Category A Bioterrorism Agent Lands in the U.S.

By Alena James

It has been one seriously scary and depressing summer with the multitude of cataclysmic events taking place all around the globe.  Much like the thousands of immigrant children whose futures are still being debated by the U.S. and Mexico, many of these crises have remained outside of U.S. soil. However, one potential crisis has been willingly brought to the U.S.

A few days ago a protocol was established to send medical evacuation planes to Liberia to bring back two missionary American health care workers suffering from the Ebola virus.  The decision to bring the patients back to the U.S. raised great alarm among many Americans that there is a chance of a major outbreak occurring with a disease that the U.S. is not prepared to fight

This past week, the Director of the CDC, Dr. Thomas Frieden, continually claimed that the necessary precautions were being taken to ensure the safety of the public from being exposed to the virus. According to Frieden, the chances of an outbreak taking place in the U.S. are minimal. Ebola is a virus that is not airborne and is not acquired through casual contact with an infected patient. For individuals to be infected they must have direct contact with bodily fluids septic (contaminated) with the virus.

During a CNN interview, Frieden explained that the decision to bring the Americans back to the U.S. was made by Samaritan’s Purse, the organization to which the two infected Americans, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, belong. The role of the CDC will be to help assist in the transport and supportive care of the patients upon arrival at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

The plane that transported Dr. Kent Brantly on Saturday was fitted with an Aeromedical Biological Containment System. In this system, a tent like structure was set up on board a modified Gulfstream III aircraft and used to isolate Brantly from the rest of the people onboard.

During an aeromedical evacuation, a patient undergoes medical assessment and evaluation before transport. This is to ensure the patient’s survival during the course of the trip. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland, the physiologic effects of altitude, effect of confinement on patient-care delivery, and psychological effect of confinement within the containment system must be taken into consideration before transport.

Dr. Brantly arrived safely in the United States on Saturday at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Georgia. He was then transported to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

So, why exactly was the decision made to bring back to the Americans infected with a viral agent; which the CDC has classified as a Category A Bioterrorism Agent and to which there is no cure?

In his interview with CNN, Dr. Frieden, gave credit for the medical evacuation operation to Samaritan’s Purse. However, without the assistance of the State Department, the U.S. military, and the CDC it seems likely that the operation would not have come to fruition at all.

The reasoning for this evacuation, made by many advocates, seems to lie with the high level of confidence among those at the CDC and Emory University in their ability to control and contain the infected patients.  Despite the unprecedented nature of an Ebola patient returning to the U.S., infectious disease experts maintain the appropriate precautions are being made and the virus will remain contained.

The medical evacuation operations for Dr. Brantly and Nancy Writebol do not offer only an increased chance of recovery from Ebola and the chance to be reunited with their loved ones—if only through a glass partition. These operations also provide an opportunity for America’s best infectious disease experts and healthcare workers to gain firsthand experience with actual cases of a virus not available for study at clinical levels in the U.S. The medical evacuation operation is also beneficial to emergency response personnel who have been training on how to deal with these types of medical cases for years.

Over the summer, Americans watched intently as the creditability of the CDC took a hit when many of its laboratory staff failed to abide by proper laboratory safety techniques upon dealing with samples of Bacillus anthracis and H5N1.  The CDC and NIH’s credibility took another hit when the CDC discovered more than 200 vials of smallpox in a refrigerator in an NIH lab in Bethesda, Maryland.

Hopefully the fouls ups of the past have provided important lessons for all fields working with infectious diseases to take safety protocols very seriously…especially while working with patients suffering from a virus that has no cure.


Image Credit: Yahoo

Finding Its Niche in Biodefense: Bioprinting

By Alena M. James

Three-Dimensional printing has become a major controversial topic in the new age technology sector for the past few years now. Earlier this month, Yoshitomo Imura was arrested in Kawaski, Japan after using his 3-D printer to build five guns; two of which held the capability to fire bullets. This is an example of the potential dangers of 3-D printing. In April, a private company working in Shanghai used 3-D printers to print 10 full-sized houses in approximately 24 hours. This demonstrates the technology’s potential utility in building development. The benefits and risks of 3-D printing continue to be illustrated via innovators, but there has not yet been a clear consensus on the accepted utility of this advancing technology.

However, on the medical front these machines have proved incredibly advantageous. 3-D printers have advanced the medical field by allowing the creation of artificial limbs for patients, skin grafs for burn victims, and even noses for patients requiring facial reconstruction.  Despite the ambiguity of whether or not 3-D printing induces more harm than good or more good than harm for society, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has found a significant utility for this rising technology in the biodefense world.

Last week, DTRA announced the new role for 3-D printers in biodefense research. According to DTRA, using 3-D printers in countermeasures research against chemical and biological weapons would allow for scientists to rapidly produce human tissue on which treatments against chemical and biological agents can be tested.

