What a week it has been – from CW conspiracy theories to Tanzanian Ebola scares, the world of biodefense has been pretty busy.
Controversy Over Syrian CW Conspiracy Theory Claims
There’s been a lot of conversation regarding Syrian chemical weapons lately and not in the way you might anticipate. GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Director and Professor (and CW/BW expert) Dr. Gregory Koblentz is breaking down some of the conspiracy theories, debates, and why overwhelming evidence just can’t be ignored. “The journal Science and Global Security is embroiled in a controversy surrounding its acceptance of an article co-authored by Ted Postol, a former MIT professor and missile defense expert and member of the journal’s editorial board. For the last six years, Postol has promoted a variety of conspiracy theories that deny that the Syrian government is responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
Tanzania’s Ebola Problem and Outbreak Updates
This week saw a tense situation between the WHO and Tanzania, as “the World Health Organization took the unusual step on Saturday of issuing a statement detailing multiple suspected cases of Ebola in Tanzania and criticizing the government for withholding clinical samples for additional testing. The United Nations public-health agency said that it had received unofficial reports of at least one Tanzanian patient testing positive for Ebola, while at least three others were hospitalized with symptoms of the disease in different parts of the country.” In this rather unprecedented situation, the WHO was vocal in concern and frustration. The outbreak in the DRC continues to grow, as four more cases were reported on Wednesday. The total cases are now 3,175, with officials continuing to follow 445 suspected cases.
Vektor’s Explosion – The Big Uh-Oh?
Since last week’s news of an explosion at the State Research Centre of Virology in Russia, there’s been a lot of discussion regarding what really happened, but also what this means for smallpox stockpiles, biosecurity, and biosafety. “From a risk analysis perspective, an explosion at a BSL 4 facility for dangerous, contagious pathogens is a risk for global health. Despite the Russian government assertion that there is no risk to public health, it would be wise to assess the risk as objectively as possible, given the global community is a stakeholder if an epidemic arises from this accident. In the best-case scenario, there were no pathogens in the affected part of the building, no pathogens released, the situation has been contained and there is no risk to local or global public health. In the worst-case scenario, there were pathogens present at the time, which were aerosolised and propagated outside the building as a result of the explosion. The principle of pandemic and preparedness planning considers the worst-case scenario, rather than hoping for the best-case scenario. So, we need to consider what a worst-case scenario would look like and how best to be prepared and mitigate it.” Matt Field of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists also discussed what this means, noting that the “blast follows relatively closely on the heels of another explosion at a Russian facility conducting high-tech and risky research. In August, an accident at a missile test site killed five nuclear scientists. US officials believe researchers at the site were working on a nuclear-powered cruise missile.”
Meet the DoD’s New Assistant Director for Biotechnology
“Dr. Titus is the new Assistant Director for Biotechnology in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering. The Department of Defense (DoD) provides the military forces needed to deter war and ensure the United States’ security. The US military is currently undergoing a modernization initiative. Dr. Titus leads biotechnology modernization, one of several new priorities within the DoD’s research program. His job: develop a ten-year roadmap to keep the nation’s defenses at the leading edge of biotechnology and specifically synthetic biology: the process of making biology easier to engineer.” When asked what keeps him up at night, Dr. Titus noted “Being left behind. And the reason is that when you start to slow down, you lose grasp on what is cutting edge and what is coming around the corner,” Dr. Alexander Titus replies. “It is the Department’s responsibility to understand what the threats are to the United States,”. From synthetic biology to modernizing armor to become self-healing, Dr. Titus’s work is to strengthen military capability through biotechnology while building a more symbiotic relationship with biology.
Lower Customized DNA Kit Prices Meet Higher Risks
There has always been concern that with customized DNA available, the risk for use by nefarious actors would also grow. As efforts become cheaper, there’s been increasing focus on how we can prevent such technology from being misused. “What makes DNA so powerful, after all, also makes it potentially dangerous. Someone could use it to change a harmless bacteria into one that makes a deadly toxin. And scientists have already shown that it’s possible to use bits of DNA to construct viruses like polio and Ebola. James Diggans, Twist’s director of biosecurity, says they check out every potential customer. They also analyze each requested DNA sequence, to see if there’s anything worrisome in there, like a gene specific to some nasty germ.”
