Pandora Report 2.24.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense! A preliminary report from the Malaysian police has found that VX nerve agent was most likely used to murder Kim Jong-nam.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika 
Want to dabble in the world of global health security? Don’t miss out on the GMU Biodefense three-day, non-credit summer workshop on July 17-19, 2017! Participants will look at the challenges facing the world at the intersection of national security, public health, and the life sciences. Instructors for the workshop range from FBI special agents to biodefense professors and USAMRIID commanders. The workshop will look at the spectrum of biological threats – including naturally occurring disease outbreaks such as SARS, Zika, and Ebola, lapses in biosafety, dual-use research of concern, and the threat of bioterrorism. From now until May 1st, you can take advantage of the early bird registration discount!

Progress Report on BARDA & Project Bioshield 
A 10-year report card was recently published for these two efforts to defend the U.S. against biological threats. The report found 80 candidate countermeasures, 21 stockpiled countermeasures, and 6 FDA approvals supported by BARDA and Project Bioshield. “Over a decade has passed since the anthrax attacks of 2001; preparedness has increased substantially since that time, and defense against CBRN threats has become melded into national security. Both BARDA and Project Bioshield are essential elements of national security, and, especially in light of a change in presidential administration, it is important to emphasize the critical role these agencies have had in fortifying the nation against intentional CBRN threats. Larsen and Disbrow note, however, that despite the reauthorization of Project Bioshield in 2013 with annual funding at $2.8 billion (from 2014-2018), that funding is subject to annual congressional appropriations; as such, only a fraction of that funding has been appropriated.”

BWC Newsletter 
If you’re looking to keep tabs on the Biological Weapons Convention, we’ve got just the place for you. The BWC Implementation Support Unit has prepared a newsletter to better support communication among States Parties and encourage involvement in BWC-related issues and events. The first issue discusses the recent Eighth Review Conference and news like the launch of EU projects to support BWC universalization and a Confidence-Building Measures reminder letter (deadline for submission is April 15th!).

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-2-11-26-pmCDC Lab Closure Due to Safety Concerns
The CDC has temporarily closed down its Biosafety Level-4 laboratories following the finding that their air supply hoses to researchers in protective suits were not approved for use. “‘We have no evidence that anybody has suffered ill health effects from breathing air that came through these hoses,’ Stephan Monroe, associate director for laboratory science and safety at the CDC, told Reuters. Monroe said he was confident scientists were not exposed to pathogens because the air they breathed passed through HEPA filters. The suits they wear also use positive air pressure to prevent pathogens from entering the suit.” Safety tests are currently being performed while employees are being notified and monitored. Interestingly, Monroe’s position is a newly minted one, having been established in 2015 to combat the continuous findings of major lab safety failures involving anthrax, avian influenza, and Ebola in CDC labs.

Why Bill Gates Worries About Biological Threats
Bill Gates recently spoke to Business Insider following his speech for the Munich Security Conference, in which he highlighted his real concerns for global health security. He noted that conflict areas and regions that are struggling to find stability are perhaps the most challenging in terms of outbreak containment. Gates emphasized the vulnerability for genome editing of a virus to make it more contagious, and also the advances in biotechnology that may help prevent the spread of an epidemic. “The point is, we ignore the link between health security and international security at our peril. Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years.” Perhaps the most important thing on our “to-do” list is to invest in vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics. We have a tendency to put these priorities lower on the totem pole until a major public health crises occurs however, Gates highlights their relevance. The launch of the new Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is one step closer to bridging this gap. “The really big breakthrough potential is in emerging technology platforms that leverage recent advances in genomics to dramatically reduce the time needed to develop vaccines. Basically, they create a delivery vehicle for synthetic genetic material that instructs your cells to make a vaccine inside your own body.” Gates also emphasized the importance of strengthening basic public health systems, especially in vulnerable countries – adding to that age old saying, “an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere”.

