Pandora Report 12.9.2016

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
17649_phil_who_on_site_ebola_outbreak_2014This 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.

antimcrresukreview2Farm 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 Establisheda 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.

 

Pandora Report 4.15.2016

It’s been a big week in the world of biodefense – today is International Biomedical Laboratory Science Day! Biomedical Laboratory Scientists work hard to ensure procedures and patient care happens in a safe environment and that patient safety comes first! April 10th marked the anniversary of the Biological Weapons Convention opening for signature in London, Moscow, and Washington in 1972. The U.S. Geological Society also just released evidence that Alaska remains a “hot spot” for avian influenza to enter North America.

GMU Participation in UNSCR 1540 Civil Society Forum
IMG_3260This week our GMU Biodefense Professor and Graduate Program Director, Dr. Koblentz, participated in the UN’s 1540 Civil Society Forum – A Dialogue with Academia and Civil Society. Dr. Koblentz presented a paper on the role of academia in implementing and strengthening Resolution 1540, as well as moderating a panel regarding academic outreach. Resolution 1540 (2004) “imposes binding obligations on all States to adopt legislation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and their means of delivery, and  establish appropriate domestic controls over related materials to prevent their illicit trafficking. It also encourages enhanced international cooperation on such efforts.” Dr. Koblentz’s  work with the UNSCR 1540 Civil Society Forum addresses the evolution of WMD proliferation threats related to non-state actors, 1540 obligations that pertain to the academic community, and the importance of academia in these efforts. The forum also focussed on how to enhance review and analysis of 1540 implementation via communication between civil society, national governments, and the 1540 Committee.

Written Testimony for April 14 Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Hearing – “The Federal Perspective on the State of Our Nation’s Biodefense”
You can now catch up on the written testimony from this hearing on biodefense within the U.S. Pointing to the evolution of threats to include more emerging infectious diseases and the role of DHS in biodefense, this overview gives insight into the current biodefense situation within the U.S. The hearing addressed the National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC), BioWatch Program, Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise, and state and local responder engagement. “In the wake of these growing threats, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) remains fully engaged and proactive in attempting to characterize the threat, providing warning of emerging and imminent threats, and coordinating whole of government response. During the most recent Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in West Africa, DHS provided intelligence analysis to the interagency, state and local governments, and first responders, and it directed research to better characterize the threat and fill gaps in public health and operational responses.” You can read the testimony before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, “The Nation Faces Multiple Challenges Building and Maintaining Biodefense and Biosurveillance” here.

Preparing for the Next Zika
Kendall Hoyt and Richard Hatchett are tackling the struggle of U.S. preparedness efforts for future infectious disease outbreaks. “The development of new biomedical countermeasures—vaccines, therapies and diagnostic—requires the coordination of a wide number of institutional and industry actors to succeed. We argue here that international efforts to develop countermeasures for emerging infectious diseases should build on lessons learned from US programs to develop closely related biodefense products.” While the WHO declaration of Zika virus as a public health emergency has pushed for the rapid development of a vaccine, Hoyt and Hatchett highlight the empirical delay that comes with vaccine development. Overall, they emphasize that lessons from the U.S. biodefense program should inform international efforts to build and strengthen medical countermeasures for emerging infectious diseases. If you enjoyed their article, you can also hear from the experts, in person, at GMU’s Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security summer program. Dr. Hoyt will be one of the instructors for our professional education course this summer (information will be made available shortly), so don’t miss out on getting to chat with experts in the field about all things biodefense.

GMU SPGIA PhD Information Session
Considering a PhD? Check out GMU’S School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs PhD Informational Session on Thursday, April 21, 7-8:30pm at our Arlington Campus, Founders Hall, Room 126. Dr. Koblentz will be discussing the Biodefense program and available to answer questions!

