Pandora Report 9.27.2019

What a week it has been – from CW conspiracy theories to Tanzanian Ebola scares, the world of biodefense has been pretty busy.

Controversy Over Syrian CW Conspiracy Theory Claims
There’s been a lot of conversation regarding Syrian chemical weapons lately and not in the way you might anticipate. GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Director and Professor (and CW/BW expert) Dr. Gregory Koblentz is breaking down some of the conspiracy theories, debates, and why overwhelming evidence just can’t be ignored. “The journal Science and Global Security is embroiled in a controversy surrounding its acceptance of an article co-authored by Ted Postol, a former MIT professor and missile defense expert and member of the journal’s editorial board. For the last six years, Postol has promoted a variety of conspiracy theories that deny that the Syrian government is responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

Tanzania’s Ebola Problem and Outbreak Updates
This week saw a tense situation between the WHO and Tanzania, as “the World Health Organization took the unusual step on Saturday of issuing a statement detailing multiple suspected cases of Ebola in Tanzania and criticizing the government for withholding clinical samples for additional testing. The United Nations public-health agency said that it had received unofficial reports of at least one Tanzanian patient testing positive for Ebola, while at least three others were hospitalized with symptoms of the disease in different parts of the country.” In this rather unprecedented situation, the WHO was vocal in concern and frustration. The outbreak in the DRC continues to grow, as four more cases were reported on Wednesday. The total cases are now 3,175, with officials continuing to follow 445 suspected cases.

Vektor’s Explosion – The Big Uh-Oh?
Since last week’s news of an explosion at the State Research Centre of Virology in Russia, there’s been a lot of discussion regarding what really happened, but also what this means for smallpox stockpiles, biosecurity, and biosafety. “From a risk analysis perspective, an explosion at a BSL 4 facility for dangerous, contagious pathogens is a risk for global health. Despite the Russian government assertion that there is no risk to public health, it would be wise to assess the risk as objectively as possible, given the global community is a stakeholder if an epidemic arises from this accident. In the best-case scenario, there were no pathogens in the affected part of the building, no pathogens released, the situation has been contained and there is no risk to local or global public health. In the worst-case scenario, there were pathogens present at the time, which were aerosolised and propagated outside the building as a result of the explosion. The principle of pandemic and preparedness planning considers the worst-case scenario, rather than hoping for the best-case scenario. So, we need to consider what a worst-case scenario would look like and how best to be prepared and mitigate it.” Matt Field of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists also discussed what this means, noting that the “blast follows relatively closely on the heels of another explosion at a Russian facility conducting high-tech and risky research. In August, an accident at a missile test site killed five nuclear scientists. US officials believe researchers at the site were working on a nuclear-powered cruise missile.”

Meet the DoD’s New Assistant Director for Biotechnology
“Dr. Titus is the new Assistant Director for Biotechnology in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering. The Department of Defense (DoD) provides the military forces needed to deter war and ensure the United States’ security. The US military is currently undergoing a modernization initiative. Dr. Titus leads biotechnology modernization, one of several new priorities within the DoD’s research program. His job: develop a ten-year roadmap to keep the nation’s defenses at the leading edge of biotechnology and specifically synthetic biology: the process of making biology easier to engineer.” When asked what keeps him up at night, Dr. Titus noted “Being left behind. And the reason is that when you start to slow down, you lose grasp on what is cutting edge and what is coming around the corner,” Dr. Alexander Titus replies. “It is the Department’s responsibility to understand what the threats are to the United States,”. From synthetic biology to modernizing armor to become self-healing, Dr. Titus’s work is to strengthen military capability through biotechnology while building a more symbiotic relationship with biology.

Via STAT News

Lower Customized DNA Kit Prices Meet Higher Risks
There has always been concern that with customized DNA available, the risk for use by nefarious actors would also grow. As efforts become cheaper, there’s been increasing focus on how we can prevent such technology from being misused. “What makes DNA so powerful, after all, also makes it potentially dangerous. Someone could use it to change a harmless bacteria into one that makes a deadly toxin. And scientists have already shown that it’s possible to use bits of DNA to construct viruses like polio and Ebola. James Diggans, Twist’s director of biosecurity, says they check out every potential customer. They also analyze each requested DNA sequence, to see if there’s anything worrisome in there, like a gene specific to some nasty germ.”

FDA Approves First Live, Non-replicating Vaccine Against Smallpox/Monkeypox
Jynneos is now officially approved by the FDA against monkeypox and smallpox. The vaccine was just approved “for the prevention of smallpox and monkeypox disease in adults 18 years of age and older determined to be at high risk for smallpox or monkeypox infection. This is the only currently FDA-approved vaccine for the prevention of monkeypox disease. ‘Following the global Smallpox Eradication Program, the World Health Organization certified the eradication of naturally occurring smallpox disease in 1980. Routine vaccination of the American public was stopped in 1972 after the disease was eradicated in the U.S. and, as a result, a large proportion of the U.S., as well as the global population has no immunity,’ said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. ‘Therefore, although naturally occurring smallpox disease is no longer a global threat, the intentional release of this highly contagious virus could have a devastating effect. Today’s approval reflects the U.S. government’s commitment to preparedness through support for the development of safe and effective vaccines, therapeutics, and other medical countermeasures’.” In efforts to enhance health security, HHS is also sponsoring the development of therapeutics for smallpox infections. “Under the agreement announced today, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), will work with BioFactura, Inc., of Frederick, Maryland, providing expertise and $9.5 million over two years to develop a monoclonal antibody treatment for smallpox. BARDA has options to support additional work, providing up to a total of $67.4 million over five years. BioFactura is developing a treatment that uses multiple monoclonal antibodies, a combination known as a monoclonal antibody cocktail. Monoclonal antibodies bind specific proteins on the virus to neutralize it, decreasing the amount of the virus in the body that the immune system must fight. Testing in non-clinical studies showed that the antibody cocktail neutralizes the variola virus, which causes smallpox and related viruses.”

Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense – Defense of Agriculture Meeting
“On November 5, 2019, we will convene a meeting of the Commission, Too Great a Thing to Leave Undone: Defense of Agriculture, to inform our continuing assessment of the biological threat, specific vulnerabilities, and overwhelming consequences to agricultural producers. Topics to be discussed at this meeting include: the catastrophic risks to all components of agriculture; land grant university contributions to national security; public-private partnerships for agrodefense, and challenges to agricultural surveillance, detection, response, and recovery across all levels of government and throughout the private sector.”

Nuclear Security Concerns
Sure, a lot of us have binge-watched Chernobyl, but the truth is that many American nuclear security experts continue to have some very real concerns. “For nearly two decades, the nation’s nuclear power plants have been required by federal law to prepare for such a nightmare: At every commercial nuclear plant, every three years, security guards take on a simulated attack by hired commandos in so-called ‘force-on-force’ drills. And every year, at least one U.S. nuclear plant flunks the simulation, the ‘attackers’ damaging a reactor core and potentially triggering a fake Chernobyl – a failure rate of 5 percent. In spite of that track record, public documents and testimony show that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the nation’s fleet of commercial nuclear reactors, is now steadily rolling back the standards meant to prevent the doomsday scenario the drills are designed to simulate. Under pressure from a cash-strapped nuclear energy industry increasingly eager to slash costs, the commission in a little-noticed vote in October 2018 halved the number of force-on-force exercises conducted at each plant every cycle. Four months later, it announced it would overhaul how the exercises are evaluated to ensure that no plant would ever receive more than the mildest rebuke from regulators – even when the commandos set off a simulated nuclear disaster that, if real, would render vast swaths of the U.S. uninhabitable.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Canine Detection of C-diff Spores: “Outside of rooms and spaces that have been clearly identified as contaminated with C diff spores (i.e. a patient with an active infection has stayed in the space), it can be difficult to know where to properly disinfect with spore-killing measures. One particular approach though has gotten a lot of attention – C diff canine scent detection. That’s right, specially trained dogs are being used to sniff out this bug to help guide environmental cleaning efforts.  Vancouver Coastal Health is one place that’s leading the pack (literally and figuratively) in the use of C diffcanine scent detection. A team recognized that 60% of cases are related to health care transmission and worked to develop a program to help train dogs to detect C diff with 97% accuracy.”

