Pandora Report: 5.10.2019

Welcome to your weekly source for all things biodefense- Have you registered for the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security? The early registration discount has been extended to June 1st, so make sure you reserve your spot! The theme of this week’s biodefense news follows one of the most ancient diseases – plague.

Living with Plague- Lessons from the Soviet Union’s Antiplague System
Plague is one of those zoonotic diseases that has done some damage over the millennia and the Soviet Union is one that has worked to eradicate the disease. “During the 20th century, one of the most extensive plague-eradication efforts in recorded history was undertaken to enable large-scale changes in land use in the former Soviet Union (including vast areas of central Asia). Despite expending tremendous resources in its attempt to eradicate plague, the Soviet antiplague response gradually abandoned the goal of eradication in favor of plague control linked with developing basic knowledge of plague ecology. Drawing from this experience, we combine new gray-literature sources, historical and recent research, and fieldwork to outline best practices for the control of spillover from zoonoses while minimally disrupting wildlife ecosystems, and we briefly compare the Soviet case with that of endemic plague in the western United States.” The authors note that “living with emergent and reemergent zoonotic diseases—switching to control—opens wider possibilities for interrupting spillover while preserving natural ecosystems, encouraging adaptation to local conditions, and using technological tools judiciously and in a cost-effective way.” Looking for more information on the anti-plague system of the Soviet Union? Check out GMU biodefense professor and antiplague system guru Sonia Benouagrham-Gormley.

Schar School Security Studies Program Ranked No. 2 in Nation
What can we say, the Schar School is the place to be for security studies like biodefense! “The Schar School of Policy and Government’s “security studies” program is ranked No. 2 in the country according to the March 12, 2019 survey in U.S. News and World Report. While the ranking is for ‘security studies’ programs, that term encompasses three of the Schar School’s strengths:”

“We continue to do what we do well, which is deliver a classroom experience grounded in both theory and practice in the field,” Schar School dean Mark J. Rozell said. “Our program is made up of full-time faculty who are both scholars and practitioners. Students see that investment by the school in their success.”

Review of Books on the Anti-Vaccination Movement
Trying to make sense of the anti-vaccine movement? Check out this review on three books that address vaccines, the anxieties that follow them, and distrust in the whole process. These reviews provide detailed insight into the books and what they mean in the context of the challenges surrounding the anti-vaccination movement. “Several recent books by doctors, scientists, and journalists have delved further into the history and science of vaccines and immunity, and the anxieties that accompany them. In Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines, Jennifer Reich, a sociologist who has also written about child protective services, brings meticulousness and sensitivity to this emotional issue. One parent tells Reich that she lies about having vaccinated her children to avoid disapproval from pro-vaccine neighbors: ‘I think it’s to the point where we need to keep quiet about our health choices if we are not within a like-minded community’.”

Biocrimes and Misdemeanors – This Week in Virology Podcast
Check out the latest podcast from ASM on biocrimes with guest Dr. Jens Kuhn (who just so happens to be a lecturer at our summer workshop!). “Jens Kuhn returns to TWiV to explain Select Agents, Priority Pathogens, Australia List Pathogens, Risk Group Agents, biosafety, biosecurity, and biosurety.”

First Utilization of Genetically Modified Bacteriophage Used to Treat Resistant Infection
In a pretty astounding first, a British teenager has recovered from a considerable drug-resistant infection following treatment with a genetically modified virus. Patients with cystic fibrosis, like the young British girl, frequently battle resistant infections that often lead to death. Following a severe post-lung transplant infection, doctors tried a new treatment involving engineered bacteriophages to treat her drug-resistant Mycobacterium abscessus. “Spencer and her colleagues contacted Graham Hatfull, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in phage research. Hatfull searched a collection of 15,000 phages he has assembled with his students. He identified one that appeared to be good at killing the bacterium, Mycobacterium abscessus, which was causing the girl’s infection. (As it turns out, the phage he identified, known as ‘Muddy,’ was discovered in a rotting eggplant.) Hatfull’s team also identified two other phages that could be useful, which they then genetically modified in a way they hoped would boost their ability to zero in on and kill the bacterium attacking the teen. ‘Using genetic approaches with genome engineering, we were able to assemble this collection of three phages that we could then combine in a cocktail to use for treatment. They not only infect, but kill efficiently,’ Hatfull says.”

Urgent Steps Are Needed Against Ebola
Things are only getting worse in the DRC as cases have surged past 1,500 and 100 new cases were reported in 5 days. While this isn’t the first time the DRC has faced Ebola, this is one that is proving a formidable force against international efforts. Dr. Tom Inglesby and Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo discuss the urgent actions needed to help prevent this outbreak from spreading out of control. “First, countries and international donors must provide the finances the DRC, WHO, and their partners need to contain this outbreak. WHO depends on countries and donors to respond to emergencies. On April 30, WHO Director Tedros Ghebreyesus said in a statement that ‘WHO and its partners cannot tackle these challenges without the international community stepping in to fill the sizeable funding gap.’ In the same statement, the WHO said that only half of the currently requested funds have been received, ‘which could lead to WHO and partners rolling back some activities precisely when they are most needed’.” Expansion of the vaccine supply is also critical, they note, as well as a large-scale vaccination campaign. “Second, new security strategies are needed to allow public health workers to contain the virus. Violence in the region is a central reason the epidemic continues to worsen despite broad containment efforts. The DRC and the UN peacekeeping force, known as MONUSCO, have not been able to control the violence enough to allow public health response activities to proceed without interruptions. Failing to develop a security strategy risks the possibility that Ebola could spread to neighboring countries, a situation that would greatly exacerbate Ebola’s human and economic costs and further erode security in the region.” The WHO has just released their plans to adapt a specific Ebola vaccine strategy to the DRC to account for insecurity and community feedback – you can read the release here.

