Pandora Report: 2.1.2019

We’re in the middle of a polar vortex and Gov. Jay Inslee just announced a state of emergency in Washington due to a measles outbreak, but the world of biodefense doesn’t rest, so we’re here to keep you up to date.

Talking Biodefense with Senator Daschle
The Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University invites you to an informal discussion about key issues in biodefense with former Senator Thomas Daschle, founder of the Daschle Group and a Panel Member on the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. The event will be held on February 19 but is open only to Schar/GMU faculty, students, and alum. Look for an email coming soon if you’re able to attend with details regarding registration.

Recap of the National Defense University’s “Digitization of WMD” Symposium 
Schar Biodefense doctoral student Justin Hurt attended this January 17th event and has provided a recap in case you missed it. He notes that “Some trends that have been notable, especially in terms of synthetic biology, is that automation is becoming increasingly critical and pertinent for emerging biological technologies. The associated computational systems and machinery have inherent cyberbiosecurity risks, including privacy risks, system operation issues, manufacturing risks (that include issues with attributing who made what), and the risk of possible sabotage. As genomics grows, it becomes increasingly automated, thus increasing the system risks. As an emerging consumer product, genomics becomes harder to control and secure at scale. In addition, as an internet connected technology, firewalling becomes variable and not generally standardized. Modeling appropriate measures for large-scale genomics is important because it helps to understand the effects of big data, the similarities and differences between the plethora of different open source bioinformatics software systems which don’t always adhere to security best practices.”

Meeting of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense: Fighting the Next War- Defense Against Biological Weapons
You can join the latest Blue Ribbon Study Panel event “on February 5th, 2019, when we hold a meeting to get a better understanding of the responsibilities and requirements for federal biodefense efforts that are unique to the U.S. Department of Defense. Participants will share their experiences regarding the current threat environment, research and development programs, the Department’s biodefense policies, and implementation of the National Biodefense Strategy. Speakers will include: Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) – Chairman, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities; Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, and Derek Maurer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, Department of Defense”

 Trust Issues Worsen Outbreak Response
A lack of trust in politicians, public health, and even healthcare, are all critical for responding to an outbreak. Consider if you didn’t trust public health responders knocking on your door to ask questions about contact with a potentially infected person. Or the physicians to give you a treatment. Even more so, consider if you didn’t trust the government to provide you with accurate information and do their best to stop the outbreak. If all of these were true, the chances of getting you to seek care or provide information…well, they’d be pretty abysmal. Laura Kahn discusses the implications of this trust breakdown  during an outbreak. “There are many examples of what can happen to public health when trust breaks down. The ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a case in point. The current outbreak, centered in North Kivu province, was first identified last August. Since then, the outbreak has spiraled out of control—despite new diagnostics, experimental treatments, and a vaccine that mostly wasn’t avaible during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The problem is, the people living in violence-plagued North Kivu don’t trust anybody or anything. Rumors and hatreds spread easily, residents have refused to cooperate with outbreak responders, and some don’t necessarily even believe that an Ebola virus exists.” Consider even the anti-vaccination websites and posts you see on social media – this promotes a lack of trust in scientists and the CDC. “One result is that scientific experts are no longer widely trusted. The situation is made worse by politicians who legitimize falsehoods, spreading them in an attempt to peddle fear or hate for political gain. US President Donald Trump has tweeted about there being a link between vaccines and autism more than 20 times, the Independent reported last year. The results of spreading medical disinformation can be deadly.”

