Summer Workshop on Bioterrorism, Pandemics, and Global Health Security – A Recap
“The spectrum of biological threats is often much wider than many realize. From the current Ebola virus disease outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to CRISPR-designed babies, there are a lot of biological issues that trickle over into health care and public health. This week, I attended the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika, where conversations ranged from protecting the bioeconomy to vaccine development. Here are the key takeaways: First, it’s a startling truth, but biological threats aren’t just black and white, but a vast spectrum of gray. We no longer live in a world where it’s just pandemics and bioterrorism, but also conversations surrounding dual-use research of concern (DURC), gene drive worries with CRISPR-modified mosquitoes, pandemic response, vaccine development, and so much more. FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward You discussed concerns of garage biohacking and how the US government has policies on oversight for life sciences DURC. Furthermore, You discussed synthetic biology and how the price for DNA synthesis kits (ie, biohacking kits) have dramatically dropped over the years.”
Bashar al-Assad is Waging Biological War – By Neglect
Going against the traditional definition of biological warfare, Annie Sparrow discusses how the deliberate efforts by the Assad regime to destroy public health and healthcare are actually a form of biological warfare. “Beyond being unpredictable and difficult to control, anthrax or sarin attacks are too visible and risk a global reaction. And in war, they kill in far smaller numbers and much less reliably than common diseases and wound infections. In contrast, the behavior of Assad’s preferred pathogens is predictable. Here lies the key to a far more insidious strategy: By deliberately degrading an already precarious public health situation, the new biological warfare is able to fly under the radar. Assad’s most visible mass atrocities include indiscriminate attacks on and the resulting forced displacement of civilians, devastating sieges, and assaults on hospitals. But an unappreciated dimension of his total-war strategy has been his attacks on public health infrastructure and programs in order to fast-track the epidemic diseases that thrive in the crowded living conditions created by mass displacement, while simultaneously withholding essential public health tools and medicines. The aim is to weaken the entire population in these areas and overburden the rudimentary medical facilities that were able to survive in an effort to punish populations opposed to Assad. While there is a brutal battlefield logic to these attacks on health care infrastructure, they are prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, which are designed to spare civilians—and the institutions on which they depend—from the hazards of war. Assad is deliberately engaging in war crimes.”
In Memory of Prof. Andrew Price-Smith
The biodefense world got a bit dimmer with the passing of one its greats – Dr. Andrew Price-Smith. The author of one of my personal favorites – Contagions and Chaos, “Professor Andrew Price-Smith, David Packard Professor of International Relations and Director of the Global Health Initiative, passed away last week after a lengthy illness. He is survived by his wife, Janell Price-Smith, and their two children. Our thoughts and prayers are with Drew’s family, colleagues, and friends. Professor Price-Smith joined the CC faculty in 2005 and served as chair of the political science department from 2013-2016 and as the founding director of our Global Health Initiative. Drew’s research focused on the effects of disease, environmental change, and energy scarcity on the security of nations and taught courses on the environment, health and security, and international relations.”
UK Parliament Inquiry into Government’s Biosecurity Efforts
It’s been a year since the UK Government published their first ever Biosecurity Strategy, and the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy is set to inquire how they’re approaching biosecurity and human health. “The strategy is intended to coordinate a cross-government approach to biosecurity threats, whether they materialise naturally, accidentally or deliberately in the form of a malicious attack. It cites globalisation and technology as key factors in today’s biosecurity risks. The Government has long prioritised public health as a national security issue, with pandemics and emerging infectious diseases categorised as a top-tier risk in the 2010 and 2015 National Security Risk Assessments. Attacks using biological weapons are categorised as a second-tier risk, along with attacks using chemical, radiological and nuclear weapons. In 2018, the Government’s National Security Capability Review elevated ‘diseases and natural hazards affecting the UK’ to one of six principal challenges likely to drive national security priorities over the coming decade.” You can read the UK Biological Security Strategy here, which “recognises the importance of intervening early to prevent biological threats from emerging, or from spreading once they emerge. To this end, it sets out how we will make best use of our international activity to help reduce the risks to the UK and our interests, at home and overseas. This includes our engagement with international partners (at local, regional and national levels) and forums. Our investment in overseas biological security education and our international work on global health security, led by DHSC and DFID, is building resilience to health threats in developing countries.”
