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

By Georgia Ray

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


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

Matthew Walsh, associate staff at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory

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

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

Mary Delarosa, at HHS ASPR

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Perspectives on Biodefense Strategies

By Nick Bertini

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

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

The WHO Research and Development Roadmaps

By Nick Bertini

The World Health Organization (WHO) is constantly attempting to address public health threats before they become major local, regional, and global issues. This session focused on the research and development roadmaps that the WHO has implemented and managed to initiate a targeted research campaign for the early delivery of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics of Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF) and Nipah Virus. Moderated by Tim Brooks of Public Health England, the session was geared toward educating the audience on the research and development frameworks that the WHO has in place in order to address the potential major public health threats of the near to midterm future.

Marie-Pierre Prezios, the head of the R&D roadmap program at WHO, started the session off with a general overview of what the WHO’s goals are for implementing these research blueprints. Prezios laid out the strategic priorities of her program by stating that the goals of the WHO are to “keep the world safe, improve health, and serve the vulnerable.” According to Prezios, the framework is designed to improve coordination, map the key stakeholders, and clearly identify products in the drug development pipeline. If these steps are completed, then the research and development process should be accelerated—specifically for priority pathogens and diseases. The roadmaps are generated using two key steps. First, a Baseline Situation Analysis (BSA) is conducted to identify gaps in knowledge and survey the current public health landscape. Second, a diverse technical taskforce is assembled and comes to a consensus regarding the results of the BSA. After a consensus is made, the technical taskforce drafts the research and development roadmaps. Finally, Prezios highlights the success of the roadmap by sharing that in May 2018 there was an outbreak of Nipah Virus in Kerala, India and a successful response was initiated within the first 24 hours. Furthermore, researchers and developers were able to provide the field with monoclonal antibodies within a week, stemming the number of cases and allowing the community to address the public health concerns and to recover from the outbreak. Continue reading “The WHO Research and Development Roadmaps”

From Detection to Diagnosis to Vaccines

By Katelyn Smith

During the “From Detection to Diagnosis to Vaccines” symposium, we were able to hear about research projects and product development from all over the United States pertaining to detection, diagnosis, and/or vaccines. Each of the six speakers, ranging from engineer to scientist, brought something unique and different to the table, from a dog’s nose, to immunoassays, to accelerated vaccines.

The first speaker was Matthew Staymates, a mechanical engineer from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who spoke on a project titled “Non-Contact Aerodynamic Sampling Approaches for Aerosols and Airborne Particles: Lessons Learned from the Dog Nose”.  This project focused primarily on the olfaction background of canines, studying how a dog’s nose is a great detector system, and is “considered the gold standard in trace chemical sampling”.  Matthew spoke about how this research included looking into the fluid dynamics of the olfaction system of a canine, and how important biomimicry may be. He ended his session by asking this question: “Is there a smarter way to sample our environment (based on lessons learned from the dog’s nose)?”. Continue reading “From Detection to Diagnosis to Vaccines”

Detection of Biological Agents in the Field: Then and Now

By Katelyn Smith

Biology is an ever-changing, growing, and evolving field. To increase our defenses against biological agents in natural occurrences, accidental occurrences, and deliberate occurrences. At the ASM Biothreats Conference this year, there was a panel session organized to hear multiple experts’ commentary on biological agent detection in the field over the years.  Mediated by Dr. Kenneth B. Yeh, a senior science advisor at MRIGlobal, the panel of members were able to comment and answer questions, speaking about previous experiences of their own, as well as some of the research that they do.

To start off the session, the panelists discussed a comparison of Real-Time qPCR and Sequencing, the roles they have played overtime in the biological field, as well as changes in the biodefense field in the last few decades.  More than 20 years ago, two major platforms were yielded in the Department of Defense: a real-time PCR system and a current generation diagnostic system.   Continue reading “Detection of Biological Agents in the Field: Then and Now”

Converging Technologies & Emerging Risks

By Georgia Ray

This was a panel discussion involving four speakers discussing biotechnologies and the potential for mis-use, and the challenges of regulatory oversight.

Jesse Kirkpatrick– GMU’s assistant director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy.

Chris Oehmen– PNNL cybersecurity expert

Gregory Koblentz– The GMU Biodefense program’s very own director.