Why We Should Be Skeptical About Recent Reports on North Korea’s BW Program
John Parachini talks frankly about that recent and sensational news story regarding North Korea’s bioweapons program. “Many assessments of North Korea’s biological capabilities draw heavily from South Korean sources. These are legitimate sources of information, but like any stream of information, they are imperfect. In a 2012 white paper, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND), assessed that North Korea ‘likely has the capability to produce a variety of biological weapons including anthrax, smallpox, pest, francisella, tularensis, and hemorrhagic fever virus,’ but provided no supportive documentation or evidence. In 2016, the MND altered the language to ‘sources indicate that North Korea is capable of cultivating and producing various types of biological agents such as anthrax, smallpox, and pest on its own’.” Pointing to the bias of defector-based information, he notes that “During 2003–04 and again in 2009, several defectors claimed that North Korea tested poisonous materials on political prisoners. However, these charges refer to the use of chemicals on humans and not biological agents. In 2014, a group of scientists, Korea experts and human rights advocates attempted to verify these claims by speaking with South Koreans working with the North Koreans who made these allegations. The group was unable to corroborate the allegations and discovered inaccuracies discrediting the defectors’ claims” Overall, Parachini underscores the need for greater transparency and dialogue with North Korea. Lastly, he stresses that “As one scholar noted in a historical review of state biological weapons programs ‘Intelligence assessments of foreign BW programs often have been wrong, sometimes overestimating, sometimes underestimating, and sometimes missing them altogether’.”

Discord in Venezuela and the Impact on Infectious Diseases
Venezuela has been spiraling into an increasingly dangerous and precarious state, fueled by the election of Nicolás Maduro. As Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself the rightful head of state last week after over a million Venezuelans protested Maduro’s presidency, there is much at stake. Between the political and economic crisis, roughly 3 million have fled the country and estimates have found that maternal mortality has risen by 65% while malaria cases have increased by 76%. The state of Venezuela is chaotic and teetering on a dangerous brink. Unfortunately, in this environment, infectious diseases also thrive. Civil unrest, large bodies of people fleeing the country, and a collapsing infrastructure all create a ripe situation for the transmission of disease. A new article from the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Disease journal points to this very issue and the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in Venezuela. “The country is experiencing a massive exodus of biomedical scientists and qualified healthcare professionals. Reemergence of arthropod-borne and vaccine-preventable diseases has sparked serious epidemics that also affect neighboring countries. In this article, we discuss the ongoing epidemics of measles and diphtheria in Venezuela and their disproportionate impact on indigenous populations. We also discuss the potential for reemergence of poliomyelitis and conclude that action to halt the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases within Venezuela is a matter of urgency for the country and the region.”

Resistant Genes Found in Arctic
A team of researchers reported that they detected antibiotic resistant genes in soil samples collected from islands in the High Arctic. “Among the genes found by the team was blaNDM-1 (New Delhi metallo beta-lactamase-1), which confers resistance to a broad range of antibiotics and has been associated with highly resistant bacterial pathogens and severe, multidrug-resistant infections. The blaNDM-1 gene was first discovered in a patient treated at an Indian hospital in 2008 and subsequently in Indian surface waters. Since then, it has spread to hospitals in more than 70 countries. The genes were found in soil from the Kongsfjorden region of Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean roughly midway between Norway and the North Pole. While many resistance genes have spread around the world, and it’s a known fact that antibiotic resistance isn’t limited by borders, finding a multidrug-resistance gene in such a remote location, the scientists write, highlights ‘how rapidly AR [antibiotic resistance] can globalize’.”

 UNSC 1540 – The  Importance of Regional Coordination
GMU Biodefense doctoral alum Ashley Hess discusses the importance of regional coordinators for UN Security Council Resolution 1540. “United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1540, adopted unanimously under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in 2004, is a key component of the global security architecture, enumerating specific obligations for states, which ultimately aims to reduce the overall risk of weapons-of-mass-destruction proliferation. However, although nearly fifteen years have passed since the adoption of the resolution, many states have still not implemented many of its requirements and obligations—meaning that at least some of the vulnerabilities and risks identified over a decade ago likely still exist, or have changed and expanded over time. This viewpoint discusses the establishment of dedicated UNSCR 1540 coordinators in regional organizations as an example of an effective practice that may contribute toward achieving full implementation of the resolution, fully consistent with established US policy. Since some regional organizations may not have the financial and administrative capacity, or political will, to host such a position, this viewpoint also proposes a variety of ways to address these shortfalls.”

