Pandora Report: 12.13.2019

A Tribute to Jeanne Guillemin
Recently, the world of biodefense lost one of our cherished members, Jeanne Guillemin. A champion of biological disarmament, health security, and women in the intelligence field, Guillemin is an inspiration to us all and will be dearly missed. For many of us, her books on the Amerithrax attacks and biological weapons were a staple in our studies and what helped inspire passion for combatting the threat of microbes. In fact, Dr. Guillemin’s work was instrumental in revealing the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak was in fact a biosafety failure from a nearby military facility, thus violating the BWC. “Gregory Koblentz, director of the biodefense graduate programs at George Mason University, lauded Dr. Guillemin for what he described as ‘pioneering work’ spanning ‘all the major episodes in the history of biological weapons.’ He credited her with dismantling some of the ‘myth and misperception’ that has surrounded the topic and with making it accessible to general readers as well as specialists.” She will be dearly missed and we are truly grateful for her dedication to the field and her role in inspiring the next generation of biodefense students and professionals.

Event Summary: The Nexus Between Nuclear Energy & Nuclear Security
GMU Biodefense doctoral student and nuclear expert Greg Witt has provided us with a detailed review of this event, discussing the nexus of nuclear energy and security. Witt’s recap is particularly insightful as he explains the complexities of both aspects as an insider in the nuclear industry, noting that “Despite the plentiful and relatively cheap energy available in the upper-income countries, nearly 1 billion people worldwide have no consistent access to electricity, with another 1 billion having reduced access to healthcare due to energy poverty and a further 2.7 billion relying on biomass as their primary source of energy. Any program hoping to ameliorate these challenges would almost certainly require a radical expansion in global electricity generation, a development that until now has mostly relied on the increased extraction and burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum.” Witt highlights the discussion related to security and political opposition in the face of safety concerns, pointing to comments about the technical side of nonproliferation being only a portion of the battle. You can read more about the event and Witt’s insight as a nuclear specialist here.

New eBook: Mapping the Cyberbiosecurity Enterprise
Cyberbiolosecurity is defined as the “understanding the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of comingled life and medical sciences, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness and resilience.” Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology just released an open-access eBook amalgamating the collection of articles from their Cyberbiosecurity research topic series. Contributors to the Cyberbiosecurity special collection include experts from the United States and abroad. Specifically, the collection includes articles about regarding the following topics as they relate to cyberbiosecurity, respectively:

  • Risks
  • National Security Implications
  • Vulnerabilities
  • Infrastructural Resilience
  • Biological Data
  • Food Agriculture
  • Biopharmaceutical Products
  • Advanced Manufacturing Models
  • Dual-Use Potential
  • DNA Synthesis
  • Training

Schar School Launches Certificate in Strategic Trade
From biodefense to strategic trade, Schar School is the place to be. We’re excited to report that a new Graduate Certificate has been announced at GMU – “Strategic trade policy implies a strategic relationship between firms, countries, and export control regimes. It includes arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, and a variety of national security issues plaguing all nation states.” The strategic trade certificate program is the ninth graduate certificate in the Schar School’s portfolio of programs. Completion of the certificate requires five courses (15 credits), including one core course in Strategic Trade Controls, and the choice of four electives in a range of topics including nuclear nonproliferation, national security technology, illicit trade, arms control, and global trade relations. “One of the academic benefits of the Schar School’s certificate programs is how easy it is to begin with a certificate, earn that credential to bolster your resume, and then continue your studies by pursuing a master’s degree with those five completed certificate courses counting towards your master’s program,” said Reinert. “That complimentary curriculum between the graduate certificate programs and master’s degree programs provides such value with time and tuition expense.” You can learn more about the certificate here.

2019/2020 Flu Season- Worrisome Trends and Ways to Prepare
GMU Biodefense doctoral alum and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu discusses what the beginning of this flu season is looking like and what this means for healthcare. You can read more here. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides weekly updates to help keep healthcare providers, public health officials, and the public up to date on the latest flu activity. Since September 29, 2019,  there have been more than 227,000 specimens tested by clinical labs, with 4.8% positive for influenza. In the most recent week (Week 48, ending November 30, 2019), there were more than 26,000 specimens tested, with 10.2% being positive for influenza, and 71.1% of those positive in Week 48 were positive for influenza B, according to CDC. The predominant subtypes have been (H1N1) pdm09 for those influenza A specimens, and the Victoria lineage for those influenza B specimens. Popescu notes that “these early signs are deeply worrisome, as data from last year showed that during the same week in 2018, there were 21,851 specimens tested but only 4.2% were positive. Influenza A was also the predominant type (91.5%). In 2017, with over 20,000 specimens tested in Week 48, 6.7% were positive, with 76.3% being influenza A.” She emphasizes that in addition to vaccination, it’s important hospitals work with staff and families to ensure working or visiting while sick is avoided and rapid isolation of symptomatic patients is done.

