Pandora Report: 3.22.2019

Non-Medical Obstacles Impacting Public Health Responses
GMU Biodefense doctoral alum Jennifer Osetek is discussing non-medical challenges of public health preparedness and responses. “Clearly, for most populations, receiving medical therapies and supplies saves lives; however, medications unable to reach their intended targets prove worthless. ‘Vaccines that remain in the vial are 0% effective’ (Orenstein, Seib, Graham-Rowe, & Berkley, 2014). Outside obstacles stand between patients and the administration of critical health care resources (CHCRs) including medical countermeasures (MCMs), equipment, and supplies. These obstacles can, therefore, result in severe consequences. From a public health perspective, resources that do not reach those affected during an outbreak can mean the difference between a contained disease cluster or the disease spreading and threatening national or even global health security. This is especially relevant as ‘the problem of infectious disease is no longer only one of prevention, but also—and perhaps even more—one of preparedness’ (Lakoff 2008). Obstacles preventing sick people from accessing available resources is not a hypothetical concern any longer. Instead, it is one continually being played out both domestically and internationally in routine and emergency response situations. These obstacles are rooted in various causes and require more specific identification and analysis to prevent inadequate public health responses. Barriers to the delivery of care cost hundreds of thousands of lives simply because they are not defined or incorporated into public health planning and execution operations.”

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security 
Come spend 3.5 days with some of the top minds in the biodefense field this July at our summer workshop. From vaccine development to biosecurity as a wicked problem, we’ll be having frank conversations regarding the toughest issues in health security. Register before May 1st for an early discount and get another discount if you’re a returning student, GMU alum/current student/professor, or registering with a large group.

HHS’ BARDA Funds Its First Marburg Vaccine
In pursuit of making progress against those viruses causing hemorrhagic fevers, HHS has partnered with Public Health Vaccines to help develop a Marburg virus vaccine. “The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, awarded an initial 2-year, $10 million contract to Public Health Vaccines, LLC to begin development of a vaccine to protect against Marburg infection. ‘This vaccine candidate is the first BARDA has funded against the Marburg virus, and it is an important step toward meeting an urgent public health and biodefense need,’ said BARDA Director Rick Bright, Ph.D. ‘We will leverage our experience in establishing public-private partnerships that bring results that are critical to saving lives and protecting Americans – and possibly people across the globe – from health security threats.’ The Public Health Agency of Canada initially developed the vaccine and licensed it to Public Health Vaccines, LLC. This approach is similar to the one Merck & Co. used to develop its Ebola vaccine. Under the agreement with BARDA, Public Health Vaccines will conduct preclinical development to demonstrate the proof of concept that the vaccine can protect against Marburg virus. If that initial development succeeds, BARDA has the option to provide additional funding for a total of up to $72 million to advance the Marburg virus vaccine through a Phase 2 clinical trial, and begin development of a vaccine candidate against the Sudan ebolavirus, a closely related virus, as well.”

Ebola Outbreak Updates
The outbreak in the DRC has been gaining speed in recent days at eight new cases were reported on Tuesday. “The illnesses lift the overall outbreak total to 968 cases, which includes 903 confirmed and 65 probable infections. Health officials are still investigating 234 suspected cases. Three more people died from Ebola, including two in community settings—one in Katwa and one in Mandima. The other fatality occurred at Butembo’s Ebola treatment center. The developments increase the overall number of deaths to 606. In its weekly diseases and health emergencies update, the WHO’s African regional office said though Katwa health zone is still the main epicenter, responsible for 44% of cases over the past 3 weeks, seven health zones have reported new confirmed cases over the past 3 days and remain a concern. Besides Katwa they include Masereka, Vuhovi, Butembo, Kyondo, Mandima, and Kayina.” Overall, there have been 44 cases reported in the last 5 days, which is deeply concerning and brought an end to the downward trend we were seeing. 

WHO Panel Calls for Registry of Human Gene Editing Research
Two days into a panel meeting of gene editing experts and the WHO is calling for a registry to facilitate transparency in human genome editing research. The panel was created as a result of CRISPR baby experiment and is in the process of setting up the registry to help guide work while ensuring safety. “The WHO panel’s statement said any human gene editing work should be done for research only, should not be done in human clinical trials, and should be conducted transparently. ‘It is irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications of human germline genome editing.’ The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, welcomed the panel’s initial plans. ‘Gene editing holds incredible promise for health, but it also poses some risks, both ethically and medically,’ he said in a statement. The committee said it aims over the next two years to produce ‘a comprehensive governance framework’ for national, local and international authorities to ensure human genome editing science progresses within agreed ethical boundaries.”

Lab Failures – How Dangerous Pathogens Are Escape Artists
Any research with dangerous pathogens brings with it an inherent risk, whether it be biosafety or biosecurity related. Unfortunately there are a lot of opportunities for failure during such work and recent efforts have looked to incidents to try and identify trends. “It looks like there are many different points of failure — machinery that’s part of the containment process malfunctions; regulations aren’t sufficient or aren’t followed. Human error means live viruses are handled instead of dead ones. Sometimes, these errors could be deadly. ‘If an enhanced novel strain of flu escaped from a laboratory and then went on to cause a pandemic, then causing millions of deaths is a serious risk,’ Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard, told me.” Breaches can occur as a result of carelessness or just pure human error. “The blizzard of dangerous errors over only a few months in 2014, and the additional errors uncovered by subsequent investigations, inspired the US government to change its practices. The government called on all labs that handle secure substances to immediately improve their inventory policies and review their procedures, and to provide written documentation that they’d done so. It launched government-wide reviews to better understand how to safely regulate pandemic pathogens. The FDA began providing better training and conducting periodic audits to make sure that the safety procedures that were ignored in this case are being followed.”

 A Modern Take on the Broad St. Pump Outbreak
GMU Biodefense doctoral student and infectious disease epidemiologist Saskia Popescu is taking a look into an outbreak linked back to contaminated wells and how this reminds us all of the cholera outbreak in 19th century London. “A city, an outbreak, and a contaminated well. Surely this sounds like some kind of modern version of the John Snow cholera outbreak and the Broad St. pump. But unfortunately, it’s this week’s US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report with a much more recent example of how bad sanitation and contaminated water can affect a city. In 2017, a city in Nebraska experienced an outbreak of Campylobacter jejuni that drove home the realities of One Health, the theory that the health of humans, animals, and the environment are all connected. It all began on a March day in 2017, when the Southwest Nebraska Public Health Department got a call regarding a spike in campylobacteriosis cases—5. The condition, campylobacteriosis –infection due to Campylobacter jejuni, is reportable, indicating labs and hospitals are required to report them to the health department. Typically, a single case of Campylobacter was reported in this particular city every 3 years, making the infection quite rare. ”

How A Measles Quarantine Can Lead to Eviction
Vaccine-preventable diseases have been a topic of conversation lately with a surge of measles cases and presence of the anti-vaxxer movement. One particular aspect of public health and managing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases though, is quarantine. A recent article discusses the need for paid medical/sick leave and how those quarantined during outbreaks have faced financial hardships. “The health department persuaded the restaurants where the families worked to not fire them, but the families nevertheless faced steep consequences from avoiding work, according to Archer and Edsall. One family missed so many paychecks that they were evicted. Several people had their phones shut off after unpaid bills racked up. Ultimately, the health department had a collection among its own employees to raise money to donate to the quarantined families. Much of this could have been avoided if the United States had a mandatory-paid-sick-leave policy, Archer and Edsall argue. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 protects the jobs of some workers for up to 12 weeks for medical reasons, but it does not guarantee pay, and it doesn’t cover more than 40 percent of all American workers. Ten states and 33 cities have their own sick-leave policies, but still, 28 percent of American workers lack access to any kind of sick leave. The United States and South Korea are the only countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that do not mandate paid sick leave.”

‘TIS the Way to Transport Highly Contagious Patients by Air
“U.S. Air Force personnel conducted training on the Transportation Isolation System (TIS), an enclosure the Defense Department can use to safely transport patients with highly contagious diseases, aboard a C-17 Globemaster III last week in South Carolina. First implemented after the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, the TIS was engineered to ensure service members get the proper treatment in the event they get infected with any disease during relief missions to affected areas while protecting the aircrew and support personnel. TIS training takes place roughly three times a year and lasts for four days. The training goes from initial donning and doffing protocols for personal protective equipment to actual patient transport and care. This can include treating simulated patients at the “infection scene” all the way to securing them within the TIS unit and even taking part in a simulated in-flight transport.”

Antibiotics, Orchards, and A Citrus Scourge That Instigated Public Health Fear
I’m just going to say it – if I want to know what’s really going on in the world of antimicrobial resistance, I’m looking to Maryn McKenna. Call her our canary in the AMR coal mine. Yet again, she’s giving insight into a concerning avenue for antimicrobial resistance and over usage in the citrus world – this time combatting citrus greening. “The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the process of allowing growers to use streptomycin and oxytetracycline as routine treatments, spraying trees several times per year, beginning with the ‘first flush’ of leaves this spring. Growers in the state could end up using as much as 440,000 kilograms of the drugs. Although the compounds, which are both used in human medicine, have been sprayed on other crops in the past and applied in limited amounts to citrus groves, the scale of this application has researchers and public-health advocates alarmed. ‘They are doing a huge experiment with limited monitoring,’ says Steven Roach, a senior analyst in Iowa City at Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of research and advocacy groups that has formally objected to the plan with the EPA.” That’s right, as mounting pressure has been focused on reducing antibiotic usage in agriculture, these farmers are planning to use more. Even more frustrating is the lack of evidence for both efficacy of use but also the implications of long-term use. As McKenna notes, “Academic researchers disagree on how much ecological harm or antibiotic resistance will result.” She further points out that “The EPA has specified certain rules to reduce the risk of resistance emerging. Spraying is limited to a few times per year; farm workers must wear full protective clothing; and groves cannot be fertilized with uncomposted manure. It has also set a deadline of seven years for re-evaluating the programme, half the time that it would normally impose for an agricultural chemical.”

Assessing the Need for and Uses of Sequences of Interest Database
You can now find the report on the proceedings from this two-day workshop here. “Over the past decade, the biotechnology economy has experienced remarkable growth, resulting in the rapid expansion of biological knowledge and application. Such advances have lowered the technical and financial barrier to entry for bioexperimentation outside the traditional environments of academia and industry. Together these developments provide exciting new opportunities for scientific growth. However, they create openings for actors with malicious intent to harness readily available tools and techniques to create biological threats or bioweapons. In this report, we present the results of a workshop designed to convene key experts from diverse stakeholder groups to understand how a genetic database of “sequences of interest” (SOIs) can best support stakeholders—government agencies, academic researchers, and commercial groups—to improve the utility, safety, and security of biotechnology research endeavors. The sessions consisted of a mix of presentations, panel discussions, and small and large group discussions. This report should be viewed as an exploratory first step in discussing a very complex topic with broad and often conflicting stakeholder interests.”

