Pandora Report 3.3.2017

Welcome to March! On Tuesday, Russia cast its seventh veto and China cast its sixth veto to aid in protecting the Syrian government from UNSC actions and sanctions regarding chemical weapons attacks.

DIY Gene Editing Gets Faster, Cheaper, and More Worrisome
CRISPR/Cas-9 lab projects may not have been a possibility when I was in high school, but today’s students are getting a taste for genome editing. The technology has allowed relative amateurs to easily and cheaply learn gene editing tactics. “The question is, can we rely on individuals to conduct their experiments in an ethical and appropriately safe way?” says Maxwell Mehlman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University, who is working with do-it-yourself scientists to develop DIY Crispr ethical guidelines. “The jury is out,” he says. “Crispr is too new. We have to wait and see.” GMU’s Dr. Koblentz has noted dual-use research is a wicked problem, and it seems that CRISPR/Cas-9 is one as well. Do-it-yourself (DIY) CRISPR kits can be purchased online for $150 and you can even get a handful of tutoring sessions for $400. While these products and experiments utilize harmless organisms, it’s not hard to see why so many are worried about the potential for misuse. Harvard University’s Dana Bateman visits high school classrooms for a lesson on CRISPR and during her time, she poses several ethical questions to the students. Dr. Bateman “asked a group of seventh-grade students whether Crispr should be deployed to bring extinct animals back to life. After a spirited discussion, one student asked, ‘How can we decide if we aren’t sure what will happen?’ Ms. Bateman replied that such questions will increasingly be part of public debate, and that everyone, including 12-year-olds, can benefit from learning about Crispr.” Learning the ins and outs of CRISPR isn’t so easy that it’s comparable to switching batteries in a remote, but probably closer to a complex set of IKEA instructions (ok, that’s a bit of an over simplification, but you catch my drift). Simply put, CRISPR does make DIY gene editing easier and cheaper, but foundational knowledge or instruction is still necessary. In this moment, we’re racing to catch up with the pace of innovation and understanding the risks versus rewards is proving more difficult. What are your thoughts on this hot topic?

China’s New BSL-4 Lab Plans 10729_lores
The Chinese mainland is hoping to see the construction of at least five BSL-4 labs by 2025. A laboratory in Wuhan is currently in the accreditation and clearance phase to work with the most deadly pathogens we face. While many celebrate the building  of this new lab, others are concerned about the biosafety and biosecurity risks. The increase in biodefense labs and programs has created several trade-offs for work with such high-risk pathogens.  Each new lab presents a new risk – for both biosafety failures and biosecurity failures. Biosafety failures are already plaguing U.S. labs – will this be the case with China’s labs? “The Wuhan lab cost 300 million yuan (US$44 million), and to allay safety concerns it was built far above the flood plain and with the capacity to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake, although the area has no history of strong earthquakes. It will focus on the control of emerging diseases, store purified viruses and act as a World Health Organization ‘reference laboratory’ linked to similar labs around the world.” Skeptics have pointed to several escapes of SARS from a high-level containment facility in Beijing. Several biosafety and biosecurity experts are highlighting the need for transparency and an open and responsible culture. Addressing issues with staff at all levels and opening the floor for an honest and frank discussion regarding concerns from those working in the environment is vital to addressing the issues that may not be seen at a higher level.

WHO’s List of Superbug Super Offenders  screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-10-19-28-am
If there was an A-list for multi-drug resistant organisms, this would be it. This first-of-its-kind list, highlights the “priority pathogens” that comprise of twelve families of bacteria “that pose the greatest threat to human health”. “The list was developed in collaboration with the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Tübingen, Germany, using a multi-criteria decision analysis technique vetted by a group of international experts. The criteria for selecting pathogens on the list were: how deadly the infections they cause are; whether their treatment requires long hospital stays; how frequently they are resistant to existing antibiotics when people in communities catch them; how easily they spread between animals, from animals to humans, and from person to person; whether they can be prevented (e.g. through good hygiene and vaccination); how many treatment options remain; and whether new antibiotics to treat them are already in the R&D pipeline.” Not only is the publishing of this list an indicator as to the seriousness of the issue, but it signals a desperate plea for the pharmaceutical industry to develop new antibiotics. The three most critical bacteria on the list are carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, carbapenem-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacteriaceae that are both carbapenem-resistant and ESBL-producing.

Kim Jong Un and the Case of the of VX Nerve Agent 
Last week saw the shocking revelation by Malaysian police that Kim Jon-nam, half-brother to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, had been assassinated with the nerve agent, VX. The use of VX has left many wondering gif Kim Jong-un decided to use this overt form of assignation to signal his possession and willingness to use it or was this a botched assassination that was supposed to look like a natural death? Since this event has taken us into uncharted territory, many chemical and biological weapons experts are weighing in on what this means. GMU biodefense professor and graduate program director, Gregory Koblentz, pointed out that “it’s very hard to make an accurate intelligence assessment”. The dual-use nature of bio-chem weapon production facilities and materials makes intelligence gathering that much more difficult. “While Kim Jong-un is unpredictable, seasoned Korea watchers see method in what may sometimes seem like madness. And that leads them to doubt that he actually intends to use nuclear weapons — which make more sense as a bargaining chip in dealing with the US and other powers. Pyongyang’s chemical arsenal is a different prospect, however. ‘If there’s a conflict on the Korean peninsula, North Korea would probably use chemical weapons early on,’ Koblentz said.”

PHEMCE Review: Accomplishments and Future Areas of Opportunity 
GMU Biodefense PhD student and VP of Marketing at Emergent BioSolutions, Rebecca Fish, is looking at the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE) and their recent strategic implementation plan. Highlighting their four goals and sample accomplishments, Rebecca looks at their work on emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) like Ebola response and Zika. While PHEMCE has made great progress, there is still room for engagement and opportunity. Rebecca points to their plans to incentivize innovation, “while biotechnology is increasing at an exponential rate, and the opportunity for misuse (bioterrorism) is increasing, the number of companies interested in making significant investment in medical countermeasures development is decreasing. There are important MCM innovation gaps that need to be addressed.” She notes that PHEMCE activity encompasses a great deal of federal agencies, which can make work that much more challenging. “However, the PHEMCE effort still requires strong, centralized leadership and a comprehensive strategic plan with measurable outcomes against which progress can be reported. It’s impressive that so many groups are working on these challenges, but who is determining the overall strategic plan? How does it come together? Which single individual has responsibility for the entire biodefense strategic effort? Who is managing the enterprise U.S. biodefense budget? No one. No one has clear accountability for the U.S. biodefense strategy, and this puts our country at risk.”

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Announces 2017 Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity
The Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University has announced the new class of emerging leaders in biosecurity. GMU is happy to announced that one of our Biodefense PhD students, Saskia Popescu, was named among the 2017 emerging leaders. “The program’s goal is to build a multidisciplinary network of biosecurity practitioners and scholars. ELBI is supported by a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project. As part of its commitment to grow and support the field of biosecurity, the Center has selected 28 Fellows from the US, the UK, and Canada. As in previous years, this year’s Fellows have backgrounds in government, the biological sciences, medicine, national security, law enforcement, public health preparedness, and the private sector.” Congrats to the new class of emerging leaders!

