Pandora Report 8.5.2016

August is here and so are the Zika cases…it does seems rather ominous that the Rio Olympics are starting a week after the confirmation of locally-acquired U.S. cases of Zika virus. Despite the outbreak and the concerns over water safety, the games must go on?

Syria Chemical Weapons Attack
Two chemical attacks were reported earlier this week in northern Syria. The first attack occurred in the city of Saraqeb, where chlorine gas-filled cylinders were dropped in a residential area. Russia has already begun denying any role in the attack and while officials haven’t formally called the Saraqeb incident a “chemical attack”, the evidence is mounting. “Evidence points to the Assad regime because the attack came from the sky and the opposition doesn’t have any aircraft, the source added. In the second alleged incident, the Syrian government claimed that ‘terrorist groups’ carried out a gas attack that killed five people in the old town of the besieged city of Aleppo on Tuesday afternoon, according to the state-run news agency SANA.” The second attack caused the death of five individuals and is considered a counteroffensive from Syrian regime forces and Russian allies. A physician tending to victims injured in Saraqeb noted that their symptoms are consistent with those of chlorine poisoning. On Wednesday, the Russian military informed the U.S. that “rebel forces were responsible” for the attacks.

Russia’s Frozen Anthrax Problem
Over ninety people are currently under healthcare observation and surveillance in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Siberia, related to an outbreak of anthrax. Eight cases have been confirmed and a young boy died on Monday from the outbreak that is believed to be associated with an infected reindeer carcass. While anthrax is a  naturally occurring bacteria in the soil and can be endemic in certain regions, the heatwave in Siberia is believed to have caused a decades-old reindeer carcass to become exposed. As a result of the exposure, thousands of reindeer have also been infected and officials are investigating the release of the anthrax spores into the environment from the carcass that was found in the 75-year-old permafrost. Siberia’s Governor, Dmitry Kobylkin, has declared a state of emergency and specialists from the Russian Chemical, Radioactive, and Biological Protection Corps have been called into assist with outbreak control and disposal of infected animals. A mass veterinary vaccination program is also underway to protect animals in northern Russia.

Spillover Special & Human Economic Activity
Wednesday night saw the premiere of the PBS documentary, Spillover, which focused on the impact and rise of zoonotic diseases. Given the recent Ebola outbreak and news of locally-acquired Zika virus cases, this documentary comes at an precarious time. Aside from a few dramatic moments, the documentary was both informative and visually captivating. It was refreshing to see the One Health approach to outbreaks within a documentary. The filmmakers appeared to have taken great care to present the complexity of the spillover process and the importance of global surveillance and the shock humans have on the environment. Between the documentary and Sonia Shah’s new article, the impact of human activity on microbes is becoming a much more prevalent and unavoidable topic. Shah points to an increasingly globalized economy and the glaring reality that sick people do in fact get on airplanes and spread their germs, These are the obvious points in the transmission chain though and she notes that we tend to forget the role of foreclosed homes, imported tires, and decorative bamboo as factors in disease transmission. “Today, abandoned properties and deteriorating infrastructure, brought on by housing crises and climate change, similarly threaten us with epidemics of mosquito-borne pathogens such as Zika.” Shah also points to the need to assess the public health implications of our “built environment the way we assess the environmental impact- before construction begins.” While we consider our carbon footprint, are we considering our epidemic one too?

UK’s HIV Gamechange with PrEP
A recent high court ruling that NHS England can pay for PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is being marked as a victory for HIV/AIDS campaigners in the UK. PrEP is a medication that can be taken daily to help people, who are at a very high risk of contracting HIV, lower their chances of infection. According to the CDC, “A combination of two HIV medicines (tenofovir and emtricitabine), sold under the name Truvada, is approved for daily use as PrEP to help prevent an HIV-negative person from getting HIV from a sexual or injection-drug-using partner who’s positive. Studies have shown that PrEP is highly effective for preventing HIV if it is used as prescribed. PrEP is much less effective when it is not taken consistently.” The court ruling is especially important as it will not only put pressure on pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of the drug, but will now be available through the National Health Services (NHS), meaning that it will be widely available and accessible to a far wider range of people. “Condoms are cheap, but among some high-risk populations they are not used consistently. About 4,000 more people acquire HIV in the UK every year. The average cost of a lifetime of treating each one is put at about £360,000. The National Aids Trust brought the high court case following anger and consternation among campaigners after NHS England said it would not fund PrEP because it did not have the power to do so. It argued that it was the role of local authorities, which have been given control of public health measures including reducing smoking and family planning, as well as HIV prevention. Local authorities said they did not have the money to pay.” Accessible HIV prophylaxis is a huge step in prevention and despite the plans of NHS to appeal the decision, they are still putting aside funds for the cost of the medication.

