Pandora Report 9.29.2017

 Homeland Security Struggles to Fund ChemBio Defense & The Invisible Threat Looming budget cuts within DHS are doing little to qualm concern that state and local infrastructure is simply unprepared to handle a biological or chemical attack. “In terms of bsecurity, ‘we are much better prepared than we were’ post-9/11, said Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. ‘But we are not where we need to be, and the progress is, in some cases, somewhat fragile’.” Internationally, the use of chemical weapons in Syria and growing tensions with North Korea are continual reminders that preparedness is vital. “The department’s science and technology directorate took a 28 percent budget cut when the omnibus bill for fiscal year 2017 was signed in May, and the chemical biological defense division is ‘taking a cut much more significant than that’ in fiscal year 2018, said John Fischer, division director. The directorate in May released a budget overview for congressional justification, which stated over $58 million would be put toward chemical, biological and explosive defense research and development for 2017, assuming a continuing resolution would remain in effect for the rest of the fiscal year. Less than $53 million was requested for 2018, according to the document. DHS did not respond to requests for an interview.” 2018 will be a year of harsh budget reductions for biosurveillance and chemical detection programs, as border security will be headlining in terms of priority. The surge of biodefense funding that was seen post-Amerithrax has certainly waned, but there is also concern for complacency and a tendency to go from fire to fire instead of working to establish robust and effective prevention and response mechanisms. Overall, this fiscal tightening will surely have an impact on prevention, identification, and response strategies for biological and chemical threats, leaving many people holding their breath that the blowback won’t be severe.

 Now more than ever, it is important we change the narrative of lackluster efforts to defend against biological threats. Budgetary slashing, lowering of barriers, and an era of increasing globalization and rapid international travel – these are all the things that should remind us that biological threats are not a figment of science fiction. “What was unthinkable back in the day is now quite common and easy,” Inglesby said. “Genetic engineering is now possible with kits from boxes at younger and younger ages with less and less training.” The dual-use nature of biological research not only has the capacity to lower the barriers to bioweapon development, but can also muddy the waters when determining if research is  offensive or defense. “That’s not the only challenge facing those sounding the alarm about biothreats. Government scientists worry that there aren’t enough biologists working on this problem. “We have relatively few biologists working in national security,” Matheny told FP. “This is one area where we’re just starting to catch up to the fact.” While the future of NBACC is still not set, such uncertainty has rippling effects when it comes to staffing. While we consider biological threats a multi-faceted enemy – natural, intentional, or accidental, it is now biodefense efforts that are facing attacks at multiple fronts. The recent de novo synthesis of smallpox has brought many of these concerns to fruition. Whether it be through the advancement of life sciences that poses dual-use risk, severe budgetary cuts, or a shifting focus onto border walls, we cannot afford to allow this threat to be invisible much longer.

 GMU Schar School MS Open House – October 19th
Have you ever wanted to study what you love to further your career? GMU’s MS in Biodefense is just that chance and we’ve got an open house coming up so you can get all the information on it. On Thursday, October 19th at 6:30pm at our Arlington campus, we’ll be hosting an information session about our in-person and online biodefense MS program. From anthrax to Zika, GMU is the place for all things biodefense!

Navigating Our Way Out of the Jungle: Modernizing Meat Inspection
It’s been over 111 years since the famous Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and we’re still struggling to keep food safety efforts at a pace that can beat risks from farm to table. “What triggered such a shift after decades of poor industry practice? The year prior, in 1905, a book by Upton Sinclair was published in a series, which would then be published in entirety in early 1906. The Jungle brought forth the unsavory and grotesque underbelly of the American meat system. Although this may not have been the focus of his book, readers took away from it that their trusted source for meat was corrupt and lacked safety mechanisms. Within the year, the Federal Meat Inspection Act was established.” Pew Charitable Trusts is working to help evaluate and strengthen the meat and poultry industry and to help reduce the impact that contamination has within the U.S. population (2 million are sickened annually due to contamination). “A June 2017 report from Pew and Cargill, an American privately held global corporation based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, highlighted some of these concerns and established an open dialogue to develop recommendations. They addressed the need to establish a risk-based oversight system, which would incorporate data from across the food-safety system. The guidance also included better risk communication, a modernized approach to slaughter inspection that would include current technology and pathogen-specific appropriate levels of protection, among other components.” Food safety and security is truly the soft underbelly of American and it’s vital that we modernize such efforts.

BBC Pandemic
If you’re one of our readers in the UK, make sure to take advantage of this new outbreak tool through the BBC. The BBC Pandemic app can be downloaded onto your phone and may just help us understand how future outbreaks spread. “Through the app, BBC Pandemic will be conducting two experiments: the National Outbreak, which is open to anyone in the UK from 27th September 2017; and the Haslemere Outbreak, a closed local study that is only open to people in the town of Haslemere, Surrey, and runs for 72 hours starting on Thursday 19th October 2017. In the National Outbreak, the app will track your approximate movement at regular intervals over a 24 hour period. (Don’t worry, it won’t know exactly where, or who you are.) It will also ask some questions about your journeys and the people you spent time with during those 24 hours. All data collected will be grouped to ensure your anonymity, and a research team from the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will use it to predict how a flu pandemic might spread across the country – and determine what can be done to stop it.” If you’re still not sold on it, here’s another reason why apps like this can truly help future pandemic response – data modeling. Despite our best efforts, epidemiological models are only as good as the data we have available. Simulation efforts help response efforts coordinate resources and plan accordingly however, if our modeling isn’t a decent representation of the population due to limited data, it won’t be that effective. Getting information from a broad range of people helps strengthen such efforts.