Attacks on Medicine Machine Learning: Cyberbiosecurity
“With public and academic attention increasingly focused on the new role of machine learning in the health information economy, an unusual and no-longer-esoteric category of vulnerabilities in machine-learning systems could prove important. These vulnerabilities allow a small, carefully designed change in how inputs are presented to a system to completely alter its output, causing it to confidently arrive at manifestly wrong conclusions. These advanced techniques to subvert otherwise-reliable machine-learning systems—so-called adversarial attacks—have, to date, been of interest primarily to computer science researchers (1). However, the landscape of often-competing interests within health care, and billions of dollars at stake in systems’ outputs, implies considerable problems. We outline motivations that various players in the health care system may have to use adversarial attacks and begin a discussion of what to do about them. Far from discouraging continued innovation with medical machine learning, we call for active engagement of medical, technical, legal, and ethical experts in pursuit of efficient, broadly available, and effective health care that machine learning will enable.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • H3N2 Cases Keep Flu Activity High – “Though flu activity decreased slightly last week, a wave of H3N2 virus activity has led to severe illnesses across the country and four more children have died from the disease, according to this week’s FluView report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is the second week in a row the CDC recorded more H3N2 cases that H1N1, the virus subtype that dominated the first part of the 2018-19 flu season. ‘H3N2 viruses are typically associated with more severe illness in older adults, and flu vaccine may protect less well against H3N2 illness in older adults, making prompt treatment with flu antivirals in this age group especially important during the current period of H3N2 predominance,’ the CDC said today in a summary of the report.”
  • Changing the Game in Pediatric Diagnosis of Serious Bacterial Infections – “Figuring out why that 2-month-old with a fever is crying often includes spinal taps, which are painful and risky, alongside rapid antibiotic treatment to avoid meningitis. Bacterial meningitis can be deadly, especially in infants; the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that between 2003 and 2007, there were 4100 cases of bacterial meningitis reported in pediatric patients in the United States, as well as 500 deaths. Given these rates and the risk of life-threatening infections, it’s not unusual that pediatricians would want to perform a spinal tap or administer antibiotics until further diagnostics can be performed. Fortunately, a new protocol has been developed that could not only make a diagnosis of bacterial infections in infants easier but would remove the need for spinal taps and unnecessary antibiotic treatments. Investigators from the Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network (PECARN) created a new protocol from a study of more than 1800 infants seen across 26 emergency departments in the United States.”

Pandora Report: 3.15.2019

TGIF or beware the Ides of March? Either way, we’ve got some health security news for you, so grab your Caesar salad and enjoy this weekly dose of all things biodefense.

Summer Workshop – Are You Registered?
We’re offering an early-bird discount for registration prior to May 1st – have you signed up? Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the changing nature of conflict, advances in science and technology, globalization, and the growing threat posed by emerging infectious diseases and pandemics. Pandemics, Bioterrorism and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika is a three and a half-day workshop, non-credit summer workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of national security, public health, and the life sciences. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved with research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and national security issues. Don’t miss out on an additional discount if you’re a returning attendee, GMU employee/student, or are registering with a large group.

Germline Gene-Editing – Do We Need a Moratorium?
In the wake of He Jiankui’s gene-edited babies, many are calling for a moratorium on germline gene-editing. In fact, the Chinese health ministry released draft guidelines at stopping rogue efforts with unapproved biotech. This topic is so important that Nature published a call for a moratorium by several top ethicists and researchers. “Whether or not a moratorium receives more widespread support, several things need to be done to ensure that germline gene-editing studies, done for the purposes of research only, are on a safe and sensible path. As a starting point, proposals for all ethically vetted and approved basic research studies that use gene-editing tools in human embryos and gametes, including those aimed at assessing efficacy and safety, should be deposited in an open registry. Second, researchers need to develop a system that allows early recognition of any research that risks overstepping predefined boundaries. A useful model to follow could be the WHO guidance for regulating research with a potential biosecurity risk. The system should include a mechanism — perhaps affiliated with the open registry — that allows researchers to flag up potentially dangerous research. Analysing whether He’s work could have been prevented will help. It’s important to hammer out whether, how and to whom scientists and ethicists who became aware of the project could have voiced their concerns — and how they could do so more easily in future. Raising the alarm would require a change of practice for researchers who, for the sake of scientific independence, often do not intervene in the choice of research projects undertaken by their peers.” In the joint statement, the researchers noted that “By ‘global moratorium’, we do not mean a permanent ban. Rather, we call for the establishment of an international framework in which nations, while retaining the right to make their own decisions, voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met.”

Taking A Step Back in Staph
This common skin bug is becoming increasingly resistant to not only intervention efforts, but also antimicrobials. Saskia Popescu, GMU biodefense doctoral student and infection preventionist, discusses the latest CDC report on the concerning state of Staphylococcus aureus infections, including MRSA. “Staph infections can either be methicillin-resistant or methicillin-sensitive (MSSA) but, overall, staph is the leading cause of infections in US hospitals. Infection preventionists have been zeroing in on MRSA for decades in the health care industry, working tirelessly to stop the spread. Unfortunately, according to the CDC, progress in curbing MRSA has slowed, and findings indicate that MSSA rates are also not declining. One theory is that the opioid crisis may be connected, as 9% of all serious staph infections in 2016 occurred in patients who used injection drugs, a statistic that represented an increase from 4% in 2011. Consider this—right now, nearly 1 in 10 staph infections that occur are in people who use intravenous drugs.”

 MERS-CoV Outbreak
Speaking of healthcare-associated infections…Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health reported two more cases in an ongoing outbreak in Wadi ad-Dawasir. Unfortunately, most of these cases are linked to healthcare exposures and a handful are related to contact with camels. One particular study assessed camel infections, noting that “The investigators focused on 53 studies published from 2013 to December 2018, of which 33 were from the Middle East, 13 from Africa, and 7 from Spain, Australia, Japan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The team reported its findings yesterday in the preprint server bioRxiv. The team said another group unknowingly carried out a similar review, which covered studies published from 2013 to April 2018 and was published Feb 21 in Epidemiology and Infection by a team from Qatar and the Netherlands. The authors of the bioRxiv said their study confirms and updates the findings of the other study.The authors of the new review found that MERS-CoV seroprevalence in camels increases with age, up to 80% to 100% in adult dromedaries, which the team says suggests that the virus is widely endemic in camels on the Arabian Peninsula and in African countries that export dromedaries. However, they note variable patterns within some countries. Also, the experts found a high prevalence of active infection in juvenile animals and at sites where the animals mix, such as livestock markets and slaughterhouses. Other findings from the longitudinal studies they examined include reinfection despite high MERS-CoV antibody titers.”

Improving Global Health Security Through One Health Platforms
Don’t miss out on this March 21st even at the National Press Club, hosted by the USAID -funded Preparedness and Response project. “Over the past four and a half years, the USAID-funded Preparedness & Response project has worked across 16 countries to spread the vision of a multisectoral One Health approach — where human, animal, and environmental health assets join forces — becoming the standard way to prevent, detect, and respond to emerging pandemic threats. As the project approaches the end of its tenure, please join us as we bring together the One Health community of practice to share key learning, demonstrate successful approaches to country ownership, and discuss the future of multisectoral coordination for preparedness and response.”

Biodefense MS and PhD Open Houses
Looking to improve your biodefense knowledge while obtaining a graduate degree? The Schar school Biodefense program is the place for it – from anthrax to Zika, we’ve got you covered. We’ve got two events coming up that you won’t want to miss if you’re looking to invest in your education. On Wednesday, March 20th you can attend a Master’s in Biodefense Webinar (online) at 12pm EST and at 7pm there will be a PhD Open House at the Arlington campus. These are great opportunities to hear about the biodefense programs, meet faculty and students, and learn how you can become a biodefense guru through our in-person and online programs.

Ebola Outbreak Updates and An Epidemic of Suspicion 
On Tuesday, two new cases were reported, as well as two new deaths, bringing the case counts to 925, including 584 deaths. Vinh-Kim Nguyen recently wrote in NEJM regarding the violence and turmoil surrounding outbreak response efforts in the DRC. “As a medical team leader for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), I work halfway between Butembo and Goma, North Kivu’s capital city and a transport hub. In late January, five Ebola cases were identified in Kayna and Kanyabayonga; MSF opened a center in Kayna to isolate patients with suspected cases and test them for Ebola virus disease (EVD). I soon suspected that most patients would turn out to have diseases other than EVD. The standard “isolate and test” model often leads to expectant management for such patients — the tendency is to “cover” patients with antimalarials and broad-spectrum antibiotics, wait for EVD test results, and then discharge patients without Ebola. We instead took a more active approach, treating severe cerebral malaria, typhoid, sepsis, and even cholera. I have witnessed how such active clinical management for all patients, along with MSF’s long-term presence in North Kivu, has contributed to the community’s acceptance of our Ebola unit. Having patients emerge from isolation in improved health is powerful evidence that we aim to make everyone better, not just to stop Ebola’s spread.” Nguyen further discusses the labeling of attacks as “resistance” are fundamentally wrong and how they are actually a bigger issue – persons against prevention activities aimed at them and those orchestrated, armed attacks against symbols of the international response. “The mistrust of authority in the DRC also reflects a growing global mistrust of experts and science. Vaccine refusals are a growing problem worldwide, and they have already resulted in measles epidemics in the United States and France and in outbreaks elsewhere. Mistrust of public health authorities may thus be the new norm, and smoldering epidemics merely a symptom.”

 Ambitious American AIDS Initiatives & Cutting Foreign Aid Programs
In the February State of the Union, President Trump pledged to end the HIV epidemic by 2030. This re-invigoration of HIV efforts was shocking, but exciting. The official pledge of $291 million to help end transmission of HIV within the United States will hopefully bring us closer to that goal through initiatives that increase access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). While Congress still needs to approve the 2019 budget, there is a concerning proposal within it. Beyond the cuts to Medicare and Medicaid ($845 billion and $241 billion respectively) which are deeply worrisome, the budget seeks to drop US contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria by one billion. “The US will contribute $3.3bn between 2020 and 2023, a reduction on its previous contribution of $4.3bn. In a statement the global fund said: ‘The United States is the leading supporter of the Global Fund, and we are confident that the U.S. Congress will continue the strong funding that is urgently needed to improve global health security by ending epidemics. Various proposals are being considered and we look forward to final budget decisions taken by Congress in the coming months.’ The fund is looking for at least $14bn for the next year and, as the US donates around a third of the total, its contribution will mark a significant reduction on previous years. Mr Trump also proposes a $12.3bn cut to the State Department and USAID, marking a 23 per cent cut from the previous year. USAID, through the President’s Emergency Programme for Aids Relief, is a key player in the United Nations programme to eliminate HIV around the world.”

WHO Launches New Global Influenza Strategy
Influenza continues to be not only an annual issue, but the lack of preparedness for severe seasons and potentially pandemic strains is also an international issue. The WHO released their Global Influenza Strategy for 2019-2030. “The threat of pandemic influenza is ever-present.” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The on-going risk of a new influenza virus transmitting from animals to humans and potentially causing a pandemic is real.   The question is not if we will have another pandemic, but when.  We must be vigilant and prepared – the cost of a major influenza outbreak will far outweigh the price of prevention.” This new strategies “is the most comprehensive and far-reaching that WHO has ever developed for influenza.  It outlines a path to protect populations every year and helps prepare for a pandemic through strengthening routine programmes. It has two overarching goals: 1. Build stronger country capacities for disease surveillance and response, prevention and control, and preparedness. To achieve this, it calls for every country to have a tailored influenza programme that contributes to national and global preparedness and health security. 2. Develop better tools to prevent, detect, control and treat influenza, such as more effective vaccines, antivirals and treatments, with the goal of making these accessible for all countries.”