Lab Safety Tracking Website – Improving Select Agent Lab Oversight
In response to ongoing scrutiny and biosafety failures, federal regulators have launched a new website that will allow them to track their progress “improving oversight of safety and security at facilities working with bioterror pathogens such as anthrax and Ebola.” While still a work in progress, many are pointing to this site being a step in the right direction towards transparency. The CDC released their Federal Select Agent Program (FSAP) report card to look more closely at biosafety and security issues surrounding this work. Unfortunately, some note that the report card still fails to meet the requested details on labs violations and incidents at specific labs. The increased scrutiny and attention to lab safety failures has brought attention from the White House, initiating a push for more transparency regarding the research and incidents in labs working with bioterror agents.

HIV Fights Off CRISPR
Just when you thought CRISPR-Cas9 could do just about anything, HIV brings its A-game. Since its creation, many researchers have attempted to use CRISPR to combat HIV. Unfortunately, the virus has been skilled at fending off these efforts. “The very act of editing—involving snipping at the virus’s genome—may introduce mutations that help it to resist attack.” There are a handful of strategies for using CRISPR gene editing technologies against HIV – editing the T helper cells to avoid the virus from getting in or aiding the T cells with the capabilities to seek out and destroy any HIV that infects them. “When HIV infects a T cell, its genome is inserted into the cell’s DNA and hijacks its DNA-replicating machinery to churn out more copies of the virus. But a T cell equipped with a DNA-shearing enzyme called Cas9, together with customized pieces of RNA that guide the enzyme to a particular sequence in the HIV genome, could find, cut and cripple the invader’s genome.” Sounds like a good plan, right? Unfortunately, a team from McGill University found that the newly equipped T cells were, within two weeks, churning out virus particle copies that had avoided the CRISPR attack. The team performed DNA sequencing to get a closer look at what exactly what going on – they found that the virus had actually “developed mutations near the sequence that the CRISPR-Cas9 enzyme that been programmed to cut.” The team believes that it’s not actually the copying error-caused mutations that helped beat CRISPR, but rather that things went wrong when Cas9 cut the viral DNA. A team at the University of Amsterdam experienced similar results and both groups agree that this problem can be overcome and there is still a possibility for a CRISPR-Cas9-based HIV treatment.

All Things Zika
On 4/13, the CDC formally concluded that Zika virus causes microcephaly and other birth defects. Zika virus may now also be tied to another brain disease. The American Academy of Neurology published a report regarding a study that was released on April 10th, in which “Zika virus may be associated with an autoimmune disorder that attacks the brain’s myelin similar to multiple sclerosis”. While it’s a small study, these findings point to the neurological effects Zika virus is capable of causing and the need for further research. Experts are warning governments in Latin American to “fill a shortfall of investment to prevent further human tragedies” despite economists denying that there will be major impact from the virus. These experts are pointing to the already weakened economies that are plagued with “chronic underinvestment in water and sanitation”, which can aid in the spread of such diseases. On Monday, April 11th, the White House said that the released funds for Zika virus won’t be enough to combat the growing threat. Dr. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases highlighted that the more information that is gathered on Zika virus, the more worrisome it becomes. “One big problem, Fauci said, is that pharmaceutical companies could be reluctant to work with the federal government if they don’t have confidence that there will be a stable source of money.” A recent study published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, suggests that the virus may have been brought to Latin America via the 6th World Sprint Championship Canoe Race in August 2014.  USAID has put out a call for problem solvers to share groundbreaking ideas to help combat Zika virus. The Combating Zika and Future Threats Grand Challenge will invest up to $30 million in solutions. As of April 13th, the CDC has reported 358 travel-associated and 7 sexually transmitted cases of Zika in the U.S. You can also get the full WHO Zika situation report here.