Ebola Outbreak Updates
The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in the DRC has been changing daily, but here’s an update to help catch you up. On Wednesday, it was reported that more violence has occurred in the outbreak region, “the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group, attacked two villages near Beni, killing 12 people who live in the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC’s) ongoing Ebola outbreak. The terrorists killed nine in Eringeti and three in Oicha, according to Reuters. ADF has not publically pledged allegiance to the Islamic state (ISIL), but that hasn’t stopped ISIL from claiming responsibility for the attacks.” This comes has the World Bank Group announced it would be mobilizing $300 million to help respond to the outbreak. “The US$300 million in grants and credits will be largely financed through the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) and its Crisis Response Window, which is designed to help countries respond to severe crises and return to their long-term development paths. The financing package will cover the Ebola-affected health zones in DRC and enable the government, WHO, UNICEF, WFP, IOM and other responders to step up the frontline health response, deliver cash-for-work programs to support the local economy, strengthen resilience in the affected communities, and contain the spread of this deadly virus. This amount is approximately half of the anticipated financing needs of the Fourth Strategic Response Plan (SRP4), which is expected to be finalized in the coming week by the Government and the international consortium of partners working on the response. The World Bank has been supporting programs to combat DRC’s ongoing battle with Ebola since May 2018, with resources going to the frontline response, health system strengthening, and preparedness to reduce the risk of spread.” This outbreak in particular has forced response efforts to change the way we approach not only outbreak control, but also vaccine deployment. “Every aspect of the outbreak is affected by the area’s long history of conflict and trauma. Residents have endured more than two decades of terror from armed groups, along with resource exploitation, political instability and neglect from the world at large. That has bred distrust of authorities — including foreign health workers — and conspiracy theories about why Ebola is thriving. One popular rumour alleges that Ebola responders inject people with deadly substances at treatment centres and vaccination sites. These false ideas have fostered nearly 200 attacks on Ebola responders and treatment centres so far this year, according to the WHO. Seven people have been killed and 58 injured.” You can check the latest case-counts here, which shows now 2,620 cases.
Defense Officials See Increased Threat from Chinese, Russian Chem-Bio Weapons
At a recent CBRN Conference, a hot topic of concern was the threat of Chinese and Russian CBW. In fact – Dr. Kilianski (GMU biodefense professor) spoke on this – “Much attention has been focused on Russia and China’s modernization of their nuclear and conventional forces. But there is growing concern at the Pentagon about those nations’ chemical and biological weapons, U.S. officials said July 23. There is now an increased focus on threats posed by near-peer adversaries, noted Andrew Kilianski, chief intelligence officer at the joint program executive office for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense. ‘They’re in that emerging space … in terms of things we haven’t seen before or things that we don’t have a lot of information on,’ he said during remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual CBRN Conference and Exhibition in Wilmington, Delaware. The question now is, ‘how do we build capability against a threat space which … we don’t know much about?’ he added”.
DARPA Awards ASU Contract to Build Epigenetic-based WMD Exposure Measurement Tool
For $38.8 million, Arizona State University will get the chance to help build a measurement tool against WMDs. “Arizona State University announced today that it has been awarded $38.8 million by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a field-deployable, point-of-care device that can determine if a person has been exposed to weapons of mass destruction or their precursors, in 30 minutes or less. The grant, which will be funded over four years in phases and options, was awarded under DARPA’s Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO) program, which aims to identify epigenetic signatures created by exposure to threat agents and to develop technology that performs highly specific forensic and diagnostic analyses to reveal the exact type and time of exposure. ASU said the device it plans to develop will be capable of detecting the health effects of a number of substances associated with weapons of mass destruction — including biological agents, radiation, chemicals, and explosives — from a single drop of blood. The technology could also eventually be used for simple, low-cost monitoring of epigenetic changes to detect a broad range of human diseases.”
Troublesome Ticks: Dispelling Bioweapon Rumors
“A government-owned island used for biodefense testing, a devastating vector-borne disease, and an amendment quietly slipped into major legislation—Although these might sound like scenes from the latest sci-fi movie, they are actually part of a current hot topic that stemmed from some rather poor information. Let’s start from the beginning as we tackle the misinformation circulating in today’s anti-vaccine movement. Plum Island, as idyllic as it sounds, is an island off the coast of Orient Point, New York. Purchased by the US government in the 1950s, it became the home for animal disease research, first for the US Army and then for the US Department of Agriculture. The island is now the site of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC), which falls under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Office of National Laboratories (ONL). The island allows PIADC to maintain a safe, isolated area to develop biodefense efforts to defend against intentional, accidental, or natural animal diseases like foot-and-mouth (FMD), which can be devastating to cattle. Hundreds of investigators and employees come to the island to work on research, which can include efforts of treatment, diagnostics, vaccines, and bioforensics. Not surprisingly, rumors about the island and its work have swirled for decades. Like all the other biodefense laboratories, it maintains a heavy biosecurity and biosafety culture.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Highly Resistant Malaria Spreading Rapidly in Southeast Asia – “An aggressive strain of drug-resistant malaria that originated in Cambodia has rapidly spread into neighboring countries, causing high rates of treatment failure to first-line treatment and complicating efforts to eliminate the disease, according to two studies published yesterday in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. One of the studies found that the KEL1/PLA1 strain of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria, now accounts for more than 80% of the malaria parasites in northeastern Thailand and Vietnam, and has acquired new genetic mutations that have enhanced its fitness and ability to resist treatment. The strain is resistant to dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine, a form of artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) that has been the first-line treatment for malaria in Cambodia for more than a decade, and was more recently adopted as the preferred treatment in Thailand and Vietnam.”
- Outbreak of Chapare-like Virus in Bolivia– “On June 28, 2019, the Bolivian Ministry of Health received notice of three cases of hemorrhagic fever syndrome. Two additional cases have since been reported. Current evidence suggests that the etiologic agent is Chapare virus or a similar virus, according to the US CDC”.