Pandora Report 11.4.2016

Happy Friday! We’ve got some great news – you can now watch our book launch and panel from the Biological Threats in the 21 Century event via YouTube here. Whether you missed out on attending or want a recap, you can get all the biodefense goodies there. UNMC was recently awarded $19.8 million to build an Ebola and advanced infectious disease training center. Their new center will include a training, simulation, and quarantine section, with the hope of training healthcare workers to treat patients with Ebola and other highly infectious diseases. A recent study found that limited access to Ebola diagnostic and supportive pathology assays facilitated the failure of initial 2014 outbreak control efforts, regardless if the setting was a resource-rich or resource-poor location.  Shocking news – hand hygiene is one of the biggest issues in norovirus infections.

3rd Annual Summit on Global Food Security and Health 
GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government will be hosting this informational event on Wednesday, November 16th from 10:30am-5:30pm. Speakers include experts from organizations such as the Association of Public Land Grant UniversitiesBread for the World, the International Medical Corps and the US Agency for International Development: Academics will discuss their research on Food Security with an eye to improving access, addressing challenges and developing partnerships to improve global food security and related health outcomes. Organized with the support of the Center for Strategic and International StudiesThe Farm Journal FoundationThe Global Harvest Initiative, Policy Studies OrganizationWorld Medical & Health Policyjournal; Center for the Study of International Medical Policies and Practices (CSIMPP) in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George MasonUniversity; American Public University; and World Food Policy. The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Contact Professor Bonnie Stabile bstabile@gmu.edu with any questions.

FDA Manipulation of Media
A new report from the Scientific American is drawing attention to the FDA’s arm-twisting of journalists “into relinquishing their reportorial independence”. Their investigators found that NPR and a series of other news outlets had a deal with the FDA-  get news announcements early but the FDA would dictate whom their reporters could and couldn’t interview. “This kind of deal offered by the FDA—known as a close-hold embargo—is an increasingly important tool used by scientific and government agencies to control the behavior of the science press. Or so it seems. It is impossible to tell for sure because it is happening almost entirely behind the scenes. We only know about the FDA deal because of a wayward sentence inserted by an editor at the New York Times.” The Scientific American was able to obtain supportive documents via the Freedom of Information Act, which revealed that despite their public demeanor, the FDA denies many reporters access and grows their own group of journalists that will follow their rules. Much of this is held together with the journalistic practice of embargo – a deal between source and journalist that the story won’t be published prior to a specific date/time. This is actually pretty common in the science world, but it can actually create an aura of favoritism and bias. The issue with the FDA situation is far deeper though – aside from getting early access to stories and agreeing not to publish before the agreed date/time (embargo), the other rules stated that journalists could not seek outside comment and in a nutshell, had to give up the ability to do independent reporting. In the end, this kind of control of the media and journalistic favoritism reveals things about both sides of the agreement, but also emphasizes the need for transparency and re-thinking of the embargo system.

BWC 8th Review Conference sheet-1
The eighth RevCon is fast approaching and if you’re behind as to what’s happened since the last RevCon, check out UNLOG’s (The United Nation’s Office at Geneva) Think Zone and the latest information. You’ll also find some great articles from GMU’s Biodefense faculty in there – like Dr. Koblentz’s article on dual-use and Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley’s article on gene drive. Better yet, check out the BWC RevCon Series from the International Law and Policy Institute. These three papers discuss a series of issues related to the BWC and RevCon. The first, Divide and Delegate: the Future of the BWC, focuses on the pursuit of BWC aims outside RevCons and the normative strengths and operational weaknesses. LPI2, Keeping Up With the Science, looks to support enhanced science and technology review processes. LPI3, is a joint effort by GMU’s very own Biodefense Director, Gregory Koblentz, and the author of your favorite new book (Biological Threats in the 21st Century), Filippa Lentzos. The third paper, Risks, Trade-Offs & Responsible Science , looks at the security trade-off risks of the increasing volume of labs and scientists working on dangerous pathogens. They note that “the 2016 BWC Review Conference must encourage states to implement stringent national biosafety, biosecurity and dual-use research regulations; task the science advisory group to develop clear, internationally- recognized guidelines governing dual-use research of concern (DURC); establish a working group to revise the CBMs; and encourage states to participate in the CBM mechanism as well as more interactive information exchanges such as peer review and compliance assessment.”

RevCon will take place from November 7-25th in the Palais des Nations and a general agenda is available here. Gabrielle Tarini writes that this RevCon will be a “pivotal opportunity for countries to take action to ensure that the treaty remains a relevant and useful tool for preventing the development, spread, and use of biological weapons. A failure by member states to invest the necessary attention, time, and political capital in the conference could mean decreased interest and weakened multilateral engagement in a treaty that was the first to ban an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.” Moreover, the BWC should have a dedicated process, like that of the CWC, to inform and advise member states, pointing to the need for a great capacity to have expert-led meetings and continuous monitoring. Lastly, Tarini highlights that this RevCon will be an opportunity to strengthen and revise the intersessional process and framework. “The treaty should be restructured, with a stronger steering body and increased time for preparation and multilateral engagement. Adding more meetings, and limiting what gets discussed at each of those meetings, would allow the BWC to begin operating more like an international organization and would provide oversight equivalent to that for other nonproliferation treaties.” Can everyone help verify the BWC? Some are saying open source monitoring may just be that sweet spot.

