Pandora Report 3.2.2018

Happy Friday! We’ve got a full plate of biodefense news this week, so we hope you’re hungry for everything from ASM Biothreats 2018 coverage to Gain of Function research, and a side of pandemic budgeting.

ASM Biothreats 2018 – GMU Biodefense Coverage
We’re excited to present our annual coverage of the ASM Biothreats conference from some of GMU’s very own biodefense graduate students. Our overview is a great way to catch up on some of the hot topics and captivating breakout sessions from the conference. You can find a landing page for all the reviews here, which will have links and a brief synopsis for each section the students wrote. GMU biodefense graduate students covered a variety of sessions – from artificial intelligence in biosecurity to the GHSA, future DoD programs in biodefense policy, and BARDA/DARPA projects- we’re reporting it all!

New Pathogen Research Rules: Gain of Function, Loss of Clarity
GMU Biodefense professor and graduate program director Gregory Koblentz is teaming up with Lynn Klotz (co-managing director of Bridging BioScience and BioBusiness LLC), to evaluate the December 2017 release of the latest Gain of Function (GoF) research rules. The DHHS release finally lifted the funding moratorium on GoF research following the controversial projects involving H5N1 in 2011. While the DHHS policy (or “Framework for guiding funding decisions about proposed research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens”) is similar to the Office of Science and Technology Policy guidance that was released in January 2017 (the “P3C0 Framework”), it came with the bonus of restoring funding for such research. Unfortunately, there are still considerable concerns with how GoF research is evaluated and if these frameworks have really addressed the gaps. “We, the authors, harbor concerns about adequate oversight of potentially dangerous research, and the framework incorporates several elements that address those concerns. The framework is thorough. It does a good job of laying out the principles and processes through which the Health and Human Services Department will make funding decisions regarding research that involves enhanced potential pandemic pathogens. The framework’s approach to dual-use research of concern is not based on lists of experiments or on specific pathogens, but instead takes a risk-based approach that focuses on the attributes of modified organisms. While the identity of starting organisms is central to existing oversight policy for dual-use research of concern, the framework emphasizes the importance of organisms’ properties once the experiment is over. This more comprehensive approach to dual-use research is a welcome change. Some elements of the new framework, however, remain worrisome.” Koblentz and Klotz point to several limitations of the new framework – it’s too narrow and not broad enough in that it only applies to research funded by DHHS, the terminology and definitions are lacking (especially in the definition of a potential pandemic pathogen), and the review process that was created is a limited. The framework also has new criteria for risks and benefits, which is “inherently problematic” and agreement is often never achieved. “The criteria used to judge which experiments involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens warrant review by the Health and Human Services Department—and how the risks, benefits, and ethical aspects of such experiments are measured and weighed—are ambiguous enough to provide departmental reviewers wide latitude in their funding decisions. The process and outcomes must be transparent in order to demonstrate that the process is conducted in good faith and that policy is implemented appropriately. The framework, though it recognizes the importance of transparency for maintaining public trust in science, does not go far enough in actually providing the requisite level of transparency.” Lastly, Koblentz and Klotz point to the international considerations as a considerable weakness within the new framework. Sadly, it only applies to research done within the United States and the truth is that this is an international issue and needs global consideration and collaboration.

 2018 NASPAA Student Simulation – Global Health Security
How did you spend your Saturday? Battling a virtual pandemic? We were fortunate to participate as judges at an international collaboration and simulation to test students on their response during a pandemic. The NASPAA-Batten simulation (Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration) involved a total of 563 students in 117 teams, from 159 universities across 27 countries. Teams represented approximately 336 million fictitious people in 4 fictitious countries per 1 fictitious world and were battling 1 seriously tough outbreak. GMU’s Schar School and the biodefense program were represented in both participants and judges. Professor and graduate program director Gregory Koblentz and PhD student Saskia Popescu were judges while six Schar students participated (four of which were biodefense students!) at the Carnegie Mellon University site in DC – Alexandra Williams (Biodefense MS), Annette Prietto (Biodefense MS), Stephen Taylor (Biodefense MS), Justin Hurt (Biodefense PhD), Fleciah Mburu (MPA), and Ryan Kennedy (MPP). The two finalist teams from the CMU site included biodefense MS students Alexandra and Justin, which means they’ll now move on to the global round where they are competing for the $10,000 prize. GMU biodefense students know how to battle a pandemic – whether it’s simulated or real! From a judge’s perspective, this was a great experience to not only observe how people respond to the complexities of a global outbreak, but also pose questions that help them see all the moving pieces in response.

Blue Panel Study Panel on Biodefense Calls For Strategic Budgeting Tied to New National Biodefense Strategy
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel has released a statement on the desperate need for decision-makers to commit to biodefense funding and recognize it as an imperative component to national security.  “We would do well to remind ourselves that we are really just as vulnerable now as we were then. In addition to the enormous potential toll on human health that intentional or natural outbreaks can inflict, the cost of the relentless rise of outbreaks is also entirely unsustainable based on current funding approaches. Emergency appropriations reach into the billions in direct outlays to the U.S. government. Economic impacts of a catastrophic outbreak could reach into the trillions.” You can also read the OpEd by Sen. Joe Lieberman and Former Gov. Tom Ridge, stating that American lives are worth budgeting for biodefense. “We call upon the president to release the National Biodefense Strategy soon and ensure that his next budget request to Congress conforms to the priorities in this strategy, showing how money requested for biodefense programs support the National Strategy’s goals and objectives.”

CDC Plans for New High Containment Lab
The CDC is asking congress for $350 million to start building the high containment continuity laboratory on their main campus to replace the existing one that has been used since 2005, but requires replacement by 2023. “The existing facility contains a number of BSL4 labs and labs that are one step down the biosafety and biosecurity ladder, BSL 3 enhanced. That’s where research on dangerous avian influenza viruses like H5N1 and H7N9 is conducted. Buildings that house these types of labs simply require a lot of maintenance, explained Dr. Dan Jernigan, head of the CDC’s influenza branch. ‘We’re just faced with the realities of what it takes to maintain something as complex as the high containment lab,’ he said.” The complex design of high containment labs makes them both expensive to build and maintain.

Battelle Takes On Biological Threats With New Software
Between naturally occurring outbreaks, bio-error, and bio-terror, there are a lot of ways infectious diseases can pose a threat to human life and safety. Battelle is seeking to change this through a new software for the U.S. government that “would screen small bits of DNA and assess whether they belong to potentially dangerous genetic sequences.The local research institution is one of six groups awarded an $8.7 million, two-and-a-half-year grant by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), an organization within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.” The growing application of CRISPR and other genome editing technologies has underlined the gaps in DNA sequence screening for biosecurity concerns, especially when one considers the recent horsepox synthesis. “In the absence of national or international policy that would monitor bioengineering activity — and the technological gap for keeping an eye on never-before-encountered organisms — Battelle and the other groups awarded the federal contract are trying to figure out how to stay a step ahead. ‘At first I thought it would be too big of a lift for us,’ Dickens said. At the end of January, Battelle researchers completed a first version of the software, which they are now testing and optimizing. It can, for example, analyze a small fraction of an influenza virus’ genetic code and identify or predict whether it has the potential to make people, animals or the environment sick. The tool then assigns the genetic scrap a threat level: dangerous, potentially hazardous or safe. The tool is artificially intelligent enough to detect whether the sample is related to any known specimens, such as botulism or anthrax, and predict the function of never-seen-before DNA sequences.”

Workshop on Women’s Health In Global Perspective
GMU Schar School is hosting this free workshop on March 7-8th in Arlington,VA – don’t miss out! “The Workshop on Women’s Health in Global Perspective seeks to contribute to understanding and improve policy on women’s health and wellbeing around the world. The program includes panels on Communicable and Non-Communicable Disease; Health and Wellbeing; Maternal Health; and Reproductive Technology and Family Planning. It will cover topics such as HPV Vaccine Awareness, Maternal Mortality, and Cross-border Reproductive Care.”

GMU Biodefense Alum Leads NEIC Laboratory 
We love getting to brag about the amazing things that GMU Biodefense students and alum do with their passion for health security. Biodefense MS alum Francisco Cruz was recently named the Chief of the EPA’s National Enforcement Investigations Center (NEIC) Laboratory Branch! “The branch’s primary responsibility is conducting forensics analysis on environmental samples related to criminal and civil cases. The lab is a fully accredited forensics laboratory staffed by 21 chemists who can not only conduct the lab analysis, but also testify in court regarding the science behind the analysis. Additionally, the lab is capable of developing novel analytical methods for rare and difficult matrices that most labs cannot analyze. The lab supports EPA and other federal law enforcement partners with either lab analysis or technical consultation on how to process a sample.” Biodefense alums – don’t forget to stay connected so we can recognize you for all the amazing biodefense work you do!

DARPA Names Pandemic Prevention Platform Researchers
Launched in 2017, the P3 program from DARPA hopes to stop the spread of an outbreak before it becomes a pandemic. “In contrast with state-of-the-art medical countermeasures, which typically take many months or even years to develop, produce, distribute, and administer, the envisioned P3 platform would cut response time to weeks and stay within the window of relevance for containing an outbreak.” DARPA recently announced the institutions that are contracted for the program and will hopefully make progress in the fight against pandemics – MedImmune, Abcellera Biologics Inc., Duke University, and Vanderbilt University.

 The WHO – What Went Wrong from Swine Flu to Ebola?
The WHO has struggled to find its strong foot since 2009’s H1N1 influenza pandemic and then the 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak. With new leadership, many are hoping the WHO’s abilities can be strengthened and some faith restored in their capacity to prevent and respond to international health events. One particular evaluation of this can be found in a chapter of Political Mistakes and Policy Failures in International Relations. “This chapter examines a series of mistakes and the structural, cultural, political and epidemiological factors that contributed to the WHO’s mishandling of the first pandemic of the twenty-first century and the world’s largest ever outbreak of Ebola. The chapter then concludes by examining the reforms currently being implemented to strengthen the WHO’s global health security capabilities and what these signify for the future.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • CDC Epidemiologist Missing – “Police investigators are bewildered as they work through the “extremely unusual” circumstances surrounding the missing-person case of Timothy Cunningham, a researcher who vanished Feb. 12, shortly after hearing why he had been passed over for a promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cunningham, 35, told colleagues he was not feeling well and left work at CDC headquarters in Atlanta, not long after speaking with his supervisor about why he had not been promoted, Atlanta Police Maj. Michael O’Connor told reporters. Cunningham works in the chronic disease unit at the CDC, not in the part of the CDC that deals with infectious disease, according to authorities.”
  • Iraqi, Dutch, Vietnamese Officials Report Avian Flu Outbreaks – Several countries reported new avian flu outbreaks, including two more H5N8 events at commercial poultry farms in Iraq, an H5 outbreak at a poultry farm in the Netherlands, and the first known H5N6 detection of the year in Vietnam. In Iraq, which has reported ongoing H5N8 activity since early January, authorities reported new outbreaks in Diyala and Baghdad province that began on Feb 13 and Feb 14, respectively, according to a report yesterday from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). The investigation said the source of the virus was contact with wild species.”
  • 11 Fall Ill After Suspicious Letter Arrives At Military Base– “Eleven people fell ill after a suspicious letter was opened in an administrative building at Joint Base Fort Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday, according to the Arlington County Fire Department. A law enforcement official said field tests for the letter all came back negative for any harmful substance, but the FBI is transporting it tonight to its lab in Quantico for further analysis. The law enforcement official said the text of the letter contained derogatory, at time unintelligible and ranting language, and was addressed to a commanding officer at the base. Investigators are still determining what relationship, if any, the sender had with the base. A corporal, gunnery sergeant and a colonel all exhibited symptoms of a burning sensation on their hands and face, according to Specialist Nicholas Hodges who spoke to CNN from the base.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 2.9.2018

Happy Friday fellow biodefense enthusiasts! The Winter Olympics are already starting off with a bang as Korean health officials have confirmed 128 cases of norovirus among security personnel, police officers, and Olympic workers.

WHO Releases List of Blueprint Priority Diseases
The WHO has just released their annual review of the Blueprint list of priority diseases, which includes a special tool for “determining which diseases and pathogens to prioritize for research and development in public health emergency contexts”. While the list includes diseases like Ebola, MERS and SARS, Nipah, and Zika, it is the inclusion of Disease X that highlights the unknowns of infectious diseases in the future.  “Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease, and so the R&D Blueprint explicitly seeks to enable cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown ‘Disease X’ as far as possible.”

