Pandora Report 3.24.2017

Welcome to the start of the weekend and World TB Day! The WHO estimates that just in 2015, 1/3 of people with TB missed out on quality care and 480,000 people developed multidrug-resistant TB.

Public Health Concerns in Trump’s New Budget
President Trump’s newly released proposed budget blueprint makes drastic cuts to many programs, of which, one of the hardest hit is HHS. On top of the cuts to science and public health, there is something buried within the budget that is concerning ex-CDC director, Dr. Tom Frieden. Frieden worries about the proposal to award block grants to states, which would allow them to decide how to respond to public health issues (think Ebola, Zika, etc.). “That proposal is ‘a really bad idea,’ according to Dr. Tom Frieden, who until this past January was director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, the CDC experts work with state and local governments to devise evidence-based plans to respond to public health issues, such as foodborne and infectious disease outbreaks. With a block grant, states can use the federal money to replace their own spending in certain areas or spend the money unwisely, ‘and never have to report what they have done or be held accountable for it,’ Frieden said.” A withdrawal of one fifth of NIH’s budget would mean a deep slash to biomedical and science research funding.  These cuts will also impact foreign aid, which has many worried about the role of public health interventions in foreign countries. Bill Gates recently talked to TIME magazine regarding the safety implications of cutting foreign aid. “I understand why some Americans watch their tax dollars going overseas and wonder why we’re not spending them at home. Here’s my answer: These projects keep Americans safe. And by promoting health, security and economic opportunity, they stabilize vulnerable parts of the world.” Gates points to the role of overseas public health work like polio eradication, Ebola outbreak response, and America’s global HIV/AIDS effort (PEPFAR), which points to the stabilizing role that strengthening public health can have in a country.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
From Anthrax to Zika, we’ve got the place to be in July for all things biodefense. This three-day workshop will provide you with not only seminars from experts in the field, but also discussions with others interested in biodefense. You can check out the flyer and register for the event here. The best part is that we’re doing an early-bird registration discount of 10% if you sign up before May 1st. A returning participant, GMU student/alumni, or have a group of three or more? You’re eligible for an additional discount! Check out the website to get the scoop on all our expert instructors and the range of topics the workshop will be covering.

Unseen Enemy Documentary 
Mark your calendars for this upcoming infectious documentary on the lurking pandemics that worry experts. Airing on April 7th, Unseen Enemy will follow researchers looking for the early warning signs of diseases that could cause the next pandemic. The National Academy of Medicine will be hosting a special D.C. premiere of the film on April 2nd, that you can even attend.

Expert Views on Biological Threat Characterization for the U.S. Government: A Delphi Study 
Biological threat characterization (BTC) is mixed bag of risk and reward. The laboratory research involving deadly pathogens as a means for biodefense can translate to better risk assessments but also the potential for biosafety failures. To better address this issue, researchers performed a Delphi study to gather opinions from experts around the country. “Delphi participants were asked to give their opinions about the need for BTC research by the U.S. government (USG); risks of conducting this research; rules or guidelines that should be in place to ensure that the work is safe and accurate; components of an effective review and prioritization process; rules for when characterization of a pathogen can be discontinued; and recommendations about who in the USG should be responsible for BTC prioritization decisions.” Following their assessment, the researchers found that experts agree that BTC research is necessary, but there is also a need for continued oversight and review of the research to reduce as much risk as possible. “It also demonstrates the need for further discussion of what would constitute a ‘red line’ for biothreat characterization research—research that should not be performed for safety, ethical, or practical reasons—and guidelines for when there is sufficient research in a given topic area so that the research can be considered completed.”

GMU Schar School PhD Info Session
If you love global health security and have been wanting to further your education, come check out our PhD info session next Wednesday, March 29th at 7pm in Arlington. You can come learn about our biodefense PhD program from the director, Dr. Koblentz, and hear from several students about their experiences. The info session is a great way to find out what a GMU Schar PhD entails, the application process, and what current students think!

What Biosecurity and Cybersecurity Research Have In Common
Kendall Hoyt is looking at the similarities between these two research fields and how work into the unknown can often expose and create vulnerabilities. Did I mention Kendall is one of the instructors at our biodefense Summer Workshop? Hoyt provides two examples to really hone in on this point – to defend against a dangerous pathogen, we have to isolate and grow it to try and develop treatment or a vaccine and to defend against a cyberattack, we need to know how to break into the computer system. That whole dual-use dilemma creates a lot of risk-versus-reward scenarios for biosecurity and cybersecurity researchers. While the research is highly relevant and necessary, government efforts to control or maintain oversight have been challenging. Do we pull back the reigns on innovation or run the risk of a security breach or a big “whoops” moment? “Intellectual property and cybersecurity legislation—namely the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—has similarly stifled legitimate scientific and commercial activities and delayed defensive applications. In one well-known example, fear of prosecution under DMCA deterred a Princeton graduate student from reporting a problem that he discovered: Unbeknownst to users, Sony BMG music CDs were installing spyware on their laptops.” Hoyt also points out the biosecurity efforts that have begun looking not just at the pathogens and publications, but the laboratory techniques that are used for such research. Certain experiments (like gain of function work) have the capacity to increase transmissibility or host range. “For all of their similarities, key differences between biosecurity and cybersecurity risks and timelines will dictate varied regulatory strategies. For example, zero-day exploits—that is, holes in a system unknown to the software creator—can be patched in a matter of months, whereas new drugs and vaccines can take decades to develop. Digital vulnerabilities have a shorter half-life than biological threats. Measures to promote disclosures and crowd-sourced problem-solving will therefore have a larger immediate impact on cybersecurity. Still, both fields face the same basic problem: There are no true ‘choke points’ in either field. The U.S. government is not the only source of research funds and, thanks in large part to the internet itself, it is increasingly difficult to restrict sensitive information.” In the end, Hoyt notes that both fields and their regulations will need to relax the governance process and be a bit more flexible and mobile with how they control items. Both fields are constantly evolving, which means regulators need to be just as fluid.

How To Prepare For A Pandemic
NPR decided to create a “Pandemic Preparedness Kit” based off the continuous questions related to the ongoing news of increasing infectious disease threats but little info in terms of practical things people can do. While these aren’t things you can go out and buy for your home, the list hits close to home in terms of things we should be focusing our efforts and funding on. Firstly, vaccines. This is a no brainer and yet, we’ve become the habitual users of the theme “create it when we’re struggling to contain an outbreak”. Secondly, virus knowledge. “One of your best weapons during a disease outbreak is knowledge, says Dr. Jonathan Temte of the University of Wisconsin. ‘Keep up with the news and try to understand what threats might be out there,’ he says. For example, new types of influenza are one of the biggest threats right now — in terms of pandemic potential, Temte says. But if you know how to protect yourself from one type of influenza, you can protect yourself from all of them.” Lastly, and my personal favorite, is very clean hands. While every disease is different, one of the most basic and fundamental truths for infection prevention and control is hand hygiene. These three are solid ways to better prepare for future outbreaks, pandemics, emerging infectious diseases, and just about anything infectious that makes you a bit worried.

CARB-X MissionWhen I first read the name of this group, I thought it was some kind of fitness fuel, but I was pleasantly surprised to see this initiative is working to fight antibiotic resistance. CARB-X is a collaboration between NIAID and BARDA to help accelerate the development of antibacterials over the next 25 years. The goal is to help combat antimicrobial resistance through a diverse portfolio and partnership. Make sure not to miss their March 30th meeting from 11am-noon on antibiotic resistance. “CARB-X (Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Accelerator) was launched in August 2016 to accelerate pre-clinical product development in the area of antibiotic-resistant infections, one of the world’s greatest health threats. CARB-X was established by BARDA and NIAID of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services along with Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. This partnership has committed $450 million in new funds over the next five years to increase the number of antibacterial products in the drug-development pipeline.” While CARB-X may not be the latest workout supplement, it’s definitely a boost to performance in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

New Roles and Missions Commission on DHS Is Urgently Needed
GMU biodefense PhD alum, Daniel Gerstein, is looking at DHS and pointing to the need for a Roles and Missions Commission. It’s been almost 15 years since DHS was created under rapid and urgent circumstances, which means that it’s time to look introspectively. “More generally, a roles and missions review could also examine whether the department is properly resourced for all its missions. For example, a joint requirement council was recently established for the department composed of less than 10 government civilians. Is this adequate for supporting requirements development activities for a department of over 240,000 personnel?” Gerstein looks at some of the big issues that require a comprehensive review, like centralization versus decentralization, management of R&D and engineering, and critical infrastructure issues related to national security and safety. Another component needing review is the human factors issue that impacts homeland security. How are the relationships between departments, with state and local authorities, or with the public? “The effort should not necessarily be viewed as a requirement for change, but rather an opportunity to reexamine DHS and its relations with the rest of government, the nation and its citizens, and even with our international partners across the globe. Finally, a homeland security roles and mission commission would be an ideal lead-in to a much needed update to the original 2002 authorizing legislation.”

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs
Don’t miss this event on Thursday, March 30th, hosted by New America with speakers Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker. “In today’s world, it is easier than ever for people and material to move around the planet, but at the same time it is easier than ever for diseases to move as well. Outbreaks of Ebola, MERS, yellow fever, and Zika have laid bare the world’s unpreparedness to deal with the threat from infectious diseases. In Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs Dr. Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker marshal the latest medical science, case studies, and policy research to examine this critical challenge.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Feds Are Spending Millions to Help You Survive Nuclear War – North Korea’s recent firing of four ballistic missiles from Pyongyang into the ocean off Japan’s coast has brought back worries of nuclear attacks. While the days of stocking a bomb shelter are in the past, the U.S. government isn’t slowing down efforts to protect Americans. “Over the last ten years the US has poured millions of dollars into technologies and treatments it hopes to never have to use, but could, in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. From assays that measure radiation exposure to cell therapies that restore dwindling blood cells to liquid spray skin grafts, government officials are now far better equipped to deal with diagnosing and treating people if the unthinkable were to happen. And the next generation of treatments are being funded right now.” DHHS projects like BARDA and Project BioShield are just some of the sources for ongoing research to strengthen protection, whether it be a nuclear blast or reactor melt-down.
  • Disinfection and the Rise of the Superbug – GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is addressing the growing disinfection needs as we teeter on the edge of the antibiotic abyss. Disinfection is already a challenge in healthcare however, the rise of more resistant germs means that efforts often need to be ramped up. The recent influx of Candida auris infections that we talked about last week really brings this issue to point in that this emerging infection is difficult to get rid of via traditional disinfection routes. “As new organisms are identified and existing ones become resistant to antimicrobials, the availability of strong disinfecting products has become even more pivotal.”
  • China and EU Cut Brazilian Meat Imports Amid Scandal– If you’re a fan of importing Brazilian meat, you may have to hold off for a while. A recent police anti-corruption probe is accusing inspectors of taking bribes to allow the sale of rotten and salmonella-contaminated meats from the largest exporter of beef and poultry. As the news unfolds, the Brazilian government is criticizing gate police as alarmist. “As the scandal deepened, Brazil’s Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi said the government had suspended exports from 21 meat processing units.”
  • Study on Interferon for Treatment of Ebola Infection – The common hepatitis treatment is now being tested out on Ebola patients to help alleviate their symptoms. The pilot study was performed from March-June of 2015 and  had some interesting results. “When compared to patients who received supportive treatment only, 67 per cent of the interferon-treated patients were still alive at 21 days in contrast to 19 per cent of the former patients. Additionally, the viral blood clearance was faster in those patients treated with Interferon ß-1a. Many clinical symptoms such as abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea were also relieved earlier in the interferon-treated patients. A further 17 patients in other Guinean treatment centres who matched the interferon-treated patients based on age and the amount of Ebola virus in their blood were included in the analysis. These added patients, who did not receive interferon, more than doubled their risk of dying as a result of not being treated with the drug.”