Increasing Transparency in Biodefense: A 2016 Visit to a German Military Medical Biodefense Facility  screen-shot-2014-09-22-at-21-57-41
Filippa Lentzos is taking us on a journey through German biodefense practices and why transparency is so vital for these programs. Citing Germany as a prime example of countries going above and beyond their voluntary BWC efforts, she delves into the world of Germany’s biodefense activities. She notes the visitors were highly encouraged to review Germany’s most recent CBM submission and briefed on the Institute of Microbiology’s safety and health regulations. “Few restrictions were placed on us other than those related to safety and security. We were free to view rooms, lab equipment and installations. The type and scope of access was to be determined by Institute staff on a case-by-case basis. Any access denials could derive from national security, biosafety and health regulations, data privacy issues, unpublished scientific results or ongoing lab work. If access or certain information was refused, the Institute would explain the particular considerations and o er alternatives.” The Bundeswehr institute focuses on three main CBRN tasks – ensuring protection and an ability of the armed forces to act under CBRN threats, preventing vulnerability to potential CBRN threats and weapons via preventative measures, and limiting the consequences should a CBRN event ever occur. The medical biodefense responsibilities focus more on the ability to rapidly diagnose and identify pathogens, distinguishing natural outbreaks from intentional, and controlling outbreaks. The official noted on their visit that within the institute, there are 65 staff and 18 externally funded fixed-term positions over three departments (bacteria/toxins, viruses/intracellular pathogens, and medical biological reconnaissance and bioforensics). From genome sequencers to electron microscope rooms, check out Filippa’s report for a virtual tour of this amazing biodefense facility.

Assessing the Epidemic Potential of RNA and DNA Viruses  screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-7-19-56-am
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh are looking at zoonotic viruses and their transmissibility. The Ebola outbreak in 2014 highlighted the needed to better understand what kinds of pathogens, especially zoonotic, were likely to emerge as potential epidemics. Given the vast diversity and high rates of viral evolution, this was no easy task. “Of human transmissible virus, 37 species have so far been restricted to self-limiting outbreaks. These viruses are priorities for surveillance because relatively minor changes in their epidemiologies can potentially lead to major changes in the threat they pose to public health.” Researchers used the basic reproductive number, R0, as a means of answering this question. They looked at hundreds of viral species and then categorized them into 4 levels with epidemic potential in humans. They found that the taxonomic diversity is wide, but bounded and most human infective viruses are closely related to viruses of other mammals. Transmissibility within the human population is a key determinant, as well as the R0 threshold of>1. “We currently have few clues to help us predict which mammalian or avian viruses might pose a threat to humans and, especially, which might be transmissible between humans. One argument in favor of experimental studies of these traits, including controversial gain of function experiments, is that they could help guide molecular surveillance for high-risk virus lineages in nonhuman reservoirs.The first line of defense against emerging viruses is effective surveillance. A better understanding of which kinds of viruses in which circumstances pose the greatest risk to human health would enable evidence-based targeting of surveillance efforts, which would reduce costs and increase probable effectiveness of this endeavor.”

Spikes in C-diff and MDRO’s 
Halloween may be over but the rise of the resistant bugs is still going on. A recent study looked at the changing epidemiology of MDRO’s (multi-drug resistant organisms) within a specific healthcare network. While they were able to observe a significant reduction in MRSA, there was a sharp rise in other MDRO’s and C-diff (Clostridium difficile). Examining eight years of data from a Utah-based health network, researchers looked at 22 hospitals clinics to establish trends in C-diff and other MDRO’s. Of the 900,000 patient admissions, 1.4% tested positive for an MDRO and/or C-diff. MRSA was by far the most common MDRO (51% of MDRO infections) but they did see a 32% decrease in MRSA infections over the eight years. “Researchers, however, observed a 222% increase in C difficile and a 322% increase in ESBL-positive bacteria. The data also showed that 70% of all MDROs and C difficile cases originated from an ambulatory setting.” There has also been a significant rise in ESBL’s, which points to a need to refine and revise screening protocols. Overall, this points to the complexity and ever-changing habits of infection prevention and control.

