Welcome to December! We hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday. If you’re still craving poultry and happen to be in Sweden, you may want to keep in mind that the first H5N8 case was just detected. Want an overview on genome editing? Check out the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology’s note on it here.
Army Reprimands General Over Anthrax Debacle
Biosafety failures have been an increasing concern over the last few years. Within the last few years, the Pentagon was involved in mistakenly shipping live anthrax to nine U.S. laboratories and an airbase in South Korea after failing to inactive the bacteria. The Army has now reprimanded Brig. Gen. William King, the highest-ranking officer implicated in the events. “A reprimand prevents an officer from receiving another assignment, effectively ending his career, according to a Defense official familiar with King’s case but not authorized to speak publicly about it. ‘Brig. Gen. King was reprimanded for failing to take appropriate action to respond to and mitigate lapses in safety and protocol while serving as commander of Dugway Proving Ground,’ Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokeswoman, said in a statement.” Nine civilians were also demoted and another soldier was disciplined in this attempt to clean up the biosafety mess that has plagued military labs. Investigators at Dugway found several failures – a biosafety officer who lacked training and education needed for the job, failure to conduct routine environmental tests to ensure there was no breach in containment, and staff who “regularly manipulated data” certifying pathogens were safe to for use without PPE and shipment.
The Failure That Was the 8th RevCon
The 8th Review Conference of the BWC has closed and with it, the hope of reaching an agreement on a work plan for the next five years to strengthen the intersessional process. You can read the UN Office at Geneva statement here, in which they note that during the RevCon, a Final Document was adopted (including a Final Declaration on the articles of the Convention), renewal of the mandate of the Implementation Support Unit, and this RevCon had higher attendance than previous BWC meetings. If you’d like detailed overviews of each day’s proceedings, you can find them here – in the last day, you can see the frustrations and disappointment voiced by several countries.. The 8th RevCon did decide that States Parties will hold annual meetings in the process up to the next RevCon (2021), with hopes of reaching consensus regarding the intersessional process. You can also read the statement by U.S. State Department’s spokesperson, John Kirby, here, in which he points to the failures of the group to find consensus on a work plan (a plan that was highly supported by the U.S. and would involve much more intensive expert work to make decisions more frequently than every 5 years) to infuse decision-making and expert work into the intersessional process. Kirby’s statement notes that “While the United States does not support the need to negotiate a supplementary treaty, during the review conference, U.S. negotiators were supportive of creating a space in the post-RevCon work-plan for discussion of the full range of proposals to strengthen the Convention, which would have allowed proponents of a protocol to make their case. Although the United States is disappointed that negotiators did not take this opportunity to strengthen the intersessional process, the lack of consensus on a program of work does not damage the international nonproliferation regime.” While many of the official documents note “disappointment”, the realities of those in attendance were marked with frustration at the utter failure that was the 8th RevCon. Some of the noted frustrations including the halting of summer meeting of experts (MX), failure to increase ISU staff, and again, inability to agree on an intersessional process that would facilitate more real-time decision making with the necessary experts. “In their final declarations many countries, especially from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), put the blame squarely on Iran (without naming the country). This country’s obsession with returning to a negotiation format like the Ad Hoc Group to achieve the higher goal of a legally binding instrument—possibly with the sole goal of antagonising the USA—led it to exploit to the fullest to principle of consensus decision-making to torpedo any effort at compromise. Many NAM countries—often developing nations—lost out on concrete opportunities for international cooperation and assistance.” You can read the advanced version of the final report here. While this floundering don’t mean the end of the BWC, the lackluster outcome may indicate a gradual slip in overall confidence.
