Event Summary: People, Pigs, Plants, and Planetary Pandemic Possibilities

By Stevie Kiesel, GMU Biodefense PhD student

November 5 was a great day for doing your civic duty. If you were near Arlington, Virginia, you could stop by your polling place to vote and then head to George Mason University (GMU) for a panel discussion. The discussion, co-sponsored by the GMU Next Gen Global Health Security Network and the GMU Biodefense Discussion Group, centered on the One Health concept, a “collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach” with “the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.” While One Health is not a new concept, humanity’s increasing interconnectedness makes it ever more relevant. For example, as humans expand into new geographic areas, they come into closer contact with animals, increasing the risk of zoonotic disease spread. Additionally, habitat disruptions—whether caused by farming practices, deforestation, or climate change—can provide novel ways for diseases to pass to animals and then on to humans. Successful public health policy thus requires “the cooperation of human, animal, and environmental health communities.”

The panel included Dr. Jarod Hanson and Dr. Taylor Winkleman, who both have military experience as well as veterinary backgrounds, and Dr. Michael E. von Fricken, who specializes in vector-borne diseases around the world. These speakers brought their real-world experience on topics such as disease surveillance, funding for disease prevention, information sharing and collaboration with international partners, and the fight to get good information to all stakeholders during a disease outbreak. Throughout this discussion, three needs emerged: (1) to empower local public health actors and understand local context, (2) to focus more on prevention, and (3) to convert policies and plans into action. Continue reading “Event Summary: People, Pigs, Plants, and Planetary Pandemic Possibilities”

The 5th Annual Pandemic Policy Summit at Texas A&M University

By Rachel-Paige Casey, GMU Biodefense PhD student

Earlier this week, the 5th annual Pandemic Policy Summit was hosted at Texas A&M University by the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs in the Bush School of Government and Public Service. Most of the Summit’s events were conducted under Chatham House rule, prohibiting attribution of comments and insights to an individual or organization. The objective of each Summit is to convene researchers, medical professionals, practitioners, private sector experts, NGO representatives, and political leaders to examine issues in pandemic preparedness and response, health security, and biodefense. The foci of this year’s Summit were the promises and perils of technology; BARDA leadership through its history and today; the effect of the anti-vaccine movement on pandemic preparedness and response; and ongoing outbreaks. Key discussions included the inadequacy of biopreparedness, worries regarding emerging biotechnologies, the modern vaccine hesitancy movement in the US, and the leadership and future of BARDA.

A commonly recited phrase throughout the panels underscored a concern shared throughout attendees and speakers – “lessons learned to lessons observed.” Over the many health crises, lessons were largely observed and not learned, maintain the distressing paradox of inadequate biopreparedness despite clear evidence of the emerging and re-emerging pathogens threatening human, animal, and environmental health. The 2014-15 West Africa Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic was a gruesome showcase of failures in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management; however, it was just one among many in recent history. Since the turn of the century, the same failures were apparent in the SARS, H1N1, and Amerithrax events. Four primary causes of the aforementioned failures were proposed: complacency, competing priorities, confusion about risk, and overdependence on government capabilities and capacities. Though not necessarily easy to fix or adjust, the underlying roots of preparedness and response failures can be thwarted. The goal of the Summit is to discern how to address these failures and improve policy, collaboration, and leadership for quicker and more successful prevention, detection, and response to health crises like outbreaks and bioterror attacks. Simply put, how do we learn lessons instead of just observing them? Continue reading “The 5th Annual Pandemic Policy Summit at Texas A&M University”

What Can We Glean from a Bean: Ricin’s Appeal to Domestic Terrorists

By Stevie Kiesel

Stevie is a part-time PhD student in the GMU Biodefense program, and a full-time transportation security analyst. Her area of study is extreme right wing terrorism and WMD.

In June 2019, FBI leadership testified to the House Oversight and Reform Committee that “individuals adhering to racially motivated violent extremism ideology have been responsible for the most lethal incidents among domestic terrorists in recent years, and the FBI assesses the threat of violence and lethality posed by racially motivated violent extremists will continue.” In September 2019, the Department of Homeland Security published a Strategic Framework for Combating Terrorism and Targeted Violence, which acknowledges that “white supremacist violent extremism…is one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism” and “another significant motivating force behind domestic terrorism has been anti-government/anti-authority violent extremism.” A few weeks later, William Braniff, director of START at the University of Maryland, testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that “among domestic terrorists, violent far-right terrorists…are responsible for more…pursuits of chemical or biological weapons…than international terrorists.” Just as policymakers have been slow to acknowledge and act upon the threat of domestic CBRN terrorism, timely extant research on the issue is scarce as well. In this article, I focus on ricin as an agent of domestic terror. As government agencies acknowledge the threat domestic terrorism poses, policymakers and law enforcement should take ricin seriously as a potential weapon.

