TGIF! This week has been pretty busy in the world of biodefense, so before we get into ricin, Insect Allies, the new Biodefense Strategy, and all the other stuff in between, make sure you’ve got a cup of coffee or tea because you won’t want to miss anything.
Attempted Ricin Attack Via Mail?
On Monday, federal authorities responded to suspicious envelopes sent to senior U.S. officials, including President Trump. “The Pentagon Force Protection Agency on Monday detected a suspicious substance, believed to be the poison ricin, on two envelopes at a mail facility on Pentagon grounds in Northern Virginia, the officials said. Initial tests indicated that the envelopes, addressed to Mattis and Adm. John M. Richardson, the chief of naval operations, contained the toxic material.” The Secret Service later noted that a letter was also addressed to President Trump. However, on Wednesday “U.S. investigators have nearly ruled out terrorism after envelopes sent to a Pentagon mail sorting facility were falsely flagged for the possible presence of the deadly poison ricin, U.S. officials said on Wednesday. A Pentagon spokeswoman said tests so far showed that the alert was triggered by castor seeds, which ricin is derived from, as opposed to the deadly substance itself.” Late Wednesday, the FBI arrested a Navy veteran who is suspected to have sent the envelopes containing castor beans. “Defense officials had suspected that the letters contained ricin, but a Pentagon spokeswoman said on Wednesday that they actually contained castor beans, the raw material from which ricin is made. She said the F.B.I. was investigating.”
Insect Allies – Agricultural Friend or Biosecurity Foe?
A DARPA project, Insect Allies, has come under fire this week regarding its potential for spiraling out of control, but also the chance it could be perceived as a biological weapon. “Darpa launched the Insect Allies research program in 2016, budgeting $45 million over four years to transform agricultural pests into vectors that can transfer protective genes into plants within one growing season. That would be exponentially faster than modifying crops through a gene drive, which would breed specific traits into a species over several generations. (Gene drives have been proposed to reduce mosquito fertility, halting diseases like malaria.)” A recent publication in Science drew attention to the concerns for such technology being used for nefarious purposes. The authors underscored that the profound implications of releasing a horizontal environmental genetic alteration agent range from regulatory to economic, biological, and even to societal. “In the context of the stated aims of the DARPA program, it is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies (in either the short or long term). Furthermore, there has been an absence of adequate discussion regarding the major practical and regulatory impediments toward realizing the projected agricultural benefits. As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery, which—if true—would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).” Following this publication, DARPA Program Manager of Insect Allies, Dr. Blake Bextine, released a statement. Bextine notes that “Technologies dealing with food security and gene editing certainly do have a higher bar than most for transparency, research ethics, and regulatory engagement, and I believe Insect Allies meets that raised standard. DARPA structured Insect Allies as a university-led, fundamental research program, and has invited in representatives from U.S. regulatory agencies from the very beginning of the program to offer perspectives and learn about the work. The researchers working with DARPA are free to publish their results, encouraged to discuss their efforts, and coordinate with regulatory agencies to facilitate the transition of their technologies from laboratory demonstrations to—someday in the future—powerful new tools that can bolster the toolkit for responding to fast-moving or unanticipated threats to the global food supply.” The UDSA, EPA, and FDA have been involved throughout DARPA’s project as regulatory bodies, but there are are concerns that the requirements (a minimum of three kill switches) are not enough. Many worry that this is an example of a dangerous project done simply to prove we have the capabilities instead of asking if we should (cue Ian Malcolm line from Jurassic Park).
