Craving some satyrical genome editing? Check out the Onion’s pros and cons list on this biotechnology.
The De Novo Synthesis of Horsepox Virus: Implications for Biosecurity and Recommendations for Preventing the Reemergence of Smallpox
The recent de novo synthesis of horsepox by Canadian researchers has raised concern and spurred serious conversations about the future of orthopoxviruses, like smallpox, and the dual-use research that could bring them back. GMU biodefense associate professor and graduate program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz evaluates this horsepox experiment and what it means for biosecurity and efforts to prevent the reemergence of smallpox. Koblentz notes that this experiment represents a significant crossroads within the field of biosecurity and that the techniques for synthesis of such viruses are increasingly reducing barriers to potential misuse. Unleashing smallpox back into the world would be a global disaster as most of the world is no longer immune. Koblentz points out that “The threat of smallpox has been held at bay for the past 40 years by 2 conditions: the extreme difficulty of acquiring the virus and the availability of effective medical countermeasures. Synthetic biology is on the brink of erasing both of these formidable barriers to the reemergence of smallpox as a global health threat.” He highlights the limited and rather lackluster legal and technical safeguards against smallpox synthesis and that the increasing normalization and globalization of it will likely create a boom of researchers performing such experiments. Think of the gold rush, but rather the orthopoxvirus syntehesis rush. As orthopoxviruses, are being used to develop new vaccines and oncolytic medical treatments, its popularity and wider range of applications carries with it inherent risks that should be considered. “The combination of rising demand and increasing supply could lead to the global diffusion of the capability and expertise to create orthopoxviruses de novo as well as modify these synthetic viruses. With this diffusion will come an increased risk that scientists, acting on their own volition or on behalf of a terrorist group, might misuse their know-how to create variola virus, or that governments could use civilian biomedical research with synthetic orthopoxviruses as a cover for offensive applications. The release of the smallpox virus— whether due to a biosafety failure, a breach in biosecurity, or an act of biological warfare—would be a global health disaster.” Koblentz draws attention to the challenges that the normalization and globalization of orthopoxvirus synthesis poses to national and international systems working to ensure life sciences research is safely conducted. He points out that there is no clear international legal framework to prevent the synthesis of the variola virus, few comphresensive legal safeguards, and that the private DNA industry (the main supplier of large synthetic DNA fragments) has inconsistent regulatory interventions. With these concerns, Koblentz suggests several recommendations to prevent the return of smallpox, ranging from the WHO’s World Health Assembly (WHA) passing a resolution to enshrine the WHO’s Advisory Committee on Variola Research (ACVVR) recommendations on the handling and synthesis of variola virus DNA into international law, to efforts within the DNA synthesis industry to declare a temporary moratorium on the synthesis of orthopoxvirus DNA fragments until effective WHO oversight can be established. Overall, Koblentz points to the importance of this experiment in terms of how such work is performed and the lack of informed debate surrounding the dual-use nature prior to the start of research. He emphasizes “the risks posed by the routine and widespread synthesis of orthopoxviruses that could lead to the creation of a widely distributed network of laboratories and scientists capable of producing infectious variola virus from synthetic DNA.”
GMU Biodefense Master’s Open House – September 14th
We’re two weeks away from the first Master’s Open House and you won’t want to miss the chance to learn about GMU’s biodefense MS program. From 6:30-8:30pm on Thursday, September 14th, at the GMU Arlington campus, you can speak to faculty, learn about admissions, and why biodefense students have a blast while getting their graduate degrees. From Anthrax to Zika, we’ve got the place for all things biodefense.
Stanford’s New Biosecurity Initiative
Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) just announced their new biosecurity initiative, the Stanford Biosecurity Initiative, which will be led by David Relman and Megan Palmer. “Relman said the biosecurity initiative will seek to advance the beneficial applications of the life sciences while reducing the risks of misuse by promoting research, education and policy outreach in biological security. His CISAC leadership gives him the know-how to lead such a wide-ranging effort across diverse disciplines and communities,”. Palmer is a senior research scholar at Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and leads research on risk governance in emerging technology development and is an all around biotechnology guru. The biosecurity initiative also includes key Stanford partnerships and expertise within the fields of life sciences, engineering, law, and policy. Palmer noted that, “Stanford has an opportunity and imperative to advance security strategies for biological science and technology in a global age. Our faculty bring together expertise in areas including technology, policy, and ethics, and are deeply engaged in shaping future of biotechnology policy and practices.” We look forward to seeing the amazing work this new initiative will accomplish!