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-7-48-50-amFinancing Pandemic Preparedness At the National Level = First Line of Defense
Pandemic preparedness funding is one of those common sense investments…right? Unfortunately, many don’t always make it a priority. Ebola alone cost billions, including a $2.27 billion allocation for response by the U.S. government. Dozens of after-action reports and papers on lessons learned have been published since the outbreak. Peter Sands noted that “all these reviews – including the one I chaired  for the US National Academy of Medicine – agreed on three key priorities: strengthening preparedness at a national level; improving coordination and capabilities at a regional and global level; and accelerating R&D in this arena.  Over the last twelve months progress has been made in implementing many of these recommendations, but big gaps and weaknesses remain. As a recent paper in the British Medical Journal put it, there has been ‘ample analysis, inadequate action’.” The highest priority though is preparedness at a national level. The International Working Group on Financing Pandemic Preparedness was created in 2016 as a means to propose ways in which national governments and partners can work to establish sustainable financing to strengthen their pandemic preparedness. Their focus “includes domestic resource mobilization, development assistance and private sector engagement. For many countries, financing preparedness through the domestic public sector budget is the best way to ensure sustained funding and seamless integration with the rest of the health system. This requires ensuring sufficient priority is attached to investing in pandemic preparedness in budget allocations. In some countries, there may also be scope to increase the fiscal envelope through improvements in tax design and collection or even hypothecated taxes.”

Insider Threats 
Get ready to add this new book to your reading list. Matthew Bunn and Scott D Sagan are looking at insider threats like nuclear material theft and Edward Snowden. “Insider Threats offers detailed case studies of insider disasters across a range of different types of institutions, from biological research laboratories, to nuclear power plants, to  the U.S. Army.” Don’t miss the chapter from Jessica Stern and Ronald Schouten, “Lessons Learned from the Anthrax Letters”. Stern and Schouten look at the investigation of the Amerithrax attacks and provide a portrait of Ivins and his troubling behavior. They also address “the combination of regulatory changes, red flags missed by Ivins’s colleagues, and the organizational and cognitive biases that contributed to the failure to identify Ivins as a potential insider”, and the current environment and new regulations.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Former Secretary of Defense Outlines the Future of Warfare – “Two years ago, Barack Obama appointed a new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter—a technocrat physicist, an arms control veteran, and a professor at Stanford—to help close this divide.” Carter recently sat down with WIRED magazine and discussed the challenges facing the White House. When asked about the impact of autonomy on warfare, Carter notes that it will change it in a fundamental way, but also points biotechnology. “I think if there is going to be something ever that rivals nuclear weapons in terms of the pure fearsomeness of their destructiveness it’s more likely to come from biotechnology than any other technology. Looking back decades from now, I do think the biological revelation could rival the atomic revolution for the fearsomeness of the potential. I think that’s one reason we need to invest in it. And although biotechnology has not been a traditional area for Defense, the new bridges that they build shold not only be to the IT tech community but also to the biotech communities in the Valley.”
  • Did Salmonella Take Down the Aztecs?– History and infectious disease? That’s surely the best way to start a weekend! Researchers recently looked at the DNA of a 500-year-old bacteria to study one of the worst epidemics in history. “In one study, researchers say they have recovered DNA of the stomach bacterium from burials in Mexico linked to a 1540s epidemic that killed up to 80% of the country’s native inhabitants. The team reports its findings in a preprint posted on the bioRxiv server on 8 February. In 1519, when forces led by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés arrived in Mexico, the native population was estimated at about 25 million. A century later, after a Spanish victory and a series of epidemics, numbers had plunged to around 1 million.” After extracting and sequencing the DNA from the teeth of 29 buried people buried in the highlands of southern Mexico, all but five were found to be linked to cocoliztli. “Further sequencing of short, damaged DNA fragments from the remains allowed the team to reconstruct two genomes of a Salmonella enterica strain known as Paratyphi C. Today, this bacterium causes enteric fever, a typhus-like illness, that occurs mostly in developing countries. If left untreated, it kills 10–15% of infected people.”

