Pandora Report 8.25.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense. Have you ever wanted to take a tour of Dugway Proving Ground? Here’s your chance at a virtual tour through some amazing photography.

GMU Biodefense Graduate Programs & Information Sessions
Classes are just starting up and if you’ve ever wanted to take classes on synthetic biology and biosecurity, global health security policy, nonproliferation and arms control, biosurveillance, or emerging infectious diseases, we’ve got just the program for you! GMU offers both Masters and PhD programs in biodefense and has several informational sessions coming soon. Our program provides the perfect intersection of policy and science with courses taught by a range experts. If your time is limited or distance is a problem, we also offer an online MS program, which means you can study biodefense from anywhere!

Revisiting NIH Biosafety Guidelines
It’s been forty years since NIH established the Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant or Synthetic Nucleic Acid Molecules to assess the risks of genome editing. Now more than ever, with the speed of biotech development, it is relevant to take a moment and look back at the significance of such guidelines. “Responsibilities include setting up Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) to assess risks and potential hazards through standards for containment and laboratory practices. Noncompliance on any project, whatever the funding source, can result in loss of all such NIH funding. In his address to the workshop.” Since its inception, there have been several advances in the field, like DIY gene editing and CRISPR, which may require changes to the existing guidelines. “And conventional risk management practices that focus on listed pathogens may underestimate risks of new, unlisted organisms. The informality of voluntary guidelines has enabled prompt responses by funders and researchers to emerging evidence on benefits and risks of technologies. But what has worked with those receiving NIH funding with IBCs may not work with the wider range of actors who now have access to these technologies.” How can the NIH meet these challenges with a forty-year-old set of rules? A few things might help it maintain relevancy- participation in international forums, facilitating researchers/publishers/insurers to set common benchmarks on researcher conduct, engage more with institutional biosafety officials, and working to ensure there are more IBCs. Overall, there is a need to modernize the guidelines to better meet and serve the expanding plain of the life sciences.

Revisiting Compliance in the Biological Weapons Convention                                                                       Have you noticed a trend this week? Revisiting is the name of the game and that’s just what the latest occasional paper from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey is doing. The latest RevCon was a dud and the future of the BWC and its relevance is being tested. James Revill is looking at compliance and an incremental approach within the BWC. Revill notes that “compliance with the BWC is more than a simple binary choice to sign a commitment not to develop or produce biological weapons. It requires the adherence to all the obligations, both negative and positive, undertaken by BWC states parties in signing and ratifying the convention. In the BWC context, this is complicated by the ambiguity surrounding certain obligations, changes in science and security, and the limited resource capacity of some states to fulfill their obligations. Under such circumstances, without episodically revisiting compliance, there remains the risk that BWC will become ever more fragmented, outmoded and poorly implemented.” He emphasizes that despite many pushing for multilaterally negotiated, legally binding verification protocols, this is an unlikely outcome. An incremental approach to revisiting compliance, Revill suggests, could incorporate several activities – review relevant science and technology, enhance the collection and analysis of compliance indicators, develop the consultative mechanism, building the provision of assistance in the event of a violation of the BWC, explore voluntary visits, enhance the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism, and remedy the institutional deficient. Overall, he points to the wavering nature of norms against bioweapons and that “without revisiting compliance and tending the convention, there is a risk that the regime will be left to fester and fragment, in time potentially diminishing the norms against biological weapons.”

Meeting on the Attribution of Biological Crime, Terrorism, and Warfare
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense will be hosting this October 3rd meeting in Washington D.C. “Effective prosecution and decisions regarding U.S. response depend on accurate attribution of biological attacks. Despite ongoing biological crimes and suspected development of biological weapons for the purpose of attacking the Nation, the United States has yet to establish this capability fully. The Study Panel will host a special focus meeting entitled Biological Attribution: Challenges and Solutions. This meeting of the Study Panel, chaired by former Homeland Security Advisor Ken Wainstein and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, will provide federal government, industry, and academic representatives with the opportunity to discuss their perspectives, experiences, challenges, and recommended solutions with regard to biological attribution.” Stay tuned for more details!

SynBio Salmagundi: Proposed Framework for Identifying Potential Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology – Report, SB7.0 & Options for Synthetic DNA Screening 
It’s a good day to get your synbio nerdom on with this potpourri of news! If you missed the webinar on Tuesday, you can now access the latest NAS interim report regarding the biodefense implications of synthetic biology. “Synthetic biology and related biotechnologies hold great promise for addressing challenges in human health, agriculture, and other realms. At the same time, synthetic biology raises concerns about possible malicious uses that might threaten human health or national security. This interim report is the first phase of a study by the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine to assess potential vulnerabilities. The report proposes a strategic framework that can be used to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern.” Within the report you can find definitions and study scope regarding synthetic biology in the context of biodefense, factors to assess capability for malicious use, technologies and applications to assess, and framework approach (parameters to consider, use and limitations, etc.). Check out this latest article regarding the screening processes of for synthetic DNA ordering. Sure, there are current screening processes (providers affiliated with the International Gene Synthesis Consortium voluntarily screen double-stranded DNA synthesis orders over 200bp to check for regulated pathogens and additional customer screening), but truly, the processes isn’t that easy…or cheap. Researchers, like Gigi Kwik Gronvall, pointed out actions that could help “preserve the effectiveness of DNA order screening as a security tool and develop additional mechanisms to increase the safety and security of DNA synthesis technologies.” Highlighting the DHHS screening guidance as quickly becoming obsolete, they emphasized options like including direct financial support to companies for screening, especially as we look to the future costs and responsibilities of the U.S. government. “The screening of dsDNA orders is not a panacea for biosecurity concerns: it is possible for nefarious actors to work around the screening. However, we believe that screening dsDNA orders still raises barriers to the development of biological weapons and may offer some protection against biosafety concerns.” The future of synthetic DNA ordering will surely be debated as experiments, like the recent horsepox reconstitution, bring to light new gaps. One such focus onto the realm of biosecurity and synthetic biology comes from Dr. Eric van der Helm, who participated at the latest SB7.0 synthetic biology conference. Van der Helm attended as part of the SB7.0 biosecurity fellowship and has highlighted some of the biorisks we worry about. He also points to the latest horsepox experiment which brought about so much attention to the biosecurity implications of reconstituting an extinct virus. “Synthetic biology has only been recently recognized as a mature subject in the context of biological risk assessment — and the core focus has been infectious diseases. The main idea, to build resilience and a readiness to respond, was reiterated by several speakers at the SB7.0 conference.  In the case of biosecurity, we’re already dependent on biology [with respect to food, health etc.] but we still have an opportunity to develop biosecurity strategies before synthetic biology is ubiquitous.  There is still an opportunity to act now and put norms and practices in place because the community is still relatively small.” Van der Helm emphasizes the need to have these conversations regarding biosecurity measures and synbio, like those at SB7.0, more frequently and openly.

North Korea’s Bioweapon Program: What do we actually know?
If you haven’t gotten enough on discussions regarding North Korea’s bioweapons program, check out GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley‘s latest interview in which she discusses what we know and what we might be missing. What a perfect way to enjoy the morning commute or a lunch break!

Post-Ebola Recovery – An Upside to an Epidemic
A recent mudslide in Sierra Leone is revealing a positive outcome from the 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak – sustained disaster response. Shortly after the mudslide, emergency response crews were already working alongside volunteers to help rescue victims. Sidi Tunis chatted with Buzzfeed, noting that “During Ebola we had a lot of community engagement, so they knew how to be first responders. They knew how to do search and rescues, they knew how to convey corpses safely to the morgue.” Many of the young men digging through rubble were already experienced, having helped with Ebola burial teams and the ambulance system was better equipped and supported as a result of the outbreak. “There was a lesson learnt from Ebola that instead of creating parallel system of NGOs, let’s take leadership from the start,” she said. “So this time it’s been led by the government from the onset, and having them take that ownership is more of a sustainable system.” “Still, NGOs playing a critical role are in a better position than they might typically have been. Three days after the mudslide, unclaimed bodies piling up in Freetown’s main mortuary posed another health risk. There were so many that they began to decompose in the tropical heat, prompting the government to order mass burials over the following two days. Workers from UNICEF were among those who helped scrub out the morgue during a massive clean-up operation that followed. ‘That needed a lot of infection prevention equipment – gloves, boots, aprons,’ James said. ‘UNICEF had emergency stock ready to go from Ebola’.”

Meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
Don’t miss out on this September 13th and 14th meeting in which the “Advisory Council will provide advice, information, and recommendations to the Secretary regarding programs and policies intended to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics by optimizing their use; advance research to develop improved methods for combating antibiotic resistance and conducting antibiotic stewardship; strengthen surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; prevent the transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; advance the development of rapid point-of-care and agricultural diagnostics; further research Start Printed Page 38913on new treatments for bacterial infections; develop alternatives to antibiotics for agricultural purposes; maximize the dissemination of up-to-date information on the appropriate and proper use of antibiotics to the general public and human and animal healthcare providers; and improve international coordination of efforts to combat antibiotic resistance.” The meeting will be held at the DHHS Hubert Humphrey Building or you can attend online here.

Pandemic Readiness (Hint: We’re Not There Yet)
Despite funding for the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) and an increase in funding to the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program (PHEP), many are pointing out that these programs are chronically underfunded to begin with. “This House bill also does little to create a realistic public health emergency response fund, a standing pot of money to meet the immediate needs of a public health crisis. We saw how long it took to get emergency funds to respond to Zika, Ebola and Hurricane Sandy, with each event taking longer and longer to help these communities respond to devastating disasters.” You can also check out this latest meeting with Judy Woodruff and Liberian-born Dr. Raj Panjabi at Spotlight Health. Dr. Panjabi discusses the seriousness of infectious disease threats and the challenges of pandemic prevention.

Forecasting Outbreaks One Image at a Time
Tracking infectious diseases is a tough job and requires a lot of boots on the ground (shout out to gumshoe epidemiologists who go door to door doing contact tracing). Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been using computer modeling for a while to track disease movement, but a new partnership with Descartes Labs, is bringing high-resolution satellite imagery into the arsenal. “By mapping where high-moisture areas intersect with those social media signals and clinical surveillance data, we can help identify areas at risk for disease emergence and subsequently predict its potential path. Descartes Labs collects data daily from public and commercial imagery providers, aggregating the images into a single database. Our team at Los Alamos will use the Descartes Labs Platform to correlate satellite imagery with multiyear clinical surveillance data from approximately 5,500 Brazilian municipalities for mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, and Zika in order to better understand how they spread.” This new imagery will allow Los Alamos Lab researchers to focus on specific neighborhoods and other small geographical areas. By using retrospective analysis via historical data, they’ll make sure the mathematical models are accurate and ensure that future models are truly capable of prediction.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Munich Re Signs Strategic Agreement With Metabiota to Enhance Insurability Against Epidemic Losses – The risk analytics firm Metabiota has announced a strategic agreement with Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurers, to better establish insurability “by protecting companies and local economies from the financial loss related to epidemics. This really is the next frontier for the insurance industry – given the high risk of infectious disease outbreaks, it is imperative that we find new ways to manage and finance these risks for our customers.” Metabiota’s newest platform is a modeling method for estimating epidemic preparedness and risk, as well as the cost and severity of outbreaks by using historical data and disease scenarios and analytics.
  • Ebola Survivors Plagued With Long-term Disabilities – Imagine becoming infected with one of the most deadly viruses on the planet. Now, imagine by some stroke of luck and medical marvel, you’re able to survive. After the long, miserable road that is Ebola infection, survivors have been finding themselves with chronic conditions and high rates of disabilities. A new study found that Ebola survivors have seven times the disability rate compared to their close contacts. “In the first study, researchers followed 27 Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone for 1 year after diagnosis and found they were seven times more likely than their close contacts to report a disability. Almost 80% of the survivors (77.8%) reported a disability 1 year post-infection, compared with 11.1% of their close contacts. Disabilities included major limitations in vision, mobility, and cognition. ‘This study has demonstrated that a year following acute disease, survivors of the recent EVD outbreak have higher odds of persisting disability in mobility, vision, and cognition,’ the authors concluded. ‘Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression persist in EVD survivors and must not be neglected’.”
  • Minnesota Measles Woes & Anti-vaxxers– The benefits of vaccines have been under fire from anti-vaccine activists, despite the overwhelming good they’ve done for the world. While Minnesota continues to battle their worst outbreak of measles in decades, the antivaxxers are becoming energized in their efforts. “In Facebook group discussions, local activists have asked about holding ‘measles parties’ to expose unvaccinated children to others infected with the virus so they can contract the disease and acquire immunity.” The initial cases of this outbreak were in the Somali American community, which are believed to be the result of anti-vaccine activists speaking to community members and instilling fears and concerns. “Despite the anti-vaccine drumbeat, Minnesota’s Somali American community has begun to push back, according to some health-care providers. As part of an unprecedented collaboration clinicians and public health officials launched this summer, ­Somali American imams are urging families to protect their children by getting the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.”

