African Swine Fever: Biosecurity Coordination and Early Detection to Mitigate the Risk

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

The 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium, presented by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), brought together experts from government, academia, and industry to discuss emerging biorisk challenges in agriculture. Speakers highlighted how the convergence of food, agricultural, and natural resource challenges require coordination and intensification of food safety, nutrition, and food security efforts to mitigate risks.

I attended this virtual conference along with my GMU Biodefense Program colleagues Ms. Rachel-Paige Casey and Ms. Michelle Grundahl. You can find their discussions of other symposium sessions here. This report provides an overview and commentary on Session I, which dealt with the biosecurity risks associated with African Swine Fever virus (ASFV). Speakers for this session were as follows:

  • Dr. Douglas Gladue, US Department of Agriculture, “African Swine Fever”
  • Dr. Vittorio Guberti, Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, “Feral Pig Population”
  • Dr. David Pyburn, National Pork Board, “Prevention and Preparation for ASF”
  • Dr. Jishu Shi, Kansas State University, “International Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future”
  • Dr. Jack Shere, US Department of Agriculture, “ASF: The US Perspective”
  • Dr. Cassie Jones, Kansas State University, “Biorisks on the Farm: Practices to Prevent Pathogen Transmission to and from Animals”
  • Lindsay Gabbert, Plum Island Animal Disease Center, “Disinfection/Decontamination for Various Surfaces Effective Against ASFV”

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, much attention is on zoonotic diseases—infectious diseases caused by a pathogen that has jumped directly from an animal to a human. While zoonotic diseases clearly represent a significant risk, other diseases that do not directly infect humans can still have a substantial impact. For example, though the ASFV is not transmitted from pigs to humans, the virus’s spread has inflicted serious economic pain in multiple outbreaks. However, these consequences can be largely mitigated through prevention and early detection efforts. This report summarizes the speakers’ key takeaways and suggests areas for future research and policy development.  

ASF is a highly contagious, highly lethal disease that is rapidly transmitted among wild boar, warthogs, and domestic pigs. Though the virus cannot be transmitted to humans and does not pose a food safety issue, ASF outbreaks have the potential for devastating economic consequences. For example, as Dr. Shi points out, China lost tens of millions of pigs in the first few months of their most recent outbreak, and the social and economic impact was severe. Dr. Pyburn estimates that an ASF outbreak in the US that took 10 years to control could cause $50 billion dollars in losses and 140,000 job losses. Even in a rosier scenario where the US controlled the outbreak after 2 years, projected losses are $15 billion.

ASF is endemic in Africa, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Its natural hosts there are warthogs and bushpigs, with soft ticks acting as a vector. In the 1950s, outbreaks began occurring in Europe, and later in the Caribbean, likely via contaminated pork products. European countries combatted ASF with a policy of slaughtering infected animals and modernizing farming facilities, and by the 1990s Europe was declared free of ASF. However, in 2007, ASF was identified in the country of Georgia, presumably attributed to the importation of contaminated pork. This outbreak spread quickly to neighboring countries among their wild boar populations, to such an extent that ASF was declared endemic in the Russian Federation. Despite enacting slaughter policies and other measures, ASF has not been eradicated from eastern Europe. Another key event is the 2018 introduction of ASF in China. This outbreak spread rapidly across Asia, with significant economic impacts. For example, China saw a 50% reduction in its swine herd in 2019. ASF has also spread to other European countries, such as Belgium, Poland, and German, in recent years. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) found that as of December 2020, there are ongoing ASF outbreaks in 24 countries: 8 in Europe, 12 in Asia, and 4 in Africa.

There are several key challenges in eradicating ASF. Both wild and domestic porcine animals can spread the virus. The main challenge in addressing an outbreak among wild boar is their uncontrollable movement and the need to quickly remove infected carcasses to stem the spread. In winter temperatures, a carcass can maintain the virus for months or years. Therefore, even though ASF initially spreads in a wave with a high fatality rate (~60%), the infected carcasses as a source of infection can cause ASF cases to persist locally for years. European countries have pursued three different strategies to manage infected wild boar populations: depopulation (90% of the total wild boar population hunted), soft hunting (60% of the post-reproductive population hunted), and fencing of infected populations coupled with a hunting ban. Depopulation was the least successful, while soft hunting led to a slow but still steady spread of disease. However, banning wild boar hunting and erecting a double fence around identified infected populations has been successful in eradicating the virus in the Czech Republic and Belgium, though further research is needed to understand the conditions under which this strategy is and is not effective.