How Africa Can Quell the Next Disease Outbreaks
How can African nations enable public health institutions (NPHIs) to help stop emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases from springing up and causing large outbreaks? Beyond waiting for outside intervention and emergency help from the West, John N. Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, calls “on all 55 member states to establish or strengthen NPHIs. And I urge the private sector in Africa and worldwide, and bodies everywhere, to invest in these efforts. According to the World Bank, Africa needs between US$2 billion and $3.5 billion a year for epidemic preparedness; in 2015, 8 African nations received from various donors about $700 million for this cause.” Furthermore, he notes that “NPHIs should prioritize four broad areas. First, providing basic functions such as disease surveillance and coordinating emergency operations, even in remote areas. Second, creating lab networks that can quickly diagnose, track and pinpoint the origin of emerging infections. Third, developing a workforce to collect, assess, share and act on quality data, including advanced technologies such as genetic sequencing and informatics. Fourth, developing a strong capacity for social scientists to engage with communities and change behaviours. Sociologists and anthropologists were crucial in ending the Ebola outbreak in West Africa by, for example, promoting safe burials — which meant modifying long-standing traditions, such as washing the corpse of a loved one.”

Measles and the Threat of the Anti-vaccination Movement
From measles to polio, the threat of vaccine-preventable diseases is a real one that we’re slowly losing our headway in. “The anti-vaccination movement threatens to undo years of progress made against a range of preventable diseases. Mass immunization campaigns helped slash the number of measles deaths worldwide by 80 percent between 2000 and 2017, but that headway may now be stalling. Today, only 85 percent of the world’s infants receive the first dose of the treatment, and even fewer get the second dose. This is well short of the 95 percent vaccination rate that the WHO says is needed to prevent outbreaks. If the anti-vaccination movement continues to gain momentum, there could be more outbreaks in places such as the United States, where measles has been considered eliminated for nearly two decades. With more cases, there will be greater potential for measles to spread across borders. Until governments turn the tide of the anti-vaccination movement, health workers will face the dual challenge of containing measles in both countries where the disease is still endemic and those where it was thought long gone.”

Infectious Diseases Spike Amid Venezuela’s Political Turmoil
The crisis in Venezuela is leaving millions without clean water, access to hospitals,  safe food, and more. Unfortunately, it is also causing a spike in infectious diseases as public health and healthcare efforts have been all but decimated. “These so-called vector-borne diseases—transmitted by mosquitoes or other organisms—have increased by as much as 400 percent in Venezuela in the last decade, according to a review study published in The Lancet in February. Spiraling economic and political turmoil have worsened the situation, as has the government’s apparent hostility toward researchers who publish epidemiological data—with reports of pro-government paramilitary groups smashing labs and even stealing experimental mice. “’Last year we had more than 600,000 cases [of malaria] reported by the government,’ says study co-author Maria Eugenia Grillet, a tropical disease ecologist at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. She and her co-authors estimated there were actually around 1.2 million cases, taking into account underreporting and disease relapses, Grillet notes. (Relapses occur when a patient has recovered but still carries the malaria-causing parasite and later suffers a recurrence of symptoms.) She blames the increase on a lack of antimalarial surveillance, treatment and control, partly due to funding cuts. ‘Research in our universities and laboratories is almost completely paralyzed because there are no financing programs that allow us to cover the basic needs to carry out our experiments or fieldwork,’ she says.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • New Vaccine Manufacturing Innovation Centre Bolsters Pandemic Preparedness – “The first dedicated Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (VMIC) is coming to the UK in 2022, addressing gaps in late-stage vaccine manufacturing for clinical trials and emergency preparedness for epidemic and pandemic threats. Led by the the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, the new centre has been awarded funding by UK Research and Innovation of £66 million ($86 million USD) through the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) Medicines Manufacturing challenge. ‘This is an exceptional opportunity for the UK to lead in the provision of vaccines against a wide range of outbreak pathogens which threaten to cause major epidemics,’ said Adrian Hill, Jenner Institute Director. ‘The lack of commercial incentive to develop these has now led to this exceptional partnership of major academic and industrial players in the vaccine field, to accelerate a range of vaccines towards large-scale manufacture and stockpile provision for vulnerable populations. In parallel, the Centre will develop innovative manufacturing technologies with UK companies and Universities to support the next generation of life-saving preventive and therapeutic vaccines’.”

Pandora Report: 12.28.2018

It’s our last Pandora Report newsletter of 2018 and what a year it has been! From horsepox synthesis to CRISPR babies and an Ebola outbreak, 2018 hasn’t been a boring one. As 2019 rolls in, we’d like to thank our readers for a great year of biodefense news (and nerdom) – we truly appreciate you!

Don’t Let Russia Undermine Trust in Science
Genetic editing has been a hot conversation topic lately and while there are arguments all along the spectrum, Jesse Kirkpatrick and Michael Flynn are drawing attention to a growing threat in the debate – disinformation. “Russia, or another U.S. adversary, could use the megaphone of social media to stoke worries about genome editing in the U.S. in a campaign timed with the next high-level meeting on gene drives. In fact, Russia has recently engaged in a disinformation campaign claiming—falsely—that the U.S. is developing biological weapons in neighboring countries, and it has also used state-funded news outlets to cast doubt in the U.S. about the safety of GMOs. These campaigns are concerning—they can impact national security, international relationships, and trade—yet haven’t received nearly the same level of exposure as discussion about misinformation campaigns designed to achieve political objectives. As a report prepared for the U.S. Senate shows, Russia used every major social media platform, including Snapchat, Pinterest, and Tumblr, to target specific demographic groups in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential election. Similar information warfare tactics could be used to exploit Americans’ lack of knowledge and opposition to particular forms of genome editing.” In fact, this concern is so significant that it was discussed in the recent report on biosecurity in the age of genome editing, which you can read here. There are legitimate concerns that disinformation regarding weaponized gene drive technology would be picked up by major news outlets and fuel false stories. A healthy dose of skepticism and making sure your news sources for science and tech are legitimate is important.

Piloting Online Simulation Training for Ebola Response
Maintaining competencies and training efforts can be cumbersome in preparedness efforts, but even more challenging during an outbreak in a resource-challenged area. A new article pilots a trial of internet-distributable online software to train healthcare workers in highly infectious diseases, like Ebola. “This study describes a pilot trial of the software package using a course designed to provide education in Ebola response to prepare healthcare workers to safely function as a measurable, high-reliability team in an Ebola simulated environment. Eighteen adult volunteer healthcare workers, including 9 novices and 9 experienced participants, completed an online curriculum with pre- and posttest, 13 programmed simulation training scenarios with a companion assessment tool, and a confidence survey. Both groups increased their knowledge test scores after completing the online curriculum. Simulation scenario outcomes were similar between groups. The confidence survey revealed participants had a high degree of confidence after the course, with a median confidence level of 4.5 out of 5.0 (IQR = 0.5). This study demonstrated the feasibility of using the online software package for the creation and application of an Ebola response course. Future studies could advance knowledge gained from this pilot trial by assessing timely distribution and multi-site effectiveness with standard education.”

CRISPR and DIY Biohacking – An Infectious Disease Threat to Consider in 2019
When you compile a list of the infectious disease concerns you might have for 2019, does CRISPR make the cut? “CRISPR has great potential to improve the human condition through research, medicine, agriculture, etc. With great power though, comes great responsibility; there is a real concern that the technology is moving too fast for its own good and too fast for governance, regulation, and oversight to keep up. Biosecurity experts have been raising the red flag about the disruptive nature of genome editing, pointing out that the manipulation of biological systems and processes can have untold consequences. A recent study published by investigators from George Mason and Stanford universities notes that the technology must be taken seriously and the broader and ever-evolving landscape of biosecurity must be considered. For instance, it is possible that genome editing could one day be used to create biological weapons—think of a totally resistant tuberculosis or an influenza with increased virulence. The growing popularity of genome editing also means that these technologies are no longer restricted to laboratories where there is some degree of oversight and regulatory processes; they now extend to the everyman’s garage. That’s right—there are people performing genome editing right in their own homes. DIY (Do It Yourself) biohacking allows people to play around with gene editing technologies at home, with zero supervision or guidance. It’s not difficult to think about what the repercussions could be if the wrong person experiments with the genomic modification of viral or bacterial DNA. ”

A Highly Hackable US Biodefense System
The efficacy of BioWatch as a biodefense tool has been questioned since it was first developed but new issues are arising surrounding the security of the data. “Operating in more than 30 cities, BioWatch gathers air samples, sends them to labs, and analyses them for DNA that would indicate a toxin or pathogen. But the program, which has cost more than $1 billion so far, turned up false positives and can take upwards of a day to report results. Earlier this fall, a Department of Homeland Security official said BioWatch would be replaced within the next couple of years. Until then, it’s a first line of defense against bioterrorism. But as Defense Onereports, the website that BioWatch uses to coordinate between health workers and government officials (called biowatchportal.org) is insecure, according to both the Department of Homeland Security inspector general and a former department employee. With access to the website, an adversary could find the sensor locations where air samples are gathered, target the professionals using it, or presumably simply take it offline.”

Ebola Outbreak Update
Over the holiday weekend, 22 more cases were reported, bringing the outbreak to 585 cases (537 confirmed). “Also, officials reported 13 more deaths, raising the overall outbreak fatality count to 356. Six of the latest deaths occurred in community settings, a factor that raises the risk of spread, given that the sick people weren’t isolated in Ebola treatment units and that viral levels are at their highest when patients are severely ill. As of today, health officials are still investigating 74 suspected Ebola cases. The World Health Organization (WHO) African regional office said yesterday in its weekly outbreak and health emergencies report that Katwa, Komanda, Beni, Butembo, and Mabalako are the main hot spots.”

Swine Fever Virus Found in Wontons and A New Outbreak in China’s Guangdong Province
Taiwan reports “The minced pork meat on wonton wrappers brought by a traveler into Taiwan has been found to contain the highly contagious African swine fever (ASF) virus, the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine (BAPHIQ) said Friday.” This is on the heels of a new outbreak of the African swine fever reported in China via their agriculture  ministry as 11 pigs were killed on a farm of 90. “China has already reported more than 90 cases of the incurable disease since it was first detected in the country in early August.” China has been hard hit with ASF and a new video shows 10,000 pigs killed by the disease in the province closest to Taiwan. The Chinese government has also been under fire for underreporting the outbreak in their state-run media.

Stories You May Have Missed:

 

Pandora Report: 9.14.2018

Happy Friday fellow biodefense gurus – we’re happy to have you read our weekly report on all things from anthrax to Zika.

George Mason Global Health Security Ambassadors Program
The Schar Biodefense program is excited to announce an opportunity for two current biodefense students (MS or PhD) to attend the  5th Annual Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting in Bali, Indonesia from November 6-8, 2018. The GHSA Ministerial Meeting provides an unparalleled opportunity to share experiences and engage in meaningful discussions on global health security with senior government officials from the GHSA member states and implementing partners from civil society and the private sector. One of the main goals of this year’s summit is to launch the GHSA 2024 Framework to guide GHSA members and partners in their collective effort to tackle current and future global health security issues. Therefore the theme of this year’s meeting is Advancing Global Partnerships. The two lucky biodefense students will participate in the meeting as members of a delegation representing the Next Generation Global Health Security Network which is led by Dr. Jamechia Hoyle. The Biodefense program is grateful to Dr. Hoyle and Dean of the Schar School, Mark Rozell, for providing this opportunity. If you’re interested in attending, please make sure to reference the email that was sent out on Friday as this opportunity is only available for current GMU Biodefense MS/PhD students. 