NAS Symposium on Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) for the Next Ten Years and Beyond
Don’t miss out on this September 18-19 event at the Keck Center. “In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report Global Security Engagement: A New Model for Cooperative Threat Reduction concluded that expanding and updating U.S. Government Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs in both form and function would enhance U.S. national security and global stability. The NAS Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) is convening a symposium to examine how CTR has evolved since that time and to consider new approaches for CTR programs and related WMD elimination efforts to increase their ability to enhance U.S. security. Speakers will include Amb. Laura Holgate, former U.S. Representative to the Vienna Office of the UN and IAEA, Amb. Ronald Lehman, Counselor to the Director of LLNL, William Tobey, former Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at NNSA, Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, and other key thinkers and practitioners from CTR programs as well as experts from outside of CTR implementing agencies who have experience addressing complex international security problems. The symposium is sponsored by the Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (PASCC) in the Naval Postgraduate School and will be open to the public. A ‘meeting in brief’ document will be issued by NAS after the symposium.”
International Biosecurity Fellows Reflect on SB7.0
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently partnered with Stanford’s Drew Endy to bring 32 emerging biosecurity leaders together for a fellowship program to attend the 7th International Meeting on Synthetic Biology (SB7.0) in Singapore. “In addition to attending the conference, fellows had the opportunity to engage with practicing experts and to discuss—with peers and senior scientists and government officials—biosecurity as it relates to synthetic biology. The fellows represented 19 countries on 6 continents and professions in the public and private sectors, the nonprofit space, and academia. The fellowship program was sponsored by the Open Philanthropy Project, hosted by Endy, and coordinated by the Center, BioBricks Foundation, and SynBioBeta. Center staffers Crystal Watson, DrPH, MPH, senior associate, and Matt Watson, senior analyst, organized the fellowship discussions and events and joined the fellows in Singapore for the 4-day experience. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, PhD, a senior associate at the Center and author of Synthetic Biology: Safety, Security, and Promise, spoke at SB7.0 and helped lead the fellowship’s panel discussions along with Watson and Watson.” Don’t miss out on GMU Biodefense PhD student Yong-Bee Lim’s reflection on page 39. Lim comments on the unique insight that comes from researchers with a non-technical background who still focus on the biosecurity, biosafety, and governance of emerging biotechnologies. “However, the enthusiasm of the technical conference attendees and fellows that I met about the advancements in synthetic biology was infectious. Whether Christina Smolke was talking about leveraging yeast to produce opioids to address medical access inequities, Kate Adamala was discussing synthetic cells as an alternative for research purposes, or Dorothee Krafft explained how her lab was seeking to synthesize a simple cell with alternate building blocks, their passion for their work came through. This allowed me the rare opportunity to enjoy the possibilities of these new avenues of innovation.” Don’t miss out on his tales of confiscated beef jerky and how there’s often a disparage between the science and security communities.
Building Airborne Isolation Units During Emergent Times & Why the CDC Quarantined Potentially Defective Equipment
GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is taking a deep-dive into faulty PPE and hospital preparedness efforts that might just save us during an airborne outbreak. Popescu first looks at the recent CDC actions to pull defective PPE from the SNS. “The special focused on personal protective equipment (PPE) that was being stockpiled by the CDC for use against future outbreaks or public health emergencies, such as treating an influx of Ebola patients during an outbreak. The 60 Minutes investigative team filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain documents regarding MicroCool gowns that are part of the US Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). The filing of the Freedom of Information Act request is especially prudent as a group of hospitals were recently awarded $454 million in damages from PPE manufacturers Kimberly-Clark and Halyard Health (formerly a division of Kimberly-Clark) after a jury found they were liable for fraud and defects within the MicroCool gowns.” While these gowns were advertised as meeting standards for the highest level of impermeability, their efficacy is clearly in question. Many are concerned about the existing stockpiles hospitals have been holding onto since the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and if such PPE is still effective. Popescu also takes a look into a recent study that evaluated the potential for hospitals to readily and cheaply convert entire wings into negative-pressure, airborne isolation units. Such a measure would be necessary if there was an influx of infectious patients with SARS, MERS, or another disease that requires airborne isolation, as most hospitals have limited amounts of negative-pressure rooms. “Following their analysis, the team found that they were able to maintain negative pressure that was actually higher than the CDC recommendations for airborne isolation and there was no pressure reversal during the entering and exiting of the ward by medical staff. They did find that ‘pressures within the ward changed, with some rooms becoming neutrally or slightly positively pressured’, which means that healthcare staff would need to wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times in the unit and not just while in the patient rooms.” While this isn’t a permanent response measure, it does show proof of concept that would allow safer hospitalization for infectious patients during an airborne outbreak.