 

Pandora Report: 9.13.2019

CSPS Annual Symposium on International Security
Don’t miss this event on navigating the nuclear future – “Join CSPS for their 2nd Annual Symposium on International Security on September 27, 2019. This year’s topic is Navigating the Nuclear Future and will discuss the issues of nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, and the nonproliferation regime. Speakers will include General Frank Klotz, Suzanne DiMaggio, Brian Mazanec, Laura Holgate, Ketian Zhang, and others. Lunch will be provided.”

DoD Inspector General to Reevaluate Select Agent Facilities
“The Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General (DoD OIG) is conducting a Follow-Up Evaluation of DoD Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) Biorisk Program Office implementation of recommendations from the April 2016 ‘Evaluation of DoD Biological Safety and Security Implementation’. The OIG assessment was announced in a 12 Aug 2019 memorandum distributed to the Secretary of the Army; Surgeon General of the Army; Office of the Secretary of the Army; U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command; Director, DoD Biological Select Agents and Toxins Biorisk Program Office; Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment; Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense; and the Director, Defense Health Agency. The memo noted the OIG objective is to validate implementation of recommendations from the April 2016 report (available below), and assess the development of the oversight capabilities of the Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) Biorisk Program Office.”

GMU Master’s & PhD Open Houses
Curious about what it takes to get a biodefense graduate degree? Check out our Open Houses to learn about the MS program (online and in-person) or our PhD program. The PhD Open House is next Thursday, September 19th at 7pm at our Arlington campus. The  next Master’s Open House will be on Thursday, October 17th, at 6:30pm at the Arlington campus as well.

Cyberbiosecurity in Advanced Manufacturing Models
A new article published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology identifies weaknesses in biomanufacturing standards relating to cybersecurity attacks and failures. The healthcare industry, especially hospitals, is often the victim of cyberattacks. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services found that the occurrence of healthcare cyberattack reports increased by 10% since 2010. The authors purport that the biomanufacturing sector is an attractive and vulnerable target to cyberattacks due to its reliance on intellectual property, cyber-physical systems, and government-mandated production regulations. The article details considerations for emerging biologic products, specifically regarding the flow of information in various biomanufacturing operations. Recommendations to increase the resiliency of the biomanufacturing sector include heightened investment in training employees, boosting attention to cybersecurity, and improved collaboration between industry and regulators to design and implement safeguard policies.

Antibiotic Alerts: Building Better Processes to Encourage Stewardship
In the battle against resistant infections, response efforts have been focused on developing and deploying new tools to help reduce antimicrobial use. It is estimated that roughly 50% of antibiotic prescriptions in hospital and outpatient settings in the United States are unnecessary or inappropriate. Therefore, any tool that can enhance antimicrobial stewardship is a welcome addition to the toolkit. Given these startling numbers, it’s not surprising that many hospitals are looking to more automatic hard-stops to prevent the misuse of antibiotics. Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, sought to make this a reality by developing and implementing an automatic antibiotic time-out alert that would de-escalate broad-spectrum antibiotics. A new study published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology details the program. The 1252-bed community hospital worked to develop this automatic approach because, like so many of us working in infection prevention, they saw that despite education, efforts to de-escalate broad-spectrum antibiotics were rolled out inconsistently. The research team defined the outcome as the proportion of patients who had their broad-spectrum antibiotics de-escalated at 72 hours in the year prior to the initiation of the antibiotic time-out alert that was developed in 2016. Furthermore, they assessed the total antibiotic days, cost per day, hospital length of stay, antibiotic-related adverse events, and in-hospital mortality of patients whose antibiotics were de-escalated versus those who continued treatment with broad-spectrum antibiotics.

DRC Ebola Outbreak Updates and Behind the Frontlines of the Ebola Wars
On Tuesday it was announced that HHS Secretary Alex Azar will be visiting the DRC with other US health officials to help gauge the situation and address concerns. “Azar will lead a delegation that includes Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Robert Redfield, MD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Redfield has traveled previously to the outbreak region, but this will be the first trip for Azar. Joining the US delegation will be director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, who has made nearly monthly trips to the DRC since August 2018, when the outbreak began in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. ‘President Trump and Secretary Azar are committed to ending the outbreak as quickly as possible,’ HHS said in a news release. ‘That is why responding to the outbreak, coordinating with and assisting the governments responding, and providing the necessary assistance has been the top global health priority for the Trump administration since August of 2018’.” The Ebola virus disease outbreak in the northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has claimed over 2,000 lives despite the round-the-clock efforts by health and aid workers to prevent its spread. A recent exclusive featured in Nature provides insight regarding the struggles of the outbreak response from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Such struggles spur from militia violence in the region and the general suspicion of outsiders, namely the health and aid workers. Most unfortunately, the conflict and distrust further fuel the outbreak by inhibiting the dispersal of the new Ebola vaccine and other drugs to treat the ill. The militias terrorize the noncombatant inhabitants of the region and the disease responders – killings, arson, rapes, abductions, explosions. Ebola treatment centers are targets for attacks, jeopardizing both patients and healthcare providers. As Ghebreyesus summarizes, “the outbreak of Ebola is a symptom, the root cause is political instability.” Beyond the domestic issues, the response faces other hardships: limited funds, media scrutiny, and additional severe public health concerns. Altogether, these obstacles create an environment for Ebola to return after this outbreak is squelched.

Rising Risk of Global WMD
Is the risk of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) growing? Many are saying it’s time we get proactive and do something. “WMD-related arms control and disarmament measures are important components of the rules-based international order. They make an underappreciated contribution to stability and strategic predictability. They underpin efforts toward a more peaceful, nuclear weapon free world in the longer run. Allowing the WMD treaty regimes to crumble could usher in a destabilizing scramble towards the development of weapons that most hoped to be rid of. It would erode longstanding norms, weaken transparency and undermine efforts to prevent terrorists from gaining access to WMD-related technology. It could ultimately lead to WMD use becoming commonplace. This erosion is not in the long-term interests of any state. Unilateral actions to tackle WMD-related concerns are occasionally an option. But they are risky, politically challenging, expensive and arduous even for the most powerful states. And when they have occurred, such actions have sometimes broken down, tragically in some cases. The lesson here is two-fold: WMD treaties matter on normative and practical levels, and states need to deal with WMD-related compliance issues cooperatively.”

Is the US Ready if Ebola Returns?
From the viewpoint of this infection preventionzist…nope. Here are the thoughts from Blue Ribbon Study Panel’s Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge. “Today, the threat from Ebola is more serious. The World Health Organization has declared it to be a global public health emergency because Ebola has again defied controls and spread to the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it could in turn spread throughout more densely populated urban areas and gain access to the global transportation system. We support this declaration and the additional resources and attention it should bring to the situation, but the WHO should have made it earlier. Ebola was an emergency long before it spread to Goma. There are encouraging signs that some experimental Ebola drugs are working, and the CDC and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seem to be more effectively tracking the disease. On the other hand, changes made previously to help local hospitals in the U.S. better prepare to treat those infected are not being implemented as designed. And that will have real human consequences the next time Ebola or another highly infectious disease — including a new highly pathogenic strain of influenza — reaches America.”

Mapping the Cyberbiosecurity Enterprise– Upcoming
A newly-accepted editorial piece written by Randall S. Murch and Diane DiEuliis and published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology provides an overview and insights on cyberbiosecurity. Cyberbiolosecurity is defined as the “understanding the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of comingled life and medical sciences, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness and resilience.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • C-diff Sniffing Dogs – “Linked to rising use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, which can wipe out a patient’s normal gut bacteria and allow the bacterium to multiply and produce toxins that inflame the colon, C difficile infections are the leading cause of hospital-acquired diarrhea in the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year C difficile causes more than 450,000 infections in US hospitals, is associated with more than 29,000 deaths, and costs the US healthcare system nearly $5 billion. One of the main reasons C difficile has become such a burden for hospitals is that it spreads easily—typically through contact between sick patients and healthcare workers—and it’s very hard to get rid of.”

