Pandora Report 12.15.2017

Welcome back to your weekly dose of all things biodefense! We’ve got a packed newsletter for you, so buckle up. Curious about CRISPR and how it works? Check out the best and worst analogies here.

Read Out On The GHSA Ministerial Meeting in Kampala
If you missed our Read-Out on the GHSA meeting in Kampala, we’ve got a great overview with attachments. The NextGen Global Health Security Network Reflections can be found here and Coordinator Jamechia Hoyle was kind enough to provide her powerpoint from the Read-Out, which you can access here. The Read-Out involved presentations and discussions from not only NextGen GHSA Coordinator Hoyle, but also Jennifer Nuzzo from the Center from Health Security, and two GMU Biodefense MS students – Anthony Falzarano and Stephen Taylor. In fact, Anthony and Stephen provided several great photos from the Kampala summit, which you can see here. “While they discussed that the dialogue was driven by high level members of government. The overall consensus was the need to bring in non-governmental and academic voices. The panel members emphasized this by showcasing the work with Next Generation Global Health Security Leaders and the continued efforts to bring young professionals and students into these working groups. From the discussion, it is evident that GHSA’s efforts are being felt in many nations. The Response Center in Uganda, while small, had the hallmarks of the CDC and other organizational support.” Dr. Nuzzo brought her talk to a close with a poignant quote from the summit – “it is much cheaper to spend on preparedness than it is to spend on response.” Attendee and biodefense MS student Janet Marroquin noted that “the containment of the Marburg virus in Uganda during the conference perfectly illustrated the benefits of improved health security measures, but it is easy to overlook this success when good health is expected as a guarantee. In addition to bringing attention to current deficiencies in global health security, the GHSA is needed to look to the future and anticipate and prevent roadblocks in implementation.”

Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties – Recap
Last week, GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu attended the Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties (MSP) with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security ELBI program. This MSP started on somewhat of a bated breath as last year’s Review Conference was, as described by many, an epic failure. Having endorsed the Joint NGO Statement, Popescu noted that “the role of the NGOs felt even more important in such a disjointed climate where the future of the BWC was in many ways, up in the air. The importance of support and pushing for future cohesion regarding not only the intersessional process (ISP), but also S&T developments, was a significant point within the NGO statement.” As you can find in many of the live-tweeting that was occurring (#MSP2017), the MSP started off with a bang as Iran noted that they were not convinced further ISP work would be productive and if the BWC isn’t legally binding, it can’t truly be universal. Chairman Gill started the MSP with a quote from Rumi and worked tirelessly to maintain focus and forward momentum. Thankfully, despite several days of closed-door discussion, consensus was reached and the ISP was established to include 4 days of meetings of the MSP and 5 meetings of experts, which would focus on cooperation and assistance, development S&T, strengthening national implementation, assistance for preparedness and response, and the institutional strength of the BWC.  You can also find detailed overviews of each day here. A few of Popescu’s favorite moments from attending: “Sweden’s inclusion of antimicrobial resistance in their opening statement, Australia’s comments on the need for a more diverse attendance in the future and the growing presence of women within the BWC. It was also surprising how shockingly low the states costs for BWC inclusion are…and how some are delinquent by a few hundred dollars. Lastly and perhaps the most important part of the trip was getting to attend a pivotal event in biodefense history with such an amazing group of people who were all as excited and enthusiastic as I was. As we took a break to visit the WHO and peered upon the famous smallpox statue, I think it all hit us how vital this work is on a global level.”

Jurassic Ticks?
Paleontologists have recently announced the finding of a 99-million-year-old tick that not only was holding on for dear life within the feathers of a dinosaur, but provides evidence that these blood-suckers fed on dinosaurs. While this tick came from the Cretaceous period, it feels eerily similar to how Jurassic Park began. “This study provides the most compelling evidence to date for ticks feeding on feathered animals in the Cretaceous,” said Ryan C. McKellar, a paleontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada who was not involved in the study. “It demonstrates just how much detail can be obtained from a few pieces of amber in the hands of the right researchers.” Imagine the kind of dino-arboviruses we might come across with this finding! It’s hard not to chuckle at the timing of the announcement since the latest Jurassic World movie trailer was released just last week.

Podcast “Syria(s) Problem: Chemical Weapons & International Norms from Power Problems
Don’t miss this episode of the bi-weekly podcast Power Problems from the Cato Institute hosted by Emma Ashford and GMU biodefense professor Trevor Thrall. In this episode on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, GMU biodefense professor and graduate program director Gregory Koblentz discusses how the use of such weapons calls into question the utility of international norms. Some of the show notes also include the discussion of taboos against chemical weapons, and antibiotic resistance as a biological threat.

