Pandora Report: 2.22.2019

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika
Are you registered for our summer workshop on all things health security? From July 15-18, we’ll be hosting an engaging and informative workshop on everything from bioterrorism to global health security and what it’s like working in a BSL-4 lab with some of the deadliest diseases. Register before May 1st and get an early-bird discount. You can also get a discount by registering as a large group, returning as a student, or registering with your GMU email.

Replacing BioWatch
The questionable efficacy of BioWatch hasn’t exactly been a quiet conversation and many have suggested doing away with the system all together. The Trump administration though, is pushing to replace it with BioDetection 21, which will apparently be deployed across the United States in the form of 9,000 devices by 2025. A report though has put the real capabilities of this new system into question. “The report also showed that four trigger devices failed in testing last year to detect tiny, unclumped anthrax spores — the type that experts say a skilled terrorist or state-sponsored biowarfare program might produce.Moreover, the triggers correctly detected small particles of viral material — simulating smallpox or other deadly viruses that could be weaponized — in just eight of 168 attempts, a success rate of less than 5%. Trigger devices have ‘clear limitations … for detection of smaller particles and some biological threat categories,’ the report said.The Times obtained a copy of the report, which was produced by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The findings were consistent with Homeland Security’s earlier evaluations of triggers, according to current and former federal scientists.” In a nutshell, this means that an already questionable system would be replaced by one even less beneficial.

Measles and How We’re Fighting A Vaccine-Preventable Disease
At this point, you’ve probably heard a lot about the growing measles outbreak in the state of Washington, or the extensive one that occurred in Minnesota in 2017. Or maybe the one that happened in Disneyland in 2015. Those are just a few of the ones that occurred in the past couple of years, but you get the gist of it. This latest one has reportedly been traced to a family that did not vaccinate and traveled abroad. In fact, this recent outbreak has brought the anti-vaccine movement to the forefront, with many discussing the implications of this community of supporters for vaccine declinations and even the children going behind their parents back to get vaccinated. “These outbreaks will cost states and the federal government millions of dollars to contain. They’ll distract from other important public health programs. Most importantly, they’ll put people who can’t be immunized — people allergic to vaccines, newborn babies — at risk. But here’s the most frustrating part: This is all entirely avoidable. By 2000, thanks to the measles vaccine, the virus had been eliminated in the US. It’s absurd that outbreaks have reappeared, yet there’s a single reason why: Too many states make it way too easy for parents to avoid vaccines on behalf of their kids. In other words, measles is making a comeback because of a policy failure.” You can find the latest info on the outbreak here.

China’s Biotech Development – the Role of U.S. and Other Foreign Engagement 
You can now read the latest report by Gryphon Scientific and Rhodium Group, prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released a report entitled China’s Biotechnology Development: The Role of U.S. and Other Foreign Engagement, prepared for the Commission by Gryphon Scientific and Rhodium Group. The report examines the development of China’s biotechnology industry and the role foreign trade, investment, and other linkages—particularly with the United States—have played in its evolution.”

Nowhere to Hide: The Logic of CW Use in Syria
Over the course of the Syrian civil war, there have been 336 chemical weapons attacks, of which 98% were attributed to the Assad regime and 90% occurring after the “red line” incident. “It is clear that the Syrian military has consistently prioritized striking population centers over rebel positions on the frontlines, even in the face of defeat on the ground. Indeed, the Syrian regime’s persistent and widespread use of chemical weapons is best understood as part of its overall war strategy of collective punishment of populations in opposition-held areas. Chemical weapons are an integral component of its arsenal of indiscriminate violence, alongside sieges and high-explosive weapons such as ‘barrel bombs.’ We show that the Assad regime did not merely ‘get away’ with its use of these banned weapons, but succeeded in using them for strategic ends. More than two-thirds of Syria’s population are internally or externally displaced, and opposition-held communities have been buckling and surrendering under the cumulative weight – and eventually the mere threat – of violence, including the use of chemical weapons.”

 Using CRISPR for Disease Detection
Gene editing tools have been marked with great potential but also concern for misuse, and a new article discusses the potential for use as a diagnostic tool in infectious diseases. “Researchers in Nigeria are trying out a new diagnostic test based on the gene-editing tool CRISPR. The test relies on CRISPR’s ability to hunt down genetic snippets ― in this case, RNA from the Lassa virus ― that it has been programmed to find. If the approach is successful, it could help to catch a wide range of viral infections early so that treatments can be more effective and health workers can curb the spread of infection.” Estimates put the reduction of Lassa fever deaths as high as 60% if a user-friendly test could be utilized. Since infectious disease diagnostics can be costly and have significant requirements with expertise/resources, there are many outbreaks and places that have limited chances to utilize them. “The CRISPR tests offer the tantalizing possibility of diagnosing infections as accurately as conventional methods, and almost as simply as an at-home pregnancy test. And because CRISPR is engineered to target specific genetic sequences, researchers hope to develop a tool based on the technology that can be fine-tuned to identify, within a week, whatever viral strain is circulating. ‘This is a very exciting direction for the CRISPR field to go in,’ says Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is developing some of these tools.”