Zika Updates
A recent study is showing that Zika infections have caused reduced fertility and low testosterone in male mice. The ECDC has updated their Zika epidemic rapid risk assessment, noting that “although continuing, vector-borne transmission seems to be slowing down in Central American countries and the Caribbean. The outbreak continues to evolve in Mexico and the southern part of the US, as weather conditions still favour seasonal vector activity. In addition to the Americas, cases have been reported in some Asian countries.” Researchers are working to use the Wolbachia bacteria (which naturally infect several mosquito species) against diseases like Zika and dengue. Overcoming the hurdle of infecting Aedes (a species not naturally infected with Wolbachia), they found that the bacteria was able to survive in the mosquito and then was a passed down through generations…but the best news is that those mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia weren’t able to pass dengue. When the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes were infected with dengue, the virus couldn’t replicate and spread in the mosquito’s salivary glands (i.e. couldn’t be transmitted). This new technique shows some pretty remarkable abilities to reduce the capabilities of Aedes species to spread diseases like Zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever. The CDC has reported, as  of November 2nd, 4,128 cases in the U.S.  Interestingly 53 people in Minnesota have been found to be infected.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Pandemic Simulations – The Ebola outbreak in 2014/2015 taught us a great many lessons regarding international preparedness and response to infectious disease outbreaks. As a result of this, the World Bank Group and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is starting a new project to conduct the first set of pandemic simulation exercises. “President Jim Yong Kim, Bill Gates and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany will jointly host simulation exercises on pandemic preparedness for the Heads of State and private sector leaders during the next World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017 and the G-20 Heads of State meeting in July 2017.  In preparation for the two major events, the World Bank will collaborate with the technical team from WHO, WEF and the German government to conduct similar exercises for G20 technical staff and and G20 Ministers of Health. Simulation exercises help make a theoretical possibility real, by allowing policymakers to role-play and map out gaps and concrete solutions to those gaps along with their peers.”
  • New Genetic Mutations in Antibiotic BW Agent– Researchers at Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) recently found a new genetic mutation in antibiotic-resistant tularemia (Francisella tularensis). Tularemia is a Category A Select Agent, which means it is a prime concern for bioterrorism and public safety. “This perspective allows you to see mutations that are new that we didn’t know about. If you don’t do this type of study, you’re going to miss other mechanisms that cause resistance in the bacteria. So by doing a genome-wide study, it gives you a much more complete picture about what’s going on,” said LLNL biologist and lead author Crystal Jaing. “The study found resistance-conferring mutations in a hypothetical protein, an asparagine synthase, and a sugar transamine/perosamine synthetase in addition to observing known variants.”

Pandora Report 12.11.2015

If you’re in Boston and enjoying a Chipotle burrito bowl, you may want to put the fork down. As many as 80 cases of norovirus were reported in association with a Boston Chipotle. The norovirus surge occurs just months after the multi-state Chipotle-linked E. coli 026 outbreak. This week we’re discussing superbugs Star Wars style, the decline of infectious disease specialists, Ebola lab stories from the field, and much more. Fun history fact Friday: on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed and on December 10, 1901, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden 

“Phantom Menace” Superbug?
In a lab far, far away… How could we resist a Star Wars reference to antibiotic resistance? A recent CDC MMWR reported a growing incidence of a particularly concerning antibiotic-resistant organism. Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) are continuing to raise concerns due to cases related to endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) scopes. Since it’s discovery, global health experts (including the CDC) have been keeping a close eye on CRE transmission and cases. A variant of CRE, called OXA-48-type carbapenemase, was seen in Enterobacteriaceae in Turkey in 2001. 52 isolates of CRE producing OXA-48-like carbapenemases were found in 43 patients in the US from June 2010-August 2015. A study in 2012 first referenced OXA-48-like carbapenemases as the phantom menace. The concerning issue with this particular CRE strain, aside from its known-resistance, is the growing emergence in the US. The difficulty in treatment and extreme care for isolation precautions makes patient care challenging. Interestingly, for those patients who provided a travel history, the majority (66%) had traveled internationally within the year before specimen collection and 55% were actually hospitalized outside the US for at least one night. The US cases involved several clusters and were spread across 19 states. Even more worrying, the laboratory diagnosis is tricky as “most U.S. clinical laboratories that test for CRE organisms wouldn’t identify this particular type of bacteria because it’s not part of standard testing.” The increase in cases and ease of hospital transmission are just a few more reasons why antimicrobial stewardship is so vital. May the force be with you!

Ebola Surveillance & Lab Response SeminarIMG_4700
In case you missed GMU’s seminar on global health security on Monday, 12/7, here’s a recap! Speakers included Dr. Matthew Lim (Senior Policy Advisor for Global Health Security, HHS, fmr Civil-Military Liaison Officer to WHO), Jeanette Coffin (Section Manager, Biosurveillance Division, MRIGlobal), and Phil Davis (Associate Scientist with MRIGlobal). Ms. Coffin and Mr. Davis discussed the operations, supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP). The mobile lab was launched in December 2014. With only six weeks to train, prepare staff, acquire equipment, deliver, assemble, and much more, it’s a pretty impressive feat that this team pulled off. Ms. Coffin and Mr. Davis discussed how they were able to reduce much of the travel delay and time lag for Ebola testing results. Using equipment to perform RNA extraction and PCR’s, lab technicians were working in tight quarters in Moyamba and Lakka, Sierra Leone. To date, the DTRA-CBEP mobile lab operations tested 7,242 samples for Ebola. While they discussed many of the strengths like flexibility, relationship with vendors, and self-containment, there were also several challenges. Difficulties ranged from inadequate power and internet, to road reliability, food/water safety, haggling, and security issues related to petty theft and missing supply containers. Sustainability was heavily discussed as their expected withdrawal is June 2016 and the team hopes to provide education for ongoing surveillance. Next, Dr. Matthew Lim spoke of the history and impact this outbreak had on global health security. He emphasized “how much this has overturned the paradigm we have about health and security”. Dr. Lim’s discussion was fascinating in that he speaks from experience at both the WHO and HHS, pointing to the role of member states and how WHO funding cutbacks impacted outbreak response. He noted that the Global Health Security Agenda heavily emphasizes partnership of it’s 50 state members, NGO’s, and within the 11 action packages. He explained that global health affairs, in many ways, join foreign policy and health policy, highlighting the need for less siloing and more partnership to help encourage capacity measures. Overall, the standing-room-only seminar touched on both the operational struggles and the overarching role of global health security in both the Ebola outbreak, but also future preparedness efforts.

