Pandora Report 1.19.2018

Happy Friday and welcome to your favorite source for all things biodefense! We hope you’re able to avoid the onslaught of respiratory viruses that are circulating right now, but on the off chance that you’re battling a bug, here’s some infectious disease new that won’t get you sick.

Fighting Influenza
Whether you’re fighting the flu or watching the mayhem unfold in the news, you can’t escape influenza right now. We’re getting hit hard with flu season in the United States and the CDC has reported that activity is still rising and we’re not out of the woods yet. You can find the latest flu data here, but what is worrying so many is the hit that hospitals are taking across the country. It’s not just that we’re facing an IV bag shortage due to the devastation Hurricane Maria wreaked upon Puerto Rico, but that hospitals are being overrun with an onslaught of ILI (influenza like illness) patients. Wait times are through the roof, staff are stretched thin, patients are being admitted into overflow areas, hospitals are having to divert patients because they’re so full, triage areas have been set up in parking lots and emergency areas, and hospitals are even struggling to ensure they have enough PPE and influenza tests. This year marks the centennial of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, and it seems like what’s going on is out of a history book instead of down the street. As an infection preventionist and infectious disease epidemiologist, it is not surprising or unexpected that we’re running into these issues. It’s easy for people to point to the current situation and use it as an example of why we’re not ready for a flu pandemic – and they’re right, but it shouldn’t take what’s going on to see that. These are not new issues. Infection control and hospital preparedness has been struggling for a long time and it doesn’t take a pandemic to prove it. Even after the surge of funding and focus on hospital preparedness post-Ebola, we still struggle with these issues, but throw in budget cuts and an administration that is set to pull funding away from public health…well, the outlook is dismal.

With so much attention on influenza, pandemic preparedness, and how we’re just not ready for the next great flu pandemic, what kind of household interventions can we apply in our own little ecosystems? Researchers looked at a HPAI H5N1 outbreak and estimated the reduction in primary attack rates for household-based interventions. “We show that, for lower transmissibility strains, the combination of household-based quarantine, isolation of cases outside the household, and targeted prophylactic use of anti-virals will be highly effective and likely feasible across a range of plausible transmission scenarios. For example, for a basic reproductive number (the average number of people infected by a typically infectious individual in an otherwise susceptible population) of 1.8, assuming only 50% compliance, this combination could reduce the infection (symptomatic) attack rate from 74% (49%) to 40% (27%), requiring peak quarantine and isolation levels of 6.2% and 0.8% of the population, respectively, and an overall anti-viral stockpile of 3.9 doses per member of the population.” While we all may not access to anti-virals, the use of quarantine and isolation are all effective strategies. From an infection control standpoint, it can be tough to maintain such efforts in a household where one or two people are sick. When in doubt, wash your hands, cover your cough, and clean those high-touch surfaces/objects!

GMU Biodefense MS Open House
Mark your calendars for the February 21st Master’s Open House at GMU’s Arlington campus! If you’ve been thinking about getting a MS in biodefense (who wouldn’t want to take classes on biosurveillance, historical bioweapons programs, and more?!), this is a great chance to talk to faculty and learn about the admissions process. GMU has biodefense MS programs in person and online, so even if you’re not in the DC-area, you can get your biodefense on.

Smallpox, Horsepox, And The Trouble With Poxviruses
It seems only a few months ago that news broke of a Canadian research team’s de novo synthesis of horsepox. Since then, there has been considerable discussion surrounding not only the biosafety and biosecurity behind research involving an orthopoxvirus, but also the implications of normalizing orthopoxvirus synthesis, and again, if the remaining smallpox stockpiles should be destroyed. The latest report from researchers at the University of Alberta points to the potential smallpox vaccine developments that synthetic viruses could bring. “Virologist David Evans and his research associate Ryan Noyce produced an infectious horsepox virus, which they synthetically reconstructed using a published genome sequence and DNA fragments manufactured entirely by chemical methods. The team went on to show that the synthetic horsepox virus could provide vaccine protection in a mouse model of poxvirus infection.” Unfortunately, the implications of synthesizing an orthopoxvirus aren’t so simple. GMU biodefense professor and program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz evaluated the implications of such synthesis for biosecurity and what would be needed to prevent a reemergence of smallpox. “The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security. That threat has been held at bay for the past 40 years by the extreme difficulty of obtaining variola virus and the availability of effective medical countermeasures. The techniques demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox have the potential to erase both of these barriers. The primary risk posed by this research is that it will open the door to the routine and widespread synthesis of other orthopoxviruses, such as vaccinia, for use in research, public health, and medicine.” Koblentz notes that while there are potentially legitimate uses for synthesizing orthopoxviruses (safer smallpox vaccine development), it also means that such labs have the potential to produce smallpox from synthetic DNA and emphasized that action is needed now to avoid the misuse of synthetic biology by nefarious actors. “Unfortunately, the current legal and technical safeguards against the synthesis of smallpox virus are weak and fragmented. There is no clear international legal or regulatory framework to prevent the synthesis of smallpox virus. The WHO has a policy banning the synthesis of the smallpox and regulating who can produce and possess large fragments of smallpox DNA, but it hasn’t been widely adopted by states. Furthermore, there is no mechanism—at either the national or international level—for detecting or punishing violations of this policy.” GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu cited the importance of medical providers understanding the dual-use research of concern debate and that ultimately, biosecurity impacts us all. “From the healthcare perspective, it may not seem like something we should worry about, but the direction of gene editing and dual-use research of concern is something that is intrinsically linked to public health. Nefarious outcomes of such experiments, regardless of the origin or intent, will inevitably make their way into an emergency department, urgent care, or worse, the community. Although we may not be seeing the implications today, as medical providers and healthcare workers, we must keep our ears to the ground, listening for these biotech advancements, and then thinking through what they mean for us tomorrow.”

Blue Ribbon SLTT Ability to Respond to Large Scale Biological Events: Challenges and Solutions
If you missed the Wednesday meeting, here’s a recording to catch up on all things biodefense. “State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Ability to Respond to Large-Scale Biological Events: Challenges and Solutions government officials, federal and academic representatives, and subject matter experts will discuss their perspectives, experiences, challenges, and recommended solutions with regard to SLTT response to large-scale biological events.”

Gene Therapy Hits a Wall With Microbial Resistance
Can gene editing trigger an immune reaction in humans? A new study is suggesting that it may be a risk. “The CRISPR-Cas9 system, which functions as a genetic scissors and tape for editing DNA, is generally derived from either Staphyloccoccus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria.” Most of us though, have been exposed to these organisms throughout our lives. “This prior exposure could potentially render the gene editing ineffective, with the body quickly eliminating all the CRISPR–Cas9 proteins. Or worse, it could trigger the kind of immune storm that killed a young gene therapy patient named Jesse Gelsinger in 1999, derailing the field for more than a decade. ‘We share everyone’s excitement about doing Cas9 genome editing, but we want to make sure we have learned from what happened in the gene therapy world and not ignore the possibility that this could become a problem,’ Porteus says. ‘As we’re all thinking about developing Cas9-based therapeutics, we should think carefully about this potential problem’.”

Pediatric Rabies Death
A 6-year-old boy in Florida has died from rabies he contracted after being scratched by an infected bat. The boy’s father reports that he found the sick bat, put it in a bucket, and told him not to touch it however, he did and was scratched. In response, the father had the boy wash his hands thoroughly based off what he read online and opted not to take him to the hospital because the boy didn’t want to get shots. Unfortunately, within a week, the boy became ill and even after attempts at treatment, passed away. Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear, which highlights the importance of seeking care immediately after exposure.

Stories You May Have Missed:

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 1.12.2018

 The Bright Side of Synthetic Biology and Crispr
GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and Phd alum Shannon Fye-Marnien are looking at the realities of synthetic biology and fears of bioterrorism. Biological advances have inspired questions regarding the safety and potential for nefarious use, but are such technologies guilty until proven innocent or innocent until proven guilty? “As with previous advances in biology, Crispr is sometimes characterized as a blueprint for bioweapons development or bioterrorism, and it has elicited calls for increased control and regulation of science. But while it is important to examine the potential dangers of emerging technologies, reaching a balanced assessment of risks and benefits requires that technologies’ potential to improve human life be appreciated as well. Synthetic biology and Crispr offer a potentially enormous package of benefits, spanning from medicine to energy to agriculture and beyond. Discussions about the security and safety of synthetic biology and Crispr should not obscure these technologies’ potential to address a wide variety of complex and pressing problems.”

The United States Battles Influenza
Flu season is hitting hard in the United States as 46 states report widespread activity. 80% of cases are of the H3N2 strain, which is associated with severe symptoms and hospitalizations. “The flu is now widespread across the country and the peak of transmission probably occurred during the Christmas-New Year’s holiday week, just as many people were crowded into planes, buses and cars or in large family gatherings, said Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ‘H3N2 is a bad virus,’ Dr. Jernigan said. ‘We hate H3N2’.” 26 states (and New York City) are reporting high influenza-like illness (ILI) activity. The CDC has reported that “Influenza-like illness (ILI) went from 4.9% to 5.8%. ‎These indicators are similar to what was seen at the peak of the 2014-2015 season, which was the most severe season in recent years.” This tough influenza season is a helpful reminder that it could always get worse, especially in the context of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, which marks its centennial this year. Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker recently wrote an OpEd regarding the dismal truth – we’re not ready for a flu pandemic. Pointing to not only massive growth in population, but also challenges of supply shortages, and an outdated approach to vaccine research, they highlight the need to find a universal vaccine that can do battle against all influenza A strains with a longer immunity. “But there is no apparent effort to make these vaccines a priority in the current administration. Its national security strategy published last month cites Ebola and SARS as potential bioterrorism and pandemic threats, yet makes no mention of the risk of pandemic influenza nor any aspect of critical vaccine research and development. The next few weeks will highlight how ill prepared we are for even ‘ordinary’ flu. A worldwide influenza pandemic is literally the worst-case scenario in public health — yet far from an unthinkable occurrence. Unless we make changes, the question is not if but when it will come.”

GMU Biodefense Professor – Robert House
We’d like to welcome back professor Dr. Robert House to GMU biodefense, who will be teaching BioD766: Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics. Dr. House holds a PhD in medical parasitology and is a senior VP for government contracts at Ology Bioservices (previously Nanotherapeutics). The world faces a growing threat from microbiological agents in the form of terrorist weapons, pandemics (particularly influenza) and emerging/re-emerging diseases. Characteristics such as high pathogenicity/toxicity and lack of appropriate animal models, as well as lack of a viable commercial market, make it difficult to develop effective medical countermeasures for these agents. In his course, students will explore how the US Government is developing medical countermeasures (MCM) against these threats and will explore the various threat agents, the context of regulatory considerations, and the specifics of how MCMs are developed.

Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge Launched!
Do you love infectious diseases and maps? The goal of the challenge is to promote the use of geospatial mapping to address the objectives of the GHSA. The NextGen Network has partnered with the U.S. Department of State’s Virtual Student Foreign Service program to launch the 2018 challenge. You can find out more information from this engaging and informative webinar or at the page here. The deadline for signing up for the challenge is January 19, 2018. This is a great way to contribute to the GHSA goal of creating a world safe and secure from the threat of infectious diseases.

Biodefense Alum – Stay Connected! 
Are you a GMU Biodefense alum? If so, please make sure to keep your information updated in our Schar Stay Connected site. We have a strong alum community and would love to keep you up to date on future events and give shout outs for the amazing work our biodefense students accomplish.

Biopreparedness Needs to Start At the Frontlines of Disease Control
GMU biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu evaluates the attention to biopreparedness and how our focus on bioterrorism fails to address the major gaps within disease control in the United States. “The Blue Ribbon Panel report and the CNN article both highlight the bureaucratic challenges with coordination at a national level across many agencies and sectors. The crux of it all is that from a grass-roots level, we’re struggling to better prepare and respond for a host of reasons. Public health funding is always in a chronic state of too little too late and often, we don’t push out resources until we’re already in the throes of a major incident (Ebola, Zika, etc.). Preparing for biothreats, regardless of origin, requires that we strengthen the most basic surveillance and response systems within public health and health care. During the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak, for example, there was a lot of attention on enhanced precautions. Although this was beneficial and brought attention to several gaps infection control and prevention measures, I found myself reminding staff that we can’t truly prepare and respond to rare events if we can’t get our daily practices down. The shear challenges of ensuring staff practice appropriate hand hygiene and isolation precautions in health care are indicators that we are struggling on the frontlines of disease preparedness.”

Lessons from A 2016 CRE Outbreak in A Kentucky Hospital
Hospital outbreaks are tough. The shear volume of people that go into a single patient’s room is considerable (healthcare workers, visitors, ancillary staff, etc.) and enough to spread germs throughout an entire hospital. Now imagine that the organism is a highly resistant one, such as carbapenemase-producing carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CP-CRE). A hospital in Kentucky experienced this very thing in 2016 and a recent CDC MMWR revealed just how difficult it can be to conquer an outbreak involving one of the worst resistant organisms you can imagine. “Over the next 4 months, scientists identified an additional 21 CRE isolates from patients at the hospital via screening and clinical cultures. The investigators believe organisms were imported into the facility and then spread among patients.” Epidemiological investigation found that five of the thirteen interviewed patients had received healthcare outside the local area and that three of the patients may have brought CP-CRE into the facility. “The authors of the report say their investigation highlights the potential role of cleaning equipment, which frequently moves between patient rooms, in CP-CRE spread. In addition, they note that although there is a low prevalence of CP-CRE in rural areas, rural hospitals should be aware that patients who’ve also accessed healthcare in areas with higher CP-CRE prevalence—primarily urban areas—can introduce these organisms into their facilities.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 1.5.2018

Welcome to our first Pandora Report of 2018! While things may have been relatively quiet over the holidays, we still have some health security gems for you to start the new year right.

 An Infection Preventionist’s Take on the 2017 Biological Weapons Convention
GMU Biodefense Phd student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu recently attended the BWC Meeting of States Parties and is discussing the importance of civil society and why even the most unlikely participants are important for the future of the BWC. “It seems an unlikely story that an infection prevention (IP) epidemiologist would attend a Meeting of the States Parties (MSP) at the United Nations (UN), but here’s why civil society has an important role in the work that IPs do.” Highlighting the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and the role of NGOs, she uses communicable disease reporting as an example of how so many of us play an unsuspecting role. “In fact, I feel that there are 2 things that should underline the importance of NGOs and civil society being involved in international treaties such as the BWC: 1.) Inherently, our work plays into the CBMs. Who does communicable disease reporting at a county level? Yours truly, and that feeds into the state health departments and then up through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which goes into the CBM. 2.) With the rapid pace of advancements in the life sciences—such as gain-of-function research or genome editing like CRISPR—it is critical that treaties like the BWC be modernized to maintain relevancy. This requires experts from civil society who can work across international borders.”

Enhancing BioWatch Capabilities Through Technology and Collaboration
The latest proceedings of a workshop report from the National Academies are now available online. “The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) BioWatch program aims to provide an early indication of an aerosolized biological weapon attack. The first generation of BioWatch air samplers were deployed in 2003. The current version of this technology, referred to as Generation 2 (Gen-2), uses daily manual collection and testing of air filters from each monitor, a process that can take 12 to 36 hours to detect the presence of biological pathogens. Until April 2014, DHS pursued a next-generation autonomous detection technology that aimed to shorten the time from sample collection to detection to less than 6 hours, reduce the cost of analysis, and increase the number of detectable biological pathogens. Because of concerns about the cost and effectiveness of the proposed Generation 3 system (Gen-3), DHS cancelled its acquisition plans for the next-generation surveillance system.” Within the report, you can find an overview of BioWatch priorities, collaborative planning, recommendations from the GAO and DHS responses, and future opportunities at the state and local level. Some of the GAO’s findings included failure by DHS to develop performance requirements that would allow for conclusions about Gen-2’s ability to detect attacks, and that the modeling and simulation studies that DHS commissioned had not directly and comprehensively assessed Gen-2’s capabilities.

 GMU Biodefense MS Open House
Mark your calendars for the February 21st Master’s Open House at GMU’s Arlington campus! 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. This is a great chance to speak with biodefense faculty, learn about some of the awesome classes our students get to take, and find out why we study health security threats from anthrax to Zika.

Winter 2018 Mid-Atlantic Microbiome Meetup Biodefense and Pathogen Detection
Don’t miss out on this January 10th event at the University of Maryland College Park. The University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) is hosting this regional conference next week, the Winter 2018 Mid-Atlantic Microbiome Meetup, with a focus on biodefense and pathogen detection. The workshop is a great way to learn about the latest in synthetic biology, biodefense, and pathogen detection. Several federal agencies are sending experts, and the conference will include a keynote talk from Tara O’Toole, executive vice president of In-Q-Tel.

Three Global Health Issues To Watch in 2018
What are the biggest stories health reporters are looking to follow this year? STAT polled their reporters and predicted that the three big stories in public health would be the final push to end polio, how the WHO will do with a new Director General amidst shaken confidence, and vulnerability to pandemics as we march into the centennial of the 1918 Pandemic. “This year marks the centenary of the Spanish Flu, the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed somewhere between 50 million and 100 million people as the H1N1 flu virus swept the globe. Many of the people who died were in the prime of life. There are unsettling reports of people who were well at breakfast and dead by dinner. This uniquely fatal outbreak haunts influenza scientists and emergency response planners to this day. The latter know health systems don’t have the capacity to cope with the huge upsurges in illness that would accompany a major disease outbreak. A regular old bad flu season can severely tax hospitals. Those who worry about these issues will use the anniversary to focus attention on the risk of ‘the next Big One’.” What do you think the big pubic health topics will be this year? Tweet us @PandoraReport and we’ll report back on what the biodefense community is saying!

Three Children Hospitalized With Dengue Following Vaccination
Three Filipino children have been hospitalized with suspected dengue infections following their immunization with Dengvaxia, the latest Sanofi Pasteur dengue vaccine. “The hospitalizations come 1 month after Sanofi recommended Dengvaxia not be used in anyone who is dengue-naive. In recipients without previous dengue infections, the vaccine can lead to more severe illness.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Raw Water” Trend Sparks Public Health Concern – This is both hysterical and deadly – a new Silicon Valley obsession with untreated and unfiltered “raw” water. “When food-safety expert Bill Marler saw The New York Times’ trend piece on Silicon Valley’s recent obsession with raw water, he thought he was reading a headline from The Onion. According to The Times, demand for unfiltered water is skyrocketing as tech-industry insiders develop a taste for water that hasn’t been treated, to prevent the spread of bacteria or other contaminants.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 12.29.2017

This will be our last Pandora Report of 2017 and we’d like to take a moment and thank our wonderful readers for a great year of biodefense news! We hope you have a marvelous and safe New Years celebration. We’re starting the festivities early with some memories of infectious disease research from 2017.

Agroterrorism – A Threat To America’s Food Supply
Food vulnerability is not something people tend to think about very often and even less in the context of terrorism. There have been many experts noting that food safety is America’s soft underbelly for years, but just how vulnerable are we? “Agroterrorists have access to animal based bio-agents, which are easy to transport and simple to conceal. Just as ramming a speeding truck into a crowd is low-tech, an attack via the food chain has a low barrier to entry and little skill needed to execute. Weaponizing livestock is as simple as tending the flock or feeding the cattle. There is little expertise or special equipment required and given most animal borne pathogens are not communicable to humans, the logistics are easy. It really is farm to table pathogen delivery.” Increasing automation within food processing and rapid delivery from farm to table has the potential to be used as a weakness. Not only are these systems inherently weak against terrorist attacks, but one would severely damage the U.S. economy. A 2013 study found that outbreaks in FMD-free countries/zones could cause losses of more than $1.5 billion a year.

Biological Weapons Threat In The Spotlight – UN News
Check out this great podcast of UN news in which Dr. Tom Inglesby from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security discusses the BWC Meeting of States Parties and the importance of global cooperation to address biothreats. “He told Daniel Johnson that because most biological research now takes place ‘far outside the control of government’, a key objective should be to ensure that an information-sharing mechanism exists between industry and Member States.

Meeting of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense: SLTT Ability to Respond to Large-Scale Biological Events: Challenges and Solutions
Don’t miss this event on January 17th, 2018 in Miami, Florida! “The Nation continues to confront infectious disease events and the threat of biological terrorism. This meeting of the Study Panel, chaired by former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and former Representative James Greenwood, will provide the Study Panel with a better understanding of the ability of state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments to: respond to large-scale biological events, identify and utilize SLTT assets and resources for immediate response (prior to a declaration of a SLTT biological emergency or disaster), operate before federal assistance arrives and after federal resources are exhausted, and shift to population management when a biological event overcomes pre-hospital and hospital response protocols.”

Analyzing the Detection and Response Aspects of Global Health Security
GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is taking a trip down the detection and response rabbit hole of health security. Evaluating research on laboratory response networks, public health coordination, frontline epidemiology training, and more, she highlights the vulnerability we all share if even one country has a weak public health and healthcare infrastructure. “Response efforts often point to gaps within our plans, like the need to train staff on enhanced use of personal protective equipment during the Ebola outbreak, or cultural dynamics that challenge public health education efforts. Public health response is an evolving process and with each new challenge, lessons are learned and we hope that we can appropriately apply them in the future. The most important lesson is the global aspect of health security—an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak anywhere. Strengthening national prevention, detection, and response efforts will only serve to protect us all.”