Multivariate Analysis of Radiation Responsive Proteins to Predict Radiation Exposure in Total-Body Irradiation and Partial-Body Irradiation Models
GMU Biodefense PhD student, Mary Sproull, is working to strengthen medical countermeasures in the event of a radiological or nuclear attack. Advanced screening and medical management of those exposed are vital during such an event. “In such a scenario, minimally invasive biomarkers that can accurately quantify radiation exposure would be useful for triage management by first responders. In this murine study, we evaluated the efficacy of a novel combination of radiation responsive proteins, Flt3 ligand (FL), serum amyloid A (SAA), matrix metalloproteinase 9 (MMP9), fibrinogen beta (FGB) and pentraxin 3 (PTX3) to predict the received dose after whole- or partial-body irradiation.” Researchers found that the novel combination of radiation responsive biomarker proteins are an efficient and accurate tactic for predicting radiation exposure. You can read the paper here.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • OPCW Call for Nominations For A Workshop on Policy & Diplomacy for Scientists – The OPCW Technical Secretariat is organizing a workshop, “Introduction to Responsible Research Practices in Chemical and Biochemical Sciences”, from September 12-15, 2017. “The objective of the workshop is to raise awareness among young scientists on the policy and diplomacy aspects that are related to the use of chemicals in various scientific disciplines, including chemistry, biochemistry, biotechnology, and other related fields.” Check out their link for more info on applying for admission and/or a scholarship.
  • Epidemic Tracking Tool Wins Open Science Grand Prize – A new prototype, Nextstrain, has won the new Open Science Prize. This tool analyzes and tracks genetic mutations during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks and they’re hoping to use it for other viruses. “Everyone is doing sequencing, but most people aren’t able to analyze their sequences as well or as quickly as they might want to,” Bedford said. “We’re trying to fill in this gap so that the World Health Organization or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — or whoever — can have better analysis tools to do what they do. We’re hoping that will get our software in the hands of a lot of people.”

Pandora Report 2.17.2017

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-10-06-56-amHappy Friday! Since Tuesday was Valentine’s day, it was fitting to have a super romantic story about Ebola super-spreaders and their role in causing most of the cases. Have you ever wondered why killer viruses are on the rise or what some of these infectious disease terms mean?

ASM Biothreats 2017 Highlights 
If you missed this event or weren’t able to make some of the sessions, check out our overview! GMU sent four graduate biodefense students to ASM’s biothreats conference to not only aid in their education, but also to report back for our readers. With their unique backgrounds, we’ve got articles on the FDA’s Animal Rule, international biosecurity efforts, and more. Check out the link above and you’ll find a special edition post with all of our highlights.

A Step Closer Towards Human Embryo Editing
A new report from an international committee put together by the U.S. National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Medicine found that a clinical trial regarding DNA editing of a human embryo “might be permitted, but only following much more research” on risks and benefits, and “only for compelling reasons and under strict oversight.” Consideration would be given to couples who are both afflicted with serious genetic disease and editing is “really the last reasonable option” for them to have a healthy child. While some applaud this as a first step towards a very specific and narrow subset of DNA altering, “others see the report as lowering the bar for such experiments because it does not explicitly say they should be prohibited for now. ‘It changes the tone to an affirmative position in the absence of the broad public debate this report calls for,’ says Edward Lanphier, chairman of the DNA editing company Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California.” You can read the full report here.

The Biotechnological Wild West: the Good, the Bad, and the Underknown of Synthetic Biology
GMU Biodefense PhD student and Predoc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Yong-Bee Lim, is taking on the 2017 ASM Biothreats conference and the pipette-slinging world of synthetic biology. Lim first focuses on the panel at ASM’s conference, which looked at the current state of synbio and where the future might take us. Like most things in life, there’s also a flip side to that coin – the negative aspects of this new technology. “While the benefits derived from synthetic biology are great, presenters noted that it suffers from the dual-use dilemma: the same information applied to beneficial uses could also be repurposed for nefarious purposes. Dr. Hassell noted that synthetic biology increases biologically-derived risks through three mechanisms. First, synthetic biology can be used to enhance existing microbial threats; synthetic biology allows actors to more easily manipulate the characteristics of microbes, including increasing environmental stability and introducing hypervirulence. Secondly, traditional methods of restricting access to biological select agents and toxins (BSATs) may be less effective in an age where synthetic biology can be used to construct microbes de novo. Finally, synthetic biology can be used to construct novel threats that are meant to subvert countermeasures.” Lastly, one of the most interesting components to this presentation and Lim’s article is the underknown components to synethic biology. The erosion of the knowledge and technical barriers and the rise of the do-it-yourself (DIY) practitioners all give way to a new frontier in terms of benefits and dangers.

Broad Institute Wins CRISPR Patent 
This week, the U.S. Patent Office appeal board ruled that the dispute regarding the discoveries between the University of California, Berkeley and the Broad Institute do not overlap. “The ruling is a win for the Broad Institute, which had asked for the finding of no interference. It will be able to retain its valuable patents, which cover the use of CRISPR in human and animal cells. In a statement, Berkeley said it “respects” the decision but still maintains that Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna and European collaborator Emmanuel Charpentier were the first to invent the CRISPR system.” The CRISPR patent dispute has brought to light the most foundational question of who truly owns the patent rights to CRISPR work in animals and plants. This new development doesn’t mark the end of the CRISPR dispute, as many expect Berkeley to appeal the decision and the Broad Institute’s patent is facing dispute from other researchers, including the Rockefeller University. While the CRISPR patent road may have been smoothed for a bit, it will continue to remain rocky and cause ripples for business developments and the biotech industry.

Defense Civil Support: DoD, HHS, and DHS Should Use Existing Coordination Mechanisms to Improve Their Pandemic Preparedness screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-10-41-11-am
In this Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, they found that the DoD should utilize guidance developed to aid in support of civil authorities (specifically HHS and DHS). “HHS and DHS have plans to guide their response to a pandemic, but their plans do not explain how they would respond in a resource-constrained environment in which capabilities like those provided by DOD are limited. DOD coordinates with the agencies, but existing coordination mechanisms among HHS, DHS, and DOD could be used to improve preparedness. HHS’s Pandemic Influenza Plan is the departmental blueprint for its preparedness and response to an influenza pandemic.” The GAO’s goal was to assess the DoD’s plans and processes to support civil authorities during a pandemic, of which they found that the existing coordination mechanisms should be used to explore opportunities to improve preparedness if their capabilities are limited.

Global Health Security Transparency 
Global health security is a finicky creature as it requires cooperation and transparency from all countries. One weak link in the chain can cause an international public health crisis. No More Epidemics is imploring countries to publish their Joint External Evaluations (JEE) performed by the GHSA (Global Health Security Agenda). As of now, only Ethiopia, Liberia, Peru, Uganda, UK, and the U.S. have openly shared their JEE’s. “Knowledge of baseline data provided by the JEE will result in more effective programming, prevention and detection of infectious disease outbreaks and early response. The JEE and roadmap processes are critical tools for civil society to use in developing appropriate and adequate programming to help countries close health systems gaps and become IHR-compliant. Transparency and accountability are vital in addressing global health threats. No More Epidemics urges all countries carrying out their Joint External Evaluations to make the results publicly available and for these to be made available on the World Health Organization’s Strategic Partnership Portal, the online repository for tracking funding, donor profiles and country level data.” Information sharing is also a mechanism for strengthening partnerships among countries.

