Pandora Report 10.7.2016

TGIF and cheers to another week of biodefense news! Check out the GAO multimedia video on the risks of incomplete inactivation of pathogens. A whistleblowing former Pasteur Institute official in South Korea is reporting that a scientist for the South Korean branch took MERS-CoV samples on a commercial flight from Seoul to Paris without proper clearance and violated UN rules and French laws. The CDC is reporting a spike in the number of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) reported. This rare polio-like illness can cause paralysis and was linked to outbreaks of enterovirus D68 in 2014. Ever wondered about opportunities to finance pandemic preparedness? Bill Nye has a new video on the “science illiteracy” of U.S. leaders, pointing to Ebola and climate change response as indicators of mistrust of science within the U.S.

Don’t Miss the Biological Threats in the 21st Century Book Launch!
Make sure to RSVP by Sunday for the upcoming (October 14th)  book launch of Biological Threats in the 21st Century! Biological Threats in the 21st Century introduces readers to the politics, people, science and historical roots of contemporary biological threats through rigorous and accessible chapters written by leading scholars and supplemented by expert point-of-view contributions and interviews. The book launch will feature a panel discussion on the threat of biological weapons and the role of scientists in bioweapons non-proliferation and disarmament. The event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be available, first come, first serve, beginning at 11:45 AM so please RSVP. Attendants will also be able to pick up the book at a 15% discount.

GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Open Houses Biodefense_133x400
We invite you to attend an open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government. The session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs, an introduction to our world-class faculty and research, and highlights of the many ways we position our students for success in the classroom and beyond. Our admissions and student services staff will be on hand to answer your questions. Check out the next MS info program on Wednesday, October 19: 6:30pm-8:30pm- Arlington Campus, Founders Hall, Room 126

Drawing on world-class original research and high-level practical experience, our faculty prepare students to be creative and effective participants in policy-making and political discourse.  By working closely with these faculty to conduct research that influences decisions at the local, national and international levels, our PhD graduates emerge prepared for high-powered careers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The next PhD info session will be on Wednesday, October 12, 2016: 7:00pm-8:30pm – Fairfax Campus, Johnson Center, Room 334

The State of Vaccine Skepticism in Maps
Typically, we look at graphs of vaccine exemptions, but you can now explore vaccination confidence throughout the world via interactive maps. A recent study looked at public confidence in vaccines, asking 66,000 people in 67 countries their thoughts and beliefs in vaccines. Researchers found that France was the least confident in vaccine safety and that “one peculiar conflict emerges from Southeast Asia, where the public seemingly has little doubt as to the safety, importance, or effectiveness of vaccines, yet may eschew them on religious grounds.” Attitude and confidence in vaccines is strongly correlated with vaccine exemptions or refusal. As we saw with California and the Disneyland-associated measles outbreak in 2015, vaccine-preventable disease are becoming a growing issue, not just within the U.S., but on a global level. Since we’re on the topic – make sure to get your annual flu shot as the CDC is recommending people get their flu vaccines before the end of October. You can find more on the 2016/2017 flu season here.

Las Alamos is Now Tracking Global Disease Outbreaks
Biosurveillance is a mixed bag of tricks – some prefer focusing on symptoms, others on vectors, but overall, there’s been a steady dispute regarding how best to pursue it. Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is working to break through the fog and establish a new method “describing disease that is designed to bring this disparate field together and gain international traction. Their new system of classification is called the Anthology of Biosurveillance Diseases, and they have set up an online database to support it.” The new system takes into account many important parts of the epidemiology and biosurveillance practices for disease tracking. Detailed description of vectors, search capabilities by symptoms, and a wide range of synonyms for diseases are all components to this new system. This is no easy task and the system designers know that as new diseases are found or knowledge expands for existing ones, there will be no rest for the wicked. Biosurveillance has so many moving parts and this database is the first step in trying to get them all into one area to better strengthen the surveillance system and thus the capacity for response by public health. While they work to make the updating process automated,  the database has been made available online here.

ISSF Roundtable on Barriers to Bioweapons
If you haven’t read GMU Biodefense Associate Professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley‘s Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Weapons Development, get the scoop from this latest review. Dr. Ouagrham-Gormley’s book breaks down the realities behind bioweapons development and that weaponization of biological agents is much more difficult than many realize. Not only is this one of my favorite books, depicting the realities of tacit knowledge as a major roadblock for non-state bioweapons development, but this review gives great insight from multiple subject matter experts from several academic institutions. “The reviewers place Ben Ouagrham-Gormley’s work in the context of the literature on nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and note that she impressively draws from multiple literature, including business school case studies, anthropology, and organizations and management. To these strengths, I would like to add three others: first, Barriers to Bioweapons is well organized and very well written—a model of rich empirics and theoretical sophistication. Second, Ben-Ouagrham-Gormley successfully tackles a large and hard problem: showing how state structures and processes shape specific technical and scientific outcomes. Third, in addition to her excellent discussion of tacit knowledge, Ben Ouagrham-Gormley writes with great insight about knowledge reservoirs, knowledge transfer, and knowledge loss in and across organizations.”