To understand the plausibility of ricin’s use as a weapon, I reviewed a number of journal articles, news articles, and court records from 1978 through 2019 and compiled data on 46 incidents of ricin acquisition and/or use. Of these 46 incidents, 19 could be credibly tied to terrorism, 19 were not related to terrorism, and 8 were unclear. The most common motivation after terrorism was murder (10 instances). Of the 19 terrorist incidents, 58% were committed by extreme right-wing terrorists, a term that here encompasses the following ideologies: neo-Nazi/neo-fascist, white nationalist/supremacist/separatist, religious nationalist, anti-abortion, anti-taxation, anti-government, and sovereign citizen. The remaining incidents were committed by Islamist terrorists (16%), Chechen nationalists (10%), or their exact ideology was unclear (16%). Continue reading “What Can We Glean from a Bean: Ricin’s Appeal to Domestic Terrorists”

Event Recap: Cyberbio Convergence – Bipartisan Commission Biodefense

By Georgia Ray

The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense has, with the additional support of Representative Chrissy Houlahan (PA), been rechristened as the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. On September 17, 2019, they hosted an event on cyberbiosecurity.

Houlahan spoke on three issues relevant to the theme of this panel, “the Cyberbio Convergence”:

  • Growing importance of cybersecurity as it relates to biological threat data (She is currently working on a report about this.)
  • The future impact of China on the US’ bioeconomy.
  • Educating people in the U.S., including recruiting and incentives for joining the US’ biosecurity enterprise

Former Senator of South Dakota Tom Dashchle described biosecurity as a cause area with “broad support but few champions” and agreed with the importance of creating career paths and pipelines into the field. (Great news for optimistic current Biodefense program students like myself.) The panel also agreed on the importance of education starting earlier, through STEM education, and basic numeracy skills.

Each session consisted of a panel of two or three experts on a particular aspect of the biosecurity-cybersecurity confluence. The experts made statements and answered a few questions from the Commission. Continue reading “Event Recap: Cyberbio Convergence – Bipartisan Commission Biodefense”

Controversy Over Syrian CW Conspiracy Theory Claims

By Dr. Gregory Koblentz

The journal Science and Global Security is embroiled in a controversy surrounding its acceptance of an article co-authored by Ted Postol, a former MIT professor and missile defense expert and member of the journal’s editorial board. For the last six years, Postol has promoted a variety of conspiracy theories that deny that the Syrian government is responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In addition, the open source investigative journalist website Bellingcat has debunked many of Postol’s prior allegations. Postol’s latest target is the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017 which the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) determined was the result of a sarin-filled bomb being dropped on the town by a Syrian aircraft. In the article, Postol purports to present a computer model that demonstrates that a 122mm rocket, a type accessible to Syrian rebels, caused the crater where the sarin was released, not a chemical bomb as the JIM concluded. The journal initially defended its decision to publish the article, even after reviewing a critique of the article by Bellingcat, but later backtracked and said it would withhold the article pending further review.

The controversy became so intense that it was featured in Science magazine and quotes Biodefense program director Gregory Koblentz as challenging the journal’s judgment in accepting the article. According to the article, “Koblentz wrote several emails to Pavel Podvig, one of the journal’s three editors, urging him not to publish the paper. Koblentz didn’t question the computer model, which he says he is not qualified to judge, but said Postol’s past statements disqualified him. “You must approach this latest analysis with great caution,” Koblentz wrote to Podvig. The paper would be “misused to cover up the [Assad] regime’s crimes” and “permanently stain the reputation of your journal,” he warned.” Subsequently, Bellingcat published an analysis of newly discovered footage of an intact Syrian M4000 chemical bomb that provided further evidence that such a munition was used in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. This episode holds an important lesson for the role that journals and editors play in ensuring the integrity of the research they publish in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

The ABCs of Death: Anthrax, Bruce Ivins, and Congress

by Stephen Taylor and Michael Krug

On October 16th, 2001, an unsuspecting staffer in the office of Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle opened a letter from US Army biodefense scientist Bruce Ivins packed with Bacillus anthracis spores.  The anthrax-causing agent aerosolized, immediately exposing 28 Senate staffers to the deadly agent.  Senator Daschle recalled the events of the anthrax attacks in a recent discussion with Biodefense students at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.  Daschle reminisced on his sense of powerlessness as he rushed to his office in the Hart Senate Building.  He also recalled the chaos in the immediate aftermath of the attack. First responders and federal investigators were overwhelmingly unprepared for a biological attack, evident by the fact that exposed staffers were cleared to leave the office building and return home without undergoing decontamination of any kind. The following day federal investigators requested that the staffers bring their anthrax-laden clothes back to work to be surrendered to the investigation.  That nobody in the Hart building died in the aftermath of the attack is a feat that Senator Daschle attributes to the meticulous supervision and leadership of Dr. Greg Martin, who oversaw medical care of those exposed in the Hart building. Continue reading “The ABCs of Death: Anthrax, Bruce Ivins, and Congress”