Megan Palmer– A senior research scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Oehmen kicked off the panel by drawing parallels between the fields of cybersecurity and biosecurity. First he noted how we tend to misinterpret them – we draw on our classic metaphors for defense and security, and imagine building a castle or a fortress with physical walls, to guard that which we want to keep safe. But information is not a physical material. Its transfer is not cleanly constrained by energy, time, or physical space as physical matter is, and nor are the defenses we build. Oehmen suggests we replace this with a resilience-based model, taking other approaches to thinking of security in flawed systems. What assumptions are we relying on when we think of biosecurity? Are they true? Continue reading “Converging Technologies & Emerging Risks”

Clade X Discussion Panel

By Justin Hurt

Moderator: Gigi Gronvall, PhD

Julie Gerberding, PhD, former CDC Director

Jeffrey Smith, Partner, Arnold and Porter

Imagine a never-before-seen virus emerging simultaneous in multiple places on Earth with no warning, no current countermeasures, and no idea as to the origin. Think about the difficulties that leaders could encounter if one of the outbreaks was in a nation with which we had less than desirable relations, but was close enough that it was likely to spread to our shores quickly. What could that mean for effective response or humanitarian assistance and how would we broach that with our own leaders and diplomatically with our international partners? What if the virus was found to have been engineered and intentionally released? Finally, how do we determine the most effective distribution of any countermeasures we might develop? Continue reading “Clade X Discussion Panel”

Pandora Report: 2.1.2019

We’re in the middle of a polar vortex and Gov. Jay Inslee just announced a state of emergency in Washington due to a measles outbreak, but the world of biodefense doesn’t rest, so we’re here to keep you up to date.

Talking Biodefense with Senator Daschle
The Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University invites you to an informal discussion about key issues in biodefense with former Senator Thomas Daschle, founder of the Daschle Group and a Panel Member on the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. The event will be held on February 19 but is open only to Schar/GMU faculty, students, and alum. Look for an email coming soon if you’re able to attend with details regarding registration.

Recap of the National Defense University’s “Digitization of WMD” Symposium 
Schar Biodefense doctoral student Justin Hurt attended this January 17th event and has provided a recap in case you missed it. He notes that “Some trends that have been notable, especially in terms of synthetic biology, is that automation is becoming increasingly critical and pertinent for emerging biological technologies. The associated computational systems and machinery have inherent cyberbiosecurity risks, including privacy risks, system operation issues, manufacturing risks (that include issues with attributing who made what), and the risk of possible sabotage. As genomics grows, it becomes increasingly automated, thus increasing the system risks. As an emerging consumer product, genomics becomes harder to control and secure at scale. In addition, as an internet connected technology, firewalling becomes variable and not generally standardized. Modeling appropriate measures for large-scale genomics is important because it helps to understand the effects of big data, the similarities and differences between the plethora of different open source bioinformatics software systems which don’t always adhere to security best practices.”

Meeting of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense: Fighting the Next War- Defense Against Biological Weapons
You can join the latest Blue Ribbon Study Panel event “on February 5th, 2019, when we hold a meeting to get a better understanding of the responsibilities and requirements for federal biodefense efforts that are unique to the U.S. Department of Defense. Participants will share their experiences regarding the current threat environment, research and development programs, the Department’s biodefense policies, and implementation of the National Biodefense Strategy. Speakers will include: Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) – Chairman, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities; Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, and Derek Maurer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, Department of Defense”

 Trust Issues Worsen Outbreak Response
A lack of trust in politicians, public health, and even healthcare, are all critical for responding to an outbreak. Consider if you didn’t trust public health responders knocking on your door to ask questions about contact with a potentially infected person. Or the physicians to give you a treatment. Even more so, consider if you didn’t trust the government to provide you with accurate information and do their best to stop the outbreak. If all of these were true, the chances of getting you to seek care or provide information…well, they’d be pretty abysmal. Laura Kahn discusses the implications of this trust breakdown  during an outbreak. “There are many examples of what can happen to public health when trust breaks down. The ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a case in point. The current outbreak, centered in North Kivu province, was first identified last August. Since then, the outbreak has spiraled out of control—despite new diagnostics, experimental treatments, and a vaccine that mostly wasn’t avaible during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The problem is, the people living in violence-plagued North Kivu don’t trust anybody or anything. Rumors and hatreds spread easily, residents have refused to cooperate with outbreak responders, and some don’t necessarily even believe that an Ebola virus exists.” Consider even the anti-vaccination websites and posts you see on social media – this promotes a lack of trust in scientists and the CDC. “One result is that scientific experts are no longer widely trusted. The situation is made worse by politicians who legitimize falsehoods, spreading them in an attempt to peddle fear or hate for political gain. US President Donald Trump has tweeted about there being a link between vaccines and autism more than 20 times, the Independent reported last year. The results of spreading medical disinformation can be deadly.”

