Pandora Report: 5.17.2019

GMU Biodefense Spring Graduates 
It’s that time of year and we’re so excited to celebrate the graduation of several  students from the Schar Biodefense graduate program. Congrats to Carlos Alvarado, Nicolas Bertini, Anna Cannone, Anthony Falzarano, Kelsey Gloss, Megan Hudson, Kate Kerr, Mimish Kothari, Christopher Lien, Jessica Lovett, Janet Marroquin-Pineda, Annette Prieto, Jessica Smrekar, and Stephen Taylor, for their hard work in earning a MS in biodefense! (Hint – check out those white NextGen Health Security sashes). We can’t wait to see what amazing things you’ll accomplish and the impact you’ll have in the world of biodefense.

Biodefense Graduate Student Awards
We’d also like to show off two new graduates who were just awarded for their dedication to the field of biodefense during their studies and as role models for others within the program. Jennifer Osetek was awarded the Outstanding Doctoral Student in Biodefense award and Stephen Taylor was the recipient of the Outstanding Biodefense Student Award. “Stephen’s passion for biodefense and global health security was shaped by his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique. He not only observed first-hand the impact of infectious diseases on the local community, he even suffered a bout of malaria himself. Thankfully he made a full recovery and went on to enroll in our program.” Jen’s dissertation, “The Last Mile: Removing Non-Medical Obstacles in the Pursuit of Global Health Security asks the question, “Does the current approach to public health response planning and execution adequately incorporate all known obstacles to delivery of care and resources?” Drawing on evidence from multiple disease outbreaks over the last thirty years, her answer is an emphatic no. To fill this important void in the literature on global health security, Jen introduced the concept of non-medical obstacles, which are material and intangible factors that slow or prevent the timely delivery of available critical healthcare resources to populations in need during a public health emergency. ”

Outbreak Updates – Ebola in the DRC  and Measles in the U.S.
The onslaught of Ebola cases hasn’t let up in the DRC as 15 more cases were reported this week and the incidents of vandal and violence have continued. The outbreak is now at 1,720 cases, with 1,136 deaths. The attacks have been increasingly making response efforts strained and pose a challenge for maintaining community trust. “’Identifying specific groups responsible for specific attacks is difficult. Many of these groups resist control by the central government and they see this public health response as a threat posed by the government,’ explained Gregory D. Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.’  Others have a more general suspicion of outsiders. Finally, health centers and health care workers may be caught in the cross-fire of competition between different groups. The conflict between so many armed groups is a toxic stew that makes public health campaigns exceedingly difficult.” South Korea is stepping in to assist by providing “$500,000 in cash assistance will help fund the response plan developed by the DRC’s health ministry along with 15 international organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO). It added that with DRC’s outbreak pushing into its 10th month, the international community’s engagement and support is all the more needed. The donation isn’t South Korea’s first for Ebola. In 2014 the country sent a disaster relief team to help with West Africa’s Ebola outbreak and in 2018 it provided $1.5 million to the WHO’s emergency fund to help address Ebola in the DRC.” For the United States, measles is still on the rise as the case counts have passed 800. “The new cases boost the current US total to 839 from 23 states, with many of the cases linked to 10 outbreaks in seven different states: New York, Michigan, New Jersey, California, Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. The modern record of 963 cases occurred in 1994, the year the federally funded Vaccines for Children program began, an event that stabilized the number people vaccinated against the disease and set the stage for measles elimination in 2000. Added to the outbreak list this week is Maryland. The Maryland Department of Health (MDH) said five cases have been confirmed this year as of May 9. It said cases have been localized to a small geographic area involving three zip codes. Two are centered in Baltimore and one is in Pikesville, a suburb just northwest of the city Of the 75 new cases, more than half appear to be linked to large outbreaks in New York City and New York’s Rockland County, both centered in Orthodox Jewish communities.”