A Quick Synopsis: The Accelerating Pace of Biotech Democratization
This month, Jackson et al. published a correspondence piece in Nature Biotechnology titled The Accelerating Pace of Biotech Democratization, which posits an analytical approach to produce supportable estimates regarding the pace of innovation in biotechnologies. Specifically, this approach generates extrapolated future estimates to predict timeframes for the democratization of nascent biotechnologies. The article investigates 22 development milestones between 1937 and 2012 with innovations ranging from protein purification to clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) genome editing. The assessment considered accessibility of each biotechnology to a hypothetical individual based on metrics regarding the speed, cost and technical skill required to successfully employ the tool. The nitty-gritty of the analysis entailed an exponential regression model with the dependent variable being the predicted time (years) required for a biotechnology to reach progression milestones in future years. The model determined that the pace of biotechnology progression is accelerating over time. The authors state, “the robust relationship (R2 = 0.81) between initiation year and time required to develop fee-for-service companies indicates that the progression of new biotechnologies to fee-for-service companies is already very rapid, currently taking less than 2.5 years.”

A Tour with Dr. Daniel Lucey – Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World Exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
GMU biodefense doctoral student Rachel-Paige Casey is taking us on a guided tour of the Outbreak Exhibit and it’s one you won’t want to miss. Her detailed account of this tour with Dr. Daniel Lucey will make you feel like you’re walking the through the exhibit, learning about the microbial threats that surround us. Casey discusses how she “got an augmented visit with hearing his firsthand account of working in an outbreak, treating patients, and working with other responders. Continue reading to learn more about Dr. Lucey, the Outbreak Exhibit he inspired, and his insights and experiences as an infectious doctor who regularly responds to outbreaks all over the world. As you read, imagine progressing slowly but vociferously through the Exhibit with Dr. Lucey as he sports an Médecins Sans Frontières vest and a custom-made ballcap listing all eight viruses of the Exhibit.” Read the full article here.

DARPA Launches the Personalized Protective Biosystem (PPB)
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is one of our best tools against biological and chemical threats, and DARPA is working to help rapidly produce better protection. “The current [chemical and biological] threat environment consists of broadly acting, highly pathogenic, and sometimes immediately lethal threats that are capable of entering the body via multiple pathways, including skin, airway, ocular, and the gastrointestinal tract,” officials wrote in the announcement. The DARPA initiative recognizes the stagnant nature of PPE despite advances and considerable financial support towards development, hinting at a desperate need for a revitalization. In healthcare, we often struggle with PPE as it’s hot, bulky, and can be uncomfortable for long periods of time. Fortunately, this PPB initiative is working to reduce the bulky nature of PPE and help make it more adaptable and modernized to truly be effective and efficient. “Through its duration, insiders aim for the program to usher in a modern ensemble to be worn in both military and disaster relief operations that can provide 100% survival against lethal exposure from 11 separate chemical and biological agents, including nitrogen dioxide, malaria, influenza and others.” If you’re interested, make sure to submit your proposal by January 7th.

Post-Exposure Ebola Vaccine Use: Real-World Examples
Prior to this most recent outbreak, there had been deployments of the experimental vaccines in real-world exposures. One of the vaccines rVSV-ZEBOV, a recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus-Zaire Ebola virus vaccine, had a trial run in 2015 when it was still unlicensed. Developed by Canadian scientists and licensed to Merck in 2014, the vaccine has been deployed for the most recent outbreak and has shown 97.5% efficacy during utilization in a large-scale ring vaccination effort. Prior to the large-scale deployment though, it was used for an exposure in 2015 involving 65 people who had direct contact with a health care worker who presented with a viral reactivation (i.e. previously infected, the health care worker recovered and experienced a reactivation of the virus and even reinfection) in the United Kingdom.

Outbreak Dashboard
4 new cases of Ebola were reported on Monday, bringing the total to 3,324 and 391 suspected cases are under investigation. There has also been concern regarding the relapse or reinfection seen for the second time this outbreak. The outbreak of measles continues to grow in Samoa, with the health ministry announcing that over 4,693 people had been infected (112 over the course of 24 hours), and 70 measles-related deaths.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Medical devices and drug-resistant infections – “In the face of growing antimicrobial resistance and the rise of medical tourism extremely resistant organism are spreading. The latest report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that each year in the United States, there are more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections and more than 35,000 people die as a result. A new study assessing data reported into the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN)—which is where infection prevention and health care-associated data is reported by hospitals—found that resistant pathogens are found at a higher rate among those patients with device-associated infections.”
  • Lyme Prevalence in U.S. – “survey of health insurance claims made in the United States from 2007 through 2018 shows that claim lines with a diagnosis of Lyme disease increased 117%. The information is included in a white paper published today by FAIR Health, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to healthcare costs and health insurance information. Lyme disease was the predominate tick-borne disease on health insurance claims, representing 94% of tick-borne claims, and, in 2018, 0.058% of all medical claims.”

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