Pandora Report: 8.30.2019

Alumna Spotlight: Biodefense Grad Tam Dang, Dallas County Epidemiologist
“Tam Dang started in the biology world, earning her Bachelor’s of Science degree from George Mason University in 2008. But it was her course of study in the Master’s in Biodefense program at the Schar School that put her on her present career path. The degree, she said, ‘introduced me to the public health field, and offered a unique perspective from a biosecurity and bioterrorism standpoint.’ Today, Dang is an epidemiologist for the Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services in Dallas, Texas. She works in the Acute Communicable Disease Epidemiology Division, helping to lead epidemiological investigations for infectious disease outbreaks or potential bioterrorism events. She monitors local, regional, and state data sources related to infectious diseases, and helps develop outbreak and bioterrorism plans to help support public health preparedness. Her work is at the intersection of public health and health security, an important field in the modern era.”

BioWatch Data Stored on Vulnerable Contractor Website for Years
Well that’s a big oops… “For more than a decade, the Department of Homeland Security failed to properly secure sensitive information on the primary BioWatch information portal, which contained bioterrorism surveillance testing information and response plans that would be put in place in the event of an attack. In August 2016, Harry Jackson, who worked for a branch of Homeland Security that deals with information security, was assigned to the BioWatch program. Three months later, he learned about biowatchportal.org and demanded the agency stop using it, arguing that it housed classified information and that the portal’s security measures were inadequate. A security audit completed in January 2017 found ‘critical’ and ‘high risk’ vulnerabilities, including weak encryption that made the website ‘extremely prone’ to online attacks. Internal Homeland Security emails and other documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times show the security issue set off a bitter clash within the department over whether keeping the information on the dot-org website run by Logistics Management Institute posed a threat to national security.”

Oversight of Lab-Created Potential Pandemic Pathogens and the BWC
Lynn C. Klotz discusses accidental releases and research with pathogens of pandemic potential in relation to the Biological Weapons Convention. “Seeding a pandemic is not a problem for future consideration; the possibility is upon us now. There is an urgent need for international oversight and regulation of this research. The countries that are party to the Biological Weapons Convention  (BWC) may not believe it to be within the BWC mandate to oversee academic research whose goal is public health. But if the parties decide this kind of oversight is within the BWC mandate (under Article XII), guidelines and regulations could be enacted fairly quickly. At the very least, the parties could act as a catalyst, launching discussions toward a new international treaty on oversight and regulation of this dangerous research. In the meantime, since enacting new treaties is an uncertain and long process, the BWC parties should work to pass legislation in their nations.” Klotz breaks down if such a release could result in a pandemic and if those pathogens could be classified as a biological weapon. “For lab-created potentially pandemic pathogens, any quantity, however small, could seed an outbreak or pandemic. In this circumstance, development also implies production and stockpiling, since a single vial of infectious agent and one to a few infected individuals are all that is necessary to launch an attack. From a military tactical point of view, however, lab-created pandemic pathogens would not be good biological weapons; they would boomerang back on the attackers since they are highly transmissible. Nonetheless, a suicidal terrorist group or a desperate country might employ them as a last resort, or threaten to employ them as a means of extortion.” Klotz ultimately notes that there is a need for action from the parties of the BWC – “Hopefully, the states that are party to the BWC will set in motion a process for overseeing relevant new research and technologies. If they decide that lab-created potentially pandemic pathogens are within the BWC mandate under Article XII, they could speed up the enactment of guidelines and regulations.”

Data Collection Gaps Are Damning the Ebola Outbreak
The outbreak in the DRC is continuing to spread as 14 new cases were reported on Wednesday and the South Kivu cluster has grown by 5, bringing the outbreak closer to 3,000. GMU Biodefense PhD alum Saskia Popescu discusses the implications of the data gaps within the current Ebola outbreak in the DRC. “Late last week 2 Ebola virus disease (EVD) cases were confirmed in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), some 400 miles away from where the outbreak first began. The cases were reported in a woman, who had been vaccinated, and her child who had traveled from Beni. The government is currently working to vaccinate and monitor 120 contacts of these 2 individuals. In the face of this expanding outbreak that has surpassed 2700 confirmed cases, there has been much attention on the drug and vaccine trials that are ongoing. Unfortunately, in the fervor of excitement surrounding the promise of treatment, few have paid attention to the quality of data that is made available. Pierre Rollin, MD, a veteran Ebola fighter, recently drew attention to some deeply concerning issues in the outbreak response in an article in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Rollin underscored that although there was initial confidence in the response to the outbreak, mostly due to therapeutics and experienced personnel, leadership and coordination failures amid a conflict zone and community mistrust all helped the outbreak spiral. One component of Rollin’s review is deeply concerning—the ‘ineffectiveness of the collection, analysis, and diffusion of epidemiological data, the centerpiece of any response, is predictive of the situation worsening.’ Similar to what was felt by many on the ground during the 2014-2016 West African Ebola outbreak, the various databases between agencies, groups, etc., all made situational awareness and response that much more challenging.”

How Does USAMRIID’s Shutdown Impact US Biodefense and Bioterrorism Laboratory Response Network?
“The Laboratory Response Network (LRN) is a collaborative federal effort run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in cooperation with other federal agency and public health partners. Most state public health laboratories participate as reference laboratories of the LRN. These facilities support hundreds of sentinel laboratories in local communities throughout the U.S. and its territories, providing confirmatory diagnosis and typing of biological threats used in a bioterrorist attack or causing a public health emergency. The U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) Special Pathogens Laboratory at Fort Detrick is one of only three National Laboratories at the top of the protective umbrella of the LRN structure, along with those operated by the CDC and the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC), responsible for specialized characterization of organisms, bioforensics, select agent activity, and handling highly infectious biological agents. It begs the question then, what happens when an important component of the nation’s biopreparedness infrastructure fails to meet CDC biosafety requirements and has its Federal Select Agent certification pulledGlobal Biodefense submitted requests to USAMRIID and the CDC on Aug. 6 for information on the status of the Institute in the LRN structure and whether another Biosafety Level-4 laboratory will be designated as an interim substitute National Laboratory.”

Identifying and Responding to Newly Resistant Infections
“In the world of growing antimicrobial resistance, the identification of patients with highly resistant (or newly resistant) infections is critical. Because this is an emerging challenge, national and international surveillance efforts are still being strengthened to tackle all the avenues that contribute to antimicrobial resistance. The frontline identification of these newly resistant infections is critical though and surveillance is not only the first step in identifying and understanding the problem, but it also allows us to properly isolate the patient to avoid further transmission. Bacteria like Klebsiella pneumoniae are increasingly developing resistance to antimicrobials and can easily be spread through health care facilities. Klebsiella bacteria are also showing a relatively new resistance to the carbapenem class of antibiotics. Typically, these bacteria cause infections like pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and even urinary tract. A recent publication in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) described experiences surrounding the identification of a Klebsiella pneumoniae isolate that had 3 carbapenem-resistant genes (CR-Kp) and was related to urinary procedures.”

NTI’s Educational Resources
Whether you’re a student or an educator, you’ll love these resources from NTI’s Education Center. “You’ll find teaching tools, such as the new Building Security Through Cooperation report about working with North Korea on denuclearization and Middle East Missile Mania, our new comprehensive interactive map and analysis detailing the history of missile programs in 12 countries across the Middle East. Do you want to know more about what’s making headlines but only have a few minutes to catch up? We have a new U.S.-Russian arms control infographic and a one-page fact sheet on the INF Treaty. You may also want to watch our 3-minute video about the importance of the New START treaty. Those wanting a deeper dive for their advanced classes might want to check out our updated Global Incidents and Trafficking database, which tracks global incidents involving nuclear or other radioactive material, or the North Korea Missile Test Database.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Outbreak of Resistant Salmonella Newport Tied to Soft Cheese-“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today detailed an unusual 255-case outbreak of Salmonella Newport infections in 32 states tied to both beef and soft cheese and showing resistance to multiple antibiotics. ‘Infections were linked to beef obtained in the United States and soft cheese obtained in Mexico, suggesting that this strain could be present in cattle in both countries,’ the CDC said in an overview emailed to physicians as part of its Clinician Outreach and Communication Activity (COCA) efforts.