Enhancing International Nuclear Nonproliferation in an Increasingly Dangerous World
GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Daniel M. Gerstein points to the vulnerability of international nuclear nonproliferation and how this U.S. national security strategy is “teetinger on a dangerous precipice.” What can the U.S. do? Between North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s halting of the bilateral Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement with the U.S., the stakes are progressively getting higher. Gerstein notes that new national programs tend to focus on deterrence against regional adversaries and terrorist interest in acquisition of nuclear capabilities hasn’t waned, but rather the interest has grown as proliferation challenges become chronic. He notes several key steps to help reverse these trends – “First and foremost, the United States should reassure allies about the viability of U.S. nuclear security guarantees and the stockpile. The next administration will need to conduct a Nuclear Posture Review to set the country’s nuclear policy for a five- to 10-year period. Second, the United States should emphasize its absolute support for the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT – nonproliferation, disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Third, the two most immediate state nuclear proliferation issues must be addressed: Iran and North Korea. On Iran, the United States should build support for the JCPOA, both domestically and across the globe.” International strategies must account for the unpredictable nature and capabilities of North Korea and push for China to increasingly pressure them to abandon their nuclear program.

All Things Zika
After reporting an additional 2,391 cases of locally acquired Zika virus in the first week of September, Puerto Rico is continuing to battle the disease as their case counts top 20,000. Texas is currently enhancing Zika surveillance in the Rio Grande Valley. Brazilian researchers are reporting a constellation of brain injuries from their work with 11 babies whose congenital Zika infections were detected before birth. “Though brain damage varied among the babies, the most common findings were brain atrophy and changes related to disturbances in neuronal migration. Defects ranged from mild brain atrophy and calcifications to severe malformations including absence of the thalamus and lissencephaly. Other findings included hypoplasia of the cerebellum, cerebellar vermis, and corpus callous.” As the outbreak rages on, U.S. public health officials are bracing for the first wave/generation of babies born with Zika-related birth defects. This Generation Zika is expected to be an extraordinary demand on special-needs care. “Data on newborns in Colombia suggests that Zika-infected women who are asymptomatic may give birth to children with Zika-related abnormalities. With that in mind, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended testing for Zika during routine obstetric care for pregnant women who may have been exposed to the virus.” As of October 5th, the CDC has reported 3,818 cases of Zika in the U.S. Hurricane Matthew will be hitting Florida soon and as the state braces for impact, there are growing concerns about the increase of mosquito populations following flooding.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Legionnaires’ Outbreak Grows – The Minnesota Department of Health is reporting another spike in Legionnaires’ cases in the midst of an ongoing outbreak. They recently reported 23 new cases, all of which are people who live, work, or spend time in the Minneapolis suburb, Hopkins. “Seven locations with cooling towers have been identified as possible sources. Samples have been collected from those towers. But officials point out that cooling towers are not regulated in Minnesota, so there is no registry or master list of towers.”
  • The Biology of Anthrax Conference- Make sure to check out the upcoming November 15-18 conference in Tampa, Florida. While primarily a sporadic pathogen of herbivores, its use as a bio-terror agent has highlighted its ability to infect humans. This conference aims to bring together investigators active in this area with a view to sharing observations and ideas and fostering new collaborations and synergies. Participants at previous conferences in Cardiff in 2009 and 2014 included representatives from academia, industry, policy makers and government.

Pandora Report 8.9.15

My apologies for lack of update last weekend…but that means a SUPER UPDATE this weekend! This week marked the 70th anniversary of atomic bombs being dropped in Japan. Rather than find an insufficient story that attempted to address the gravity of that event, we’re focusing on a successful Ebola vaccine trial, UN consensus on Syrian chemical weapons, and airplane bathrooms (because I can’t help myself when I see a story like that!) We’ve also got stories you may have missed.

Have a great week!

Vaccine Success Holds Hope for End to Deadly Scourge of Ebola

Some great news from West Africa: an Ebola vaccine trial in Guinea has returned results that are 100% effective. 4,000 people who had been in close contact with a confirmed Ebola case showed complete protection after ten days. A ring vaccination strategy—where those who have close contact with an infected person—was used, and after success was demonstrated, the vaccine is now being extended to 13-17 year olds, and possibly 6-12 year old children.

Reuters—“The success of the Guinea trial is a big relief for researchers, many of whom feared a sharp decline in cases this year would scupper their hopes of proving a vaccine could work. Another major trial in Liberia, which had aimed to recruit some 28,000 subjects, had to stop enrolling after only reaching its mid-stage target of 1,500 participants. Plans for testing in Sierra Leone were also scaled back. That left the study in Guinea, where Ebola is still infecting new victims, as the only real hope for demonstrating the efficacy of a vaccine.”

U.N. Approves Resolution on Syria Chemical Weapons

The UN Security Council unanimously—yes, even Russia—adopted a resolution aimed at identifying those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria over the past two years. The resolution established an investigative body that would assign blame for the attacks “so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice.”

Salt Lake Tribune—“‘Pointing a finger matters,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the council. “This sends a clear and powerful message to all those involved in chemical weapons attacks in Syria that the [new investigative body] will identify you if you gas people.” But she added that prosecuting perpetrators will take time because there is still no tribunal to investigate alleged crimes during the war in Syria, which has killed at least 250,000 people since it began in March 2011, according to the U.N.”