Pandora Report 8.18.2017

ECDC Tool for Prioritizing Biothreats
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has released their tool for the prioritization of infectious disease threats. “This qualitative tool, implemented as an Excel workbook, is based on multi-criteria decision analysis. It ranks infectious disease threats in a transparent, comparable and methodologically reproducible manner. The tool enables the relative ranking of different infectious disease threats. It is intended as a supplement to other methods that also support decision-making in preparedness planning.” Part of the tool involves a scoring of diseases, in which it suggests that a multidisciplinary expert group works to establish reliable information and adequate scoring. The ECDC tool also includes a handbook and manual for users to get the most out of it.

 Long Ignored: The Use of CBW Against Insurgents
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Glenn Cross investigates the use of chemical and biological weapons in counterinsurgency campagins like that of Rhodesia, South Africa, and Syria. Cross notes that history has shown the efficacy of CBW against ill-equipped and often poorly trained insurgents. He points to the debate regarding application of use – some say that these weapons are used when conventional forces are ineffective and often a last resort, while others note that the lack of an international and effective response have given insurgents incentive. “The conclusion from these examples is that regimes in extremis — when the battle is for their very survival — seem to have little compunction about resorting to chemical and biological weapons use. The much-heralded international norms and conventions prohibiting and condemning chemical and biological development and use go out the window when a regime’s survival is at stake. The examples of Rhodesia and Syria show that the international community must be united and demonstrate the requisite political will to enforce norms if the use of chemical and biological weapons is to be prevented.” Cross highlights two case studies, Rhodesia and Syria, pointing to the use of biological weapons by Rhodesian forces as being the only example of a nation using bioweapons since the end of WWII. While the regime was aware of treaty obligations, it had no bearing on their decision to use such weapons. So what are effective constrains on the use of CBW? The case studies reveal that regimes care little about their efficacy, international norms, or international agreements, but it is really deterrence that likely prevents the use of such weapons. The credible threat of military action is the strongest deterrent and realistically, until international norms include uniform enforcement amongst nations, they won’t be as effective. “As we’ve seen in Syria, such consensus is elusive, and the international community has failed to act. As a consequence, the world faces a sad, but inevitable conclusion. The Syrian regime is unlikely to ever face justice for its use of chemical weapons.”

A View from the CT Foxhole: Edward You, FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit
As if we need any more reasons to think Edward You is a biosecurity action hero! The Combating Terrorism Center recently sat down with Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI’s WMD Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit, and discussed not only his role within the FBI but also their work and coordination with partners. You notes that hisprimary mission is to support outreach and engagement, but probably most importantly it is to backstop the WMD Coordinators who are positioned in the field. They have to cover the whole broad range of modalities—chem, bio, nuke, explosives. They do the initial engagements, the partnerships, the initial response, but they can always call back to headquarters where we leverage all of our expertise as subject matter experts. We can bring in the laboratory division; we can bring in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if necessary, the Department of Homeland Security to support them when they run into an incident out in the field.” He emphasizes the importance of the relationship the FBI has with the private sector, not only in terms of shared interests, but also communicating security problems to help get more buy-in and coordination. When asked about the DIY biohacker, You notes that “We look at these community labs as a big positive force in the economy and engines of innovation. That has helped us overcome the natural tendency for such outfits to be a little bit anti-establishment. By engaging with them, we’re helping them to raise their level of awareness that they could potentially be targeted by malicious actors seeking to subvert their work, steal their technology, or recruit insiders on their staff. By helping them establish a form of ‘neighborhood watch,’ they will be best positioned to identify and report on instances of suspicious activity both internal and external to their community. Who better to identify threats than the community members themselves?” While the partnerships with DIY labs haven’t garnered any leads to potential threats, they help the FBI understand the direction biotech is heading, which allows them to flag areas of concern faster than if they used a top-down approach. You also addresses the 2016 Europol warning of potential ISIS experimentation with bioweapons, commenting that “With ISIS, al-Qa`ida, or any other threat actor for that matter, we are faced with two significant challenges. The first is ideology. What happens if that lone individual that becomes persuaded by their ideology happens to be a microbiologist or a biochemist? The counter WMD mission has always proceeded by identifying the actors expressing the intent to acquire, develop, or use WMDs (e.g., counterproliferation efforts). And historically, significant effort and investments have been made to counter the biological weapon threat ranging from state/non-state actors to individual level biological crimes (e.g., attempted ricin poisonings). But this introduces the second challenge. Unlike the chemical and radiological/nuclear realms where materials of concern are highly regulated and the expertise is almost arcane, biology could be classified as dual use or multi-use. The strength of the field is based on the fact that it is inherently open in nature (e.g., peer-reviewed scientific journals), which has led to significant advances in areas such as healthcare.” Lastly, You points to what he considers the greatest biosecurity threat facing the U.S. – the concerns of non-state actors, but also the role of data in terms of gene editing and other biotech, noting that “we may have have been short-sighted. Most of our legal frameworks have been focused on privacy and not on security.” “Because there’s a lack of understanding about where bio is going, we’re in danger of falling behind, and my biggest concern is that for lack of our foresight and being strategic in this space, I think China is going to become a potential biological superpower.” Did I mention that Edward You is frequently a speaker at our summer workshops?

North Korea’s Chemical Arsenal Complicates U.S. Options 
As concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program grows, the threat of chemical weapons has seemingly been downplayed. Tackling nuclear threats through preemptive strikes could push North Korea to utilize their chemical weapons program and sizable stockpile, which is considered to be one of the largest. “Experts are also disturbed by Kim Jong-un’s brazen public assassination of his half-brother using the nerve agent VX, saying it demonstrates the regime’s willingness to use deadly toxins. ‘I think if people paid more attention to the chemical side, they’d be less inclined to talk about preemption and going first against North Korea,’ said Greg Koblentz, a researcher of weapons of mass destruction at George Mason University.” In the event that chemical weapons are deployed, the South Korean capitol of Seoul would surely take a hit, which is home to 25 million people. While details of North Korea’s biological weapons program have given little insight into what is actually going on, there is considerably more knowledge regarding their chemical weapons initiatives. “The exact composition and size of North Korea’s chemical arsenal is unclear, but it’s believed to include everything from antiquated chlorine gas all the way up to sarin, VX, and other highly lethal nerve agents. These weapons are distributed at facilities across the country, often tucked away in underground bunkers or other sites unknown to U.S. and allied intelligence. The weapons are also deployed along the armistice line, which sits just 35 miles north of Seoul.” While there are limits to their chemical weapons capabilities, they surely provide little comfort to South Korean citizens and those living in Seoul.

 Chatting With the WHO
New WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke with Foreign Affairs’ regarding his plans for the future of the WHO and efforts to combat global disease. Tedros notes that epidemics or pandemics keep him up at night, especially something like the 1918 pandemic and the “serious gaps we have”. He comments that “I think the world should unite and focus on strong health systems to prepare the whole world to prevent epidemics—or if there is an outbreak, to manage it quickly—because viruses don’t respect borders, and they don’t need visas.” In regards to irrational beliefs as a public health threat, Tedros highlights the role of governments (and the WHO in supporting them) to communicate with communities and use media as a tool for teaching. Tedros discussed the WHO’s response to Ebola and when asked about hesitancy governments may experience regarding raising the alarm for an outbreak, he noted that “it’s not an issue between the WHO and the member state in question; it’s about the overall implementation of the International Health Regulations [the rules that govern how states respond to outbreaks]. That involves not only the country in question but other countries, as well. For instance, a country may fear the impact on the economy if it reports a certain disease. And if the other countries, instead of banning travel or other measures, could be supportive and implement the IHR, then the country could be encouraged to report immediately.”

Book Review – Barriers to Bioweapons
As the summer winds down, you may find yourself needing a new book to delve into. GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ougrham-Gormley‘s book, Barriers to Bioweapons, is a great addition to any lover of health security and the realities of biological experiments. This latest book review gives a witty and entertaining overview of her work, noting that “Barriers to Bioweapons argues that actually, we’re not all living on borrowed time – that there are real organizational and expertise challenges to successfully creating bioweapons. She then discusses specific historical programs, and their implications for biosecurity in the future.”

Pandemic Preparedness & A Global Catastrophic Biological Risk By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu tackles the importance of pandemic preparedness and the latest publication from the Center for Health Security regarding global catastrophic biological risks. “We may think written plans and the occasional table-top exercise are making us more prepared to handle a pandemic, but true preparation goes far beyond that. The ability to prevent, detect, respond, and control outbreaks is a hefty investment that countries are still struggling to make, and as a new report recently revealed, a paltry amount of countries may be ready for a pandemic.” She highlights the latest World Bank report that only six countries have truly taken efforts to evaluate their readiness to handle a pandemic. Like many things, the devil is in the details, and often that is as simple as a real name for a problem. A recent publication from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security sought to fix this by establishing a working definition for global catastrophic biological risks (GCBR). “What makes this definition unique, aside from it being the first working definition for GCBRs, is that it highlights several components, such as sustained catastrophic damage, and instead of highlighting a specific number of deaths, it looks to a range of negative outcomes, such as infertility. The challenging task of defining such a globally feared, but poorly understood risk was daunting; however, the Center for Health Security has provided us with a working tool that can now be applied to policy, and future preparedness and response efforts.”

H5 Hits the Philippines and Plague in Arizona
The Philippines is reporting its first highly pathogenic H5 avian influenza outbreak. Hitting a commercial poultry farm in Luzon, the outbreak began in July and killed 36,485 of the 190,000 birds. “A report today in the Manila Times, based on a media briefing with Emmanuel Pinol, the country’s agriculture secretary, said the outbreak was confirmed in the city of San Luis and that six poultry farms were affected. Most of the poultry deaths were in layer chickens. Pinol told reporters that the outbreak may have begun as early as April when deaths were reported in quail housed above ducks. He said ducks are the likely source of the outbreak, since they had contact with migratory birds. The Manila Times report said the outbreak site is 37 miles north of Manila and is close to swamps that are stopovers for migratory birds from the Asian mainland.” Public health officials in Arizona have announced that fleas in two counties have tested positive for plague (Yersinia pestis). While plague is endemic in the southwest, public health officials still work to ensure residents are aware that there is an increased risk. Officials are warning residents to be mindful of the potential for exposure via pets. “Fleas can bite rabbits, prairie dogs and other rodents — and anything that may eat them — and transfer the disease to pets, who in turn can infect humans. Cats who get plague transmit it through their cough. Dogs typically carry the fleas on their fur. Health officials cautioned county residents and visitors to keep their pets leashed and to avoid touching dead animals. Evidence of a large die-off could indicate plague is present, they say.”

Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology
Don’t miss out on these events by the National Academies Committee on Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology:

  • August 21 – the committee’s interim report and proposed framework will be released at 11am EDT here
  • August 22 – a public release webinar and report briefing will be held from 11am-12pm EDT. Committee Chair Michael Imperiale and committee members Patrick Boyle and Andrew Ellington will be reviewing the interim report and the proposed framework. This webinar is free to attend and open to the public, but you must register to attend. You can register at the following link:  https://nasevents.webex.com/nasevents/onstage/g.php?MTID=e39277a767b1f0190db4f7ee491c01271  You will be able to submit questions and comments during this webinar through a text-based feature but will not be able to speak directly with the presenters.
  • August 23-24: The meeting will be held at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Keck Center at 500 5th Street NW, Washington, DC Room 208. You must register to attend the meeting in person; the Keck Center is a secure building and we will need to have your name on the guard’s list to enter the building. You can register by emailing synbiodefense@nas.edu. If you would like to attend via teleconference, you can access the conference by dialing the following: to listen, please dial 1-(866) 668-0721 and use conference code 380 454 1676.

The committee is also soliciting feedback from the public on the interim report and the associated framework. You can submit questions or comments through September 5, 2017 at the following link:  http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/3758337/A-Proposed-Framework-For-Identifying-Potential-Biodefense-Vulnerabilities-Posed-By-Synthetic-Biology  Due to the anticipated volume of questions, the committee may not explicitly address every comment received but all comments will be considered and reviewed. PLEASE NOTE: if you submit a question, your question and any associated identifying information you provide will be added to the study’s public access file as per the National Academies’ requirements to comply with FACA.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Uganda Ebola-like Illness Demystified- Public health officials in Uganda are sighing with relief as results from the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) have reported the death of a 20-year-old woman in Luweero was due to carbon monoxide poisoning and not the suspected Ebola virus. “There are currently 3 female cases admitted at Bishop Asili hospital, Luweero. However, results from UVRI indicate that all cases were negative for Ebola, Marburg, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Rift Valley fever, and Sosuga viruses. ‘The ministry of health team is working closely with the District Health Team to monitor, review, and manage these cases as well as orienting health workers on management and referral protocols of suspected cases,’ reads the statement.”

Pandora Report 8.11.2017

Norovirus may be plaguing athletes in London for the World Championships, but we’re making sure to deliver the latest biodefense news to you (germ free)! Check out these WHO courses for managing public health emergencies.