For domestic pigs, the main challenges to ASF eradication are an underreporting of symptomatic animals, the inability of smaller farms to implement adequate biosecurity measures, the contamination of feed, and illegal domestic pig movement. Dr. Jones argues that an often-overlooked weakness in the US is the feed supply chain as a potential pathogen transmission route, involving the ingredient facility, the feed mill, and individual farms. Obviously, contamination at the ingredient facility or feed mill can be spread to many farms, but more attention should be paid to delivery drivers transporting feed from the mill to farms and moving from farm to farm without adequate hygiene measures in between trips. A culture of biosecurity, as well as clear and appropriate information reporting measures, is key to mitigating the many points of entry for infectious diseases to spread rapidly on and from individual farms.

As the saying goes, “You can’t fatten the pig on market day.” To prevent a large-scale, economically devastating outbreak of African Swine Fever (ASF), stakeholders must coordinate on robust biosecurity, disease surveillance, and containment measures. Preparation is key; responding to an outbreak after it happens will lead to catastrophe. The symposium speakers had many promising ideas for future research to address current gaps. While the USDA has developed experimental live attenuated ASFV vaccines, more research is needed on protective immune mechanisms; subunit vaccines could also be explored. More development of computational models to understand the spread of ASFV, particularly in wild boars, would be a helpful tool in tracking and eradicating the virus. Focused study of eradication methods and their implications on economies and the environment would point to tailored strategies for an outbreak of a wild or domestic origin. Speakers also discussed ongoing projects to address ASFV, such as an educational initiative with Customs and Border Protection to increase biosecurity awareness as it related to passengers entering the US from foreign ports. The National Pork Board is also developing a tool called AgView, a data dashboard that provides real-time ASFV updates and pig movement data to state health officials, increasing collaboration and information sharing. The combination of industry, government, and academic stakeholders at this symposium reflected the broad portfolio of efforts currently underway to address ASFV.

Applying Biosafety Research to Lower Biorisk in the Laboratory: Building a Culture of Safety

By Michelle Grundahl, Biodefense MS Student

The 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium, presented by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), brought together experts from government, academia, and industry to discuss emerging biorisk challenges in agriculture. Speakers highlighted how the convergence of food, agricultural, and natural resource challenges require coordination and intensification of food safety, nutrition, and food security efforts to mitigate risks.

I attended this virtual conference along with my GMU Biodefense Program colleagues Ms. Stevie Kiesel and Ms. Rachel-Paige Casey. You can find their discussions of other symposium sessions here. This report provides an overview and commentary on Session II – Applied Biosafety Research: An International Effort.

Session II: “Applied Biosafety Research: An international Effort”

Applied biorisk research is the “systematic, scientific investigation into and study of materials, tools, and practices to provide for the safe handling and containment of infectious microorganisms and hazardous biological substances.” This is a bit more specific than the biorisk management practices that one might be familiar with; this type of research informs the procedures that laboratories should implement. Applied biorisk research is important because it provides assurances to researchers, and the public, that sound practices are in place. This is of domestic and international importance in universities, government laboratories, industry and diagnostic labs (all who might work with unknown risks). This focused research is relevant even to non-traditional labs, such as DIY community science spaces and in global settings that may have low resources.

Overview of 2019 US Workshop: What is Applied Biosafety Research, Who’s Doing It and How Might We Do It Better?

Applied Biosafety Research is not a new field of research. A presentation by Joseph Kozlovac, an Agency Biological Safety Engineer for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the USDA, remined us that there were programs for this in the 1960s. These past programs resulted in guidance such as those published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1976. Mr. Kozlovac states that currently there are no great efforts researching the topics of facility design, personal protective equipment, bioengineering controls, and more. In October 2007, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a congressional hearing: “Germs, Viruses and Secrets” and determined that a task force would consider the ongoing proliferation of biolabs in the United States. Their Trans-Federal Task Force on Optimizing Biosafety and Biocontainment Oversight aimed to ensure oversight of labs involved in handling toxins and infectious agents. A 2009 report suggested the research agenda for this. The Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel provided recommendations in 2014 for biosafety and biosecurity to be improved (there had been a few incidents). The panel specifically suggested a program of applied biosafety research, one that used evidence-based information. Eventually, the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy made these directives clear, emphasized that mitigating lab risks was imperative, and asserted that conducting applied research would provide evidence.

The outcome of a September 2019 “Federal Stakeholders Applied Biosafety Research Workshop” identified five categories with gaps in need of research. One of those gaps in need of further research is the evidence based “hierarchy of controls,” which represents eliminating risks as a top effector. Substituting risks, or engineering to control the risk, is more effective than altering how workers perform, or use protective equipment. Managing the risk of preventing pathogen exposure (and infection) also requires data on the agent, including evidence of the known exposures, morbidity rates, characterization and validation of the pathogens. Potential mitigation strategies require prior information of work-related incidents (such as needle sticks and equipment failures). Identifying the errors that cause incidents in the lab is just a starting point. Another factor to explore are the actual methods used to evaluate hazard mitigation. These efforts aim to identify the appropriate risk assessment methods that should be used. The most interesting research category identified by the Federal Stakeholders Applied Biosafety Research Workshop: where intangible human factors insert into laboratory science. Creating a safety minded culture is not done via protocol. Studying the sociology of laboratory biorisk management makes attempts to tease apart issues such as non-compliance, attitudes, training, and communication.

