Pandora Report 3.17.2017

Happy Friday! In honor of  John Snow‘s birthday (the father of epidemiology), our featured image is the Broad Street pump map he used to combat cholera in the 19th century. Don’t miss out on the early registration discount for our biodefense summer workshop!

NAS Calls for Increased Federal Regulatory Agency Preparation for Growing Biotechnology Products 
The National Academies of Science (NAS) recent press release is emphasizing the need for federal regulatory agencies to prepare for greater quantities and ranges of biotechnology products. As the biotech world constantly evolves, regulatory agencies have struggled to keep up and this latest report states that in the next five to ten years, the pace will outmatch the U.S. regulatory system. According to the report, biotechnology, like CRISPR, has a rapidly growing scale and scope, which already stresses existing staff, expertise, and resources available at agencies like the EPA, FDA, and USDA. “To respond to the expected increase and diversity of products, the agencies should develop risk-analysis approaches tailored to the familiarity of products and the complexity of their uses, the report says. For biotechnology products that are similar to products already in use, established risk-analysis methods can be applied or modified, and a more expedited process could be used. For products that have less-familiar characteristics or more complex risk pathways, new risk-analysis methods may need to be developed.  Regulatory agencies should build their capacity to rapidly determine the type of risk-analysis approaches most appropriate for new products entering the regulatory system.” Within the report, NAS notes that the federal government needs to develop a strategy to combat the current issues and strengthen their ability to scan for future biotechnology products to better prioritize.

GMU Schar School Master’s Open House 
Have you ever wanted to study topics like CRISPR, bioterrorism, global health security, and pathogens of biological weapons? Good news – we’ve got just the program for you! Come check out GMU’s biodefense MS program at our Open House on Wednesday, March 22nd at our Arlington Campus, Founders Hall (Room 126) at 6:30pm. You can talk to some of our biodefense faculty and learn about our program. Whether you’re looking to take classes in person or earn a degree online, the biodefense MS is the best for the intersection of science and policy.

DARPA Works Towards “Soldier Cell” To Fight Bioweapons 
A bio-control system to fight off invading pathogens? Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie! Well, researchers at Johns Hopkins University just received funding from DARPA to develop the capacity to “deploy single-cell fighters” that would target and eliminate the lethality of certain pathogens. “‘Once you set up this bio-control system inside a cell, it has to do its job autonomously, sort of like a self-driving car,’ said Pablo A. Iglesias, principal investigator on the project. Iglesias, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Whiting School, shifted his research focus from man-made to biological control systems about 15 years ago. ‘Think about how the cruise control in your car senses your speed and accelerates or slows down to stay at the pace you’ve requested,’ Iglesias said. ‘In a similar way, the bio-control systems we’re developing must be able to sense where the pathogens are, move their cells toward the bacterial targets, and then engulf them to prevent infections among people who might otherwise be exposed to the harmful microbes’.” This angle, which is being focused on bacteria outside of the body, is just one potential tool in the biodefense arsenal.

Yellow Fever Outbreak in Brazil 
Since December of 2016, Brazilian health officials have reported an ongoing outbreak of yellow fever. The CDC has moved the alert to a  Level 2 – Practice Enhanced Precautions. A report recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine looks at the outbreak and the potential for cases in U.S. territories. In Brazil, there were 234 cases and 80 deaths reported between December and February. “Although it is highly unlikely that we will see yellow fever outbreaks in the continental United States, where mosquito density is low and risk of exposure is limited, it is possible that travel-related cases of yellow fever could occur, with brief periods of local transmission in warmer regions such as the Gulf Coast states, where A. aegypti mosquitoes are prevalent.”

GMU Biodefense Represented At Biothreats Conference
If you missed out on our coverage of ASM’s 2017 Biothreats conference, here’s a spotlight on GMU biodefense students attending this captivating three-day event. GMU’s biodefense program sent four graduate students to experience and report on the conference, which addressed biothreat research, policy, and response. “The program was exciting, according to the George Mason students in attendance. Mercer and Goble recall that the conference engaged topics of specific interest to them, their degree, and their futures. ‘I attended a panel that was very closely related to disease forecasting, my graduate thesis topic,’ Mercer said. ‘I was able to hear some of the cutting-edge research in that field, which was really helpful’. ‘I didn’t really have a part I didn’t like,’ Goble said. ‘I enjoyed the niche topics that were presented in both panel discussions and poster  sessions, from emergency operations to the FDA. All of these specific topics were extremely interesting to hear about and to know they are being researched’.”

Just How Well Did the 2009 Pandemic Flu Vaccine Strategy Work?
Researchers from the University of Nottingham recently looked at the success of vaccines in terms of preventing pandemic flu and reducing hospitalizations. Their work looked at the 2009 WHO-declared pandemic of the novel A(H1N1) virus, which infected around 61 million people around the world. Vaccines against the virus were rolled out globally between September and December of 2009, with the majority being inactivated A(H1N1)pdm09 influenza virus. Their work involved reviewing 38 studies between June 2011 and April 2016 regarding the effectiveness of the inactivated vaccine, which covered around 7.6 million people. “We found that the vaccines produced against the swine flu pandemic in 2009 were very effective in both preventing influenza infection and reducing the chances of hospital admission due to flu. This is all very encouraging in case we encounter a future pandemic, perhaps one that is more severe,” noted Professor Van Tam said. “Of course, we recognize that it took five to six months for pandemic vaccines to be ready in large quantities; this was a separate problem. However, if we can speed up vaccine production times, we would have a very effective strategy to reduce the impact of a future flu pandemic.” The 2009 pandemic A(H1N1) vaccine was 73% effective against laboratory confirmed cases and 61% against preventing hospitalizations. Interestingly, when looking at the vaccines’ effectiveness in different age groups, “they were shown to be less effective in adults over 18 years than in children, and effectiveness was lowest in adults over 50 years of age. Adjuvanted vaccines were found to be particularly more effective in children than in adults against laboratory confirmed illness (88 per cent in children versus 40 per cent in adults) and hospitalization (86 per cent in children versus 48 per cent in adults).”

Deadly Fungal Infection Arrives in U.S. 
While many are asking if surveillance methods for tracking the deadly CRE bacteria are adequate, a new issue is emerging in U.S. hospitals. Despite WHO’s recent plea for increased R&D surrounding certain resistant pathogens, it seems that more and more organisms of concern are springing up in U.S. hospitals. Since last summer, roughly three dozen people have been diagnosed with a highly resistant Candida auris infection. The fungal infection has caused worry ever since it was identified in 2009 due to its capacity as an emerging and resistant organism. Candida yeast infections are pretty common and known to cause urinary tract infections however, this strain is especially concerning because it easily causes bloodstream infections, has a stronger capacity for transmission between people, and is much more hardy in terms of living on skin and environmental surfaces. “Of the first seven cases that were reported to the CDC last fall, four patients had bloodstream infections and died during the weeks to months after the pathogen was identified. Officials said they couldn’t be sure whether the deaths were caused by the infection because all the individuals had other serious medical conditions. Five patients had the fungus initially isolated from blood, one from urine, and one from the ear.”

CDC Director Warns Loss of DHHS Funds Could Weaken Infectious Disease Prevention
Acting CDC director, Anne Schuchat, recently testified before Congress to make the case for for increased funding for several programs (one being the DHHS’s Prevention and Public Health Fund). Among other things, the Prevention and Public Health Fund is responsible for 12% of the CDC’s budget. Dr. Schucat’s testimony emphasized the previous usage of these funds in terms of vaccine delivery, disease surveillance, monitoring of water supplies, and tracking hospital-acquired infections. The growth of antibiotic resistance made her testimony and plea to Congress that much more relevant and urgent. “The CDC and other government agencies have in recent years cited the numerous public health threats posed by infectious diseases in general, and have lobbied officials for increased funding for research and development of novel vaccines and treatments as well as programs to effectively distribute interventions as needed. In 2016, for example, the CDC, DHHS, and National Institutes of Health requested federal funding to combat Zika, a request that was not approved until late in the year.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Science on Screen – Don’t miss this great event hosted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory! On March 18th, you can watch the second installment of the Science on Screen series, featuring “Lawrence Livermore scientists Monica Borucki and Jonathan Allen, who will present ‘Reconstructing a Rabies Epidemic: Byte by Byte.’ This informative and entertaining lecture will explain how biologists and computer scientists used cutting-edge, ultra-deep sequencing technology to study the dynamics of a 2009 rabies outbreak. This case study, based on a dramatic increase (more than 350 percent) in the gray fox population infected with a rabies variant for which striped skunks serve as the reservoir hosts, will be used to help illustrate the changes in the viral genome during cross-species viral transmission. This lecture is appropriately paired with the feature-length film, “Contagion” (PG-13).”
  • Clorox Gets Spot on EPA A-Team – Clorox just earned its varsity spot on the team against hospitality-acquired infections. The EPA approved two of the company’s products in killing clostridium difficile spores. C-diff is a constant battle in healthcare facilities, so having the new tool in the infection prevention and environmental disinfection toolkit, is a huge advantage for many. “In addition, the cleaners and wipes recently become EPA-registered to disinfect against other bacterial infections, such as those caused by Staphylococcus epidermidis, Candida glabrata, and Enterococcus hirae. Moreover, the products are also effective against several viral pathogens, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), measles, and Influenza A and B, among others.”