Airplane Toilets Can Help Researchers Find Disease Outbreaks

A recent study in Scientific Reports finds that researchers can tell what continent you’re from and give early indication of disease outbreaks, all from the poop left in airplanes. (I think this is the first time I’ve been able to say “poop” here on the blog.) The researchers gathered samples from 18 airplanes that departed from nine cities and landed in Copenhagen and were able to identify continental trends. Microbes from Southeast Asia had higher incidence of antibiotic resistance; food transmitted microbes were also more frequent in the Southeast Asian samples; and C. diff was much more common in the North American samples.

Popular Science—“These findings led the researchers to believe that they could start to create a typical microbiome for each continent. And any big shifts that happen in their makeup—say, the concentration of C. diff rises dramatically in samples from Southeast Asia—could indicate a growing public health issue. If it’s caught early enough, public health officials could take preventative action.”

Stories You May Have Missed


Image Credit: CDC Global

Pandora Report 6.28.15

It was a big week, right? The Supreme Court was making declarations and in California the General Assembly was making some decisions of their own. We’ve got the mandate for childhood vaccines in California, World War II chemical weapons testing, and other stories you may have missed.

There will be no news round up next week, in honor of one of my favorite holidays, Independence Day! I’ll be wearing red, white, and blue, watching July 4th themed movies, and celebrating with all the American spirit I can muster. I wish all of you the same!

See you back here in July!

California Passes Bill to Require Vaccines and Ban Religious Exemptions

On Thursday, the California State Assembly passed SB 277, which mandates that children attending day care or public school must be vaccinated. The bill eliminated personal-belief and religious exemptions. Largely, this bill was in response to the outbreak of measles that began at Disneyland last year. Children who cannot receive vaccinations for medical reasons can still receive the vaccine exemption. Governor Jerry Brown is expected to sign the bill into law.

Slate—“The New York Times quoted Christina Hildebrand, the founder of A Voice for Choice, a nonprofit organization that has lobbied against the bill, about her unsuccessful campaign to stop this legislation, “There are large numbers of parents who are very concerned about the fact that we’re going to have mandated medical treatment against a fundamental right to education. Parental freedom is being taken away by this, because the fear of contagion is trumping it.’”

Secret World War II Chemical Experiments Tested Troops by Race

According to documents declassified in the 1990s, the U.S. Army conducted secret chemical weapons tests on minority soldiers in order to determine the effect weapons had on non-white skin. African-American and Puerto Rican soldiers were tested upon to see if their darker pigment made them less susceptible to the weapons. Japanese-Americans were used to determine how the weapons would affect enemy Japanese soldiers. The soldiers were subjected to mustard gas and lewisite and volunteered for the assignment.

NPR—“All of the World War II experiments with mustard gas were done in secret and weren’t recorded on the subjects’ official military records. Most do not have proof of what they went through. They received no follow-up health care or monitoring of any kind. And they were sworn to secrecy about the tests under threat of dishonorable discharge and military prison time, leaving some unable to receive adequate medical treatment for their injuries, because they couldn’t tell doctors what happened to them.”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: David Monniaux

Pandora Report 5.24.15

Two quick updates before we get into the weekly wrap-up.

First, the Early Registration Deadline for the Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and International Security professional education course at the GMU Arlington Campus has been extended to June 15. For more information and registration, please click here.

Second, we here at Pandora Report wanted to let you know about a new website designed to provide resources for biosecurity professionals and practitioners and key stakeholders. The International Biosecurity Prevention Forum (IBPF) brings together the world’s leading experts from the health and security communities to share expertise on key biosecurity and bioterrorism prevention issues. Registering to join IBPF is free and easy. Go to http://www.ibpforum.organd click the “Request Membership” button to request an IBPF member account. Members get access to a discussion section and projects, resources, and best practices submitted by other members. Contact the IBPF support team at if you have any questions or problems.

Now, onto the news. This weekend we have stories about British nuclear submarines, anti-vaccine legislation in California, the development of bird flu vaccines, and other stories you may have missed.

Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend!!

Britain Investigates Sailor’s Disaster Warning Over Nuclear Subs

Able Seaman William McNeilly—a weapons engineer who served aboard HMS Vanguard, one of the four British submarines carrying Trident missiles—wrote a “lengthy dossier” released on the internet which says that the “Trident nuclear defense system was vulnerable both to enemies and to potentially devastating accidents because of safety failures.” McNeilly has since gone AWOL and both police and naval officials are trying to locate him.

The Japan Times—“The Royal Navy said it totally disagreed with McNeilly’s “subjective and unsubstantiated personal views,” describing him as a “very junior sailor.” But it added it was investigating both his claims and the “unauthorized release” of his dossier. “The naval service operates its submarine fleet under the most stringent safety regime and submarines do not go to sea unless they are completely safe to do so,” a spokeswoman said.”

