Pandora Report 3.24.2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

Pandora Report 3.10.2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

 

Pandora Report 6.24.2016

Welcome back to your weekly biodefense roundup! To start things off on a light note and since it’s official summer, enjoy this satirical piece on the existence of public pools. In truth, public pools are a mixture of fun and risk for waterborne diarrheal diseases, so remember to stay safe. The NIH has given the green light for CRISPR-Cas9 clinical trials for cell therapies related to cancer treatment. Japan is currently on alert for a possible North Korean ballistic missile launch. Lastly, even though the outbreak appears over, many are discussing the aftermath of Ebola and if it’s really behind us

Tales from the Front Lines of Disease Detective Cases
Foreign Policy‘s Laurie Garrett discusses epidemic fighters, especially the work of Ali Khan, and his quest to speak the truth about epidemics. Khan’s work as an EIS officer and former Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (PHPR) has given him a wealth of knowledge from being in the trenches of global outbreaks. Khan’s new book, The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers, discusses his experiences from the Amerithrax attacks to the debate on smallpox sample destruction. “Khan writes, the most vital problem-solving exercise has little to do with science, and everything to do with social customs. In 2015, Khan was involved in an out-of-control moment in the Ebola epidemic of Sierra Leone. Long after neighboring Liberia had its outbreak down to a handful of cases, the military-run campaign in Sierra Leone was losing the support of the people by imposing mass quarantines, shutting down entire regions of the country for long periods. Out of the discontent over loss of business, food, and trade arose false leaders claiming witchcraft practiced by the foreigners and magic were spreading the Ebola — not intangible things few could comprehend, like ‘viruses.'” The blend of public health preparedness and front-line outbreak response gives Khan a unique and appreciated perspective into the world of global health security.

Why Hasn’t Disease Wiped Out the Human Race?
University of Pittsburgh’s infectious disease physician, Amesh Adalja, discusses why an infectious disease event with the magnitude of the Andromeda Strain is a bit more unlikely than people realize. He notes that an “apocalyptic pathogen” needs to be in the right place at the right time – more specifically, a combination of having no existing treatment or vaccine and high transmissibility prior to the start of symptoms. “The three infectious diseases most likely to be considered extinction-level threats in the world today—influenza, HIV, and Ebola—don’t meet these two requirements. Influenza, for instance, despite its well-established ability to kill on a large scale, its contagiousness, and its unrivaled ability to shift and drift away from our vaccines, is still what I would call a ‘known unknown.’ While there are many mysteries about how new flu strains emerge, from at least the time of Hippocrates, humans have been attuned to its risk.” Adalja notes that beyond these three (I’ll call them the Big Three), all the other infectious diseases out there fall short of meeting the global extinction sweet spot. Perhaps one of the most crucial lessons to take away from Adalja’s comments isn’t that we should ignore or diminish the impact of infectious diseases, but that institutional failure and infrastructure instability can often do more damage during an outbreak than the disease. With the growing concern related to antibiotic resistance Dr. Adalja notes that “to me, antibiotic resistance represents the most pressing challenge in the realm of infectious disease and, if it is not overcome, we face the very real prospect of being dragged back to the pre-penicillin era in which even routine surgery was a gamble.”

Iceland, Horses, and Hendra
GMU Biodefense MS student, Greg Mercer, can’t even go on vacation without thinking about global health security, but lucky for us, that means we get to learn about Icelandic horses and Hendra! Fueling our fascination with all things related to One Health and spillover, Greg discusses the exportation of Icelandic horses (look at them, wouldn’t you want one?) but also that importation of horses is banned in Iceland. Even an Icelandic horse that was sent abroad for a short period of time can’t return home. Greg notes that its been this way for a hundreds of years and while the import rules maintain purebred status, the ban also protects against disease. “Iceland has few natural horse diseases, and the breeder I spoke to said that Icelandic horses are frequently unvaccinated, which would be very unusual in the rest of the world. When they’re exported, they have to be treated as if they don’t have any immune protection. The import ban prevents foreign diseases from entering the country (via other horses, anyway).” Check out Greg’s Icelandic experience and why horse diseases struck a cord during his travels.

Incorporating More One Health Into the Global Health Security Diet
Some may say we need more cowbell, but in the world of global health security, we need more One Health. The One Health Commission and the One Health Initiative are teaming up to help create and promote a global education plan that will focus on the “unifying interconnected health of humans, animals, and the environment that sustains all life on earth.” A recent paper looks to accumulate interested parties and help drive the project forward. The drive behind this partnership is to capture the younger generations and lay a strong foundation of One Health education and support. “The overall intent of the concept paper is to raise awareness about the urgent need for the development  and to explore the concept further through a small pre-project proposal conference (possibly off and/or on-line) with a view to fleshing out a strong plan to fund the envisioned global learning program.” The group is currently organizing the pre-project proposal conference, but in the mean time, if you’ve already got some great ideas or are interested in participating in spreading the One Health message, check out their website here.