 

Pandora Report 2.24.2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

Pandora Report 2.3.2017

Happy Friday! Do you remember the Jurassic Park character Dr. Ian Malcolm and his famous “life finds a way” quote? Well, in this case, nature is finding its own resistance against gene drive in the wild.

Bioterrorism Preparedness & Response Position Paper 
The InterAgency Board (IAB) has released their proposed model for bioterrorism response: initial operations and characterizations. “Under this model, responder organizations that meet eligibility requirements can apply to operate through contracts as approved bioterrorism response organizations within their own jurisdictions. These teams would be trained and equipped to meet a set of national standards and would work collaboratively with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Laboratory Response Network (LRN) in bioterrorism incident responses.” Within the report, you can find training standards and procedures for sampling and field biodetection devices. There is also a substantial section on funding that emphasizing the necessity of implementing and sustaining the bioterrorism response model via funding. The funding plan involves “three types of expenses: annual national program costs for WMD-CST and LRN participation of $22,237,824; participating response organizations start-up costs (per team) of $353,660—developed using a notional community;27 and annual participating response organizations costs of $66,332. This model does not address costs for validating field detection equipment performance, which could be significant.” This particular section breaks down costs that range from equipment maintenance to depreciation.

GMU Biodefense Master’s Open House
Looking to study about everything from anthrax to zika while advancing your education? Check out our biodefense master’s open houses – Thursday, February 16th and Wednesday, March 22nd at 6:15pm at our Arlington Campus. These open houses are a great opportunity to learn more about the GMU biodefense program, speak to a professor, and mingle with other biodefense gurus!

2017 ASM Biothreats Conference
The meeting on biothreat research, response, and policy is just around the corner and the Pandora Report is your source for this wonderful event! Registration is still open and we’ll be having four on-the-ground biodefense graduate student reporters giving us all the great updates from this three-day event. We’ll be live tweeting during the meeting and providing a substantial overview regarding certain sessions and more.

koblentz-moonGMU Biodefense Director Talks Growing Threats and Lack of Action
Take a venture down the biodefense rabbit hole with Dr. Gregory Koblentz! A member of the Scientist Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, you could say that Dr. Koblentz eats, sleeps, and breathes biodefense. His most recent work has looked at the role of responsible science in biodefense programs, dual-use research of concern, and the the growing concern of biosecurity/biosafety. In a recent report, “Koblentz indicates two factors that caused a concerning increase in the number of biodefense programs worldwide. The first was the global fear of the bioterrorist threat in the aftermath of 9/11, especially after the 2001 anthrax attacks. Also, since 2003, there have been several infectious disease outbreaks with global impact that caught people by surprise: SARS, H5N1, H1N1, Ebola and Zika. ‘There’s been a growth in the number of biosafety laboratories that are safe enough to do this work on these kinds of pathogens both because they’re caused by natural causes and also because of the fear of terrorists getting a hold of them.’ The growth in the number of programs poses additional risks themselves. Even though the biodefense programs are created as a means of stopping threats, the increased number of programs means that there are more chances for something bad to happen.” Dr. Koblentz points to the changing nature of biological threats – from state bioweapon programs to non-state actors and even naturally occurring outbreaks. The most recent BWC Review Conference is also a topic of concern for Dr. Koblentz, as he notes that it was “huge missed opportunity, and will setback efforts to reduce the risks posed by biological weapons and bioterrorism. At the outset of the conference [it] looked good. But in the final days of the conference, Iran sabotaged the proceedings and blocked the consensus needed to adopt any of these measures”

U.S. Biotech Rule – A Mixed Bag of Promises and Perils  screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-8-11-00-am
Regulations and policies have been struggling to keep up with the trajectory of genetic engineering. Reviewing these regulations falls on the FDA, EPA, and USDA, which means that they’re responsible for maintaining as modern and relevant practices as possible. Gene editing tools like CRISPR challenge these often slow efforts, however a new proposal was recently released, focusing on the path to market. This pathway, while built with good intentions, is often plagued with cracks. “Earlier this month, the White House released an update to the overarching system of biotech regulation, known as the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. But it’s still up to individual agencies to clarify how they intend to classify and evaluate various GE products. In an apparent effort to get plans on the table before a change of administration, USDA and FDA put out draft proposals on 18 January addressing several categories of GE products”. As we reported a few weeks back, efforts to use genetically modified mosquitos to combat Zika, were met with residential resistance, which makes these regulations all the more sensitive. The FDA is responsible for overseeing “technologies for sterilizing and controlling animal populations, but giving it responsibility for gauging the environmental impact of a mosquito raised eyebrows on both sides of the debate”. Many have noted that the FDA truly doesn’t have the capacity to review such work in a timely manner. What about genetically engineered plants? Well, the USDA’s APHIS has specific definitions for what defines GE plants, however this definition previously focused on the production process and not the end product. “The proposed rule exempts certain products from the definition of GE, including plants containing inserted DNA from a sexually compatible species, and plants with DNA changes that could also be achieved through older chemical or radiation-based methods.” While many say that this change is good, others worry that the regulations tend to focus on projects that larger companies employ, while smaller companies lack the capacity for such controversial work, meaning that these regulations could inhibit their work.

The Cost of Cooperation in Global Health 
A recent publication in The Lancet looks to the financial backing for global health cooperation via the WHO, the World Bank, the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Researchers found that the current financial flow allows donors to provide funds and assistance while maintaining closer control and monitoring throughout the entire project. “We highlight three major trends in global health governance more broadly that relate to this development: towards more discretionary funding and away from core or longer-term funding; towards defined multi-stakeholder governance and away from traditional government-centred representation and decision-making; and towards narrower mandates or problem-focused vertical initiatives and away from broader systemic goals.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Federal Hiring Freeze Disrupts USDA’s Food Safety Testing – The transition of the new administration and federal hiring freeze seems to be having some concerning food safety implications. While the FDA has noted that the federal freeze won’t impact the Food Safety Modernization Act, the USDA has highlighted that it is causing issues with the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). “In an internal message sent to FSIS employees on Jan. 18 and obtained by Food Safety News warned that delays in lab tests are expected through at least March 3. The FSIS is responsible for ensuring the safety of meat, poultry, processed egg products and catfish. ‘Effective Jan. 18, 2017, due to a temporary decrease in staffing, results on pathology samples submitted to the FSIS laboratory system will be delayed,’ according to the email sent to all FSIS employees. ‘AMR-01 and rush cases will be given priority status; however turnaround times are expected to be delayed by at least 24 hours on these samples. This is expected to be rectified by March 3, 2017, but is dependent on staffing key vacancies. The Pathology Branch apologies for the inconvenience these delays will cause’.”
  • Is Trump Causing a Brain Drain? – Last week’s immigration executive order  has many in the science community either unable to travel/return to the U.S. or considering relocation. “The Trump White House’s decision to clamp down on communication from various federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, has left researchers frightened over political influence seeping into their work. And his executive order has left students and scientists in limbo, removed from their classrooms and work. Advocates are warning that the inhospitable environment will lead, quite quickly, to a brain drain. A young generation of thinkers, academics and researchers might simply look to other countries to conduct their work.”
  • The Rise of MCR-1 and the Importance of Understanding the DURC Debate- This week, yours truly is talking to Contagion Live in regards to two very important topics- the rise of antimicrobial resistance and why everyone should understand the DURC debate. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when it comes to science and policy, however so many of these topics are becoming increasingly relevant and in the end, global health security impacts us all.

Pandora Report 1.27.2017

The ghostbusters had proton packs and now researchers have DNA-analyzing smartphone attachments to help diagnose disease and fight antimicrobial resistance.

Doomsday Clock Moved 30 Seconds Closer to Midnight
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the clock setting was moved on Wednesday. This is the closest it has been to midnight since 1953 and now includes threats like climate change, cyberthreats, and biological weapons. The board has been critical of President Trump and noted that, “Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change … This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a U.S. presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.” You can get a better glimpse of the clock and its components here.

