Pandora Report 11.3.2017

Welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense. Today we get to celebrate Global One Health Day, in which the goal “is to build the cultural will necessary for a sea change in how planetary health challenges are assessed and addressed.”

High-Containment Laboratories: Coordinated Actions Needed to Enhance the Select Agent Program’s Oversight of Hazardous Pathogens
The latest U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report is focusing on high-containment labs and how we can enhance the Select Agent Program’s oversight of hazardous pathogens. “Safety lapses continue to occur at some of the 276 laboratories in the United States that conduct research on select agents—such as Ebola virus or anthrax bacteria—that may cause serious or lethal infection in humans, animals, or plants, raising concerns about whether oversight is effective. GAO was asked to review the federal oversight approach for select agents and approaches from other countries or regulatory sectors. This report (1) evaluates the extent to which the Select Agent Program has elements of effective oversight and strategic planning documents to guide it, and (2) identifies approaches selected countries and regulatory sectors have used to promote effective oversight.” The Select Agent Program is managed through a partnership between DHHS and USDA, which oversees how labs handle these deadly pathogens. The biosecurity and biosafety failures that have occurred in recent years highlights the challenges of not only performing such work, but also oversight. The GAO report found that the Select Agent Program hasn’t assessed the risks of its current structure, has reviews that may not target the highest-risk activities, continues to have significant workforce and training gaps, etc. Eleven recommendations were made, which range from “To improve transparency, the CDC director of the Select Agent Program should work with APHIS to determine what additional information about laboratories’ use of select agents, incidents, and violations of the select agent regulations is appropriate for the program to share with registered laboratories” to “improve independence, the Administrator of APHIS should formally document the reporting structure for the APHIS component of the Select Agent Program from the APHIS director of the program to the Administrator of APHIS”. You can read the full report here or get the highlights here.

GHSA Ministerial Meeting
Last week’s Ministerial Meeting at Kampala was a success and a great time to reflect on GHSA accomplishments from member countries. You can get all the information here regarding the success stories across GHSA members. We will also be reporting on stories from those attendees who were able to join NextGeneration GHSA for the meeting, so don’t miss out on some great deep-dives from GMU biodefense students and their stories from Kampala!

COMMENTARY: Pandemic preparedness and missed opportunities             CIDRAP Director Dr. Michael T. Osterholm is honing in on a dogma for so many within public health – we need pandemic preparedness and we’re just not prepared. Unfortunately, sometimes our efforts to change this can result in a backfire. “Last week PATH issued a report titled, Healthier World, Safer America: A US Government Roadmap for International Action to Prevent the Next Pandemic. PATH, a leading international nonprofit organization, is widely recognized for its work to save lives and improve health, especially among women and children.” “The PATH report, if it commented only on epidemic preparedness, would be a home run. But by stating that the recommendations in the report will stem the risk of the next pandemic, the report ends up contributing to the ongoing mischaracterization about what pandemic preparedness truly means and what is needed to reduce any impact of a future pandemic. Understanding the difference between a pandemic and epidemic is absolutely necessary for consequential preparedness and response planning and action to be accomplished.  Let me illustrate the difference between the two and why it matters.” Osterholm points to this very vital misstep that can easily add confusion when working towards preparedness. He highlights the substantial difference between pandemics and epidemics and that ultimately, before we can truly address preparedness and response, we need to sincerely understand the discrepancies. Osterholm also highlights the biothreats we should be worried about for potential pandemics – influenza and antimicrobial resistance. Osterholm points to these two pandemic concerns while highlighting the importance of the GHSA, the vital role of early and effective detection to epidemic diseases, and that pandemic clocks are ticking. “The influenza and antimicrobial pandemic clocks are ticking; we just don’t know what time it is. Misunderstanding and misrepresenting what we need to do to be better prepared takes an understanding of what a pandemic is and what it isn’t. To date we are not doing a very good job of understanding that point and responding accordingly. The PATH report is a clear reminder.”