Pandora Report 3.17.2017

Happy Friday! In honor of  John Snow‘s birthday (the father of epidemiology), our featured image is the Broad Street pump map he used to combat cholera in the 19th century. Don’t miss out on the early registration discount for our biodefense summer workshop!

NAS Calls for Increased Federal Regulatory Agency Preparation for Growing Biotechnology Products 
The National Academies of Science (NAS) recent press release is emphasizing the need for federal regulatory agencies to prepare for greater quantities and ranges of biotechnology products. As the biotech world constantly evolves, regulatory agencies have struggled to keep up and this latest report states that in the next five to ten years, the pace will outmatch the U.S. regulatory system. According to the report, biotechnology, like CRISPR, has a rapidly growing scale and scope, which already stresses existing staff, expertise, and resources available at agencies like the EPA, FDA, and USDA. “To respond to the expected increase and diversity of products, the agencies should develop risk-analysis approaches tailored to the familiarity of products and the complexity of their uses, the report says. For biotechnology products that are similar to products already in use, established risk-analysis methods can be applied or modified, and a more expedited process could be used. For products that have less-familiar characteristics or more complex risk pathways, new risk-analysis methods may need to be developed.  Regulatory agencies should build their capacity to rapidly determine the type of risk-analysis approaches most appropriate for new products entering the regulatory system.” Within the report, NAS notes that the federal government needs to develop a strategy to combat the current issues and strengthen their ability to scan for future biotechnology products to better prioritize.

GMU Schar School Master’s Open House 
Have you ever wanted to study topics like CRISPR, bioterrorism, global health security, and pathogens of biological weapons? Good news – we’ve got just the program for you! Come check out GMU’s biodefense MS program at our Open House on Wednesday, March 22nd at our Arlington Campus, Founders Hall (Room 126) at 6:30pm. You can talk to some of our biodefense faculty and learn about our program. Whether you’re looking to take classes in person or earn a degree online, the biodefense MS is the best for the intersection of science and policy.

DARPA Works Towards “Soldier Cell” To Fight Bioweapons 
A bio-control system to fight off invading pathogens? Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie! Well, researchers at Johns Hopkins University just received funding from DARPA to develop the capacity to “deploy single-cell fighters” that would target and eliminate the lethality of certain pathogens. “‘Once you set up this bio-control system inside a cell, it has to do its job autonomously, sort of like a self-driving car,’ said Pablo A. Iglesias, principal investigator on the project. Iglesias, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Whiting School, shifted his research focus from man-made to biological control systems about 15 years ago. ‘Think about how the cruise control in your car senses your speed and accelerates or slows down to stay at the pace you’ve requested,’ Iglesias said. ‘In a similar way, the bio-control systems we’re developing must be able to sense where the pathogens are, move their cells toward the bacterial targets, and then engulf them to prevent infections among people who might otherwise be exposed to the harmful microbes’.” This angle, which is being focused on bacteria outside of the body, is just one potential tool in the biodefense arsenal.

Yellow Fever Outbreak in Brazil 
Since December of 2016, Brazilian health officials have reported an ongoing outbreak of yellow fever. The CDC has moved the alert to a  Level 2 – Practice Enhanced Precautions. A report recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine looks at the outbreak and the potential for cases in U.S. territories. In Brazil, there were 234 cases and 80 deaths reported between December and February. “Although it is highly unlikely that we will see yellow fever outbreaks in the continental United States, where mosquito density is low and risk of exposure is limited, it is possible that travel-related cases of yellow fever could occur, with brief periods of local transmission in warmer regions such as the Gulf Coast states, where A. aegypti mosquitoes are prevalent.”

GMU Biodefense Represented At Biothreats Conference
If you missed out on our coverage of ASM’s 2017 Biothreats conference, here’s a spotlight on GMU biodefense students attending this captivating three-day event. GMU’s biodefense program sent four graduate students to experience and report on the conference, which addressed biothreat research, policy, and response. “The program was exciting, according to the George Mason students in attendance. Mercer and Goble recall that the conference engaged topics of specific interest to them, their degree, and their futures. ‘I attended a panel that was very closely related to disease forecasting, my graduate thesis topic,’ Mercer said. ‘I was able to hear some of the cutting-edge research in that field, which was really helpful’. ‘I didn’t really have a part I didn’t like,’ Goble said. ‘I enjoyed the niche topics that were presented in both panel discussions and poster  sessions, from emergency operations to the FDA. All of these specific topics were extremely interesting to hear about and to know they are being researched’.”

Just How Well Did the 2009 Pandemic Flu Vaccine Strategy Work?
Researchers from the University of Nottingham recently looked at the success of vaccines in terms of preventing pandemic flu and reducing hospitalizations. Their work looked at the 2009 WHO-declared pandemic of the novel A(H1N1) virus, which infected around 61 million people around the world. Vaccines against the virus were rolled out globally between September and December of 2009, with the majority being inactivated A(H1N1)pdm09 influenza virus. Their work involved reviewing 38 studies between June 2011 and April 2016 regarding the effectiveness of the inactivated vaccine, which covered around 7.6 million people. “We found that the vaccines produced against the swine flu pandemic in 2009 were very effective in both preventing influenza infection and reducing the chances of hospital admission due to flu. This is all very encouraging in case we encounter a future pandemic, perhaps one that is more severe,” noted Professor Van Tam said. “Of course, we recognize that it took five to six months for pandemic vaccines to be ready in large quantities; this was a separate problem. However, if we can speed up vaccine production times, we would have a very effective strategy to reduce the impact of a future flu pandemic.” The 2009 pandemic A(H1N1) vaccine was 73% effective against laboratory confirmed cases and 61% against preventing hospitalizations. Interestingly, when looking at the vaccines’ effectiveness in different age groups, “they were shown to be less effective in adults over 18 years than in children, and effectiveness was lowest in adults over 50 years of age. Adjuvanted vaccines were found to be particularly more effective in children than in adults against laboratory confirmed illness (88 per cent in children versus 40 per cent in adults) and hospitalization (86 per cent in children versus 48 per cent in adults).”

Deadly Fungal Infection Arrives in U.S. 
While many are asking if surveillance methods for tracking the deadly CRE bacteria are adequate, a new issue is emerging in U.S. hospitals. Despite WHO’s recent plea for increased R&D surrounding certain resistant pathogens, it seems that more and more organisms of concern are springing up in U.S. hospitals. Since last summer, roughly three dozen people have been diagnosed with a highly resistant Candida auris infection. The fungal infection has caused worry ever since it was identified in 2009 due to its capacity as an emerging and resistant organism. Candida yeast infections are pretty common and known to cause urinary tract infections however, this strain is especially concerning because it easily causes bloodstream infections, has a stronger capacity for transmission between people, and is much more hardy in terms of living on skin and environmental surfaces. “Of the first seven cases that were reported to the CDC last fall, four patients had bloodstream infections and died during the weeks to months after the pathogen was identified. Officials said they couldn’t be sure whether the deaths were caused by the infection because all the individuals had other serious medical conditions. Five patients had the fungus initially isolated from blood, one from urine, and one from the ear.”

CDC Director Warns Loss of DHHS Funds Could Weaken Infectious Disease Prevention
Acting CDC director, Anne Schuchat, recently testified before Congress to make the case for for increased funding for several programs (one being the DHHS’s Prevention and Public Health Fund). Among other things, the Prevention and Public Health Fund is responsible for 12% of the CDC’s budget. Dr. Schucat’s testimony emphasized the previous usage of these funds in terms of vaccine delivery, disease surveillance, monitoring of water supplies, and tracking hospital-acquired infections. The growth of antibiotic resistance made her testimony and plea to Congress that much more relevant and urgent. “The CDC and other government agencies have in recent years cited the numerous public health threats posed by infectious diseases in general, and have lobbied officials for increased funding for research and development of novel vaccines and treatments as well as programs to effectively distribute interventions as needed. In 2016, for example, the CDC, DHHS, and National Institutes of Health requested federal funding to combat Zika, a request that was not approved until late in the year.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Science on Screen – Don’t miss this great event hosted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory! On March 18th, you can watch the second installment of the Science on Screen series, featuring “Lawrence Livermore scientists Monica Borucki and Jonathan Allen, who will present ‘Reconstructing a Rabies Epidemic: Byte by Byte.’ This informative and entertaining lecture will explain how biologists and computer scientists used cutting-edge, ultra-deep sequencing technology to study the dynamics of a 2009 rabies outbreak. This case study, based on a dramatic increase (more than 350 percent) in the gray fox population infected with a rabies variant for which striped skunks serve as the reservoir hosts, will be used to help illustrate the changes in the viral genome during cross-species viral transmission. This lecture is appropriately paired with the feature-length film, “Contagion” (PG-13).”
  • Clorox Gets Spot on EPA A-Team – Clorox just earned its varsity spot on the team against hospitality-acquired infections. The EPA approved two of the company’s products in killing clostridium difficile spores. C-diff is a constant battle in healthcare facilities, so having the new tool in the infection prevention and environmental disinfection toolkit, is a huge advantage for many. “In addition, the cleaners and wipes recently become EPA-registered to disinfect against other bacterial infections, such as those caused by Staphylococcus epidermidis, Candida glabrata, and Enterococcus hirae. Moreover, the products are also effective against several viral pathogens, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), measles, and Influenza A and B, among others.”

 

Pandora Report 3.10.2017

Looking for a great podcast on CRISPR? Check out RadioLab – they also have a captivating one on patient zeroes throughout history!