Predicting and Evaluating the Epidemic Trend of Ebola in the 2014/2015 Outbreak and the Effects of Intervention Measures Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 9.41.51 AM
Researchers developed several transmission models for Ebola to predict epidemic trends and evaluate just how efficient and effective the intervention methods were following the 2014 outbreak. Accounting for effective vaccination rates, a basic reproductive number as an intermediate variable, and fluctuations of diseases transmission based on a SIR model, this study evaluates the effects of control and prevention measures. “Measures that reduced the spread of EVD included: early diagnosis, treatment in isolation, isolating/monitoring close contacts, timely corpse removal, post-recovery condom use, and preventing or quarantining imported cases. EVD may re-emerge within two decades without control and prevention measures.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSAAB) Meeting – Don’t miss out on the NSAAB meeting on May 24, 2016! Agenda items include: (1) Finalization of NSABB findings and recommendations on a conceptual approach to evaluating proposed gain-of-function (GOF) studies; (2) discussion of next steps for U.S. government policy development regarding GOF studies; and (3) other business of the Board. The meeting will also be webcast here at the time of the event!
  • BMBL Virtual Town Hall and Workshop – The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine presents an opportunity for stakeholders to provide input for a revision of “Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories”. This is a virtual town hall that is open for comments from April 4-May 13th. There will also be a workshop on May 12th in Washington, DC that you can register for here.
  • DARPA INTERCEPT Program for Biodefense Countermeasures – The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA)’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO) is hosting a Proposers Day for the INTERfering and Co-Evolving Prevention and Therapy (INTERCEPT) program. “The goal of the INTERCEPT program is to explore and develop a new therapeutic platform to outpace fast-evolving viral pathogens, based upon virus-based therapeutic particles that interfere with viral infection and co-evolve with viral targets.”
  • Angola Yellow Fever Outbreak – The WHO has reported that as of April 10th, there have been 1,751 suspected cases and 242 deaths associated with the yellow fever outbreak. 582 of the cases were laboratory confirmed, of which 406 were from the Luanda province.

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Pandora Report: 11.27.2015

We hope you’re having a lovely holiday week and recovering from a day of full of tryptophan overload! This week we’re starting off with a look at the Government Accountability Office’s review of the BioWatch program. We’re discussing another panel review of the WHO Ebola response efforts, the role of tacit knowledge in bioweapons development, and how the Beagle Brigade is fighting bioterrorism one belly-rub at a time. Fun history fact Friday: on November 26, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt declared the government would bar strikes “at plants under government contract to provide war materials for the US military and its allies” and on November 25, 1915, Albert Einstein published his equations on the Theory of General Relativity!

Government Accountability Office Finds BioWatch Unreliable
The BioWatch program was introduced in 2003 to perform active environmental surveillance for potential bioweapon use. The struggle has been to accurately discern between organisms that are naturally occurring and those that are being intentionally released. With several false alarms, the program has been under heavy scrutiny. Timothy M. Persons, chief scientist of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), states that authorities “need to have assurance that when the system indicates a possible attack, it’s not crying wolf. You can’t claim it works”. DHS official Jim H. Crumpacker, points out that the system is used as an early warning and there is an inherent level of uncertainty and limitation. The report (published in October but not publicly released until November 23, 2015), which you can read here, states that from 2003-2014, BioWatch made 149 mistaken detections that were “false positives”. The report says that “GAO recommends DHS not pursue upgrades or enhancements for Gen-2 until it reliably establishes the system’s current capabilities.”

Expert Review of Ebola Outbreak Response
A 19 member review panel, convened by the Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reviewed the Ebola outbreak response as a gateway to “public debates alongside reports on outbreak response and preparedness”. Led by Dr. Peter Piot, one of the scientists to discover Ebola in 1976, the group pointed to several issues needing attention on a global scale. Findings pushed for the WHO to reorganize their disease outbreak functions and streamline processes to “avoid political pressure, build country core capacities, and ensure adequate funding”. The ten suggested reforms heavily emphasize the importance of core capacities within countries to be able to detect and respond to outbreaks. Strengthening a country’s capacity to do surveillance, response, and prevention is crucial in reducing the risk of multi-national outbreaks that spread like wildfire. The report also suggests incentives for early outbreak reporting and more science-based justifications for economic impacts like travel restrictions, etc.