The technique is known as bioprinting—the use of 3-D printers to develop human tissues and organs.  In bioprinting, a specialized 3-D printer is designed to disseminate viable cells that can strategically lay the framework to biofabricate organoids—smaller version of organs. Ears and skin have been the two most common organs that have been developed via this technology.

Studies at Harvard University have helped to pique DTRA’s interest in bioprinting. So far, the Harvard Scientists have successfully developed 3-D organoids that can survive for at least eight days. The length of viability is significant, because it allows more time for testing to be performed on sensitive organisms like bacteria.

If DTRA scientists can test the effectiveness of treatments against biological or chemical weapons on bioprinted human tissue, they maintain the capacity to evaluate these treatments in more accurate human models without harming actual patients. Using biofrabricated systems will also enable DTRA scientists to determine the best countermeasures against these types of weapons without solely relying on animal modeling systems. These types of studies are traditionally condemned due to ethical concerns for the animals and are limited in producing side effects that are associated within the human model.  By using human tissue fabricated from 3-D printers, scientists reduce animal testing trials and gain a more accurate understanding of the effectiveness of the treatments being investigated. The fabrication of organoids may also allow drug testing to occur at a faster pace saving time and money in the research field.

One of the leading companies of this technology is Organovo. The company focuses on developing structurally and functionally accurate human tissue models used in medical research. The process of bioprinting requires several steps to produce the intended tissue or organ type. First, a design of the target tissue must be created. Second, the key architectural and compositional elements of the tissue must be identified. Third, the software must be used to develop a printing protocol.  Fourth, a bioprocess is required to develop the bio-ink for the project. Bio-ink comes from cells involved in the development of the tissue copy. Fifth, the ink gets dispensed from the bioprinter layer-by-layer building the tissue in 3-D.

Although the process outlined above appears simple, bioprinting still requires more investigative studies to truly evaluate its advantages and disadvantages.  However, it is quite exciting to know that the technique is finding a significant role in to the Biodefense realm.


(Image Credit. Image Caption: The scaffolding for two replacement ears printed is shown above. Prior to bioprinting replacement ears were developed from rib cartilage.)

Deborah Harden Receives GMU Biodefense Departmental Award

By Alena M. James

HardenJust a few years ago, Deborah Harden made the decision to continue her education.  After earning her undergraduate degree in engineering and serving in the U.S. Air Force as an Aerospace engineer, Harden began working at Battelle, a nonprofit that plays a major role in managing the world’s leading national laboratories. The company offers expertise and resources helping government agencies and multi-national corporations in several projects. In her employment at Battelle, Harden very quickly recognized that an understanding of biodefense would help her acquire financial resources to fund projects for the company.  In order to gain this knowledge, she enrolled in GMU’s Biodefense Program. “When I began working at Battelle, I needed to understand biodefense so I could better articulate what our scientists were researching so I could find funding for them,” Harden said.

This year Harden completed her Master’s Project on a very interesting topic examining what happens to bioengagagment programs once donor funds stop being made available. “I studied sustainability of U.S. bioengagement programs.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, several agencies in the U.S. worked with the newly independent states to secure pathogen collections, institute disease surveillance systems, and work with former weapons scientists to learn to conduct peaceful research programs.  Money from donor countries like the U.S. won’t continue forever, so what happens to these biologists and programs after the donors leave?  I found some great literature about sustainment and found that we’re mostly on the right track, but more can be done,” explained Harden.  Dr. Gregory Koblentz served as Harden’s advisor and provided her with numerous resources and feedback to help her with the project.

Harden’s project coincided nicely with her current profession. As a program manager for Battelle, she developed and worked on bioengagment programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. “My job is to determine the state of biological research, safety, and security in these countries, and find ways to improve them so they meet WHO and international standards.  I also lead some tasks in the Republic of Georgia trying to make their BSL-3 public health laboratory sustainable,” she explained.

Not only has Deborah completed her project and continues to evaluate programs overseas, but she was also selected as this year’s Departmental Award Recipient of the Master’s Program for her work and scholarly achievements.

Harden’s experience in the Biodefense program has been pretty great for her. She explains that she learned just as much from her smart fellow-students as she did from the courses she was taking. “It was an eye-opener for me because I expected to go to GMU to learn and found that contributing was just as important. That wasn’t my experience as an undergrad.” The retired Aerospace Engineer enjoyed taking several classes in the program that helped her to gain a better understanding of her own field in bioengagment. She also really enjoyed her classes on policy and treaties, arms control, disease surveillance, and the Examining Terrorist Groups course.

With her Master’s Project now behind her, Harden is already contemplating how to spend her time.  “I’m thinking of re-learning French or maybe beginning Russian. Or I might reapply for a PhD in Biodefense. There is a lot more I could do with the research I began.”

“People always ask me if it’s frightening studying something like bioterrorism.  I tell them that the most comforting thing I learned was how hard it is to actually make a bioweapon that is capable of killing a large number of people.  And that Mother Nature is probably the scariest bioterrorist.”

