Pandora Report 9.27.2019

What a week it has been – from CW conspiracy theories to Tanzanian Ebola scares, the world of biodefense has been pretty busy.

Controversy Over Syrian CW Conspiracy Theory Claims
There’s been a lot of conversation regarding Syrian chemical weapons lately and not in the way you might anticipate. GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Director and Professor (and CW/BW expert) Dr. Gregory Koblentz is breaking down some of the conspiracy theories, debates, and why overwhelming evidence just can’t be ignored. “The journal Science and Global Security is embroiled in a controversy surrounding its acceptance of an article co-authored by Ted Postol, a former MIT professor and missile defense expert and member of the journal’s editorial board. For the last six years, Postol has promoted a variety of conspiracy theories that deny that the Syrian government is responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

Tanzania’s Ebola Problem and Outbreak Updates
This week saw a tense situation between the WHO and Tanzania, as “the World Health Organization took the unusual step on Saturday of issuing a statement detailing multiple suspected cases of Ebola in Tanzania and criticizing the government for withholding clinical samples for additional testing. The United Nations public-health agency said that it had received unofficial reports of at least one Tanzanian patient testing positive for Ebola, while at least three others were hospitalized with symptoms of the disease in different parts of the country.” In this rather unprecedented situation, the WHO was vocal in concern and frustration. The outbreak in the DRC continues to grow, as four more cases were reported on Wednesday. The total cases are now 3,175, with officials continuing to follow 445 suspected cases.

Vektor’s Explosion – The Big Uh-Oh?
Since last week’s news of an explosion at the State Research Centre of Virology in Russia, there’s been a lot of discussion regarding what really happened, but also what this means for smallpox stockpiles, biosecurity, and biosafety. “From a risk analysis perspective, an explosion at a BSL 4 facility for dangerous, contagious pathogens is a risk for global health. Despite the Russian government assertion that there is no risk to public health, it would be wise to assess the risk as objectively as possible, given the global community is a stakeholder if an epidemic arises from this accident. In the best-case scenario, there were no pathogens in the affected part of the building, no pathogens released, the situation has been contained and there is no risk to local or global public health. In the worst-case scenario, there were pathogens present at the time, which were aerosolised and propagated outside the building as a result of the explosion. The principle of pandemic and preparedness planning considers the worst-case scenario, rather than hoping for the best-case scenario. So, we need to consider what a worst-case scenario would look like and how best to be prepared and mitigate it.” Matt Field of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists also discussed what this means, noting that the “blast follows relatively closely on the heels of another explosion at a Russian facility conducting high-tech and risky research. In August, an accident at a missile test site killed five nuclear scientists. US officials believe researchers at the site were working on a nuclear-powered cruise missile.”

Meet the DoD’s New Assistant Director for Biotechnology
“Dr. Titus is the new Assistant Director for Biotechnology in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering. The Department of Defense (DoD) provides the military forces needed to deter war and ensure the United States’ security. The US military is currently undergoing a modernization initiative. Dr. Titus leads biotechnology modernization, one of several new priorities within the DoD’s research program. His job: develop a ten-year roadmap to keep the nation’s defenses at the leading edge of biotechnology and specifically synthetic biology: the process of making biology easier to engineer.” When asked what keeps him up at night, Dr. Titus noted “Being left behind. And the reason is that when you start to slow down, you lose grasp on what is cutting edge and what is coming around the corner,” Dr. Alexander Titus replies. “It is the Department’s responsibility to understand what the threats are to the United States,”. From synthetic biology to modernizing armor to become self-healing, Dr. Titus’s work is to strengthen military capability through biotechnology while building a more symbiotic relationship with biology.

Via STAT News

Lower Customized DNA Kit Prices Meet Higher Risks
There has always been concern that with customized DNA available, the risk for use by nefarious actors would also grow. As efforts become cheaper, there’s been increasing focus on how we can prevent such technology from being misused. “What makes DNA so powerful, after all, also makes it potentially dangerous. Someone could use it to change a harmless bacteria into one that makes a deadly toxin. And scientists have already shown that it’s possible to use bits of DNA to construct viruses like polio and Ebola. James Diggans, Twist’s director of biosecurity, says they check out every potential customer. They also analyze each requested DNA sequence, to see if there’s anything worrisome in there, like a gene specific to some nasty germ.”

FDA Approves First Live, Non-replicating Vaccine Against Smallpox/Monkeypox
Jynneos is now officially approved by the FDA against monkeypox and smallpox. The vaccine was just approved “for the prevention of smallpox and monkeypox disease in adults 18 years of age and older determined to be at high risk for smallpox or monkeypox infection. This is the only currently FDA-approved vaccine for the prevention of monkeypox disease. ‘Following the global Smallpox Eradication Program, the World Health Organization certified the eradication of naturally occurring smallpox disease in 1980. Routine vaccination of the American public was stopped in 1972 after the disease was eradicated in the U.S. and, as a result, a large proportion of the U.S., as well as the global population has no immunity,’ said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. ‘Therefore, although naturally occurring smallpox disease is no longer a global threat, the intentional release of this highly contagious virus could have a devastating effect. Today’s approval reflects the U.S. government’s commitment to preparedness through support for the development of safe and effective vaccines, therapeutics, and other medical countermeasures’.” In efforts to enhance health security, HHS is also sponsoring the development of therapeutics for smallpox infections. “Under the agreement announced today, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), will work with BioFactura, Inc., of Frederick, Maryland, providing expertise and $9.5 million over two years to develop a monoclonal antibody treatment for smallpox. BARDA has options to support additional work, providing up to a total of $67.4 million over five years. BioFactura is developing a treatment that uses multiple monoclonal antibodies, a combination known as a monoclonal antibody cocktail. Monoclonal antibodies bind specific proteins on the virus to neutralize it, decreasing the amount of the virus in the body that the immune system must fight. Testing in non-clinical studies showed that the antibody cocktail neutralizes the variola virus, which causes smallpox and related viruses.”

Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense – Defense of Agriculture Meeting
“On November 5, 2019, we will convene a meeting of the Commission, Too Great a Thing to Leave Undone: Defense of Agriculture, to inform our continuing assessment of the biological threat, specific vulnerabilities, and overwhelming consequences to agricultural producers. Topics to be discussed at this meeting include: the catastrophic risks to all components of agriculture; land grant university contributions to national security; public-private partnerships for agrodefense, and challenges to agricultural surveillance, detection, response, and recovery across all levels of government and throughout the private sector.”

Nuclear Security Concerns
Sure, a lot of us have binge-watched Chernobyl, but the truth is that many American nuclear security experts continue to have some very real concerns. “For nearly two decades, the nation’s nuclear power plants have been required by federal law to prepare for such a nightmare: At every commercial nuclear plant, every three years, security guards take on a simulated attack by hired commandos in so-called ‘force-on-force’ drills. And every year, at least one U.S. nuclear plant flunks the simulation, the ‘attackers’ damaging a reactor core and potentially triggering a fake Chernobyl – a failure rate of 5 percent. In spite of that track record, public documents and testimony show that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the nation’s fleet of commercial nuclear reactors, is now steadily rolling back the standards meant to prevent the doomsday scenario the drills are designed to simulate. Under pressure from a cash-strapped nuclear energy industry increasingly eager to slash costs, the commission in a little-noticed vote in October 2018 halved the number of force-on-force exercises conducted at each plant every cycle. Four months later, it announced it would overhaul how the exercises are evaluated to ensure that no plant would ever receive more than the mildest rebuke from regulators – even when the commandos set off a simulated nuclear disaster that, if real, would render vast swaths of the U.S. uninhabitable.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Canine Detection of C-diff Spores: “Outside of rooms and spaces that have been clearly identified as contaminated with C diff spores (i.e. a patient with an active infection has stayed in the space), it can be difficult to know where to properly disinfect with spore-killing measures. One particular approach though has gotten a lot of attention – C diff canine scent detection. That’s right, specially trained dogs are being used to sniff out this bug to help guide environmental cleaning efforts.  Vancouver Coastal Health is one place that’s leading the pack (literally and figuratively) in the use of C diffcanine scent detection. A team recognized that 60% of cases are related to health care transmission and worked to develop a program to help train dogs to detect C diff with 97% accuracy.”

 

Pandora Report: 9.19.2019

This week your dose of biodefense news is arriving a bit early – what a way to kick off the weekend! Flipper fans will be sad to hear that dolphins are a new source for antibiotic resistance.

Russian Virology Research Center Hit By Blast/Fire
In perhaps not the best of places to have a gas-cylinder explosion, the Russian Virology Center, Vektor, is causing a bit of concern around the world. Cue the conversations regarding the destruction of smallpox stockpiles…”Russia’s consumer-safety watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said on September 16 that one worker was sent to hospital for third-degree burns suffered in the incident at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (Vector) near the Russian city of Novosibirsk. It added that no biohazardous substances were present in the sanitary inspection room at the time of the fire. The city’s mayor, Nikolai Krasnikov, said the laboratory, on the fifth floor of a six-story building in the city of Koltsovo, was undergoing renovation and repair work at the time of the incident. All glass in the building was said to have been broken in the blast. A fire covering about 30 square meters was extinguished after the explosion. In the 1970-1980s, the research center developed biological and bacteriological weapons, as well as means of protection against them.”