Is North Korea’s Bioweapons Threat Growing With Increasing Biotech Expertise?
Are the technical hurdles to biological weapons eroding in North Korea? Advances in the life sciences have brought forth a wealth of new capabilities, like manipulating DNA, but are we also lowering the bar for bioweapons development? There’s been increasing talk regarding the potential for North Korea to develop and deploy biological weapons. While there certainly has been a lowering of technical hurdles in some aspects of bioweapons development, has North Korea truly developed a functioning program? “The gains have alarmed U.S. analysts, who say North Korea — which has doggedly pursued weapons of mass destruction of every other variety — could quickly surge into industrial-scale production of biological pathogens if it chooses to do so. Such a move could give the regime yet another fearsome weapon with which to threaten neighbors or U.S. troops in a future conflict, officials and analysts say. Current and former U.S. officials with access to classified files say they have seen no hard evidence so far that Kim has ordered production of actual weapons, beyond samples and prototypes. And they can only speculate about the reasons.” Many note that their possession of biological agents is known but that the unknown is just how far along a bioweapons program might be. The development of a high-functioning and successful bioweapons program requires significant funding, human resources, and tacit knowledge. Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley recently broke down just how realistic these concerns are (hint: she’s a GMU biodefense professor and guru on tacit knowledge). In response to this week’s increased attention on a potential program in North Korea, Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley was also interviewed regarding the cost of a biological weapons program and just how much it would take to truly develop and maintain one. “The cost of maintaining an active biological weapons program is high, according to Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She said the Soviet Union spent ‘several billion dollars’ on its program, while terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo spent about $10 million, though the latter ‘failed at every step.’ The United States spent about $700 million on its program, which was active over the course of roughly 27 years. ‘The challenge is in acquiring the expertise to handle and manipulate living organisms that are fragile and unpredictable: that requires time and a work organization that ensure continuity and stability of work,’ Ben Ouagrham-Gormley said. ‘These are conditions that are difficult to maintain in a covert program. That’s why most covert bioweapons programs have failed thus far’.”

Global Health Security and the US Export Economy
It’s easy for many to think that outbreaks only impacts public health, but the truth is that the effects of health security threats are felt across many sectors and industries. The export economy is not immune to disruption should there be a public health emergency. A recent study reviewed economic vulnerability to the US export economy that would be impacted by disruptions in 49 countries. These 49 countries are currently being targeted by the CDC and partners to improve capabilities to prevent/respond to public health infectious disease threats throughout laboratories, workforce, surveillance, and response systems. Enhancing global health security by strengthening the country capacity is the goal for these 49 countries. “US exports to the 49 countries exceeded $308 billion and supported more than 1.6 million jobs across all US states in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, services, and other sectors. These exports represented 13.7% of all US export revenue worldwide and 14.3% of all US jobs supported by all US exports. The economic linkages between the United States and these global health security priority countries illustrate the importance of ensuring that countries have the public health capacities needed to control outbreaks at their source before they become pandemics.” The numbers are startling, especially if you consider that the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic was estimated to have a global economic impact of almost $40 billion USD. The total value of US material goods/services exported to all countries was estimated to be $2.3 trillion in 2015. The findings of this study point to the significant economic disruption that would occur if a health security event occurred in one of these 49 countries. Global health security is truly an investment that provides a return, as we know that an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere.

CyberbiosecurityDNA Has Gone Digital – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
As biotechnology and biology go full-steam ahead, there is increasing use of technology and informatics databases to support such innovation. Where does that leave us in terms of cybersecurity? Coined as “cyberbiosecurity”, many in the field, like Colorado State University’s Jean Peccoud, are drawing attention to the risk this new frontier has for researchers, industry, and the government. Peccoud and his colleagues point to the potential for accidental or intentional breaches, noting that “In the past, most biosecurity and biosafety policies were based on sample containment,” Peccoud says. “Now, it’s so easy to read DNA sequences, for example, or to make DNA molecules out of sequences publicly available from bioinformatics databases. Most projects have a cyber dimension, and that introduces a new category of risk.” Traditional biosecurity efforts focus on containment of the organism from accidental or nefarious use, but that doesn’t really focus on the computational aspect of new biotech, like synthetic biology. “The authors recommend employee training, systematic analyses to examine potential exposure to cyberbiosecurity risks, and the development of new policies for preventing and detecting security incidents. ‘Once individuals in a community are aware of cyberbiosecurity risks, they can begin to implement safeguards within their own work environments, and work with regulators to develop policies to prevent cyberbiosecurity breaches,’ they write.” Peccoud also pointed to the potential for computer viruses to impact the physical world. Citing the 2010 computer virus that caused equipment failure at an Iranian nuclear plant, such malware could result in biological outcomes that could be dangerous. It doesn’t take much of a venture down the rabbit hole to think about the automated processes that are used in laboratories, especially high-containment labs, and how they could be damaging if commandeered for nefarious purposes. So what can be done? The first step is truly recognizing the threat – “The threats are bidirectional. And not all cyberbiosecurity threats are premeditated or criminal. Unintentional errors that occur while translating between a physical DNA molecule and its digital reference are common. These errors might not compromise national security, but they could cause costly delays or product recalls.” Synthetic biology and biotech have taken us to places we would’ve never dreamed of, but it’s critical that the ability to manipulate DNA be protected through proper measures and we protect the digital components as well. The growing attention to cyberbiosecurity also comes at a time when the FDA has issued a warning on DIY gene therapy, noting that “the sale of these products is against the law. FDA is concnered about the safety risks involved.” “Last month, Josiah Zayner, CEO of The Odin, which sells DIY biology kits and supplies through its website, posted a video in which he injected himself with the gene-editing tool CRISPR during a biohacker conference in California. That video has been viewed more than 58,000 times on YouTube. In its statement, which FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted on November 21, the same day it was posted to the agency’s website, the regulator took aim directly at companies selling CRISPR supplies intended for self-administration.”