CDC Invests $200 Million For Infectious Disease Preparedness
Last week the CDC announced that it awarded more than $200 million to help prevent, detect, respond to, and control biothreats posed by emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. The funds will go through the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity for Infectious Diseases (ELC) cooperative agreement and reach all fifty state health departments and several local health agencies in large metropolitan areas. The CDC announcement noted that the “CDC and states work together to improve local surveillance, laboratory diagnostic capabilities, and outbreak response. The CDC has awarded more than $200 million through the Epidemiology and ELC cooperative agreement to help states, cities, counties, and territories prevent, detect, respond to, and control the growing threats posed by emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. State programs are the foundation of the U.S. public health system and are integral to the nation’s efforts to combat infectious disease threats. CDC and states work together to improve local surveillance, laboratory diagnostic capabilities, and outbreak response.” This also includes $77 million to help state health departments combat antibiotic resistance in their areas. The 2017 funding enhances current Antibiotic Resistance Laboratory Network (AR Lab Network) activities by increasing testing nationwide for Candida fungal threats, strengthening national TB surveillance and infrastructure, and enhancing detection of drug-resistant gonorrhea. This surge of funds, mixed with a new strategy that combines market entry rewards with population-based payments from insurers, could help bring us ahead in the battle against the resistant bug. “The proposal, dubbed the Priority Antimicrobial Value and Entry (PAVE) award, would use limited public funds to cover the majority of revenue for the first 1 to 2 years a new antibiotic is on the market, but that revenue would be phased out over 5 years and replaced by revenue from population-based contracts with health insurers. The purpose of the PAVE award, the authors said in their recent Journal of the American Medical Association paper, is to guarantee a return-on-investment for antibiotic developers by ‘de-linking’ the revenue of new antibiotics from the volume used and to promote stewardship of those drugs, so that thy remain effective and available.”

A Short History of Biological Warfare: From Pre-History to 21st Century
Don’t miss out on the latest bioweapon gem from W. Seth Carus – a history on biological warfare! “It covers what we know about the practice of BW and briefly describes the programs that developed BW weapons based on the best available research. To the extent possible, it primarily draws on the work of historians who used primary sources, relying where possible on studies specifically focused on BW. By broadening our knowledge of BW, such studies have enabled us to write about the topic with more accuracy and detail than could have been done even a few years ago.” Carus breaks BW history into three sections – prehistory to 1900, 1900-1945, and then 1945-modern day. He focuses on the agents covered by the BWC and looks at the history of state-sponsored programs, the role of scientific advances in understanding microorganisms, use of BW in warfare, and more.

What It Means To Militarize Biotechnology
Biotechnology is a fickle beast and a frequently debated topic. While many focus on the security implications of gene-editing and other biotechnologies in the hands of nefarious actors, there has been an increasing militarization of the field. Military research and investment in biotechnology can be a bag of mixed outcomes and there has been little discussion regarding the growing military interest in it. “One such issue is the risk that military investment in biotechnology will adversely affect research priorities. Another is the possibility that military investment into defensive or public health projects by one state might be misinterpreted by other states as having offensive potential. In the same vein, the scarcity of publicly available information about military research into biotechnology might fuel public distrust of valuable and well-intended work. It is clear, for example, that research into preventing, identifying, and treating infectious diseases by various militaries around the world will continue to provide broader spin-off benefits—but publics in some states might be unsure why military rather than public health institutions lead such work.” Progress in fields like synthetic biology has brought forth almost a renaissance of research and also engagement in security discussions. Brett Edwards highlights the role of the Amerithrax attacks in bringing biology into the forefront of American terrorism worries. He notes that the synbio community has been heavily engaged in the debate of misuse and its implications for innovation and regulation. Working in the synbio field inherently carries with it a forced sensitization to these issues. Edwards emphasizes that the future should include international dialogue with researchers regarding biotechnology militarization. “This sort of dialogue might allow shared principles regarding state investment in biotechnology to be identified and articulated—principles that would both guide research priorities and establish hard limits about what is permissible. Such discussions could draw upon relevant principles in international human rights, humanitarian, and arms control law—including, but not limited to, treaties specifically dealing with biological, chemical, and environmental warfare.”

Air Travel or Bug Travel?
We’ve all been on that flight with one (or more) people who are visibly and audibly ill…and there’s nothing like that ominous feeling of “I’m definitely getting sick after this flight.” A new study investigated disease transmission on airplanes and found that things like plane size and boarding method can have some pretty profound implications for disease transmission. Sure, jamming ourselves into a metal box where it’s cold and we’re in close quarters should already be a redflag for disease transmission, but there are many more variables that impact airborne disease spread. Researchers started first with how Ebola might be transmitted on a plane. “Unfortunately for current fliers, the commonly used three-section boarding technique, where passengers board by first class, middle zone and back section, is actually the worst strategy for reducing the number of infected. The reason this works so poorly is that it forces passengers to stand together in the aisle while they all wait to get to their seats, which means more time for a tightly packed group to be exposed to the contagious passenger”. They found that changing the boarding method to a two-section, random method is much more protective. Also, the speed at which we all race off the airplane once we’re landed appears to have little impact. “For plane size, you might think the bigger the plane, the smaller your odds, right? Not quite. In fact, the study found that planes with less than 150 seats are better at reducing new infections; there are fewer susceptible people present overall, fewer people within a given person’s contact radius and less time spent moving through the plane to reach assigned seats. ‘Using smaller airplanes during an outbreak, instead of completely banning flights to a specific destination, can drastically reduce the probability of introduction of infection,’ Mubayi said.” The investigative team found that if airlines stuck to their existing boarding strategies during an ebola outbreak, there would be a 67% chance of infection rates reaching 20 air-travel-related cases per month. Regardless of plane size, if airlines modified their boarding strategies, the change for infection drops to 40%. Such work gives us great insight into strategies to help slow the rate of transmission during outbreaks through the powerful vector that is international air travel.

Computer Security and DNA Sequencing
A recent article on the implications of DNA sequencing and big data highlights investigations into the “robustness of such tools if (or when) adversarial attacks manifest”. Researchers noted that DNA synthesis can provide attackers with arbitrary remote code execution and highlight the need to look at the feasibility of such attacks. Performing their own attacks on a modified down-stream sequencing utility, they found data leakage and used such lessons to evaluate security hygiene of the more common DNA processing programs. Such work is especially prudent given that biohackers recently encoded malware in a DNA strand. University of Washington researchers revealed at the USENIX Security conference this week that it’s actually possible to encode malware into DNA strands, “so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer. While that attack is far from practical for any real spy or criminal, it’s one the researchers argue could become more likely over time, as DNA sequencing becomes more commonplace, powerful, and performed by third-party services on sensitive computer systems.” The researchers are calling it the “the first ‘DNA-based exploit of a computer system‘.” This new finding sounds like something out of a science fiction film, but points to the unexpected threats within DNA sequencing and data processing. Thankfully, the process was pretty unreliable and the researchers had to take some significant shortcuts, which means attacks like this may be not be in the immediate future. Nonetheless, it brings forth the need to consider the security implications of information stored within DNA.

Next Generation Global Health Security Network & the Nuclear Threat Initiative Webinar 
Don’t miss out on this webinar today, at 2pm EST regarding the Next Generation for Biosecurity in GHSA Competition! This webinar will provide an overview of eligibility and submission requirements for the NTI-sponsored biosecurity competition to develop regional and global partnerships among next generation professionals. Participants will also have an opportunity ask questions about the competition. Click here to add the event to your calendar.

Bio-Labs of the Future – The Promises & Perils of the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program takes a deep-dive into the bio-labs of the future . The rise of the biotech revolution and advances in gene-editing DNA synthesis, AI, etc. are all helping laboratories grow in connectivity and intelligence. “While this may be a boon for the development of novel vaccines and therapeutics by parties that have traditionally not had access to the necessary tools, it also opens the risk of nefarious use to engineer or edit biological agents or toxins. While there have been attempts at governance to limit the avenues by which a bad actor may gain access to the pathogens or tools to create biological weapons, the ever-increasing pace of innovation has left gaps that may be exploited.” Many are calling this time a Fourth Industrial Revolution, and with technologies like portable genomics sequencers, there is a need to examine the vulnerabilities, which includes things like growing accessibility. The Wilson Center paper highlights the need to evaluate threat, potential for exploitation of gaps, and provides policy recommendations.

Combating Biological Terrorism Roundtable Discussion
Don’t miss out on this event put on by the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies on Thursday, August 24th, noon-2pm at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (901 N Stuart Street, Suit 200, Arlington, VA 22203). Roundtable speakers include Professors Rita Colwell, S. Gerald Sandler, Rashid Chotani, and Normal Kahn. “Biological security concerns are a permanent fixture of history, ranging from Mother Nature’s infectious diseases to man-made threats. Recent epidemics, such as Ebola and Zika, and the potential dangers of biological terrorism urgently need to be addressed through international partnerships to reduce the gravest health risks at home and abroad. Experts with governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental experience will provide an assessment of future challenges and offer recommendations for an international comprehensive biosecurity strategies.” RSVP is required (please email icts@potomacinstitute.org).

The Future of the GHSA Matters for US Clinicians
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu discusses the importance of the GHSA and why it should matter to U.S. clinicians. “Fundamentally, the GHSA is a crucial component to ensuring a solid and reliable global foundation exists for responding to, detecting, and preventing public health crises. Whether you are a physician in an urgent care, a nurse in a major hospital, a public health epidemiologist, or working in national policy, the importance of the GHSA and its work is apparent and a future without it will only serve to weaken US and global health security.”

CBRN Insurance Approaches
GMU biodefense MS alum Zamawang F Almemar is looking at a new actuarial approach to a CBRN insurance policy. A WMD attack against a major city would have devastating consequences but countries often struggle with the realities of costly prevention efforts. It’s important to truly analyze the threats of national security and develop countermeasure infrastructure accordingly. Drawing parallels to homeowners insurance, “investing national resources to prevent and recover from the effects of a nuclear attack is an appropriate choice for national policymakers, but what level of protection is warranted to guard against non-state actor developed and employed chemical or biological weapons, or against a radioactive attack.” The authors looked to factors that may help determine how much should be spent on WMD “insurance” and a method for evaluation. While calculating some factors, like societal fears, are challenging, there are things to consider, like economic cost of property cost damage and recovery costs, economic and societal costs of injuries, deaths, disruption, and changes to society, etc. “Factors affecting the cost of implementing a protection action include the difficulty of taking the action, the equipment needed, and the extent of the measure being taken”. Regarding policy recommendations, the authors focus on the imminent threat from terrorist organisations, noting that “it is now of utmost importance for the new administration to prioritize cWMD efforts within the national defense strategy and to ensure there is a balance in appropriations investing in these cWMD efforts.”

A Shadow Network of Science Experts
At first glance, this sounds like an elusive club of James Bond-esque scientists. In reality, the truth gives a startling look into the White House. In effort to combat several science gaps within the new administration, there are reports that an unofficial network of Obama loyalists is working to continue the Obama science agenda. “Participants have provided counsel to Democratic lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill, and they have held group-wide strategy sessions much in the same fashion as they did when they worked out of a fourth-floor wing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House.” “In interviews, members of the new Obama group — which numbers in the dozens — said they have remained more engaged than they expected to before Trump’s victory in November. Beyond fielding policy questions from congressional offices, they have consulted with scientific societies, and advised organizers of the March for Science, among other activists — a few have even made those organizations their new professional homes. They have also assisted in analyzing the impact of White House budget proposals — which have outlined deep cuts to federal research agencies — and the impact of policies including Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords.”

Using Vaccines to Fight Antimicrobial Resistance
While we’re working to find new antimicrobials, reducing antibiotic use, and stopping the spread of AMR, there may be another strategy – vaccines. Many are pointing to the prevention of disease via vaccines as a means of countering infections in the first place, which are frequently misdiagnosed and treated with unnecessary antibiotics. Consider pneumococcal conjugate or influenza vaccines. “A study published in the Lancet led by Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy found that if every child under 5 years old in the 75 countries studied received pneumococcal conjugate vaccines, the resulting reduction of pneumonia would avert 11.4 million days of antibiotic use each year.” Vaccines can be an effective tool in reducing illness and these infections often lead to not only the missuse of antibiotics, but also hospitalizations that often result in exposure to resistant organisms. We know the benefits of vaccines against specific viral infections however, perhaps it’s time we start adding them to the arsenal against antibiotic resistance? Overcoming AMR will not be a result of a singular effort, but rather a mosaic of combined practices and changes as diverse as the reasons resistance occurred in the first place.