Preparedness for a High-Impact Respiratory Pathogen Pandemic
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has just released their report, which “examines the current state of preparedness for pandemics caused by ‘high-impact respiratory pathogens’—that is, pathogens with the potential for wide- spread transmission and high observed mortality. Were a high-impact respiratory pathogen to emerge, either naturally or as the result of accidental or deliberate release, it would likely have significant public health, economic, social, and political consequences. Novel high-impact respiratory pathogens have a combination of qualities that contribute to their potential to initiate a pandemic. The combined possibilities of short incubation periods and asymptomatic spread can result in very small windows for interrupting transmission, making such an outbreak difficult to contain. The potential for high-impact respiratory pathogens to affect many countries at once will likely require international approaches different from those that have typically occurred in geographically limited events, such as the ongoing Ebola crisis in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).”

UK Vaccine Network – Mapping Pathogens of Pandemic Potential
Do you know what the United Kingdom is doing to develop vaccines against pandemic pathogens? “During the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa an expert panel was established on the instructions of the UK Prime Minister to identify priority pathogens for outbreak diseases that had the potential to cause future epidemics. A total of 13 priority pathogens were identified, which led to the prioritisation of spending in emerging diseases vaccine research and development from the UK. This meeting report summarises the process used to develop the UK pathogen priority list, compares it to lists generated by other organisations (World Health Organisation, National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) and summarises clinical progress towards the development of vaccines against priority diseases. There is clear technical progress towards the development of vaccines. However, the availability of these vaccines will be dependent on sustained funding for clinical trials and the preparation of clinically acceptable manufactured material during inter-epidemic periods.”

Global Preparedness Monitoring Board
In their very first report, the GPMB “reviewed recommendations from previous high-level panels and commissions following the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic and the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, along with its own commissioned reports and other data. The result is a snapshot of where the world stands in its ability to prevent and contain a global health threat.” The report includes actions for leaders to take, like commitment and investment from heads of government, building strong systems, and preparing for the worst. For example, they note that “Donors, international financing institutions, global funds and philanthropies must increase funding for the poorest and most vulnerable countries through development assistance for health and greater/earlier access to the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund to close financing gaps for their national actions plans for health security as a joint responsibility and a global public good. Member states need to agree to an increase in WHO contributions for the financing of preparedness and response activities and must sustainably fund the WHO Contingency Fund for Emergencies, including the establishment of a replenishment scheme using funding from the revised World Bank Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility.”

Blue Ribbon Study Panel Becomes Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense
At their latest event, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel announced it would be “taking on a new name to more accurately reflect its work and the urgency of its mission. Effective immediately, the organization now will be known as the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. ‘We do not simply study the problem,’ said Executive Director Dr. Asha M. George. ‘We conduct our activities with a self-imposed mandate and the same sort of urgency that congressional commissions demonstrate. Moving forward, we will be the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. Our leadership team and unyielding focus remain unchanged.’ The organization was established in 2014 to comprehensively assess the state of U.S. biodefense, and to issue recommendations to foster change. The Commission will continue to be co-chaired by former Senator Joe Lieberman and former Governor Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security.”

NAS Workshop – Public-Private Partnerships for Global Health at the National, Municipal, and Community Levels
Don’t miss this National Academies event on October 23rd and 24th in Washington, D.C. “The National Academies’ Forum on Public-Private Partnerships for Global Health and Safety is convening a 1.5 day workshop to examine the enabling environments for public-private partnerships (PPP’s) at the national, municipal, and community levels. Panelists will provide case studies that focus on the mechanics of building a partnership in a region, the conditions the private sector needs to establish itself in a region, and how a country becomes PPP-ready to accept private partners. The panelists will include: the private sector actors who established a business in a region; the government representative who worked with the private sector actors to create the conditions for private sector involvement; and the intermediary who helped to facilitate the partnership. Additionally, local business owners who distribute the products from larger businesses, or that develop their own businesses within a region, will be brought in to discuss the conditions they need at the local level to form sustainable business models. Intermediaries that work to facilitate global partnerships will also give a broader view of how partnerships are enabled.”

Efforts to Reduce Nosocomial Ebola Transmission
Today there were 15 new cases of Ebola virus reported in the DRC, bringing the case counts to 3,145. Ongoing violence has been a concern, but the growing number of nosocomial infections is also worrisome. “In the wake of this outbreak, the threat of health care-associated infections has grown and thus far 18% of the outbreak cases are nosocomial. The ability for hospitals and treatment centers to act as amplifiers in the middle of an outbreak is not a novel concept. Unfortunately, this number is deeply concerning and represents critical breakdowns in infection control measures. In addition to the avoidable cases, the high number of nosocomial cases is also a driving factor for many to avoid care within the treatment centers. Consider an already skeptical community, and now include the fact that nearly 1 out of 5 cases occur as a result of exposure within a medical setting. Not only can this fuel fear and apprehension to seek care within the community, but it also can put health care workers in danger. In response to this trend, the WHO is partnering up with agencies like the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help boost health care response and infection prevention in the 3000 nurses, physicians, and health care workers responding to the outbreak.”

Big Pharma Drops New Drugs Despite Drying Antibiotic Pipeline
Despite the continued warnings of the drying antibiotic pipeline and the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance, the pharmaceutical world has shown little interest in investing in the production of new antimicrobials. These costly efforts are a considerable hurdle for companies as a new class of antibiotics is desperately in need. “According to an in-depth report from German public broadcaster NDR this week, the reason for this lack of preparation for the impending crisis is simple: Antibiotics simply aren’t profitable. Antibiotics are only used for a few days once in a while, and are being prescribed less as doctors become more aware of the dangers of overprescription. Instead, drug companies are focusing on lucrative medications for chronic conditions such as high cholesterol, arthritis, epilepsy and cancer. Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Novartis, Otsuka and many others have all gutted their antibiotic development teams and moved those budgets elsewhere. This is despite a 2016 pledge signed by over 100 companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Novartis, saying they would help prevent the next epidemic by investing in ways to combat the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Rising Cases of EEE in Massachusetts – “Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus—a rare but often fatal mosquito-borne virus—has been found in Massachusetts for the first time since 2013. Since the beginning of August, seven people in the state have tested positive for the virus, and one woman from Bristol County has died from the illness. State officials have additionally found the virus in 400 mosquito samples.”
  • The Future of Duodenoscopes – “Over the years, these scopes have shown a propensity for making the transmission of multidrug-resistant organisms easier than we anticipated. There continues to be a strong infection control and regulatory focus on reprocessing to ensure patient safety. The flexible medical devices are used to help visualize and assess not only the small intestine, but also the pancreas and bile ducts. Since they products are reusable, the complex, error-prone process of reprocessing becomes critical to avoid disease transmission between patients. Unsurprisingly, there has been increased pressure to move to avenues that reduce the risk for patient exposure and promote safety during these procedures. On August 29, 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put forth a recommendation that both duodenoscope manufacturers and health care facilities alike, should move towards those scopes with disposable components, specifically the endcaps.”

 

Pandora Report: 9.13.2019

CSPS Annual Symposium on International Security
Don’t miss this event on navigating the nuclear future – “Join CSPS for their 2nd Annual Symposium on International Security on September 27, 2019. This year’s topic is Navigating the Nuclear Future and will discuss the issues of nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, and the nonproliferation regime. Speakers will include General Frank Klotz, Suzanne DiMaggio, Brian Mazanec, Laura Holgate, Ketian Zhang, and others. Lunch will be provided.”

DoD Inspector General to Reevaluate Select Agent Facilities
“The Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General (DoD OIG) is conducting a Follow-Up Evaluation of DoD Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) Biorisk Program Office implementation of recommendations from the April 2016 ‘Evaluation of DoD Biological Safety and Security Implementation’. The OIG assessment was announced in a 12 Aug 2019 memorandum distributed to the Secretary of the Army; Surgeon General of the Army; Office of the Secretary of the Army; U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command; Director, DoD Biological Select Agents and Toxins Biorisk Program Office; Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment; Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense; and the Director, Defense Health Agency. The memo noted the OIG objective is to validate implementation of recommendations from the April 2016 report (available below), and assess the development of the oversight capabilities of the Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) Biorisk Program Office.”

GMU Master’s & PhD Open Houses
Curious about what it takes to get a biodefense graduate degree? Check out our Open Houses to learn about the MS program (online and in-person) or our PhD program. The PhD Open House is next Thursday, September 19th at 7pm at our Arlington campus. The  next Master’s Open House will be on Thursday, October 17th, at 6:30pm at the Arlington campus as well.

Cyberbiosecurity in Advanced Manufacturing Models
A new article published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology identifies weaknesses in biomanufacturing standards relating to cybersecurity attacks and failures. The healthcare industry, especially hospitals, is often the victim of cyberattacks. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services found that the occurrence of healthcare cyberattack reports increased by 10% since 2010. The authors purport that the biomanufacturing sector is an attractive and vulnerable target to cyberattacks due to its reliance on intellectual property, cyber-physical systems, and government-mandated production regulations. The article details considerations for emerging biologic products, specifically regarding the flow of information in various biomanufacturing operations. Recommendations to increase the resiliency of the biomanufacturing sector include heightened investment in training employees, boosting attention to cybersecurity, and improved collaboration between industry and regulators to design and implement safeguard policies.

