Welcome to your favorite weekly dose of biodefense news!
George Mason University Global Health Security Ambassador Fellowship
We’re excited to announce the selection of two GMU Biodefense students, Anthony Falzarano and Stephen Taylor, as recipients of the George Mason Global Health Security Ambassador Fellowship. As GMU Global Health Security Ambassadors, they will be attending the 4th Annual GHSA Ministerial Meeting in Kampala, Uganda as part of the Next Generation Global Health Security Network delegation. The Next Generation Network engages and facilitates contributions by emerging scholars, scientists, and professionals from government and non-governmental institutions to the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) and other global health security projects. The NextGen Network is led by Jamechia Hoyle, who is not only an infectious disease guru, but also an adjunct professor at GMU, teaching Global Health Security Policy. The GHSA meeting, which will take place from October 25-27, is the world’s premier meeting on global health security and will be attended by senior representatives of the Ministries of Health, Agriculture, Finance, and Security from more than 50 GHSA member states as well as implementing partners from civil society and the private sector. The theme of this year’s meeting is Health Security for All: Engaging Communities, Non-Government Actors, and the Private Sector. Thanks to the generous support of the Schar School, our Biodefense graduate students will be able to provide you with detailed accounts of the meeting from the front row. Following the GHSA meeting, we will be publishing their experiences and thoughts on the summit, so you’ll want to stay tuned. Anthony is a microbiologist and environmental engineer, who focuses his research on antimicrobial resistance, food and agriculture microbiology, and microbial enhanced oil recovery. Anthony also worked with Ohio State University’s Medical Center to study biofilms as a public health burden. Stephen is a biologist and Peace Corp-alum where he served in Mozambique teaching biology, information technology, and English. Since 2015, he has worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.
Blue Ribbon Study Panel: U.S. Not Prepared to Identify Perpetrators of Biological Crimes, Terrorism, Proliferation, and Warfare
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel just released information on their recent special meeting, Biological Attribution: Challenges and Solutions, which sought to better understand the ability of the U.S. government to accurately identify pathogens and their sources, “attribute the use of biological weapons with scientific and other forms of evidence; and explore the processes used for investigative, legal, policy, and political decisions involving biological attribution.” “Effective prosecution depends on the ability to quickly and accurately attribute crimes to their perpetrators,” said Ken Wainstein, meeting chair, and former Homeland Security Advisor and United States Attorney. “In the aftermath of a biological attack, we need to find out who did it, how they did it, what disease agent they used, and where they obtained it. The biological threat is real and growing, and the Nation needs this attribution capability now.” Adds former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, whose office received some of the anthrax letters in 2001, “We face some major challenges in microbial forensics and biological attribution, but we can overcome many of them. We need to do what we can to eliminate them now, before we find ourselves under attack again. We can’t afford to have another investigation drag on for years.” The Panel also addressed the impact of the President’s FY2018 budget request on biodefense efforts and how it could eliminate critical health security functions.
Fostering an International Culture of Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Responsible Conduct in the Life Sciences
GMU biodefense MS alum Kathleen Danskin and PhD student Elise Rowe are tackling the importance of biosecurity, biosafety, and responsible conduct in life sciences. Citing the lack of an internationally agreed upon definition and approach to disseminating lessons, they highlight “how these concepts are covered by relevant international treaties, international organizations, and professional organizations. While there are some efforts under way, opportunities exist to evaluate and strengthen the culture of biosafety, biosecurity, and responsible conduct in the life sciences in order to prevent the loss, theft, misuse, and diversion of biological agents, related materials, technology, or equipment, and the unintentional or intentional exposure to (or release of) biological agents.” Responding to this gap, Danskin and Rowe propose three changes: partnership between international regimes, organizations, and professional organizations to share and enhance best efforts, use of the nuclear safety and security culture as a model for creating organizational culture within life sciences, and that the international community should amplify efforts to recognize “champions of change” at the state level. “Challenges remain on how best to address the issue of operationalizing the concept of a culture of biosafety, biosecurity, and responsible conduct in order to address goals such as: (1) reducing the occurrence of laboratory-acquired infections (LAIs), incidents, and near misses, (2) ensuring that biosafety, biosecurity, and responsible conduct receive adequate attention, (3) ensuring that organizational members share the same beliefs and attitudes about risks, LAIs, and near misses, (4) increasing commitments to biosafety and biosecurity, and (5) assessing the breadth and strength of a biosafety and biosecurity program.”