Harden also had a few words of advice for the future graduates and prospective students of GMU’s Biodefense Program.

“Keep an open mind about things you read.  Academia and the ‘real world’ are often two different animals.  Also, please read at least half of what you are supposed to read before a class!”


(Banner Image Credit: George Mason University)

Game of Goons: Boko Haram & the War on Educated Girls

By Alena M. James

It has been nearly a month since the terrorist organization known as Boko Haram raided a secondary school located in Chibok—a Local Government Area located in Borno State, Nigeria. During the raid, the terrorist group abducted more than 200 girls and loaded them onto trucks. Many of the girls were tricked into believing the terrorists were soldiers. Some of the girls believed the men to be evil and managed to escape the village by jumping from the trucks to get away. The brave girls who escaped shared their horrific stories with loved ones and authorities who were startled by the event that had transpired.

The majority of the girls involved in the abduction campaign remain missing and social movements are taking place to spread awareness and rally support in efforts to find them. Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was targeted for assassination by the Taliban, spoke out against the abductions referring to the abductees as “her sisters” and condemned Boko Haram for their lack of understanding of Islam saying, “They should go and they should learn Islam, and I think that they should think of these girls as their own sisters. How can one imprison their own sisters and treat them in such a bad way?” Malala has helped to perpetuate the #BringBackOurGirls campaign to speak up for her sisters.

In an unsettling video message acquired by Nigerian authorities, the terrorist group’s leader, Abubaka Shekau, announced he intends to sell the 15-18 year old girls into the human trafficking market coercing the girls into marriages, forcing them into slavery, and having them sexually exploited.  The extremist leader declared, “I abducted a girl at a Western education school and you are disturbed. I said Western education should end. Western education should end. Girls, you should go and get married.”

Several countries have offered their support in the search for the missing girls. France, the United Kingdom, China, and the United States have deployed teams to aid in rescue efforts. Reports have suggested that the girls have been divided into groups and likely carried across Nigeria’s borders into the countries of Chad and Cameroon.

Boko Haram is an Islamic Extremist Group that was founded in 2002. Since then, the terrorist organization has fought against the Nigerian government which they view as advocates for the influence of Western Culture. The U.S. declared Boko Haram a terrorist organization in 2013 based on their suicide attack on a UN building in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, in 2011.

Following is a Terrorist Group profile on the organization.


The group firmly adheres to Islam and believes that western influence does not belong in Nigeria.  The organization fights against Western societies and deems Western education as sinful. The group desires to make Nigeria an Islamist State and seeks to impose Sharia Law on the country. They also target “false Muslims.”

Leadership Style

The organization was first led by Mohammed Yusuf, a western educated Nigerian who considered Western Education to corrupt one’s belief in one God.  Analysts have described Yusuf as being both very wealthy and highly educated. Yusuf was killed trying to escape Nigerian police in 2009.  After Yusuf’s death, he was succeed by Abubakr Sheku.  Sheku has been described as a quiet theologian possessing an eidetic memory. He is fluent in the languages of Kanuri, Hausa, Arabic, and English. Reports indicate that Sheku lacks charisma and oratorical skills, but his ruthless actions makes him incredibly dangerous. The US placed a $7 million bounty on Sheku. The leader continually releases recorded video messages taking credit for its terrorist operations in Nigeria.


Several reports have announced classified members of the Boko Haram as being individuals stemming from low social economic statuses. The group attracts individuals in need of wealth and is believed to be comprised of men from other countries such as Chad, Somalia, and Sudan.

Monetary Sources

It is unclear from where Boko Haram receives the monetary resources to fund its operations, but reports suggest the group relies on contributions from its members and possibly other Islamic militant groups.

Logistical & Tactical Resources

The group is suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda and to have received training in terrorist tactics such as carrying out explosion operations. The US reported in its 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism (page 16) that Boko Haram had ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). However, even Al Qaeda has expressed its opposition to the school girls’ abductions.


According to START’s Global Terrorism Database, the group has targeted numerous establishments over the years. Businesses, educational institutions, government facilities, military facilities, police stations, bus stations, private citizens, religious figures, and telecommunication establishments, among others. The group has targeted 52 educational facilities and 79 government buildings.

Weapon Types

Also, according to data collected from START’s Global Terrorism Database, the group relies heavily on explosives, firearms, and incendiary devices to carry out its operations. Armed assaults comprise the majority of the organization’s attacks. The database indicates that more than 320 armed assaults and 205 bombing/explosion attacks have been carried out by Boko Haram.


Much of the information collected in the profile above was obtained and summarized from circulating news sources, a report provided by the Anti-Defamation League published in 2012, an exposition provided by The Council on Foreign Relations, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s Global Terrorism Database. Additional sources contributing information can be found via the links provided.