Antibiotic Alerts: Building Better Processes to Encourage Stewardship
In the battle against resistant infections, response efforts have been focused on developing and deploying new tools to help reduce antimicrobial use. It is estimated that roughly 50% of antibiotic prescriptions in hospital and outpatient settings in the United States are unnecessary or inappropriate. Therefore, any tool that can enhance antimicrobial stewardship is a welcome addition to the toolkit. Given these startling numbers, it’s not surprising that many hospitals are looking to more automatic hard-stops to prevent the misuse of antibiotics. Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, sought to make this a reality by developing and implementing an automatic antibiotic time-out alert that would de-escalate broad-spectrum antibiotics. A new study published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology details the program. The 1252-bed community hospital worked to develop this automatic approach because, like so many of us working in infection prevention, they saw that despite education, efforts to de-escalate broad-spectrum antibiotics were rolled out inconsistently. The research team defined the outcome as the proportion of patients who had their broad-spectrum antibiotics de-escalated at 72 hours in the year prior to the initiation of the antibiotic time-out alert that was developed in 2016. Furthermore, they assessed the total antibiotic days, cost per day, hospital length of stay, antibiotic-related adverse events, and in-hospital mortality of patients whose antibiotics were de-escalated versus those who continued treatment with broad-spectrum antibiotics.

DRC Ebola Outbreak Updates and Behind the Frontlines of the Ebola Wars
On Tuesday it was announced that HHS Secretary Alex Azar will be visiting the DRC with other US health officials to help gauge the situation and address concerns. “Azar will lead a delegation that includes Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Robert Redfield, MD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Redfield has traveled previously to the outbreak region, but this will be the first trip for Azar. Joining the US delegation will be director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, who has made nearly monthly trips to the DRC since August 2018, when the outbreak began in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. ‘President Trump and Secretary Azar are committed to ending the outbreak as quickly as possible,’ HHS said in a news release. ‘That is why responding to the outbreak, coordinating with and assisting the governments responding, and providing the necessary assistance has been the top global health priority for the Trump administration since August of 2018’.” The Ebola virus disease outbreak in the northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has claimed over 2,000 lives despite the round-the-clock efforts by health and aid workers to prevent its spread. A recent exclusive featured in Nature provides insight regarding the struggles of the outbreak response from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Such struggles spur from militia violence in the region and the general suspicion of outsiders, namely the health and aid workers. Most unfortunately, the conflict and distrust further fuel the outbreak by inhibiting the dispersal of the new Ebola vaccine and other drugs to treat the ill. The militias terrorize the noncombatant inhabitants of the region and the disease responders – killings, arson, rapes, abductions, explosions. Ebola treatment centers are targets for attacks, jeopardizing both patients and healthcare providers. As Ghebreyesus summarizes, “the outbreak of Ebola is a symptom, the root cause is political instability.” Beyond the domestic issues, the response faces other hardships: limited funds, media scrutiny, and additional severe public health concerns. Altogether, these obstacles create an environment for Ebola to return after this outbreak is squelched.

Rising Risk of Global WMD
Is the risk of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) growing? Many are saying it’s time we get proactive and do something. “WMD-related arms control and disarmament measures are important components of the rules-based international order. They make an underappreciated contribution to stability and strategic predictability. They underpin efforts toward a more peaceful, nuclear weapon free world in the longer run. Allowing the WMD treaty regimes to crumble could usher in a destabilizing scramble towards the development of weapons that most hoped to be rid of. It would erode longstanding norms, weaken transparency and undermine efforts to prevent terrorists from gaining access to WMD-related technology. It could ultimately lead to WMD use becoming commonplace. This erosion is not in the long-term interests of any state. Unilateral actions to tackle WMD-related concerns are occasionally an option. But they are risky, politically challenging, expensive and arduous even for the most powerful states. And when they have occurred, such actions have sometimes broken down, tragically in some cases. The lesson here is two-fold: WMD treaties matter on normative and practical levels, and states need to deal with WMD-related compliance issues cooperatively.”

Is the US Ready if Ebola Returns?
From the viewpoint of this infection preventionzist…nope. Here are the thoughts from Blue Ribbon Study Panel’s Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge. “Today, the threat from Ebola is more serious. The World Health Organization has declared it to be a global public health emergency because Ebola has again defied controls and spread to the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it could in turn spread throughout more densely populated urban areas and gain access to the global transportation system. We support this declaration and the additional resources and attention it should bring to the situation, but the WHO should have made it earlier. Ebola was an emergency long before it spread to Goma. There are encouraging signs that some experimental Ebola drugs are working, and the CDC and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seem to be more effectively tracking the disease. On the other hand, changes made previously to help local hospitals in the U.S. better prepare to treat those infected are not being implemented as designed. And that will have real human consequences the next time Ebola or another highly infectious disease — including a new highly pathogenic strain of influenza — reaches America.”

Mapping the Cyberbiosecurity Enterprise– Upcoming
A newly-accepted editorial piece written by Randall S. Murch and Diane DiEuliis and published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology provides an overview and insights on cyberbiosecurity. Cyberbiolosecurity is defined as the “understanding the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of comingled life and medical sciences, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness and resilience.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • C-diff Sniffing Dogs – “Linked to rising use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, which can wipe out a patient’s normal gut bacteria and allow the bacterium to multiply and produce toxins that inflame the colon, C difficile infections are the leading cause of hospital-acquired diarrhea in the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year C difficile causes more than 450,000 infections in US hospitals, is associated with more than 29,000 deaths, and costs the US healthcare system nearly $5 billion. One of the main reasons C difficile has become such a burden for hospitals is that it spreads easily—typically through contact between sick patients and healthcare workers—and it’s very hard to get rid of.”

Pandora Report: 8.2.2019

Greetings fellow biodefense friends! We hope your summer is winding down nicely and you’re ready for your weekly dose of all things health security. You might want to avoid pig ear dog treats as there’s currently an outbreak of multi-drug resistant Salmonella infections.

 Bioweapons Convention – Meeting of Experts
The BWC Meeting of Experts (MX) is currently under way and you can get detailed, daily reports via Richard Guthrie’s BioWeapons Prevention Project, which has been covering the BWC since 2006. Guthrie notes “The first Meeting of Experts (MX1) in the 2019 series opened on Monday morning with Ambassador Victor Dolidze (Georgia) in the Chair. Owing to refurbishment work in the Palais des Nations, MX1 opened in Room XX [renowned for its elaborately decorated ceiling] instead of the usual location for BWC meetings two floors below. One advantage of using Room XX is that the proceedings can be webcast via <<http://webtv.un.org/>&gt; After brief opening formalities, six sub-topics were covered during Monday, the full titles of which can be found in the agenda for MX1. There was a full day of activities which means that this report can only be a selective snapshot of proceedings. The background information document produced by the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) for the MX1 held in 2018 contains much information relevant to the discussions this year.” You can also find the Joint NGO Statements that were given here. “In her reflections on last year’s MX1, the Chair, Ambassador Almojuela of the Philippines, suggested several concrete proposals for further consideration at today’s meeting. These included: An action plan for Article X implementation; Guidelines on Article X reports; The creation of a BWC Cooperation and Assistance Officer position within the ISU; and An open-ended working group to monitor, coordinate and review activities of cooperation and assistance. These are all proposals that the NGO community strongly endorses, and which were also set out in our Position Paper last year. Ambassador Almojuela also proposed to further collaboration with INTERPOL, OIE and WHO; we would also wish to draw attention to the importance of further collaboration with non-governmental entities. We would also urge States Parties to facilitate regional S&T dialogues that are focused on regional BWC-related interests and problems, and that draw in regional and international expertise to share information and stimulate collaboration and cooperation.”

DRC Ebola Outbreak 
The outbreak has now hit the one year mark and it continues to worsen – with 41 new cases reported since the end of last week. “According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) online Ebola dashboard, the outbreak total now stands at 2,671 cases. The dashboard also recorded a total of 1,782 deaths, an increase in 20 fatalities over the weekend. So far the DRC president’s office, which last week shifted outbreak response activities to its technical group, has not issued any detailed daily updates following the resignation of the country’s health minister.” A day later, the second case of Ebola was identified in the city of Goma. “Reports from DRC journalists and international media outlets said the case was announced at a media briefing where the head of a presidential expert committee, Jean Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, PhD, shared details about the development. The country’s president put the committee in charge of outbreak management on Jul 20, prompting the DRC’s health minister to resign. The infected man, a father of 10 children, is from Mongbwalu, about 43 miles from Bunia, the capital of Ituri province, according to a Tweet from DRC journalist Cedric Ebondo Mulumb. Goma and Bunia are about 347 miles apart, with road travel taking about 13 hours.” The WHO has recently noted how “relentless” this outbreak has been since it began one year ago.