Pandora Report: 6.21.2019

Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security – From Anthrax to Zika Workshop 
Less than one month until our workshop and just a couple weeks to get your early registration discount…have you signed up? This 3.5 day workshop is the place to be to learn the challenges facing the world at the intersection of national security, public health, and the life sciences. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved with research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and national security issues. Topics range from protecting the bioeconomy, to biosecurity, vaccine development, disease risk assessments, and more!

Pandemic Preparedness in the Face of Fake News
Biopreparedness is challenging enough…but when you throw in the growing threat of mis/disinformation…this can seem like a feat requiring nothing short of a Herculean effort. “When the next pandemic strikes, we’ll be fighting it on two fronts. The first is the one you immediately think about: understanding the disease, researching a cure and inoculating the population. The second is new, and one you might not have thought much about: fighting the deluge of rumors, misinformation and flat-out lies that will appear on the internet. The second battle will be like the Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election, only with the addition of a deadly health crisis and possibly without a malicious government actor. But while the two problems — misinformation affecting democracy and misinformation affecting public health — will have similar solutions, the latter is much less political. If we work to solve the pandemic disinformation problem, any solutions are likely to also be applicable to the democracy one.” From misinformation regarding the source of a disease or outbreak, to that involving treatments that work…the implications can make or break “society’s ability to deal with a pandemic at many different levels.”

A Call for Cooperation in a New Cyberbiosecurity Landscape
Vulnerabilities within cyberbiosecurity range from biomanufacturing to farm-to-table enterprises, but it will take a true collaboration within these fields to drive change. “The life sciences now interface broadly with information technology (IT) and cybersecurity. This convergence is a key driver in the explosion of biotechnology research and its industrial applications in health care, agriculture, manufacturing, automation, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology. As the information and handling mechanisms for biological materials have become increasingly digitized, many market sectors are now vulnerable to threats at the digital interface. This growing landscape will be addressed by cyberbiosecurity, the emerging field at the convergence of both the life sciences and IT disciplines. This manuscript summarizes the current cyberbiosecurity landscape, identifies existing vulnerabilities, and calls for formalized collaboration across a swath of disciplines to develop frameworks for early response systems to anticipate, identify, and mitigate threats in this emerging domain.”

Australian Health System Capacity to Handle a Bioattack
How well do you think the U.S. health system would handle a smallpox bioattack? Researchers in Australia tested out the health system capacity in Sydney against this very scenario. “We used a model for smallpox transmission to determine requirements for hospital beds, contact tracing and health workers (HCWs) in Sydney, Australia, during a modelled epidemic of smallpox. Sensitivity analysis was done on attack size, speed of response and proportion of case isolation and contact tracing. We estimated 100638 clinical HCWs and 14595 public hospital beds in Sydney. Rapid response, case isolation and contact tracing are influential on epidemic size, with case isolation more influential than contact tracing. With 95% of cases isolated, outbreak control can be achieved within 100 days even with only 50% of contacts traced. However, if case isolation and contact tracing both fall to 50%, epidemic control is lost. With a smaller initial attack and a response commencing 20 days after the attack, health system impacts are modest. The requirement for hospital beds will vary from up to 4% to 100% of all available beds in best and worst case scenarios. If the response is delayed, or if the attack infects 10000 people, all available beds will be exceeded within 40 days, with corresponding surge requirements for clinical health care workers (HCWs). We estimated there are 330 public health workers in Sydney with up to 940,350 contacts to be traced. At least 3 million respirators will be needed for the first 100 days. To ensure adequate health system capacity, rapid response, high rates of case isolation, excellent contact tracing and vaccination, and protection of HCWs should be a priority. Surge capacity must be planned. Failures in any of these could cause health system failure, with inadequate beds, quarantine spaces, personnel, PPE and inability to manage other acute health conditions.”

Developing a PPE Selection Matrix for Preventing Occupational Exposure to Ebola
Preparing your workplace for a potential Ebola patient? Check out this matrix for choosing PPE. GMU Biodefense alum Chris Brown co-authored this helpful article to guide healthcare workers, laboratories, and other work environments in avoiding occupational exposure to Ebola virus. “The matrix applies to a variety of job tasks in health care, laboratories, waste handling, janitorial services, travel and transportation, and other sectors where workers may be exposed to the Ebola virus during outbreak events. A discussion of the information sources and decision-making process for developing the matrix forms the basis of the recommendations. The article then emphasizes challenges and considerations for formulating the matrix, including identifying information sources to help characterize occupational exposures, aligning recommendations among stakeholders with varying viewpoints, and balancing worker protections with feasibility concerns. These considerations highlight issues that remain relevant for preparedness efforts ahead of future US cases of Ebola or other emerging infectious diseases. OSHA developed a personal protective equipment selection matrix to help employers protect workers from exposure to Ebola virus in the event of future US cases. Toward facilitating preparedness for cases associated with outbreaks, this article discusses the matrix of personal protective equipment recommendations, which apply to a variety of job tasks in healthcare, laboratories, waste handling, janitorial services, travel and transportation, and other sectors where workers may be exposed to the Ebola virus during outbreak events.”

NTI Report – A Spreading Plague: Lessons and Recommendations for Responding  to A Deliberate Biological Attack
“To address this preparedness deficit, NTI | bio, Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, and the Center for Global Development offer recommendations for urgent action in a new paper, A Spreading Plague: Lessons and Recommendations for Responding to a Deliberate Biological Event. Drawn from a senior leaders’ tabletop exercise held in advance of the Munich Security Conference on February 14, 2019, the paper presents key findings and organizers’ recommendations for critical improvements, including within the United Nations system, to prevent catastrophic consequences of deliberate and other high-consequence biological events.” Pulling from a tabletop exercise, the report highlights five emergent themes – international coordination, information sharing, investigation and attribution, and financing for response and preparedness.

