Pandora Report 1.12.2018

 The Bright Side of Synthetic Biology and Crispr
GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and Phd alum Shannon Fye-Marnien are looking at the realities of synthetic biology and fears of bioterrorism. Biological advances have inspired questions regarding the safety and potential for nefarious use, but are such technologies guilty until proven innocent or innocent until proven guilty? “As with previous advances in biology, Crispr is sometimes characterized as a blueprint for bioweapons development or bioterrorism, and it has elicited calls for increased control and regulation of science. But while it is important to examine the potential dangers of emerging technologies, reaching a balanced assessment of risks and benefits requires that technologies’ potential to improve human life be appreciated as well. Synthetic biology and Crispr offer a potentially enormous package of benefits, spanning from medicine to energy to agriculture and beyond. Discussions about the security and safety of synthetic biology and Crispr should not obscure these technologies’ potential to address a wide variety of complex and pressing problems.”

The United States Battles Influenza
Flu season is hitting hard in the United States as 46 states report widespread activity. 80% of cases are of the H3N2 strain, which is associated with severe symptoms and hospitalizations. “The flu is now widespread across the country and the peak of transmission probably occurred during the Christmas-New Year’s holiday week, just as many people were crowded into planes, buses and cars or in large family gatherings, said Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ‘H3N2 is a bad virus,’ Dr. Jernigan said. ‘We hate H3N2’.” 26 states (and New York City) are reporting high influenza-like illness (ILI) activity. The CDC has reported that “Influenza-like illness (ILI) went from 4.9% to 5.8%. ‎These indicators are similar to what was seen at the peak of the 2014-2015 season, which was the most severe season in recent years.” This tough influenza season is a helpful reminder that it could always get worse, especially in the context of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, which marks its centennial this year. Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker recently wrote an OpEd regarding the dismal truth – we’re not ready for a flu pandemic. Pointing to not only massive growth in population, but also challenges of supply shortages, and an outdated approach to vaccine research, they highlight the need to find a universal vaccine that can do battle against all influenza A strains with a longer immunity. “But there is no apparent effort to make these vaccines a priority in the current administration. Its national security strategy published last month cites Ebola and SARS as potential bioterrorism and pandemic threats, yet makes no mention of the risk of pandemic influenza nor any aspect of critical vaccine research and development. The next few weeks will highlight how ill prepared we are for even ‘ordinary’ flu. A worldwide influenza pandemic is literally the worst-case scenario in public health — yet far from an unthinkable occurrence. Unless we make changes, the question is not if but when it will come.”

GMU Biodefense Professor – Robert House
We’d like to welcome back professor Dr. Robert House to GMU biodefense, who will be teaching BioD766: Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics. Dr. House holds a PhD in medical parasitology and is a senior VP for government contracts at Ology Bioservices (previously Nanotherapeutics). The world faces a growing threat from microbiological agents in the form of terrorist weapons, pandemics (particularly influenza) and emerging/re-emerging diseases. Characteristics such as high pathogenicity/toxicity and lack of appropriate animal models, as well as lack of a viable commercial market, make it difficult to develop effective medical countermeasures for these agents. In his course, students will explore how the US Government is developing medical countermeasures (MCM) against these threats and will explore the various threat agents, the context of regulatory considerations, and the specifics of how MCMs are developed.

Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge Launched!
Do you love infectious diseases and maps? The goal of the challenge is to promote the use of geospatial mapping to address the objectives of the GHSA. The NextGen Network has partnered with the U.S. Department of State’s Virtual Student Foreign Service program to launch the 2018 challenge. You can find out more information from this engaging and informative webinar or at the page here. The deadline for signing up for the challenge is January 19, 2018. This is a great way to contribute to the GHSA goal of creating a world safe and secure from the threat of infectious diseases.

Biodefense Alum – Stay Connected! 
Are you a GMU Biodefense alum? If so, please make sure to keep your information updated in our Schar Stay Connected site. We have a strong alum community and would love to keep you up to date on future events and give shout outs for the amazing work our biodefense students accomplish.

Biopreparedness Needs to Start At the Frontlines of Disease Control
GMU biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu evaluates the attention to biopreparedness and how our focus on bioterrorism fails to address the major gaps within disease control in the United States. “The Blue Ribbon Panel report and the CNN article both highlight the bureaucratic challenges with coordination at a national level across many agencies and sectors. The crux of it all is that from a grass-roots level, we’re struggling to better prepare and respond for a host of reasons. Public health funding is always in a chronic state of too little too late and often, we don’t push out resources until we’re already in the throes of a major incident (Ebola, Zika, etc.). Preparing for biothreats, regardless of origin, requires that we strengthen the most basic surveillance and response systems within public health and health care. During the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak, for example, there was a lot of attention on enhanced precautions. Although this was beneficial and brought attention to several gaps infection control and prevention measures, I found myself reminding staff that we can’t truly prepare and respond to rare events if we can’t get our daily practices down. The shear challenges of ensuring staff practice appropriate hand hygiene and isolation precautions in health care are indicators that we are struggling on the frontlines of disease preparedness.”

Lessons from A 2016 CRE Outbreak in A Kentucky Hospital
Hospital outbreaks are tough. The shear volume of people that go into a single patient’s room is considerable (healthcare workers, visitors, ancillary staff, etc.) and enough to spread germs throughout an entire hospital. Now imagine that the organism is a highly resistant one, such as carbapenemase-producing carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CP-CRE). A hospital in Kentucky experienced this very thing in 2016 and a recent CDC MMWR revealed just how difficult it can be to conquer an outbreak involving one of the worst resistant organisms you can imagine. “Over the next 4 months, scientists identified an additional 21 CRE isolates from patients at the hospital via screening and clinical cultures. The investigators believe organisms were imported into the facility and then spread among patients.” Epidemiological investigation found that five of the thirteen interviewed patients had received healthcare outside the local area and that three of the patients may have brought CP-CRE into the facility. “The authors of the report say their investigation highlights the potential role of cleaning equipment, which frequently moves between patient rooms, in CP-CRE spread. In addition, they note that although there is a low prevalence of CP-CRE in rural areas, rural hospitals should be aware that patients who’ve also accessed healthcare in areas with higher CP-CRE prevalence—primarily urban areas—can introduce these organisms into their facilities.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

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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