BioWatch Documents Left Behind on Flight
Biowatch officials are doing a bit of a damage control at the moment as multiple copies of an official DHS document regarding performances during a bioterrorism simulation were left behind on an airplane prior to the Super Bowl. The errant document offered a critique of how officials performed during a simulated release of the infectious disease anthrax in Minneapolis on the day of the Super Bowl. Other sensitive material was also found, CNN said, without further description.” Ironically, it was a CNN employee who discovered the forgotten papers in the seat-back pocket of a commercial plane. “The reports were accompanied by the travel itinerary and boarding pass of the government scientist in charge of BioWatch, the DHS program that conducted the anthrax drills in preparation for Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. The reports were based on exercises designed to evaluate the ability of public health, law enforcement and emergency management officials to engage in a coordinated response were a biological attack to be carried out in Minneapolis on Super Bowl Sunday.” CNN waited to publish the incident until after Sunday’s game, but the papers revealed significant areas for response improvement during a bioterrorism incident. While not surprising, the identification of such gaps is critical for improvement however, it is the concerning nature of which they were left behind. Vulnerabilities are always present, but that doesn’t mean we want them being aired in the open for nefarious actors to utilize.

 GMU Biodefense PhD Student Selected As ELBI Fellow 
The Biodefense Graduate Program in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University is proud to announce that PhD student Yong-Bee Lim has been selected for the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship (ELBI) program within the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Selected from a group of over 120 international applicants, the 2018 ELBI class includes professionals and scholars with a passion for health security and biosecurity. This year-long fellowship will deepen the biosecurity expertise and broaden the network of those passionate about furthering the field. Yong-Bee was also the recipient of an internship with the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the SB7.0 Fellowship, which supported his attendance of an international synthetic biology conference in Singapore. His selection also marks the third consecutive year that the Schar School’s Biodefense program has had graduate students named ELBI fellows. Congrats Yong-Bee!

Smallpox Signalling
It’s been a couple of weeks since PLOS One published the horsepox synthesis paper and the truth is that many are still in awe that not only such work was done, but that it was published. Where were broader discussions regarding the merits of this research? Conversations about need to publish it? Moreover, what about the importance of oversight in the private biotech arena and not just those with federal funding? One thing is for certain though, this is a critical moment for life sciences and DURC oversight. “A vaccine against smallpox already exists. The research was carried out unilaterally, without a broader discussion of the merits beforehand. There are apparently few oversight mechanisms when experiments are done with private funding. The restrictions that now cover dual-use research funded by U.S. government — which include an independent review process, and a weighing of the risks and benefits, as well as the ethics — should be expanded to private-sector research.”

Topics of Interest at the DHS Meeting on Sequences of Interest
Synthetic biology has led to the creation of new products, markets, companies, and industries. At the same time, this technology poses potential risks to biosafety and biosecurity, as recently demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox virus, a cousin of variola, the virus that causes smallpox.  On January 29-30, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate sponsored a workshop to discuss the evolving role of databases that contain genetic sequences of pathogens and toxins that pose safety or security concerns, termed “sequences of interest.” The workshop brought together stakeholders from government, industry, and academia to discuss the need for such databases, review current databases and those under development, explore potential applications and users of these types of databases, and consider the potential risks that they pose due to malicious or inadvertent misuse. The workshop provided a valuable opportunity to explore the scientific and technical aspects of constructing such databases, maintenance and sustainability challenges, and the trade-offs involving functionality, accessibility, affordability, confidentiality, and security. While the workshop did not produce a consensus on the best path forward, it played an important role in educating the participants on the most critical issues and facilitating a dialogue among a diverse range of stakeholders on this important topic.  The workshop also came at a propitious time as stakeholders grapple with the changing landscape of the biotech industry and advances in DNA synthesis technology.  For instance, the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, a group of the leading DNA synthesis companies that have adopted customer and sequence screening protocols to prevent the misuse of their products, has expanded in size and geographic scope and recently updated its biosecurity protocols. The U.S. government is also reviewing the customer and sequence screening guidance it issued in 2010 and is considering whether, and how, to update it.  Should a decision be made to proceed, stakeholder engagement would be a significant part of the review, just as it was a significant part of the guidance’s original development.

The US Can’t Afford to Reduce Public Health Funding
GMU biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is evaluating the decision to reduce funding for global epidemic prevention activities and just how dangerous that would be for the United States. “Recent reporting suggests that the Trump administration is preparing to downsize the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) global epidemic prevention activities in 39 of 49 countries starting in 2019 when funding first authorized by Congress in 2014 expires. Such a move is potentially dangerous and could place the U.S. at significant risk.” Gerstein points to the notion of shared responsibility in global health security and how important efforts like the GHSA are for global public health. He also notes that the last decade alone has revealed just how undeniable public health is as a national security issue. “Without renewed funding, the long-term outlook could include weakened global disease surveillance and response systems, less capable partner nations and an increased likelihood of global disease outbreaks that would undoubtedly threaten the U.S.” Wanting more information regarding the implications of CDC cutting back on their global health security funding? Check out this article regarding the funding cliff the CDC is about to fall off.

Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia
The latest book from Raymond A. Zilinskas and Philippe Mauger delves into the biodefense world of Putin’s Russia. “In March 2012, at a meeting convened by the recently reelected Russian president Vladimir Putin, Minister of Defense Serdyukov informed Mr. Putin that a plan was being prepared for ‘the development of weapons based on new physical principles: radiation, geophysical wave, genetic, psychophysical, etc.’ Subsequently, in response to concerns expressed both in Russia and abroad, the Russian government deleted the statement from the public transcript of the meeting. But the question remains: Is Russia developing an offensive biological warfare program?”

Global Monitoring of Disease Outbreak Preparedness
The Harvard Global Health Institute has released their new report that is “a step towards developing a shared framework and monitoring mechanism” for outbreak response and preparedness. “This report is primarily intended for the community of policymakers and researchers concerned about the rising risks of domestic, regional, and global infectious disease epidemics, and the collective failure to take the coordinated actions required to reduce such risks. These risks include the expected health, economic, and societal costs that are borne by countries, regions, and even all nations in the case of pandemics (which are worldwide epidemics). These risks also include the consequences of increasing antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and its spread within regions and globally.” The report focuses on strengthening public health capacity as a foundation, improving S&T, reinforcing risk analysis and incentives for action, strengthening global mechanisms, and revised shared monitoring framework and next steps.

 The Fearsome Future of Flu
This year has been rough for seasonal flu and while it has been a cold dose of reality in terms of hospital response, are we really learning our lesson or just running from fire to fire? 2018 marks the centennial of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic and with a larger, more connected population, have we made ourselves safer? The next flu virus with pandemic potential will either enhance our response capabilities or exploit our most damning weaknesses. “And influenza viruses excel at the element of surprise. Few would have guessed Mexico as the origin of that 2009 H1N1 pandemic, for example, notes Fukuda. That outbreak was recognized in San Diego—never considered a hotspot—when a little girl happened to seek treatment at a clinic participating in a study focused on diagnosis, Adalja explains. That’s why he believes it is important to build up the diagnostic capacity for frontline clinicians, and not be satisfied with non-specific diagnoses—failing to pin down the specific microbial cause.” Unfortunately, we are still practicing the methods of frenzied response, delayed information sharing, and dangerous hysteria that can spread even faster through social media. These concerns highlight yet another reason why we need a universal flu vaccine.

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Event: Healthcare Disaster Resilience
Don’t miss this event at the National Press Club Holeman Lounge on Thursday, February 22nd from 8:30-10am EST. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security will release new policy recommendations for building a more effective disaster health system in the United States. Speakers include Dr. Luciana Borio from the White House National Security Council staff, Sally Phillips of HHS, Linda Langston from the National Association of Counties, as well as Drs.Tom Inglesby, Eric Toner, Monica Schoch-Spana from the Center for Health Security.

 Genetic Sequencing and the Dangers of DIY Genome Editing
Nebula Genomics will sequence your genome for just under $1,000 and you can even share it using a blockchain.  “Nebula is the brainchild of geneticist George Church, PhD student Dennis Grishin, and graduate Kamal Obbad, all from Harvard. Mirza Cifric, CEO of Veritas Genetics, which offers a genome-sequencing service for $999, is a founding advisor. When you pay to take a DNA test—through 23andMe, Helix, or Ancestry.com, for example—the company that does the testing owns your genetic data. Nebula wants to sequence people’s entire genomes and let them own it, allowing them to earn digital money by sharing it.” While professionals may be providing your genomic data through these companies, many are looking to actually learn to experiment with genes themselves. DIY gene therapy is becoming increasingly accessible, which has many worried and the FDA issuing a warning to the public. The FDA, on “November 21 cautioned against do-it-yourself (DIY) gene therapies. But even as the agency’s statement also warned that selling gene editing kits aimed at homemade therapeutics is illegal, CRISPR–Cas9 kits are available to buy online, and the number of providers is growing, raising concerns that DIY gene therapy enthusiasts could be putting themselves and others at risk.”

Biodefense Policy Landscape Analysis Tool
B-PLAT is a new tool from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientists Rachel Bartholomew and Kristin Omberg that aims to help coordinate national biodefense preparedness. It “captures and presents a slew of information about U.S. efforts to protect its citizens and others around the world from threats as diverse as the flu, diseases like Ebola, threats from terrorists, potential risks to water and food supplies, and myriad other concerns. The tool is freely available. In 2017, PNNL chartered an internally funded working group, the Policy Wranglers, to capture relevant biodefense policy directives, public laws, and corresponding sections of the U.S. Code, in a format conducive to visualization. The resulting tool can be utilized to better understand the current state of the U.S. biodefense enterprise.” A presentation on B-LAT will also be made at ASM’s Biothreats next week as part of a town hall on Tuesday.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • US Battles IV Bag Shortage During Record-Setting Severe Flu Season – GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking at the impacts of this IV bag shortage during the severe flu season. “Even prior to Hurricane Maria, the United States was already battling challenges with meeting the demand for IV fluids; however, the storm crippled Puerto Rico-based manufacturing sites for materials. In a news release on January 16, the FDA reported that they were taking additional steps to combat the shortages, such as ‘asking companies to submit data to extend expiration dates for these products.’ They noted that, ‘if expiration dates can be safety extended [for these products], it would allow some near-expiry product that remains at the hospital level to be used’.”
  • DARPA Program to Track Genetic Markers for Past WMD Material Exposure – “The program is being called Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO), and its endgame is the creation of a field-deployable system that could analyze someone’s epigenome and identify markers of whether or not–in that person’s entire lifetime–been exposed to WMD-associated materials. DARPA officials are billing it as worlds quicker than sending to a lab to test for biological or chemical agents in clothing or hair.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 1.19.2018

Happy Friday and welcome to your favorite source for all things biodefense! We hope you’re able to avoid the onslaught of respiratory viruses that are circulating right now, but on the off chance that you’re battling a bug, here’s some infectious disease new that won’t get you sick.

Fighting Influenza
Whether you’re fighting the flu or watching the mayhem unfold in the news, you can’t escape influenza right now. We’re getting hit hard with flu season in the United States and the CDC has reported that activity is still rising and we’re not out of the woods yet. You can find the latest flu data here, but what is worrying so many is the hit that hospitals are taking across the country. It’s not just that we’re facing an IV bag shortage due to the devastation Hurricane Maria wreaked upon Puerto Rico, but that hospitals are being overrun with an onslaught of ILI (influenza like illness) patients. Wait times are through the roof, staff are stretched thin, patients are being admitted into overflow areas, hospitals are having to divert patients because they’re so full, triage areas have been set up in parking lots and emergency areas, and hospitals are even struggling to ensure they have enough PPE and influenza tests. This year marks the centennial of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, and it seems like what’s going on is out of a history book instead of down the street. As an infection preventionist and infectious disease epidemiologist, it is not surprising or unexpected that we’re running into these issues. It’s easy for people to point to the current situation and use it as an example of why we’re not ready for a flu pandemic – and they’re right, but it shouldn’t take what’s going on to see that. These are not new issues. Infection control and hospital preparedness has been struggling for a long time and it doesn’t take a pandemic to prove it. Even after the surge of funding and focus on hospital preparedness post-Ebola, we still struggle with these issues, but throw in budget cuts and an administration that is set to pull funding away from public health…well, the outlook is dismal.

With so much attention on influenza, pandemic preparedness, and how we’re just not ready for the next great flu pandemic, what kind of household interventions can we apply in our own little ecosystems? Researchers looked at a HPAI H5N1 outbreak and estimated the reduction in primary attack rates for household-based interventions. “We show that, for lower transmissibility strains, the combination of household-based quarantine, isolation of cases outside the household, and targeted prophylactic use of anti-virals will be highly effective and likely feasible across a range of plausible transmission scenarios. For example, for a basic reproductive number (the average number of people infected by a typically infectious individual in an otherwise susceptible population) of 1.8, assuming only 50% compliance, this combination could reduce the infection (symptomatic) attack rate from 74% (49%) to 40% (27%), requiring peak quarantine and isolation levels of 6.2% and 0.8% of the population, respectively, and an overall anti-viral stockpile of 3.9 doses per member of the population.” While we all may not access to anti-virals, the use of quarantine and isolation are all effective strategies. From an infection control standpoint, it can be tough to maintain such efforts in a household where one or two people are sick. When in doubt, wash your hands, cover your cough, and clean those high-touch surfaces/objects!

GMU Biodefense MS Open House
Mark your calendars for the February 21st Master’s Open House at GMU’s Arlington campus! If you’ve been thinking about getting a MS in biodefense (who wouldn’t want to take classes on biosurveillance, historical bioweapons programs, and more?!), this is a great chance to talk to faculty and learn about the admissions process. GMU has biodefense MS programs in person and online, so even if you’re not in the DC-area, you can get your biodefense on.

Smallpox, Horsepox, And The Trouble With Poxviruses
It seems only a few months ago that news broke of a Canadian research team’s de novo synthesis of horsepox. Since then, there has been considerable discussion surrounding not only the biosafety and biosecurity behind research involving an orthopoxvirus, but also the implications of normalizing orthopoxvirus synthesis, and again, if the remaining smallpox stockpiles should be destroyed. The latest report from researchers at the University of Alberta points to the potential smallpox vaccine developments that synthetic viruses could bring. “Virologist David Evans and his research associate Ryan Noyce produced an infectious horsepox virus, which they synthetically reconstructed using a published genome sequence and DNA fragments manufactured entirely by chemical methods. The team went on to show that the synthetic horsepox virus could provide vaccine protection in a mouse model of poxvirus infection.” Unfortunately, the implications of synthesizing an orthopoxvirus aren’t so simple. GMU biodefense professor and program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz evaluated the implications of such synthesis for biosecurity and what would be needed to prevent a reemergence of smallpox. “The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security. That threat has been held at bay for the past 40 years by the extreme difficulty of obtaining variola virus and the availability of effective medical countermeasures. The techniques demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox have the potential to erase both of these barriers. The primary risk posed by this research is that it will open the door to the routine and widespread synthesis of other orthopoxviruses, such as vaccinia, for use in research, public health, and medicine.” Koblentz notes that while there are potentially legitimate uses for synthesizing orthopoxviruses (safer smallpox vaccine development), it also means that such labs have the potential to produce smallpox from synthetic DNA and emphasized that action is needed now to avoid the misuse of synthetic biology by nefarious actors. “Unfortunately, the current legal and technical safeguards against the synthesis of smallpox virus are weak and fragmented. There is no clear international legal or regulatory framework to prevent the synthesis of smallpox virus. The WHO has a policy banning the synthesis of the smallpox and regulating who can produce and possess large fragments of smallpox DNA, but it hasn’t been widely adopted by states. Furthermore, there is no mechanism—at either the national or international level—for detecting or punishing violations of this policy.” GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu cited the importance of medical providers understanding the dual-use research of concern debate and that ultimately, biosecurity impacts us all. “From the healthcare perspective, it may not seem like something we should worry about, but the direction of gene editing and dual-use research of concern is something that is intrinsically linked to public health. Nefarious outcomes of such experiments, regardless of the origin or intent, will inevitably make their way into an emergency department, urgent care, or worse, the community. Although we may not be seeing the implications today, as medical providers and healthcare workers, we must keep our ears to the ground, listening for these biotech advancements, and then thinking through what they mean for us tomorrow.”

Blue Ribbon SLTT Ability to Respond to Large Scale Biological Events: Challenges and Solutions
If you missed the Wednesday meeting, here’s a recording to catch up on all things biodefense. “State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Ability to Respond to Large-Scale Biological Events: Challenges and Solutions government officials, federal and academic representatives, and subject matter experts will discuss their perspectives, experiences, challenges, and recommended solutions with regard to SLTT response to large-scale biological events.”

Gene Therapy Hits a Wall With Microbial Resistance
Can gene editing trigger an immune reaction in humans? A new study is suggesting that it may be a risk. “The CRISPR-Cas9 system, which functions as a genetic scissors and tape for editing DNA, is generally derived from either Staphyloccoccus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria.” Most of us though, have been exposed to these organisms throughout our lives. “This prior exposure could potentially render the gene editing ineffective, with the body quickly eliminating all the CRISPR–Cas9 proteins. Or worse, it could trigger the kind of immune storm that killed a young gene therapy patient named Jesse Gelsinger in 1999, derailing the field for more than a decade. ‘We share everyone’s excitement about doing Cas9 genome editing, but we want to make sure we have learned from what happened in the gene therapy world and not ignore the possibility that this could become a problem,’ Porteus says. ‘As we’re all thinking about developing Cas9-based therapeutics, we should think carefully about this potential problem’.”

Pediatric Rabies Death
A 6-year-old boy in Florida has died from rabies he contracted after being scratched by an infected bat. The boy’s father reports that he found the sick bat, put it in a bucket, and told him not to touch it however, he did and was scratched. In response, the father had the boy wash his hands thoroughly based off what he read online and opted not to take him to the hospital because the boy didn’t want to get shots. Unfortunately, within a week, the boy became ill and even after attempts at treatment, passed away. Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear, which highlights the importance of seeking care immediately after exposure.

Stories You May Have Missed:

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 1.12.2018

 The Bright Side of Synthetic Biology and Crispr
GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and Phd alum Shannon Fye-Marnien are looking at the realities of synthetic biology and fears of bioterrorism. Biological advances have inspired questions regarding the safety and potential for nefarious use, but are such technologies guilty until proven innocent or innocent until proven guilty? “As with previous advances in biology, Crispr is sometimes characterized as a blueprint for bioweapons development or bioterrorism, and it has elicited calls for increased control and regulation of science. But while it is important to examine the potential dangers of emerging technologies, reaching a balanced assessment of risks and benefits requires that technologies’ potential to improve human life be appreciated as well. Synthetic biology and Crispr offer a potentially enormous package of benefits, spanning from medicine to energy to agriculture and beyond. Discussions about the security and safety of synthetic biology and Crispr should not obscure these technologies’ potential to address a wide variety of complex and pressing problems.”

The United States Battles Influenza
Flu season is hitting hard in the United States as 46 states report widespread activity. 80% of cases are of the H3N2 strain, which is associated with severe symptoms and hospitalizations. “The flu is now widespread across the country and the peak of transmission probably occurred during the Christmas-New Year’s holiday week, just as many people were crowded into planes, buses and cars or in large family gatherings, said Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ‘H3N2 is a bad virus,’ Dr. Jernigan said. ‘We hate H3N2’.” 26 states (and New York City) are reporting high influenza-like illness (ILI) activity. The CDC has reported that “Influenza-like illness (ILI) went from 4.9% to 5.8%. ‎These indicators are similar to what was seen at the peak of the 2014-2015 season, which was the most severe season in recent years.” This tough influenza season is a helpful reminder that it could always get worse, especially in the context of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, which marks its centennial this year. Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker recently wrote an OpEd regarding the dismal truth – we’re not ready for a flu pandemic. Pointing to not only massive growth in population, but also challenges of supply shortages, and an outdated approach to vaccine research, they highlight the need to find a universal vaccine that can do battle against all influenza A strains with a longer immunity. “But there is no apparent effort to make these vaccines a priority in the current administration. Its national security strategy published last month cites Ebola and SARS as potential bioterrorism and pandemic threats, yet makes no mention of the risk of pandemic influenza nor any aspect of critical vaccine research and development. The next few weeks will highlight how ill prepared we are for even ‘ordinary’ flu. A worldwide influenza pandemic is literally the worst-case scenario in public health — yet far from an unthinkable occurrence. Unless we make changes, the question is not if but when it will come.”

GMU Biodefense Professor – Robert House
We’d like to welcome back professor Dr. Robert House to GMU biodefense, who will be teaching BioD766: Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics. Dr. House holds a PhD in medical parasitology and is a senior VP for government contracts at Ology Bioservices (previously Nanotherapeutics). The world faces a growing threat from microbiological agents in the form of terrorist weapons, pandemics (particularly influenza) and emerging/re-emerging diseases. Characteristics such as high pathogenicity/toxicity and lack of appropriate animal models, as well as lack of a viable commercial market, make it difficult to develop effective medical countermeasures for these agents. In his course, students will explore how the US Government is developing medical countermeasures (MCM) against these threats and will explore the various threat agents, the context of regulatory considerations, and the specifics of how MCMs are developed.

Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge Launched!
Do you love infectious diseases and maps? The goal of the challenge is to promote the use of geospatial mapping to address the objectives of the GHSA. The NextGen Network has partnered with the U.S. Department of State’s Virtual Student Foreign Service program to launch the 2018 challenge. You can find out more information from this engaging and informative webinar or at the page here. The deadline for signing up for the challenge is January 19, 2018. This is a great way to contribute to the GHSA goal of creating a world safe and secure from the threat of infectious diseases.

Biodefense Alum – Stay Connected! 
Are you a GMU Biodefense alum? If so, please make sure to keep your information updated in our Schar Stay Connected site. We have a strong alum community and would love to keep you up to date on future events and give shout outs for the amazing work our biodefense students accomplish.

Biopreparedness Needs to Start At the Frontlines of Disease Control
GMU biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu evaluates the attention to biopreparedness and how our focus on bioterrorism fails to address the major gaps within disease control in the United States. “The Blue Ribbon Panel report and the CNN article both highlight the bureaucratic challenges with coordination at a national level across many agencies and sectors. The crux of it all is that from a grass-roots level, we’re struggling to better prepare and respond for a host of reasons. Public health funding is always in a chronic state of too little too late and often, we don’t push out resources until we’re already in the throes of a major incident (Ebola, Zika, etc.). Preparing for biothreats, regardless of origin, requires that we strengthen the most basic surveillance and response systems within public health and health care. During the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak, for example, there was a lot of attention on enhanced precautions. Although this was beneficial and brought attention to several gaps infection control and prevention measures, I found myself reminding staff that we can’t truly prepare and respond to rare events if we can’t get our daily practices down. The shear challenges of ensuring staff practice appropriate hand hygiene and isolation precautions in health care are indicators that we are struggling on the frontlines of disease preparedness.”

Lessons from A 2016 CRE Outbreak in A Kentucky Hospital
Hospital outbreaks are tough. The shear volume of people that go into a single patient’s room is considerable (healthcare workers, visitors, ancillary staff, etc.) and enough to spread germs throughout an entire hospital. Now imagine that the organism is a highly resistant one, such as carbapenemase-producing carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CP-CRE). A hospital in Kentucky experienced this very thing in 2016 and a recent CDC MMWR revealed just how difficult it can be to conquer an outbreak involving one of the worst resistant organisms you can imagine. “Over the next 4 months, scientists identified an additional 21 CRE isolates from patients at the hospital via screening and clinical cultures. The investigators believe organisms were imported into the facility and then spread among patients.” Epidemiological investigation found that five of the thirteen interviewed patients had received healthcare outside the local area and that three of the patients may have brought CP-CRE into the facility. “The authors of the report say their investigation highlights the potential role of cleaning equipment, which frequently moves between patient rooms, in CP-CRE spread. In addition, they note that although there is a low prevalence of CP-CRE in rural areas, rural hospitals should be aware that patients who’ve also accessed healthcare in areas with higher CP-CRE prevalence—primarily urban areas—can introduce these organisms into their facilities.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 12.1.2017

Are you registered for the Read-Out on the GHSA Summit in Kampala? Just a friendly reminder – we’ll be on hiatus next week as we attend the Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties. Make sure to look out for a packed newsletter on 12.15 as we’ll be covering both the Read-Out on the GHSA Summit and the BWC meeting! If you’d like real-time updates, check out our Twitter account @PandoraReport.

 Read-Out on the GHSA Summit in Kampala
Global health security on your lunch break? Only at the Read-Out on the GHSA Summit will you get lunch and an in-depth recap of this international health security event. Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to hear from global health practioners and young professionals who attended the 4th annual Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting in Kampala, Uganda in October. You’ll want to register ASAP for this exciting opportunity on December 4th, from 12-1:30pm at the George Mason University Founders Halls in Arlington. The GHSA meeting, Health Security for All: Engaging Communities, Non-governmental Organizations, and the Private Sector, was a multi-sectoral collaboration between governments, civil society, and industry dedicated to the strengthening of globaly capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats. Attended by the ministers of health, finance, and agriculture and other senior officialfs from more than 50 nations, this was the first Ministerial GHSA Meeting held on the African continent. The meeting was held in late October at the same time as an unprecedented outbreak of pneumonnic plague in Madagascar and a rare outbreak of Marburg in Uganda itself. These outbreaks were timely, but unfortunate reminders, that global health security is still very much a work in progress. Our panel will include four participants who were on the ground in Kampala and actively engaged in this historical step forward for global health security. Attendees will have the opportunity to engage and hear the perspectives of esteemed public health practitioners and rising health security professionals. Lunch will also be provided. This event is free and open to the public.

Mason, Stanford Researchers Join Forces To Study The Science, Benefits And Dangers Of Genome Editing
GMU Biodefense researchers are teaming up with Stanford University to better address the complexities of genome editing and what it means for science, security, and governance. “The study is the only unclassified, independent academic project of its kind, said Gregory Koblentz, director of George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government biodefense graduate program and co-principal investigator. The Mason and Stanford researchers will examine scientific advances in the field of genome editing that can have benefits for human health and the bioeconomy, as well as the security aspects of preventing the misuse of this technology. They expect to deliver a suite of policy recommendations based on their research in summer 2018.” Genome editing has not been without controversy, as the technology allows the deletion and replacement of DNA within living organisms and many are concerned about the dual-use nature of such work. While there is potential to eradicate disease and strengthen agriculture, there is also worry that such technology will be misused for nefarious purposes or even poorly handled and result in negative outcomes. This collaborative effort is a huge step to ensuring we’re aware of the risks, benefits, and oversight needed for this exciting new technology.

Maintaining U.S. Investment in Global Health Security
Progress must continue on the global health security front and industrialized countries like the United States have a critical role in sustaining forward movement. “However, the work of the GHSA, including motivating and assisting countries to improve their capacities to prevent epidemics like Ebola from reoccurring, is now at a crossroad. Even though senior officials in the Trump administration have voiced support for the GHSA, and at a recent GHSA ministerial meeting in Uganda signed onto the Kampala Declaration to extend the GHSA for at least another 5 years, US funding for the initiative is ending and no commitment for future financial support has been made. Without additional funding, prospects for the next phase of the GHSA will be endangered. It is important for the United States to commit to support the GHSA to help protect the nation and the rest of the world from epidemic disease.” U.S. financial support encourages other countries to pledge funds but if our efforts waver, it may cause a domino effect. Not only does U.S. engagement encourage others to support the GHSA, but it also supports our own national security. “If vulnerable countries do not have the capacity to quickly cope with disease outbreaks, those outbreaks are more likely to spread internationally, including to the United States.” You can hear more about the importance of the GHSA from Jennifer Nuzzo (one of the authors of this paper) at the Read-Out on the GHSA Summit in Kampala event on December 4th!

Failure to Diagnose Monkeypox Highlights Nigeria’s Poor Health Infrastructure
Like most outbreaks, Nigeria’s monkeypox cases have exposed weaknesses in the country’s ability to rapidly identify and test potential patients. These inadequacies highlight gaps within their International Health Regulations compliance as there were no national labs that could test patients for the disease. “Consequently, for more than two weeks after the outbreak (from the September 22 to October 13), there was no conclusive confirmation that the suspected case was actually that of monkeypox. According to experts, the implication of this is that the country may be dealing with a dangerous outbreak, but unsure of what it is dealing with on time, thereby giving room for a lot of things to go wrong during the waiting period. For instance, during the waiting period for the monkeypox confirmation, different statistics on the actual number of cases were being bandied, even as the large number of suspected cases (94 cases) and the manifestation of the disease had already caused fright and panic.” Laboratory delays can be devastating to outbreak control as it can delay treatment, isolation, quarantine, and data collection. Public health laboratories are the early warning system in many ways. Many are drawing attention to these gaps as a way to reinforce the need to strengthen country-level laboratory infrastructure and capacity. The National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) was established in 2011, but still is struggling to find the capacity to respond to health threats due to funding and personnel issues. As 14 more cases of monkeypox were reported in Nigeria, this services as a reminder of  why the GHSA is so vital!

The WHO Reports on Fake Drugs
This week the WHO released a report on medical products  that shed light upon the startling realities of patient safety and public health in low and middle income countries. The report, “Global Surveillance and Monitoring System for Substandard and Falsified Medical Products”, found that 1 in 10 products circulating in such countries are either substandard or fake. The findings of this report are extremely worrying as it means that people are taking medications intended to treat life-threatening ailments and they are either fake or not effective. In many cases, the individual is paying a considerable amount of money for such medications and can have severe medical complications from contaminated or expired products. “Substandard and falsified medicines particularly affect the most vulnerable communities,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Imagine a mother who gives up food or other basic needs to pay for her child’s treatment, unaware that the medicines are substandard or falsified, and then that treatment causes her child to die. This is unacceptable. Countries have agreed on measures at the global level – it is time to translate them into tangible action.” You can read the report here. The report also cites some of the work being done around this endemic issue – 17 WHO training workshops, 126 Member States and more than 400 regulatory personnel trained, 1500 product reports, etc.

How Will We Handle Contamination On An Airplane?
What would happen if you were on a plane with a patient who had a highly infectious disease like SARS or Ebola? What’s our national plan to deal with such issues? Hint: we don’t have a plan. How do flight attendants or pilots relay to ground control that a patient or entire plane needs to be quarantined? These are all the sorts of questions that need to be considered when planning and responding to such events. How would we quarantine an entire plane? On February 7, 2011, such an event occurred – a pilot issued a public health emergency to the air traffic control tower in Milwaukee, WI, for 3 (of 115) passengers with flu-like symptoms. “Airport officials soon learned something interesting about Flight 703 that could point to the presence of a communicable disease. The plane included at least 12 people who had returned from Cozumel, Mexico, on a cruise in which many of the passengers had fallen ill with flu-like symptoms. The incident revealed gaps in America’s emergency planning for communicable diseases aboard planes — gaps that were still present four years later when the U.S. Government Accountability Office investigated. ‘The United States lacks a comprehensive national aviation-preparedness plan aimed at preventing and containing the spread of diseases through air travel,’ the GAO found.” Sadly, it seems as if there’s still no plan. The creation of such a plan would require collaboration between the CDC and U.S. Department of Transportation, and while meetings have occurred, it is reported that no one has taken the lead. So, how are airports currently handling infectious disease incidents? “The lack of uniformity in dealing with communicable diseases during air travel was evident when the National Academy of Sciences asked 50 different airports in the U.S. and Canada how they expect to learn of an incident aboard a plane. They found 15 different notification procedures.” Report after report has found a gap within these response efforts and with the holiday season upon us and airline travel to be busy, it seems that should a public health emergency arise, we may be flying by the seat of our pants.

 Flu Season is Upon Us!
Flu season is starting to hit the United States as the CDC reports an up-tick is influenza positive tests. A majority of the positive specimens have been Influenza A (78% are H3, 13% have been H1N1). “Three southeastern states are reporting high or widespread flu activity, and the CDC said it received reports of five more pediatric flu deaths. In its report, which covers the week ending Nov 18, the CDC also reported one more novel flu infection, an H1N1 variant (H1N1v).Globally, flu activity in the Northern Hemisphere is rising, with H3N2 and influenza B the most frequently detected strains, the World Health Organization (WHO) said yesterday in an update.” Flu season and vaccination compliance is increasingly becoming an issue even in healthcare – in fact, many hospitals are terminating employees who don’t get their flu shot. Remember – get your flu vaccine, stay home when sick, wash your hands, and cover your cough!

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Exclusive Interviews: Tackling Regulatory and Economic Challenges of Antimicrobial Resistance – “It is imperative for medical experts and drug discovery specialists to stay on top of the latest clinical advancements, developments and industry initiatives related to antimicrobial resistance. SMi Group will gather industry experts and government bodies to share their insights at the 20th annual conference on Superbugs and Superdrugs taking place on 19-20 March 2018 in London, UK. SMi Group recently had the opportunity to sit down with three of the event’s featured speakers to discuss some of the challenges they face in the industry and their strategies for overcoming them.”
  • Raw Flour and E. coli – this whole time we thought it was the eggs in the cookie dough that were doing it, but it seems that flour may also be a culprit for foodborne illness! “Research published today in the New England Journal of Medicine describes how raw flour, an unlikely suspect, caused an Escherichia coli outbreak in 2016. Because of its low-moisture properties, flour was not thought to be a conduit of E coli bacteria, but a multistate team of investigators discovered that flour processed in one facility was linked to the outbreak.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 10.13.2017

What could be spookier than a Friday, 13th, in October? Actually, a few things – antimicrobial resistance, biological weapons, plague in Madagascar…..

The Trump Administration’s Misaligned Approach to National Biodefense
This recent publication from Reid Kirby is casting light upon the calamitous state of current and future U.S. biodefense efforts. Kirby points to several factors that will ultimately impact the new administration’s ability to create a new national biodefense strategy – the dysfunction rampant throughout the White House, the anti-science culture that continues to bubble up, a general inability to appoint fill key positions in a timely manner, and the disparage between the Trump administration’s ability to strategize and execute effective actions. “Again, how is the Trump administration doing so far in national biodefense? To answer this question, it is helpful to think in terms of ways, means, and ends – where the “ends” amount to security itself, the “ways” are formation of strategy, and the “means” are execution of strategy. What is concerning about the Trump administration is that the ways and means through which it pursues biodefense policy are fundamentally mismatched with the execution of meaningful biodefense ends.” Kirby highlights these failures through several examples, like the administration’s continued disrespect for science, whether it be climate change or nuclear energy. The administration’s resistance against government-sponsored research (and science in general), is in direct opposition to what a new biodefense strategy will need. “The Trump administration’s worldview, and its inability to distinguish between defense and security, may well be incompatible with a biodefense strategy. Biodefense is a scientific and technological endeavor.” Kirby states that “the administration has expressed a desire to formulate a comprehensive biodefense strategy, but the ways and means it is marshalling are not in alignment with achieving that goal. The future of US biodefense is at significant risk.

North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program – The Known and Unknown
The Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center has just released a new report on North Korea’s biological weapons program. There’s been significant attention recently on their nuclear program however, there is still speculation regarding the real capacity for a biological weapons program. Bioweapon programs are always challenging to determine from the outside – so much of the equipment has dual-use capacity that makes external monitoring inaccurate at best. The new report utilizes publicly available information and interviews with experts to investigate the knowns and unknowns of North Korea’s BW program. Researchers “examine where policy on North Korea’s BW stands. We focus our analysis on the policies of South Korea and the United States, rather than at an international level, as North Korea has had limited participation in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).” The report also provides recommendations on how to improve assessment and surveillance efforts, not to mention current policies regarding North Korea’s BW program. Within this report, you’ll also find sections regarding means of delivery, strategic and tactical usage, gaps in current policies, how to improve nonproliferation policy, etc.

GMU Biodefense MS Open House – October 19th
Next week, GMU’s Schar School will be hosting a Masters Open house for prospective students, which means you get another chance to learn about our engaging and exciting Biodefense MS programs! You’ll be able to speak to faculty, learn about admissions, and how you can study biodefense on campus or remotely, at 6:30pm on Thursday, October 19th at our Arlington campus.

Biodefense: Federal Efforts to Develop Biological Threat Awareness
The most recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is drawing attention to biothreat awareness and how key agencies, like the DHS, DoD, USDA, HHS, and EPA, work to develop such awareness, regardless of the origin of the threat. The report highlighted three categories of efforts – intelligence gathering, scientific research, and analysis activities. “Federal agencies with key roles in biodefense share biological threat information through many different mechanisms designed to facilitate collaboration among government partners, including working groups and interagency agreements. For example, agency officials reported using collaborative mechanisms to coordinate activities and avoid duplication and overlap. However, as GAO and others have noted, opportunities exist to better leverage shared resources and inform budgetary tradeoffs. Recent legislation requires key biodefense agencies to create a national biodefense strategy that has the potential to help address these issues, by, among other things, supporting shared threat awareness. Until the strategy is developed, the extent to which it will meet this need is unknown.” Due to the variety of sources that biological threats can originate from, this report was established to review how federal agencies not only develop, but also share threat information and how this impacts future biodefense efforts. GAO utilized policies, directives, and strategies that were all related to biodefense to appropriately assess processes and the main agencies that would have critical roles within biodefense efforts.

NASA Backs Research on Evolution of Viruses in Extreme Environments Understanding how viruses adapt and infect hosts is a critical component to predicting movement and hopefully, prevention. NASA has recently funded Portland State biologist Ken Stedman to study viral evolution and how hybrid viruses work. “The study stems from a bizarre virus Stedman discovered in a hot spring at Lassen Volcanic National Park five years ago. The virus’s genetic code is derived from both DNA and its evolutionary predecessor, RNA. The vast majority of life on Earth switched its genetic code from RNA to DNA about four billion years ago, so the fact that this virus has both is highly unusual, according to Stedman.” The NASA grant will allow Stedman and his research team to study hybrid viruses, who they infect, and how they were able to adapt to such extreme environments.

Pandora Report Twitter
Feeling like you need a little extra biodefense information and humor in your life outside of our weekly reports? Check out our Twitter account (@PandoraReport) for a pretty constant stream of not only informative headlines, but also a taste of the hysterical biodefense community. The hidden world of biosecurity/biodefense twitter nerdom is pretty outstanding and probably the best thing on twitter (well, we may be a bit biased, but find out for yourself!).

Seychelles Identifies A Case of Plague
As Madagascar is struggling against a severe outbreak of plague, a nearby chain of islands, Seychelles, has just identified its first imported case. Seychelles is currently working to prophylactically treat fifteen people who were in close contact with the 34-year-old man who fell ill after returning from Madagascar. This is the first case that has spread beyond Madagascar, so officials are working diligently to avoid secondary cases. The WHO is currently sending 1.2 million antibiotics to Madagascar to fight the plague outbreak that is rapidly spreading, especially since many of the cases are pneumonic. Currently, there have been 50 deaths and 500 cases in Madagascar since the outbreak began in August.

Backing the Global Health Security Agenda
After months of speculation and concern regarding the Trump administration’s support for the future of the GHSA, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brought forth a wave of relief. In a recent keynote speech, Tillerson “voiced support for US collaboration on global infectious disease issues, including ongoing efforts to battle threats such as HIV and malaria. He also signaled US support for extending to 2024 the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), a partnership of 50 nations, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations geared toward building countries’ capacity to prevent and respond to infectious disease threats.” While discussing the importance of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), he also highlighted that HIV/AIDS is not the only biological threat that needs addressing, commenting that the GHSA was a useful framework. Tillerson noted that “While we’ve made tremendous progress since GHSA was launched in 2014, considerable work remains. That is why the United States advocates extending the Global Health Security Agenda until the year 2024. the United States commitment to working in multi-sectoral partnerships to counter infectious diseases through the Global Health Security Agenda will remain constant,”.

Strategies Against Antimicrobial Resistance
We’ve been waging war on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) for decades now, but the truth is that future strategies may require thinking outside the box. Here are some of the potential avenues for helping to stop the global burden of microbial resistance – utilizing the human micro biome to help develop new antimicrobials and deploying tiny semiconductors – “A minuscule amount of drug with some light can treat some of the worst superbug infections we tested in clinical strains acquired from a Colorado hospital,” Nagpal says. “Of course, more work and extensive studies in preclinical and clinical trials need to be done before we can administer these quantum dots to patients. However, this initial study shows a lot of promising features.” Efforts also includes infection killing polymers, changing the culture of research to move away from siloing and towards efforts across multiple channels, making existing antibiotics stronger, etc. In fact, if you want to see how AMR spreads around the world, check out this graphic from Pew Charitable Trusts.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Puerto Rico’s Post-Hurricane Infectious Disease Woes – Following the destruction of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is now working against the clock of infectious diseases. “Four deaths in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath are being investigated as possible cases of a disease spread by animals’ urine, Puerto Rico’s governor said Wednesday amid concerns about islanders’ exposure to contaminated water. A total of 10 people have come down with suspected cases of leptospirosis, Gov. Ricardo Rossello said at a news conference.”
  • The Interesting Case of the World’s First Vaccine– a recent report on a 115-year-old smallpox vaccine vile is shedding light onto the ingredients of this revolutionary medical countermeasure. “With the evolution of science and the advanced tools now used to conduct it, it has become clear that vaccinia — the virus used in modern smallpox vaccines — is neither cowpox nor horsepox. Whether it is a virus that formerly infected some species of animals — rodents, maybe — or is something that evolved in laboratories through the deliberate mingling of pox viruses isn’t clear.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 9.29.2017

 Homeland Security Struggles to Fund ChemBio Defense & The Invisible Threat Looming budget cuts within DHS are doing little to qualm concern that state and local infrastructure is simply unprepared to handle a biological or chemical attack. “In terms of bsecurity, ‘we are much better prepared than we were’ post-9/11, said Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. ‘But we are not where we need to be, and the progress is, in some cases, somewhat fragile’.” Internationally, the use of chemical weapons in Syria and growing tensions with North Korea are continual reminders that preparedness is vital. “The department’s science and technology directorate took a 28 percent budget cut when the omnibus bill for fiscal year 2017 was signed in May, and the chemical biological defense division is ‘taking a cut much more significant than that’ in fiscal year 2018, said John Fischer, division director. The directorate in May released a budget overview for congressional justification, which stated over $58 million would be put toward chemical, biological and explosive defense research and development for 2017, assuming a continuing resolution would remain in effect for the rest of the fiscal year. Less than $53 million was requested for 2018, according to the document. DHS did not respond to requests for an interview.” 2018 will be a year of harsh budget reductions for biosurveillance and chemical detection programs, as border security will be headlining in terms of priority. The surge of biodefense funding that was seen post-Amerithrax has certainly waned, but there is also concern for complacency and a tendency to go from fire to fire instead of working to establish robust and effective prevention and response mechanisms. Overall, this fiscal tightening will surely have an impact on prevention, identification, and response strategies for biological and chemical threats, leaving many people holding their breath that the blowback won’t be severe.

 Now more than ever, it is important we change the narrative of lackluster efforts to defend against biological threats. Budgetary slashing, lowering of barriers, and an era of increasing globalization and rapid international travel – these are all the things that should remind us that biological threats are not a figment of science fiction. “What was unthinkable back in the day is now quite common and easy,” Inglesby said. “Genetic engineering is now possible with kits from boxes at younger and younger ages with less and less training.” The dual-use nature of biological research not only has the capacity to lower the barriers to bioweapon development, but can also muddy the waters when determining if research is  offensive or defense. “That’s not the only challenge facing those sounding the alarm about biothreats. Government scientists worry that there aren’t enough biologists working on this problem. “We have relatively few biologists working in national security,” Matheny told FP. “This is one area where we’re just starting to catch up to the fact.” While the future of NBACC is still not set, such uncertainty has rippling effects when it comes to staffing. While we consider biological threats a multi-faceted enemy – natural, intentional, or accidental, it is now biodefense efforts that are facing attacks at multiple fronts. The recent de novo synthesis of smallpox has brought many of these concerns to fruition. Whether it be through the advancement of life sciences that poses dual-use risk, severe budgetary cuts, or a shifting focus onto border walls, we cannot afford to allow this threat to be invisible much longer.

 GMU Schar School MS Open House – October 19th
Have you ever wanted to study what you love to further your career? GMU’s MS in Biodefense is just that chance and we’ve got an open house coming up so you can get all the information on it. On Thursday, October 19th at 6:30pm at our Arlington campus, we’ll be hosting an information session about our in-person and online biodefense MS program. From anthrax to Zika, GMU is the place for all things biodefense!

Navigating Our Way Out of the Jungle: Modernizing Meat Inspection
It’s been over 111 years since the famous Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and we’re still struggling to keep food safety efforts at a pace that can beat risks from farm to table. “What triggered such a shift after decades of poor industry practice? The year prior, in 1905, a book by Upton Sinclair was published in a series, which would then be published in entirety in early 1906. The Jungle brought forth the unsavory and grotesque underbelly of the American meat system. Although this may not have been the focus of his book, readers took away from it that their trusted source for meat was corrupt and lacked safety mechanisms. Within the year, the Federal Meat Inspection Act was established.” Pew Charitable Trusts is working to help evaluate and strengthen the meat and poultry industry and to help reduce the impact that contamination has within the U.S. population (2 million are sickened annually due to contamination). “A June 2017 report from Pew and Cargill, an American privately held global corporation based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, highlighted some of these concerns and established an open dialogue to develop recommendations. They addressed the need to establish a risk-based oversight system, which would incorporate data from across the food-safety system. The guidance also included better risk communication, a modernized approach to slaughter inspection that would include current technology and pathogen-specific appropriate levels of protection, among other components.” Food safety and security is truly the soft underbelly of American and it’s vital that we modernize such efforts.

BBC Pandemic
If you’re one of our readers in the UK, make sure to take advantage of this new outbreak tool through the BBC. The BBC Pandemic app can be downloaded onto your phone and may just help us understand how future outbreaks spread. “Through the app, BBC Pandemic will be conducting two experiments: the National Outbreak, which is open to anyone in the UK from 27th September 2017; and the Haslemere Outbreak, a closed local study that is only open to people in the town of Haslemere, Surrey, and runs for 72 hours starting on Thursday 19th October 2017. In the National Outbreak, the app will track your approximate movement at regular intervals over a 24 hour period. (Don’t worry, it won’t know exactly where, or who you are.) It will also ask some questions about your journeys and the people you spent time with during those 24 hours. All data collected will be grouped to ensure your anonymity, and a research team from the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will use it to predict how a flu pandemic might spread across the country – and determine what can be done to stop it.” If you’re still not sold on it, here’s another reason why apps like this can truly help future pandemic response – data modeling. Despite our best efforts, epidemiological models are only as good as the data we have available. Simulation efforts help response efforts coordinate resources and plan accordingly however, if our modeling isn’t a decent representation of the population due to limited data, it won’t be that effective. Getting information from a broad range of people helps strengthen such efforts.

Recommendations for Incentivizing the Development of Therapeutics, Diagnostics, and Vaccines to Combat Antibiotic-Resistance 
The Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (PACCARB) has been working since 2015 to curb the threat of resistant germs. The group has found that current economic efforts are insufficient and through three working groups on incentives (for vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics), they have released a new report. Identifying 46 critical issues that are preventing the development of new/improved products and providing 64 recommendations to address them, this new report is a robust 42 pages worth the read. For example, regarding human health and incentives for vaccine use, the group found that “federal and nonfederal stakeholders lack a common understanding about the current and potential economic value and societal impact of vaccines that can reduce AMR.” Their recommendation for this issue: “Analyses on the cost and societal impacts associated with new vaccine development and administration in the AMR arena developed via a multi-agency process that involves at least CDC, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Treasury Department, in partnership with industry and public health stakeholders.” Within each section, you can find issues and recommendations categorized by economic, R&D, regulatory, and behavioral. The United Nations Foundation and the Wellcome Trust has also released a new report regarding the global efforts that have been sustained to fight AMR. “The report, published a year to the day that the United Nations (UN) General Assembly agreed to address the root causes of AMR and take action to tackle the problem, shows that many nations are following up on their pledge to encourage more responsible use of antimicrobials in human medicine and agriculture. Out of 151 countries recently surveyed, 85% say they are developing or have developed national action plans on AMR and 52% have a fully developed plan that addresses the One Health spectrum of human, animal, and environmental sectors.”

 Chemical & Biological Attacks: Underground Transport Restoration Project
After four years, this DHS-sponsored project is finally wrapping up their work studying the methods for chem-bio agent dispersion in subways. “Sandia National Laboratories’ engineer Bob Knowlton has worked on this challenge for a dozen years. His team has developed scientific sampling methods to determine the extent and nature of the contamination. Sampling also is essential to confirm the decontamination was effective and the site is safe to re-enter. Sandia researchers and their collaborators at other national laboratories and local, state and federal agencies have looked at everything from how to clean subway stations and grimy tunnels to where a surrogate for anthrax would go when released inside the New York City subway system and the best way to decontaminate a subway car.” Check out their findings on this project and from the 2016 large-scale testing they did in a mock subway system.

Little Island of Horrors – Vozrozhdeniya 
During height of the Soviet offensive bioweapons program, an ideal island, like Vozrozhdeniya, was the perfect place to test cutting-edge biological weapons. Present day, the island is a sad reminder of one of the largest state-sponsored bioweapons programs. “The island’s secrets have endured, partly because it isn’t the kind of place where you can just turn up. Since Vozrozhdeniya was abandoned in the 1990s, there have only been a handful of expeditions. Nick Middleton, a journalist and geographer from Oxford University, filmed a documentary there back in 2005. ‘I was aware of what went on, so we got hold of a guy who used to work for the British military and he came to give the crew a briefing about the sorts of things we might find,’ he says. ‘He scared the pants off me, to be honest’. Aerial photographs taken by the CIA in 1962 revealed that while other islands had piers and fish-packing huts, this one had a rifle range, barracks and parade ground. But that wasn’t even the half of it. There were also research buildings, animal pens and an open-air testing site. The island had been turned into a military base of the most dangerous kind: it was a bioweapons testing facility.” An isolated secret, this island was the testing ground for some of the worst pathogens. It was also chosen as a holding place for “the largest anthrax stockpile in human history” and while the cache’s location was never disclosed, the pits were visible from space, which meant that the U.S. pledge $6 million towards a clean-up project. Sadly, this isn’t a resolution as the open-air testing done on the island has surely left residual microbial burden, not to mention the burial pits of infected animals. Make sure to read about Dave Butler’s journey to this island and how even now, it still instills fear.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • China to Open BSL-4– The first certified BSL-4 lab in China will be opening this year. The research institute, located in Wuhan, represents a partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Wuhan government. “The lab is part of a 10-year-plan by the Ministry of Science and Technology that proposes to build five to seven BSL-4 laboratories by 2025 as well as one BSL-3 lab in every province. It was built with technology and equipment imported from France, and some of its future research staff have visited France for BSL-4 training. Although construction was finished in 2015, the lab has since undergone multiple assessments, Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan branch of CAS, told the Science and Technology Daily. ‘The lab will become a public platform for Chinese scientists to conduct research into dangerous viruses,’ Yuan said.”
  • Signature Science-led Team awarded $2.9M contract to develop advanced genomic computational technologies in support of IARPA’s Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats Program – “The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) awarded Signature Science, LLC a $2.9M contract for the development of new computational tools to screen DNA sequences to detect biological threats that may manifest from synthetic microbial manipulation. The challenge is to overcome the speed and precision limitations of contemporary synthetic DNA screening practices to rapidly detect and isolate a prospective threat within a segment of DNA. The research team will re-tool bio-threat detection methods, and focus detection efforts on functional genetic elements to increase analytic speed and precision, thereby dramatically improving predictive capacity to isolate the toxic gene that constitutes the threat.”
  • Medieval Plague Gives Insight Into Human Pollution History – “A recent study indicates that much less lead occurs naturally in the air than we thought—in fact, there should be almost none. Scientists measured lead trapped in an ice core from the Swiss-Italian Alps. They found that lead levels dropped dramatically only once in the past 2,000 years, during a time that coincided with the Black Death pandemic. This means that in Europe, lead levels in the air have been elevated for thousands of years. Most people think about air pollution as a problem that began with the Industrial Revolution, but we’ve been spoiling the quality of our air for a very long time. It has harmed our health throughout history, from Medieval Europe to the Roman Empire to Ancient Egypt and Peru, and continues to do so today.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 9.8.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly source for all things biodefense. Got plague? Good news – if you have some live chickens hanging around, you can try this medieval treatment.

Defense Against Biological Attacks
Biological threats come in all shapes and sizes – whether it’s an outbreak of Ebola, a biological weapon, a laboratory mishap, or even the potential for biosafety breaches following  a hurricane. Preparedness and response efforts need to be just as diverse. As Texas begins the process of rebuilding and the threat of nuclear weapons has been fresh in everyone’s mind, it is crucial we don’t forget about the importance of health security. Disease knows no borders and it’s easy to diminish the threat of it however, Laura Holgate and Elizabeth Cameron are drawing attention to the need for President Trump to prevent the next biological attack before it happens. “As Congress and the Trump administration mull a new biodefense strategy, we urge them to use this time — the time in between biological crises — to get ahead of the curve before the next major biological event inevitably comes our way.” They point to several different strategies that should to be followed – watch out for emerging threats in unstable regions, fund and renew the Global Health Security Agenda, replenish the budget to maintain global biosecurity, keep laboratory assets for attributing biological attacks, and use biosurveillance to stop outbreaks before they start. We need to take the National Bioforensics Analysis Center off the chopping block, stop slashing the biosecurity budget as programs like the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program are vital, and truly, the GHSA renewal is a no-brainer. These efforts not only defend against current threats, but work to address the next generation of bioweapons and biothreats.  Holgate and Cameron note that “We know that biological threats must remain at the top of the national security agenda, and leaders must recognize that stopping outbreaks at the source requires strong global and domestic capacity to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to naturally occurring outbreaks and biological attacks”

Health Security – Call for Papers
The Health Security journal is currently looking for papers on communication and health security: improving public health communication in response to large-scale health threats. Manuscript deadlines are October 20, 2017. “Effective communication is an essential tool in establishing an appropriate response to any large-scale health threat or disaster, such as a newly emerging infectious disease, terrorism, environmental catastrophe, or accident. Yet, public health communication is occurring in an increasingly complex world with competing messages, new platforms, and limited trust.A special feature in Health Security will be devoted to analysis of the current communication environment and efforts to effectively communicate during outbreaks of infectious diseases and other health threats. The journal seeks papers that address the wide range of policy, practice, and research issues relevant to communication in large-scale health events.” Topics might include exploration of the communication environment during recent infectious disease events or public health disasters, investigation of the role of social media and other emerging or recently emerging communication platforms, etc. Submission information can be found here.

GMU Biodefense MS – Open House on September 14th
Don’t miss out on the Master’s Open House next week for the GMU Biodefense MS program!  From 6:30-8:30pm next Thursday, September 14th, at the GMU Arlington campus, you can speak to faculty, learn about admissions, and why biodefense students have a blast while getting their graduate degrees. This is a great chance to learn about the MS program (for both online or in-person) and chat with faculty about the exciting classes and activities GMU biodefense students get to enjoy.

The Biological Weapons Convention At A Crossroad
As Robert Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Which direction will the BWC take? Bonnie Jenkins investigates the uncertain future of the BWC, its current challenges, which direction it might take, and the direction it should take. Despite its relevance and capacity to endure decades of challenges, the latest RevCon was considered a monumental disappointment and left many in a state of disagreement. “Some of the major issues that were discussed at previous meetings—but at this point have no platform for discussion at the BWC—include advances in science and technology, disease outbreak preparedness and response, and national BWC implementation. Previously-held mid-year experts’ meetings have also been dropped, so there is now no chance for the exchanges with experts from relevant international organizations, including input from the World Health Organization that has been so useful in the past. These are all steps backward.” Despite a lack of Meeting of States Parties in August, there is hope that the December meeting with work towards developing an inter-sessional work program. On top of these barriers, the BWC has funding challenges, which severely impacts the Implementation Support Unit (ISU). Against these odds, the BWC ISU continues to promote universal membership and treaty implementation. Global initiatives are also beneficial to promotion of health security and prevention of biological weapons. “When global initiatives interconnect like this, it reinforces all of the initiatives. The Global Health Security Agenda, for instance, brings over 55 countries together to strengthen countries’ capacities to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats, whether natural, deliberate, or accidental.” These efforts seek to strengthen the BWC through global health security, but there is still work to be done. Jenkins suggests three tasks are crucial to maintain BWC relevancy and sustainability: “1) Sufficient and sustained funding by states parties, to include payments now in arrears; 2) Strong leadership and a successful December MSP that reaffirms the importance of the treaty to the international community and that also develops an inter-sessional work program; and 3) A vision for developing the role of the BWC as part of a larger interconnected global security architecture.”

Using Ebola Data to Fight Future Outbreaks
Learning from past outbreaks to avoid future failures is always a tough aspect of public health however, a new strategy is using data to help stop the next outbreak of Ebola. Researchers have developed a new platform to help organize and share Ebola data that was previously scattered and unable to be utilized. This was a significant issue on the ground during the 2014/2015 outbreak, which makes this project all the more important. “The information system is coordinated by the Infectious Diseases Data Observatory (IDDO), an international research network based at the University of Oxford, UK, and is expected to launch by the end of the year. At a meeting to discuss Ebola on 7–9 September in Conakry, Guinea, the team heading the platform will seek input from West African scientists, health officials and advocacy groups.” One of the most vital components to the system is the emphasis of partnership and involvement of African collaborators. Not only will this focus encourage the use of historical data, but will also allow utilization during future outbreaks. Control of the data has also been a challenging hurdle to overcome, as there are many cooks in the kitchen. “Amuasi says that he would have liked the database to be hosted and curated in Africa, rather than in Oxford, because training and paying African researchers to manage the platform would teach them how to use the information and improve their ability to respond to future outbreaks in the region. But he adds that this seems unlikely, because it would raise the cost of the project, and the infrastructure already exists at Oxford. Merson says that a copy of the database will be maintained in West Africa, although its exact location has yet to be determined. She adds that an African committee may be in charge of deciding who gets access to the data. And she says that fellowships are likely to be made available for West African students who want to work on the database.”

The Global Health Security Agenda: Public & Private Partnerships
The Global Health Security Agenda Consortium and EcoHealth Alliance will be hosting this meeting on Thursday, September 14th at 12pm. Held at the ONE UN New York Hotel in NYC, you can catch this event with speakers like Dr. Beth Cameron from the Nuclear Threat Initiative and Admiral Tim Ziemer from the US National Security Council. Make sure to RSVP here.

Launch of International Health Regulations Costing Tool
Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science & Security is launching their new open-access IHR costing tool. “In 2016, the World Health Organization adopted the Joint External Evaluation tool (JEE) to measure country-specific progress in developing the capacities needed to prevent, detect, and respond to public health threats, as mandated under the 2007 International Health Regulations (IHR). However, national governments and development partners have struggled to accurately define the costs of strengthening and maintaining critical health security systems that often depend on multi-sectoral coordination. This poses a serious dilemma for global health security and presents a compelling opportunity to improve the drafting and implementation of practical health security policies.” A joint effort with Talus Analytics, this new tool was developed to help estimate the cost to build capacity under the IHR. You can access the tool here (you may want to use Google Chrome).

IDSA Slams Budget Cuts to AMR
Biodefense budgets aren’t the only ones to be taking a beating… The president’s FY2018 budget released in May would cut the CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance Solutions Initiate (ARSI) by 14%, as well as 23% from the NIH and NIAID, which funds research on AMR. Leaders from Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) are rallying to oppose such efforts. “In a letter published yesterday in Annals of Internal Medicine, IDSA treasurer Helen Boucher, MD, past president Barbara Murray, MD, and current president William Powderly, MD, argue that the budget cuts for public health and research proposed by the Trump administration will not only diminish the nation’s surveillance capacity and its efforts to reduce infections and promote appropriate antibiotic use, but also undercut US leadership in global efforts to tackle the AMR threat, which is responsible for more than 700,000 deaths each year globally.” The letter emphasizes that such cut would severely impact AMR efforts, which is highly worrisome and dangerous given the severity of the global AMR threat. You can read the letter here.

An Integrated Approach to Forensic Investigation of Threat Agents
In the wake of a chemical or biological event, threat analysis is a high-stakes operation that has little room for error. Determining the substance, origin, and components all make for a stressful situation that requires effective analytical methods. “Traditional analytical methods are good at confirming the presence or absence of a particular agent or substance. If a sample is believed to contain Bacillus anthracis, standard biological analysis will quickly determine whether or not this is the case. But it will not provide insight into its virulence, origin or how it might have been manipulated. And if the sample turns out to be something other than B. anthracis, it will not tell you what it actually is. An integrated approach to CB forensics provides investigators with richer information. Integrated forensics combines advanced forensic science technologies to provide more comprehensive and timely technical intelligence.” Some of these strategies include advanced genomic analysis like massively parallel sequencing and advanced chemical analysis like gas chromatography and high resolution mass spectrometry. Currently, the extraction methods for biological analysis can render the sample unusable for chemical analysis, which make analysis problematic. A new strategy from Battelle is looking to combat these discrepancies, which involves a new process to “systematically triage samples and integrate biological and chemical forensics, as well as developing and testing new technologies to help investigators more quickly identify and characterize biological agents, including new, emerging and synthetic agents, to glean more forensic information from the samples.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Zika Vaccine Efforts Slow– Sanofi recently announced they are halting work on a candidate Zika vaccine. The vaccine was a joint effort with Walter Reed Army Institute of Research however, budgetary cuts and federal efforts to scale back put the project in jeopardy. “In its Sep 1 statement, Sanofi said BARDA informed the company on Aug 17 that the agency reassessed its Zika-related projects and have decided to focus on a more limited set of goals and deliverable, and that BARDA has decided to “de-scope” its contract with Sanofi for the manufacture and clinical development of an inactivated Zika vaccine. BARDA said it would limit its funding to a case definition and surveillance study, as well as any activities needed to pause work on the vaccine until an epidemic re-emerges. As a result, Sanofi said it doesn’t intend to continue developing or seek a license from WRAIR for the Zika vaccine candidate.”
  • Australia Battles Influenza – As Australia experiences a particularly harsh flu season, many are wondering what this will mean for Europe and North America.”In general, we get in our season what the Southern Hemisphere got in the season immediately preceding us,” Fauci said. An “intelligent guess,” therefore, is that the north will probably have a bad flu season. “With influenza, it is never 100%,” he said. “So when you talk about influenza, almost nothing is absolutely precision,” Fauci said. “In general, one can say we usually see here what they see there in their season.” Schaffner agrees: “There’s not a one-to-one correlation.” Still, hearing about Australia’s high number of flu cases, he said, “I started to tighten my belt.”

Pandora Report 9.1.2017

Craving some satyrical genome editing? Check out the Onion’s pros and cons list on this biotechnology.

The De Novo Synthesis of Horsepox Virus: Implications for Biosecurity and Recommendations for Preventing the Reemergence of Smallpox 

The recent de novo synthesis of horsepox by Canadian researchers has raised concern and spurred serious conversations about the future of orthopoxviruses, like smallpox, and the dual-use research that could bring them back. GMU biodefense associate professor and graduate program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz evaluates this horsepox experiment and what it means for biosecurity and efforts to prevent the reemergence of smallpox. Koblentz notes that this experiment represents a significant crossroads within the field of biosecurity and that the techniques for synthesis of such viruses are increasingly reducing barriers to potential misuse. Unleashing smallpox back into the world would be a global disaster as most of the world is no longer immune. Koblentz points out that “The threat of smallpox has been held at bay for the past 40 years by 2 conditions: the extreme difficulty of acquiring the virus and the availability of effective medical countermeasures. Synthetic biology is on the brink of erasing both of these formidable barriers to the reemergence of smallpox as a global health threat.” He highlights the limited and rather lackluster legal and technical safeguards against smallpox synthesis and that the increasing normalization and globalization of it will likely create a boom of researchers performing such experiments. Think of the gold rush, but rather the orthopoxvirus syntehesis rush. As orthopoxviruses, are being used to develop new vaccines and oncolytic medical treatments, its popularity and wider range of applications carries with it inherent risks that should be considered. “The combination of rising demand and increasing supply could lead to the global diffusion of the capability and expertise to create orthopoxviruses de novo as well as modify these synthetic viruses. With this diffusion will come an increased risk that scientists, acting on their own volition or on behalf of a terrorist group, might misuse their know-how to create variola virus, or that governments could use civilian biomedical research with synthetic orthopoxviruses as a cover for offensive applications. The release of the smallpox virus— whether due to a biosafety failure, a breach in biosecurity, or an act of biological warfare—would be a global health disaster.” Koblentz draws attention to the challenges that the normalization and globalization of orthopoxvirus synthesis poses to national and international systems working to ensure life sciences research is safely conducted. He points out that there is no clear international legal framework to prevent the synthesis of the variola virus, few comphresensive legal safeguards, and that the private DNA industry (the main supplier of large synthetic DNA fragments) has inconsistent regulatory interventions. With these concerns, Koblentz suggests several recommendations to prevent the return of smallpox, ranging from the WHO’s World Health Assembly (WHA) passing a resolution to enshrine the WHO’s Advisory Committee on Variola Research (ACVVR) recommendations on the handling and synthesis of variola virus DNA into international law, to efforts within the DNA synthesis industry to declare a temporary moratorium on the synthesis of orthopoxvirus DNA fragments until effective WHO oversight can be established. Overall, Koblentz points to the importance of this experiment in terms of how such work is performed and the lack of informed debate surrounding the dual-use nature prior to the start of research. He emphasizes  “the risks posed by the routine and widespread synthesis of orthopoxviruses that could lead to the creation of a widely distributed network of laboratories and scientists capable of producing infectious variola virus from synthetic DNA.”

GMU Biodefense Master’s Open House – September 14th
We’re two weeks away from the first Master’s Open House and you won’t want to miss the chance to learn about GMU’s biodefense MS program. From 6:30-8:30pm on Thursday, September 14th, at the GMU Arlington campus, you can speak to faculty, learn about admissions, and why biodefense students have a blast while getting their graduate degrees. From Anthrax to Zika, we’ve got the place for all things biodefense.

Stanford’s New Biosecurity Initiative  

Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) just announced their new biosecurity initiative, the Stanford Biosecurity Initiative, which will be led by David Relman and Megan Palmer. “Relman said the biosecurity initiative will seek to advance the beneficial applications of the life sciences while reducing the risks of misuse by promoting research, education and policy outreach in biological security. His CISAC leadership gives him the know-how to lead such a wide-ranging effort across diverse disciplines and communities,”. Palmer is a senior research scholar at Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and leads research on risk governance in emerging technology development and is an all around biotechnology guru. The biosecurity initiative also includes key Stanford partnerships and expertise within the fields of life sciences, engineering, law, and policy. Palmer noted that, “Stanford has an opportunity and imperative to advance security strategies for biological science and technology in a global age. Our faculty bring together expertise in areas including technology, policy, and ethics, and are deeply engaged in shaping future of biotechnology policy and practices.” We look forward to seeing the amazing work this new initiative will accomplish!                                                                                         

NAS Symposium on Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) for the Next Ten Years and Beyond
Don’t miss out on this September 18-19 event at the Keck Center. “In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report Global Security Engagement: A New Model for Cooperative Threat Reduction concluded that expanding and updating U.S. Government Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs in both form and function would enhance U.S. national security and global stability. The NAS Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) is convening a symposium to examine how CTR has evolved since that time and to consider new approaches for CTR programs and related WMD elimination efforts to increase their ability to enhance U.S. security. Speakers will include Amb. Laura Holgate, former U.S. Representative to the Vienna Office of the UN and IAEA, Amb. Ronald Lehman, Counselor to the Director of LLNL, William Tobey, former Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at NNSA, Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, and other key thinkers and practitioners from CTR programs as well as experts from outside of CTR implementing agencies who have experience addressing complex international security problems. The symposium is sponsored by the Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (PASCC) in the Naval Postgraduate School and will be open to the public. A ‘meeting in brief’ document will be issued by NAS after the symposium.”

International Biosecurity Fellows Reflect on SB7.0
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently partnered with Stanford’s Drew Endy to bring 32 emerging biosecurity leaders together for a fellowship program to attend the 7th International Meeting on Synthetic Biology (SB7.0) in Singapore. “In addition to attending the conference, fellows had the opportunity to engage with practicing experts and to discuss—with peers and senior scientists and government officials—biosecurity as it relates to synthetic biology. The fellows represented 19 countries on 6 continents and professions in the public and private sectors, the nonprofit space, and academia. The fellowship program was sponsored by the Open Philanthropy Project, hosted by Endy, and coordinated by the Center, BioBricks Foundation, and SynBioBeta. Center staffers Crystal Watson, DrPH, MPH, senior associate, and Matt Watson, senior analyst, organized the fellowship discussions and events and joined the fellows in Singapore for the 4-day experience. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, PhD, a senior associate at the Center and author of Synthetic Biology: Safety, Security, and Promise, spoke at SB7.0 and helped lead the fellowship’s panel discussions along with Watson and Watson.” Don’t miss out on GMU Biodefense PhD student Yong-Bee Lim’s reflection on page 39. Lim comments on the unique insight that comes from researchers with a non-technical background who still focus on the biosecurity, biosafety, and governance of emerging biotechnologies. “However, the enthusiasm of the technical conference attendees and fellows that I met about the advancements in synthetic biology was infectious. Whether Christina Smolke was talking about leveraging yeast to produce opioids to address medical access inequities, Kate Adamala was discussing synthetic cells as an alternative for research purposes, or Dorothee Krafft explained how her lab was seeking to synthesize a simple cell with alternate building blocks, their passion for their work came through. This allowed me the rare opportunity to enjoy the possibilities of these new avenues of innovation.” Don’t miss out on his tales of confiscated beef jerky and how there’s often a disparage between the science and security communities.

Building Airborne Isolation Units During Emergent Times  & Why the CDC Quarantined Potentially Defective Equipment
GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is taking a deep-dive into faulty PPE and hospital preparedness efforts that might just save us during an airborne outbreak. Popescu first looks at the recent CDC actions to pull defective PPE from the SNS. “The special focused on personal protective equipment (PPE) that was being stockpiled by the CDC for use against future outbreaks or public health emergencies, such as treating an influx of Ebola patients during an outbreak. The 60 Minutes investigative team filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain documents regarding MicroCool gowns that are part of the US Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). The filing of the Freedom of Information Act request is especially prudent as a group of hospitals were recently awarded $454 million in damages from PPE manufacturers Kimberly-Clark and Halyard Health (formerly a division of Kimberly-Clark) after a jury found they were liable for fraud and defects within the MicroCool gowns.” While these gowns were advertised as meeting standards for the highest level of impermeability, their efficacy is clearly in question. Many are concerned about the existing stockpiles hospitals have been holding onto since the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and if such PPE is still effective. Popescu also takes a look into a recent study that evaluated the potential for hospitals to readily and cheaply convert entire wings into negative-pressure, airborne isolation units. Such a measure would be necessary if there was an influx of infectious patients with SARS, MERS, or another disease that requires airborne isolation, as most hospitals have limited amounts of negative-pressure rooms. “Following their analysis, the team found that they were able to maintain negative pressure that was actually higher than the CDC recommendations for airborne isolation and there was no pressure reversal during the entering and exiting of the ward by medical staff. They did find that ‘pressures within the ward changed, with some rooms becoming neutrally or slightly positively pressured’, which means that healthcare staff would need to wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times in the unit and not just while in the patient rooms.” While this isn’t a permanent response measure, it does show proof of concept that would allow safer hospitalization for infectious patients during an airborne outbreak.

Stem Cells, Smallpox Vaccines, and FDA Crackdowns 
Earlier this week, the FDA announced it was taking action to shut down clinics that were advertising and performing unproven stem cell therapies. Clinics in California and Florida have received warning letters and the StemImmune Inc, clinic in San Diego, CA, received a visit from U.S. Marshals, who seized five vials of smallpox vaccine. “The FDA says it learned that StemImmune was using the vaccines as well as stem cells from body fat to create an unapproved stem cell therapy. On its website, StemImmune says ‘The patient’s own (autologous, adult) stem cells, armed with potent anti-cancer payloads, function like a ‘Trojan Horse,’ homing to tumors and cancer cells, undetected by the immune system’.” These clinics have been using stem cell treatments for patients suffering from Parkinson’s, ALS, COPD, heart disease, and pulmonary fibrosis. “Action by the FDA on clinics promoting unproven stem cell therapies is ‘a long time coming,’ says Sean Morrison, former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) and d irector of the Children’s Research Institute at UT Southwestern.”

Hurricane Harvey – Harbinger of Infectious Disease?
As hospitals are forced to evacuate patients and medical centers become overwhelmed, the George R. Brown Convention Center has become the city’s largest emergency shelter. It’s always challenging though, meeting the medical demands of so many people in an emergent environment. As providers work to meet basic medical needs there is another concern that bubbles up with an influx of people into a small environment…disease. Floodwater injuries are of course a concern, but we also worry about infectious diseases associated with overrun sewage systems, lack of potable water and safe food, and the existence of mega-shelters that are ripe for transmission of respiratory and diarrheal illness. That’s not even considering the potential for nasty resistant infections like MRSA, VRE, etc. Did I mention mosquitoes? “Based on experience following Hurricane Katrina, there will be several competing effects on the population of mosquitoes and the prevalence of arboviruses, such as Zika, dengue and West Nile, that they transmit. Mosquitoes need stagnant water to lay eggs. Winds and floods will wash away containers that would have been breeding pools, said Hayden, who studies weather and vector-borne disease. In the immediate future, both Hayden and Hotez anticipate that local mosquito populations will decline. But once the floodwaters recede, mosquitoes will recover. In 2006, a year after Katrina, Tulane University public-health experts reported that cases of West Nile infection increased more than twofold in communities that had been in that hurricane’s path. The study authors suggested that increased exposure was the culprit. Fleeing partially submerged buildings, people spent days outside waiting for rescue.” Sadly, it will take years to recover and rebuilding Houston after Harvey, and there are lessons we can apply from not only Harvey, but also Hurricane Sandy, towards future preparedness and response efforts. Matt Watson and Eric Toner from the Center for Health Security are drawing attention to the need for Congress to start gearing up for the health impacts following Harvey.  “Stepping back from the operational response, it’s important to recognize that Congress has a vital role to play in both preparing for and enabling recovery following large scale disasters. On the recovery front, it will be important for lawmakers to pass an emergency appropriation that provides emergency funding. It is critical that Congress reverse that trend and continue to support annual appropriations for hospital and public health preparedness so that the nation is able to respond to increasingly frequent natural disasters and other large-scale emergencies.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Distinguishing Virulent from Harmless Bacteria to Improve Biosurveillance- “Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory are working to eliminate false positives in detection of Francisella bacteria, a few species of which include highly virulent human and animal pathogens. The effort contributes to more efficient and effective biological surveillance, such as that conducted by the US Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, which provides early warning of infectious disease outbreaks, hazardous environmental exposures, or possible bioterrorist attacks by spotting trends of public health importance.”
  • Deadly Strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae Found In China– Chinese researchers are reporting a highly virulent, resistant, and deadly strain of the bacteria in five patients at a hospital in Hangzhou, China. “All five patients—who were admitted to the ICU between late February and April of 2016—had undergone surgery for multiple trauma followed by ventilation and subsequently developed carbapenem-resistant K pneumoniae infections and severe pneumonia that responded poorly to all available antibiotics. All five patients died of severe lung infection, multi-organ failure, or septic shock.”

 

Pandora Report 8.25.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense. Have you ever wanted to take a tour of Dugway Proving Ground? Here’s your chance at a virtual tour through some amazing photography.

GMU Biodefense Graduate Programs & Information Sessions
Classes are just starting up and if you’ve ever wanted to take classes on synthetic biology and biosecurity, global health security policy, nonproliferation and arms control, biosurveillance, or emerging infectious diseases, we’ve got just the program for you! GMU offers both Masters and PhD programs in biodefense and has several informational sessions coming soon. Our program provides the perfect intersection of policy and science with courses taught by a range experts. If your time is limited or distance is a problem, we also offer an online MS program, which means you can study biodefense from anywhere!

Revisiting NIH Biosafety Guidelines
It’s been forty years since NIH established the Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant or Synthetic Nucleic Acid Molecules to assess the risks of genome editing. Now more than ever, with the speed of biotech development, it is relevant to take a moment and look back at the significance of such guidelines. “Responsibilities include setting up Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) to assess risks and potential hazards through standards for containment and laboratory practices. Noncompliance on any project, whatever the funding source, can result in loss of all such NIH funding. In his address to the workshop.” Since its inception, there have been several advances in the field, like DIY gene editing and CRISPR, which may require changes to the existing guidelines. “And conventional risk management practices that focus on listed pathogens may underestimate risks of new, unlisted organisms. The informality of voluntary guidelines has enabled prompt responses by funders and researchers to emerging evidence on benefits and risks of technologies. But what has worked with those receiving NIH funding with IBCs may not work with the wider range of actors who now have access to these technologies.” How can the NIH meet these challenges with a forty-year-old set of rules? A few things might help it maintain relevancy- participation in international forums, facilitating researchers/publishers/insurers to set common benchmarks on researcher conduct, engage more with institutional biosafety officials, and working to ensure there are more IBCs. Overall, there is a need to modernize the guidelines to better meet and serve the expanding plain of the life sciences.

Revisiting Compliance in the Biological Weapons Convention                                                                       Have you noticed a trend this week? Revisiting is the name of the game and that’s just what the latest occasional paper from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey is doing. The latest RevCon was a dud and the future of the BWC and its relevance is being tested. James Revill is looking at compliance and an incremental approach within the BWC. Revill notes that “compliance with the BWC is more than a simple binary choice to sign a commitment not to develop or produce biological weapons. It requires the adherence to all the obligations, both negative and positive, undertaken by BWC states parties in signing and ratifying the convention. In the BWC context, this is complicated by the ambiguity surrounding certain obligations, changes in science and security, and the limited resource capacity of some states to fulfill their obligations. Under such circumstances, without episodically revisiting compliance, there remains the risk that BWC will become ever more fragmented, outmoded and poorly implemented.” He emphasizes that despite many pushing for multilaterally negotiated, legally binding verification protocols, this is an unlikely outcome. An incremental approach to revisiting compliance, Revill suggests, could incorporate several activities – review relevant science and technology, enhance the collection and analysis of compliance indicators, develop the consultative mechanism, building the provision of assistance in the event of a violation of the BWC, explore voluntary visits, enhance the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism, and remedy the institutional deficient. Overall, he points to the wavering nature of norms against bioweapons and that “without revisiting compliance and tending the convention, there is a risk that the regime will be left to fester and fragment, in time potentially diminishing the norms against biological weapons.”

Meeting on the Attribution of Biological Crime, Terrorism, and Warfare
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense will be hosting this October 3rd meeting in Washington D.C. “Effective prosecution and decisions regarding U.S. response depend on accurate attribution of biological attacks. Despite ongoing biological crimes and suspected development of biological weapons for the purpose of attacking the Nation, the United States has yet to establish this capability fully. The Study Panel will host a special focus meeting entitled Biological Attribution: Challenges and Solutions. This meeting of the Study Panel, chaired by former Homeland Security Advisor Ken Wainstein and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, will provide federal government, industry, and academic representatives with the opportunity to discuss their perspectives, experiences, challenges, and recommended solutions with regard to biological attribution.” Stay tuned for more details!

SynBio Salmagundi: Proposed Framework for Identifying Potential Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology – Report, SB7.0 & Options for Synthetic DNA Screening 
It’s a good day to get your synbio nerdom on with this potpourri of news! If you missed the webinar on Tuesday, you can now access the latest NAS interim report regarding the biodefense implications of synthetic biology. “Synthetic biology and related biotechnologies hold great promise for addressing challenges in human health, agriculture, and other realms. At the same time, synthetic biology raises concerns about possible malicious uses that might threaten human health or national security. This interim report is the first phase of a study by the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine to assess potential vulnerabilities. The report proposes a strategic framework that can be used to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern.” Within the report you can find definitions and study scope regarding synthetic biology in the context of biodefense, factors to assess capability for malicious use, technologies and applications to assess, and framework approach (parameters to consider, use and limitations, etc.). Check out this latest article regarding the screening processes of for synthetic DNA ordering. Sure, there are current screening processes (providers affiliated with the International Gene Synthesis Consortium voluntarily screen double-stranded DNA synthesis orders over 200bp to check for regulated pathogens and additional customer screening), but truly, the processes isn’t that easy…or cheap. Researchers, like Gigi Kwik Gronvall, pointed out actions that could help “preserve the effectiveness of DNA order screening as a security tool and develop additional mechanisms to increase the safety and security of DNA synthesis technologies.” Highlighting the DHHS screening guidance as quickly becoming obsolete, they emphasized options like including direct financial support to companies for screening, especially as we look to the future costs and responsibilities of the U.S. government. “The screening of dsDNA orders is not a panacea for biosecurity concerns: it is possible for nefarious actors to work around the screening. However, we believe that screening dsDNA orders still raises barriers to the development of biological weapons and may offer some protection against biosafety concerns.” The future of synthetic DNA ordering will surely be debated as experiments, like the recent horsepox reconstitution, bring to light new gaps. One such focus onto the realm of biosecurity and synthetic biology comes from Dr. Eric van der Helm, who participated at the latest SB7.0 synthetic biology conference. Van der Helm attended as part of the SB7.0 biosecurity fellowship and has highlighted some of the biorisks we worry about. He also points to the latest horsepox experiment which brought about so much attention to the biosecurity implications of reconstituting an extinct virus. “Synthetic biology has only been recently recognized as a mature subject in the context of biological risk assessment — and the core focus has been infectious diseases. The main idea, to build resilience and a readiness to respond, was reiterated by several speakers at the SB7.0 conference.  In the case of biosecurity, we’re already dependent on biology [with respect to food, health etc.] but we still have an opportunity to develop biosecurity strategies before synthetic biology is ubiquitous.  There is still an opportunity to act now and put norms and practices in place because the community is still relatively small.” Van der Helm emphasizes the need to have these conversations regarding biosecurity measures and synbio, like those at SB7.0, more frequently and openly.

North Korea’s Bioweapon Program: What do we actually know?
If you haven’t gotten enough on discussions regarding North Korea’s bioweapons program, check out GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley‘s latest interview in which she discusses what we know and what we might be missing. What a perfect way to enjoy the morning commute or a lunch break!

Post-Ebola Recovery – An Upside to an Epidemic
A recent mudslide in Sierra Leone is revealing a positive outcome from the 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak – sustained disaster response. Shortly after the mudslide, emergency response crews were already working alongside volunteers to help rescue victims. Sidi Tunis chatted with Buzzfeed, noting that “During Ebola we had a lot of community engagement, so they knew how to be first responders. They knew how to do search and rescues, they knew how to convey corpses safely to the morgue.” Many of the young men digging through rubble were already experienced, having helped with Ebola burial teams and the ambulance system was better equipped and supported as a result of the outbreak. “There was a lesson learnt from Ebola that instead of creating parallel system of NGOs, let’s take leadership from the start,” she said. “So this time it’s been led by the government from the onset, and having them take that ownership is more of a sustainable system.” “Still, NGOs playing a critical role are in a better position than they might typically have been. Three days after the mudslide, unclaimed bodies piling up in Freetown’s main mortuary posed another health risk. There were so many that they began to decompose in the tropical heat, prompting the government to order mass burials over the following two days. Workers from UNICEF were among those who helped scrub out the morgue during a massive clean-up operation that followed. ‘That needed a lot of infection prevention equipment – gloves, boots, aprons,’ James said. ‘UNICEF had emergency stock ready to go from Ebola’.”

Meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
Don’t miss out on this September 13th and 14th meeting in which the “Advisory Council will provide advice, information, and recommendations to the Secretary regarding programs and policies intended to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics by optimizing their use; advance research to develop improved methods for combating antibiotic resistance and conducting antibiotic stewardship; strengthen surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; prevent the transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; advance the development of rapid point-of-care and agricultural diagnostics; further research Start Printed Page 38913on new treatments for bacterial infections; develop alternatives to antibiotics for agricultural purposes; maximize the dissemination of up-to-date information on the appropriate and proper use of antibiotics to the general public and human and animal healthcare providers; and improve international coordination of efforts to combat antibiotic resistance.” The meeting will be held at the DHHS Hubert Humphrey Building or you can attend online here.

Pandemic Readiness (Hint: We’re Not There Yet)
Despite funding for the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) and an increase in funding to the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program (PHEP), many are pointing out that these programs are chronically underfunded to begin with. “This House bill also does little to create a realistic public health emergency response fund, a standing pot of money to meet the immediate needs of a public health crisis. We saw how long it took to get emergency funds to respond to Zika, Ebola and Hurricane Sandy, with each event taking longer and longer to help these communities respond to devastating disasters.” You can also check out this latest meeting with Judy Woodruff and Liberian-born Dr. Raj Panjabi at Spotlight Health. Dr. Panjabi discusses the seriousness of infectious disease threats and the challenges of pandemic prevention.

Forecasting Outbreaks One Image at a Time
Tracking infectious diseases is a tough job and requires a lot of boots on the ground (shout out to gumshoe epidemiologists who go door to door doing contact tracing). Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been using computer modeling for a while to track disease movement, but a new partnership with Descartes Labs, is bringing high-resolution satellite imagery into the arsenal. “By mapping where high-moisture areas intersect with those social media signals and clinical surveillance data, we can help identify areas at risk for disease emergence and subsequently predict its potential path. Descartes Labs collects data daily from public and commercial imagery providers, aggregating the images into a single database. Our team at Los Alamos will use the Descartes Labs Platform to correlate satellite imagery with multiyear clinical surveillance data from approximately 5,500 Brazilian municipalities for mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, and Zika in order to better understand how they spread.” This new imagery will allow Los Alamos Lab researchers to focus on specific neighborhoods and other small geographical areas. By using retrospective analysis via historical data, they’ll make sure the mathematical models are accurate and ensure that future models are truly capable of prediction.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Munich Re Signs Strategic Agreement With Metabiota to Enhance Insurability Against Epidemic Losses – The risk analytics firm Metabiota has announced a strategic agreement with Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurers, to better establish insurability “by protecting companies and local economies from the financial loss related to epidemics. This really is the next frontier for the insurance industry – given the high risk of infectious disease outbreaks, it is imperative that we find new ways to manage and finance these risks for our customers.” Metabiota’s newest platform is a modeling method for estimating epidemic preparedness and risk, as well as the cost and severity of outbreaks by using historical data and disease scenarios and analytics.
  • Ebola Survivors Plagued With Long-term Disabilities – Imagine becoming infected with one of the most deadly viruses on the planet. Now, imagine by some stroke of luck and medical marvel, you’re able to survive. After the long, miserable road that is Ebola infection, survivors have been finding themselves with chronic conditions and high rates of disabilities. A new study found that Ebola survivors have seven times the disability rate compared to their close contacts. “In the first study, researchers followed 27 Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone for 1 year after diagnosis and found they were seven times more likely than their close contacts to report a disability. Almost 80% of the survivors (77.8%) reported a disability 1 year post-infection, compared with 11.1% of their close contacts. Disabilities included major limitations in vision, mobility, and cognition. ‘This study has demonstrated that a year following acute disease, survivors of the recent EVD outbreak have higher odds of persisting disability in mobility, vision, and cognition,’ the authors concluded. ‘Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression persist in EVD survivors and must not be neglected’.”
  • Minnesota Measles Woes & Anti-vaxxers– The benefits of vaccines have been under fire from anti-vaccine activists, despite the overwhelming good they’ve done for the world. While Minnesota continues to battle their worst outbreak of measles in decades, the antivaxxers are becoming energized in their efforts. “In Facebook group discussions, local activists have asked about holding ‘measles parties’ to expose unvaccinated children to others infected with the virus so they can contract the disease and acquire immunity.” The initial cases of this outbreak were in the Somali American community, which are believed to be the result of anti-vaccine activists speaking to community members and instilling fears and concerns. “Despite the anti-vaccine drumbeat, Minnesota’s Somali American community has begun to push back, according to some health-care providers. As part of an unprecedented collaboration clinicians and public health officials launched this summer, ­Somali American imams are urging families to protect their children by getting the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.”