U.S. Government Global Health Security Strategy
The White House recently released their strategy for combating global health security threats. The approach includes three goals – strengthening partner country global health security capacities, increasing national support for global health security, and a homeland prepared for and resilient against global health security threats. “Promoting global health security to detect and mitigate outbreaks early remains a core tenet of our National Security Strategy. United States Government investments in global health security can help prevent the spread of human and animal infectious diseases and protect populations at home and abroad, including those serving in our Armed Forces. Furthermore, investments that focus on prevention and preparedness are far more cost-effective than responding to infectious disease epidemics. To maximize global health security and preparedness for infectious disease threats, all countries must address global health security challenges.” The strategy also addresses the technical and geographic priorities for the CDC and USAID including the monitoring, evaluation, sustainability, and transition to country ownership. You can also read about the US government’s health security activities.

Summer Workshop – Are you Registered?
If you’re looking to strengthen the preparedness within your workplace or simply hoping to understand the complex biological threats that stress global health security, check out our workshop this July. “Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the changing nature of conflict, advances in science and technology, globalization, and the growing threat posed by emerging infectious diseases and pandemics. Pandemics, Bioterrorism and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika is a three and a half-day workshop, non-credit summer workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of national security, public health, and the life sciences. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved with research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and national security issues.” Signing up before June 1st will get the early registration discount and large groups/returning attendees/GMU faculty or students are also eligible for an additional discount.

Senate HELP Committee Leaders Applaud Passage of Legislation to Combat Bioterrorism and Pandemics
The senate has passed the Pandemics and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act. The act “supports and strengthens America’s ability to prepare for and respond to the full range of public health threats we face, both naturally occurring or as a result of a deliberate attack on our country. ‘When it comes to combatting pandemics or biological attacks, being prepared is everything,’ said Senator Burr. ‘Today, our nation has an incredible response framework that brings the private and public sectors together to address a range of public health threats, both natural and man-made. As these threats grow increasingly complex, however, it is critical that our capability to respond keeps pace. I am pleased my Senate colleagues joined me in supporting this legislation that ensures America’s biodefenses are ready for the public health challenges of the 21st century’.”

 Germ Warfare and Why Max Brooks is Worried
The author of World War Z is worried about bioterrorism, and here’s why… “The first is that my paranoid notions of corpse diggers and lab smugglers are pathetically outdated compared with what’s coming at us now. The age of the homegrown bioterrorist is right around the corner, a time where anyone with a little cash and access to the internet will be able to cook up designer plagues. Lab equipment that used to cost millions of dollars can now be purchased on the cheap from eBay. Knowledge that used to require a Ph.D. and top-security clearance is available on the dark web or, in many cases, in open-source publications for the whole world to view. Even worse, breakthroughs in genetic manipulation will allow tomorrow’s lone wolf to harvest a seemingly harmless bug anywhere in nature and tweak it just enough to wipe us out. If that first fact wasn’t bad enough, the second is even worse. We, the public, you and I, are the ones letting it happen. Because we’ve conquered so many diseases, and therefore don’t have to worry about the specters that killed and crippled our grandparents, we’re starting to question the science that saved us. Thanks to the anti-vaxxer movement, I’m writing this piece from a city (Los Angeles) that in late April quarantined hundreds of people exposed to a disease that was officially eliminated in the United States. And that’s just measles. Just wait till polio makes a comeback! And what if that polio, or an entirely new disease, doesn’t come from nature? In February, a Coast Guard lieutenant named Christopher Paul Hasson was arrested with a cache of firearms and ammo. In an email, he had allegedly sought to ‘acquire the needed/ Spanish flu, botulism, anthrax.’ Pulling that off right now might have been difficult, to say the least. But if he had, in an age of anti-vaxxers and alternative facts, he might have killed more people than all our past enemies put together.”