Webinar on Ebola’s Aftermath 
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) will be hosting this live webinar on Thursday, February 23rd at 8pm EST. Following the publication of the book, The Politics of Fear: Médecins Sans Frontières and the West African Ebola Epidemic, the MSF webinar will do a deep-dive into the 2014/2015 outbreak and the lessons learned. This event will include a panel of MSF experts, who were directly involved in the MSF response in West Africa.

Fighting Antimicrobial Resistance with Physics
The battle against antimicrobial resistance (AMR) isn’t slowing and the proposed strategies emphasize the need for increased research and development of new antimicrobial agents, which means we’re running out of options. Swinburne University is trying a new tactic though – physics. “Elena Ivanova was studying physical surfaces that could repel bacteria before they even had time to settle. In clinical settings, such as hospitals and dental practices, 80% of infections are caused by bacteria that cling to surfaces in such densities that no antibiotic can remove them. First, she tried making surfaces so smooth that bacteria would, theoretically, simply slide off. Although that was the case for some bacteria, many others—such as the common Staphococcus aureus, or staphstill managed to cling on and multiply.” This is where Greg and Jolanta Watson come in – they have amassed a huge collection of biological samples in their laboratory. Ivanova and the Watsons communicated back and forth regarding natural properties that might make bacteria incapable of sticking to and growing on surfaces. Starting with cicada wings, Ivanova found that it was able to kill one of the two main types of bacteria, which was a partial success. Next, a gecko’s skin was tested, which revealed a wealth of knowledge. “Green had added a sample of the small, rod-shaped bacterium that causes gingivitis, Porphyromonas gingivalis, to the surface. In total, he added around 10 million microbes every day for a week. What’s more, this mass of microbes was given everything that they needed for a good life: a constant temperature of 98.6˚ F, an atmosphere without oxygen, and a daily ration of food. Regardless, after the week, nearly all were punctured and torn, their cellular carcasses strewn over the gecko skin. ‘Bacteria are trying to move and settle on the surface,’ Green says. ‘And they’re just getting spiked and skewered by these long hairs’.” Looking to nature, these researchers have focused on the physics of repelling bacterial growth, which may help broaden the arsenal against resistant germs.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Talking About Bioethics & Policy in the U.S. Under the Trump Administration – Dual-use research of concern, CDC’s new quarantine rule, and the Animal Rule are all topics involving bioethics and Johns Hopkins University is hoping to provide the resources needed to address these complex issues. The new administration brings with it concerns over vaccine skepticism and how they will handle these bioethical dilemmas. How will Trump address the work of biotechnology and public health crises?
  • Breaking Barriers: Women in Science Event: Don’t miss this March 8th event at 6pm at Top of the Town in Arlington, VA. The 3rd annual reception will “bring together scientific, political, and cultural leaders to celebrate the achievements of women in STEM and take a stand for the critical role women play in science and technology communities”.
  • The Cost of Biosecurity – For $1 million a year, you can buy yourself global biosecurity! A recently published list of the unit staff costs from the 2017 BWC Meeting of State Parties, gives an eye-opening revelation into the cost of biodefense. For $1.1 million a year, you can financially support the implementation unit staff of the BWC – quite a bargain, no?
  • Surprise Us, Mr. Trump – A Letter From the Global Health Community – In this editorial article from The Lancet Global Health, the authors point to the role of the U.S. in the WHO Executive Board and the future of WHO leadership. “Two legislative bills introduced in early January in the US House of Representatives and Senate are seeking to withhold funds from the UN and open a way for the USA to leave the global body, and therefore withdraw membership of WHO.” The current political and global health atmosphere is unsettled, which has many concerned about the future of U.S. involvement in global health programs.
  • CRISPR Creates TB-Resistant Cattle – Chinese researchers have created tuberculosis resistance in cattle using CRISPR/Cas9. “As the researchers reported today in Genome Biology, they used somatic nuclear transfer to get the edit into an egg cell, creating 11 cows in vitro with NRAMP1 (nine using Cas9 nickase) and demonstrating that the gene provided increased resistance to tuberculosis.Moreover, they said that while the Cas9 nickase did not completely eliminate off-target edits, it did reduce them, especially when compared to standard Cas9 which creates double-strand breaks and is much more likely to create indel mutations via the non-homologous end-joining DNA repair pathway.”

Pandora Report 11.11.2016

The U.S. Election has concluded and whether your candidate is now our presidential elect or you’re just glad it’s all over, here’s something to celebrate – President Obama signed an executive order last week, cementing the GHSA as a national, presidential-level priority. Commitment to GHSA and fighting outbreaks on a global scale is a huge step forward to combating the health crises we’ve seen and will continue to battle in the future. Since researchers recently debunked the myth of Gaëtan Dugas as a primary source for HIV/AIDS in the U.S., check out more stories regarding the misunderstood “patient zero”.  World leaders are starting to realize that the antibiotic clock is ticking away.

Trump and the Issues Within Science
Donald Trump is the new president elect, but where does he stand on issues like Zika? Here’s a compilation of sources that cover his comments and plans for some of the top issues in science. NPR is looking at his comments on global health and humanitarian aid, while some are trying to figure out what Trump’s administration will mean for them and the need for a transition team tutorial. STAT is asking five questions regarding what the Trump administration will mean for science. Sources close to the Trump campaign have stated that two of the “best-known climate skeptics will lead his U.S. EPA transition team“.

It’s Time to Modernize the BWC 
GMU Biodefense graduate program director and professor, Gregory Koblentz teamed up with Filippa Lentzos to discuss why it’s so important for the BWC to modernize. They tackle the reality that while the convention isn’t failing, it’s definitely not flourishing. Despite its dedication to ban a whole class of weapons, the BWC is a somewhat toothless dog. “It lacks a dedicated forum to assess treaty implications of scientific advances, a robust institutional capacity, organized means of helping member nations meet their obligations, provisions for verifying compliance, and an operational role to respond in cases of a serious violations. The upcoming review conference provides a welcome opportunity to begin rectifying some of these shortcomings.” Koblentz and Lentzos point to the consistent challenges of science and technology reviews. Despite a rapidly evolving industry, the BWC hasn’t been able to keep up and maintain an international forum for the debates that are needed. Lagging behind the biotech times means the BWC is running the risk of irrelevance, not to mention the slow shift from the convention towards UNSCR 1540. In this climate, it doesn’t help that there is an even greater need for transparency. Biodefense programs have surged the last two decades, which means that transparency is increasingly important to ensure these programs aren’t biosecurity risks or being perceived as threats and becoming justifications for initiated offensive programs. The reform process is pivotal and this includes organizing a review of relevant S&T developments more systematically, renewing the mandate of an implementation unit, and setting up an Open-Ended Working Group on Providing Reassurance to encourage transparency and engagement in peer review exercises. “The Eighth Review Conference provides an opportunity to revitalize the bioweapons treaty by taking concrete actions to expand its relevance, enhance its capacity to review developments in science and technology, and strengthen the confidence of nations in the peaceful intentions of their fellow treaty members.”