Dr. Danielle Lohman, Foreign Affairs Officer for US Department of State, provided a review of the stakeholders. There are numerous implementations where applied biorisk research protects workers, agriculture, and the environment. The people who can benefit are funders (government, private), researchers (federal, university and private lab workers), disseminators of knowledge (institutions, journals and organizations), and the end-users (regulators, biosafety professionals).  An excellent example of coordination and collaboration of these applied research activities, Dr. Lohman explained, is the example of COVID-19. We saw rapid international scientific effort to quickly understand an unknown pathogen. The promotion of scientifically sound action is a collaborative effort. The US Department of State is promoting this idea, too. In October 2020, they hosted an invitation only G7 Expert’s meeting on Strengthening Laboratory Biorisk Management to improve the research process internationally.

Applied biorisk research is a critical discipline that can benefit from more professional attention. While some might equate safe laboratory practices with mundane tasks and added duties, others see this field as immensely important in creating standards with great impact. In fact, the Biorisk management standards and their role in BTWC implementation working paper (from the most recent Meetings of Experts of the Biological Weapons Convention) clearly shows the need for greater applied biorisk research.

Department of Defense (DOD) Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) Scientific Gaps in Biorisk Research Program (SGBRP)

Dr. Cristine Lawson, Deputy Director for Biosecurity for the Department of Defense (DOD) Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) Biorisk program Office (BBPO) and manager of the DOD BSAT Scientific Gaps in Biorisk Research Program (SGBRP), provided an enlightening overview of the program. Apparently, the DOD is very active in BSAT applied biorisk research.  They are contributing to the knowledge base of biorisk practices as applied to Biological Select Agents and Toxins. Some people might recall May 2015 when we learned that the DOD shipped residual live spores of Bacillus anthracis(Anthrax) to 88 sites and that 194 labs received these spores. DOD took this very seriously and they executed comprehensive reviews of their procedures, protocols and accountability. Among the findings revealed was that there was insufficient information to inform and develop  B. anthracis inactivation protocols. The 2016 Government Accountability Office report High Containment Laboratories: Improved Oversight of Dangerous Pathogens Needed to Mitigate Risk2018 report expands upon this. As a result, the DOD has changed its guidelines, created centralized oversight for its BSAT-registered laboratories, and updated its procedures (for more than just their Anthrax research).

The DOD’s creation of the Scientific Gaps in Biorisk Research Program (SGBRP) is intended to fund research in the pursuit of increased scientific knowledge for BSAT procedures. Their review panel assesses the risk of procedures at DOD facilities, and assesses the available scientific evidence that can be used for mitigation. As part of a proactive approach, proposals are solicited. Some proposal categories examples include viability, inactivation, decontamination, environmental sampling, monitoring, and other similar biorisk topics. These proposals are ranked, selected, and then granted funding. One issue in this initiative, Dr. Lawson explained, is the challenge of funding. Funding, of course, is always a concern, but the program focuses on ensuring that senior DOD leadership is aware of the importance of applied biorisk research in order to maintain funding for closing knowledge gaps. It would be ideal for DOD to remain as the lead agency in the efforts to close the gaps of scientific knowledge for BSAT protocols. There is room for improvement here, as noted in the Inspector General’s 2020 report, but most would agree that the DOD has had great success with their BSAT program. Another area Dr. Lawson believes the biorisk community should engage on is encouraging scientists and biorisk experts to engage on policy development. When the federal registrar asks for input, the program encourages feedback from its experts and scientists, and that should be encouraged throughout the entire regulated community. 

Biosafety and Chemical Safety Research

Do you wear your safety goggles every single time you step foot into your laboratory so that you can avoid an accident? Two safety researchers, Dr. Dana Ménard, Assistant Professor of Psychopathology at the University of Windsor, and Dr. John Trant, Assistant Professor of Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Windsor, described their research, “A review and critique of academic lab safety research,” regarding academic chemical laboratory safety. It involves more than just posting safety protocols at eye wash stations. Enhancement of research laboratory safety requires collaboration from the entire laboratory community. The true number of laboratory accidents is largely unknown. The data on incidents and deaths in laboratories are sparse, in Canada and in the US. Safety practices and policies tend toward industry in regard to regulations. Academic institutions do not have the same regulatory framework as industry laboratories. A UCLA study (sample size of 2400) reported that 30% of the researchers surveyed had been involved in a laboratory accident. A 2017 study showed that 32% of 261 students had a lab accident. The presenters of this session asserted that the numbers could be higher, as they expect that under-reporting happens frequently. One major concern with surveys like these is that respondents tend answer questions in a way they think is socially acceptable. Social desirability is an issue: we know and report what we should do but we might actually act differently.