Biodefense in Gaming Courtesy of Pandemic Inc game
Since we’re still reeling from the loss of prime-time contagion drama, nuclear systems engineer and aspiring biodefense wonk, Greg Witt, is helping us through this dark time via the enjoyable but inaccurate world of biodefense in gaming. Greg’s review of several popular video and board games will give you some great options for your next gaming adventure. “With pathogens like Zika, Ebola, and West Nile now household names, biodefense has rarely been more culturally relevant. Depictions of biodefense topics in popular culture are not limited to traditional media, though; numerous video games and board games have been released in the past few years in which biodefense plays an important role.” Discussing video games like Tom Clancy’s The Division and its underlying premise that is almost identical to Operation Dark Winter, to two of my personal favorites – Plague Inc. and Pandemic, Greg gives a tour through the minefield of biodefense gaming. Rest assured though, he points to the scientific failures and epidemiological snafus that plague these games, but do not ultimately deter our enjoyment while bringing biodefense to the general public.

Zika Updates 
Following last week’s news regarding a growing number of locally acquired cases in Florida, it was also reported that 41 U.S. military members have contracted Zika. “All cases were transmitted while abroad and one of the military service members is a pregnant female. Under Pentagon health policies, female service members are permitted to move out of countries where Zika exists.” Here’s a helpful little field guide for identifying the mosquitoes that are known to transmit Zika. A new model used by researchers from Northeastern University is pointing to a vastly underestimated amount of Zika in the U.S. They note that there is probably “way more Zika in the U.S. than has been counted”. Case counts are especially challenging in a disease that leaves many asymptomatic and unlikely to be tested. In response to the growing number of locally-acquired cases (currently at 14 cases) in Miami-Dade County, there will be aerial spraying for mosquito control.  The CDC has reported 1,825 total Zika infections in the U.S. as of August 3rd and has issued a travel warning for the Miami area. President Obama also pleaded with Congress to “do its job” and approve funding to fight the growing outbreak. Donald Trump was also recently asked about how he would handle the outbreak, noting that Florida Governor, Rick Scott, “seems to have it under control”. 

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • In Memoriam of Dr. Roger Gerrard Breeze– Dr. Breeze, a preeminent veterinary research scientist and biosecurity expert passed away in late June in Washington, D.C. We are grateful to have had Dr. Breeze as a professor for GMU’s agroterrorism courses and his contribution to the field of genetic engineering and molecular biology. “Dr. Breeze was a Member of the UK Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and a member of the U.S. National Academies – Institute of Medicine’s Forum on Microbial Threats and National Academies – Committee on Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures. For the past decade, Roger served as an advisor on biosecurity and biological/chemical weapons nonproliferation issues to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.”
  • GMU Biodefense PhD Awarded FAA Graduate Research Grant– Biodefense PhD student, Nereyda Sevilla, was recently awarded a grant from the FAA for her dissertation; Germs on a Plane: The Transmission and Risks of Airplane-Borne Diseases. The Graduate Research Award Program on Public-Sector Aviation Issues is a joint sponsorship from the Federal Aviation Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation and administered by the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) of the Transportation Research Board/National Academies. You can read more about Nereyda’s work with the surveillance tool, Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeler (STEM), here.

 

Pandora Report 3.11.2016

TGIF! We’ve got loads of global health security updates to keep you busy why you enjoy the warm spring weather. American special forces recently captured the chief ISIS chemical weapons engineer and you may want to avoid Wonderful Co. pistachios for a bit as they’re being linked to a salmonella outbreak.