FDA Approves First Live, Non-replicating Vaccine Against Smallpox/Monkeypox
Jynneos is now officially approved by the FDA against monkeypox and smallpox. The vaccine was just approved “for the prevention of smallpox and monkeypox disease in adults 18 years of age and older determined to be at high risk for smallpox or monkeypox infection. This is the only currently FDA-approved vaccine for the prevention of monkeypox disease. ‘Following the global Smallpox Eradication Program, the World Health Organization certified the eradication of naturally occurring smallpox disease in 1980. Routine vaccination of the American public was stopped in 1972 after the disease was eradicated in the U.S. and, as a result, a large proportion of the U.S., as well as the global population has no immunity,’ said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. ‘Therefore, although naturally occurring smallpox disease is no longer a global threat, the intentional release of this highly contagious virus could have a devastating effect. Today’s approval reflects the U.S. government’s commitment to preparedness through support for the development of safe and effective vaccines, therapeutics, and other medical countermeasures’.” In efforts to enhance health security, HHS is also sponsoring the development of therapeutics for smallpox infections. “Under the agreement announced today, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), will work with BioFactura, Inc., of Frederick, Maryland, providing expertise and $9.5 million over two years to develop a monoclonal antibody treatment for smallpox. BARDA has options to support additional work, providing up to a total of $67.4 million over five years. BioFactura is developing a treatment that uses multiple monoclonal antibodies, a combination known as a monoclonal antibody cocktail. Monoclonal antibodies bind specific proteins on the virus to neutralize it, decreasing the amount of the virus in the body that the immune system must fight. Testing in non-clinical studies showed that the antibody cocktail neutralizes the variola virus, which causes smallpox and related viruses.”
Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense – Defense of Agriculture Meeting
“On November 5, 2019, we will convene a meeting of the Commission, Too Great a Thing to Leave Undone: Defense of Agriculture, to inform our continuing assessment of the biological threat, specific vulnerabilities, and overwhelming consequences to agricultural producers. Topics to be discussed at this meeting include: the catastrophic risks to all components of agriculture; land grant university contributions to national security; public-private partnerships for agrodefense, and challenges to agricultural surveillance, detection, response, and recovery across all levels of government and throughout the private sector.”
Nuclear Security Concerns
Sure, a lot of us have binge-watched Chernobyl, but the truth is that many American nuclear security experts continue to have some very real concerns. “For nearly two decades, the nation’s nuclear power plants have been required by federal law to prepare for such a nightmare: At every commercial nuclear plant, every three years, security guards take on a simulated attack by hired commandos in so-called ‘force-on-force’ drills. And every year, at least one U.S. nuclear plant flunks the simulation, the ‘attackers’ damaging a reactor core and potentially triggering a fake Chernobyl – a failure rate of 5 percent. In spite of that track record, public documents and testimony show that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the nation’s fleet of commercial nuclear reactors, is now steadily rolling back the standards meant to prevent the doomsday scenario the drills are designed to simulate. Under pressure from a cash-strapped nuclear energy industry increasingly eager to slash costs, the commission in a little-noticed vote in October 2018 halved the number of force-on-force exercises conducted at each plant every cycle. Four months later, it announced it would overhaul how the exercises are evaluated to ensure that no plant would ever receive more than the mildest rebuke from regulators – even when the commandos set off a simulated nuclear disaster that, if real, would render vast swaths of the U.S. uninhabitable.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Canine Detection of C-diff Spores: “Outside of rooms and spaces that have been clearly identified as contaminated with C diff spores (i.e. a patient with an active infection has stayed in the space), it can be difficult to know where to properly disinfect with spore-killing measures. One particular approach though has gotten a lot of attention – C diff canine scent detection. That’s right, specially trained dogs are being used to sniff out this bug to help guide environmental cleaning efforts. Vancouver Coastal Health is one place that’s leading the pack (literally and figuratively) in the use of C diffcanine scent detection. A team recognized that 60% of cases are related to health care transmission and worked to develop a program to help train dogs to detect C diff with 97% accuracy.”