Pandora Report 8.11.2017

Norovirus may be plaguing athletes in London for the World Championships, but we’re making sure to deliver the latest biodefense news to you (germ free)! Check out these WHO courses for managing public health emergencies.

CDC Invests $200 Million For Infectious Disease Preparedness
Last week the CDC announced that it awarded more than $200 million to help prevent, detect, respond to, and control biothreats posed by emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. The funds will go through the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity for Infectious Diseases (ELC) cooperative agreement and reach all fifty state health departments and several local health agencies in large metropolitan areas. The CDC announcement noted that the “CDC and states work together to improve local surveillance, laboratory diagnostic capabilities, and outbreak response. The CDC has awarded more than $200 million through the Epidemiology and ELC cooperative agreement to help states, cities, counties, and territories prevent, detect, respond to, and control the growing threats posed by emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. State programs are the foundation of the U.S. public health system and are integral to the nation’s efforts to combat infectious disease threats. CDC and states work together to improve local surveillance, laboratory diagnostic capabilities, and outbreak response.” This also includes $77 million to help state health departments combat antibiotic resistance in their areas. The 2017 funding enhances current Antibiotic Resistance Laboratory Network (AR Lab Network) activities by increasing testing nationwide for Candida fungal threats, strengthening national TB surveillance and infrastructure, and enhancing detection of drug-resistant gonorrhea. This surge of funds, mixed with a new strategy that combines market entry rewards with population-based payments from insurers, could help bring us ahead in the battle against the resistant bug. “The proposal, dubbed the Priority Antimicrobial Value and Entry (PAVE) award, would use limited public funds to cover the majority of revenue for the first 1 to 2 years a new antibiotic is on the market, but that revenue would be phased out over 5 years and replaced by revenue from population-based contracts with health insurers. The purpose of the PAVE award, the authors said in their recent Journal of the American Medical Association paper, is to guarantee a return-on-investment for antibiotic developers by ‘de-linking’ the revenue of new antibiotics from the volume used and to promote stewardship of those drugs, so that thy remain effective and available.”

A Short History of Biological Warfare: From Pre-History to 21st Century
Don’t miss out on the latest bioweapon gem from W. Seth Carus – a history on biological warfare! “It covers what we know about the practice of BW and briefly describes the programs that developed BW weapons based on the best available research. To the extent possible, it primarily draws on the work of historians who used primary sources, relying where possible on studies specifically focused on BW. By broadening our knowledge of BW, such studies have enabled us to write about the topic with more accuracy and detail than could have been done even a few years ago.” Carus breaks BW history into three sections – prehistory to 1900, 1900-1945, and then 1945-modern day. He focuses on the agents covered by the BWC and looks at the history of state-sponsored programs, the role of scientific advances in understanding microorganisms, use of BW in warfare, and more.

What It Means To Militarize Biotechnology
Biotechnology is a fickle beast and a frequently debated topic. While many focus on the security implications of gene-editing and other biotechnologies in the hands of nefarious actors, there has been an increasing militarization of the field. Military research and investment in biotechnology can be a bag of mixed outcomes and there has been little discussion regarding the growing military interest in it. “One such issue is the risk that military investment in biotechnology will adversely affect research priorities. Another is the possibility that military investment into defensive or public health projects by one state might be misinterpreted by other states as having offensive potential. In the same vein, the scarcity of publicly available information about military research into biotechnology might fuel public distrust of valuable and well-intended work. It is clear, for example, that research into preventing, identifying, and treating infectious diseases by various militaries around the world will continue to provide broader spin-off benefits—but publics in some states might be unsure why military rather than public health institutions lead such work.” Progress in fields like synthetic biology has brought forth almost a renaissance of research and also engagement in security discussions. Brett Edwards highlights the role of the Amerithrax attacks in bringing biology into the forefront of American terrorism worries. He notes that the synbio community has been heavily engaged in the debate of misuse and its implications for innovation and regulation. Working in the synbio field inherently carries with it a forced sensitization to these issues. Edwards emphasizes that the future should include international dialogue with researchers regarding biotechnology militarization. “This sort of dialogue might allow shared principles regarding state investment in biotechnology to be identified and articulated—principles that would both guide research priorities and establish hard limits about what is permissible. Such discussions could draw upon relevant principles in international human rights, humanitarian, and arms control law—including, but not limited to, treaties specifically dealing with biological, chemical, and environmental warfare.”

