Behold – your weekly dose of all things biodefense! But first- here’s the NIH commitment to transparency on research involving potential pandemic pathogens..
Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
From Ebola outbreaks to the approval of GoF research, we’ll be talking about all things health security at our summer workshop this July. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the changing nature of conflict, advances in science and technology, globalization, and the growing threat posed by emerging infectious diseases and pandemics. Pandemics, Bioterrorism and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika is a three and a half-day, non-credit summer workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of national security, public health, and the life sciences. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved with research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and national security issues. From historical biodefense approaches to future threats, this is where you’ll want to be for all things health security.
Syrian Chemical Weapons Use – OPCW Issues Fact-Finding Mission Report
You can now read the Fact-Finding Mission report from the OPCW on the use of chemical weapons in Duoma, Syria. Between delayed entry into the area and hostile crowds, this investigation was not easy. This report is a detailed account of their investigation and critical information that only leads to one culprit – the Syrian government. “Many of the signs and symptoms reported by the medical personnel, witnesses and casualties (as well as those seen in multiple videos provided by witnesses), their rapid onset, and the large number of those reportedly affected, indicate exposure to an inhalational irritant or toxic substance. However, based on the information reviewed and with the absence of biomedical samples from the dead bodies or any autopsy records, it is not currently possible to precisely link the cause of the signs and symptoms to a specific chemical.” For a frank discussion on what this report and its findings mean, listen to GMU bioweapons/chemical weapons expert and graduate program director Gregory Koblentz explain the significance and who will be held accountable. “So they fit the pattern and then the other kind of neat piece of detective work they did, was able to find some very unique markers that chlorine had been in these bombs and released when they fell on these buildings. Because even though chlorine is a very reactive chemical, and it disperses very quickly in the environment, the OPCW figured out that, chlorine would react with certain materials like wood, that would create new compounds that are not — don’t occur naturally and are very stable. And so by looking for evidence of these chlorine derivatives in the wood, in the two attack sites, they would have found these markers that this would have been exposed to chlorine, in high concentrations and therefore they conclude that these bombs were filled with chlorine when they were dropped on these two buildings.” You can also find a great Twitter thread from Dr. Koblentz on his thoughts regarding this report and the findings here. “An important limitation in investigating alleged uses of chlorine as a weapon is that the chemical is highly reactive so it is difficult to detect in the environment and there are limited biomakers for exposure. But @OPCW was very clever and took advantage of the fact that when chlorine reacts with certain other chemicals and materials it can produce new compounds that are stable and not found naturally in the environment. These compounds then provide a strong signature of chlorine exposure. In particular, @OPCW looked for the presence of borynl chloride which is produced when alpha-pinene, a chemical found in coniferous wood (i,e., pine), is exposed to hydrogen chloride, a common decomposition product of chlorine.”
Chatting With Sen. Daschle on Biodefense
If you missed this event, no worries, we’ve got a great recap from two of GMU’s biodefense graduate students. Stephen Taylor and Michael Krug note that “The events of October 2001 forced political leaders to reconsider how biodefense fit into the national security agenda. Sen. Daschle reflected on three lessons learned throughout this process, which included: 1) revamping mail security, 2) rethinking large-scale emergency responses, and 3) developing contingency plans for biological events. Despite efforts to harden America’s biosecurity posture, however, our national biodefense enterprise today remains fractured, inefficient, and largely dysfunctional. One such example is the application of the BioWatch program. Technical shortcomings and false-positives have plagued the program from its conception. However, while the frustration of the program has been clear, there must remain a drive for innovation from all involved in the biodefense network.”