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika 
If you’re looking to learn more about global health security, synethic biology, biosecurity, and what exactly “biodefense” entails, you’ll want to mark your calendar for the GMU Biodefense three-day, non-credit summer workshop on July 17-19, 2017! Participants will look at the challenges facing the world at the intersection of national security, public health, and the life sciences. Instructors for the workshop range from FBI special agents to biodefense professors and USAMRIID commanders. The workshop will look at the spectrum of biological threats – including naturally occurring disease outbreaks such as SARS, Zika, and Ebola, lapses in biosafety, dual-use research of concern, and the threat of bioterrorism. From now until May 1st, you can take advantage of the early bird registration discount!

Glaring Gaps: America Needs A Biodefense Upgrade
GMU biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is emphasizing the need to strengthen American biodefense capabilities. “Recent legislation has called for a comprehensive biodefense strategy. If carried out in a thorough and systematic way, and properly funded, this will be a great improvement for the country and the world.” Gerstein notes that while the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 called for a joint biodefense effort, there is still a desperate need for a structured and systematic approach. Perhaps one of the biggest issues Gerstein found is the current view of biodefense as a series of programs. Approaching global health security threat requires us to view biodefense as a complex system, not a series of programs. To fix the glaring gaps in U.S. biodefense efforts, he notes that any remedy will have to accept the complexity of the problem and that there is no single panacea. Internal coordination, improvement of diagnostics and treatment, and technology management are all things that must be addressed to strengthen American biodefense. “Export controls in the United States, for example, actually hinder international collaboration. Exchanging pathogen strains used in the development of medical countermeasures, diagnostics, and bio-surveillance remains difficult – even, at times, for close international partners. In one case, the United States was attempting to share a strain of the Ebola-Reston pathogen with the government of Australia, but export laws prevented this sharing, so the strain was instead acquired from the Philippines, where the strain originated.” While we’ve made great strides since the Amerithrax attacks, there is much to be done to create a systematic and resilient biodefense strategy.

Chemical Weapons Reportedly Used in Mosul
The WHO has recently activated an emergency response plan with several partners to help treat twelve people for potential exposure to chemical weapons in Iraq. “Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, called for an investigation. ‘This is horrible. If the alleged use of chemical weapons is confirmed, this is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime, regardless of who the targets or the victims of the attacks are,’ she said in a statement.” Many are pointing to ISIL as the likely culprit since they hold the majority of west Mosul and have a history of rudimentary use of chemical weapons.

China’s Growing Bird Flu Worries  
Despite a recent surge in human A(H7N9) cases, the WHO has stated that the risk of an epidemic remains low. Even with this release, the development of two distinct strains in a disease that has a mortality rate hovering around 30%, has many worried. “That will probably force development of a second small stockpile of emergency vaccine to be rolled out if the virus becomes more transmissible and threatens to turn into a pandemic, a scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Flu specialists from around the world gathered in Geneva this week to assess the global influenza situation and discuss with vaccine companies which viral strains should be in next winter’s flu shots. China has had 460 lab-confirmed human cases of H7N9 bird flu this winter, said Dr. Wenqing Zhang, head of the W.H.O.’s global influenza program. That is the most in any flu season since the first human case was found in 2013.” Interestingly, around 7% of the new H7N9 cases were resistant to drugs like Tamiflu, which has many researchers working to make a H7N9 seed vaccine, including a secondary one due to the split strains. Coming on the heels of this outbreak, US officials have announced that highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was found in a commercial poultry farm in Tennessee. 700 birds died from infection and almost 73,000 were destroyed. The farm is a contracted supplier of chicken meat for the U.S.’s biggest supplier, Tyson, which released an announcement on March 5th regarding testing of local birds, etc.

Global Health Security Index Development
Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently received a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project and the Robertson Foundation to coordinate with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to develop a Global Health Security Index. “The mission of the index is to encourage progress towards a world that is capable of preventing epidemics of international impact (either natural, accidental or deliberate) from arising, or, should, prevention fail, respond quickly to contain them.” The first phase of the project will aim at developing framework that can measure a country’s level of health security. While the GHSA and JEE are processes to increase transparency, preparedness, and country capabilities, the goal of this index is to fill the gaps in motivation and also the factors that are not in the hands of the health sector.

Antimicrobial Resistance in Pets: Are We Ignoring A Looming Threat? 
GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking at the threat of antibiotic resistance, but from a somewhat forgotten patient population – our pets. The recent WHO list of worrisome antimicrobial resistant bugs has drawn a lot of attention to the growing threat of an antibiotic apocalypse however, sometimes it takes a personal experience to look outside the box. Pulling from experiences of dealing with drug resistance in her dog to the loss of SeaWorld’s controversial orca, Tilikum, Popescu notes the rising threat of AMR brewing in domesticated animals. Sadly, it seems that many veterinarians and infectious diseases researchers have been drawing attention to the role of household animals in antimicrobial resistance and yet, just like the human issue, it’s not getting the attention it deserves. In her article, Popescu points to the need to start addressing the full circle of microbial resistance, starting with our furry friends.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Constraining Norms for Cyber Warfare Are Unlikely – GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Brian M. Mazanec, is talking to the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs about the realities of norms for cyber warfare. The question of whether constraining international norms for cyber warfare will emerge and thrive is of paramount importance to the unfolding age of cyber conflict. Some scholars think that great powers will inevitably cooperate and establish rules, norms, and standards for cyberspace. While it is true that increased competition may create incentives for cooperation on constraining norms, Mazanec argues that norm evolution theory for emerging-technology weapons leads one to conclude that constraining norms for cyber warfare will face many challenges and may never successfully emerge.
  • ABSA International Webinar- Behaving Safely in the Laboratory: Understanding Complexities of Building and Sustaining a Culture of Safety–  ABSA is hosting a 2-hour webinar session for three days. “The webinar will be offered Monday, April 3; Wednesday, April 5 and Friday, April 7, 2017.  Millions of dollars on engineering.  Thousands of dollars on PPE.  Hundreds of hours spent writing SOPs – and in one instant all of these controls can be negated with one inappropriate behavior.  Behavior is the bridge between written plans and desired outcomes.  But what does it take to behave safely?  Day 1 will focus on what it takes for an individual to behave safely – as behavior requires five critical items – and without these items – sustained behavior cannot occur. Day 2 will focus on motivating behavior – the differences between leadership and management – and the motivating factors which are extrinsic, systemic, and intrinsic. Day 3 will focus on building and sustaining a ONE SAFE culture – blending the efforts of the workforce, leadership, and safety officials.”
  • High Flu Activity Throughout the U.S. – The CDC has warned that the U.S. is still experiencing high flu activity in all regions. This flu season has seen elevated pediatric mortality, with six reported last week, bringing the total to forty pediatric deaths. “The CDC said there have been more hospitalizations and clinical visits for influenza-like illness (ILI) at this point in the flu season than in 2012-13, another season when H3N2 strain predominated. The CDC said the cumulative overall rate is 39.4 hospitalizations per 100,000 people. During the 2012-13 flu season, the rate was (38.2 per 100,000).”

 

Pandora Report 3.3.2017

Welcome to March! On Tuesday, Russia cast its seventh veto and China cast its sixth veto to aid in protecting the Syrian government from UNSC actions and sanctions regarding chemical weapons attacks.

DIY Gene Editing Gets Faster, Cheaper, and More Worrisome
CRISPR/Cas-9 lab projects may not have been a possibility when I was in high school, but today’s students are getting a taste for genome editing. The technology has allowed relative amateurs to easily and cheaply learn gene editing tactics. “The question is, can we rely on individuals to conduct their experiments in an ethical and appropriately safe way?” says Maxwell Mehlman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, who is working with do-it-yourself scientists to develop DIY Crispr ethical guidelines. “The jury is out,” he says. “Crispr is too new. We have to wait and see.” GMU’s Dr. Koblentz has noted dual-use research is a wicked problem, and it seems that CRISPR/Cas-9 is one as well. Do-it-yourself (DIY) CRISPR kits can be purchased online for $150 and you can even get a handful of tutoring sessions for $400. While these products and experiments utilize harmless organisms, it’s not hard to see why so many are worried about the potential for misuse. Harvard University’s Dana Bateman visits high school classrooms for a lesson on CRISPR and during her time, she poses several ethical questions to the students. Dr. Bateman “asked a group of seventh-grade students whether Crispr should be deployed to bring extinct animals back to life. After a spirited discussion, one student asked, ‘How can we decide if we aren’t sure what will happen?’ Ms. Bateman replied that such questions will increasingly be part of public debate, and that everyone, including 12-year-olds, can benefit from learning about Crispr.” Learning the ins and outs of CRISPR isn’t so easy that it’s comparable to switching batteries in a remote, but probably closer to a complex set of IKEA instructions (ok, that’s a bit of an over simplification, but you catch my drift). Simply put, CRISPR does make DIY gene editing easier and cheaper, but foundational knowledge or instruction is still necessary. In this moment, we’re racing to catch up with the pace of innovation and understanding the risks versus rewards is proving more difficult. What are your thoughts on this hot topic?

China’s New BSL-4 Lab Plans 10729_lores
The Chinese mainland is hoping to see the construction of at least five BSL-4 labs by 2025. A laboratory in Wuhan is currently in the accreditation and clearance phase to work with the most deadly pathogens we face. While many celebrate the building  of this new lab, others are concerned about the biosafety and biosecurity risks. The increase in biodefense labs and programs has created several trade-offs for work with such high-risk pathogens.  Each new lab presents a new risk – for both biosafety failures and biosecurity failures. Biosafety failures are already plaguing U.S. labs – will this be the case with China’s labs? “The Wuhan lab cost 300 million yuan (US$44 million), and to allay safety concerns it was built far above the flood plain and with the capacity to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake, although the area has no history of strong earthquakes. It will focus on the control of emerging diseases, store purified viruses and act as a World Health Organization ‘reference laboratory’ linked to similar labs around the world.” Skeptics have pointed to several escapes of SARS from a high-level containment facility in Beijing. Several biosafety and biosecurity experts are highlighting the need for transparency and an open and responsible culture. Addressing issues with staff at all levels and opening the floor for an honest and frank discussion regarding concerns from those working in the environment is vital to addressing the issues that may not be seen at a higher level.

