Pandora Report: 8.24.2018

Welcome to your weekly dose of biodefense news. Boston’s BSL-4 lab, the NEIDL (not the best choice of a name…) is now open!

GMU Biodefense Graduate Degrees – Open Houses & Back to School
Interested in advancing your biodefense education to the Master’s or PhD level? Check out one of our upcoming open houses to chat with faculty and current students to learn more about the curriculum, admission requirements, and why GMU’s biodefense program is the place for all things health security, from anthrax to Zika. The next MS Open House will be on Thursday, September 20th at 6:30pm and the PhD Open House is on Wednesday, September 12th at 7pm – both are at the Arlington Campus. Already a biodefense student? Make sure you’re registered for classes as the fall semester is just around the corner. This fall brings about some great biodefense courses at GMU – don’t miss out on Dr. Andrew Kilianski’s course on biosurveillance (FYI – as a participant in the summer workshop on health security, his presentation was among the best, so you’ll want to get an entire semester learning from him!), Dr. Phillip J. Thomas’s Food Security course (after all, food safety is really America’s soft underbelly), and NextGen GHSA’s Jamechia Hoyle’s course on global health security policy (Jamechia has traveled the globe working on the GHSA, so her stories alone will make this a truly captivating class). Those are just a few of the courses offered this fall, so make sure you take advantage of the amazing faculty we have.

Ebola Outbreak – Updates
Case counts from the DRC outbreak have grown as the latest WHO situation report revealed 102 cases and 59 deaths. “As of 20 August 2018, a total of 102 confirmed and probable EVD cases, including 59 deaths, have been reported. Of the 102 cases, 75 are confirmed and 27 are probable. Of the 59 deaths, 32 occurred in confirmed cases and 27 remain probable. A total of 13 cases have been reported among health workers, of which, 12 are confirmed and one has died. Since the onset of the outbreak, a total of 10 case-patients have recovered from the disease and were discharged and re-integrated into their communities.” The WHO also reports that 95% of the 1,782 case contacts have been traced and a total of 2,179 people have been vaccinated.

Conference Report: Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
East Bay Biosecurity’s Brian Wang is not only a doctoral student studying synthetic organic chemistry at UC Berkley, but also a purveyor of biosecurity. In his recent write-up of the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security, he gives insight into the workshop through the eyes of a synthetic biology researcher. “The Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security was a testament to how such communication between stakeholders can be effective, as it brought together participants from a diverse set of backgrounds to discuss a multitude of difficult biosecurity-related issues. While speakers often mentioned how the isolation of different perspectives on how to confront biosecurity challenges has led to needless conflict in the past, the environment of the workshop itself provided a clear contrast to that historical backdrop, as participants with different backgrounds frequently interacted in lively discussions.”

GMU Biodefense Student Awarded AAUW Grant
We’re excited to announce that GMU biodefense MS student Janet Marroquin received a Career Development Grant from the American Association of University Women. “Marroquin is a mother, first-generation immigrant, the first in her family to go to college and a minority in a male-dominated health security field. She aspires to support female empowerment through continuous community service and alumni mentorship programs. ‘It’s heartwarming to see that women are being recognized as having more barriers in certain academic fields,’ said Marroquin, noting an AAUW study that student debt disproportionately impacts women.” Congrats Janet!