 GMU Biodefense MS and PhD Open Houses
Have you been considering adding to your education and career through a graduate degree in biodefense? Check out one of our Schar School Open Houses to get a feel for what the MS and PhD programs are like – you can chat with faculty, students, and learn more about the coursework and application process. The Master’s Open House will be at 6:30pm on Thursday, September 12th, and the PhD Open House will be at 7pm on Thursday, September 19th – both will be held at our Arlington campus in Van Metre Hall.

MERS-CoV: Novel Zoonotic Disease Outbreak a Hard Lesson for Healthcare
“Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was first identified in 2012 and since then, sporadic but continued outbreaks have been occurring within the Arabian Peninsula. There have been 2,428 cases of the coronavirus since 2012, and 838 associated deaths. Reported across 27 countries, this has been a disease that seems to have found a stronghold and established itself as endemic. MERS-CoV challenges response in that while we have diagnostic testing now, there truly is not treatment outside of supportive measures. Spread through the respiratory secretions of infected individuals, there has also been transmission via close contact (i.e. caring or living with an infected person), and ongoing investigation into the role of camels in zoonotic transmission. The disease does circulate in dromedary camels in Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia, but cases have tended to be related to healthcare exposures and household contacts, with some camel-to-human transmission occurring. Hospitals are encouraged to ensure adherence to Standard, Contact, and Airborne isolation precautions, meaning that the patient should be placed in a negative pressure isolation room and healthcare workers should wear a gown, gloves, eye protection, and N95 respirator. Given the need for these isolation precautions, it’s not surprising that exposures often come from delays in isolation and crowded emergency rooms.”

WHO Statement on Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing
The World Health Organization has released the statement from this expert advisory committee held in March of this year. “At this meeting the Committee in an interim recommendation to the WHO Director-general stated that ‘it would be irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications of human germline genome editing.’ WHO supports this interim recommendation and advises regulatory or ethics authorities to refrain from issuing approvals concerning requests for clinical applications for work that involves human germline genome editing. ‘Human germline genome editing poses unique and unprecedented ethical and technical challenges,’ said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ‘I have accepted the interim recommendations of WHO’s Expert Advisory Committee that regulatory authorities in all countries should not allow any further work in this area until its implications have been properly considered.’ WHO’s Expert Advisory Committee continues its consideration of this matter, and will, at its forthcoming meeting in Geneva on 26-28 August 2019. evaluate, inter alia, effective governance instruments to deter and prevent irresponsible and unacceptable uses of genome edited embryos to initiate human pregnancies.”

Breaking Down Resistant Rumors and C diff Disinfectants
GMU biodefense doctoral student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu discusses how poor communication regarding resistant organisms can cause confusion and misleading headlines. A recent study noted resistance of Clostridioides difficile to disinfectants however, “The investigators sought to treat the gowns with disinfectant to test its efficacy and whether it would help with the bioburden. The research team found that after being treated with the 1000 ppm chlorine-based disinfectant for 10 minutes, the gowns still were able to pick up and hold the C diff spores. This concern over resistance sent shockwaves and many news outlets picked up on this as an indicator of what’s on the horizon. But an issue with the study was the disinfectant that was used. First and foremost, as an infection preventionist and the first to stand on my soapbox to shout about the perils of antimicrobial resistance, I know that the efficacy of our disinfectants will eventually fail. The issue with this study is that much of the media coverage speaks broadly of a chlorine-based disinfectant and goes into little detail about what exactly what used. For my infection prevention peers, you know that not all disinfectants are alike and, well, some just weren’t designed for combatting hardier bugs like C diff. This is the playbook we live by in health care.”

 Rinderpest, Smallpox, and the Imperative of Destruction
To destroy or not to destroy…that is indeed the question. “In June, The Pirbright Institute (UK) announced that it had destroyed its final archived stocks of rinderpest, the devastating viral disease of cattle that was declared eradicated in 2011. Rinderpest is only the second infection to be eradicated from the wild. The decision raises the question once again of what to do with the remaining stocks of the first eradicated virus—smallpox. The Pirbright Institute did not hold the final stocks of rinderpest in existence; samples are also known to be stored in a handful of facilities in China, Ethiopia, France, Japan, and the USA. Still, The Pirbright Institute is the World Reference Laboratory for rinderpest, previously storing more than 3000 viral samples. That it has taken the decision to destroy them represents a bold commitment to permanently ridding the world of the disease and should encourage others to do the same. France plans to destroy its remaining stocks, and discussions continue at other facilities.” The debate surrounding the survival and destruction of smallpox stocks has been ongoing for decades – some argue the risk of accidental or intentional release is too great, while others argue that destruction would remove the potential for research…however the Pirbright Institute’s practice countered this with their “sequence and destroy” policy, which is encouraging others to push for this policy regarding smallpox. “Smallpox stocks have been earmarked for destruction since eradication of the disease in 1980. Yet, successive meetings of the World Health Assembly have postponed making a final recommendation while the threat of re-emergence from elsewhere remains. At its last meeting in September, 2018, the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research told WHO that live virus is still needed for the development of new antivirals, with split opinion on whether it is needed for diagnostics. Huge strides have been made in these areas in recent years. New more advanced and safer vaccines have been developed; new diagnostic tests are in development; and the first specific antiviral for smallpox—tecovirimat—was approvedby the US Food and Drug Administration in June last year, after some innovative regulatory manoeuvres. The deliberations over smallpox stocks happen regularly, but the decisions are ad-hoc. For rinderpest, destruction seems only a matter of time. Smallpox stocks will also likely be destroyed once diagnostics are finalised and a second antiviral, with a different mode of action in case of resistance, is approved (many are in development).”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Surge in Drug-Resistant HIV Across Africa, Asia, and the Americas – “Surveys by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveal that, in the past 4 years, 12 countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas have surpassed acceptable levels of drug resistance against two drugs that constitute the backbone of HIV treatment: efavirenz and nevirapine. People living with HIV are routinely treated with a cocktail of drugs, known as antiretroviral therapy, but the virus can mutate into a resistant form. The WHO conducted surveys from 2014 to 2018 in randomly selected clinics in 18 countries, and examined the levels of resistance in people who had started HIV treatment during that period. More than 10% of adults with the virus have developed resistance to these drugs in 12 nations (see ‘Resistance rises’). Above this threshold, it’s not considered safe to prescribe the same HIV medicines to the rest of the population, because resistance could increase. Researchers published the findings this month in WHO report.”

Pandora Report: 7.26.2019

 Summer Workshop on Bioterrorism, Pandemics, and Global Health Security – A Recap
“The spectrum of biological threats is often much wider than many realize. From the current Ebola virus disease outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to CRISPR-designed babies, there are a lot of biological issues that trickle over into health care and public health. This week, I attended the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika, where conversations ranged from protecting the bioeconomy to vaccine development. Here are the key takeaways: First, it’s a startling truth, but biological threats aren’t just black and white, but a vast spectrum of gray. We no longer live in a world where it’s just pandemics and bioterrorism, but also conversations surrounding dual-use research of concern (DURC), gene drive worries with CRISPR-modified mosquitoes, pandemic response, vaccine development, and so much more. FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward You discussed concerns of garage biohacking and how the US government has policies on oversight for life sciences DURC. Furthermore, You discussed synthetic biology and how the price for DNA synthesis kits (ie, biohacking kits) have dramatically dropped over the years.”

Bashar al-Assad is Waging Biological War – By Neglect
Going against the traditional definition of biological warfare, Annie Sparrow discusses how the deliberate efforts by the Assad regime to destroy public health and healthcare are actually a form of biological warfare. “Beyond being unpredictable and difficult to control, anthrax or sarin attacks are too visible and risk a global reaction. And in war, they kill in far smaller numbers and much less reliably than common diseases and wound infections. In contrast, the behavior of Assad’s preferred pathogens is predictable. Here lies the key to a far more insidious strategy: By deliberately degrading an already precarious public health situation, the new biological warfare is able to fly under the radar. Assad’s most visible mass atrocities include indiscriminate attacks on and the resulting forced displacement of civilians, devastating sieges, and assaults on hospitals. But an unappreciated dimension of his total-war strategy has been his attacks on public health infrastructure and programs in order to fast-track the epidemic diseases that thrive in the crowded living conditions created by mass displacement, while simultaneously withholding essential public health tools and medicines. The aim is to weaken the entire population in these areas and overburden the rudimentary medical facilities that were able to survive in an effort to punish populations opposed to Assad. While there is a brutal battlefield logic to these attacks on health care infrastructure, they are prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, which are designed to spare civilians—and the institutions on which they depend—from the hazards of war. Assad is deliberately engaging in war crimes.”

In Memory of Prof. Andrew Price-Smith
The biodefense world got a bit dimmer with the passing of one its greats – Dr. Andrew Price-Smith. The author of one of my personal favorites – Contagions and Chaos, “Professor Andrew Price-Smith, David Packard Professor of International Relations and Director of the Global Health Initiative, passed away last week after a lengthy illness. He is survived by his wife, Janell Price-Smith, and their two children. Our thoughts and prayers are with Drew’s family, colleagues, and friends. Professor Price-Smith joined the CC faculty in 2005 and served as chair of the political science department from 2013-2016 and as the founding director of our Global Health Initiative. Drew’s research focused on the effects of disease, environmental change, and energy scarcity on the security of nations and taught courses on the environment, health and security, and international relations.”

