Pandora Report: 12.28.2018

It’s our last Pandora Report newsletter of 2018 and what a year it has been! From horsepox synthesis to CRISPR babies and an Ebola outbreak, 2018 hasn’t been a boring one. As 2019 rolls in, we’d like to thank our readers for a great year of biodefense news (and nerdom) – we truly appreciate you!

Don’t Let Russia Undermine Trust in Science
Genetic editing has been a hot conversation topic lately and while there are arguments all along the spectrum, Jesse Kirkpatrick and Michael Flynn are drawing attention to a growing threat in the debate – disinformation. “Russia, or another U.S. adversary, could use the megaphone of social media to stoke worries about genome editing in the U.S. in a campaign timed with the next high-level meeting on gene drives. In fact, Russia has recently engaged in a disinformation campaign claiming—falsely—that the U.S. is developing biological weapons in neighboring countries, and it has also used state-funded news outlets to cast doubt in the U.S. about the safety of GMOs. These campaigns are concerning—they can impact national security, international relationships, and trade—yet haven’t received nearly the same level of exposure as discussion about misinformation campaigns designed to achieve political objectives. As a report prepared for the U.S. Senate shows, Russia used every major social media platform, including Snapchat, Pinterest, and Tumblr, to target specific demographic groups in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential election. Similar information warfare tactics could be used to exploit Americans’ lack of knowledge and opposition to particular forms of genome editing.” In fact, this concern is so significant that it was discussed in the recent report on biosecurity in the age of genome editing, which you can read here. There are legitimate concerns that disinformation regarding weaponized gene drive technology would be picked up by major news outlets and fuel false stories. A healthy dose of skepticism and making sure your news sources for science and tech are legitimate is important.

Piloting Online Simulation Training for Ebola Response
Maintaining competencies and training efforts can be cumbersome in preparedness efforts, but even more challenging during an outbreak in a resource-challenged area. A new article pilots a trial of internet-distributable online software to train healthcare workers in highly infectious diseases, like Ebola. “This study describes a pilot trial of the software package using a course designed to provide education in Ebola response to prepare healthcare workers to safely function as a measurable, high-reliability team in an Ebola simulated environment. Eighteen adult volunteer healthcare workers, including 9 novices and 9 experienced participants, completed an online curriculum with pre- and posttest, 13 programmed simulation training scenarios with a companion assessment tool, and a confidence survey. Both groups increased their knowledge test scores after completing the online curriculum. Simulation scenario outcomes were similar between groups. The confidence survey revealed participants had a high degree of confidence after the course, with a median confidence level of 4.5 out of 5.0 (IQR = 0.5). This study demonstrated the feasibility of using the online software package for the creation and application of an Ebola response course. Future studies could advance knowledge gained from this pilot trial by assessing timely distribution and multi-site effectiveness with standard education.”

CRISPR and DIY Biohacking – An Infectious Disease Threat to Consider in 2019
When you compile a list of the infectious disease concerns you might have for 2019, does CRISPR make the cut? “CRISPR has great potential to improve the human condition through research, medicine, agriculture, etc. With great power though, comes great responsibility; there is a real concern that the technology is moving too fast for its own good and too fast for governance, regulation, and oversight to keep up. Biosecurity experts have been raising the red flag about the disruptive nature of genome editing, pointing out that the manipulation of biological systems and processes can have untold consequences. A recent study published by investigators from George Mason and Stanford universities notes that the technology must be taken seriously and the broader and ever-evolving landscape of biosecurity must be considered. For instance, it is possible that genome editing could one day be used to create biological weapons—think of a totally resistant tuberculosis or an influenza with increased virulence. The growing popularity of genome editing also means that these technologies are no longer restricted to laboratories where there is some degree of oversight and regulatory processes; they now extend to the everyman’s garage. That’s right—there are people performing genome editing right in their own homes. DIY (Do It Yourself) biohacking allows people to play around with gene editing technologies at home, with zero supervision or guidance. It’s not difficult to think about what the repercussions could be if the wrong person experiments with the genomic modification of viral or bacterial DNA. ”

A Highly Hackable US Biodefense System
The efficacy of BioWatch as a biodefense tool has been questioned since it was first developed but new issues are arising surrounding the security of the data. “Operating in more than 30 cities, BioWatch gathers air samples, sends them to labs, and analyses them for DNA that would indicate a toxin or pathogen. But the program, which has cost more than $1 billion so far, turned up false positives and can take upwards of a day to report results. Earlier this fall, a Department of Homeland Security official said BioWatch would be replaced within the next couple of years. Until then, it’s a first line of defense against bioterrorism. But as Defense Onereports, the website that BioWatch uses to coordinate between health workers and government officials (called biowatchportal.org) is insecure, according to both the Department of Homeland Security inspector general and a former department employee. With access to the website, an adversary could find the sensor locations where air samples are gathered, target the professionals using it, or presumably simply take it offline.”

Ebola Outbreak Update
Over the holiday weekend, 22 more cases were reported, bringing the outbreak to 585 cases (537 confirmed). “Also, officials reported 13 more deaths, raising the overall outbreak fatality count to 356. Six of the latest deaths occurred in community settings, a factor that raises the risk of spread, given that the sick people weren’t isolated in Ebola treatment units and that viral levels are at their highest when patients are severely ill. As of today, health officials are still investigating 74 suspected Ebola cases. The World Health Organization (WHO) African regional office said yesterday in its weekly outbreak and health emergencies report that Katwa, Komanda, Beni, Butembo, and Mabalako are the main hot spots.”

Swine Fever Virus Found in Wontons and A New Outbreak in China’s Guangdong Province
Taiwan reports “The minced pork meat on wonton wrappers brought by a traveler into Taiwan has been found to contain the highly contagious African swine fever (ASF) virus, the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine (BAPHIQ) said Friday.” This is on the heels of a new outbreak of the African swine fever reported in China via their agriculture  ministry as 11 pigs were killed on a farm of 90. “China has already reported more than 90 cases of the incurable disease since it was first detected in the country in early August.” China has been hard hit with ASF and a new video shows 10,000 pigs killed by the disease in the province closest to Taiwan. The Chinese government has also been under fire for underreporting the outbreak in their state-run media.

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