Pandora Report 2.24.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense! A preliminary report from the Malaysian police has found that VX nerve agent was most likely used to murder Kim Jong-nam.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika 
Want to dabble in the world of global health security? Don’t miss out on the GMU Biodefense three-day, non-credit summer workshop on July 17-19, 2017! Participants will look at the challenges facing the world at the intersection of national security, public health, and the life sciences. Instructors for the workshop range from FBI special agents to biodefense professors and USAMRIID commanders. The workshop will look at the spectrum of biological threats – including naturally occurring disease outbreaks such as SARS, Zika, and Ebola, lapses in biosafety, dual-use research of concern, and the threat of bioterrorism. From now until May 1st, you can take advantage of the early bird registration discount!

Progress Report on BARDA & Project Bioshield 
A 10-year report card was recently published for these two efforts to defend the U.S. against biological threats. The report found 80 candidate countermeasures, 21 stockpiled countermeasures, and 6 FDA approvals supported by BARDA and Project Bioshield. “Over a decade has passed since the anthrax attacks of 2001; preparedness has increased substantially since that time, and defense against CBRN threats has become melded into national security. Both BARDA and Project Bioshield are essential elements of national security, and, especially in light of a change in presidential administration, it is important to emphasize the critical role these agencies have had in fortifying the nation against intentional CBRN threats. Larsen and Disbrow note, however, that despite the reauthorization of Project Bioshield in 2013 with annual funding at $2.8 billion (from 2014-2018), that funding is subject to annual congressional appropriations; as such, only a fraction of that funding has been appropriated.”

BWC Newsletter 
If you’re looking to keep tabs on the Biological Weapons Convention, we’ve got just the place for you. The BWC Implementation Support Unit has prepared a newsletter to better support communication among States Parties and encourage involvement in BWC-related issues and events. The first issue discusses the recent Eighth Review Conference and news like the launch of EU projects to support BWC universalization and a Confidence-Building Measures reminder letter (deadline for submission is April 15th!).

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-2-11-26-pmCDC Lab Closure Due to Safety Concerns
The CDC has temporarily closed down its Biosafety Level-4 laboratories following the finding that their air supply hoses to researchers in protective suits were not approved for use. “‘We have no evidence that anybody has suffered ill health effects from breathing air that came through these hoses,’ Stephan Monroe, associate director for laboratory science and safety at the CDC, told Reuters. Monroe said he was confident scientists were not exposed to pathogens because the air they breathed passed through HEPA filters. The suits they wear also use positive air pressure to prevent pathogens from entering the suit.” Safety tests are currently being performed while employees are being notified and monitored. Interestingly, Monroe’s position is a newly minted one, having been established in 2015 to combat the continuous findings of major lab safety failures involving anthrax, avian influenza, and Ebola in CDC labs.

Why Bill Gates Worries About Biological Threats
Bill Gates recently spoke to Business Insider following his speech for the Munich Security Conference, in which he highlighted his real concerns for global health security. He noted that conflict areas and regions that are struggling to find stability are perhaps the most challenging in terms of outbreak containment. Gates emphasized the vulnerability for genome editing of a virus to make it more contagious, and also the advances in biotechnology that may help prevent the spread of an epidemic. “The point is, we ignore the link between health security and international security at our peril. Whether it occurs by a quirk of nature or at the hand of a terrorist, epidemiologists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. And they say there is a reasonable probability the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years.” Perhaps the most important thing on our “to-do” list is to invest in vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics. We have a tendency to put these priorities lower on the totem pole until a major public health crises occurs however, Gates highlights their relevance. The launch of the new Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is one step closer to bridging this gap. “The really big breakthrough potential is in emerging technology platforms that leverage recent advances in genomics to dramatically reduce the time needed to develop vaccines. Basically, they create a delivery vehicle for synthetic genetic material that instructs your cells to make a vaccine inside your own body.” Gates also emphasized the importance of strengthening basic public health systems, especially in vulnerable countries – adding to that age old saying, “an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere”.

