Pandora Report: 10.18.2019

Happy Friday to our fellow biodefense gurus! We hope you had a lovely week and are ready to enjoy a healthy dose of health security news. To start things off with a bang… it was recently reported that the terror group JAD has been working to make bombs fused with poisonous ingredients.

Science and Global Security, the peer-reviewed nonproliferation journal based at Princeton University, has rejected Ted Postol’s article that called into question the findings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) that the Syrian government attacked the town of Khan Sheikhoun with the nerve agent sarin on April 4, 2017. This rejection follows a scathing critique of the article by Bellingcat as well as public criticism of the journal by Biodefense Program director, Gregory Koblentz. In response to his rejection, Postol has resigned from his position on the editorial board of Science and Global Security. Science has a great write-up of the latest developments in this controversy. According to Koblentz, “Postol has abused his affiliation with MIT and his reputation as a whistleblowing missile defense expert to promote a series of conspiracy theories over the last six years whose only common theme is to exonerate the Assad regime for gassing its own people. A clear indication of Postol’s motivation is that he still publicly embraces a long-discredited theory that there was no sarin attack at Khan Sheikhoun and that the incident was staged as a “false-flag operation” by the Syrian opposition. Given this record of disinformation on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, allowing Postol to publish in a peer-reviewed nonproliferation journal would be akin to letting Andrew Wakefield publish an article about vaccines and autism in JAMA or Alex Jones to opine in the Columbia Journalism Review about media coverage of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. This episode is an important reminder that in an age of disinformation, scientific journals have a special responsibility to ensure that their peer review processes are designed to ensure the integrity of the research they are publishing.

People, Pigs, Plants, and Planetary Pandemic Possibilities
Here’s your chance to register for this November 5th event at GMU to celebrate One Health Day. This panel will discuss the One Health approach through the various lens of their real world experiences. Discussions and interactions with the audience will address insightful views of innovation and emerging technology developments for biosafety and biosecurity. So, please come and join in the discussion as we collectively investigate what it means to operationalize the One Health concept for the biodefense realm and global health security challenges! Space is extremely LIMITED and will be capped at 35 participants, so register as soon as possible to ensure your spot in the audience. The final day to register for the event is November 1st – you can reserve your spot here.

House Homeland Security Subcommittee to Evaluate Bioterrorism Preparedness
Yesterday, Rep. Donald Payne, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery, held a hearing entitled Defending the Homeland From Bioterrorism: Are We Prepared?. In her testimony to the Subcommittee yesterday, Dr. Asha M. George (Executive Director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense), spoke as an expert witness, urging the Subcommittee to utilize the findings of the 2015 Bipartisan Commission report to help remedy the lack of preparedness against biological terrorism. “Dr. George noted that the federal government has spent millions to develop, improve, and deploy technology in hopes of rapidly detecting biological attacks. Effective environmental surveillance should assist with pathogen identification and provide early warning. ‘Unfortunately, as this Committee is well aware, the equipment designed to detect airborne biological contaminants do not perform well and have not progressed significantly since their initial deployments’.”

Putting the Cart Before the Horsepox
The Alliance for Biosecurity, a consortium of companies that develop medical countermeasures against biological threats, has a new member: Tonix Pharmaceuticals. Tonix burst onto the biodefense scene in 2017 when it was revealed that the company funded the synthesis of horsepox virus, an extinct orthopoxvirus closely related to variola, the virus that causes smallpox. Tonix is promoting its TNX-801 smallpox vaccine candidate which is based on the horsepox virus. As Gregory Koblentz, Biodefense Program director, has previously written “the claimed benefits of using horsepox virus as a smallpox vaccine rest on a weak scientific foundation and an even weaker business case that this project will lead to a licensed medical countermeasure.” The business case for Tonix’s new vaccine took a major hit last month when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Bavarian Nordic’s Jynneos vaccine (formerly known as Imvamune) to prevent smallpox and monkeypox. Jynneos provides a safer alternative to the ACAM 2000 smallpox vaccine and can be given to a wider population. With two licensed smallpox vaccines now in the Strategic National Stockpile, it is less likely that the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) would be willing to invest in a third vaccine based on an unproven platform.

Predicting Man-Made Pandemic Risks
Lynn Klotz, a member of the Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, has published a new analysis of the risks posed by research with lab-created avian-influenza viruses that have been modified to be transmissible in mammals through the air. According to Klotz, there are at least fourteen labs worldwide working on such viruses. Based on newly available data, Klotz calculates that over the course of five years, there is about a 16% probability of an accidental release into the community. Given the estimated 5% to 40% probability that such a virus could seed a pandemic, these calculations should be ringing alarm bells in the global health community.