Zika Weekly Updates
Inovio Pharmaceuticals announced on 6/20 that it received FDA clearance for the phase 1 clinical trials for its Zika vaccine. Clinical trials are set to begin by the end of this year for the DNA-based vaccine. A new study finds that the Zika epidemic can be fielded by climate variations on multiple timescales.  Researchers utilized a novel timescale-decomposition methodology and found that “the increasingly probable 2016-2017 La Nina suggests that ZIKV response strategies adapted for a drought context in Brazil may need to be revised to accommodate the likely return of heavy rainfall.” The CDC has also recently issued guidance for travelers visiting friends in areas with ongoing transmission of Chikungunya, Dengue, or Zika. The NIH is launching a large study in efforts to answer questions about Zika virus and pregnancy. Hoping to enroll 10,000 pregnant girls and women (ages 15 and older) in their  first trimesters, the study will look to long-term impacts on babies and the role that previous dengue infections play in birth defect frequency. You can find the recently published article regarding the history of a newly emerging arbovirus here, which summarizes “the history of Zika virus from its first detection to its current worldwide distribution.” In the early hours of Thursday morning, the House passed the $1.1 billion Zika funding bill. The White House threatened to veto the bill though. “The threat from deputy White House with press secretary Eric Schultz came as the Senate prepared for a vote next week, likely Tuesday, even though there’s no guarantee that the Senate can round up the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster as Democrats call the bill partisan and inadequate.” Several studies have pointed to the linkage between earlier dengue infection and worsened Zika infections, however there is also a potential for a certain antibody against dengue being a target for a vaccine. The CDC has confirmed, as of June 22nd, there have been 820 cases within the U.S. and DC.

One Step Closer to the Zombie Apocalypse 
Researchers from the University of Washington recently reported that several hundred genes actually increase in expression after death. Scientists found that “the transcriptional abundance of some 500 genes was significantly changed after death in healthy zebrafish and in healthy mice. While gene expression overall declined after death, the expression of some genes increased shortly after death and others increased 24 hours or 48 hours later. These genes, the researchers note, were commonly involved in stress, immunity, inflammation, apoptosis, and cancer.” It’s believed that this post-mortem gene expression is a result of residual energy and this may happen in humans as well. This new discovery leaves many asking about the definition of death if a person’s genes are still active for up to 48 hours after they die.

Listeria Troubles Dozens of Schools  large-epi-curve-6-2-2016
Pre-prepared sandwiches are being recalled across 38 school districts as a result of a possible Listeria contamination. “The potentially contaminated food was produced at a facility where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found Listeria monocytogenes ‘on multiple food contact surfaces where the products were produced on several different occasions’ during routine FDA environmental sampling, according to the recall notice.” While students have been let out on summer break, the concern is that Listeria can take 70 days for symptoms to appear. This latest food safety issue comes after Molly & Drew recalled some of its beer bread mix due to concerns over E. coli contamination.  E. coli outbreaks been plaguing the news lately as a result of the General Mills flour outbreak that sickened 38 people across 20 states.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • CRISPR vs. Flaviviruses – researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have found a “single-gene pathway that is vital for viruses like Zika to spread infection between cells”. Even better, the team found that when they shut down a gene in this pathway, flaviviruses aren’t able to leave the infected cell and thus replicate. Using CRISPR technology to selectively shut down a single gene in the pathway, they were able to shut down flavivirus infection without negatively affecting the cells.
  • DRC Declares Yellow Fever Outbreak– The DRC Heath Minister recently declared a localized epidemic of yellow fever after reporting 67 cases. 58 of these cases were considered imported as they were from Angola, where the outbreak has grown beyond 3,100 cases and 345 fatalities. The outbreak has crept across Angola, Uganda, and now the DRA as a result of vaccine shortages.
  • MER-CoV Outbreak in Riyadh Hospital –  the WHO released information regarding the outbreak that begin with a woman whose illness wasn’t detected until after her stay in a surgery ward. Her hospitalization exposed 49 healthcare workers and all but 2 of the 22 MERS cases reported in Saudi Arabia (June 16-18) are related to this outbreak.

 

Pandora Report 5.13.2016

Nothing like a little biodefense news to get your Friday the 13th started off on an auspicious note! If you happened to be in Grand Central terminal in New York City on Monday, you may have witnessed a bioweapon simulation drill. A harmless, odorless gas was released on a subway platform to test air movement and the potential contamination range for a biological weapon within the subway system. The perfluorocarbon tracer gases allowed officials to observe particle dispersal and settlement. Last but not least, hundreds of passengers on a UK-to-US cruise are victims of a suspected norovirus outbreak. Health officials are working with the cruise line to determine the source of the outbreak and reduce transmission.