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-7-48-50-amFinancing Pandemic Preparedness At the National Level = First Line of Defense
Pandemic preparedness funding is one of those common sense investments…right? Unfortunately, many don’t always make it a priority. Ebola alone cost billions, including a $2.27 billion allocation for response by the U.S. government. Dozens of after-action reports and papers on lessons learned have been published since the outbreak. Peter Sands noted that “all these reviews – including the one I chaired  for the US National Academy of Medicine – agreed on three key priorities: strengthening preparedness at a national level; improving coordination and capabilities at a regional and global level; and accelerating R&D in this arena.  Over the last twelve months progress has been made in implementing many of these recommendations, but big gaps and weaknesses remain. As a recent paper in the British Medical Journal put it, there has been ‘ample analysis, inadequate action’.” The highest priority though is preparedness at a national level. The International Working Group on Financing Pandemic Preparedness was created in 2016 as a means to propose ways in which national governments and partners can work to establish sustainable financing to strengthen their pandemic preparedness. Their focus “includes domestic resource mobilization, development assistance and private sector engagement. For many countries, financing preparedness through the domestic public sector budget is the best way to ensure sustained funding and seamless integration with the rest of the health system. This requires ensuring sufficient priority is attached to investing in pandemic preparedness in budget allocations. In some countries, there may also be scope to increase the fiscal envelope through improvements in tax design and collection or even hypothecated taxes.”

Insider Threats 
Get ready to add this new book to your reading list. Matthew Bunn and Scott D Sagan are looking at insider threats like nuclear material theft and Edward Snowden. “Insider Threats offers detailed case studies of insider disasters across a range of different types of institutions, from biological research laboratories, to nuclear power plants, to  the U.S. Army.” Don’t miss the chapter from Jessica Stern and Ronald Schouten, “Lessons Learned from the Anthrax Letters”. Stern and Schouten look at the investigation of the Amerithrax attacks and provide a portrait of Ivins and his troubling behavior. They also address “the combination of regulatory changes, red flags missed by Ivins’s colleagues, and the organizational and cognitive biases that contributed to the failure to identify Ivins as a potential insider”, and the current environment and new regulations.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Former Secretary of Defense Outlines the Future of Warfare – “Two years ago, Barack Obama appointed a new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter—a technocrat physicist, an arms control veteran, and a professor at Stanford—to help close this divide.” Carter recently sat down with WIRED magazine and discussed the challenges facing the White House. When asked about the impact of autonomy on warfare, Carter notes that it will change it in a fundamental way, but also points biotechnology. “I think if there is going to be something ever that rivals nuclear weapons in terms of the pure fearsomeness of their destructiveness it’s more likely to come from biotechnology than any other technology. Looking back decades from now, I do think the biological revelation could rival the atomic revolution for the fearsomeness of the potential. I think that’s one reason we need to invest in it. And although biotechnology has not been a traditional area for Defense, the new bridges that they build shold not only be to the IT tech community but also to the biotech communities in the Valley.”
  • Did Salmonella Take Down the Aztecs?– History and infectious disease? That’s surely the best way to start a weekend! Researchers recently looked at the DNA of a 500-year-old bacteria to study one of the worst epidemics in history. “In one study, researchers say they have recovered DNA of the stomach bacterium from burials in Mexico linked to a 1540s epidemic that killed up to 80% of the country’s native inhabitants. The team reports its findings in a preprint posted on the bioRxiv server on 8 February. In 1519, when forces led by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés arrived in Mexico, the native population was estimated at about 25 million. A century later, after a Spanish victory and a series of epidemics, numbers had plunged to around 1 million.” After extracting and sequencing the DNA from the teeth of 29 buried people buried in the highlands of southern Mexico, all but five were found to be linked to cocoliztli. “Further sequencing of short, damaged DNA fragments from the remains allowed the team to reconstruct two genomes of a Salmonella enterica strain known as Paratyphi C. Today, this bacterium causes enteric fever, a typhus-like illness, that occurs mostly in developing countries. If left untreated, it kills 10–15% of infected people.”