Daesh and Chem/Bioweapons?
The UK and France have moved to call ISIS, “Daesh”, to remove the association with Islam. Given Daesh’s use of mustard gas, is bioterrorism a stretch? Sandra Maksimovic-Sara of Outbreak News Today discusses their attempts to obtain biological and chemical weapons as a means of using non-conventional weapons to change their modus operandi. While she doesn’t mention tacit knowledge, Maksimovic-Sara notes that “for a biological and chemical terrorist attack, there must be some know-how and background and a professional approach, which is so far away from impatient aggressive Islamic terrorists gathered in Daesh. They want fast track acts and fast track results.” While preparedness efforts must account for a variety of attacks, it’s vital to remember technical limitations. As Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley noted, tacit knowledge is a significant hurdle for non-state actors to overcome in their quest for bioweapons.

To Quarantine or Not To Quarantine? 
The fallout of the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak is still ongoing and while many US hospitals feel they are better prepared to handle cases, there are many that experienced negative treatment related to preparedness efforts. There have been several returned travelers from the affected countries that were put into quarantine upon arrival in their home country. While many were involved in patient care, there are several that had no interaction with patients and experienced what many would call, “fearbola“. While quarantine efforts are important for those that may have had patient interaction, risk assessments are vital. Sheri Fink of The New York Times notes that several states “have the legal authority to impose quarantines, often exceeded those guidelines, restricting the movements of returning health workers and others.” Many who were quarantined experienced public harassment, media scrutiny, and some have filed lawsuits for civil rights violations.

France’s Bioterrorism Preparedness
Given the November terrorist attacks in Paris, it’s not surprising that France is looking to ramp up their biodefense efforts. Following the arrival of a third generation vaccine, France has decided to revise its smallpox preparedness and response plans. Last revisited in 2006, the plan is to vaccinate first responders and healthcare professionals that are most likely to identify and care for smallpox cases. Smallpox has long been an organism of concern for bioweapon applications. In coordination with the Secrétariat Général de la Défense et la Security Nationale, (SGDSN- General Secretariat for Defense and National Security) these plans will include the new vaccine, Imvanex, that was developed by the Danish biotech company, Bavarian Nordic, “on behalf of the US under Bioshield”. While the new plan involves “circles” of people, the new transgenic vaccine has vastly decreased the side effects that were commonly associated with first and second generational variola vaccines. In the past, smallpox vaccines were associated with high volumes of side effects, which was a roadblock to previous mass-vaccination efforts as a biodefense strategy. France has several biopreparedness strategies that include a syndromic surveillance program, SurSaUD, a White Plan, and many other efforts to prevent, identify, and respond to health security threats. The updated French plans hope to “frustrate and deter terrorists” as well as respond to concerns of re-emerging infectious diseases. Elisande Nexon presents an overview of France’s biopreparedness efforts and the public health threats they may encounter. While the November attacks in Paris will most likely initiate additional changes to France’s biopreparedness, their existing methods are extensive and reveal national support for biodefense.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Infectious Disease Specialists on the Decline – The National Resident Matching Program (responsible for matching medical students with specialty training programs) announced that of the 335 infectious disease fellowship positions available, only 218 were filled. This is especially concerning as it follows several years of low matching for infectious disease positions. The Infectious Disease Society of America has even begun brainstorming recruiting tactics for what many consider a “thinking specialty” that may not have the glamor or pay that draws students into the field. Speaking from experience as an infection preventionist, the infectious disease physicians I have worked with were by far the most dedicated, intelligent, and passionate people. I think we can all safely agree that the world needs more infectious disease specialists, especially following outbreaks like those of Ebola and Zika virus.
  • USAMRIID Supported Study Traces Ebola Outbreak – a recent study lead by USAMRIID found that a majority of the Liberian Ebola cases “can be traced back to a form of the virus transmitted from Sierra Leone”. The sequencing of hundreds of isolates also supports the role of high-density neighborhoods as an accelerant for the outbreak. Interestingly, researchers found that the Ebola strain diversified in Liberia prior to being transmitted to cases in Guinea and Mali.
  • Yamuna River Harbors High Volume of Antibiotic-Resistant Organisms – Researchers found that the Yamuna river in Dehli, India, had an alarmingly high amount of resistant organisms. There were large quantities of several organisms found that showed resistance to many common antibiotics like ampicillin, streptomycin, etc.
  • MERS Was the Most 2015 Googled Word in Korea – also considered Korea’s “hottest” Twitter issue, MERS became the most searched topic after the first patient was confirmed on May 20th.

