Alumna Spotlight: Biodefense Grad Tam Dang, Dallas County Epidemiologist
“Tam Dang started in the biology world, earning her Bachelor’s of Science degree from George Mason University in 2008. But it was her course of study in the Master’s in Biodefense program at the Schar School that put her on her present career path. The degree, she said, ‘introduced me to the public health field, and offered a unique perspective from a biosecurity and bioterrorism standpoint.’ Today, Dang is an epidemiologist for the Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services in Dallas, Texas. She works in the Acute Communicable Disease Epidemiology Division, helping to lead epidemiological investigations for infectious disease outbreaks or potential bioterrorism events. She monitors local, regional, and state data sources related to infectious diseases, and helps develop outbreak and bioterrorism plans to help support public health preparedness. Her work is at the intersection of public health and health security, an important field in the modern era.”
BioWatch Data Stored on Vulnerable Contractor Website for Years
Well that’s a big oops… “For more than a decade, the Department of Homeland Security failed to properly secure sensitive information on the primary BioWatch information portal, which contained bioterrorism surveillance testing information and response plans that would be put in place in the event of an attack. In August 2016, Harry Jackson, who worked for a branch of Homeland Security that deals with information security, was assigned to the BioWatch program. Three months later, he learned about biowatchportal.org and demanded the agency stop using it, arguing that it housed classified information and that the portal’s security measures were inadequate. A security audit completed in January 2017 found ‘critical’ and ‘high risk’ vulnerabilities, including weak encryption that made the website ‘extremely prone’ to online attacks. Internal Homeland Security emails and other documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times show the security issue set off a bitter clash within the department over whether keeping the information on the dot-org website run by Logistics Management Institute posed a threat to national security.”
Oversight of Lab-Created Potential Pandemic Pathogens and the BWC
Lynn C. Klotz discusses accidental releases and research with pathogens of pandemic potential in relation to the Biological Weapons Convention. “Seeding a pandemic is not a problem for future consideration; the possibility is upon us now. There is an urgent need for international oversight and regulation of this research. The countries that are party to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) may not believe it to be within the BWC mandate to oversee academic research whose goal is public health. But if the parties decide this kind of oversight is within the BWC mandate (under Article XII), guidelines and regulations could be enacted fairly quickly. At the very least, the parties could act as a catalyst, launching discussions toward a new international treaty on oversight and regulation of this dangerous research. In the meantime, since enacting new treaties is an uncertain and long process, the BWC parties should work to pass legislation in their nations.” Klotz breaks down if such a release could result in a pandemic and if those pathogens could be classified as a biological weapon. “For lab-created potentially pandemic pathogens, any quantity, however small, could seed an outbreak or pandemic. In this circumstance, development also implies production and stockpiling, since a single vial of infectious agent and one to a few infected individuals are all that is necessary to launch an attack. From a military tactical point of view, however, lab-created pandemic pathogens would not be good biological weapons; they would boomerang back on the attackers since they are highly transmissible. Nonetheless, a suicidal terrorist group or a desperate country might employ them as a last resort, or threaten to employ them as a means of extortion.” Klotz ultimately notes that there is a need for action from the parties of the BWC – “Hopefully, the states that are party to the BWC will set in motion a process for overseeing relevant new research and technologies. If they decide that lab-created potentially pandemic pathogens are within the BWC mandate under Article XII, they could speed up the enactment of guidelines and regulations.”