Why We Should Be Skeptical About Recent Reports on North Korea’s BW Program
John Parachini talks frankly about that recent and sensational news story regarding North Korea’s bioweapons program. “Many assessments of North Korea’s biological capabilities draw heavily from South Korean sources. These are legitimate sources of information, but like any stream of information, they are imperfect. In a 2012 white paper, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND), assessed that North Korea ‘likely has the capability to produce a variety of biological weapons including anthrax, smallpox, pest, francisella, tularensis, and hemorrhagic fever virus,’ but provided no supportive documentation or evidence. In 2016, the MND altered the language to ‘sources indicate that North Korea is capable of cultivating and producing various types of biological agents such as anthrax, smallpox, and pest on its own’.” Pointing to the bias of defector-based information, he notes that “During 2003–04 and again in 2009, several defectors claimed that North Korea tested poisonous materials on political prisoners. However, these charges refer to the use of chemicals on humans and not biological agents. In 2014, a group of scientists, Korea experts and human rights advocates attempted to verify these claims by speaking with South Koreans working with the North Koreans who made these allegations. The group was unable to corroborate the allegations and discovered inaccuracies discrediting the defectors’ claims” Overall, Parachini underscores the need for greater transparency and dialogue with North Korea. Lastly, he stresses that “As one scholar noted in a historical review of state biological weapons programs ‘Intelligence assessments of foreign BW programs often have been wrong, sometimes overestimating, sometimes underestimating, and sometimes missing them altogether’.”

Discord in Venezuela and the Impact on Infectious Diseases
Venezuela has been spiraling into an increasingly dangerous and precarious state, fueled by the election of Nicolás Maduro. As Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself the rightful head of state last week after over a million Venezuelans protested Maduro’s presidency, there is much at stake. Between the political and economic crisis, roughly 3 million have fled the country and estimates have found that maternal mortality has risen by 65% while malaria cases have increased by 76%. The state of Venezuela is chaotic and teetering on a dangerous brink. Unfortunately, in this environment, infectious diseases also thrive. Civil unrest, large bodies of people fleeing the country, and a collapsing infrastructure all create a ripe situation for the transmission of disease. A new article from the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Disease journal points to this very issue and the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in Venezuela. “The country is experiencing a massive exodus of biomedical scientists and qualified healthcare professionals. Reemergence of arthropod-borne and vaccine-preventable diseases has sparked serious epidemics that also affect neighboring countries. In this article, we discuss the ongoing epidemics of measles and diphtheria in Venezuela and their disproportionate impact on indigenous populations. We also discuss the potential for reemergence of poliomyelitis and conclude that action to halt the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases within Venezuela is a matter of urgency for the country and the region.”

Resistant Genes Found in Arctic
A team of researchers reported that they detected antibiotic resistant genes in soil samples collected from islands in the High Arctic. “Among the genes found by the team was blaNDM-1 (New Delhi metallo beta-lactamase-1), which confers resistance to a broad range of antibiotics and has been associated with highly resistant bacterial pathogens and severe, multidrug-resistant infections. The blaNDM-1 gene was first discovered in a patient treated at an Indian hospital in 2008 and subsequently in Indian surface waters. Since then, it has spread to hospitals in more than 70 countries. The genes were found in soil from the Kongsfjorden region of Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean roughly midway between Norway and the North Pole. While many resistance genes have spread around the world, and it’s a known fact that antibiotic resistance isn’t limited by borders, finding a multidrug-resistance gene in such a remote location, the scientists write, highlights ‘how rapidly AR [antibiotic resistance] can globalize’.”