Possession, Use, and Transfer of Select Agents and Toxins; Biennial Review of the List of Select Agents and Toxins and Enhanced Biosafety Requirements- Final Rule
The CDC has released the final recommendations for select agent biosafety requirements in accordance with the 2002 Bioterrorism Response Act. The 2016 recommended changes included the removal of six biological agents, “add provisions to address the inactivation of select agents, add specific provisions to the section of the regulations addressing biosafety, and clarify regulatory language concerning security, training, incident response, and records.” However, as of January 19th, 2017,  HHS and USDA have published parallel amendments to the federal regulation for select agents and toxins. Following their review, HHS decided not to finalize the proposed changes to the list of select agents. They did however decide “to finalize provisions to address toxin permissible limits and the inactivation of select agents; to finalize specific provisions to the section of the regulations addressing biosafety; and to clarify regulatory language concerning security, training, incident response, and records”. The amendments are set to take effect 30 days from the date of publication.

Biodefense World Summit
Don’t miss out on the Biodefense World Summit in Alexandria, VA from June 27-28th! This will be the third summit in order to “bring together leaders from government, academia, and industry for compelling discussions and comprehensive coverage on pathogen detection, sample prep technologies, point-of-care, and biosurveillance. Across the four-track event, attendees can expect exceptional networking opportunities in the exhibit hall, across panel discussions, and shared case studies with members of the biodefense community from technology providers to policy makers.” Make sure you don’t miss out on GMU Biodefense PhD student, Mary Sproull’s presentation, “Recent Advances in Radiation Biodosimetry for Partial and Total Body Exposures” during the tools and technologies at the point-of-care session!

Missing Russian Smallpox Researcher  
This may sound like the plot of a horror movie (or Sum of All Fears), but the reality may be just as worrisome. Professor and Russian microbiologist, Ilya Drozdov has been put on Interpol’s wanted list. Having knowledge of Russia’s historical bioweapons program means that Dr. Drozdov’s disappearance has authorities worrying he may have gone abroad. Dr. Drozdov was head of Vector for five years, which means he has considerable knowledge in both the offensive program and the recent work regarding plague vaccines and HIV cures. “After quitting the institute, he returned to his native Saratov, but has now vanished. It is now confirmed that last month the 63 year old scientist – who needed top vetting clearance to lead Vector – was put on the Interpol wanted list, indicating fears he has gone abroad. He is accused by state investigators of misappropriating some 2 million roubles – then worth around $55,000, while his tenure also led to an outflow of staff unhappy at his management style. A criminal case was filed against him in 2014, and a Novosibirsk court has now approved his arrest in absentia, said Elena Chernyayeva, a regional deputy prosecutor. The microbiologist allegedly used the cash to purchase an apartment. There is no suggestion he has taken secrets abroad, but the Interpol alert indicates the Russian authorities have lost track of his whereabouts. There was criticism of him at Vector for the poor pay of its expert researchers, and ‘conflicts’.”

Bill Gates Talks Bioterrorism 
Last week we looked into the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), which aims to head off worldwide outbreaks through the development and stockpiling of vaccines. CEPI has received massive financial support and one sponsor in particular is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates recently warned, at the recent World Economic Forum, that there is a true gap in bioterrorism preparedness. “What preparedness will look like for intentionally caused things, that needs to be discussed,” he said. “It’s very hard to rate the probability of bioterrorism, but the potential damage is very, very huge. I think an epidemic, either naturally caused or intentionally caused, is the most likely thing to cause, say, 10,000 excess deaths,” Gates said. “He voiced the same concern in March during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session: ‘The problem of how we prevent a small group of terrorists using nuclear or biological means to kill millions is something I worry about,’ he wrote.” Other biotech gurus like Sam Altman noted that the 2011 H5N1 gain-of-function controversies have opened their eyes to synthetic viruses as a form of terrorism or bioerror.

Health Security Memos to the New Administration and Congress 
Despite a recent move, researchers at the Center for Health Security aren’t taking a break when it comes to global health security. They’ve recently written a series of commentaries for the new administration regarding facts and assessments that are critical for the world of health security. The memos range from healthcare preparedness to improving biosurveillance, partnering with communities to foster trust, communication of new disease threats, and much more.

FDA’s New Farm Antibiotics Policy – Is It Enough?
The new FDA Guidance for Industry (GFI) #213 is what some would consider a victory, while others are calling it a mediocre milestone at best. The new policy looks to reduce the usage of antibiotics in agriculture by requiring veterinary oversight. That’s right, prior to GFI #231, farmers could go to their local feed stores and buy penicillin and tetracycline over the counter to add to feed and water to promote growth. “Under GFI #213, which was first announced in 2013 and has taken 3 years to fully implement, pharmaceutical companies have been asked to voluntarily remove production purposes (such as growth promotion) from the labels of all medically important antibiotics used in food production. All affected companies have done so as of Jan 3, the FDA says. In addition, the guidelines require veterinary oversight for the continued use of these drugs for disease prevention and control in herds and flocks. From now on, all antibiotics used in water will require a prescription from a licensed veterinarian, and those used in feed will need a veterinary feed directive (VFD).” Sure, this is a move in the right direction, but are we ensuring the quality of veterinary oversight and truly changing the culture within farming to support responsible antibiotic usage?

Outbreak Alert: Seoul Virus in Illinois and Wisconsin Rat-Breeding Facilities
While we’ve been busy with the inauguration and Zika virus, there’s been an emerging outbreak creeping up in Illinois and Wisconsin. Eight people have been infected with Seoul virus after working in several rat-breeding facilities across the two states. While not commonly found in the U.S., this is the first known outbreak associated with pet rats. “A home-based rodent breeder in Wisconsin was hospitalized in December 2016 with fever, headache, and other symptoms. CDC tested a blood specimen and confirmed that the infection was caused by Seoul virus, a member of the Hantavirus family of rodent-borne viruses. A close family member who also worked with rodents also tested positive for Seoul virus. Both people have recovered. A follow-up investigation at several rat breeders that supplied the initial patient’s rats revealed an additional six cases of Seoul virus at two Illinois rat breeding facilities.” While related to Hantavirus, Seoul virus presents with more mild symptoms.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Post-Ebola reforms: ample analysis and inadequate action–  Check out a new analysis on WHO response and global reaction to the Ebola outbreak. “Given the importance of improving our ability to battle current (Zika, yellow fever, etc) and future outbreaks of infectious disease, we examined seven major reports and identified areas of consensus on action. We then assessed what progress has been made and what can be done to address the gaps. The seven reports were selected on the following criteria: scope (tackling problems beyond a single organization, country, or sector); diverse authorship (defined by country of origin, organizational affiliation, area of expertise, and gender); and public availability (excluding internal reviews).”
  • Using the lessons of economics to stop global pandemics before they start -Larry Summers is looking to economics to calculate the likely future impact of pandemics on the global economy. By combining the mortality cost and losses in income, he and fellow researchers found that “it was on the same range as that of climate change-  although at the lower end of the possible scale. A moderately severe pandemic, of the kind that occurs every few decades, would knock 4-5% off global output. The “ultra scenario”—a pandemic similar in virulence to the flu of 1918—would raise that to 12%, reducing GNI in some developing countries by more than half.”
  • How Prepared is the U.S. for Avian Influenza?– Many are pointing to an impending avian influenza outbreak and questioning how well American response measures will work. “On Jan 9, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed that a wild mallard duck in Montana had died from H5N2, a highly pathogenic avian flu strain that in 2015 affected farms in 15 states and led to the culling of more than 43 million poultry, with an estimated $3.3 billion in economic losses. ‘This confirmed H5N2 in a wild mallard duck in Montana keeps us on high alert,’ said Donna Karlsons, a public affairs specialist with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). ‘We know the disease is out there and serves as a great reminder for constant biosecurity vigilance. There is never a good time to ease up on biosecurity, and it remains our greatest asset to protect against avian influenza’.”

 

Pandora Report 11.4.2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed: 

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

Pandora Report 10.21.2016

TGIF! It looks like biodefense and genetic engineering are the new hot topics in Hollywood. Inferno will be opening in theaters next week, but it was also reported that Jennifer Lopez will be starring in a new bioterror TV drama, “C.R.I.S.P.R.“, that takes on topics like genetic assassination. That’s right, JLo will be a CDC scientist exploring “the next generation of terror”. You can get an epidemiological update on the cholera situation in the Americas here. A new Ebola vaccine will be tested by researchers in Canada next month.