South Korean Man Infected With MERS
South Korea’s preparedness against MERS is being tested again as a man hospitalized in Seoul has tested positive for MERS following a trip to Kuwait. “‘As far as found by now, 20 people including flight attendants and medical staff have been in close contact with the patient and they are under isolation at home,’ KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a press briefing. The patient, who was suffering from diarrhea, headed directly to Samsung Medical Center from the airport, Jeong said. He is now in an isolation ward at Seoul National University Hospital. The KCDC director said all flights from Middle East countries have been put into quarantine. ‘The KCDC and local governments will do our best to prevent spread of the MERS,’ Jeong noted.” The last time South Korea experienced a MERS case, in 2015, a significant outbreak occurred due to poor infection control and hospital practices. A recent update found that the number of contacts was higher, at 21 people, all of whom are being monitored and are currently asymptomatic.

GMU Biodefense Master’s Open House
Next Thursday, September 20th, is your chance to learn about Schar School’s MS in Biodefense. Located in Arlington, this is a great chance to learn about the program requirements, curriculum, and how you can study biodefense online or in person! The session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs, an introduction to our world-class faculty and research, and highlights of the many ways we position our students for success in the classroom and beyond. Our admissions and student services staff will be on hand to answer your questions.

Medical Countermeasures: Mission, Method, and Management
The latest issue of AJPH focuses on medical countermeasures (MCMs) and future innovations. “Medical countermeasures (MCMs) are critical for minimizing morbidity and mortality in the event of a large-scale public health emergency. MCMs involve a broad spectrum of medical assets, including biological products and personal protective equipment. Whether the emergency results from a chemical, biological, radiological, or natural disaster or from widespread infectious disease and contagions, a well-prepared public health community will readily access and deploy lifesaving MCMs. Ensuring appropriate distribution and dispensing of MCMs can be logistically complex, but coordinated planning between local, state, and federal agencies facilitates an efficient public health response.” The issue includes articles on MCM history, lessons learned by rapid deployment force 3, planning considerations, Taiwan’s annual seasonal flu mass vaccination program, etc.

ABSA International Call for Abstracts
“ABSA International announces the CALL FOR ABSTRACTS for posters for the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) 5th International Biosafety & Biocontainment Symposium to be held February 11-14, 2019, in Baltimore, Maryland. We are anticipating over 200 attendees and over 30 vendors showcasing the latest biosafety and biocontainment products and services. ABSA International is pleased to offer funding support to help selected students and young professionals* (see definition at end of announcement) to attend the symposium. The selection will be made by a panel of judges who will evaluate the submitted abstracts and identify the top submissions. In addition, ABSA International/USDA ARS will present a Student and Young Professional Poster Award* and a Professional Poster Award for the best posters in the categories listed below. The awards will be announced during the reception on Wednesday, February 13th.”

Responding to Airline Outbreaks – A Hidden Safety Net
Helen Branswell lifts back the curtain on the hidden safety net we have regarding ports of entry and infectious diseases. The Emirates flight that was quarantined at NYC last week due to reports of 100 passengers becoming sick mid-flight, raised several questions regarding how we respond to such events. “The fact that a rapid and aggressive response involving a number of agencies and response teams could be pulled together so quickly is thanks to work that has been underway to build this safety net since the early 1990s. That’s when a seminal report from the Institute of Medicine — now called the National Academy of Medicine — issued a clarion call of the threat emerging infectious diseases posed to the U.S. Many such incidents happen over the course of any given year, but in most cases, the CDC does not get immediate word that someone who was on a plane had a disease such as active tuberculosis or measles. In those scenarios, the agency or its partners work to track down passengers who might have been at risk.” While the news of such events much be worrisome, it’s nice to know we have a strong response in place.

Releasing Genetically Modified Mosquitoes 
Africa will see its first release of GMO mosquitoes by researchers sometime this year or next, as the government of Burkina Faso granted permission for the experiment. “The release, which scientists are hoping to execute this month, will be the first time that any genetically engineered animal is released into the wild in Africa. While these particular mosquitoes won’t have any mutations related to malaria transmission, researchers are hoping their release, and the work that led up to it, will help improve the perception of the research and trust in the science among regulators and locals alike. It will also inform future releases. Teams in three African countries—Burkina Faso, Mali, and Uganda—are building the groundwork to eventually let loose “gene drive” mosquitoes, which would contain a mutation that would significantly and quickly reduce the mosquito population. Genetically engineered mosquitoes have already been released in places like Brazil and the Cayman Islands, though animals with gene drives have never been released in the wild.” Success isn’t just based off the scientific outcomes of the project, but also the consent of those living in the areas. 10,000 mosquitoes will be released and are not planned to have a lasting impact on the insect population as they have a “sterile male” mutation meaning that they are unable to procreate.

Skin Bacterium Gets Feisty With Antibiotics
Well, maybe not feisty, but the common skin commensal, Staphylococcus epidermis, has recently become resistant to almost all antibiotics and has spread around the world. “The researchers also found that some of the genetic mutations identified in these lineages confer resistance not only to an antibiotic called rifampicin but also to last-resort antibiotics such as vancomycin. Clinical guidelines often recommend co-administering both rifampicin and vancomycin for the treatment of Staphylococcus infections to prevent the development of drug resistance. But the authors’ findings suggest that the combination may instead fuel resistance in S. epidermidis.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Bionic Bug Podcast with Natasha Bajema – Looking for a new podcast where fiction meets reality? Check out Dr. Natasha Bajema’s podcast on the latest tech news. The most recent episodes (19 & 20) discuss gene drive, mosquitoes, exoskeletons, and artificial intelligence!

Pandora Report 8.17.2018

Happy Friday fellow biodefense nerds! Welcome to your weekly roundup of all things global health security. If you’re finding yourself a food source for mosquitoes and ticks this summer, just a friendly heads up – the associated diseases are on the rise (hint: climate change may be a big reason).

The Lingering Scare of Smallpox
The recent FDA approval of TPOXX to treat smallpox, a disease eradicated since 1980, has many wondering, especially those of us born in a time where the vaccine was not necessary, why so much attention is being raised. It’s an easy thing to forget – the peril of a disease long since eradicated, but the threat of smallpox is very much still a concern in biodefense. Between the concerns of a laboratory biosecurity/biosafety incident at the two remaining stockpile locations or the chance that a frozen corpse (aka corpsicle) who died of smallpox could defrost as the Arctic permafrost melts. Did I mention the risk of a de novo synthesis like the horsepox one in Canada? These are the reasons we haven’t been able to shake the nightmare that is smallpox. “The greatest threat is advances in synthetic biology, which could permit a rogue lab to re-engineer a smallpox virus. In 2016, researchers in Canada announced that they had created horsepox using pieces of DNA ordered from companies. A synthetic smallpox virus could be even more dangerous than the original, because it could be designed to spread more easily or with ways to survive new therapies.” While we eradicated smallpox and proved that such a feat was possible, there is the painful reality that such efforts left an unvaccinated and inherently vulnerable population.

Biological Events, Critical Infrastructure, and the Economy: An Unholy Trinity
Biodefense graduate student Stephen Taylor is reporting on the latest Blue Ribbon Study Panel. “At its recent meeting about resilience, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense explored the potential impacts of a biological event on critical infrastructure in the United States, as well as the best way to approach risk mitigation.  Ann Beauchesne, former Senior Vice President of the National Security and Emergency Preparedness Department at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, summed up critical infrastructure as ‘the critical services for our society and the backbone our economy.’  Projected increases in global travel, trade, and development all rely on critical infrastructure, magnifying the potential impact of insults to infrastructure systems.  Concurrently, biological threats are also on the rise. As the world warms and urbanizes, natural infectious disease outbreaks manifest in unexpected places.”

Ebola, Healthcare Workers, and the Pandemic Potential in Vulnerable Countries 
Every day brings news of the Ebola virus disease outbreak along the eastern border of the DRC. On Thursday, cases jumped by seven – one of whom is a healthcare worker. The outbreak is up to 73 cases, 46 of which are confirmed and 27 are probable. 43 deaths have been reported. Nearly a thousand people are under surveillance as contacts of cases and healthcare workers are again, experiencing increased risk of transmission. On Tuesday, it was reported- “that health worker Ebola infections could amplify the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the country’s health ministry today reported five more confirmed cases, including four involving health workers at a health center in Mangina. The other is a patient recently treated at that facility.” The hope is that the new vaccine can help put an end to the outbreak and curb the risk for healthcare workers. The recent outbreak draws attention yet again, to the inherent danger that infectious disease outbreaks pose in vulnerable countries. We’ve seen how fast and unexpectedly such outbreaks can spread beyond international borders (SARS, MERS, Ebola, etc.), which means that these are global health security issues. The 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak taught us a “great deal about how to respond in a fragile state setting. Traditional leaders and faith leaders played an important role in communicating necessary information and behavior change requirements to isolated groups who did not necessarily trust the government or health care workers.” Preventative measures like stronger public health and healthcare infrastructure can make a world of difference. “Preventative investments can mean the difference between life and death for people in those countries and the difference between an outbreak being contained or becoming an epidemic. As we face repeated outbreaks of infectious diseases, including new pathogens, it is essential that U.S. policy-makers continue funding the operations that make containment possible.”

BWC Meeting of Experts
Don’t miss out on the daily reports from Richard Guthrie on the latest MX. You’ll definitely want to check out days six and seven, where national implementation and preparedness were discussed. How would countries respond to a potential act of bioterrorism? Guthrie notes that “Concerns were raised about whether bodies such as the World Health Organization should be engaged with any assessment of the cause of an outbreak if there were indications it was deliberate in case this brought the health body into the security realm with potential negative consequences for other health work. A number of contributions to the discussion noted that health officials would have different roles to officials looking to attribute the cause of an attack and there was a need to ensure that effective ways of operating together were established. An example of the challenges was given in WP.10 from the USA in the section on ‘preservation of evidence’.” The response and preparedness measures for each country can be complex and challenging when considering the global context of the BWC. For example, Saudi Arabia discussed its own preparedness measures for natural events during times when influxes of people were expected (pilgrimages).

 The Economic Burden of Antimicrobial Resistance and the Drive For Intervention
A recent study enumerated the economic cost of antimicrobial resistance per antibiotic consumed to inform the evaluation of interventions affecting their use. Their model utilized three components – correlation coefficient between human antibiotic consumption and resulting resistance, economic burden of AMR for five key pathogens, and the consumption data for antibiotic classes driving resistance in these organisms. “The total economic cost of AMR due to resistance in these five pathogens was $0.5 billion and $2.9 billion in Thailand and the US, respectively. The cost of AMR associated with the consumption of one standard unit (SU) of antibiotics ranged from $0.1 for macrolides to $0.7 for quinolones, cephalosporins and broad-spectrum penicillins in the Thai context. In the US context, the cost of AMR per SU of antibiotic consumed ranged from $0.1 for carbapenems to $0.6 for quinolones, cephalosporins and broad spectrum penicillins.” Ultimately, they found that the cost of AMR per antibiotic frequently exceeded the purchase cost, which should encourage policy and consumption changes.

NASEM Report: Cooperative Threat Reduction Programs for the Next Ten Years and Beyond
The latest report from the National Academies is now available regarding the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program. “The Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program was created by the United States after the dissolution of the Soviet Union to provide financial assistance and technical expertise to secure or eliminate nuclear weapons delivery systems; warheads, chemical weapons materials, biological weapons facilities, and nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons technology and expertise from the vast Soviet military complex. In a 2009 report, Global Security Engagement: A New Model for Cooperative Threat Reduction, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended adoption of a modified approach to thinking about CTR, including the expansion of CTR to other countries and specific modifications to CTR programs to better address the changing international security environment.” The report has insight from some of the time minds in the field of biological threats – Elizabeth Cameron, David Franz, James Le Duc, etc.