Mapping the Cyberbiosecurity Enterprise
Frontiers is looking for work on cyberiosecurity for their new research topic – don’t miss out! “‘Cyberbiosecurity’ has been proposed as an emerging hybridized discipline at the interface of cybersecurity, cyber-physical security and biosecurity. This term has been defined as ‘understanding the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of comingled life and medical sciences, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness and resilience.’ Mapping the topology of cyberbiosecurity has just begun, but proponents have realized that, potentially, it has expansive applications across the life sciences, biomedical sciences and medicine, agriculture and food systems and natural resource protection and management, and from genomics, bioinformatics and ‘AI’, to large-scale complex systems such as ‘farm to table’. As biotechnologies continue to advance and evolve, cyberbiosecurity will be a key consideration in critical infrastructure related to these arenas. In addition to identifying or developing and implementing solutions to vulnerabilities and shortfalls, awareness and training, guidelines and standards and the interfacing of disparate expert communities awaits. Further, the interfaces with or creation of national strategies, policies, regulations and the legal implications need investigation and resolution. With this Research Topic we aim to collect relevant articles which characterize various aspects of cyberbiosecurity. Target categories for the Research Topic will include science and technology, risk analysis, training and education, guidelines and standards, community fusion, and strategy and policy.”
Hackers Listen in on What Synthetic DNA Machines Are Printing
No, that’s not a quote from Blade Runner or a futuristic sci-fi movie, but the realities of synbio and cyberbiosecurity. “In new work they presented at last week’s Network & Distributed System Security Symposium, a team of researchers from UC Irvine and UC Riverside unveiled a so-called acoustic side-channel attack on a popular DNA-making machine, a vulnerability they say could imperil the up-and-coming synthetic biology and DNA-based data storage industries. It could also have important potential counterterrorism applications—for monitoring suspect machines to see if they’re manufacturing deadly pathogens or other biological weapons.T wo days’ worth of recordings was enough to train algorithms that could surmise unknown strings of DNA with 86 percent accuracy. By combining them with off-the-shelf DNA sequencing software, the researchers boosted the accuracy to almost 100 percent, especially for longer sequences. Some members of the team tested the hack, which they call Oligo Snoop, on DNA sequences chosen by the other members. They included genetic instructions for making human insulin, a binding peptide commonly used in drug development, and conotoxin, a lethal protein found in the venom of cone snails. While the eavesdropping attack is far from practical for any run-of-the-mill corporate spy or would-be bioterrorist, it’s one the researchers warn could become more likely over time, as biology emerges as a powerful computing platform, and hackable listening devices like Nest cams and voice assistants become increasingly pervasive in automated lab settings. And perhaps more to the point, it’s a provocative demonstration of the ways in which the walls between the physical biological world and the digital one are crumbling toward one another.”
The Supportive Role of Tech Platforms in Disease Outbreaks
GMU biodefense doctoral student Saskia Popescu discusses the latest measles outbreaks and how tech platforms are increasingly playing a role. “Fueling the debate is the anti-vaccine (or anti-vaxxer) movement on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. As these platforms have increased in popularity, so, too, has the ability to spread misinformation related to health care. It’s become a real problem, and now many are calling for the tech industry to own its role. For public health proponents, it can be frustrating and exhausting trying to correct the misinformation in these anti-vaxxer posts. A recent investigation by The Guardian found that even neutral search terms (think “vaccination” or “immunizations”) on social media yields a startling amount of anti-vaccine context on both Facebook and YouTube.”
Trust for America’s Health – Health Security and Preparedness Update
TFAH will be hosting a congressional briefing to discuss the findings of their Ready or Not report on March 18th at 12:30 pm in 2044 Rayburn. Invited speakers include TFAH CEO John Auerbach, former Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health Celeste Philip, Director of Regional Preparedness and Operations at the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council Lori Upton, with remarks by Rachel Fybel, staff for Rep. Anna Eshoo, co-chair of the Congressional Biodefense Caucus. Lunch will be served, so please RSVP.
