Pandora Report 5.26.2017

Summer is in full swing and that means the mosquitoes are out in force. Before you make those pesky bugs your biggest enemy, don’t forget about the threat of antibiotic resistance and the current MCR-1 Klebsiella outbreak in China!

Congrats GMU Biodefense Graduates 
Last week we saw several MS and PhD students graduate from GMU’s biodefense program and we couldn’t be more excited to show off their hard work! Earning their MS in biodefense, we’d like to celebrate Kathryn Ake, Rebecca Earnhardt, Nicholas Guerin, Andrew Joyce, Ryan Lockhart, Patrick Lucey, Alison Mann, Jonathon Marioneaux, Scott McAlister, Greg Mercer, Katheryn Payton, Dana Saft, Colleen Tangney, and Anupama Varma. Earning their PhD in biodefense, we’re celebrating Keith W. Ludwick (Dissertation title: The Legend of the Lone Wolf: Categorizing Singular and Small Group Terrorism), Nereyda Sevilla (Germs on a Plane: The Transmission and Risks of Airplane-Borne Diseases), and Craig Wiener (Penetrate, Exploit, Disrupt, Destroy: The Rise of Computer Network Operations as a Major Military Innovation). Congrats to our biodefense graduates – we can’t wait to see what wonderful things you’ll accomplish in global health security!

U.S. Investment in Global Health Security  – The Good and The Bad
Whether it be an intentional, accidental, or natural biological event, infectious diseases can devastate local economies and populations. “Catastrophic” is a term commonly used for such events. Disease knows no borders or boundaries, which means that our global health security is only as strong as the weakest link. To aid in the stability of global health security, the State Department funds projects around the world to help improve biosafety and biosecurity. The philosophy is that if we can train local trainers to establish expertise and biorisk programs, it would lay the foundation for biosecurity/biosafety for the future. “The State Department carefully evaluates and selects the most impactful projects for each region, pairing local needs with appropriate subject matter expertise. One source of such expertise is Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), which has received State Department funding to implement numerous health security projects. Just this April, Lora Grainger, working at the Labs’ International Biological and Chemical Threat Reduction (IBCTR), travelled to Algeria to train Algerian trainers on a project funded by the State Department. Participants included scientists working in Algeria’s national network of laboratories managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Institut National de Médecine Véterinaire (INMV).” This partnership is just one of many and involves education that is tailored to the skills and needs of those being trained. Global health security is bigger than any one country and it’s vital to not only strengthen our own practices, but also facilitate its development in countries that might not have all the resources needed. Speaking of U.S. health security efforts, don’t forget to catch the Operation Whitecoat documentary on the June 1st.                                                                                                                                                              

While these are great efforts the U.S. is putting forward, there is also an internal struggle to maintain public health during a hiring freeze. The freeze was imposed by President Trump’s executive order in late January, which covers currently open positions, blocks transfers, and prevents new positions from being created. It was recently reporting that nearly 700 positions within the CDC are vacant due to the ongoing hiring freeze. “Like HHS, the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have maintained the freeze as a way of reducing their workforces and reshaping organizational structures after a directive last month from the Office of Management and Budget that said all federal agencies must submit a plan by June 30 to shrink their civilian workforces. HHS, State and EPA also face significant cuts in the Trump administration’s budget proposal for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The administration, which unveiled a ‘skinny budget‘ for fiscal 2018 in March, is scheduled to release its full budget next week. A senior CDC official said unfilled positions include dozens of budget analysts and public health policy analysts, scientists and advisers who provide key administrative support.” A new CDC document notes that at least 125 job categories have been blocked from being filled, which includes positions in the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.

Ebola in the DRC – Updates
While we’re honoring researchers and workers for their efforts during the 2014/2015 West Africa outbreak, Ebola continues to rage through the DRC. You can find daily situation reports here from the WHO, as the numbers of reported cases are constantly changing. The WHO is reportedly optimistic that it can contain the outbreak and many are curious to see how the new director general will handle such challenges. The latest situation report from the WHO is pointing to six more cases of Ebola, bringing the total suspected cases to 43. 365 people are currently under monitoring in the DRC. Researchers have also made substantial progress towards understanding how Ebola disables the immune system so effectively. In response to this latest outbreak, the WHO is requesting funding to ensure adequate response to the DRC outbreak.

Pandemics, BT, & Global Health Security Workshop – Instructor Spotlight
We’re excited to announce that Kendall Hoyt is our instructor spotlight this week! Dr. Hoyt is an Assistant Professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth where she studies U.S. biodefense policy and biomedical R&D strategy. She is also a lecturer at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College where she teaches a course on technology and biosecurity. She is the author of Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense, Harvard University Press, 2012. She serves on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Department of Defense’s Programs to Counter Biological Threats and on the advisory board of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. Kendall Hoyt received her Ph.D. in the History and Social Study of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002 and was a Fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2002-2004. Prior to obtaining her degree, she worked in the International Security and International Affairs division of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Washington DC office of McKinsey and Company, and the Center for the Management of Innovation and Technology at the National University of Singapore. Did I mention that she’s also done work on Ebola and has written extensively about medical countermeasures for the disease? Dr. Hoyt is not only an expert on biosecurity and the impact of technology, but will take students through the journey of medical countermeasures and security.

The Finish Line in Ending Pandemics and The Future of the WHO
The recent election of a new WHO director-general highlights the current global shift in priorities, and yet the reality is that we’re still fighting an uphill battle against infectious disease and the threat of a pandemic. Recent decades have shown that outbreaks have been increasingly common, taking advantage of globalization, growing populations, and spillover. Avian influenza has been knocking at the door for a while…while bursts of Ebola and SARS have shaken global health security to its core. MERS has also triggered such events in hospitals, leaving no environment safe from emerging infectious diseases. The list of worrying viral diseases has also grown and taught us a rather painful truth – pandora’s box is already open and every time we think we’ve closed it…we realize the seal just isn’t that tight. “Dynamic, rapidly evolving viral threats emerge with increasing frequency, exploiting new pathways in endless pursuit of their biologic imperative. These viruses are the paradigm of adaptive learning. Pushing and probing at our defenses, they shift to new hosts, opportunistically hijack transmission routes, and acquire capacities to evade immune detection. They are subject to no rules of engagement, and their viral intelligence is anything but artificial”. Our new strategy is now to strengthen our detection efforts and to build up response processes. Many have highlighted that what we’ve seen is just a small percentage of what’s out there, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep our heads buried in the sand forever. The future of international disease response will change with the appointment of the new WHO director-general, especially for poor countries dependent upon resources. On Tuesday, it was announced that Ethiopia’s Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was voted director-general. Dr. Ghebreyesus is the first ever African director-general and brings to the position a long history of health stewardship as a former health minister in Ethiopia. Not only is this election particularly significant as the future of the WHO will be heavily weighed against its failures in recent years, but recent accusations against the newly elected director-general have created further doubts as to the stability of the organization.

