Pandora Report 7.21

Beat the heat and cool down with your weekly report on all things biodefense! Have you ever wondered how researchers become bug-chasers? Check out this story on what turned a wildlife biologist into a plague-chaser in the Southwest.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
Thanks to our amazing faculty and attendees for a successful (and fun) summer workshop this week. We heard from Ed You on safeguarding the bio economy, Dave Franz explained the dual-use dilemma in life sciences, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley discussed barriers to bioweapons, Andy Kilianski explained the ins and outs of biosurveillance, Kendall Hoyt discussed the role of innovation and MCM, Sandy Weiner highlighted the social and cultural disease amplifiers, and so much more! Did I mention that Greg Koblentz brought the house down by discussing why biosecurity is a wicked problem? You can check out the Twitter stream here to see some amazing photos and dialogue during the three-day event. Participants from all over the globe, with backgrounds in everything from infectious diseases to defense and academia, participated in talks that truly ranged from anthrax to Zika, with pit stops on influenza and Ebola. With the 1918/1919 pan-flu centennial anniversary next year, we’re already starting to put together a great workshop for the summer of 2018, so keep on the look-out for more info in the future.

The Future of the GHSA and American Biodefense
Next week in Seoul, a meeting will be held for the Steering Group of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) to discuss what exactly the future entails for the group. While its five-year run will expire in 2019, many are pushing for the GHSA to be extended as it is a highly valuable piece to global health security and IHR compliance. “Recognizing that the GHSA’s work has never been more vital and would be impossible to replace, more than 100 health and health security organizations and companies operating in over 150 countries, including the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), this week banded together to urge GHSA’s extension for at least another five years.” The NTI signed on for several reasons – the world is still not prepared to handle a pandemic of a lethal/easily transmittable disease and frankly, the GHSA provides measurement, accountability, and transparency, which are all desperately needed in global health security efforts. The NTI recently released a statement regarding their support for extending the GHSA beyond 2019, highlighting its irreplaceability and proven ability to help measure and support change in countries working to strengthen their prevention and response to biothreats. Next week’s meeting with be the first since President Trump took office, which makes its outcome that much more important. NTI cites several GHSA successes in efforts to highlight the desperate need we have for it – commitment of more than 75 countries, developing and implementing the first agreed set of global metrics for national health security, mobilizing the private sector to engage in pandemic preparedness and response, etc. Discussions regarding the future of the GHSA comes at a poignant time as the House Appropriations Subcommittee approved FY 2018 State and Foreign Operations (SFOPs) and Health and Human Services (HHS) Appropriations Bills. The approval supports efforts to maintain global health funding. The bill includes funding for the State Department and USAID through the Global Health Program (the bulk of global health assistance) and despite President Trump’s FY2018 request (which would have cut it by $1.8 billion, or 28%), it’s providing $3.8 billion, which is roughly 5% less than FY 2017. Also within the bill – “funding provided to CDC for global health matched the FY 2017 enacted level ($435.1 million) and was $85.1 million (24%) above the President’s FY 2018 request. Funding for the Fogarty International Center (FIC) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) totaled $73.4 million, a slight increase above the FY 2017 enacted levels ($72.5 million); FIC was eliminated in the FY18 Request.” Despite the cuts that are suggested in his proposed FY 2018 request, the Trump administration is reportedly developing the first comprehensive strategy on biosecurity. A top White House homeland security official reportedly said that such efforts are underway and involve retired Admiral Tim Ziemer. “We have not had as a country a comprehensive bio-defense strategy ever,” White House homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert told the annual Aspen Security Forum, in Aspen, Colorado. “It’s high time we had a bio-defense strategy.” While Bossert points to the need for a biodefense strategy, it is crucial to remember that the U.S. has already gone through two biodefense strategies – the 2004 Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10 (Biodefense for the 21st Century) and 2009’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats. This news comes on the heals of Trump’s nominee for a key biosecurity position. Guy B. Roberts of Virginia was just nominated to be an Assistant Security, Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs within the DoD. “Mr. Roberts is currently president of GBR Consulting, a national security consulting firm. In that capacity, Mr. Roberts has provided subject matter expertise on arms control, non-proliferation, international legal issues and strategies to combat terrorism to over 30 international and domestic organizations and institutions. In addition, he is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct professor teaching courses on homeland security, international terrorism, non-proliferation, and arms control at Mary Washington University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Mr. Roberts previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Weapons of Mass Destruction Policy and Director of Nuclear Policy for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” You can catch some of his talks via C-SPAN here, and while there’s not a lot on his work in biodefense, you can read this paper within the USAF Institute for National Security Studies, entitled, “Arms Control Without Arms Control: The Failure of the Biological Weapons Convention Protocol and a New Paradigm for Fighting the Threat of Biological Weapons“. His paper notes that despite the 2001 U.S. rejection of the BWC protocol for more stringent compliance mechanisms, there was still substantial focus on biological weapons and potential threats (especially after the 2001 Anthrax attacks). Roberts notes that “The time for ‘better-than-nothing’ proposals is over. A united world, acting in concert across a broad front of areas utilizing the full panoply of financial, diplomatic, economic, and military resources at our disposal, with the firm determination to rid the world of these weapons of terror, is our best hope for success.” In all, with talks next week on the GHSA, presidential hopes of cutting health funding, and a supposed biosecurity plan in the works, the future of health security is seemingly in the air.