Ebola Outbreak Updates 
With nearly 50 cases reported over 3 days, this outbreak is not showing signs of slowing. “Over the weekend, the ministry of health in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) recorded 28 new cases of Ebola, and will likely confirm another 20 new cases today. With nearly 50 cases in 3 days, the outbreak is experiencing another spike in activity following the discovery of cases in neighboring Uganda last week. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Ebola dashboard, the outbreak total now stands at 2,168 cases. In addition to the newly confirmed cases, there were 19 fatalities over the weekend, including 8 that took place in the community.” As cases spilled over into Uganda, there is growing concern that the porous border will continue to made control measures unsuccessful. “The footpaths show the close kinship between the two countries, where most people have relatives on both sides of the border. But as Ebola rages they are a source of worry for health workers and local authorities trying to prevent any further cross-border contamination. Eastern Congo has battled the Ebola outbreak since last August and last week the disease spread to Uganda, where two people died of the hemorrhagic fever. ‘This border is very porous,’ said James Mwanga, a Ugandan police officer in charge of the Mpondwe border post. ‘You will not know who has passed if the person went through the unofficial border posts, in most cases. Now there is anxiety and so on. We have heightened our alertness’.” Moreover, there has been concern over hospital infections and a desperate call for financial support. “During recent meeting in Kinshasa, Tedros met with the DRC’s prime minister, opposition leaders, religious officials, and other partners, the WHO said in a statement yesterday. He also traveled to Butembo, which has been one of the main epicenters, to meet with community and religious leaders, business representatives, and nongovernmental organization representatives.Also, he strongly appealed to other countries across the world to support the health responders in the DRC. Tedros said the WHO needs $98 million to fund the response, but it has received only $44 million, leaving a $54 million gap, a shortfall he said must immediate be addressed. ‘If the funds are not received, WHO will be unable to sustain the response at the current scale,’ he said, adding that other partners face funding gaps and that response decisions risk being driven by financial capacity rather than operational needs.”
The Engineering Biology Research Consortium has just released this roadmap “to provide researchers and other stakeholders (including government funders) with a compelling set of technical challenges and opportunities in the near and long term. Our ongoing roadmapping process was initiated in response to the recommendations put forth in the 2015 National Academies report, Industrialization of Biology, and was partially supported by the National Science Foundation. With this inaugural release of the Roadmap, EBRC endeavors to provide a go-to resource for engineering/synthetic biology research and related endeavors. Further details can be found in the overview section, including a brief discussion of societal and security considerations. The EBRC Technical Roadmapping Working Group led the development of the roadmap scope and content. Collective insight and input was leveraged from more than 80 leading scientists and engineers, including academic, industry, and student members of EBRC and from the broader research community. Since mid-2018, the working group has held five workshops and countless teleconferences to develop the content and engage discussion around the roadmap. The result is a collaborative effort of the engineering biology research community and represents the community’s vision for the future of the field.”
Biodefense World Summit
If you missed this event over the last week, you can catch two articles covering a few talks. “At the 5th Annual Biodefense World Summit, Luther Lindler, PhD, science advisor for Bio Programs, Technology Centers, S&T Directorate of DHS, discussed the work that DHS has been doing to help beef up US biodefense efforts. Within the DHS S&T program, there are 5 major mission areas: prevent terrorism and enhance security; secure and manage our borders; enforce and administer our immigration laws; safeguard and secure cyberspace; and ensure resilience to disasters. Imagine trying to prevent microbial contamination or security threats from the Port of Los Angeles, which encompasses 7500 acres, with 30,000 containers arriving per day and $285 billion in cargo per year.”  “One of the hardest aspects of biodefense, though, is integrating new technology to truly make a difference. Every day, there are advancements in tech; yet, it can be challenging to truly discern how these new tools can help global health security and prevent the next pandemic. In a Biodefense presentation that called on the use of data technology and forecasting to help tackle the next epidemic, Dylan George, PhD, BS, vice president of technical staff at In-Q-Tel and associate director of BNext, discussed integrating novel and available data technologies into public health processes to not only help guide interventions, but also to establish more efficient response practices and improve situational awareness.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
  • Global Trust in Healthcare, Scientists, and Vaccines – “The Wellcome Global Monitor, conducted as part of the Gallup World Poll 2018, is designed to provide a baseline to gauge how attitudes evolve over time and to help guide policies to improve public engagement on science and health issues. The data were published today. The survey included more than 140,000 people ages 15 and older from more than 140 countries, Wellcome Trust said today in a press release. It added that the survey shows the first glimpse into what people think about the issues for many countries, including Colombia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Vietnam. Among the key findings were that three quarters of the world’s population trust doctors and nurses more than anyone else on healthcare issues. And 72% trust scientists.”
  • Dirty Hospital Sinks: A Source for Contamination – “For decades we’ve been taught that hand hygiene is the most critical aspect of infection control. Although that may be true, what about the sinks and faucets? These oft overlooked areas can easily pose infection control risks. How clean can your hands really be if the sink and faucet are heavily contaminated and dirty? The topic of slime and biofilm is increasingly being brought up as we focus more on vulnerabilities in health care and the role of environmental contamination. Earlier this year, there were studies that identified sink proximity to toilets as a risk factor for contamination. Bugs like Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase-producing organisms tend to be prolific in moist environments and are often pervasive in intensive care unit sinks and drains. Researchers found that sinks near toilets were 4-times more likely to host the organisms than those further from toilets.”

Pandora Report: 6.14.2019

It’s nearly July, have you signed up for the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security, to get your early registration discount? Also – as you enjoy the summer weather, practice bat safety, as the CDC has warned that they post the biggest rabies threat in the United States.

How World War II Spurred Vaccine Innovation
Dr. Kendall Hoyt discusses the link between war and disease, and how WWII helped bring forth a renaissance of vaccine development. Did we mention she’ll be speaking at our summer workshop next month? “As the Second World War raged in Europe, the U.S. military recognized that infectious disease was as formidable an enemy as any other they would meet on the battlefield. So they forged a new partnership with industry and academia to develop vaccines for the troops. Vaccines were attractive to the military for the simple reason that they reduced the overall number of sick days for troops more effectively than most therapeutic measures. This partnership generated unprecedented levels of innovation that lasted long after the war was over. As industry and academia began to work with the government in new ways to develop vaccines, they discovered that many of the key barriers to progress were not scientific but organizational.”

Ebola Outbreak – Expanding into Uganda 
By June 12th, the Ugandan Ministry of Health had confirmed three cases of Ebola along the DRC border. In many ways, this was the scenario public health officials had been expecting and fearing. “For 10 months, Uganda has closely monitored its porous border with the DRC for crossover cases, yet, despite numerous alerts, no cases have been detected until now. ‘In preparation for a possible imported case during the current outbreak in DRC, Uganda has vaccinated nearly 4,700 health workers in 165 health facilities (including in the facility where the child is being cared for); disease monitoring has been intensified; and health workers trained on recognizing symptoms of the disease. Ebola Treatment Units are in place,’ the WHO regional office for Africa said in a news release.” Given the growth of the outbreak and now cases in Uganda, many are wondering why the WHO has not declared this outbreak a PHEIC (public health emergency of international concern). This may change though, as the WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros has convened an Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations for Friday (FYI, this is the third time the Emergency committee has met to discuss the outbreak and classification as a PHEIC). Concerns for the delay in declaring PHEIC have been present for months – “The legal criteria for a PHEIC have been met. The International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR) empower the WHO Director-General to declare a PHEIC. A PHEIC is an extraordinary event with public health risk to other countries that requires a coordinated international response. IHR criteria include public health impact, novelty and scale, and movement of persons. The WHO Director-General must also consider health risks, potential international spread, and EC guidance, among other factors.”

Fighting Global Pandemics By Starting One
In the latest video installment from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s Say What? series, the hot topic of gain-of-function research is being discussed. “Researchers say making new strains of the H5N1 flu virus in a secure lab can help them see what might happen naturally in the real world. Sounds logical, but many scientists oppose it because the facts show most biosafety labs aren’t really secure at all, and experts say the risks of a mutated virus escaping outweigh whatever public health benefit comes from creating them. But now the US government is funding these same labs again to artificially enhance potentially pandemic pathogens. In this installment of the Bulletin’s video series that provides a sharp view of fuzzy policy, Johns Hopkins University computational biologist Steven Salzberg explains why arguments by researchers in favor of risky viral research aren’t persuasive.”

Burden of Disease Exposures- Reasons to Invest in Hospital Response
GMU biodefense doctoral student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu discusses the impact that communicable disease exposures have on hospitals. “The time spent responding to an exposure means less time for patient care and infection prevention, but can also result in health care workers having to stay home if they’re exposed and immuno-naïve. A new survey sought to understand the impact for infection preventionist and staff nurses when an exposure to a communicable disease occurs. Investigators wrote in the American Journal of Infection Control (AJIC) regarding this very issue and surveyed staff nurses in a New York hospital network and infection preventionists at the 2018 Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology annual conference, as well as members of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology chapters.  A total of 150 nurses and 228 infection preventionists responded with some insight into just how time-consuming these exposures are. Data regarding workload increase for each exposure was captured in 2 questions asking participants to rank the overall increase in daily workload for each of these exposures (0-3 scale, with 0 meaning not applicable and 3 meaning a dramatic increase in workload of more than 60 minutes), and to explain the 3 most time-consuming activities for outbreak and exposure activities. Infection preventionists reported the most time-consuming outbreaks/exposures resulted from mumps/measles, tuberculosis, gastrointestinal viruses, and multidrug-resistant organisms. For an exposure to Clostridioides difficile, lice or scabies, and influenza, there was a more than 60-minute workload increase for nurses.”

There’s Limited Time To Make America Safer From Epidemics
Dr. Tom Frieden and Margaret Hamburg shine a light on a harsh truth – we’re on tight window if we want to avoid a pandemic. “In one week, the World Bank will decide how to allocate more than $50 billion in development funding to lower income countries. The World Bank should dedicate some of its International Development Association (IDA) funds – say, 5 percent, or about $1 billion per year over three years – to help countries become better prepared for infectious disease outbreaks.” “Disease outbreaks can wipe out years of investments and severely damage development. Economic losses can dwarf the cost of response – the World Bank estimates that SARS cost the global economy $54 billion in little over half a year and that a severe flu pandemic could cost more than $3 trillion, nearly five percent of global GDP. Because of its global reach, the World Bank is in the best position to take the lead on this critical effort, but the United States delegation has one week to make sure it does so at its annual meeting on June 17. The total needed to close preparedness gaps is estimated at about $4.5 billion annually, less than $1 per person per year. An additional $1 billion infusion each year for the next three years will provide a tremendous jump start – and is a bargain the United States cannot afford to miss.”