WHO Priority List of Antibiotic-resistant Bacteria and Tuberculosis
The WHO has released a list of priority pathogens to help encourage the development of new antibiotics. “Detailing its findings in The Lancet Infectious Diseases yesterday, the WHO Pathogens Priority List Working Group used a multicriteria decision analysis method to select 20 antimicrobial-resistant bacteria. The experts then applied 10 criteria to assess priority: mortality, healthcare burden, community burden, prevalence of resistance, 10-year resistance trends, transmissibility, preventability in the community, preventability in healthcare settings, treatability, and drug pipeline.” The list of 20 bacterial species highlights three categories (critical, high, and medium priority), which includes “carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii andPseudomonas aeruginosa, and carbapenem-resistant and third-generation cephalosporin-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. The highest ranked Gram-positive bacteria (high priority) were vancomycin-resistantEnterococcus faecium and meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Of the bacteria typically responsible for community-acquired infections, clarithromycin-resistant Helicobacter pylori, and fluoroquinolone-resistantCampylobacter spp, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, and Salmonella typhi were included in the high-priority tier.”

 Drug Discovery, Development and Deployment
Speaking of the importance of drug R&D…the NIH has released their Drug Discovery, Development and Deployment Maps (4DM) to help engage and support this complicated process. There are two maps – one for small molecules and one for biologics, using monoclonal antibodies as the representative therapeutic. “The maps provide a common framework for discussing the therapeutic development process and serve as an education tool for those who are new to it. A common language and collective knowledge base for therapeutic development is essential to enable systemwide improvements that will benefit patients. The 4DM can help facilitate dialogue among those interested or participating in drug development to explore innovative solutions to existing bottlenecks and potential collaborative action to overcome those barriers and accelerate new medicine discovery.”

Bird Flu in South Korea
Avian influenza is wreaking havoc in South Korea. Officials have reported the culling of 201,000 birds in efforts to prevent the spread of H5N6 after it was found in four duck farms. “Last year, South Korea slaughtered more than 30 million birds to contain the worst outbreak of bird flu in the country‘s history.” Such efforts are especially important as the country prepares to host the Winter Olympics, which begin on February 9, 2018.

ASM Supports NIH Decision To Lift Funding Pause on GoF Research
Last week saw a surge of news regarding the official lift on the funding moratorium on GoF research. The news released an onslaught of over-the-top headlines and debates, but nonetheless the existence of GoF research will likely remain one that sparks concerns on both ends of the spectrum. The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) has come out in support of the lift on the funding pause though, noting that they are “in complete support of the National Institutes of Health lifting the funding pause on gain-of-function (GoF) experiments involving influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses. GoF research studies ways nature might make some viruses more virulent or transmissible. This is important in helping identify and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health, as well as to prepare for pandemics. ASM also applauds the review framework released by the Department of Health and Human Services. This process will ensure that any proposal that passes scientific peer review and fits the Potential Pandemic Pathogen (PPP) definition will undergo a multidisciplinary review process before funding is received. The review panel will provide oversight and facilitate safe and responsible conduct of this type of research.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • United States Flu Season Update– This flu season is already shaping up to be rough, so where are we? “Influenza A viruses have been most commonly identified, with influenza A(H3N2) viruses predominating. Several influenza activity indicators were higher than is typically seen for this time of year. The majority of influenza viruses characterized during this period were genetically or antigenically similar to the 2017–18 Northern Hemisphere cell-grown vaccine reference viruses. These data indicate that currently circulating viruses have not undergone significant antigenic drift; however, circulating A(H3N2) viruses are antigenically less similar to egg-grown A(H3N2) viruses used for producing the majority of influenza vaccines in the United States.” Outpatient visits have spiked with patients seeking care for influenza-like illness (ILI) across the U.S. The national average is 2.2% and last week saw 2.7% however, this week is now 3.5%, which points to a growing influenza season.

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 12.15.2017

Welcome back to your weekly dose of all things biodefense! We’ve got a packed newsletter for you, so buckle up. Curious about CRISPR and how it works? Check out the best and worst analogies here.

Read Out On The GHSA Ministerial Meeting in Kampala
If you missed our Read-Out on the GHSA meeting in Kampala, we’ve got a great overview with attachments. The NextGen Global Health Security Network Reflections can be found here and Coordinator Jamechia Hoyle was kind enough to provide her powerpoint from the Read-Out, which you can access here. The Read-Out involved presentations and discussions from not only NextGen GHSA Coordinator Hoyle, but also Jennifer Nuzzo from the Center from Health Security, and two GMU Biodefense MS students – Anthony Falzarano and Stephen Taylor. In fact, Anthony and Stephen provided several great photos from the Kampala summit, which you can see here. “While they discussed that the dialogue was driven by high level members of government. The overall consensus was the need to bring in non-governmental and academic voices. The panel members emphasized this by showcasing the work with Next Generation Global Health Security Leaders and the continued efforts to bring young professionals and students into these working groups. From the discussion, it is evident that GHSA’s efforts are being felt in many nations. The Response Center in Uganda, while small, had the hallmarks of the CDC and other organizational support.” Dr. Nuzzo brought her talk to a close with a poignant quote from the summit – “it is much cheaper to spend on preparedness than it is to spend on response.” Attendee and biodefense MS student Janet Marroquin noted that “the containment of the Marburg virus in Uganda during the conference perfectly illustrated the benefits of improved health security measures, but it is easy to overlook this success when good health is expected as a guarantee. In addition to bringing attention to current deficiencies in global health security, the GHSA is needed to look to the future and anticipate and prevent roadblocks in implementation.”

Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties – Recap
Last week, GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu attended the Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties (MSP) with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security ELBI program. This MSP started on somewhat of a bated breath as last year’s Review Conference was, as described by many, an epic failure. Having endorsed the Joint NGO Statement, Popescu noted that “the role of the NGOs felt even more important in such a disjointed climate where the future of the BWC was in many ways, up in the air. The importance of support and pushing for future cohesion regarding not only the intersessional process (ISP), but also S&T developments, was a significant point within the NGO statement.” As you can find in many of the live-tweeting that was occurring (#MSP2017), the MSP started off with a bang as Iran noted that they were not convinced further ISP work would be productive and if the BWC isn’t legally binding, it can’t truly be universal. Chairman Gill started the MSP with a quote from Rumi and worked tirelessly to maintain focus and forward momentum. Thankfully, despite several days of closed-door discussion, consensus was reached and the ISP was established to include 4 days of meetings of the MSP and 5 meetings of experts, which would focus on cooperation and assistance, development S&T, strengthening national implementation, assistance for preparedness and response, and the institutional strength of the BWC.  You can also find detailed overviews of each day here. A few of Popescu’s favorite moments from attending: “Sweden’s inclusion of antimicrobial resistance in their opening statement, Australia’s comments on the need for a more diverse attendance in the future and the growing presence of women within the BWC. It was also surprising how shockingly low the states costs for BWC inclusion are…and how some are delinquent by a few hundred dollars. Lastly and perhaps the most important part of the trip was getting to attend a pivotal event in biodefense history with such an amazing group of people who were all as excited and enthusiastic as I was. As we took a break to visit the WHO and peered upon the famous smallpox statue, I think it all hit us how vital this work is on a global level.”

Jurassic Ticks?
Paleontologists have recently announced the finding of a 99-million-year-old tick that not only was holding on for dear life within the feathers of a dinosaur, but provides evidence that these blood-suckers fed on dinosaurs. While this tick came from the Cretaceous period, it feels eerily similar to how Jurassic Park began. “This study provides the most compelling evidence to date for ticks feeding on feathered animals in the Cretaceous,” said Ryan C. McKellar, a paleontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada who was not involved in the study. “It demonstrates just how much detail can be obtained from a few pieces of amber in the hands of the right researchers.” Imagine the kind of dino-arboviruses we might come across with this finding! It’s hard not to chuckle at the timing of the announcement since the latest Jurassic World movie trailer was released just last week.

Podcast “Syria(s) Problem: Chemical Weapons & International Norms from Power Problems
Don’t miss this episode of the bi-weekly podcast Power Problems from the Cato Institute hosted by Emma Ashford and GMU biodefense professor Trevor Thrall. In this episode on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, GMU biodefense professor and graduate program director Gregory Koblentz discusses how the use of such weapons calls into question the utility of international norms. Some of the show notes also include the discussion of taboos against chemical weapons, and antibiotic resistance as a biological threat.

Is North Korea’s Bioweapons Threat Growing With Increasing Biotech Expertise?
Are the technical hurdles to biological weapons eroding in North Korea? Advances in the life sciences have brought forth a wealth of new capabilities, like manipulating DNA, but are we also lowering the bar for bioweapons development? There’s been increasing talk regarding the potential for North Korea to develop and deploy biological weapons. While there certainly has been a lowering of technical hurdles in some aspects of bioweapons development, has North Korea truly developed a functioning program? “The gains have alarmed U.S. analysts, who say North Korea — which has doggedly pursued weapons of mass destruction of every other variety — could quickly surge into industrial-scale production of biological pathogens if it chooses to do so. Such a move could give the regime yet another fearsome weapon with which to threaten neighbors or U.S. troops in a future conflict, officials and analysts say. Current and former U.S. officials with access to classified files say they have seen no hard evidence so far that Kim has ordered production of actual weapons, beyond samples and prototypes. And they can only speculate about the reasons.” Many note that their possession of biological agents is known but that the unknown is just how far along a bioweapons program might be. The development of a high-functioning and successful bioweapons program requires significant funding, human resources, and tacit knowledge. Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley recently broke down just how realistic these concerns are (hint: she’s a GMU biodefense professor and guru on tacit knowledge). In response to this week’s increased attention on a potential program in North Korea, Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley was also interviewed regarding the cost of a biological weapons program and just how much it would take to truly develop and maintain one. “The cost of maintaining an active biological weapons program is high, according to Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She said the Soviet Union spent ‘several billion dollars’ on its program, while terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo spent about $10 million, though the latter ‘failed at every step.’ The United States spent about $700 million on its program, which was active over the course of roughly 27 years. ‘The challenge is in acquiring the expertise to handle and manipulate living organisms that are fragile and unpredictable: that requires time and a work organization that ensure continuity and stability of work,’ Ben Ouagrham-Gormley said. ‘These are conditions that are difficult to maintain in a covert program. That’s why most covert bioweapons programs have failed thus far’.”