A Blow to Anti-Vaxxers: California Approves Forced Vaccination Bill

By now, we all know that the measles outbreak that started last winter at Disneyland was a result of unvaccinated individuals. In California, the State Senate has passed a bill which limits parent’s use of the “personal belief exemption” in order to get out of getting their children vaccinated. Under the bill, parents who don’t get their children vaccinated would not be able to send their kids to state-licensed schools, nurseries, or day care centers.

State Column—“Only children who have a medical reason for why they can’t be vaccinated would still be allowed to attend schools without receiving their vaccinations under Senate Bill 277, which was sponsored by a California Sen. Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacremento), a pediatrician, and Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), a former school board member and the son of a survivor of polio, according to a Forbes report.”

Vaccines Developed for H5N1, H7N9 Avian Flu

Findings appearing in the Journal of Virology indicate that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases have developed a vaccine for both H5N1 and H7N9—two strains of avian influenza which can be transmitted from poultry to humans. The vaccine was developed by cloning the Newcastle disease virus and transplanting a small section of the H5N1 virus into it; the same method was used for the H7N9 vaccine.

Toronto Sun—“‘We believe this Newcastle disease virus concept works very well for poultry because you kill two birds with one stone, metaphorically speaking,” Richt said. “You use only one vector to vaccinate and protect against a selected virus strain of avian influenza.’”

Stories You May Have Missed


Image Credit: UK Ministry of Defence

Pandora Report 4.11.15

It’s a public health weekend here at Pandora Report as we check out stories on TB and Polio. We also have other stories you may have missed.

Have a great week and see you back here next weekend!

Ancient Hungarian Crypt Offers Clues to Tuberculosis Origins

As one of the leading infectious disease killers, Tuberculosis, a bacterial infection, holds interest for scientists who disagree over the origins of the human disease. However, a new study in Nature Communications uses a cutting-edge approach called metagenomics to analyze corpses that were naturally mummified in a Hungarian crypt. Of 14 genomes found in eight of the corpses, researchers discovered that multiple strains were circulating in Hungary in the 18th century when these people died.

The Toronto Star—“‘All the historic genomes belonged to lineages that we see today,” said senior author Dr. Mark Pallen, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of Warwick. “So TB hasn’t changed much in 200 years … (and) it turns out that the most common ancestor of the Euro-American lineage that all our (tuberculosis) genomes belonged to dates back to late Roman times.’”

Polio, Cancer—One Nemesis May Counter the Other

Tomorrow, April 12, is the 60th anniversary of when Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was declared to be effective. Today, as the world inches closer to full polio eradication, interesting news highlighted on “60 Minutes” looks at the polio virus’ ability to kill another lethal illness—Cancer. A genetically engineered strain of polio virus appears to thwart lethal brain cancer tumors.

The Huffington Post—“The modified polio virus seems to deactivate the cancer tumor’s ability to defeat immune capacities. Freed up, the immune system works at defeating the tumor. Miraculously, the immunotherapy workings spare healthy tissues, while killing cancer cells.”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Pudelek

Pandora Report 1.25.15

This week, we’re going to focus on stories revolving around disease eradication—or the lack thereof. We look at Measles in California, Polio in Pakistan, and TB in Britain. We’ve also got an Ebola update and (lots) of stories you may have missed.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend and have a safe and healthy week!

Melinda Gates Shames Anti-Vaxxers “Who Have Forgotten What Measles Death Looks Like”

At least 85 measles cases in seven states have been linked to an outbreak that started at Disneyland in Southern California. Reportedly, at least 28 affected people never received the measles vaccine. Melinda Gates, of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has long worked to help people in developing countries receive basic healthcare treatment, including vaccines, and she fired back at parents in the U.S. who have declined to take advantage of vaccines.

Mother Jones—“‘We take vaccines so for granted in the United States,” Gates explained during an appearance on HuffPost Live Thursday. “Women in the developing world know the power of [vaccines]. They will walk 10 kilometers in the heat with their child and line up to get a vaccine because they have seen death.” In detailing the struggle parents in the developing world endure to have their children vaccinated, Gates said Americans have simply “forgotten what measles death looks like.’”

A New Polio Case in Pakistan and an Unsolved Epidemic

The Gates Foundation has also worked on eradicating Polio. Despite their efforts, and the tireless efforts of others since 1988, polio remains endemic in three countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria—with cases in seven others. In some good news, it has been nearly six months since a diagnosed case of polio in Nigeria. But Pakistan, who registered its first case of 2015, remains a concern due to strong, and sometimes violent, opposition to polio vaccination.

Wired—“Among the endemic countries, Pakistan is clearly now the major challenge — more of one than Nigeria was, even though Nigeria in its worst outbreaks had more cases. I say that because the barriers to vaccination in Nigeria depended on internal sectarian politics. The children who were not being vaccinated were always technically reachable by vaccinators, once local communities decided to let them in; and there was never a threat to the lives of the vaccination teams. In Pakistan, though, the conflict is bigger than one party versus another, and the areas where children are not being vaccinated are literal no-go zones.”