(Image Credit: NBC)

C. botulinium’s Deadliest Toxin: To Share or Not To Share?

By Alena M. James

Two years ago, Dr. Stephen Arnon and Dr. Jason Barash discovered a new strain of Clostridium botulinum. Typical C. botulinum strains are known to express any of the seven different botulinum neuron toxins, Botulinum Toxin Types A-G.  The new strain discovered by Arnon and Barash, after studying infant botulism at the California Department of Public Health in Sacramento, was found to express neurological toxins, Botulinium Toxin Type B and a new Botulinum Toxin Type H.   Dr. Arnon and Dr. Barash published their findings of the new toxin in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in 2013, but elected to withhold from the public and the rest of the scientific community any genetic sequencing information regarding the new strain. The withholding of this information has remained a point of contention between the researchers and individuals representing various organizations wishing to study the bacteria.

After publishing a story on the case last Monday, NPR revealed that Dr. Arnon had not been engaging in scientific information sharing practices regarding the new toxin with other professionals also studying botulinum toxins. According to NPR’s coverage, Dr. Arnon remained reluctant to disseminate information on the newly discovered neurotoxin, Type H, with other scientists or with federal officials. In an article published by New Scientist, the editors of the Journal of Infectious Diseases announced that Arnon and Barash held consultations with several representatives from different federal agencies before deciding against publishing genetic sequencing information on the new stain in their scientific article.

From NPR’s coverage of this case, federal officials claim they were not responsible for the researcher’s decision to not make the genetic sequences available and never said not to publish the information. Given the lack of an antitoxin antidote available to stop the dangerous effects of the Type H toxin, many individuals desire to perform research on the strain of C. botulinum that can produce the Type H toxin. Several scientists and federal institutions have tried to request the sequences and/or live strains of Arnon’s new strain of C. botulinum. However, Arnon remains steadfast in not sharing the bacteria.

The case raises an unresolved issue that persists in the sciences. That issue is defining the parameter by which we are able to distinguish dual use research.  Dual use research in the biological sciences is research that can be performed to benefit humans, but can also be performed to harm humans. In this particular case, the Type H Toxin has been declared the most deadly toxin and has great potential to be deployed as a biological weapon.  The absence of an available antitoxin that can be administered to infected patients raises great cause for concern that the bacteria producing the toxin could be mass-produced to harm innocent people. From NPR’s story, it seems that this sentiment is shared with Type H’s discover Arnon.

Upon Arnon’s discovery of Type H, the CDC, US Army Laboratories, and DHS all expressed interest in acquiring the strain that produces this new neurotoxin. These federal institutions’ interest in studying the toxin in order to develop a cure is the same goal as numerous other scientists who want to perform research on the strain. So how does one build biodefense against a pathogen one cannot gain access?  Maybe from Dr. Arnon’s perspective, keeping Pandora’s Box closed maybe the best weapon of defense for the US against the botulinum Type H neurotoxin.


You can listen to NPR’s initial report of this story here.

Image Credit

US Drones: Strategic Freedom Fighters or Human Rights Violators?

By Alena M James    

Last Wednesday, news sources unveiled an alarming video released by al Qaeda highlighting the largest meeting of the terrorist organization in years. Arriving in white Toyota pickup trucks, nearly 100 members appeared to congregate in a remote location somewhere in Yemen.  The group was joined by the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Nasir al-Wuhayshi.  According to news reports, Wuhayshi gave a speech which echoed the usual ‘down with America’ sentiments.  The video spurred terrorism analysts to deconstruct the film and analyze every frame for possible clues to pinpoint a future terrorist attack.

From a cinematic view, the video, entitled “The Beginning of the Rain,” is well constructed, filmed, and edited.  The opening credits date the video to March 2014. Even if one does not understand the dialect of the film, the film demonstrates al Qaeda’s sophisticated broadcasting capabilities. The powerful cinematic nature of the film appears to promote the idea of a large scale terrorist attack taking place within the near future.  At the release of the video, many media sources were quick to criticize the US for its inability to disrupt the largest al Qaeda meeting to occur in years. Several sources speculated that the US intelligence was unaware of the meeting and caught off guard when the video surfaced on jihadi websites. The US has not provided any statements on the matter.  However, it clearly took action to prevent any chance of a grand scale terrorist attack from taking place, and it did so using one of the most controversial technologies of war to date…drones.

Over the weekend, and within days of the release of the AQAP video, nearly 55 al Qaeda militants were killed by drones in Yemen. Through collaborative counterterrorism efforts with the Yemeni government, the US helped launch drone airstrikes against al Qaeda convoys and on al Qaeda training camps in Yemen. While White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recognized the US’s involvement in counterterrorism initiatives against AQAP, the role of the US in the drone attacks was not made publicly clear by government officials. It has also not been made public yet if the airstrikes were in response to the AQAP video released last week.