WHO’s List of Superbug Super Offenders  screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-10-19-28-am
If there was an A-list for multi-drug resistant organisms, this would be it. This first-of-its-kind list, highlights the “priority pathogens” that comprise of twelve families of bacteria “that pose the greatest threat to human health”. “The list was developed in collaboration with the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Tübingen, Germany, using a multi-criteria decision analysis technique vetted by a group of international experts. The criteria for selecting pathogens on the list were: how deadly the infections they cause are; whether their treatment requires long hospital stays; how frequently they are resistant to existing antibiotics when people in communities catch them; how easily they spread between animals, from animals to humans, and from person to person; whether they can be prevented (e.g. through good hygiene and vaccination); how many treatment options remain; and whether new antibiotics to treat them are already in the R&D pipeline.” Not only is the publishing of this list an indicator as to the seriousness of the issue, but it signals a desperate plea for the pharmaceutical industry to develop new antibiotics. The three most critical bacteria on the list are carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, carbapenem-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacteriaceae that are both carbapenem-resistant and ESBL-producing.

Kim Jong Un and the Case of the of VX Nerve Agent 
Last week saw the shocking revelation by Malaysian police that Kim Jon-nam, half-brother to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, had been assassinated with the nerve agent, VX. The use of VX has left many wondering gif Kim Jong-un decided to use this overt form of assignation to signal his possession and willingness to use it or was this a botched assassination that was supposed to look like a natural death? Since this event has taken us into uncharted territory, many chemical and biological weapons experts are weighing in on what this means. GMU biodefense professor and graduate program director, Gregory Koblentz, pointed out that “it’s very hard to make an accurate intelligence assessment”. The dual-use nature of bio-chem weapon production facilities and materials makes intelligence gathering that much more difficult. “While Kim Jong-un is unpredictable, seasoned Korea watchers see method in what may sometimes seem like madness. And that leads them to doubt that he actually intends to use nuclear weapons — which make more sense as a bargaining chip in dealing with the US and other powers. Pyongyang’s chemical arsenal is a different prospect, however. ‘If there’s a conflict on the Korean peninsula, North Korea would probably use chemical weapons early on,’ Koblentz said.”

PHEMCE Review: Accomplishments and Future Areas of Opportunity 
GMU Biodefense PhD student and VP of Marketing at Emergent BioSolutions, Rebecca Fish, is looking at the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE) and their recent strategic implementation plan. Highlighting their four goals and sample accomplishments, Rebecca looks at their work on emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) like Ebola response and Zika. While PHEMCE has made great progress, there is still room for engagement and opportunity. Rebecca points to their plans to incentivize innovation, “while biotechnology is increasing at an exponential rate, and the opportunity for misuse (bioterrorism) is increasing, the number of companies interested in making significant investment in medical countermeasures development is decreasing. There are important MCM innovation gaps that need to be addressed.” She notes that PHEMCE activity encompasses a great deal of federal agencies, which can make work that much more challenging. “However, the PHEMCE effort still requires strong, centralized leadership and a comprehensive strategic plan with measurable outcomes against which progress can be reported. It’s impressive that so many groups are working on these challenges, but who is determining the overall strategic plan? How does it come together? Which single individual has responsibility for the entire biodefense strategic effort? Who is managing the enterprise U.S. biodefense budget? No one. No one has clear accountability for the U.S. biodefense strategy, and this puts our country at risk.”

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Announces 2017 Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity
The Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University has announced the new class of emerging leaders in biosecurity. GMU is happy to announced that one of our Biodefense PhD students, Saskia Popescu, was named among the 2017 emerging leaders. “The program’s goal is to build a multidisciplinary network of biosecurity practitioners and scholars. ELBI is supported by a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project. As part of its commitment to grow and support the field of biosecurity, the Center has selected 28 Fellows from the US, the UK, and Canada. As in previous years, this year’s Fellows have backgrounds in government, the biological sciences, medicine, national security, law enforcement, public health preparedness, and the private sector.” Congrats to the new class of emerging leaders!

Multivariate Analysis of Radiation Responsive Proteins to Predict Radiation Exposure in Total-Body Irradiation and Partial-Body Irradiation Models
GMU Biodefense PhD student, Mary Sproull, is working to strengthen medical countermeasures in the event of a radiological or nuclear attack. Advanced screening and medical management of those exposed are vital during such an event. “In such a scenario, minimally invasive biomarkers that can accurately quantify radiation exposure would be useful for triage management by first responders. In this murine study, we evaluated the efficacy of a novel combination of radiation responsive proteins, Flt3 ligand (FL), serum amyloid A (SAA), matrix metalloproteinase 9 (MMP9), fibrinogen beta (FGB) and pentraxin 3 (PTX3) to predict the received dose after whole- or partial-body irradiation.” Researchers found that the novel combination of radiation responsive biomarker proteins are an efficient and accurate tactic for predicting radiation exposure. You can read the paper here.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • OPCW Call for Nominations For A Workshop on Policy & Diplomacy for Scientists – The OPCW Technical Secretariat is organizing a workshop, “Introduction to Responsible Research Practices in Chemical and Biochemical Sciences”, from September 12-15, 2017. “The objective of the workshop is to raise awareness among young scientists on the policy and diplomacy aspects that are related to the use of chemicals in various scientific disciplines, including chemistry, biochemistry, biotechnology, and other related fields.” Check out their link for more info on applying for admission and/or a scholarship.
  • Epidemic Tracking Tool Wins Open Science Grand Prize – A new prototype, Nextstrain, has won the new Open Science Prize. This tool analyzes and tracks genetic mutations during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks and they’re hoping to use it for other viruses. “Everyone is doing sequencing, but most people aren’t able to analyze their sequences as well or as quickly as they might want to,” Bedford said. “We’re trying to fill in this gap so that the World Health Organization or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — or whoever — can have better analysis tools to do what they do. We’re hoping that will get our software in the hands of a lot of people.”

Pandora Report 2.24.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense! A preliminary report from the Malaysian police has found that VX nerve agent was most likely used to murder Kim Jong-nam.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika 
Want to dabble in the world of global health security? Don’t miss out on the GMU Biodefense three-day, non-credit summer workshop on July 17-19, 2017! Participants will look at the challenges facing the world at the intersection of national security, public health, and the life sciences. Instructors for the workshop range from FBI special agents to biodefense professors and USAMRIID commanders. The workshop will look at the spectrum of biological threats – including naturally occurring disease outbreaks such as SARS, Zika, and Ebola, lapses in biosafety, dual-use research of concern, and the threat of bioterrorism. From now until May 1st, you can take advantage of the early bird registration discount!

Progress Report on BARDA & Project Bioshield 
A 10-year report card was recently published for these two efforts to defend the U.S. against biological threats. The report found 80 candidate countermeasures, 21 stockpiled countermeasures, and 6 FDA approvals supported by BARDA and Project Bioshield. “Over a decade has passed since the anthrax attacks of 2001; preparedness has increased substantially since that time, and defense against CBRN threats has become melded into national security. Both BARDA and Project Bioshield are essential elements of national security, and, especially in light of a change in presidential administration, it is important to emphasize the critical role these agencies have had in fortifying the nation against intentional CBRN threats. Larsen and Disbrow note, however, that despite the reauthorization of Project Bioshield in 2013 with annual funding at $2.8 billion (from 2014-2018), that funding is subject to annual congressional appropriations; as such, only a fraction of that funding has been appropriated.”

BWC Newsletter 
If you’re looking to keep tabs on the Biological Weapons Convention, we’ve got just the place for you. The BWC Implementation Support Unit has prepared a newsletter to better support communication among States Parties and encourage involvement in BWC-related issues and events. The first issue discusses the recent Eighth Review Conference and news like the launch of EU projects to support BWC universalization and a Confidence-Building Measures reminder letter (deadline for submission is April 15th!).

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-2-11-26-pmCDC Lab Closure Due to Safety Concerns
The CDC has temporarily closed down its Biosafety Level-4 laboratories following the finding that their air supply hoses to researchers in protective suits were not approved for use. “‘We have no evidence that anybody has suffered ill health effects from breathing air that came through these hoses,’ Stephan Monroe, associate director for laboratory science and safety at the CDC, told Reuters. Monroe said he was confident scientists were not exposed to pathogens because the air they breathed passed through HEPA filters. The suits they wear also use positive air pressure to prevent pathogens from entering the suit.” Safety tests are currently being performed while employees are being notified and monitored. Interestingly, Monroe’s position is a newly minted one, having been established in 2015 to combat the continuous findings of major lab safety failures involving anthrax, avian influenza, and Ebola in CDC labs.

Why Bill Gates Worries About Biological Threats
Bill Gates recently spoke to Business Insider following his speech for the Munich Security Conference, in which he highlighted his real concerns for global health security. He noted that conflict areas and regions that are struggling to find stability are perhaps the most challenging in terms of outbreak containment. Gates emphasized the vulnerability for genome editing of a virus to make it more contagious, and also the advances in biotechnology that may help prevent the spread of an epidemic. “The point is, we ignore the link between health security and international security at our peril. Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years.” Perhaps the most important thing on our “to-do” list is to invest in vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics. We have a tendency to put these priorities lower on the totem pole until a major public health crises occurs however, Gates highlights their relevance. The launch of the new Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is one step closer to bridging this gap. “The really big breakthrough potential is in emerging technology platforms that leverage recent advances in genomics to dramatically reduce the time needed to develop vaccines. Basically, they create a delivery vehicle for synthetic genetic material that instructs your cells to make a vaccine inside your own body.” Gates also emphasized the importance of strengthening basic public health systems, especially in vulnerable countries – adding to that age old saying, “an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere”.

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-7-48-50-amFinancing Pandemic Preparedness At the National Level = First Line of Defense
Pandemic preparedness funding is one of those common sense investments…right? Unfortunately, many don’t always make it a priority. Ebola alone cost billions, including a $2.27 billion allocation for response by the U.S. government. Dozens of after-action reports and papers on lessons learned have been published since the outbreak. Peter Sands noted that “all these reviews – including the one I chaired  for the US National Academy of Medicine – agreed on three key priorities: strengthening preparedness at a national level; improving coordination and capabilities at a regional and global level; and accelerating R&D in this arena.  Over the last twelve months progress has been made in implementing many of these recommendations, but big gaps and weaknesses remain. As a recent paper in the British Medical Journal put it, there has been ‘ample analysis, inadequate action’.” The highest priority though is preparedness at a national level. The International Working Group on Financing Pandemic Preparedness was created in 2016 as a means to propose ways in which national governments and partners can work to establish sustainable financing to strengthen their pandemic preparedness. Their focus “includes domestic resource mobilization, development assistance and private sector engagement. For many countries, financing preparedness through the domestic public sector budget is the best way to ensure sustained funding and seamless integration with the rest of the health system. This requires ensuring sufficient priority is attached to investing in pandemic preparedness in budget allocations. In some countries, there may also be scope to increase the fiscal envelope through improvements in tax design and collection or even hypothecated taxes.”

