Pandora Report: 12.20.2019

Happy Friday fellow health security friends! We will be on holiday next week, but rest assured, your favorite source for all things biodefense will be back right after the New Year. We hope you have a lovely holiday – remember, wash your hands!

Speeding Ahead- the Pace of Biotech Democratization
Gryphon Scientific researchers recent discussed in Nature the fast pace of biotech development and the challenges of establishing regulatory oversight and policies. They underscored that to set about such a course would require considerable dedication and resources – both in terms of financial and personnel. But what really does the investment into democratizing biotech look like? In this novel approach, researchers analyzed the exact pace of biotech and what those timeframes for democratization of novel techs look like. “Our assessment provides evidence that novel technologies currently can complete this transition in less than 4.5 years from their discovery and may do so in less than 3.5 years by the end of the next decade.” Investigating 22 biotechnologies, they highlighted milestones that point to the spread of such tech from lab to easily accessible. This is a highly enlightening article and includes data on reproduction of biotechnology trends and regression analysis that helps predict current and future trends in both the development and spread of these biotechnologies. “These results underpin the necessity for constant review of the security implications of the democratization of powerful biotechnologies, and the proactive development of policies, oversight and guidance systems, to ensure that they are leveraged responsibly by those outside the established scientific community.” You can find the article here.

GMU Class on Medical Countermeasures
Spring semester is fast approaching and if you’re a GMU biodefense student, don’t miss out on the chance to take BIOD766: Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics with Dr. Robert House. The course analyzes the process of developing new medical countermeasures against biological weapons and emerging infectious diseases such as SARS and pandemic influenza. Special attention is paid to the scientific, technical, political, regulatory, and economic obstacles to developing new vaccines and therapeutics. Examines the causes and potential solutions of public and private sector failures. Dr. House is an expert in the field of MCMs and worked for more than 11 years at DynPort Vaccine Company in Frederick, Md., where he held the positions of VP of Science and Technology, Chief Scientific Officer and President. During this time he developed extensive experience in winning and managing large USG-funded programs for developing medical countermeasures. He previously worked at Covance Laboratories in Madison, Wis. and IIT Research Institute in Chicago, Ill., where he managed highly successful programs in immunotoxicology assessment. Don’t miss out on your chance to take this engaging class with one of the top minds in the field.

Smallpox Virus Stocks
9 December 1979 was the historic day on which smallpox was confirmed as eradicated. A few months later, the World Health Assembly (WHA) officially declared that “the world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox.” Yet, four decades later, two nations maintain a stockpile of the variola virus that causes smallpox: The United States and the Russian Federation. Smallpox is an infectious and disfiguring viral disease that plagued humans for thousands of years, so its eradication is, arguably, one of the greatest achievements of our species and the greatest achievement of modern medicine. These specimens are stored under high-security conditions at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) laboratory in Atlanta and at Russia’s State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (Vector) in Novosibirsk, a town in Siberian. The decision to maintain a store of the virus is based on the completion of five fundamental goals goals: (1) further research in case of disease reemerge, (2) vaccine improvement, (3)creation of new treatments, (4) development of antivirals, and (5) improvements in diagnostics methods. According to guidance by the WHO, the stocks will be maintained until those goals are realized; however, disagreement exists on the status of their completion. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new drug for smallpox treatment; however, the WHO’s Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research concluded that another antiviral treatment is needed. Arguments against keeping these stockpiles include the risk of variola being used as a weapon of bioterrorism and the risk that an accident could spur an accidental release of the pathogen. Additionally, there exist fears of undeclared stocks and the intentions with those potential samples. David Relman, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, asserts that the arguments in favor of maintaining the stockpiles outweighs those of destroying them. Another expert, Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines, and Virotherapy at Arizona State University, who remains on the fence about retaining or destroying stockpiles, states “A great deal has been achieved on the original research goals, but the argument that more remains to be done is hard to refute…It is important to have these debates about whether mankind should deliberately eliminate feared pathogens, or study them.” As the debate continues, the future of the US and Russian variola virus stockpiles remains to be seen.

Biodefense Books 
Tis the season of giving and here are some great books to buy as a gift for others or keep for yourself. Mark Kortepeter’s Inside the Hot Zone: A Soldier on the Front Lines of Biological Warfare is being released soon – “During Kortepeter’s seven and a half years in leadership at USAMRIID, the United States experienced some of the most serious threats in modern germ warfare, including the specter of biological weapons during the Iraq War, the anthrax letters sent after 9/11, and a little-known crisis involving a presumed botulism attack on the president of the United States. Inside the Hot Zone is a shocking, frightening eye-opener as Kortepeter describes in gripping detail how he and his USAMRIID colleagues navigated threats related to anthrax, botulism, smallpox, Lassa, and Ebola.” Nathan Myers’ Pandemics and Polarization – Implications of Partisan Budgeting for Responding to Public Health Emergencies is also out, “Partisan divisions over policy in the U.S. Congress and rising disease threats put millions of Americans at risk. The Zika public health emergency is used to illustrate the key functions of coordination, providing countermeasures, and engaging in disease surveillance which the government must engage in during such an emergency. The author looks at how the standoff over Zika funding negatively affected the government’s response within federal agencies, as well as at the state and local level. Also examined in the book are serious threats still on the horizon that are expected to require strong government action in the future. Possible policies to avoid future gridlock are considered.”