How Nigeria’s CDC Is Preventing the Next Pandemic
As leader of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu works to combat disease and build critical public health infrastructure within the country. “Ever since the Ebola crisis of 2014–16 — from which Nigeria was largely spared — global-health leaders have been fretting about the possibility of an epidemic exploding in Lagos and spreading to London, New York, Mumbai or Beijing. Many argue that the best hope of mitigating such a catastrophe will come from the capacity of African nations to catch outbreaks early and stem their spread. Ihekweazu had written about this necessity long before it was in vogue — but he never imagined leading the effort himself. Yet just two years after his appointment, he has more than doubled the size of the NCDC staff, set up a network of molecular-biology labs across the country and become the steward of multimillion-dollar grants intended to diffuse the threat that an epidemic in Nigeria poses for the rest of the world. On his watch, the nascent agency has battled about a dozen outbreaks, which have infected more than 70,000 people (see ‘Keeping tabs’). ‘We are building the ship while we are sailing,’ Ihekweazu says. Now he has another two years to transform the NCDC into an organization that will operate successfully long after he’s gone.” Dr. Ihekweazu is making considerable strides in fighting disease in Nigeria through the now independent agency, which allows him to have better control over reporting and hiring processes. “Ihekweazu takes heart in seeing Africans such as WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus step onto the global stage. Sipping on a cheap beer during a quiet moment one night, Ihekweazu says he could imagine working at a multinational health agency when his appointment at the NCDC ends in 2020. ‘As Africans, we need to be stronger participants in the organizations leading the responses to challenges concentrated in our part of the world,’ he says.”

USAID-funded Prepared & Response Project Event
Don’t miss this March 21st event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “Over the past four and a half years, the USAID-funded Preparedness & Response project has worked across 16 countries to spread the vision of a multisectoral One Health approach — where human, animal, and environmental health assets join forces — becoming the standard way to prevent, detect, and respond to emerging pandemic threats. As the project approaches the end of its tenure, please join us as we bring together the One Health community of practice to share key learning, demonstrate successful approaches to country ownership, and discuss the future of multisectoral coordination for preparedness and response.”

Australia Works to Change Up Their Dual-Use Research Control
“A review of Australian export laws has pushed back against the government’s effort to tighten controls on technologies and research that might have dual military and non-military uses. Australian researchers, who were concerned that sweeping controls would restrict collaborative research, have welcomed the findings. Existing laws require academics working on ‘dual use’ research to apply for a Department of Defence permit before they communicate the work to anyone outside of Australia. But the department wanted those laws, introduced in 2012 and amended in 2015, strengthened to reflect changes in national security risk since then.” Australia isn’t the only country considering controls on international research collaboration, as many have encouraged the government to work with other universities, industries, and agencies to reduce the impact on trade/research, but also limit uncertainty.

WMD Detector Selector 
If you’ve been looking for a catalogue of the latest detection and diagnostic technologies for CBRN, check out the WMD Detector Selector. “In order to capture the usefulness of each technology, four scenarios of use were devised: Field/Man portable; Mobile laboratory/Field laboratory; Diagnostic laboratory/Point of care; and High sensitivity, high throughput analytical laboratory. The four scenarios are designed to summarize the entire spectrum of detector and diagnostic utilization. Employing this approach, the Global CBRN Detector Market Survey can more accurately describe the usefulness of each system based on its specific characteristics.” Once you’ve reviewed the four scenarios, you can check out the fact sheet and contact the manufacturer for more info.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Outpatient Infection Control – Managing Microbial Transmission“Outpatient clinics are not traditionally focused on infection control initiatives. Despite 990 million physician office visits and 125.7 million hospital outpatient visits each year in the United States, these clinics are often overlooked when it comes to controlling the transmission of harmful pathogens. Until recently, acute and long-term care facilities have been viewed as common sources for microbial transmission. Fortunately, focus has slowly been moving to outpatient clinics and the importance of infection prevention measures for patient and health care provider safety. A new study, published in the American Journal of Infection Control, sought to evaluate outpatient clinic microbial transmission and a disinfecting spray’s role in reducing the spread of germs.”

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