Tacit Knowledge and the Bioweapons Convention
GMU Biodefense Professor, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, takes on the August 2015 Biological Weapons Convention and the exciting inclusion of tacit knowledge in bioweapons development. Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley has contributed heavily to the field of biodefense, specifically on the role that tacit knowledge plays as a key determinant of bioweapons development. In past nonproliferation efforts, tacit knowledge has been widely neglected. Tacit knowledge “consists of unarticulated skills, know-how, or practices that cannot be easily translated into words, but are essential in the success of scientific endeavors.” Simply put, it takes more than a manual or YouTube video to truly perform a scientific experiment, etc. Tacit knowledge is seen in scientists that have spent years not only learning, but experiencing the quirks and challenges of performing experiments. The lessons of failed endeavors, teachings of fellow scientists, and instincts built by years of experience, are all components in tacit knowledge. Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley points to the role tacit knowledge has played in the history of failed bioweapons programs (state and non-state). While some analysts believe the advancing biotechnologies will “de-skill” the field and lower the bar for bioweapons development, Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley highlights that tacit knowledge is a massive roadblock. Pointing towards the new focus on tacit knowledge, she notes that this will only help “advance key mandates of the bioweapons convention, naming the assessment of new technologies, the improvement of national implementation, and the strengthening of cooperation among member states.”

The New Line of Biodefense: Adorable Dogs

Courtesy of BarkPost
Courtesy of BarkPost

There are few times when I get to combine a love of rescue dogs and biodefense nerdom and fortunately, today is that day! The Beagle Brigade is a group of rescue beagles that have been specially trained “to sense for items used for bioterror which include contraband money, pests, and unlawful wildlife”. Even more, the Beagle Brigade is part of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). They work in baggage-claim areas at international airports, wearing green jackets, to help identify any meat, animal byproducts, fruit, or vegetables that could be carrying any diseases or pests that have the potential to cause a devastating outbreak in the US. They’ve been specially trained to pick up “restricted” (fruit, vegetable, etc.) versus non-restricted items and have a 90% success rate! I think we can safely say the Beagle Brigade wins the award for “most adorable biodefense strategy”.

Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes Battle Malaria 
Recently published work shows how researchers used “a controversial method called ‘gene drive’ to ensure that an engineered mosquito would pass on its new resistance genes to nearly all of its offspring – not just half, as would normally be the case.” These “mutant mosquitoes” are engineered to resist the parasite that causes malaria infections. This particular work solves the issue that many were facing when it came to passing down resistant genes through a species. While this may mark the end of a long battle against malaria, many are pointing to the ethical and dual-use concerns of such work. The growing concern surrounds the high speed of such technological innovation and the lagging of regulatory and policy guidelines, especially regarding work in wild populations. The potential to alter an entire ecosystem has many concerned over the ramifications of such work. The research team is currently working to prepare mosquitoes for field tests, however they are non-native mosquitoes.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Stories From A Biodefense PhD Student- GMU Biodefense PhD student, Craig Wiener, discusses his journey from master’s student to PhD candidate. Craig explains what sparked his interest in not only biodefense, but GMU’s program, and how that’s translated into real-world experiences. “Mason has provided me the depth and breadth of knowledge that I needed to converse with senior policymakers, technologists, and scientists,” he says. “It bridged the gap between science and policy so I could be respected in both worlds because I knew what I was talking about.”
  • East Bronx Legionnaires’ Outbreak Traced to Psychiatric Center–  The New York City Health Department announced that the cooling tower at  the Bronx Psychiatric Centre was the likely source of the break that hit East Bronx earlier this fall. Samples from four cases matched those taken from the water tower. Remediation and disinfection is being performed on the water tower.
  • Liberia Reports Death of Boy – A boy who was part of the family cluster of Ebola cases in Liberia, has died of the disease. The 15-year-old boy was one of the three confirmed cases reported on November 20th, which marked the end of the Ebola-free period for Liberia since September 3rd. There are currently 153 contacts and 25 healthcare workers being monitored.

The Pandora Report

Highlights include: patenting viruses pt. II, BioWatch Gen 3 or the lack thereof, West Nile, Dengue detection, and US live hog imports restricted as PEDV rages. Happy Friday!