Many injuries are likely unreported, for a variety of reasons. Dr. Ménard noted that lab accidents in academia are handled quite different than in industry. Industry workers seem not to keep quiet about accidents and they are usually obligated to report accidents at work. Conversely, academic investigators tend to have low consequences after major incidents in their labs, and student researchers have little-to-no recourse. Dr. Ménard summarized a Canadian study of 104 participants that showed 56.7% were involved in at least one laboratory accident; and around half of those involved (or should have received) medical attention. Around 30% did not report the accident at all. Some of the reasons given for not reporting accidents include “not too serious” and “shame.”    

One gap in our knowledge of this area is the lack of understanding on what training is received by people who work in research labs. Dr. Trant discussed revealed one example where 70% of lab workers received training but only 25% received it before they had started experiments. Even though studies describe interventions, there is often little baseline data for these laboratory interventions, per Dr. Ménard. Some training and intervention efforts that labs can use are self-study programs, quizzes, handouts, black lights and games/scavenger hunts as part of training efforts. Training is necessary but perhaps some of our colleagues complain about losing “academic freedom”, or that there are too many rules and too much regulatory compliance. For some principal investigators (and their competing priorities), safety actions can be seen as a “hassle”. Dr. Trant warns that the lax attitude toward safety is currently normalized in academia and that good leadership is necessary.

Understanding Human Reliability in the Laboratory: Implications for Biosafety

In high consequence laboratory environments, we depend on data to support critical decisions that inform policy. Dr. Rocco Casagrande, Managing Director at Gryphon Scientific, presented his risk assessment for the National Bio and Ago Defense Facility (NBAF). This laboratory is the US’s only large animal BSL-4 facility (and will contain agents such as Foot and Mouth disease). Doing this type of research in the middle of the United States is a new endeavor. The Gryphon Scientific group has also performed a risk-benefit analysis of researching modified agents with pandemic potential (such as influenza and coronavirus). Developing standards at facilities is critical; even more critical is the prior decision making before standards are created. So, why should human behavior be a major part of this research? Containment and facility design is the usual focus, but what people are actually doing in the lab is just as important. A lab can be perfectly built, but we still depend on humans for operation.

Data are needed for this as existing data are lacking. Fatigue, motor skills, and protocol violations play a part in the points of failure in laboratory safety. Dr. Casagrande looked at other industries to inform this data gap. He examined the mistakes that pilots make, and he examined seemingly insignificant events (like dropping vials) to see how much material could escape. As the Gryphon team considered how laboratory accidents happen, they found that the workers themselves are frequently who initiate accidents. The actions of workers can mitigate or exacerbate an incident. Knowing how mistakes happen can help mitigate outcomes like lab acquired infections. These types of mistakes may inform the types of mitigation needed for high consequence laboratories.

The Open Philanthropy Project provided a grant for biosafety research in order to improve high-level decision making for critical science policies. A culture of biosafety is the goal. Since the data do not exist, Casagrande’s team is filling the gap on human reliability.  The goal is to have researchers ready to do this type of research, build a community, publish data, and build a culture of biosafety. These data can be generated by inserting dummy pathogens into the workflow of a lab. How challenging will it be to find data on large animal laboratory workers in high containment laboratories? We can only compare Plum Island (since NBAF is not yet open). Testing ‘real’ work versus an experimental environment might also be useful for low- and middle-income countries who frequently have constrained resources. They are identifying innovative practices. Some labs already have unique practices that might be useful to others, and an upcoming workshop plans to find the barriers for implementation of best practices.

This talk did not broach the subject of human reliability in an expected way. I hoped to hear about identifying potentially malicious actors, discussing dual-use research, and learning about the other risks of opening a BSL facility with many new workers. These topics will be useful to explore; it was not clear if this was already included in Gryphon Scientific’s work.  Brand new laboratories provide a unique opportunity for starting new practices, collecting data on worker training, and conducting applied safety research. This opportunity should not be wasted as NBAF becomes operational.

Challenges and Innovations in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Decontamination During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Dr. Antony Schwartz, the Director of the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office at Duke University, presented his experience with ensuring a recycled supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) at his institution this past year. Their innovative approach at their biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) lab used vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP) to decontaminate face masks and powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs). They validated this method for multiple types of N95 masks. Other methods are possible, too, but some of them are not recommended since fit and filtration degrade after multiple decontamination cycles. Dr. Schwartz suggested that other interested researchers should review this website showing the various methods that have been considered.  Future innovations might result in sustainable PPE. Under development are textiles with filtering materials, reusable N95s, removable filters with a valve that filters in both directions. These decontamination procedures and sustainable innovations may have many applications in healthcare, emergency response, high containment research, law enforcement, and military activities. An important takeaway from this presentation was that gear can now be used more than once. In my opinion, this could have huge implications for training activities. Single use items can be a challenge to incorporate into training regimens. Reusable protective gear could support more frequent and realistic training activities for health care workers and first responders.

