Pandora Report 4.13.2018

Welcome to your Friday biodefense fix! Have you registered for the summer workshop on pandemics, bioterrorism, and global health security? Don’t miss the chance to learn from the top minds in the field on everything from anthrax to Zika.

Blue Ribbon Study Panel Meeting – Transnational Biological Threats & Global Security
On April 25th, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense will be hosting a meeting regarding transnational biological threats. From 10am to 3pm, you can attend (or watch live!) this event. “Biological threats to the Nation increase continuously, recognizing no borders. As emerging and reemerging naturally occurring diseases continue to spread throughout the world, terrorists continue to pursue biological weapons to add to their arsenal, and nation states are establishing new and reinvigorating old offensive biological weapons programs. This meeting of the Study Panel, chaired by former Senator Joe Lieberman and Governor Tom Ridge, will provide the Study Panel with a better understanding of: Current transnational biological threats, Homeland defense and security in the global context, Global security efforts to combat these threats, International public health security efforts; and the need to elevate global health security as a national and global priority”.

Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria
This past weekend saw a horrific suspected chemical weapons attack upon the rebel-held Syrian city of Douma. Victims began seeking medical care on Saturday evening with the telling signs of chemical weapons exposure. Rough estimates are that 500 people sought medical care related to the attack and the WHO has demanded “immediate unhindered access to the area to provide care to those affected, to assess the health impacts, and to deliver a comprehensive public health response.” Healthcare workers on the ground have reported patients with symptoms, “which included frothing at the mouth, suffocation, dilated and constricted pupils, corneal burns, central cyanosis – a blue tinge to the skin – and a chlorine-like odour, were consistent with exposure to an organophosphorus compound. Sarin gas is such a chemical”. Sadly, the use of chemical weapons is becoming increasingly common in Syria, as the Assad regime has revealed an appreciation for the abhorrent tactic. “Gregory D. Koblentz, the director of George Mason University’s Biodefense Graduate Program, said the attack appeared to reflect how much the clout of U.S. policy has faded in Syria. ‘Assad is less concerned about Beltway politics, less concerned by who is in the White House. His calculation is based on whether it will help his chances in achieving gains on the ground, or punishing the rebels,’ he said.” “The possibility of western intervention against Assad was heightened on Tuesday after Russia and its western opponents, the US, UK and France, respectively vetoed duelling resolutions at the UN security council over the latest atrocity. The UN high commissioner for human rights said the world must react to the use of chemical weapons or risk dire consequences. ‘After decades when we thought we had successfully outlawed the use of chemical and biological weapons, the world is sitting idly by while their use is becoming normalised in Syria,’ said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. ‘This collective shrug to yet another possible use of one of the most ghastly weapons ever devised by man is incredibly dangerous’.” What is to be done? President Trump’s recent Twitter activity points to planned use of “smart” missiles, but U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday that the U.S. is still assessing intelligence about the suspected chemical weapons attack. The OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) is set to meet on April 16th to discuss the “alleged use of chemical weapons” in Syria. The OPCW team is also currently en-route to Syria for investigation into the suspected attack. “‘I think it looks pretty clear that a chlorine weapon was used’ on the civilians, said Charles Duelfer, former deputy head of the U.N. inspections team in Iraq, in an interview with NPR.”

Who Owns Smallpox?: The Nagoya Protocol and Smallpox Virus Retention
This week the Center for the Study of WMD held a talk on smallpox stockpiles. Spotlight speaker Michelle Rourke discussed her article regarding the convention on biological diversity and the Nagoya Protocol. If you missed the event, GMU biodefense graduate student Morasa Shaker was able to attend and has provided a detailed account of the day. “While the case can be made that endangered species pose an intrinsic value to the world’s genetic diversity, it is has proven less feasible to make the same case for a virus, specifically the variola virus—the causative agent of smallpox. Nevertheless, Michelle Rourke, a Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for Domestic and Global Health Law, led an in-depth educational seminar organized by the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction to support that very case—the smallpox virus is worthy of our conservation efforts.”

Controlling Dangerous Biological Research
Filippa Lentzos is asking a question we’ve been trying to avoid for a while – how can we control biological research that is inherently dangerous? The desire to advance technologically and in the life sciences pushes researchers and defense programs to invest in biological sciences, like synthetic biology. Just as we make gains in such research, we also worry that adversaries could use the same technologies against us. “Washington, Moscow, and other governments say they are focused only on ‘defensive’ biosecurity activities, but there is a fine line between ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ in this realm, and the alarming military focus on synthetic biology may cause people to wonder if there is some way to control the weaponization of biology.” Lentzos calls upon the international community to face the monster head on – let’s discuss how to address biological research that pushes the boundary of defense into offense. “To accomplish any of this, we have to be able to both characterize and evaluate biological research with high misuse potential. This is exceptionally difficult to do, and continues to elude both the international community and national policymakers.” Lentzos points to the horsepox synthesis experiment as a good example of the failures that occurred along the way and that ultimately, risk-benefit analysis is the wrong approach to biosecurity review. “Good security rests not on evaluating risks and benefits, but rather on managing uncertainty, ambiguity, and ignorance—sometimes even situations where we don’t know what we don’t know. Standard risk-benefit calculations are the wrong approach to evaluating biological research with high misuse potential.”