ASM Biothreats 2019

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 2019 ASM Biothreats conference in which topics ranged from diagnostics to technology as a source for biothreats. Held in Arlington, Virginia on January 29-31, 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:

Nicolas Bertini -Nicolas is currently pursuing an M.S. in Biodefense degree at George Mason University and hold an undergraduate degree in Government and International Politics with a double minor in Intelligence Analysis and Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University as well. He expects to graduate in the Fall of 2019 and plans to pursue a career in biodefense and biosecurity. He aims to identify new vulnerabilities in the national security apparatus while utilizing science and policy to propose creative and effective solutions that will strengthen the nation’s detection, mitigation, and response capabilities. At ASM, Nick attended a session on the different international perspectives on biodefense, noting that “One unique item that stood out is the recognition of the use of the internet to acquire materials that could be used to generate a biological threat. The United Kingdom is focused on modernizing their biodefense strategies to tackle future challenges by addressing the rising importance of new technologies and emphasizing fluid cooperation with international partners.” Nick also attended a session on WHO research and development roadmaps, which ” focused on the research and development roadmaps that the WHO has implemented and managed to initiate a targeted research campaign for the early delivery of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics of Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF) and Nipah Virus.”

Georgia Ray – Georgia is a first-year master’s student in George Mason University’s Biodefense program. She studied microbiology and bacteriophage physiology at The Evergreen State College, and has done research with the Effective Altruism Foundation and the Future of Humanity Institute. She is interested in policy, synthetic biology, and averting global catastrophic biological risks. Georgia provides us with a recap of the keynote speakers and their talks on the biodefense landscape and historical lessons from Ebola. “Kadlec also talked about the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy. He likes that it’s deliberate and detailed, and includes risks from emerging technology. Often, bold strategies of its ilk are not tied to reality – for instance, to budgets or the skill levels.” Next, Georgia provides us with a recap of a panel on converging technologies and emerging risks, which also included GMU Biodefense graduate program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz. “Koblentz discussed his work on Editing Biosecurity, a multidisciplinary study on gene editing technology and biosecurity issues. He criticized reliance on “agent-specific” models – security measures that ban specific agents, like smallpox or Clostridium botulinum. In the age of genetic engineering, those boundaries fall apart – what does this system do with a disease that is a genetic combination of smallpox and an unlisted agent? Or a normally-harmless E. coli with an inserted plasmid that codes for botulinum toxin?”

Katelyn Smith – Katelyn Smith graduated from Virginia Tech in May 2018 with a Bachelors of Science in Biological Sciences and a Minor in Psychology. Now, Katelyn is a second semester Masters Student in the Biodefense program at George Mason, planning to graduate in May 2020.  Her academic and research interests include pathogenic bacteriology and epidemiology.  She hopes to one day to work in the field, studying biological agents and diseases and their potential roles in bioterrorism. Katelyn attended an informative session on R&D – from detection to diagnosis to vaccines, focusing on “research projects and product development from all over the United States pertaining to detection, diagnosis, and/or vaccines. Each of the six speakers, ranging from engineer to scientist, brought something unique and different to the table, from a dog’s nose, to immunoassays, to accelerated vaccines.” Next, Katelyn discusses the section of biological agents in the field, involving discussions on the latest bio-detection efforts, as well as historical practices. “Mediated by Dr. Kenneth B. Yeh, a senior science advisor at MRIGlobal, the panel of members were able to comment and answer questions, speaking about previous experiences of their own, as well as some of the research that they do.To start off the session, the panelists discussed a comparison of Real-Time qPCR and Sequencing, the roles they have played overtime in the biological field, as well as changes in the biodefense field in the last few decades.  More than 20 years ago, two major platforms were yielded in the Department of Defense: a real-time PCR system and a current generation diagnostic system.”

Justin Hurt – Justin Hurt is a student in GMU’s Biodefense PhD program, and is currently preparing for his comprehensive exams and dissertation proposal work. In addition to his part-time studies, he is an active duty officer in the United States Army, specializing in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) matters and is currently detailed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a Defense Liaison in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD), where he advises the Assistant Director and WMDD staff on interagency operations and capabilities and assists in policy development. Justin attended the Clade X panel at ASM – “A pandemic tabletop exercise hosted by JHU’s Center for Health Security on 15 May 2018, Clade X sought to identify important national policy issues and preparedness challenges that could be solved with sufficient political will and attention. Built on a fictional scenario based on epidemiological principles and challenges identified and unresolved in response to past outbreaks, key takeaways from Clade X were intended to inform senior leaders and decision makers at high levels in the government on how to deal with the potential for future pandemic events.”

