Pandora Report: 10.25.2019

Happy Friday! We’re excited to provide you with the latest in biodefense news. We’ve even added a new section (News of the Weird) for those health security stories that make you chuckle/shake your head in disbelief.

GMU Biodefense Open Houses
You’ve got two more chances to attend the Schar School Open Houses to learn about our PhD and Master’s programs – don’t miss out! The PhD Open House will be on Thursday, November 7th at 7pm at our Fairfax campus, and the Master’s Open House will be held on Wednesday, November 13th, at 6:30pm at the Arlington campus. This is a great opportunity to learn about our biodefense programs, the coursework, application process, and chat with faculty. You can find more information and RSVP here.

Global Health Security Index is Released 
On Thursday, a joint project and report was released by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and the Economist Intelligent Unit (EIU). Several recent biological events – the ongoing Ebola outbreak, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Zika outbreak, and so on – made clear that there was a terrible lack of preparedness to infectious disease outbreaks. The Index confirms and expands upon this worrisome realization. The Global Health Security Index assessed 195 countries across six categories with 34 indicators, and through 140 questions via public information. The short story? No one is prepared to handle a pandemic or global catastrophic biological event. 92% of the studied nation lack security checks for people accessing dangerous biological materials. From infection prevention efforts to capacity to acquire medical countermeasures, this index is immensely detailed and helpful in understanding the scope of global health security and what it truly means. Some of their findings also include – fewer than 5% of countries show a requirement to test their emergency operations annually, 77% do not demonstrate a capability to collect ongoing to real-time lab data, most countries lack foundational health systems capabilities for epidemics or pandemic response. Out of 100, the average GHS Index sore was 40.2, while high-income countries had an average score of 51.9. Key recommendations derived from the GHS Index include:

  • Governments should pledge to address their respective health security risks
  • Every country should maintain transparency and regular measurement of its health security capabilities and capacities
  • New or updated financing mechanisms should be established to fill the gaps highlighted by the Index

The Index was created to highlight gaps in the prevention, detection, and rapid response capabilities and capacities of nations against major biological events. Further, the Index aims to catalyze action and accountability in governments, public and private sector entities, and civil society toward improved biosecurity and biosafety. The full 2019 report containing the background, methodology, findings, recommendations, and country profiles is available here.

Nuclear Aspirations of Turkey
Recent and alarming statements made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insinuate that Turkey may exit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and procure its own nuclear weapons as it seeks supremacy in the Middle East. His first suggestion of nuclearizing was during an AKP party rally in September 2019, at which he bemoaned the restriction on Turkey acquiring nuclear weapons. At the recent UN Assembly, Erdogan purported that either no countries should be allowed to possess nuclear weapons or all countries should be allowed, another not-so-subtle hint at Turkey’s nuclear intent. This prospect is especially daunting not only because the world may see the creation of a new nuclear state but also because the United States maintains an arsenal of nuclear weapons within Turkish borders. There is current deliberation within the Pentagon about removing 50 B-61 nuclear bombs from the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, weapons housed there since the Cold War to discourage Soviet ground forces. Such an evacuation comes with both physical and political risks. Of course, relocating nuclear material is no simple feat, an activity requiring substantial security, but the potential political repercussions are of greater concern. Withdrawal could instigate a stronger relationship between Turkey and Russia, because the removal could be interpreted by Turkey as a pivot away from NATO. Additionally, withdrawal of weapons from Turkey may catalyze withdrawal requests from other NATO members like Belgium or Germany. Though it would take years for Turkey to develop a nuclear program and there is expert speculation that his recent insinuations are intended to highlight the asymmetry of the treaties like the NPT, his true intent is unclear. The Pandora Report will continue to follow the statements and actions from Turkeys for future updates.

Save the Date – People, Pigs, Plants, and Planetary Pandemic Possibilities- One Health Day Panel Event
On Tuesday, November 5th, the GMU Next Gen Global Health Security Network and the GMU Biodefense Discussion Group are sponsoring a GMU One Health Day Panel Discussion! Pizza will be served before the panel starts, so join us at 4:30PM to grab a slice and discuss biodefense with the panelists.  The event will take place from 4:30pm to 6:30pm in Van Metre Hall at the GMU Arlington Campus. 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, come join the Next Gen Network as we investigate what it means to utilize the One Health approach in the biodefense realm. You can register for the event here.