PhD graduate Katherine Paris and her dissertation chair, Dr. James Conant

GMU Biodefense December Graduates
We’re so excited to celebrate the graduation of several students from the Schar School biodefense graduate and certificate programs. PhD graduates include Margaret D.M. Barber           (Dissertation Title: Call of Duty? How Insurgent Organizations Choose to Provide Social Services) and Katherine V. Paris (Dissertation Title: An Assessment of the Risk of Misuse of Genome Editing Technologies). Congrats to Rubi Izquierdo on graduating with a MS in biodefense. We’re also happy to announce several students who completed their graduate certificates in Biodefense: Global Health Security and Terrorism and Homeland Security – Kelly Choic, Dianna Del Valle, Hiwot Yohannes, Joe Bob Merriman, and Gula Tang. Congrats! Read more about our biodefense graduate programs here.

Chinese Gangs Spreading African Swine Fever
African Swine Fever (ASF) is a viral infectious disease that is fatal for pigs, domestic and wild, and it is obliterating the Chinese pork industry, which is the largest in the world. To put the severity into perspective, certain estimates indicate that the number of pigs in China that have died from ASF exceeds the number of pigs in the entire US pork industry. Recent reports by PRC state media claim that Chinese criminals are intentionally propagating the ASF outbreak in an effort to drive down domestic pork prices so that these criminals can smuggle the meat and sell it as safe product. These criminal efforts range from spreading rumors about ASF to using drones that drop fomites into healthy farms. ASF-related losses plummeted China’s herd stock by over 40% to date, both as a result of infections and mass culling to contain the disease. Shortages in pork products, a cultural and nutritional protein staple in China, surged prices to over double the pre-outbreak prices. The price drops provided opportunities for the criminals to exploit the situation. Gang members traffic pigs or meat, regardless of its health and safety, to regions with especially high prices and sell it. The profit margin can reach 1,000 yuan (US$143) per pig for smugglers, and estimates fear a further rise of ¥65-75 per kilogram in the near future. Further price surges are expected as the Lunar New Year approaches, further incentivizing criminal meddling in China’s already suffering pork industry.

Investigations into Chinese Lab Outbreaks
A painful truth: biosafety failures do occur…it’s the name of the game when working with dangerous pathogens. While we have the proper practices and safety processes to avoid exposures, human mistakes do happen. Currently, two Chinese agriculture research facilities are assessing how over 100 staff and students were not only exposed, but ultimately infected with Brucella. One institute, the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute reported 96 asymptomatic infections. Despite their forthcomings about the numbers, the institute has not released where the source of the exposure occurred. In the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, it was reported last week that 13 students were infected with the zoonotic disease. “The outbreak at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute was first uncovered in November when some students in the institute‘s foot and mouth disease research unit noticed that large numbers of their lab mice were infertile, according to The Beijing News. The mice tested positive for Brucella, as did four students. The institute then tested 317 people, and found that 96 had been infected.” Lab-associated infections with Brucella do occur frequently, as it is the most commonly reported bacterial infection in labs and the ease of aerosol transmission facilitates such cases. Sadly, this is not the first exposure and it will likely not be last, but it does give insight into the risks of such work and a clear need for heightened biosafety measures. You can read more here.

Mobile Lab Created Out of Ebola Frustrations
Often the greatest developments are created out of sheer frustration during situations – vaccines, biocontainment units, etc. In this case, a lab-on-wheels was developed to help combat outbreaks in countries that have limited laboratory resources. “A prototype was recently displayed at the annual American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) conference. The company that developed it, Greensboro, North Carolina–based Integrum Scientific, says the first vehicle may soon be tested in Uganda. Integrum Scientific’s lab units can be configured to provide on-site diagnostic capabilities for known pathogens or experimental diagnostics. This configuration also supports standard care during an outbreak or attack, providing routine chemistry, hematology, and blood products.” Check out the mobile lab here.

Outbreak Dashboard
Samoa has extended its state of emergency during the measles outbreak that has impacted a considerable amount of the island’s population. “In its update on cases today, officials said on Twitter that 57 more cases were reported over the last day, boosting the outbreak total to 5,267 cases. The number of related deaths has risen to 73, and as of Dec 15, 93% of the population has been vaccinated.” Ebola outbreak response efforts in Beni continue to be challenged with violence as 43 people were killed in attacks by the rebel terrorist organization Allied Democratic Forces. The outbreak has now reached 3,348 cases with 2,210 deaths.

A Deep-Dive Into Samoa’s Measles Outbreak
Recent estimates put the outbreak on the small island at over 5267 cases with 73 associated deaths. Vaccination rates had dropped dramatically over the years, and were recently estimated at 31% prior to response efforts. The herd immunity threshold for measles is 93-95%, which means that the low rates of vaccination in Samoa were essentially a ticking time bomb. Thankfully, response efforts have gotten the islands vaccination rate up to 93%, which will hopefully slow the deadly outbreak. Currently, the island continues to be in a state of emergency, which was first declared in mid-November. The government has barred children 0-14 years of age from attending public gatherings and requires children of that age to also show proof of immunization prior to boarding inter-island ferries. “The government has also closed its offices (with the exception of public utilities) so that civil servants can aid in the response efforts. Response efforts have continued to pour in to help halt this devastating outbreak. The population of Samoa is just over 196,000 individuals and when there are more than 5000 cases, more than 2.6% of the population have been infected.” Read more here.

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