It’s been a big week in the world of biodefense – today is International Biomedical Laboratory Science Day! Biomedical Laboratory Scientists work hard to ensure procedures and patient care happens in a safe environment and that patient safety comes first! April 10th marked the anniversary of the Biological Weapons Convention opening for signature in London, Moscow, and Washington in 1972. The U.S. Geological Society also just released evidence that Alaska remains a “hot spot” for avian influenza to enter North America.
GMU Participation in UNSCR 1540 Civil Society Forum
This week our GMU Biodefense Professor and Graduate Program Director, Dr. Koblentz, participated in the UN’s 1540 Civil Society Forum – A Dialogue with Academia and Civil Society. Dr. Koblentz presented a paper on the role of academia in implementing and strengthening Resolution 1540, as well as moderating a panel regarding academic outreach. Resolution 1540 (2004) “imposes binding obligations on all States to adopt legislation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and their means of delivery, and establish appropriate domestic controls over related materials to prevent their illicit trafficking. It also encourages enhanced international cooperation on such efforts.” Dr. Koblentz’s work with the UNSCR 1540 Civil Society Forum addresses the evolution of WMD proliferation threats related to non-state actors, 1540 obligations that pertain to the academic community, and the importance of academia in these efforts. The forum also focussed on how to enhance review and analysis of 1540 implementation via communication between civil society, national governments, and the 1540 Committee.
Written Testimony for April 14 Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Hearing – “The Federal Perspective on the State of Our Nation’s Biodefense”
You can now catch up on the written testimony from this hearing on biodefense within the U.S. Pointing to the evolution of threats to include more emerging infectious diseases and the role of DHS in biodefense, this overview gives insight into the current biodefense situation within the U.S. The hearing addressed the National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC), BioWatch Program, Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise, and state and local responder engagement. “In the wake of these growing threats, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) remains fully engaged and proactive in attempting to characterize the threat, providing warning of emerging and imminent threats, and coordinating whole of government response. During the most recent Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in West Africa, DHS provided intelligence analysis to the interagency, state and local governments, and first responders, and it directed research to better characterize the threat and fill gaps in public health and operational responses.” You can read the testimony before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, “The Nation Faces Multiple Challenges Building and Maintaining Biodefense and Biosurveillance” here.
Preparing for the Next Zika
Kendall Hoyt and Richard Hatchett are tackling the struggle of U.S. preparedness efforts for future infectious disease outbreaks. “The development of new biomedical countermeasures—vaccines, therapies and diagnostic—requires the coordination of a wide number of institutional and industry actors to succeed. We argue here that international efforts to develop countermeasures for emerging infectious diseases should build on lessons learned from US programs to develop closely related biodefense products.” While the WHO declaration of Zika virus as a public health emergency has pushed for the rapid development of a vaccine, Hoyt and Hatchett highlight the empirical delay that comes with vaccine development. Overall, they emphasize that lessons from the U.S. biodefense program should inform international efforts to build and strengthen medical countermeasures for emerging infectious diseases. If you enjoyed their article, you can also hear from the experts, in person, at GMU’s Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security summer program. Dr. Hoyt will be one of the instructors for our professional education course this summer (information will be made available shortly), so don’t miss out on getting to chat with experts in the field about all things biodefense.
GMU SPGIA PhD Information Session
Considering a PhD? Check out GMU’S School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs PhD Informational Session on Thursday, April 21, 7-8:30pm at our Arlington Campus, Founders Hall, Room 126. Dr. Koblentz will be discussing the Biodefense program and available to answer questions!
Lab Safety Tracking Website – Improving Select Agent Lab Oversight
In response to ongoing scrutiny and biosafety failures, federal regulators have launched a new website that will allow them to track their progress “improving oversight of safety and security at facilities working with bioterror pathogens such as anthrax and Ebola.” While still a work in progress, many are pointing to this site being a step in the right direction towards transparency. The CDC released their Federal Select Agent Program (FSAP) report card to look more closely at biosafety and security issues surrounding this work. Unfortunately, some note that the report card still fails to meet the requested details on labs violations and incidents at specific labs. The increased scrutiny and attention to lab safety failures has brought attention from the White House, initiating a push for more transparency regarding the research and incidents in labs working with bioterror agents.