Double-edged Sword Research
A new report from the Swiss Academies of Art & Sciences is drawing attention to the need for continued conversation and engagement about the potential for misuse in life sciences. As a result of the workshop, a report was developed highlighting “six issues that should be considered when designing, conducting, and communicating research projects. Each issue is illustrated with examples from actual research projects.” In fact, CRISPR inventor, Jennifer Doudna, is drawing attention to the promises and perils of the gene-editing technology. She points to the worries of creating designer embryos while contrasting the promises of reducing mosquito-transmitted diseases. In fact, recent work has shown some promise in using CRISPR to fight HIV. “Part of the problem is HIV’s ability to squirrel itself away inside a cell’s DNA – including the DNA of the immune cells that are supposed to be killing it. The same ability, though, could be HIV’s undoing. ast week, a group of biologists published research detailing how they hid an anti-HIV CRISPR system inside another type of virus capable of sneaking past a host’s immune system. What’s more, the virus replicated and snipped HIV from infected cells along the way.” While this work has only been done in mice and rats, the concept is promising. Overall, these advances bring about exciting future possibilities, but it’s important to remember that there are dangers too – whether it be tampering with human evolution, contaminated CRISPR kits, nefarious actors using them for terrorism, etc. The complexities of CRISPR and genetic engineering are only growing, which makes the 2018 arrival of the peer-reviewed publication, The CRISPR Journal, even more relevant.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Model Systems and the Need For Curiosity-Driven Science– GMU Biodefense PhD student, Saskia Popescu, is looking at the importance of model systems and picking the brain of a top researcher in the field, Dr. Julie Pfeiffer. “Poliovirus is great to use to create model systems because not only does it grow easily, but it is also relatively safe due to vaccination for lab workers, not to mention that we have a pretty solid understanding of the virus based off a century of working with it. ‘We know a lot about poliovirus and we have great tools in our toolbox. If you’re going to tackle a tough problem, it helps to have a great toolbox. For other fields, the ideal toolbox may be fruit flies, worms, or yeast. Collectively, these model systems have illuminated biology and have led to major advancements in human health.’ stated Dr. Pfeiffer in her recent PLOS Pathogens article on the importance of model systems.” “Firstly, I asked if she thought there were other eradicated or ‘almost’ eradicated diseases that could make decent models. She replied, ‘No. We use poliovirus as a model system because of its great tractability, safety, and ease of use (not because it’s nearly eradicated). [Other eradicated diseases such as] smallpox and rinderpest would not be good model systems because they have been completely eradicated from circulation, making biosafety and tractability major issues. [That being said,] if the poliovirus eradication campaign is successful, the idea is to stop vaccination. If this happens, poliovirus will likely become a BSL3/4 agent and I will no longer work with it’.”
  • Is Your Daycare Prepared For a Pandemic?– Daycare centers may not be your first thought when it comes to pandemic preparedness, however a recent survey found that fewer than one in ten U.S. centers have taken steps to prepare for a pandemic flu event. “Researchers surveyed directors of licensed childcare centers in 2008 and again in 2016, to assess flu prevention measures before and after the 2009 pandemic outbreak of a new strain of H1N1 influenza. Among other things, they looked at flu prevention activities like daily health checks for kids, infection control training for staff, communicating with parents about illness and immunization requirements for children and staff.” Children are great sources for disease transmission and when guardians are needed at work, childcare capacity will be extremely important if a pandemic flu occurs.

 

Pandora Report 5.12.2017

TGIF and welcome to your favorite weekly dose of all things biodefense! Check out this film from PBS Digital Studios Brain Craft exploring the technical and ethical questions about CRISPR and genetic engineering.

The Growing Threat of Pandemics: Enhancing Domestic and International Biosecurity
The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University just released their new white paper on biosecurity measures. The paper highlights the increased threat of pandemics due to globalization and ease of transportation. In their review they found nine priority areas that will help address the current biodefense problem. Their priority areas/action items are leadership, international response, the anti-vaccine movement, animal and human health, uniform health screening, public health and healthcare infrastructure, effective outbreak response, cultural competency, and academic collaborations. The white paper notes that “there should be uniform health screenings for individuals seeking permanent or extended temporary residence in the United States. Currently, there are discrepancies between the vaccination requirements for immigrants and the vaccination requirements for refugees.” The inclusion of the anti-vaccination movement was particularly interesting as few reports truly capture this in regards to biodefense efforts. “The increasing influence of the anti-vaccine movement in the United States is another growing threat. Leaders of the movement spread misinformation to parents with questions or anxiety over the safety of vaccines. Many within the anti-vaccine movement incorrectly believe that vaccines cause autism and the number of individuals seeking nonmedical exemptions to the vaccination requirements of schools is on the rise.”

Pandemic Summer Workshop Sneak Peek 
We’re getting closer to the July 17-19 workshop on pandemics, bioterrorism, and global health security, which means that starting next week, we’ll be highlighting some of the amazing faculty teaching the courses. Make sure to look for our spotlight on Dr. Andy Kilianski in next week’s Pandora Report as we’ll be looking at his work on biosurveillance and its role within U.S. biodefense efforts! Make sure to take advantage of the early registration discount before June 1st!

2017 Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge
Don’t miss this wonderful chance to show off your infectious disease mapping skills! The Next Generation Global Health Security Network and DigitalGlobe Foundation are “seeking undergraduate and graduate students, in a team or individually, to generate up to three maps (one map is perfectly acceptable) that illustrate a research question related to any of the categories detailed below. Maps can be analytic (examining relationships between multiple domains, phenomena, or data sources) or descriptive (depicting a single phenomenon or data source). While analytic projects are ideal, descriptive projects will be accepted as long as students/teams describe why their map depicts a notable phenomenon. Similarly, while international maps are preferred, domestic maps will be accepted if the student/team can provide justification as to why a map focusing on the U.S. is necessary (e.g., U.S. data sets on a given topic are the most comprehensive).”

Scientists Take On HIV By Using CRISPR
Researchers have just made headway in the battle against HIV/AIDS by using the genome editing technology, CRISPR-Cas9. Current treatment for HIV involves anti-retrovirals, which are pretty harsh on the body and come with several nasty side effects. In their fight against HIV, the research team used the CRISPR technology like a pair of scissors to get rid of the HIV-1 DNA in the body of mice. “If you cut out the DNA, you stop the virus from being able to make copies of itself. The team is the first to show HIV can be completely annihilated from the body using CRISPR. And with impressive effect. After just one treatment, scientists were able to show the technique had successfully removed all traces of the infection within mouse organs and tissue.”

Public Interest Report – Chemical Weapons
Don’t miss the latest publication from the Federation of American Scientists, which includes several articles on chemical weapons. The Public Interest Report (PIR) is a great source for articles on human rights, counterterrorism, and more. The most recent edition includes articles on the threat of toxic chemicals, investigations regarding the chemical attacks in Syria, the value of scientific analysis of chemical weapons attacks, and more. The president of the Federation of American Scientists, Charles D. Ferguson, also wrote a special message regarding the value of scientific analysis, specifically in regards to chemical weapons attacks. He highlights several articles regarding chemical weapons attacks over the years, one of which includes an analysis of symptoms and potential agents used. This specific work includes analysis from GMU professor, Keith Ward, and highlights the use of chemical weapons in Darfur and Sudan and the limitations of NGO documentation of chemical warfare agents. The article points to the specific symptoms following chemical weapons attacks and notes that “NGOs find themselves at considerable disadvantage compared to national governments when faced with evaluating evidence of alleged attacks using chemical weapons.”

Could Saving Animals Prevent the Next Pandemic?
70% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that some type of a spillover event had to occur. Ebola, HIV/AIDS, H1N1, and avian influenza are all examples of spillover that has resulted in human morbidity and mortality. The USAID PREDICT program is working to combat this growing threat of zoonotic diseases. PREDICT works to establish a global surveillance system for infectious diseases that can spillover into humans. PREDICT is a collaborative effort between the University of California at Davis’s One Health Institute and the School of Veterinary Medicine, as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society, Metabiota, EcoHealth Alliance, and the Smithsonian Institute’s Global Health Program. “In its first five years, PREDICT trained 2,500 government and medical personnel in 20 countries on things like the identification of zoonotic diseases and implementing effective reporting systems. They collected samples from 56,340 wild animals, using innovative techniques like leaving chew ropes for monkeys then collecting saliva afterwards. They also detected 815 novel viruses—more than all the viruses previously recognized in mammals by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses.” One of the tools PREDICT uses for surveillance is to monitor animal health and diseases that are circulating in them. “When you disrupt an ecosystem by removing a species through culling, you have a less healthy ecosystem and higher risk of disease,” says Megan Vodzak, a research specialist for Smithsonian’s Global Health Program. “Sometimes you increase the level of the virus within the population because you eliminate some but not all of the animals, and they’re still circulating it.” This brings about a humbling notion – conservation and human health might go hand in hand. Some researchers note that by protecting wildlife, we can help prevent spillover events and outbreaks. This concept however, is a bit more complex and has many on the fence regarding the actual role of conservation in human diseases. Some work has found that increases in biodiversity have no impact on human health, emphasizing the murky water of those trying to sell conservation as a tool for fighting pandemics. “When researchers do embark on conservation projects, she cautions that they should also consider other possible outcomes besides the protective benefit humans get from healthy wildlife and ecosystems. ‘We have to recognize that conservation could provide benefits for public health and it could endanger public health,’.”