Insider Threats 
Get ready to add this new book to your reading list. Matthew Bunn and Scott D Sagan are looking at insider threats like nuclear material theft and Edward Snowden. “Insider Threats offers detailed case studies of insider disasters across a range of different types of institutions, from biological research laboratories, to nuclear power plants, to  the U.S. Army.” Don’t miss the chapter from Jessica Stern and Ronald Schouten, “Lessons Learned from the Anthrax Letters”. Stern and Schouten look at the investigation of the Amerithrax attacks and provide a portrait of Ivins and his troubling behavior. They also address “the combination of regulatory changes, red flags missed by Ivins’s colleagues, and the organizational and cognitive biases that contributed to the failure to identify Ivins as a potential insider”, and the current environment and new regulations.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Former Secretary of Defense Outlines the Future of Warfare – “Two years ago, Barack Obama appointed a new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter—a technocrat physicist, an arms control veteran, and a professor at Stanford—to help close this divide.” Carter recently sat down with WIRED magazine and discussed the challenges facing the White House. When asked about the impact of autonomy on warfare, Carter notes that it will change it in a fundamental way, but also points biotechnology. “I think if there is going to be something ever that rivals nuclear weapons in terms of the pure fearsomeness of their destructiveness it’s more likely to come from biotechnology than any other technology. Looking back decades from now, I do think the biological revelation could rival the atomic revolution for the fearsomeness of the potential. I think that’s one reason we need to invest in it. And although biotechnology has not been a traditional area for Defense, the new bridges that they build shold not only be to the IT tech community but also to the biotech communities in the Valley.”
  • Did Salmonella Take Down the Aztecs?– History and infectious disease? That’s surely the best way to start a weekend! Researchers recently looked at the DNA of a 500-year-old bacteria to study one of the worst epidemics in history. “In one study, researchers say they have recovered DNA of the stomach bacterium from burials in Mexico linked to a 1540s epidemic that killed up to 80% of the country’s native inhabitants. The team reports its findings in a preprint posted on the bioRxiv server on 8 February. In 1519, when forces led by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés arrived in Mexico, the native population was estimated at about 25 million. A century later, after a Spanish victory and a series of epidemics, numbers had plunged to around 1 million.” After extracting and sequencing the DNA from the teeth of 29 buried people buried in the highlands of southern Mexico, all but five were found to be linked to cocoliztli. “Further sequencing of short, damaged DNA fragments from the remains allowed the team to reconstruct two genomes of a Salmonella enterica strain known as Paratyphi C. Today, this bacterium causes enteric fever, a typhus-like illness, that occurs mostly in developing countries. If left untreated, it kills 10–15% of infected people.”

Pandora Report 2.17.2017

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-10-06-56-amHappy Friday! Since Tuesday was Valentine’s day, it was fitting to have a super romantic story about Ebola super-spreaders and their role in causing most of the cases. Have you ever wondered why killer viruses are on the rise or what some of these infectious disease terms mean?

ASM Biothreats 2017 Highlights 
If you missed this event or weren’t able to make some of the sessions, check out our overview! GMU sent four graduate biodefense students to ASM’s biothreats conference to not only aid in their education, but also to report back for our readers. With their unique backgrounds, we’ve got articles on the FDA’s Animal Rule, international biosecurity efforts, and more. Check out the link above and you’ll find a special edition post with all of our highlights.

A Step Closer Towards Human Embryo Editing
A new report from an international committee put together by the U.S. National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Medicine found that a clinical trial regarding DNA editing of a human embryo “might be permitted, but only following much more research” on risks and benefits, and “only for compelling reasons and under strict oversight.” Consideration would be given to couples who are both afflicted with serious genetic disease and editing is “really the last reasonable option” for them to have a healthy child. While some applaud this as a first step towards a very specific and narrow subset of DNA altering, “others see the report as lowering the bar for such experiments because it does not explicitly say they should be prohibited for now. ‘It changes the tone to an affirmative position in the absence of the broad public debate this report calls for,’ says Edward Lanphier, chairman of the DNA editing company Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California.” You can read the full report here.

The Biotechnological Wild West: the Good, the Bad, and the Underknown of Synthetic Biology
GMU Biodefense PhD student and Predoc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Yong-Bee Lim, is taking on the 2017 ASM Biothreats conference and the pipette-slinging world of synthetic biology. Lim first focuses on the panel at ASM’s conference, which looked at the current state of synbio and where the future might take us. Like most things in life, there’s also a flip side to that coin – the negative aspects of this new technology. “While the benefits derived from synthetic biology are great, presenters noted that it suffers from the dual-use dilemma: the same information applied to beneficial uses could also be repurposed for nefarious purposes. Dr. Hassell noted that synthetic biology increases biologically-derived risks through three mechanisms. First, synthetic biology can be used to enhance existing microbial threats; synthetic biology allows actors to more easily manipulate the characteristics of microbes, including increasing environmental stability and introducing hypervirulence. Secondly, traditional methods of restricting access to biological select agents and toxins (BSATs) may be less effective in an age where synthetic biology can be used to construct microbes de novo. Finally, synthetic biology can be used to construct novel threats that are meant to subvert countermeasures.” Lastly, one of the most interesting components to this presentation and Lim’s article is the underknown components to synethic biology. The erosion of the knowledge and technical barriers and the rise of the do-it-yourself (DIY) practitioners all give way to a new frontier in terms of benefits and dangers.

Broad Institute Wins CRISPR Patent 
This week, the U.S. Patent Office appeal board ruled that the dispute regarding the discoveries between the University of California, Berkeley and the Broad Institute do not overlap. “The ruling is a win for the Broad Institute, which had asked for the finding of no interference. It will be able to retain its valuable patents, which cover the use of CRISPR in human and animal cells. In a statement, Berkeley said it “respects” the decision but still maintains that Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna and European collaborator Emmanuel Charpentier were the first to invent the CRISPR system.” The CRISPR patent dispute has brought to light the most foundational question of who truly owns the patent rights to CRISPR work in animals and plants. This new development doesn’t mark the end of the CRISPR dispute, as many expect Berkeley to appeal the decision and the Broad Institute’s patent is facing dispute from other researchers, including the Rockefeller University. While the CRISPR patent road may have been smoothed for a bit, it will continue to remain rocky and cause ripples for business developments and the biotech industry.

Defense Civil Support: DoD, HHS, and DHS Should Use Existing Coordination Mechanisms to Improve Their Pandemic Preparedness screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-10-41-11-am
In this Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, they found that the DoD should utilize guidance developed to aid in support of civil authorities (specifically HHS and DHS). “HHS and DHS have plans to guide their response to a pandemic, but their plans do not explain how they would respond in a resource-constrained environment in which capabilities like those provided by DOD are limited. DOD coordinates with the agencies, but existing coordination mechanisms among HHS, DHS, and DOD could be used to improve preparedness. HHS’s Pandemic Influenza Plan is the departmental blueprint for its preparedness and response to an influenza pandemic.” The GAO’s goal was to assess the DoD’s plans and processes to support civil authorities during a pandemic, of which they found that the existing coordination mechanisms should be used to explore opportunities to improve preparedness if their capabilities are limited.

Global Health Security Transparency 
Global health security is a finicky creature as it requires cooperation and transparency from all countries. One weak link in the chain can cause an international public health crisis. No More Epidemics is imploring countries to publish their Joint External Evaluations (JEE) performed by the GHSA (Global Health Security Agenda). As of now, only Ethiopia, Liberia, Peru, Uganda, UK, and the U.S. have openly shared their JEE’s. “Knowledge of baseline data provided by the JEE will result in more effective programming, prevention and detection of infectious disease outbreaks and early response. The JEE and roadmap processes are critical tools for civil society to use in developing appropriate and adequate programming to help countries close health systems gaps and become IHR-compliant. Transparency and accountability are vital in addressing global health threats. No More Epidemics urges all countries carrying out their Joint External Evaluations to make the results publicly available and for these to be made available on the World Health Organization’s Strategic Partnership Portal, the online repository for tracking funding, donor profiles and country level data.” Information sharing is also a mechanism for strengthening partnerships among countries.

Webinar on Ebola’s Aftermath 
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) will be hosting this live webinar on Thursday, February 23rd at 8pm EST. Following the publication of the book, The Politics of Fear: Médecins Sans Frontières and the West African Ebola Epidemic, the MSF webinar will do a deep-dive into the 2014/2015 outbreak and the lessons learned. This event will include a panel of MSF experts, who were directly involved in the MSF response in West Africa.

Fighting Antimicrobial Resistance with Physics
The battle against antimicrobial resistance (AMR) isn’t slowing and the proposed strategies emphasize the need for increased research and development of new antimicrobial agents, which means we’re running out of options. Swinburne University is trying a new tactic though – physics. “Elena Ivanova was studying physical surfaces that could repel bacteria before they even had time to settle. In clinical settings, such as hospitals and dental practices, 80% of infections are caused by bacteria that cling to surfaces in such densities that no antibiotic can remove them. First, she tried making surfaces so smooth that bacteria would, theoretically, simply slide off. Although that was the case for some bacteria, many others—such as the common Staphococcus aureus, or staphstill managed to cling on and multiply.” This is where Greg and Jolanta Watson come in – they have amassed a huge collection of biological samples in their laboratory. Ivanova and the Watsons communicated back and forth regarding natural properties that might make bacteria incapable of sticking to and growing on surfaces. Starting with cicada wings, Ivanova found that it was able to kill one of the two main types of bacteria, which was a partial success. Next, a gecko’s skin was tested, which revealed a wealth of knowledge. “Green had added a sample of the small, rod-shaped bacterium that causes gingivitis, Porphyromonas gingivalis, to the surface. In total, he added around 10 million microbes every day for a week. What’s more, this mass of microbes was given everything that they needed for a good life: a constant temperature of 98.6˚ F, an atmosphere without oxygen, and a daily ration of food. Regardless, after the week, nearly all were punctured and torn, their cellular carcasses strewn over the gecko skin. ‘Bacteria are trying to move and settle on the surface,’ Green says. ‘And they’re just getting spiked and skewered by these long hairs’.” Looking to nature, these researchers have focused on the physics of repelling bacterial growth, which may help broaden the arsenal against resistant germs.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Talking About Bioethics & Policy in the U.S. Under the Trump Administration – Dual-use research of concern, CDC’s new quarantine rule, and the Animal Rule are all topics involving bioethics and Johns Hopkins University is hoping to provide the resources needed to address these complex issues. The new administration brings with it concerns over vaccine skepticism and how they will handle these bioethical dilemmas. How will Trump address the work of biotechnology and public health crises?
  • Breaking Barriers: Women in Science Event: Don’t miss this March 8th event at 6pm at Top of the Town in Arlington, VA. The 3rd annual reception will “bring together scientific, political, and cultural leaders to celebrate the achievements of women in STEM and take a stand for the critical role women play in science and technology communities”.
  • The Cost of Biosecurity – For $1 million a year, you can buy yourself global biosecurity! A recently published list of the unit staff costs from the 2017 BWC Meeting of State Parties, gives an eye-opening revelation into the cost of biodefense. For $1.1 million a year, you can financially support the implementation unit staff of the BWC – quite a bargain, no?
  • Surprise Us, Mr. Trump – A Letter From the Global Health Community – In this editorial article from The Lancet Global Health, the authors point to the role of the U.S. in the WHO Executive Board and the future of WHO leadership. “Two legislative bills introduced in early January in the US House of Representatives and Senate are seeking to withhold funds from the UN and open a way for the USA to leave the global body, and therefore withdraw membership of WHO.” The current political and global health atmosphere is unsettled, which has many concerned about the future of U.S. involvement in global health programs.
  • CRISPR Creates TB-Resistant Cattle – Chinese researchers have created tuberculosis resistance in cattle using CRISPR/Cas9. “As the researchers reported today in Genome Biology, they used somatic nuclear transfer to get the edit into an egg cell, creating 11 cows in vitro with NRAMP1 (nine using Cas9 nickase) and demonstrating that the gene provided increased resistance to tuberculosis.Moreover, they said that while the Cas9 nickase did not completely eliminate off-target edits, it did reduce them, especially when compared to standard Cas9 which creates double-strand breaks and is much more likely to create indel mutations via the non-homologous end-joining DNA repair pathway.”