Lessons Learned

How do we manage biorisk? We learned what the current research has uncovered in this field, and its application to high containment laboratories as well as academic spaces. Through applied research for biosafety, we can develop robust procedures, we can decrease accidents, and we can even consider sustainable personnel protective equipment. The efforts of these professionals can make laboratory workers safer; and they will build better practices, training, equipment and data. The studies and procedures shared during this conference encourage all professionals, and students, to use (and generate) reliable biosafety data as they continue to build a culture of laboratory safety. A missing topic from this conference was the consideration of biosecurity and dual-use risks, or the potential need for oversight of the growing number of high containment laboratories around the world.

Biosafety Challenges in COVID-19 (So Far)

By Rachel-Paige Casey, Biodefense PhD Student

The 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium, presented by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), brought together experts from government, academia, and industry to discuss emerging biorisk challenges in agriculture. Speakers highlighted how the convergence of food, agricultural, and natural resource challenges require coordination and intensification of food safety, nutrition, and food security efforts to mitigate risks.

I attended this virtual conference along with my GMU Biodefense Program colleagues Ms. Stevie Kiesel and Ms. Michelle Grundahl. You can find their discussions of other symposium sessions here. This report provides an overview and commentary on Session III – Emerging Issues, which covered several of the challenges facing the agriculture sector that arose as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Feeding the Nation During a Pandemic – Insights on Challenges and Triumphs from the Food Industry

Dr. Karleigh Bacon from The Kraft Heinz Company provided a summary of the observed trends in the food industry since the start of the pandemic. Overall, retail sales are up as consumers have increased the number of items in their carts and they are stocking up with each grocery run in order to make fewer trips to the store. At the grocery store, consumers are returning to the “center aisles” with packages foods, baking supplies, paper goods, and cleaning products. Indeed, sales of comfort foods are soaring and baking has become an increasingly popular hobby. On the other hand, food service sales are down for restaurants, hotel services, and schools. Online sales have surged to double or triple their pre-pandemic levels. The food industry’s response to COVID-19 aimed to maintain the stability of the food supply chain by focusing on communications management, operations management, and supply chain management. The response from the food industry, much like the health sector, had to be quick and agile, which requires clear communication. The Operational Risk Management team was assembled to conduct daily calls with the manufacturing sector to communicate new policies and operational statuses. Additionally, new lines of communication were established with the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA FSIS for response management. Turning to employee health and safety as a critical component of operations management, personal protective equipment (PPE) became required and health screenings became an automated step before entry into production facilities. Production lines were altered to maintain social distance between workers, moving from a spread of six to twelve feet. Cleaning and sanitizing schedules were ramped up to improve employee health and safety in the workplace. The compliance to health and safety protocols was critically important to maintaining production with healthy employees. To meet surges in demand in the first several months of the pandemic, production facilities ramped up to churn out as much food as possible. The surge in retail food demand fell and foodservice sales enjoyed a small increase during Summer 2020 when pandemic restrictions were relaxed. Thankfully, there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted through food items. The most significant impact on food supply chains was the concurrent immediate decrease in foodservice production and increase in retail production. Unsurprisingly, factories and plants suffered from PPE and sanitizing solutions shortages, but also from shortages in meat products and packaging components.

Legal Issues—Lessons Learned on COVID-19 Response

R. Brooks Moore, Deputy General Counsel for The Texas A&M University System, discusses legal, compliance, and policy issues that arose as this public education system transitioned to a remote environment and plans to return to in-person learning and work. Prior to the pandemic, the status quo was that instruction, research, and most other forms of work were conducted primarily in-person. Transitioning to remote learning and work created external legal and compliance issues: overlapping and conflicting lines of authority in a prolonged emergency like a pandemic; details and conditions of directives and funding; waivers of statutory and regulatory requirements, and implementing requirements and documenting compliance. With federal, state, and local authorities all vying for authority in an emergency, the system struggled to determine what actions to take. This also caused confusion with lines of funding, which may require compliance with a specific entity. In a state of disaster, the governor has the power to waive laws and regulations temporarily, so the university had to learn how to operate under these new conditions. Documenting compliance was considered a top priority to maintain compliance with the moving targets of requirements as the pandemic changed over time. Of course, the university also faces internal legal and compliance issues: internal decision-making and communications authority; closure decisions; implementation of remote education and work; employment, student, and vendor concerns; and transparency. Perhaps the biggest struggle was determining who has the decision-making authority within the system to choose how to respond to the pandemic. Similarly, it was critical to determine who has the authority to speak for the university in regard to the pandemic and the system’s response decisions. Education transitioned to an online format, but other activities or facilities were unable to go remote, so decisions had to be made on what to leave open and what to close. A common thread through many of these external and internal legal and compliance issues was the confusion around what entities or personnel had authority to make decisions for the response and communicate those decisions across the system.