HHS Large-scale Exercise Moving Highly Infectious Patients
How do you transport a highly-infectious patient? The care of Ebola patients in the United States during the 2014/2015 outbreak highlighted the challenges of moving such patients to regional treatment centers. HHS sponsored a large-scale exercise that took place this week, with a hot-wash today. “The exercise focuses on moving seven people acting as patients with Ebola symptoms in different regions of the country. The patients, including one pediatric patient, first present themselves at one of the following healthcare facilities: CHI St. Luke’s Health-The Woodlands Hospital in The Woodlands, Texas; Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, South Carolina; Norman Regional Hospital in Norman, Oklahoma; St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho, and St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho.At each facility, healthcare workers will collect and ship samples for diagnostic tests to state laboratories, which in turn will practice running the necessary laboratory tests to diagnose the patients with Ebola. As part of the exercise, each patient will receive a positive diagnosis. Using appropriate isolation techniques and personal protective equipment, health care workers then must take steps to have six of the patients transported by air to designated Regional Ebola Treatment Centers. These patients will be placed into mobile biocontainment units for these flights. The pediatric patient will be placed into protective equipment and transported by ground ambulance.” The drills will also involve several airports, which include LAX, Charleston International, etc.

NASEM Bio, Chem, and Health Security Luncheon: April
Don’t miss the National Academies-hosted lunch today from noon to 1:30PM EDT. “April’s event features features George Korch, Senior Science Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) in the Department of Health and Human Services and Dana Perkins, Senior Science Advisor in ASPR’s Office of Policy and Planning. Dr. Korch will discuss recent developments and ASPR strategic priorities in support of the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE). Dr. Perkins will talk about implementation of the recommendations arising from the Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP) and current activities for 2018. This event is free and open to the public, but you must register to attend. This event will not be webcast, and a summary will not be provided after the fact, so please register to attend in person if you are interested! A light lunch and beverages will be provided for all attendees.”

Cyberbiosecurity – A New Way To Protect The Bioeconomy and Gene Editing for Good
How can we better ensure cybersecurity and biosecurity? Researchers are bringing forth this emerging hybrid field that we should be giving more attention to. Life sciences and biotech are heavily engrained in cyber systems. Consider 3-D printing, personalized genomics, medical labs and surgical robots, etc.  “We propose ‘Cyberbiosecurity’ as an emerging hybridized discipline at the interface of cybersecurity, cyber-physical security and biosecurity. Initially, we define this term as ‘understanding the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of comingled life and medical sciences, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness and resilience’.” Promoting this field and strengthening educational strategies is key to inform people on cyberbiosecurity and ensure a trajectory that can be supported. How do we move cyberbiosecurity forward though? “Academia, industry, government or non-profits (including policy, regulatory and legal experts) need to begin to learn to communicate with and educate each other, harmoniously identify and develop priorities, opportunities and specify ‘next steps.’ A major opportunity exists right now to propose a unified structure and common vernacular. Lastly, while definition and assemblage of Cyberbiosecurity is occurring, national or international strategies should be pursued to harmonize the emerging enterprise and foster measurable value, success and sustainability.” As the talks surrounding cyberbiosecurity grow, it’s hard not to consider some of the technologies we’re discussing and their potential. Bill Gates recently wrote for Foreign Affairs regarding the good that CRISPR could do. “the next decade, gene editing could help humanity overcome some of the biggest and most persistent challenges in global health and development. The technology is making it much easier for scientists to discover better diagnostics, treatments, and other tools to fight diseases that still kill and disable millions of people every year, primarily the poor. It is also accelerating research that could help end extreme poverty by enabling millions of farmers in the developing world to grow crops and raise livestock that are more productive, more nutritious, and hardier. New technologies are often met with skepticism. But if the world is to continue the remarkable progress of the past few decades, it is vital that scientists, subject to safety and ethics guidelines, be encouraged to continue taking advantage of such promising tools as CRISPR.” Gates points to several avenues for good – feeding the world, ending malaria, etc. He also notes though that there are legitimate questions regarding the potential for misuse and risks, and that regulations for genetic engineering are decades old and need revision to remain applicable. Part of the process for truly utilizing CRISPR is also to responsibly assess risks and communicate openly.

3MT Competition 
The George Mason University 3-Minute Thesis competition took place this past weekend and we’d like to congratulate Biodefense PhD student Chris Brown on his participation in this exciting event! He was one of ten finalists who competed to explain their dissertation to a non-specialist audience in 3 minutes. Chris described his dissertation regarding protecting critical workers against emerging infectious diseases – “Many different types of workers, including those who provide essential services the rest of us frequently depend on, are at risk of exposure to emerging infectious diseases that spread through the general population. Although many factors play into these types of workers being exposed on the job, protective gear—equipment like gloves, gowns, goggles, and respirators—is an essential part of infection prevention programs aimed at keeping workers healthy. During recent outbreaks, the public health enterprise has tended toward reinventing guidelines for each new infectious disease we face. That can lead to confusion about what guidelines for worker protection should be followed, as well as delays in implementing protective measures as science works to understand the disease agent and its transmission mechanisms. Pivoting toward a system based on worker exposures associated with various job tasks instead of one built around accurately characterizing transmission routes, my research offers a guideline for protective gear that is applicable to a wide range of diseases and that can be used as soon as outbreaks begin. It serves as an off-the-shelf solution for worker protection until empirical evidence supports using disease-specific infection prevention practices.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • In Pictures: Decades of Navy Efforts To Combat Malaria – “Malaria is ranked by the Department of Defense as the number one infectious disease threat to military personnel deployed to areas where malaria is endemic. This includes countries spanning the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, including most of sub-Saharan Africa and larger regions of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, central Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America and the Caribbean.”

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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