Pandora Report 11.24.2017

We hope you had a wonderful tryptophan-induced holiday and are ready for your weekly dose of all things biodefense! Roughly 46 million turkeys were eaten on Thursday, but did you ever wonder if yours was antibiotic-free? (hint: we’re venturing down antimicrobial resistance rabbit hole in this week’s newsletter).

Russia Shuts Down The UN Probe Into Syrian Chemical Weapons
Despite the launch of the 2015 Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), efforts to investigate the use of chemical weapons by President Assad in Syria, have been stalled and challenged by Russia. The latest move by Russia to kill international investigations into such attacks has come in the form of Security Council vetoes. “Russia’s actions have enraged al-Assad’s Western critics, who accuse the Syrian leader of secretly stockpiling chemical weapons in contravention of UN resolutions, and who now want to deliver accountability by other means.” This latest hurdle leaves many to wonder how we got here and if the OPCW can potentially overcome these protests. “As it happens, the OPCW’s top decision-making body, the 192-nation Conference of States Parties, is also scheduled to meet next week. Although that meeting is not directly related to the chemical weapons crisis in Syria, it ‘can’t ignore Syria’s continued non-compliance,’ says Gregory Koblentz, a nonproliferation expert at George Mason University who spoke to IRIN last week.” Not only did the vetoes do damage to inspections, but a draft Russian-Iranian decision that was circulated at the OPCW was recently obtained, in which the objectives were to overturn OPCW inspector procedures and information sharing practices. “(Russia‘s) supreme goal is to compromise the ability of the (OPCW) fact-finding mission to do its job professionally and without political interference,” said Gregory Koblentz, a non-proliferation expert at George Mason University, in the U.S. state of Virginia.“This draft resolution has to be seen as part of a Russian strategy to undermine all international investigations into the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government,” he said.

Antimicrobial Resistance: An Underrated Biological Threat
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is hoping to change the narrative for how we look at antimicrobial resistance. AMR isn’t the kind of flashy disease that gets the headlines or surges of funding, and yet it’s been wreaking havoc for decades. Popescu points to the need to address AMR as the global biological catastrophic event that it is rather than a neglected public health issue that is predominantly seen as medical or agricultural. Citing the ominous predictions of the antibiotic abyss, challenges in drug research and development, and why this is such a difficult beast to tackle, Popescu highlights just how devastating AMR is on a global level. “One of the biggest impediments to developing effective treatments is the normalization of AMR. Researchers, infection prevention and control practitioners, and medical professionals have been raising the red flag for decades. Drug-resistant infections, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus(MRSA), used to be rare events in health care but are now considered a common occurrence.” She notes that “AMR poses a national security threat due to its ease of transmission and its potential for a major public health crisis. Unfortunately, the spread of highly resistant diseases has received far less concern and funding than emerging infectious diseases.”

Read-Out on the GHSA Summit in Kampala Event – Save the Date!
We’re excited to announce that on Monday December 4th, GMU will be hosting a seminar on the GHSA Ministerial Meeting from several health security experts who attended. Held at the Arlington campus in Founders Hall from 12-1:30pm, guests will hear from Jamechia Hoyle, Coordinator of the Next Generation Global Health Security Network, Jennifer Nuzzo, Senior Associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and two GMU Biodefense MS students – Anthony Falzarano and Stephen Taylor. More details will be be provided in the coming days, but make sure to save the date as this is a great chance to hear about this critical meeting and the future of the GHSA.

Potential Role of Social Media in Combatting Antimicrobial Resistance
As we continue to see the rise of MCR-1 gene, antimicrobial stewardship and predictions of the future become increasingly important, but just how accurate is this information? GMU Biodefense MS student Janet Marroquin is fact-checking the predictions of the post-antibiotic apocalypse and how the media has portrayed this threat. “In this era of fake news, the credibility of articles circulating on social media can be dubious, particularly when citations are not readily available.  Further investigation of the statistical data used in the video yielded mixed results.” Marroquin points to a NowThis video-based news report and how antimicrobial resistance has been portrayed and introduced to the public through such venues. “Although the dissection of the data used in the NowThis video revealed a few inconsistencies, the attention that 90 seconds can bring to various aspects of AMR to the general public is much. As of November 6, 2017, the video has had 2.1M views and has been shared by 12,333 users on Facebook, retweeted by 175 users on Twitter, and has been featured on news sites. Interestingly, a few days after the release of the NowThis video, NBC News Mach published an online news article addressing the ‘post-antibiotic apocalypse’.”