Reasonable Doubts: Foreseeing Failures in WMD Security
GMU biodefense MS alum Greg Mercer is evaluating the historical failures in WMD security and what we can take away from such terrifying events. Pulling on examples from the live anthrax spores being mailed due to poor DoD lab practices to antinuclear protesters managing to get into the Oak Ridge nuclear facility, Mercer addresses serious system failures and a “culture of complacency”. Unfortunately, since the creation of nuclear weapons, there has been a colorful history of accidents and close calls. Mercer cites such examples to point out that while not spectacularly dramatic (I’m thinking of something like the film, The Rock), they nonetheless highlight significant vulnerabilities. “As a class, these organizational problems are not unique to the management of WMD. Insights into their nature, and into the sorts of practices that could help to anticipate and remedy them, may also be found further afield. Especially within the broader study of national security, a new literature has begun to emerge proposing either a new framing of the issues, or identifying tools and ideas that might be employed to guard against recurring ‘complacency’.” Mercer points to analyses, like those from Janne E. Nola, which suggest grass-roots changes that aim at fixing things at the organization level. What is to be done though? Some suggest the use of red teaming, while others point to forecasting and prediction, as a means to identifying risks and vulnerabilities. “History shows that warning signs are often ignored until disaster strikes, and that disaster is the engine of change. In the United States, the public demands change. If better institutional checks are to be placed on American nuclear and biological security, it will take a public outcry like the one that follows a disaster. The public will have to demand that the country’s nuclear- and biological-defense enterprises stop stepping out to the brink, and instead avert the disasters foreshadowed by the many uncomfortable compromises and accidents we have seen.”
Madagascar Battles Plague
The death toll has risen to twenty as government officials are banning public gatherings in the country’s capital. While plague is endemic to the country and causes roughly 400 cases a year, this spike in cases and the swift spread is concerning the WHO after already 114 cases have been reported since August. “More than half of recorded cases – 73 out of 133 – are pneumonic plague, the most virulent form, which is passed through person-to-person transmission. If it is not treated, pneumonic plague can be fatal within 24 hours. The epidemic also involves bubonic plague, which is spread by rats and kills about 50% of people it infects.” The WHO has released $300,000 in emergency funds and is asking for $1.5 to support outbreak response as the disease has quickly spread to several cities and outbreak season (September-April) is just beginning. You can read the latest WHO report on the outbreak here.
HBO VICE’s Contagion Episode
Check out the latest VICE episode regarding two interesting topics – Russian hacking and contagions. “The outbreak of an infectious disease sparks worldwide panic nearly every year. And as humans cluster themselves in denser cities and encroach closer to the wildlife harboring disease, the chances of a devastating global pandemic only intensifies. But scientists are finding that diligent surveillance of these threats could help keep the next nightmare disease at bay. VICE founder Suroosh Alvi went to Uganda to see how vulnerable humans are to a new pandemic and the options there are for staving it off.”
Bavarian Nordic Wins Up-to-$539M BARDA Contract for Smallpox Vaccine BARDA has contracted with Bavarian Nordic to ensure the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile has smallpox vaccine in the form of freeze-drived Imvamune. “The contract consists of an initial $100 million base award toward manufacturing and storage of Imvamune vaccine bulk—the third bulk contract inked between the company and BARDA. The two earlier bulk contracts total a combined $233 million. In addition, the contract includes two initial options: Up to $299 million toward the filling and freeze-drying of Imvamune produced under the three bulk awards and up to $140 million toward clinical development, regulatory commitments, and portions of the establishment and validation of fill/finish activities.” This new contract will cover roughly 13 million doses at $48 per dose.
The Risk of Adoption of Chemical and Biological Weapons by Non-State Actors in the EU James Revill addresses growing concern over the potential for non-state groups to utilize chemical or biological terrorism within the European Union. Pulling on historical events involving CBW use by non-state actors, he addresses the current and future risks. “To achieve this, the article analyses six interlinked clusters of factors that can be seen as important in assessing the risk of whether or not to adopt such weapons. These are: the perceived relative advantage of CBW and their utilities; the complexity of such weapons; their ideological compatibility; the role of organisational structures; the visibility and ‘fashionability’ of such weapons; and the wider environmental context.” Overall, Revill finds that while there is potential for sophisticated CBWs to do great harm, they are unlikely, and the use of a “scruffy low-level chemical weapon” is much more realistic.
ABSA International 60th Annual Biological Safety Conference
October is national Biosafety Month, so don’t miss out on this conference held by the Association for Biosafety and Biosecurity on October 13-18th in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The conference will include special meetings like public health interest groups, next generation/new biosafety professionals shared interest group meetings, and great networking opportunities for biosafety and biosecurity professionals!
