Pandora Report: 3.4.2016

Dirty bombs, Zika virus, and biosecurity in Iraq? That’s just a taste of the biodefense news we’ve got in store for you this week. While norovirus hits the East Coast (thanks, oysters!) and an additional three cases were confirmed in the seven-month-long Listeria outbreak associated with Dole salads, it’s no wonder there’s been work to build a new US food safety system. Next month the CDC will be working with state and local officials to establish plans in the most hard-hit Zika areas.

Assessing America’s Soft Underbelly and The Threat of Agroterrorism
The House Committee on Homeland Security’s Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee held a hearing on Friday in which they discussed and reviewed the risk of agroterrorism or natural agro-disasters. Disruption to the agriculture infrastructure and economy could be devastating to the US. Regardless if it’s private or public sectors, preparedness is vital to reduce calamitous damage. “US food and agriculture accounts for roughly one-fifth of the nation’s economic activity, contributed $835 billion to the US gross domestic product in 2014, and is responsible for one out of every 12 US jobs, according to Subcommittee Chairman Martha McSally (R-AZ).” Consider the impact of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) on their respective sectors and country economies. Some of the highlighted vulnerabilities and challenges were insufficient quantity of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) vaccine, gaps in US biosecurity, traceability, gaps in detection, data sharing for regulated disease, and more.

Strengthening Biosecurity in Iraq: Development of a National Biorisk Management SystemScreen Shot 2016-03-04 at 10.02.47 AM
GMU Biodefense director and professor, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and Mahdi al-Jewari, director of the biology department for the Iraqi National Monitoring Authority in the Iraq Ministry of Science of Technology, have joined together to discuss the furthering of Iraqi biosecurity. Mahdi al-Jewari visited GMU in early 2015 to speak on global biorisk management, hosted by the GMU School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs. In their research, Dr. Koblentz and Mr. al-Jewari discuss Iraq’s implementation of its non-proliferation commitments, highlighting that since 2004 “Iraq has taken a series of practical steps to implement its obligations under international non-proliferation treaties to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery to states and non-state actors.” The Iraqi National Monitoring Authority, established in 2012, strives to strengthen their biosecurity program through three primary functions: compliance, monitoring of dual-use materials, and capacity building. The National Biorisk Management System has also highlighted four priorities to “counter biological threats: establishing a national pathogen list, building laboratory capacity, developing the capability to conduct joint law enforcement–public health investigations, and establishing a biorisk management law. The NBMC has established sub-committees charged with developing new policies and programs to achieve these four objectives.” While sustainability will be the most challenging hurdle for Iraq, commitment to investments  in infrastructure, IT, biosecurity, and biosurveillance systems can help them overcome these difficulties.

Just How Far Down the Zika Rabbit Hole Are We So Far?
It seems like every week we’re learning new things about Zika virus and how much work needs to be done. I wonder, how far have we made it down the rabbit hole for Zika and how much more do we have to go? While the Aedes mosquito is the reigning king of Zika virus infections, what about animals? The CDC recently released information regarding the concerns over zoonotic cases. Originally discovered in a monkey in the Zika Forest in 1940’s Uganda , the CDC maintains that “at this time, animals do not appear to be involved in the spread” and that there is no evidence of zoonotic transmission. “Nonhuman primates (apes and monkeys) have shown the ability to become infected with Zika virus; but, only a few naturally and experimentally infected monkeys and apes have had any signs of illness at all, and then it was only a mild, transient fever without any other symptoms.” As international public health teams descend upon the outbreak regions, we will surely be learning more about this outbreak. Perhaps the most challenging issue is the dissemination of information, especially in regions of high transmission. University of Arizona Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health infectious disease professor, Dr. Kacey Ernst, is one of the top vector-borne researchers and she recently explained: “The Zika virus pandemic, thought to be primarily caused by transmission of the virus through Ae. aegypti requires urgent action to determine the role of the virus in neurological sequalea, including microcephaly as well as the relative transmission potential of Ae. albopictus. Given the important role of communities in preventing the proliferation of the peridomestic, anthropophilic Ae. aegypti, communication between the scientific communities and the public must be heightened to ensure timely dissemination of surveillance information. While much of the United States is currently too cold to allow high densities of the primary vector of Zika virus, Ae. aegypti, the growing evidence surrounding the role of sexual transmission in the spread of Zika could imply that outbreaks of disease are possible even when transmission by the mosquito is not. More research is needed to delineate the two modes of transmission and the role that sexual transmission may be playing in the explosive spread of Zika across Latin America and the Caribbean.” In more Zika updates, blood samples from French Polynesia patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) during their Zika virus outbreak are revealing the first look into the reality that Zika may actually cause GBS. The CDC is also urging pregnant women to avoid the summer Olympics in Brazil due to the outbreak. The FDA also just issued their Emergency Use Authorization for a Zika diagnostic tool for qualified countries. As of March 2nd, the CDC has reported 153 travel-associated Zika virus cases within the US.