Pandora Report: 2.26.2016

It’s been quite a week for global health security. Even the X-Files covered worldwide pandemics (that’s right, multiple diseases), CRISPR-Cas9, and military vaccination programs. Measles is hitting Nigeria hard as Lagos state officials announced the deaths of 20 children related to the outbreak. A recent study released by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that more than one third of participants believed Zika virus was a conspiracy theory related to genetically modified mosquitoes. Maybe they were also watching the X-Files? Before we begin, meningitis vaccine efforts were celebrated at the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) conference, due to success within Africa’s meningitis belt.

GMU Biodefense Students Awarded UPMC Biosecurity Fellowship
We’re happy to announce that two GMU Biodefense students have been selected as Fellows for the UPMC Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI)! Congrats to biodefense MS alum Francisco Cruz, and PhD candidate Siddha Hover! “The Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative is a competitive fellowship program designed to create and sustain an energetic, multidisciplinary, and intergenerational biosecurity community made up of motivated young professionals as well as current leaders. UPMC has selected 28 US and international emerging leaders in biosecurity from a wide array of backgrounds, including biological science, medicine, policy, the military, law, public health and the private sector.” Siddha Hover works for BAI, Inc. as an embedded contractor with the Department of Homeland Security, where she serves as DHS’s sole treaty analyst. In her role, she is responsible for reviewing all relevant DHS-sponsored research and activites for compliance with applicable arms control agreements. Siddha is currently pursuing her PhD in Biodefense. She holds a MSc in Biodefense from George Mason University and a MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Siddha notes that, “the GMU Biodefense program provided me with the foundational knowledge necessary to confidently begin a career in biodefense and enabled me to successfully apply for the ELBI Fellowship.” Francisco is a biologist in the Field Operations Branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Consequence Management Advisory Division (CBRN CMAD). As CBRN CMAD’s Biologist, Francisco provides operational guidance to federal, state, and local responders in the areas of decontamination and emergency response related to biological incidents. Francisco holds a B.A. in Biological Sciences from the University of Delaware. During his time at GMU, Francisco earned a Graduate Certificate in Critical Analysis and Strategic Responses to Terrorism, and earned his M.S. in Biodefense in December 2015. Congrats to Siddha and Francisco in their work furthering the field of global health security and representing GMU Biodefense in the ELBI program!

GMU Biodefense Course Sampler- “Biosecurity as a Wicked Problem”
If you’re on the fence about going back to school, curious about our program, or just want to hear what a class in biodefense would be like, check out our course sampler on Wednesday, March 2nd, at 7pm, in our Arlington Campus in Founders Hall, Room 502. “The United States and the world face unprecedented threats to global biosecurity, including emerging infectious diseases, pandemics, natural disasters, bioterrorism, and laboratory accidents. Find out about the challenges posed by these threats and strategies for enhancing global health security.” How many times can you sample a course from not only an expert in the field, but also the director of the program? Dr. Koblentz will be your host for this evening lecture on biodefense, dual-use research, CRISPR-Cas9, biosecurity, and much more. Can’t attend in person? Don’t worry – we’re also live-streaming here. Come join us for a look behind the curtain of not only our GMU graduate programs, but also the world of global health security.

CRISPR and The Battle of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes 
CRISPR-Cas9 technology has been a hot topic since it was discovered and things have only ramped up since a Chinese research team announced last Spring that they successfully edited human embryo genes. While many raised concerns over “designer babies” and genetically modified livestock, the case for genetically modified mosquitoes has also been discussed. What if science could modify mosquito capabilities to carry disease? CRISPR-Cas9 research is getting much closer to making this a reality with the help of two research teams. “The first group, led by Valentino Gantz and Ethan Bier at the University of California–San Diego, and Anthony James at the University of California–Irvine, engineered a gene drive carrying a pair of genes designed to kill the malaria parasite inside the mosquito.The second group, led by Nikolai Windbichler, Andrea Cristanti, and Tony Nolan at the Imperial College London, developed a more brute force approach, building a gene drive that breaks an important mosquito gene and renders the females sterile—a strategy designed to decimate a mosquito population. Both groups reported that, when the genetically modified insects were crossed with wild ones, as much as 99 percent of the offspring carried the modified genes, a clear sign that the gene drives were working.” While field tests are still necessary to establish efficacy, it’s important to note the researchers are taking great strides to ensure public buy-in given the sensitivity of such work. Gene drive is becoming more accessible and the applications appear limitless however, ethical use of this pioneering innovation is crucial for future work.