The Case of the Reconstituted Horsepox and Other Dual-Use Adventures 
Last week we, like so many others, were engrossed in the news that a Canadian research team had reconstituted horespox with $100,000 worth of supplies and mail-ordered DNA. The news of this unpublished study has raised a lot of red flags for those in the dual-use research community, as well as the debate on the remaining smallpox stockpiles. What’s most concerning about the project, led by virologist David Evans as the University of Alberta, is that it wasn’t stopped earlier on for DURC concerns and risk reviews. Gregory Koblentz, biodefense guru and director of the GMU graduate program, “says the work should never have been done. His worry isn’t so much that terrorists will cook up smallpox anytime soon. ‘My concern is that we have opened up the door to the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to synthesize [such] viruses without any oversight,’ Koblenz says. And if the necessary technology and expertise spread, it will become “that much easier at some point for those capabilities to be turned from peaceful uses to hostile uses’.” This project and the resulting discussions will surely play a pivotal role in the future of DURC and oversight, so we’ll make sure to keep you updated!

North Korea’s Bioweapons Program
GMU Biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley is taking a deep dive into the realities of North Korea’s potential bioweapons program. Working backwards from the 2015 photo tour with Kim Jun-un at a pesticide facility that certainly had dual-use potential and was a seemingly obvious attempt to send a message to the U.S.,  Ouagrham-Gormley highlights the sordid history that is North Korean bioweapons. While South Korea has repeatedly claimed North Korean maintains an active program, there have been inconsistent reports elsewhere and Ouagrham-Gormley hones in on realities about this well-publicized dual-use equipment and facility. She notes critical aspects that would be missing from an active bioweapons program (even if you have all the shiny equipment), like consistent electricity, economic stability, and an effective laboratory/research management. While there are gaps in intelligence regarding the conditions that would truly facilitate an active (and successful) bioweapons program, “analyses of past state and terrorist bioweapons programs indicate that the continuity and stability of scientific and production work must be ensured over a long period of time to allow scientists and technicians to accumulate the knowledge necessary for development of a working bioweapon.” While many suspect that a North Korean bioweapons program was launched in the 1960s and then new infrastructure was built in the 1970s, there are a lot of questions regarding the continuity of such efforts. Were there breaks in between? Changing research teams and inconsistent management/organization all severely impact the efficacy of such secretive work. Perhaps one of Ouagrham-Gormley’s most critical points (and why you should check out her book, Barriers to Bioweapons), is that to truly assess the alleged bioweapons program, one has to understand the state of natural and medical science in North Korea. “Without a solid foundation in natural and medical sciences, a bioweapons program cannot succeed. When Soviet authorities issued a decree to expand the country’s bioweapons program in the early 1970s, they had to face the reality that Soviet science had fallen behind and needed modernization. Years of Stalin’s purges, along with the policy of Lysenkoism—which negated the role of genetics in science—had resulted in the elimination of a whole generation of competent scientists. Decades of economic sanctions, and the desperate state of North Korea’s economy and society, have undoubtedly had an effect on the scientific sector.” With these notions, Ouagrham-Gormley questions if the North Korean bioweapons program is more of a Potemkin village. While there is limited information on the organized scientific research in North Korea or real potential for such a program to exist, more information is needed, which would be a great task for a BWC verification regime.