RevCon began this week in Geneva and you can catch the U.S. opening statements by Thomas Countryman, Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. You can also read Mr. Kim Won-soo’s remarks as High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) vice president, Christine Beerli, has also commented, noting that “States Parties should not become complacent; it remains their collective and individual responsibility to ensure that the treaty is implemented effectively. Over the past five years of annual meetings, a great deal of information has been shared and many proposals have been made on how to implement the treaty and improve its effectiveness. Disappointingly, however, there has been little collective agreement.” RevCon experts will also be focusing on new threats that may arise from technology. Guinea just became the 178th State Party to the BWC!

armas-biologicas-2NSABB Meeting on DURC and Other Hot Topics
On Friday, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) hosted a call to review policy updates, new activities, updates from the working group on institutional oversight of the life sciences DURC policy stakeholder engagement, and updates from the Blue Ribbon panel that is currently reviewing the 2014 NIH variola incident. The conference call was fast-paced but covered substantial ground – most of it you can find on the Power Point slides. The policy updates focused on initiatives to strengthen biosafety/biosecurity stewardship. The 2016 NSABB report recommended additional, multidisciplinary evaluation prior to funding decisions and appropriate, ongoing oversight if funding were given to projects. It was noted that this is a particularly exciting time for science as we’re seeing so many advancements in human health, however the applications of these technologies are testing the oversight and policies we currently have in place to ensure science is performed safely (and securely). While they may or may not all be under the purview of the NSABB, the emergence of CRISPR and evolution of genomic sequences and gene drive techs, and abilities to create next gen of chimeras – are all examples of biotech that are evolving very rapidly and we may need to rethink how they fit our current policy and framework. NSAAB has been a part of the DURC conversation with policy focus on research responsibilities and institutional approaches. NSABB is also working on how to increase and approach stakeholder engagement in DURC polices. There were several listed strategies and topics, ranging from regional meetings at universities or panel sessions at conferences like ASM and ASV. The biggest focus was on getting dialogue and metrics across institutions, not to mention the need for feedback to evolve an objective oversight system. The Blue Ribbon panel is working on the review of the NIH variola incident but they did note that the event was handled very well and while there were obvious gaps, they were all addressed and that the interagency work between the FBI, NIH, and CDC went very smoothly.

Sverdlovsk, Three Mile Island, and Government Oversight of Biological Safety
Greg Witt is talking to us about government oversight of biological research and the lessons learned from the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (did I mention that Greg is a nuclear systems engineer?). Pointing to the biosafety failures that have happened recently (remember that time a Pasteur Institute employee improperly took MERS samples on a commercial airline???), Greg pulls together the pieces to paint a bigger mosaic of systemic failure to properly control biological agents. Pointing to similarities between these events (they even happened days apart) he notes that “both were caused, in large part, by errors in maintenance: at Sverdlovsk, technicians neglected to replace an exhaust system filter, while at TMI, staff had isolated an auxiliary feedwater pump during routine maintenance in violation of US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rules.”

The Glamor of Bad Science02-ebola-w529-h352
Yours truly is talking about the disparaging addiction we have to dramatic science. I’m a fan of any movie that involves an outbreak, but the truth is that an overwhelming majority of these films depict infectious disease outbreaks so outrageously and dramatically, they have become anti-science. After watching the latest, Inferno, it became increasingly apparent that we’ve created a false threshold for science, specifically infectious diseases, in film. By painting the picture of diseases and outbreak response like that of Outbreak, I Am Legend, and more, we’re creating an increasingly de-sensitized culture. The result of this de-sensitization means that it takes a lot more for people to take infectious disease outbreaks seriously in real life. It’s not a genetically engineered airborne organism that will make flesh rot? Meh – not that big of a deal. Our love of bad infectious disease science in film and television could easily create a culture of poor public health support.

Ebola Was Just the Beginning…Are We Ready?
Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is highlighting the realities that we simply aren’t ready for the next big virus epidemic. Piot discusses his work during the early days of Ebola in the 1970s, pointing to the challenges of attempting to figure out a novel virus while trying to put out the fires of an outbreak. Describing the 2014 outbreak as a perfect storm, he notes that the WHO response was too slow to act. The globalization of our interconnected world has made the capabilities of an outbreak much greater than 50 years ago. “Piot also believes there will be a ‘Big One’, a big influenza, similar to the likes of the Spanish Flu in World War One and we’re not quite ready for it. Yet. ‘Are we ready?’ Piot asked. ‘A little bit better than a few years ago but we’re not yet up to the job. We can’t afford to wait but we have a plan, and that’s the good news. The world has learnt from the problems of mobilisation around Ebola and we are now in a better situation; there is better technology to allow for more rapid diagnosis’.” Piot stresses the importance of investment in infrastructure, stronger global governance, and vaccine development incentives.

All Things Zika
The Florida Health Department has released their Zika updates here. PAHO has recommended that Bolivian women delay pregnancy to avoid Zika. “Fernando Leanes, PAHO representative in Bolivia, said at a press conference that it was one of several advised measures to avoid the proliferation of microcephaly cases. ‘The epidemic of Zika, from what we have seen in other countries, will have a rise and fall in Bolivia. Therefore, there are options such as delaying the decision to get pregnant in areas where Zika is spreading. This will avoid the dreaded microcephaly and the complications it represents,’ explained Leanes.” An $18 million plan was just announced to release Zika-resistant mosquitoes into urban areas of Colombia and Brazil.  “A swarm of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes–the species that transmits dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya and Zika, have been modified to carry a bacterium called Wolbachia pipientis, which inhibits their ability to spread the viruses. Scientist released these ‘good mosquitoes’ in Brazil as part of a successful international program called ‘Eliminate Dengue’.” Many researchers are wondering why Colombia has had such few Zika-associated birth defects. They are the second largest outbreak in the world, yet have much fewer cases of microcephaly than Brazil. Researchers have noted that adult women in Puerto Rico were significantly more likely to develop Zika than men. The CDC has reported 4,175 cases of Zika in the U.S. as of November 9th, 2016.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • How Trauma Explains Civil War– Don’t miss this event today at GMU’s Arlington campus, Founders Hall, Room 602. Eric Goepner will be discussing his research as to why “hurt people hurt people” and hypothesizing that a population’s prior traumatization predicts future civil war onset.
  • Searching for Ebola’s Hideout – The recent ebola outbreak is over, but this doesn’t mean the disease is gone. In fact, ebola is known for hiding out..so where has it gone? Leigh Cowart and other researchers are looking to stop future Ebola outbreaks by finding its hiding spot. “Such a long-term host, the quiet refuge of a pathogen, is known as a reservoir species. If a reservoir species is Ebola’s safe house, we are its luxury retirement property, a place for it to live out its last days with a bang. The trouble is that we aren’t sure where the safe house is. If we are going to be vigilant against Ebola’s re-emergence, we need to find it.”
  • The UK Forms Special Outbreak Response Team– with a five-year £20m funding, the UK is setting up a specialist team of health experts who will be able to respond to outbreaks around the world within 48 hours. “Public Health England will run the project with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, said: ‘Speed is key in tackling infectious disease and with this new capability we can now deploy specialists anywhere in the world within 48 hours, saving and protecting lives where an outbreak starts and helping to keep the UK safe at home.'”