The Smallpox Battlegrounds – Laboratories and Virtual RealityScreen Shot 2016-03-07 at 10.49.30 AM
Video game fans will be excited to hear about the new Tom Clancy game, The Division, released on March 8th. This isn’t your normal action-packed video game, but rather it has something more sinister about its premiseThe Division focusses on a biochem attack involving a take over by a group called the Strategic Homeland Division aka “The Division”. The Division is compromised of sleeper agents that “act independently in the interest of restoring order after a mass event”. Now here’s where it gets spooky, the game’s premise involves a scenario that may give deja vu to many in the biodefense world- Operation Dark Winter. Operation Dark Winter was a June 2001 exercise/senior-level war game put on by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The scenario focussed on the impact and response of a smallpox outbreak coupled with tensions in the Taiwan Straits and additional crises. In a nutshell, the scenario found that “current organizational structures and capabilities are not well suited for the management of a BW attack”, media management would be challenging for the government, containment and infection prevention would present several issues, and we’d pretty much be in a whirlwind of trouble. If you’re more of a purest and The Division doesn’t appeal to you, there’s also The Collapse, which is an internet-based game that lets you simulate a smallpox outbreak. Unlike other games where the player designs the outbreak, this one is from the viewpoint of the patient. You’re patient zero with a weaponized strain of smallpox and your decisions carry with them a world of outcomes involving the spread of the disease and rate of infection. I spent some time playing The Collapse (starting at GMU for sheer irony) and found it to be very detail oriented and enjoyed the decision making components like which pharmacy I would go to, my travel destination, etc. If you’re not much of a gamer, here’s the recent WHO report on the deliberations regarding the destruction of variola virus stocks. To destroy smallpox or not to destroy smallpox, that is the question.

GMU Course Sampler & Open Houses
Looking to study and work with people that share your love of biodefense? Come check out our March 23rd GMU SPGIA Open House at 6:30pm, in Founders Hall, room 126 at our Arlington Campus! Not only will you be able to chat biodefense, but we’ll have an informational session afterward (7pm) with Dr. Koblentz (you can check out the 2/25 one here). Each session allows us to discuss global health security and answer questions related to our program and the growing field of biodefense. Can’t attend in person? Enjoy our 3/23 biodefense breakout session virtually! If you happened to miss our biodefense course sampler from 3/2, check out the recording from Dr. Koblentz’s talk on Biosecurity as a Wicked Problem.

Chinese Admission of False Korean War Allegations Involving US BW Use
Biodefense expert, Milton Leitenberg, discusses the allegations by North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, that the US used bioweapons during the Korean War. While the Soviet Central Committee declared the allegations fraudulent in 1998, China and North Korea continued to maintain that bioweapons were used. The recent publication by Wu Zhili (previously the director of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army Health Division during the Korean War) refutes these claims. Published posthumously, Wu’s testimonial is critical in dismantling the claims as he was “critically involved in the Chinese government’s manipulations that produced the Korean War BW allegations.” The initial allegations claimed that the US was testing bioweapons (specifically plague) on native Inuit peoples of Alaska and then was spreading smallpox in North Korea between December 1950- January 1951. The major allegation campaign began on February 22, 1952 though, as “the North Korean Foreign Minister again issued an official statement addressed to the United Nations Secretariat, charging that in January and February the US had made multiple air drops over North Korea, littering the earth with insects infected with the microorganisms that caused plague, cholera, and other diseases.” Leitenberg discusses these allegations and the Soviet admission of being “misled” and their claims that “the accusations against the Americans were fictitious…Soviet workers responsible for participation in the fabrication of the so-called ‘proof’ of the use of bacteriological weapons will receive severe punishment.” He goes on to discuss Wu’s publication and explanation of the tasks that were carried out to further the belief in US bioweapon applications.