Global Health Security and the US Export Economy
It’s easy for many to think that outbreaks only impacts public health, but the truth is that the effects of health security threats are felt across many sectors and industries. The export economy is not immune to disruption should there be a public health emergency. A recent study reviewed economic vulnerability to the US export economy that would be impacted by disruptions in 49 countries. These 49 countries are currently being targeted by the CDC and partners to improve capabilities to prevent/respond to public health infectious disease threats throughout laboratories, workforce, surveillance, and response systems. Enhancing global health security by strengthening the country capacity is the goal for these 49 countries. “US exports to the 49 countries exceeded $308 billion and supported more than 1.6 million jobs across all US states in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, services, and other sectors. These exports represented 13.7% of all US export revenue worldwide and 14.3% of all US jobs supported by all US exports. The economic linkages between the United States and these global health security priority countries illustrate the importance of ensuring that countries have the public health capacities needed to control outbreaks at their source before they become pandemics.” The numbers are startling, especially if you consider that the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic was estimated to have a global economic impact of almost $40 billion USD. The total value of US material goods/services exported to all countries was estimated to be $2.3 trillion in 2015. The findings of this study point to the significant economic disruption that would occur if a health security event occurred in one of these 49 countries. Global health security is truly an investment that provides a return, as we know that an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere.

CyberbiosecurityDNA Has Gone Digital – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
As biotechnology and biology go full-steam ahead, there is increasing use of technology and informatics databases to support such innovation. Where does that leave us in terms of cybersecurity? Coined as “cyberbiosecurity”, many in the field, like Colorado State University’s Jean Peccoud, are drawing attention to the risk this new frontier has for researchers, industry, and the government. Peccoud and his colleagues point to the potential for accidental or intentional breaches, noting that “In the past, most biosecurity and biosafety policies were based on sample containment,” Peccoud says. “Now, it’s so easy to read DNA sequences, for example, or to make DNA molecules out of sequences publicly available from bioinformatics databases. Most projects have a cyber dimension, and that introduces a new category of risk.” Traditional biosecurity efforts focus on containment of the organism from accidental or nefarious use, but that doesn’t really focus on the computational aspect of new biotech, like synthetic biology. “The authors recommend employee training, systematic analyses to examine potential exposure to cyberbiosecurity risks, and the development of new policies for preventing and detecting security incidents. ‘Once individuals in a community are aware of cyberbiosecurity risks, they can begin to implement safeguards within their own work environments, and work with regulators to develop policies to prevent cyberbiosecurity breaches,’ they write.” Peccoud also pointed to the potential for computer viruses to impact the physical world. Citing the 2010 computer virus that caused equipment failure at an Iranian nuclear plant, such malware could result in biological outcomes that could be dangerous. It doesn’t take much of a venture down the rabbit hole to think about the automated processes that are used in laboratories, especially high-containment labs, and how they could be damaging if commandeered for nefarious purposes. So what can be done? The first step is truly recognizing the threat – “The threats are bidirectional. And not all cyberbiosecurity threats are premeditated or criminal. Unintentional errors that occur while translating between a physical DNA molecule and its digital reference are common. These errors might not compromise national security, but they could cause costly delays or product recalls.” Synthetic biology and biotech have taken us to places we would’ve never dreamed of, but it’s critical that the ability to manipulate DNA be protected through proper measures and we protect the digital components as well. The growing attention to cyberbiosecurity also comes at a time when the FDA has issued a warning on DIY gene therapy, noting that “the sale of these products is against the law. FDA is concnered about the safety risks involved.” “Last month, Josiah Zayner, CEO of The Odin, which sells DIY biology kits and supplies through its website, posted a video in which he injected himself with the gene-editing tool CRISPR during a biohacker conference in California. That video has been viewed more than 58,000 times on YouTube. In its statement, which FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted on November 21, the same day it was posted to the agency’s website, the regulator took aim directly at companies selling CRISPR supplies intended for self-administration.”

Biodosimetry: A Future Tool for Medical Management of Radiological Emergencies                                                                                                                          How can we better manage patients in radiological emergencies? GMU biodefense PhD student Mary Sproull and professor/graduate program director Gregory Koblentz are looking at biodosimetry as a medical management tool for this very predicament. “The field of radiation biodosimetry has advanced far beyond its original objectives to identify new methodologies to quantitate unknown levels of radiation exposure that may be applied in a mass screening setting. New research in the areas of genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, transcriptomics, and electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) applications have identified novel biological indicators of radiation injury from a diverse array of biological sample materials, and studies continue to develop more advanced models of radiation exposure and injury. In this article, we identify the urgent need for new biodosimetry assessment technologies, describe how biodosimetry diagnostics work in the context of a broad range of radiation exposure types and scenarios, review the current state of the science, and assess how well integrated biodosimetry resources are in the national radiological emergency response framework.”

Fellowship in Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft
The International Security Program of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the MIT Security Studies Program at the Center for International Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences are launching a collaborative program to mentor the next generation of foreign policy scholars. The Project on Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft is made possible with support from the Charles Koch Foundation: a $1,846,200 grant to MIT and one for $1,853,900 to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Those interested in this fellowship should apply to the International Security Program Fellowship when the Belfer Center’s online application system becomes available on December 15, 2017.  Those desiring to apply before then may apply through MIT’s application system. For more information, click here.

National Academies Publication – Combating Antibiotic Resistance
The National Academies has released their latest report on a one health approach to the global threat that is antimicrobial resistance. “As of 2017, the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance continues unabated around the world, leaving devastating health and economic outcomes in its wake. Those consequences will multiply if collaborative global action is not taken to address the spread of resistance. Major drivers of antimicrobial resistance in humans have been accelerated by inappropriate antimicrobial prescribing in health care practices; the inappropriate use of antimicrobials in livestock; and the promulgation of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment.” The report focuses on the global momentum to counter AMR, microbial movements across the one health domain, utilization of social and behavioral sciences to combat AMR, R&D, and strengthening partnerships and international cooperation. AMR is a multi-sectoral, international problem that requires a One Health approach to combat it – reports like these are a critical step towards combatting AMR

Boston University’s Needle Gets the Greenlight
After years of controversy and $200 million in federal funds spent on a BSL 4 high-containment lab, the Boston University Lab “The Needle” is finally opening. Located in the heart of the city, local citizens raised substantial opposition over biosafety concerns for the neighboring areas. It’s taken nearly a decade to get to this point, but the Boston Public Health Commission gave the official greenlight for the lab to open. “The commission’s OK was the final step allowing the study of Biosafety Level 4 pathogens — those that have no treatment or vaccine, such as Ebola. Level 4 research could begin in a month or two at the facility, called the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratories. Facing fierce opposition from neighbors and others concerned that dangerous germs would escape, the biolab underwent more than a dozen years of risk assessments, public hearings, and failed lawsuits. It received more than 50 permits and approvals from federal, state, and city agencies, most recently passing muster a year ago with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Doreen and Jim McElvany Nonproliferation Challenge
To advance this goal, the Doreen and Jim McElvany Nonproliferation Challenge will recognize the most outstanding new ideas and policy proposals published in Volume 25 (2018) of the Nonproliferation Review. The Challenge will award a grand prize of $5,000, a $3,000 runner’s-up prize, and a $1,000 honorable mention prize. The deadline to submit is 11:59 pm/EST, July 6, 2018. However, due to the limited number of pages that we can publish in a single volume, eligible articles will be accepted for publication on a rolling basis. We therefore encourage interested authors to submit early. Decisions on the winners of the scholarly award will be announced in early 2019

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Most Americans Think A Zombie Pandemic Is Likely – We recently stumbled across this survey and were surprised to find that while a surprisingly high number of Americans think a zombie plague is going to happen, few are prepared for it. “Only 9% of respondents considered it likely that undead zombies might ever walk the earth. Nearly three times that many respondents (28%) consider it likely that a worldwide epidemic of a neurological disease that makes people more aggressive and likely to lose control of their thoughts and motor functions.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 11.24.2017

We hope you had a wonderful tryptophan-induced holiday and are ready for your weekly dose of all things biodefense! Roughly 46 million turkeys were eaten on Thursday, but did you ever wonder if yours was antibiotic-free? (hint: we’re venturing down antimicrobial resistance rabbit hole in this week’s newsletter).

Russia Shuts Down The UN Probe Into Syrian Chemical Weapons
Despite the launch of the 2015 Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), efforts to investigate the use of chemical weapons by President Assad in Syria, have been stalled and challenged by Russia. The latest move by Russia to kill international investigations into such attacks has come in the form of Security Council vetoes. “Russia’s actions have enraged al-Assad’s Western critics, who accuse the Syrian leader of secretly stockpiling chemical weapons in contravention of UN resolutions, and who now want to deliver accountability by other means.” This latest hurdle leaves many to wonder how we got here and if the OPCW can potentially overcome these protests. “As it happens, the OPCW’s top decision-making body, the 192-nation Conference of States Parties, is also scheduled to meet next week. Although that meeting is not directly related to the chemical weapons crisis in Syria, it ‘can’t ignore Syria’s continued non-compliance,’ says Gregory Koblentz, a nonproliferation expert at George Mason University who spoke to IRIN last week.” Not only did the vetoes do damage to inspections, but a draft Russian-Iranian decision that was circulated at the OPCW was recently obtained, in which the objectives were to overturn OPCW inspector procedures and information sharing practices. “(Russia‘s) supreme goal is to compromise the ability of the (OPCW) fact-finding mission to do its job professionally and without political interference,” said Gregory Koblentz, a non-proliferation expert at George Mason University, in the U.S. state of Virginia.“This draft resolution has to be seen as part of a Russian strategy to undermine all international investigations into the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government,” he said.

Antimicrobial Resistance: An Underrated Biological Threat
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is hoping to change the narrative for how we look at antimicrobial resistance. AMR isn’t the kind of flashy disease that gets the headlines or surges of funding, and yet it’s been wreaking havoc for decades. Popescu points to the need to address AMR as the global biological catastrophic event that it is rather than a neglected public health issue that is predominantly seen as medical or agricultural. Citing the ominous predictions of the antibiotic abyss, challenges in drug research and development, and why this is such a difficult beast to tackle, Popescu highlights just how devastating AMR is on a global level. “One of the biggest impediments to developing effective treatments is the normalization of AMR. Researchers, infection prevention and control practitioners, and medical professionals have been raising the red flag for decades. Drug-resistant infections, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus(MRSA), used to be rare events in health care but are now considered a common occurrence.” She notes that “AMR poses a national security threat due to its ease of transmission and its potential for a major public health crisis. Unfortunately, the spread of highly resistant diseases has received far less concern and funding than emerging infectious diseases.”

Read-Out on the GHSA Summit in Kampala Event – Save the Date!
We’re excited to announce that on Monday December 4th, GMU will be hosting a seminar on the GHSA Ministerial Meeting from several health security experts who attended. Held at the Arlington campus in Founders Hall from 12-1:30pm, guests will hear from Jamechia Hoyle, Coordinator of the Next Generation Global Health Security Network, Jennifer Nuzzo, Senior Associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and two GMU Biodefense MS students – Anthony Falzarano and Stephen Taylor. More details will be be provided in the coming days, but make sure to save the date as this is a great chance to hear about this critical meeting and the future of the GHSA.