Biosafety Community Outreach During COVID-19

David Gillum from Arizona State University (ASU) gave an overview of biosafety community outreach during COVID-19. How do we adapt and how will we thrive? In every challenge, there is an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. The COVID-19 pandemic put biosafety front and center of society in 2020. Biosafety was a hot topic in mass media, research, and industry. According to Gillum, disasters provide kinetic energy and foment change, and inspires many to be agents of change for the better of all. Arizona State University experienced changing priorities with the novel coronavirus: managing inventories, reviewing SARS-Co-V research, navigating travel restrictions, adjusting research levels, testing, and vaccinating. “Pivot” is now the word du jour and “building the plane as we fly it” is the favored catchphrase for ASU. Over the last several years, Gillum has helped coordinate a variety of biosecurity outreach on several topics – academic espionage, chemical security, cybersecurity, economic espionage, insider threats, and personnel reliability – with the FBI, the Arizona Biosafety Alliance, and the community. He asserts that the public should be at the table with a voice in the biosafety and biosecurity discussion. Biosafety professions should be the sources of relevant and accurate information for the public.

Lessons Learned So Far

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a number of policy gaps related to biosecurity, especially outside the laboratory. The food industry, higher education, and community outreach came upon unexpected hurdles as a result of the novel coronavirus. Communication and clarity are the common elements needed across many of the challenges created by COVID-19. Knowing what entities – federal, state, and local – have the authority on each topic or issue is critical to a strong response and clear communication of response activities. Clarity on the protocols and chain of command in an emergency is necessary to maximize efficiency and effectiveness of the response. Clear communication also helps ensure compliance with procedures or mandates across the workforce, student body, or community. Though learning how to function in COVID-19 has been a bumpy ride, the trials that came with the pandemic have also provided opportunities to better prepare for the next biological event so that we can adapt and thrive under any conditions.

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.”

Biodefense Events

UPCOMING EVENTS

July 2019 – Summer Workshop on Bioterrorism, Pandemics, and Global Health Security.

Dates: TBD

PAST EVENTS

Schar School of Policy and Government – Preventing Pandemics and Bioterrorism: Past, Present, and Future

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018, 6-7pm EST

Schar School of Policy and Government, Founders Hall, Auditorium, 3351 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA, 22201

Join the Schar School Biodefense Program, Schar Alumni Chapter, and Dean Mark Rozell for an evening of connecting with alumni, academics, practitioners, and students!  Preventing Pandemics and Bioterrorism: Past, Present, and Future featuring Robert Kadlec, M.D., Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) Health & Human Services, Office of the Secretary. We are excited to announce this special event in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the George Mason University Biodefense Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. We invite you to attend this exciting opportunity to hear from Dr. Kadlec about lessons learned for pandemic preparedness since the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, plans for implementing the new National Biodefense Strategy, and the importance of education for the future of biodefense. Continue reading “Biodefense Events”

Week in DC: Events 1.30-23.2017

Monday, January 30th, 2017
America’s Place In The World – A Conversation With Former Secretary Of State Madeleine Albright- Center for Strategic and International Studies
Time: 5:30-6:30pm
Location: Center for Strategic and International Studies
1616 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036 (map)
Please join the Center for Strategic and International Studies for a conversation with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the importance of American leadership and engagement in world affairs, the refugee crisis, and the situation in the Middle East.  Dr. Albright was the first woman to serve as America’s top diplomat.  She served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997.  Currently, Dr. Albright is chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group and Chair of Albright Capital Management.  She is also a professor in the practice of diplomacy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and is a member of the Defense Policy Board at the U.S. Department of Defense.  Dr. Albright received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2012. The Smart Women, Smart Power (SWSP) initiative is designed to amplify the voices of women in foreign policy, national security, and international business.

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017
Oversharing? How Much Should Government Be Telling Us About Cybersecurity Risks?– New America Foundation
Time: 9-10:30am
Location: New America
740 15th St NW #900, Washington, DC(map)
What intervention can and should the federal government make available to others to help empower defense against cyber intrusions? The Russian intrusions associated with the 2016 presidential elections have reinvigorated the debate on this issue—including among cybersecurity experts. In light of the government’s response to the intrusions, New America’s own Robert M. Lee and Dave Weinstein have both come out publicly with well-argued but contrasting visions of the wisdom and utility of that response. At this event, Dave and Rob will join with other experts from the cybersecurity community to consider what the incoming administration can and should be releasing to help make America more cyber-secure.