Gain of Function Research
Researchers, Dr. Lipsitch, Dr. Relman, and Dr. Ingelsby, have joined together to discuss the realistic future for research that seeks to alter pathogens. Pointing to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) meeting, they note that it “marks a turning point in a year-and-a-half-long policy process to consider the risks, benefits, oversight, and regulation of experiments that are designed to create influenza and other viruses that are simultaneously highly virulent and readily transmissible by respiratory droplets between mammals.” Focus has traditionally been on the pros and cons of gain-of-function (GOF) projects however, as time passes, a narrowing of concern seems to be focussed on experiments that seek to build chimeric viruses that are highly dangerous and transmissible. They recommend the following policy approach: lift the moratorium on GOFoc, seek international consensus, secure national and international agreement to restrict the performance of GOFoc studies, design a board, establish clear red lines for GOFoc research, and require the purchase by research institutions of specific liability insurance policies. You can also read the interview with the researchers regarding the implications of such research censorships. Dr. Filippa also discusses engineering a super flu here, noting that “the debate is really about risk assessment of this gain of function work and about who should be making those assessments. Should it just be scientists, should it be their institutions, should it be funders, should it be publishers or, much more broadly, should it be regulators, vaccine manufacturers, ethicists? ”

Zika Updates
CDC and NIAID officials are becoming frustrated as they feel Congress is blocking key efforts to fight the outbreak. A recently published report on research priorities to inform public health and medical practice for domestic Zika virus can be found here. The report emphasizes the growing spread of infection and subsequent need for additional research related to transmission, infection during pregnancy, and disease characteristics . The recent WHO stakeholders meeting provided updates on the most urgently needed tools to fight the growing pandemic. The roadmap includes diagnostic tests, inactivated vaccines targeted to childbearing-aged women, and new vector control mechanisms.  As of March 9th, there were 193 confirmed travel-associated Zika cases in the U.S.  A recent study found that 42% of questioned Americans believe the virus has high mortality rates. Aedes mosquitoes are also developing resistance to the go-to insecticide.

7 Sources for Understanding Epidemics
Feeling like all this Zika news has you needing to catch up on your outbreak cliff notes? The Washington Post has put together a nice list of seven books and movies you can enjoy to help ramp up your knowledge regarding the world of pandemics. This list is a great way to understand the different viewpoints of outbreaks and pandemics from social, medical, political, and scientific viewpoints. If you find yourself wanting more, here are some additional recommendations I’m throwing in: Spillover by David Quammen, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah, and The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. Feeling like something a little bit more dramatic? Check out Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone or Demon in the Freezer, or the movies Outbreak or World War Z. With the success of Contagion, I’m still hoping Hollywood will continue to back scientifically grounded films about pandemics (between ebola and Zika virus, they’ve got enough material!).

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Why Are Mosquitoes Just So Good At Spreading Disease? Mosquitoes have been causing outbreaks since the days of ancient Rome and yet we’re still battling them in the fight against Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and more. “According to Janet McAllister, an entomologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), not all mosquitoes are good at transmitting disease, but the ones that are have evolved to live closer to humans.”
  • Global Health Security Agenda– GHSA was launched in 2014 as a multilateral approach to help protect the world from infectious disease threats. Endorsed by the G7, this agenda facilitates a “partnership of nearly 50 nations, international organizations, and non-governmental stakeholders, GHSA is facilitating collaborative, capacity-building efforts to achieve specific and measurable targets around biological threats, while accelerating achievement of the core capacities required by the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) International Health Regulations (IHR), the World Organization of Animal Health’s (OIE) Performance of Veterinary Services Pathway, and other relevant global health security frameworks.”
  • Fumbling Ebola– The San Francisco-based epidemiology company, Metabiota, is being charged with making several mistakes according to the Associated Press (AP). Recovered communication reveals that the company fueled an already chaotic situation via misdiagnoses, adding to confusion, and poor sample tracking.
  • Guidelines for Ebola Survivor Care– The WHO has published guidelines on the management and care of patients who were previously infected with Ebola. Since there are roughly 10,000 ebola survivors and several have required hospitalization for complications, these recommendations are extremely prudent. The report includes counseling, considerations for special patient populations, and common sequelae and management recommendations.

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