Ebola Outbreak Updates 
International and DRC public health responders are cautiously optimistic as another week of low case numbers was reported. With three new cases, the total is up to 3,227, however there is increasing concern with those hot spots being in areas of limited security, there will be a resulting increase in transmission. Thankfully, the patient under investigation for Ebola in Sweden has been ruled out following negative lab findings, but there are lessons we can take away from this experience. “While this was a fortunate situation, it should be seen as a reminder to those of us in health care, especially infection prevention, to conduct an internal audit to see how well the training and process mapping has persevered since 2014. Despite the efforts that were put in place nationally, like the tiered health care approach to special pathogens, many in frontline facilities struggle to maintain readiness.” A new article on influencing factors in the development of state-level movement restrictions in response to Ebola during the 2014/2015 outbreak was just published – noting some important findings from interviews with 30 people who had knowledge of the state-level Ebola policy development. Representing 18 diverse jurisdictions, findings from these interviews yield critical components that we’ll need to consider in the future, like science and evidence versus public fears and that “According to interviewees, politics played a limited role in the formation of Ebola policies in most cases. The midterm elections, gubernatorial elections, and prospective 2016 presidential campaigns were mentioned as important influencers of monitoring and movement restriction policies in several states, but the policy development process largely reflected collegial relationships between elected officials and public health professionals.”

Mapping the Synthetic Biology Industry and Biosecurity Implications 
Sarah Carter and Diane DiEuliis recently wrote on this growing industry and biotech platform, noting that there are inherent risks for biosecurity as many of the practitioners come from a variety of backgrounds and may not realize the implications. In their analysis, they interviewed dozens of people in the industry and U.S. government. Ultimately, they focused on the areas for best practice, further discussion, and mapped the landscape of industrial tools and their capabilities.”We found that the landscape of the synthetic biology industry features an emerging and diverse set of horizontal tools being applied across many vertical sectors in a complex and interconnected ecosystem of companies. The availability of these tools and how the industry will develop into the future has significant implications for policymakers and others concerned about the potential for misuse and the vulnerabilities of these capabilities.”

Cutting Edge Chemical and Biological Defense Science: Topics at CBD S&T 2019
If you’re planning to attend this November event (or need a reason to), here are some hot topics that will be presented at the 2019 Chemical and Biological Defense Science & Technology Conference hosted by DTRA.

Involve An Infectious Disease Physician – Improve Patient Outcomes
Infection preventionist and GMU Biodefense alum Saskia Popescu discusses a new study that sheds light on just how much of a difference involving an infectious disease physician can make. “For hospitalized patients, the concern for infections related to invasive medical devices (central lines, Foley catheters, etc.) is very real. Bloodstream infections are a serious concern for patients and infection preventionists alike. Unfortunately, Candida fungal infections are all too common in the bloodstream. It is estimated that there are 25,000 bloodstream infections related to Candida annually in the United States and that roughly 40% of those patients ultimately die from the infection. For health care-associated infections, candidemia is the 4th most common. New research from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, actually found that when an infectious disease physician oversaw care of a patient with candidemia, the mortality rate declined by 20% .”

Building Biosafety Capacity in Our Nation’s Laboratories
An analysis by Chung, Bellis, Pullman, O’Connor, and Shultz in the latest issue of Health Security evaluated the biosafety practices of public health laboratories (PHLs) and clinical laboratories in the United States since the 2014 Ebola Virus Disease epidemic exposed several vulnerabilities. After the outbreak revealed gaps in biosafety practice, the Enhanced Laboratory Biosafety Capacity Project was born to support the enhancement of biosafety practices over a 3-year period. Over $24 million was provided by the CDC’s Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity for Prevention and Control of Emerging Infectious Diseases to 63 health departments for the Project. The research team constructed nine performance indicators for public health and clinical laboratories to assess the efficacy of the Project’s primary objective to improve biosafety practices in the 63 awarded laboratories. The assessment concluded that although not all Project targets were reached, there were overall improvements in biosafety practices and heightened emphasis on the importance of biosafety. The article is available to read for free through October.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Europe Has Drop in Veterinary Antibiotic Sales – In a small win for combatting antibiotic resistance, “Data from the EMA’s latest European Surveillance of Veterinary Antimicrobial Consumption (ESVAC) report show a 32.5% decline in sales of antibiotics for food-producing animals from 2011 through 2017, with sales of two antibiotic classes considered critical for human medicine—polymyxins and third- and fourth-generation cephalosporins—falling significantly.”


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