U.S. Military Preps for Gene Drive Woes
The new advances in genome editing and biotech point to a bright horizon for innovation, however the safety components to these advances are in need of response measures. DARPA is now working on a new program to respond to potentially harmful or devastating ecosystem outcomes that may come from engineered genes. Safe Genes will be a means of responding to a situation in which the gene-drive systems produce an outcome throughout generations that may be negatively impacting to the ecosystem. This may make genome editing systems, like CRISPR, sound nefarious, but there are growing hopes that this technology could alter insects or pests that carry diseases like malaria, dengue, etc. The gene-drive systems mean that within 20 generations, the newly altered genes could be passed through an entire population of insects (i.e. within 20 generations, a certain species of mosquito could be unable to carry malaria). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has doubled its spending on gene drive tech and even DARPA has been one of the largest funders of synthetic biology research. While the the rewards may be high, so are the risks. “Kevin Esvelt, head of the Sculpting Evolution lab at MIT Media Lab, which is applying for Safe Genes funding in collaboration with eight other research groups, predicts that eventually, perhaps around 15 years from now, an accident will allow a drive with potential to spread globally to escape laboratory controls. ‘It’s not going to be bioterror,’ he says, ‘it’s going to be ‘bioerror.'” Several research teams, including those at the DARPA program, are looking to remove, replace, or inhibit the unwanted genetic changes that are made in order to best respond to a negative outcome. Getting rid of the engineered genes from a species or habitat is one focus area for DARPA’s new program – the second encourages teams (who received funding from Safe Genes) to create systems for controlling/reversing gene editing tools, and the last focal point is on developing small molecules or antibodies that allow organisms to fight off genome editors at the molecular level. “Evolutionary geneticist Austin Burt, who leads Target Malaria’s research at Imperial College London and has no affiliation with Safe Genes, concurs. The prospect of remediation, he says, ‘shouldn’t give us a cavalier attitude.’ Instead, the goal should be to do the incremental work to anticipate and prevent problems. ‘We have the precedent of biological control,” he says, “where if you have an invasive pest that is destroying your crop, you can release a parasitoid wasp,’ which kills its host. ‘They do a very careful assessment. They don’t have something in their back pocket,’ to delete errors.”
FBI Utilizes Student Bioengineers
With the growing importance and challenges of biotechnology and genome editing, it’s not surprising the FBI is sponsoring the International Genetically Engineering Machine (iGEM) Competition. iGEM is a way for the FBI to collaborate with the biotech community to better understand the challenges, concerns, and help create a culture of trust and transparency. Stanford senior research scholar, Megan Palmer, highlights this growing relationship and its importance in bioterrorism prevention. Science plays a vital role and to better understand this, why not start with those looking to make a difference in the field? “Bioterror incidents are extremely difficult to predict. In the past governments have built the deadliest biological weapons programs, but one worry is that now small groups may also be able to do serious damage, Palmer says”. The biotech world is constantly evolving and it’s important that law enforcement understand the how’s and why’s of the field so that investigations can be more effective and efficient. In fact, GMU biodefense graduate program director and professor, Gregory Koblentz, is working with Dr. Palmer on a CRISPR project for this very reason. The Departments of Defense and State are even getting in on this approach – create transparency and trust with the biohacker community to better prevent and respond to future threats. Like FBI supervisory special agent, Edward You, Megan is looking to strengthen this relationship prior to “trigger events” (an event in which biologists are suspected to be behind it) to ensure the foundation of communication and trust can combat challenging situations. “But there’s a natural tension between biohackers embedded in fringe communities and government agencies that are traditionally secretive. To Palmer, the key to the collaboration is open communication. So far, it’s going well—Palmer says she has been asking the FBI questions about its involvement, what it sees in the field, and why the agency is spending so much time and effort to be involved, and so far she says they have ‘been willing to have more of those conversations.’”
The Diseases That Worry Public Health Officials
CDC Director, Thomas Friden, and Susan Desmond-Hellman, Chief Executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sat down to discuss the infectious diseases outbreaks that keep them up at night. Frieden noted that every year we identify a new pathogen and every day the CDC starts a new investigation to find a new pathogen. Frieden admits that his biggest worry is pandemic influenza. “Even the 1957 influenza pandemic, which most people haven’t heard of, cost 3% of the world’s gross domestic product. Even SARS, a relatively small outbreak, cost about $30 billion. We don’t know when the next one will come, where it will come from or what it will be. But we’re certain there will be a next one.” Dr. Desmond-Hellmann noted that, “What we learned from Ebola is that there are a couple things that are underutilized and not ready. One is governance. Who makes the call when things happen? The second thing is having the right tools, which is why global health research-and-development is a big focus of our foundation.” Both emphasized the importance of faster and more effective prevention and the role of country accountability in global health security. Truly, Dr. Frieden notes, there is no way to know if a country is ready to handle a health emergency, which is where the GHSA’s Joint External Evaluation has come in as a means of objective, third party, accountability and readiness assessments.