Early Insights from Madagascar’s Plague Outbreak: Lessons Learned from Ebola?
Have we really learned some of those difficult lessons from Ebola? Joshua Hutton, Doctoral Candidate at the University of Sussex is evaluating the current plague outbreak in Madagascar under the lens of Ebola. Hutton looks at the epidemiology and cultural impact of these diseases, their similarities and differences, and what lessons can be learned. Hutton looks at the health systems within Madagscar and the Ebola-affected West African countries, noting that Madagascar has 1 doctor per 100,000, while Liberia has 0.1 and Sierra Leone has 0.2 per 100,000. “Furthermore, both Ebola and plague elicit very strong emotional reactions. Ebola has been sensationalized by popular books and major motion pictures (such as Outbreak). Its haemorrhagic symptoms, exaggerated in popular culture, instil fear and remain memorable as an object of cultural anxiety.” “Despite these similarities, there are some obvious differences that affect the public health responses to these outbreaks. The first is that plague is a very different pathogen from Ebola. While Ebola is a virus, Y. pestis is a well-characterised bacterium. One important implication of this difference is that while treatments for Ebola remain elusive, antimicrobials to combat plague do exist. Plague is curable when caught early enough. This not only helps the response, but also reduces the heavy emotional burden placed on healthcare workers who felt helpless caring for Ebola patients without a treatment.” Hutton also notes the differences between public health responses, especially by the WHO – highlighting the lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak. “The early response to this anomalous outbreak of pneumonic plague in Madagascar seems to suggest that lessons are being learned from the Ebola outbreak. While there are distinct differences between the two outbreaks – not the least the availability of rapid diagnostics to identify infected individuals and the availability of antibiotics to treat them – the broader context, the rapid response, and the engaging of local communities produce a cautious optimism for the future.

US-Malaysia Workshop on BWC
The November 30-December 1st workshop at the Council Chamber, Palais des Nations, will focus on BWC-relevant developments by international experts. This workshop will feature expert presentations about global activities during the past year that strengthen the BWC. The purpose of the workshop is to inform States Parties about recent developments relating to national implementation, cooperation and assistance, preparedness and response, and science and technology; and to exchange ideas about their relevance to the Convention.

 My Time As An Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Initiative Fellow                         Take a journey down the biosecurity rabbit hole with GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu and her experience as a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has maintained a fellowship since 2012 that seeks to provide opportunities for biosecurity professionals and helps to broaden their careers through contacts and experiences. The Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) program is something I’ve been striving to join for years. I’ll admit it – it wasn’t my first time applying and while this is a highly competitive group, I was definitely disappointed when I didn’t get that acceptance email. Fortunately, 2017 was my year and I was selected as an ELBI fellow and that’s where this adventure begins.” Popescu describes her experiences at the three workshops, the engagement with some of the top minds in the field, and just how much fun it can be to geek out with fellow biosecurity nerds.

Fourth Annual Summit on Global Food Security and Health
Don’t miss this great opportunity to focus on the interrelationship between Food Security and National Security! Held at GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government on Wednesday, November 15th, you’ll want to make sure you register for this full-day summit! “The conference is co-sponsored by the Stimson Center, RTI International, and The Policy Studies Organization. Our focus this year is on the interrelationship between food security and national security, progress and challenges under Feed The Future (FTF) and the Global Food Security Act, and the growing importance of food security private-public partnerships, resilience, critical indigenous food security challenges, nutrition and health issues. Summit speakers will represent a wide array of government, international organization, NGO, private sector, and academic experts. Our Summit follows the issuance of a recent USAID Feed The Future 2017 Progress Report, the enactment of the July 2016 Global Food Security Act, the related completion of new USAID global food security and food aid strategies, and the issuance of USAID’s December 2016 Feed The Future Global Performance Evaluation. The Summit will follow the World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines, Iowa , October 18 – 20 which addresses opportunities for innovative agriculture to eliminate the scourge of global hunger and poverty. Our GMU Summit takes place during a particularly important period marked by protracted uncertainty about U.S. support for International food aid, global food security, and foreign aid.”

Preppers: On the Frontline of U.S. Preparedness
Are you prepared for an apocalyptic event? GMU Biodefense PhD student and VP of marketing at Emergent BioSolutions student Rebecca Fish is taking us on a deep-dive into the world of preppers. “In 2015, Emergent BioSolutions undertook a multi-phase research project to better understand the prepper movement.  A random sample of 1,022 people aged 18-65 was surveyed to explore prepping behavior.  Findings suggested that the average prepper is not as extreme as many television programs would have you believe.  Rather, your average prepper is an ordinary person trying to do his/ her best for his/her family by preparing for emergency events.  The defining characteristic of a prepper is a belief in self-sufficiency and a desire to be prepared for whatever life throws at you.” This study found some interesting data on preppers – 67% are married and 43% earn over $100,000 per year, while 45% hold a college or advanced graduate degree. The volume and commitment of preppers is also indicative of a market for MCM product and other CBRNe products. “After the 2011 Fukushima Daiiche nuclear disaster in Japan, potassium iodide tablets stocked out everywhere due to overwhelming demand. Similarly, during the Ebola crisis, CBNBC reported that sales of one type of full-body protective suit increased 131,000 percent on Amazon. Gas masks and Ebola survival guides shot up the rankings as well.” As a further example, twenty four percent of preppers in our research own a gas mask.  These data suggest that preppers have demonstrated interest in CBRNe supplies and represent a market for some preparedness supplies.” Fish not only provides new insight into the Prepper community, but also encourages us to start learning more about this group and their interests in preparedness.