Pandora Report: 2.10.2017

Have you ever wondered what some of the most deadly diseases looked like in person? Check out this video depicting some of these germs and how they’d appear if you sat next to an infected person. Fortunately, this week was full of disease-filled media like this germ history video regarding the golden age of germs and how humans cause pandemics (spillover anyone?)

The Colosseum that is CRISPR Patent Wars
It seems like the ultimate display of gladiator games – researchers from major university (UC-Berkley, Harvard, and MIT) are in the midst of a battle for patent protection. You can check out the timeline here, but it seems that despite it being over two months since proceedings started, we’re not much closer to a conclusion. “A key feature of the U.S. debate is over which research group was the true first inventor of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, especially its use in eukaryotic cells. At the time the first patent applications were filed, the U.S. had a ‘first-to-invent’ system—which means the first person to develop an invention is entitled to have the patent, even if they were not the first to file a patent application (or the first to get a patent granted) for that invention. UCal has started “interference proceedings” against the Broad Institute to determine who was the first to invent the CRISPR/Cas9 system. UCal claims that they were the first to invent the use of the CRISPR/Cas9 system for gene editing, and that their earliest patent application enabled gene editing in eukaryotic cells. In contrast, The Broad Institute are arguing that UCal had not invented the use in eukaryotic cells at the time of filing its first patent application and are therefore claiming that The Broad Institute were the first to invent the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in eukaryotic cells.”

Public Health’s Greatest Threats 
We all have opinions regarding the greatest global threat- especially in terms of public health. Is it obesity? Cancer? Exposure to toxins or new emerging diseases? What about bioterrorism or bioerror? Dr. Larry Brilliant is an epidemiologist who focuses on the worst disease throughout history. He notes that the greatest threats to public health can be divided into biological and socio-political. “In the last 30 years, there have been at least 30 heretofore unknown viruses that have jumped from animals to humans, for worrying reasons Brilliant attributes to modernity and our increase in animal protein consumption. Still, the socio-political threats are the more immediately dangerous. There are centrifugal forces at play that are pushing society to two extreme camps. The domestic and global division caused President Trump’s ‘America First’ mentality and disregard for public health leaves us vulnerable to new viruses that, if they aren’t detected early enough, could be the next pandemic. ‘Right now because of the re-organization and nationalism… and dislike for the United Nations and its agencies, I think we’re in a period of grave vulnerability,’ says Brilliant.” Dr. Brilliant points to the reality that public health threats aren’t just biological, and as we saw with the 2014/2015 ebola outbreak (and Zika), the socio-political response can hinder or help public health efforts. While we’re always vulnerable to new diseases, are we becoming increasingly more susceptible from a socio-political standpoint?

ASM Biothreats 2017
From synthetic biology to national bioterror emergency response, the ASM conference was packed with biodefense goodies. We’ll be providing a detailed overview regarding certain sessions and the conference as a whole, so make sure to keep your eye out next week!

Find Out What New Viruses Are Brewing In your Backyard  screen-shot-2017-02-08-at-7-47-55-am
NPR is looking at what causes pandemics and where new diseases tend to spring up. By reviewing EcoHealth Alliance data, they note that within the past sixty years, the amount of new diseases appearing has quadrupled. Scarier yet, the number of outbreaks occurring each year has more than tripled since 1980. “We’re in a hyperinfectious disease world,” says epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis. While the tools for surveillance and detection have gotten better, it also became apparent to researchers that old diseases are returning from the grave, while emerging diseases are transgressing into new regions. “So the big question is: Why? Why is this era of new diseases happening now? ‘Well, we’ve been boiling the frog for a long time. Eventually, it’s cooked,’ says Toph Allen, a data scientist with EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that is trying to prevent pandemics by looking for diseases in wildlife. Wait. We’re boiling the frog? You mean, humans are responsible? Yes. Many scientists say we, humans, are to blame for this new disease era. That we’re responsible for turning harmless animal viruses into dangerous human viruses.” Unfortunately, it seems that humans have become especially skilled at causing spillover.

Center for Global Security Research Student Internship
Calling all GMU biodefense students! Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory’s Center for Global Security Research is looking for a student intern! The center has “openings for undergraduate and graduate students and recent bachelors or master’s level graduates within one year, to engage in practical research experience to further their educational goals.” The student may conduct “research in the fields of nuclear engineering, computational sciences, materials science and engineering, cyber security, interactive data mining, political science and international relations to support United States (US) policy and decision makers in developing strategies for national and international security. The Center for Global Security Research’s (CGSR) mission is to provide technology, analysis, and expertise to aid the US government in preventing the spread or use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and examining the policy implications of proliferation of WMD, as well as deterrence.”

Zika’s New Strategy – Spillback?
With over 5,000 cases in the U.S. alone, the Zika virus outbreak may be slowing, but it’s not gone. We’ve talked about spillover before, but what about spillback? We tend to worry about diseases spilling over from animals into humans, but what about the opposite direction? Researchers are now worried about Zika spillback into monkeys. “In areas where Zika infections are prevalent among humans and mosquitoes are abundant, the virus may be transmitted to wild primates, disease ecologist Barbara Han said February 6 at the American Society for Microbiology Biothreats meeting. If the disease gets established in monkeys or other wild primates, the animals may serve as reservoirs for future human outbreaks.” As scientists work to study this process and establish potential at-risk species, it’s a helpful reminder that infectious diseases like to keep us on our toes. Or should I say, paws?

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Over 350 Organizations Write Trump About Vaccine Safety – More than 350 organizations have written to President Trump highlighting their “unequivocal support for the safety of vaccines”. Leading medical organizations and healthcare professionals have resorted to this measure since the January meeting Trump had with Robert F. Kennedy regarding a potential commission on autism and vaccines. “Vaccines protect the health of children and adults and save lives,” the letter opens. “Vaccines have been part of the fabric of our society for decades and are one of the most significant medical innovations of our time.” It continues: “Claims that vaccines are unsafe when administered according to expert recommendations have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature.”
  • Got C-diff? Grab Some Vancomycin!Clostridium difficile is an infection preventionist’s worst nightmare. This spore-forming bug is tough to kill, can cause mortality, and often wreaks havoc on hospitals. A recent study looked at the treatment efficacy of vancomycin versus metronidazole, with the goal of preventing recurrence of the disease. “Analysis of the data showed that there was no difference in risk of recurrence between those treated with vancomycin or metronidazole in any of the severity groups. And in patients with mild-to-moderate disease, there was no significant difference found in the risk of all-cause 30-day mortality. But among the patients with severe infection, patients treated with vancomycin were 4% less likely to die within 30 days of any cause than those treated with metronidazole. Stevens and her colleagues calculated that to prevent one death among patients with severe C difficile infection, 25 would need to be treated with vancomycin.”
  • Fighting Cholera– Cholera has been a scourge throughout history and sadly, we’re still battling it. Researchers have finally developed an effective vaccine and stockpiled it, however efforts are still in progress to get it to the most hard-hit countries, like Bangladesh. “Merely creating that stockpile — even of a few million doses — profoundly improved the way the world fought cholera, Dr. Margaret Chan, secretary general of the W.H.O., said last year. Ready access to the vaccine has made countries less tempted to cover up outbreaks to protect tourism, she said. That has sped up emergency responses and attracted more vaccine makers, lowering costs. ‘More cholera vaccines have been deployed over the last two years than in the previous 15 years combined,’ Dr. Chan said.”

 

 

Pandora Report 2.3.2017

Happy Friday! Do you remember the Jurassic Park character Dr. Ian Malcolm and his famous “life finds a way” quote? Well, in this case, nature is finding its own resistance against gene drive in the wild.

Bioterrorism Preparedness & Response Position Paper 
The InterAgency Board (IAB) has released their proposed model for bioterrorism response: initial operations and characterizations. “Under this model, responder organizations that meet eligibility requirements can apply to operate through contracts as approved bioterrorism response organizations within their own jurisdictions. These teams would be trained and equipped to meet a set of national standards and would work collaboratively with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Laboratory Response Network (LRN) in bioterrorism incident responses.” Within the report, you can find training standards and procedures for sampling and field biodetection devices. There is also a substantial section on funding that emphasizing the necessity of implementing and sustaining the bioterrorism response model via funding. The funding plan involves “three types of expenses: annual national program costs for WMD-CST and LRN participation of $22,237,824; participating response organizations start-up costs (per team) of $353,660—developed using a notional community;27 and annual participating response organizations costs of $66,332. This model does not address costs for validating field detection equipment performance, which could be significant.” This particular section breaks down costs that range from equipment maintenance to depreciation.

GMU Biodefense Master’s Open House
Looking to study about everything from anthrax to zika while advancing your education? Check out our biodefense master’s open houses – Thursday, February 16th and Wednesday, March 22nd at 6:15pm at our Arlington Campus. These open houses are a great opportunity to learn more about the GMU biodefense program, speak to a professor, and mingle with other biodefense gurus!