Advances in Radiation Biodosimetry for Mass Casualty Events Involving Radiation Exposure
GMU biodefense PhD student, Mary Sproull, is looking at the modeling and development of new medical countermeasures for CBRN events. “To respond to large-scale population exposures from a nuclear event or radiation dispersal device (RDD), new methods for determining received dose using biological modeling became necessary. The field of biodosimetry has advanced significantly beyond this original initiative, with expansion into the fields of genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and transcriptomics.” Cytogenetic assessment methods are also being utilized with ramping up laboratory surge capacity. In this assessment, Sproull looks to the progress being made regarding field-deployment readiness in the event of radiation exposure. She notes that the most promising and immediately useful mechanisms for biodosimetry are pointing towards cytogenetic assessment using surge capacity lab networks, proteomics, and genomics-based technologies. “Greater collaboration within each field of biodosimetry would benefit the development of a standardized panel of biological markers for dosimetry assessment. Assessing the application of radiation biodosimetry in special populations, and development of a rapid assay for assessment of partial-body exposures is needed. Critical organ-specific markers of radiation toxicity also need to be identified and validated.”
Shortly after the WHO declared that Zika is no longer a global health emergency, the first case of locally acquired Zika sprung up in Texas. While investigations are ongoing, the latest news points to the importance of maintaining vigilance towards vector control and continued education. The UK has reportedly found its first case of sexually transmitted Zika. You can find the latest updates from the Florida Department of Health here, which reveal two new travel-related cases and four new locally acquired cases on November 30th. A recent study found microcephaly in older babies who were exposed to Zika in the womb. “A study published in the U.S. journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reportinvolved 13 babies in two Brazilian states born with small heads, but not small enough to be diagnosed with microcephaly. The babies tested positive for Zika. Imaging scans of the babies’ heads soon after birth showed brain abnormalities. Researchers then followed the infants. Around the time of their first birthday, 11 of the 13 babies were diagnosed with microcephaly. Their heads and brains had not developed in proportion to their growth and size.” Some are saying that the WHO’s move of declaring Zika no longer a public health emergency was a mistake. The CDC has reported 4,496 cases of Zika in the U.S. as of November 30th,
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Trump Picks HHS Lead – President elect Trump, has selected Republican congressman, Dr. Tom Price, as the US Health Secretary to oversee CDC, NIH, etc. This selection has been met with a mixture of concern while many worry about the challenges to public health under the new administration.
- New Viral Discoveries– a international research team has found the jackpot of viral discoveries – 1,500 new viruses! Looking for infection in invertebrates (think insects and spiders), the expansion of the catalogue of viruses will help us better understand viral diversity. Genetic sequencing helped these researcher delve deep into the world of viruses – the virosphere. “Next generation sequencing allows researchers to quickly determine the sequence of these letters. And if you work out the order of the letters on any chain of RNA, you can determine if it belongs to a virus and whether or not the virus is new. Its potential for virus discovery is huge.”
- Traces of MDRO’s Found in Polluted City Air- recent research from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg looked at hundreds of environmental samples worldwide. The results revealed that the samples taken from Beijing, had high levels of antibiotic resistant genes. “‘We studied only a small number of air samples, so to generalize, we need to examine the air from more places,’ explains lead researcher Joakim Larsson. ‘But the air samples we did analyze showed a wide mix of different resistance genes.’ The research doesn’t show whether the bacteria in Beijing’s smog is actually alive – which would significantly increase the threat – but Larsson says it’s ‘reasonable to believe that there is a mixture of live and dead bacteria, based on experience from other studies of air’.”