ECDC Tool for Prioritizing Biothreats
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has released their tool for the prioritization of infectious disease threats. “This qualitative tool, implemented as an Excel workbook, is based on multi-criteria decision analysis. It ranks infectious disease threats in a transparent, comparable and methodologically reproducible manner. The tool enables the relative ranking of different infectious disease threats. It is intended as a supplement to other methods that also support decision-making in preparedness planning.” Part of the tool involves a scoring of diseases, in which it suggests that a multidisciplinary expert group works to establish reliable information and adequate scoring. The ECDC tool also includes a handbook and manual for users to get the most out of it.
Long Ignored: The Use of CBW Against Insurgents
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Glenn Cross investigates the use of chemical and biological weapons in counterinsurgency campagins like that of Rhodesia, South Africa, and Syria. Cross notes that history has shown the efficacy of CBW against ill-equipped and often poorly trained insurgents. He points to the debate regarding application of use – some say that these weapons are used when conventional forces are ineffective and often a last resort, while others note that the lack of an international and effective response have given insurgents incentive. “The conclusion from these examples is that regimes in extremis — when the battle is for their very survival — seem to have little compunction about resorting to chemical and biological weapons use. The much-heralded international norms and conventions prohibiting and condemning chemical and biological development and use go out the window when a regime’s survival is at stake. The examples of Rhodesia and Syria show that the international community must be united and demonstrate the requisite political will to enforce norms if the use of chemical and biological weapons is to be prevented.” Cross highlights two case studies, Rhodesia and Syria, pointing to the use of biological weapons by Rhodesian forces as being the only example of a nation using bioweapons since the end of WWII. While the regime was aware of treaty obligations, it had no bearing on their decision to use such weapons. So what are effective constrains on the use of CBW? The case studies reveal that regimes care little about their efficacy, international norms, or international agreements, but it is really deterrence that likely prevents the use of such weapons. The credible threat of military action is the strongest deterrent and realistically, until international norms include uniform enforcement amongst nations, they won’t be as effective. “As we’ve seen in Syria, such consensus is elusive, and the international community has failed to act. As a consequence, the world faces a sad, but inevitable conclusion. The Syrian regime is unlikely to ever face justice for its use of chemical weapons.”
A View from the CT Foxhole: Edward You, FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit
As if we need any more reasons to think Edward You is a biosecurity action hero! The Combating Terrorism Center recently sat down with Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI’s WMD Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit, and discussed not only his role within the FBI but also their work and coordination with partners. You notes that his “primary mission is to support outreach and engagement, but probably most importantly it is to backstop the WMD Coordinators who are positioned in the field. They have to cover the whole broad range of modalities—chem, bio, nuke, explosives. They do the initial engagements, the partnerships, the initial response, but they can always call back to headquarters where we leverage all of our expertise as subject matter experts. We can bring in the laboratory division; we can bring in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if necessary, the Department of Homeland Security to support them when they run into an incident out in the field.” He emphasizes the importance of the relationship the FBI has with the private sector, not only in terms of shared interests, but also communicating security problems to help get more buy-in and coordination. When asked about the DIY biohacker, You notes that “We look at these community labs as a big positive force in the economy and engines of innovation. That has helped us overcome the natural tendency for such outfits to be a little bit anti-establishment. By engaging with them, we’re helping them to raise their level of awareness that they could potentially be targeted by malicious actors seeking to subvert their work, steal their technology, or recruit insiders on their staff. By helping them establish a form of ‘neighborhood watch,’ they will be best positioned to identify and report on instances of suspicious activity both internal and external to their community. Who better to identify threats than the community members themselves?” While the partnerships with DIY labs haven’t garnered any leads to potential threats, they help the FBI understand the direction biotech is heading, which allows them to flag areas of concern faster than if they used a top-down approach. You also addresses the 2016 Europol warning of potential ISIS experimentation with bioweapons, commenting that “With ISIS, al-Qa`ida, or any other threat actor for that matter, we are faced with two significant challenges. The first is ideology. What happens if that lone individual that becomes persuaded by their ideology happens to be a microbiologist or a biochemist? The counter WMD mission has always proceeded by identifying the actors expressing the intent to acquire, develop, or use WMDs (e.g., counterproliferation efforts). And historically, significant effort and investments have been made to counter the biological weapon threat ranging from state/non-state actors to individual level biological crimes (e.g., attempted ricin poisonings). But this introduces the second challenge. Unlike the chemical and radiological/nuclear realms where materials of concern are highly regulated and the expertise is almost arcane, biology could be classified as dual use or multi-use. The strength of the field is based on the fact that it is inherently open in nature (e.g., peer-reviewed scientific journals), which has led to significant advances in areas such as healthcare.” Lastly, You points to what he considers the greatest biosecurity threat facing the U.S. – the concerns of non-state actors, but also the role of data in terms of gene editing and other biotech, noting that “we may have have been short-sighted. Most of our legal frameworks have been focused on privacy and not on security.” “Because there’s a lack of understanding about where bio is going, we’re in danger of falling behind, and my biggest concern is that for lack of our foresight and being strategic in this space, I think China is going to become a potential biological superpower.” Did I mention that Edward You is frequently a speaker at our summer workshops?