Potential Role of Social Media in Combatting Antimicrobial Resistance
As we continue to see the rise of MCR-1 gene, antimicrobial stewardship and predictions of the future become increasingly important, but just how accurate is this information? GMU Biodefense MS student Janet Marroquin is fact-checking the predictions of the post-antibiotic apocalypse and how the media has portrayed this threat. “In this era of fake news, the credibility of articles circulating on social media can be dubious, particularly when citations are not readily available.  Further investigation of the statistical data used in the video yielded mixed results.” Marroquin points to a NowThis video-based news report and how antimicrobial resistance has been portrayed and introduced to the public through such venues. “Although the dissection of the data used in the NowThis video revealed a few inconsistencies, the attention that 90 seconds can bring to various aspects of AMR to the general public is much. As of November 6, 2017, the video has had 2.1M views and has been shared by 12,333 users on Facebook, retweeted by 175 users on Twitter, and has been featured on news sites. Interestingly, a few days after the release of the NowThis video, NBC News Mach published an online news article addressing the ‘post-antibiotic apocalypse’.”

Ready for a Global Pandemic?
Director of the Center for Health Security Tom Inglesby and Stanford law student Benjamin Haas are evaluating just how likely a pandemic is and how prepared we might be with the current administration. Between the rapid growth of people in densely populated areas and globalization, microbes have a sort of novel freedom that hasn’t been seen before. Biological threats go beyond pandemics to the potential for bioterrorism or even laboratory accidents. So what is the U.S. government doing to prepare? Efforts have ranged from NIH-funded research into pathogens of pandemic potential, the development of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), reinforcing the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), etc. “Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has not indicated so far that his administration takes this issue seriously. Initially, his 2018 budget proposed slashed funding for such programs by nine percent, or $1.25 billion, from the preceding year, which would be the largest reduction in over a decade.” “Although the civil-servant workforce has continued to make progress in important programs, it remains to be seen whether the administration’s political leadership will push biosecurity efforts forward in a meaningful way. In the months ahead, there are four elements to look for in evaluating just how seriously the Trump administration will pursue these issues: its budget priorities for the new fiscal year, its impending biodefense strategy, its approach to overseeing research on novel and highly dangerous pathogens, and its level of engagement in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) process.” Inglesby and Haas highlight the importance of supporting the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), approaching complex topics like certain kinds of scientific research, and ensuring funding for vital agencies. “The administration has opportunities to make substantial headway on pandemic risks at the national and international levels. Its budget, biodefense strategy, approach to high-consequence research, and engagement on the BWC are all key. The means exist to diminish the spread of pandemics—through science, intelligence, medical and public health preparedness, diplomacy, and smart governance.”

Bird Flu Moves Throughout Asia
China is experiencing its fifth wave of H7N9 infections since 2016 and of the 1,600 laboratory-confirmed human cases, 40% have died. While most  of the human cases have occurred due to poultry exposure, there is concern that some are related to transmission between people. Responding to the threat of avian influenza has been challenging  – wanting to avoid total alarmism and hysteria, but also ensuring the public health response is adequate and prepared. “In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention summarized some disturbing developments. The H7N9 virus had become lethal to birds, which made it potentially more dangerous to people but also easier to spot. And the virus had split into two lineages — called Yangtze and Pearl, after the river deltas in which each was spreading — complicating efforts to make vaccines. In October, the World Health Organization put out an update citing new cases of H7N9 infection as cold weather set in and noting that poultry farmers were vaccinating flocks against both this virus and other strains.” Avian influenza still circulates in Egypt and Indonesia and H1N1 is now a common strain for seasonal flu, but just how close are we to continued transmission of H7N9 between humans?

Addressing Challenges in Global Health Security: Executive Program
The Geneva Centre for Security Policy will be hosting this event as a Swiss contribution to the GHSA – it’s free of charge for the representatives of GHSA member states! “Leaders are expected to formulate policies for best practices and strategies for dealing with future health contexts and crisis scenarios. This programme provides an opportunity to learn the basics of current health practices, policies, implementation schemes, and approaches for the road ahead. Throughout the programme, participants will examine emerging health challenges and their governance implications, working together to understand and devise ways to mitigate potential health threats.” This event runs January 29th – February 1st, 2018, in Geneva and applications are due November 29th, 2017.

Center for the Study of WMDs – Spotlight Seminar on Japanese Germ Warfare
Don’t miss this December 12th seminar “Hidden Atrocities: Japanese Germ Warfare and American Obstruction of Justice at the Tokyo Trials” from 1230-1400 at NDU’s Lincoln Hall in the Proceres Conference Room (Lincoln Hall 3212). “In the aftermath of World War II, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo Trials, tried 28 Japanese political and military leaders and more than 5,700 personnel with war crimes. Yet U.S. military intelligence and Washington decision makers prevented the indictment of the government leaders and scientists responsible for Japan’s secret germ warfare program, Unit 731. In an effort to acquire Japan’s biological warfare expertise to gain an advantage over the Soviet Union, the United States covered up the extent of the program, jeopardizing international justice with lasting consequences. Dr. Jeanne Guillemin, Senior Advisor in the MIT Security Studies Program, will discuss her new book, Hidden Atrocities, and its account of both the Japanese program and the subsequent collusion.” RSVP is required. All non-DOD-affiliated visitors will need to fill out the attached JBM-HH Base Access Form, even if you have attended previous Spotlight events. We ask that you send us this form to cswmd-admin@ndu.edu no later than 5 December 2017.  You may also bring the completed form with you. Please allow extra time for the new security procedures.*

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Raw Milk Brucella Outbreak Across 4 States– The CDC has issued a warning for people “in four states—Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island—who drank raw milk from Udder Milk may be infected with a rare but serious Brucella abortus RB51 bacterium and should see their doctors for antibiotic treatment.”
  •  New Malaria Parasite Discovered in Bonobos – A new malaria parasite has been found in the African animals, as researchers have confirmed the bonobos are a host. “Now, by sampling more bonobos in geographically diverse settings, scientists writing in Nature Communication show that bonobos harbor a new species of malaria parasite, called Plasmodium lomamiensis. The parasite is a previously unknown Laverania species, which are closely related to P falciparum, one of the parasites that causes human malaria infections.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Potential Role of Social Media in Combatting Antimicrobial Resistance

By Janet Marroquin

Experts from around the world have been sounding the alarm on the rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) for years, declaring that with the current trend, previously preventable diseases will claim up to 10 million deaths annually by 2050.  As governments and international agencies take heed and create formal strategies to combat AMR, audiences outside of biology and medicine are starting to join in the conversation.  NowThis, a popular video-based news outlet on social media, released a 90-second video dedicated to a “post-antibiotic apocalypse” on October 17th. In addition to introducing the rising trend of antimicrobial resistance, the video touches on stewardship, international efforts (or lack thereof) against AMR, and “phone apps that…could be a game changer.”  The video is formatted as more of a fact-listing slideshow than a traditional news article and the data presented provides the viewer with a fair snapshot of the current AMR threat.

In this era of fake news, the credibility of articles circulating on social media can be dubious, particularly when citations are not readily available. Further investigation of the statistical data used in the video yielded mixed results. The widely circulated figure of 10 million deaths from previously preventable diseases per year by 2050 stemmed from the Review of Antimicrobial Resistance, a 2014 report published by a team of AMR experts at the request of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Since the publication of this report, this figure has been used by other experts, policy-makers, and news media to shed light on the extent of the current AMR threat. Such a strong prediction however, is bound to be met by skepticism. A PLOS article called into question the ability of scientists to realistically forecast the global impact of AMR in the decades to come. According to the article, the 10 millions annual deaths figure is erroneously used without the stated caveats and contextual informationwould reinforce its credibility. De Kraker, Stewardson, and Harbarth explain that the projections leading to the figure were based on four hypothetical scenarios that do not take into account disparities in public health across countries with varying degrees of economic status and urban development and that would likely affect the international impact of AMR in 2050. The authors conclude with the acknowledgement that current forecasting methods are still limited and calls for further research to develop improved models to estimate the anticipated global morbidity and mortality burden if AMR is left unchecked.

The video also stated that 85% of countries have started action plans to combat AMR, but only 5% have financed these plans. This data is most likely taken from a May 2017 WHO estimate that about 2/3 of member countries, in which 85% of world’s population resides, had completed or were in the process of developing their national action plans against AMR, a request set forth by the WHO Global Action Plan issued in 2015. It may be important to note the percentage of countries combating AMR rather than the proportion of the global population that they inhabit as many of the remaining countries without action plans have fragile infrastructures that cannot support AMR efforts, thus illustrating the need for the international community to join forces in a globalized effort to fight antibiotic resistance.

Although the dissection of the data used in the NowThis video revealed a few inconsistencies, the attention that a 90-second video can bring to various aspects of AMR to the general public is significant.  As of November 6, 2017, the video has had 2.1M views and has been shared by 12,333 users on Facebook, retweeted by 175 users on Twitter, and has been featured on news sites. Interestingly, a few days after the release of the NowThis video, NBC News MACH published an online news article addressing the “post-antibiotic apocalypse.” The article described the development of alternatives to antibiotics such as bacteriocins, bacteriophages, pathogen genotyping, and addressing the need to combat AMR through novel drug development in light of the current antibiotic drought precipitating antibiotic resistance. In another instance of social media being used to in the fight against AMR, antimicrobial stewardship programs have used Facebook and Twitter to increase awareness of AMR amongst internal medicine residents.  In case anyone else is interested in joining the Facebook and Twitter AMR campaigns, the CDC has even provided sample posts and messages to help spread the word. The power of social media is just beginning to be harnessed to raise awareness and promote healthy habits and antibiotic stewardship on a personal level.

Janet Marroquin is a first-year graduate student in the GMU Biodefense MS program.  Janet graduated from the George Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in Speech and Hearing Sciences with a premedical concentration.  Her research interests include antimicrobial resistance, drug innovation program analysis, and infectious diseases.  Janet hopes to use her medical interests to focus on emerging infectious disease preparedness in global health security.

Pandora Report 11.17.2017

Happy Friday – we hope you had a wonderful time celebrating Antibiotic Awareness Week! As Canada reports rising antibiotic resistance despite decreasing use of antibiotics in humans and animals, it’s important we recognize the importance of stewardship and infection control. November 13-19 marks Antibiotic Awareness week, in which we observe the importance of proper antibiotic use and prescribing practices. In the United States alone, 23,000 people die a year due to an infection that was resistant to antimicrobials. Help stop antimicrobial resistance through antibiotic stewardship.

GMU Biodefense MS student Stephen Taylor

Reflections from the GHSA Ministerial Meeting in Kampala, Uganda
The recent GHSA Ministerial Meeting was not only a success, but also reaffirmed the importance of the agenda and those dedicated to combatting health security threats. We’re excited to provide you with a series of on-the-ground reflections from those who participated through the George Mason Global Health Security Ambassador Fellowship and the Next Generation Global Health Security Network. Within these reflections, you’ll get to hear from Next Generation Coordinator Jamechia D. Hoyle and a wonderful array of international students and professionals. Hoyle notes that “the meeting was called to order during a time where health security professionals were addressing a plague outbreak in Madagascar and a local Marburg outbreak in the host country, Uganda.  This alone was a vivid reminder that health security must remain a priority.” The reflections present unique outlooks on the meeting and range from detailed descriptions of the sessions to visiting the Uganda Virus Research Institute, and more. Make sure you catch reflections from GMU biodefense MS students Anthony Falzarano and Stephen Taylor!