Biological Threats in the 21st Century Book Launchimg_0359
Last Friday we celebrated the book launch of Biological Threats in the 21st Century. For those who attended, thank you and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did! For those unable to attend, don’t fret – we’ll have the recording up ASAP, but in the meant time, here’s a brief recap… We were fortunate to have Dr. Koblentz MC’ing the event, with Andrew C. Weber discussing the threats we face in the 21st century and that the topic is really the orphan of the bunch as nuclear weapons tend to get all the bandwidth. Weber noted that we learned the wrong lesson from Amerithrax and need to remember that one person did it all by himself and despite a very primitive delivery mechanism, it took us eight years to find him. He emphasized the lessons learned from 9/11 and the use of imagination in regards to potential attacks, specifically that we should all challenge ourselves to think about these things and be imaginative. Filippa Lentzos, the editor of the book, took us through her journey to bring together the politics, people, and science of biological warfare. Her goal was to create a one-stop shop for issues regarding bioweapons and socio-politics. Incorporating narratives from people that are both advocates and negotiators of biological disarmament, she highlighted the importance of scientists in building the agenda and biological risk management. Perhaps one of the highlights of the event was the expert panel comprised of Jo Husbands, GMU’s Sonia Ben Ougrham-Gormley, GiGi Gronvall, and Nancy Connell. The panel took questions from the audience and each expert discussed a range of topics – the role of scientists in DURC, GoF experiments and governance efforts, talking to US and Soviet bioweapons specialists from the days of offensive programs, and the efforts to engage scientists and make them part of the solution. Overall, the event was a wonderful mixture of experts, students, and industry people who are all passionate about the world of biodefense.

How Do You Know Your Flu Shot is Working?
GMU Biodefense MS student Greg Mercer is tackling the topic of flu shot performance. Despite the challenges of antigenic drift and forecasting, there has to be a way to check how well the vaccine is performing..right? “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a guide to how they assess flu vaccine effectiveness and efficacy in the United States. These are two slightly different measurements. Efficacy is measured with randomized controlled trials. This is a classic, high rigorous scientific setup designed to eliminate research biases. Effectiveness is measured with observational studies. These are more reflective of real world conditions, since they rely on self-identifying subjects seeking care.”

On Patrol with a Bioterror Cop
For biodefense students, Edward You is pretty much our crime-fighting role model. Supervisory special agent in the WMD directorate in the FBI’s DC headquarters, You monitors the growth of lab tech to help prevent bioterrorism. Trying to find the gaps within the detection chain is no easy feat, but You helps to improve FBI and interagency efforts to identify, assess, and respond to biological threats. What makes his approach so unique is that prior to the FBI, he worked for six years in graduate research focusing on retrovirology and human gene therapy at USC. Simply put, You knows the science, tech, and culture that make biocrimes and emerging biotechnologies worrisome. You’s background and perspective has helped shift FBI credibility within the science community after incidents like the detainment of Buffalo bio-artist, Steve Kurtz. The FBI is now helping to sponsor events like the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, and is helping build a network where scientists share concerns. “You is often the first to hear about scientists’ darkest worries. Lately some of these have been connected to the gene-editing method CRISPR, which can be used to create self-spreading gene alterations in insects or DNA-slashing viruses.” You notes that “a threat implies intent, and we haven’t seen that yet,” he says. “But as things become more widely available, more widely distributed, the bar gets lower, and the possibility of an incident gets higher.”

Infection Prevention & Control Week  screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-10-32-54-am
Hand hygiene, PPE, and vaccines, oh my! Infection prevention doesn’t take breaks, so this week we’re celebrating the importance of reducing the spread of infections, specifically in healthcare. The Ebola outbreak lifted back the curtain as to just how impacting minor breaches in infection control can be, but as the threat of antibiotic resistance grows, we need to invest more into this field. Here are a few things you can do to help fight the battle of the bug in healthcare – need to wear PPE? Make sure you’re donning and doffing correctly. Wash your hands! Know about infection preventionists, follow rules of isolation if visiting a sick friend (or you’re sick!), get your annual flu shot and stay up to date on vaccines, make sure to follow directions and finish antibiotics appropriately if you’re taking them, and keep your work environment clean.

Public Health: Biosecurity and the GHSA Distance Learning Opportunity 
Don’t miss out on this great opportunity for a 2-hour webinar session on Wednesday, December 7th, 2016 at 11am CST. The U.S. has taken the lead on a global campaign to fortify both public health and international security. The Public Health: Biosecurity and the Global Health Security Agenda webinar will review the nexus between public health and biosecurity, through the context of the developing Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). We will learn how modern threat management concepts can be efficiently employed by the GHSA to augment both public health response and preparedness in the event of a natural outbreak, or from the perspective of an intentional attack. The webinar will be presented by Ryan N. Burnette, PhD, Director, International Biosecurity & Biosafety Programs, At Risk International. Upon completion of this webinar, participants will be able to:

  • Define the methods and goals of the GHSA
  • Paraphrase how threat management techniques can be applied at a macro level to augment global security in the context of epidemics and bioterrorism
  • Describe how biosecurity plays a vital role in public and global health

Gene Drives – the Good, the Bad, and the Hype
GMU Biodefense professor, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, and Kathleen Vogel are discussing the advances in life sciences and what these new gene-editing techniques could mean for biodefense. “The absence of clear safety guidelines, coupled with ambiguous government regulations, has nurtured fears of an accidental or voluntary release of a gene drive in nature that could cause irreparable damage. On the security front, the presumed simplicity and accessibility of Crispr raise the possibility that states, terrorists, or rogue scientists might use the technology to modify genomes to develop malicious gene drives and create novel bioweapons that could spread more quickly, cheaply, and globally than traditional bioweapons agents.” Caution is always a good strategy, but Ouagrham-Gormley and Vogel emphasize the importance of approaching these new technologies with a realistic approach grounded in empirical findings, rather than the hype of a shiny new toy. Understanding gene drive and the capabilities of CRISPR are necessary to not only proceed with advancements, but also fully assess the risks versus rewards. Gene drive does have some potential benefits, especially in terms of vectors and pest-control, in trying to impact the population of disease-transmitting mosquitoes and invasive mouse species that wreak agricultural havoc. There is also potential for gene drives to aid in endangered species and environmental conservation work as “gene-drive rodent control on islands can mitigate the environmental impact of invasive species, which disrupt island ecosystems by bringing in invasive plants, or eating plants and insects essential for other species’ survival.” Like anything, there is a potential for mis-use or neglect. In the wake of any new exciting innovation, the spread of CRISPR and gene drive technology has amplified concerns over lab safety and establishing a fundamentally better understanding of the technology before such rapid innovative leaps. Concerns over adverse effects on target species and damage to non-target species is crucial and regulators are racing to keep up with this constantly evolving technology. “These two cases show that Crispr-induced alterations have outpaced and continue to defy current regulations, leaving governments around the world to play catch-up. In this context, fears that an altered organism might escape the laboratory to potentially eradicate a whole species, or unexpectedly jump into another population and cause unpredictable economic and environmental damage, do not seem far-fetched.” Lastly, from the viewpoint of a bioweapons threat, the authors note that the perceived low cost, easy availability, and self-propagating nature of gene drives make it appealing to would-be bioterrorists. There are significant technical challenges that do form substantial roadblocks, not to mention that gene drives only work with organisms that produce sexually (in other words, they’re unable to alter a virus or bacteria). “However, to accurately evaluate their potential misuse, one needs to rigorously assess the state of the technology and consider its limitations. Current fears (and hopes) related to gene drives are based on projections of what gene drives could in theory do if they spread in nature. At the moment, these are still anecdotal, speculative claims and are not based on in-depth empirical research and analysis. One needs to keep in mind that the techniques under debate are still in their infancy, and in spite of their apparent progress, they may not prove to be as dangerous or promising as expected.” In the end, it is important to identify the risks when it comes to a lack of Cas enzyme control, capabilities of potentially a state-level gene-editing technology based bioweapons program, and slow regulatory catch-up. Threat estimates are speculative and the authors point to problematic historical security assessments of emerging biotech. Overall, it’s important to have a better understating of the complex and unique factors that push state and non-state actors to develop biological weapons and in the wake of this uncertainty, the authors “are engaged in a project that aims to understand the social and technical factors for how Crispr scientists around the world actually work in the lab.”