Pandora Report 7.11.15

Sorry for the late update here at Pandora Report. We’ve got how the plague turned so deadly, an Ebola update, and of course other stories you may have missed.

Have a great week!

These Two Mutations Turned Not-so-Deadly Bacteria Into the Plague

Researchers at Northwestern University have been investigating how Yersinia pestis—the bacteria that causes bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plague—became the infective cause of the Black Death. They discovered two mutations that help to explain the bacteria’s lethality.

Smithsonian.com—“The first mutation gave the bacteria the ability to make a protein called Pla. Without Pla, Y. pestis couldn’t infect the lungs. The second mutation allowed the bacteria to enter deeper into the bodies, say through a bite, to infect blood and the lymphatic system. In other words, first the plague grew deadly, then it found a way to leap more easily from infected fleas or rodents to humans.

Ebola Strain Found on Teen in Liberia Genetically Similar to Viruses in Same Area Months Ago

I’m sure you’ve heard that there were three new cases of Ebola in Liberia—a country that was declared free of the disease on May 9. According to the World Health Organization, samples taken from a teenager who died from Ebola two weeks prior indicate that the disease is genetically similar to strains that infected people in the same area over six months ago—while the outbreak was still ongoing.

US News and World Report—“That finding by genetic sequencing suggests it is unlikely the virus was caught from travel to infected areas of Guinea or Sierra Leone, the group said. “It also makes it unlikely that this has been caused by a new emergence from a natural reservoir, such as a bat or other animal,” it said.”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: en.wikipedia

Pandora Report 8.31.14

Fall classes at George Mason have already started and this Labor Day weekend marks the official end of summer. This week, we have stories covering a wide range of topics—an Ebola update (of course), a fascinating article on vaccinia infections acquired through shaving, Haj precautions, and the ISIS “laptop of doom.”

Best wishes for a safe and enjoyable holiday!

Ebola Virus Outbreak Could Hit 20,000 Within Nine Months, Warns WHO

There were many stories this week covering the continuing Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Senegal saw its first (imported) case of the virus this week and has banned flights to and from the affected countries while shutting its land border with Guinea and Nigeria saw its first death outside of the capital city of Lagos. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Ebola first emerged in 1976, there have been reported cases of a hemorrhagic gastroenteritis similar to Ebola. I read conflicting accounts this week of the “patient zero” for the Ebola outbreak—a young boy or an older traditional healer. There were reports of some U.S. universities screening students from West Africa for Ebola. There was coverage of a Toronto medical isolation unit ready for patients and information about GlaxoSmithKline’s experimental ebola vaccine which would be tested on humans in the next few weeks.

All of this news came among World Health Organization estimates that this West African outbreak could affect 20,000 people over the next nine months and that half a billion dollars would be needed to stop the spread of the disease.

The Wall Street Journal—“The WHO program will likely cost around $490 million and require contributions from national governments, some U.N. and non-governmental agencies, as well as humanitarian organizations, it said.”

First Reported Spread of Vaccinia Virus Through Shaving After Contact Transmission

This week, reports in the August issue of Medical Surveillance Monthly Report from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center covered vaccinia virus infection—the virus used for smallpox vaccinations—within the U.S. Air Force. The infections in the report occurred in June 2014, and affected four individuals.

Infection Control Today—“Over the past decade, most cases of contact vaccinia (i.e., spread of the virus from a vaccinated person to an unvaccinated person) have been traced to U.S. service members, who comprise the largest segment of the population vaccinated against smallpox. Most involve women or children who live in the same household and/or share a bed with a vaccinee or with a vaccinee’s contact. Of adult female cases, most are described as spouses or intimate partners of vaccinees or secondary contacts. Of adult male cases, most involve some type of recreational activity with physical contact, such as wrestling, grappling, sparring, football, or basketball. Household interactions (e.g., sharing towels or clothing) and “unspecified contact” are also implicated.”

Government to Keep Haj Infection-Free 

This week, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health announced mandatory measures for Haj and Umrah pilgrims coming from countries with active outbreaks or high rates of infectious diseases. The Health Ministry sent information to embassies outlining health requirements for those seeking pilgrim visas.

Arab News—“‘Although we do not issue Haj visas for pilgrims coming from endemic countries, we will still be monitoring pilgrims coming from other African countries for Ebola symptoms,’ said [Sami] Badawood [Jeddah Health Affairs director.]

He said the ministry would also focus on diseases such as yellow fever, meningitis, seasonal influenza, polio and food poisoning.”

Is the ISIS Laptop of Doom an Operational Threat?

