Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly source for all things biodefense! Can you guess the 37 viral species that may have epidemic potential? Like something out of a horror movie, a team of researchers found the oldest known smallpox virus sample in a naturally mummified child in Lithuania.
Learning From Ebola – Workshop Proceedings from NAS & Laboratory Battles
This week was rich with information from the 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak and the lessons we’re still extracting from it. The National Academies of Science released their 136 pages proceedings from a workshop on the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. This is an extremely in-depth review of the situation, the failures, and what we’re doing to prevent it from happening again. If you don’t have time to read the full 136 page (too bad they don’t have it as a book on tape, right?), they’ve broken it down into sections- the outbreak, global preparedness and response, current and future research, etc. The actual body of the paper is about 65 pages but there are some gems in the appendixes – EVD preparedness in Germany, the view from the national institute of allergy and infectious diseases, and more. I found the outbreak section particularly interesting as it discussed the differences with previous outbreaks. This section noted the weakening of the affected countries through ongoing civil unrest and relative inexperience when dealing with ebola. Another great resource this week comes from the African Journal of Laboratory Medicine. They’ve just released a special edition that focuses on global health security during the Ebola outbreak. You can find articles on building laboratory capacity to combat diseases in Africa, the lab health system and its response to the EVD outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone’s lab system now and in the future, etc. The article on building lab capacity points to issues with Ebola, but also notes the challenge that several countries have in meeting the GHSA as their national disease programs are fragmented and have not yet joined the national lab networks, surveillance systems, and health research institutes. Interestingly, the focus then turns to antibiotic resistance and emphasizes the critical role of labs in detection and containment of AMR’s, which is a serious deficiency in Africa.
Since we’re already talking about Ebola, the CDC just released an article in their Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, regarding media messages and the perception of risk for ebola in the U.S. I think many of us can appreciate the significance of this article as media representation and messaging of risk during this outbreak was just another in a long list of mis-information and avoidable hysteria. The researchers reviewed U.S.-focused news about Ebola from July1-November 30, 2014 and found an abundance of risk-elevating messages. “Overall, 96% of print and television news stories that covered EVD in the context of the United States included >1 risk-elevating messages, 55% of stories contained >1 risk-minimizing messages, and 53% contained both message types. The most common risk-elevating messages (72%) concerned foreigners or travelers bringing Ebola virus to the United States. The most frequent risk-minimizing messages (32%) described scientific knowledge about EVD (Table).” When it comes to responding to ebola and other emerging infectious diseases, aside from the change in media habits, there’s a lot we still need to learn. Some of the more high-priority recommendations DHHS is trying to focus on include the role of the U.S. in aiding countries with limited surveillance and response capabilities (GHSA!), forming a pot of discretionary funds, capacity to call on the necessary public health experts, and clear guidelines for when the U.S. will send medical personnel to other countries.
Farm Animals Are Now Resistant to Antibiotic of Last Resort
Is this the start of the antibiotic apocalypse? A recent study found the presence of carbapenem-resistant (carbapenems are antibiotics that are last-line drugs for severe bacterial infections) bacteria in agricultural settings. Firstly, it’s important to note that because there is concern over this issue, carbapenems are not supposed to be used in agriculture. The samples that revealed the presence of the resistant microbes were taken during a study of a pig farm over the course of five months, and were collected from the floors, walls, fecal samples etc. The good news – none of the resistant bacteria were found in pigs, however it was found in sows and piglets. Dr. Wittum, chair of veterinary preventive medicine at Ohio State University, noted that “farms do not use carbapenem antibiotics not only because doing so is illegal, but that it’s also very expensive. ‘How the [resistant bacteria] got onto the farm we really don’t know,’ said Wittum in an email exchange with TIME. ‘But probably it was introduced from the outside from movements of wildlife, people, equipment, etc.’ He says it’s possible that other legal antibiotics used on the farm could be contributing to the maintenance and spread of the bacteria, but more research needs to be done.”
CRISPR Mortal Combat
Before we get into the battle that is the CRISPR patent world, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) just announced the creation of a new molecular tool to change the genomes of plants that will strengthen harvest yields and expand their geographical range. CSHL researchers established a process to make two kinds of tomato plants flower and produce ripe fruit two weeks faster than what is currently possible. “The impact of this discovery cannot be overstated, as the potential impact could mean more plantings per growing season and thus higher yield. Moreover, it also means that the plant can be grown in latitudes more northerly than currently possible. Attributes that are extremely important as the earth’s climate warms and population continue to burgeon.” On to the battle of CRISPR patents! Things have been getting nasty in these hearings and Tuesday morning saw the first and only oral arguments over a patent. “The nasty dispute pits the University of California against the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT for rights to key patents on CRISPR genome-editing. Since April 2014, the Broad has received 13 CRISPR patents, based on work led by its bioengineer Feng Zhang, but UC believes it deserves some of the most foundational ones, reflecting earlier work by its biochemist Jennifer Doudna and her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier.” STAT highlighted three very crucial questions that are being asked by so many as we sit in the audience of this gladiator-like spectacle- should we even be here, what are we arguing about, and why hasn’t there been a settlement? While there are potentially billions of dollars at stake, this could also change the nature of the exclusive and non-exclusive licenses to CRISPR technology. The patent dispute also comes at an interesting time for patent laws. “On March 16, 2013, the U.S. patent system switched the way patents are awarded: Previously, a patent was granted to the very first party to invent something; now, a patent simply goes to whoever files a patent application for an invention first. As it happened, Berkeley filed its initial patent just one day before the March 16 switchover. So here we are trying to figure out who invented CRISPR first.”