Did Russia Accidentally Provide the Best Evidence of the Syrian Government’s Involvement in Sarin Attacks?
Russia has been trying to downplay the Syrian government’s role in chemical weapons attacks, but their latest press conference may have just backfired on them. The November 2nd press conference in which Russian officials responded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – UN Join Mission, included a presentation that revealed a bit more than anticipated. “The presentation included a series of slides, which included diagrams of two types of chemical bombs, designated the MYM6000 and M4000. Remarkably, the Russian presentation appears to be the first-time images of these munitions have been made public, and before the press conference, no other references to MYM6000 or M4000 bombs appear online.” GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Director and Professor Dr. Gregory Koblentz noted that “‘these designations match bombs declared by Syria to the OPCW’, although there appears to be no open source material that provides specifics about the types of bombs declared to the OPCW. In the press conference the source of the diagrams are described as being provided ‘by certain organisations’, but no more specifics are given.” The Russian presentation diagrams provide some pretty clear matches between munitions found during investigations into the attacks. “The only way for the Russian or Syrian governments to now deny the M4000 bomb was used is to produce detailed photographs of the M4000 bomb, showing the same parts indicated above, or, if the Syrians still claim all these bombs were destroyed after 2013, declassify and publish further information about the bomb.”

The Center for Global Security Research – Student Internship                     The Center for Global Security Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is now accepting applications for Spring 2018 student internships! “The Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) was established at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in 1996 to bring together experts from the science, technology, and policy communities to address pressing national security challenges. For more than 20 years, CGSR has engaged diverse perspectives on topics important to national security, deterrence, diplomacy, dual-use technology, arms control, nonproliferation, peacekeeping, cyber defense and energy security.”

A Field Test of CRISPR
Researchers are getting to test, for the first time, treatment of a genetic disorder with gene-editing tools infused into the patient’s blood. The 44-year-old man suffers from Hunter syndrome, which is a metabolic disorder. “The company (Sangamo Therapeutics) inserts a replacement copy of the gene, using gene editing to snip the DNA helix of liver cells in a specific place near the promotor, or on-off switch, for the gene for a protein called albumin. The cells fix the damage by inserting the DNA for the new gene, supplied by the researchers along with the gene editor’s DNA scissors, and the gene’s activity is then controlled by the powerful albumin promotor. The idea is to turn these modified liver cells into a factory for making the enzyme missing in Hunter syndrome.” This is an exciting step forward for gene-editing technologies and their ability to treat chronic diseases. Curious what CRISPR looks like in action? Check out this video here.

Call for Papers- Women’s Health in Global Perspective
World Medical & Health Policy’s call for papers on Women’s Health in Global Perspective seeks to contribute to understanding and improve policy on women’s health and wellbeing around the world. Manuscripts on all factors that influence health outcomes for women will be considered, including social determinants such as education, nutrition, poverty, violence, access to health care, job opportunities and personal freedom.  The 2018 Workshop on Women’s Health in Global Perspective will follow a successful 2016 workshop by the same name (see video at http://www.ipsonet.org/conferences/whgp/2016-womens-health-in-global-perspective-videos), which resulted in a special issue http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1002/wmh3.212/full and an ongoing series of articles in WMHP highlighting global women’s health issues and their implications for economic, political and social development. Abstract submission deadline (250 words): December 15, 2017. Contact: Bonnie Stabile, Co-Editor, bstabile@gmu.edu

Three Decades of Responding to Infectious Disease Threats
NIAID Director Anthony Fauci has been fighting infectious diseases in his role since 1984. After 30+ years of work, Dr. Fauci undoubtedly has some fascinating stories, whether it be from the beginning of the HIV pandemic or SARS. “Initial responses to a newly recognized disease, now known as HIV/AIDS, in the early 1980s were criticized as being too slow, the essay notes. ‘The insidious emergence of HIV/AIDS and the lack of due attention by policymakers illustrate how some outbreaks that start subtly can grow to global proportions if they are not aggressively addressed early on,’ Dr. Fauci writes. Between the early 1980s and the early 1990s, federal funding for HIV/AIDS research increased markedly, reaching $1 billion by the end of 1992. The accelerated government response supported both research and research infrastructure, and yielded advances in countering the HIV/AIDS pandemic domestically and internationally. Ultimately, notes Dr. Fauci, sustained support for scientific research coupled with political and community engagement helped transform HIV/AIDS from a nearly universally fatal disease to a condition that can be managed with appropriate treatment.”

The One Health Commission’s Call to Action for Social Scientists
“The One Health Commission, a 501(c)(3) global non-profit organization based in the U.S., stresses recognition of human, animal, and ecosystems interconnections and facilitates collaboration of all professions required to achieve global and planetary health. The One Health Social Sciences Team invites social scientists of all disciplines to become involved in the One Health community. By forging new and innovative partnerships, collaborations across human, animal, plant and ecosystem health communities will collectively enable betterment of health and well-being for all.” To learn more and get involved please contact the One Health and Social Sciences Working Group at ohss@onehealthcommission.org.

What Should The US National Biodefense Strategy Look Like?                                                                                                     The complex nature and painful lessons of biological threats, regardless of source, have challenged U.S. biodefense efforts for decades. As the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense pointed out in their report, there is a general lack of clear leadership and coordination. The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act required that the DoD, DHHS, DHS, and USDA, all develop a national biodefense strategy and plan for implantation. Laura H. Kahn has provided a handful of critical strategies that are necessary. “First, human-intelligence-based monitoring of rogue nations and militant groups that use bioweapons is critical. Second, a national strategy must include a plan for disease surveillance of humans and animals, with a view to predicting the next naturally occurring epidemic. This kind of work is difficult, because there are so many viruses that could spill over from other mammals or birds into humans.” Kahn also highlights laboratory security and the importance of high-containment lab biosecurity, review of the Federal Select Agent Program, investigation of large-scale wildlife die-offs, and recognizing the importance of One Health. “Threat to one component in this triad threatens them all. For that reason, animal and environmental health must be taken just as seriously as human health—which requires devoting personnel and resources to monitoring them, which requires sufficient funding for entities like the EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service.” Kahn also draws attention to the recent GAO report on biological threat awareness and the need to share information and resources. “Most distressingly, the current administration appears willfully ignorant of scientific issues, while at the same time disinclined to fund critical scientific efforts. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is intimately involved with biodefense issues, remains leaderless and understaffed.” Overall, a national biodefense strategy will not be easy, but it must be as comprehensive and wholistic as the biological threats we face.

The World’s Deadliest Diseases: How Is Biotech Fighting Them?
Biotech has an increasingly important role of health security and infectious disease response. As we saw with CRISPR this week, it has the capacity to help treat chronic conditions, but what about infectious diseases? Rapid diagnostics and development of medical countermeasures are critical during outbreaks and can determine if an epidemic will turn into a pandemic. Ute Boronowsky, pulling on Robert Herriman’s list of the five deadliest diseases, is looking to the biotech approaches for such biothreats. Whether it be plague or amebic meningoencephalitis, biotech advances are providing new avenues for treatment and response. Naegleria fowleri (the amoeba that causes the fatal meningoencephalitis) can be difficult to track within water sources and treatment is even trickier. “In 2015, investigational breast cancer and anti-leishmania drug miltefosine was used successfully on a 12-year-old girl at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. However, when the same drug was used on two other patients, one of them died, and the other suffered from major neurological damage. This year saw a new therapeutic approach when scientists at the Virginia Commonwealth University found evidence that Naegleria relies on matrix metalloproteases to degrade the host extracellular matrix during infection, identifying these enzymes as potential therapeutic targets.” Other biotech advances, like prion disease therapy kinase inhibitors on the unfolded protein response, or the latest Ebola vaccine, all highlight the importance of biotech advances in combatting infectious diseases.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Legionella in Disneyland – GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking at the latest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and how it highlights the challenges of prevention. “There are many factors that may attribute an outbreak, such as warming climates, a large aging population, and increased attention on the disease, which all lead to a better chance of infections being reported. The recent outbreak in Disneyland is a good reminder of the inherent challenges with disinfection efforts and continued vigilance that is needed to ward off this bacterial infection. It is also a reminder that outbreaks can happen anywhere there is a water source, even Disneyland, or other areas that somehow seem to be untouchable.”
  • Bulgaria and South Africa Battle HPAI – The two countries are dealing with outbreaks related to highly virulent strains of avian influenza. “A US vaccine company announced that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has conditionally approved the first DNA avian flu vaccine for chickens. Also, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provided a snapshot of current highly pathogenic H5 observations and what could play out in the upcoming season, and Chinese researchers reported new findings on airborne spread of avian flu based on sampling in a live-poultry market.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 11.10.2017

Looking for a great podcast? Check out the American Society for Microbiology’s Meet the Microbiologist – especially the latest episode on biopreparedness and biosecurity with Gigi Kwik Gronvall. From island emergency preparedness to antimicrobial resistance and monkeypox, we’ve got you covered for all things biodefense this week.

Top 5 Challenges in Emergency Preparedness: An Island Perspective
Imagine dealing with a natural disaster or health security threat like a major outbreak, but instead of being on mainland where you can rapidly get aid, you’re on an island. GMU Biodefense MS student Tara Hines provides unique insight into emergency preparedness for islands and how these efforts must overcome unusual challenges. From the health security perspective, there are always challenges, but what would be the biggest ones if you were on an island, like Bermuda? “The great part about biodefense is that it integrates public health, public safety, and basic science to provide health security. This interdisciplinary approach lets us tap into all of these areas to identify potential problems and suggest possible solutions, before a disaster strikes. Plus, biodefense work can be done anywhere and is crucial everywhere!” Tara addresses the challenges of not only collaboration and communication, but also military history and capacity, and several other factors that come into play. Make sure to read about her take on these response efforts and what it has been like responding to such events from an island.

Center for Health Security – ELBI Fellowship Application Now Open
If you’re looking to become an EBLI fellow with the Center for Health Security, good news – applications are now open! “The Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship is an opportunity for talented career professionals to deepen their expertise, expand their network, and build their leadership skills through a series of sponsored events coordinated by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.” The GMU Biodefense program is proud to have seen four students selected for this prestigious fellowship. For more insights into the ELBI fellowship, check out 2017 fellow and current GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu’s take on her ELBI experience. If you are a GMU biodefense student or alum looking to apply and hoping to get a golden ticket (aka letter of recommendation) from Dr. Koblentz – make sure to email him ASAP and make sure to send him your CV/resume/statement letter prior to December 4th.