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that have been integrated into military operations as instruments for surveillance and, more specifically, for killing targeted terrorists since 2004.  A drone is comprised of cameras and weaponry—just like any manned reconnaissance aircraft. The primary difference between the two aerial vehicles is the absence of a pilot flying the plane from inside the cockpit.  Once a terrorist suspect has been detected by the drone, cameras affixed to it will display images to a UAV analyst. It is the job of the UAV analyst to make the call as to whether or not the drone will deploy a hellfire missile to destroy the suspected target. This process of selecting targets has been the subject of major scrutiny of the US drone program, because it begs the question, “How are you sure it wasn’t a civilian?”

In his May 2013 speech on drone policy, President Obama announced that drones are important tools in the US’ counterterrorism strategy in the war against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their affiliates.  The use of drones in the war against these terrorist organizations has helped the US target militants residing in remote locations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. According to Obama, drones are much more precise in hitting targets and minimizing civilian casualties than traditional aerial airstrikes carried out by bomber aircrafts. The drone technologies have eliminated dozens of highly trained terrorists, as observed by the number of militants killed in Yemen over the weekend.

The US is not the only country to utilize drone technologies. There are 11 other countries known to deploy or share a vested interest in launching drones for military operations.  However, the US has carried the torch in their use of drones to thwart terrorist operations and the use of these technologies by the US remains under heavy criticism.  President Obama argues that the use of drones to target terrorists has legal basis considering the aftermath of 9/11. The legal basis is also laid out on the grounds that the US remains at war with an organization dedicated to killing Americans.

Groups such as Amnesty International have a different opinion on the US’ use of drones. The group argues that the US drone program appears to allow extrajudicial executions and violates human rights. The organization accuses the US of conducting unlawful killings in Pakistan and conducted a study entitled, “Will I be next?” US drone strikes in Pakistan.”  The study raises the notion that the covert nature of the program provides the US with a license to kill without due process of law.  The study highlights stories of civilians accidently killed by drones. For Amnesty International, civilians killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time is unacceptable. Also unacceptable is the government’s inability to provide US citizens with justifications for killing targets.  In 2011 a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was a cleric thought to have participated in several terrorist attacks after joining Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate group. This week a federal appeals court ordered the US to provide the memorandum containing the justification for Al-Awalki as being a target kill.

Alongside accidental civilian casualties and the lack of knowledge on justifications of the drone program target selections, peace talks with terrorist organizations have also been impacted by the use of these technologies in a combative nature. As the Pakistani government undertakes great efforts to negotiate peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, these talks have been stymied by US drone activities. Back in November, a US drone strike on a Pakistani Taliban leader took place days before peace talks. This placed a halt on peace negotiations with the organization.  As a result, Pakistan requested the US stop the use of drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; which the Obama Administration agreed to do to allow the peace talks to unfold.  At the conclusion of peace talks in February 2014, the Taliban agreed to a one month cease fire. The use of drones in Pakistani has also increased tensions between the US and Pakistani governments.

The US has an arsenal of drones it relies on to collect sensitive information on terrorists and to conduct combat missions against individuals that threaten Americans. Among their arsenal is the General Atomics produced MQ-9 Predator B developed in 2004. According to the manufacturer, the UAV (also known as the MQ-9 Reaper) provides the US Air Force with a weapons platform with instant action and precise engagement capabilities. The Reaper is armed with anti-tank Hellfire missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs. It performs real-time reconnaissance by providing visual imagery using IR sensor cameras, intensified TV, and daylight TV. Laser designators are used to mark targets and a joystick control is used to maneuver the aircraft. The remote control operator airmen flies and steadies the drone from an undisclosed location far from the site of the attack. General Atomics has plans to supersede the Reaper with a larger jet powered aircraft called the Stealthy Avenger.

The predecessor of both the Reaper and the soon to come Stealthy Avenger was the RQ/MQ-1Predator A; whose first flight took place in July 1994.  Predator A flew operations in Albania as a replacement aircraft to General Atomics GNAT-750, a surveillance aircraft that performed reconnaissance missions over Albania in 1994. Predator A was used to fly missions over Iraq in 1999 during Operation Southern Watch. Hellfire missiles were added to the aircraft in 2001 and have deployed these missiles in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.


(Image Credit)

Microbes: The 21st Century Astronauts

By Alena M. James

The Third Commercial Resupply (CRS-3) mission was scheduled for launch on Monday, April 14, 2014. Taking off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the CRS-3 mission was to head to the International Space Station (ISS) at 4:58pm. However due to a helium leak on the launch vehicle, the launch has been postponed for Friday, April 18 at 3:25 p.m.

If the repairs are made by Friday, the space pioneering company, Space X will be given the opportunity to test its Falcon 9 rocket and its unmanned Dragon cargo capsule in transporting materials and supplies to the ISS.  The Falcon 9 rocket is not the only equipment requiring repairs. A critical computer onboard the ISS also failed to activate last Friday.  Although NASA confirms that the ISS Crew was not any danger with the broken computer, a spacewalk to repair the system has been scheduled for April 22, 2014.