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017
Enemies Or Partners? Russia And Turkey In Syria– Bipartisan Policy Center
Time: 10-11:15am
Location: Bipartisan Policy Center
1225 I Street, NW Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005 (map)
The roller coaster ride of Russian-Turkish relations, marked by violent incidents and rapid reversals, has absorbed the attention of anyone trying to make sense of Syria and the Middle East. In just over a year, Turkey has gone from shooting down a Russian jet to receiving Russian air support in its fight against ISIS in northern Syria. Now, with the new administration of President Trump, looking at this evolving relationship has become all the more important for understanding the prospects for U.S. foreign policy more broadly.
In the coming years Russian-Turkish relations will not only play a key role in shaping the future of Syria and the Islamic State, but also the fate of the Iran deal, NATO, and the Eurasian political order.

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017
The Spawn Of Frankenstein– New America Foundation
Time: 3-5:45pm
Location: New America
740 15th St NW #900, Washington, DC(map)
No work of literature has done more to shape the way people think about science and its moral consequences than Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. Today, almost two centuries after the novel’s publication, advances in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, robotics, and many other fields demonstrate the enduring salience of Frankenstein’s themes. Why are we still talking about Frankenstein? And what do we still have to learn from Victor Frankenstein and his creature, at a time when our scientific and technological capabilities make the novel’s premise of creating life in the lab more plausible than ever?  Join us on Thursday, February 2, in Washington, D.C., to discuss the legacy of Shelley’s Frankenstein and how the novel continues to influence the way that we confront emerging technologies, understand the complex relationships between creators and their creations, and weigh the benefits of innovation with its unforeseen pitfalls.

Friday, February 3rd, 2017
The State Of Security In Mexico: Why Are Homicides Increasing? How To Reduce The Violence?– Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Time: 8:45am-1pm
Location: The Wilson Center
1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC (map)
Homicides appear to have increased significantly in parts of Mexico during 2016. By one calculation, organized crime related homicides increased roughly 49 percent between 2015 and 2016. October was the most violent month in nearly four years, and after two years of decline, 2016 roughly matched the homicide rate for 2013. Moreover, major cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez that had experienced a decrease in homocides since 2012 saw a significant uptick. What is driving this troubling tren and what kinds of innovative programs are being implemented to reduce violence or prevent it altogether? Please join our panel of experts for a discussion about these and other questions.

Week in DC: Events 12.12-12.16.2016

Monday, December 12th, 2016
Getting Ahead Of The Curve: The Evolving Threat Of Violent Extremism– United States Institute of Peace
Time: 9am-noon
Location: US Institute of Peace
2301 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. (map)
Movements, leaders, targets, tactics and arenas of operation have all proliferated in ways unimagined in 2001. The growing challenges have spurred new interest in broader strategies – to defuse current crises, stem proliferation of extremist ideologies and avoid future shocks. The obstacles in crafting a viable and sustainable policy are many: Limited resources, poor coordination, competing political interests and complex strategic factors. This forum will highlight the analysis of three separate reports:

  • “The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda and Beyond,” led by USIP and the Wilson Center.
  • ‘Turning Point,” from the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Commission on Countering Violent Extremism.
  • “Communities First: A Blueprint for Organizing and Sustaining a Global Movement Against Violent Extremism,” from The Prevention Project.

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016
The 2016 Cato Surveillance Conference– Cato Institute
Time: 9am-5:30pm
Location: Cato Institute
1000 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001 (map)
Eight years ago, Barack Obama arrived in Washington pledging to reverse the dramatic expansion of state surveillance his predecessor had presided over in the name of fighting terrorism. Instead, the Obama administration saw the Bush era’s “collect it all” approach to surveillance become still more firmly entrenched. Meanwhile, the advanced spying technologies once limited to intelligence agencies have been gradually trickling down to local police departments. From the high-profile tussle between Apple and the FBI over smartphone encryption to debates over how to detect “lone wolf” terrorists before they strike, hard questions about modern privacy have figured prominently in the 2016 presidential race. Moreover, as WikiLeaks’ sensational release of hacked Democratic Party e-mails demonstrated, surveillance isn’t just a campaign issue: It’s a campaign tactic too. As the nation braces itself for a new presidential administration, the Cato Institute will gather technologists, legislators, activists, and intelligence officials to survey the privacy landscape, look ahead to the issues Americans will be debating over the next eight years — from government hacking to predictive “big data” to the “Internet of things” — and examine how and whether Americans can still live at least occasionally free from prying eyes. Continue reading “Week in DC: Events 12.12-12.16.2016”

Week in DC: Events 12.5-9.2016

Monday, December 5th, 2016
Cyber-securing The Nation: A Whole Of Nation Approach- New America Foundation
Time: 9:30am-noon
Location: New America 740 15th St NW #900 Washington, D.C. 20005, Washington, D.C. (map)
On December 1, President Obama’s Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity will deliver a report to the president with recommendations on bolstering the nation’s cybersecurity. While many of the likely recommendations will require federal government action, intentionally or not, the report will also underline the fact that enhancing national cybersecurity requires as much, if not more, action at the state and local levels. While the President considers the report, we’ll explore what more our states and cities can and should do to achieve these goals. Follow the conversation online with @NewAmCyber and #WONCyber.