Education Gaps on Dirty Bombs
David Ropeik from Scientific American discusses the impact that poor education and fear regarding dirty bombs can pose during an emergency. “The prospect of such a bomb seems terrifying, but anyone who knows the basic science of radiation biology knows that it wouldn’t cause much health damage, because the dose of radioactivity to which most people might be exposed would be very low. And experts know, based on the 65 year Life Span Study of the survivors of atomic bomb explosions in Japan, that even at extraordinarily high doses, ionizing radiation only raises lifetime cancer mortality rates a little bit—just two thirds of one percent for survivors who were within three kilometers of ground zero.” Few people know that low doses from a dirty bomb exposure pose little (not zero, but minimal) health risks, but rather people tend to hear “radioactive” or “nuclear radiation” and run screaming to the hills like a zombie hoard is approaching. While Ropeik points out that there will of course be devastation and economic damage, the resulting stress, fear, and public outcry for retaliation can be just as damaging. So what can we do? He points to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and CDC educational sites, but emphasizes that in the end, a communication campaign to combat fear would “take at least some power of a dirty bomb to terrorize us out of the hands of the terrorists”.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Biosurviellance Ecosystem- The DoD and DHS are currently working on a new system that would allow epidemiologists to “scan the planet for anomalies in human and animal disease prevalence, warn of coming pandemics, and protect warfighters and others worldwide.” The Biosurveillance Ecosystem (BSVE) is a brain child that would allow epidemiologists to customize and collaborate – better yet, it’s being developed using open-source software and works “as a dashboard-like service from the cloud, accessible through an Internet browser”.
  • Select Agent Guidance– The Federal Select Agent Program (FSAP) is asking for community members to submit comments regarding the Guidance for Nonviable Select Agents and Nonfunctional Select Toxins. If you’re a member of the regulated community, help the FSAP become more transparent and strengthen biosecurity efforts! Comments will be accepted through March 14, 2016.
  • Giant Virus Secret Weapon: An Immune System – Whether it’s Frankenvirus or one of the other hundreds of giant viruses researchers have been finding, they’re teaching us a lot about secret weapons within the virus arsenal. Researchers working with a few of the giant viruses reported on Monday that some of the genes actually provide an immune system. Even crazier? The immune system “works a lot like the CRISPR system in bacteria that scientists have co-opted as a powerful gene editing tool.”

Pandora Report 12.13.14

It’s the end of the semester, and I don’t know about all you out there, but I plan to watch a lot of TV during the next five weeks. But, as we know, the news never stops, so this week we’ve got Time’s Person of the Year, ISIS and their potential dirty bomb, the crisis of growing antibiotic resistance and of course, an Ebola update.

Have a great week!

‘Time’ names ‘Ebola Fighters’ as Person of the Year

Normally a story like this would go in the Ebola roundup, but this story is big. Big big.

Every year, Time selects a “man, woman, couple or concept that the magazine’s editors feel had the most influence on the world during the previous 12 months.” With runners up like the Ferguson, MO protestors and Vladimir Putin, this issue features people on the front lines of the outbreak in West Africa including CDC Director Tom Frieden, ambulance supervisor Foday Gallah, the first American doctor to be evacuated for treatment in the U.S. Kent Brantly, and nurse Kaci Hickox.

USA Today—“‘Ebola is a war, and a warning,” Time editor Nancy Gibbs writes in announcing the magazine’s choice for most influential newsmaker of 2014. “The global health system is nowhere close to strong enough to keep us safe from infectious disease, and ‘us’ means everyone, not just those in faraway places where this is one threat among many that claim lives every day. The rest of the world can sleep at night because a group of men and women are willing to stand and fight.’”

ISIS Has the Materials to Build a Dirty Bomb, but It’s Nothing to Worry About

This week, experts said that IS have acquired the materials necessary to make a dirty bomb, but that the weapon is more effective as a means of causing fear than causing damage. According to a twitter account belonging to a British jihadist, the materials were acquired from Mosul University, after IS seized control of the city. However, Dina Esfandiary and Matthew Cottee, research associates at the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies point out that even if IS has the materials, they likely lack the knowhow to make the bomb.

Newsweek—“‘The materials they have are not radioactive enough to cause a great deal of damage or function as a working device,” says Esfandiary. “Where the weapon is effective is to cause fear.’”