Stores You May Have Missed:

  • Key Global Health Positions and Officials in the USG – Have you ever wondered who is in charge for global health programs throughout the government? Look no further than this comprehensive list by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
  • CEPI Collaborative for Lassa Fever Vaccine“In a deal worth up to $36 million to advance the development of a vaccine against Lassa fever, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) today announced a new partnership with Profectus BioSciences and Emergent BioSolutions.”

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

Pandora Report: 7.20.2018

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
This week Schar Biodefense hosted a three-day workshop on all things health security, from anthrax to Zika. Highlights from the first two days include a rousing discussion by Dr. Robert House surrounding medical countermeasures and the potential for nefarious actors to highjack the immune system, Sandy Weiner delving into the history of the 1976 influenza pandemic, GMU professor and virologist Dr. Andrew Kilianski breaking down some hard realities of biosurveillance, and Edward You of the FBI discussing the importance of working with the DIY biohacker community and protecting the bioeconomy. While the workshop continues through today, make sure to check back next week for more coverage.

 Vaccine Causing Polio in Africa? Context From An Expert
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Christopher K. Brown sat down with Lucien Crowder of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to discuss vaccine derived polio and the implications of these outbreaks. Brown discussed the vaccine production process, how they can cause an “infection light”, and the current outbreak in the DRC. “In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a vaccine-derived type 2 poliovirus is responsible for the current outbreak, even though it is no longer a component of the live, attenuated oral vaccine that most countries use (when, that is, an oral, attenuated vaccine is used instead of a fully inactivated injectable formulation that is safer but potentially less effective). Despite a World Health Organization–led switch from the three-type, or trivalent, vaccine to a bivalent preparation, the vaccine-derived type 2 virus continued to spread from person to person undetected, slowly mutating to regain the neurovirulence that can cause paralysis in those who are infected. Now, to stop the current outbreak, health officials are deploying a monovalent vaccine formulated specifically for type 2 poliovirus. The key is to reach susceptible individuals—namely, those who did not receive the trivalent option previously—with the vaccine before the virulent strain of the virus does. If enough people are vaccinated, the mutated, vaccine-associated strain will not continue to infect new people and the outbreak will subside.” Brown took care to discuss how these incidents are high-jacked by the anti-vaccination movement, but that “the argument that vaccines cause injury often focuses on the myth that certain chemicals in vaccines—including preservatives, like Thiomersal, that are no longer used in vaccine formulations—cause autism. The polio outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a case in which a strain of virus that was rendered safe for vaccinating most people has regained some of its disease-causing abilities through genetic mutation. That’s sort of similar to why bugs that are more common problems in developed countries, like staphylococcus and gonorrhea, stop responding to antibiotics: They acquire genetic mutations that make them resistant to certain drugs. What is most important here is to consider the level of risk associated with vaccine-linked outbreaks, or cases of paralysis, compared to the effects of polio in an unvaccinated population. While the attenuated poliovirus in the vaccine itself may lead to no more than four or five cases of paralysis among every million individuals vaccinated, there would likely be thousands of cases of serious disease among a million exposed, unvaccinated people.”

Why Aren’t We More Worried About The Next Epidemic?
In the past couple of months, we’ve seen outbreaks of Ebola, MERS, Zika, Nipah virus, Rift Valley fever, and Lassa fever – so why aren’t we more worried about the next epidemic? Globalization makes the movement of people and goods easier and faster – consider that 107 countries received frozen vegetables now being recalled for Listeria. The good news is that information technology allows us to know about these outbreaks and have the ability to notify necessary agencies and resources at a rapid pace. “Several major factors are to blame for why the world is seeing more of these increasingly dangerous pathogens. The combination of massive widespread urbanization, explosive population growth, increased global travel, changing ecological factors, steady climate change and the exploitation of environments is driving an era of converging risk for outbreaks, experts say.” Dr. Thomas Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noted that ‘We don’t know when the next Ebola outbreak will come but we do know it will come again, and again, and again’.” Outbreaks like SARS and Ebola have shown the devastating impact outbreaks have on not only the healthcare system, but also the economy. Unfortunately, emergency preparedness and healthcare response is a tough problem to fix. The CDC director of the Center for Global Health, Rebecca Martin, stated that “Gaps in public health emergency response capabilities remain a serious vulnerability for the entire world,” she added. “While we don’t know when or where the next pandemic will occur, we know one is coming”. We know the next pandemic is coming, the unknowns are from where, when, and what it will look like. This makes response, including medical countermeasures, that much more difficult. R&D is a critical component to this, but as Dr. Inglesby noted, “The problem with public health in particular and with R&D is what we’re ultimately trying to do is prevent bad things from happening. When you succeed, it’s relatively invisible ― so the public doesn’t get to see why investment is so important.” Inglesby also recently highlighted the six ways countries can prepare for the next pandemic. From enhancing capabilities to develop new vaccines/medical countermeasures, to investing in more robust public health systems, there are several ways we can facilitate stronger national capacity to respond to pandemics.

Crucial Steps Forward: the National Academies of Science’s 2018 Study, “Enhancing Global Health Security through International Biosecurity and Health Engagement Programs”
GMU biodefense MS student Alexandra Williams recently attended the NASEM meeting regarding global health security through international biosecurity and health engagement programs. Within her recap, Williams discusses the background of CBEP (Cooperative Biological Engagement Program) and CTR (the DoD’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program), noting their efforts to strengthen health security within the U.S. and abroad. “As challenges continue to arise in timely and accurately detecting and responding to disease outbreaks—as we saw in 2014 with Ebola in West Africa, and in 2016 with Zika—U.S. health and security agencies are working to better meet these challenges, and examine how they need to evolve to meet unforeseen hurdles that lay ahead. This NASEM study is timely and critical because it addresses and examines these issues head-on, and will serve as the launch point for how the U.S. can rethink, reshape, and improve its already critical and successful work in biosecurity and global health security.”

Book Review – Dirty War: Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare
Glenn Cross, GMU biodefense PhD alum, has taken great care to investigate and detail the history of Rhodesia’s chemical and biological warfare program against insurgents from 1975 to 1980. If you’re on the fence about adding a new book to your reading list, check out Ryan Shaffer’s latest review. “Organized topically, the book’s preface offers a brief overview of Rhodesia’s colonial history and demographics, discussing the ethnic and racial divisions arising from a white minority’s control of the government over a disenfranchised and mostly rural black African population. Cross describes the Rhodesian War with emphasis on “the regime’s inability to defeat decisively a growing guerrilla insurgency through conventional arms alone.” (39) He explains the conflict’s evolution in the context of post-war British decolonization and the manner in which the Unilateral Declaration of Independence was designed to maintain white minority rule, as well as the ensuing international sanctions that isolated Rhodesia. By the late 1960s, government opponents shifted strategy, believing the only way to change the country was to forcibility seize control. Meanwhile, the CIO had penetrated the opponents’ ranks, gathering intelligence and setting up the Selous Scouts to work against the guerrillas.” Shaffer notes that “the book is a well-researched study that sheds light on the reasons a government broke international norms to use CBW, a tactic more likely to target local non-state actors than foreign militaries.”

 Antibiotic Prescribing Failures in Urgent Care Centers
Disrupting antibiotic resistance is challenging due to not only the vast array of sectors that play a role, but also the cultural components. Prescribing habits are one of those culturally-engrained practices that can be difficult to alter. A new study has found that antibiotic stewardship is desperately needed in urgent care facilities. “Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the University of Utah, and the Pew Charitable Trusts report that 45.7% of patients who visited urgent care centers in 2014 for respiratory illnesses that don’t require antibiotics end up with prescriptions for those conditions, followed by 24.6% of patients treated in emergency departments (EDs), 17% of patients who went to medical offices, and 14.4% of patients who visited retail clinics. The findings are based on analyses of 2014 claims data from patients with employer-sponsored health insurance. Previous estimates of outpatient antibiotic prescribing by some of the same researchers had pegged the amount of unnecessary prescribing at 30%, a number that some experts believe is conservative. Study coauthor David Hyun, MD, a senior officer with Pew’s antibiotic resistance project, said the findings suggest that could very well be the case.” The sad reality is that these numbers are likely to be higher across the U.S. as inappropriate prescribing practices are a systemic issue. This finding is one piece of the puzzle, which underscores the progress that needs to be made. Fortunately, countries are working to reduce antimicrobial resistance and while it’s slow, some movement forward is better than none at all.

Rift Valley Outbreak in Uganda
Uganda has reported an outbreak of Rift Valley fever across two districts. Rwanda is also reporting cases in animals and potential cases in humans. “The WHO said the affected districts are in the ‘cattle corridor’ that stretches from the southwest to the northeast regions of the country. ‘The outbreak in Uganda is occurring at a time when Kenya is having a large RVF outbreak and Rwanda is experiencing an epizootic, with suspected human cases,’ the WHO said. In Kenya, where an outbreak has been under way since May, four more Rift Valley fever cases have been reported, raising the outbreak total as of Jul 4 to 94, 20 of them confirmed. Ten deaths have been reported. Illnesses have been reported in three counties: Wajir, Marsabit, and Siaya. The country’s agriculture ministry has reported several outbreaks in animals over the past few months, especially in areas that had experienced flooding after heavy rainfall.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Strange and Curious Case of the Deadly Superbug Yeast- Maryn McKenna discusses the latest resistant bug we’re worrying about – “It’s a yeast, a new variety of an organism so common that it’s used as one of the basic tools of lab science, transformed into an infection so disturbing that one lead researcher called it “more infectious than Ebola” at an international conference last week. The name of the yeast is Candida auris. It’s been on the radar of epidemiologists only since 2009, but it’s grown into a potent microbial threat, found in 27 countries thus far.”

Pandora Report 6.29.2018

The month of June is nearly over, which means there’s only a few more weeks to register for the Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security. Don’t miss out on the early registration discount if you sign up before July 1st!

Cost Analysis of 3 Concurrent Public Health Response Events: Financial Impact of Measles Outbreak, Super Bowl Surveillance, and Ebola Surveillance in Maricopa County
Have you ever wondered the cost of public health response for local health departments during a crisis? Imagine that within the course of six months, your county sees a measles outbreak, super bowl surveillance requirements, and Ebola surveillance. A new article is addressing the cost of this trifecta for the largest county health department in Arizona. GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu was a part of not only this response, but also aided in developing the research so that we can truly address the financial burden of public health events. “Maricopa County Department of Public Health (MCDPH) in Arizona. The nation’s third largest local public health jurisdiction, MCDPH is the only local health agency serving Maricopa’s more than 4 000 000 residents. Responses analyzed included activities related to a measles outbreak with 2 confirmed cases, enhanced surveillance activities surrounding Super Bowl XLIX, and ongoing Ebola monitoring, all between January 22, 2015, and March 4, 2015. Total MCDPH costs for measles-, Super Bowl-, and Ebola-related activities from January 22, 2015, through March 4, 2015, were $224,484 (>5800 hours). The majority was for personnel ($203,743) and the costliest response was measles ($122,626 in personnel costs). In addition, partners reported working more than 700 hours for these 3 responses during this period.” Public health is chronically underfunded, but the response efforts can be immensely expensive. Based off these events and the cost of response, perhaps it’s time we start investing more in public health.