The Battle of the Resistant Bug
We often think of an infectious disease threat emerging from some hidden jungle or quiet spillover event. While these are are true scenarios, I offer one more – the moment a bacteria becomes resistant to antimicrobials. Whether it be related to over-use in farming or over prescribing in healthcare, this is often a forgotten battleground. We’ve become accustomed to the ease and availability of antibiotics, which has translated to increased and improper use. Antibiotic resistant has frequently been overshadowed by the flashier of infectious disease threats however, this is to our detriment. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has proven time and time again to not only be a devious adversary, but one that gets little attention. Research and development into new antibiotics has lagged in recent years, which has only compounded the issue. One of the issues is also the lack of coordinated international surveillance and response strategies. Interestingly, Russian scientists recently developed an interactive world map, which shows human gut microbiota and their potential for resistance. The ResistoMap (pretty outstanding name, right?) makes it easier to track national resistance trends and potentially create an international response plan. “Using the ResistoMap, it is possible to estimate the global variation of the resistance to different groups of antibiotics and explore the associations between specific drugs and clinical factors or other metadata. For instance, the Danish gut metagenomes tend to demonstrate the lowest resistome among the European groups, whereas the French samples have the highest levels, particularly of the fluoroquinolones, a group of broad-spectrum anti-bacterial drugs.” While the rise of an emerging infectious disease should not be ignored, it is important that we remember the slower burn of antimicrobial resistance. Even Alexander Fleming saw the future involving a world without effective antibiotics, as he noted just following his acceptance of the 1945 Nobel Prize, “The thoughtless person playing with penicillin treatment is morally responsible for the death of the man who succumbs to infection with the penicillin-resistant organism.”

Regional Action Needed to Prevent Syrian Chemical Weapons Attacks
GMU biodefense PhD alum, Daniel M. Gerstein, is focusing on the role regional actors could play with respect to Syria, especially in terms of dissuading the use of chemical weapons. Despite the horrific attack in early April, global response has been surprisingly tepid and Russian support is ongoing, but Gerstein also highlights the “deafening silence” on the issue by countries within the region. Pressure could be applied from surrounding countries to indicate a strong message that the use of such weapons will not be tolerated. “Borders with Syria could be sealed to prevent any of the re­maining stocks from leaving the country. This would likely require a mix of military, law enforcement and border police to ensure that any illicit crossings are immediate­ly halted. In the event that chemi­cal weapons do breach the Syrian border, response forces should be prepared to stop suspect ship­ments, conduct searches of cargo and have appropriate protection to avoid becoming casualties them­selves.” Gerstein also notes that regional leaders could direct efforts towards Assad specifically, making it clear that Syria’s future will not include him, by calling for the International Criminal Court to indict him for war crimes.”Over the past 15 years, the norms against the use of chemical weap­ons have continued to be threat­ened, with increasing state and non-state actor use. Most of these attacks have occurred in the Middle East. This trend cannot be allowed to continue.”

The Chemical Attack in Syria – Sorting Truth from Propaganda
Rod Barton takes us through the April chemical weapons attack in Syria and argues against those who claim it was a “false flag” operation, staged by rebels to draw the U.S. into further intervention efforts. The most notable proponents of this argument have been former MIT professor Theodore Postol and Sydney University professor, Tim Anderson. In efforts to help break the cycle of a false narrative, the U.S. has released intelligence reports however, those who support the “false flag” narrative continue to point to misinformation and confusion about the April 4th attack as evidence. Barton argues against the “false flag” narrative by highlighting several points as evidence for the attack – victims seeking medical care following a Syrian air strike with classic symptoms of nerve agent poisoning, analysis samples that confirmed sarin, and the air raid crater found in the road north of the town, which tested positive for sarin and hexamine. Postol, on the other hand, while continuing to claim that the U.S. intelligence reports fail to prove definitively that the attack was done by the Assad regime, does not argue that it was sarin that killed the people in Khan Sheikhoun. “His case is largely based on the nature of distortion of the metal fragment in the crater – he claims this proves that it was not dropped from an aircraft, as stated by US intelligence. His theory is that a sarin-filled tube, possibly a 122mm artillery rocket body, was placed on the road by individuals on the ground and overlaid with a small explosive charge to disperse the agent.” Barton argues against Postol’s comments for several reasons – Postol fails to explain the origin of the sarin in the tubes, how the rebel groups managed to coordinate the detonation of their device with that of a Syrian government air raid, and that Postol fails to account for the evidence of a second chemical round that detonated around 300m from the road crater. Barton notes that “Postol was an eminent scientist and his views cannot simply be ignored. However, on this occasion the evidence to support his argument is not there – he has got it wrong. His writings on this subject have nevertheless been useful in that they have forced analysts to question the evidence closely to determine their degree of certainty in their assessments. But while the particulars are difficult to ascertain, there is still sufficient evidence to state beyond reasonable doubt that the Syrian military is responsible for the attack. In other words, the jury should convict – sadly, in today’s world, the reality may be different.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 3-D Structures vs. Infectious Diseases– Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is leading a team of international researchers to determine the 3-D atomic structure of more than 1,000 proteins to help develop treatments and vaccines against infectious diseases. “Almost 50 percent of the structures that we have deposited in the Protein Data Bank are proteins that were requested by scientific investigators from around the world,” said Wayne Anderson, PhD, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at Feinberg, and director of the project. “The NIH has also requested us to work on proteins for potential drug targets or vaccine candidates for many diseases, such as the Ebola virus, the Zika virus and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We have determined several key structures from these priority organisms and published the results in high-impact journals such as Nature and Cell.”
  • The Million Dollar Minnesota Measles Outbreak – the growing measles outbreak in Minnesota is projected to cost the state $1 million and is quickly growing. “When it began last month, public health officials knew this outbreak could be large and ongoing, because many Somali-Americans have been refusing the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine for years over unfounded rumors that the childhood immunization, whose first dose is routinely given to babies at 12 to 15 months, causes autism.” Sadly, the vaccination declinations in the Somali-Americans in Minnesota are considered to have been a result of targeting from anti-vaccine groups.

Pandora Report 5.5.2017

Welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense. We hope you’ll celebrate World Hand Hygiene Day today by practicing awesome hand hygiene to help stop the spread of germs! Will Bill Gates save us from the next Ebola?

Summer Workshop Discount Extended
We’re excited to announce that the early registration deadline has been extended to June 1st for the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security! This is a great opportunity to experience a 3-day workshop led by some of the top biodefense people in the field, not to mention networking opportunities with fellow global health security gurus. Don’t miss out on this July 17-19th workshop in which you’ll learn about bioterrorism, synthetic biology, dual-use research of concern, and how experts are working to stop the next pandemic.

Three Insights from the World Bank’s Tim Evans on Global Health
“While in the previous year the U.S. was the biggest single source of development aid finance for health at $12.8 billion — 34 percent of the global total — its future position is less clear. Specifics on U.S. commitments to global health were lacking in U.S. President Donald Trump’s ‘skinny budget‘ released in March. The latest budget document released this week, meanwhile, shows proposed cuts to USAID’s global health funds.” At a recent event hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Tim Evans, senior director of health, nutrition, and population at the World Bank Group, pointed to three important lessons. Firstly, we must catalyze domestic resource mobilization. Domestic spending impacts a country’s capacities and universal healthcare development. “Evans said the global health community needs to rethink the way it views and packages development assistance, from largely being linked to service provision to one that can strengthen countries’ domestic resource mobilization.” Second, he notes that it is crucial to build a demand for health. Policy shifts and economic strain increasingly threaten global health security efforts. He notes that there is a “very strong need to think about building demand and not to pretend that because you’re doing health and saving lives that everybody thinks that’s a great idea,”. “Actively cultivate that community, because you know if you don’t, then it doesn’t take much of a counter force — and we’ve seen this in the areas of vaccines and immunizations — to erode that base of support.” Lastly, the growing threat of disease requires that we expand beyond the “public sector-only mindset”. It’s critical to consider and utilize the private sector for public health efforts. He mentioned that “the public sector has massively important functions. But we have to look in a granular way, various ways, in which the private sector is active, will be active, and work with that in ways that are going to address burden of disease in cost effective manners,”.

Has The Deep State Hoodwinked Trump?
GMU Professor Charles P. Blair and biodefense MS student Rebecca Earnhardt are pointing to Trump’s recent military action in Syria and what really happened behind closed doors. “Though many of the administration’s more centrist supporters cheered the US missile strike on the Syrian air base, characterizing it as a bold move necessitated by the weakness of Barack Obama, other Trump supporters argued that the president had been tricked into a grand mistake. Was Trump the victim of a ruse by the ‘deep state’—a monolithic alignment of federal power centers so intent on maintaining command that it was willing to derail the new administration by encouraging it to pursue unwise military action? Or was the president misled by an even more ominous version of the deep state: one that subverts legitimate civilian leadership in a bid to recouple the United States to ‘regime change’ and similar globalist policies of militant ‘humanitarian’ interventionism?” Blair and Earnhardt look at this history of “deep state”, the rise of the “new world order”, and the growth of fringe beliefs in conspiracy and the notion of a hidden organization (think The X-Files, Men in Black, and the Matrix). “This elevated circulation of cross-pollinated conspiratorialism, now manifest in the increasingly normalized views of the fringe far right, has been facilitated not just by television and movies, as discussed above, but also by Internet platforms.” While not all associate the deep state with some totalitarian global group (which reminds me of James Bond‘s Spectre and Mission Impossible‘s Syndicate), the increasing belief in “sanitized conspiracies” has highlighted some changes how we form beliefs and what that translates to. Earnhardt and Blair also note that that while such beliefs have increased while faith in government, science, and the press have declined.