Center for Biosecurity ELBI Research and Policy Symposium 
This week the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security held their first research symposium for the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI). The current ELBI class and several alumni presented on research and projects they’re working on. The topics ranged from dual-use research to risk assessments, biosecurity, and more. During this time they also toured the Johns Hopkins Medical Center’s Biocontainment Unit. Two GMU biodefense students attended – Francisco Cruz (MS alumni and ELBI class of 2016) and Saskia Popescu (PhD student and ELBI class of 2017), who presented on the role of infection prevention in biodefense efforts.

Tackling the Next Epidemic With Big Technology
In an age of globalization and increasing spillover, the threat of naturally occurring outbreaks spreading from one corner of the globe to the other is a real fear. Fortunately, we also live in a time of great technological advances and a wealth of data. A recent article from B.Next highlights the availability of data technologies and how such big data can be woven into the fabric of public health prevention and intervention. Outbreaks and pandemics threaten global security and perhaps one of the biggest hurdles is matching the data needs with the limited supplies on the ground. Data gaps and lags are a massive problem when responding to an outbreak, especially in terms of specialized personnel and resource constraints. There are several technologies though, that could be applied to response efforts – novel data or means of collection, crowdsourcing methods, data cleansing, analytics, and visualization. “Improving response times for activities that have proven to be effective (i.e, non-pharamceutical interventions) need to be prioritized. The full potential of surveillance and advanced analytics for improving outbreak management has not yet been realized and, unfortunately, is not yet adequate to the task. We need a fundamental reconsideration of how to use combinations of data technologies for effective response management. Accomplishing this reconsideration and implementing it effectively will allow for faster, better, stronger responses. Past outbreaks have threatened national security, but they do not need to be as significant a threat in the future. Current and emerging data technologies can help tackle the next epidemic.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • USDA Test Finds Atypical BSE In Alabama Cow – A recent announcement from the USDA reported the finding of atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in an 11-year-old cow in Alabama. This would be the 5th case in the U.S. since 2012 and the cow did in fact have symptoms of the disease, which was picked up by routine surveillance. “The animal never entered the slaughtering process and has not posed a threat to the food supply or to human health. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) said in a press release yesterday that cow died after it was delivered to the livestock market and that routine tissue samples were taken and sent for testing. Tony Frazier, DVM, Alabama’s state veterinarian, said ‘This instance proves to us that our on-going surveillance program is working effectively’.”
  • Three Antibiotics Discovery Projects You Should Know About: With the threat of antimicrobial resistance only growing bigger, BARDA, CARB-X, and big pharma are bringing out the big guns with the Superbugs & Superdrugs USA this November. “Understanding the translational link between animals and humans; navigating the pitfalls of early drug discovery; and evaluating the potential of immunotherapies will be a major focus, as will hearing from a selection of biotech and pharma companies currently undertaking clinical research. This will include case studies from Pfizer, MedImmune, Merck, Visterra and ContraFect. Event highlights will include a keynote presentation by Tim Opperman, Senior Research Scientist from Microbiotix. The talk will discuss advances in the three-prong approach taken by Microbiotix to address the problem of MDR Gram-negative pathogens. It is claimed that all three discovery projects have demonstrated efficacy in murine models of infection.”
  • Stanford Hospital – A Canary In A Coal Mine: Stanford Healthcare is coming under increasing public scrutiny as a battle between members of an affiliated union have highlighted hospital infection rates as evidence for unsafe working conditions and patient safety. GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu takes a deeper dive into this situation and what it really means for healthcare infections and patient safety. “The healthcare industry is always in a battle against cutting costs, keeping patients safe, and maintaining high patient satisfaction; all while following federal regulations and requirements. Despite the alarmist nature that comes across in the media coverage on the Stanford case, we need to realize that this is only a glimpse through the window that is healthcare infection control and the struggle to follow best practices while working in an increasingly stressful environment. In this case, Stanford Health Care is the canary in the coal mine, alerting us that there’s a problem. They just happened to get the media scrutiny that comes with being pulled into a union debate involving the safety of employees.”

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