Horsepox Synthesis – A Biosecurity Zombie
We’re not quite done with DURC and since this resurrected poxvirus news occurred in October, we’ll stick with a zombie theme. 2017 was the year of the horsepox synthesis (here’s a refresher), but a recent PLOS Pathogens publication by David Evans and Ryan Noyce stoked the embers of the debate. Within their opinion piece, Evans and Noyce discuss the DURC implications of their work and note that their interest in testing the horsepox virus “as a potentially safer vaccine was prompted by phylogenetic and historical evidence suggesting that smallpox vaccines might have originated in horses.” They also note that ” the authors respect the concerns that have been expressed about this work, but note that our lives have been profoundly improved by technologies, like genetic engineering, that were once viewed as threats to humanity”. Ultimately, Evans and Noyce state that the bigger challenge is actually education. On the heels of their comments, Ed Yong from The Atlantic discusses how this study revealed some flaws in DURC and genome synthesis experiments. Yong discusses the claims Noyce and Evans make regarding the benefits of the horespox synthesis and that while some may not agree with the flurry of concern, there are others that worry the tacit knowledge barriers are deteriorating. Filippa Lentzos noted the intensity of academia and the pursuit of funding/publications that can encourage moral hazard and a lack of transparency. Bioethicist Kelly Hills remarked that she “sees a sense of impulsive recklessness in the interviews that Evans gave earlier this year. Science reported that he did the experiment ‘in part to end the debate about whether recreating a poxvirus was feasible.’ And he told NPR that ‘someone had to bite the bullet and do this.’ To Hills, that sounds like: I did it because I could do it. ‘We don’t accept those arguments from anyone above age six,’ she says.” Much of the debate highlights the lack of training for scientists to anticipate the consequences of their work. “More broadly, Hills says, there’s a tendency for researchers to view ethicists and institutional reviewers as yet more red tape, or as the source of unnecessary restrictions that will stifle progress.” As Lentzos emphasized, these topics need to be addressed and discussed with scientists starting earlier on in their careers – at the undergrad level.
ETA of the Next Pandemic: Shorter Than You’d Think
If you’re reading a biodefense newsletter, you’re likely some one who understands and appreciates the potential threat that infectious disease outbreaks pose. Unfortunately, not everyone truly comprehends this issue. “Pandemic disease is arguably one of the greatest threats to global stability and security. But investments to contend with such outbreaks have declined to their lowest levels since the height of the Ebola response in 2014, with U.S. federal dollars cut by over 50 percent from those peak levels.” Hits to funding, personnel gaps in departments, elimination of the NSC Global Health Security Office, and a general lack of focus have raised concerns for the current state of U.S. biodefense. From Ebola in the DRC to H7N9 in China, and even the quarantined flights in NYC, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the impending pandemic. While the White House released their strategy, the biodefense community awaits the execution of such efforts.
A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Multi-Disciplinary Threats
GMU Biodefense MS student Janet Marroquin discusses the latest Biodefense Strategy. “A new Biodefense Steering Committee is now housed under HHS and supported by various other agencies including the Dept. of State, Dept. of Defense (DOD), U.S. Drug Administration, Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Environmental Protection Agency, in order to ensure implementation. Additionally, there is an interagency Biodefense Coordination Team that also engages with non-governmental stakeholders for a multi-disciplinary effort in implementing the Strategy. Reassuringly, this interagency stakeholder collaboration began with the drafting of the Strategy by DOD, DHS, HHS, and Department of Agriculture that ensured support for a comprehensive One Health approach to health security.”
Dutch Expel Four Russian GRU Members Attempting to Hack OPCW
Don’t mess with the OPCW – “Dutch security services say they expelled four Russians over a cyber attack plot targeting the global chemical weapons watchdog. The operation by Russia’s GRU military intelligence allegedly targeted the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague in April. The OPCW has been probing the chemical attack on a Russian ex-spy in the UK.” British Prime Minister May and Prime Minister Rutte released a joint statement, noting that “This attempt, to access the secure systems of an international organisation working to rid the world of chemical weapons, demonstrates again the GRU’s disregard for the global values and rules that keep us all safe.” The Dutch Ministry of Defence has released a detailed account of the operations and their findings, which you can access here, revealing the use of cell phone records, taxi receipts, and more to track the GRU team. This comes after it was a revealed that the Dutch had also expelled Russians over plans to hack into a Swiss chemical laboratory where the novichok “nerve agent samples from the Salisbury attack were analysed”. The OPCW released a statement on Thursday regarding the incident, noting that “The Netherlands is the OPCW’s host country and, as such, is in charge of ensuring and exercising due diligence in protecting the OPCW Headquarters. The OPCW thanks the Netherlands for its actions and will remain in contact in regards to any further developments. The OPCW takes very seriously the security of its information systems and networks. Since early 2018, the Organisation has observed increased cyber-related activities. The Director-General has informed OPCW Member States about these activities and the OPCW Technical Secretariat has undertaken measures to mitigate them.”