 UNSC 1540 – The  Importance of Regional Coordination
GMU Biodefense doctoral alum Ashley Hess discusses the importance of regional coordinators for UN Security Council Resolution 1540. “United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1540, adopted unanimously under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in 2004, is a key component of the global security architecture, enumerating specific obligations for states, which ultimately aims to reduce the overall risk of weapons-of-mass-destruction proliferation. However, although nearly fifteen years have passed since the adoption of the resolution, many states have still not implemented many of its requirements and obligations—meaning that at least some of the vulnerabilities and risks identified over a decade ago likely still exist, or have changed and expanded over time. This viewpoint discusses the establishment of dedicated UNSCR 1540 coordinators in regional organizations as an example of an effective practice that may contribute toward achieving full implementation of the resolution, fully consistent with established US policy. Since some regional organizations may not have the financial and administrative capacity, or political will, to host such a position, this viewpoint also proposes a variety of ways to address these shortfalls.”

ABSA Course Discount
The Association for Biosafety and Biosecurity has announced a discount on their courses. “Due to the difficulties of the current government shutdown we are now offering the Symposium Courses at 1/2 price. Half day courses will now be $150 and full day courses will be $255. The courses are listed below. The Symposium will proceed as planned, even if the government shutdown continues. Professional Development CoursesScenario-based Agricultural Risk Assessment, Animal Disease Response Training, Biosecurity 101, Risks of Deferred Maintenance in High-Containment Facilities, Implementing Biosecurity Solutions, Introduction to Strategic Leadership Principles for Biorisk Management”

DRC Ebola Outbreak Recap
Despite more than 70,000 people being vaccinated, there have been 7 new cases, which makes the total 759, including 468 deaths. You can also check out two interesting articles (you’ll need Google translate) – the first discusses the handling and safety practices (and some ethics) surrounding the blood samples. “During the epidemic, which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016, scientists collected thousands of blood samples for their research. Without always respecting ethics. September 2017, tarmac at Conakry Airport, Guinea. A small gray plane of the American company Phoenix Air is preparing to take off towards the United States. On board, a mysterious cargo: twenty sealed boxes, shipped by a team of American scientists. In a few hours, they will land on the other side of the Atlantic before being transported to Atlanta, to the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the agency in charge of public health in the United States. Inside, hundreds of biological samples, all contaminated by Ebola, one of the deadliest viruses on the planet. Taken to diagnose patients during the epidemic that hit West Africa between 2014 and 2016 (more than 11,000 deaths), they had been in the US Department of State’s line of sight for several months. His fear? That these vials, hitherto stored in Conakry in freezers closed by simple padlocks, end up in the wrong hands; terrorists wanting to panic, or inexperienced lab technicians who might accidentally spread the virus.” The second article is in regards to the military aspect of Ebola and concerns for weaponizing the disease. “We are here at the Center for Research in Epidemiology-Microbiology and Medical Care (Crems), built by Russia during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, and funded to the tune of $ 10 million ($ 8.8 million euros) by the Russian mining company Rusal, which operates in Guinea the largest bauxite deposit in the world. Shortly after the outbreak of the epidemic in August 2014, Russia dispatched two mobile laboratories and specialists to test for Ebola in the blood of patients. A few months later, a permanent treatment center was built, as well as a laboratory, where a dozen scientists are currently working to test a new vaccine against the virus. This research is done in secret. Even the senior officials of the Guinean Ministry of Health complain that they can not visit the premises. ‘With the Russians, it’s the total blackout,’ regrets one of them. A regular Cremean Guinean agrees to share the bits of information available to him, but says he ignores what has become of the many blood samples taken during the epidemic. ‘The Russians are doing what they want,’ he says, adding that they alone have the right to access the laboratories where research on the virus takes place. For him, there is no doubt that these researchers are military.” In terms of decontamination, MSF International’s Thomas Compigne recently discussed the role it has in controlling the outbreak.

 Tackling African Swine Fever Through Wild Boar Movement
While it doesn’t pose a risk to human health, African swine fever has considerable implications for the agriculture industry. An outbreak on a farm could mean culling the entire herd, which could cost billions across Europe. “As U.S. politicians continue to spar over the idea of building a border wall, Denmark is preparing its own controversial southern border-control barrier. The target is wild boars — specifically, wild boars from Germany. But environmentalists warn the planned 5 ft.-high, 40-mile fence will harm the region’s wildlife and may not even serve the function for which it’s intended. Understanding the rationale for spending $12 million on a fence that may not even work requires understanding the enormity of the Danish pig industry. At any given moment, Denmark is home to at least twice as many pigs as people (roughly 12 million pigs to not quite 6 million Danes). The country’s export market for pigs amounts to about $5 billion a year. At Berith Nissen’s farm in southern Denmark, visitors must change their clothes and socks, wash their hands and slip into borrowed shoes before she’ll open the door to reveal some of her 10,000-plus pigs.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Hedgehogs …Harbingers of Salmonella– “Since October, 11 people across eight states have been infected with a particular strain of salmonella, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, and all but one of those infected said they had contact with a hedgehog. ‘Don’t kiss or snuggle hedgehogs because this can spread salmonella germs to your face and mouth and make you sick,’ the agency warned. No deaths have been reported and one person has been hospitalized, the C.D.C. said. Three cases have been reported in Missouri and two in Minnesota. Infections have also been reported in Colorado, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Texas and Wyoming.”



