We hope you had a lovely holiday this week and are ready to get back into the world of biodefense! News is still unfolding regarding the two British citizens who were hospitalized after exposure to the nerve agent, Novichok, but we’ll keep you updated as more information becomes available.
Summer Biodefense Workshop – Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
In less than two weeks the summer workshop on all things health security, from anthrax to Zika, will be taking place – are you registered? This three-day workshop will cover everything biodefense from the most recent Ebola outbreak, to DIY biohackers and vaccine development, and also the challenges of defending against biothreats. Speakers include experts in the field like David R. Franz, who was the chief inspector on three United Nations Special Commission biological warfare inspection missions to Iraq and served as technical advisor on long-term monitoring. His current standing committee appointments include the Department of Health and Human Services National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control, the National Research Council Board on Life Sciences, and the Senior Technical Advisory Committee of the National Biodefense Countermeasures Analysis Center. Jens H. Kuhn will also be speaking on filoviruses and what it was like to be the first western scientist with permission to work in a former Soviet biological warfare facility, SRCVB “Vektor” in Siberia, Russia, within the US Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program. These are just two of our speakers who will be leading discussions over the three days – come join the conversation at our workshop from July 18-20!
All Hands on Deck – U.S. Response to Ebola in West Africa
Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies has just released their report on the quality of the U.S. response to Ebola. The case study is part of a series on Liberian response to the outbreak and includes great information on coordination, political response, and the challenges of international outbreak management. “Although the deployment, which scaled up earlier assistance, took place five months after the first reported cases and required extensive adaptation of standard practices, it succeeded in helping bring the epidemic under control: the total number of people infected—28,616—was well below the potential levels predicted by the CDC’s models. This US–focused case study highlights the challenges of making an interagency process work in the context of an infectious disease outbreak in areas where health systems are weak.”
Bats and Military Defense
Sure, your first inclination might be a vampire or Batman joke, but there’s actually a significant history regarding the U.S. military and utilization of these mammals. Historically, efforts focused on employing them as bombs in Japan but a more modern plan focuses on their uncanny ability to carry deadly diseases. “‘What we are trying to do is to study bat immunology, but that turned out to be a very difficult thing to do when starting from scratch,’ said Thomas Kepler, a professor of microbiology at Boston University. It took decades to create the reactive substances necessary to study human or mouse antibodies. With bats, he explained, they were starting from zero.” Battling potential Russian bioweapons means thinking outside of the box, right? The truth is that fruit bats have a pretty amazing weapon of their own – a super immunity that might just lend itself to curing Marburg and other devastating infections. “The Marburg virus is classed as a Category A bioterrorism agent by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Kepler’s study was supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Defense Department division established during the Manhattan Project era to combat weapons of mass destruction. If the virus is ever deployed as biological warfare, the fruit bat’s super-immunity may hold the answer to preventing its spread. But it may also go some way toward redeeming the bat in the eyes of the U.S. military — and could even make the animal an unlikely hero.”
NASPAA Pandemic Simulation
How would you handle a pandemic? GMU’s Schar School team qualified for the final round of the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) pandemic simulation, in which student teams had to respond to a constantly evolving situation and make real-time decisions regarding quarantine, trade, etc. “‘The simulation is an especially valuable experience for the biodefense students since the pandemic crisis provided students with complex problems like those that they will tackle in their professional careers,’ said director of the Schar School’s biodefense graduate program, Gregory Koblentz. ‘These exercises also test the students’ ability to bridge the gap between the science and policy-making, a key goal of the biodefense programs’.”
Gene Editing – Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and How DARPA Wants to Boost Body Defense Through Gene Editing
This week’s episode of Last Week Tonight featured one of our favorite topics – gene editing! While there’s only so much you can cover in the span of 20 minutes, it was nice to see some of the complexities, personalities, and technical hurdles, covered by John Oliver. From biohackers to germline edits, Oliver mixed humor into a discussion on the very real issues surrounding gene editing technologies like CRISPR (although his version of the acronym is much more comical – Crunchy Rectums In Sassy Pink Ray-bans). Make sure to check out the episode to get a humorous overview on this gene-editing technology. Meanwhile, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is actually working to harness gene editing to make your body’s natural defenses that much stronger through specific gene expressions. The project is called PREPARE (PReemptive Expression of Protective Alleles and Response Elements) and works to provide temporary boots to your natural defenses. “In contrast to recent gene-editing techniques, such as CRISPR, which focus on permanently changing the genome by cutting DNA and inserting new genes, the PREPARE program will concentrate on techniques that don’t make permanent changes to DNA. These techniques target the ‘epigenome,’ or the system that controls gene expression. Genes can be turned on or off by making external modifications to DNA, which don’t change the DNA sequence, but instead affect how cells ‘read’ genes. To start, the PREPARE program will focus on four key health challenges: influenza viral infection, opioid overdose, organophosphate poisoning (from chemicals in pesticides or nerve agents) and exposure to gamma radiation, the statement said.” While there are a lot of hurdles to overcome, the overall goal is to extend the platform to known and unknown threat application.
Improving Mass Casualty Management: The Role of Radiation Biodosimetry
How would we handle the medical response of large-scale radiological exposure? GMU Biodefense PhD student Mary Sproull presented on this very topic and the work she and her team are doing, which is aimed at making testing more efficient and effective. “Drs. Sproull and Camphausen are working to make the medical management process more efficient and effective in the event of a mass casualty radiation exposure. Specifically, they are developing a dosimetry dose prediction model to determine how radiation biodosimetry diagnostics can help physicians estimate just how much radiation exposure a patient has experienced. (Radiation biodosimetry diagnostics estimate a person’s radiation exposure by measuring changes in biological markers that include cytogenic assays like dicentric chromosome assay.)”
Everything You Need to Know About Ricin
A few weeks back a Tunisian man was arrested by German police regarding suspected plans for a bioterrorism attack with ricin. German police were searching his residence in Cologne and found enough ricin for 1,000 toxic doses. During the fervor of the news, it was reported that such a a plot could have been more devastating than 9/11 – but what’s the reality behind ricin? Check out this comprehensive review of what ricin is (a naturally occurring biological poison), its history as a biological weapon and WMD, and more. “In summary, ricin’s status as a biological weapon is quite mixed. In terms of actual potential for harm, it is more at the level of knives than bombs. Its status as a WMD is a legal one, not so much a practical one. It would be useful to the public debate and our general social assessment of risk if the media could reflect this, rather than churn out hysterical reporting.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- VA Study Reveals Antibiotic Prescribing Habits – “A team of researchers establishing baseline data on antibiotic use by the Veterans Administration (VA) healthcare system in Pittsburgh found that about 75% of all antibiotic prescriptions were inappropriate, meaning they were either not indicated or were used for a duration that’s not recommended. The study, which took place over 12 months, looked at prescribing information, medical records, and charts of 40,734 patients, who were written 3,880 acute antibiotic prescriptions by 76 primary care providers (PCPs). The median antibiotic index was 84 antibiotic prescriptions per 1,000 patients per year.”
- Drone Crashes Into French Nuclear Plant – “GREENPEACE activists say they have crashed a drone into a French nuclear plant to highlight the lack of security around the facility. The drone, which was decked out to resemble a tiny Superman, slammed into the tower in Bugey, 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the eastern city of Lyon, according to a video released Tuesday by Greenpeace. The environmental group says the drone was harmless but it showed the lax nuclear security in France, which is heavily dependent on nuclear power, using it for about 75 percent of its energy needs.”