Climate Change & Zika Virus – What’s the Link?
Somewhere between reporting on CRISPR-Cas9 mosquitoes and Zika updates, it seems like a perfect place to discuss what kind of impact climate change is having on infectious diseases…especially Zika virus. GMU Biodefense MS student and one of our contributors, Greg Mercer elaborates on the role climate change may have on the growing geographical distribution of mosquitoes that pose some of the biggest threats. Greg points out that “exactly how climate change drives the spread of Zika and other diseases is hard to define. In 2013, researchers at the University of Arizona published a paper examining the effect of climate factors on dengue and its Aedes vectors. Their conclusion highlighted just how far scientists still have to go in understanding the climate-disease link: ‘Climate influences dengue ecology by affecting vector dynamics, agent development, and mosquito/human interactions,’ they wrote, but ‘although these relationships are known, the impact climate change will have on transmission is unclear.’ Climate change introduces additional complications into an already complex system, the study authors explained: It’s difficult enough to understand how weather, climate, human interaction, or mosquito behavior contribute to the spread of a virus.” Researchers are now comparing the global distribution of Aedes mosquitoes and the spread of Zika, which leaves many to wonder if the threat of global disease will evolve with that of global climate change.

BARDA Seeks Advanced Public Health Consequence Modeling
The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) is currently working to find partners that can aid in the development of a modeling system that would support federal decision makers in their planning and response to CBRN events. “The tools developed under this acquisition will assist Federal decision makers with medical and public health decision making for the advanced development and implementation of an integrated National medical countermeasures infrastructure (e.g., vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and medical devices).” They’re hoping to build partnerships to establish a network for medical consequence modeling, simulation, visualization, and decision support. BARDA plans to include two functional areas within the network, 1- decision support, reach back, analysis, and modeling (DREAM), and 2- professional services and systems integration (PSSI). “These activities include assisting government decisions makers during the development of preparedness plans, the implementation of response strategies, and communications with a wide variety of stakeholders, both during day to day operations and in the course of declared public health emergencies as part of the BARDA Modeling Coordination Group.” Each functional area will have multiple Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) awards that can be earned and they are encouraging interested stakeholders to submit proposals.

To Zika and Back 

Courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations
Courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations

As Zika virus continues to spread and South Africa reports the first of their cases, many are wondering how these outbreaks tend to go from 0-60 in a hot minute. NIAID director, Anthony Fauci, discusses the reality of disease surveillance and revealed this slide during an interview, of which you can see the global examples of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Dr. Fauci points to the unpredictable nature that is public health and global health security. Global public health is still reeling from the effects and imperfect response of Ebola 2014, coupled with the scrutiny of a response to H1N1 that was considered too zealous. I’ve always considered public health and disease prevention to be the kind of work where few realize when you’ve done your job correctly but when you fail, it’s something you’ll be hearing about for decades. Global health security is challenging on a good day and public health tends to get little funding, especially in the countries that need it most. After the devastation of Ebola and all the after-action reports, many are wondering how did we miss the rise of Zika virus? Dr. Ken Stuart, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research in Seattle, says, “We were unaware of the severity of the disease … [and] were unaware this virus had the capability for getting distributed so rapidly.” Regarding the funding issues that often plague infectious disease efforts, he noted that “this really goes back to funding priorities. Much of the funding devoted to infectious disease today is in reaction to outbreaks. Therefore, we’re not generally prepared to respond quickly. In other cases there are diseases that are very rare but they have an advocacy group that generates research activities. In the case of diseases like Zika, which were isolated in remote areas of the world where that population had no resources or advocacy group, there was no push to do research.We’re not stuck with what we’ve got. There are conversations between federal funding agencies and private organizations to try to prioritize the utilization of their resources, and I would say the NIH has been a leader in supporting the fundamental research that actually, probably positions us best to be prepared to respond to these disease outbreaks.” In other Zika news, a CDC team just arrived in Brazil to study the associated birth defects and the White House is urging Congress to provide emergency funds to support Zika response efforts, rather than just re-directing funds from Ebola-related projects. You can also see a map tracing the spread of Zika and some background here. As of February 24, the CDC has reported 107 travel-associated cases in the U.S.