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016
The Search For Cuba’s Food Security- Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Time: noon-2:30pm
Location: Johns Hopkins SAIS – Rome Building
1619 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. (map)
Room: Rome Auditorium
Pedro Sanchez is Research Professor of Tropical Soils at the University of Florida Soil & Water Sciences Department and core faculty of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems. At UF, he leads the development of a collaborative programs on food and agriculture in Cuba and incorporate faculty and students in the long-standing food security programs he continues to be involved in tropical Africa. Sanchez was formally Director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center and Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He served as Director General of the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), co-chair of the United Nations Millennium Project Hunger Task Force, and director of the Millennium Villages Project. Sanchez has supervised research programs in over 25 countries of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Sanchez has written groundbreaking books on tropical soil science and hunger, and has received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium), Guelph University (Canada), Ohio State University and North Carolina State University. He is the 2002 World Food Prize laureate, a 2004 MacArthur Fellow, and was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences in 2012. Lunch will be provided. RSVP is required. Continue reading “Week in DC: Events 12.5-9.2016”

Week in DC: Events 11.14-18.2016

Monday, November 14th, 2016
Global Security: Russia, China, Europe And Latin America– Center for Economic and Policy Research
Time: 9-10am
Location: Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill400 New Jersey Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001, USA(map)
Following one of the most unusual presidential and congressional elections in US history, a panel of senior specialists will present ideas for improving prospects for peace, and growth with fairness for all Americans. The topic of the panel, part of the Economists for Peace and Security Symposium: Policy Challenges for the New US President, is “Global Security: Russia, China, Europe and Latin America.”

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 Spillover: Zika, Ebola, And Beyond Film Screening And Discussion- National Museum of Natural History
Time: 6:30-8:30pm
Location: National Museum of Natural History10th Street & Constitution Ave, NW Washington D.C(map)
Room: Baird Auditorium (Ground Floor)
Over the last half century, a number of diseases have spilled over from animals to humans with increasing frequency. What’s behind the rise in spillover diseases? What can we do to stop them? PBS documentary Spillover, produced by Tangled Bank Studios, is a harrowing documentary that follows scientists into the world’s hot zones in a search for answers. And it does so while providing much needed scientific context for the most recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks. The film extends to the new frontiers of disease detection, prevention, and containment, and travels the world with virus hunters who are tracking old enemies while vigilantly looking out for new foes. A discussion after the screening will focus on Zika and how scientists have tracked the disease globally and locally, how the disease affects people, and what we need to know to help manage and prevent an outbreak in DC and beyond. Continue reading “Week in DC: Events 11.14-18.2016”

Week in DC: Events 11.7-11.11.2016

Monday, November 7th, 2016
Enhancing U.S.-Georgia Security Cooperation: The Way Forward– Heritage Foundation
Time: 10:30-11:30am
Location: Heritage Foundation214 Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington, D.C. 20002 (map)
Located in the South Caucasus, Georgia sits at a crucial geographical and cultural crossroads and has proven to be strategically important for military and economic reasons for centuries. Today, Georgia’s strategic location is also important to the United States. In 2008 Georgia was promised eventual membership at the NATO summit in Bucharest. Since then few countries in the Euro-Atlantic region express as much enthusiasm for NATO as Georgia – even though it is not yet inside NATO. After the Russian invasion in 2008 and the subsequent Russian occupation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, Georgia has transformed its military and has contributed thousands of troops to overseas military operations – all in the hopes of speeding up its application to join NATO. What is Georgia’s prospect of joining the Alliance? How will the new Georgian government and the next U.S. president handle the issue of NATO membership? Join us as we address these issues and more.

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016
U.S. Election – Go Vote! 
Wednesday, November 9th, 2016
Biodefense Master’s Open Houses
We invite you to attend an open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government. The session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs, an introduction to our world-class faculty and research, and highlights of the many ways we position our students for success in the classroom and beyond. Our admissions and student services staff will be on hand to answer your questions.

  • Thursday, November 10: 6:30pm-8:30pm—Master’s Open House, Founders Hall, Room 126

Continue reading “Week in DC: Events 11.7-11.11.2016”