Happy Friday to all our amazing readers – we hope you have a lovey holiday weekend! Don’t miss the July 1st deadline for an early registration discount to the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security.
Preventing Pandemics and the Necessity of Funding Prevention
Next January will mark the centenary of the 1918-1919 pandemic influenza, but what have we really learned since then? The looming threat of antimicrobial resistance is slowly surrounding us, as is the increasing biothreat of zoonotic disease. Globalization, encroachment into animal habitats, and recent models that predict a 60-day global spread for a virulent strain of airborne flu virus, all paint a rather gloomy reality for the future of health security. So what are we doing? Not enough. That’s usually the answer in public health- a field of which you can comfortably say society likes to contribute the bare minimum. A highly pathogenic influenza virus that could engulf the globe in a pandemic isn’t the storyline for a horror movie, but rather something that even UN panels note is “not an unlikely scenario”. “Pathogens are not only terrifying, they’re expensive. The 2003 SARS epidemic cost $30 billion in only four months. A flu pandemic of a severity that occurs every few decades could contract the global economy by 5 percent — some $4 trillion”. Here’s where the economics of preventative public health come into play – vaccines are expensive to make and there’s little incentive when we’re not in the eye of a disease storm. Moreover, global health security is challenging. Politics makes disease response and preparedness a sensitive topic, especially during an outbreak. The key lesson to remember though, is that an outbreak anywhere is really an outbreak everywhere. So what preparedness tactics can we start utilizing? “The project is called CEPI — the Center for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. After the world’s failure to control Ebola quickly in 2014 and 2015 cost 11,000 lives and at least $6 billion, three global experts proposed a vaccine development organization with $2 billion in start-up funding. Harvard, the National Academy of Medicine and the United Nations all created commissions that proposed ways to avoid another catastrophe. Among other steps, all endorsed vaccine development.” CEPI aims, in the next five years, to develop vaccine candidates for Lassa fever, Nipah, and MERS. “Creating vaccines is not the same as guaranteeing that people who need them can get them. CEPI will require its awardees to sell vaccines to the poorest and lower-middle-income countries (more likely, to donors who will buy vaccine for them) at the lowest possible price.” Perhaps one of the most poignant comments from this article was that the threat to this goal is not scientific, but rather political, highlighted by short attention spans. The World Bank has initiated it’s “pandemic bond” to aid in outbreak response should there be a public health crisis like that of Ebola in 2014. “The catastrophe bond, which will pay out depending on the size of the outbreak, its growth rate and the number of countries affected, is the first of its kind for epidemics. It should mean money is disbursed much faster than during West Africa’s Ebola crisis.” The Pandemic Emergency Fund (PEF) will offer coverage to those countries eligible for financing from the IDA (International Development Agency), which is dedicated to helping the poorest countries. Head of derivatives and structured finance at the World Bank’s capital markets department, Michael Bennett, noted that “if a trigger event occurs, instead of repaying the bond in full, some or all of the principal is transferred to the PEF trust fund. So essentially the investors are acting like insurance companies. The objective of offering the risk in both forms is that the bonds and swaps appeal to different types of investors, and therefore … we are creating the broadest possible investor pool for this risk,”. The PEF would provide more than $500 million in coverage over the next five years. Efforts to provide financial support to outbreaks before they reach pandemic potential are vital. It is estimated that had the PEF been available during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, $100 million could have been mobilized as early as July 2014, which may have prevented the outbreak spreading so rapidly and costing $2.8 billion. “The annual global cost of moderately severe to severe pandemics is estimated at roughly $570 billion, or 0.7 percent of global income, the World Bank said.”
Ebola Burial Teams
The 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was not only the worst in history, but taught us a great many lessons about outbreak control. One of the most extraordinary lessons learned was just how valuable burial teams could be. Funerals became a significant source for disease exposure and transmission, especially for loved ones of the deceased, as washing and handling the body was customary. In effort to combat this high-risk activity, public health responders established burial teams comprised of paid volunteers, who would collect the bodies from homes and aid in their burial. The teams would don PPE and work with families to ensure they avoided exposure. Dignified burial through these teams helped ease much of the concern for families regarding the treatment of their loved one. A recent study published in the PLOS Neglected Tropical Disease Journal evaluated the impact of these burial teams using modeling and data from 45 unsafe community burials and 310 people who were identified as having contact with the infected bodies. Researchers found that those who cared for the Ebola patient just before their death were at greatest risk, meaning that caring for an infected loved one at home was far riskier than bringing them to a healthcare facility. The study estimates that the safe and dignified burials performed by Red Cross volunteers (the burial teams) prevented between 1,411 and 10,452 cases of Ebola. “Hundreds of paid volunteers took on the grim task of collecting bodies from people’s homes in full personal protective gear, while also having to manage the grieving families and communities. They were ordinary West Africans, such as teachers and college students. Many carried out the relentless and dangerous work for months. Some were stigmatised in their communities, because people became scared they might bring the virus home with them. In reality, they were helping to stem world’s worst ever Ebola outbreak.” In the end, the Red Cross burial teams managed over 47,000 burials, carried out more than 50% of all burials during the outbreak, and consisted of 1,500 volunteers.