Colonialism, Blood Samples, and Where Pathogens Fall Into Things
Sure blood samples were being shipped out of West Africa at top speed for analysis during and after the 2014/2016 EVD outbreak but where are they? Surely they’re being turned into vaccines and treatments options, which is great, but will those countries afflicted by the outbreak ever be able to pay for the treatments developed from their patients? Maryn McKenna is pulling back the curtain on the asymmetry of biological samples and pharmaceutical developments. “Developing nations have protested before that richer countries and their corporations should compensate them for their biological resources. They consider it colonialism for the bioprospecting age: Instead of stripping the developing world of its precious metals, timber, or minerals, the nations of the West are mining for microbes and other biological source materials. Often the developing world’s objections go nowhere. But in a few cases, bolstered by an evolving body of international rules, the countries who feel their patrimony has been stolen have fought back and won.” From flu strain and vaccine clashes to a developed commitment that WHO member countries would equitably share viruses and vaccines made from them, recent history has been fraught with these issues. “The protocol—formally, the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization—became effective in 2014. It’s a subsidiary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in force since 1993. Among the things the convention covers is fair treatment when it comes to biological resource extraction; the protocol goes further by defining enforcement. Most of the countries in the world have signed and ratified the convention, and a little more than 100 have signed and ratified the protocol. Those numbers include most of the big vaccine-making nations, but notably not the United States, which signed but never ratified the convention, and thus has not endorsed the protocol. The protocol commits signers to sharing the benefits of commercializing “any material of plant, animal, microbial or other origin containing functional units of heredity” with the country the material came from” Furthermore, McKenna notes that “It’s crucial that outbreak detection and response not be compromised. But in the aftermath of outbreaks, it’s equally important that the public health establishment honor the contributions of the countries that were victims of outbreaks—whether those contributions are their blood and tissue or their minerals and plants. Uncompensated resource extraction is a sin of the past, and it should be consigned to there.”
The MMR Vaccine and Autism – A Nationwide Cohort Study to Assess the Hypothesized Link
Findings from studying 657,461 children: there isn’t an increased risk…..go get vaccinated.
Risk Communication Strategies for the Very Worst of Cases: How to Issue a Call to Action on Global Catastrophic Biological Risks
“A new report by a team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security reframes the discussion of the most severe biological threats to provide policy advocates with an additional tool to help them catalyze expansive international support for work on pandemic prevention and response. The report, Risk Communication Strategies for the Very Worst of Cases: How to Issue a Call to Action on Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, outlines current awareness gaps—present inside and outside the scientific community—and identifies opportunities for communication to close them. GCBRs represent a special category of risk defined previously by the Center as threats from biological agents that could lead to sudden, extraordinary, widespread disaster beyond the collective capability of national and international organizations and the private sector to control.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Ebola Treatment Center Reopens After Arson- As cases reach 900, the Butembo Ebola treatment center has reopened after rebel forces set fire to the building. “So far 12 patients confirmed to have Ebola have been admitted. Without Doctors Without Borders, who staffed the ETC before the attack, the center is being run by workers from the ministry of health, the Word Health Organization (WHO), and UNICEF. The ministry of health also said construction is set to begin today on a new ETC in Katwa. The former ETC was also targeted by arsons last week. The DRC also noted today that it has implemented an action plan to end community disruptions to officials’ outbreak response efforts.”
- CDC Reports Stalled Progress Against MRSA and Staph Infections– The battle against the resistant bug is hitting a roadblock. “The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today that bloodstream infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus remain a significant and deadly problem in US hospitals, and that progress on reducing the most dangerous type of staph infection has stalled. According to the agency’s latest Vital Signs report, more than 119,000 people suffered from S aureus bloodstream infections in 2017, and nearly 20,000 died. In addition, the report found that while the rate of methicillin-resistant S aureus (MRSA) bloodstream infections in US hospitals fell by more than 17% annually from 2005 through 2012, the rates of decline has slowed since then.”
- Four Decades of Women in Nuclear Security – “While women have been working in the nuclear policy field at leadership levels for decades, the space is still overwhelmingly white and male. For this study, we interviewed 23 women who have worked at senior levels in the nuclear, arms control, and non-proliferation fields, their careers ranging from the 1970s to the present day. In this report, we explore the gender dynamics surrounding hierarchy, language, and ideology, and how women working in these fields responded personally and professionally. We document and analyze the “gender tax” facing women in nuclear policy, consider how gender diversity affects policymaking, and explore the ways in which the more hyper-traditional subfields respond to new ideas—creating what former Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy calls a “consensual straitjacket” in which gender and substantive taxes combine to restrict innovation.”