A Threat to the U.S. Food System
Food safety is often a forgotten component of biodefense when Anthrax and Ebola tend to steal the spotlight. Sadly, this is America’s soft underbelly as a threat to U.S. food production and security could have devastating economic ramifications. While the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense report in 2015 did mention the vulnerability of the agriculture system, it’s easy to forget just how damaging such an event could be. “The agriculture sector in the U.S. is a $1 trillion business and employs approximately 9.2 percent of American workers. In 2012, domestic animal agriculture – livestock and poultry production – generated approximately 1.8 million jobs, $346 billion in total economic output and $60 billion in household income.” Consider even a disease that impacts crops – wheat and rice account for 39% of the world’s total calorie consumption. It’s important to consider the devastation that crop or livestock attacks could have on not only the U.S. system, but also on an international level.

Zika Virus Weekly Updates
Venezuela is struggling to respond to and support cases of Zika-related microcephaly as the government refuses to acknowledge a single case. “Some doctors accuse Venezuela’s unpopular government of hiding the Zika problem amid a deep recession that has everything from flour and rice to antibiotics and chemotherapy medicines running short and spurred fierce criticism of Maduro. They also say government inaction means kids are missing out on targeted state-sponsored therapy programs that would help to stimulate them”. HHS recently announced how the Zika funds will be allocated among players.  “According to Caitlyn Miller, director of the division of discretionary programs for HHS, $394 million will go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), $152 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and $387 million toward the public health and social services emergency fund. Within that $387 million, $75 million will be used to reimburse healthcare providers who treat uninsured Zika patients, $40 million will be used to expand Zika resources in US territories, and $20 million will go to regional and national projects, such as creating microcephaly registries.” Public health officials have created a color-coded map of Zika zones in Florida. As of October 19th, the CDC has reported 5,016 cases of Zika in the U.S.

Stories You May Have Missed

  • EU Reports Animal Antibiotic Use Is Up– Despite a drop in overall sales, a recent report from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has revealed the worrisome reality that there has been an increase in the use of medically important antibiotics. While there was a 2.4% drop from 2011-2014 in sales of veterinary antibiotics, there was a sharp increase in “critically important” antibiotic usage. The usage of “fluoroquinolones, macrolides, and polymyxins sold for use in food-producing animals rose significantly—14%, 13%, and 19%, respectively.” The report does note that responsible-use campaigns in some countries could be effective in countering antibiotic resistance, however the increase in usage is raising many red flags.
  • Global Civil Society Coalition for the Biological Weapons Convention – last week Kathryn Millet, on behalf of the Global Civil Society Coalition for Biological Weapons, delivered a statement to the UN General Assembly First Committee. The statement points to the importance of the BWC but also the challenges and necessity of avoiding complacency. The coalition statement emphasizes the importance of recognizing the evolving threat posed by malign use of the life sciences since the last Review Conference and the need for more systematic advice for BWC State Parties on S&T. Further recommendations include the need for States to ensure that the interval between Review Conferences is used more effectively, reexamination and improvement on dealing with compliance with the BWC, and the application of more resources to support work that is necessary to fulfill the BWC’s objectives.

Pandora Report 10.14.2016

The Biological Threats in the 21st Century book launch is hours away and we’ll be live tweeting the event, so make sure to follow us on Twitter @PandoraReport. The event will also be recorded and we’ll let you know when you can watch in case you aren’t able to attend. Check out how virus hunters are using epigenetics and big data to map epidemics and trace the origins of viral outbreaks.  You can also read the WHO’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework for the sharing of influenza viruses and access to vaccines here. The global CRISPR-Cas9 Market Outlook 2022 is now available here.

Biotechnology: An Era of Hopes and Fears
GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Douglas R. Lewis, writes for Strategic Studies Quarterly on the increasing pace of biotechnology capabilities. Lewis notes that while this isn’t a good or bad thing, it’s crucial to acknowledge that as capability and knowledge grows, so does the potential for bioweapons development. “Every new treatment represents a potential new weapon”. Advances like the manipulation of viral genetics allow researchers to create chimeric viruses that often bring out fears like those following the publication of The Cobra Event. While there was substantial effort during the height of the bioweapons development renaissance, it is unknown if programs, like the Soviets, succeeded. It’s important to remember that “while viral chimeras are a routine tool in laboratory practice, they are becoming common in therapeutic roles, for instance in vaccine production. A live, nonattenuated vaccine constructed from Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus and Sindbis virus has demonstrated the ability to protect primates from EEE.” Despite these advances, we often create at a faster rate than we learn or question. Understanding the genetic components of diseases allows researchers to mimic miRNA’s behavior and to make rapid advances in CRISPR-Cas9, but many are pointing to the slow rate of cautionary learning. Every advancement allows us to understand the world of genetics and medicine that much better, and the deeper we go, the more we’re able to develop extremely specific treatments. “Effective weaponization and large-scale employment of these new capabilities as a weapon would require a dedicated effort by a state sponsor. It is one thing for a medical provider to inject an experimental therapy into a patient but a much more difficult matter to deliver that substance simultaneously to thousands of people in a diverse environment.” Lewis emphasizes that the goal of his work is to inform the biodefense community of the evolving nature of biotechnology, emphasizing the need for continued support within the U.S. biodefense program. Keeping up with the biotechnology revolution is no easy task, however biodefense efforts must be as nimble as the science they seek to monitor.

Mighty Taco Outbreak logo-mighty-taco
Not the tacos! Sadly, at least 160 people have been sickened after eating at Mighty Taco locations in New York. The culprit? Refried beans. Public health officials are working with the state’s health and agriculture departments to identify the organism causing the illnesses. We’ll keep you updated as more information becomes available, but if you live in the New York area and frequent this taco establishment, rest assured they have thrown away the specific lot numbers of refrained beans.

GMU Biodefense MS Program Open HouseBiodefense_133x400
Don’t miss the next biodefense MS open house on October 19th! We invite you to attend an open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government. 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. Check out the next MS info program on Wednesday, October 19: 6:30pm-8:30pm- Arlington Campus, Founders Hall, Room 126

 

Mayaro – Why Scientists Are Keeping An Eye on A Little-Known Virus 
Since the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, the concept of emerging infectious diseases is becoming much more well known and discussed. Mayaro disease may just be the next hot topic. Similar to chikungunya and spread by a tree-dwelling species of mosquito that is typically found in South America, this virus just popped up in a young boy in rural Haiti. While this may be an isolated case, it’s important to learn the lessons of past emerging infectious disease outbreaks and just how quickly things can spiral out of control. Moreover, since Mayaro is so similar to chikungunya and dengue, it may be under diagnosed. “The newly detected case of Mayaro in Haiti needs to be seen as a pattern of waves of viruses moving across continents, merging, changing and evolving,’ Morris says. ‘It reinforces the idea that there is a constant battle between humans and the microorganisms that infect humans.’ Diseases frequently emerge and re-emerge, says Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health. And one case doesn’t necessarily indicate an imminent epidemic. But Mayaro is worth keeping an eye on.” Researchers are now keeping an eye on at several mosquito and tick-borne viruses  – Mayaro, Rift Valley Fever, Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, and Usutu.

International Infection Prevention Week
screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-6-13-12-pmHelp stop the chain of infection by celebrating Infection Prevention week from October 16-22! Believe it or not, you don’t have to be a healthcare worker to stop the spread of germs. On antibiotics? Take them as recommended and finish your dose! Visiting the hospital or being admitted? Ensure you and your visitors wash their hands and avoid visiting ill patients if you’re sick. There’s a lot we can do to prevent the spread of infection and fight the battle of the bug, so make sure to check out how you can get involved!