Discovery of a laptop, which has been linked to ISIS, raises new questions about the organization’s plans relating to use of WMD—specifically chemical or biological weapons. Over 35,000 files on the laptop are being examined and has offered new insight into ISIS and their WMD aspirations.

Foreign Policy—“Most troubling is a document that discusses how to weaponize bubonic plague. But turning that knowledge into a working weapon requires particular expertise, and it’s not clear that the Islamic State has it.”

 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pandora Report 5.9.14

The stories this week cover topics that I am especially interested in: avian flu in Antarctica, wild poliovirus, and the Russia biological weapons program. Have a great weekend!

Avian Influenza Present in Antarctic Penguins

A team of international researchers have discovered a new strain of avian influenza among Adelie penguin populations in Antarctica which has been identified as H11N2. Presence of this strain of influenza was found in eight penguins from a sample size of 301 swabbed penguins and 270 penguins who had had blood drawn. Though the six adult penguins and two chicks only represent 2.6% of the total group, approximately 16% of the samples contained antibodies for H11N2, indicating the virus has likely been present in the population for “some length of time.”

Guardian Liberty Voice—“There has already been a theory posited which might explain how the H11N2 virus was transmitted to the Antarctic region. Due to both the relatively small incidence of the virus in the sample population, and the region from which the sample size was drawn. Hurt has posited that the introduction of the virus into the Antarctic ecosystem was conducted by migratory birds from South America, such as the yellow-billed pintail duck. This conclusion has been supported by the fact that distant similarities between the H11N2 strain of the virus and South American AIVs, primarily from Brazil and Chile, do in fact exist.”

Wild Poliovirus Making a Comeback, WHO says

In a statement made on Monday, the WHO applauded worldwide efforts to eradicate polio while cautioning that the wild poliovirus is spreading and may negate the hard fought eradication efforts. They declared this spread of wild poliovirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and warned that if the spread remains unchecked “this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases.” The WHO declared that Pakistan, Cameroon, and Syria pose the greatest risk of wild poliovirus exportation while Afghanistan, Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria are infected with wild poliovirus but are not exporting it.

National Geographic—“The effort is to break the chains of transmission. The WHO is recommending that countries currently infected with polio ensure that their people who are traveling outside the country get vaccinated. About 72 percent of the people who are infected with the polio virus have no symptoms, but they can still spread the disease. Polio is now in just a few countries. The concern is not to re-infect the countries that have gotten rid of polio.”

Lawmakers Mull Biological Weapons Threat from Russia

Providing an opportunity for me to majorly geek out, the U.S. House of Representatives held a committee hearing this week regarding the biological weapons threat from Russia and beyond. Witnesses included Dr. Christopher Davis, a biomedical weapons expert and former member of the U.K.’s Defense Intelligence Staff; Dr. Amy E. Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies; Milton Leitenberg, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland and author of The Soviet Biological Weapons Program; and Dr. David Franz, former Commander of USAMRIID.

Time—“Leitenberg said it’s almost impossible to evaluate the extent of the Russian biological weapons stockpile because three Russian laboratories remain closed to outside inspection. “We don’t know what they’re doing,” Leitenberg said. ‘They may or may not have an active offensive program—I presume they do. I do not believe that the U.S. government thinks they are producing and stockpiling agent any more, but we don’t know that.’”

A recording of the hearing is available here.

 

Image Credit: Andrew Mandemaker/ Wikimedia Commons

The Pandora Report 11.22.13

Highlights this week include dengue in New York, detecting ricin, a suspected al Qaeda biological weapons expert, the evolution of flu, and polio and the Taliban. Happy Friday, and have a bacteria-free Thanksgiving!

‘Locally-Acquired’ Dengue Fever Case Reported In New York

For the first time, a locally-acquired case of dengue fever has popped up in the state of New York. The infected individual had not left the region at any point during the incubation period. This suggests that the probable route of infection was a mosquito which had taken a blood meal from an infected person before biting the New York patient. The patient has made a full recovery. However, this case highlights the truly global nature of infectious disease today. Dengue  is considered a “neglected disease” by the WHO, meaning its research on its treatment and cure receive comparatively less funding. This is especially unfortunate as the virus, which is considered “pandemic-prone” causes an estimated 100 million infections every year in 100 different countries. It’s easy to dismiss dengue as a disease which affects other people in far-flung parts of the world, but this simply isn’t the case anymore.  The prevalence of international travel means relative geographical isolation is no longer the protective boundary it once was.

Global Dispatch – “‘Given the recent introduction of Aedes albopictus into New York State and the high level of travel in New York to areas of the world endemic for dengue, it is not surprising that a locally acquired case of dengue has been found in the state,’ said State Health Commissioner, Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H. ‘This finding emphasizes the need for physicians to be aware of signs and symptoms of diseases common in tropical countries, but may occasionally present themselves in New York.'”