New Antibiotic Resistance Report is the Stuff of Nightmares

A report published by researchers from RAND Europe and KPMG projects that growing antibiotic resistance could lead to 10 million people dying each year by 2050. The report covers not only the mortality statistics but the projected economic effects of growing drug resistance—$100 trillion USD worldwide and a reduction of 2%-3.5% GDP.

Forbes—“Currently, deaths due to antibiotic resistance are estimated at 700,000/yr, less than car accident fatalities (1.2 million), diabetes (1.5 million), [and] cancer (8.2 million). [This] “translates to 1,917 people killed every day, or 80 every hour. Ten million extra deaths per year would mean 23,397 deaths per day, or 1,141 deaths per hour.’”

This Week in Ebola

Despite nearly 7,000 deaths in this Ebola outbreak, stories are, annoyingly, becoming harder to find. As this happens, there is worry that as the disease becomes more invisible that complacency will set in. Even in Liberia, where there are still approximately a dozen new cases per day, officials worry that Liberians aren’t worried enough and Dr. Frieden urges the nation to remain alert. A new outbreak in Sierra Leone’s Kono District has resulted in a two week Ebola ‘lockdown’ and as exponential growth has slowed, it becomes even more important to have accurate data to ensure tracking of the disease.

Stateside, Ebola Czar Ron Klain will return to his private sector job on March 1. Meanwhile, a clinical trial of a potential Ebola vaccine was halted after patients complained of joint pains in their hands and feet, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has offered liability protection to drug makers who are developing Ebola vaccines. Lastly, an ER doctor at Texan Health Presbyterian Hospital admitted to missing key symptoms when first treating Thomas Eric Duncan and not considering Duncan’s travel history.

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Time.com

Dirty Bombs: An Enigma of Identity and Non-use

By Chris Healey

Radioisotopes can be used to construct radiological weapons. The United Nations reported 140 cases of missing or illegally-used radioisotopes in 2013. Each instance represents a potential threat to safety and security.

Radiological dispersal devices, or dirty bombs, are mundane. They do not deserve the mystique commonly associated with the term. Dirty bombs require little technical expertise to assemble and detonate. Radioisotopes, the defining component in dirty bombs, are abundant. A radioisotope is any unstable element that releases matter or energy. They can be found in common occupational tools such as well-logging and medical diagnostic equipment, and in household items such as smoke detectors.

Components required to create dirty bombs consist of conventional explosives, detonation apparatuses, and radioactive isotopes. Design simplicity makes dirty bombs accessible to those with little or no technical knowledge. In contrast, biological and chemical agents require expertise to create viable weapons. Complexity serves to complicate production processes, thereby limiting creation success rates.

Simple construction and abundant components make dirty bombs an attractive attack method. Surprisingly, they are rare. According to data from the Radiological and Nuclear Non-State Adversaries Database, dirty bombs, and other radiological weapons, have only been used 19 times by non-state actors.

Radiological and nuclear weapons are often conflated. Nuclear weapons employ physical processes of fusion or fission to release massive amounts of energy. Fission is the process of splitting an atom. That process yields smaller atoms, neutrons, and energy. Fusion is the process of combining two atoms to create one, yielding energy. Both processes require extraordinary and precise conditions for realization. Fusion and fission expel devastating amounts of energy, tantamount to the detonation of thousands to millions of tons of TNT. Furthermore, both fission and fusion require rare radioactive isotopes, profound scientific expertise, and expensive equipment. The cost and technical nature associated with fusion or fission make device creation insurmountably difficult. Conditions to create fusion and fission contrast sharply with dirty bomb detonation requirements.

Conventional explosives spread radioisotopes upon detonation.  Radioisotopes retain radioactivity after blasts, contaminating surrounding areas with radiation. Conventional explosives are incapable of producing fusion and fission reactions. Nuclear weapons and dirty bombs share only the ability to spread radioactive material. However, destructive abilities of the two weapons cannot be compared; dirty bombs are exceedingly insignificant in comparison to nuclear weapons.

Other than the conventional explosive blast, inhalation of dispersed radioactive debris is the greatest health threat of dirty bombs. In almost all cases, radiation dispelled by dirty bombs will be stochastic instead of deterministic. Stochastic radiation damage does not immediately harm the individual, but may lead to carcinogenesis months to years later. In other words, the health effects of dirty bomb debris will manifest long after an attack. Deterministic damage, often associated with nuclear weapons, causes harm hours to weeks after radiation exposure. It is associated with deterioration of radiation-damaged organ tissue, not cancer.

Dirty bomb non-use cannot be explained. However, every effort must be made to improve radioisotope accountability. Restricting unauthorized radioisotope access will decrease radiological attack opportunities.

 

Image Credit