The mission cancelled on Monday will transport materials astronauts can use to repair the computer system, as well as 5,000 pounds of additional supplies. Among these supplies are materials used by astronauts to execute more than 150 scientific investigations. Such investigations include laser optics tests to explore information exchange from space to Earth and National Institutes of Health funded immune system research projects.

Also onboard the unmanned mission will be more than 48 different types of bacterial strands sponsored by Project MERCCURI, which stands for Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on the International Space Station.  Under the project, microbial samples were collected from stadiums, monuments, museums, retired space crafts, and other public sources throughout the United States. The purpose of sending the different types of microbes into space is to determine how the bacteria will grow in the absence of gravity.  In addition to determining the effects of the absence of gravity on microbial growth, Astronauts on board the ISS will collect their own bacterial samples residing on fomites board the station. This study will help to establish the microbial flora of the ISS by identifying the different types of bacteria present.

The study of microbes at zero gravity conditions is nothing new. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has conducted previous studies primarily investigating the virulent nature of pathogenic organisms in space. A study carried out in 2006 revealed Salmonellato express a higher degree of virulence when grown in a zero gravity environment.  According to the study 167 genes and 73 proteins were found to have been altered in structure—the likely cause for the higher degree of virulency. Salmonella strains grown in space were brought back to Earth and their effects tested on mice. The studies showed that mice from the experimental groups were subject to illness at a faster rate than the control groups.  NASA has also completed studies evaluating the effects of antigravity conditions on the human immune system. Their investigations show that the absence of gravity has an adverse effect on the human body and weakens the immune system. In essence, pathogens become stronger in the absence of gravity; while the human immune system becomes weaker. This finding may have grave implications for individuals hoping to travel to space or to be a part of the MarsOne human settlement scheduled for 2024.

Contrary to NASA’s pathogenicity studies, Project MERCCURI’s research focuses on non-pathogenic bacteria and examination of their microbial growth properties. Findings of the study are likely to provide greater insight into the ubiquitous nature of bacteria and make actors in space exploration more cognizant about the bacterial environment around them.

If repairs to the Falcon 9 rocket are successful and the launch continues as planned for Friday, the Dragon space craft is expected to dock at the station for four weeks. After four weeks it will return to Earth bringing with it supplies and experiments performed on the ISS.


MERCCURI is a project made possible by the collaborative efforts of microBEnet/UC Davis with the Science Cheerleaders, Space Florida, NanoracksJPL-NASA, and

Increasing Refugees, Increased Risk of Communicable Diseases

by Alena M. James

Since the start of the Syrian crisis three years ago, refugees have fled to camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon. Last week the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported the number of refugees from Syria to Lebanon has passed one million.  According to the report, this influx has stretched Lebanon’s social and economic infrastructure thin in public services such as electricity, water, sanitation services, education, and the public health sector. Tourism, trade, and investment within the country has also decreased significantly. The increase in the population has led to decreased wages among competing workers.  Lebanese residents find themselves struggling financially; while the refugees find themselves struggling to build better lives.

The competition for depleting resources is not the only concern facing both residents and refugees.  A high influx of refugees into any state can lay the ground for increases risk of communicable diseases or outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases. With small Lebanese communities overwhelmed by the drastic increase in the population, public health services struggle to provide adequate health care, antibiotic treatments, immunizations, and other medical aid to those in need. Not only are critical public health services overextended, but the high volume of individuals seeking services creates the ideal transmission grounds for microbial organisms and viral agents.

In overcrowded populations with limited health resources, the risk of spreading diseases is incredibly high and transmission can occur in a variety of mediums. Direct or indirect contact, the release of respiratory droplets, ingestion of contaminated food and water sources, contact with mechanical  or biological vectors are all various modes by which pathogenic agents spread from person to person.

Direct contact occurs from direct exposure to the pathogenic source, for example, when a patient is bit by a rabid dog and develops rabies. Indirect contact occurs via exposure to septic fomites, for example, when an unsterilized syringe is used to dispense a treatment or drug intravenously into a patient.  Respiratory droplets allow illnesses like the common cold, influenza, and measles to spread at a rapid pace through sneezing or coughing on and around others. Ingestion of contaminated water and foods lead to major gastrointestinal complications and other illnesses. Mechanical vectors, like insect bodies, indirectly spread diseases. For example, flies feeding on fecal material can pick up and spread pathogens, via their feet, after landing on a patient’s untreated injury or open wound. Biological vectors like mosquitos transmit viral, bacterial, and other parasitic organisms to patients. The chances of these transmission modes being employed by pathogens remain high among densely packed populations lacking in substantial health care resources.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there are several diseases that migrants to Lebanon are susceptible to if the proper vaccinations are not sought. Such diseases include Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid, Polio, and Rabies. Refugees from Syria also pose a dangerous risk of transmitting communicable diseases if they have not received proper immunizations before fleeing from their country. Malnourished refugees deprived of food and clean water are at risk of developing weakened immune systems which makes them even more susceptible to virulent pathogens.

Despite the three-year Syrian conflict, many humanitarian workers continue to immunize children against preventable diseases. UNICEF in particular is actively working towards the vaccination of more than 20 million children against Poliomyelitis. Last October, the WHO confirmed at least 10 cases of children infected with Polio in Syria. This past weekend UNICEF re-launched its campaign to help control the spread of this virus among other states impacted by Syrian refugees.  Iraq, Turkey, Jordan also pledged to join the campaign due to the threat of incidences of the virus occurring in their countries.  So far Iraq has reported one case of the disease while the UN has reported 27 cases among Lebanese children.

Approximately 500,000 Syrian refugees to Lebanon have been children–who are at the greatest risk of acquiring polio if no vaccination has been administered. The war in Syria and the displacement of refugees has made it difficult for medical personal to provide vaccinations needed to control the spread of this and other communicable diseases.  The continued fighting in Syria is likely to lead to more bloodshed, the displacement of more refugees, the depletion of public service resources in several states, and the spread of more communicable diseases if efforts to resolve the conflict are not soon reached.


Image Credit: AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

Bubonic Plague: An Airborne Toxic Event

by Alena M. James

Yersinia pestisis a gram negative, bacillus shaped bacteria that prefers to reside in an environment lacking oxygen (anaerobic). It is typically an organism that uses the process of fermentation to break down complex organic molecules to metabolize.  However, the organism is commonly referred to as being a facultative anaerobe, because it can live in the presence of oxygen and undergo respiration to generate energy for its cell. Its facultative capability is one reasons the organism can induce infection in highly oxygenated lung tissue.

This organism, primarily a zoonotic pathogen, has been held responsible for causing the bubonic form of plague responsible for the Black Death, the 14th century event that lead to the death of millions of Europeans. For years, the cause of the Black Death Plague pandemic has been linked to fleas. In much of Europe at this time, unsanitary living conditions provided the perfect breeding grounds for flea infested rats to flourish; while the fleas served as the perfect arthropod vector for Y. pestis to flourish.

The route of transmission of Y.pestis, from fleas to humans, was thought to occur via the urban cycle—when an urban rat becomes infected with fleas from a wild animal. Crowding in cities, poor hygiene, and unsanitary living conditions attracts large rat populations to the area. When a flea carrying Y.pestis bites a rat, the rat becomes sick and dies. No longer able to parasitize the rat, the flea moves from the rat to a new host. In crowded cities, the fleas from the dead rat will jump to humans to feed. When the flea bites the human it releases Y. pestis into the human’s cardiovascular system. Once in the cardiovascular system, the bacterial organism makes its way to the lymph nodes.  There it replicates and spreads throughout the body causing septicemia. As Y. pestis proliferates within the lymph nodes it also forms hemorrhagic necrosis throughout the body.  Painful swelling arises and the definitive painful symptom, the bubo,appears.  After infection, a patient develops a high fever and the organism can target specific organs of the body like the lungs, liver, and spleen. Without treatment, a patient has a 75% mortality rate.

Last week, British scientists performed comparative DNA analysis on bacterial samples collected from 25 excavated skeletons found in the Clerkenwell area of London. These remains dating back to the 14th century contained samples of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria responsible for the Black Death. In an attempt to evaluate the virulent nature of the pathogen, the Y. pestis DNA collected from these remains were compared to DNA from the Y. pestis responsible for the deaths of more than 30 people in Madagascar back in December 2013. Researchers concluded that the DNA of both organisms revealed a high percentage of similarity and that the pathogenic nature of the 14th century Y. pestis is no more powerful than the Y.pestsis responsible for the Madagascar killings.

After considering this information and examining the plausible death of the skeletons, scientists believe that the fast-acting killing capabilities of Y.pestis are only likely to take place through airborne transmission. This conclusion undermines the urban cycle transmission method and suggests that the Black Death was mostly caused by pneumonic plague and not bubonic. British scientists are determined to examine more modern cases to confirm this new hypothesis. If confirmed, we may see pneumonic plague identified as the causative agent for the 14th century plague pandemic thus altering our historical account of the Black Death.

For British scientists, the transmission of Y. pestsis through respiratory droplets is a much more likely scenario for achieving rapid kills versus the urban cycle transmission method. Bubonic plague is not infectious and there is no human to human transmission from the buboes that form.  However, pneumonic plague can be caused by bubonic plague if the Y. pestis pathogen makes its way via the lymph nodes to the lungs inducing infection. While in the lungs, the organisms are caught in respiratory droplets and are then disseminated into the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. This quickly makes the host very infectious and a threat to those not yet infected.  The mortality rate for patients suffering from pneumonic plaque without treatment is 100%.