Army Scientists Improve Methods to Detect Ricin

The CDC has sponsored research on decontaminating ricin. While the utility of spending large amounts of money on vaccine development against certain pathogens can sometimes be questionable, decon is an area of real importance that is under-researched. A letter containing ricin may not kill a lot of people, but its particles can linger for a very long time at each of the mail facilities it traveled through.

Military News – “The paper, which is entitled, ‘Surface Sampling of a Dry Aerosol Deposited Ricin,’ examines swab materials commonly used to sample biological threat agents from surfaces. The paper documents his studies, which demonstrates the need for accurate dissemination techniques to effectively evaluate sampling technologies in an environment mimicking the ‘real-world’ environment where the toxin may be present.”

Israel Holding Suspected al-Qaida Bio Weapons Expert

Israel is currently in a bit of a bind over it’s holding of a suspected biological weapons expert. According to court documents released this week,  Samer Hilmi Abdullatif al-Barq was trained as a microbiologist in Pakistan, had military training in Afghanistan, and eventually was recruited by Ayman al-Zawahiri into the al Qaeda weapons program. Israeli courts have yet to try al-Burq, due to lack of sufficient evidence, but his actions in the area, including attempted recruitment of others into al Qaeda, render him too dangerous to release. Moreover, attempts to release him into the custody of neighboring states have been politely declined. It’s clearly a complicated case.

New York Times – “In a document presented to the court, the military prosecutors described Mr. Barq as an operative in the global Qaeda organization with ‘a rich background in the field of nonconventional weapons, with an emphasis on the biological field,’ having studied microbiology in Pakistan. The prosecutors argued that Mr. Barq’s release at this time to the West Bank, where he is a resident, would constitute ‘a point of no return in the development of a significant global jihadist infrastructure in the area.'”

Scientists zero in on flu virus defenses

A recent study published in the journal Science details novel research on the hemagglutinin protein (HA) of the H3N2 flu strain. The work examined mutations in the protein between 1968 and 2003 which prompted structural changes.  In doing so, researchers were able to pinpoint changes in seven key amino acids that prompted evolutionary change in the virus.  Better understanding the virus’ points and methods of evolution could help in the creation of more efficacious vaccines.

ABC Australia – “The researchers confirmed their findings by engineering changes to these seven amino acids and testing the antibody response to the new virus in ferrets. Importantly, the amino acids singled out by Barr and colleagues are close to the site on the HA protein that binds to host cells. This limits the number of amino acid substitutions that are possible as many changes will alter the protein’s structure, interfering with the virus binding process. ‘The virus can evolve in a number of different directions,” says Barr. “If we can narrow that down to a small number of directions then we’ve got a better chance of trying to work out which particular virus might be the one which is going to turn up in a year’s time.'”

The Surge

Wired has an excellent long-form piece on polio vaccinations and the Taliban. The six-part article is interactive, and includes audio interviews, photo galleries, and infographics on why eradicating polio is so important and so challenging. Obviously, we highly recommend it!

Excerpts – “The virus typically infects only the mucosal tissues of the gastrointestinal system for a few weeks, where the immune system clears it before any harm is done. After that, the infected person would be immune to future infections from the same strain. However, in less than 1 percent of infections, the virus attacks the central nervous system and causes paralysis. Typically this affects just the legs. But in 5 to 10 percent of paralytic cases (that is, 0.05 percent of total infections), polio paralyzes the breathing muscles, meaning that without artificial respiration the patient will suffocate. All this explains why polio is so difficult to annihilate. For every one person who actually gets sick, nearly 200 are carrying the virus and infecting others…

“[T]he math of cost-benefit analyses runs aground when it comes to eradication campaigns, because the benefits, in theory, are infinite. That is: No one will ever die from—or spend a dime on vaccinating against—smallpox for the remainder of human history, barring a disaster involving one of the few lingering military stockpiles. According to a 2010 study, polio eradication would generate $40 billion to $50 billion in net benefits by 2035.”

(image:  Sgt. Mike R. Smith, National Guard Bureau)

DTRA’s Chem Bio division develops highly sensitive bio-agent detector

The Defense Treat Reduction Agency through its collaborative Ruggedized Antibody Program project, has developed a bio-agent detector 1000x more powerful than currently used ELISA methods.

From DVIDS– ” This technology has demonstrated exquisite analytical and clinical sensitivity, as well as a broad dynamic range. The combination of these two technologies will robustly increase the Department of Defense’s diagnostic armamentarium. This could lead to warfighters being able to detect lower levels of the toxin, therefore decreasing false negatives in environmental samples and earlier discovery in the course of clinical intoxication. SdAbs are recombinant ligand binding antibody fragments derived from the unusual structure of native antibodies found in camels and llamas. These unique heavy chain binding elements offer many desirable properties such as their small size (~15 kDa) and thermal stability, which makes them attractive alternatives to conventional monoclonal antibodies.”

Read more here.

 (image courtesy of DTRA)

The Pandora Report 9.6.13

Highlights: The Syrian BW “threat”, MERS vaccine, Nipah, biological weapons in the Philippines, and al Shabaab contributing to polio. Happy Friday!