 UK Parliament Inquiry into Government’s Biosecurity Efforts
It’s been a year since the UK Government published their first ever Biosecurity Strategy, and the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy is set to inquire how they’re approaching biosecurity and human health. “The strategy is intended to coordinate a cross-government approach to biosecurity threats, whether they materialise naturally, accidentally or deliberately in the form of a malicious attack. It cites globalisation and technology as key factors in today’s biosecurity risks. The Government has long prioritised public health as a national security issue, with pandemics and emerging infectious diseases categorised as a top-tier risk in the 2010 and 2015 National Security Risk Assessments. Attacks using biological weapons are categorised as a second-tier risk, along with attacks using chemical, radiological and nuclear weapons. In 2018, the Government’s National Security Capability Review elevated ‘diseases and natural hazards affecting the UK’ to one of six principal challenges likely to drive national security priorities over the coming decade.” You can read the UK Biological Security Strategy here,  which “recognises the importance of intervening early to prevent biological threats from emerging, or from spreading once they emerge. To this end, it sets out how we will make best use of our international activity to help reduce the risks to the UK and our interests, at home and overseas. This includes our engagement with international partners (at local, regional and national levels) and forums. Our investment in overseas biological security education and our international work on global health security, led by DHSC and DFID, is building resilience to health threats in developing countries.”

Ebola Outbreak Updates
The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in the DRC has been changing daily, but here’s an update to help catch you up. On Wednesday, it was reported that more violence has occurred in the outbreak region, “the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group, attacked two villages near Beni, killing 12 people who live in the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC’s) ongoing Ebola outbreak. The terrorists killed nine in Eringeti and three in Oicha, according to Reuters. ADF has not publically pledged allegiance to the Islamic state (ISIL), but that hasn’t stopped ISIL from claiming responsibility for the attacks.” This comes has the World Bank Group announced it would be mobilizing $300 million to help respond to the outbreak. “The US$300 million in grants and credits will be largely financed through the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) and its Crisis Response Window, which is designed to help countries respond to severe crises and return to their long-term development paths. The financing package will cover the Ebola-affected health zones in DRC and enable the government, WHO, UNICEF, WFP, IOM and other responders to step up the frontline health response, deliver cash-for-work programs to support the local economy, strengthen resilience in the affected communities, and contain the spread of this deadly virus. This amount is approximately half of the anticipated financing needs of the Fourth Strategic Response Plan (SRP4), which is expected to be finalized in the coming week by the Government and the international consortium of partners working on the response. The World Bank has been supporting programs to combat DRC’s ongoing battle with Ebola since May 2018, with resources going to the frontline response, health system strengthening, and preparedness to reduce the risk of spread.” This outbreak in particular has forced response efforts to change the way we approach not only outbreak control, but also vaccine deployment. “Every aspect of the outbreak is affected by the area’s long history of conflict and trauma. Residents have endured more than two decades of terror from armed groups, along with resource exploitation, political instability and neglect from the world at large. That has bred distrust of authorities — including foreign health workers — and conspiracy theories about why Ebola is thriving. One popular rumour alleges that Ebola responders inject people with deadly substances at treatment centres and vaccination sites. These false ideas have fostered nearly 200 attacks on Ebola responders and treatment centres so far this year, according to the WHO. Seven people have been killed and 58 injured.” You can check the latest case-counts here, which shows now 2,620 cases.

Defense Officials See Increased Threat from Chinese, Russian Chem-Bio Weapons
At a recent CBRN Conference, a hot topic of concern was the threat of Chinese and Russian CBW. In fact – Dr. Kilianski (GMU biodefense professor) spoke on this – “Much attention has been focused on Russia and China’s modernization of their nuclear and conventional forces. But there is growing concern at the Pentagon about those nations’ chemical and biological weapons, U.S. officials said July 23. There is now an increased focus on threats posed by near-peer adversaries, noted Andrew Kilianski, chief intelligence officer at the joint program executive office for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense. ‘They’re in that emerging space … in terms of things we haven’t seen before or things that we don’t have a lot of information on,’ he said during remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual CBRN Conference and Exhibition in Wilmington, Delaware. The question now is, ‘how do we build capability against a threat space which … we don’t know much about?’ he added”.

DARPA Awards ASU Contract to Build Epigenetic-based WMD Exposure Measurement Tool
For $38.8 million, Arizona State University will get the chance to help build a measurement tool against WMDs. “Arizona State University announced today that it has been awarded $38.8 million by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a field-deployable, point-of-care device that can determine if a person has been exposed to weapons of mass destruction or their precursors, in 30 minutes or less. The grant, which will be funded over four years in phases and options, was awarded under DARPA’s Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO) program, which aims to identify epigenetic signatures created by exposure to threat agents and to develop technology that performs highly specific forensic and diagnostic analyses to reveal the exact type and time of exposure. ASU said the device it plans to develop will be capable of detecting the health effects of a number of substances associated with weapons of mass destruction — including biological agents, radiation, chemicals, and explosives — from a single drop of blood. The technology could also eventually be used for simple, low-cost monitoring of epigenetic changes to detect a broad range of human diseases.”

 Troublesome Ticks: Dispelling Bioweapon Rumors
“A government-owned island used for biodefense testing, a devastating vector-borne disease, and an amendment quietly slipped into major legislation—Although these might sound like scenes from the latest sci-fi movie, they are actually part of a current hot topic that stemmed from some rather poor information. Let’s start from the beginning as we tackle the misinformation circulating in today’s anti-vaccine movement. Plum Island, as idyllic as it sounds, is an island off the coast of Orient Point, New York. Purchased by the US government in the 1950s, it became the home for animal disease research, first for the US Army and then for the US Department of Agriculture. The island is now the site of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC), which falls under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Office of National Laboratories (ONL). The island allows PIADC to maintain a safe, isolated area to develop biodefense efforts to defend against intentional, accidental, or natural animal diseases like foot-and-mouth (FMD), which can be devastating to cattle. Hundreds of investigators and employees come to the island to work on research, which can include efforts of treatment, diagnostics, vaccines, and bioforensics. Not surprisingly, rumors about the island and its work have swirled for decades. Like all the other biodefense laboratories, it maintains a heavy biosecurity and biosafety culture.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Highly Resistant Malaria Spreading Rapidly in Southeast Asia – “An aggressive strain of drug-resistant malaria that originated in Cambodia has rapidly spread into neighboring countries, causing high rates of treatment failure to first-line treatment and complicating efforts to eliminate the disease, according to two studies published yesterday in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. One of the studies found that the KEL1/PLA1 strain of Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria, now accounts for more than 80% of the malaria parasites in northeastern Thailand and Vietnam, and has acquired new genetic mutations that have enhanced its fitness and ability to resist treatment. The strain is resistant to dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine, a form of artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) that has been the first-line treatment for malaria in Cambodia for more than a decade, and was more recently adopted as the preferred treatment in Thailand and Vietnam.”
  • Outbreak of Chapare-like Virus in Bolivia– “On June 28, 2019, the Bolivian Ministry of Health received notice of three cases of hemorrhagic fever syndrome. Two additional cases have since been reported. Current evidence suggests that the etiologic agent is Chapare virus or a similar virus, according to the US CDC”.

 

Pandora Report 7.19.2019

Ebola Outbreak Updates- From PHEIC Declaration to Vaccines 
On Wednesday, the WHO declared the outbreak a PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern). “‘It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts. We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system,’ said Dr. Tedros. ‘Extraordinary work has been done for almost a year under the most difficult circumstances. We all owe it to these responders — coming from not just WHO but also government, partners and communities — to shoulder more of the burden.’ The declaration followed a meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee for EVD in the DRC. The Committee cited recent developments in the outbreak in making its recommendation, including the first confirmed case in Goma, a city of almost two million people on the border with Rwanda, and the gateway to the rest of DRC and the world.” A new case of Ebola has been identified in the city of Goma, which represents what the WHO is calling “a game-changer” since the city is a major transportation hub. On July 11th, it was announced that “the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) ministry of health and government officials have agreed that Merck’s rVSV-ZEBOV is the only vaccine that will be used during the current, ever-growing Ebola outbreak in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. ‘Due to the lack of sufficient scientific evidence on the efficacy and safety of other vaccines as well as the risk of confusion among the population, it was decided that no clinical vaccine trials will be allowed throughout the country,’ the ministry said in its daily update yesterday. As of yesterday, a total of 158,830 people have been vaccinated with rVSV-ZEBOV, which clinical data suggest has as high as a 97.5% effectiveness rate against the virus.”