 

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 9.2.2016

Welcome to September! Let’s start the month off with a yellow fever timeline and the history of this misunderstood disease. If a gin and tonic is your go-to drink, you’ll be pleased to hear it was actually born to combat malaria. Many are questioning if Syria has retained a stockpile of chemical weapons, pointing to continued contradictions and discrepancies regarding inventories and more. While the topic of sanctions is being debated, findings from recent international reports determined that both the Syrian government and ISIS were responsible for chemical attacks in 2014 and 2015.  On Tuesday, the French ambassador to the UN pushed for unified action at the Security Council, emphasizing that within the report, the Assad regime and the Daesh terrorist group have been responsible for several attacks.

Next Gen Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Happy Hour
Please join the newly elected Coordinator, Jamechia Hoyle, for a happy hour and networking event. Come engage with a network of talented Global Health Security professionals. Share ideas, connect, and learn how to join the world of global health security! You can RSVP to nextgenghsa@gmail.com by September 5th – the event is Friday, September 9th, from 5-7pm, at District Commons DC, 2200 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC 20037.

Is Accessible Synthetic Biology Making DIY Bioweapons More Likely?
The biotech industrial revolution and advances with CRISPR-Cas9 have raised many red flags about the risk for do-it-yourself (DIY) bioweapons. Dr. Koblentz and several others discussed the role of gene-editing technologies in the UN Security Council meeting last week, with General-Secretary Ban noting that these advances have made the production and application of WMD’s easier. These advances have the potential to move the playing field away from solely state-sponsored or university-level programs, to lower levels of necessary tacit knowledge. The dilemma surrounding dual-use technologies of concern and biosafety failures compound these concerns – are we becoming more and more vulnerable to intentional or accidental events? Antibiotic resistance is also a growing dilemma, and not just what we’re facing now, but also the risk that synthetic biotechnology could make the development of a highly resistant organism possible for malicious persons. The tricky part is combating the risk for mis-use while not stifling innovation – any takers? The growing threat potential of synthetic biology has many commenting that “Zika is just the first front in the 21st century biowar”. We so easily think nuclear or cyber warfare when it comes to large-scale threats, but the truth is that biological threats have been looming in front of us for years. James Stavridis notes that there three key components to preparing for the biological revolution. “First, we need an international approach that seeks to limit the proliferation of highly dangerous technologies (much as we try to accomplish with nuclear weapons) and fosters cooperation in the case of contagion or a transnational biological threat.” Second, U.S. government interagency practices need to strengthen their capacity to address both scientific advances and security threats from the biological research sector. Lastly, there must be private-public cooperation. He points to the need for a stronger marriage between government and academia, but in such a manner that doesn’t deter innovation. In the end, there is a imperative need for more frequent and frank discussions about the impending realities of biological threats.

GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Open Houses! Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 1.28.57 PM
If you enjoyed reading about Dr. Koblentz and his work in biodefense, consider joining GMU’s Biodefense graduate program as a MS or PhD student! We’ve got some great Open Houses coming up- there is a PhD Information Session next Wednesday, September 7th at 7pm at our Arlington Campus in Founders Hall in room 134. If you’re interested in a MS in Biodefense (we offer both online and in-person!), come to our next Open House on Thursday, September 15th, at 6:30pm in our Arlington Campus Founder’s Hall, Room 126. Dr. Koblentz will be leading the information sessions, which will give you both some insight into the program, but also the range of student research and careers.

Disease Detection and the Outbreak Hunters
Venturing through the caves of South Africa, virus hunting researchers take us through the journey that is zoonotic disease tracking. The CDC has ten global disease detection centers and programs, like PREDICT, are all working to study the early signs of outbreaks and how we can prevent them from happening. “We were tracking almost 300 infectious disease outbreaks of concern in 145 countries,” says Dr. Jordan Tappero, director of the Global Health Protection Center at CDC. This was during a 2-year period. “Only about 30% of countries even self-report [and] are able to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks,” Tappero says. “We are working around the world to try and improve capacity so that we have partners everywhere to respond quickly.” Bats are one of the primary animals studied, as they tend to be a reservoir for many diseases. Much of the research looks to test animals to identify what diseases are circulating within them, which acts as an early warning system for potential outbreaks. Outbreaks like MERS-CoV and Ebola have taught us the importance of early warning systems within the germ world. Cheers to those brave researchers who are crawling through caves and bat guano – we applaud and thank you!

The Growing Vaccine Refusal in Pediatrics Usmap
After the measles outbreak in California and Arizona related to Disneyland in 2015, there was a surge of national attention to pediatric vaccination exemptions. While California is taking strides to reduce non-medically indicated exemptions, many doctors are still reporting that parents are refusing to vaccinate their children. A recent study was published using data from the American Academy of Pediatrics Periodic Surveys from 2006 and 2013, looking at parental noncompliance and the frequency of requests for vaccine delays and refusals. Researchers also looked at the impact on US pediatrician behavior as a result of parental refusal or requests to delay. The study found that the proportion of pediatricians reporting parental vaccine refusal increased from 74.5% in 2006 to 87.0% in 2013. “Pediatricians perceive that parents are increasingly refusing vaccinations because parents believe they are unnecessary (63.4% in 2006 vs 73.1% in 2013; P = .002). A total of 75.0% of pediatricians reported that parents delay vaccines because of concern about discomfort, and 72.5% indicated that they delay because of concern for immune system burden. In 2006, 6.1% of pediatricians reported “always” dismissing patients for continued vaccine refusal, and by 2013 that percentage increased to 11.7% (P = .004).” Sadly, these findings indicate that pediatricians are reporting more vaccine-refusing parents and while they provide vaccine education, they’re dismissing patients at a higher rate.

Get the Scoop on Zika Virus
The FDA has announced that all U.S. blood banks will test blood, regardless of the presence of Zika in the state, for the virus. Here’s a guide to help pregnant women reduce their Zika risk. A new report found that Zika was linked to congenital hearing loss in infants with microcephaly. This week, CDC Director, Dr. Tom Frieden, commented that the agency is almost out of funds for Zika. “Basically, we are out of money and we need Congress to act,” Frieden told reporters. “The cupboard is bare.”  Florida may be the perfect place for Zika transmission, but where else should we consider within the U.S.? Singapore is quickly becoming a Zika hot spot, with it being the only Asian country to have active transmission. The growing volume of cases is signaling that Singapore could easily be a new epicenter for Zika, triggering surrounding countries to ramp up their preparedness efforts. Many are wondering if Zika is a sleeping giant in Haiti. The country has all the ingredients for rapid and sustained transmission but hasn’t seen many cases yet, leaving many to wonder if it’ll hit. The CDC has reported, as of August 31st, 2,722 cases of Zika virus in the U.S. Yesterday, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services officially announced that, for the first time, mosquitoes trapped in the continental U.S. were positive for Zika virus.