On Not Falling Prey to Syrian Biological Weapons Alarmism

There have been a lot of articles (starting with the WaPo, and snowballing to the Telegraph, VoR, etc) discussing the “emerging threat” of Syrian biological weapons. Before the rumors grow and plant seeds, we strongly recommend you take a moment to check out Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormely’s excellent rebuttal. Here’s an excerpt from her piece:

“A September 5 Washington Post article raises concern that Syria might resort to biological weapons in retaliation for a Western military strike. The article states that intelligence reports indicate that Syria engaged in bioweapons development in the 1970s and 80s and since then has maintained a “dormant capability,” which some experts interviewed by the Post believe can easily be reactivated to produce biological weapons. it is important to inject a little bit of reality in regard to the question of whether or not Syria might be able to successfully reactivate a “dormant program” and effectively develop and use biological weapons.”

Read the full post here.

MERS Vaccine Passes First Test

The confirmation of another two cases of the Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus in the last week, bringing the global total to 110 cases and 52 fatalities, has the scientific community scrambling to develop a viable vaccine. Now researchers at Loyola Marymount University, working in conjunction with the Erasmus lab in Rotterdam (the same lab who refused to play nice in sharing the MERS genome), have developed a candidate vaccine which can be used in case of a pandemic. However, while the candidate has passed the first pre-clinical trials, if proven efficacious in humans  it would still be at least a year before the vaccine would be ready for production.

Medical Xpress – “The starting point for the new vaccine was a related virus known as Modified Vaccinia virus Ankara (MVA). MVA is an attenuated strain of the virus that causes smallpox, and has been used for more than 30 years for the manufacture of smallpox vaccine. Indeed, MVA is at the heart of a worldwide effort to design and generate vaccines not only against viral pathogens but also against cancers. In this context, MVA serves as the carrier for specific antigens that elicit the production of protective antibodies in the immunized host. MERS-CoV is known to bind to human cells via its so-called spike (S) protein, which is exposed on the surface of its membrane envelope. Sutter and his team therefore used molecular biological methods to introduce the gene for the MERS S protein into the MVA genome.”

Bats spreading deadly virus, Stanford scientist warns

If there’s one thing we’ve learned here at GMU Biodefense, it’s stay good and far away from bats. Whether it’s rabies or MERS, the creatures of the night are bastions for all sorts of nasty diseases.  Now it looks like Pteropus bats in Bangladesh are in the “villain of the week” spotlight. A researcher at Stanford University is voicing concerns over the bats, which range across South East Asia, spreading the deadly virus Nipah.

Stanford News – “Among Nipah’s worrisome traits: Many strains are capable of limited person-to-person transmission, and it is a ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus, which has the highest known rate of mutation among biological agents. If a more efficient human-adapted strain developed, it could spread rapidly in highly populous South Asia before spilling into other regions. The global community must do a better job of estimating and managing the risk, Luby said. That will require stepped-up study of how the virus is transmitted, closer observation of infected people and consideration of vaccinations for at-risk communities.”

Military claims NPA has ‘biological weapons’; Reds laugh off claim

Moving away from the existence, or lack thereof, of Syrian BW, a rebel leader in the Philippines has been accused by the government of using biological weapons. According the Filipino government,  the device in question tested positive for both Enterobacter cloacae and Streptococcus agalacteiae. The government claims the rebels smeared the unexploded landmines with feces. The rebels deny the claims outright. We’ll leave it there.

Inquirer Mindanao – “The military insisted Thursday that the New People’s Army now uses ‘biological weapons’ to further its goal of toppling the government. In a press statement, the Eastern Mindanao Command based here said laboratory examination of unexploded land mines seized from NPA camps in Southern Mindanao showed the presence of ‘deadly toxin’ and bacteria ‘not usually found in steel rebars and nails used as shrapnel.’ The NPA unit operating in the region laughed off this claim, calling it ‘malicious and wildly concocted military propaganda.'”

Somalia: Polio Widespread in Regions Under Al-Shabaab Control

Polio eradication is a bit of a soapbox around here, maybe because as a planet we’ve been so close for so long and because it’s often security issues which hamper efforts. For those of you who have managed to miss our various rants, all but three states – Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – have eradicated the virus. Somalia, despite its numerous failings, worked extremely hard to become polio-free in 2007. The news that the terrorist organization al-Shabaab, which controls large swathes of Southern Somalia, is refusing to allow supplies into territory it controls, while also telling local populations that the vaccine causes AIDS and sterility, is infuriating.

All Africa – “Al-Shabaab’s refusal to allow the supply of the polio vaccine in areas under its control is causing panic among residents at a time when aid workers are struggling to contain an outbreak of the crippling virus.’The polio outbreak plaguing Somalia has spread despite significant efforts to curb the disease,’ the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement August 15th, adding that insecurity is hampering efforts to contain the virus. Six years after Somalia was declared free of the virus, at least 105 cases have been confirmed in the country, the ‘worst outbreak in the world in a non-endemic country’, according to OCHA.

(image: Hakan Dahlstrom/Flickr)