DRC Ebola Updates
Four additional cases of Ebola were reported over the past few days and security concerns are growing. Nearly 13,000 people have been vaccinated, but all the new cases were in the recent hot spot of Beni. This area has challenged response efforts due to civil unrest. “Tthe DRC outbreak coordinator held a press conference in Beni to detail the impact the recent community protests had on the outbreak response. He said contact tracing dipped from 98% to 50% during the protest days, held in the wake of deadly violence between rebels and DRC armed forces, and that the actions slowed active case finding and port-of-entry monitoring. Ndjoloko Tambwe Bathe, MD, said the protest sidelined vaccination activities for 3 days and brought sample testing to a halt on Sep 25. Also, he said the actions hurt disinfection efforts and impeded the supply of personal protective equipment for health providers.” The outbreak has now resulted in 161 cases and 105 deaths. On Wednesday, it was announced that three volunteers with the International Committee of the Red Cross, were injured in an attack by villages. This attack prompted “the ICRC to suspend burials in the area, health officials said on Wednesday. The attack on an ambulance transporting the body to a cemetery in North Kivu province’s Beni region is the latest disruption to efforts to control the current outbreak, which is believed to have killed 106 people since July.”
GMU Biodefense Journal Club
Current GMU biodefense students – check out the newly formed journal club! Check your email from Thursday, but keep the evening of Monday, October 15th open if you’d like to geek out with some of your fellow biodefense classmates. This will be a great, stress-free (a journal article is way more fun than a book club!) environment to get your health security nerdom on.
UNODA BWC October Newsletter
The BWC Implementation Support Unit has just released the latest newsletter, where you can get the scoop on the recent Meeting of Experts. “Up to 100 States Parties, two Signatory States and one Non-Signatory State participated in the MXs. In addition, various UN entities, international and regional organizations and 26 non-governmental organizations and research institutes also attended. The proceedings of the MXs were livestreamed via UN Web TV.” As you read the letter, it’s important to remember the importance of the BWC and the ISU, as funding has been problematic. U.S. Ambassador to the BWC, Robert Wood, recently tweeted that “Unfortunate news from the BWC Chair today that there are insufficient funds for the December Meeting of States Parties and the BWC Implementation Support Unit“.
Achieving the Trump Administration’s National Biodefense Strategy
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein discusses the recent release of the biodefense strategy and how it can be successful. “In addressing this bipartisan issue, the administration largely builds on the biodefense strategies of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Common areas across the three strategies include recognition of the global nature of biological threats; the need to collaborate with a range of key stakeholders including foreign partners, state and local authorities and industry; and the need for risk-based decisionmaking in preparedness and response activities. Like those of his predecessors, the Trump strategy was accompanied by an implementation document which provided additional details on how the goals and objectives would be achieved.”
The U.S. Government Engagement in Global Health – A Primer
The Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation just released their report on how the U.S. is responding to global health threats. “This primer provides basic information about global health and U.S. government’s response in low- and middle-income countries. Although it focuses primarily on the U.S. government, it is important to acknowledge the role played by other countries, multilateral organizations, and private sector actors such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), foundations, corporations, and others, in the global health response. The first several sections provide an overview of the field of global health and describe current global health issues.” Overall, the report underscores the long history of U.S. engagement in global health and the myriad of agencies and programs that facilitate such efforts. Given this long history and the investment in global health, the U.S. has a critical role in responding to existing and future health events on a global level.
Infection Preventionists and Antimicrobial Stewardship Programs, A Marriage in Progress
GMU Biodefense doctoral student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu discusses the relationship between infection prevention practitioners and antimicrobial stewardship programs. “These findings shed light into the existing antimicrobial stewardship program structure within health care facilities, as well as the challenges of incorporating infection preventionists into these programs. Although the role of infection prevention is obvious within the antimicrobial stewardship program, infection preventionists lack a clear set of responsibilities. The integration of the infection preventionists into antimicrobial stewardship programs should be evaluated and strengthened to establish a more wholistic and responsive program.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Officials Worried About African Swine Fever – “Humans are suspected to have caused the recent spread to Belgium, where eight cases were confirmed, as of September 25, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health.
The most recent cases, however, were reported September 25 in a Chinese slaughterhouse in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, according to the organization. There have been 29 outbreaks in China since the first case was reported August 3. China has culled nearly 40,000 pigs in response, according to the the organization’s database.”
- Beef Recall Due to Salmonella and Listeria Outbreak – “The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced two meat-related recalls raw beef because of possible contamination with Salmonella Newport, and ready-to-eat ham products that may be tainted with Listeria monocytogenes. Today the FSIS said JBS Tolleson, Inc., of Tolleson, Ariz., is recalling about 6.5 million pounds of raw beef products that may be contaminated with SalmonellaNewport. This includes ground beef, chuck, and burgers sold through several retailers, including Walmart, Cedar River Farms Natural Beef, and Showcase.”