ABSA Course Discount
The Association for Biosafety and Biosecurity has announced a discount on their courses. “Due to the difficulties of the current government shutdown we are now offering the Symposium Courses at 1/2 price. Half day courses will now be $150 and full day courses will be $255. The courses are listed below. The Symposium will proceed as planned, even if the government shutdown continues. Professional Development CoursesScenario-based Agricultural Risk Assessment, Animal Disease Response Training, Biosecurity 101, Risks of Deferred Maintenance in High-Containment Facilities, Implementing Biosecurity Solutions, Introduction to Strategic Leadership Principles for Biorisk Management”

DRC Ebola Outbreak Recap
Despite more than 70,000 people being vaccinated, there have been 7 new cases, which makes the total 759, including 468 deaths. You can also check out two interesting articles (you’ll need Google translate) – the first discusses the handling and safety practices (and some ethics) surrounding the blood samples. “During the epidemic, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016, scientists collected thousands of blood samples for their research. Without always respecting ethics. September 2017, tarmac at Conakry Airport, Guinea. A small gray plane of the American company Phoenix Air is preparing to take off towards the United States. On board, a mysterious cargo: twenty sealed boxes, shipped by a team of American scientists. In a few hours, they will land on the other side of the Atlantic before being transported to Atlanta, to the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the agency in charge of public health in the United States. Inside, hundreds of biological samples, all contaminated by Ebola, one of the deadliest viruses on the planet. Taken to diagnose patients during the epidemic that hit West Africa between 2014 and 2016 (more than 11,000 deaths), they had been in the US Department of State’s line of sight for several months. His fear? That these vials, hitherto stored in Conakry in freezers closed by simple padlocks, end up in the wrong hands; terrorists wanting to panic, or inexperienced lab technicians who might accidentally spread the virus.” The second article is in regards to the military aspect of Ebola and concerns for weaponizing the disease. “We are here at the Center for Research in Epidemiology-Microbiology and Medical Care (Crems), built by Russia during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, and funded to the tune of $ 10 million ($ 8.8 million euros) by the Russian mining company Rusal, which operates in Guinea the largest bauxite deposit in the world. Shortly after the outbreak of the epidemic in August 2014, Russia dispatched two mobile laboratories and specialists to test for Ebola in the blood of patients. A few months later, a permanent treatment center was built, as well as a laboratory, where a dozen scientists are currently working to test a new vaccine against the virus. This research is done in secret. Even the senior officials of the Guinean Ministry of Health complain that they can not visit the premises. ‘With the Russians, it’s the total blackout,’ regrets one of them. A regular Cremean Guinean agrees to share the bits of information available to him, but says he ignores what has become of the many blood samples taken during the epidemic. ‘The Russians are doing what they want,’ he says, adding that they alone have the right to access the laboratories where research on the virus takes place. For him, there is no doubt that these researchers are military.” In terms of decontamination, MSF International’s Thomas Compigne recently discussed the role it has in controlling the outbreak.

 Tackling African Swine Fever Through Wild Boar Movement
While it doesn’t pose a risk to human health, African swine fever has considerable implications for the agriculture industry. An outbreak on a farm could mean culling the entire herd, which could cost billions across Europe. “As U.S. politicians continue to spar over the idea of building a border wall, Denmark is preparing its own controversial southern border-control barrier. The target is wild boars — specifically, wild boars from Germany. But environmentalists warn the planned 5 ft.-high, 40-mile fence will harm the region’s wildlife and may not even serve the function for which it’s intended. Understanding the rationale for spending $12 million on a fence that may not even work requires understanding the enormity of the Danish pig industry. At any given moment, Denmark is home to at least twice as many pigs as people (roughly 12 million pigs to not quite 6 million Danes). The country’s export market for pigs amounts to about $5 billion a year. At Berith Nissen’s farm in southern Denmark, visitors must change their clothes and socks, wash their hands and slip into borrowed shoes before she’ll open the door to reveal some of her 10,000-plus pigs.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Hedgehogs …Harbingers of Salmonella– “Since October, 11 people across eight states have been infected with a particular strain of salmonella, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, and all but one of those infected said they had contact with a hedgehog. ‘Don’t kiss or snuggle hedgehogs because this can spread salmonella germs to your face and mouth and make you sick,’ the agency warned. No deaths have been reported and one person has been hospitalized, the C.D.C. said. Three cases have been reported in Missouri and two in Minnesota. Infections have also been reported in Colorado, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Texas and Wyoming.”

 

 

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