Stem Cells, Smallpox Vaccines, and FDA Crackdowns
Earlier this week, the FDA announced it was taking action to shut down clinics that were advertising and performing unproven stem cell therapies. Clinics in California and Florida have received warning letters and the StemImmune Inc, clinic in San Diego, CA, received a visit from U.S. Marshals, who seized five vials of smallpox vaccine. “The FDA says it learned that StemImmune was using the vaccines as well as stem cells from body fat to create an unapproved stem cell therapy. On its website, StemImmune says ‘The patient’s own (autologous, adult) stem cells, armed with potent anti-cancer payloads, function like a ‘Trojan Horse,’ homing to tumors and cancer cells, undetected by the immune system’.” These clinics have been using stem cell treatments for patients suffering from Parkinson’s, ALS, COPD, heart disease, and pulmonary fibrosis. “Action by the FDA on clinics promoting unproven stem cell therapies is ‘a long time coming,’ says Sean Morrison, former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) and d irector of the Children’s Research Institute at UT Southwestern.”
Hurricane Harvey – Harbinger of Infectious Disease?
As hospitals are forced to evacuate patients and medical centers become overwhelmed, the George R. Brown Convention Center has become the city’s largest emergency shelter. It’s always challenging though, meeting the medical demands of so many people in an emergent environment. As providers work to meet basic medical needs there is another concern that bubbles up with an influx of people into a small environment…disease. Floodwater injuries are of course a concern, but we also worry about infectious diseases associated with overrun sewage systems, lack of potable water and safe food, and the existence of mega-shelters that are ripe for transmission of respiratory and diarrheal illness. That’s not even considering the potential for nasty resistant infections like MRSA, VRE, etc. Did I mention mosquitoes? “Based on experience following Hurricane Katrina, there will be several competing effects on the population of mosquitoes and the prevalence of arboviruses, such as Zika, dengue and West Nile, that they transmit. Mosquitoes need stagnant water to lay eggs. Winds and floods will wash away containers that would have been breeding pools, said Hayden, who studies weather and vector-borne disease. In the immediate future, both Hayden and Hotez anticipate that local mosquito populations will decline. But once the floodwaters recede, mosquitoes will recover. In 2006, a year after Katrina, Tulane University public-health experts reported that cases of West Nile infection increased more than twofold in communities that had been in that hurricane’s path. The study authors suggested that increased exposure was the culprit. Fleeing partially submerged buildings, people spent days outside waiting for rescue.” Sadly, it will take years to recover and rebuilding Houston after Harvey, and there are lessons we can apply from not only Harvey, but also Hurricane Sandy, towards future preparedness and response efforts. Matt Watson and Eric Toner from the Center for Health Security are drawing attention to the need for Congress to start gearing up for the health impacts following Harvey. “Stepping back from the operational response, it’s important to recognize that Congress has a vital role to play in both preparing for and enabling recovery following large scale disasters. On the recovery front, it will be important for lawmakers to pass an emergency appropriation that provides emergency funding. It is critical that Congress reverse that trend and continue to support annual appropriations for hospital and public health preparedness so that the nation is able to respond to increasingly frequent natural disasters and other large-scale emergencies.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Distinguishing Virulent from Harmless Bacteria to Improve Biosurveillance- “Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory are working to eliminate false positives in detection of Francisella bacteria, a few species of which include highly virulent human and animal pathogens. The effort contributes to more efficient and effective biological surveillance, such as that conducted by the US Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, which provides early warning of infectious disease outbreaks, hazardous environmental exposures, or possible bioterrorist attacks by spotting trends of public health importance.”
- Deadly Strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae Found In China– Chinese researchers are reporting a highly virulent, resistant, and deadly strain of the bacteria in five patients at a hospital in Hangzhou, China. “All five patients—who were admitted to the ICU between late February and April of 2016—had undergone surgery for multiple trauma followed by ventilation and subsequently developed carbapenem-resistant K pneumoniae infections and severe pneumonia that responded poorly to all available antibiotics. All five patients died of severe lung infection, multi-organ failure, or septic shock.”
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