Recommendations for Incentivizing the Development of Therapeutics, Diagnostics, and Vaccines to Combat Antibiotic-Resistance 
The Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (PACCARB) has been working since 2015 to curb the threat of resistant germs. The group has found that current economic efforts are insufficient and through three working groups on incentives (for vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics), they have released a new report. Identifying 46 critical issues that are preventing the development of new/improved products and providing 64 recommendations to address them, this new report is a robust 42 pages worth the read. For example, regarding human health and incentives for vaccine use, the group found that “federal and nonfederal stakeholders lack a common understanding about the current and potential economic value and societal impact of vaccines that can reduce AMR.” Their recommendation for this issue: “Analyses on the cost and societal impacts associated with new vaccine development and administration in the AMR arena developed via a multi-agency process that involves at least CDC, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Treasury Department, in partnership with industry and public health stakeholders.” Within each section, you can find issues and recommendations categorized by economic, R&D, regulatory, and behavioral. The United Nations Foundation and the Wellcome Trust has also released a new report regarding the global efforts that have been sustained to fight AMR. “The report, published a year to the day that the United Nations (UN) General Assembly agreed to address the root causes of AMR and take action to tackle the problem, shows that many nations are following up on their pledge to encourage more responsible use of antimicrobials in human medicine and agriculture. Out of 151 countries recently surveyed, 85% say they are developing or have developed national action plans on AMR and 52% have a fully developed plan that addresses the One Health spectrum of human, animal, and environmental sectors.”

 Chemical & Biological Attacks: Underground Transport Restoration Project
After four years, this DHS-sponsored project is finally wrapping up their work studying the methods for chem-bio agent dispersion in subways. “Sandia National Laboratories’ engineer Bob Knowlton has worked on this challenge for a dozen years. His team has developed scientific sampling methods to determine the extent and nature of the contamination. Sampling also is essential to confirm the decontamination was effective and the site is safe to re-enter. Sandia researchers and their collaborators at other national laboratories and local, state and federal agencies have looked at everything from how to clean subway stations and grimy tunnels to where a surrogate for anthrax would go when released inside the New York City subway system and the best way to decontaminate a subway car.” Check out their findings on this project and from the 2016 large-scale testing they did in a mock subway system.

Little Island of Horrors – Vozrozhdeniya 
During height of the Soviet offensive bioweapons program, an ideal island, like Vozrozhdeniya, was the perfect place to test cutting-edge biological weapons. Present day, the island is a sad reminder of one of the largest state-sponsored bioweapons programs. “The island’s secrets have endured, partly because it isn’t the kind of place where you can just turn up. Since Vozrozhdeniya was abandoned in the 1990s, there have only been a handful of expeditions. Nick Middleton, a journalist and geographer from Oxford University, filmed a documentary there back in 2005. ‘I was aware of what went on, so we got hold of a guy who used to work for the British military and he came to give the crew a briefing about the sorts of things we might find,’ he says. ‘He scared the pants off me, to be honest’. Aerial photographs taken by the CIA in 1962 revealed that while other islands had piers and fish-packing huts, this one had a rifle range, barracks and parade ground. But that wasn’t even the half of it. There were also research buildings, animal pens and an open-air testing site. The island had been turned into a military base of the most dangerous kind: it was a bioweapons testing facility.” An isolated secret, this island was the testing ground for some of the worst pathogens. It was also chosen as a holding place for “the largest anthrax stockpile in human history” and while the cache’s location was never disclosed, the pits were visible from space, which meant that the U.S. pledge $6 million towards a clean-up project. Sadly, this isn’t a resolution as the open-air testing done on the island has surely left residual microbial burden, not to mention the burial pits of infected animals. Make sure to read about Dave Butler’s journey to this island and how even now, it still instills fear.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • China to Open BSL-4– The first certified BSL-4 lab in China will be opening this year. The research institute, located in Wuhan, represents a partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Wuhan government. “The lab is part of a 10-year-plan by the Ministry of Science and Technology that proposes to build five to seven BSL-4 laboratories by 2025 as well as one BSL-3 lab in every province. It was built with technology and equipment imported from France, and some of its future research staff have visited France for BSL-4 training. Although construction was finished in 2015, the lab has since undergone multiple assessments, Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan branch of CAS, told the Science and Technology Daily. ‘The lab will become a public platform for Chinese scientists to conduct research into dangerous viruses,’ Yuan said.”
  • Signature Science-led Team awarded $2.9M contract to develop advanced genomic computational technologies in support of IARPA’s Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats Program – “The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) awarded Signature Science, LLC a $2.9M contract for the development of new computational tools to screen DNA sequences to detect biological threats that may manifest from synthetic microbial manipulation. The challenge is to overcome the speed and precision limitations of contemporary synthetic DNA screening practices to rapidly detect and isolate a prospective threat within a segment of DNA. The research team will re-tool bio-threat detection methods, and focus detection efforts on functional genetic elements to increase analytic speed and precision, thereby dramatically improving predictive capacity to isolate the toxic gene that constitutes the threat.”
  • Medieval Plague Gives Insight Into Human Pollution History – “A recent study indicates that much less lead occurs naturally in the air than we thought—in fact, there should be almost none. Scientists measured lead trapped in an ice core from the Swiss-Italian Alps. They found that lead levels dropped dramatically only once in the past 2,000 years, during a time that coincided with the Black Death pandemic. This means that in Europe, lead levels in the air have been elevated for thousands of years. Most people think about air pollution as a problem that began with the Industrial Revolution, but we’ve been spoiling the quality of our air for a very long time. It has harmed our health throughout history, from Medieval Europe to the Roman Empire to Ancient Egypt and Peru, and continues to do so today.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

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