Soviet Efforts to Eliminate Plague
Tying into our discussions last week on the Soviet Union’s efforts to eliminate plague,  more attention has been placed on the significant work they employed towards this monumental goal. While some progress was made, there was a divergence between the promotion of success and what scientists were actually able to achieve. In fact, Soviet scientists stated in the 1960s that there hadn’t been a human case of plague since 1928. “Local authorities would say, ‘It’s eradicated’ or ‘We don’t have an outbreak.’ Because they ignored the outbreak, it would spread to other republics of the Soviet Union,” says Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, a biodefense researcher now at George Mason University who also coauthored the CNS reports on the Soviet anti-plague system. When the plague broke out on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for example, Kazakh scientists would try to contact their colleagues across the border, who were kept from telling the truth. But, says Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, “if they were told the colleague was on vacation, most of the time that meant he was out in the field responding to the outbreak.” Sadly, the shear size of the country proved challenging to truly complete the task and “Beginning in the 1960s, as reality intruded, the Soviet anti-plague system shifted from total eradication to control. The scientists knew that plague outbreaks among humans tended to follow rodent outbreaks in any local area. So they would conduct plague surveillance by systematically testing animals.”

New Maps Reveal First Global Estimate of Anthrax Risk
Check out this new resource for understanding the risks of anthrax at a global level. “Newly published maps reveal, for the first time, where anthrax poses global risks to people, livestock and wildlife. Popularly viewed as a frightening airborne agent of bioterrorism, the bacteria that causes anthrax infections naturally occurs in the soil on every continent and some islands. The maps, published today in Nature Microbiology, are the result of 15 years of data collection covering 70 countries compiled by Emerging Pathogens Institute associate research professor Jason Blackburn and his colleagues. Until now, the geographic distribution of anthrax has not been mapped globally. ‘Our main purpose was to describe where anthrax occurs, or is likely to occur, across the globe, and to illustrate sub-national areas where surveillance is necessary,’ Blackburn says. ‘Anthrax is a disease that affects both animals and humans, and it is most commonly associated with rural and agricultural communities which contend with it nearly worldwide. Our maps will help countries and health authorities focus on specific anthrax-prone areas to target control and surveillance’.”

Is Antibiotic Development Now the Road Less Traveled?
“Although attention has been focused on the use of genetically modified bacteriophages to fight a highly resistant infection in a young girl, the antibiotic pipeline is not just drying up…but dying. This isn’t news though; in fact, we’ve known about it for a while. It’s been decades since a novel antibiotic hit the market and, as antimicrobial resistance surges, the treatment options are becoming increasingly scarce.  Recent attention has been focused on the bankruptcy of the biotech company Achaogen. It’s likely you haven’t even heard of them, let alone know that they filed for bankruptcy a few weeks ago. The reason this bankruptcy is worrisome is that Achaogen’s antibiotic, plazomicin, was actually approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in June 2018 and, despite its efficacy against multidrug-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, it failed to keep the company afloat. The cost-prohibitive nature of antimicrobial research and development is all but ensuring that the pipeline for development is drying up. Not only does the Achaogen bankruptcy highlight the costly nature of antimicrobial development, but it’s even more worrisome that a company that was solely focused on such efforts couldn’t stay in business even with the financial push and support from the National Institutes of Health, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and the Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator (CARB-X).”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Creating Bacteria With a Synthetic Genome – “Scientists have created a living organism whose DNA is entirely human-made — perhaps a new form of life, experts said, and a milestone in the field of synthetic biology. Researchers at the University of Cambridge on Wednesday reported that they had rewritten the DNA of the bacteria Escherichia coli, fashioning a synthetic genome four times larger and far more complex than any previously created. The bacteria are alive, though unusually shaped and reproducing slowly. But their cells operate according to a new set of biological rules, producing familiar proteins with a reconstructed genetic code.”
  • Army Planning to Begin User Acceptance Testing of Malaria Drug Tafenoquine – “The U.S. Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity (USAMRAA) located at FT. Detrick, MD, has issued a solicitation outlining plans to conduct User Acceptance Testing for the malaria prophylactic drug (Tafenoquine) brand name Arakoda. The announcement (W81XWH-19-R-0052) supports sourcing of one commercial lot of ~120,000 tablets (7,500 packages) of Tafenoquine brand name Arakoda immediately, with options to procure up to 3 orders of 3,750 packages each.”






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