A Silent Anthrax Outbreak Within The Chimpanzee Population
Researchers in the Tai forest within the Ivory Coast are working to find out why chimpanzees are dying from anthrax. The anthrax strain, a new form of Bacillus cereus, known as Bcbva, has been responsible for 38% of local wildlife deaths in the forest. Anthrax in the rainforest environment is unique and this outbreak is challenging the ways we traditionally think about such infections. “In the savannah, anthrax almost always infects hoofed grazing mammals, which ingest soil laced with bacterial spores. Although it can spill over into humans, until 2001, there was no record of it afflicting wild primates. Now, we know that the Taï strain hits chimpanzees, as well as other unusual hosts like mongooses and porcupines. It even affects monkeys that spend all their time in the treetops, far away from contaminated soil. ‘We don’t know how they get infected,’ says researcher Fabian Leendertz. ‘How do the spores make it up in the trees?’” Fortunately, Bcbva isn’t active in other parts of Africa. Chimpanzees, like many great apes in this region are already fighting off disease like Ebola, so this new surge of an unsual disease is worrying researchers.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Hot Topics In Biodefense –  What would you consider the hottest topics? GMU’s Biodefense program has students just as diverse as the topics we face in global health security, which makes the classroom discussions pretty fantastic. One of our PhD students recently sat down and wrote about the biggest issues we face in biodefense and why this field is so crucial – check it out here.
  • Graphic Design – A New Public Health Tool?– A new exhibit at London’s Welcome Collection is drawing attention to the role of graphic design during outbreaks and epidemics. The designs range from ambulances, hospital interiors, posters, cigarette packaging, and street art. “Rebecca Wright, who has co-organised the show with graphic designer Lucienne Roberts, says that exhibits in a section about contagion are especially dramatic. An Italian ‘plague notice’ from 1681 ‘uses bold typography to give authority in time of panic,’ she says, adding that it is a beautiful object. Graphic design responding to the early spread of HIV/Aids is included, such the historic and controversial, ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign launched by the British government in 1986. ‘It was the first time every household in the UK received a health leaflet, Wright says.”
  • China & the U.S. Battle for Biotech – Check out this latest article on FBI Supervisory Special Agent, biosecurity guru, and GMU summer workshop instructor, Ed You on the U.S.-China dispute over genetic data and its implications for biotechnology. FYI – You’ll need access to the Financial Times.

Pandora Report 7.7.2017

WHO Leadership Prioritization
There are six key positions the new WHO director general should prioritize, according to Mukesh Kapila of The Atlantic. The newly elected, first ever African director general has a lot on his plate and his future efforts will surely be evaluated against the mistakes and successes of his predecessors. Dr. Tedros comes into the position with somewhat of a dark cloud following him – during the election an advisor to his opponent made public comments accusing  Tedros of intentionally covering up outbreaks within his home country of Ethiopia. Kapila’s proposed to-do list for Tedros includes six main components. Firstly, promote home-grown national solutions, which focuses on sustainability and developing models that fit them and not a standardized solution for all countries. Secondly, remember that the WHO does not have a monopoly on health wisdom. “Delivering change will require a revisioning of WHO’s long-presumed position as the centre of the global health ecosystem. Today we have many well-resourced international bodies and national institutions with highly-qualified experts. Thus, WHO does not have a monopoly on health wisdom and its norm-setting and convening authority is questioned. It’s high time that the humbleness that has endeared Tedros to many people rubs off on the organisation.” Third, hire diverse talent that helps restore trust throughout member states instead of pulling from just a select few. Fourth, don’t get bogged down in international reform. “Tedros can’t afford to waste his five-year tenure on simply rearranging institutional furniture. All his recent predecessors as director general have huffed and puffed but ultimately failed to reform WHO. An effective and efficient organisation is just a means towards an end. So, Tedros only has to do enough to make WHO fit for the purpose of delivering his vision.” Fifth, look beyond traditional thought leaders – tackle the exhaustive list of issues by thinking outside the box and approach such challenges with a different vantage point. Lastly, accept that the WHO has to live within its means. “WHO is broke with budget gaps in priority areas and excessive reliance on ad hoc voluntary funding. But he should resist setting out with a begging bowl and instead reform the budgetary architecture and agree a new compact for consistent and predictable funding.” WHO headquarters alone are in an expensive location, but overall Tedros must work to truly budget accordingly while re-establishing the WHO as a leader in global health with a reputation that encourages participation and support.

Public Transit Emergency Preparedness Against Ebola and Other Diseases
Globalization and innovative developments in transit allows us to travel around the world within hours rather than days or months. Unfortunately, we’re not the only ones that travel with such new capabilities. Outbreaks like SARS, MERS, and even Ebola have all bubbled outside of their origins thanks to the ability of global travel. What can be done though? “The Transportation Research Board’s Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Legal Research Digest 50: Public Transit Emergency Preparedness Against Ebola and Other Infectious Diseases considers federal and state laws and available court decisions affecting transit agencies’ responses to infectious disease outbreaks, including potential cohesiveness among transit agencies’ procedures and federal and state guidance”. This finding highlights major topic areas like closures of major traffic generators, quarantine and isolation, employee protocols, etc. Overall, the TCRP digest investigates the legal basis for closures or emergency regulations on transit agencies as a response mechanism to pandemics or outbreaks. One particularly interesting component to the report is section VIII, which discusses infection control and disinfection measures related to transit.

Summer Workshop – Don’t Miss Out!
With just over a week before our Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security begins, don’t miss out on the last remaining spots! We’ll have instructors from all over the realm of biodefense discussing a range of topics as diverse as the threats themselves. Biotechnology and medical countermeasures? We’ve got it! Dual-use research and biosecurity? Got it. Don’t worry – we’ve got all the topics covered. You won’t want to miss this three-day workshop filled with wonderful topics and some of the top names in the biodefense field.

How Bill Gates Got Bioweapons Wrong
Following Bill Gates’s comments on bioterrorism, Filippa Lentzos points out that while his intentions were good, his comments about a terrorist wiping out 30 million people with a weaponized disease are wrong, especially as they draw such attention to amateurs as terrorists. Lentzos specifically highlights the tacit knowledge that would be needed for such an act and that frankly, it’s a stretch for terrorists to take advantage of biotech advances. “Available evidence shows that few terrorists have ever even contemplated using biological agents, and the extremely small number of bioterrorism incidents in the historical record shows that biological agents are difficult to use as weapons. The skills required to undertake even the most basic of bioterrorism attacks are more demanding than often assumed. These technical barriers are likely to persist in the near- and medium-term future.” Moreover, Lentzos points out that by making such comments, Gates distracts from those who are more concerning in terms of bioweapons – state-sponsored groups and national militaries. It’s within these groups that the capacity to develop and deploy weapons lies, not within the small DIY garage bioterrorist. “Another factor significantly limiting the use of biological weapons is their lack of perceived military utility. In the near-to-medium term, however, advances in science and technology may enable the development of more capable and more accessible biological weapons. These weapons might allow attacks to be targeted more precisely. Attribution would become more difficult. These technical developments—paired with changes in the social context around biological weapons—may lower barriers to the development and use of biological weapons.” To defend against these degrading barriers, Lentzos urges several things – modernizing the Biological Weapons Convention, use of a collective and convincing response for any breaches in norms against bioweapons or actual use of one, and development of national biodefense capacities. Lentzos leaves the reader with a final plea – within these biodefense programs, ensure biosafety and biosecurity, implement the BWC, declare the program to ensure confidence-building measures are submitted, and regularly review your program to ensure compliance with the BWC. In the end, it’s the state-sponsored or military bioattacks we should worry about rather than drawing attention to the potential for bioterrorists.

Bio: Separating Fact From Fiction
GMU biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein evaluates the good, bad, and ugly of DIY biotechnology. Drawing on a range of events and even films, Gerstein first describes what exactly DIY biotechnology is as there is frequently confusion. He highlights the freedom that DIY biologists have in terms of their projects, especially since they aren’t driven by grants or deadlines that companies or universities place on such projects. The promises and perils of DIY bio has been met with an array of critics and supporters – some say that this freedom is how scientific discovery occurs, while others point to the lack of oversight and that people without fundamental understanding of scientific ethics may abuse such technology. “The DIY spirit is embedded in humankind’s quest for discovery and knowledge. As DIY bio continues to evolve, two ‘courses of action’ are available. The first would be to place harsh limitations on such activity, but that would ultimately be counterproductive and likely fail. The second would be to embrace DIY, understand its risks and limitations and work collaboratively with the community to shape activities to ensure the safety of those conducting the experiments and the general population. If and when boundaries are breached, swift and appropriate actions must be taken to remediate the actions and even discipline the offenders. Finally, important outreach will be important to ensure law enforcement and society at large understands DIY bio. The image of DIY bio in the movie Quarantined must be replaced with a more nuanced understanding of the benefits and risks of the use of biotechnology.”

Scientists Utilize Old School Approach Against Resistant Bacteria
In the fight against resistant bacteria, an old strategy may be worth a try – bacteriophages. Using viruses to kill bacteria is an old strategy but it may be effective for our new problem – resistance. While the strategy was first discovered in the early 20th century, isolating and truly utilizing bacteriophages was challenging. Fortunately, now we have technology and advances in medicine on our side. “As a result, scientists are taking a fresh look at what is called phage therapy. ‘They are starting to dust off their old laboratory notes and re-explore the use of bacteriophages as a ‘new’ way to treat serious, life-threatening infections,’ says William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Increasingly, specialists in infectious diseases believe phage therapy holds promise against bacterial diseases, especially in cases where antibiotics have failed. In 2016, the approach saved a San Diego man who otherwise would have died. Several similar successes have been reported since then.” While phage therapy isn’t yet FDA-licensed for humans, it can be used in life-threatening situations (like the San Diego case), but researchers are working to combat the challenges with getting it approved. Despite its use in other countries as a means of treatment, there is limited phage data within the U.S. There’s a long road ahead for harnessing the power of phage therapy, but it just may be one of the greatest tools in the fight against the resistant germ.

Stories You May have Missed:

  • How the DRC Beat Ebola in 42 Days – After the destruction that the virus left in its wake in 2014/2015, the news that the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had a case, triggered PTSD for many. With the news of their initial case in May, public health response teams were dispatched and within 42 days, the outbreak was over. So how did the DRC manage such a feat? “This swift resolution was partly a matter of luck. The virus hit the remote and sparsely populated Likati region, which is 1,300 kilometers away from the capital city of Kinshasa, and nestled deep in equatorial rainforest. ‘People weren’t moving around in the way they were during the West African outbreak,’ says Anne Rimoin from the University of California Los Angeles, who has worked in the DRC for 15 years. ‘So it was a very small outbreak in and of itself’.”
  • The Trouble With Ticks– traditionally, we’ve seen ticks as a source for Lyme disease and not much else. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case as a bad tick season is afoot. “Experts say the Northern United States may be in for a bad tick season this summer, raising concerns about Lyme and other scary tick-borne diseases, including the Powassan virus, which causes encephalitis and can leave people with permanent neurological damage. ‘This spring definitely seems worse than others I remember,’ said Dr. Catherine Wiley, chief of general pediatrics at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. ‘People are coming in from the yard with numerous ticks on them’.”
  • Ebola Exhibit – While we all remember the fear and frustration surrounding the most devastating outbreak of Ebola, a new exhibit is taking viewers through a visual journey of the epidemic. “A new and poignant special exhibit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the agency’s David J. Sencer CDC Museum. Sencer, who died in 2011, happens to have been the CDC’s director in 1976, when the first known outbreak of Ebola occurred in Yambuku, Zaire — now the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Pandora Report 6.23.2017

TGIF! Before we begin our weekly dose of all things biodefense, have you ever wondered the traits that predict animal or host spillover?

What Does A Post-Polio World Look Like?
Decades of battling diseases in eradication efforts has been a struggle throughout public health history, but what happens when you finally reach the finish line? Donors around the world have worked to eliminate polio and in the final stretch and last ditch efforts, many are asking what will happen when polio is eradicated and the donors are gone? The truth is that many polio eradication programs (which include vaccination and surveillance campaigns) actually form the foundation of public health for many countries and rural areas. These programs have been the backbone of establishing some semblance of public health for areas that many not receive it otherwise. “If and when polio is gone, however, much of the transition may fall to national governments. International funding stands to shrink dramatically. About 27 percent of WHO’s $587 million in spending in 2016 went to polio eradication efforts. The African region would also be particularly hard hit. Forty-four percent of WHO spending there went to polio efforts, and about 90 percent of all immunization staff and infrastructure on the continent are funded through the WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative.” We haven’t really considered what it means to eradicate a disease like polio and how the withdrawing of funds and personnel might impact countries. Moreover, many of the polio eradication programs are closely tied to other vaccination programs (measles, tetanus, pertussis, etc.) and if funds are lost because polio is eradicated, these other vaccination programs could take a hit. Aside from vaccination initiatives, if stable public health programs are not established prior to eradicating polio, there is also a risk for loss of disease surveillance. Current polio eradication programs highlight the role of surveillance, which is also used to facilitate laboratory development, all of which could impact pandemic preparedness and global health security. It is vital that efforts to eradicate polio are also met with work from political leadership to ensure a transition occurs that maintains public health efforts. “The transition as polio is eradicated will be complex, and needs to be carefully managed, country specific and country led. Polio surveillance systems can provide an important foundation, and are tremendous assets to health care systems, said Irene Koek, the deputy assistant administrator of global health at the United States Agency for International Development. Civil society organizations will have a role to play in advocating to keep local governments and ministries on target, said John Lange, the United Nations Foundation‘s senior fellow for global health diplomacy.”