Drug Resistant E coli – An Unlikely Source
Combating antimicrobial resistance is one of those tasks that often seems so complex and challenging, we may never truly recover. From poor antibiotic stewardship to usage in agriculture and even a drying pipeline in drug development, this problem is particularly resistant (pun intended) to resolution. Pulling from Dr. Koblentz’s term for biosecurity, it might be that antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a wicked problem. When we start to look at the origin of resistant microbes and how they’re being shared between people, animals, and the environment, there is a considerable concern for the role of animals farmed for human consumption. Maryn McKenna has long highlighted the considerable role of antibiotic usage in chickens and has recently written on the role of antibiotic resistance in animals, but a new study is shedding light on how food might not be a source for some infections. Recently published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, a team of researchers performed epidemiological surveillance on extended-spectrum β-lactamase-producing Escherichia coli isolates (ESBL-E coli). The goal was to understand this organism as a source for bacteremia (blood infection) and the role of the food chain in supporting such resistant infections. What they found was startling – while ESBL-E coli was found frequently in sewage and retail chicken, it was rare in other meats and plant-based foods. Moreover, most human bacteremia ESBL E coli in their study actually involved human-associated sequence types, meaning that the non-human reservoirs were not as much the culprit. Ultimately, this means that as we work to combat drug resistance through targeted efforts, we should give more credence to the role of human transmission.

Oseltamivir vs. Influenza
If you’ve read Stefan Elbe’s book Pandemic, Pills, and Politics, you’ll appreciate this recent study even more when it comes to the hot topic of Tamiflu (oseltamivir). The wonder drug oseltamivir was touted as a medical countermeasure and response to influenza and potential pandemics. While Elbe heavily discusses the creation, questionable efficacy, and politics surrounding Tamiflu in his book, a new study has shed some light on its efficacy against the H1N1 subtype responsible for the 1918/1919 pandemic. While oseltamivir phosphate is effective against this particular reconstructed strain of influenza, they also found it was vulnerable to escape through resistant mutations. As the authors note, “Nevertheless, we conclude that oseltamivir would be highly beneficial to reduce the morbidity and mortality rates caused by a highly pathogenic influenza virus although it would be predicted that resistance would likely emerge with sustained use of the drug.” We’ll have to put this “double-edged sword” category of medical countermeasures against pan-flu…

Too Great A Thing to Leave Undone: Defense of Agriculture
This event hosted by the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense is only weeks away – are you registered? Even if you’re not able to attend in person in Colorado, you can live-stream the November 5th event to ensure you don’t miss any of the critical conversations on defending US agriculture.

Novichoks To Be 86’d
Since the 2018 use of Novichok poison against a former Russian spy in the UK, there has been increased scrutiny regarding the control and proliferation of such chemicals. Richard Stone recently wrote on the ominous future of Novichoks after the October 9th meeting of the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which would bring them under the treaty’s regime. “This is a historic milestone for the treaty,” says Gregory Koblentz, a chemical and biological weapons expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. This is not the first time Novichoks have been discussed in relation to bans and their use as tools for assassination, but adding them to the CWC’s list has been long fought by treaty nations worried that their ingredients would also be regulated. You can read a review of what happened here, but the truth is that there has been a long need to control this class of nerve agents. Developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, their use in 2018 was a turning point for not only their control, but also their place within the Chemical Weapons Convention. Next month, the Schedule 1 listing (i.e. amending the CWC and putting Novichoks on their list of chemical weapons in which signatories are required to declare and destroy) will be discussed and voted upon. “It’s not like Novichoks are relics of the past,” Koblentz says. “These are weapons that are still killing people.”

News of the Weird
No, it’s not Groundhog Day and you’re not stuck in a time loop – there is yet another measles exposure at Disneyland. Sure, it’s the happiest place on earth – if you’re vaccinated. A friendly reminder to all our readers, if you’re looking to indulge in some Disney Dole Whip or visit the new Star Wars park, make sure your MMR is up to date.

China Drafts Biosecurity Laws
Between the outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF) that’s threatening global heparin supply and the continued fallout of He Jiankui’s CRISPR baby drama, conversations revolving around China and biosecurity have been pretty consistent. This week though, China’s draft biosecurity law was submitted to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee for discussion and deliberation. Focused on protecting the country’s biological resources and biotech industry, it also points to the importance of prohibiting the misuse of biological agents or biotech. Not only do the laws include provisions on preventing bioterrorism and managing antimicrobial resistance, they also emphasize an early warning system and emergency response efforts in addition to risk assessments. “The draft also reiterated China’s commitment to the building of a community with a shared future for humanity through efforts in achieving biosecurity.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • PTSD and a Link Within Infections – When assessing risk for infections, we need to start considering mental health issues, like PTSD. A new study actually sought to evaluate the relationship between PTSD and prevalence of infections. “The investigators found that not only were the majority of PTSD cohort members younger than 60 years and female, but they also had a higher proportion of diagnosis of anxiety disorders and depression. Ultimately, they found that those with PTSD diagnosis were at an increased risk for infections than those without a diagnosis. There were more diagnoses of urinary tract infections in those women with PTSD than those without, while skin infections were more prevalent in men with PTSD diagnoses than women with PTSD diagnosis. The findings related to urinary tract infections was the strongest evidence of a relationship between PTSD diagnosis and risk of infection.”

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