Review of the “Digitization of WMD” Symposium

by Justin Hurt, GMU Biodefense PhD student

As part of National Defense University’s hosted topical discussion series, the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction (CSWMD) hosted a symposium titled “The Digitization of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): exploring the Impact of Digital Components of Emerging Technologies on January 17th, 2019 on Fort McNair. The discussion “The Digitization of Biology” presented a very pertinent conversation of the emerging concerns of new technologies in biodefense and biosecurity. Hosted by Dr. Diane DiEuliis of CSWMD, the panel included an initial topical discussion by Dr. Corey Hudson from Sandia National Laboratory regarding modeling genomic and synthetic biology facilities at scale. Next, Dr. Eleonore Pauwels of the United Nations University talked about biointelligence and the availability of knowledge. Finally, Supervisory Special Agent Ed You from the Federal Bureau of Investigation discussed ideas on how to address safeguards in the emerging bioeconomy. Continue reading “Review of the “Digitization of WMD” Symposium”

Pandora Report: 1.25.2019

Need a Dirty Tissue? You Can Pay $80 For a Box of Them
In what we’re hoping is a joke, a new start up has released a product to help spread germs – Vaev Tissue.“We believe using a tissue that carries a human sneeze is safer than needles or pills,” read the note that came with the product, written by the founder of the company. Wipe your nose with the sullied tissue, and you’ll “get sick on your own terms.” Similar to the chicken pox lollipops being spread around a few years back, this is basically the adult version of trying to pick your poison and get sick when you want to versus by surprise. In the case of Vaev Tissue, the founder emphasizes that this is a luxury product -“That kind of freedom, that kind of luxury to choose—I mean, we customize everything in our lives and we have everything the way that we want it, so why not approach sickness that way as well?” Since there are so many jokes to be made at this ridiculous “luxury product”, we’re just going to let you run with it…

Making Sense of the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy
The National Biodefense Strategy was released in September and “continues to reinforce the broad scope of the biological threat, including naturally occurring infectious disease, the deliberate use of bioweapons by states, and the growing presence of non-state actors—and now acknowledges new stakeholders within biodefense: the enthusiast community, which includes do-it-yourself biologists.” Last week though, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory released a publicly available (and free!) tool, B-PLAT, which stands for the Biodefense Policy Landscape Analysis Tool. Called the “spaghetti monster”,  this tool helps visualize the relationships between agencies, their responsibilities, and the complexity of preparing for and responding to biological threats. “B-PLAT 2.0 aims to tackle a mountain of useful information that, unfortunately, can be cumbersome to navigate. For instance, responsibilities are frequently assigned to multiple designees; it is not uncommon to find one responsibility assigned to five or more agencies, with no delineation of specific roles. It is also common for seemingly overlapping responsibilities to be assigned to disparate agencies. For example, we identified more than 20 responsibilities for disease surveillance across all sources, assigned to at least five federal agencies and all state, local, tribal, and territorial governments. One federal law directs the Department of Health and Human Services to ‘establish a near real-time electronic nationwide public health situational awareness capability,’ while another law tasks the Department of Homeland Security with detecting any ‘biological event of national concern’ by integrating data from human health, animal, plant, food, and environmental surveillance. In B-PLAT 2.0, both of these responsibilities are tagged with the new strategy goal (‘Enable Risk Awareness to Inform Decision-Making’), the old pillar (‘Surveillance & Detection’), and the activity (‘surveillance’) to help users identify similar responsibilities.” In truth, the dynamics of biodefense can be confusing – with so many agencies, programs, products, etc. The effort by B-PLAT to help bring clarity to national biodefense strategies is wholly appreciated.