GMU Biodefense Student Awarded ASIS National Capital Chapter Security Education Foundation Scholarship
Congrats to GMU Biodefense MS student Jessica Smrekar for securing the prestigious scholarship! Jessica notes that “This scholarship is awarded to those with academic excellence within the field of security. My work in biosecurity, both in academic and career, represents an underserved area of security that the Chapter recognizes as a vital part of the field. I will be graduating in May 2019 with my Master’s in Biodefense from George Mason University and I have used my academic opportunities to begin a career in biosecurity. Through my work, I have had the pleasure of working an internship within the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response. My position was in the Office of Strategy, Policy, Planning and Requirements working on biosecurity policy development and implementation of National Biodefense Strategy goals. During the ceremony, I was delighted to hear that this was the first time the Chapter broke the rules and awarded not one, but two George Mason students with a scholarship. The President stated the board was extremely impressed with our submissions and academic work and it was a quick decision to make this novel decision. Impressed enough that after the ceremony, I was offered the chance to educate other chapter members on biosecurity and conduct a presentation of biosecurity at a future Chapter meeting. I am honored to say I will be presenting an introduction of biosecurity to the National Chapter of ASIS this coming fall and look forward to continue working within this organization.”

Stopping the Gaps in Epidemic Preparedness
“A more productive, integrated approach to research would encompass disciplines such as context-specific social science, clinical and data sciences, and genomics and involve pursuit of innovative study designs and improved regulatory pathways. If trials of diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines became routine parts of responses to epidemics, with open multiyear and multicountry protocols prepared in advance, we could prevent potential lifesaving tools from being left to gather dust on shelves. Effective prevention and response require strong public health systems that provide equitable, universal access to high-quality health care. Effective health care cannot be available if health care workers are not protected. In every outbreak, health care workers have died. Here, infection control and vaccines can make all the difference, allowing people to be treated without putting caregivers, nurses, doctors, and support staff at unacceptable risk.”

The Case of the Raw Marmot and Plague
A couple in Mongolia recently died of bubonic plague following consumption of a raw marmot in the pursuit of health benefits. “The ethnic Kazakh couple died in Bayan-Ulgii, Mongolia’s westernmost province bordering Russia and China. It is not clear what treatment they received, if any. The incident prompted local panic. The government ordered a quarantine for six days for the region, preventing scores of tourists from leaving the area. At least one aircraft was examined by health officials in contamination suits. After no new cases appeared by Monday, the quarantine was lifted.”

 8 Zoonotic Diseases Of Most Concern in the U.S. 
Speaking of zoonotic diseases… the CDC just released information on the eight zoonotic diseases shared between animals and people of most concern int he U.S. “‘Every year, tens of thousands of Americans get sick from diseases spread between animals and people. CDC’s One Health Office is collaborating with DOI, USDA, and other partners across the government to bring together disease detectives, laboratorians, physicians, and veterinarians to prevent those illnesses and protect the health of people, animals, and our environment,’ said Casey Barton Behravesh, M.S., D.V.M., Dr.P.H., director, One Health Office, CDC.” These diseases include zoonotic influenza, salmonellosis, West Nile virus, plague, emerging coronaviruses, rabies, brucellosis, and Lyme disease.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • UV Light Disinfection: A New Infection Prevention Tool – “In the battle against health care-associated infections and emerging infections, hospitals and infection prevention programs are constantly looking for new ways to prevent the transmission of organisms. From alcohol-based hand sanitizers to the advent of electronic surveillance systems, technology has helped infection preventionists (IPs) compete with increasing biotechnology in medicine. One of these new technologies tackles a particularly hard area for infection control—the environment. Cleaning and disinfecting these environments, especially patient rooms, is an imperfect process prone to human error. Although we seek to do our best, the rapid pace of health care and patient care means turning over a room after discharge is often a matter of life and death. Unfortunately, along with the fast pace often comes mistakes and, ultimately, it’s exceedingly hard to clean and disinfect every possible item and surface within a patient’s room. A new technology, though, is harnessing UV light to clean those hard-to-reach areas and even ceilings.”
  • Support the JASON Science-Advisory Group“For nearly 60 years, the scientists on the panel — the Jasons — have provided the US government with unvarnished, independent advice on matters ranging from classified military developments and nuclear weapons to artificial intelligence and global warming. Its members are a roll call of elite and illustrious scientists. The Pentagon said its decision was economic: it was cancelling all but one study, on electronic warfare, and it made no financial sense to renew the full contract. This decision would have effectively ended the group’s work — but then, on 25 April, it received a last-minute reprieve. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) — a branch of the energy department that maintains the country’s nuclear-weapons arsenal — offered new funding for the Jasons. This summer, the group will now be able to hammer out around a dozen studies for federal agencies, including the NNSA. But the new contract runs only until 31 January 2020; previous DOD contracts lasted for five years.”


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