Biodosimetry: A Future Tool for Medical Management of Radiological Emergencies                                                                                                                          How can we better manage patients in radiological emergencies? GMU biodefense PhD student Mary Sproull and professor/graduate program director Gregory Koblentz are looking at biodosimetry as a medical management tool for this very predicament. “The field of radiation biodosimetry has advanced far beyond its original objectives to identify new methodologies to quantitate unknown levels of radiation exposure that may be applied in a mass screening setting. New research in the areas of genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, transcriptomics, and electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) applications have identified novel biological indicators of radiation injury from a diverse array of biological sample materials, and studies continue to develop more advanced models of radiation exposure and injury. In this article, we identify the urgent need for new biodosimetry assessment technologies, describe how biodosimetry diagnostics work in the context of a broad range of radiation exposure types and scenarios, review the current state of the science, and assess how well integrated biodosimetry resources are in the national radiological emergency response framework.”

Fellowship in Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft
The International Security Program of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the MIT Security Studies Program at the Center for International Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences are launching a collaborative program to mentor the next generation of foreign policy scholars. The Project on Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft is made possible with support from the Charles Koch Foundation: a $1,846,200 grant to MIT and one for $1,853,900 to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Those interested in this fellowship should apply to the International Security Program Fellowship when the Belfer Center’s online application system becomes available on December 15, 2017.  Those desiring to apply before then may apply through MIT’s application system. For more information, click here.

National Academies Publication – Combating Antibiotic Resistance
The National Academies has released their latest report on a one health approach to the global threat that is antimicrobial resistance. “As of 2017, the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance continues unabated around the world, leaving devastating health and economic outcomes in its wake. Those consequences will multiply if collaborative global action is not taken to address the spread of resistance. Major drivers of antimicrobial resistance in humans have been accelerated by inappropriate antimicrobial prescribing in health care practices; the inappropriate use of antimicrobials in livestock; and the promulgation of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment.” The report focuses on the global momentum to counter AMR, microbial movements across the one health domain, utilization of social and behavioral sciences to combat AMR, R&D, and strengthening partnerships and international cooperation. AMR is a multi-sectoral, international problem that requires a One Health approach to combat it – reports like these are a critical step towards combatting AMR

Boston University’s Needle Gets the Greenlight
After years of controversy and $200 million in federal funds spent on a BSL 4 high-containment lab, the Boston University Lab “The Needle” is finally opening. Located in the heart of the city, local citizens raised substantial opposition over biosafety concerns for the neighboring areas. It’s taken nearly a decade to get to this point, but the Boston Public Health Commission gave the official greenlight for the lab to open. “The commission’s OK was the final step allowing the study of Biosafety Level 4 pathogens — those that have no treatment or vaccine, such as Ebola. Level 4 research could begin in a month or two at the facility, called the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratories. Facing fierce opposition from neighbors and others concerned that dangerous germs would escape, the biolab underwent more than a dozen years of risk assessments, public hearings, and failed lawsuits. It received more than 50 permits and approvals from federal, state, and city agencies, most recently passing muster a year ago with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Doreen and Jim McElvany Nonproliferation Challenge
To advance this goal, the Doreen and Jim McElvany Nonproliferation Challenge will recognize the most outstanding new ideas and policy proposals published in Volume 25 (2018) of the Nonproliferation Review. The Challenge will award a grand prize of $5,000, a $3,000 runner’s-up prize, and a $1,000 honorable mention prize. The deadline to submit is 11:59 pm/EST, July 6, 2018. However, due to the limited number of pages that we can publish in a single volume, eligible articles will be accepted for publication on a rolling basis. We therefore encourage interested authors to submit early. Decisions on the winners of the scholarly award will be announced in early 2019

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Most Americans Think A Zombie Pandemic Is Likely – We recently stumbled across this survey and were surprised to find that while a surprisingly high number of Americans think a zombie plague is going to happen, few are prepared for it. “Only 9% of respondents considered it likely that undead zombies might ever walk the earth. Nearly three times that many respondents (28%) consider it likely that a worldwide epidemic of a neurological disease that makes people more aggressive and likely to lose control of their thoughts and motor functions.”

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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