ASM Biothreats 2019

We’re the source for all things health security and the annual ASM Biothreats conference is no different. GMU’s biodefense program was fortunate to send several students to attend the 2019 ASM Biothreats conference in which topics ranged from diagnostics to technology as a source for biothreats. Held in Arlington, Virginia on January 29-31, this was an exciting event highlighting the importance of conversations surrounding high consequence pathogen research, biological threat reduction, and product development and policy. Our student attendees have reported back on some of the enlightening and captivating sessions during the biothreat event. Below you’ll find several commentaries from each student who attended:

Nicolas Bertini -Nicolas is currently pursuing an M.S. in Biodefense degree at George Mason University and hold an undergraduate degree in Government and International Politics with a double minor in Intelligence Analysis and Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University as well. He expects to graduate in the Fall of 2019 and plans to pursue a career in biodefense and biosecurity. He aims to identify new vulnerabilities in the national security apparatus while utilizing science and policy to propose creative and effective solutions that will strengthen the nation’s detection, mitigation, and response capabilities. At ASM, Nick attended a session on the different international perspectives on biodefense, noting that “One unique item that stood out is the recognition of the use of the internet to acquire materials that could be used to generate a biological threat. The United Kingdom is focused on modernizing their biodefense strategies to tackle future challenges by addressing the rising importance of new technologies and emphasizing fluid cooperation with international partners.” Nick also attended a session on WHO research and development roadmaps, which ” focused on the research and development roadmaps that the WHO has implemented and managed to initiate a targeted research campaign for the early delivery of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics of Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF) and Nipah Virus.”

Georgia Ray – Georgia is a first-year master’s student in George Mason University’s Biodefense program. She studied microbiology and bacteriophage physiology at The Evergreen State College, and has done research with the Effective Altruism Foundation and the Future of Humanity Institute. She is interested in policy, synthetic biology, and averting global catastrophic biological risks. Georgia provides us with a recap of the keynote speakers and their talks on the biodefense landscape and historical lessons from Ebola. “Kadlec also talked about the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy. He likes that it’s deliberate and detailed, and includes risks from emerging technology. Often, bold strategies of its ilk are not tied to reality – for instance, to budgets or the skill levels.” Next, Georgia provides us with a recap of a panel on converging technologies and emerging risks, which also included GMU Biodefense graduate program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz. “Koblentz discussed his work on Editing Biosecurity, a multidisciplinary study on gene editing technology and biosecurity issues. He criticized reliance on “agent-specific” models – security measures that ban specific agents, like smallpox or Clostridium botulinum. In the age of genetic engineering, those boundaries fall apart – what does this system do with a disease that is a genetic combination of smallpox and an unlisted agent? Or a normally-harmless E. coli with an inserted plasmid that codes for botulinum toxin?”

Katelyn Smith – Katelyn Smith graduated from Virginia Tech in May 2018 with a Bachelors of Science in Biological Sciences and a Minor in Psychology. Now, Katelyn is a second semester Masters Student in the Biodefense program at George Mason, planning to graduate in May 2020.  Her academic and research interests include pathogenic bacteriology and epidemiology.  She hopes to one day to work in the field, studying biological agents and diseases and their potential roles in bioterrorism. Katelyn attended an informative session on R&D – from detection to diagnosis to vaccines, focusing on “research projects and product development from all over the United States pertaining to detection, diagnosis, and/or vaccines. Each of the six speakers, ranging from engineer to scientist, brought something unique and different to the table, from a dog’s nose, to immunoassays, to accelerated vaccines.” Next, Katelyn discusses the section of biological agents in the field, involving discussions on the latest bio-detection efforts, as well as historical practices. “Mediated by Dr. Kenneth B. Yeh, a senior science advisor at MRIGlobal, the panel of members were able to comment and answer questions, speaking about previous experiences of their own, as well as some of the research that they do.To start off the session, the panelists discussed a comparison of Real-Time qPCR and Sequencing, the roles they have played overtime in the biological field, as well as changes in the biodefense field in the last few decades.  More than 20 years ago, two major platforms were yielded in the Department of Defense: a real-time PCR system and a current generation diagnostic system.”

Justin Hurt – Justin Hurt is a student in GMU’s Biodefense PhD program, and is currently preparing for his comprehensive exams and dissertation proposal work. In addition to his part-time studies, he is an active duty officer in the United States Army, specializing in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) matters and is currently detailed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a Defense Liaison in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD), where he advises the Assistant Director and WMDD staff on interagency operations and capabilities and assists in policy development. Justin attended the Clade X panel at ASM – “A pandemic tabletop exercise hosted by JHU’s Center for Health Security on 15 May 2018, Clade X sought to identify important national policy issues and preparedness challenges that could be solved with sufficient political will and attention. Built on a fictional scenario based on epidemiological principles and challenges identified and unresolved in response to past outbreaks, key takeaways from Clade X were intended to inform senior leaders and decision makers at high levels in the government on how to deal with the potential for future pandemic events.”

 

 

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