Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
This week Schar Biodefense hosted a three-day workshop on all things health security, from anthrax to Zika. Highlights from the first two days include a rousing discussion by Dr. Robert House surrounding medical countermeasures and the potential for nefarious actors to highjack the immune system, Sandy Weiner delving into the history of the 1976 influenza pandemic, GMU professor and virologist Dr. Andrew Kilianski breaking down some hard realities of biosurveillance, and Edward You of the FBI discussing the importance of working with the DIY biohacker community and protecting the bioeconomy. While the workshop continues through today, make sure to check back next week for more coverage.
Vaccine Causing Polio in Africa? Context From An Expert
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Christopher K. Brown sat down with Lucien Crowder of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to discuss vaccine derived polio and the implications of these outbreaks. Brown discussed the vaccine production process, how they can cause an “infection light”, and the current outbreak in the DRC. “In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a vaccine-derived type 2 poliovirus is responsible for the current outbreak, even though it is no longer a component of the live, attenuated oral vaccine that most countries use (when, that is, an oral, attenuated vaccine is used instead of a fully inactivated injectable formulation that is safer but potentially less effective). Despite a World Health Organization–led switch from the three-type, or trivalent, vaccine to a bivalent preparation, the vaccine-derived type 2 virus continued to spread from person to person undetected, slowly mutating to regain the neurovirulence that can cause paralysis in those who are infected. Now, to stop the current outbreak, health officials are deploying a monovalent vaccine formulated specifically for type 2 poliovirus. The key is to reach susceptible individuals—namely, those who did not receive the trivalent option previously—with the vaccine before the virulent strain of the virus does. If enough people are vaccinated, the mutated, vaccine-associated strain will not continue to infect new people and the outbreak will subside.” Brown took care to discuss how these incidents are high-jacked by the anti-vaccination movement, but that “the argument that vaccines cause injury often focuses on the myth that certain chemicals in vaccines—including preservatives, like Thiomersal, that are no longer used in vaccine formulations—cause autism. The polio outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a case in which a strain of virus that was rendered safe for vaccinating most people has regained some of its disease-causing abilities through genetic mutation. That’s sort of similar to why bugs that are more common problems in developed countries, like staphylococcus and gonorrhea, stop responding to antibiotics: They acquire genetic mutations that make them resistant to certain drugs. What is most important here is to consider the level of risk associated with vaccine-linked outbreaks, or cases of paralysis, compared to the effects of polio in an unvaccinated population. While the attenuated poliovirus in the vaccine itself may lead to no more than four or five cases of paralysis among every million individuals vaccinated, there would likely be thousands of cases of serious disease among a million exposed, unvaccinated people.”
Why Aren’t We More Worried About The Next Epidemic?
In the past couple of months, we’ve seen outbreaks of Ebola, MERS, Zika, Nipah virus, Rift Valley fever, and Lassa fever – so why aren’t we more worried about the next epidemic? Globalization makes the movement of people and goods easier and faster – consider that 107 countries received frozen vegetables now being recalled for Listeria. The good news is that information technology allows us to know about these outbreaks and have the ability to notify necessary agencies and resources at a rapid pace. “Several major factors are to blame for why the world is seeing more of these increasingly dangerous pathogens. The combination of massive widespread urbanization, explosive population growth, increased global travel, changing ecological factors, steady climate change and the exploitation of environments is driving an era of converging risk for outbreaks, experts say.” Dr. Thomas Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noted that ‘We don’t know when the next Ebola outbreak will come but we do know it will come again, and again, and again’.” Outbreaks like SARS and Ebola have shown the devastating impact outbreaks have on not only the healthcare system, but also the economy. Unfortunately, emergency preparedness and healthcare response is a tough problem to fix. The CDC director of the Center for Global Health, Rebecca Martin, stated that “Gaps in public health emergency response capabilities remain a serious vulnerability for the entire world,” she added. “While we don’t know when or where the next pandemic will occur, we know one is coming”. We know the next pandemic is coming, the unknowns are from where, when, and what it will look like. This makes response, including medical countermeasures, that much more difficult. R&D is a critical component to this, but as Dr. Inglesby noted, “The problem with public health in particular and with R&D is what we’re ultimately trying to do is prevent bad things from happening. When you succeed, it’s relatively invisible ― so the public doesn’t get to see why investment is so important.” Inglesby also recently highlighted the six ways countries can prepare for the next pandemic. From enhancing capabilities to develop new vaccines/medical countermeasures, to investing in more robust public health systems, there are several ways we can facilitate stronger national capacity to respond to pandemics.