Weekly Zika Updates
Houston-based Legacy Community Health Services is frustrated over lab delays in Zika testing. The Legacy CMO has stated that pregnant women have had to wait as long as a month to know if their pregnancies are at risk as the turnaround time from the state public health department is so long. Public health departments in Zika-hit places are struggling to meet the testing demands, which is causing more of a delay in surveillance and diagnosis. The Florida Department of Health has released their Zika updates. Despite aiding the fight against the virus, the FDA won’t be getting any of the designated Zika funds. A new study is shedding light on the evolution and spread of Zika – “Their analysis revealed two distinct genotypes of the virus, African and Asiatic, and two separate clades (biological groupings that include a common ancestor and all the descendants of that ancestor). Clade I represented African gene sequences and Clade II, sequences of Asiatic and Brazilian origin. The Brazilian sequences were found to be closely related to a sequence from French Polynesia. This lends support to the hypothesis that the virus might have been introduced to Brazil during the Va’a World Sprint Canoeing Championship in Rio de Janeiro in 2014, which included a team from French Polynesia, rather than the World Cup in which no teams from Pacific countries participated.” Many are speaking about the experience of having a child with Zika-related microcephaly and the complications associated with the infection.  The CDC has reported 3,9836 cases of Zika in the U.S. as of October 12th.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Human H5N1 Cases in Egypt– Egypt has reported 356 cases of avian influenza A (H5N1) since early 2006, including 121 deaths, however they’ve already seen 10 cases in 2016. Unfortunately, four of these patients have died. The cases are concerning many international public health officials as the MOH has been largely silent, which may point to limited surveillance and testing, but also minimal reporting of cases on an international level.
  • The Case of the Traveling Surgical Scrub– We’ve all seen medical professionals in scrubs ordering a coffee or smoking a cigarette outside the facility. Sadly, this common practice is pretty gross from an infection control standpoint. While scrubs aren’t considered PPE, it’s still good to avoid taking them outside of the operating room. Fomites love to travel on clothing, which has led many physicians to avoid wearing ties and re-think the white coat habit. New guileless from the American College of Surgeons are pushing for scrubs to be changed once a day for this very reason – let’s  keep the OR as sterile as possible!
  • Modeling the Economic Burden of Adult Vaccine-Preventable Diseases in the U.S. – It’s easy to forget the importance of vaccination and boosters in adults however, a recent study revealed just how costly vaccine-preventable diseases in adult are. The researchers “estimated the total remaining economic burden at approximately $9 billion (plausibility range: $4.7–$15.2 billion) in a single year, 2015, from vaccine-preventable diseases related to ten vaccines recommended for adults ages nineteen and older. Unvaccinated individuals are responsible for almost 80 percent, or $7.1 billion, of the financial burden.”

Pandora Report 8.26.2016

A new report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is pointing to a harsh reality that despite incomplete and inaccurate Syrian disclosures, there are traces of nerve agents in their laboratories. While they promised to destroy their entire arsenal, there is a growing concern that Damascus has not followed through on commitments to destroy all of its armaments.   Feel like a biodefense arts and crafts project?  You can learn to make a plague doctor’s mask here. Chem-Bio warfare suits may be getting a fashionable upgrade as companies like Lululemon and Under Armor are competing to revolutionize the protective equipment. 

UN Security Council – Calls for Eradicating WMD’s  689139
On Tuesday, GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Director and Professor, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, briefed the UN Security Council on how terrorists could exploit advances in science and technology to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He delivered the briefing as part of a Security Council open debate on WMD nonproliferation that is part of the comprehensive review currently being conducted of Resolution 1540. You can read the summary of the meeting here, but the focus was on the evolving threat of WMD’s falling into the hands of non-state terrorists and actors. Emphasizing the threat of biological weapons, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon “questioned the international community’s ability to prevent or respond to a biological attack.  He also suggested giving a closer look at the nexus between emerging technologies — such as information and communication technologies, artificial intelligence, 3-D printing and synthetic biology — and weapons of mass destruction.” Dr. Koblentz (27 minutes into the broadcast of the meeting here) pointed to the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a source for huge gains in both productivity and prosperity, but also a darker potential for mis-use by non-state actors. Within his talk, Dr. Koblentz noted the five advances in science and technology that “increase the risk of CBRN weapons proliferation to non-state actors”. The advances include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), 3D printing, accessibility of illicit items on the Dark Web, malicious software and cyber attacks, and genetic engineering tools like CRISPR-Cas9. While these advances reveal the diverse technology, there are also seven deadly traits within these emerging technologies – dual-use, disruptive, diffusion, reliance on a digital component, decentralization, deskilling, and the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement. Simply put, these seven characteristics make emerging technologies that much more challenging to prevent mis-use. “The international community faces a continuous challenge of encouraging innovation and maximizing the benefits of such innovation with the need to mitigate the security risks posed by these new technologies. I hope the Security Council will take advantage of the Comprehensive Review of Resolution 1540, which this open debate is an important contribution to, to update the resolution to take into account the impact of scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to non-state actors.” There was substantial discussion regarding the strengthening of Resolution 1540, especially to consider the implications of a biological attack in light of recent outbreaks like Ebola, MERS, and SARS.  During her remarks, Ambassador Michele J. Sison, U.S. Deputy Representative to the United Nations, described Dr. Koblentz’s briefing as, “a very interesting, but also very sobering intervention.” Hopefully, with the focus on these evolving threats, the current review of Resolution 1540 can be further strengthened and focused to reduce the risk of terrorists acquiring WMD’s.

A Tribute to D.A. Henderson
There are few times in the history of public health that we can say we’ve eradicated a disease. D.A. Henderson, smallpox guru and disease detective, led such efforts within the WHO and his absence has been felt throughout the health community. A legend among public health and biodefense students, his dedication to the field inspired generations. As an epidemiologist, his work in both infectious diseases and bioterrorism gave me hope that such a career was not only possible, but also filled with the kind of adventure that many only dreamed about. Having just read Scourge (and I would highly encourage you to read it), the dedication to the smallpox eradication efforts is still an inspiration. After conquering what many considered impossible, Henderson worked as Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies (now UPMC Center for Health Security), and following 9/11, led the Office of Public Health Preparedness. Described as a “Sherman tank of a human being- he simply rolled over bureaucrats who got in his way”, Henderson’s death is truly felt throughout the international community. In the wake of his death, we take a moment to truly applaud and appreciate all he’s given and inspired within global health security.

How Far Will the U.S. Luck Run?
With the anticipation and preparations for Zika having started months before it reached U.S. soil, many are wondering if our luck with infectious disease is running out. We were lucky with Ebola- a handful of cases and once we hit the panic button, we were able to overcome the crisis. Despite insufficient funds and battling diseases we had little to no experience in handling, U.S. efforts have been fortunate in their successes. Zika may be a different kind of ball game though – mosquito control efforts are flawed at best and with a disease that is often asymptomatic, we may have finally hit a wall. Did we really learn from Ebola? Have we strengthened our surveillance and response practices? Dr. Johnathan Fielding notes that “HHS must play a greater role in coordinating the global public health response through implementation of the Global Health Security Agenda, a cooperative arrangement launched in 2014 by over 50 nations, nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders; better coordination with other government agencies, and state, local and private sector partners; and clear delineation of roles and responsibilities within and among HHS offices.” We need both the monetary and personnel support to properly address the failures from Ebola, but also implement the recommendations that so many have made following the crisis. The contingency funding that has been pushed recently is an indication of our potentially faltering luck – have we reached such an impasse in which our politics will override our disease response capacity or capabilities?

A Lot of Zika Goes a Long Ways 
Palm Beach is seeing its second case of Zika virus, with active transmission continuing in Florida. Florida Governor, Rick Scott, has expressed frustration that the promised federal support of antibody tests and lab support has not been delivered. “In a teleconference on Wednesday, Scott made a plea for more support in fighting Zika, complaining that ‘Congress and the White House have not been good partners.’ Scott said he asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 5,000 Zika antibody tests last week, but so far had only received less than 1,200.” Johns Hopkins is opening the first multidisciplinary Zika center, the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Zika Center, which is dedicated to caring for affected patients. As of August 24, the CDC has reported 2,517 cases of Zika virus in the U.S. The CDC has also awarded $6.8 million to partners to help support Zika response. “This funding will help enhance surge capacity for Zika case identification and mosquito surveillance. It will also help improve communications to key populations, by developing focused educational materials, sharing mosquito control guidance, and refining community public awareness campaigns.”

Human Mobility and Epidemics
Tracking infectious disease cases is never an easy task – whether it be an asymptomatic patient, mosquito-spread disease, or global travel, epidemiology and case tracking is not for the faint of heart. An increasingly mobile population is only adding to this difficulty. The first few days of an infection with Dengue or Zika are often so mild that many don’t even seek medical care. How many times have you had a fever and it didn’t stop you from traveling or going about your day? Disease ecologists are now looking at the impact of a fever on human mobility and the shock this may have during an outbreak of a vector-borne disease. “We’ve found that people with a fever visit 30 percent fewer locations on average than those who do not have a fever, and that they spend more time closer to home. It may sound like stating the obvious, but such data have practical applications to understand how human behavior shapes epidemics,” says Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, an assistant professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, and senior author of the study. “No one had previously quantified how a symptom such as fever changes mobility patterns, individually and across a population, in a tropical urban setting like Iquitos.” Not surprisingly, human mobility is a huge driver for spreading these diseases in urban settings. With the ongoing spread of Zika, researchers are continuing to learn about the impact of human behavior and mobility on the spread of these mosquito-spread diseases.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Global Reaches of Antibiotic Resistance – Check out my latest comments on the global implications of antibiotic resistance for first responders and security personnel. It’s a topic we’ve so frequently cited as an international health emergency, and yet it gets so little attention. In this article, I point to the obvious implications, but also the worries that dual-use technologies of concern and genetic modification could allow for increased resistance for a more sinister reason.
  • South Sudan Crisis Calls for Additional WHO Surveillance  – the continued chaos and violence in South Sudan has translated into the WHO ramping up disease surveillance efforts. More than 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDP) have been caught in the conflict, leaving the region more susceptible to malaria and diarrheal illnesses. “The conflict has exacerbated existing challenges with the health system and disease surveillance,” Dr Usman says. “With so many health workers and partners moving to safety, data is more difficult to collect and challenges have emerged as humanitarian access remains limited.” The WHO is coordinating with the Ministry of Health to strengthen surveillance efforts to help detect and respond to outbreaks.
  • FBI WMD Directorate Marks 10 Years – A program we’d rather have and not need than need and not have, the WMD Directorate within the FBI has been imagining worst-case scenarios for over a decade to better prepare and protect the U.S. “The Directorate has three sections: countermeasures, investigations and operations, and intelligence. In its first five years, the Directorate established itself as a central hub for WMD subject-matter expertise.” Assistant Director, John Perren, notes that while they’re intelligence driven, the things that keep him up at night aren’t what he knows, but what he doesn’t know.