Instructor Spotlight – Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, & Global Health Security
We’re nearing the last few weeks before our workshop and your opportunity to get the early registration discount, so don’t miss out! This week we’re happy to show off not only the director of this workshop, but also of our GMU biodefense graduate program – Dr. Gregory Koblentz. If there was a biodefense Jeopardy, Dr. Koblentz would not only be the reigning champion, but would also have Alex Trebek doubled over in laughter. Gregory Koblentz, PhD, MPP, is an Associate Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University. During 2012-2013, he was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Koblentz is also a member of the Scientist Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. He previously worked at Georgetown University, the Executive Session for Domestic Preparedness at Harvard University, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Strategic Stability in the Second Nuclear Age (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014), Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security (Cornell University Press, 2009) and co-author of Tracking Nuclear Proliferation (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1998). He serves on the editorial boards of Nonproliferation Review, World Medical and Health Policy, and Global Health Governance. His teaching and research interests focus on international security, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and homeland security. He received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his Master in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and his BA from Brown University. For more information, see https://schar.gmu.edu/about/faculty-directory/gregory-koblentz. Don’t miss your chance to not only learn from Dr. Koblentz, but also chat with him and other experts in the field at our workshop July 17-19th!
Can CRISPR Tackle Zika?
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking at CRISPR and its application as a vector-borne disease prevention tool. “Whether it be the latest announcement that CRISPR reversed Huntington’s Disease in mice or that it could provide rapid diagnostic improvements, the technology is being considered a breakthrough for many diseases and conditions, including vector-borne diseases.” Drawing on a recent TED Talk by famed molecular biologist, Dr. Nina Federoff, she highlights the potential for GMO mosquitoes to be used as a biological control tool. Federoff points to the public perception issues that come with GMO products, which was seen in Key Haven, Florida when GMO mosquitoes were to be trialed as a means to prevent dengue and Zika cases. “Concluding her talk with a plea to the audience, Dr Federoff emphasized the need to dig past misinformation and hype to truly look at the science of this work and the substantial benefits that can come from biological control efforts and the science of genetic modification.”
The Case of the Missing Sarin
Dugway Proving Ground is under the spotlight again for mishandling of dangerous substances. The same Army lab was responsible for mishandling Anthrax in 2015, during which they sent 575 shipments of live samples across the U.S. Unfortunately, the latest reports are looking to Dugway as the source for potentially losing a small amount of sarin. The inspector general for the DoD released a report highlighting the findings that a contractor used by the facility was not maintaining inventory properly. “Dugway stored its sarin in a two-container system. The sarin was stored in a primary container, which is then stored inside a secondary container. But officials only checked the secondary containers when doing inventory, and did not check inside the primary container, so they did not know if all the sarin was still in the containers, the inspector general found. ‘Therefore, custodians cannot identify and account for leaks, evaporation, or theft that may have occurred,’ the inspector general found. ‘Furthermore, Dugway officials did not immediately notify the chemical materials accountability officer of a 1.5-milliliter shortage of … sarin identified during an April 19, 2016, inventory nor did they properly document the results of that inventory,’.” The report found that the contractor and Dugway used varying methods for container sealing but that the amount missing is relatively small. Fortunately, sarin evaporates and degrades very quickly. Overall the report highlights the operations and procedures for handling the chemical agent put workers at an increased risk and encouraged the Army to evaluate and improve practices immediately.
The Moral Question of Bioengineering
The financial and technical hurdles for biotechnology and gene-editing have been decreasing over the years and Stanford is taking a unique approach to their budding bioengineers – asking moral questions. During their final exams for the university’s Intro to Bioengineering course, the students are asked several questions – at what point will the cost of printing DNA to create human life equal the cost of teaching a student at Stanford? If you and your partner are planning to have kids, would you start saving for college tuition, or for printing the genome of your offspring? These questions represent much of the debate and concern regarding gene editing – the rapid decrease in cost and the morality of just how far the technology can and will take researchers. Many note that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Stanford professor Drew Endy emphasizes the decrease in costs, which was initially prohibitive when the technology was developing. Regarding the last question, “about 60 percent say that printing a genome is wrong, and flies against what it means to be a parent. They prize the special nature of education and would opt to save for the tuition. But around 40 percent of the class will say that the value of education may change in the future, and if genetic technology becomes mature, and allows them to secure advantages for them and their lineage, they might as well do that. There is clearly no right answer to the second question, and students are graded on their reasoning rather than their conclusion. But when both questions are considered together, they suggest, Endy says, that ‘in the order of a human generation, we’ll have to face possibilities that are much stranger than what we’re prepared for’.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- John Oliver Takes on Anti-Vaxxers – If you’re a fan of the HBO host, make sure to check out his recent episode of “Last Week Tonight” in which he points out just how dangerous the anti-vaccine movement really is. “Some have even developed an ‘alternative vaccine schedule’ in which the inoculations can be delivered less frequently and over a longer period of time. ‘That sounds like a decent compromise because it’s the middle-ground position, right?”’Oliver said on ‘Last Week Tonight’ on Sunday. ‘The problem is, it’s the middle ground between sense and nonsense. It’s like saying, ’It would be crazy to eat that entire bar of soap, so I’ll just eat half of it’.”
- Yemen’s Growing Cholera Outbreak– Yemen is currently experiencing the worst international outbreak of cholera, with 200,000 suspected cases and an average of 5,000 new cases reported daily. The WHO and UNICEF have gotten involved as there have already been 1,300 deaths in the past two months. “By calling the outbreak the “world’s worst” UNICEF and WHO hope to speed international aid efforts to the war-torn country. “This deadly cholera outbreak is the direct consequence of two years of heavy conflict,” said a press statement from UNICEF. ‘Collapsing health, water and sanitation systems have cut off 14.5 million people from regular access to clean water and sanitation, increasing the ability of the disease to spread.’ In addition to a lack of public health infrastructure, UNICEF estimated that 30,000 dedicated local health workers who play the largest role in ending this outbreak have not been paid their salaries for nearly 10 months.”