Instructor Spotlight – Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
We’re getting closer to the July 17th start date for our workshop (and the July 1st early registration discount expiration!) and this week we’re excited to show off one of our very own GMU Biodefense professors, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. An economics and defense expert, biodefense guru, and world traveler, Dr. Ouagrham-Gormley is the kind of professor whose class you spend the entire time on the edge of your seat. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She holds affiliations with GMU’s Biodefense Program, Center for Global Studies, and the Department of History and Art History’s Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) program. Prior to joining the faculty at George Mason in 2008, Professor Ben Ouagrham-Gormley was a Senior Research Associate with the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). While at CNS, she spent two years at the CNS Almaty office in Kazakhstan, where she served as Director of Research. She also was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the International Export Control Observer, a monthly publication focusing on proliferation developments and export controls around the globe. From 2004 to 2008, she was an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development (Cornell University Press, 2014). She received her PhD in Development Economics from the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris; a graduate degree in Strategy and Defense Policy from the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes Internationales in Paris; a master’s degree in Applied Foreign Languages (triple major in economics, law, and foreign languages —Russian, and English) from the University of Paris X-Nanterre, and a dual undergraduate degree in Applied Foreign Languages and English Literature from the University of Paris X-Nanterre. She is fluent in French, English, Russian, and spoken Arabic, and possesses beginner competence in Kazakh. For more information, visit https://schar.gmu.edu/about/faculty-directory/sonia-ben-ouagrham-gormley

President’s Budget Would Leave U.S. Vulnerable to Global Health Security Threats and Why We Need An Emergency Fund For Future Outbreaks
Cuts to public health, health research, and international aid have some pretty far-reaching implications and faculty from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security are pointing to the inherent vulnerability that would come from Trump’s proposed budget. Health security incorporates several programs and the reality is that an epidemic anywhere means an epidemic everywhere – simply put, the outbreaks that could pose a threat to the U.S. commonly begin abroad. “The proposed budget would cut $76 million from CDC’s Global Health programs, including cuts to Global Disease Detection and other programs that train and prepare countries to diagnose and respond to emerging diseases, and to the Global Immunization Program. It would reduce by $65 million CDC’s Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases programs, which aim to prevent and control outbreaks of diseases such as Zika. It cuts by $136 million the CDC Preparedness and Response Capability budget, which includes the funding for CDC’s Emergency Operations Center and the deployment of its people abroad to emergencies such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.” The CDC, among other agencies with biodefense positions, has a significant volume of vacancies that haven’t been filled.  More over, the authors point to the gap within the president’s budget regarding the future work of the GHSA, which is a vital multi-lateral effort to strengthen global health security. The budget has many worried because together, these cuts paint a bleak future for health security efforts – impacting surveillance, preparedness, and response efforts across the board. Global health security is simply not an investment we can afford to ignore. Did I mention that co-author Jennifer Nuzzo is also an adjunct professor at GMU’s biodefense program? Even if you’re not worried about the impact of the budget on health security, Ebola and Zika revealed just how necessary an emergency fund for outbreaks really is. “Creating a similar ‘rainy day’ fund—and providing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with permission to use it in advance—could save lives and money, both at home and overseas. The idea behind an emergency fund is not to displace efforts to combat infectious disease but to ramp them up to meet a crushing temporary need. During an outbreak the CDC can call on many doctors and nurses to work without pay, but the costs of transportation, medical supplies and protective equipment still have to be covered.” While the president’s 2018 budget includes such a fund, it fails to give a specific dollar figure and is already cutting into public health funding, which may be counterintuitive. “Lawmakers need to follow through by approving one or both of the proposed measures for the president to sign to ensure that the money will be there when the next public health emergency strikes.”

North Korea & A Sea of Sarin
The threat of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles from North Korea is a growing concern and while many focus on their nuclear and ballistic missile ambition, Reid Kirby is examining North Korean chemical weapons. Looking at the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and South Korean capital of Seoul, which houses more than 10 million people, many worry about North Korea’s ongoing vague threats. “Proponents of preemptive military action against North Korea’s nuclear program, along the lines of Israel’s 1981 Operation Opera against Iraq’s nuclear program, typically ignore North Korea’s history of asymmetrical responses. But North Korea’s capacity to inflict mass chemical casualties on the Seoul area in a ‘sea of sarin’ attack rivals its capacity for nuclear destruction.” In 2010, it was estimated that North Korea possessed 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons (mostly sarin and VX) and maintains roughly eight manufacturing facilities, which could ramp up production to 12,000 tons. Kirby addresses estimates of rounds per minute and calculations of how much sarin Seoul might receive in such an attack, noting that “a heuristic approach to estimating the total quantity of sarin required to inflict 25 percent casualties on a city such as Seoul under the specified conditions simplifies the problem into a box model of 600 square kilometers, with casualty rates integrated by area to find the necessary quantity. Using this approach, a ‘sea of sarin’ attack on Seoul would require about 400 kilograms of sarin per square kilometer”. He highlights the consequences of a 240-ton sarin attack on Seoul, noting that it would kill around 6.5% (higher lethal dosage) or potentially 25% of the population (if lower lethal dosage assumed). “If publicly stated intelligence estimates are to be believed, North Korea’s chemical arsenal represents a credible and present threat. How North Korea could apply this threat as a deterrent is speculative. But the destructive potential of the threat should give reasonable cause to hesitate regarding preemptive military options against North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions.”

Pandemic Flu Plan – A New Approach
The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) just released their updates to pandemic flu plans. “The original plan was geared toward a more severe scenario and set a goal of delivering pandemic vaccine within 6 months of a pandemic declaration. The new document incorporates lessons learned from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which resulted in a less severe event. It also spells out the goal of having the first vaccine doses ready within 3 months of pandemic strain emergence, along with approved broad-spectrum antivirals.” Within the plan there are now seven domains of focus, which include objectives, goals, and key steps. The domains are: surveillance, epidemiology, and lab activities, community mitigation measures, medical countermeasures, healthcare system preparedness and response, communications and public outreach, scientific infrastructure and preparedness, domestic and international response policy, incident response, and global partnerships. You can read the plan here, in which HHS notes that they are exploring several innovative approaches to pandemic flu preparedness like re-conceptualizing respiratory protection, accelerating vaccine and antiviral development, building on emerging technologies for innovative diagnostic and diagnostic testing, etc. “Taken together, the updated domains reflect an end-to-end systems approach to improving the way preparedness and response are integrated across sectors and disciplines, while remaining flexible for the conditions surrounding a specific pandemic. This more-nuanced and contemporary approach recognizes the interdependence of domain areas, which should lead to a better understanding of how the system functions as a whole.” The updated HHS pandemic plan emphasizes that while the nature of influenza and pandemics may change, the importance of planning and strengthening critical infrastructure will always be necessary.

DoD Tick-Borne Disease Research Program
There’s been increasing attention to the threat of tick-borne diseases and the DoD is ramping up research efforts. Their Tick-Borne Disease Research Program (TBDRP) looks to help increase not only treatment efforts, but also diagnostic capacity. Created in 2016, the TBDRP works to fill the gaps within tick-borne disease research through programs like the Idea Award which encourages and supports investigators in the early stages of their career. The New Investigator aspect of this award aims at those postdoctoral fellows working to develop independent research and in the early stages of faculty appointments. “There are currently at least 16 known tick-borne illnesses, with emerging diseases being discovered all the time. In the United States, the yearly cases of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, including spotted fever rickettsiosis, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis, have been increasing steadily for years, currently totaling tens of thousands of people diagnosed annually, with more likely undiagnosed. Globally, the US Military prioritizes tick-borne Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever as an operational threat abroad. The FY17 TBDRP intends to support conceptually innovative, high-risk/potentially high-reward research in the early stages of development that could lead to critical discoveries or major advancements that will accelerate progress in improving outcomes for individuals affected by Lyme disease and/or other tick-borne illnesses.”

Health Sector Resilience Checklist for High- Consequence Infectious Diseases
Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the CDC jointed together to take the lessons learned from Ebola and build a checklist to strengthen the U.S. in the event of such high-consequence outbreaks. This checklist focused on high-consequence infectious diseases (HCIDs), which are novel, moderate to highly contagious, moderate to highly lethal, not easily controllable by MCM or non-pharmaceutical intervention, and cause exception public concern (think Ebola, MERS, H5N1, etc.). “The principal aim of this project was to develop evidence-based recommendations to enable communities to build health sector resilience to events involving HCIDs based on the domestic response to confirmed cases of EVD in the United States.” Aside from the checklist, their findings highlight issues with governance and coordination, communication, public health issues, health-care specific issues, EMS, and laboratories.  The general checklist itself includes sections on preparedness, leadership, creative flexibility, command structure, public trust, managing uncertainty, and crisis and emergency risk communication. There are also checklists for public health, healthcare, EMS, and elected officials, which includes things like a collaborative relationship with partners at other healthcare facilities and awareness of resources related to public health law expertise.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Anthrax: DoD Develops Biological Select Agents & Toxins Surrogate Solution – “The Defense Biological Product Assurance Office (DBPAO), a component of the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, has announced the development of a Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) surrogate solution that will mitigate the risks associated with shipment and use of Bacillus anthracis. In addition to risk mitigation for Department of Defense (DoD) stakeholders and the community at large, this product demonstrates DBPAO’s commitment to providing quality reagents to the DoD and to the biodefense community. To accomplish this task, the DBPAO developed a Bacillus anthracis surrogate strain named Recombinant Bacillus anthracis with Assay Targets (rBaSwAT) using a recombinant DNA approach to create a BSL-2-level genetically modified organism that will allow continuation of operations with reduced risk. The strain is built in a novel, non-virulent Bacillus anthracis background and carries a comprehensive complement of anthrax specific molecular and immunological markers.”
  • Bioviolence- Matt Watson from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, is taking us through the history of bioviolence aka using infectious diseases for violent purposes. While not everyone truly sees the immediate threat of biological agents, Watson highlights the newer threats like synbio and biotechnologis that have growing potential for misuse. He also takes care to highlight the history of bioweapons to truly show the range of their application. “Of all the scourges of mankind, plagues and warfare are almost certainly the most dreaded and dangerous. Several times throughout history—and more frequently than most people are aware of—there have been attempts by individuals, organizations, and nation-states to harness the former in service of the latter.” If you want a brief overview of historical biological weapons and to truly understand the future of biothreats, don’t miss out on this great op-ed.
  • New York City Legionnares’ Cluster – Health officials are scrambling to investigate the source of a NYC Legionnaires’ cluster in Manhattan. “In a Jun 16 statement, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) said seven illnesses have been confirmed over the past 11 days. Four people are recovering in the hospital, two have been discharged, and one person in his or her 90s with underlying health conditions has died. Authorities are sampling and testing all cooling tower systems within a half-kilometer radius of the affected area of Lennox Hill. The health department is urging New Yorkers who have respiratory symptoms such as fever, cough, and chills to promptly seek medical care. In a typical year, about 200 to 400 Legionnaires’ cases are reported in New York City.” Legionnaires’ can be deadly for immunocompromised patients and is often a result of water treatment issues or poor disinfecting processes with spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, condensers, etc.

 

Pandora Report 5.12.2017

TGIF and welcome to your favorite weekly dose of all things biodefense! Check out this film from PBS Digital Studios Brain Craft exploring the technical and ethical questions about CRISPR and genetic engineering.

The Growing Threat of Pandemics: Enhancing Domestic and International Biosecurity
The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University just released their new white paper on biosecurity measures. The paper highlights the increased threat of pandemics due to globalization and ease of transportation. In their review they found nine priority areas that will help address the current biodefense problem. Their priority areas/action items are leadership, international response, the anti-vaccine movement, animal and human health, uniform health screening, public health and healthcare infrastructure, effective outbreak response, cultural competency, and academic collaborations. The white paper notes that “there should be uniform health screenings for individuals seeking permanent or extended temporary residence in the United States. Currently, there are discrepancies between the vaccination requirements for immigrants and the vaccination requirements for refugees.” The inclusion of the anti-vaccination movement was particularly interesting as few reports truly capture this in regards to biodefense efforts. “The increasing influence of the anti-vaccine movement in the United States is another growing threat. Leaders of the movement spread misinformation to parents with questions or anxiety over the safety of vaccines. Many within the anti-vaccine movement incorrectly believe that vaccines cause autism and the number of individuals seeking nonmedical exemptions to the vaccination requirements of schools is on the rise.”

Pandemic Summer Workshop Sneak Peek 
We’re getting closer to the July 17-19 workshop on pandemics, bioterrorism, and global health security, which means that starting next week, we’ll be highlighting some of the amazing faculty teaching the courses. Make sure to look for our spotlight on Dr. Andy Kilianski in next week’s Pandora Report as we’ll be looking at his work on biosurveillance and its role within U.S. biodefense efforts! Make sure to take advantage of the early registration discount before June 1st!

2017 Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge
Don’t miss this wonderful chance to show off your infectious disease mapping skills! The Next Generation Global Health Security Network and DigitalGlobe Foundation are “seeking undergraduate and graduate students, in a team or individually, to generate up to three maps (one map is perfectly acceptable) that illustrate a research question related to any of the categories detailed below. Maps can be analytic (examining relationships between multiple domains, phenomena, or data sources) or descriptive (depicting a single phenomenon or data source). While analytic projects are ideal, descriptive projects will be accepted as long as students/teams describe why their map depicts a notable phenomenon. Similarly, while international maps are preferred, domestic maps will be accepted if the student/team can provide justification as to why a map focusing on the U.S. is necessary (e.g., U.S. data sets on a given topic are the most comprehensive).”