BARDA Industry Day
Don’t miss out on BARDA Industry Day next week, from November 7-8th, at the Ronald Reagan Building. “BARDA remains committed to engaging with our industry and government partners to fulfill our mission, saving lives and protecting America through the research and development of medical countermeasures against serious threats. The theme of BARDA Industry Day 2017 is: Innovation in products and partnerships for flexible, dynamic response capabilities.” The keynote speakers will be Robert Kadlec, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Senator Tom Daschle, Founder and CEO of the Daschle Group.

 New Biosecurity Threats Appear in Less Familiar Forms                                    Following the anthrax attacks in 2001, focus within biodefense and biosecurity fell upon bioterrorism and the potential attack that could impact millions of Americans. Since then, health security has evolved to include a wider range of potential issues and threats – natural, manmade, and accidental. GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu highlights some of these newer threats and that while they may be less familiar to health professionals, it is vital we involve them in the narrative of hospital preparedness. Discussing the gaps within U.S. biodefense efforts, genetic engineering, and how dual-use research impacts bio-vulnerability, Popescu implores infectious disease practitioners to soak in this knowledge. “How can we, as infectious disease practitioners, prepare or respond? First, knowledge is key. It is crucial to understand the threats, whether they are a natural outbreak, a lab breach you read about, or even just a review of the signs and symptoms of organisms we tend to worry about but may not see in the United States (such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome, anthrax, etc). Researchers should also consider the implications of their work and take the necessary review processes to ensure the proper biosecurity measures are taken.”

Should FEMA Be a Stand Alone Agency?                                                                            GMU Biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is at it again – evaluating DHS and the potential for major realignments in the Department. “As Congress considers reauthorizing the Department of Homeland Security, principles guiding any major realignments could include assessing whether the organization would be performing operational or staff management functions. Additionally, those principles could examine whether mission effectiveness would be improved through those major realignments and whether implemented changes would introduce new points of friction or inefficiency.” Gertstein notes several major realignments under consideration – replace the National Protection and Programs Directorate at DHS with a new Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, remove FEMA from the DHS and make it a stand-alone department, and standing up a counter WMD organization. “As part of comprehensive department legislation, these realignments should be considered with an eye towards increasing operational effectiveness and efficiency while minimizing organizational friction in the transformed organizations and avoiding loss of key support relationships.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Unforgiving Math That Stops Pandemics– Another prime example of herd immunity and the importance of vaccination – “When talking about vaccination and disease control, health authorities often invoke “herd immunity.” This term refers to the level of immunity in a population that’s needed to prevent an outbreak from happening. Low levels of herd immunity are often associated with epidemics, such as the measles outbreak in 2014-2015 that was traced to exposures at Disneyland in California. A study investigating cases from that outbreak demonstrated that measles vaccination rates in the exposed population may have been as low as 50 percent. This number was far below the threshold needed for herd immunity to measles, and it put the population at risk of disease.”
  • Biosecurity Implications for the Synthesis of Horsepox, an Orthopoxvirus– Gigi Gronvall evaluates the biosecurity and biodefense implications of the recent horsepox synthesis. “The ability to recreate horsepox, or smallpox, will remain no matter what policy controls are put into place. It will be impossible to close off all avenues for nefarious misuse of gene synthesis, or misuse of biological materials more broadly. As a result, we advocate for the implementation of policy, regulations, and guidance that will make illicit recreation harder, more burdensome, more detectable, and, thus, more preventable without having sweeping negative consequences for the research enterprise. As part of our biosecurity efforts, we must also encourage and enable scientists to participate actively and to do all they can to safeguard their technical fields from irresponsible or illicit actions.”

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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