Europe’s Tuberculosis Hub in Britain Seeks to Wipe Out the Disease

Often thought of as a disease of the past, tuberculosis has stubbornly persisted in Britain. In fact, London is known as the continent’s “TB capital.” On Monday, health authorities launched a $17.4 million plan in order to tackle Britain’s persistent TB problem, in an effort to wipe out the extremely contagious lung disease all together. The plan involves working with the National Health Service (NHS) to target the most vulnerable, and improve access to screening, testing, treatment, and outreach services.

Fox News—“TB rates in the United Kingdom are nearly five times those in the United States. If current trends continue, England alone will have more TB cases than the whole of the U.S. in two years. “TB should be consigned to the past, and yet it is occurring in England at higher rates than most of Western Europe,” said Paul Cosford, a director at the government’s health agency, Public Health England (PHE). “This situation must be reversed.’”

This Week in Ebola

On Friday, the World Health Organization announced that the number of new cases of Ebola in West Africa have fallen to their lowest number in months. In fact, during the week of January 18, there were only 8 new cases in Liberia—compared to the 300 new cases per week in August and September—which has left the U.S. built treatment centers largely empty. There were many reports this week that Ebola clinical trials will soon begin in Liberia.  In Guinea, the number of cases of Ebola has also fallen off—only 42 cases the first week of January, the lowest total since mid-August—and the government has begun a new campaign: zero Ebola cases in 60 days.

So, maybe this will be the last Ebola update? Probably not. The stories keep coming, but they are now more focused on the long term effects or lessons from the outbreak. For example, Ebola has been more deadly for the great apes than it has for humans. Among gorillas the mortality rate is about 95% and for chimpanzees it is 77%–for humans it has been about 50%. There has also been analysis of the response, including an upcoming lecture by the President of the World Bank Group titled “Lessons from Ebola: A post-2015 Strategy for Pandemic Response” which will stream live online.

Stories You May Have Missed


Image Credit: Regional Center of Orange County

Pandora Report 06.01.14

Highlights include Ebola research at UVA, No person-to-person MERS transmission in the U.S., Syria’s inability to meet deadlines, and the continuing negative impact of Anxi-Vaxxers.  Have a great Sunday!


Ebola’s Fist: UVA Unlocks How Deadly Virus Smashes into Human Cells

Further proving the superiority of public universities in Virginia, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have discovered how the Ebola virus enters the cytoplasm of human cells. This discovery comes at a critical time when Ebola is still raging in West Africa.

Augusta Free Press—“UVA’s new discovery offers important insight into how the virus works its way into cells. After the virus is engulfed by the cell, it is contained within a vesicle where it can do no harm. But Ebola quickly escapes the vesicle, and now scientists understand how. UVA researcher Lukas Tamm, PhD, of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics, and his team discovered that the pH level inside the vesicle triggers the surface glycoprotein on the virus to form a “fist” that lets the virus punch its way into the cell’s cytoplasm, where it can effectively turn the cell into a factory for virus production.”


Nevermind! It Turns Out the Guy Who Tested Positive for MERS Doesn’t Have it

Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief! It turns out that the Illinois man who tested positive for MERS after shaking hands with an infected man never really had it. The tests used for diagnostics registered a false positive. This means that the only cases of MERS in the United States have been imported and have not passed through person-to-person transmission.

ABC News—“‘There is good news here,” ABC News chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser said. “It was concerning that this man supposedly got infected through minimal contact – a couple of meetings and a handshake. Now that it’s clear that he was not infected, we’re back to a situation where those who have been infected have either been health care workers caring for MERS patients or close contacts, often family members.’”


Syria Set to Miss Deadline for Chemical Weapons Destruction

During the past week not only was a chemical weapons inspection team ambushed and held captive in Syria, but reports are coming out that the Syrian government will not meet the June 30, 2014, deadline for removal and destruction of their chemical weapons arsenal.  UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, also voiced concerned about allegations that chlorine gas has been used in recent fighting in Syria.

The Moscow Times—“The Syrian government has missed several deadlines, most recently its own promise to hand over the remaining chemicals by April 27. It has also failed to destroy a dozen facilities that were part of the chemical weapons program. The government has blamed those failures on security problems and rebel activities, but Western officials have voiced skepticism about those explanations.”


The New Measles Outbreak: Blame the Anti-Vaxxers

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that new measles cases in the United States are at a 20 year high for the first five months of 2014.  The CDC reports that 97% of measles cases have been imported by people who have travelled to other countries and brought the disease back with them and that 90% of the infections have occurred among unvaccinated individuals. In his scathing Time piece, Jeffrey Kluger highlights the worldwide struggle to eradicate polio and the capriciousness of those in the U.S. choosing to not be vaccinated against preventable, and long-dormant, diseases.

Time—“Make no mistake, the measles outbreak in the U.S. is an act of choice, of election, of a decision to get sick—or a decision by parents to put their children at risk. Fully 90% of the new cases are among people who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown. And nearly all of those people are unvaccinated for personal, philosophical or religious reasons—as opposed to any medical condition that requires them to avoid vaccines. This is true too of recent outbreaks of mumps and whooping cough, and of the dangerously declining rate of vaccination in the U.S. overall. Nearly all of that folly can be blamed on the rumors and outright lies that continue to be spread about various conditions vaccines are said to cause—autism, ADHD, vaguely defined immune system disorders and on and on depending on which celebrity or health faddist is telling the tale.” 