Event: The Elimination of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Lessons Learned from the Recent Past 
Attend the Nonproliferation Review’s Monday, September 12th event to discuss nonproliferation! The event will be held at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies CNS Washington office at 1400 K Street, NW, Suite 1225, on Monday, 9/12,  from 1-3 pm. Speakers include Rebecca Hersman, director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Robert Peters, senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at National Defense University; and Dr. Philipp Bleek, assistant professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey and a fellow at CNS. Dr. Chen Kane, director of CNS’s Middle East nonproliferation program, will chair the event, with NPR Editor Joshua H. Pollack providing welcoming remarks.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • ABSA Risk Group Database App! Biosecurity – there’s an app for it! The American Biological Safety Association has created an app for the ABSA Risk Group Database. You can find it in Apple or Android app stores under “Risk Group Database app” and it’ll allow you to access the database on your mobile devise. “The ABSA Risk Group Database consists of international risk group classifications for Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, and Parasites. In many countries, including the United States, infectious agents are categorized in risk groups based on their relative risk. Depending on the country and/or organization, this classification system might take the following factors into consideration: pathogenicity of the organism; mode of transmission and host range; availability of effective preventive measures (e.g., vaccines); availability of effective treatment (e.g., antibiotics); and other factors.”
  • Possible Transmission of mcr-1–Harboring Escherichia coli between Companion Animals and Human– The growing reports of colistin-resistant E. coli findings have been raising the stakes in the fight against antibiotic resistance. A recent report found mcr-1 (the gene harboring the colistin-resistant mechanism) E. coli isolates in three separate patients admitting to a urology ward in China. One of the patients was found to work in a pet shop, so researchers collected fecal samples from 39 dogs and 14 cats where he worked. Six were positive for the mcr-1 gene by PCR (4 from dogs and 2 from cats). “These findings suggest that mcr-1–producing E. coli can colonize companion animals and be transferred between companion animals and humans. The findings also suggest that, in addition to food animals and humans, companion animals can serve as a reservoir of colistin-resistant E. coli, adding another layer of complexity to the rapidly evolving epidemiology of plasmid-mediated colistin resistance in the community.”
  • Frozen Strawberry & Hepatitis A Outbreak – Virginia is currently experiencing a Hepatitis A outbreak related to frozen strawberries used in Tropical Smoothie Cafe locations. There have been 40 reported cases, of which 55% have been hospitalized. “There are more than 500 of the smoothie franchises across the country, and Virginia is not the only state affected. All the potentially contaminated Egyptian-sourced berries were pulled from the 96 Tropical Smoothie Cafe locations in Virginia no later than Aug. 8 or Aug. 9.”
  • Foreign Policy Classroom – U.S. Efforts to Combat Zika – Catch the series featuring Gwen Tobert, Foreign Affairs Officer, Office of International Health and Biodefense. You must be a student enrolled in a U.S. academic institution or faculty to attend the September 8th (2-3pm) event at the U.S. Department of State.

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 12.25.2015

Happy Holidays fellow biodefense gurus! We at the Pandora Report would like to wish you and yours a lovely holiday season, filled with happiness, health, and a side of relaxation. Your favorite weekly dose of biodefense news be taking a few weeks off from reporting while I venture to the land of Oz. Rest assure, should there be a zombie outbreak, I’ll report it first hand! Since we’ll be radio silent for a couple of weeks, we’ve compiled a pretty swanky “I love biodefense and need more of it” reading list to keep you busy. Before you venture down the biodefense rabbit hole, here is fun history fact Friday: on December 24th, 1814, the war of 1812 ended and on December 24, 1936, the first radioactive isotope medicine was administered by Dr. John Lawrence

The Revolving Door of Biosafety7898_lores
GMU Biodefense Master’s student and lab guru, Scott McAlister discusses the importance of biosafety in the changing world of global health. Through his review of the 2009 report by the Trans-Federal Task Force on Optimizing Biosafety and Biocontainment Oversight and a 2015 memorandum released by the White House to enhance biosafety, he discusses the ever changing components of US biosafety. Scott breaks down and compares each report’s recommendations, language, and what these translate to within US laboratories. Moreover, given the recent failures, have US biosecurity practices and recommendations evolved over the past 6 years? Take a look into this review to see where we hope to be and if we’ve progressed since 2009.

National Action Plan for Combating Multidrug-Resistant TB
This week the White House released its national plan for combating the growing threat of multidrug resistant tuberculosis. While US rates of TB cases have dropped, the growing threat of multidrug resistant TB (MDR-TB) and extensively resistant TB (XDR-TB) requires action. This new plan is set to span over 3-5 years and has three goals that will focus on strengthening domestic capacity, improving international capacity and collaboration, and accelerating basic and applied research and development. Extensive collaboration within US agencies and international partners will be necessary to combat the evolving threat of drug resistant tuberculosis.

We’re Not Prepared for a Biological Attack
GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Dr. Daniel M. Gersteindiscusses biopreparedness and where the US stands in his work for US News  & World Report. Throughout his in-depth analysis, Dr. Gerstein emphasizes the importance of US leadership within the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Pointing to the disappointing Seventh and Eighth Review Conferences, Dr. Gerstein notes, “biological warfare can no longer be considered the purview of only state actors. And this democratization of biotechnology means that the world is literally one rogue microbiologist away from a potentially devastating biological attack.” Dr. Gerstein emphasizes that authorities often fail to realize that biological weapons may not act like naturally occurring diseases or outbreaks.

Holiday Biodefense Book Club
During the cold winter months it’s always nice to curl up by the fire with a good book and relax. GMU Biodefense Master’s student, Rebecca Earnhardt, and I have picked a handful of books to spark your interest. If we could have a book club with our awesome readers, we would love it, but in the mean time, here are our recommendations for a few literary works that you might enjoy!