Pandora Report: 8.12.2016

In the event you find a skunk with an ice cream cup stuck on its head, you can use Ebola PPE like this Southern Ontario paramedic. The yellow fever outbreak is surging and yet again, the WHO is being called out for poor leadership and outbreak response. “An internal draft document sent from WHO’s Africa office to its Geneva headquarters in June cited a lack of senior leadership at WHO. It said the emergency outbreak response manager and team in Angola ‘are unable to lead or positively influence the operational direction and scale of containment efforts.” Science and technology issues truly impact voters, so are 20 questions many science organizations feel Presidential candidates should have to answer.

Medical Countermeasures Dispensing Summit: National Capitol Region
On-site attendance is full, but you can still enjoy the August 16-17 summit virtually. Organized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, the regional summit allows people “direct access to local best practices and MCM subject matter experts, as well as to create collaborative environments to address nationally identified target areas and hear directly from stakeholders at all levels of response planning.” The Washington, DC summit will have a dual-track agenda and allow each attendant to base their participation on topics they find most relevant.

Are Exotic Pets a New Biothreat?
Dr. Laura Kahn is making us second guess exotic pets and invasive species in the biodefense paradigm. While not the normal “go-to” when thinking of bioweapons, she notes that a handful of security experts are raising concerns over their ability to impact ecosystems and the agriculture sector. Pointing to a recent paper in Biosafety, Kahn draws attention to the potential biological attack using non-native species to infiltrate, impact natural resources, injure soldiers, transmit disease, etc. While this threat may seem unlikely, the truth is much more startling – we’re already under attack by non-native wild animals via the exotic animal market. “Invasive species—which can take the form of anything from microscopic organisms to plants, fish, and mammals—are those inhabiting a region where they are not native, and where they are causing harm. They displace native species by either eating them or eating their food. In part because they often have no natural predators in their new location, they can disrupt ecosystems, delicate webs of plants and animals that evolved to exist in balanced harmony. This can wreak havoc on environmental, animal, and human health.” A prime example would be Australia in the 18th century, which endured a rabbit invasion by way of European settlers. As a result of these furry invaders, Australia is reported to lose more than $87 USD per year. Delicate ecosystems and dangerous animals have a role in this compounding threat and it’s not just related to the illegal trade of animals. Dr. Khan notes that the legal importation of animals is a substantial source for risk – between 2005 and 2008, the U.S. imported more than one billion live animals. The regulatory agencies involved in oversight of these processes are spread across the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection. Aside from the obvious challenges of legal importation, wildlife trafficking still occurs and when coupled with the exotic pet market, the volume of threats is far greater than we might consider. “It appears that exotic pets fall through the regulatory cracks much to the peril of our nation’s ecosystems and agriculture. In fact, they should be considered potential biological threats, and the regulation loopholes allowing their unfettered importation should be closed.”

Colistin-Resistance, Where Is It Now?
The Olympics may have taken over Brazil, but colistin-resistant bacteria are the latest arrival in the South American country. Making its debut, the MCR-1 gene that allows bacteria like E. coli to become resistant to the antibiotic of last resort (colistin), was found in the infected foot wound of a diabetic patient. “In earlier research, these investigators showed that E. coli harboring the mcr-1 gene had been present in food-producing livestock in Brazil since at least 2012. ‘In spite of this, we had previously recovered no isolates from humans that were positive for mcr-1,’ said coauthor Nilton Lincopan, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology, Institute of Biomedical Sciences, Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil.” This news comes at an especially relevant time as the concerns over water quality and aquatic events are being voiced daily. The growing reports of MCR-1 genes are pushing for more global surveillance on antibiotic resistance. In the U.S., Minnesota is making strides to combat the rise of antibiotic resistance. Utilizing a One Health approach to antibiotic stewardship, their 5-year plan will incorporate “Minnesota’s departments of health and agriculture, along with the Board of Animal Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), to work together to promote the judicious use of antibiotics in humans and animals and get a better sense of how antibiotic use is affecting environmental health.”

Aerosol Stability of Ebola Strains
Do you ever find yourself pondering the aerosol transmission capability of certain Ebola strains? Researchers are doing just that in the latest Journal of Infectious Diseases. During the 2014/2015 outbreak, there was a lot of concern over the potential for aerosol transmission, especially in the healthcare environment (invasive procedures, suctioning, etc.). Despite there being little epidemiological evidence to support this transmission route, there were substantial reports and media speculation to push researchers to go back to the drawing board regarding Ebola transmission. Looking at two Ebola strains (1976 and 2014 strains), researchers found that there was “no difference in virus stability between the 2 strains and that viable virus can be recovered from an aerosol 180 minutes after it is generated.”

The Latest on Zika
Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 4.24.44 PM
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded $4.1 million to Hologic, Inc. for the advancement of a Zika blood screening test. To aid in the fight against the growing outbreak, federal employees are deploying to help stop the outbreak. With Congress and the White House at an impasse, hundreds of employees from DHHS, the Defense Department, and the State Department are all deploying to help combat the outbreak. Florida has reported more infections, bringing their total local transmission cases to 25, while a Texas newborn has died from Zika complications. Texas has reported 99 cases, including two infants. You can read about the investigations into the local transmission cases hereUSAID has announced their investment of over $15 million to accelerate development and deployment of 21 innovations to combat Zika. “The award nominees range from deployment of mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia, a naturally-occurring bacteria that prevents the spread of disease to humans; to low-cost, insecticide-treated sandals; to a cell phone app that measures wing-beat frequency to not only distinguish different types of mosquitoes but potentially identify whether they are carrying disease.” In a letter to Congress, DHHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell pointed to the lack of federal support, resulting in $81 million having to be transferred to Zika from other programs. As of August 10th, the CDC has reported 1,962 cases of Zika in the U.S.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Impaired Growth & Campylobacter Infections – a recent study reviewed the impact of Campylobacter infections in children in eight low-resource settings. Addressing the role of enteropathogen infections on enteric dysfunction and impaired growth in children, researchers performed a multi-site cohort to look at Campylobacter infections in the first two years of life. Following their analysis, they found a high prevalence of the infection within the first year and that a high burden of Campylobacter was associated with a lower length-for-age Z (LAZ) score. Campylobacter infections were also found to bear an “association with increased intestinal permeability and intestinal and systemic inflammation.”
  • High School Student Awarded For Work on Ebola Proteins in Bats-While many of us were attending sporting events or getting into trouble with friends, Rachel Neff was contacting pathology professors and working on a project that would later translate to several awards. Neff’s project focuses “on a protein called VP35 that is found in both the Ebola virus and the bat genome. The Ebola version of VP35 suppresses the immune response in infected animals, allowing the virus to multiply. Bats are thought to carry the Ebola virus — and transmit it to humans — but are not sickened by it themselves. Scientists are exploring whether VP35 in bats may interfere with Ebola VP35, protecting the bats from disease.”

 

Pandora Report: 7.1.2016

Happy Friday from your favorite source for all things global health security – from Anthrax to Zika, we’ve got you covered…like germs on a kitchen sink! If you’re hoping to catch the Washington D.C. fireworks over the holiday, check out this article regarding the state of D.C.’s preparedness for anything from traffic issues to lone-wolf terrorism. You can also get some insight into the Strategic National Stockpile via an interview with the director of the program, Greg Burel. Ever wonder the economic impact of a pandemic influenza outbreak? A recent study analyzed the consequences of such a health emergency.