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pandora Report 4.11.14

Ebola is still raging in West Africa and experts are planning for a long battle, however, every week can’t be about Ebola. So let’s jump into it!

Highlights include The START treaty, Chemical Weapons in Syria, H1N1 in otters and public outcry over Chilis (but not their baby back ribs.) Have a great weekend!

New START Data Show Russian Increase, US Decrease Of Deployed Warheads

With many Russia watchers nervously waiting to see if moves are made towards Ukraine, new data this week shows that Russia has actually increased their counted deployed strategic nuclear forces since September 2013 under the START treaty. Under the new treaty, by 2018, both Russia and the U.S. agree to no more than 1,550 strategic warheads on 700 deployed launchers. Russia has been under this limit since 2012—before the treaty was even signed—while the U.S. has yet to reduce below the treaty limits.

Federation of American Scientists– “Since the treaty was signed in 2010, the United States has reduced its counted strategic forces by 104 deployed launchers and 215 warheads; Russia has reduced its counted force by 23 launchers and  25 warheads. The reductions are modest compared with the two countries total inventories of nuclear warheads: Approximately 4,650 stockpiled warheads for the United States (with another 2,700 awaiting dismantlement) and 4,300 stockpiled warheads for Russia (with another 3,500 awaiting dismantlement).”

Another Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria?

 After Syria signed a chemical weapons dismantlement agreement in September 2013 (brokered by Russia, the U.S. and the UN), it appears they have reneged on their word. Reports from “credible” sources say that there have been chemical weapons attacks in the cities of Harasta and Jobar over the past couple weeks. With the eyes of the world on Russia and Ukraine, and U.S. naval destroyers loaded with tomahawk missiles departed from the Mediterranean, Assad may be benefitting from a lack of international oversight.

The Wall Street Journal-“There is no credible evidence to suggest that rebel groups in the Damascus area have acquired the materials or know-how to mount chemical weapons on conventional artillery pieces in their possession. It can therefore be concluded that unless the rebels theatrically fabricated the effects of a chemical attack, the Assad regime was likely responsible for carrying them out. Notably, on March 25, Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari distributed a letter specifically warning that rebels would use chemical weapons in Jobar in order to blame the government. But if any party in the conflict would be prone to such conspiracy, it would be the Assad regime, whose decades of tutelage under the Russian KGB made their Mukhabarat (secret service) frighteningly efficient at false-flag tactics meant to smear the opposition.”

Swine Flu From 2009 Pandemic Also Struck Sea Otters

Turns out, the H1N1 pandemic from 2009 didn’t only affect humans…it affected otters! New research shows that otters off the Western coast of the United States were also infected with H1N1 as it affected people throughout the U.S. Seventy percent of the otters tested in 2011 showed antibodies (demonstrating previous infection) for H1N1. Previous research also showed that elephant seals living off the coast of California had been infected with H1N1 too.

U.S. News and World Report-“‘Our study shows that sea otters may be a newly identified animal host of influenza viruses,” study-co-author and USGS scientist Hon Ip said in a government news release. “We are unsure how these animals became infected,” lead author and CDC scientist Zhunan Li said in the news release. “This population of sea otters lives in a relatively remote environment and rarely comes into contact with humans.” The study was published in the May issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.”

Chili’s cancels fundraiser with National Autism Association

Last weekend, my favorite mid-range American restaurant, Chili’s announced that they would be partnering with the National Autism Association for a benefit on Monday, April 7. However, outcry over the NAA—and its anti-vaccination stance—forced Chili’s to change its mind (and continue to keep my business.) It is a striking demonstration of the power of consumers and social media and strikes a victory for those in favor of vaccinations and the good they bring to communities and herd immunity.

CNN-“The Chili’s spokeswoman said that the NAA was originally selected for the fundraiser “based on the percentage of donations that would go directly to providing financial assistance to families and supporting programs that aid the development and safety of children with autism.”

Chili’s, which is owned by Brinker International (EAT), went on to say, “While we remain committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism, we canceled Monday’s Give Back Event based on the feedback we heard from our guests.”’


(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire)

The Persistence of Anti-Vaccination Groups

needleby GMU Biodefense grad Ryan Gearheart

So where does this hostility and fear come from? From a historical perspective, anti-vaccination groups have existed since the start of state endorsed vaccination programs, and while the basic arguments are the same, the explosion of the Internet and increasing use of scientific jargon have allowed anti-vaccination groups to garner credibility and reach wider audiences. Today’s anti-vaccination groups and parents have been extremely vocal about what they perceive to be unsafe vaccines and vaccines’ correlation with increasing autism rates. Much of their anger can be traced back to the original Wakefield et al. (1998) article – now retracted – suggesting a link between enterocolitis infection, measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccinations, and subsequent increases in autism in the observed children.[1] Indeed, many of the parents suspecting a link between the MMR vaccines and the onset of autism funneled their cases to Dr. Wakefield over the course of several years, thereby affecting the scientific body of knowledge (Moore & Stilgoe, 2009, p. 668). Despite several major studies disproving the link between vaccinations containing the preservative thimerosal[2] and autism, as well as discrediting MMR vaccination-linked autism (MMR vaccines did not and do not contain thimerosal), enlivened parents continue to voice their opposition and seek legal compensation.