North Korea’s Chemical Arsenal Complicates U.S. Options
As concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program grows, the threat of chemical weapons has seemingly been downplayed. Tackling nuclear threats through preemptive strikes could push North Korea to utilize their chemical weapons program and sizable stockpile, which is considered to be one of the largest. “Experts are also disturbed by Kim Jong-un’s brazen public assassination of his half-brother using the nerve agent VX, saying it demonstrates the regime’s willingness to use deadly toxins. ‘I think if people paid more attention to the chemical side, they’d be less inclined to talk about preemption and going first against North Korea,’ said Greg Koblentz, a researcher of weapons of mass destruction at George Mason University.” In the event that chemical weapons are deployed, the South Korean capitol of Seoul would surely take a hit, which is home to 25 million people. While details of North Korea’s biological weapons program have given little insight into what is actually going on, there is considerably more knowledge regarding their chemical weapons initiatives. “The exact composition and size of North Korea’s chemical arsenal is unclear, but it’s believed to include everything from antiquated chlorine gas all the way up to sarin, VX, and other highly lethal nerve agents. These weapons are distributed at facilities across the country, often tucked away in underground bunkers or other sites unknown to U.S. and allied intelligence. The weapons are also deployed along the armistice line, which sits just 35 miles north of Seoul.” While there are limits to their chemical weapons capabilities, they surely provide little comfort to South Korean citizens and those living in Seoul.
Chatting With the WHO
New WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke with Foreign Affairs’ regarding his plans for the future of the WHO and efforts to combat global disease. Tedros notes that epidemics or pandemics keep him up at night, especially something like the 1918 pandemic and the “serious gaps we have”. He comments that “I think the world should unite and focus on strong health systems to prepare the whole world to prevent epidemics—or if there is an outbreak, to manage it quickly—because viruses don’t respect borders, and they don’t need visas.” In regards to irrational beliefs as a public health threat, Tedros highlights the role of governments (and the WHO in supporting them) to communicate with communities and use media as a tool for teaching. Tedros discussed the WHO’s response to Ebola and when asked about hesitancy governments may experience regarding raising the alarm for an outbreak, he noted that “it’s not an issue between the WHO and the member state in question; it’s about the overall implementation of the International Health Regulations [the rules that govern how states respond to outbreaks]. That involves not only the country in question but other countries, as well. For instance, a country may fear the impact on the economy if it reports a certain disease. And if the other countries, instead of banning travel or other measures, could be supportive and implement the IHR, then the country could be encouraged to report immediately.”
Book Review – Barriers to Bioweapons
As the summer winds down, you may find yourself needing a new book to delve into. GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ougrham-Gormley‘s book, Barriers to Bioweapons, is a great addition to any lover of health security and the realities of biological experiments. This latest book review gives a witty and entertaining overview of her work, noting that “Barriers to Bioweapons argues that actually, we’re not all living on borrowed time – that there are real organizational and expertise challenges to successfully creating bioweapons. She then discusses specific historical programs, and their implications for biosecurity in the future.”
GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu tackles the importance of pandemic preparedness and the latest publication from the Center for Health Security regarding global catastrophic biological risks. “We may think written plans and the occasional table-top exercise are making us more prepared to handle a pandemic, but true preparation goes far beyond that. The ability to prevent, detect, respond, and control outbreaks is a hefty investment that countries are still struggling to make, and as a new report recently revealed, a paltry amount of countries may be ready for a pandemic.” She highlights the latest World Bank report that only six countries have truly taken efforts to evaluate their readiness to handle a pandemic. Like many things, the devil is in the details, and often that is as simple as a real name for a problem. A recent publication from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security sought to fix this by establishing a working definition for global catastrophic biological risks (GCBR). “What makes this definition unique, aside from it being the first working definition for GCBRs, is that it highlights several components, such as sustained catastrophic damage, and instead of highlighting a specific number of deaths, it looks to a range of negative outcomes, such as infertility. The challenging task of defining such a globally feared, but poorly understood risk was daunting; however, the Center for Health Security has provided us with a working tool that can now be applied to policy, and future preparedness and response efforts.”
H5 Hits the Philippines and Plague in Arizona
The Philippines is reporting its first highly pathogenic H5 avian influenza outbreak. Hitting a commercial poultry farm in Luzon, the outbreak began in July and killed 36,485 of the 190,000 birds. “A report today in the Manila Times, based on a media briefing with Emmanuel Pinol, the country’s agriculture secretary, said the outbreak was confirmed in the city of San Luis and that six poultry farms were affected. Most of the poultry deaths were in layer chickens. Pinol told reporters that the outbreak may have begun as early as April when deaths were reported in quail housed above ducks. He said ducks are the likely source of the outbreak, since they had contact with migratory birds. The Manila Times report said the outbreak site is 37 miles north of Manila and is close to swamps that are stopovers for migratory birds from the Asian mainland.” Public health officials in Arizona have announced that fleas in two counties have tested positive for plague (Yersinia pestis). While plague is endemic in the southwest, public health officials still work to ensure residents are aware that there is an increased risk. Officials are warning residents to be mindful of the potential for exposure via pets. “Fleas can bite rabbits, prairie dogs and other rodents — and anything that may eat them — and transfer the disease to pets, who in turn can infect humans. Cats who get plague transmit it through their cough. Dogs typically carry the fleas on their fur. Health officials cautioned county residents and visitors to keep their pets leashed and to avoid touching dead animals. Evidence of a large die-off could indicate plague is present, they say.”
Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology
Don’t miss out on these events by the National Academies Committee on Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology:
- August 21 – the committee’s interim report and proposed framework will be released at 11am EDT here
- August 22 – a public release webinar and report briefing will be held from 11am-12pm EDT. Committee Chair Michael Imperiale and committee members Patrick Boyle and Andrew Ellington will be reviewing the interim report and the proposed framework. This webinar is free to attend and open to the public, but you must register to attend. You can register at the following link: https://nasevents.webex.com/nasevents/onstage/g.php?MTID=e39277a767b1f0190db4f7ee491c01271 You will be able to submit questions and comments during this webinar through a text-based feature but will not be able to speak directly with the presenters.
- August 23-24: The meeting will be held at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Keck Center at 500 5th Street NW, Washington, DC Room 208. You must register to attend the meeting in person; the Keck Center is a secure building and we will need to have your name on the guard’s list to enter the building. You can register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to attend via teleconference, you can access the conference by dialing the following: to listen, please dial 1-(866) 668-0721 and use conference code 380 454 1676.
The committee is also soliciting feedback from the public on the interim report and the associated framework. You can submit questions or comments through September 5, 2017 at the following link: http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/3758337/A-Proposed-Framework-For-Identifying-Potential-Biodefense-Vulnerabilities-Posed-By-Synthetic-Biology Due to the anticipated volume of questions, the committee may not explicitly address every comment received but all comments will be considered and reviewed. PLEASE NOTE: if you submit a question, your question and any associated identifying information you provide will be added to the study’s public access file as per the National Academies’ requirements to comply with FACA.
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Uganda Ebola-like Illness Demystified- Public health officials in Uganda are sighing with relief as results from the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) have reported the death of a 20-year-old woman in Luweero was due to carbon monoxide poisoning and not the suspected Ebola virus. “There are currently 3 female cases admitted at Bishop Asili hospital, Luweero. However, results from UVRI indicate that all cases were negative for Ebola, Marburg, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Rift Valley fever, and Sosuga viruses. ‘The ministry of health team is working closely with the District Health Team to monitor, review, and manage these cases as well as orienting health workers on management and referral protocols of suspected cases,’ reads the statement.”