Crucial Steps Forward: the National Academies of Science’s 2018 Study, “Enhancing Global Health Security through International Biosecurity and Health Engagement Programs”
GMU biodefense MS student Alexandra Williams recently attended the NASEM meeting regarding global health security through international biosecurity and health engagement programs. Within her recap, Williams discusses the background of CBEP (Cooperative Biological Engagement Program) and CTR (the DoD’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program), noting their efforts to strengthen health security within the U.S. and abroad. “As challenges continue to arise in timely and accurately detecting and responding to disease outbreaks—as we saw in 2014 with Ebola in West Africa, and in 2016 with Zika—U.S. health and security agencies are working to better meet these challenges, and examine how they need to evolve to meet unforeseen hurdles that lay ahead. This NASEM study is timely and critical because it addresses and examines these issues head-on, and will serve as the launch point for how the U.S. can rethink, reshape, and improve its already critical and successful work in biosecurity and global health security.”
Book Review – Dirty War: Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare
Glenn Cross, GMU biodefense PhD alum, has taken great care to investigate and detail the history of Rhodesia’s chemical and biological warfare program against insurgents from 1975 to 1980. If you’re on the fence about adding a new book to your reading list, check out Ryan Shaffer’s latest review. “Organized topically, the book’s preface offers a brief overview of Rhodesia’s colonial history and demographics, discussing the ethnic and racial divisions arising from a white minority’s control of the government over a disenfranchised and mostly rural black African population. Cross describes the Rhodesian War with emphasis on “the regime’s inability to defeat decisively a growing guerrilla insurgency through conventional arms alone.” (39) He explains the conflict’s evolution in the context of post-war British decolonization and the manner in which the Unilateral Declaration of Independence was designed to maintain white minority rule, as well as the ensuing international sanctions that isolated Rhodesia. By the late 1960s, government opponents shifted strategy, believing the only way to change the country was to forcibility seize control. Meanwhile, the CIO had penetrated the opponents’ ranks, gathering intelligence and setting up the Selous Scouts to work against the guerrillas.” Shaffer notes that “the book is a well-researched study that sheds light on the reasons a government broke international norms to use CBW, a tactic more likely to target local non-state actors than foreign militaries.”
Antibiotic Prescribing Failures in Urgent Care Centers
Disrupting antibiotic resistance is challenging due to not only the vast array of sectors that play a role, but also the cultural components. Prescribing habits are one of those culturally-engrained practices that can be difficult to alter. A new study has found that antibiotic stewardship is desperately needed in urgent care facilities. “Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the University of Utah, and the Pew Charitable Trusts report that 45.7% of patients who visited urgent care centers in 2014 for respiratory illnesses that don’t require antibiotics end up with prescriptions for those conditions, followed by 24.6% of patients treated in emergency departments (EDs), 17% of patients who went to medical offices, and 14.4% of patients who visited retail clinics. The findings are based on analyses of 2014 claims data from patients with employer-sponsored health insurance. Previous estimates of outpatient antibiotic prescribing by some of the same researchers had pegged the amount of unnecessary prescribing at 30%, a number that some experts believe is conservative. Study coauthor David Hyun, MD, a senior officer with Pew’s antibiotic resistance project, said the findings suggest that could very well be the case.” The sad reality is that these numbers are likely to be higher across the U.S. as inappropriate prescribing practices are a systemic issue. This finding is one piece of the puzzle, which underscores the progress that needs to be made. Fortunately, countries are working to reduce antimicrobial resistance and while it’s slow, some movement forward is better than none at all.
Rift Valley Outbreak in Uganda
Uganda has reported an outbreak of Rift Valley fever across two districts. Rwanda is also reporting cases in animals and potential cases in humans. “The WHO said the affected districts are in the ‘cattle corridor’ that stretches from the southwest to the northeast regions of the country. ‘The outbreak in Uganda is occurring at a time when Kenya is having a large RVF outbreak and Rwanda is experiencing an epizootic, with suspected human cases,’ the WHO said. In Kenya, where an outbreak has been under way since May, four more Rift Valley fever cases have been reported, raising the outbreak total as of Jul 4 to 94, 20 of them confirmed. Ten deaths have been reported. Illnesses have been reported in three counties: Wajir, Marsabit, and Siaya. The country’s agriculture ministry has reported several outbreaks in animals over the past few months, especially in areas that had experienced flooding after heavy rainfall.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- The Strange and Curious Case of the Deadly Superbug Yeast- Maryn McKenna discusses the latest resistant bug we’re worrying about – “It’s a yeast, a new variety of an organism so common that it’s used as one of the basic tools of lab science, transformed into an infection so disturbing that one lead researcher called it “more infectious than Ebola” at an international conference last week. The name of the yeast is Candida auris. It’s been on the radar of epidemiologists only since 2009, but it’s grown into a potent microbial threat, found in 27 countries thus far.”