Air Travel or Bug Travel?
We’ve all been on that flight with one (or more) people who are visibly and audibly ill…and there’s nothing like that ominous feeling of “I’m definitely getting sick after this flight.” A new study investigated disease transmission on airplanes and found that things like plane size and boarding method can have some pretty profound implications for disease transmission. Sure, jamming ourselves into a metal box where it’s cold and we’re in close quarters should already be a redflag for disease transmission, but there are many more variables that impact airborne disease spread. Researchers started first with how Ebola might be transmitted on a plane. “Unfortunately for current fliers, the commonly used three-section boarding technique, where passengers board by first class, middle zone and back section, is actually the worst strategy for reducing the number of infected. The reason this works so poorly is that it forces passengers to stand together in the aisle while they all wait to get to their seats, which means more time for a tightly packed group to be exposed to the contagious passenger”. They found that changing the boarding method to a two-section, random method is much more protective. Also, the speed at which we all race off the airplane once we’re landed appears to have little impact. “For plane size, you might think the bigger the plane, the smaller your odds, right? Not quite. In fact, the study found that planes with less than 150 seats are better at reducing new infections; there are fewer susceptible people present overall, fewer people within a given person’s contact radius and less time spent moving through the plane to reach assigned seats. ‘Using smaller airplanes during an outbreak, instead of completely banning flights to a specific destination, can drastically reduce the probability of introduction of infection,’ Mubayi said.” The investigative team found that if airlines stuck to their existing boarding strategies during an ebola outbreak, there would be a 67% chance of infection rates reaching 20 air-travel-related cases per month. Regardless of plane size, if airlines modified their boarding strategies, the change for infection drops to 40%. Such work gives us great insight into strategies to help slow the rate of transmission during outbreaks through the powerful vector that is international air travel.

Computer Security and DNA Sequencing
A recent article on the implications of DNA sequencing and big data highlights investigations into the “robustness of such tools if (or when) adversarial attacks manifest”. Researchers noted that DNA synthesis can provide attackers with arbitrary remote code execution and highlight the need to look at the feasibility of such attacks. Performing their own attacks on a modified down-stream sequencing utility, they found data leakage and used such lessons to evaluate security hygiene of the more common DNA processing programs. Such work is especially prudent given that biohackers recently encoded malware in a DNA strand. University of Washington researchers revealed at the USENIX Security conference this week that it’s actually possible to encode malware into DNA strands, “so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer. While that attack is far from practical for any real spy or criminal, it’s one the researchers argue could become more likely over time, as DNA sequencing becomes more commonplace, powerful, and performed by third-party services on sensitive computer systems.” The researchers are calling it the “the first ‘DNA-based exploit of a computer system‘.” This new finding sounds like something out of a science fiction film, but points to the unexpected threats within DNA sequencing and data processing. Thankfully, the process was pretty unreliable and the researchers had to take some significant shortcuts, which means attacks like this may be not be in the immediate future. Nonetheless, it brings forth the need to consider the security implications of information stored within DNA.

Next Generation Global Health Security Network & the Nuclear Threat Initiative Webinar 
Don’t miss out on this webinar today, at 2pm EST regarding the Next Generation for Biosecurity in GHSA Competition! This webinar will provide an overview of eligibility and submission requirements for the NTI-sponsored biosecurity competition to develop regional and global partnerships among next generation professionals. Participants will also have an opportunity ask questions about the competition. Click here to add the event to your calendar.

Bio-Labs of the Future – The Promises & Perils of the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program takes a deep-dive into the bio-labs of the future . The rise of the biotech revolution and advances in gene-editing DNA synthesis, AI, etc. are all helping laboratories grow in connectivity and intelligence. “While this may be a boon for the development of novel vaccines and therapeutics by parties that have traditionally not had access to the necessary tools, it also opens the risk of nefarious use to engineer or edit biological agents or toxins. While there have been attempts at governance to limit the avenues by which a bad actor may gain access to the pathogens or tools to create biological weapons, the ever-increasing pace of innovation has left gaps that may be exploited.” Many are calling this time a Fourth Industrial Revolution, and with technologies like portable genomics sequencers, there is a need to examine the vulnerabilities, which includes things like growing accessibility. The Wilson Center paper highlights the need to evaluate threat, potential for exploitation of gaps, and provides policy recommendations.

Combating Biological Terrorism Roundtable Discussion
Don’t miss out on this event put on by the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies on Thursday, August 24th, noon-2pm at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (901 N Stuart Street, Suit 200, Arlington, VA 22203). Roundtable speakers include Professors Rita Colwell, S. Gerald Sandler, Rashid Chotani, and Normal Kahn. “Biological security concerns are a permanent fixture of history, ranging from Mother Nature’s infectious diseases to man-made threats. Recent epidemics, such as Ebola and Zika, and the potential dangers of biological terrorism urgently need to be addressed through international partnerships to reduce the gravest health risks at home and abroad. Experts with governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental experience will provide an assessment of future challenges and offer recommendations for an international comprehensive biosecurity strategies.” RSVP is required (please email icts@potomacinstitute.org).

The Future of the GHSA Matters for US Clinicians
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu discusses the importance of the GHSA and why it should matter to U.S. clinicians. “Fundamentally, the GHSA is a crucial component to ensuring a solid and reliable global foundation exists for responding to, detecting, and preventing public health crises. Whether you are a physician in an urgent care, a nurse in a major hospital, a public health epidemiologist, or working in national policy, the importance of the GHSA and its work is apparent and a future without it will only serve to weaken US and global health security.”