Evaluation and Oversight Recommendations for Gain-of-Function Research
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) Working Group has released a draft of their evaluations and subsequent recommendations regarding the risks and benefits associated with gain-of-function (GOF) research. The report highlights the existing Federal policies in place to ensure the safety of current work with biological organisms and the recent biosafety failures at several Federal facilities. The NSAAB working group established seven major findings and seven recommendations. Findings include focus on the specific types of GOF research as only a small subset of GOF research (GOF research of concern – GOFROC) which may entail risks that are significant enough to warrant oversight, need for an adaptive policy approach, limited scope and applicability of oversight policies, etc. Recommendations include an external advisory body that is built upon transparency and public engagement, adaptive policy approaches to ensure oversight remains “commensurate with the risks associated with the GOF research of concerns”, etc. The recommendations also emphasized the need for strengthening of U.S. laboratory biosafety and biosecurity. The report provides a substantial overview of the GOF debate and existing concerns related to GOF studies with influenza, SARS, and MERS.

GMU Biodefense MS Application Deadline – June 1st!
Learn about the complex world of global health security from your living room or at one of our amazing campuses! GMU’s Biodefense MS program provides you with the knowledge and skills to understand and operate within the unique field of biodefense – where science and policy meet. Fall application deadlines have been extended to June 1st, which means you still have time to apply! Our MS program is offered in person or online, which allows students to balance work or family responsibilities while still earning a graduate degree in this exciting field.

Military & CDC Lab Biosafety Failures 
A few weeks ago, we wrote on the GAO office report on the laboratory failures and biosafety issues in relation to the investigations surrounding the 2014 National Institute of Health (NIH) smallpox discovery. The GAO report also points to laboratory safety/security failures that include shipping live anthrax and the poor dissemination of information to NIH staff after the smallpox discovery. This article, like many, emphasizes the lackluster Department of Defense (DoD) efforts regarding safety and security within their labs that handle select agents. Despite reports highlighting the poor education and training of laboratory personnel, infrequent lab inspection, and gaps in reporting, some are pointing to the eventual regression back to poor habits. Despite the GAO report, ‘the program is going to continue as before, with a new layer of managerial review that will not change matters, and with no accountability,’ says Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University who has been critical of the operations of high-containment labs. ‘The report makes it clear that DOD considers the matter concluded, and any impetus for change is going to have to come from outside DOD,’ Ebright says.” A recent report also noted that the CDC is among several other facilities to have their permits suspended in recent years for serious lab safety and security violations.  “The CDC’s own labs also have been referred for additional secret federal enforcement actions six times because of serious or repeated violations in how they’ve handled certain viruses, bacteria and toxins that are heavily regulated because of their potential use as bioweapons, the CDC admitted for the first time on Tuesday.” The CDC has stated that the suspensions involved a specific lead scientist and those labs associated with his/her work, which focused on Japanese encephalitis virus.

Is Dole the Food Safety Canary in the Coal Mine?
Food safety has long been considered America’s soft underbelly. Food-borne illness outbreaks are relatively common but are some a canary in the coal mine for diminishing industry standards? Executives at Dole are now involved in a criminal investigation related to their knowledge of the Listeria outbreak at their Springfield, Ohio plant. Executives were aware of the Listeria issues for over a year prior to shutting down the production plant. The company is now under investigation, highlighting a growing concern related to food safety standards within the U.S. This particular outbreak involved 33 people in the U.S. and Canada, of which four died. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, the senior Democrat on the U.S. House Committee that oversees FDA funding, wrote a letter to the FDA regarding the lag between company knowledge and action. DeLauro wrote: “Given that consumers have been severely sickened, and even killed, by salads produced at this facility, I urge you to immediately shut down the Dole Springfield plant. Their blatant disregard for the health and safety of American families shows that Dole executives put company profits first, at the expense of consumers, and this type of behavior should not be tolerated. The fact that Dole officials were aware of a food borne illness contamination in their facility, yet continued to ship out the product, is absolutely unconscionable. People have died, and rightfully the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into Dole’s Springfield plant. However, it is more than just foodborne pathogens that the FDA inspection reports point to. FDA reports dating back to March 2014 cite at least sixteen problems that could contribute to food safety issues in the facility. It is an outrage that people had to die in order for Dole to temporarily close this plant for four months during the January Listeria outbreak. … Dole must be held accountable”. Dole isn’t the only company heavily scrutinizing their processes. In light of recent outbreaks associated with their restaurants, Chipotle has hired two former food safety critics and consultants to help improve food safety. 