Scientists Take On HIV By Using CRISPR
Researchers have just made headway in the battle against HIV/AIDS by using the genome editing technology, CRISPR-Cas9. Current treatment for HIV involves anti-retrovirals, which are pretty harsh on the body and come with several nasty side effects. In their fight against HIV, the research team used the CRISPR technology like a pair of scissors to get rid of the HIV-1 DNA in the body of mice. “If you cut out the DNA, you stop the virus from being able to make copies of itself. The team is the first to show HIV can be completely annihilated from the body using CRISPR. And with impressive effect. After just one treatment, scientists were able to show the technique had successfully removed all traces of the infection within mouse organs and tissue.”

Public Interest Report – Chemical Weapons
Don’t miss the latest publication from the Federation of American Scientists, which includes several articles on chemical weapons. The Public Interest Report (PIR) is a great source for articles on human rights, counterterrorism, and more. The most recent edition includes articles on the threat of toxic chemicals, investigations regarding the chemical attacks in Syria, the value of scientific analysis of chemical weapons attacks, and more. The president of the Federation of American Scientists, Charles D. Ferguson, also wrote a special message regarding the value of scientific analysis, specifically in regards to chemical weapons attacks. He highlights several articles regarding chemical weapons attacks over the years, one of which includes an analysis of symptoms and potential agents used. This specific work includes analysis from GMU professor, Keith Ward, and highlights the use of chemical weapons in Darfur and Sudan and the limitations of NGO documentation of chemical warfare agents. The article points to the specific symptoms following chemical weapons attacks and notes that “NGOs find themselves at considerable disadvantage compared to national governments when faced with evaluating evidence of alleged attacks using chemical weapons.”

Could Saving Animals Prevent the Next Pandemic?
70% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that some type of a spillover event had to occur. Ebola, HIV/AIDS, H1N1, and avian influenza are all examples of spillover that has resulted in human morbidity and mortality. The USAID PREDICT program is working to combat this growing threat of zoonotic diseases. PREDICT works to establish a global surveillance system for infectious diseases that can spillover into humans. PREDICT is a collaborative effort between the University of California at Davis’s One Health Institute and the School of Veterinary Medicine, as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society, Metabiota, EcoHealth Alliance, and the Smithsonian Institute’s Global Health Program. “In its first five years, PREDICT trained 2,500 government and medical personnel in 20 countries on things like the identification of zoonotic diseases and implementing effective reporting systems. They collected samples from 56,340 wild animals, using innovative techniques like leaving chew ropes for monkeys then collecting saliva afterwards. They also detected 815 novel viruses—more than all the viruses previously recognized in mammals by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses.” One of the tools PREDICT uses for surveillance is to monitor animal health and diseases that are circulating in them. “When you disrupt an ecosystem by removing a species through culling, you have a less healthy ecosystem and higher risk of disease,” says Megan Vodzak, a research specialist for Smithsonian’s Global Health Program. “Sometimes you increase the level of the virus within the population because you eliminate some but not all of the animals, and they’re still circulating it.” This brings about a humbling notion – conservation and human health might go hand in hand. Some researchers note that by protecting wildlife, we can help prevent spillover events and outbreaks. This concept however, is a bit more complex and has many on the fence regarding the actual role of conservation in human diseases. Some work has found that increases in biodiversity have no impact on human health, emphasizing the murky water of those trying to sell conservation as a tool for fighting pandemics. “When researchers do embark on conservation projects, she cautions that they should also consider other possible outcomes besides the protective benefit humans get from healthy wildlife and ecosystems. ‘We have to recognize that conservation could provide benefits for public health and it could endanger public health,’.”

The Battle of the Resistant Bug
We often think of an infectious disease threat emerging from some hidden jungle or quiet spillover event. While these are are true scenarios, I offer one more – the moment a bacteria becomes resistant to antimicrobials. Whether it be related to over-use in farming or over prescribing in healthcare, this is often a forgotten battleground. We’ve become accustomed to the ease and availability of antibiotics, which has translated to increased and improper use. Antibiotic resistant has frequently been overshadowed by the flashier of infectious disease threats however, this is to our detriment. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has proven time and time again to not only be a devious adversary, but one that gets little attention. Research and development into new antibiotics has lagged in recent years, which has only compounded the issue. One of the issues is also the lack of coordinated international surveillance and response strategies. Interestingly, Russian scientists recently developed an interactive world map, which shows human gut microbiota and their potential for resistance. The ResistoMap (pretty outstanding name, right?) makes it easier to track national resistance trends and potentially create an international response plan. “Using the ResistoMap, it is possible to estimate the global variation of the resistance to different groups of antibiotics and explore the associations between specific drugs and clinical factors or other metadata. For instance, the Danish gut metagenomes tend to demonstrate the lowest resistome among the European groups, whereas the French samples have the highest levels, particularly of the fluoroquinolones, a group of broad-spectrum anti-bacterial drugs.” While the rise of an emerging infectious disease should not be ignored, it is important that we remember the slower burn of antimicrobial resistance. Even Alexander Fleming saw the future involving a world without effective antibiotics, as he noted just following his acceptance of the 1945 Nobel Prize, “The thoughtless person playing with penicillin treatment is morally responsible for the death of the man who succumbs to infection with the penicillin-resistant organism.”

Regional Action Needed to Prevent Syrian Chemical Weapons Attacks
GMU biodefense PhD alum, Daniel M. Gerstein, is focusing on the role regional actors could play with respect to Syria, especially in terms of dissuading the use of chemical weapons. Despite the horrific attack in early April, global response has been surprisingly tepid and Russian support is ongoing, but Gerstein also highlights the “deafening silence” on the issue by countries within the region. Pressure could be applied from surrounding countries to indicate a strong message that the use of such weapons will not be tolerated. “Borders with Syria could be sealed to prevent any of the re­maining stocks from leaving the country. This would likely require a mix of military, law enforcement and border police to ensure that any illicit crossings are immediate­ly halted. In the event that chemi­cal weapons do breach the Syrian border, response forces should be prepared to stop suspect ship­ments, conduct searches of cargo and have appropriate protection to avoid becoming casualties them­selves.” Gerstein also notes that regional leaders could direct efforts towards Assad specifically, making it clear that Syria’s future will not include him, by calling for the International Criminal Court to indict him for war crimes.”Over the past 15 years, the norms against the use of chemical weap­ons have continued to be threat­ened, with increasing state and non-state actor use. Most of these attacks have occurred in the Middle East. This trend cannot be allowed to continue.”

The Chemical Attack in Syria – Sorting Truth from Propaganda
Rod Barton takes us through the April chemical weapons attack in Syria and argues against those who claim it was a “false flag” operation, staged by rebels to draw the U.S. into further intervention efforts. The most notable proponents of this argument have been former MIT professor Theodore Postol and Sydney University professor, Tim Anderson. In efforts to help break the cycle of a false narrative, the U.S. has released intelligence reports however, those who support the “false flag” narrative continue to point to misinformation and confusion about the April 4th attack as evidence. Barton argues against the “false flag” narrative by highlighting several points as evidence for the attack – victims seeking medical care following a Syrian air strike with classic symptoms of nerve agent poisoning, analysis samples that confirmed sarin, and the air raid crater found in the road north of the town, which tested positive for sarin and hexamine. Postol, on the other hand, while continuing to claim that the U.S. intelligence reports fail to prove definitively that the attack was done by the Assad regime, does not argue that it was sarin that killed the people in Khan Sheikhoun. “His case is largely based on the nature of distortion of the metal fragment in the crater – he claims this proves that it was not dropped from an aircraft, as stated by US intelligence. His theory is that a sarin-filled tube, possibly a 122mm artillery rocket body, was placed on the road by individuals on the ground and overlaid with a small explosive charge to disperse the agent.” Barton argues against Postol’s comments for several reasons – Postol fails to explain the origin of the sarin in the tubes, how the rebel groups managed to coordinate the detonation of their device with that of a Syrian government air raid, and that Postol fails to account for the evidence of a second chemical round that detonated around 300m from the road crater. Barton notes that “Postol was an eminent scientist and his views cannot simply be ignored. However, on this occasion the evidence to support his argument is not there – he has got it wrong. His writings on this subject have nevertheless been useful in that they have forced analysts to question the evidence closely to determine their degree of certainty in their assessments. But while the particulars are difficult to ascertain, there is still sufficient evidence to state beyond reasonable doubt that the Syrian military is responsible for the attack. In other words, the jury should convict – sadly, in today’s world, the reality may be different.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 3-D Structures vs. Infectious Diseases– Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is leading a team of international researchers to determine the 3-D atomic structure of more than 1,000 proteins to help develop treatments and vaccines against infectious diseases. “Almost 50 percent of the structures that we have deposited in the Protein Data Bank are proteins that were requested by scientific investigators from around the world,” said Wayne Anderson, PhD, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at Feinberg, and director of the project. “The NIH has also requested us to work on proteins for potential drug targets or vaccine candidates for many diseases, such as the Ebola virus, the Zika virus and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We have determined several key structures from these priority organisms and published the results in high-impact journals such as Nature and Cell.”
  • The Million Dollar Minnesota Measles Outbreak – the growing measles outbreak in Minnesota is projected to cost the state $1 million and is quickly growing. “When it began last month, public health officials knew this outbreak could be large and ongoing, because many Somali-Americans have been refusing the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine for years over unfounded rumors that the childhood immunization, whose first dose is routinely given to babies at 12 to 15 months, causes autism.” Sadly, the vaccination declinations in the Somali-Americans in Minnesota are considered to have been a result of targeting from anti-vaccine groups.

Pandora Report 4.28.2017

If you’ve ever wondered about the 1998 story regarding the WWI anthrax sugar cube, we’ve got this gem for you.

March for Science
This past Saturday (Earth Day), cities around the world saw hoards of scientists and supporters of research marching to both celebrate science, but also push for the preservation of funded and publicly communicated research. “The March for Science is a celebration of science.  It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.  Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?” Cities like Chicago saw 40,000 participating in the march, armed with lab coats, pink knit brain hats, and some pretty outstanding signs. Even some furry friends got involved to celebrate science. The D.C. march battled against rainy weather and included speakers like Bill Nye on the National Mall.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
The May 1st deadline for an early registration discount is fast approaching, so don’t miss your chance to attend this educational and captivating workshop for a lower price! The 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. 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. From Anthrax to Zika, this is the place to be in July to get your biodefense nerdom on!

French Intelligence Brings Insight Into Syrian Chemical Weapons          A new French intelligence National Evaluation report details the direct evidence linking the April 4th chemical weapons attack in Syria to the Syrian regime. “The French report casts fresh doubts on the efficacy of what at the time was billed as a landmark U.S.-Russian chemical weapons pact, which was signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in late 2013. The pact was touted as practically eliminating Syria’s ‘declared’ chemical weapons program.” The French report is considered the most detailed evaluation of environmental analysis (among others) following the Syrian chemical weapons attacks. Not only does the April 4th sarin match that previously used by the Syrian regime, but it also points to the hexamine chemical signature found in the Syrian chemical weapons program. “The French intelligence report provides the most robust scientific evidence linking the Syrian government to the sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun,” said Gregory Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate program at at George Mason University.”This scientific evidence is a direct refutation of the misinformation being peddled by Russia and Syria.”

The World Needs a DARPA-Style Project to Prevent Pandemics             We truly are not ready for a global pandemic. Across the board, all the reports, studies, and experts say the same and the latest article from Tom Ridge and Dante Disparte highlights this unpleasant reality. Zika, Ebola, SARS, and avian influenza have all shown us just how globally unprepared we are for such an event. “In public health, it is much easier to play offense than it is to play defense. Playing offense well, however, is going to require a lot more coordination – both internationally and within national borders. We believe an important first step in this effort is for the U.S. and governments around the world to develop an equivalent to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), that focuses cross-sector efforts on advancing biological and pandemic risk readiness.” No single sector can fix this problem, but rather it requires cross-sector collaboration to tackle organisms that know no borders. Ridge and Disparte insist that a a global “invest now or pay later” economic philosophy is needed to break away from stovepiping that allows biological threats to appear sector specific. “As with DARPA, the science and technology community are the unsung heroes in improving global biodefense and pandemic risk readiness. But unlike advanced military research, which is conducted under strict secrecy, the scientists working on improving our defenses to emerging threats must have a charter that encourages open collaboration and transparency. All too often research and technology investments, particularly those in the private sector, follow a zero-sum approach.”

U.S. Preparedness Index Points to Scattered and Mediocre Progress
The National Health Security Preparedness Index (NHSPI) was just released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which tracks progress at the state level regarding their capacity to respond to health emergencies. The good news is that overall, the U.S. score has increased over the past couple of years – 6.8 in 2016, up from 6.7 in 2015, and 6.4 in 2013. “Of six main dimensions—ranging from mobilizing resources after health incidents to involving stakeholders during crises—the nation as a whole improved except for one area: the ability to prevent health impacts from environmental or occupational hazards. That area is the only one showing decline from 2013”. Overall trends pointed to preparedness improvements except for those states in the Deep South and Mountain West States. Sadly, Alaska ranked lowest in the 10-point scale. “Challenges some states face include grappling with health policy uncertainties because of health insurance proposals, a situation that detracts attention and energy from other health security needs. Also, the analysis found that extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity in many parts of the country, putting extra burden on food and water systems and other infrastructure areas. Though federal aid helps reduce fiscal capacity differences across states, federal preparedness funding falls far short in eliminating the health security gaps that separate affluent from poorer states, according to the report.” Policy recommendations based off their findings focus on engaging private sector, including health insurance coverage as a health security strategy, developing emerging response funding, etc.