CBRN Insurance Approaches
GMU biodefense MS alum Zamawang F Almemar is looking at a new actuarial approach to a CBRN insurance policy. A WMD attack against a major city would have devastating consequences but countries often struggle with the realities of costly prevention efforts. It’s important to truly analyze the threats of national security and develop countermeasure infrastructure accordingly. Drawing parallels to homeowners insurance, “investing national resources to prevent and recover from the effects of a nuclear attack is an appropriate choice for national policymakers, but what level of protection is warranted to guard against non-state actor developed and employed chemical or biological weapons, or against a radioactive attack.” The authors looked to factors that may help determine how much should be spent on WMD “insurance” and a method for evaluation. While calculating some factors, like societal fears, are challenging, there are things to consider, like economic cost of property cost damage and recovery costs, economic and societal costs of injuries, deaths, disruption, and changes to society, etc. “Factors affecting the cost of implementing a protection action include the difficulty of taking the action, the equipment needed, and the extent of the measure being taken”. Regarding policy recommendations, the authors focus on the imminent threat from terrorist organisations, noting that “it is now of utmost importance for the new administration to prioritize cWMD efforts within the national defense strategy and to ensure there is a balance in appropriations investing in these cWMD efforts.”

A Shadow Network of Science Experts
At first glance, this sounds like an elusive club of James Bond-esque scientists. In reality, the truth gives a startling look into the White House. In effort to combat several science gaps within the new administration, there are reports that an unofficial network of Obama loyalists is working to continue the Obama science agenda. “Participants have provided counsel to Democratic lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill, and they have held group-wide strategy sessions much in the same fashion as they did when they worked out of a fourth-floor wing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House.” “In interviews, members of the new Obama group — which numbers in the dozens — said they have remained more engaged than they expected to before Trump’s victory in November. Beyond fielding policy questions from congressional offices, they have consulted with scientific societies, and advised organizers of the March for Science, among other activists — a few have even made those organizations their new professional homes. They have also assisted in analyzing the impact of White House budget proposals — which have outlined deep cuts to federal research agencies — and the impact of policies including Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords.”

Using Vaccines to Fight Antimicrobial Resistance
While we’re working to find new antimicrobials, reducing antibiotic use, and stopping the spread of AMR, there may be another strategy – vaccines. Many are pointing to the prevention of disease via vaccines as a means of countering infections in the first place, which are frequently misdiagnosed and treated with unnecessary antibiotics. Consider pneumococcal conjugate or influenza vaccines. “A study published in the Lancet led by Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy found that if every child under 5 years old in the 75 countries studied received pneumococcal conjugate vaccines, the resulting reduction of pneumonia would avert 11.4 million days of antibiotic use each year.” Vaccines can be an effective tool in reducing illness and these infections often lead to not only the missuse of antibiotics, but also hospitalizations that often result in exposure to resistant organisms. We know the benefits of vaccines against specific viral infections however, perhaps it’s time we start adding them to the arsenal against antibiotic resistance? Overcoming AMR will not be a result of a singular effort, but rather a mosaic of combined practices and changes as diverse as the reasons resistance occurred in the first place.

A Silent Anthrax Outbreak Within The Chimpanzee Population
Researchers in the Tai forest within the Ivory Coast are working to find out why chimpanzees are dying from anthrax. The anthrax strain, a new form of Bacillus cereus, known as Bcbva, has been responsible for 38% of local wildlife deaths in the forest. Anthrax in the rainforest environment is unique and this outbreak is challenging the ways we traditionally think about such infections. “In the savannah, anthrax almost always infects hoofed grazing mammals, which ingest soil laced with bacterial spores. Although it can spill over into humans, until 2001, there was no record of it afflicting wild primates. Now, we know that the Taï strain hits chimpanzees, as well as other unusual hosts like mongooses and porcupines. It even affects monkeys that spend all their time in the treetops, far away from contaminated soil. ‘We don’t know how they get infected,’ says researcher Fabian Leendertz. ‘How do the spores make it up in the trees?’” Fortunately, Bcbva isn’t active in other parts of Africa. Chimpanzees, like many great apes in this region are already fighting off disease like Ebola, so this new surge of an unsual disease is worrying researchers.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Hot Topics In Biodefense –  What would you consider the hottest topics? GMU’s Biodefense program has students just as diverse as the topics we face in global health security, which makes the classroom discussions pretty fantastic. One of our PhD students recently sat down and wrote about the biggest issues we face in biodefense and why this field is so crucial – check it out here.
  • Graphic Design – A New Public Health Tool?– A new exhibit at London’s Welcome Collection is drawing attention to the role of graphic design during outbreaks and epidemics. The designs range from ambulances, hospital interiors, posters, cigarette packaging, and street art. “Rebecca Wright, who has co-organised the show with graphic designer Lucienne Roberts, says that exhibits in a section about contagion are especially dramatic. An Italian ‘plague notice’ from 1681 ‘uses bold typography to give authority in time of panic,’ she says, adding that it is a beautiful object. Graphic design responding to the early spread of HIV/Aids is included, such the historic and controversial, ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign launched by the British government in 1986. ‘It was the first time every household in the UK received a health leaflet, Wright says.”
  • China & the U.S. Battle for Biotech – Check out this latest article on FBI Supervisory Special Agent, biosecurity guru, and GMU summer workshop instructor, Ed You on the U.S.-China dispute over genetic data and its implications for biotechnology. FYI – You’ll need access to the Financial Times.

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