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Destroying Chemical Weapons: A Highly Political and Technological Process

By Alena M. James

With tensions escalating between the western powers and Russia, the crisis in Ukraine has absorbed much of the international community’s attention these past few weeks. In doing so, the civil war in Syria and its efforts in cleaning up its chemical weapon’s arsenal have been placed on the backburner.  In a report titled, Russia-U.S. Tensions Could Stall Syrian Chemical Weapons Removal, NPR discussed the significance of the joint efforts of the US and Russia to get Bashar Al-Assad on board with committing to the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stock piles.  Now that the diplomatic relations between the western powers and Russia have soured, many worry about a delay in Syria’s commitment to eradicating its chemical weapons. The possibility of such an event taking place highlights the importance of the political aspect involved in ensuring chemical weapons cleanup.

Recently, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced that approximately half of the Syrian chemical weapons stock piles have been removed in the past few months—an accomplishment that has taken the US decades to move towards. The OPCW also announced that it intends to destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons by June 30, 2014.  Such a goal appears incredibly ambitious and critics remain skeptical of this goal being achieved in the allotted amount of time due to the stressful international relations surrounding Syria and Russia.

Over the weekend, Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter jet after accusing Syria of violating its airspace, an act which is likely to further increase heightened tensions in the region and distract from the weapons cleanup process. Prior to the Ukrainian Crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the US and Russia had played significant roles in the physical removal of the chemical weapons from the civil war torn state.  Russia provided security measures and the US provided transportation and decontamination equipment to help destroy the stockpiles.  The cleanup process was already a little behind schedule before relations between Russia and the US spiraled downward. Now with sanctions from the US and Europe against Russia, many fear that Russia will no longer provide the political support needed to influence Syria to continue removing the remaining stock of chemical weapons.

Presently, the western powers have already criticized Syria for its inability to meet earlier deadlines of chemical weapons removal.  While the delay can be linked with the current toxic political climate, lessons learned from the US’ chemical cleanup efforts suggest that years and even decades are necessary to safely cleanse a state of its chemical weapons arsenal leaving other factors to be considered as to why the cleanup process may not reach the June 30th deadline.

In a recently published article, “Deadly chemical weapons, buried and lost, lurk under U.S. soil,” The Los Angeles Timesreports on the US’ failure to destroy its own chemical weapons stockpiles dating back to World War II and acknowledges the existence of hundreds of chemical weapons still needing to be processed. According to the report, the US has more than 200 burial sites which include chemical agents such as mustard agents, blister agents, and nerve agents, like tabun produced by Nazi Germany.

Following the end of WWII, the US became the Goodwill Collection Center for the German, Japanese, and British chemical weapons stockpiles.  While some of the stockpiles were burned, the majority of the weapons were buried at the different sites around the country.  Sites located in Alabama and in Washington, DC received hundreds of chemical agents that were to be disposed of without any consideration of the possible environmental impact. Disposal methods also failed to consider the necessity of maintaining complete inventories of site locations, types of agents buried, or the amount of materials buried. In essence, the US does not know where all of the sites are until a civilian reports the presence of an odd looking canister of weapons ammunitions floating up on shore or sticking out of a garden in someone’s backyard in Northwest Washington. The lack of foresight regarding the destruction of chemical weapons at the end of WWII, has left future generations to deal with these issues; which presents a major challenge for cleanup efforts.

Director of Green Cross International’s Environmental Security and Sustainability program, Paul Walker, acknowledges several other challenges involved in the chemical weapons cleanup process.  According to Walker, the technology selected to destroy chemical stockpiles must be politically acceptable by the community where the stockpile is being destroyed. The disposal technologies and strategies employed must ensure minimal impact on public and environmental health. The communities must be a part of the dialogue when planning for the development of decontamination facilities. Alternative methods to incineration must be sought. State investments in poor communities where multibillion dollar chemical cleanup operations are taking place need to continue, and open dialogue to build consensus, address issues, and obtain proper environmental permits also needs to take place.

Dr. Duane Linder, Director of Sandia National Laboratories, also acknowledges the importance of seeking new decontamination strategies due to environmental impacts. The primary methods of chemical disposal used to be “burn it, bury it, or dump it.” Now the approaches used to disengage these weapons and the materials used to fabricate the weapons focus on the use of a process called hydrolysis, a method where hot water is added to alter the molecular arrangement of the agent. While this process helps to neutralize the agent, hazmat chemical waste is still generated but is not as toxic as the original agent. The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, is a US built chemical destruction system that operates using the hydrolysis process.  The unit has been an incredible instrument involved in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

Although still facing numerous challenges, Syria seems to possess the technologies needed to reach OPCW’s June 30th cleanup deadline. However, only time will tell if the international political dichotomy between the West and Russia will impede the process.


Image Credit: Todd Lopez,