HIV Fights Off CRISPR
Just when you thought CRISPR-Cas9 could do just about anything, HIV brings its A-game. Since its creation, many researchers have attempted to use CRISPR to combat HIV. Unfortunately, the virus has been skilled at fending off these efforts. “The very act of editing—involving snipping at the virus’s genome—may introduce mutations that help it to resist attack.” There are a handful of strategies for using CRISPR gene editing technologies against HIV – editing the T helper cells to avoid the virus from getting in or aiding the T cells with the capabilities to seek out and destroy any HIV that infects them. “When HIV infects a T cell, its genome is inserted into the cell’s DNA and hijacks its DNA-replicating machinery to churn out more copies of the virus. But a T cell equipped with a DNA-shearing enzyme called Cas9, together with customized pieces of RNA that guide the enzyme to a particular sequence in the HIV genome, could find, cut and cripple the invader’s genome.” Sounds like a good plan, right? Unfortunately, a team from McGill University found that the newly equipped T cells were, within two weeks, churning out virus particle copies that had avoided the CRISPR attack. The team performed DNA sequencing to get a closer look at what exactly what going on – they found that the virus had actually “developed mutations near the sequence that the CRISPR-Cas9 enzyme that been programmed to cut.” The team believes that it’s not actually the copying error-caused mutations that helped beat CRISPR, but rather that things went wrong when Cas9 cut the viral DNA. A team at the University of Amsterdam experienced similar results and both groups agree that this problem can be overcome and there is still a possibility for a CRISPR-Cas9-based HIV treatment.
All Things Zika
On 4/13, the CDC formally concluded that Zika virus causes microcephaly and other birth defects. Zika virus may now also be tied to another brain disease. The American Academy of Neurology published a report regarding a study that was released on April 10th, in which “Zika virus may be associated with an autoimmune disorder that attacks the brain’s myelin similar to multiple sclerosis”. While it’s a small study, these findings point to the neurological effects Zika virus is capable of causing and the need for further research. Experts are warning governments in Latin American to “fill a shortfall of investment to prevent further human tragedies” despite economists denying that there will be major impact from the virus. These experts are pointing to the already weakened economies that are plagued with “chronic underinvestment in water and sanitation”, which can aid in the spread of such diseases. On Monday, April 11th, the White House said that the released funds for Zika virus won’t be enough to combat the growing threat. Dr. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases highlighted that the more information that is gathered on Zika virus, the more worrisome it becomes. “One big problem, Fauci said, is that pharmaceutical companies could be reluctant to work with the federal government if they don’t have confidence that there will be a stable source of money.” A recent study published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, suggests that the virus may have been brought to Latin America via the 6th World Sprint Championship Canoe Race in August 2014. USAID has put out a call for problem solvers to share groundbreaking ideas to help combat Zika virus. The Combating Zika and Future Threats Grand Challenge will invest up to $30 million in solutions. As of April 13th, the CDC has reported 358 travel-associated and 7 sexually transmitted cases of Zika in the U.S. You can also get the full WHO Zika situation report here.
Predicting and Evaluating the Epidemic Trend of Ebola in the 2014/2015 Outbreak and the Effects of Intervention Measures
Researchers developed several transmission models for Ebola to predict epidemic trends and evaluate just how efficient and effective the intervention methods were following the 2014 outbreak. Accounting for effective vaccination rates, a basic reproductive number as an intermediate variable, and fluctuations of diseases transmission based on a SIR model, this study evaluates the effects of control and prevention measures. “Measures that reduced the spread of EVD included: early diagnosis, treatment in isolation, isolating/monitoring close contacts, timely corpse removal, post-recovery condom use, and preventing or quarantining imported cases. EVD may re-emerge within two decades without control and prevention measures.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
- National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSAAB) Meeting – Don’t miss out on the NSAAB meeting on May 24, 2016! Agenda items include: (1) Finalization of NSABB findings and recommendations on a conceptual approach to evaluating proposed gain-of-function (GOF) studies; (2) discussion of next steps for U.S. government policy development regarding GOF studies; and (3) other business of the Board. The meeting will also be webcast here at the time of the event!
- BMBL Virtual Town Hall and Workshop – The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine presents an opportunity for stakeholders to provide input for a revision of “Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories”. This is a virtual town hall that is open for comments from April 4-May 13th. There will also be a workshop on May 12th in Washington, DC that you can register for here.
- DARPA INTERCEPT Program for Biodefense Countermeasures – The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA)’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO) is hosting a Proposers Day for the INTERfering and Co-Evolving Prevention and Therapy (INTERCEPT) program. “The goal of the INTERCEPT program is to explore and develop a new therapeutic platform to outpace fast-evolving viral pathogens, based upon virus-based therapeutic particles that interfere with viral infection and co-evolve with viral targets.”
- Angola Yellow Fever Outbreak – The WHO has reported that as of April 10th, there have been 1,751 suspected cases and 242 deaths associated with the yellow fever outbreak. 582 of the cases were laboratory confirmed, of which 406 were from the Luanda province.
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