According to an article by Harris and O’Connor (2005): “Parents have filed more than 4,800 lawsuits – 200 from February to April alone – pushed for state and federal legislation banning thimerosal and taken out full-page advertisements in major newspapers.” Because of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 – created with the goal of preventing vaccine manufacturers from being sued out of business – all lawsuits regarding possible vaccine injuries must go through a special vaccines court, as opposed to civil court, thereby preventing class-action lawsuits from being filed (Kirkland, 2012, p. 238). Running from 2002 through 2010, Anna Kirkland (2012) cites the unusual nature of the vaccine-autism cases: “Because holding so many hearings was untenable, the cases were consolidated into the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (OAP) so that the causation issues could be tried in six test cases” (p. 238). With so much on the line for everyone involved in these cases, both sides undertook immense boundary work to discredit the other party and establish their own credibility zones.[3] How is it possible that such a resounding scientific consensus has failed to establish consensus in the overall public? Kirkland’s 2012 study, “Credibility Battles in the Autism Litigation,” does much to elaborate on how the petitioners – parents with autistic children – perceived the OAP as a “stacked deck” with the sole intent of protecting national vaccination campaigns (p. 254). Alternatively, Kirkland (2012) goes on to note that the “special masters” presiding over the hearing felt that they had done everything in their power to give the petitioners a chance to build the best case possible (p. 255). Of course, reaching an outcome agreeable to both sides was impossible from the start: “One significant schism in credibility zones in the OAP…lay between the mainstream toxicology and medical communities and the alternative autism community, with different labs, tests, standards, practices, and foundational assumptions for each” (Kirkland, 2012, p. 243). Without an agreed to set of facts, or even “foundational assumptions” to work from, the OAP’s attempt to reconcile the emotionally charged vaccine-autism issue was likely to fail from the start.

Continued anti-vaccination opposition reinforces the fact that the scientific community and the United States Government have been unable to establish cognitive authority because of some parents’ contextualization and, ultimately, rejection of mainstream scientific authority. Donald MacKenzie (1990) notes that these disputes are only natural when one considers that: “Knowledge is indeed a network wherein different kinds of test are performed against differently constructed backgrounds, with no one test – not even “use” – and no one background being accepted by all as the ultimate arbiter” (p. 378). As Stephen Turner (2001) notes:

What counts as “expert” is conventional, mutable and shifting, and that people are persuaded of claims to expertise through mutable, shifting conventions does not make the decisions to accept or reject the authority of experts less than reasonable in the sense appropriate to liberal discussion. To grant a role to expert knowledge does not require us to accept the immaculate conception of expertise (p. 146).

Wynne’s (1991) theory regarding society’s contextualization of scientific information holds particularly true here when considering the proximity of childhood vaccinations (one to two years of age) and the general timeframe for diagnosing autism in children (three to four years of age). It is not hard to understand why a parent would link childhood vaccinations to autism under these circumstances, even if scientific studies demonstrate no causal link between them.

Similar to the HCWs’ concerns described in the previous subsection, the overwhelming boundary-work undertaken to dismiss Wakefield’s work as ‘not-science’ has been insufficient to reassure parents with autistic children.

Additionally, parents with these concerns may be even less likely to give their children a live vaccine based on fears of their children actually contracting influenza – a fear likely to be higher than seen with the standard, inactivated vaccines – and compound fears regarding potential neurological disorders. This would mean that mass vaccination programs focusing on children are even more likely to encounter fierce opposition from anti-vaccination groups and concerned parents. Adverse events are an especially salient concern considering the recent Finnish study linking the 2009-2010 Pandemrix vaccine, produced by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), to narcolepsy in children (Pohjanpalo, 2011). The damage to vaccination programs should be even greater given that Helsinki is establishing a pooled fund to pay for the children’s medical costs, in addition to the ongoing fallout from the Wakefield et al. (1998) article. Given previous and ongoing concerns about vaccines’ links to autism and various other neurological disorders, healthcare and scientific personnel are going to be hard pressed to maintain what social and cognitive authority they still possess. As such, it will be increasingly important that the United States Government undertake a public relations campaign – using (generally) trusted sources such as the CDC and trusted, local healthcare providers – to accurately convey the risks and costs associated with influenza, as well as the community-wide benefits which can be achieved through mass-vaccinations of school-aged children.