Russian Biologist Plans for More CRISPR Babies
Just went you thought the CRISPR baby drama was over (or at least being managed)…. “A Russian scientist says he is planning to produce gene-edited babies, an act that would make him only the second person known to have done this. It would also fly in the face of the scientific consensus that such experiments should be banned until an international ethical framework has agreed on the circumstances and safety measures that would justify them. Molecular biologist Denis Rebrikov has told Nature he is considering implanting gene-edited embryos into women, possibly before the end of the year if he can get approval by then. Chinese scientist He Jiankui prompted an international outcry when he announced last Novemberthat he had made the world’s first gene-edited babies — twin girls. The experiment will target the same gene, called CCR5, that He did, but Rebrikov claims his technique will offer greater benefits, pose fewer risks and be more ethically justifiable and acceptable to the public. Rebrikov plans to disable the gene, which encodes a protein that allows HIV to enter cells, in embryos that will be implanted into HIV-positive mothers, reducing the risk of them passing on the virus to the baby in utero. By contrast, He modified the gene in embryos created from fathers with HIV, which many geneticists said provided little clinical benefit because the risk of a father passing on HIV to his children is minimal.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Microbial House Designs– “There’s a little mischievousness about bringing all these things and making them visible,” said Mr. Pallrand’s wife, Rachel Mayeri, who based the tile designs on electron microscopy images. “These things we tend to think of as being kind of ugly and want to hide — mold spores and mildew growing in our bathtub, and bacterial colonies that are on all the surfaces of your house — they’re all noncharismatic animals, but they’re really crucial to our lives.”

 

Pandora Report: 6.6.2019

Happy Thursday! That’s right – you’re getting your weekly dose of biodefense news a tad early, but don’t worry, we’ll be back to our normal schedule next week! Have you registered for the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security? From anthrax to Zika, we’ll be covering all the topics, debates, and threats related to health security.

GMU Welcomes New Faculty Member – Dr. Ashley Grant
We’re excited to announce that Dr. Ashley Grant, a lead biotechnologist at the MITRE Corporation, is joining the Biodefense Program as an Adjunct Professor to teach BIOD 620: Global Health Security Policy. Dr. Grant was previously the Senior Biological Scientist at the Government Accountability Office where she led government-wide technical performance audits focused on biosafety and biosecurity issues. Dr. Grant was an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Fellow in the Chemical and Biological Defense Program Office in the Department of Defense and also worked at the National Academies of Science on the Committee on International Security and Arms Control. Her work focused on international security, nonproliferation, and medical countermeasures against chemical and biological threats. She completed the Field Epidemiology Course at the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) in Lima, Peru and was a Visiting Graduate Researcher at the Instituto Nacional de Enfermedades Virales Humanas J. Maitegui (INEVH) in Pergamino, Argentina. Dr. Grant received her PhD in experimental pathology and a MPH in epidemiology from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Her graduate work focused on investigating pathogenesis and potential countermeasures for viral hemorrhagic fevers under biological safety level (BSL)-4 conditions. In addition, she received a MA in National Security Studies from the Naval War College and a BS in Chemistry and a BS in Business Economics and Management from the California Institute of Technology.

Congress Passes the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act
On Tuesday, June 4th, the House “passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act. The bill reauthorizes existing statute governing public health efforts at the Department of Health and Human Services. Additions made by the bill – some of which were recommended by the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense – address biodetection, hospital preparedness, medical countermeasures and response. Many of these programs will enable HHS to better defend the nation against biological threats. Both chambers of Congress have passed the bill, and it will now go to President Trump for signature. ‘Naturally occurring diseases and biological weapons continue to endanger our nation,’ said Governor Tom Ridge, Panel Co-Chair. ‘The Panel is pleased to see that Congress addressed 15 of our recommendations in this legislation, which will help the nation better prepare for, detect, respond to, and recover from large-scale biological events, bioterrorism or other biological events’.”

National Biodefense Science Board Public Meeting
“The June 10-11, 2019 meeting of the National Biodefense Science Board will focus on early results and progress reports from four new programs that were designed to strengthen disaster health preparedness, response and recovery: the Regional Disaster Health Response System; BARDA DRIVe; ASPR’s new Incident Management Team; One Health; and the National Biodefense Strategy. As part of the evolution of the National Disaster Medical System, NBSB will discuss disaster veterinary medicine and National Veterinary Response Teams. The board will also address issues facing the medical community, including disaster medicine training for community physicians and advance practice physicians and learn about ways to develop and operationalize core competencies for disaster medicine.”

 Exploring Lessons Learned from a Century of Outbreaks
Check out the latest from the proceedings of a 2019 NAS workshop on outbreak readiness. “In November 2018, an ad hoc planning committee at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine planned two sister workshops held in Washington, DC, to examine the lessons from influenza pandemics and other major outbreaks, understand the extent to which the lessons have been learned, and discuss how they could be applied further to ensure that countries are sufficiently ready for future pandemics. This publication summarizes the presentations and discussions from both workshops.” Within this document, you can access sections on global preparedness progress for the next pandemic influenza, building local and national capacities for outbreak preparedness, pandemic vaccine considerations, etc. “The participants in this workshop examined the lessons from major outbreaks and explored the extent to which they have both been learned and applied in different settings. The workshop also focused on key gaps in pandemic preparedness and explored immediate and short-term actions that exhibited potential for the greatest impact on global health security by 2030. Workshop speakers and discussants contributed perspectives from government, academic, private, and nonprofit sectors. This workshop opened with a keynote address and a plenary presentation, followed by three sessions of presentations and discussions. Additionally, panelists, forum members, and attendees were given the opportunity to assemble into small groups and asked to consider potential priority actions and strategies for systematizing and integrating outbreak and pandemic preparedness so that it is a routine activity from the local to global levels.”

Inside Britain’s Top Secret Research Laboratory 
Have you ever wanted to tour Britain’s top secret laboratory? If Porton Down has been on your wish list, here’s your chance to get a virtual tour. “The BBC was given access inside Porton Down to see what the highly secretive facility was like and, for the first time ever, entered a cleansed version of a level four laboratory. This level is where the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory team analyse some of the world’s deadliest viruses – Ebola and Marburg.”

 DRC Ebola Outbreak Updates 
The outbreak has officially reached 2,000 cases and aid groups in “the region called for pushing the reset button on the response. In its daily update yesterday, the DRC said the outbreak passed the 2,000-case bar on Jun 2. Officials said that, although the landmark is concerning, the health ministry sees some positive signs, including a slight improvement in the security situation, though the situation remains volatile and unpredictable. The ministry added that most incidents related to community resistance have been resolved by community leaders, sensitizers, and psychosocial experts.” For many, the question is still – who is attacking Ebola responders and why? “The first is that local political figures are fomenting and even organizing the attacks as a way of undermining their rivals, presumably officials of the central government or local leaders aligned with them. Many analysts hold that it was actually the national government that set the stage for the use of the Ebola crisis as a political tool, and Gressly largely echoed that account. Last December, he noted, just days before presidential elections, national electoral officials announced that voting would be suspended in the two largest cities in the outbreak zone, Beni and Butembo.” “At least one type of attack appears very much linked: Many of the incidents seem to be outbursts by members of the community who have heard the rumors and believe them. An Ebola team will arrive in a neighborhood to bury a suspected Ebola patient or vaccinate their relatives, and people will throw rocks and chase the team out. Similarly, doctors and nurses at regular health facilities have been threatened by mobs, who are angry that the health workers refer Ebola patients to treatment centers. In one case, a nurse was killed. But there has also been an increase in seemingly well-coordinated assaults by well-armed assailants. More than half-a-dozen times, gunmen have shot up Ebola treatment centers and health facilities where Ebola teams are based, including on April 19, when a group of armed men burst into a hospital where an Ebola team was meeting and killed an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization.”