Why Are We More at Risk Than Ever for a Global Pandemic? 
GMU Biodefense PhD student, Saskia Popescu, looks at the seven reasons we’re more at risk than ever for a global pandemic. While concurring with a recent list following CNN’s pandemic documentary, she highlights two gaps within it – attitude towards infectious diseases and the role of healthcare infrastructure. “The current attitude towards infectious diseases puts us more at risk. Ebola brought the realities of borderless outbreaks to the forefront, especially with availability of faster information. Industrialized countries view diseases—emerging infectious diseases, in particular—differently than developing countries. In the United States, we relish our vaccine availability enough that we refuse it and often see emerging diseases as third world problems. Ebola showed us two things; the unfounded and irrational fear that occurred in the United States, and the lack of preparedness or acknowledgement that a disease in West Africa could venture across the pond.” She highlights the damaging implications of viewing emerging infectious diseases as “third world country problems” and what cultural shift is needed for this to change. The second missing component to the list is healthcare infrastructure and infection control efforts. “Physicians and nurses alike are desperately needed in developing countries; however, it is important to include another role that is often forgotten: infection control and prevention. Although there are fewer doctors and nurses in outbreak regions, there is also something to be said about the grossly underfunded and underutilized role of infection control as a preparedness and response tool. Whether it is in the United States or in a developing country, infection prevention and control programs are vital for both patient and employee safety, frequently understaffed, and economically strained.” Highlighting the nosocomial cases in Dallas, TX, she notes that infection control is bigger than just hospital-acquired infections and trickles down to antimicrobial resistance, communicable disease reporting, and patient isolation. “Overall, the way we look at emerging infectious diseases, our role in preventing and responding to them, and how we utilize (or fail to utilize) healthcare have created a substantial vulnerability for future public health threats. We have more than enough proof to show how vulnerable we all are to infectious diseases and how vital hospital infection control is to not only internal infections, but also preventing the spread from the community. Now is the time to truly utilize a holistic approach—including infection control programs, public education and cultural awareness, and more—to prevent the next pandemic.”

U.S. Biodefense Failures
Despite the bipartisan nature of biothreat preparedness, the U.S. struggles to to support such efforts. A recent Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense meeting highlighted yet again, the lack of leadership for U.S. biodefense efforts -whether that be an agency or person. “For at least two decades, infectious disease experts have been urging the U.S. government to do more to keep the country prepared for outbreaks of diseases such as a new strain of flu, Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. They’ve also noted that other countries have prepared biological weapons such as smallpox and anthrax and have used chemical weapons — such as Syria’s use of sarin gas against its own citizens.” Despite the constant supply of warnings from experts regarding the eventuality of a new flu pandemic, the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and concerns over dual-use research and gene editing, we just can’t seem to get it together. We know what the threat of infectious diseases, whether it be natural, intentional, or accidental, is real and will only increase as populations grow and globalizations strengthens. “The United States needs to be ready ahead of time, with stockpiles of drugs, vaccines and equipment, plans for deploying them and someone with the authority to make fast decisions, Cole and other experts said. The 2017 budget agreement worked out early Monday by Congress would provide just $57 million specifically to prepare for a new pandemic of influenza.” The truth is that U.S. response tends to be more reactive than proactive. We’ve gotten lucky so far in that the diseases weren’t highly transmissible with high fatality rates, but the truth is that our luck won’t hold forever.

Contaminated CRISPR Kits
This is quite an interesting twist in the concerns over DIY-gene editing…. While many worry about the outcomes of biohackers and garage genome editors, a recent finding of contaminated CRISPR kits sold by the company, The Odin, has added a new worrisome layer. The kits are normally sold online for $150 for those interested in doing gene engineering at home however, this recent finding by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has resulted in a halting of all CRISPR kits imported into Germany. The kits were meant to contain harmless laboratory strains of E. coli HME63, however multiple kits were found to be contamined with several pathogens, including some that are antibiotic resistant. Klebsiella pneumoniae, Enterobacter, and Enterococcus faecalis were the microbial culprits found in the contaminated kits. The ECDC has stated that there is a low risk for users “because the manipulation of the kit does not involve percutaneous injury-prone manipulations. However, infection resulting from the contamination of broken skin or mucous membranes may occur, even though the kit recommends and provides disposable gloves. Furthermore, the kit includes lyophilised materials that need to be reconstituted, which may lead to contamination of the mucosae of the eyes, mouth and nose. Finally, the risk of infection may be increased for immunocompromised or immunosuppressed persons.” You can find the ECDC statement here, which notes that LGL, the Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority, issued the press release in late March. There is also concern related to the potential release of drug-resistant organisms into the environment, of which the ECDC noted, “the potential contribution of the contaminated kit to the increasing burden of antimicrobial resistance in the EU/EEA is marginal, and the associated public health risk is considered very low”. They also encouraged users of the kits to appropriately dispose of their used materials to avoid releasing any drug-resistant bacteria into the environment.

Eastern Europe Antibiotic Usage Report
A new WHO report is providing information regarding antibiotic consumption and usage in 11 non-EU countries and Kosovo from 2011-2014. “The most commonly used class of antimicrobials was beta-lactams, whose share of the total ranged from 35.4% in Belarus to 65.6% in Azerbaijan, the report says. Cephalosporins accounted for between 6.1% (Azerbaijan) and 30.3% (Turkey) of total consumption, while the share for quinolones ranged from less than 0.1% in Uzbekistan to 17% in the Republic of Moldova. The report notes that cephalosporins and quinolones are broad-spectrum antibiotics and are considered second-line drugs in many prescribing guidelines. The two groups combined accounted for 10% (Azerbaijan) to 38% (Moldova) of total consumption.”

Workshop on Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology
Don’t miss this May 25th event at the National Academy of Sciences Building! This meeting will be open to the public, and will run from 8:30am until 4:30pm. The committee will hear from speakers who will discuss the current state of the science in DNA synthesis, assembly, and engineering; pathogen engineering and zoonosis; and ease of use as it relates to synthetic biology. There will be question and answer periods following each panel discussion, and members of the public will be invited to ask questions of the panelists, so we invite you to attend in person, if you are able. You can also check out the draft agenda here. It will be interesting to see if the workshop will discuss CRISPR kits and the potential for contamination.

Stories You May have Missed:

  • NIH Sets Research Cap on Funding for Scientists–  On Tuesday it was announced that for the first time, the NIH will restrict the amount of funding any individual scientists can hold at a given time via a point system. It is “part of an ongoing effort to make obtaining grants easier for early- and mid-career scientists, who face much tougher odds than their more-experienced colleagues. According to the agency, just 10% of grant recipients win 40% of the agency’s research money. Advocacy organizations and groups that advise the NIH director have been urging the agency to address this inequality for more than a decade. They are also concerned that increasing competition for grant money drives researchers to spend more time on paperwork and personnel issues associated with grants, and less time in the lab.”
  • Yellow Fever Vaccine Levels Are Dangerously Low – The CDC recently announced that the supply of yellow fever vaccine will be depleted by this summer. France is said to be able to cover the U.S. populations in need of the vaccine by the time the U.S. supply runs out, however the ongoing manufacturing problems continue to strain response efforts. “A number of vaccine doses were lost while Sanofi was transitioning vaccine production from an old site to new construction, slated to open in 2018.The United States uses 500,000 doses of yellow fever vaccine each year, distributed to travelers and military personnel who will be visiting yellow fever–endemic regions. Just 1 dose of the vaccine confers lifelong immunity, with recipients showing 80% immunity to yellow fever virus 10 days after inoculation and 99% immunity within 30 days. According to unpublished data from Sanofi, approximately 60% of these doses are distributed among about 4,000 civilian clinical sites.”
  • Attacking Antibiotic Resistance With Behavioral Approaches
    A recent Dutch study looked at antimicrobial stewardship strategies and found that by letting providers determine the root-cause of inappropriate antibiotic prescribing, they were more effective in responding to the problem. “The aim of the study was to test the effectiveness of a stewardship approach in which prescribers were asked to determine the root causes of inappropriate antimicrobial prescribing in their department, then develop one or more interventions to improve prescribing based on those root causes. The theory behind this strategy is that if you respect prescriber autonomy and allow prescribers to create their own program to improve prescribing, they will value this approach more and show more commitment to it.  Overall, there were 21,306 clinical admissions during the baseline period and 15,394 clinical admissions during the intervention period, with the appropriateness surveys including 1,121 patients and 882 patients, respectively. In the baseline period, 64.1% of antimicrobial prescriptions were considered appropriate, compared with 77.4% in the intervention period, an increase of 20.7% that equaled 4,927 improved days of therapy.”

Pandora Report 4.28.2017

If you’ve ever wondered about the 1998 story regarding the WWI anthrax sugar cube, we’ve got this gem for you.

March for Science
This past Saturday (Earth Day), cities around the world saw hoards of scientists and supporters of research marching to both celebrate science, but also push for the preservation of funded and publicly communicated research. “The March for Science is a celebration of science.  It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.  Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?” Cities like Chicago saw 40,000 participating in the march, armed with lab coats, pink knit brain hats, and some pretty outstanding signs. Even some furry friends got involved to celebrate science. The D.C. march battled against rainy weather and included speakers like Bill Nye on the National Mall.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
The May 1st deadline for an early registration discount is fast approaching, so don’t miss your chance to attend this educational and captivating workshop for a lower price! The three-day workshop will provide you with not only seminars from experts in the field, but also discussions with others interested in biodefense. You can check out the flyer and register for the event here. A returning participant, GMU student/alumni, or have a group of three or more? You’re eligible for an additional discount! Check out the website to get the scoop on all our expert instructors and the range of topics the workshop will be covering. From Anthrax to Zika, this is the place to be in July to get your biodefense nerdom on!

French Intelligence Brings Insight Into Syrian Chemical Weapons          A new French intelligence National Evaluation report details the direct evidence linking the April 4th chemical weapons attack in Syria to the Syrian regime. “The French report casts fresh doubts on the efficacy of what at the time was billed as a landmark U.S.-Russian chemical weapons pact, which was signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in late 2013. The pact was touted as practically eliminating Syria’s ‘declared’ chemical weapons program.” The French report is considered the most detailed evaluation of environmental analysis (among others) following the Syrian chemical weapons attacks. Not only does the April 4th sarin match that previously used by the Syrian regime, but it also points to the hexamine chemical signature found in the Syrian chemical weapons program. “The French intelligence report provides the most robust scientific evidence linking the Syrian government to the sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun,” said Gregory Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate program at at George Mason University.”This scientific evidence is a direct refutation of the misinformation being peddled by Russia and Syria.”

The World Needs a DARPA-Style Project to Prevent Pandemics             We truly are not ready for a global pandemic. Across the board, all the reports, studies, and experts say the same and the latest article from Tom Ridge and Dante Disparte highlights this unpleasant reality. Zika, Ebola, SARS, and avian influenza have all shown us just how globally unprepared we are for such an event. “In public health, it is much easier to play offense than it is to play defense. Playing offense well, however, is going to require a lot more coordination – both internationally and within national borders. We believe an important first step in this effort is for the U.S. and governments around the world to develop an equivalent to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), that focuses cross-sector efforts on advancing biological and pandemic risk readiness.” No single sector can fix this problem, but rather it requires cross-sector collaboration to tackle organisms that know no borders. Ridge and Disparte insist that a a global “invest now or pay later” economic philosophy is needed to break away from stovepiping that allows biological threats to appear sector specific. “As with DARPA, the science and technology community are the unsung heroes in improving global biodefense and pandemic risk readiness. But unlike advanced military research, which is conducted under strict secrecy, the scientists working on improving our defenses to emerging threats must have a charter that encourages open collaboration and transparency. All too often research and technology investments, particularly those in the private sector, follow a zero-sum approach.”

U.S. Preparedness Index Points to Scattered and Mediocre Progress
The National Health Security Preparedness Index (NHSPI) was just released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which tracks progress at the state level regarding their capacity to respond to health emergencies. The good news is that overall, the U.S. score has increased over the past couple of years – 6.8 in 2016, up from 6.7 in 2015, and 6.4 in 2013. “Of six main dimensions—ranging from mobilizing resources after health incidents to involving stakeholders during crises—the nation as a whole improved except for one area: the ability to prevent health impacts from environmental or occupational hazards. That area is the only one showing decline from 2013”. Overall trends pointed to preparedness improvements except for those states in the Deep South and Mountain West States. Sadly, Alaska ranked lowest in the 10-point scale. “Challenges some states face include grappling with health policy uncertainties because of health insurance proposals, a situation that detracts attention and energy from other health security needs. Also, the analysis found that extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity in many parts of the country, putting extra burden on food and water systems and other infrastructure areas. Though federal aid helps reduce fiscal capacity differences across states, federal preparedness funding falls far short in eliminating the health security gaps that separate affluent from poorer states, according to the report.” Policy recommendations based off their findings focus on engaging private sector, including health insurance coverage as a health security strategy, developing emerging response funding, etc.

Hospital Preparedness Program Performance Measures 
Speaking of preparedness…the 2017-2022 Hospital Preparedness Program Performance Measures Implementation Guidance was released via the Office of the Assistance Secretary for Preparedness and Response. “ASPR’s Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) enables the health care delivery system to save lives during emergencies and disaster events that exceed the day-to-day capacity and capability of existing health and emergency response systems. HPP is the only source of federal funding for health care delivery system readiness, intended to improve patient outcomes, minimize the need for federal and supplemental state resources during emergencies, and enable rapid recovery. HPP prepares the health care delivery system to save lives through the development of health care coalitions (HCCs) that incentivize diverse and often competitive health care organizations (HCOs) with differing priorities and objectives to work together.” Within the latest guidance, you can find capabilities regarding healthcare and medical readiness, continuity of healthcare service delivery, and medical surge.

Meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
Don’t miss the upcoming meeting on the battle against the resistant bug! You can catch this in person or via webcast on May 3rd (9am-5pm ET) and May 4th (9am-3pm ET). “The Advisory Council will provide advice, information, and recommendations to the Secretary of HHS regarding programs and policies intended to support and evaluate the implementation of Executive Order 13676, including the National Strategy for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria and the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. The Advisory Council shall function solely for advisory purposes.” If you’re planning to attend, make sure to register ASAP as this will be a great venue to discuss new treatments, alternatives for antibiotics, and transmission prevention strategies.

Unexplained Deaths in Liberia 
The good news is that heath officials have ruled out Ebola in the nine unexplained deaths following a funeral-related event. The bad news is that we’re still not sure what caused the deaths. “The United Nations has issued a precaution to its staff in Liberia regarding an unusual number of deaths at the FJ Grante Hospital, where the patients died. The agency added that health workers in the area have been advised to don personal protective equipment, even when treating patients who aren’t suspected cases.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Sandia National Labs Honored in Fight Against Ebola– The New Mexico-based laboratories are being honored for their hardworking and dedication during the Ebola outbreak. “On April 11, Dmitri Kusnezov, chief scientist and senior adviser to the secretary of energy, visited Sandia to honor nearly 60 Sandians for work to mitigate the effects of the Ebola epidemic and the work of the Technology Convergence Working Group.” The Sandia lab teams worked to cut down detection times to help reduce the risk of transmission while rule-out cases were awaiting confirmation. Their teams also aided in modeling and analyzing Liberia’s national blood sample transport system.
  • Unpasteurized Cow’s Milk and Cheese Outbreaks – If you’re a fan of unpasteurized milk, you may want to reconsider. A recent study found that unpasteurized dairy products cause 840 times more illness and 45 times more hospitalizations than their pasteurized counterparts. “We estimated outbreak-related illnesses and hospitalizations caused by the consumption of cow’s milk and cheese contaminated with Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coliSalmonella spp., Listeria monocytogenes, and Campylobacter spp. using a model relying on publicly available outbreak data. In the United States, outbreaks associated with dairy consumption cause, on average, 760 illnesses/year and 22 hospitalizations/year, mostly from Salmonella spp. and Campylobacter spp. Unpasteurized milk, consumed by only 3.2% of the population, and cheese, consumed by only 1.6% of the population, caused 96% of illnesses caused by contaminated dairy products.”

Pandora Report 4.21.2017

If you missed the Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge webinar last week, you can catch the recording here! Ongoing reports are highlighting that the Trump administration is unprepared for a global pandemic.

How Prepared Is The U.S. For Disease Threats?
Scientific American sat down with former CDC director Tom Frieden to discuss his experiences and what he worries may be on the horizon for public health threats. When asked about immediate health issues facing the current administration, Frieden highlights the ongoing Zika outbreak, antibiotic resistance, emerging infections, and the ever-present risk of influenza. In terms of CDC preparedness, Frieden says that, “It’s a big problem that when there is an emerging threat, we are not able to surge or work as rapidly as we should, as a result of a lack of additional funding and legislative authority. When there is an earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t have to go to Congress and say, ‘Will you give us money for this?’ But the CDC does. We have made a really good start working with 70 countries to strengthen lab systems, rapid-response and field-monitoring systems, but it is going to take a while before countries around the world are adequately prepared. A blind spot anywhere puts any of us at risk.”

Bill Gates Warns of Increased Bioterrorism Threat
The entrepreneur and philanthropist has been drawing increasing attention to the threat of infectious diseases, especially in regards to bioterrorism. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London (RUSI), Gates stated that, “bioterrorism is a much larger risk than a pandemic.” “All these advances in biology have made it far easier for a terrorist to recreate smallpox, which is a highly fatal pathogen, where there is essentially no immunity remaining at this point.” He goes further to point out the unique aspects of infectious disease threats that make them more deadly than nuclear bombs. “When you are thinking about things that could cause in excess of 10 million deaths, even something tragic like a nuclear weapons incident wouldn’t get to that level. So the greatest risk is from a natural epidemic or an intentionally caused infection bioterrorism events. Whether the next epidemic is unleashed by a quirk of nature or the hand of terrorist, scientists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. So the world does need to think about this.” Gates pointed to the insufficient public health response in countries that are likely to experience emerging infections and the importance of foreign aid. Moreover, he highlights two major advancements since the 1918 pandemic – globalization and genetic editing. The DIY biohacker and potential for a single infectious person to travel around the globe in a day are all making the threat of a pandemic that much more real. Lastly, Gates emphasizes that the stability of a country and that of its health systems are vital in that an outbreak is more likely to become an epidemic in a country where both qualities are poor.

Biopreparedness – Developing Vaccines For An Eradicated Disease
Speaking of smallpox and the risk of bioterrorism…Filippa Lentzos is pointing to the smallpox vial discovery at the NIH and that despite the eradication of the disease, a biotech company, Bavarian Nordic, is still working to develop a vaccine. She notes that “possible avenues for the re-emergence of smallpox, including the impact of developments in synthetic biology, and it gives an inside view on the biodefence industry and its unusual business model.” Lentzos is an expert in the field of biodefense and focuses her work on the governance of emerging technologies like synthetic biology.

A Scope, A Resistant Germ, and Missing Data Walk into a Bar
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking into the rise of the resistant bug and how medical equipment can pose increased risks for such infections. In 2015 several outbreaks occurred in patients following a procedure with a type of duodenoscopes made by Olympus. These scopes are “flexible medical devices that look like thin tubes and are inserted through the mouth, throat, and stomach into the small intestine—are reusable $40,000 medical devices that contain many working parts, including a camera, and are used for more than half a million procedures a year. The successful dynamics of the device also make it challenging to clean and disinfect. Just over two years ago, cases of drug-resistant infections started popping up in patients who had recently had the procedure that commonly uses duodenoscopes (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography or ERCP).” Following an outbreak of the highly resistant carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) at UCLA Medical Center, the scopes were recalled and interim cleaning guidance was provided by the CDC. Unfortunately, there is growing concern that the issues with the scope weren’t fully remedied. “In fact, Sen. Murray highlighted a recent outbreak in Europe (location not disclosed within the US Food and Drug Administration report) tied to the modified scopes. Although, modifications made by Olympus were done in response to the previous outbreaks and meant to reduce the risk of bacteria getting into the device’s channels and preventing proper cleaning and disinfection, Sen. Murray is now questioning Olympus regarding the devices and the role they played in this most recent outbreak. The senator is specifically asking for data proving that the repaired scopes could be properly disinfected between patient use.” As the threat of antibiotic resistance rises, the role of medical devices and manufacturer accountability will become increasingly relevant.

CRISPR Breakthrough Gives Hope for Disease Diagnostics 
CRISPR technology news often comes with a bit of controversy, but research recently published in Science is pointing to exciting new diagnostic capabilities. Feng Zhang and eighteen colleagues “turned this system into an inexpensive, reliable diagnostic tool for detecting nucleic acids — molecules present in an organism’s genetic code — from disease-causing pathogens. The new tool could be widely applied to detect not only viral and bacterial diseases but also potentially for finding cancer-causing mutations.” If you’re a fan of 221b Baker Street, you’ll be pleased to hear that the new tool is named SHERLOCK – Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing. The SHERLOCK tool utilizes the viral-recognition within CRISPR to detect genetic pathogen markers in some one’s urine, blood, saliva, or other body fluids. “They report that their technique is highly portable and could cost as little as 61 cents per test in the field. Such a process would be extremely useful in remote places without reliable electricity or easy access to a modern diagnostic laboratory.” This new finding has amazing potential for public health and rapid disease detection in rural areas to improve time to treatment, isolation, and prevention efforts.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity May 2017 Meeting
Don’t miss this May 11th meeting (2-4:30pm EST)! Items include presentations and discussions regarding: (1) the Blue Ribbon Panel draft report on the 2014 variola virus incident on the NIH Bethesda campus; (2) stakeholder engagement on implementation of the U.S. Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC); and (3) other business of the Board.  A detailed agenda and other meeting material will be posted on this website as they become available. This meeting will be a conference call only; there will be no in-person meeting. To join the call as a member of the public, please use the dial-in information below. The toll-free teleconference line will be open to the public at1:30 P.M. to allow time for operator-assisted check-in.  Members of the public planning to participate in the teleconference may also pre-register online via the link provided below or by calling Palladian Partners, Inc. (Contact: Carly Sullivan at 301-318-0841).  Pre-registration will close at 12:00 p.m. Eastern on May 8, 2017. Make sure to check the website for the public conference line and passcode.

Synthetic Bioterrorism – US Developing Medical Response 
Preparedness efforts against biological threats are now expanding to include synthetic biological threats. “Dr. Arthur T. Hopkins, acting assistant secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), testified that…’emerging infectious diseases, synthetic biology and engineered diseases…[is] an area where we are focusing and we have to continue to focus.’ To counter such current and emerging threats, DOD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program is developing new strategies to more rapidly respond, especially in the area of medical countermeasures, Hopkins said.” He noted that the DoD has commissioned the National Academy of Science to lead a study on the potential for such an event and its impact on national security.

Chemical Reaction: North Korea’s Chemical Weapons Are A Big Threat- And China Needs to Help Deal With Them
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is looking at the “role that China could play with respect to North Korea, in particular dissuading the use of chemical weapons. While tensions are high, the use of chemical weapons could be the “spark that could bring the region to war.” Gerstein notes that while the focus in Syria is internal, if Kim Jong Un used chemical weapons it would most likely be external- against South Korea or Japan (or even the U.S.). It is vital that there be a clear-cut response to the use of chemical weapons and action from China may just be the clear message that’s needed. “To prevent the unthinkable from occurring, the North Koreans must be dissuaded from using chemical weapons. They must be convinced that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that cannot be crossed. China should consider being the messenger for this message. China also should consider taking an active, forward-looking approach to prevent the use of chemical weapons by North Korea. When Syria deployed chemical weapons, there was speculation that Russia may have been complicit or at least aware of plans to conduct the attack.” Or perhaps some friendly games of volleyball are in order?

Wildlife Disease Biologists – An Unstoppable Force 
Neither rain nor sleet could keep APHIS wildlife disease biologists out of the field collecting samples. Animal diseases are a major source for infections coming down the pipeline for humans (i.e. spillover events) and these researchers are on the front lines trying to make sure we have a heads up. APHIS’ Wildlife Services (WS) program includes 36 wildlife disease biologists who work diligently to collect samples from wild birds for avian influenza testing (among other things). “‘By monitoring the avian influenza strains circulating in wild birds, WS and its partners are able to provide an early warning system to America’s poultry producers,’ states Dr. Tom DeLiberto, Assistant Director of WS’ National Wildlife Research Center. ‘Our experts focus their sampling on waterfowl species and locations where we are most likely to detect avian influenza. This ensures our efforts are as efficient and informative as possible’.” I think we can all appreciate the brave few who venture into frigid waters to help trap and test wild birds to help detect the spread of infectious diseases.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Trends in Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction – Writers frequently use an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic backdrop for fictional stories. The Doomsday Clock is a visual representation of the general mood and often represents the fear and unease in the environment. Whether it be an environmental event or a killer virus, the end of humanity has been a frequent topic for many writers. “Often it is a fear of a naturally-evolving virus, as in Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014). Yet, with the advent of new biotechnologies, authors also considered the impact a malignant engineered virus would have on humanity, as seen in Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy (2003 onwards) and Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy (2010 onwards).”
  • Ebola Theme Issue – The Royal Society – Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B is focusing their latest biological sciences journal on the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In this edition, you can find opinion pieces discussing the contribution of engineering and social sciences, old lessons on new epidemics, and a wealth of information on outbreak evaluation and notes from the field.

Pandora Report 3.3.2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

Pandora Report 2.17.2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed: 

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

Pandora Report: 2.10.2017

Have you ever wondered what some of the most deadly diseases looked like in person? Check out this video depicting some of these germs and how they’d appear if you sat next to an infected person. Fortunately, this week was full of disease-filled media like this germ history video regarding the golden age of germs and how humans cause pandemics (spillover anyone?)

The Colosseum that is CRISPR Patent Wars
It seems like the ultimate display of gladiator games – researchers from major university (UC-Berkley, Harvard, and MIT) are in the midst of a battle for patent protection. You can check out the timeline here, but it seems that despite it being over two months since proceedings started, we’re not much closer to a conclusion. “A key feature of the U.S. debate is over which research group was the true first inventor of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, especially its use in eukaryotic cells. At the time the first patent applications were filed, the U.S. had a ‘first-to-invent’ system—which means the first person to develop an invention is entitled to have the patent, even if they were not the first to file a patent application (or the first to get a patent granted) for that invention. UCal has started “interference proceedings” against the Broad Institute to determine who was the first to invent the CRISPR/Cas9 system. UCal claims that they were the first to invent the use of the CRISPR/Cas9 system for gene editing, and that their earliest patent application enabled gene editing in eukaryotic cells. In contrast, The Broad Institute are arguing that UCal had not invented the use in eukaryotic cells at the time of filing its first patent application and are therefore claiming that The Broad Institute were the first to invent the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in eukaryotic cells.”

Public Health’s Greatest Threats 
We all have opinions regarding the greatest global threat- especially in terms of public health. Is it obesity? Cancer? Exposure to toxins or new emerging diseases? What about bioterrorism or bioerror? Dr. Larry Brilliant is an epidemiologist who focuses on the worst disease throughout history. He notes that the greatest threats to public health can be divided into biological and socio-political. “In the last 30 years, there have been at least 30 heretofore unknown viruses that have jumped from animals to humans, for worrying reasons Brilliant attributes to modernity and our increase in animal protein consumption. Still, the socio-political threats are the more immediately dangerous. There are centrifugal forces at play that are pushing society to two extreme camps. The domestic and global division caused President Trump’s ‘America First’ mentality and disregard for public health leaves us vulnerable to new viruses that, if they aren’t detected early enough, could be the next pandemic. ‘Right now because of the re-organization and nationalism… and dislike for the United Nations and its agencies, I think we’re in a period of grave vulnerability,’ says Brilliant.” Dr. Brilliant points to the reality that public health threats aren’t just biological, and as we saw with the 2014/2015 ebola outbreak (and Zika), the socio-political response can hinder or help public health efforts. While we’re always vulnerable to new diseases, are we becoming increasingly more susceptible from a socio-political standpoint?

ASM Biothreats 2017
From synthetic biology to national bioterror emergency response, the ASM conference was packed with biodefense goodies. We’ll be providing a detailed overview regarding certain sessions and the conference as a whole, so make sure to keep your eye out next week!

Find Out What New Viruses Are Brewing In your Backyard  screen-shot-2017-02-08-at-7-47-55-am
NPR is looking at what causes pandemics and where new diseases tend to spring up. By reviewing EcoHealth Alliance data, they note that within the past sixty years, the amount of new diseases appearing has quadrupled. Scarier yet, the number of outbreaks occurring each year has more than tripled since 1980. “We’re in a hyperinfectious disease world,” says epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis. While the tools for surveillance and detection have gotten better, it also became apparent to researchers that old diseases are returning from the grave, while emerging diseases are transgressing into new regions. “So the big question is: Why? Why is this era of new diseases happening now? ‘Well, we’ve been boiling the frog for a long time. Eventually, it’s cooked,’ says Toph Allen, a data scientist with EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that is trying to prevent pandemics by looking for diseases in wildlife. Wait. We’re boiling the frog? You mean, humans are responsible? Yes. Many scientists say we, humans, are to blame for this new disease era. That we’re responsible for turning harmless animal viruses into dangerous human viruses.” Unfortunately, it seems that humans have become especially skilled at causing spillover.

Center for Global Security Research Student Internship
Calling all GMU biodefense students! Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory’s Center for Global Security Research is looking for a student intern! The center has “openings for undergraduate and graduate students and recent bachelors or master’s level graduates within one year, to engage in practical research experience to further their educational goals.” The student may conduct “research in the fields of nuclear engineering, computational sciences, materials science and engineering, cyber security, interactive data mining, political science and international relations to support United States (US) policy and decision makers in developing strategies for national and international security. The Center for Global Security Research’s (CGSR) mission is to provide technology, analysis, and expertise to aid the US government in preventing the spread or use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and examining the policy implications of proliferation of WMD, as well as deterrence.”

Zika’s New Strategy – Spillback?
With over 5,000 cases in the U.S. alone, the Zika virus outbreak may be slowing, but it’s not gone. We’ve talked about spillover before, but what about spillback? We tend to worry about diseases spilling over from animals into humans, but what about the opposite direction? Researchers are now worried about Zika spillback into monkeys. “In areas where Zika infections are prevalent among humans and mosquitoes are abundant, the virus may be transmitted to wild primates, disease ecologist Barbara Han said February 6 at the American Society for Microbiology Biothreats meeting. If the disease gets established in monkeys or other wild primates, the animals may serve as reservoirs for future human outbreaks.” As scientists work to study this process and establish potential at-risk species, it’s a helpful reminder that infectious diseases like to keep us on our toes. Or should I say, paws?

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Over 350 Organizations Write Trump About Vaccine Safety – More than 350 organizations have written to President Trump highlighting their “unequivocal support for the safety of vaccines”. Leading medical organizations and healthcare professionals have resorted to this measure since the January meeting Trump had with Robert F. Kennedy regarding a potential commission on autism and vaccines. “Vaccines protect the health of children and adults and save lives,” the letter opens. “Vaccines have been part of the fabric of our society for decades and are one of the most significant medical innovations of our time.” It continues: “Claims that vaccines are unsafe when administered according to expert recommendations have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature.”
  • Got C-diff? Grab Some Vancomycin!Clostridium difficile is an infection preventionist’s worst nightmare. This spore-forming bug is tough to kill, can cause mortality, and often wreaks havoc on hospitals. A recent study looked at the treatment efficacy of vancomycin versus metronidazole, with the goal of preventing recurrence of the disease. “Analysis of the data showed that there was no difference in risk of recurrence between those treated with vancomycin or metronidazole in any of the severity groups. And in patients with mild-to-moderate disease, there was no significant difference found in the risk of all-cause 30-day mortality. But among the patients with severe infection, patients treated with vancomycin were 4% less likely to die within 30 days of any cause than those treated with metronidazole. Stevens and her colleagues calculated that to prevent one death among patients with severe C difficile infection, 25 would need to be treated with vancomycin.”
  • Fighting Cholera– Cholera has been a scourge throughout history and sadly, we’re still battling it. Researchers have finally developed an effective vaccine and stockpiled it, however efforts are still in progress to get it to the most hard-hit countries, like Bangladesh. “Merely creating that stockpile — even of a few million doses — profoundly improved the way the world fought cholera, Dr. Margaret Chan, secretary general of the W.H.O., said last year. Ready access to the vaccine has made countries less tempted to cover up outbreaks to protect tourism, she said. That has sped up emergency responses and attracted more vaccine makers, lowering costs. ‘More cholera vaccines have been deployed over the last two years than in the previous 15 years combined,’ Dr. Chan said.”

 

 

Pandora Report 2.3.2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

Pandora Report 12.23.2016

microbiallsnowmanHappy Holidays from your friends at the Pandora Report and GMU Biodefense! If you’re starting a New Year’s resolutions list for things to improve, it sounds like you’ve got company – the WHO is rethinking how it responds to outbreaks.

The Grim Forecast of Antimicrobial Resistance 
In the wake of the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance, it seems that the worried voices are getting louder but the barriers are growing higher. The return to colistin use points to a growing desperation as physicians are forced to use antibiotics that were previously avoided due to such harsh side effects. Many hospitals have shared their tales of MDRO outbreaks – some stopping as mysteriously as they began, while others have clear culprits. Some hospitals have even begun initiating isolation for any patient who was hospitalized abroad within the last couple of years. It’s also becoming increasingly common for hospitals to pre-emptively test patients via MDRO screening to more rapidly isolate them. The concern is also that few truly new antibiotics have been developed in recent years. “Thirty-seven antibiotics are currently undergoing clinical trials, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which keeps track of the U.S. pipeline. Most, however, are based on existing drugs. While these derivatives are cheaper and easier to develop than new classes of drugs, bacteria have a head start in developing resistance to them.Further, most drugs in the pipeline target so-called Gram-positive bacteria, a group that includes the well-known superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). But recently, the main emerging threats have come from the group known as Gram negatives, which are harder to treat because they are encased in tough membranes that repel many drugs.” Many are pointing to a tipping point in 2017 – antibiotics will be consumed by farm animals more than humans worldwide. The UN General Assembly is calling for countries to start getting smart in terms of antibiotic usage but hasn’t set specific goals. Sadly, it seems that there aren’t many more ways this impending reality can be shared – data, shocking titles, future predictions, etc. Check out this factsheet on the use of antibiotics in agriculture and why it impacts resistance. The report has some great suggestions for future work, like refining antibiotic labels and working to collect and report better data. Here’s a spot of good news in this dismal truth – the FDA has just cleared a new one-hour MRSA test to help rapidly identify the lead bug in healthcare-associated infections.

Homeland Biodefense: Science & Technology Capability Review
Just in time for the holidays, it’s like the National Science and Technology Council just knew what biodefense geeks wanted. This report is the product of a comprehensive review of U.S biodefense capabilities, which aided in the prioritization of S&T issues to better strengthen response. The end result is a product of two phases- stage 1: “The goal of this activity was to identify S&T needs articulated by Federal subject matter experts including both science program managers and agency officials in charge of operational programs, to elicit feedback on where additional S&T investments could address operational needs.” Stage 2: “The goal of this activity was to provide coordinated interagency feedback on which needs represent the highest priority to the interagency working group, and to identify which Department or Agency should recommend or coordinate on actions to respond to each of those priority needs.” Scenarios were limited to a handful of events like aerosolized anthrax, avian influenza outbreak (possibly deliberate), food-borne attacks, etc. Perhaps some of the most notable findings were the need to improve abilities to systematically assess how much risk has been mitigated by biodefense investments, understand the impact of bioattacks on companion animals and wildlife, several deficiencies in regards to technical staff and lab infrastructure, etc.

Greek Food Terrorism Threats 
Member of an eco-anarchy group in Greece, FAI/IRF, are announcing their threats for food terrorism over the holiday. The time frame for attacks is December 22nd – January 5th, 2017 and the group has said that their focus is on causing economic disruption, not poisoning people. FAI/IRF has shown their process for poisoning various food and beverage items as their targets include Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever, and Delta. Many of these companies have chosen to withdraw specific products from an area in Greece. The group has shown how they can poison foods/beverages with chlorine and hydrochloric acid while leaving the packaging in place. “The four companies that withdrew products were named in the FAI/IRF statements. The eco-anarchists claim to be opposed to both capitalism and Marxism. They contend in their statement that Coke profits from ‘forced labor’ in China and Nestle is ‘held responsible’ for the death of 1.5 million children in the third world. No substantiation was provided for either claim.”

80140100189470lThe Commandant’s Reading List 
In the latest Army Chemical Review (Professional Bulletin of the Chemical Corps) you can find the Commandant’s Reading Program, compiled by Lieutenant Colonel James P. Harrell, which contains a great assortment of books to add to your reading list (or last minute shopping list!). From Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague to Michael Oldstone’s Viruses, Plagues, & History, you can pick up some top CBW books. GMU Biodefense’s very own director and professor, Gregory Koblentz, had his book, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security, make this list, so make sure not to miss it!

Test Driving Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes
Take a tour through the world of genetically engineered mosquitoes at Imperial College London with genetic engineer, Andrew Hammond. What makes these particular mosquitoes especially unique is the use of gene drive to ensure virtually all offspring acquire the desired effects. “Hammond’s team is genetically engineering the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, which is the primary species that spreads the malaria parasite. Nearly all of the offspring of the modified mosquitoes inherit mutations that knock out the genes females need to make eggs. ‘If we can sterilize the females,’ he says, we ‘can actually eliminate a whole mosquito population without affecting those mosquitoes that don’t have the capability to transmit malaria’.” Hammond gives a great tour of the process for creating gene-drive mosquitoes while discussing the dangers of gene drive and genetic engineering. While there is a wealth of opportunity to do good with tools like CRISPR, there’s also the concern that there could be unintended consequences or events we can’t even imagine. To combat the potential risks, there are also research teams working to keep CRISPR in check.  “A team of scientists that previously identified genes within bacteriophage genomes that code for anti-CRISPR proteins has now discovered phages that harbor an antidote to the Cas9 enzyme that is a key component of the predominant CRISPR system that is today used as a gene-editing tool. The team, led by the University of Toronto’s Alan Davidson, described three bacteriophage-encoded, anti–Cas9 genes and showed that the corresponding proteins are able to block the activity of CRISPR-Cas9—derived from bacterial type II CRISPR-Cas systems—in human cells.”

FEMA’s Ricin Mishap 
Going through the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) training a few years back was a fascinating experience – how many times do you get to train with ricin or anthrax and then move into a pandemic preparedness exercise? For this biodefense student, that’s what I call a good time! Sadly, CDP just announced their entry into the club of biosafety failures. The facility is blaming an outside lab for shipping the wrong form of ricin powder…since 2011. “The training center says it submitted order forms asking for a type of ricin extract that is unlikely to cause serious harm. But officials from Toxin Technology, the Florida company that sent nine shipments to the center since 2011, told USA TODAY that its ricin products were all accurately labeled as ‘RCA60’ – a scientific name for the whole ricin toxin, which can be deadly. It’s unclear why training center staff didn’t recognize for years that they were working with a far more dangerous substance.” The news broke late last week and on Saturday, I received an email from CDP regarding the suspension of those classes and some comments on the incident. Here are some of the highlights:
-In November 2016, while making a purchase of ricin A-chain for training, CDP staff recognized an ongoing discrepancy in the documentation related to the type of ricin being provided. The vendor has now said the more toxic holotoxin version of the materials was provided since 2011. It was previously believed that all remaining ricin on campus had been destroyed. This week, it became known that, while CDP had indeed destroyed all of the ricin in question, additional ricin training material, a solution marked A-chain remains securely stored on the premises. This material was not received from the vendor in question and we are working with the appropriate authorities to safely dispose of the additional ricin material.
-As an example, the protective gear you wore exceeded what would be required for working with ricin slurry.  Students who trained with the agent were in full Level C personal protective equipment at all times when training.  We have no indication that students were exposed directly to the holotoxin or harmed by it.

Zika Outbreak Updates
Not surprisingly, researchers are pointing to the impacts of climate change on infectious diseases. Recently, many have noted the role of climate change and El Niño on laying the groundwork for Zika to spread so quickly and proficiently throughout South America. A new study describes interworking of the virus and the mechanisms it utilizes for damage in pregnant women and developing babies. The CDC has reported 4,756 cases in the U.S. as of December 21st.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Public Health Preparedness Assessment for Each State – The Trust For America’s Health assessment was just released for each state based on 10 indicators for preparedness. Sadly, it seems that most states are not prepared for disaster. Twenty-six states and Washington, D.C. scored a six or lower on the indicators for public health preparedness. “The most striking are gaps in the ability of the health care system to care for a mass influx of patients during a major outbreak or attack and lack of a coordinated biosurveillance system. ‘Biosurveillance does remain a major ongoing gap,’ Segal said. Given all the recent technological advances, there is the potential for a ‘near real-time’ surveillance system to detect outbreaks and to track containment effort, yet the dream eludes our government, she said.”
  • How A Pandemic Might Play Out Under Trump – The Atlantic’s Ed Yong is looking at how the incoming administration will handle the growing threat of emerging infectious diseases. Outbreaks can make or break leaders and often are canaries in the coal mine for systemic weaknesses. “They demand diplomacy, decisiveness, leadership, humility, and expertise—and they quickly unearth any lack of the same. ‘As far as I can tell, Trump has zero experience on this,’ says Jack Chow from Carnegie Mellon University, who has worked at both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the State Department under Colin Powell. ‘If I asked him, ‘What is your stance on global health?,’ I don’t know what he’d say. I don’t think anyone really does’.”