Emily Martin (1998) proposes that the anti-vaccination movement may also be reflective of a new culture of health in the United States, wherein “…the very bodies of people are being categorized into two types: those that can survive the present intensely competitive environment and those that cannot” (p. 33). Martin (1998) takes her argument one step further and pushes the idea that the rigidity of scientific communication regarding vaccine safety has lost some of its purchase in the mainstream public because it is no longer culturally gripping – that is to say, a vaccine might be seen as “crudely bludgeoning the delicate adjustment of the finely tuned immune system at a time when there is no actual threat” and thereby “be seen as undermining health” (p. 33). If the United States Government and the scientific community are unable to convey that vaccines are a far cry from bludgeoning tools for the immune system, but are rather statistically safe and effective methods for molding it in advance of a life-threatening illness or pandemic, “good” science may gradually find itself unable to quickly achieve high vaccination rates prior to, and immediately after, the start of a pandemic. Therefore, it is absolutely essential for the United States Government and any other governments hoping to use and enforce a national vaccination campaign, to understand that opposition groups can use the government’s own findings and seemingly callous scientific communication as evidence of government conspiracies to promote vaccinations, while simultaneously downplaying and/or ignoring specific subsets of the population that may suffer elevated risks of adverse effects. Consequently, it is imperative for the United States Government to identify which credibility zones are most important to the survival of its vaccination campaigns and to focus its efforts there in the event of a pandemic.[4]

It will also be critical for the United States Government and mainstream healthcare community to address anti-vaccine groups on the Internet. Multiple studies have shown that user-generated information on the Internet, alternatively known as “Web 2.0”, supply large amounts of misinformation to users, often with the same themes: childhood diseases are not as severe as the public is led to believe; the threat from childhood diseases is either minimal or does not exist; vaccines are not safe; vaccines are not effective; vaccines contain poisons, such as ether, antifreeze, etc.; civil liberties infringement; that a government-biopharmaceutical conspiracy exists because vaccines are profitable; and the list goes on (Jacobson, Targonski, & Poland, 2007; Kata, 2010; Kata, 2012; Busse, Wilson, & Campbell, 2008; Keane et al., 2005; Betsch & Sacshe, 2012; Bean, 2011; Betsch et al., 2012; Manfredi et al., 2010; Downs, de Bruin, & Fischhoff, 2008; Spier, 2002; Leask & McIntyre, 2003; Witteman & Zikmund-Fisher, 2012; Poland & Jacobson, 2001; Poland, Jacobson, & Ovsyannikova, 2009; Leask, Chapman, & Robbins, 2010). However, any attempt to counteract the anti-vaccine movement online must understand that this issue cannot be “fixed” by an educational campaign – the anti-vaccine movement has found a niche in a “postmodern” society that places an emphasis on individuals’ values, “prioritizing risk over benefit,” and promotes “the well-informed patient” (Kata, 2010, p. 1714). In this postmodern society, anyone is free to challenge the expertise of established authorities and, in effect, to become “lay experts” – an oxymoronic term itself – capable of forming and following their own knowledge and judgments (Kata, 2012).

Moreover, the broad distrust of government and mainstream healthcare harbored by anti-vaccine groups means that no amount of epidemiological statistics, no matter how extensive the study or its statistical power, will be able to override personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, efforts must be taken to improve the number of “hits” government and mainstream healthcare websites receive on the first page of search results, given the high number of people seeking healthcare and vaccination information on the internet (Kata, 2010; Kata, 2012; Betsch & Sachse, 2012; Bean, 2011; Betsch et al., 2012; Witteman & Zikmund-Fisher, 2012; Leask, Chapman, & Robbins, 2010). This is a particularly important endeavor given that anti-vaccination websites like the NVIC portray themselves as neutral information providers, advocating safer vaccines and informed choice – inarguable points intended to draw in larger audiences – while putting out information that is almost entirely anti-vaccine. Furthermore, distrust and/or frustration with mainstream healthcare have led to a resurgence in the number of people seeking complementary and alternative healthcare (CAM) in the U.S (Ernst, 2002). For those parents of autistic children, suffering from an ill-defined disease with few, if any, treatment options according to mainstream healthcare, it is unsurprising that many would turn to alternative healthcare treatments to find hope and a potential cure for their children. Still, many within the CAM community – certified and uncertified practitioners alike – actively and/or passively dismiss vaccines as ineffective at best and harmful at worst. The United States Government and mainstream healthcare community cannot afford to lose a credibility battle in doctors’ offices because they have failed to provide hope to parents at the cost of vaccination rates.


[1] Wakefield’s original article never explicitly stated a link between MMR vaccinations and autism, although the potential linkage could not be dismissed by the authors. As such, the original authors had called for further investigation. Nevertheless, the publicity surrounding this research led in no small part to significant decreases in MMR vaccination rates in the United Kingdom – predictably leading to upticks in measles outbreaks – and, to this day, continues to be cited by various anti-vaccination groups as evidence of a major government-biopharmaceutical conspiracy aimed at hiding any evidence of harm.

[2] Thimerosal is an organic ethyl mercury compound – approximately 50 percent ethyl mercury by weight – used as a preservative in many vaccines (Kirkland, 2012, p. 242). Although the toxic, neurological effects of methyl mercury – the type most commonly found in fish and the natural environment – are well documented, thimerosal never underwent the extensive safety testing of later preservatives, effectively having been “grandfathered” in prior to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

[3] “Credibility zones are spaces of knowledge production for communities that have their own sources and forms of sustenance…” (Kirkland, 2012, p. 240).

[4] For an in-depth look at credibility zones and their impacts on mainstream consensus, see: Jasanoff, S. (2004). Sates of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. New York: Routledge.