  • Phantom Menace or Looming Danger?: A New Framework for Assessing Bioweapons Threats By Kathleen M. Vogel — Johns Hopkins Press, 2012. The military has gathered reconnaissance of a possible biological research facility, evidence of a paper trail indicating procurement of weapons delivery systems, and collection of specialized personnel to manufacture biological agents.  Do all of these pieces point to an imminent biological weapons danger?  Kathleen M. Vogel, in Phantom Menace, argues that there is more to the picture of biological weapons development than the technical and physical aspects of manufacturing.  Through examination of three case studies, Vogel highlights the shortcomings of the dominant biotech revolution frame within biological weapons assessments.  The biotech revolution frame, as described by Vogel, misses the important social and contextual factors that affect biological weapons innovation.  The alternative offered by Vogel is termed the biosocial frame.  Vogel highlights in her biosocial frame how tacit knowledge and hands-on experience is vital to biological weapons assessments.  While Vogel does not particularly focus on political influences, I enjoyed the book because of her explanation of the importance in incorporating sociological aspects into biological weapons assessments.  I think this makes Vogel’s work a key book in the field of biodefense.
  • Innovation, Dual Use, and Security: Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies. Editor: Jonathan B. Tucker — MIT Press, 2012. The hotly debated concept of ‘dual-use’ is explored extensively through this multipart work edited by the late chemical and biological weapons expert, Jonathan B. Tucker.  This book takes on the conceptual nuances of dual-use with four parts focused on emerging technologies within the areas of directed design, acquisition of novel molecular parts, modification of biological systems, and enhanced production and packaging capabilities.  Each section, authored by leading experts in the field of biodefense research, including Filippa Lentzos and Gerald Epstein, applied Tucker’s framework of risk assessment for dual-use potential and governability.  This framework incorporates key aspects of assessing dual-use potential, including technological monitoring, technology assessments, and governability of the technology.  The strength of this framework lies in its applicability to emerging technologies, which may enable policy makers to continuously review a particular technology or an emerging area of research.  In the concluding chapter, Kirk Bansak and Jonathan Tucker redirect attention to the intervening social processes that construct relationships between the technology and its users, and how these social processes may create an environment ripe for misuse.  To me, this book is a highly valuable and informative work on the range of dual-use issues and conceptual applications.  I think this book is an important read not only because it covers a variety of dual-use issues, but also in its wide-ranging review of relatively recent biotechnology and life science innovations.  The variety of case studies makes this book an enjoyable read!
  • Spillover: Animal Infections and the next Human Pandemic by David Quammen. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Not only is David Quammen one of my favorites, but his overview of zoonotic diseases and the concept of spillover will both captivate and inform you. Ranging from West Nile Virus to Ebola, Quammen presents several of the zoonotic diseases you may have heard of and others that may cause you to reconsider kissing a horse anytime soon. Each chapter presents a new disease, it’s history, and a new outbreak that should raise our attention to global health security. While he doesn’t touch much on avian influenza or multi-drug resistant organisms, his points on humans infringing upon animal ecosystems and the resulting disease spillovers are harrowing. Quammen’s adventures remind me of a microbial Indiana Jones (hint hint Hollywood, that would make an excellent movie!), even with the cheeky wit. I would recommend Spillover as a gateway to understanding the role of zoonotic diseases and the emphasis we’re seeing on One Health. While his parts on Ebola aren’t as dramatic as Richard Preston, you’ll be sure to enjoy his approach to epidemiology and the impact of spillover on global health. Quammen did extend his sections on Ebola into another book that includes information related to the 2014/2015 outbreak. If you enjoy on-the-ground reporting, you’ll find this within Quammen’s book.
  • Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. Woodstock: Overlook Duckworth, 2003. As a lover of all things biodefense and classical, I was excited when I cam across Adrienne Mayor’s book. Combining ancient history and bioweapons? Sold! Mayor’s breakdown throughout the book reveals the mythical and historical accounts of chemical and biological weapons in the ancient world. While a bit dramatic and sometimes repetitive, I found her book to be enjoyable in that few people have combined ancient history and chem/bioweapons to such an extent. Mayor makes sure to include references to mythology that heavily impact these ancient societies. While the lines of chemical and biological weapons were sometimes muddied and some generalizations related to classical history did occur, I would recommend her book to anyone who enjoys history (especially ancient history), mythology, and CBW. Realistically, with such a catchy title, how could you resist?

Stories You May Have Missed:

Pandora Report 10.9.15

Happy Friday! Since we’ve made it through Hurricane Joaquin, let’s celebrate with some biodefense news by way of air defense, Ebola, some amazing original work from the GMU Biodefense clan, and all the fun in between. Fun fact: On October 8, 2001, President George W. Bush established the Office of Homeland Security. Let’s start your weekend off right with some zombies, shall we?

Zombies & Air Defense?
With Halloween around the corner and The Walking Dead about to premiere, it’s time for some zombies – Pentagon style! Ever heard of JLENS? This $2.7 billion radar blimp was initially designed to act as an early warning system for low-flying weapons, drones, etc. Unfortunately, this system has been plagued with problems (pun intended) as it failed to detect the low-flying aircraft piloted by Florida postal worker, Douglas Hughes. We’ll let that slide since JLENS wasn’t deemed operational that day but that hasn’t stopped many from calling it a “zombie” program, meaning it’s “costly, ineffectual, and seemingly impossible to kill”. Check out the LA Times investigation into whether this defense technology is really “performing well right now” as claimed by Raytheon.

2016 Presidential Candidates on Nonproliferation- Part I

GMU’s Greg Mercer has churned out another fascinating commentary in a new series related to what 2016 presidential candidates are saying about nonproliferation. His series will pull together candidate stances and comments to take an in-depth look into the role nonproliferation is taking in this race. Greg notes, “Lucky for us though, there’s been a major nonproliferation news event to drive the foreign policy debate: the Iran nuclear deal.  So this is a rundown of what’s been said and being said about nonproliferation and WMD policy in the 2016 election.” This week we’ll be looking at the Republican Party, so make sure to check in over the next few months to see how everyone’s stance has changed or strengthened.

Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever Spike in Pakistan
Pakistan is currently seeing a spike in their cases of CCHF with the most recent death of a patient in Quetta at the Fatima Jinnah Chest and General Hospital. The death toll is now 3 in 3 days and a total of 15 patient mortalities this year. There are 9 other CCHF patients under observation and treatment at the regional hospitals. The WHO’s Diseases Early Warning System (DEWS) in Pakistan tracks these seasonal spikes in hopes to also prevent its spread. The concerning aspect is the high amount of deaths this year so far when compared to other years.

Iran’s Shifting Preference?
How lucky are we to have two amazing GMU Biodefense commentaries this week? Scott McAlister is discussing the Iranian nuclear deal and the potential consequences. He hammers out a topic we biodefense folks are all too familiar with – dual-use and the hiding-in-plain-sight reality of so many programs. Scott points out that, “the scary thing about biological and chemical weapons programs is their ability to hide in plain sight.  Due the dual use of much of today’s biotechnological advancements, an offensive weapons program can be disguised as a facility to create vaccines or research centers for diseases with minimal effort.” Take a look at his notes on nuclear weapon capabilities and Iranian perspective on biological weapons.

Tacit Knowledge & Biological Weapons Proliferation
On a scale of 1-10, having your research cited during a meeting of the State Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of Biological Weapons, is pretty much a 12. What can we say, GMU Biodefense professor, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, did just that! At the meeting of experts in August, the State parties met to discuss the field of science and technology while emphasizing tacit  knowledge in relation to bioweapon proliferation. When discussing tacit knowledge, the U.S. noted at the conference, “the concept of communal or collective tacit knowledge has been explored extensively, particularly in the work of Donald Mackenzie and Graham Spinardi, who examined its role in the context of nuclear weapons creation, and Kathleen Vogel and Sonia Ben Ouagrham- Gormley, who examined it with respect to biological weapons creation.” During this meeting, the role and relevance of tacit knowledge as a risk modulator was heavily discussed, pointing to its corresponding role of increasing the risk of bioweapon proliferation.

Bioweapons for Dummies?
Speaking of tacit knowledge and the rise of the biotechnology revolution… Zian Liu from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists goes through the five steps of building a biological weapon to address the barriers to weaponization. Broaching the topic of “biohacking”, Zian points to the concern within the biodefense industry related to synthetic biology and fourth generation bioweapons. From ordering the synthetic genes to recently published research that discusses the developments of genetic modification, this commentary hits on the very real barriers that a fourth-year bioengeneering undergraduate student identifies -even with the available tools. Between the need for increased regulations on synthetic DNA and the dual-use concerns, Zian notes that “novice biologists are not likely to construct advanced weapons any time soon.”