Forget RoboCop, Meet the DNA Cops
Biotechnology is moving at a rapid pace and the ability for DIY biohacking means that frank conversations need to be had regarding the potential for someone to build a lethal biological weapon. Ginkgo Bioworks has just the team to overcome this herculean task. Remember that horsepox synthesis last year? “The study’s publication ‘crosses a red line in the field of biosecurity,’ wrote Gregory Koblentz, a professor in the biodefense department at George Mason University, in a public comment to the journal. ‘The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security’.” Hoping to get a leg up on the threat, the intelligence community is working with Ginkgo Bioworks to address the science, security, and safety. “Gingko quickly saw the potential security risks in its work. It began working with Weber, the former Obama administration official, in 2016 to get advice on how to best preserve national security.  ‘We are doing more of this genetic engineering than anybody, we think we’re going to get better at it than anybody, so we have a responsibility to be keeping our eye on both sides of that coin,’ Kelly said. ‘How do we protect and defend against that while protecting our ability to get all the positive outputs of biotechnology?’” Synthetic biology has the potential to do damage, but also the chance to counter these threats (and even emerging infectious diseases) through vaccine development. Joint efforts like those between Ginkgo Bioworks and agencies like IARPA, are critical during this time when the technology is still spreading and evolving.

Genome Editing and Security: Governance of Non-Traditional Research Communities?
GMU Biodefense doctoral student Katherine Paris has provided a detailed account of the latest National Academies webinar on gene editing and biosecurity/biosafety developments. Paris notes that “at the workshop, concerns were expressed over the extent that advancements in technology allow a greater range of people to access, and possibility misuse, genome editing technologies.  Dr. Millet and Dr. Kuiken addressed these concerns during the webinar by describing what two non-traditional research communities—the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition and do-it-yourself biology (DIYbio) community laboratories—are doing to foster biosafety and biosecurity.” Check out her account of this informative talk to learn more about how iGEM is demonstrating real-world application of biosecurity and biosafety practices.

The Culture of Biosafety, Biosecurity and Responsible Conduct in the Life Sciences
Curious about biosecurity, biosafety, and what it means to have a culture of responsibility in the life sciences? Look no further than this amazingly comprehensive literature review by ABSA International, which happens to include former GMU Biodefense student Kathleen Danskin and current doctoral student Elise Rowe. Identifying over four thousand unique articles published between 2001 and 2017, they reviewed 326 articles to truly evaluate the literature on ways to strengthen the biosafety/biosecurity culture. “We found that while there were discussions in the literature about specific elements of culture (management systems, leadership and/or personnel behavior, beliefs and attitudes, or principles for guiding decisions and behaviors), there was a general lack of integration of these concepts, as well as limited information about specific indicators or metrics and the effectiveness of training or similar interventions. We concluded that life scientists seeking to foster a culture of biosafety and biosecurity should learn from the substantial literature in analogous areas such as nuclear safety and security culture, high-reliability organizations, and the responsible conduct of research, among others.”

Roadmap for Implementing Biosecurity and Biodefense Policy in the U.S. 
This new report and roadmap from Gryphon Scientific, National Defense University, and Parsons, analyzes biosecurity and biodefense policy within the United States. “We developed a framework for analyzing opportunity costs of new or changing regulations (the opportunity cost analysis framework), and a framework for evaluating the successful implementation of biosecurity and biodefense policies. These analyses enabled the development of a roadmap for implementing U.S. biosecurity and biodefense policy to maximally leverage science and technology advances while simultaneously, minimizing risks. This project was funded by a generous grant from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Defense Threat Reduction Agency under their Program on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction.” The report includes policy and opportunity cost case studies, as well as evaluation metrics framework.

How Will Trump Lead During A Pandemic and How Well Prepared Is Your Country?
Between several science vacancies within the administration and the fundamental truth that a global epidemic is on the horizon, many are concerned about what a response would be like under Trump. “’There is a real reason for us to be scared of the idea of facing this threat with Donald Trump in the White House,’ said Ron Klain, who served as President Obama’s Ebola czar, at the Spotlight Health Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. Klain said the ‘president is anti-science’ and ‘trades in conspiracy theories. All those things would lead to the loss of many lives in the event of an epidemic in the United States, where we need the public not to trade in conspiracy theories, not to believe that the news was fake, but to respect scientific expertise,’ said Klain, a veteran Democratic operative who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.” Klain underscores the importance of having pro-science leadership, which isn’t exactly something the current administration is known for. He points to several gaps within U.S. preparedness – funding, leadership, science, policy, etc. “But the biggest gap, he said, is the global gap: ‘We can’t be safe here in America when there’s a risk of pandemics around the world,’ Klain said. ‘The world’s just too small. Diseases spread too quickly … There is no wall we can build that is high enough to keep viruses and the disease threat out of the United States. We have to engage in the world’.” If you’re curious about the current state of preparedness around the globe, check out the latest site from Resolve to Save Lives, the initiative run by former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden. Prevent Epidemics is a tool that rates countries from 0-100 on their ability to find, stop, and prevent outbreaks. “ReadyScore is calculated using data from the Joint External Evaluation (JEE), a rigorous, objective and internationally-accepted epidemic preparedness assessment developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners. The ReadyScore consolidates key information from the JEE about a country’s preparedness in the form of a simple and easy-to-understand number that makes it easy for countries to measure their preparedness gaps and fill them”

UK, Allies – Empower Chemical Arms Watchdog to Assign Blame For Attacks
The UK, US, and EU are pushing a new proposal to increase the powers of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in efforts to strengthen the ban on chemical weapons and the ability to hold countries, like Syria, accountable for use. “‘The widespread use of chemical weapons by Syria in particular threatens to undermine the treaty and the OPCW,’ said Gregory Koblentz, a non-proliferation expert at George Mason University, in the United States. ‘Empowering the OPCW to identify perpetrators of chemical attacks is necessary to restoring the taboo against chemical weapons and the integrity of the chemical weapons disarmament regime’.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Pull Incentives – A New Strategy for AMR – The World Economic Forum is supporting these initiatives to help spur the development of new antibiotics and facilitate their profitability. The financial challenges for antibiotic development can be significant hurdles – demand is unpredictable, stewardship efforts seek to decrease use which decreases sales, and clinical trials are costly. “Existing incentives for developing new antibiotics are mostly of the ‘push’ type, the report notes. Push incentives provide support for research and development, but they don’t ensure that a company can get an adequate return on a new antibiotic once it wins approval. The concept of pull incentives has attracted increasing attention in recent years. A chart in the report shows that 10 current research and development initiatives on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) involve push incentives, while no such initiatives involve pull incentives exclusively. Combinations of push and pull incentives are being used to support four existing R&D initiatives, the chart indicates, but it doesn’t give any details on those.”

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

Pandora Report 6.22.2018

 US Military Asks – What Would A SynBio Weapon Look Like?
A new study ordered by the DoD seeks to evaluate the potential for synthetic biology to be a biodefense threat. The report, Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology, was issued by the National Academies of Sciences, and provides an actual ranking of national security threats that genetic engineering technology, like CRISPR, pose. “’Synthetic biology does expand the risk. That is not a good-news story,’ says Gigi Gronvall, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins and one of the report’s 13 authors. ‘This report provides a framework to systematically evaluate the threat of misuse’.” The report includes a framework for assessing synbio capabilities as well as concerns related to the production of chemicals or biochemicals, bioweapons that alter the human host, pathogens, etc. The report also includes a section on related developments that impact the ability to effect an attack using a synthetic biology-enabled weapon, where the authors note several mitigation challenges posed by synbio. Some of the challenges to deterrence and prevention include accessibility of biotechnology, pointing to DIY biohackers, the iGEM competition, and traditional pathways like academic laboratories. Regarding the challenges in recognizing and attributing an attack, they note that “synthetic biology could also confound the ability to identify the causative agent in a biological attack. Despite the breadth and depth of available repository resources, there would not always be a reference specimen to use as comparator, particularly if the agent is markedly different from natural pathogens or toxins.” “According to the report, the US must now also track ‘enabling developments’ including methods, widely pursued by industry, to synthesize DNA strands and develop so-called chassis’ organisms designed to accept genetic payloads.” Consider the recent de novo synthesis of the horsepox virus by researchers in Canada that has opened up Pandora’s box regarding synbio and biosecurity. GMU Biodefense professor and graduate program director Gregory Koblentz noted that “Synthetic biology has provided the tools necessary to recreate the smallpox virus,” and “Safeguards against the misuse of those tools are weak and fragmented.”  “The US government should pay close attention to this rapidly progressing field, just as it did to advances in chemistry and physics during the Cold War era,” says Michael Imperiale, a microbiologist at the University of Michigan. The recent tabletop hosted by the Center for Health Security (Clade-X) even presented some real-world scenarios and gaps for dealing with a bioterrorism event that involved an engineered organism.

Gene Drives and Frank Discussions With CRISPR Scientists
Speaking of gene editing…GMU Biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley recently sat down with Vox to discuss the good and bad side of gene drives in the context of genetically modified mosquitos and their place in the fight against malaria. Malaria kills hundreds of thousands a year and despite eradication efforts, it’s still a monumental task for public health. “We have eliminated malaria from the rich world; it used to be endemic to France just as it is to Mali today. And now, with CRISPR gene drives, we have the potential to wipe it out globally and save millions of lives. Gene drives allow humans to change the genetic makeup of a species by changing the DNA of a few individuals that then spread the modification throughout an entire population. In the case of malaria, the idea is to change the three species of mosquito most responsible for its transmission — Anopheles gambiae, Anopheles coluzzii, and Anopheles arabiensis — so that all their offspring would be male, effectively leading to the species’ extinction.” The debate though is that if gene drive was used poorly, it could cause irreversible changes in the ecosystem. Many worry about the potential for weaponization of gene drives or nefarious actors using it, but several biosecurity experts have pointed to the limitations of gene drive when it comes to making diseases more potent. “The biosecurity experts I talked to are deeply skeptical of those nightmare scenarios. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, a professor in the biodefense program at George Mason University, says she doubts gene drives will be militarily effective in targeting rival countries’ harvests. ‘Animals and plants that are raised for food are generally monitored, and a gene drive can be easily detected in the genome of the animal,’ she explained. ‘Because of that regular monitoring, I don’t think gene drives would be a good tool for affecting a country via agriculture.’ Biosecurity experts like Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and Filippa Lentzos have concerns that are more social. “What happens if one of the few thousand fruit fly biologists around the world decides to act unilaterally and throws international talks on the matter into chaos? What if a grad student creates a gene drive that can’t reliably hurt people but can reliably terrify them?” If she wasn’t busy enough, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley recently returned from a research trip to China where she met with several CRISPR scientists and toured their laboratories. She discussed CRISPR developments in China and gave a talk at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing (UCAS) on the technological, regulatory and technical challenges of CRISPR.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
We’re less than a month away from the workshop on all things health security, are you registered? Since we’re on the topic of biotechnology and biosecurity, our workshop is a great chance to hear from Supervisory Special Agent Edward You of the FBI’s WMD Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit. “Mr. You is responsible for creating programs and activities to coordinate and improve FBI and interagency efforts to identify, assess, and respond to biological threats or incidents. These efforts include expanding FBI outreach to the Life Sciences community to address biosecurity. Before being promoted to the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Mr. You was a member of the FBI Los Angeles Field Office Joint Terrorism Task Force and served on the FBI Hazardous Evidence Response Team.” Don’t miss Mr. You’s talk on the bioeconomy and biosecurity threats during this three-day workshop on all things biodefense!