Enhancing BioWatch Capabilities Through Tech & Collaboration
The latest National Academies of Science publication looks to BioWatch and how we can improve it. In response to the 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report Biosurveillance: DHS Should Not Pursue BioWatch Upgrades or Enhancements Until System Capabilities Are Established, a NAS workshop was requested by DHS to further explore the findings and impact they may have on the future of BioWatch. The report reviews the recommendations from GAO and the DHS response, and then discusses the BioWatch collaborative planning process. One particularly interesting section focused on future opportunities for state and local collaboration. Several participants noted their state and local health departments deemed homeland security as a top issue and were open to participate on special projects but often met barriers when working with security and the Secret Service. The publication is definitely worth the read in terms of the issues encountered with BioWatch and what future goals might be. It’s also a breath of fresh air to hear accounts from local public health sources regarding their experiences.
Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Chairs High Level Security Council WMD Debate
On December 15th, the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, H.E. Mr. Alfonso Dastis, will be chairing a high level open debate of the Security Council on the topic of “Preventing catastrophe: A global agenda for stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by non-state actors”. The debate will focus on the process to strengthen a preventative system to avoid humanitarian, political, and economic catastrophe that the use of WMD’s by non-state actors would entail. “The debate will take into account the conclusions of the report of the Comprehensive Review of Resolution 1540 (2004), which will be sent to the Security Council by end November and sets the basis of a global agenda to achieve full implementation of resolution 1540 (2004) by 2021, when the current institutional arrangements adopted by the Security Council in this field will expire. Particularly, the debate aims at reflecting on the practical measures that the Security Council and the UN System, Members States, international organisations and relevant sectors of civil society can adopt to prevent non-State from accessing or using WMD. The debate will have a practical and action-oriented approach that connects the discussion with real life, thus creating momentum for an improvement of the effectiveness of the preventive system in the fight against the proliferation of WMD, perhaps the biggest threat the world faces presently. Participants in the open debate are also encouraged to announce specific commitments for implementing the main recommendations of the Comprehensive Review, including financial support for those with the capacity to do it, to push forward the global non-proliferation agenda and directly contribute to a safer world.” The best part? The debate will be open to the public and broadcast over the internet!
Zika Virus Updates
The CDC has reported 4,575 case in the U.S. as of December 7th. The daily Florida Department of Health counts can be found here, in which you’ll see three new travel-associated cases and five new locally acquired cases reported on December 8th. The CDC has released a new article in their EID journal regarding the characteristics of US travelers to Zika-virus affected countries in the Americas from March 2015-October 2016. They found that 3/4 of the travelers were men or women of reproductive age. The New York City department of health just announced that a 5th baby has been born with Zika-linked brain developmental issues. This makes five babies since July to be born with neurological development symptoms, like microcephaly, related to maternal infection. Arthur Caplan is talking to Forbes about how the Zika outbreak foretold Trump’s win.
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Big Data & Analytics for Infectious Disease Research, Operations, and Policy – You can now download this NAS workshop document for free! Get the latest news on how big data is a tipping point for global health and surveillance systems. The book includes information on utilizing big data, combating antimicrobial resistance with it, and some great case studies. It points to the range of opportunities for use, however there are several challenges to really access the full potential – like usage, access, interoperability, analysis, validation, liability, security, etc.
- Responding To The Next Ebola – Will Your Smartphone Play A Role?– Just when you thought we were done talking about Ebola…one of the greatest strengths technology has given us is speed. Coincidentally, that’s something we desperately need when fighting an infectious disease in an area with constantly moving people. Researchers tested this out by logging the number of calls from individual cell towers and then mapping the movement of people throughout the country. “Already, we’re getting immensely valuable insights about what happens during epidemics, and where we need to target our treatment efforts. For example, mobile mapping has confirmed that, in the wake of an epidemic or natural disaster, people head home to their families. So if you’re planning for worst-case scenarios, you can make a surprisingly good forecast by loading up migration data from national holidays such as Chinese New Year, Christmas or Diwali.”
- Re-emergence of Syphilis Traced to Pandemic Strain Cluster– the past few decades have seen a growth in syphilis cases globally. Researchers led by the University of Zurich analyzed low levels of DNA to delve into the history of syphilis strains. They found that all strains from modern patients share a common ancestor from the 1700s. In fact, the dominating strains of today originated from a pandemic cluster following the 1950s. The concerning aspect of these strains is their ability to fight off the second-line antibiotic, azithromycin.