Summit on Global Food Security and Health: “Integrating Global Food Security and National Security: Problems, Progress, and Challenges”
We’re excited to see this amazing summit on food security and national security is right around the corner. Don’t miss your chance to attend this November 15th event at the Schar School of Policy and Government, Founders Hall Auditorium. “The Fourth Annual Summit on Global Food Security and Health will take place George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government on Wednesday, November 15, 2017 at our Arlington Campus from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm in the Founders Hall Auditorium at 3351 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, Va. The conference is co-sponsored by the Stimson Center, RTI International, and The Policy Studies Organization. Our focus this year is on the interrelationship between food security and national security, progress and challenges under Feed The Future (FTF) and the Global Food Security Act, and the growing importance of food security private-public partnerships, resilience, critical indigenous food security challenges, nutrition and health issues.  Summit speakers will represent a wide array of government, international organization, NGO, private sector, and academic experts. Our Summit follows the issuance of a recent USAID Feed The Future 2017 Progress Report, the enactment of the July 2016 Global Food Security Act, the related completion of new USAID global food security and food aid strategies, and the issuance of USAID’s December 2016 Feed The Future Global Performance Evaluation. The Summit will follow the World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines, Iowa , October 18 – 20 which addresses opportunities for innovative agriculture to eliminate the scourge of global hunger and poverty. Our GMU Summit takes place during a particularly important period marked by protracted uncertainty about U.S. support for International food aid, global food security, and foreign aid.” The event is free, but make sure you RSVP!

Antimicrobial Resistance, WHO Agriculture Recommendations, & USDA’s Not-So-Subtle Shade
AMR is slowly becoming the “I told you so” of infectious disease threats. Even Alexander Fleming warned of a day when antibiotics would no longer be effective. “Back in 2013, the UK’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies started warning the world that antibiotic resistance posed a deadly threat to humanity. But, she believes, that her lack of hard data meant few people took her seriously. ‘One crucial thing that got the whole world to take climate change seriously was the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change back in 2006’ she explains. ‘So we launched our own Stern Review – and found superbugs will kill us before climate change does’.” Reports since then have also highlighted the millions that will die every year due to AMR, but we’re still struggling with incentives for drug discovery and development. “Superbugs are a classic example of market failure – Dame Sally gave a timeline and a point of no return that we have to solve or we’re FUBAR. Government is too linear, industry sees no profit, VC’s don’t see any capital, labs have other problems and NGOs struggle to innovate.” While efforts to invigorate industry are underway, the WHO’s new recommendations are addressing AMR from the agriculture angle. The latest report is calling for a reduction in antimicrobial use across the board in food-producing animals and the halting of use in healthy animals for growth. “The formal guidelines issued by the WHO further recommended that when animals are diagnosed with a bacterial infection, antibiotics that are considered critically important for human medicine should not be used for treatment or to prevent the spread of the infection within a herd or flock, unless tests indicate those drugs are the only treatment option. Instead, antibiotics used for the treatment of sick animals should be chosen from those the WHO considers least important to human health.” Responding to these new recommendations, the USDA has thrown some not-so-subtle shade in their recent press release. The USDA Acting Chief Scientist, Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Yong, has stated that the WHO recommendations are “not in alignment with U.S. policy and are not supported by sound science. The recommendations erroneously conflate disease prevention with growth promotion in animals.” Fighting AMR is a like fighting a chimeric hydra – a multi-headed, regenerating beast made of different animals – all dangerous and different. What herculean effort will be required for us to win the battle of the superbug?

Schar School Master’s Open House – Biodefense MS
It’s the last MS Open House of the season and you won’t want to miss this opportunity to learn about our biodefense graduate programs and talk to faculty. Next Wednesday, November 15th at 6:30pm at GMU’s Arlington campus, you can get the scoop on earning your master’s degree in biodefense on campus or remotely – don’t miss out!

Panel Discussion: Security in the New Era of Targeted Sanctions
Don’t miss the Fall 2017 Symposium hosted by the National Security Law Journal on November 13th at 11:30am! Hosted at GMU’s Founders Hall Auditorium, you can hear from a distinguished panel of attorneys and policy experts specializing in foreign policy, economics, and current events for this event, two of whom are George Mason professors. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Dr. Mark Katz, and Dr. Adam Smith, will be panelists on this great symposium – infact, Dr. Koblentz will be speaking on the role of sanctions in responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Mark sure to RSVP by emailing symposium@nslj.org

Chasing a Killer – Hunting Monkeypox
While we talk of pandemic flu and synthetic biology, it’s easy to forget some of the more mysterious, and yet, equally sinister natural outbreaks that are occurring. The Congo Republic is currently battling a surprising outbreak of monkeypox, which is a cousin of smallpox. “Over the past year, reports of monkeypox have flared alarmingly across Africa, one of several animal-borne diseases that have raised anxiety around the globe. The Congolese government invited CDC researchers here to track the disease and train local scientists. Understanding the virus and how it spreads during an outbreak is key to stopping it and protecting people from the deadly disease.” In fact, the U.S. has experienced its own monkeypox outbreak – in 2003 due to an exotic pet that was imported (sounds like the beginning of that movie Outbreak…). Zoonotic spillover is normally how these outbreaks begin and while monkeypox is not as deadly as smallpox or ebola (a mortality rate of around 10%), researchers are working to understand the ecology of monkeypox hosts and reservoirs. Take a minute to check out this article as there are some wonderful photos and maps that will take you along for this on-the-ground virus hunting expedition.

CBFP Biosciences Fellowship Program
CBFP welcomes applications from early to mid-career biological scientists working in government ministries, government-operated biological science laboratories, and/or research and diagnostic facilities with experience in laboratory operations, research, and diagnostics from Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Only applications from these three countries will be considered. Selected fellows will conduct a science exchange fellowship of up to six months in duration to engage in research at a host institution including, but not limited to, the United States, Europe, and the Middle East beginning no earlier than September 2018. Applications are due December 17th, so make sure to apply here!

Canada To Prioritize Biothreat Reduction During G7 Presidency        In 2018, Canada will assume the G7 presidency role and Global Affairs Associate Deputy Minister Mark Gwozdecky has made it known that the country will prioritize biological threat reduction. “Infectious diseases have plagued mankind since the dawn of time. They’ve proven to be ruthless, persistent and all too adaptive and have been responsible for unparalleled death, suffering and economic loss,” Gwozdecky said.” He pointed to the recent outbreak of bubonic plague in Madagascar, which has infected more than 1,300 people, as an example of the ongoing challenges facing public health officials.” Efforts will also focus on the growing issue of antimicrobial resistance and the threat of biological weapons. Canada has continued to prioritize the full spectrum of biological threats and importance of biosecurity and biosafety within labs through its BSL4Znet network, which is a global information and resource sharing program to protect against biothreats. “While these threats, both natural and intentional are formidable, they are not beyond our means to overcome,” he said. “Key to this, however, will be enhanced cooperation, collaboration and collective effort.” “We look forward to engaging all of our partners to identify new ways, means and opportunities to strengthen global biological security,” Gwozdecky added.

The U.S. Government and Global Health Security
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest issue brief focuses on the roe of the U.S. government and global health security. Ranging from a number of threats like Ebola, HIV, and SARS, global health security efforts are vital and must be as diverse and adaptable as the infectious diseases they thwart. “U.S. funding for its primary global health security programs –activities primarily carried out by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Department of Defense (DoD) – has remained relatively flat from FY 2006 ($390 million) through FY 2017 ($402 million), with episodic funding spikes through supplemental funding mechanisms reflecting specific outbreak events, including Ebola in FY 2015 ($1 billion) and Zika in FY 2016 ($145.5 million). The Administration has proposed reduced global health security funding for FY 2018 ($353 million).” This comprehensive report addresses the current global situation of infectious disease outbreaks and reviews U.S. government efforts and funding.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Financial Misappropriations, Ebola, and The Red Cross – The Red Cross organization recently confirmed that nearly $6 million in donated funds were misappropriated during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. “The organisation’s own investigations uncovered evidence of fraud, with more than $2.1m (£1.6m) lost in Sierra Leone, probably stolen by staff in collusion with local bank officials, according to a statement. In Guinea, a mixture of fake and inflated customs bills cost it $1m.” Investigations found the prices of relief goods and payrolls were inflated and while this isn’t the first time corruption has been associated with humanitarian relief, the Red Cross has yet to issue an apology.
  • Minnesota’s Drug-Resistant TB Outbreak– Minnesota’s Ramsey County is battling a deadly multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) outbreak. “Six of the 17 have died, with three of those deaths being directly attributed to tuberculosis, said Kris Ehresmann, director for Infectious Disease at the Minnesota Department of Health, on Monday. Of the 17 cases, 14 were in the Hmong community and 10 are associated with individuals who participate in activities at a senior center, Ehresmann said.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 11.3.2017

Welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense. Today we get to celebrate Global One Health Day, in which the goal “is to build the cultural will necessary for a sea change in how planetary health challenges are assessed and addressed.”

High-Containment Laboratories: Coordinated Actions Needed to Enhance the Select Agent Program’s Oversight of Hazardous Pathogens
The latest U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report is focusing on high-containment labs and how we can enhance the Select Agent Program’s oversight of hazardous pathogens. “Safety lapses continue to occur at some of the 276 laboratories in the United States that conduct research on select agents—such as Ebola virus or anthrax bacteria—that may cause serious or lethal infection in humans, animals, or plants, raising concerns about whether oversight is effective. GAO was asked to review the federal oversight approach for select agents and approaches from other countries or regulatory sectors. This report (1) evaluates the extent to which the Select Agent Program has elements of effective oversight and strategic planning documents to guide it, and (2) identifies approaches selected countries and regulatory sectors have used to promote effective oversight.” The Select Agent Program is managed through a partnership between DHHS and USDA, which oversees how labs handle these deadly pathogens. The biosecurity and biosafety failures that have occurred in recent years highlights the challenges of not only performing such work, but also oversight. The GAO report found that the Select Agent Program hasn’t assessed the risks of its current structure, has reviews that may not target the highest-risk activities, continues to have significant workforce and training gaps, etc. Eleven recommendations were made, which range from “To improve transparency, the CDC director of the Select Agent Program should work with APHIS to determine what additional information about laboratories’ use of select agents, incidents, and violations of the select agent regulations is appropriate for the program to share with registered laboratories” to “improve independence, the Administrator of APHIS should formally document the reporting structure for the APHIS component of the Select Agent Program from the APHIS director of the program to the Administrator of APHIS”. You can read the full report here or get the highlights here.

GHSA Ministerial Meeting
Last week’s Ministerial Meeting at Kampala was a success and a great time to reflect on GHSA accomplishments from member countries. You can get all the information here regarding the success stories across GHSA members. We will also be reporting on stories from those attendees who were able to join NextGeneration GHSA for the meeting, so don’t miss out on some great deep-dives from GMU biodefense students and their stories from Kampala!

