Pandora Report – 7.13.2018

Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, & Health Security – From Anthrax to Zika
The Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Health Security is next week and if you’re not able to attend, make sure to check out our Twitter @PandoraReport and look for a recap in next week’s newsletter. Fair warning though- after you’ve read about it, you’ll want to attend in 2019!

Biodefense Scholars – Meet the Faces of GMU’s Biodefense: Greg & Saskia
If you’ve ever talked to one of our Schar biodefense graduate students, you know one thing for certain – they’re passionate about the field. This week, we’re excited to show off two of our biodefense doctoral students – Saskia and Greg. “Greg Witt is a fourth-generation engineer who, just three years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Penn State, worked his way up to being the lead reactor systems engineer on new nuclear plants for Westinghouse Electric Company in Pittsburgh.” That’s right, Greg came from the world of nuclear reactors and if you’re wondering how that works in a program that focuses on catastrophic biological incidents, program director Gregory Koblentz sums it up like this – “Greg’s experience working at Westinghouse as a nuclear systems engineer might seem to make him an odd fit for the Biodefense Program, but biodefense is a highly interdisciplinary field, so he fits right in.” Next, there’s Saskia Popescu, who is an “epidemiologist working to control infections in Phoenix-area pediatric hospitals. Popescu still volunteers there when she’s at home in Arizona, but her career is on hold as she works on her doctoral dissertation in the Biodefense Program in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, where she’s also a graduate research assistant.” Saskia’s dissertation work focuses on healthcare utilization of infection control and how that might leave us vulnerable when it comes to the next outbreak. Dr Koblentz pointed out that “the continuing threat of emerging infectious diseases and rise of antimicrobial resistance around the world means we need people like Saskia who can skillfully bridge the gap between science and policy now more than ever.” These are just two examples of the passionate students at Schar Biodefense – what can we say, the biodefense nerdom is strong at GMU!

AAAS Science Diplomacy & Leadership Workshop 2018                        GMU Biodefense MS student Christopher Lien recently participated in the Science Diplomacy & Leadership Workshop hosted by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and his account of the five-day experience will get you thinking about the complexities of international science cooperation. The first day highlighted the three main questions the workshop would address – how does science inform diplomacy, how does diplomacy inform science, and what does science in diplomacy look like today? Lien noted that “Aligning educational policy with science, gaining talent from abroad, facilitating networking across the diaspora communities – these are some of the tasks the scientists are working toward.” In his recap, Lien discusses that following a simulation game regarding international cooperation and science diplomacy, “it became ever clearer to the group that mixing science with diplomacy, and vice-versa, is no easy feat – it takes tactful negotiation, the will to make concessions, and a mutual understanding to bring about meaningful and effective results.”

The Digitization of Biology: Understanding the New Risks and Implications for Governance                                                                          Email viruses? We’re not talking about the spam ones, but rather the ability to send genomes of pathogens via email. If you’re confused, GMU biodefense doctoral student Yong-Bee Lim (I told you they were a passionate group!), Charles Lutes, Diana DiEullis, and Dr. Natasha Bajema, from the WBD Center are here to help clarify with their latest researcher paper – The Digitization of Biology: Understanding the New Risks and Implications for Governance. While everyone is focusing on CRISPR, this team led by Dr. Bajema, sought to address an issue we may be neglecting – the digitization of biology. “The volume of digitized genomic data is on the rise. Over the past several years, scientists have responded to dramatic reductions in the cost of DNA sequencing and synthesis, computing power, and data storage by sequencing greater numbers of gene sequences and the genomes of living organisms and digitizing this information for storage in online databases and analysis on computers. To simplify the creation and modification of living organisms, scientists are identifying standard, interchangeable DNA sequences that code for certain functions, and are building online catalogs to make this information available.” The paper discusses the rapid movement of biological information between the physical and digital worlds and how this exacerbates traditional security risk analysis with select agents. Within the paper, the authors discuss data storage, the information life cycle, and implications for governance, noting that “Developing effective governance to simultaneously manage the risks and promote the opportunities of the life sciences is a difficult undertaking. To address emergent genomic data issues, policymakers must strike a balance between two factors: the perceived risks of genomic data and the incentives to share and use genomic data to foster innovation.”

NTI | bio Competition
Looking to help improve global health security? NTI | bio and the Next Generation Global Health Security Network just announced the 2018 competition for those looking to make a difference. “The NTI | bio program and the Next Generation Global Health Security Network announce the 2018 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition. This year, NTI | bio will invest up to $15,000 to allow the winning team to implement their proposal with mentorship from experts in the field. Team members also will attend the 5th Annual High Level Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial in Bali, Indonesia on November 5-6, where they will present their proposal to health security leaders from around the world. Each 2018 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition team can include up to three people and should propose either: (1) develop training and networking opportunities for professionals of all levels to develop an interest and further proficiency in the biosecurity and biosafety fields; or (2) an educational outreach project to raise public awareness around the importance of biosecurity and biosafety. Each team is also asked to engage one or more experts in biosecurity and/or biosafety to assist in implementing their project proposal.”