Trump Administration Gutting WMD Detection Programs
Despite 2017 pledges to secure, eliminate, and prevent the spread of WMD and related materials, a new investigation has found that such efforts through the Department of Homeland Security, have been drastically impacted. “Among the programs gutted since 2017, however, was an elite Homeland Security ‘red team,’ whose specialists conducted dozens of drills and assessments around the country each year to help federal, state and local officials detect such potential threats as an improvised nuclear device concealed in a suitcase, or a cargo ship carrying a radiation-spewing ‘dirty bomb.’ Another Homeland Security unit, the Operations Support Directorate, had helped lead up to 20 WMD-related training exercises each year with state and local authorities. The directorate participated in less than 10 such exercises last year and even fewer so far this year, according to internal Homeland Security documents.” The Homeland Security’s National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center has also seen a hit as their leadership is out and staffing has dropped from 14 to 3. “A separate Homeland Security component, the International Cooperation Division, which worked closely with foreign counterparts and the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency to track and stop the smuggling of dangerous nuclear materials overseas, has been disbanded.” “Homeland Security also has halted work to update a formal ‘strategic, integrated’ assessment of chemical, biological and nuclear-related risks.” The investigation also notes that more than 100 scientists and policy experts who specialize in radiological and nuclear threats, have either been reassigned or pushed into jobs that are wholly unrelated to their works. ‘The changes have undermined the U.S. government’s multi-agency commitment since 2006 to build and maintain a ‘global nuclear detection architecture,’ according to the present and former officials.”

 Weaponized Ticks, Lyme Disease, and the Smith Amendment
Remember that time a conspiracy-theory book triggered an investigation into whether the DoD ever weaponized ticks? Well here we are…. Earlier this week the US House of Representatives voted on the Smith Amendment on Bioweaponization of Ticks – and it passed. A lot of this stems from stories of Plum Island and the whispers that Lyme disease actually originated from the testing site and ticks were either intentionally or accidentally released into the surrounding areas…triggering the disease a few decades ago. Since the release of a book on the “secret history of Lyme disease and biological weapons”, there’s been a renewed interest in the bedtime story of the disease’s sinister origin story. Unfortunately, the proposed investigation really doesn’t hit the nail on the head. For one, it’s been widely known for years that ticks, among other vectors, were a part of the bioweapons and biodefense research. Two, the “smoking gun” within the book that’s been used to reinvigorate interest, claims an interview with Dr. Willy Durgdorfer (the researcher who identified Lyme disease) gave confirmation of the true origin of the disease….alas, this was reported post-mortem, when he was not able to confirm or deny such statements. Third, Lyme disease actually has some pretty old origins. Last, but not least, this new amendment doesn’t even touch on Lyme disease…but rather focuses on if the DoD did experiments with insects and vectors as disease delivery systems…which we already know to be true. Ultimately, this does a disservice to not only the people with Lyme disease, but also encourages conspiracy theories.

Using “Outbreak Science” to Strengthen Usage of Models in Epidemics
If you’ve been on the frontlines of an outbreak, you’ve likely heard of disease modeling…but sometimes it can be hard to actually apply this technology to drive change. A new article has created “outbreak science” as an inter-disciplinary field to apply epidemic modeling in a way that can really help. “Nevertheless, the integration of those analyses into the decision-making cycle for the Ebola 2014–2016 epidemic was not seamless, a pattern repeated across many recent outbreaks, including Zika. Reasons for this vary. Modeling and outbreak data analysis efforts typically occur in silos with limited communication of methods and data between model developers and end users. Modeling “cross talk” across stakeholders within and between countries is also typically limited, often occurring within a landscape of legal and ethical uncertainty. Specifically, the ethics of performing research using surveillance and health data, limited knowledge of what types of questions models can help inform, data sharing restrictions, and the incentive in academia to quickly publish modeling results in peer-reviewed journals contribute to a complex collaborative environment with different and sometimes conflicting stakeholder goals and priorities. To remedy these challenges, we propose the establishment of ‘outbreak science’ as an inter-disciplinary field to improve the implementation of models and critical data analyses in epidemic response. This new track of outbreak science describes the functional use of models, clinical knowledge, laboratory results, data science, statistics, and other advanced analytical methods to specifically support public health decision making between and during outbreak threats. Outbreak scientists work with decision makers to turn outbreak data into actionable information for decisions about how to anticipate the course of an outbreak, allocate scarce resources, and prioritize and implement public health interventions. Here, we make three specific recommendations to get the most out of modeling efforts during outbreaks and epidemics.” From establishing functional model capacity and fostering relationships before things happen to investing in functional model capabilities, this guide could be a game-changer for outbreak response.

Building a Case of (non?)compliance Concern
Looking for a new book? Check out this review of Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia – “In the early 1990s, the world was rocked when defectors from the Soviet Union revealed the existence of a massive civilian and military biological-weapons program that had employed more than 65,000 people from 1928 to 1992, directly contravening the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). In 2012, Raymond Zilinskas, a leading biological- weapons expert, coauthored with Milton Leitenberg a comprehensive account of the program, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History, a reference source so thorough that it ran to nearly a thousand pages. Last year, Zilinskas, in collaboration with Philippe Mauger, produced Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia, a sequel of sorts in which the cautionary note that Zilinskas and Leitenberg sounded earlier—that Russia’s relationship with biological weapons remained complicated, and that the current status of its old programs could not be verified—proved to have been foreshadowing.”

Modeling the Complexities of the Gut for Biodefense Application
“The Nutritional Immunology and Molecular Medicine Laboratory (NIMML), with research funding assistance from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), has developed a high-resolution model of the gut immune system to help solve emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases and biodefense challenges. The advanced model predicts new emerging behaviors and responses to biological threats. The gut ecosystem includes trillions of interactions between host epithelial and immune cells, molecules (cytokines, chemokines and metabolites) and microbes is a massively and dynamically interacting network, like a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle with pieces that are constantly changing shape. These interactions with cooperativity and feedback lead to nonlinear dynamics and unforeseen emergent behaviors across spatiotemporal scales. The NIMML agent-based modeling (ABM) of the gut uses an array of HPC-driven advanced computational technologies such as the ENteric Immunity SImulator (ENISI) – multiscale modeling (MSM). These models and tools simulate cell phenotype changes, signaling pathways, immune responses, lesion formation, cytokine, chemokine and metabolite diffusions, and cell movements at the gut mucosa.”

Radiation Injury Treatment Network Meeting 
Are you attending this event later this month? If so, check out GMU Biodefense doctoral student Mary Sproull discussing Radiation Biodosimetry – A Mass Screening Tool for Radiological/Nuclear Events.

MERS-CoV Clusters
New WHO insight into 14 cases has identified 2 clusters that involved 4 of the infected people. “Of the 14 patients, 3 had been exposed to camels, a known risk factor for contracting the virus. Ten were men and four were women, and patient ages ranged from 22 to 80. Eleven had underlying health conditions, which is a risk factor for MERS. Ten were from Riyadh region, with other cases reported from Jeddah, Medina, Najran, and Al Qassim. One of the clusters involved two people living in the same household in Al Kharj in Riyadh region, a 22-year-old woman who had diabetes and epilepsy and a 44-year-old woman who had no underlying health conditions. The other cluster consisted of a 65-year-old male patient and a 23-year-old female healthcare worker in Riyadh. Five of the people died from their infections.”

CDC Announces E Coli Outbreak Linked to Ground Bison
Put down your bison burger and take a slow step back….”The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have announced that they are collaborating with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to investigate a multistate outbreak of E coli O103 and E coli O121 infections. Early epidemiologic and traceback information point to ground bison products as the likely source of the outbreak. As of July 12, 2019, there have been 21 individuals infected with E coli in this outbreak. In total, 6 individuals have been infected with the O103 strain, 13 cases of the O121 strain have been confirmed, and 2 individuals have been found to be infected with both strains.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Polio in Pakistan – “The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) today reported nine new cases of wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1), and, for the first time in more than a year, China has confirmed a case of vaccine-derived poliovirus. In addition, Angola has a new circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) case. The Pakistan patients reported symptom onset on dates ranging from May 28 to Jun 20. The total number of WPV1 cases recorded in Pakistan this year is now 41; last year, the country recorded 12 cases over the entire year. Five of the nine cases originated in Bannu province, where health workers have been targeted by anti-vaccine extremists.”
  • Food Defense and Intentional Adulteration Rule Training – “The Food Protection and Defense Institute is hosting a Food Defense and Intentional Adulteration Rule training on August 20-21 in Minneapolis, MN. This two-day course provides the convenience and interaction of a single, in person class to more comprehensively learn the breadth and interconnections of IA Rule requirements including how to: Prepare a Food Defense Plan Conduct vulnerability assessments including the full FSPCA Intentional Adulteration, Conducting Vulnerability Assessment Course (IAVA) Identify and explain mitigation strategies, Conduct reanalysis”

Pandora Report: 7.12.2019

 Summer Workshop Welcomes New Instructor
We’re excited to announce that Nancy Connell will be joining us for the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security next week. Dr. Connell “is a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a visiting Professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a microbial geneticist by training. Dr. Connell’s work at the Center is focused on advances in life sciences and technology and their application to a number of developments in the areas of biosecurity, biosafety and biodefense.  Her research projects analyze novel biotechnologies that might impact the development of Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (GCBR) in ecosystems, and the development of surge capacity for medical countermeasure manufacturing and other response mechanisms in the event of a global pandemic or other global catastrophic event.  Dr. Connell is a member of the Board on Life Sciences and is a National Associate of the National Academies of Sciences, and she completed a six-month sabbatical as Visiting Scholar at the Board on Life Sciences.  Dr. Connell is a member of the US-CDC’s Biological Agent Containment Working Group in the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response and was recently appointed the serve on the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Before joining the Center, Dr. Connell was Professor and Director of Research in the Division of Infectious Disease in the Department of Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the Rutgers Biomedical Health Sciences.  Dr. Connell’s major research focus was antibacterial drug discovery in respiratory pathogens such as M. tuberculosis and B. anthracis. Dr. Connell chaired the Institutional Biosafety Committee of Rutgers University and directed NJMS’s biosafety level three containment laboratory beginning in 1997. Her recent work focused on the use of predatory bacteria as novel therapeutics for treatment of Gram negative bacterial infections, including MDR strains and select agents. Dr. Connell was continuously funded by the NIH, the Department of Defense and DARPA, industry, and/or other sources from 1992 to 2018.  She received a PhD in microbial genetics from Harvard University.” If you’re not able to make the workshop next week, keep an eye on the @PandoraReport twitter for updates.