 Anniversary of the Ghouta Sarin Attack
It’s been five years since the horrific and deadly sarin attack in Ghouta, near Damascus in Syria. One of the most horrific chemical attacks in history, estimates put the deaths around 1,400 and roughly 3,500 people displaying neurotoxic symptoms. You can find a comprehensive overview of the attack and intelligence gathering efforts after here. “The UN report said several surface-to-surface rockets capable of delivering significant chemical payloads were identified and recorded at investigated sites. In Muadhamiya, the UN team were filmed inspecting an expended rocket motor found near the Rawda Mosque. In their report, they said the ordnance they found in the area was about 140mm wide and had an engine with 10 jet nozzles. They did not identify it, but arms experts said it was a Soviet-era 140mm surface-to-surface artillery rocket, known as the M-14.” This attack was sadly not the last to take place in warn-torn Syria, as the Assad regime has taken a liking to the use of chemical weapons despite international prohibition. You can also read first-hand accounts from rescue teams on the ground following the attack, to truly understand the horrors of such an event. “On that horrible day, we all became medics. Though I’m a trained dentist, I remember running to the hospital to help where I found a scene worse than any nightmare. Brave civilians came to the hospitals and volunteered to do anything – operate water pumps to wash the gas off the victims’ bodies, supply fuel, and even evacuate casualties. The attack was so massive in its scale that all these volunteers still weren’t enough to care for everyone. Rescue teams entered affected houses and evacuated all those inside with no time to examine them individually. None of them wore protective material; none of them had any.” So where are we now? Despite continued use of chemical weapons, there has been virtually no progress made to punish the Assad regime. Russia has repeatedly protected Syria against inspections and UN efforts, leaving many to call for #noimpunity. The majority of states parties in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) recently adopted a decision to expand the mandate of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). “It paves the way for The Hague-based organisation to later identify or, at least, create the conditions for the identification of those responsible for chemical weapons attacks. It also strengthens chemical weapons control because the OPCW will now hopefully be able make reliable statements on who is responsible for the continuing use of chemical weapons.” The US, UK, and France also just released a joint statement in the wake of the anniversary of the attack- “Our position on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is unchanged. As we have demonstrated, we will respond appropriately to any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, which has had such devastating humanitarian consequences for the Syrian population. We welcome the establishment of attribution arrangements at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), in accordance with its authority under the Chemical Weapons Convention, as confirmed by the decision of the Conference of States Parties”

The Art of Russian Disease Misinformation 
This week researchers announced that during efforts to improve social media communication for public health workers, they stumbled across a scary finding – “trolls and bots skewing online debate and upending consensus about vaccine safety. The study discovered several accounts, now known to belong to the same Russian trolls who interfered in the US election, as well as marketing and malware bots, tweeting about vaccines. Russian trolls played both sides, the researchers said, tweeting pro- and anti-vaccine content in a politically charged context.” One of the researchers, Mark Dredze, from Johns Hopkins noted that “By playing both sides, they erode public trust in vaccination, exposing us all to the risk of infectious diseases. Viruses don’t respect national boundaries.” Unfortunately, this isn’t a novel event. During the 1980s, the Soviets worked to spread misinformation about HIV/AIDS.  “A few years ago, historian Douglas Selvage discovered the blueprint for a fake news campaign. It was a 1985 cable from the Stasi, the former East German police, outlining how the Soviet Union and its allies were working to promote the idea that AIDS was an American biological weapon. ‘We are carrying a complex of active measures, in connection with the appearance in recent years, of a new, dangerous disease in the United States: Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS’.” The lie that HIV was a biological weapon is even more ironic considering this was at a time when the Soviet bioweapons program was secretly continuing efforts to develop biological weapons, despite agreeing to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. “Back in the 1980s, the rumor that AIDS was human-made was based partially on a report written in 1986 by Russian-born biophysicist Jakob Segal. ‘It was very successful,’ explains Selvage. ‘The local press picked up on it. And then also British newspapers picked up on it. It started to spread around the world.’ Even U.S. newspapers picked up the story. Papers read specifically by African-American and gay communities, both of which were being devastated by the epidemic. ‘AIDS/Gay Genocide’ read a headline in the Gay Community News, based in Boston, which quotes Segal extensively.” Efforts to create mistrust in public health, especially vaccines, can be deadly and in the midst of a large measles outbreak across Europe, we can’t afford to ignore these attacks.