New Era of Epidemics- A Rival to Climate Change in Risk to Global Businesses
The World Economic Forum recently collaborated with the Harvard Global Health institute to provide a white paper on the impact of infectious disease outbreaks on the business community and society. You can read the report – Outbreak Readiness and Business Impact: Protecting Lives and Livelihoods across the Global Economy here, which notes that “Economists estimate that, in the coming decades, pandemics will cause average annual economic losses of 0.7% of global GDP – a threat similar in scale to that estimated for climate change. As this report makes clear, this is a level of risk that businesses can no longer afford to ignore.” As the Global Risks Report noted last week, the world is considerably vulnerable to emerging infectious disease threats and risks posed by biotechnologies. “‘Outbreaks are a top global economic risk and – like the case for climate change – large companies can no longer afford to stay on the sidelines. Business leaders need to better understand expected costs of epidemics, mitigate these costs and strengthen health security more broadly,’ said Vanessa Candeias, Head of the System Initiative on Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare and Member of Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum.”

 Biodefense MS and PhD Open Houses
Looking to improve your biodefense knowledge while obtaining a graduate degree? The Schar school Biodefense program is the place for it – from anthrax to Zika, we’ve got you covered. We’ve got two events coming up that you won’t want to miss if you’re looking to invest in your education. Thursday, February 21st (6:30pm) we’ll be hosting a Master’s Open House and on Wednesday, March 20th (7pm) there will be a PhD Open House – both at the Arlington campus. These are great opportunities to hear about the biodefense programs, meet faculty and students, and learn how you can become a biodefense guru through our in-person and online programs.

Chemical Weapons – From Sanctions to ISIS and the Long-term Effects of Sarin
CW news has been quite extensive this week as the EU hit Russia and Syria with sanctions related to chemical weapons use. This is the first time the EU has imposed sanctions for chemical weapons use and are in relation to the ongoing use of chemical weapons in Syria an the poisoning of two in the UK last year. “The EU travel bans and asset freezes target ‘the two GRU [Russia’s intelligence agency] officials … responsible for possession, transport and use in Salisbury (UK) of a toxic nerve agent,’ as well as the head and deputy head of the organization, EU foreign ministers wrote in a statement.” In other news…Iraqi scientist Suleiman al-Afari is reporting that he helped ISIS build chemical weapons when the militants rounded up workers and pressed them into service. While he is a geologist and was hoping to keep his job at the Ministry of Industry and Minerals, they asked him to help make chemical weapons. “Afari knew little about the subject, but he accepted the assignment. And so began his 15-month stint supervising the manufacture of lethal toxins for the world’s deadliest terrorist group. ‘Do I regret it? I don’t know if I’d use that word,’ said Afari, who was captured by U.S. and Kurdish soldiers in 2016 and is now a prisoner in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region. He frowned, his fingers flicking a gray-stubbled cheek. ‘They had become the government and we now worked for them,’ he said. ‘We wanted to work so we could get paid’.” Afari recounts these events while serving on death row – discussing his recruitment into ISIS and the group’s successful attempt at making sulfur mustard. “Progress on the program appears to have stalled in early 2016, after U.S. and Iraqi leaders launched an aggressive campaign to destroy production facilities and kill or capture its leaders. Yet, the threat has not been entirely erased. Islamic State leaders moved equipment and perhaps chemicals from Iraq to Syria in 2016, Iraqi officials say, and some of it may have been buried or hidden. Moreover, the knowledge and skills acquired from Afari and other veterans of the program undoubtedly still exist, tucked away in computer files, flash drives and in the memories of the surviving participants who scattered as the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate collapsed, Western officials and terrorism experts said.” While there’s a lot of talk about chemical weapons, what are the actual effects? A systematic review was just conducted by the National Toxicology Program (on behalf of the NIH Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats program) regarding the long-term neurological impacts of acute sarin exposure in both humans and animals. For visual and ocular effects- “Case reports or case series have reported that subjects exposed to sarin occupationally or via terrorist attacks complained of vision problems for weeks to years after exposure. There is a consistent pattern of findings that pupil constriction from acute sarin exposure gradually normalizes in the following week to several months. There is a moderate level of evidence from human studies that sarin has negative effects on vision in the intermediate time period including decreases in visual evoked potentials.” For learning, memory, and intelligence- “Experimental studies in rats found consistent sarin-related effects on learning and memory that were apparent for days, weeks, and months after sarin exposure. The evidence from human studies for effects on learning and memory during the initial period is inadequate. In the extended period, there is a moderate level of evidence that sarin exposure is associated with impaired learning and memory based on epidemiological studies and a low level of evidence from experimental animal studies.” The Department of Health and Human Services has also just released resources for fourth generation agents (i.e. Novichoks) – from safety awareness for first responders to medical management guidelines.