WHO Releases New International Classification of Disease (ICD11)
The World Health Organization (WHO) released the latest ICD-11, which includes 55,000 codes for specific injuries, diseases, and causes of death. “The ICD is also used by health insurers whose reimbursements depend on ICD coding; national health programme managers; data collection specialists; and others who track progress in global health and determine the allocation of health resources. The new ICD-11 also reflects progress in medicine and advances in scientific understanding. For example, the codes relating to antimicrobial resistance are more closely in line with the Global Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System (GLASS). ICD-11 is also able to better capture data regarding safety in healthcare, which means that unnecessary events that may harm health – such as unsafe workflows in hospitals – can be identified and reduced.”

Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak Updates
The DRC has reported 5 more suspected cases in the Iboko health zone, which brings the total to 60 cases, included 28 deaths (38 confirmed, 14 probable, and 8 suspected) as of June 19th. The case fatality rate for this outbreak is at 47% and “‘The number of contacts requiring follow-up is progressively decreasing, with a total 1,417 completing the mandatory 21-day follow-up period,’ the WHO said. As of Jun 17, a total of 289 contacts were still being monitored.” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently tweeted “Just over a month into the response in , further spread has largely been contained. In spite of progress, there should be no room for laxity and complacency until it’s finally over. This is a collaborative effort led by

 MERS Trends in Saudi Arabia – Hospitals and Households
Since January of this year, the WHO has reported 75 laboratory confirmed MERS-CoV cases and 23 deaths in Saudi Arabia. 21 of these cases were involved in four clusters (2 household and 2 healthcare) – “Cluster 1: From 2 through 4 February, a private hospital in Hafer Albatin Region reported a cluster of three (3) health care workers in addition to the suspected index case (four [4] cases in total). Cluster 2: From 25 February through 7 March, a hospital in Riyadh reported six (6) cases, including the suspected index. No health care workers were infected. Cluster 3: From 8 through 24 March, a household cluster of 3 cases (index case and 2 secondary cases) was reported in Jeddah. No health care workers were infected. Cluster 4: From 23 through 31 May, a household cluster was reported from Najran region with eight cases including the suspected index case. This cluster is still under investigation at the time of writing. As of 31 May, no health care workers have been infected and the source of infection is believed to be camels at the initial patient’s home.” The total number of MERS cases since 2012 is now 2,220. These clusters underscore the role of hospitals as amplifiers for MERS transmission during outbreaks and the importance of infection prevention efforts.

Infection Prevention Gaps Found Across Critical Access Hospitals
GMU Biodefense doctoral student Saskia Popescu addresses infection prevention failures and gaps within the United States and specifically in critical access hospitals. “These findings are not novel as staffing issues are problematic across the country in all types of hospital systems. The importance of having IPs within health care and ensuring they have access to training and the ability to focus on infection control activities—not just reporting tied to CMS reimbursement—is critical. IPs need time for activities such as education, rounding, antibiotic stewardship, and more. This study supports the notion that not only should hospitals be ensuring proper staffing and support for infection prevention programs, but that significant gaps exist across CAHs. In the areas where CAHs are the only health care patients may access, it is vital that infection prevention processes be supported and followed”

How Ready Is the United States For The Next Anthrax Attack?
This week the CDC reviewed their recommendations for mass vaccination in the event of an anthrax attack. “The way that people think about [nuclear weapons] is on a much, much grander scale than biological weapons, and I think that’s a misperception,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “If you use a contagious infectious disease, you really could create havoc on a different scale.” The Amerithrax attack was in 2001 and since then we’ve seen SARS, MERS, and Ebola as potential infectious disease threats that reveal a rather large spectrum of avenues for microbial events. “But there’s still a long way to go in terms of preparedness, Redlener said, adding that no city is fully prepared. Questions remain about what dosage of the vaccine to use for children, the safety of the vaccine for the general public, delivery and distribution of the vaccine and medications. ‘I think a vaccination program would be a nightmare. Who would administer it? Who would pay for it? Who would manufacture it? The cost of complications that may occur. I don’t think it would be practical,’ Redlener said.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Gene-edited Farm Animals – “The team edited the animals’ DNA to make them resist the deadly respiratory disease known as PRRS – a move that could prevent billions of pounds in losses each year. However, consumers have traditionally been reluctant to eat genetically altered animals and crops. This poses a significant barrier to farmers owning gene-edited pigs. And because genome, or gene, editing (GE) is relatively new, the absence of regulation currently prevents their sale anyway.”
  • FDA Releases New Food Defense Guidance – “Today the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released the first of three installments of draft guidance on the intentional adulteration (IA) rule, part of the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA). The rule is meant to guide the food industry on reducing the risk of exposing food facilities to IA, such as acts of terrorism. Unlike other FSMA rules that address specific foods or hazards, IA will require preventive measures for reducing vulnerabilities at all domestic and foreign companies that are required to register with the FDA as food facilities.”

Pandora Report 6.15.2018

Welcome back to your favorite weekly dose of all things biodefense! We’ve got a lot of health security news to cover this week as microbes just don’t seem to take a break.

Outbreak Updates
The latest data from the DRC has reported four more suspected Ebola cases, which would bring the overall outbreak total to 59 cases (38 confirmed, 14 probable, and 7 suspected), and 28 deaths. You can find the timeline of Ebola response for the DRC outbreak here, that was released by the WHO. In the latest WHO statement on the outbreak, Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that “’It’s far too early to declare victory, but the signals are positive and we are cautiously optimistic,’. ‘We have new weapons and together with the government and our partners, we have acted with urgency to save lives. We will remain vigilant until this outbreak is over’.” You can also read the latest WHO situation report here. As the DRC works to contain the Ebola outbreak, the Nipah virus outbreak in India is ongoing, as 17 cases have been identified. Kenya is also currently facing a Rift Valley fever outbreak as 10 people were found to be sick and 5 have died. “The disease primarily strikes livestock by the mosquito-borne route. Though humans can be infected by mosquitoes, the virus is more commonly passed by contact with blood or organs of infected animals or drinking milk from sick ones. The disease is usually mild, but some patients experience a severe form.”

 Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
Are you registered for the summer workshop on all things health security? From Anthrax to Zika, we’re talking vaccine development, bioterrorism, the Ebola outbreak, and more. Don’t miss the chance to attend this July 18-20 workshop in Arlington, where you’ll learn from the top minds in the field and chat with others passionate about global health security. Make sure to register before July 1st for an early registration discount. If you’re a GMU student or alum, returning workshop attendee, or large group, you can even get an additional discount!

Clade-X Policy Recommendations
Following the Clade-X pandemic tabletop last month, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has released their policy recommendations. If you missed the chance to observe the tabletop, make sure to check it out on YouTube or read through the resources here. The policy recommendations focus on a strong and sustainable global health security system, a robust, highly capable national public health system that can manage the challenges of pandemic response, etc. The Washington Post noted of the tabletop, “Even though many players in the scenario had decades of experience in health security and national and global policy and law, ‘there were still so many unanswered questions and capability gaps,’ said Beth Cameron, formerly senior director for global health security and biodefense at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. Cameron, who was in the audience, is vice president for global biological policy at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.”

FEMA Wants Local Governments to Step Up
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is pulling back the curtain on FEMA’s new strategic plan and the reality that its capacity doesn’t grow when there are high volumes of natural disasters. Gerstein notes of the FEMA Administrator Brock Long- “Long’s language signals that FEMA’s disaster policy, upon which so many communities may depend, is changing. FEMA’s recently released strategic plan reveals several important shifts in federal disaster relief policy. FEMA is streamlining its mission to focus on coordination with state and local stakeholders before disasters even strike in order to shorten disaster recovery times. Why the changes? 2017 was particularly full of disasters – there were 16 events that exceeded $1 billion in total damage. An estimated $306 billion in losses made 2017 the most expensive year ever for natural disasters. Three hurricanes in succession in August and September combined with the Western wildfires greatly stressed FEMA’s capacity to support these response and recovery operations.” Moreover, Gerstein underscores that this approach is central to getting the message across that FEMA is not a first-responder agency, but rather offers coordination and resourcing for catastrophic disasters.

Characteristics of a Pandemic- The Devil Is In The Details
GMU Biodefense doctoral student Saskia Popescu reviewed the Center for Health Security publication regarding the characteristics of microorganisms that are more likely to cause a global catastrophic biological risk. “The CHS findings pose critical questions as to how we handle global health security and pandemic preparedness, as well as what inherently makes a microorganism likely to cause a pandemic. Moreover, the report speaks to medical providers and those working on the frontline, which is a breath of fresh air for so many of us who are all too often given non-specific guidance that fails to meet the true demands of preparing for pandemics. ”

Book Reviews
Still in need for that book to read during a summer vacation? Here are reviews of two books for anyone interested in antibiotic resistance. First, a review of Superbugs: An Arms Race Against Bacteria, in which Jerome Groopman discusses the importance of understanding this growing threat and the origin of AMR. Groopman notes that “Fleming’s advice to use the antibiotic properly was widely disregarded, not by “the ignorant man” but by “negligent” medical professionals. Prescriptions of penicillin in suboptimal dosages led to the emergence of bacteria resistant to it.” Next, GMU biodefense doctoral student Saskia Popescu reviews Maryn McKenna’s book, Big Chicken, which reveals the truth about antibiotic usage in poultry. Popescu notes that “Showcasing the complexity of this microbial threat and the role of poultry, McKenna chronicles the efforts across the United States and Europe to understand novel outbreaks of common bacterial infections that began springing up in the 1950s and left medical providers struggling to find treatments, but also the scientific work done to provide proof of the problem.”

NTI Presentation – Biosecurity By Design: Getting Ahead of Risk in the World of Designer Operations
GMU Biodefense doctoral student Carlos Alvarado is reporting on the NTI event this week regarding the rapid advances in biotechnology and what that means for biosecurity. Alvarado notes that Dr. Reshma Shetty, co-founder of Ginkgo Bioworks, began with posing a unique scenario for the audience – she “explained how technology and biology are very similar in the fact they’re both made form unique core codes. One of the slides within her presentation contained a photo of a desk with a plant, cell phone, tablet, computer, and other technological devices. She then asked the audience what is the most technological item in this picture,  to which she stated the answer was the plant because the plant was self-replicating, self-cleaning, and self-sensing. She explained that with bio synthesis and bioengineering, Ginkgo Bioworks is working on developing these codes for specific bio synthesized organisms.” Overall, while the presentation mostly focused on the work of Ginkgo Bioworks, it did provide insight into the industry perspective for biosecurity and what such advances might mean for the future.

 Medical Benefits Now Available for Vets Subjected to Chem-Bio Tests
Operation Whitecoat is an infamous example of American soldiers – conscientious objectors, who became the human guinea pigs for biological weapons, and now those soldiers are able to receive medical care. “About 6,000 of the soldiers that the U.S. Army tested potential chemical and biological substances on are still living and may be eligible for medical care. A recent class action lawsuit filed by the Vietnam Veterans of America required the U.S. Army to provide medical care to veterans who volunteered to contribute to the advancement of the U.S. biological and chemical programs.”

ISDS Presentation: Outbreak Observatory
Don’t miss out on the chance to learn about Outbreak Observatory at this presentation held by the International Society for Disease Surveillance (ISDS) on Wednesday, June 27th from 11am-noon EST. “During this presentation, researchers will discuss how Outbreak Observatory, a pilot project initiated by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, will facilitate the conduct of real-time operational research during outbreak responses, helping to improve outbreak preparedness and response capabilities.”