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Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Guinea outbreak region goes a full week without a new Ebola case! We’re all holding our breaths in hope this means the outbreak is nearing an end in this hard-hit region. Sierra Leone has reached 3 weeks (a full incubation period) of no new cases and the last healthcare worker infection was back in August. The WHO and local public health workers are still maintaining door-to-door case finding efforts and contact tracing.
  • PPD Awarded Contracts with US Army & BARDA – Pharmaceutical Product Development (PPD) was just awarded two US government contracts to address health outcomes in armed forces and test the efficacy of the national strategic stockpile’s supply of avian influenza vaccine.
  • Findings of the 7th WHO Ebola Emergency Committee Meeting – Last week this committee met to discuss the ongoing outbreak in West Africa. They provided updates and furthering advisement regarding the disease and international travel as 34 countries “continue to enact measures that are disproportionate to the risks posed.”

Pandora Report 4.5.15

I love when the stories find me, so we’ve got some big ones this week including the nuclear deal with Iran and the arrival of multi-drug resistant Shigella in the United States. We’ve also got an Ebola update and other stories you may have missed.

Enjoy your (Easter) Sunday, have a great week and see you back here next weekend!

An Iran Nuclear Deal Built on Coffee, All-Nighters and Compromise

For months—many, many, months—there has been discussion of potential for Iranian nuclear weapons and what the U.S. planned to do about it. This week, those questions were finally answered as a nuclear agreement between American and Iranian officials was reached in Lausanne, Switzerland.

New York Times—“The agreement calls for Tehran to slash its stockpile of nuclear materials and severely limit its enrichment activities, theoretically bringing the time it would take to produce a nuclear weapon to a year — a significant rollback from the current estimate of two to three months.

Both sides made significant compromises. For the United States, that meant accepting that Iran would retain its nuclear infrastructure in some shrunken form. For Iran, it meant severe limits on its production facilities and submitting to what Mr. Obama has called the most intrusive inspections regime in history.”

Drug-Resistant Food Poisoning Lands in the U.S.

Before I travelled to China in 2012, my doctor prescribed me ciprofloxacin. It was, in his opinion, almost guaranteed I would come into contact with some sort of bacteria that would result in the dreaded “travel tummy.” Now, Cipro-resistant Shigella (a bacterial infection of the intestines) is becoming a growing problem in Asia and around the world. Over the past year, the resistant strain has shown up in 32 U.S. states and was linked with international travel to India, the Dominican Republic, and Morocco. However, in many instances, people who got sick hadn’t travelled outside the U.S. meaning the strain has already started to circulate unrelated to international travel. This could be a real problem.

NPR—“‘If rates of resistance become this high, in more places, we’ll have very few options left for treating Shigella with antibiotics by mouth,” says epidemiologist Anna Bowen, who led the study. Then doctors will have to resort to IV antibiotics.

Shigella is incredibly contagious. It spreads through contaminated food and water. “As few as 10 germs can cause an infection,” Bowen says. “That’s much less than some other diarrhea-causing germs.’”

This Week in Ebola

It’s been awhile since we’ve had an Ebola update, which should mostly be interpreted as a good sign. And there are good signs, like the two experimental trials of Ebola vaccine candidates have proven to be both safe and effective. However, during a three-day countrywide shutdown in Sierra Leone, 10 new cases of Ebola were found. The good news is that there were not hundreds of hidden cases, as some feared, and the Head of Sierra Leone’s Ebola Response has said the small figures indicate that the country is now at the “tail end” of the epidemic. If things are going relatively well in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ebola still remains entrenched in Guinea. This week Guinea closed its border with Sierra Leone as an effort to stamp out the virus. Even those who aren’t sick, or have recovered, must still deal with the after effects of the disease. This week, the Liberian government recommended that all Ebola survivors practice “safe sex indefinitely” until more information can be collected on the length of time the virus may remain present in bodily fluids. All these stories should serve as a reminder that even though Ebola may not be as present in the news, the disease is still affecting people around the world.

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Zeynel Cebeci

Koblentz on Viral Warfare, Cyber Security, Chem/Bio, and Nuclear Weapons Accidents

GMU Biodefense Deputy Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz has a slew of new publications out of topics ranging from the nexus of bioweapons and cybersecurity to new frameworks for understanding chem/bio threats.

His article, “Regime Security: A New Theory for Understanding the Proliferation of Chemical and Biological Weapons”, is available in this month’s Contemporary Security Policy. Here’s the abstract:

“The literature on the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) emphasizes the role of external security threats as the primary motive for states to acquire and use these weapons. As recent events in Syria demonstrate, governments lacking political legitimacy may use these weapons to repress domestic challenges to their rule. The concept of regime security provides a theoretical framework for understanding how the threat of military coups, insurgencies, or domestic rivals influences the acquisition and use of CBW by authoritarian regimes. The cases of South Africa and Iraq illustrate how a government’s concerns about internal security threats can impact its CBW proliferation decision-making. Omitting regime security as a factor in CBW decision-making may lead to the adoption of inappropriate nonproliferation and deterrent strategies. In light of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, developing a deeper understanding of the influence of regime security on the acquisition and use of chemical and biological weapons should be a priority.” (available here)

Dr. Koblentz also co-published an article with GMU Biodefense PhD student Brian Mazanec, “Viral Warfare: Security Implications of Cyber and Biological Weapons” – the article examines the relatively emergent threats of biological and cyber warfare, exposing several commonalities between the two. The article was published in the November issue of Comparative Strategy, available here (access required).

Abstract – “Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, two new threats have received increased attention: biological warfare (BW) and cyber warfare. While it may appear that these two threats have little in common, they share several characteristics that have significant implications for international security. This article examines the two modalities side-by- side to review these common characteristics. In light of these commonalities and due to the extensive experience and rich history of dealing with BW threats, strategies for enhancing cyber security could advance more quickly by drawing meaningful insights from the biological warfare experience, such as the prospect of developing constraining international norms.” (available here)

Finally, Koblentz has a new review out  in Foreign Affairs, on Eric Schlosser’s new book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety.  The first paragraph is below – read the rest here.

Between 1950 and 1980, the United States experienced a reported 32 “broken arrows,” the military’s term for accidents involving nuclear weapons. The last of these occurred in September 1980, at a U.S. Air Force base in Damascus, Arkansas. It started when a young technician performing routine maintenance on a Titan II missile housed in an underground silo dropped a socket wrench. The wrench punctured the missile’s fuel tank. As the highly toxic and flammable fuel leaked from the missile, officers and airmen scrambled to diagnose the problem and fix it. Their efforts ultimately failed, and eight hours after the fuel tank ruptured, it exploded with tremendous force. The detonation of the missile’s liquid fuel was powerful enough to throw the silo’s 740-ton blast door more than 200 yards and send a fireball hundreds of feet into the night sky. The missile’s nine-megaton thermo­nuclear warhead — the most powerful ever deployed by the United States — was found, relatively intact, in a ditch 200 yards away from the silo.

(image: CDC)