Behind the Scenes at Porton Down
BBC will be airing a new documentary on the work that takes place within the secretive site of Porton Down. Located in Wiltshire, England, this government military science park falls under the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (also known as Dstl). Dstl is an Executive Agency within the Ministry of Defense. Dstl’s website states that it “ensures that innovative science and technology contribute to the defense and security of the UK” however the facility has a long and controversial history. Considered to be one of the sites for research regarding biological and chemical weapons, the work within the 7,000 acres is extremely sensitive and secretive. “Inside Porton Down will also take viewers inside some of the site’s most secure biological research labs, where scientists have been tasked to find out how Ebola – potentially one of the biggest public threats facing us today – has the power to spread.”

Why We Need to Start Worrying About Yellow Fever Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 6.26.37 AM
It’s been a few months since we started reporting on the yellow fever outbreak in Angola and as much as we’d like to reveal that this outbreak was quickly put out….a more sinister accelerant was added to the epidemic – a vaccine shortage. The outbreak has spilled over into surrounding countries, with 1,000 suspected cases in the DRC. There are only four major manufacturers of the yellow fever vaccine…that’s right, four. These four manufacturers don’t have the capacity to make vaccine at the rate it would take should the outbreak jump to Asia, which is the growing concern as Chinese workers visit the affected areas. The WHO maintains a stockpile of 6 million doses however, this outbreak is already burning through them and the factories that can make the vaccines are only capable of 2.4 million doses per month. Simply put, the vaccine manufacturing capacity will not be effective if this outbreak spreads much further. This particular detail is why we should be worrying about yellow fever. While it may not be as deadly as Ebola or as contagious as influenza, it’s preventable through vaccination….and yet we’re running out of vaccines. Even scarier is the presence of fake vaccination certificates. Coupled with globalization, yellow fever could easily make its way back to the U.S. and remind us of a history we’d rather not relive. “A yellow fever epidemic might seem anachronistic to people in the United States and Europe, where the disease no longer poses a threat. But some of the most devastating urban outbreaks of yellow fever have occurred in America. In the 18th century, the disease was called the ‘American plague.'”

Who Isn’t Equipped For A Pandemic or Bioterror Attack?
Annie Sparrow of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists asks this question and points to the sad reality that the WHO is the front runner for this unfortunate title. Pointing to the origins of the WHO in the days of the early cholera epidemics, Sparrow notes that despite WHO claiming they were a catalyst for multilateral cooperation, the reality is much less prestigious. “But in fact, the first six International Sanitary Conferences were entirely unproductive due to conflicting interests: government fears about losing profits from trans-Atlantic trade took priority over the need to reduce the international death toll. Consensus was achieved only at the seventh conference in 1892, after the opening of the Suez Canal for use by all countries made standardized quarantine regulations necessary.” The slow WHO responses to Ebola and then Zika brought attention to the discrepancies between the WHO’s role as a front-line defense for pandemics (and bioterrorism) and what was actually happening. Many have called for a reform of the WHO and the necessity to address systemic and deep-rooted problems within the organization. Sparrow hits on several key obstacles the WHO needs to overcome if it’s going to truly serve its purpose – “increase its financial resources, eliminate the undue influence of donors and member states, and redress its subservient relationship with governments who are themselves responsible for health crises.” The WHO must also address its practices when dealing with health issues in conflict zones or transitioning states. Lastly, Sparrow highlights the suggestions that transferring global health programs to the UN would not be beneficial, but rather there needs to be a push for rehabbing the WHO. In the end, the world aspect of the WHO needs to provide some muscle behind this work, especially in times of political assertion of sovereignty.

The Up-Hill Battle of Antibiotic Resistance in the World of Infection Prevention
The recent findings of a Pennsylvanian woman with colistin-resistant E. coli in her urine sent title waves throughout the health community. It was the exact moment an organism that was so resistant we have no effective antibiotics to treat it, had reached U.S. soil. In truth, the presence of multi-drug resistant organisms (MDRO’s) isn’t new…they just aren’t as flashy as bugs like Zika or Ebola. In this article, I talk about the framing of MDRO’s and the infection preventionist perspective. “Public framing and hysteria brought Ebola to the forefront. But where is this sense of urgency for organisms so resistant that we have no means of treating them? The case in Pennsylvania received fleeting public attention but it has long been the concern and fear of those working in healthcare and biology. IPs have been working for years on MDRO surveillance and isolation. ”

WHO Appoints Emergency Unit Leader 
While we’re on the subject of WHO emergency response, it was recently announced that Peter Salama was appointed as the leader for the health emergencies unit. The Australian epidemiologist is currently with UNICEF in the Middle East and North Africa, but will lead the new team that was established following criticism of the WHO’s response during the West African Ebola outbreak. The new unit was set into place to provide rapid (not rabid…but there’s some infectious disease humor for you), support to a country or community experiencing a “health emergency arising from disease, natural or man-made disasters or conflict”. The WHO website has more information here, regarding the Health Emergencies Programme.

Brexit and Public Health
Unless you’ve been vacationing in a remote part of the globe, the Brexit referendum has been taking over the news. The British vote to leave the European Union (EU) has set into motion a global wave of economic uncertainty. While many are discussing the financial, trade, and labor force implications of the Brexit, there are also far-reaching public health outcomes. Just prior to the vote, an article was published in the Journal of Public Health regarding the impact of the EU laws on public health. Aside from environmental issues ranging from water quality to emissions, the EU has also focussed on tobacco cessation. The EU has developed strong skills for information exchange to better support a healthy public. “The EU has provided continued bold and effective action on public health policy and designed an excellent funding framework for collaborative health research. The loss of the UK’s strong participation and policy voice in the EU would, as Lord Hague, the former Conservative Foreign Secretary, recently quipped ‘not be a very clever day’s work’.” While globalization makes the spread of disease easier, it would make the new British isolation extremely impacting. The isolation via Brexit could create issues regarding cross-border information sharing, which becomes especially vital during outbreaks or in cases of public health emergencies.

The Scoop on Zika
I was recently gifted (as a joke) this amazing device to fend off the Zika-carrying mosquitos…what could possibly go wrong with an electric zapping racket? University of Michigan researchers performed an analysis looking at the political response to Ebola and how that may bubble over to Zika management. Reviewing the U.S. response to Ebola they looked at the “fragmented system with no clear leadership and considerable ‘strategic politicization’ due to the outbreak’s arrival during a midterm election year.” Scott Greer of the U-M School of Public Health noted that “Republicans are going to continue not to give Obama the federal dollars he seeks to combat Zika. They don’t trust him. But when the virus starts to affect people anywhere south of Indianapolis there will be an elaborate game of blaming the administration for not doing it right.” Good news- Cuba recently announced that they have had no Zika transmission since March and Dengue is all but eliminated due to their wide-spread, military supported fumigation efforts. New studies are looking to the efficacy of Zika transmission via urine and saliva as a research team from Brazil’s Fiocruz Institute isolated live virus from such samples. U.S. Zika funding is still in limbo as Senate Democrats derailed the $1.1 billion bill on Tuesday over “objections to attached measures such as birth control restrictions.” Florida health officials reported microcephaly in a baby born to a woman from Haiti. Researchers are also finding that microcephaly may be just the tip of the iceberg, as findings suggest other developmental delays in babies born without microcephaly. There is also concern for the impact of the Zika on fetal brain tissue, causing cell death.  Despite the hold-up on Zika funding, the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has started work on a research study regarding the mechanisms that allow Zika to be sexually transmitted.  As of June 29, 2016, the CDC has reported 935 Zika cases within the U.S.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Stopping Lab-Created Global Disasters One Scientist at a Time – Biotechnologist Kevin Esvelt talks about the shaky future of genetic engineering technologies like CRISPR. Esvelt notes, “We are walking forwards blind. We are opening boxes without thinking about consequences. We are going to fall off the tightrope and lose the trust of public. Lots of people are going to die.” Since he and his colleagues first suggested, two years ago, that CRISPR could create gene drive, he has been working hard to warn how dangerous the technology is.
  • One Health and the Politics of Antibiotic Resistance– Check out this webinar on July 7, 2016 from 11am-noon EDT. Dr. Laura Kahn will discuss the rise of certain MDRO’s, the different policy approaches in Europe and the U.S., and the history behind low-dose antibiotic use in agriculture.
  • Healthcare Worker Gloves and Disease Transmission– Researchers recently revealed results from a study reviewing “cross-transmission rates between contained gloves of healthcare workers and hospital surfaces.” Not surprisingly, results showed that contaminated gloves increased the likelihood of transmission among healthcare workers and in the environment.