Bavarian Nordic Announces Additional Smallpox Vaccine Manufacturing Option
Bavarian Nordic has just announced that BARDA has exercised an option under their contract for smallpox vaccine (freeze-dried MVA-BN). “The option, valued at USD 44 million, will cover qualification of the new fill-finish facility, currently being established at the Company’s manufacturing site in Denmark, as well as transfer and validation of the freeze-drying process. The majority of this contract option is expected to be revenue recognised in 2019 and 2020. This is the second option exercised under the contract. In 2017, BARDA exercised an option of USD 37 million to cover development costs associated with the Phase 3 study required for the eventual approval of the freeze-dried MVA-BN smallpox vaccine. This Phase 3 will be initiated in the first half of 2019.”

Concerns for Flu-drug Resistance
Concerns for resistance to a new flu drug – the antiviral baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza) -are growing as Japanese researchers discussed H3N2 mutations that help support resistance. “Baloxavir is the first novel flu treatment approved by the FDA since it cleared oseltamivir and zanamivir, both neuraminidase inhibitors, in 1999. The FDA approved baloxavir in October 2018. Sporadic resistance to osteltamivir has been reported over the years, and experts have said flu drugs with different mechanisms of action are needed to provide more options for treating resistant flu. The new drug, discovered by Japan-based Shionogi and developed by Roche, is a single-dose treatment approved in the United States for uncomplicated flu in patients ages 12 and older. Japanese researchers who have been monitoring baloxavir’s susceptibility to circulating flu strains said that, during phase 2 and 3 trials, some patients who got baloxavir and were infected with 2009 H1N1 and H3N2 strains containing certain substitutions had longer virus shedding and time to symptom alleviation. The patterns they saw suggested that the incidence of reduced susceptibility to baloxavir was higher than to oseltamivir.”

Ebola Outbreak Updates
Three more cases have been identified in the DRC, bringing the total to 715 cases (49 of which are probable). The DRC Ministry of Health reported 4 more deaths due to Ebola as well. “As part of bat sampling with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) PREDICT project, scientists found Ebola genetic material and Ebola antibodies in a greater long-fingered bat from Nimba district in northeastern Liberia, according to a press release from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The project also included researchers from Columbia’s Center for Infection and Immunity and EcoHealth Alliance. The bat species that yielded Ebola evidence is found in West Africa and other regions and is important to agriculture, because they eat insects that damage crops. Unlike other bats, the long-fingered type doesn’t roost in homes or building and instead are found in forests, caves, and mines. According to the report, Liberia’s government is using that information to teach the public about how to avoid exposure and increase their awareness of the animals’ positive impact on the environment.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • UK Aims to Cut Antibiotic Use by 15% in 5-year Plan– “The 5-year national action plan calls for a 10% reduction in the number of antibiotic-resistant infections in people by 2025, a 15% decrease in human antibiotic use by 2024, and a 25% decrease in the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals by 2020. To encourage development of new antibiotics, the government will test a new payment model that will reimburse pharmaceutical companies based on how valuable their drugs are to the National Health Service (NHS), rather than on the quantity of antibiotics sold.”
  • Prior Dengue Infection Protects Children Against Zika– “Children who have previously been exposed to dengue virus appear to be protected from getting sick when infected with Zika virus, according to a study published January 22 in PLOS Medicine. The study’s scientific team, led by Aubree Gordon of the University of Michigan and Eva Harris of the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed the large 2016 Zika epidemic in Nicaragua, while focusing on a pediatric cohort with a well-characterized history of exposure to the dengue virus. The cohort, established in 2004 to gather information about dengue in Nicaragua, follows approximately 3,700 children aged two to 14 years old. “What we saw was that having had a prior documented dengue infection in these kids protected them from symptomatic Zika,” Gordon says. “It didn’t protect them from getting infected, but if they got infected, they were less likely to get sick.” Children with prior dengue infection had 38 percent less risk of showing symptoms when infected with Zika than those who were dengue-free. Zika symptoms included fever, rash, conjunctivitis, muscle, joint pain and headache.”