Hospital Preparedness Program Performance Measures 
Speaking of preparedness…the 2017-2022 Hospital Preparedness Program Performance Measures Implementation Guidance was released via the Office of the Assistance Secretary for Preparedness and Response. “ASPR’s Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) enables the health care delivery system to save lives during emergencies and disaster events that exceed the day-to-day capacity and capability of existing health and emergency response systems. HPP is the only source of federal funding for health care delivery system readiness, intended to improve patient outcomes, minimize the need for federal and supplemental state resources during emergencies, and enable rapid recovery. HPP prepares the health care delivery system to save lives through the development of health care coalitions (HCCs) that incentivize diverse and often competitive health care organizations (HCOs) with differing priorities and objectives to work together.” Within the latest guidance, you can find capabilities regarding healthcare and medical readiness, continuity of healthcare service delivery, and medical surge.

Meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
Don’t miss the upcoming meeting on the battle against the resistant bug! You can catch this in person or via webcast on May 3rd (9am-5pm ET) and May 4th (9am-3pm ET). “The Advisory Council will provide advice, information, and recommendations to the Secretary of HHS regarding programs and policies intended to support and evaluate the implementation of Executive Order 13676, including the National Strategy for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria and the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. The Advisory Council shall function solely for advisory purposes.” If you’re planning to attend, make sure to register ASAP as this will be a great venue to discuss new treatments, alternatives for antibiotics, and transmission prevention strategies.

Unexplained Deaths in Liberia 
The good news is that heath officials have ruled out Ebola in the nine unexplained deaths following a funeral-related event. The bad news is that we’re still not sure what caused the deaths. “The United Nations has issued a precaution to its staff in Liberia regarding an unusual number of deaths at the FJ Grante Hospital, where the patients died. The agency added that health workers in the area have been advised to don personal protective equipment, even when treating patients who aren’t suspected cases.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Sandia National Labs Honored in Fight Against Ebola– The New Mexico-based laboratories are being honored for their hardworking and dedication during the Ebola outbreak. “On April 11, Dmitri Kusnezov, chief scientist and senior adviser to the secretary of energy, visited Sandia to honor nearly 60 Sandians for work to mitigate the effects of the Ebola epidemic and the work of the Technology Convergence Working Group.” The Sandia lab teams worked to cut down detection times to help reduce the risk of transmission while rule-out cases were awaiting confirmation. Their teams also aided in modeling and analyzing Liberia’s national blood sample transport system.
  • Unpasteurized Cow’s Milk and Cheese Outbreaks – If you’re a fan of unpasteurized milk, you may want to reconsider. A recent study found that unpasteurized dairy products cause 840 times more illness and 45 times more hospitalizations than their pasteurized counterparts. “We estimated outbreak-related illnesses and hospitalizations caused by the consumption of cow’s milk and cheese contaminated with Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coliSalmonella spp., Listeria monocytogenes, and Campylobacter spp. using a model relying on publicly available outbreak data. In the United States, outbreaks associated with dairy consumption cause, on average, 760 illnesses/year and 22 hospitalizations/year, mostly from Salmonella spp. and Campylobacter spp. Unpasteurized milk, consumed by only 3.2% of the population, and cheese, consumed by only 1.6% of the population, caused 96% of illnesses caused by contaminated dairy products.”

Pandora Report 4.7.2017

Don’t forget to tune in to CNN’s Unseen Enemy tonight at 7pm ET/PT to hear about the next potential pandemic from some of the world’s top disease experts!

Chemical Attack in Syria
On Tuesday, a chemical weapons attack killed dozens in northern Syria. While the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is working to collect data to determine the perpetrator, most are pointing to the Assad regime as the attacks appear to be consistent with a military-grade nerve agent. On Thursday it was announced that the autopsies performed on victims show they were subject to chemical weapons that were likely sarin nerve gas. Later last night, President Trump ordered a targeted missile strike on the Syrian Al Shayrat airfield via 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Some are saying the death toll from the chemical attack is between 70 and 100 and the volume of injured reported to be high. Russia is denying involvement in the latest attack that is said to have killed many children. Dr. Greg Koblentz notes that this has the implications of a sarin nerve attack, and if proven to be done by the Syrian regime, it’s one of the largest attacks. He emphasized that the U.S. will need to work to put pressure on Syria and on the Russian and Iranian allies who shouldn’t be immune to suffering the consequences from backing a regime who performs such attacks. Dr. Koblentz also recently spoke to the BBC regarding resolutions and international response towards the chemical attack, highlighting the importance of helping the victims and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Can Bill Gates Rescue the Bioweapons Convention?
Who can save the Biological Weapons Convention? GMU biodefense graduate program director and professor Dr. Gregory Koblentz highlights the growing monetary deficits within the BWC. Dependent upon international cooperation and funding, many treaty members have been inconsistent at paying their budgetary share, which puts the implementation services unit and future meetings in jeopardy. Pointing to the challenges of acquiring funds, Koblentz draws attention to an individual who is both extremely wealthy, philanthropic, and interested in public health – Bill Gates. “Gates, ever the businessman, pointed out that this dire outcome could be avoided by spending an estimated $3.4 billion a year on pandemic preparedness. To his great credit, Gates and his foundation have already contributed vast sums to global health. Most recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided $100 million to help launch a public-private initiative called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, with the goal of accelerating the development of new vaccines.” His recent comments at the Munich Security Conference regarding the realities of biological threats shine a harsh light the devastation a biological weapon could cause. Koblentz looks outside the box in this article, highlighting that dire times may call for unusual actions to save the BWC. “The global health community has achieved great gains over the decades, but a single bioweapon attack could reverse all that. Now more than ever, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Safeguarding the Bioeconomy – Securing Life Sciences Data
Check out the latest meeting recap from the NAS workshop, which worked to assist the FBI WMD Directorate “in understanding the applications and potential security implications of emerging technologies at the interface of the life sciences and information sciences.” This workshop brought together experts from a wide range of fields to help solve the challenges of encouraging a strong bioeconomy, while preventing nefarious use and considering the implications of such data. “Advances in the life sciences are increasingly integrated with fields such as materials science, information technology, and nanotechnology to impact the global economy. Although not traditionally viewed as part of bio-technology, information technology and data science have become major components of the biological sciences as researchers move toward –omics experimental approaches.” “There is currently no government agency charged with holistically assessing the security of the bioeconomy, and the emerging importance of data (and data security) within it. These concerns will continue to grow as the world becomes more digitized and interconnected. There are a number of different types of data that can be aggregated and analyzed as part of the bioeconomy, and the collection, sharing and use of these different types of data may pose different potential concerns.” Within the workshop summary, you’ll see the division of bioconomy economy into clinical and nonclinical data, the biosecurity perspective from academia, technological advances that will further data access, data sovereignty issues, and much more.

Novel Antimicrobials – The Quest For The Grail?
The new CARB-X partnership is trying to combat the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance through innovation and supporting new research. “The CARB-X board thoroughly vetted 168 proposals and selected 11 projects that represent truly exciting early stage research. Three of them could become the first in new classes of antibiotics, and four are innovative non-traditional products. Some of the projects also take new approaches, known as mechanisms of action, to target and kill bacteria. All of the potential new medicines target Gram-negative bacteria prioritized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.” BARDA is also in the race for halting the rise of the resistance bug – they’ve got a clinical-stage antibacterial program which has 13 products that are looking promising. The threat of antimicrobial resistance means that partnerships in even the most unlikely places are unfolding to help develop anything from new drugs to diagnostic tests that can determine if a lung infection is bacterial or viral. The truth is that the looming antibiotic apocalypse truly requires all hands on deck, so what’s the hold-up? At least we may have a potential cure in maple syrup

Pandemics, Personnel, and Politics: How the Trump Administration is Leaving Us Vulnerable to the Next Outbreak
GMU Biodefense graduate program director and professor, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and MS student Nathaniel M. Morra are looking at the increase in infectious disease outbreaks in recent years (Ebola, Zika, SARS, MERS-CoV) and how the new administration is prioritizing public health. “Despite this heightened risk of a global pandemic, the Trump Administration has dragged its feet in appointing senior officials to key Federal agencies responsible for preparing and responding to a pandemic or bioterrorist attack. These agencies are also subject to steep budget cuts under Trump’s budget for Fiscal Year 2018. The delays in installing senior leaders at these agencies and pending budget cuts puts U.S. and global health security at risk.” Interim directors, a lack of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response within HHS, and a planned cut in funds are already creating vulnerabilities within U.S. health security. “If a major influenza pandemic were to occur, no wall would be high enough to stop the virus from entering the United States. The best defense against pandemics and other disease threats are Federal, state, and local health agencies and international partners with strong leadership and the necessary resources to fund vital surveillance, preparedness, response, and research activities. Mother Nature doesn’t play politics; Trump shouldn’t play politics with global health security.”

Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security LinkedIn Group
If you’re not already already a member, make sure to check out this LinkedIn group “dedicated to the analysis of the challenges facing the world at the nexus of health, science, and security. The group’s purpose is to serve as a unique forum for discussion and debate on critical issues in global health security.” We’re happy to announce that the group just reached 3,000 members thanks to Arthur Seward-El and Veena R. Kumar! If you’re looking for a LinkedIn group dedicated to global health security and includes members from all over the world, don’t miss out!

Center for Health Security Emerging Leaders Take on The Eight Ball
I’m a biodefense nerd – always have been and always will be, so you can imagine my excitement when part of the ELBI class of 2017 fellowship workshop involved getting to visit the Eight Ball near USAMRIID. The Eight Ball is from the days of America’s active bioweapons program and despite its history, is now a rather interesting sight stuck between two buildings and surrounded by trash dumpsters. Dr. Koblentz has provided some great trivia regarding the Eight Ball – it cost $715,468 (in 1950 dollars), is four stories high and weights 131 tons, was used to test animals ranging from mice to horses, and held its first human tests in 1955 as part of Operation Whitecoat. “This one million liter metal sphere is currently tucked away behind a service building, but at one point it was the epicenter of Operation Whitecoat, the US Cold War biodefense program. From the 1950s through the ‘70s, researchers developing treatments for biological agents released small amounts of these selected agents into the eight ball, allowed them to disperse, and then exposed volunteers to this contaminated air via specially rigged gas masks. By treating the volunteers (who signed consent forms) with their newly developed vaccines and therapies, scientists were able to develop effective methods to respond to biological warfare. Whitecoat volunteers were exposed to agents that cause diseases such as rabbit fever (tularemia), Q fever, yellow fever, and plague.”

Digital Surveillance of Emerging Infectious Disease and Outbreaks: A One Health Approach 
Don’t miss out on this Next Generation Global Health Security Network Webinar on April 7th, at 1pm EST. You can check out the webinar here to learn from Maja Carrion, Assistant Director of ProMED, about digital health surveillance in human and animal sectors.

Investing In Public Health Keeps America Great
Simply put, a nation cannot be great if it lacks health. The proposed budgetary measure that drastically cut funding for HHS point to what public health has been battling for decades – a necessary force that receives too little funding amid too many expectations. Investing in public health is the most obvious thing one could do to make a country strong and capable of growth. Whether it be extending life, eradicating disease, or even a thriving workforce, public health is a force that simply can’t be ignored. “Instead of making deep investments in public health, and thus public safety, we allocate pennies. Americans spend more per capita on health care than any other country in the world, but less than 3 percent of all health spending goes to public health. The CDC’s budget has declined slightly over the past decade, and funding cuts at the state and local levels have been ‘drastic,’ says Trust for America’s Health.” At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves – at what price do we value our own health and that of those around us?

Dynamic Challenges & Opportunities for Global Health Security Talk
All GMU biodefense students and alum are welcome to attend Dr. Gene Olinger’s talk during Professor Nuzzo’s BIOD 710 class on Tuesday, April 11th, from 6:15-7:10pm! Dr. Olinger serves as principal science advisor for MRIGlobal Biosurveillance and Global Health Division and will be talking about global health security as a subject matter expert for multiple federal panels related to biodefense and emerging viral pathogens.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Two Very Different Views of Terrorism and What To Do About Them – GMU biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is looking at the reaction to two major events – the aviation electronics ban and the London terrorist attack. He emphasizes that risk perception and personal inconvenience plays a big role in the limitations people are willing to accept in the name of safety. “Risk perception will undoubtedly continue to be an important determinant in the types of security policies and measures that will be acceptable to governments and the public. Clear and precise communications on the various threats faced, the vulnerability to particular attacks and the potential consequences of such attacks, could help reduce inflated perceptions of risk while at the same time making people more accepting of security enhancing initiatives.”
  • Measles Takes Hold in Eastern Europe– Europe is seeing a large outbreak of measles currently as over 500 cases were reported just in January 2017. 474 cases were reported in endemic countries (France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, and Ukraine). “The largest current measles outbreaks in Europe are taking place in Romania and Italy. Romania has reported over 3400 cases and 17 deaths since January 2016 (as of 10 March 2017). The majority of cases are concentrated in areas where immunization coverage is especially low. According to reported data, the 3 measles genotypes circulating in Romania since January 2016 were not spreading in the country before, but were reported in several other European countries and elsewhere in 2015. Comprehensive laboratory and epidemiological data are needed before the origin of infection and routes of transmission can be concluded.”
  • 10 Saudi MERS Hospital-Associated Cases– Infection prevention goes well beyond the normal hand hygiene and healthcare-associated infections. MERS-CoV is a prime example of a disease that takes advantage of poor infection prevention efforts in healthcare. “A MERS-CoV outbreak linked to a dialysis unit at a hospital in Wadi Aldwaser has sickened 10 people, 2 of them with asymptomatic infections, the World Health Organization (WHO) said yesterday in an update covering 18 recent cases in Saudi Arabia.” Two of those infected are healthcare workers.