Preventing Pandemics – Spend on Surveillance
Where do we put the funds for pandemic prevention? Despite the inherent importance of these efforts, financial support for prevention is often problematic. Researchers are emphasizing that funding should be put towards surveillance, not prediction, as such efforts can easily be a double-edged sword in terms of public trust. Credibility issues arise for the public when predictions are wrong (H1N1 or Ebola). “In short, there aren’t enough data on virus outbreaks for researchers to be able to accurately predict the next outbreak strain. Nor is there a good enough understanding of what drives viruses to jump hosts, making it difficult to construct predictive models.” Fundamentally, the researchers argue, it is in the surveillance of human populations that is the most effective and realistic approach to fighting outbreaks. Efforts should focus on the vulnerable countries and locations, strengthen detailed screening of those symptomatic, etc. “This will best be achieved through an established global network of highly trained local researchers, such as the WHO Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN). Real-time tools for reconstructing and tracking outbreaks at the genomic level, such as portable sequencing devices, are improving fast. Information gathered during recent outbreaks has quickly had tangible impacts on public-health decisions, largely owing to data generation and analysis by many research teams within days of people being infected.” More and more, researchers are also underscoring the importance of including veterinarians in pandemic prevention, in fact, many say to follow the bats when looking for the next Ebola outbreak.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Salmonella Outbreak Tied to Pre-Cut Melons – The CDC has announced that the culprit of this multi-state outbreak is pre-cut melon. “As of June 8, 2018, 60 cases of Salmonella Adelaide have been reported spanning 5 states; a little more than half (31) of these individuals have required hospitalization for their infections. To date, no deaths have been reported. The infected individuals range from 1 to 97 years in age, with a median age of 67, according to the CDC. Available data indicate that 65% of those who have fallen ill are female. The reported dates of illness range from April 30 to May 28; however, according to the CDC, Salmonella can take up to 2 to 4 weeks to diagnose and report. As such, any illnesses that have occurred after May 28 may not have been reported yet.”

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

Pandora Report: 5.18.2018

 Ebola Outbreak Update
As the DRC continues work on containing an outbreak of Ebola, the question of response measures and vaccine deployment has come up, especially in light of the recent confirmation of a third case in Wangata, a different health zone. The WHO is calling the confirmation of a patient in a metropolitan area, a “game changer” and has initiated emergency meetings. The recent outbreak data now reports a total of 44 cases, 3 of which are confirmed, 20 probable, and 21 suspected. “‘This is not a health issue alone but a crisis that has negative impact on the socio-economic and political situation of the country and the region at large,’ said Lazare Sebitereko Rukundwa. Rukundwa, is the founder of the Eben-Ezer University of Minembwe in Congo, a Hubert Humphrey Fellow and a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government”. In response to these cases, the vaccine (VSV-EBOV) has been deployed to the DRC as of May 16th. 4,000 units of it will be used to help stop the outbreak. “DRC Health Minister Oly Ilunga, MD also tweeted that the vaccines will be kept in special vaccine cold rooms in Kinshasa until they’re ready to be shipped to Mbandaka and Bikoro in the coming days. The Merck-produced unlicensed vaccine will be used to squelch an Ebola virus outbreak currently ongoing in three health zones of the DRC. Health officials will use a ring vaccination strategy, giving the vaccine to close contacts of patients first.”

GMU Workshop on Global Health Security – Don’t Miss Out!
Speaking of an Ebola vaccine…did you know that that Dr. Jens Kuhn (but seriously, he has an MD, PhD, PhD, and MS…so he’s as close to Bruce Banner as you’ll get) will be one of our speakers at the summer workshop? Dr. Kuhn is “a Lead Virologist in the Division of Clinical Research at the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Allegery and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility at Fort Detrick. Dr. Kuhn specializes in highly virulent viral human and animal pathogens”, specifically filoviruses. “Dr. Kuhn was the first western scientist with permission to work in a former Soviet biological warfare facility, SRCVB ‘Vektor’ in Siberia, Russia, within the US Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program” – which means he’s not only a wealth of knowledge, but has some pretty amazing stories to tell. Don’t miss the chance to learn from and chat with experts like Dr. Kuhn at our workshop in July!

Rhodesia’s Chem-Bio Warfare History
Have you gotten the dirt on the Rhodesian chemical and biological warfare program? If you’re looking for a summer read to boost your knowledge on it, GMU Biodefense PhD alum Glenn Cross’s new book, Dirty War: Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare 1975-1980, is just for you. “Glenn Cross’s Dirty War: Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare 1975–1980 is a welcome addition to the small, but growing scholarly literature on the history of chemical and biological warfare. In 1965, the minority white community in the British territory of Rhodesia (officially Southern Rhodesia) rejected demands that it transfer political power to the majority black population. By the mid-1970s, white Rhodesians found it increasingly difficult to counter the growing power of native African nationalists fighting the government. As with many insurgencies, the guerrillas lacked the resources to defeat government security forces in direct combat, but Rhodesian forces were stretched too thin to suppress the insurgents, especially once they had established base camps in neighboring countries. Amidst the conflict, Rhodesian military and intelligence services employed what would now be considered chemical and biological agents against the guerillas with unknown results.”

 Dangers of the Rising DIY Biohacking
It’s likely not the first time you’ve heard about growing concerns regarding the rising popularity of do-it-yourself (DIY) gene editing. From the horsepox de novo synthesis to public stunts at conventions where biohackers injected themselves with HIV treatment, it’s becoming difficult to ignore why these actions are dangerous. The concern regarding the DIY gene editing community is that there are very little restrictions or regulations surrounding what they can or can’t do in a homemade lab. Sure, you can’t go buy Ebola online, but you can start stitching together horsepox, which is pretty scary. “The study’s publication in the journal PLOS One included an in-depth description of the methods used and — most alarming to Gregory D. Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University — a series of new tips and tricks for bypassing roadblocks. ‘Sure, we’ve known this could be possible,’ Dr. Koblentz said. ‘We also knew North Korea could someday build a thermonuclear weapon, but we’re still horrified when they actually do it’.” NYTimes reporter Emily Baumgaertner points to several DIY biohackers who show an unsettling willingness to inject themselves with things they’ve made in their garage labs and that there are fundamentally large gaps in any kind of regulatory system. It’s important to remember that the stop-gap measures in place, imperfect as they are, are for academic researchers, and don’t pertain to those DIY’ers doing it at home. “Authorities in the United States have been hesitant to undertake actions that could squelch innovation or impinge on intellectual property. The laws that cover biotechnology have not been significantly updated in decades, forcing regulators to rely on outdated frameworks to govern new technologies. The cobbled-together regulatory system, with multiple agencies overseeing various types of research, has left gaps that will only widen as the technologies advance. Academic researchers undergo strict scrutiny when they seek federal funding for ‘dual-use research of concern’: experiments that, in theory, could be used for good or ill. But more than half of the nation’s scientific research and development is funded by nongovernmental sources.” As Baumgaertner notes, there are, of course, those in the DIY community who want to ensure biosecurity/biosafety and are just experimenting however, even biohacker celebrity Josiah Zayner has admitted an accident could happen, which would lead to negative outcomes. Whether you’re at home with your mail-order CRISPR kit or you’re working on policies to implement regulations on the biotech industry, we can all admit that the potential for nefarious actors or laboratory accidents is one that warrants safety measures and a hardcore cultural evaluation within the DIY biohacking community. Check out the latest BBC Radio5Live with Rhod Sharp, in which Dr. Koblentz discusses genome editing, biodefense, CRISPR, and biosecurity issues

GMU Biodefense May Graduates and Awards
Congrats to our graduating GMU Bidoefense graduate students – we’re so proud of your hardwork and are excited to see what kind of amazing biodefense work you’ll do in the future! Congrats to two new Biodefense PhDs – Christopher K. Brown (Protecting Critical U.S. Workers from Occupational Exposure to Emerging Infectious Diseases: Toward A Universal Personal Protective Equipment Selection Matrix for Early Outbreak Response) and Jomana Musmar (The Path to PAHPRA: The Evolution of Pediatric Biodefense Legislation and Medical Countermeasure Development). We’re also excited to announce the following Biodefense MS graduates – Zamawang Almemar, Mariam Awad, Laramie Bradford, Michael Conway, Alexander Dowsett, Sarah Doyle, Stephanie Ellis, Haziq Ghani, Zachary Goble, Stephanie Kiesel, Alexander Rowe, Stephanie Smith, and Alexandra Williams. We’d also like to congratulate three of our biodefense graduate students for their student achievements – Stephanie Smith (Outstanding Biodefense Student), Saskia Popescu (Frances Harbour Award- Biodefense Community Leadership), and Christopher Brown (Outstanding Doctoral Student in Biodefense).

Broad-Spectrum Antibiotic Use in Sub-Saharan Africa: Risk Versus Reward
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu evaluated a recent study that analyzed childhood mortality following a widespread distribution of Azithromycin. Popescu not only looks to the experiment and long-term implications of prophylactic antibiotic use, but she also interviewed the PI of the study. “What this study ultimately shows is the considerable impact that mass distribution of a broad-spectrum antibiotic can have against childhood mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Following the publication of the study, however, many have flagged the moral dilemma that follows such results. Although the authors make note of the need for policy implementation for future practices and the potential for antimicrobial resistance, the study has nonetheless posed unique ethical questions. The benefits of mass distribution were supported by their research; however, what sort of long-term costs will such communities pay?”

Restoring Restraint: Enforcing Accountability for Users of Chemical Weapons – Event
Don’t miss out on this panel discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies on June 19, 2018 from 9:30-11:30am. The keynote address will be given by H.E. Mr Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. “In 2012 a 20-year moratorium on state employment of chemical weapons use was broken. Since then there have been more than 200 uses – against civilians, military targets, and political enemies. These attacks have broken norms against the use of weapons of mass destruction and create a gap in the nonproliferation fabric – despite the robust international architecture of laws, treaties, agreements, and norms designed to restrain the proliferation and use of these weapons. Accountability for these recent attacks has been limited or non-existent, which threatens the credibility of the nonproliferation regime and only encourages further use. Leaders must find the political and moral strength to use a full spectrum of tools to re-establish this system of restraint. This event will discuss ways in which the international community is working to rebuild the system of restraint against chemical weapons, and CSIS will also launch on a report on this topic.”

Clade X Exercise
If you missed out on the live-stream of this table-top exercise hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, don’t worry, you can check out the recording or  awesome live-stream Twitter activity by searching #CladeX. This was a wonderful exercise involving experts like Tara O’Toole, Julie Gerberding, Tom Daschle, etc. Responding to a biological incident, whether intentional, natural, or accidental, is challenging on a good day, but Clade X revealed very serious complications and gaps in our response measures. The Clade X exercise showed real-time decisions and questions that occurred during such an event. From quarantine to MCM and even healthcare worker refusals to work, there were several injects that made this an evolution in infectious disease response across multiple sectors and agencies. Even wild card moments occurred, like Arizona trying to close itself off, which is what made this exercise so engaging and rewarding.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Hotel Pools – Icky: it’s something we all knew but didn’t want to admit…hotel pools are pretty dirty. “Today’s report is based on data from the last 15 years said that hotel pools and hot tubs are to blame for one third of waterborne disease outbreaks. The parasite Cryptosporidium and the bacteriaPseudomonas and Legionella cause most outbreaks that begin in swimming venues in the United States. Though chlorine can kill Cryptosporidium, both Pseudomonas and Legionella can survive disinfectants in slimy areas (called biofilm) of hot tubs, pools, and water playgrounds, the CDC said. From 2000 to 2014, public health officials from 46 states and Puerto Rico recorded 27,219 illnesses associated with 493 outbreaks (two or more cases) that originated in treated recreational water. Included in those illnesses were eight deaths.”

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