bronchial constriction and death by asphyxiation. One of the projects in the TPS uses engineered DNA-enzyme nanostructures to create multi-enzyme pathway biocatalysts. These new biocatalysts are designed to process the destruction of chemical agents and their degradation compounds.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • MERS and Infection Control – There are endless opportunities when working in infection prevention & control to say, “I told you so” and the ongoing hospital MERS outbreaks only fuels that fire. “The World Health Organization (WHO) today provided new details on three MERS-CoV clusters in Saudi Arabia involving 32 out of the 35 cases reported between Jun 1 and Jun 10. The clusters are in three different hospitals in Riyadh. Cluster 2 is related to cluster 1, as the first case-patient in a second hospital initially visited the emergency room of the hospital implicated in cluster 1. According to the WHO, he was asymptomatic following the visit in hospital 1, and he continued to receive kidney dialysis sessions in the second hospital. The cluster involves the index case plus five healthcare workers and household contacts.The third cluster is not related to clusters 1 or 2. To date four cases are associated with this hospital; the index case involves a patient who had camel contact. Three healthcare workers have also been diagnosed.”

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