COMMENTARY: Pandemic preparedness and missed opportunities             CIDRAP Director Dr. Michael T. Osterholm is honing in on a dogma for so many within public health – we need pandemic preparedness and we’re just not prepared. Unfortunately, sometimes our efforts to change this can result in a backfire. “Last week PATH issued a report titled, Healthier World, Safer America: A US Government Roadmap for International Action to Prevent the Next Pandemic. PATH, a leading international nonprofit organization, is widely recognized for its work to save lives and improve health, especially among women and children.” “The PATH report, if it commented only on epidemic preparedness, would be a home run. But by stating that the recommendations in the report will stem the risk of the next pandemic, the report ends up contributing to the ongoing mischaracterization about what pandemic preparedness truly means and what is needed to reduce any impact of a future pandemic. Understanding the difference between a pandemic and epidemic is absolutely necessary for consequential preparedness and response planning and action to be accomplished.  Let me illustrate the difference between the two and why it matters.” Osterholm points to this very vital misstep that can easily add confusion when working towards preparedness. He highlights the substantial difference between pandemics and epidemics and that ultimately, before we can truly address preparedness and response, we need to sincerely understand the discrepancies. Osterholm also highlights the biothreats we should be worried about for potential pandemics – influenza and antimicrobial resistance. Osterholm points to these two pandemic concerns while highlighting the importance of the GHSA, the vital role of early and effective detection to epidemic diseases, and that pandemic clocks are ticking. “The influenza and antimicrobial pandemic clocks are ticking; we just don’t know what time it is. Misunderstanding and misrepresenting what we need to do to be better prepared takes an understanding of what a pandemic is and what it isn’t. To date we are not doing a very good job of understanding that point and responding accordingly. The PATH report is a clear reminder.”

Early Insights from Madagascar’s Plague Outbreak: Lessons Learned from Ebola?
Have we really learned some of those difficult lessons from Ebola? Joshua Hutton, Doctoral Candidate at the University of Sussex is evaluating the current plague outbreak in Madagascar under the lens of Ebola. Hutton looks at the epidemiology and cultural impact of these diseases, their similarities and differences, and what lessons can be learned. Hutton looks at the health systems within Madagscar and the Ebola-affected West African countries, noting that Madagascar has 1 doctor per 100,000, while Liberia has 0.1 and Sierra Leone has 0.2 per 100,000. “Furthermore, both Ebola and plague elicit very strong emotional reactions. Ebola has been sensationalized by popular books and major motion pictures (such as Outbreak). Its haemorrhagic symptoms, exaggerated in popular culture, instil fear and remain memorable as an object of cultural anxiety.” “Despite these similarities, there are some obvious differences that affect the public health responses to these outbreaks. The first is that plague is a very different pathogen from Ebola. While Ebola is a virus, Y. pestis is a well-characterised bacterium. One important implication of this difference is that while treatments for Ebola remain elusive, antimicrobials to combat plague do exist. Plague is curable when caught early enough. This not only helps the response, but also reduces the heavy emotional burden placed on healthcare workers who felt helpless caring for Ebola patients without a treatment.” Hutton also notes the differences between public health responses, especially by the WHO – highlighting the lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak. “The early response to this anomalous outbreak of pneumonic plague in Madagascar seems to suggest that lessons are being learned from the Ebola outbreak. While there are distinct differences between the two outbreaks – not the least the availability of rapid diagnostics to identify infected individuals and the availability of antibiotics to treat them – the broader context, the rapid response, and the engaging of local communities produce a cautious optimism for the future.

US-Malaysia Workshop on BWC
The November 30-December 1st workshop at the Council Chamber, Palais des Nations, will focus on BWC-relevant developments by international experts. This workshop will feature expert presentations about global activities during the past year that strengthen the BWC. The purpose of the workshop is to inform States Parties about recent developments relating to national implementation, cooperation and assistance, preparedness and response, and science and technology; and to exchange ideas about their relevance to the Convention.

 My Time As An Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Initiative Fellow                         Take a journey down the biosecurity rabbit hole with GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu and her experience as a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has maintained a fellowship since 2012 that seeks to provide opportunities for biosecurity professionals and helps to broaden their careers through contacts and experiences. The Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) program is something I’ve been striving to join for years. I’ll admit it – it wasn’t my first time applying and while this is a highly competitive group, I was definitely disappointed when I didn’t get that acceptance email. Fortunately, 2017 was my year and I was selected as an ELBI fellow and that’s where this adventure begins.” Popescu describes her experiences at the three workshops, the engagement with some of the top minds in the field, and just how much fun it can be to geek out with fellow biosecurity nerds.

Fourth Annual Summit on Global Food Security and Health
Don’t miss this great opportunity to focus on the interrelationship between Food Security and National Security! Held at GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government on Wednesday, November 15th, you’ll want to make sure you register for this full-day summit! “The conference is co-sponsored by the Stimson Center, RTI International, and The Policy Studies Organization. Our focus this year is on the interrelationship between food security and national security, progress and challenges under Feed The Future (FTF) and the Global Food Security Act, and the growing importance of food security private-public partnerships, resilience, critical indigenous food security challenges, nutrition and health issues. Summit speakers will represent a wide array of government, international organization, NGO, private sector, and academic experts. Our Summit follows the issuance of a recent USAID Feed The Future 2017 Progress Report, the enactment of the July 2016 Global Food Security Act, the related completion of new USAID global food security and food aid strategies, and the issuance of USAID’s December 2016 Feed The Future Global Performance Evaluation. The Summit will follow the World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines, Iowa , October 18 – 20 which addresses opportunities for innovative agriculture to eliminate the scourge of global hunger and poverty. Our GMU Summit takes place during a particularly important period marked by protracted uncertainty about U.S. support for International food aid, global food security, and foreign aid.”

Preppers: On the Frontline of U.S. Preparedness
Are you prepared for an apocalyptic event? GMU Biodefense PhD student and VP of marketing at Emergent BioSolutions student Rebecca Fish is taking us on a deep-dive into the world of preppers. “In 2015, Emergent BioSolutions undertook a multi-phase research project to better understand the prepper movement.  A random sample of 1,022 people aged 18-65 was surveyed to explore prepping behavior.  Findings suggested that the average prepper is not as extreme as many television programs would have you believe.  Rather, your average prepper is an ordinary person trying to do his/ her best for his/her family by preparing for emergency events.  The defining characteristic of a prepper is a belief in self-sufficiency and a desire to be prepared for whatever life throws at you.” This study found some interesting data on preppers – 67% are married and 43% earn over $100,000 per year, while 45% hold a college or advanced graduate degree. The volume and commitment of preppers is also indicative of a market for MCM product and other CBRNe products. “After the 2011 Fukushima Daiiche nuclear disaster in Japan, potassium iodide tablets stocked out everywhere due to overwhelming demand. Similarly, during the Ebola crisis, CBNBC reported that sales of one type of full-body protective suit increased 131,000 percent on Amazon. Gas masks and Ebola survival guides shot up the rankings as well.” As a further example, twenty four percent of preppers in our research own a gas mask.  These data suggest that preppers have demonstrated interest in CBRNe supplies and represent a market for some preparedness supplies.” Fish not only provides new insight into the Prepper community, but also encourages us to start learning more about this group and their interests in preparedness.

BARDA Industry Day
Don’t miss out on BARDA Industry Day next week, from November 7-8th, at the Ronald Reagan Building. “BARDA remains committed to engaging with our industry and government partners to fulfill our mission, saving lives and protecting America through the research and development of medical countermeasures against serious threats. The theme of BARDA Industry Day 2017 is: Innovation in products and partnerships for flexible, dynamic response capabilities.” The keynote speakers will be Robert Kadlec, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Senator Tom Daschle, Founder and CEO of the Daschle Group.

 New Biosecurity Threats Appear in Less Familiar Forms                                    Following the anthrax attacks in 2001, focus within biodefense and biosecurity fell upon bioterrorism and the potential attack that could impact millions of Americans. Since then, health security has evolved to include a wider range of potential issues and threats – natural, manmade, and accidental. GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu highlights some of these newer threats and that while they may be less familiar to health professionals, it is vital we involve them in the narrative of hospital preparedness. Discussing the gaps within U.S. biodefense efforts, genetic engineering, and how dual-use research impacts bio-vulnerability, Popescu implores infectious disease practitioners to soak in this knowledge. “How can we, as infectious disease practitioners, prepare or respond? First, knowledge is key. It is crucial to understand the threats, whether they are a natural outbreak, a lab breach you read about, or even just a review of the signs and symptoms of organisms we tend to worry about but may not see in the United States (such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome, anthrax, etc). Researchers should also consider the implications of their work and take the necessary review processes to ensure the proper biosecurity measures are taken.”

Should FEMA Be a Stand Alone Agency?                                                                            GMU Biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is at it again – evaluating DHS and the potential for major realignments in the Department. “As Congress considers reauthorizing the Department of Homeland Security, principles guiding any major realignments could include assessing whether the organization would be performing operational or staff management functions. Additionally, those principles could examine whether mission effectiveness would be improved through those major realignments and whether implemented changes would introduce new points of friction or inefficiency.” Gertstein notes several major realignments under consideration – replace the National Protection and Programs Directorate at DHS with a new Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, remove FEMA from the DHS and make it a stand-alone department, and standing up a counter WMD organization. “As part of comprehensive department legislation, these realignments should be considered with an eye towards increasing operational effectiveness and efficiency while minimizing organizational friction in the transformed organizations and avoiding loss of key support relationships.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Unforgiving Math That Stops Pandemics– Another prime example of herd immunity and the importance of vaccination – “When talking about vaccination and disease control, health authorities often invoke “herd immunity.” This term refers to the level of immunity in a population that’s needed to prevent an outbreak from happening. Low levels of herd immunity are often associated with epidemics, such as the measles outbreak in 2014-2015 that was traced to exposures at Disneyland in California. A study investigating cases from that outbreak demonstrated that measles vaccination rates in the exposed population may have been as low as 50 percent. This number was far below the threshold needed for herd immunity to measles, and it put the population at risk of disease.”
  • Biosecurity Implications for the Synthesis of Horsepox, an Orthopoxvirus– Gigi Gronvall evaluates the biosecurity and biodefense implications of the recent horsepox synthesis. “The ability to recreate horsepox, or smallpox, will remain no matter what policy controls are put into place. It will be impossible to close off all avenues for nefarious misuse of gene synthesis, or misuse of biological materials more broadly. As a result, we advocate for the implementation of policy, regulations, and guidance that will make illicit recreation harder, more burdensome, more detectable, and, thus, more preventable without having sweeping negative consequences for the research enterprise. As part of our biosecurity efforts, we must also encourage and enable scientists to participate actively and to do all they can to safeguard their technical fields from irresponsible or illicit actions.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport