Pandora Report 1.26.2018

In this week’s Pandora Report we’re taking a trip down the horsepox synthesis rabbit hole, looking at influenza transmission, and so much more. But first..the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just announced that the Doomsday Clock has been moved and is now two minutes to midnight. You can also read the full testimony from Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, during the US Senate Committee hearing on the reauthorization of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act. The Senate has also just confirmed Alex Azar as the new head of Health and Human Services.

The Perilous Road of Horsepox Synthesis 
Unless you were in a state of flu-induced delirium, last Friday was a rather big day in with world of dual-use research of concern (DURC) news. The controversial publication of Dr. Evans’ synthesis of horsepox has brought about a flurry of discussion and debate regarding the implications of not only such research, but also the publication of it. Kai Kupferschmidt provided an overview of the history of this paper and what its publication means, so if you’re needing a refresher, I’d start there. As many within the biodefense and biosecurity industry read the paper, it sparked a renewed concern for how such research has exhumed a gap within DURC oversight and publication review. GMU’s biodefense guru and graduate program director Gregory Koblentz expanded upon his thoughts regarding these oversight failures. Pointing to not only the utter disaster that a smallpox re-emergence would be, he also evaluates the PLOS editorial statement and review of DURC work. “Given the serious potential risks that this research could be used to recreate variola virus, the blanket assertion by the PLOS Dual-Use Research Committee that the benefits of this research outweighs the risks is woefully insufficient. The committee dramatically understates the risks and overestimates the benefits this research presents. The U.S. government has outlined a number of factors to consider and questions to ask about dual-use research when weighing the risks and benefits of conducting and publishing such research. Although this research did not fall under current U.S. regulations on dual-use research of concern, the authors and publisher were well aware of the risks that I and others had raised and they had an ethical responsibility to carefully consider those risks before publishing the article.” NTI’s Dr. Elizabeth Cameron, VP of Global Biological Policy and Programs, weighed in on the publication and how it underlines the need for dialogue at a global level to reduce biological risks. Cameron notes that these hurdles aren’t getting smaller and the incremental approach just isn’t getting us where we need to be. “Moving forward, it’s clear that the capability to create and modify biological agents is outpacing governmental oversight and public debate. Now more than ever, scientific stakeholders, private sector actors, and biotechnology leaders should develop and take specific actions to mitigate risk and accelerate biosecurity innovation.” Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, has also put forth commentary on the horsepox synthesis, pointing to the lack of clear-cut benefits and and that ultimately, it created a new risk. Inglesby notes that “The most important locus of control should be whether specific research is approved and funded in the first place. When scientists are considering the pursuit of research that has the potential to increase highly consequential national population-level risks, national authorities and leading technical experts on those issues should be part of the approval process. When there are highly consequential international population-level implications, international public health leaders should also be involved. When researchers put forth claims about potential benefits of this work to justify extraordinary risks, those claims ought not be accepted without discussion; those claims should instead be examined by disinterested experts with the expertise to validate or refute them.” GMU biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu also discussed the importance of this publication and why medical providers and researchers should be paying attention to the DURC debate.

ASM Biothreats
The American Society for Microbiology will be hosting their annual conference on biological threats from February 12-14 in Baltimore, MD. If you’re not able to attend, we’ve got you covered with in-depth reporting and analysis by some of GMU’s finest biodefense graduate students. Following the conference, we’ll be providing this report-out as we did with the 2017 conference, so make sure to check back for the scoop on all things ASM Biothreats.

Chemical Weapons – No Impunity
The International Partnership Against the Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons has just been launched! “Ringing together around 30 countries and international organizations, its purpose is to supplement the international mechanisms to combat the proliferation of chemical weapons. This intergovernmental initiative deals exclusively with the issue of impunity for the perpetrators of chemical attacks worldwide, and is a forum for cooperation in which the participating States have made several commitments that include gathering, compiling, and retaining all available information on those who use chemical weapons, etc.” Efforts like this are increasingly needed as the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been met with little adverse outcome for those at fault. GMU’s Dr. Gregory Koblentz highlighted Syria’s CW killchain, noting that “Bringing these criminals to justice, however, will be a long, slow, and difficult process. Many individuals who comprise Syria’s chemical weapons kill chain were listed in a U.N. Security Council resolution that was vetoed by Russia and China on Feb. 28.” Koblentz also points out that “So far, the only concrete steps to hold these individuals accountable for their actions are financial sanctions and travel bans imposed by the U.S. and European governments. Although the sanctions themselves are largely symbolic, by identifying these individuals and specifying their role in the chemical attacks, the United States and its European allies are laying the groundwork for future prosecutions once Assad is no longer in power.”

Germ Transmission While Flying
Dr. Nereyda Sevilla, George Mason Biodefense PhD 2017 alum, presented the results of her dissertation at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) 97th Annual Meeting held January 7–11, 2018, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, D.C. The information-packed program attracted more than 13,000 transportation professionals from around the world. Nereyda’s poster entitled “Germs on a Plane:  The Transmission and Risks of Airplane-Borne Diseases” was part of the Young Professional’s Research in Aviation Session.  Her research explored the role of air travel in the spread of infectious diseases, specifically Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), H1N1, Ebola, and pneumonic plague. She concluded that modeling showed that the spread of Ebola and pneumonic plague is minimal and should not be a major air travel concern if an individual becomes infected. On the other hand, H1N1 and SARS have higher infectious rates and air travel will facilitate disease spread across the country.

Schar School Career Fair
Schar School students and employers looking for talented graduate students – on Wednesday, February 14th from 2-5pm, GMU’s Schar School will be hosting a Career Fair at the Arlington campus. “The Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, in conjunction with the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, will host our annual career and internship fair that attracts more than one hundred employers from federal, business, and non-profit organizations who are eager to meet our outstanding students.” For our readership – this is also a great place to recruit biodefense students who are passionate about health security!

Nonproliferation Review Call For Papers
Calling all writers of the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons persuasion – the Nonproliferation Review is accepting manuscripts for publication in 2018! “All submitted manuscripts that are accepted for publication in Volume 25 are eligible to win the Doreen and Jim McElvany prize of $5,000, a $3,000 runner’s-up prize, or a $1,000 honorable mention prize. The deadline to submit is 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. It is therefore in authors’ interest to submit early to ensure consideration for the prize. Submissions must contribute new ideas and insights to the nonproliferation field. The Review’s editors welcome submissions on any topic related to weapons proliferation, including but not limited to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and conventional weapons. Example topics include: activities and developments in international nonproliferation regimes; social, political, and economic dynamics of specific countries and regions with regard to weapons development and/or proliferation; new information on policies or weapons programs of specific countries; the spread of knowledge, materials, or technologies with potential destructive applications; the proliferation of new technologies impinging on international security; measures, either existing or proposed, to control proliferation; the causes of proliferation or nonproliferation; the consequences of proliferation, including its influence on strategic stability and its economic or environmental effects; and the relevant activities of non-state actors, such as nongovernmental organizations or terrorists.”

 Influenza Aerosols
A new study has found that influenza aerosol-spread is more common than previously thought, especially in relation to coughing and sneezing. “To measure transmission, each participant sat in a chamber for 30 minutes with his or her face in a large metal cone, part of a ‘Gesundheit machine’ that captures and measures influenza virus in exhaled breath. Patients were also asked to cough, sneeze, and say the alphabet three times. Altogether, researchers collected 218 nasopharyngeal samples and 218 breathing sample sessions. When the team analyzed the samples, they found that a significant number of patients routinely shed infectious virus—not just RNA particles—into particles small enough for airborne transmission. They were surprised to find that 11 (48%) of the 23 fine aerosol samples acquired when patients weren’t coughing had detectable viral RNA, and of those 8 contained infectious virus, suggesting that coughing isn’t a prerequisite for generating fine aerosol droplets.” The latest news points to not only the importance of staying home when sick, but also the ease of transmission of influenza viruses. While many thought transmission was limited to droplets (i.e. heavier particles that were sneezed/coughed out about three feet), this latest analysis may change the dynamics of isolation.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Addressing AMR in Lower-Income Countries – Fighting antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a global challenge, but we need to ensure that our strategies account for a range of countries and the unique barriers they face. “Although traditional efforts to reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance in these countries have focused on antibiotic use in individuals, LMICs must also address the increasing roles of animal and environmental exposures in this public health crisis, write Maya Nadimpalli, PhD, University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France, and colleagues. ‘In particular, current strategies do not prioritize the impacts of increased antibiotic use for terrestrial food-animal and aquaculture production, inadequate food safety, and widespread environmental pollution,’ the authors stress.”

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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