Health Security Downgraded at the White House
A new commentary from the Center for Strategic & International Studies is drawing attention to the diminishing focus that health security is getting within the Trump Administration. Pointing to the lack of representation within the NSC regarding health security and the dismantling of the global health security and biothreats directorate, J. Stephen Morrison noted that “The decision was simultaneously a slap at Obama’s legacy of elevating health security, investing $1 billion in building capacity to detect and respond to dangerous outbreaks in weak states, under the auspices of the international alliance, the Global Health Security Agenda. With the directorate gone, Trump could be Trump. No longer in his midst is a senior official who might argue on public health grounds for a regular flow of health workers and travelers in the event of another outbreak like Ebola. How big will the price be for eliminating the White House global health security and biothreats directorate?”

Startup Does Gene Editing In-House
For those looking to do in-house gene editing, the lack of experience and laboratory space can be a hindrance. A new company is looking to change that. Hoping to make gene editing and CRISPR more accessible, Synthego will send people a CRISPR-modified cell via mail. Buyers have to provide credentials to show their affiliation with a university or institution, but this removes a lot of the tacit barriers. “For researchers who want to do their own gene editing, the company also makes kits to simplify that. A researcher chooses the gene they want to knock out, and the startup uses its own software and automated factory to make one step in the process–the synthetic guide RNAs that direct a protein to the right place in DNA to make a cut. For those who don’t want to edit cells, Synthego’s scientists use the same guide RNAs to quickly perform edits themselves. The company works on human cells, rather than plant or animal cells, for researchers who want to develop cures and treatments for disease, and in the future, potentially develop ways to prevent disease.”

Novichok Exposure
Sadly, one of the two people exposed to the nerve agent, died on July 8th. “’We have seen a small but significant improvement in the condition of Charlie Rowley. He is in a critical but stable condition, and is now conscious,’ said Lorna Wilkinson, Director of Nursing at Salisbury District Hospital. ‘While this is welcome news, clearly we are not out of the woods yet. Charlie is still very unwell and will continue to require specialist, round-the-clock care here at Salisbury District Hospital.’ Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia fell ill after being targeted with the nerve agent in Salisbury on 4 March. Scientists at the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory Porton Down confirmed on 4 July that Sturgess and Rowley had been exposed to novichok.”

 How Anti-Vaxxers Might Bring Back Hendra
Hendra virus is an ugly disease and one that can brutally take down humans and horses alike. The good news is that we have a vaccine for horses to prevent the transmission. Unfortunately, the anti-vaxxer movement has extended to veterinary vaccines now, which leaves many to worry that this BSL-4 virus could pose a larger public health threat. Starting with the history of the vaccine for horses, this latest article provides a detailed account of the disease and the current issues when getting horse owners to vaccinate, especially in the era of anti-vaxxer belief in vaccine-induced autism. “Similarly inflated concerns have begun to turn some pet owners away from mainstream veterinary medicine. An article last year in the Brooklyn Paper quoted a vet who had an owner refuse to vaccinate her dog for fear it would develop autism. ‘We’ve never diagnosed autism in a dog,’ the vet said. ‘I don’t think you could.’ No anti-vaccine movement among animal owners has ever gained quite as much traction—or posed such a threat—as the one surrounding the Hendra cases in Australia. Initially, Australian horse owners were reluctant to vaccinate simply because of the cost—about $100 every six months, a significant burden for breeders and rural owners with dozens of animals. But when horse owners began to feel that they were being forced to do something that might just harm the animals they loved, a full-fledged anti-Hendra-vaccine movement blossomed.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Rescued Thai Soccer Team in Quarantine – “In addition to treating the boys for potential dehydration, malnutrition and oxygen deprivation, their doctors also plan to closely monitor them for symptoms of diseases that may have been transmitted by animals living in the cave system. The boys and their family members have been told to watch for symptoms such as headache, nausea, muscle pain or difficulty breathing, the reports added.”
  • Post-Campylobacter Infection Guillain Barre Syndrome– A new study has reported the incidence of GBS following campylobacter infection. Guillain Barré syndrome (GBS), which is triggered by autoantibodies produced in response to antigenic stimuli such as certain infections and vaccinations, is the most common cause of acute flaccid paralysis worldwide. Campylobacter, the most common bacterial enteric infection in the USA, is reported to be the most commonly diagnosed antecedent of GBS, yet little information is available about the risk of post-Campylobacter GBS.”

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