How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Revolutionized Public Health
As the centennial of the 1918/1919 pandemic approaches, it encourages us to really look at what has changed and what we’ve learned from such a global catastrophe. Public health itself has evolved – no longer restricted by the antiquated policies that were marked with eugenics and social stigma. At the time, influenza was not a reportable disease either, which meant that public health surveillance was shotty at best and quarantine efforts were usually too little, too late. “The lesson that health authorities took away from the catastrophe was that it was no longer reasonable to blame an individual for catching an infectious disease, nor to treat him or her in isolation. The 1920s saw many governments embracing the concept of socialized medicine—healthcare for all, delivered free at the point of delivery.” Now, disease surveillance and epidemiology are a cornerstone of public health, not to mention the development of the WHO in 1946. The 1918 flu pandemic forced us to change our approach to public health, but also taught a vital lesson – infectious disease was a global problem and not isolated to a single country, region, or group of people.
The Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP) just released their report on ensuring institutional compliance with biosafety, biocontainment, and laboratory biosecurity regulations and guidelines. FESAP recommendations are crucial, as they are supposed to be followed within research facilities that perform work with human, plant, and/or animal infectious agents and toxins. “The United States has a comprehensive biosafety, biocontainment, and biosecurity oversight system designed to protect laboratory workers, public health, agriculture, the environment, and national security. Biosafety and biocontainment oversight rests on a foundation of federal regulations, guidelines, and policies and is provided at multiple levels. Oversight of day to day research activities is largely a responsibility of the institutions and the investigators conducting the research with direct biosafety oversight being implemented at the local level.” In efforts to ensure compliance and build a culture of responsibility, FESAP has released guidance that aims to ensure biosafety, biosecurity, and biocontainment, while encouraging research. Some of the regulations and guidelines include: “conduct regular assessments of committees, offices, and departments with responsibilities for biosafety and biosecurity oversight to assess their function and strengthen their performance when necessary” and “promote transparency regarding institutional biosafety and biosecurity oversight.” The report also includes federal regulations and guidelines regarding research conduct, environmental regulations, dual-use research of concern oversight at the institutional level, etc.
Stories You May Have Missed:
- BioShield Adds Ebola Vaccine To SNS & BARDA Industry Day – Project Bioshield, responsible for acquiring MCM against CBRN agents, is now adding two Ebola treatments and two vaccines to the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). The new additions include “a single-dose vaccine licensed by Merck, a prime-boost vaccine regimen from Johnson & Johnson, and monoclonal antibody treatments from Mapp Biopharmaceutical and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.” If you’re looking to get more information on MCM, you can also attend the 2017 BARDA Industry Day on November 7-8, at the Ronal Reagan Building. Presented by ASPR (Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response), the conference will give individuals the opportunity to learn about the past, present, and future of BARDA, MCM development opportunities, experiences partnering with BARDA, and more. Robert Kadlec, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, will be the keynote speaker for the event.
- Bioweapons and Virtual Terrorism – Considering the threat of biological weapons and virtual terrorism? It was recently estimated that the cost of a bioweapon is 0.05% the cost of a convention weapon that would produce the same casualties per square kilometer. What are your thoughts on the author’s notion that biological weapons are “comparatively easy, using common technology available for the production of some antibiotics, vaccines, foods, and beverages, and delivery systems such as spray devices from an airplane, boat, or car are commonly available”?
- History and Future of the Global HIV/AIDS Response: A Conversation with Dr. Michael Merson and Dr. Stephen Inrig– The Center for Strategic and International studies will be hosting this event on Monday, October 16th from 10-11:30am. Drs. Merson and Inrig will discuss the origins and evolution of the global HIV/AIDS response, as well as critical current and future issues affecting the fight against the disease worldwide, which were recently highlighted in papers issued by the CSIS HIV Working Group. “This ambitious book provides a comprehensive history of the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Programme on AIDS (GPA), using it as a unique lens to trace the global response to the AIDS pandemic. The authors describe how WHO came initially to assume leadership of the global response, relate the strategies and approaches WHO employed over the years, and expound on the factors that led to the Programme’s demise and subsequent formation of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The authors examine the global impact of this momentous transition, portray the current status of the global response to AIDS, and explore the precarious situation that WHO finds itself in today as a lead United Nations agency in global health. The global response – the strategies adopted, the roads taken and not taken, and the lessons learned – can provide helpful guidance to the global health community as it continues tackling the AIDS pandemic and confronts future global pandemics.” The event will be webcast live from the event page. Please register by clicking the “Register” button above and contact Sara Allinder, email@example.com, with questions.
- MoBE 2017 Symposium to highlight research on the Microbiology of the Built Environment – October 10-12th, in Washington, D.C. The event will highlight recent research on the Microbiome of the Built Environment and explore ways to bridge the gaps between research and applications. More specifically, The MoBE 2017 Symposium will bring together leading researchers and stakeholders to discuss MoBE findings pertinent to human health, safe drinking water, healthy built environments and urban design. Ed Yong of The Atlantic, Susan Lynch of the University of California at San Francisco and Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech will provide keynote addresses.
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