2017 ASM Biothreats Conference
The meeting on biothreat research, response, and policy is just around the corner and the Pandora Report is your source for this wonderful event! Registration is still open and we’ll be having four on-the-ground biodefense graduate student reporters giving us all the great updates from this three-day event. We’ll be live tweeting during the meeting and providing a substantial overview regarding certain sessions and more.

koblentz-moonGMU Biodefense Director Talks Growing Threats and Lack of Action
Take a venture down the biodefense rabbit hole with Dr. Gregory Koblentz! A member of the Scientist Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, you could say that Dr. Koblentz eats, sleeps, and breathes biodefense. His most recent work has looked at the role of responsible science in biodefense programs, dual-use research of concern, and the the growing concern of biosecurity/biosafety. In a recent report, “Koblentz indicates two factors that caused a concerning increase in the number of biodefense programs worldwide. The first was the global fear of the bioterrorist threat in the aftermath of 9/11, especially after the 2001 anthrax attacks. Also, since 2003, there have been several infectious disease outbreaks with global impact that caught people by surprise: SARS, H5N1, H1N1, Ebola and Zika. ‘There’s been a growth in the number of biosafety laboratories that are safe enough to do this work on these kinds of pathogens both because they’re caused by natural causes and also because of the fear of terrorists getting a hold of them.’ The growth in the number of programs poses additional risks themselves. Even though the biodefense programs are created as a means of stopping threats, the increased number of programs means that there are more chances for something bad to happen.” Dr. Koblentz points to the changing nature of biological threats – from state bioweapon programs to non-state actors and even naturally occurring outbreaks. The most recent BWC Review Conference is also a topic of concern for Dr. Koblentz, as he notes that it was “huge missed opportunity, and will setback efforts to reduce the risks posed by biological weapons and bioterrorism. At the outset of the conference [it] looked good. But in the final days of the conference, Iran sabotaged the proceedings and blocked the consensus needed to adopt any of these measures”

U.S. Biotech Rule – A Mixed Bag of Promises and Perils  screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-8-11-00-am
Regulations and policies have been struggling to keep up with the trajectory of genetic engineering. Reviewing these regulations falls on the FDA, EPA, and USDA, which means that they’re responsible for maintaining as modern and relevant practices as possible. Gene editing tools like CRISPR challenge these often slow efforts, however a new proposal was recently released, focusing on the path to market. This pathway, while built with good intentions, is often plagued with cracks. “Earlier this month, the White House released an update to the overarching system of biotech regulation, known as the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. But it’s still up to individual agencies to clarify how they intend to classify and evaluate various GE products. In an apparent effort to get plans on the table before a change of administration, USDA and FDA put out draft proposals on 18 January addressing several categories of GE products”. As we reported a few weeks back, efforts to use genetically modified mosquitos to combat Zika, were met with residential resistance, which makes these regulations all the more sensitive. The FDA is responsible for overseeing “technologies for sterilizing and controlling animal populations, but giving it responsibility for gauging the environmental impact of a mosquito raised eyebrows on both sides of the debate”. Many have noted that the FDA truly doesn’t have the capacity to review such work in a timely manner. What about genetically engineered plants? Well, the USDA’s APHIS has specific definitions for what defines GE plants, however this definition previously focused on the production process and not the end product. “The proposed rule exempts certain products from the definition of GE, including plants containing inserted DNA from a sexually compatible species, and plants with DNA changes that could also be achieved through older chemical or radiation-based methods.” While many say that this change is good, others worry that the regulations tend to focus on projects that larger companies employ, while smaller companies lack the capacity for such controversial work, meaning that these regulations could inhibit their work.

The Cost of Cooperation in Global Health 
A recent publication in The Lancet looks to the financial backing for global health cooperation via the WHO, the World Bank, the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Researchers found that the current financial flow allows donors to provide funds and assistance while maintaining closer control and monitoring throughout the entire project. “We highlight three major trends in global health governance more broadly that relate to this development: towards more discretionary funding and away from core or longer-term funding; towards defined multi-stakeholder governance and away from traditional government-centred representation and decision-making; and towards narrower mandates or problem-focused vertical initiatives and away from broader systemic goals.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Federal Hiring Freeze Disrupts USDA’s Food Safety Testing – The transition of the new administration and federal hiring freeze seems to be having some concerning food safety implications. While the FDA has noted that the federal freeze won’t impact the Food Safety Modernization Act, the USDA has highlighted that it is causing issues with the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). “In an internal message sent to FSIS employees on Jan. 18 and obtained by Food Safety News warned that delays in lab tests are expected through at least March 3. The FSIS is responsible for ensuring the safety of meat, poultry, processed egg products and catfish. ‘Effective Jan. 18, 2017, due to a temporary decrease in staffing, results on pathology samples submitted to the FSIS laboratory system will be delayed,’ according to the email sent to all FSIS employees. ‘AMR-01 and rush cases will be given priority status; however turnaround times are expected to be delayed by at least 24 hours on these samples. This is expected to be rectified by March 3, 2017, but is dependent on staffing key vacancies. The Pathology Branch apologies for the inconvenience these delays will cause’.”
  • Is Trump Causing a Brain Drain? – Last week’s immigration executive order  has many in the science community either unable to travel/return to the U.S. or considering relocation. “The Trump White House’s decision to clamp down on communication from various federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, has left researchers frightened over political influence seeping into their work. And his executive order has left students and scientists in limbo, removed from their classrooms and work. Advocates are warning that the inhospitable environment will lead, quite quickly, to a brain drain. A young generation of thinkers, academics and researchers might simply look to other countries to conduct their work.”
  • The Rise of MCR-1 and the Importance of Understanding the DURC Debate- This week, yours truly is talking to Contagion Live in regards to two very important topics- the rise of antimicrobial resistance and why everyone should understand the DURC debate. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when it comes to science and policy, however so many of these topics are becoming increasingly relevant and in the end, global health security impacts us all.

Pandora Report 1.27.2017

The ghostbusters had proton packs and now researchers have DNA-analyzing smartphone attachments to help diagnose disease and fight antimicrobial resistance.

Doomsday Clock Moved 30 Seconds Closer to Midnight
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the clock setting was moved on Wednesday. This is the closest it has been to midnight since 1953 and now includes threats like climate change, cyberthreats, and biological weapons. The board has been critical of President Trump and noted that, “Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change … This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a U.S. presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.” You can get a better glimpse of the clock and its components here.

Possession, Use, and Transfer of Select Agents and Toxins; Biennial Review of the List of Select Agents and Toxins and Enhanced Biosafety Requirements- Final Rule
The CDC has released the final recommendations for select agent biosafety requirements in accordance with the 2002 Bioterrorism Response Act. The 2016 recommended changes included the removal of six biological agents, “add provisions to address the inactivation of select agents, add specific provisions to the section of the regulations addressing biosafety, and clarify regulatory language concerning security, training, incident response, and records.” However, as of January 19th, 2017,  HHS and USDA have published parallel amendments to the federal regulation for select agents and toxins. Following their review, HHS decided not to finalize the proposed changes to the list of select agents. They did however decide “to finalize provisions to address toxin permissible limits and the inactivation of select agents; to finalize specific provisions to the section of the regulations addressing biosafety; and to clarify regulatory language concerning security, training, incident response, and records”. The amendments are set to take effect 30 days from the date of publication.

Biodefense World Summit
Don’t miss out on the Biodefense World Summit in Alexandria, VA from June 27-28th! This will be the third summit in order to “bring together leaders from government, academia, and industry for compelling discussions and comprehensive coverage on pathogen detection, sample prep technologies, point-of-care, and biosurveillance. Across the four-track event, attendees can expect exceptional networking opportunities in the exhibit hall, across panel discussions, and shared case studies with members of the biodefense community from technology providers to policy makers.” Make sure you don’t miss out on GMU Biodefense PhD student, Mary Sproull’s presentation, “Recent Advances in Radiation Biodosimetry for Partial and Total Body Exposures” during the tools and technologies at the point-of-care session!

Missing Russian Smallpox Researcher  
This may sound like the plot of a horror movie (or Sum of All Fears), but the reality may be just as worrisome. Professor and Russian microbiologist, Ilya Drozdov has been put on Interpol’s wanted list. Having knowledge of Russia’s historical bioweapons program means that Dr. Drozdov’s disappearance has authorities worrying he may have gone abroad. Dr. Drozdov was head of Vector for five years, which means he has considerable knowledge in both the offensive program and the recent work regarding plague vaccines and HIV cures. “After quitting the institute, he returned to his native Saratov, but has now vanished. It is now confirmed that last month the 63 year old scientist – who needed top vetting clearance to lead Vector – was put on the Interpol wanted list, indicating fears he has gone abroad. He is accused by state investigators of misappropriating some 2 million roubles – then worth around $55,000, while his tenure also led to an outflow of staff unhappy at his management style. A criminal case was filed against him in 2014, and a Novosibirsk court has now approved his arrest in absentia, said Elena Chernyayeva, a regional deputy prosecutor. The microbiologist allegedly used the cash to purchase an apartment. There is no suggestion he has taken secrets abroad, but the Interpol alert indicates the Russian authorities have lost track of his whereabouts. There was criticism of him at Vector for the poor pay of its expert researchers, and ‘conflicts’.”

Bill Gates Talks Bioterrorism 
Last week we looked into the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), which aims to head off worldwide outbreaks through the development and stockpiling of vaccines. CEPI has received massive financial support and one sponsor in particular is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates recently warned, at the recent World Economic Forum, that there is a true gap in bioterrorism preparedness. “What preparedness will look like for intentionally caused things, that needs to be discussed,” he said. “It’s very hard to rate the probability of bioterrorism, but the potential damage is very, very huge. I think an epidemic, either naturally caused or intentionally caused, is the most likely thing to cause, say, 10,000 excess deaths,” Gates said. “He voiced the same concern in March during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session: ‘The problem of how we prevent a small group of terrorists using nuclear or biological means to kill millions is something I worry about,’ he wrote.” Other biotech gurus like Sam Altman noted that the 2011 H5N1 gain-of-function controversies have opened their eyes to synthetic viruses as a form of terrorism or bioerror.

Health Security Memos to the New Administration and Congress 
Despite a recent move, researchers at the Center for Health Security aren’t taking a break when it comes to global health security. They’ve recently written a series of commentaries for the new administration regarding facts and assessments that are critical for the world of health security. The memos range from healthcare preparedness to improving biosurveillance, partnering with communities to foster trust, communication of new disease threats, and much more.