The Rise of Chikungunya
I always thought it sounded like the name of a monster and in some ways, that’s pretty spot on. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reported 16,668 confirmed and suspected cases of Chikungunya in 2016 so far. Colombia shouldered the majority of 2016 disease burden, with a spike of 1,189 new cases added to their previous count of 5,752. The PAHO is still playing catch-up on their year-end reporting for 2015, but it looks like 28,722 additional infections were added to their 2015 data. These updates mean that this region experienced 726,478 cases in 2015, and with the the new cases reported as of February 19, this current outbreak has been responsible for 1.89 million infections. Starting in 2013, this outbreak began on St. Martin and has been gaining traction ever since. Hopefully with the mosquito-control efforts related to Zika virus, the mosquito population also responsible for Chikungunya will begin to decline.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Breaking Down the Barriers of MDRO’s:  Scientists in the UK have discovered how drug-resistant bacteria create and maintain their defensive wall. Using the Diamond Light Source machine to “investigate in tiny detail a class of bugs known as Gram-negative bacteria”, they were able to find a defensive wall and it’s assembly beta-barrel machinery (BAM). This new research means that future treatments can aim at preventing bacteria from building these defense measures versus just attempting to attack the bacteria itself.
  • Melbourne Measles Outbreak – 14 cases have already been confirmed in the suburb of Brunswick, of which 2 were children from a primary school. Students that attend the same school and are not fully immunized were instructed to stay home to avoid exposure.
  • E. coli Outbreak in Raw Milk – Not surprisingly, a recall has been issued related to unpasteurized raw milk from a local dairy farm in Fresno, CA. 10 people have been confirmed with Shiga-toxin producing E. coli 0157:H7. Thankfully the shelf-life of the product has passed and public health officials, while stating that the investigation is on going, have confirmed that no health alert was issued since the product is believed to no longer be within the marketplace. Moral of the story – avoid raw, unpasteurized milk.

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Congrats to GMU Biodefense 2014 Graduates!!

If the words CBRN, Deterrence, Terrorism, Tacit Knowledge, Anthrax, Vaccination, Public Health, International Security, The Rajneesh’s Cult, Aum Shinrikyo, Iraqi WMD, Biopreparat, The Pandora Report, Bruce Ivans, Small Pox, Intelligence, Arms Control, Measles, The Biological Weapons Convention, Biosurveillance, BioSense, BioWatch, and Zombie have any meaning to you, you might just FINALLY be one of George Mason University’s few and proud Biodefense graduates.

This year our program is very proud to have graduated 3 Doctoral Candidates and 20 Masters Candidates well equipped to fight the good fight against the Zombie Apocalypse!

CONGRATULATIONS to GMU’s Biodefense Doctoral and Masters Class of 2014!!

Doctoral Candidates
Jenna Frost
Brian M. Mazanec
William E. Sumner

Master’s Candidates
Amy Armitage
Kellie Bolling
Ashley Eilers-Lupton
Courtney Gavitt
Deborah Harden
Christopher Healey
Michael Herman
Alena James
Blain Johnson
Quyen Kim
David Kimble
Annabel Lang
Katherine Montwill
Nicole Morgan Starks
Ashley Negrin
Cathleen Nguyen
Erika Olsen
Laura Sears
Saranga Senaratna
Brian Wilber

Deborah Harden Receives GMU Biodefense Departmental Award

By Alena M. James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

(Banner Image Credit: George Mason University)