A Dash of Zika Goes a Long Way ZikaFunding
The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics are fast approaching and the “wait and see” trepidation is starting to evolve into more heated debates about the safety of the games. With Brazil being the epicenter of this particular Zika virus outbreak, many are calling for action before the international games. “Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago.  Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession.  There are five reasons.” These reasons include the heavy hit Rio took by Zika, the current Zika strain is considered much more dangerous, the games will surely speed up the transmission of the virus on an international level and when this does happen, the role of technological response will become more challenging. Lastly, “proceeding with the Games violates what the Olympics stand for.  The International Olympic Committee writes that ‘Olympism seeks to create … social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles’.  But how socially responsible or ethical is it to spread disease? ” The CDC updated diagnostic testing guidelines this week, noting that higher levels of the virus can be found in the urine rather than blood. The White House is calling for emergency funding to help combat the spread of the disease and speed the development of a vaccine. What impact will Zika have in the future? The unique aspect of a virus that impacts developing brains earns it a special place in the history books and as this outbreak unfolds, the long-term impacts of infectious diseases will become all the more evident. As of May 11th, the CDC has reported 503 travel-associated cases in the the U.S. 

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Challenges of Emerging Infections and Global Health Safety – you can now access the Indo-U.S. workshop summary regarding the collaborations between people, businesses, and governments. “The Indo-U.S. Workshop on Challenges of Emerging Infections and Global Health Safety, held in November 2014, encouraged scientists from both countries to examine global issues related to emerging and existing infections and global health safety, to share experience and approaches, and to identify opportunities for cooperation to improve practice and research in these areas. This report summarizes the presentations and discussions from the workshop.”
  • The Internet of Things and Infectious Diseases – “The Internet of Things (IoT) is all about devices that are programmed to sense, report on and react to certain behaviours or conditions, providing a new level of efficiency, evidence-based data and automation.” So how can we use this for infectious diseases? Validation of outcomes, analysis of behaviors, and collaboration may just help us use the Internet of Things in healthcare to reduce infection and even perform syndromic surveillance. Outcomes and objective behavior analysis may help us increase hand hygiene or reduce hospital-acquired infections.
  • Anthrax Outbreak in Kenya– 16 people were sickened and hospitalized in Kenya after consuming tainted cows. Joseph Mbai, Murang’a County health chief officer said, “The four cows that were slaughtered were sickly and the owner decided to sell the meat to neighbors and share with others”. Those hospitalized (ten children, five men, and a woman) have been treated and discharged.

Pandora Report 5.6.2016

May has arrived, summer is upon us, and we’ve got your weekly biodefense scoop..Thursday was Hand Hygiene Day – don’t forget that clean hands save lives! Check out these wonderful infographics on the impact of vaccines on battling infectious diseases in the 20th century. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 30% of oral antibiotics prescribed in U.S. outpatient healthcare facilities (urgent cares, etc.) are unnecessary. Hocking a loogie may now be a diagnostic method as researchers have found that people have saliva fingerprints. The study revealed that this new analysis could lead to non-invasive methods of disease detection. Think you know your chem-bio weapons? Take a quiz to see if your knowledge is expert level or if you need a review from anthrax to Zika. 

Potential Anthrax Attack Foiled in Kenya 
Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 7.07.53 AM Kenyan police are claiming to have foiled a “large-scale” bioterrorism attack using anthrax. Three individuals associated with a terrorist group with links to ISIS were arrested. The terrorist group was not named but was noted to have a presence in Kenya, Somalia, Libya, and Syria. Police stated that “Mohammed Abdi Ali, a medical intern at a Kenyan hospital, was in charge of a ‘terror network… planning large-scale attacks akin to the Westgate Mall attack‘ in which 67 people were killed in 2013 in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.” Mr. Ali is said to have a network that includes medical professionals who would have the tacit knowledge to develop anthrax bioweapons. The Kenyan police chief, Joseph Boinnet, posted the official documents on his Twitter. While there has been no additional information on the terrorist group or the details of their planned bioweapons attack, we’ll continue to keep you updated as more information is released.

Let Loose Your Inner Epi With EpiCore
Ramp up your epidemiology game with the EpiCore community. EpiCore is a joint effort from Skoll Global Threats Fund, HealthMap, ProMED, and TEPHINET. EpiCore is a virtual community that brings together epidemiologists using new surveillance methods. It’s “a new system that is finding and reporting outbreaks faster than traditional disease surveillance methods alone. EpiCore enables faster global outbreak detection and reporting by linking a worldwide member network of health experts through a secure online reporting platform.”

Whole Foods Salad Bar Attack
The FBI has recently arrested a man in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who poured a liquid onto items in the prepared foods bars. Reminiscent of the Rajneeshee attack in 1984, investigators are taking the situation very seriously. Authorities found that the man was spraying mouse poison in fresh foods at three Ann Arbor grocery stores. “According to the FBI, an investigation points to the man spraying a mixture of what is believed to be mouse poison, hand cleaner, and water on open food bars in three stores in the town over the last couple of weeks.” The FBI has also noted that the suspect had visited other grocery stores in recent months and they are currently investigating if those other stores were involved in the poisoning. Would you consider him a bioterrorist or prankster?

Is Texas A New Hot Zone?
Between Ebola and Zika, Texas hasn’t been able to catch a break from emerging infectious diseases (EID’s). The Center for  Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) discusses that the EID attraction to the Lone Star State really began back in 2003 with the first urban dengue fever epidemic in decades. Texas is also “now an epicenter of Chagas disease and leishmaniasis transmission in the United States (parasitic infections transmitted by kissing bugs and sandflies, respectively), as well as murine typhus (transmitted by fleas) and West Nile virus infection.” Many are wondering, why Texas? What makes Texas such a nexus for infectious diseases? CSIS points to several factors – poverty (large population + poverty rate around 16% = ranking one or two in terms of having the largest volume of people below the poverty line), urbanization (when combined with poverty, this rapid growth means the crowded poor neighborhoods are perfect for opportunistic disease), being a global commercial and migration hub (coastal gateway ports), and climate change. These four qualities have created the perfect blend for both emerging and neglected infectious disease presence in Texas. Fortunately, Texas has a strong emergency management system and heightened public health department investment and resources. While Ebola and Zika have surely reinforced preparedness practices in Texas, are they enough? You may remember in December, we recounted the Trust for America’s Health report on state specific preparedness for preventing, detecting, diagnosing, and responding to outbreaks. States were graded on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best score). Interestingly, Texas was ranked right in the middle with a score of 5. Despite all their recent EID events, I’m surprised Texas is not ranked higher (Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, New York, and Virginia ranked highest with a score of 8). If Texas is the new epicenter of emerging and neglected infectious diseases, let’s hope their capabilities and capacity to respond to such diseases improves in the future.

Lessons Learned from TV/Movie Outbreaks
The CW recently began their new miniseries, Containment. While any show or movie on an outbreak instantly captures my interest, this one is particularly captivating for the same reasons as Outbreak – it’s so bad, it’s good. A recent ranking of the most plausible pathogen and zombie virus outbreaks in movies points to our affinity for outbreak movies with poor scientific backing. I’m a fan of watching these movies, and now Containment on Tuesday evenings, to see not just how wrong people can get outbreak response, but what they think the general public wants to see when it comes to a dramatic epidemic depiction. Did I mention the plethora of epidemiology/infection control faux pas? We’ve all watched a movie or show with a disease outbreak and picked out some ridiculous (and usually hilarious) blunders. The Pandora Report is now starting a list of ways the show demonstrates how NOT to stop/prevent an outbreak. We’re hoping to publish the list after the season ends and would love to include anything YOU find while watching it. Whether it’s the ridiculous infection prevention habits, over-the-top quarantine practices, or SWAT house calls, we want to know what you find while watching the show. Please email (spopesc2@gmu.edu) or tweet with #GMUBiodefense and we’ll incorporate them into our overall list.

Zika Updates
The WHO has released a one-year overview of the outbreak, pointing to the reasons why “an obscure disease became a global health emergency.” They emphasized the potential staying power of the virus and the challenges of diagnostic testing in the field. Many experts are predicting that once there is local transmission in the U.S., Zika virus will become endemic and a “constant low-level threat” requiring annual vaccination. The FDA has issued Emergency Use Authorization to approve the first commercial U.S. Zika virus test. “The Zika Virus RNA Qualitative Real-Time RT-PCR test from Focus Diagnostics, a Quest Diagnostics wholly-owned subsidiary, is a proprietary molecular test is intended for the qualitative detection of RNA from the Zika virus in human serum specimens.” Prior to this, all testing was done at specific laborites designated by the CDC and had limited availability to physicians. The availability of a rapid test will allow for more accurate and timely surveillance and diagnoses. Brazil has reported roughly 1,300 Zika-linked microcephaly cases.  Researchers are finding that mosquitoes infected with the bacterium, Wolbachia, may help stop the spread of Zika. “We are pretty sure that mosquitoes carrying Wolbachia will have a great impact on Zika transmission in the field,” said Luciano A. Moreira, a biologist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and the lead author of a new report on the researchers’ findings, published on Wednesday in the journal Cell Host & Microbe. There is also a growing concern about the potential impact the virus may have in the U.S. as researchers have found Zika in Asian tiger (Aedes albopictus) mosquitoes. This particular mosquito has a larger range within the U.S. and travels farther north. As of May 4, 2016, the CDC has reported 472 travel-associated cases in the U.S.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Ebola Survivor Household Contacts At Higher Risk – a recent study in Sierra Leone found that nearly half of household contacts of Ebola survivors contracted the illness. The risk of infection was correlated with level of exposure, but researchers also found that it varied by age. “The adjusted risk also varied by age: 43% for children under 2 years, 30% for those 5 to 14 years; 41% for those 15 to 19, 51% for adults 20 to 29 years, and more than 60% for adults over 30.”
  • Ebola Re-Emergence Involves Virus With Reduced Evolutionary Rate – A recent study found that the mutational rate has waned a bit in the Ebola virus that re-emerged in Liberia. Performing genomic comparisons of the virus in flare-ups, the research “team saw declining genetic divergence in the flare-up strains, perhaps due to diminished evolutionary rates in individuals with persistent infection. Still, the sequence data supported the notion that the flare-ups involved strains related to those in the main outbreak, ruling out re-introduction from a reservoir animal or transmission of distinct strains from active infections elsewhere”.
  • Chinese Espionage and Traded Nuclear Information –  a former Florida Power & Light manager is accused of trading nuclear information for cash to aid a Chinese nuclear power company. He was “recruited by Szuhsiung Ho, also known as Allen Ho, to help China General Nuclear Power Co. develop special nuclear material in China, according to the grand jury indictment.”

 

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Pandora Report 1.22.2016

In anticipation of the impending snow apocalypse (that may be a tad dramatic, but coming from this Arizona import, this snow business is quite harrowing), we’re serving up a warm cup of global health security news. While you’re staying inside, check out the upcoming book from Sonia ShawPandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, which travels through time to investigate the impact of emerging diseases. Dreaming of warmer temperatures? You may want to avoid some tropic locations as imported cases of Zika virus are cropping up in the US, and the CDC issued warnings for pregnant women to postpone travel to Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other affected countries. Fun History Fact Friday: as we learned last week, on January 19, 1900 the bubonic plague reached Australia’s shores and on January 20, 1981, the Iran hostage crisis ended.

Dugway Insights Raise New(-ish?) Biosafety Concerns
Dugway Proving Ground is one of the largest Army biodefense labs and while lab biosafety issues are becoming a more prevalent headline, new findings point to the severity of these failures. GMU Biodefense professor and graduate program director (and all around biodefense-guru), Dr. Gregory Koblentz, noted that “the systemic disregard for biosafety at Dugway as revealed by the investigative report is appalling and alarming. Without strong leadership, an organizational culture that prizes safety and security, a well-trained staff, and a robust oversight mechanism, we can expect more such accidents to occur in the future.” Lacking accountability and oversight, Dugway is another in the laundry list of labs that became complacent (or as Dr. Richard Ebright stated, their actions are that of “criminal negligence”). It seems that the time of calling these biosafety failures, “serious mistakes”, has passed and we’re sadly moving more into an era of habitual practice. Dugway is a hotspot (pun intended) for chemical and biological defense work however, findings within the report note improper qualification of certain employees, erroneous environmental sampling of labs, etc. Brigadier General William E. King IV oversaw Dugway from 2009-2011 and was directly called out in the report – “Colonel King repeatedly deflected blame and minimized the severity of incidents – even now, Brigadier General King lacks introspection and fails to recognize the scope and severity of the incidents that occurred during his command at (Dugway).” If you have around 26 minutes to spare, you can also watch the Army media brief on the investigations here.

food-production-chain-650pxFarmers Markets and Food Safety
Farmers markets are often a great place to find local, organic vegetables and fruits. Growing in popularity, it’s not surprising that concerns over food-borne illness and safety issues would be raised. Researchers (applied economists in this case) are reporting preliminary data regarding the potential association between farmers markets and food-borne illness. Reviewing data from 2004-2011, they found “a positive relationship between the number of farmers markets per capita on the one hand, and on the other hand, the number of reported outbreaks of food borne-illness, cases of food borne-illness, outbreaks and cases of Campylobacter jejuni. Our estimates indicate that a 1% increase in the number of farmers is associated with a 0.7% (3.9%) increase in the total number of reported outbreaks of food-borne illness (Campylobacter jejuni), and a 3.9% (2.1%) increase in the total number of reported cases of food-borne illness (Campylobacter jejuni) in the average state-year.” While these correlations were found, there wasn’t a statistically significant relationship between farmers markets and reported outbreaks or cases of salmonella, E. coli, or staph. Given the recent Chipotle outbreaks, there has been increasing attention to the concerns over farm-to-table food safety. While some illness can be related to farm safety practices, a lot of food-borne illness is related to improper handling or cooking of food.

Retaking Ramadi and the “Afghan Model”
GMU Biodefense student, Greg Mercer, has mined through the internet to provide some commentary on the recapturing of Ramadi from ISIS control. In his recap, Greg points to works in the New York Times, via authors Phil Ewing and Stephen Biddle, and several other security studies gurus. Greg notes, “many questions remain about the conflict- where it will go, how it will resolve, the political effort it will require from intervening forces, and ultimately what kind of conflict this is.”