Data Collection Gaps Are Damning the Ebola Outbreak
The outbreak in the DRC is continuing to spread as 14 new cases were reported on Wednesday and the South Kivu cluster has grown by 5, bringing the outbreak closer to 3,000. GMU Biodefense PhD alum Saskia Popescu discusses the implications of the data gaps within the current Ebola outbreak in the DRC. “Late last week 2 Ebola virus disease (EVD) cases were confirmed in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), some 400 miles away from where the outbreak first began. The cases were reported in a woman, who had been vaccinated, and her child who had traveled from Beni. The government is currently working to vaccinate and monitor 120 contacts of these 2 individuals. In the face of this expanding outbreak that has surpassed 2700 confirmed cases, there has been much attention on the drug and vaccine trials that are ongoing. Unfortunately, in the fervor of excitement surrounding the promise of treatment, few have paid attention to the quality of data that is made available. Pierre Rollin, MD, a veteran Ebola fighter, recently drew attention to some deeply concerning issues in the outbreak response in an article in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Rollin underscored that although there was initial confidence in the response to the outbreak, mostly due to therapeutics and experienced personnel, leadership and coordination failures amid a conflict zone and community mistrust all helped the outbreak spiral. One component of Rollin’s review is deeply concerning—the ‘ineffectiveness of the collection, analysis, and diffusion of epidemiological data, the centerpiece of any response, is predictive of the situation worsening.’ Similar to what was felt by many on the ground during the 2014-2016 West African Ebola outbreak, the various databases between agencies, groups, etc., all made situational awareness and response that much more challenging.”
How Does USAMRIID’s Shutdown Impact US Biodefense and Bioterrorism Laboratory Response Network?
“The Laboratory Response Network (LRN) is a collaborative federal effort run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in cooperation with other federal agency and public health partners. Most state public health laboratories participate as reference laboratories of the LRN. These facilities support hundreds of sentinel laboratories in local communities throughout the U.S. and its territories, providing confirmatory diagnosis and typing of biological threats used in a bioterrorist attack or causing a public health emergency. The U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) Special Pathogens Laboratory at Fort Detrick is one of only three National Laboratories at the top of the protective umbrella of the LRN structure, along with those operated by the CDC and the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC), responsible for specialized characterization of organisms, bioforensics, select agent activity, and handling highly infectious biological agents. It begs the question then, what happens when an important component of the nation’s biopreparedness infrastructure fails to meet CDC biosafety requirements and has its Federal Select Agent certification pulled? Global Biodefense submitted requests to USAMRIID and the CDC on Aug. 6 for information on the status of the Institute in the LRN structure and whether another Biosafety Level-4 laboratory will be designated as an interim substitute National Laboratory.”
Identifying and Responding to Newly Resistant Infections
“In the world of growing antimicrobial resistance, the identification of patients with highly resistant (or newly resistant) infections is critical. Because this is an emerging challenge, national and international surveillance efforts are still being strengthened to tackle all the avenues that contribute to antimicrobial resistance. The frontline identification of these newly resistant infections is critical though and surveillance is not only the first step in identifying and understanding the problem, but it also allows us to properly isolate the patient to avoid further transmission. Bacteria like Klebsiella pneumoniae are increasingly developing resistance to antimicrobials and can easily be spread through health care facilities. Klebsiella bacteria are also showing a relatively new resistance to the carbapenem class of antibiotics. Typically, these bacteria cause infections like pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and even urinary tract. A recent publication in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) described experiences surrounding the identification of a Klebsiella pneumoniae isolate that had 3 carbapenem-resistant genes (CR-Kp) and was related to urinary procedures.”
NTI’s Educational Resources
Whether you’re a student or an educator, you’ll love these resources from NTI’s Education Center. “You’ll find teaching tools, such as the new Building Security Through Cooperation report about working with North Korea on denuclearization and Middle East Missile Mania, our new comprehensive interactive map and analysis detailing the history of missile programs in 12 countries across the Middle East. Do you want to know more about what’s making headlines but only have a few minutes to catch up? We have a new U.S.-Russian arms control infographic and a one-page fact sheet on the INF Treaty. You may also want to watch our 3-minute video about the importance of the New START treaty. Those wanting a deeper dive for their advanced classes might want to check out our updated Global Incidents and Trafficking database, which tracks global incidents involving nuclear or other radioactive material, or the North Korea Missile Test Database.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Outbreak of Resistant Salmonella Newport Tied to Soft Cheese-“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today detailed an unusual 255-case outbreak of Salmonella Newport infections in 32 states tied to both beef and soft cheese and showing resistance to multiple antibiotics. ‘Infections were linked to beef obtained in the United States and soft cheese obtained in Mexico, suggesting that this strain could be present in cattle in both countries,’ the CDC said in an overview emailed to physicians as part of its Clinician Outreach and Communication Activity (COCA) efforts.