Pandora Report 10.2

All this rain and grey weather (at least in DC) makes us want to curl up with a good book and luckily, we’ve got just the reading list! This week we’re sharing some top-notch work by our phenomenal faculty and alumni for you to enjoy. Earlier this week, straight out of a James Bond movie, Elon Musk presented Tesla’s Model X and its Bioweapon Defense Mode. Google had its 2015 Science Fair and a pretty amazing high school student took home top honors for her work on Ebola. Did I mention Kansas is prepping for the zombie apocalypse? Needless to say, there was a lot going on this week in the world of biodefense, so let’s venture down the rabbit hole….

 Zombie Preparedness Month Starts for Kansas 
I’m thinking we may need to take a class trip to Kansas since Governor, Sam Brownback, will be signing a proclamation to officially designate October as “Zombie Preparedness Month”! Brownback’s rationale is to emphasize preparedness in any form, stating, “If you’re prepared for zombies, you’re prepared for anything. Although an actual zombie apocalypse will never happen, the preparation for such an event is the same as for any disaster: make a disaster kit, have a plan, and practice it.” During Zombie Preparedness Month, state emergency management services will have activities and information for residents to help get their preparedness on. They’ll also be using social media to engage people people on these topics. The one thing we’ve learned in biodefense, Gov. Brownback, is to never say never!

Connecticut Teen Wins Google Science Award By Developing Affordable Ebola Test
High school junior, Olivia Hallisey, just took home the Google Science Fair top prize for developing an affordable and easy Ebola test in her project, “Ebola Assay Card”, which quickly (we’re talking 30 minutes quick!) detects the virus and doesn’t require refrigeration. Each test only costs $25 and picks up antigens on photo paper. Hallisey summarizes, “In this new device, that is stable and stored at room temperature, 30µl drops of water were used to dissolve silk-embedded reagents, initiating a timed-flow towards a center detection zone, where a positive (colored) result confirmed the presence of 500pg/ml Ebola(+)control antigens in 30min, at a cost of $25,” Hallisey hopes this project will encourage other girls to pursue their passions in science. Hallisey is truly an inspiration and we tip our hats to her passion for solving world problems while encouraging her peers!

Let’s Talk Dual-Use!
Come listen and chat with Dr. David R. Franz, former commander of USAMRIID, about balancing research and regulations when it comes to dual-use!
Date & Time: Monday, October 5, 2015, 4:30-6pm
Location: Hanover Hall, L-003 George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, see map

​Dr. Franz was the Chief Inspector on three United Nations Special Commission biological warfare inspection missions to Iraq and served as technical advisor on long-term monitoring.  He also served as a member of the first two US-UK teams that visited Russia in support of the Trilateral Joint Statement on Biological Weapons and as a member of the Trilateral Experts’ Committee for biological weapons negotiations.  He previously served as member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). Dr. Franz currently serves on several committees including the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control and the National Research Council Board on Life Sciences. Dr. Franz is a leader in the areas of cooperative threat reduction and health security and an expert in the development of U.S. regulations for biological threat reduction and biological security.  Dr. Franz will discuss the history and current debates related to U.S. and international regulations for select agents, dual use research of concern, and gain-of-function experiments.

1977 H1N1 Influenza Reemergence Reveals Gain-of-Function Hazards
Dr. Martin Furmanski discusses the gain-of-function (GoF) research hazards in relation to the 1977 H1N1 strain and it’s laboratory origins. Highlighting a previous article on the GoF debate, Dr. Furmanski notes that “separating the risks of vaccine development from those of basic GoF research is inappropriate, because GoF research seeks to discover antigenic and genomic changes that facilitate human-to-human transmission and/or augment virulence, with the aim of preemptively producing vaccines.” He also notes that while the 1977 H1N1 epidemic originated in a lab and it’s release was unintentional, the culprit laboratory matters little in the GoF debate.

Define Acceptable Cyberspace Behavior
GMU Biodefense alum, Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein, discusses the US-China cybersecurity agreement and the Friday announcement between Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama. The agreement highlights the mutual desire to prevent cybertheft of business secrets. Dr. Gerstein emphasizes that while this agreement is a step in the right direction, it points to larger preparedness and response capability gaps. He notes, “So while a U.S.-China agreement is a welcome step, it also underscores the greater issues facing the United States, and indeed the international community, in this largely ungoverned space.” Dr. Gerstein highlights the necessity to define cyberspace boundaries, especially as there are delays in DHS security system deployments while US vulnerabilities continue to develop.

Implementation for the US Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern
As of September 24, 2015, all institutions and USG funded agencies are now required to comply with the policies. Agencies now must have “a mechanisms in place to evaluate research that is potentially Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC).” Institutions must also organize an Institutional Review Entity (IRE) to review and manage compliance with these requirements.

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley’s  new book, Barriers to Bioweapons, received glowing reviews in the latest issue of Perspective on Politics. Her work, which is a staple for biodefense courses, and particularly this text, focusses on the perception of risk and lethality of bioweapons while addressing the realities of these assumptions. Ouagrham-Gormley discusses the key role of tacit versus explicit knowledge in the development and dissemination barriers for bioweapons. “The author identifies important factors internal to a weapons-development program- talented individuals and cohesive groups, corporate culture, communities of practice, organization structure- as critical nodes or ‘reservoirs’ of knowledge that must be configured to optimize the sharing of ideas and information.” The case studies of Iraqi and South African programs, as well as Aum Shinrikyo, lay the foundation for her points on the role of internal and external variables that can hinder or help a bioweapons program. Whether you’re reading  it for class (GMU Biodefense folks, I’m looking at you!) or you’re looking to brush up on nonproliferation, this book is a well-written and captivating necessity to understand bioweapon development. Did I mention how awesome the cover is?
Our very own GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Dr. Denise N. Baken, has a wonderful new book being released – let’s check it out! Al Qaeda : The Transformation of Terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa examines violence and the way it is marketed by the global terrorism industry.  Authors Denise Baken and Ioannis Mantzikos frame the violence discussion through the prism of its use by Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).Baken and Mantzikos look at the business parameters of violence –its cost, return on investment, efficiency, and effectiveness; They propose a new approach to that violence. One that looks at violence as a controlled commodity that evolved from Al Qaeda’s initial presentation of future possibilities, AQAP exploited those possibilities and ISIS pushed the boundaries of usability.
Stories You May Have Missed:

Pandora Report 9.18.2015

What an interesting week! Ongoing salmonella cases, imported plague in Michigan, ISIS was found to be using chemical weapons, and a new prion disease was discovered. Pretty busy in the world of biodefense, I’d say. The Pandora Report is also fortunate to share with you a great piece by one of our graduate students, Greg Mercer, who tapped into Google Trends to look at ISIS nomenclature, and an upcoming book written by Dr. Brian Mazanec, regarding cyber warfare. So sit back and relax while we catch up on the week’s biodefense news.

US Confirmation of Islamic State Chemical Weapons

Operational_Readiness_Exercise_121014-F-LP903-827Sulfur mustard traces were found on fragments of ordnance used by the Islamic State, as well as on scraps of clothing from victims in Syria and Iraq. There have been several accounts by Kurdish officials that have claimed chemicals, like chlorine, were dispersed this summer, which is concerning for the ongoing use of these internationally banned substances. Testing done in the US was reported by officials on Friday, September 11, 2015, stating that, “there’s no doubt ISIS has used this,”. Officials have also said that the chemical residue recently found does not match known chemical ordinance that was used in the former Iraqi inventory. Overall, the use of chemical weapons is highly distressing and the method of acquisition, either manufacturing or from undeclared stocks, is under investigation.

Michigan Experiences Imported Plague Case

 A Michigan woman is the second case of bubonic plague that was traced back to the Little Rainbow area of Colorado. The Michigan resident was visiting family in Salida, CO during a music festival in late August. While her exact exposure hasn’t been established, she became ill after returning home and was hospitalized shortly thereafter. Lucky for the diagnosticians, she displayed textbook plague symptoms, leading to CDC involvement and antimicrobial treatment. Fortunately, she was released from the hospital and is beginning the long road to recovery, although it’s probably the last time she’ll attend that particular music festival or go hiking around it….

The So-Called Islamic State 2
By Greg Mercer

In February, I wrote about a topic that had been puzzling me- the contentious nomenclature of the Islamic State, or ISIS, or ISIL, or Daesh.  I decided to revisit this question now that the issue is a staple in the news, and that we’re probably saying it more frequently while thinking less about what we call it.  So I fired up my good friend Google Trends[1] again to take a look.  Google is a decent measure of public interest in a subject.  It’s the most popular search engine[2] in the world, with 66.78% of search volume worldwide as of August 2015.

Last time, I found that ISIS was the most popular term by a fair amount.[3]  This seems to be true this time around too, which isn’t terribly surprising.  Here’s what I got:
Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 6.24.26 PM

 

 

 

 

 

This time around, ISIS is still the most popular, but Google’s added a feature that tells us a little more.  While I suspected that the terrorist organization was driving most of the searches for ISIS before, it’s true that ISIS is the only of the names that has other popular uses, notably an Egyptian goddess, a think tank, and of course a fictional intelligence organization.  The new “topics” option in Google Trends lets us identify search volume for an entire subject.  The dotted purple line indicates all searches for the organization, regardless of naming specifics.  Since the searches for “ISIS” specifically and all of the searches for the organization are strongly correlated, it’s safe to say that mythology enthusiasts, nuclear scholars, and Archer fans aren’t skewing the trends.

It’s also still the case that search volumes for all of the names spike with major news events- no surprise there.

I also found the search trends by country interesting, here’s a look at the different terms and how they show up globally:

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 7.33.14 PM
Click on image to see Google Trend analysis and additional graphs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of takeaways:  Looking at the organization as a whole, the two most interested parties (by Google search) are Iraq and Iran.  That’s not too surprising.  Iran is also #1 for “Daesh”, which is used in both Arabic and Farsi and is considered more a disparaging name.  In fact, the Iranian foreign minister told Iranian state media in January (fair warning, this links to Iran Daily) that he hates the term “Islamic State” and prefers “Daesh.”  In my earlier article, I noted that other foreign policy practitioners share this sentiment, and prefer a name that doesn’t recognize the organization as a state or representative of Islam.  This is also definitely the least popular name in mainstream American media.[4]  Ethiopia and Peru are the highest by volume for ISIS and ISIL, respectively, neither of which I would have expected offhand.

It’s interesting to see how these trends break down, and to look at a single massive political issue and international crisis with such a proliferation of terms.  I think the name that finally sticks remains to be seen.

[1] This links to the search parameters I used for this article, so you can play around with the data.
[2] This site is really cool if you’re into this sort of thing- you can see what site users choose based on browser, operating system, and device type.
[3] Personally, I tried ISIL in the name of accurate translation, but I tended to use ISIS when being flippant, and then it ended up sticking.
[4] To get anecdotal, the only person I’ve heard use it is my buddy who does Arabic translation and Middle East studies for a living.

The Evolution of Cyber War

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 6.39.11 AMGMU’s very own, Dr. Brian Mazanec, delves into the world of cyber warfare and the reality of this threat. “Already, major cyber attacks have affected countries around the world: Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008, Iran in 2010, and most recently the United States. As with other methods of war, cyber technology can be used not only against military forces and facilities but also against civilian targets. Information technology has enabled a new method of warfare that is proving extremely difficult to combat, let alone defeat.” Available on November 1, 2015, we’re excited to share Brian’s phenomenal work!

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Flu vaccination rates went up a bit for the 2014/2015 season, however, the efficacy was only 18% due to an antigenic drift. Fortunately, vaccination compliance for healthcare workers increased and overall rates showed that women were more likely than men to get vaccinated.
  • The Australian government will pass a new law, the “No Jab, No Pay Bill“, that will penalize parents who don’t vaccinate their children by withholding child care and other payments.
  • An additional 77 cases of Salmonella Poona were reported since September 9, 2015, related to the multi-state cucumber outbreak. The total infected is now 418 people across 31 states, with 91 hospitalizations.
  • A new prion disease has been identified by a team of scientists led by Stanley Prusiner. Their report outlines the discovery and the potentially infectious nature of this new prion.