Ebola Updates- Quarantines After Sierra Leone Death 
The day after the WHO declared the three hardest-hit countries Ebola free, a death in Sierra Leone hit the panic button for public health officials. As of January 21, 2016, a second case was reported in an individual that cared for this initial case. Over 100 people archive been quarantined after coming into contact with the woman who died of Ebola last week. During the course of her illness, she is reported to have stayed in a house with 22 other people. Five people later helped to wash and prepare her body for burial. Many homes of those high-risk patients under quarantine were attacked, pointing to increasing frustration. Close observation is being maintained on the 100+ people involved in this exposure.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Neglected Dimension of Global Security – The National Academies Press will soon be releasing this hard-copy publication as a Framework to Counter Infectious Disease Crises, but the good news is that you can download it today for free! Authored by the Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future; National Academy of Medicine, Secretariat, it discusses the Ebola outbreak’s far-reaching consequences that range from human rights to transportation and commerce disruption.
  • CBRN Crimes & The Sordid History of Litvinenko – GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Dr. Daniel Gerstein, discusses the recently released Owen Report and the details surrounding the finding of radioactive polonium-210 in Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko’s body following his death. The troubling details surrounding the report “highlights the links between Litvinenko and the Russian government, even pointing the finger at President Vladimir Putin himself as likely having approved the alleged murder.” While CBRN weapons are not a new concept, these new details may shine light on the realistic applications and threats they pose.
  • ISIS Tularemia Plans – Recent Turkish intelligence reports revealed that that the group had plans to use biological weapons. Aimed at Turkish water supplies, the report noted that the main bioweapon discussed was Francisella tularensis, which causes tularemia.
  • Lassa Fever Hits Nigeria – 30 confirmed, 140 suspected, and 53 deaths have been reported in the outbreak of Lassa viral hemorrhagic fever hitting 14 states within Nigeria. The case fatality rate is being reported at 37.9%.
  • Online Drama in the CRISPR Universe – a recent perspective article by Eric Lander (president of the Broad Institute) in Cell noted the heroes in CRISPR but failed to account for a potential conflict of interest. Needless to say, the Twitterverse erupted in a scientific outcry with many also calling out Lander’s failure to include several key contributors to the biotechnology.

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Iran’s Shifting Preference?

By Scott McAlister

With the possible passage of the Iranian nuclear deal looming, it is important to look to possible consequences of the deal.  By taking away Iran’s ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon in the near future, how does that affect their overall desire to possess weapons of mass destruction?  In the world of WMD’s, the big three are nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.  It can be argued that nuclear weapons are far above the other two, as they are the only one to cause enormous amounts of damage to a victim’s infrastructure and population.  It is true, a biological or chemical weapons attack isn’t going to take down buildings or level cities, but does that mean they don’t deserve to be feared?  Biological weapons can introduce susceptible populations to deadly pathogens, and can cause mass hysteria when released.  Biological weapons programs are also much easier to hide.  While having a nuclear reactor isn’t a dead give away for building a nuclear bomb, if you are enriching uranium past a certain point, it might send up some red flags (normal enrichment for energy is 3-5%, weapons grade is above 75%, records show Iran had enriched uranium past 20%.)  The scary thing about biological and chemical weapons programs is their ability to hide in plain sight.  Due the dual use of much of today’s biotechnological advancements, an offensive weapons program can be disguised as a facility to create vaccines or research centers for diseases with minimal effort.

This brings us to Iran.  If the deal passes, Iran will realistically be unable to produce a nuclear weapon for at least the next 10 years, loosing a vast majority of its nuclear fuel, decommissioning a majority of its centrifuges, and subjected to thorough inspections.  The question now is, does their inability to produce a nuclear weapon influence them to switch routes and invest in an offensive biological weapons program?  While some hold that nuclear weapons are a class above biological and chemical weapons, to others it’s the notion of possessing a WMD of any form that holds clout.  Does Iran view biological weapons as an equally effective way to convey their message to the outside world? Continue reading “Iran’s Shifting Preference?”

Pandora Report 7.26.15

Mason students are working through their summer courses and I’m happy to say mine is OVER! Let the summer begin (two months late)! This week we’ve got great news about Polio in Nigeria and a somber anniversary in Japan. We’ve also got other stories you may have missed.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend and have a great week!

A-Bomb Victims Remembered in Potsdam, Where Truman Ordered Nuclear Strikes

Coming up on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, German and Japanese citizens in the city of Potsdam held a remembrance ceremony for both the victims that died in the blast and the future. Japan has become, according to the former President of the International Court of Justice, the world’s conscience against nuclear weapons and power. Why? Japan is “the only country in the world to have been the victim of both military and civilian nuclear energy, having experienced the crazy danger of the atom, both in its military applications, destruction of life and its beneficial civilian use, which has now turned into a nightmare with the serious incidents of Fukushima.”

Japan Times—“The Potsdam Conference was held between July 17 and Aug. 2 in 1945. The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and another bomb on Nagasaki three days later. On Aug. 15 that year, Emperor Hirohito announced to the nation that Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration, in which the United States, Britain and China demanded the nation’s unconditional surrender.”