Is the U.S. Ready for A Tech War?
GMU Biodefense doctoral alum Daniel Gerstein discusses technological priorities and how the US invests in technological advances related to national security. “Today, important technology development changes are underway that could dramatically affect world order. The continued shift in global research and development spending highlights how far U.S. dominance has eroded. In 1960, when considering federal, industry and academia, the United States accounted for 69 percent of the global R&D. By 2016, the United States accounted for only 28 percent of the global R&D. With such a shift, it is no wonder that U.S. technology leadership and superiority can no longer be assured.” Gerstein notes that “the Trump administration should develop technology priorities, and technologies considered vital to U.S. economic and national security should receive investments to stimulate advances and promote U.S. leadership. The administration’s recent call to have greater industry investment in basic research, in lieu of government funding, seems shortsighted and should be reconsidered given the emerging tech war. A reevaluation of programs such as export controls, programs for approving foreign investment transactions, and intellectual property protections would also be useful to both protect and promote U.S. technology.”

Ebola Outbreak – Cases Surge with Violence – and How the CDC Made a Synthetic Ebola Virus to Test Treatments
Recently, the WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros, warned that instability in the DRC is fueling the Ebola outbreak. “In an interview with The Guardian, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said the political climate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is preventing an end to the current Ebola outbreak. ‘The root cause of the problem is lack of peace, the lack of a political solution. The incidence of Ebola, malaria and cholera is the symptom,’ Tedros told the British newspaper. ‘I know we can finish this Ebola outbreak…But at the same time it can come back because all the [political and security] conditions remain the same.’ The DRC outbreak expanded by 10 cases today, to 2,428 cases, according to the WHO’s online Ebola dashboard. Tedros’s comments come 1 day after the UK’s International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart, returned from a trip to the DRC and called on G7 world leaders to increase funding for outbreak response. ‘There is a real danger, that if we lose control of this outbreak, it could spread beyond DRC’s borders to the wider region and the wider world. Diseases like Ebola have no respect for borders and are a threat to us all,’ Stewart said in a Department for International Development (DID) news release.” Ebola has been challenging response efforts since 2013 and the CDC has been working to combat testing and treatment roadblocks through a unique strategy – a synthetic Ebola virus. Helen Branswell recently discussed how the CDC created a synthetic version of the Ebola virus to help guide diagnostic tests and experimental treatments…and it ended up working. “The research, conducted in the agency’s most secure laboratories — BSL4 — showed that even though the tests and two of the treatments being used in the field were developed based on earlier variation of Ebola viruses, they continue to be effective against the virus causing the current outbreak, the second largest on record. The results, reported Tuesday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, are encouraging, but also raise questions about why outside research groups have not received direct access to viral specimens from the DRC and instead had to create a synthetic version. The paper noted that there have been no Ebola samples available to the scientific community from the past four outbreaks in the DRC. Those outbreaks occurred in 2014, 2017, and 2018.”

Mason Hosts Department of Homeland Security Centers of Excellence 2019 Summit 
“George Mason University will host Homeland Security Challenges: Evolving Threats and Dynamic Solutions, a Department of Homeland Security Centers of Excellence Summit, July 31-Aug. 1 at its Arlington Campus. The summit is an opportunity to gather some of the nation’s best academic, public, and private sector leaders to discuss strategies for advancing the DHS mission. Sponsored through the DHS Science and Technology Directorate Office of University Programs, the Department of Homeland Security Centers of Excellence network is a consortium of universities conducting groundbreaking research to address homeland security challenges by developing multidisciplinary, customer-driven, homeland security science and technology solutions and helping train the next generation of homeland security experts. The summit provides a platform for creating connections, fostering collaborations and inspiring new ideas to address homeland security challenges. It also provides an opportunity to highlight student research and innovative problem solving.”

ASPR Updates- the SNS and Biodefense Strategy Summit 
The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) just released several good resources for the biodefense community. First, they’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) and you can find some great information on it here. “When state, local, tribal, and territorial responders request federal assistance to support their response efforts, the stockpile ensures that the right medicines and supplies get to those who need them most during an emergency. Organized for scalable response to a variety of public health threats, this repository contains enough supplies to respond to multiple large-scale emergencies simultaneously.” Next, ASPR provided the transcripts from the Biodefense Summit that occurred in April. “The Biodefense Summit, was held on April 17, 2019 in Washington, D.C.  The Summit aimed to engage the biodefense stakeholder community to inform national biodefense enterprise efforts to counter biological threats, reduce risk, prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from biological incidents. The Summit informed stakeholders of the implementation of the National Biodefense Strategy. “

Arizona Battles Hepatitis A
Arizona is working to contain an outbreak of hepatitis A and GMU biodefense doctoral student Saskia Popescu discusses how they’re incorporating healthcare providers into these efforts. “Despite making great strides in reducing the burden of HAV, Arizona is experiencing a growing outbreak that began in late 2018. Currently, there have been 424 cases and 3 deaths documented since November 2018, with a 79% hospitalization rate. The outbreak has spread to 7 counties within Arizona, including the largest—Maricopa. A total of 48% of Arizona’s HAV cases have occurred in those individuals who are homeless and report drug use, 25% of cases have been in those reporting using drugs (ie, no reported homelessness), and 22% of cases are in individuals with no identified risk factors. Public health investigators found that 28% of the cases have been in patients who are currently or were recently incarcerated. Five percent of the HAV cases in this ongoing Arizona outbreak have been reported in patients who report homelessness, but no drug use.  More recently, an employee at a restaurant in Maricopa County tested positive for HAV and may have exposed people visiting the restaurant over a 9-day period from late May to June. Public health officials are encouraging those patrons to get vaccinated against HAV to reduce the risk of transmission.”

Worldwide Reduction in MERS-CoV Cases Since 2016
In the latest CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, they note the overall decline in MERS-CoV cases and mortality since 2016. “From 2012 through May 31, 2019, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) has infected 2,442 persons and killed 842 worldwide. MERS-CoV is currently circulating in dromedary camels in Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia; however, most cases of human infection have been reported in the Arabian Peninsula. Large hospital outbreaks in 2014 and 2015 motivated affected countries to substantially invest in prevention and control activities. To estimate the potential number of MERS cases and deaths that might have been averted since 2016 had the risk levels of 2014–2015 continued, we analyzed case-based data on laboratory-confirmed human cases of MERS-CoV infections reported to the World Health Organization. We categorized cases as either secondary (human-to-human transmission) or community-acquired (presumed camel-to-human transmission). In addition, we used case-based data on date of onset (for symptomatic infections) or report (for asymptomatic infections), outcome (died/recovered), and dates and sizes of reported clusters of human-to-human–transmission cases”.

Self-destructing Mosquitoes and Sterilized Rodents: the Promise of Gene Drives
What might the consequences of this novel biotech be? In the face of potential eradication of disease and alteration of an entire animal population’s genome, researchers have very real concerns. “As soon as researchers began to make gene drives regularly in labs, animals developed resistance against them — accumulating mutations that prevented the drives from spreading. In tests of two drives inserted into fruit flies, for example, genetic variants conferring resistance formed frequently. Most commonly, mutations alter a sequence that CRISPR is set to recognize, preventing the gene from being edited. In experiments with caged mosquitoes, Crisanti and Target Malaria researcher Tony Nolan watched a gene drive gradually decrease in frequency over multiple generations owing to resistant mutations at the target gene. The results rocked the field. Would resistance render gene drives impotent? Not necessarily — if researchers select the right target. Some genes are highly conserved, meaning that any change is likely to kill their owners. Picking these genes as a drive target means fewer mutations and less resistance. In September 2018, Crisanti and his team crashed a population of caged Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes with 100% efficiency by making a drive that disrupts a fertility gene called doublesex. With the drive in place, female mosquitoes cannot bite and do not lay eggs; within 8–12 generations, the caged populations produced no eggs at all. And because it is crucial for procreation, doublesex is resistant to mutations, including those that would confer resistance to a drive construct.” “Before Kevin Esvelt ever built a single CRISPR-based gene drive, he’d wake up in cold sweats thinking about the ramifications. ‘I realized, oh hey, this isn’t just going to be about malaria, this is potentially going to be something any individual who can make a transgenic fruit fly could build to edit all the fruit flies.’”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • UK Works to Test New Payment Model for Antibiotics – “In an effort to stimulate the development of new antibiotics, Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) yesterday announced the launch of a trial for a new pilot program that will pay drug companies for antibiotics using a subscription-style model. Under the program, NHS will pay pharmaceutical companies up front for access to effective antibiotics, rather than reimbursing them based on the quantity of antibiotics sold. The idea behind the program is to delink profit from the volume sold, pay for antibiotics based on their public health value, and encourage the development of new antibiotics.”

