Pandora Report: 8.23.2019

Welcome to your favorite source for biodefense nerdom! We hope your week was wonderful and you’re ready for a dose of health security news…

STEM: An Open Source Tool for Disease Modeling
Have you been looking for a good epidemiological modeling software? Lucky for you, there’s STEM (Spatiotemporal Epidemiologic Modeler) and one of GMU’s very own biodefense doctoral alums, Nereyda Sevilla, was part of a team who published on how great this software is. “The Spatiotemporal Epidemiologic Modeler (STEM) is an open source software project supported by the Eclipse Foundation and used by a global community of researchers and public health officials working to track and, when possible, control outbreaks of infectious disease in human and animal populations. STEM is not a model or a tool designed for a specific disease; it is a flexible, modular framework supporting exchange and integration of community models, reusable plug-in components, and denominator data, available to researchers worldwide at www.eclipse.org/stem. A review of multiple projects illustrates its capabilities. STEM has been used to study variations in transmission of seasonal influenza in Israel by strains; evaluate social distancing measures taken to curb the H1N1 epidemic in Mexico City; study measles outbreaks in part of London and inform local policy on immunization; and gain insights into H7N9 avian influenza transmission in China. A multistrain dengue fever model explored the roles of the mosquito vector, cross-strain immunity, and antibody response in the frequency of dengue outbreaks. STEM has also been used to study the impact of variations in climate on malaria incidence. During the Ebola epidemic, a weekly conference call supported the global modeling community; subsequent work modeled the impact of behavioral change and tested disease reintroduction via animal reservoirs. Work in Germany tracked salmonella in pork from farm to fork; and a recent doctoral dissertation used the air travel feature to compare the potential threats posed by weaponizing infectious diseases. Current projects include work in Great Britain to evaluate control strategies for parasitic disease in sheep, and in Germany and Hungary, to validate the model and inform policy decisions for African swine fever. STEM Version 4.0.0, released in early 2019, includes tools used in these projects and updates technical aspects of the framework to ease its use and re-use.”

GMU Biodefense Fall Courses – Are You Registered?
The start of the Fall semester is just around the corner and if you’re a GMU biodefense graduate student, you’ve got a great menu of courses this term. There are still open spots in three courses – Global Health Security Policy taught by Ashley Grant (lead biotechnologist at the MITRE Corporation and previously the Senior Biological Scientist at the Government Accountability Office where she led government-wide technical performance audits focused on biosafety and biosecurity issues), Nonproliferation and Arms Control with Richard Cupitt (Senior Associate and Director of the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program at Stimson and prior to joining Stimson, he served as the Special Coordinator for U.N. Security Council resolution 1540 in the Office of Counterproliferation Initiatives at the U.S. State Department from 2012 through 2016.), and Biosurveillance with Andrew Kilianski (GMU professor and CINO for the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense JPEO-CBRND). These are just a handful of the classes but since there are a few spots left in each, now is your change to grab a seat!

GMU Biodefense MS and PhD Open Houses
Have you been considering investing in your education and career through a graduate degree in biodefense? Check out one of our Schar School Open Houses to get a feel for what the MS and PhD programs are like – you can chat with faculty, students, and learn more about the coursework and application process. The Master’s Open House will be at 6:30pm on Thursday, September 12th, and the PhD Open House will be at 7pm on Thursday, September 19th – both will be held at our Arlington campus in Van Metre Hall.

Ebola Outbreak – New Cases in Remote Areas 
Late last week two remote regions in the DRC reported cases of Ebola virus disease – North and South Kivu, of which there hadn’t been cases for several incubation periods. Moreover, there were 27 cases reported over 3 days, bringing the outbreak closer to 2,900. “According to Reuters, DRC officials today confirmed a new case of Ebola in the remote, militia-controlled territory of Walikale, which is 95 miles northwest of Goma. Goma recorded four cases of Ebola in the last 6 weeks, and it is unclear if the case in Walikale had any contact with other Ebola patients. Reuters also reported the DRC confirmed a third case in South Kivu region, which reported its first case late last week. South Kivu is more than 430 miles from the outbreak’s epicenter. The first cases in South Kivu were a mother and child who were likely exposed in Beni. For almost a year, the DRC’s Ebola outbreak—the second largest in history—was contained to North Kivu and Ituri provinces along the country’s eastern border.” Unfortunately, there has also been transmission within healthcare facilities where patients are being treated, as infection control is increasingly a challenge. “The World Health Organization (WHO) said today the third case of Ebola identified in South Kivu province was in a patient who contracted the virus at a health center where other Ebola patients had been treated. The details on the nosocomial transmission emerged in the WHO’s latest situation report on the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In the past week, two more DRC regions far from outbreak hot spots have reported cases: South Kivu province and Pinga health zone, which is in North Kivu province. The WHO is still investigating how the case-patient in Pinga contracted the virus, but investigations have shown a mother and child in Mwenga, South Kivu, became infected after contact with a patient from Beni, the city most hard hit by the outbreak this summer. The two towns are about 473 miles apart, and South Kivu province shares a border with Rwanda and Burundi.” The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is helping via $23 million funding towards Merck’s Ebola vaccine production. The WHO also just released their list of eight lessons being applied to the DRC outbreak in a “Ebola then and now” segment. This list includes things like putting research at the heart of response and supporting survivors.

Syria: Anniversary of the Ghouta Chemical Weapons Attack
The U.S. State Department recently released a statement on the attack that occurred six years ago. “On August 21, 2013, the Assad regime launched a horrific chemical attack with the nerve agent sarin on the Ghouta district in Damascus – killing more than 1,400 Syrians, many of them children. On this solemn anniversary we remember the numerous lives lost to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.  We reiterate our resolve to prevent further use of these deadly weapons and to hold the Assad regime accountable for these heinous crimes. The regime’s barbaric history of using chemical weapons against its own people cannot and will not be forgotten or tolerated. Assad and others in his regime who believe they can continue using chemical weapons with impunity are mistaken.  The United States remains determined to hold the Assad regime accountable for these heinous acts and will continue to pursue all efforts alongside partner countries to ensure that those involved in chemical attacks face serious consequences.  We will continue to leverage all of the tools available to us to prevent any future use. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, under any circumstances.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Packed Dorms Help MERS Transmission – Crowded living spaces and a high stress environment encouraged the transmission of a respiratory virus? Shocker… “New findings from an investigation into a large MERS-CoV cluster in a women’s dormitory revealed that crowded living conditions can lead to higher attack rates and hints that even healthcare workers who don’t directly care for patients can play a role in disease spread. In other developments, Saudi Arabia reported one new MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) case.”
  • NIH Study to Offer Genetic Counseling – “A US government study that aims to sequence the genomes of one million volunteers will partner with a genetic-counselling company to help participants understand their results. It will be the largest US government study to provide such a service. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is leading the project, called All of Us. And on 21 August, the agency announced the award of a US$4.6-million, 5-year grant to Color. The firm, in Burlingame, California, will counsel every study participant with a genetic variant that could have serious health implications — such as BRCA mutations associated with breast cancer — when they receive their results. Color will also develop educational materials for all study participants, and will offer telephone consultations to anyone who wishes to discuss their results with a counsellor.”

 

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