 

 

ASM Biothreats – Keynote

By Georgia Ray

Two keynote speakers kicked off the 2019 ASM Biothreats meeting with some words about horrific diseases, and how health security learns from experience. Robert Kadlec and Anne Schuchat led this informative and engaging keynote event.

Robert Kadlec is a guru of the US Biodefense landscape. He was the main author on the Pandemic and All-Health Preparedness Act. He directed Biodefense efforts at the White House, first as the biodefense director of the Homeland Security Council, and then as the Special Assistant for Biodefense Policy to George W. Bush. Now, he’s the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the US Department of HHS.

During the keynote speech of the 2019 ASM Biothreats conference, he talked about the 2014 Ebola pandemic, one of the worst outbreaks of one of the most lethal diseases seen in recent memory. As he saw it, this outbreak proved that two changes to the US disease response system were needed:

  • Training (since answered by the GHSA)
  • Medical countermeasures (still unsolved)

The response to Ebola and other high-consequence infectious diseases in the US is in a fragile state. While funding may run out, Ebola, obviously, will not. Kadlec also talked about the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy. He likes that it’s deliberate and detailed, and includes risks from emerging technology. Often, bold strategies of its ilk are not tied to reality – for instance, to budgets or the skill levels. That’s what Kadlec is working on. For U.S. biodefense efforts, HHS is most involved, but so is the DoD as well as others, including local governments and communities. Right now, ASPR (Kadlec’s office) is fleshing out the National Biodefense Strategy, starting with assessment and data-gathering methods. The B-PLAT, a policy exploration tool put together by PNNL, will explain this as it happens. Note that the plan is intended to be a living document, with refinements every year. As it develops, the office will seek feedback feedback from public groups, including from ASPR’s existing connections. Continue reading “ASM Biothreats – Keynote”

Policy Approaches to Synthetic Biology and Do-it-yourself Biology

By Georgia Ray

Synthetic biology, emerging technology, DIYbio, CRISPR-cas9, and other genetic modification tools – whatever you want to call this category, it’s coming in waves and it’s posing big problems to biodefense experts and regulators. An expert panel convened at the 2019 ASM Biothreats conference to discuss what it means.

Panelists:

Jessica Dymond, senior research scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Matthew Walsh, associate staff at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory

Aditya Kunjapur, principle investigator of the Kunjapur Labat the University of Delaware and biocontainment expert

Jessica Tucker, director of theNIH Office of Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Emerging Biotechnology

Mary Delarosa, at HHS ASPR

Peter Carr, senior scientist at MIT’s Synthetic Biology Center (moderating)

Dymond kicked off the panel by discussing distributed technology. These technologies pose special risks – they can be developed or owned by individuals or small groups, and do not come from a small number of controllable sources. We’ve seen national security grapple with this genre in the past: the proliferation of amateur radio, then cyber capacities, then drones. Biology is another step in this progression – it is, arguably, just worse than the others.

Recent red-teaming efforts have suggested that virus acquisition is doable through legal and black market sources. Constraints like tacit knowledge and funding are barriers, but not insurmountable ones.

So how do we govern this? Lessons from cybersecurity suggest the following:

  • Developing norms
  • No one-size-fits-all solution
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Be willing to consider unusual approaches

Continue reading “Policy Approaches to Synthetic Biology and Do-it-yourself Biology”

International Perspectives on Biodefense Strategies

By Nick Bertini

Biodefense is an international undertaking. The successful implementation of biodefense strategies demands cooperation from global partners. This session, moderated by the National Defense University’s Dr. Gerald Epstein, analyzed different perspectives on biodefense issues ranging from policies to practices.

First to present was Sarah Telford from the British Embassy in Washington. Telford presented the United Kingdom’s newly published UK Biological Security Strategy. The document was designed to be a transparent and accessible plan for the public to obtain and understand. Telford highlighted that more than 13 government departments collaborated on the drafting of the document. The main focus of the document aims towards improving coordination and capabilities. One unique item that stood out is the recognition of the use of the internet to acquire materials that could be used to generate a biological threat. The United Kingdom is focused on modernizing their biodefense strategies to tackle future challenges by addressing the rising importance of new technologies and emphasizing fluid cooperation with international partners. Telford finished her presentation by illustrating the need for further cooperation on the global scale in order to keep the UK and its partner nations safe. Continue reading “International Perspectives on Biodefense Strategies”