Nigeria Beats Polio

Very, very, very exciting news: Nigeria has not had a case of polio in a year. A year! This makes Nigeria polio free and the last country in Africa to eliminate the disease. The achievement was possible with contributions from the Nigerian government (where elimination of the disease was a point of “national pride”), UNICEF, the WHO, the CDC, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, and other organizations. With Nigeria’s accomplishment, there are only two other countries in the world where polio still exists—Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Voice of America—“Carol Pandek heads Rotary International’s polio program. She told VOA via Skype that a year being polio-free is a milestone for Nigeria, but noted that it is not over. “Now they need to continue to do high quality immunization campaigns for the next several years,” she said, as well as have a strong surveillance system so, should there be any new cases, they can be identified as soon as possible.”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Fg2

Pandora Report 6.14.15

I’ve got brunch reservations this morning so the big story about the coming egg shortage is hitting close to home. We’ve also got a story about ISIS’ WMD and a bunch of stories you may have missed.

As a final reminder, the Early Registration Deadline for the Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and International Security is tomorrow, Monday, June 15. For more information and registration, please click here.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Egg Shortage Scrambles U.S. Food Industries

The unprecedented outbreak of avian influenza in the U.S. has meant massive losses in the domestic poultry industry which has left experts warning that U.S. consumers are very likely to see an increase in egg prices. Cases of avian flu have been reported in 15 states, with Iowa and Minnesota being some of the hardest hit. “In Minnesota, the number of lost turkeys represent about 11 percent of our total turkey production…of the chickens we’ve lost that are laying eggs, 32 percent… have been affected by this” In Iowa, about 40 percent of the state’s egg-laying chickens and 11 percent of its turkeys have been affected. All these losses will mean a shortage of whole eggs and other egg-based products.

U.S. News and World Report—“Consumers haven’t felt the pinch too much just yet, but they are unlikely to emerge with their pocketbooks unscathed, [Rick] Brown [Senior VP at Urner Barry, a food commodity research and analysis firm]. He says two-thirds of all eggs produced in the U.S. remain in a shell, many of which are placed in cartons and sold in grocery stores. This stock of eggs has been hit significantly less by the avian flu outbreak than those used in the egg products industry, which Brown says encompasses “everything from mayonnaise to salad dressings to cake mixes to pasta to bread.”

Australian Official Warns of Islamic State Weapons of Mass Destruction

You may have already seen this, since this story was everywhere this week. Julie Bishop, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said the Islamic State (ISIS) already has and is already using chemical weapons. Bishop made these comments in an address to the Australia Group—a coalition of 40 countries seeking to limit the spread of biological and chemical weapons. In a follow-up interview, Bishop also said that NATO was concerned about the theft of radioactive material and what that could mean for nuclear weapons proliferation.

The Washington Post—“‘The use of chlorine by Da’ish, and its recruitment of highly technically trained professionals, including from the West, have revealed far more seriou­s efforts in chemical weapons development,” Bishop said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State in a speech reported by the Australian. She did not specify the source of her information.  “… Da’ish is likely to have amongst its tens of thousands of recruits the technical expertise necessary to further refine precursor materials and build chemical weapons.’”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Hannahdownes

Pandora Report 5.30.15

It was a slow-ish news week, this week with very few small stories but two huge ones about Chemical Weapons threats against airplanes and an inadvertent shipment of live Anthrax spores. We’ve also got a few stories you may have missed.

As a reminder, the Early Registration Deadline for the Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and International Security professional education course has been extended to June 15. For more information and registration, please click here.

Have a great weekend!!

U.S. Military Says It Mistakenly Shipped Live Anthrax Samples

It was a big story this week when live anthrax spores were inadvertently shipped from Dugway Proving Ground—an army facility in Utah—to 19 military and civilian labs across as many as nine states and an overseas site. The shipments were supposed to contain dead spores. Army and CDC officials have emphasized that these shipments pose no risk to the public and there are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infections among lab workers.

NBC New York—“The Defense Department, acting “out of an abundance of caution,” has halted “the shipment of this material from its labs pending completion of the investigation,” [Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve] Warren said.”

FBI Looking Into Chemical Weapons Threats Against Planes

While many of us had a day off from work on Memorial Day, the FBI was investigating threats made against at least 10 flights claiming that chemical weapons were aboard the planes. These included a Delta Airings flight from London Heathrow, a United Airlines flight from Edinburgh, Scotland, and an Air France flight into New York that was escorted to the ground safely by two F-15 fighter jets.

NBC News—“The threats are not deemed credible, but the information has been passed along to the airlines anyway, out of an abundance of caution.

The male caller made threats against at least 10 flights in a quick series of calls to local police around the country. All but three planes have landed with nothing of concern found.”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: United States Government