ASM Biothreats 2020

We’re the source for all things health security and the annual ASM Biothreats conference is no different. GMU’s biodefense program was fortunate to send several students to attend the 2020 ASM Biothreats conference in which topics ranged from diagnostics to technology as a source for biothreats. Held in Arlington, Virginia on January 28-30, this was an exciting event highlighting the importance of conversations surrounding high consequence pathogen research, biological threat reduction, and product development and policy. Our student attendees have reported back on some of the enlightening and captivating sessions during the biothreat event. Below you’ll find several commentaries from each student who attended:

Joseph DeFranco is a Scholar Fellow of the Defense Operational Cognitive Sciences section of the Strategic Multilayer Assessment Branch, Joint Staff, Pentagon. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in biodefense at the Schar School of Policy and Government of George Mason University, and working toward a Ph.D. in War Studies at Kings College, London, with emphasis upon biosecurity and neuroscience. His current research focuses on possible uses of novel microbiological agents, neurotechnologies, and ancillary science and technology as force-multiplying elements in non-kinetic, hybrid, and kinetic engagements; and the role of international agencies and policies in global biosecurity. At ASM, Joseph attended the Innovations in Biothreat Detection Over the past several decades, the United States and the international community have dramatically improved their abilities to identify, respond, mitigate, and manage public health emergencies. Yet, there are demands to strengthen the prevention, protection, and treatment of individuals that may be exposed to dangerous pathogens, such as high-confidence & autonomous biological sensors. These technologies must be able to scan an area or environment, identify specific agents, and quickly inform stakeholders of an event. These sessions examined the recent advancements in rapid, confident, and fieldable biological threat agent – or biothreat – detection. ” Joseph also attended Dr. Fauci’s talk Coronavirus Infections: More Than Just A Common Cold– “Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), spoke at the ASM Biothreats meeting about the advent of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Although scientists first characterized the human coronaviruses (CoV) in the 1960s, CoVs rarely received international attention. Then, in 2002, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a new disease, caused worldwide panic and consternation as the virus spread quickly from China to the rest of the world.”

Maddie Roty is a first-year graduate student in the Biodefense Master’s program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. She earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing from the University of Michigan in 2019 and is a registered nurse in the state of Virginia. Her interests include the impact of violence on health, the role of culture on social structures and decision-making, public education, and health preparedness. At ASM, Maddie attended International Collaboration Without Complications and Confusion, noting that it “emphasized the complexity of promoting and protecting biological research and innovation in today’s society. The four speakers featured on the panel discussed what exists now and what still needs to be done to strike a balance between promoting and protecting biotechnology, with attention given specifically to export controls, synthetic biology, the select agent program, and biosecurity.” Maddie also attended The Doctors Without Borders Experience: Patients as People and not Biohazards, finding that “For its relevance, Benoit did make a point to address MSF’s response to the emerging coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately, most of the need is in China, and China has traditionally been resistant to accepting assistance from independent actors. MSF is standing by and continuing to assess for situations in which it could help provide care or supplies.”

Michael Krug is a second-year graduate student in the Biodefense Master’s program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry from Virginia Tech and worked for several years in the biotechnology industry, accruing experience in the fields of molecular biology, drug development, and emerging technologies. His research interests incorporate national security and emerging dual-use technologies, specifically, synthetic biology and genome-editing. He expects to graduate in the spring semester of 2020 and plans to pursue a career in biosafety and biosecurity. Attending From Surveillance to Bedside: Tools for the Next Outbreak, he found that “As new emerging diseases continue challenging global health response, it is imperative that these technologies continue to be developed, tested, and licensed for global use. This session, moderated by Dr. Vineet Menachery of the University of Texas Medical Branch and Dr. Kari Debbink of Bowie State University, touched on cutting edge research for the response to the next emerging infectious disease.” Michael also attended Smallpox: Development and Use of the Panoply of Countermeasures in the Armamentariumnoting that “Variola virus research can often be stigmatized since the disease was eradicated in 1980; however, the risk of potential bioterrorism, even after eradication, supports continued research, especially for the session participants mentioned above. Additionally, as viruses become cheaper and easier to synthesize from scratch, this research could be used at the frontlines against a nefarious release of synthesized variola virus.”

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