Ready for a Global Pandemic?
Director of the Center for Health Security Tom Inglesby and Stanford law student Benjamin Haas are evaluating just how likely a pandemic is and how prepared we might be with the current administration. Between the rapid growth of people in densely populated areas and globalization, microbes have a sort of novel freedom that hasn’t been seen before. Biological threats go beyond pandemics to the potential for bioterrorism or even laboratory accidents. So what is the U.S. government doing to prepare? Efforts have ranged from NIH-funded research into pathogens of pandemic potential, the development of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), reinforcing the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), etc. “Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has not indicated so far that his administration takes this issue seriously. Initially, his 2018 budget proposed slashed funding for such programs by nine percent, or $1.25 billion, from the preceding year, which would be the largest reduction in over a decade.” “Although the civil-servant workforce has continued to make progress in important programs, it remains to be seen whether the administration’s political leadership will push biosecurity efforts forward in a meaningful way. In the months ahead, there are four elements to look for in evaluating just how seriously the Trump administration will pursue these issues: its budget priorities for the new fiscal year, its impending biodefense strategy, its approach to overseeing research on novel and highly dangerous pathogens, and its level of engagement in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) process.” Inglesby and Haas highlight the importance of supporting the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), approaching complex topics like certain kinds of scientific research, and ensuring funding for vital agencies. “The administration has opportunities to make substantial headway on pandemic risks at the national and international levels. Its budget, biodefense strategy, approach to high-consequence research, and engagement on the BWC are all key. The means exist to diminish the spread of pandemics—through science, intelligence, medical and public health preparedness, diplomacy, and smart governance.”

Bird Flu Moves Throughout Asia
China is experiencing its fifth wave of H7N9 infections since 2016 and of the 1,600 laboratory-confirmed human cases, 40% have died. While most  of the human cases have occurred due to poultry exposure, there is concern that some are related to transmission between people. Responding to the threat of avian influenza has been challenging  – wanting to avoid total alarmism and hysteria, but also ensuring the public health response is adequate and prepared. “In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention summarized some disturbing developments. The H7N9 virus had become lethal to birds, which made it potentially more dangerous to people but also easier to spot. And the virus had split into two lineages — called Yangtze and Pearl, after the river deltas in which each was spreading — complicating efforts to make vaccines. In October, the World Health Organization put out an update citing new cases of H7N9 infection as cold weather set in and noting that poultry farmers were vaccinating flocks against both this virus and other strains.” Avian influenza still circulates in Egypt and Indonesia and H1N1 is now a common strain for seasonal flu, but just how close are we to continued transmission of H7N9 between humans?

Addressing Challenges in Global Health Security: Executive Program
The Geneva Centre for Security Policy will be hosting this event as a Swiss contribution to the GHSA – it’s free of charge for the representatives of GHSA member states! “Leaders are expected to formulate policies for best practices and strategies for dealing with future health contexts and crisis scenarios. This programme provides an opportunity to learn the basics of current health practices, policies, implementation schemes, and approaches for the road ahead. Throughout the programme, participants will examine emerging health challenges and their governance implications, working together to understand and devise ways to mitigate potential health threats.” This event runs January 29th – February 1st, 2018, in Geneva and applications are due November 29th, 2017.

Center for the Study of WMDs – Spotlight Seminar on Japanese Germ Warfare
Don’t miss this December 12th seminar “Hidden Atrocities: Japanese Germ Warfare and American Obstruction of Justice at the Tokyo Trials” from 1230-1400 at NDU’s Lincoln Hall in the Proceres Conference Room (Lincoln Hall 3212). “In the aftermath of World War II, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Trials, tried 28 Japanese political and military leaders and more than 5,700 personnel with war crimes. Yet U.S. military intelligence and Washington decision makers prevented the indictment of the government leaders and scientists responsible for Japan’s secret germ warfare program, Unit 731. In an effort to acquire Japan’s biological warfare expertise to gain an advantage over the Soviet Union, the United States covered up the extent of the program, jeopardizing international justice with lasting consequences. Dr. Jeanne Guillemin, Senior Advisor in the MIT Security Studies Program, will discuss her new book, Hidden Atrocities, and its account of both the Japanese program and the subsequent collusion.” RSVP is required. All non-DOD-affiliated visitors will need to fill out the attached JBM-HH Base Access Form, even if you have attended previous Spotlight events. We ask that you send us this form to cswmd-admin@ndu.edu no later than 5 December 2017.  You may also bring the completed form with you. Please allow extra time for the new security procedures.*

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Raw Milk Brucella Outbreak Across 4 States– The CDC has issued a warning for people “in four states—Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island—who drank raw milk from Udder Milk may be infected with a rare but serious Brucella abortus RB51 bacterium and should see their doctors for antibiotic treatment.”
  •  New Malaria Parasite Discovered in Bonobos – A new malaria parasite has been found in the African animals, as researchers have confirmed the bonobos are a host. “Now, by sampling more bonobos in geographically diverse settings, scientists writing in Nature Communication show that bonobos harbor a new species of malaria parasite, called Plasmodium lomamiensis. The parasite is a previously unknown Laverania species, which are closely related to P falciparum, one of the parasites that causes human malaria infections.”

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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