African Swine Fever and China’s Pork Industry
A highly virulent virus meets a $128 billion dollar industry and we’re not sure which will win. “The virus that causes the hemorrhagic disease is highly virulent and tenacious, and spreads in multiple ways. There’s no safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection, nor anything to treat it. The widespread presence in China means it’s now being amplified across a country with 440 million pigs—half the planet’s total—with vast trading networks, permeable land borders and farms with little or no ability to stop animal diseases.” Despite 50 years of efforts, there has been no vaccine for this devastating disease and “even if China is able to stop the virus transmitting from pig to pig, two other disease vectors may frustrate eradication efforts: wild boars and Ornithodoros ticks. These are the natural hosts of African swine fever virus and are widely distributed in China, though it’s not yet known what role they are playing in spreading the disease there. Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai, has about 150,000 wild boars.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • U.S. Measles Cases Top 1,000 – “Federal officials yesterday said US measles cases have reached 1,001, the first time since 1992 that cases have been in quadruple figures, while experts continued to urge vaccination and underscored the safety of the vaccine. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said in an HHS news release, ‘We cannot say this enough: Vaccines are a safe and highly effective public health tool that can prevent this disease and end the current outbreak’.”
  • Nipah Virus in Indian Man – “The Indian government today confirmed that a 23-year-old man from Kerala has a Nipah virus infection, and another 86 case contacts are being monitored for the deadly disease, according to the Deccan Chronicle. Officials said the patient, a college student, is hospitalized and in stable condition. They also said two of the case contacts have fevers, and two nurses who took care of the 23-year-old were also experiencing fevers and sore throats.”
  • GM Fungus Kills 99% of Malaria Mosquitoes – “Trials, which took place in Burkina Faso, showed mosquito populations collapsed by 99% within 45 days. The researchers say their aim is not to make the insects extinct but to help stop the spread of malaria. The disease, which is spread when female mosquitoes drink blood, kills more than 400,000 people per year. Worldwide, there are about 219 million cases of malaria each year. Conducting the study, researchers at the University of Maryland in the US – and the IRSS research institute in Burkina Faso – first identified a fungus called Metarhizium pingshaense, which naturally infects the Anopheles mosquitoes that spread malaria. The next stage was to enhance the fungus. ‘They’re very malleable, you can genetically engineer them very easily,’ Prof Raymond St Leger, from the University of Maryland, told BBC News.”

 

Pandora Report: 4.5.2019

Good news- spring is in full effect and flu transmission is starting to slow. With summer around the corner, have you registered for our workshop on all things biodefense, from anthrax to Zika?

The Plague Years – How the Rise of Right-Wing Nationalism is Jeopardizing the World’s Health
Maryn McKenna is calling out a very real issue – politics, vaccines, and the reality that “As nativist appeals undermine public health systems and cooperation among countries degrades, the potential for catastrophe increases. We are always at risk of a new disease breaking out, or a previously controlled one surging back. What’s different now is that the rejection of scientific expertise and the refusal to support government agencies leave us without defenses that could keep a fast-moving infection at bay. Pathogens pay no respect to politics or to borders. Nationalist rhetoric seeks to persuade us that restricting visas and constructing walls will protect us. They will not. ‘Nationalism, xenophobia, the new right-wing populism in Europe and the United States, are raising our risk,’ said Ronald Klain, who was the White House Ebola response coordinator for President Barack Obama and now teaches at Harvard Law School. ‘There’s a focus not so much on stopping infectious diseases as much as there is on preventing the movement of people to prevent the transmission of diseases. And that’s not possible, because no matter what you do about immigrants, we live in a connected world’.” Moreover, that belief system can be seen in the White House, as President Trump tweeted during the 2014 Ebola outbreak – “Keep them out of here,” he tweeted about American missionaries who fell ill in West Africa. “Stop the Ebola patients from entering the U.S.” and “The U.S. cannot allow Ebola infected people back.” As McKenna notes “This is the perverse legacy of nationalism in power: By stigmatizing immigrants and segregating them, xenophobia can turn the lie of the ‘dirty foreigner’ into truth.
”

 Hospital-Associated Conditions Penalties: What They Really Mean
Just how good is your local hospital at preventing infections in patients? GMU biodefense doctoral student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu is breaking down what these quality metrics really mean and how hospitals are scoring. “In 2014, CMS established another rule tying health care quality of care and reimbursement—the HAC Reduction Program. Although this started with reporting of certain conditions, such as central-line associated bloodstream infections, these pay-for-performance programs were expanded over time. The program links hospital performance in certain categories with reimbursement. That’s right, if a hospital performs poorly, they can be hit where it hurts—the bank. Scores are determined by a hospital’s performance in 2 domains—1 includes indicators like pressure ulcers and in-hospital falls with injury, while the second domain focuses on health care-associated infections that include central-line associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, certain surgical-site infections, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteremia, and Clostridium difficile (C diff) infections. Considering there are 500,000 cases and 15,000 deaths a year related to C diff in the United States, it’s not surprising that CMS would want to crack down on those cases associated with hospitalization.” “There are just over 5000 US community hospitals that will likely receive CMS reimbursement in FY2019, and 800 (16%) of these institutions experienced financial penalties related to poor performance. That’s a pretty substantial amount, but the painful truth is that this number is likely higher considering there have been concerns for hospitals failing to report HACs and a general lack of CMS data validation.”

Ebola Continues to Hit the DRC
We’ve surpassed 1,000 cases and are now beyond the point where the WHO called a PHEIC in the 2014-2016. On Tuesday, the “World Health Organization (WHO) today reiterated that the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will be defeated only with local communities at the helm of response efforts. The message came from Ibrahima-Soce Fall, MD, WHO assistant director-general for emergency response, who held a brief teleconference this morning from Butembo. With 72 Ebola cases reported last week and 56 in the previous week, March was a low point for responders, as activity spiked and the outbreak topped the 1,000-case milestone.” On Thursday, it was reported that 7 new cases were identified, including a healthcare worker. “The healthcare worker in Musienene brings the total number of health workers infected during the outbreak to 82 (7.4% of all confirmed or probable cases), and 29 of them have died, the DRC said. In an update released late yesterday, the DRC recorded 8 new confirmed cases, and 7 deaths, including 5 community deaths. Butembo and Katwa each had a community death, and Mandima recorded 3. Community deaths have been a compounding factory of this outbreak, as they enable the virus to spread more easily among family members and funeral attendees.” Based off the latest case counts, three main areas have been the hotspots for the outbreak – Katwa, Vuhovi, and Mandima.

Next Generation Biosecurity Online Course
“An open online course exploring biosecurity and biological threats begins this week on FutureLearn. This course is for professionals working in public and global health, international security, politics and international relations. It may be of particular use to biosafety officers in academia, industry or government, and early-career science scholars in the life sciences.” You can access the course here.

 Why the Scientific Debate Over a UW Bird Flu Study Isn’t Going Away
“A University of Wisconsin-Madison laboratory is set to resume experiments that could build the foundation of an early warning system for flu pandemics. The research is based on altering a deadly type of the influenza virus in a way that could make it more dangerous, though, and critics say its approval lacked transparency and creates unnecessary risks. Yoshihiro Kawaoka is a virologist and professor at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Tokyo who has figured prominently in Wisconsin’s long-term central role in flu research. Kawaoka’s work has been the focus of fierce debate among epidemiologists ever since he announced in 2011 that his lab had successfully altered the H5N1 subtype of the influenza A virus to be transmittable through the air among ferrets. These small mammals are a common laboratory stand-in for studying human flu transmission.” “That debate has lingered since 2011 and intensified in early 2019 after the federal government approved funding for Kawaoka to continue his research. Marc Lipsitch is a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He’s a longtime critic of research that modifies flu viruses to be more dangerous in humans. ‘What worries me and my colleagues is the effort to modify viruses that are novel to humans and therefore to which there’s no immunity in the population, and where a laboratory accident wouldn’t just threaten the person who got infected … but potentially could be the spark that leads to a whole pandemic of infectious disease,’ Lipsitch told WisContext.”