FDA’s New Farm Antibiotics Policy – Is It Enough?
The new FDA Guidance for Industry (GFI) #213 is what some would consider a victory, while others are calling it a mediocre milestone at best. The new policy looks to reduce the usage of antibiotics in agriculture by requiring veterinary oversight. That’s right, prior to GFI #231, farmers could go to their local feed stores and buy penicillin and tetracycline over the counter to add to feed and water to promote growth. “Under GFI #213, which was first announced in 2013 and has taken 3 years to fully implement, pharmaceutical companies have been asked to voluntarily remove production purposes (such as growth promotion) from the labels of all medically important antibiotics used in food production. All affected companies have done so as of Jan 3, the FDA says. In addition, the guidelines require veterinary oversight for the continued use of these drugs for disease prevention and control in herds and flocks. From now on, all antibiotics used in water will require a prescription from a licensed veterinarian, and those used in feed will need a veterinary feed directive (VFD).” Sure, this is a move in the right direction, but are we ensuring the quality of veterinary oversight and truly changing the culture within farming to support responsible antibiotic usage?

Outbreak Alert: Seoul Virus in Illinois and Wisconsin Rat-Breeding Facilities
While we’ve been busy with the inauguration and Zika virus, there’s been an emerging outbreak creeping up in Illinois and Wisconsin. Eight people have been infected with Seoul virus after working in several rat-breeding facilities across the two states. While not commonly found in the U.S., this is the first known outbreak associated with pet rats. “A home-based rodent breeder in Wisconsin was hospitalized in December 2016 with fever, headache, and other symptoms. CDC tested a blood specimen and confirmed that the infection was caused by Seoul virus, a member of the Hantavirus family of rodent-borne viruses. A close family member who also worked with rodents also tested positive for Seoul virus. Both people have recovered. A follow-up investigation at several rat breeders that supplied the initial patient’s rats revealed an additional six cases of Seoul virus at two Illinois rat breeding facilities.” While related to Hantavirus, Seoul virus presents with more mild symptoms.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Post-Ebola reforms: ample analysis and inadequate action–  Check out a new analysis on WHO response and global reaction to the Ebola outbreak. “Given the importance of improving our ability to battle current (Zika, yellow fever, etc) and future outbreaks of infectious disease, we examined seven major reports and identified areas of consensus on action. We then assessed what progress has been made and what can be done to address the gaps. The seven reports were selected on the following criteria: scope (tackling problems beyond a single organization, country, or sector); diverse authorship (defined by country of origin, organizational affiliation, area of expertise, and gender); and public availability (excluding internal reviews).”
  • Using the lessons of economics to stop global pandemics before they start -Larry Summers is looking to economics to calculate the likely future impact of pandemics on the global economy. By combining the mortality cost and losses in income, he and fellow researchers found that “it was on the same range as that of climate change-  although at the lower end of the possible scale. A moderately severe pandemic, of the kind that occurs every few decades, would knock 4-5% off global output. The “ultra scenario”—a pandemic similar in virulence to the flu of 1918—would raise that to 12%, reducing GNI in some developing countries by more than half.”
  • How Prepared is the U.S. for Avian Influenza?– Many are pointing to an impending avian influenza outbreak and questioning how well American response measures will work. “On Jan 9, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed that a wild mallard duck in Montana had died from H5N2, a highly pathogenic avian flu strain that in 2015 affected farms in 15 states and led to the culling of more than 43 million poultry, with an estimated $3.3 billion in economic losses. ‘This confirmed H5N2 in a wild mallard duck in Montana keeps us on high alert,’ said Donna Karlsons, a public affairs specialist with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). ‘We know the disease is out there and serves as a great reminder for constant biosecurity vigilance. There is never a good time to ease up on biosecurity, and it remains our greatest asset to protect against avian influenza’.”

 

Pandora Report 1.20.2017

We’ve got lots of biodefense goodies for you this week, so grab your PPE and let’s get rolling!

Billion-Dollar Vaccine and Epidemic Preparedness Project 
The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) launched this week at the World Economic Forum with an initial $460 million backing from Norway, Germany, Japan, the Welcome Trust, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. CEPI expects to raise the rest of the needed $1 billion by the end of the year. Their focus is on pre-emptively developing and stockpiling vaccines to better prevent and respond to outbreaks. CEPI marks the largest vaccine development initiative and their plan is to start with vaccines against Nipah virus, MERS-CoV, and Lassa fever. While this is wonderful news, it may just be one step closer to marginalizing the WHO, which has been struggling to stay both relevant and effective. The WHO response to Ebola started drawing more recent attention to the organization’s struggles which were only fueled by slow vaccine procurement/development. These issues culminated with their recommendations to dilute the yellow fever vaccines during last year’s outbreak in Africa due to poor planning. Vaccine development and stockpiling is truly vital to outbreak response. “The CEPI intends to support research at every stage, from basic lab work to vaccine discovery and clinical trials. It also made its first call for research proposals on 18 January, and teams have until 8 March to submit preliminary proposals for grants. ‘For too long, we have separated out the academic work from the next step of taking it into all that is actually required to make a vaccine,’ says Farrar. There is also no market for vaccines against ‘potential’ epidemic threats, he notes, which explains why there is no commercial incentive to take research leads out of the lab and into clinical development’.”

ABSA DURC Roundtable
Don’t miss the Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) Roundtable Discussion offered by ABSA International on March 15th! This distance learning opportunity will be offered from 12-2pm (CDT), and will aid the user in finding resources and guidance on the U.S. government DURC policies, developing a network of biosafety professionals, and more! “One size does not fit all when it comes to solutions to comply with research policy. The goal of this webinar is to provide best practices, provide insight on how several different institutions are meeting the DURC policy requirements, and help participants troubleshoot issues surrounding DURC that they may have at their institutions. Participants will have the opportunity to submit questions regarding DURC prior to the start of the webinar as well as during the live webinar.”

GMU Trains First Responders Against Infectious Disease  firstrespondertraining3_davefarris
GMU’s Office of Safety, Emergency, and Enterprise Rise Management is now providing local and national first responders with infectious disease training so that they’re better able to protect themselves during outbreaks. The program was made available through a three-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “This training is a natural extension of a program Mason’s Biomedical Research Lab biosafety manager Diann Stedman has offered to regional emergency response personnel since the 2010 opening of the lab on the Science and Technology Campus. Stedman is leading the training with Julie Zobel, assistant vice president of safety, emergency and enterprise risk management, and David Farris, executive director of safety and emergency management. Collectively, the three have more than 30 years of experience in the health and safety field, much of it focused on biological safety.”

Completing the Development of Ebola Vaccines 
CIDRAP and Welcome Trust have just released their report – Completing the Development of Ebola Vaccines: Current Status, Remaining Challenges, and Recommendations. “This is the third major report from the Wellcome Trust–CIDRAP Ebola Vaccine Team B. The first report, Recommendations for Accelerating the Development of Ebola Vaccines: Report and Analysis, was released in February 2015, and the second, Plotting the Course of Ebola Vaccines: Challenges and Unanswered Questions, was released in March 2016. In this report, similar to our previous efforts, we have three primary objectives. The first is to track progress toward ensuring that safe, effective, and durable multivalent Ebola vaccines are readily available and can be rapidly deployed when the next outbreak occurs. The second is to identify challenges and barriers where additional efforts are needed, although some of the remaining issues are complex and will require substantial resources to resolve. Our third objective is to provide a set of high-level recommendations that we believe, if implemented, will facilitate the goal of having a robust Ebola virus disease (EVD) prevention program in place that allows prophylactic vaccination of high-risk frontline workers and provides well- maintained vaccine stockpiles to facilitate rapid control of Ebola outbreaks.” The report highlights current clinical evaluations of Ebola vaccine candidates, funding, and regulatory activities. Some of the recommendations include reassessing the leadership structure for Ebola vaccine preparedness, developing strategies for mitigating the financial uncertainties and risks for manufacturers, etc. This report has left many experts pointing to the reality that we’re just not ready for another Ebola outbreak. 

Center for Health Security Joins Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School 
The Center for Health Security has a new home in Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health! Previously affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the CHS will now have significant new opportunities for research and work in national and international public health policy. Originally founded in 1998 by the late D.A. Henderson at Johns Hopkins, the center has been affiliated with UPMC since 2003. “The mission of our center is a perfect fit with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health because we share a commitment to improving global health and to protecting lives through large-scale change,” says Tom Inglesby, director and CEO of the Center for Health Security. “Moving to the Bloomberg School will expand the reach of the center and help us collaborate with and tap into the universe of great talent at Johns Hopkins. We look forward to joining our expertise on health security and preparedness policy to Johns Hopkins’ internationally recognized community of scientists and public health scholars.” We’re looking forward to seeing all the great work that will be done as the center returns to Johns Hopkins!

Zika Outbreak Updates
As the dust settles, some are looking to the WHO and public health infrastructure failures regarding the Zika outbreak as many are pointing out how the response failed millions. “But the positives were counterbalanced by many negatives, experts said. They harshly criticized the partisan bickering that delayed a Zika-funding bill in Congress for months, and they decried the failure of every city in the hemisphere — other than Miami — to control mosquitoes.” You can also read an opinion piece here, from a pregnant woman living in Miami who tested positive for the Zika. As of January 18th, the CDC has reported 4,900 cases of Zika in the U.S.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • screen-shot-2017-01-19-at-12-31-34-pmCDC Director’s Departing Words- As CDC director, Dr. Tom Frieden, prepares to leave office after 8 years, he’s offering some words of wisdom. Dr. Frieden has been tested by major health events like Ebola, Zika, MERS, 2009’s H1N1, and a growing domestic overdose issue. “Fundamentally, Americans are healthier and safer because of the work CDC has done over the last eight years. Americans are safer because we have better capacities in place, better infrastructure in place in this country and around the world to find threats early, stop them quickly and prevent them wherever possible. We’ve done that through laboratory work that looks at microbial genomics so we can stop outbreaks sooner. We’ve done that by training the next generation of public health specialists — more than 1,000 of them, fresh out of college and graduate school — deployed out to state and local governments. These people will be protecting Americans for decades to come.”
  • Proposed Presidential Autism-Vaccine Panel Could Help Spread Disease– The potential panel is drawing increasing attention as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is poised to be the leader. The environmental lawyer has been vocal in his vaccine skepticism, which has led many to worry in terms of federal support for vaccine programs. “Although the autism–vaccine claim has been studied and debunked, the president-elect has also suggested a connection. His team later hedged about the panel, saying that nothing had been decided. (Kennedy’s office declined an interview request.) Nevertheless, public health experts and autism advocates are deeply worried that an effort with presidential backing could undermine public confidence in vaccines and trigger epidemics of all-but-eradicated diseases.”
  • Assad Linked to Syrian Chemical Attacks – The Syrian President has officially been linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014/2015. “International investigators have said for the first time that they suspect President Bashar al-Assad and his brother are responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, according to a document seen by Reuters. A joint inquiry for the United Nations and global watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had previously identified only military units and did not name any commanders or officials.”