Why a Saudi Virus Is Spreading Alarm

A less discussed aspect of studying novel microorganisms is the corporate red tape often involved. We talked about this a couple weeks ago, but the most recent case of this is the patenting (or at least, creating of a Material Transfer Agreement) of the MERS virus by Ron Fouchier’s Dutch laboratory. Under the MTA, all labs who request samples of the virus are contractually bound not to develop vaccines or products without first asking for permission from the Dutch lab. As you can imagine, this creates extra hurdles for Saudi scientists trying to stem the virus’ spread across Saudi Arabia. Lest one believe this is simply “the way things are done” in virology, China released samples of its H7N9 virus to open source sites within a month of the first case being identified.

Council on Foreign Relations – “But impeding an effective response is a dispute over rights to develop a treatment for the virus. The case brings to the fore a growing debate over International Health Regulations, interpretations of patent rights, and the free exchange of scientific samples and information. Meanwhile, the epidemic has already caused forty-nine cases in seven countries, killing twenty-seven of them…’The virus was sent out of the country and it was patented, contracts were signed with vaccine companies and anti-viral drug companies, and that’s why they have a MTA [Material Transfer Agreement] to be signed by anybody who can utilize that virus, and that should not happen,’ [Saudi Arabia’s deputy health minister] Memish said.”

Autonomous Detection Sought For BioWatch Surveillance Systems

BioWatch Gen 3 is currently on the back burner, as officials explore alternative options (analysis of alternatives, or AoA). Everyone agrees that some form of detection is necessary, everyone agrees that 24 hours is too long of a lag time, and everyone definitely agrees that local and state health officials need to be involved, but not everyone agrees that the current funding proposals for BioWatch are feasible. Does anyone else feel like this is a disaster waiting to happen?

Homeland Security Newswire – “Options for upgrading the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) BioWatch biosurveillance program monitoring systems for biological agents to autonomous detectors is continuing to be explored — and the department plans eventually to do so in collaboration with state and local officials. But DHS currently has no formal program to produce the next generation of BioWatch monitoring technology, said BioWatch Program Manager Michael Walter in remarks at the National Academies of Science (NAS) Tuesday.”

West Nile Virus Logs Deadliest Year After Hotter Summer

Last year was a bad year for West Nile, with 286 deaths and 5,674 cases. The CDC is closely monitoring the number of cases as we enter the peak season (July through September), as reasons for last year’s large case number remains unclear. However, a warmer, wetter summer is thought to be a big part of it.

Bloomberg –  “While there are only six reported cases of the virus this year through June, according to the CDC’s website, more than 90 percent of infections from last year occurred between July and September.’West Nile virus is going to be a factor in the U.S. every year now,’ Marc Fischer, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC’s arboviral diseases branch, said in a telephone interview. ‘People need to take precautions and protect themselves.'”

The ‘Gold’ Standard: A Rapid, Cheap Method of Detecting Dengue Virus

Scientists are using gold nanoparticles to develop cheap, quick diagnostics for detecting dengue. While we understand this is very important in terms of helping reduce the spread of a globally present (50-100 million cases annually) and deadly virus, we also are a little pleased by the “gold” standard pun.

Science Daily – “The development of an easy to use, low cost method of detecting dengue virus in mosquitoes based on gold nanoparticles is reported in BioMed Central’s open access journal Virology Journal. The assay is able to detect lower levels of the virus than current tests, and is easy to transport and use in remote regions…Researchers from the University of Notre Dame, USA, used a DNAzyme linked to gold nanoparticles which recognises a short sequence of the viral RNA genome common to all four types of Dengue. Once bound, adding magnesium and heating to 37C causes the DNAZyme to cut the RNA leaving the gold nanoparticles free to clump together. This aggregation can be easily seen as a red to clear/colourless colour change.”

USDA working for removal of Mexican restrictions on live hog imports

The USDA is scrambling to get restrictions on US live pigs lifted by Mexico, following an outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV). The outbreak of PEDV has spread to 13 states in couple weeks since the virus’ first emergence.

Reuters – “A spokeswoman for the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said on Thursday the agency has sent Mexico information requested in connection with the outbreak of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus, a swine virus deadly to young pigs never before seen in North America. She did not state what information had been requested.”