New Plant Breeding Tech for Food Safety
Tackling the issue of food safety is up there with a universal flu vaccine – something we all want, but a task requiring a Herculean effort. A new insight to this problem has come forward though and the authors “argue that with careful deployment and scientifically informed regulation, new plant breeding technologies (NPBTs) such as genome editing will be able to contribute substantially to global food security. Previously, conventional plant breeding through cross- and self-pollination strategies played a major role in improving agricultural productivity. Moreover, the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops by smallholder farmers has led to higher yields, lower pesticide use, poverty reduction, and improved nutrition. Nevertheless, so far only a few developing and emerging economies—such as China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and South Africa—have embraced GM crops. Even though three decades of research show that GM crops are no more risky than conventional crops, many countries in Africa and Asia are hesitant to promote the use of GM crops, largely because of erroneously perceived risks and fears of losing export markets to Europe.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Opioid Epidemic Increases Some Infectious Disease Rates – “The United States faces a converging public health crisis as the nation’s opioid epidemic fuels growing rates of certain infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, heart infections, and skin and soft tissue infections. Infectious disease and substance use disorder professionals must work together to stem the mounting public health threat, according to a new commentary in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. The article was co-authored by officials from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Since 1999, nearly 400,000 people in the United States have fatally overdosed on opioid-containing drugs, with 47,600 deaths in 2017 alone. Many people with opioid use disorder (OUD), who initially were prescribed oral drugs to treat pain, now inject prescribed or illegal opioids. High-risk injection practices such as needle-sharing are causing a surge in infectious diseases. Additionally, risky sexual behaviors associated with injection drug use have contributed to the spread of sexually transmitted infections.”
  • US Army Develops Fast-acting Spray for CW Decon– “Chemical and biological weapons experts earned the U.S. Army a patent on Tuesday for their groundbreaking work on rapid decontamination. Gregory Peterson, Joseph Myers, George Wagner, Matthew Shue, John Davies, Jr., and Joseph Rossin were listed as the inventors on U.S. Patent 10,245,456, “Process for Decontamination and Detoxification with Zirconium Hydroxide-Based Slurry.” (The patent is linked below). The research team works at the Army’s Chemical Biological Centerin Maryland, and has significantly reduced decontamination time down to less than 30 minutes and the amount of water needed to treat large amounts of equipment coated in deadly toxins.”

 

Pandora Report: 3.15.2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

Pandora Report: 12.28.2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

 

Pandora Report 11.16.2018

We’re back from the 5th Ministerial Meeting of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA)! We’ll be reporting out on this event in the coming weeks, so keep an eye out for all things GHSA. Influenza season is ramping up and you’ll want to check out the latest article on looking beyond the decade of vaccines.

Preventing Pandemics and Bioterrorism: Past, Present, and Future
We’re just weeks away from this exciting event – are you registered? Preventing Pandemics and Bioterrorism: Past, Present, and Future is a special event in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the George Mason University Biodefense Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. We invite you to attend this exciting opportunity to hear from Dr. Kadlec of ASPR about lessons learned for pandemic preparedness since the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, plans for implementing the new National Biodefense Strategy, and the importance of education for the future of biodefense. Following his speech and Q&A session, you are invited to an informal reception for academic and professional members of the biodefense community to socialize and network. Make sure to RSVP soon as seats are limited for this December 4th event.

Russian Disinformation & the Georgian “Lab of Death”
A recent BBC investigation has found some disturbing information regarding Russian media making false claims about a U.S.-funded lab in Georgia. “The Russian Foreign Ministry, Defence Ministry and pro-Kremlin media claimed recently that untested drugs were given to Georgian citizens at the lab, resulting in a large number of deaths. The US has accused Russia of disinformation in order to distract attention away from incidents such as the Salisbury poisonings.” This episode is part of a series the BBC is providing on disinformation and fake news.

Ebola Outbreak Updates
The Ebola virus disease outbreak in the DRC continues to grow. 15 cases were reported on Monday as well as another violent attack in Beni. “WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said on Twitter that he had been briefed on a violent attack that occurred in Beni on the night of Nov 10. ‘All WHO staff safe, but my heart goes out to families who have lost loved ones in this appalling and unacceptable attack, which we condemn in the strongest terms,’ he wrote. According to a local media report translated and posted by H5N1 Blog, which focuses on infectious disease news, at least five civilians were killed and several children kidnapped in an attack by rebels with the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Beni’s Mayimoya district. The report said two other people were killed in two other attacks the same day in Beni’s Runwenzori neighborhood, one linked to ADF rebels and the other by suspected Mai Mai militia members.” The latest situation report lists 333 cases and 209 deaths, with 31 new confirmed cases reported during the reporting period (Nov 5-11). Early this morning, the DRC announced three more cases and 1 death. Health officials are also reportedly planning to launch a clinical trial of three antibody treatments and an antiviral drug, within the area. These drugs are currently in utilization in the Ebola treatment centers within the area but only under compassionate use. The UK is contributing funds to help Uganda step up prevention and preparedness efforts as well. “On a recent visit to The Medical Research Council/Uganda Virus Research Institute (URVI) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Entebbe, UK Minister for Africa Harriett Baldwin announced that the UK will support Uganda’s National Task Force with up to £5.1 million ($6.6 million USD) to support Ebola preparedness and prevention efforts in Uganda. This funding will support surveillance in high-risk districts at the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); risk reduction communication in communities; infection prevention and control measures as well as provide for improved case management.” Peter Salama, WHO Emergency Response Chief, has noted that the outbreak could last another six months – “It’s very hard to predict timeframes in an outbreak as complicated as this with so many variables that are outside our control, but certainly we’re planning on at least another six months before we can declare this outbreak over,”.

ELBI Fellowship Application Opens
The Emerging Leader for Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) run by the Center for Health Security is now accepting applications. This is a great opportunity that several Biodefense students have been able to take advantage of for the last several years. GMU Biodefense has had several fellows – Yong-Bee Lim  is currently an ELBI fellow and Saskia Popescu, Siddha Hover, and Francisco Cruz have represented our biodefense program in previous years. If you’re a current GMU biodefense student or alumni and are interested in applying and plan to request a letter of recommendation from the Biodefense program director, please do so ASAP. Dr. Koblentz asks that applicants send a copy of their application materials (personal statement, essay, and current resume or cv) and an unofficial GMU transcript by December 5, 2018.

 One Health in the 21st Century Workshop
The One Health in the 21st Century workshop will serve as a snapshot of government, intergovernmental organization and non-governmental organization innovation as it pertains to the expanding paradigm of One Health. One Health being the umbrella term for addressing animal, human, and environmental health issues as inextricably linked, each informing the other, rather than as distinct disciplines. This snapshot, facilitated by a partnership between the Wilson Center, World Bank, and EcoHealth Alliance, aims to bridge professional silos represented at the workshop to address the current gaps and future solutions in the operationalization and institutionalization of One Health across sectors. The workshop will be held on November 26th at the Wilson Center. You can RSVP here.

USDA ARS 5th International Biosafety & Biocontainment Symposium: Biorisk and Facility Challenges in Agriculture
Registration is open for this February 11, 2019 event! The symposium will provide 2.5 days of scientific presentations and exhibits regarding agricultural biosafety and biocontainment.

WHO Report on Surveillance of Antibiotic Consumption
The WHO has just released their report on global antibiotic consumption and the surveillance methods surrounding efforts to reduce antimicrobial resistance. “Since 2016, WHO has supported capacity building in monitoring antimicrobial consumption in 57 low- and middle-income countries through workshops, trainings and technical support. At this stage, 16 of these countries were able to share their national data with WHO. Other countries are currently in the process of data collection and validation.In total, 64 countries and Kosovo1 contributed data on antibiotic consumption for this report, with the bulk of data coming from the European region and countries with pre- existing, mature surveillance systems. The consumption data showed wide intra- and interregional variation in the total amount of antibiotics and the choice of antibiotics consumed. The overall consumption of antibiotics ranged from 4.4 to 64.4 DefinedDaily Doses (DDD) per 1000 inhabitants per day.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Influenza Vaccine Efficacy Among Patients with High-Risk Medical Conditions in the U.S. – Researchers utilized data from the US Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Network from 2012-2016 to analyze vaccine effectiveness (VE) “of standard-dose inactivated vaccines against medically-attended influenza among patients aged ≥6 months with and without high-risk medical conditions. Overall, 9643 (38%) of 25,369 patients enrolled during four influenza seasons had high-risk conditions; 2213 (23%) tested positive for influenza infection.Influenza vaccination provided protection against medically-attended influenza among patients with high-risk conditions, at levels approaching those observed among patients without high-risk conditions. Results from our analysis support recommendations of annual vaccination for patients with high-risk conditions.”