Smallpox – The Virus We Can’t Shake
What happens in VECTOR freezers, stays in VECTOR freezers? That’s the hope at least when it comes to smallpox. There will probably always be concern regarding the remaining stockpiles in CDC and VECTOR freezers, but a recent exercise at UNSW Sydney sought to test how frontline responders, researchers, and policymakers would respond to a smallpox outbreak originating in Fiji. Spoiler: we’re not prepared and it didn’t turn out well. “In the event of global spread, first responders would need to isolate 70% of smallpox patients and track and vaccinate at least 70% of their contacts. If this dropped to less than 53%, it would take over four years and 2 billion doses of vaccine to bring the epidemic under control. The existing World Health Organisation stockpile contains 35 million doses of vaccine. The vaccine could be diluted in such an emergency, but resources to effect large scale isolation and quarantine would be the main problem.” GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu recently emphasized why there is continued concern for smallpox, but also why frontline providers should brush up on this long-forgotten virus. “As such, smallpox and the actuality of its threat is a complex topic for which there is a spectrum of answers. Most medical providers alive today have not seen a case of smallpox outside of a textbook. For this very reason (and all those listed previously) I advise clinicians to take a moment and remind yourself about the disease. Remember the importance of isolation precautions and take 5 minutes to refresh your memory on what smallpox looks like in a patient before the never event of an outbreak becomes a reality.”

CRISPR and Gene Editing: Bio-Security/Safety Considerations and Best Management Practices
Don’t miss out on this webinar from the Next Generation GHSA on Wednesday, August 29th at 1pm ET. The talk will be led by Dr. Sengupta. “Dr. Aparupa Sengupta received her Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Biotechnology and Microbiology from Bangalore University, India. She then worked  as a Research Assistant in an Indian Council of Medical Research Lab in the field of Immunology and Microbiology in India before coming to the US in 2008 for her graduate studies. She completed her second Master of Science in Plant Molecular Genetics and Biotechnology (specializing in Biofuel research) in 2009 and a doctorate in Biological Sciences (specializing in Environmental Microbiology and Applied Plant Biochemistry) in 2014 , from Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan. During her PhD. studies, in summer 2011, she worked as a Scientist Intern in the Environmental Microbiology Lab of US Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, Mississippi in the field of Biodiesel production.” You can join the webinar here.

China’s African Swine Fever Containment Woes
Just another reason why you should take the Food Security class Dr. Phillip J. Thomas is teaching this semester…. African swine fever (ASF) is causing considerable concerns in the Chinese porcine industry. “’The entry of ASF into China is really a very serious issue,’ says Yang Hanchun, a swine viral disease scientist at China Agricultural University in Beijing. Given the scale of China’s pork sector, the economic impact could be devastating, Yang says, and the outbreak puts a crucial protein source at risk. From China, the virus could also spread elsewhere; if it becomes endemic, ‘it will represent a major threat for the rest of the world, including the American continent,’ says François Roger, an animal epidemiologist at the Agricultural Research Center for International Development in Montpellier, France.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Junior Disease Detectives: Operation Outbreak – “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and 4-H to develop “The Junior Disease Detectives: Operation Outbreak,” a graphic novel intended to educate youth audiences about variant flu and the real disease detective work conducted by public and animal health experts when outbreaks of infectious diseases occur. This graphic novel follows a group of teenage 4-H members who participate in a state agricultural fair and later attend CDC’s Disease Detective Camp in Atlanta. When one of the boys becomes sick following the fair, the rest of the group use their newly-acquired disease detective knowledge to help a team of public and animal health experts solve the mystery of how their friend became ill.”
  • FDA Challenge: Infectious Disease NGS Diagnostics for Biothreats – “To encourage the development and improvement of Infectious Diseases Next-Generation Sequencing (ID-NGS) analytical methods, precisionFDA – the community platform for NGS assay evaluation and regulatory science exploration – has launched the precisionFDA CDRH Infectious Disease NGS Diagnostics Biothreat Challenge. Professional and citizen scientists are invited to test their bioinformatics skills and software tools in a challenge to identify pathogens from the FDA-ARGOS database within host samples using NGS short-read data.”

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