Pandora Report: 6.28.2019

Summer Workshop – Early Registration Discount Ends Soon
Just a few more days to get your early registration discount and we’ve only got a few spots left – make sure to grab yours! We’re excited to have top professionals and researchers in the health security field speak to the biological threats we’re facing- from securing the bioeconomy to vaccine development and pandemic preparedness, you’ll want to be there for the 3.5 days of all things pandemics, bioterrorism, and global health security.

Re-thinking Biological Arms Control for the 21st Century
Dr. Filippa Lentzos discusses the challenges of biological arms control in the face of synthetic biology and technological advances. “Innovations in biotechnology are expanding the toolbox to modify genes and organisms at a stagger- ing pace, making it easier to produce increasingly dangerous pathogens. Disease-causing organisms can now be modified to increase their virulence, expand their host range, increase their transmissibility, or enhance their resistance to therapeutic interventions. Scientific advances are also making it theoretically possible to create entirely novel biological weapons, by synthetically creating known or extinct pathogens or entirely new pathogens. Scientists could potentially enlarge the target of bioweapons from the immune system to the nervous system, genome, or microbiome, or they could weaponize ‘gene drives’ that would rapidly and cheaply spread harmful genes through animal and plant populations.” Lentos notes that “The political backdrop to these technical advances in biotechnologies and other emerging technologies is also important. There is increased worldwide militarization, with global military spending at an all-time high since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unrestrained military procurement and modernization is creating distrust and ex- acerbating tensions. In the biological field, the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated biodefense capacities, within and among states, can lead to nations doubting one another’s intentions.”

GAO – Biodefense: The Nation Faces Long-Standing Challenges Related to Defending Against Biological Threats
The GAO testified before a House committee on their efforts to identify and strengthen U.S. biodefense and here are their overall findings in a report. Despite President Trump signing off on the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovations Act (PAHPA) on Monday, there is still a lot of work to be done. “Catastrophic biological events have the potential to cause loss of life, and sustained damage to the economy, societal stability, and global security. The biodefense enterprise is the whole combination of systems at every level of government and the private sector that contribute to protecting the nation and its citizens from potentially catastrophic effects of a biological event. Since 2009, GAO has identified cross-cutting issues in federal leadership, coordination, and collaboration that arise from working across the complex interagency, intergovernmental, and intersectoral biodefense enterprise. In 2011, GAO reported that there was no broad, integrated national strategy that encompassed all stakeholders with biodefense responsibilities and called for the development of a national biodefense strategy. In September 2018, the White House released a National Biodefense Strategy. This statement discusses GAO reports issued from December 2009 through March 2019 on various biological threats and biodefense efforts, and selected updates to BioWatch recommendations made in 2015. To conduct prior work, GAO reviewed biodefense reports, relevant presidential directives, laws, regulations, policies, strategic plans; surveyed states; and interviewed federal, state, and industry officials, among others.” GAO identified several challenges in the ability for the U.S. to defend against biological threats: “Assessing enterprise-wide threats. In October 2017, GAO found there was no existing mechanism across the federal government that could leverage threat awareness information to direct resources and set budgetary priorities across all agencies for biodefense. GAO said at the time that the pending biodefense strategy may address this. Situational awareness and data integration. GAO reported in 2009 and 2015 that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC)—created to integrate data across the federal government to enhance detection and situational awareness of biological events—has suffered from longstanding challenges related to its clarity of purpose and collaboration with other agencies. DHS implemented GAO’s 2009 recommendation to develop a strategy, but in 2015 GAO found NBIC continued to face challenges, such as limited partner participation in the center’s activities. Biodetection technologies. DHS has faced challenges in clearly justifying the need for and establishing the capabilities of the BioWatch program—a system designed to detect an aerosolized biological terrorist attack. In October 2015, GAO recommended that DHS not pursue upgrades until it takes steps to establish BioWatch’s technical capabilites. While DHS agreed and described a series of tests to establish capabilities, it continued to pursue upgrades. Biological laboratory safety and security. Since 2008, GAO has identified challenges and areas for improvement related to the safety, security, and oversight of high-containment laboratories, which, among other things, conduct research on hazardous pathogens—such as the Ebola virus. GAO recommended that agencies take actions to avoid safety and security lapses at laboratories, such as better assessing risks, coordinating inspections, and reporting inspection results. Many recommendations have been addressed, but others remain open, such as finalizing guidance on documenting the shipment of dangerous biological material.”

ABSA 1st International Biosecurity Symposium Call for Papers
“You are now able to submit papers for ABSA’s 1st International Biosecurity Symposium. The symposium will take place May 12-15, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We anticipate having attendees from all over the world and approximately 20 commercial exhibits. The professional development courses will take place Tuesday, May 12, 2020. The symposium presentations (platform/poster) will take place Wednesday, May 13 to Friday, May 15, 2020. The Call for Platform/Posters Abstract submission deadline is July 31, 2019 at 5pm Central.”

Blue Ribbon Panel – U.S. Is Not Prepared for Biological Incidents – Testimony
June 26th- “Dr. Asha George, Executive Director of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, served as an expert witness this afternoon before the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security. Chaired by Rep. Stephen Lynch (MA), the Subcommittee is evaluating the readiness of the U.S. government and healthcare system, including hospital and emergency professionals, to respond to naturally occurring pandemics and biological attacks that could be perpetrated by state and non-state actors. The Subcommittee also is investigating the growing threat of antimicrobial-resistance, as well as the implications of this challenge for U.S. national security. ‘Our Panel has assessed and continues to assess the state of our country’s biodefense. We scrutinize the status of prevention, deterrence, preparedness, detection, response, attribution, recovery, and mitigation – the spectrum of activities necessary for biodefense,’ said Dr. George. ‘As expected, we found both strengths and weaknesses, including serious gaps that four years after the release of our Panel’s Blueprint for Biodefense in 2015 continue to make the nation vulnerable. In short, the nation is not prepared for biological outbreaks, bioterrorist attacks, biological warfare, or accidental releases with catastrophic consequences’.” This is especially relevant as many are wondering what Congress is doing to respond to health security threats.

Ebola Outbreak – Updates
As of Wednesday, the outbreak has reached 2,277 cases and security threats are increasingly making response efforts challenging. “In its weekly situation report on the outbreak, the WHO said Ebola activity continues with steady and sustained intensity, with security incidents returning to Beni—one of the outbreak’s former major hot spots—and armed group movements in Musienene and Manguredjipa impeding access to a health area next to Mabalako’s hardest-hit area. Another concern it aired is a tense security situation in neighboring Ituri province cities Bunia and Komanda in the wake of attacks in early June. Over the past few weeks, indicators show hints of easing transmission intensity in the two biggest recent epicenters, Katwa and Butembo. However, the optimism is offset by new cases in previously affected areas, including Komanda, Lubero, and Rwampara. For example, over the past week, Komanda reported its first case after going 11 days without one.”

A Dose of Inner Strength to Survive and Recover from Potentially Lethal Health Threats
“Breakthroughs in the science of programmable gene expression inspired DARPA to establish the PReemptive Expression of Protective Alleles and Response Elements (PREPARE) program with the goal of delivering powerful new defenses against public health and national security threats. DARPA has now selected five teams to develop a range of new medical interventions that temporarily and reversibly modulate the expression of protective genes to guard against acute threats from influenza and ionizing radiation, which could be encountered naturally, occupationally, or through a national security event. The program builds from the understanding that the human body has innate defenses against many types of health threats, but that the body does not always activate these defenses quickly or robustly enough to block the worst damage. To augment existing physiological responses, PREPARE technologies would provide a programmable capability to up- or down-regulate gene expression on demand, providing timely, scalable defenses that are proportional to anticipated threats. Service members and first responders could administer these interventions prior to threat exposure or therapeutically after exposure to mitigate the risk of harm or death.”

Global Community Bio Summit 3.0
From October 11-13, you can attend this community biotechnology initiative at MIT Media Lab. “The Community Biotechnology Initiative at the MIT Media Lab is organizing the third annual Global Summit on Community Biotechnology this October 11 to 13, 2019! Our goal is to provide a space for the global community of DIY biologists / community biologists / biohackers / biomakers and members of independent and community laboratories to convene, plan, build fellowship, and continue the evolution of our movement. You can learn more about last year’s Summit, including our program, here. While all are welcome, space is limited, so we are prioritizing active practitioners in the community with an emphasis on diversity across geographic, cultural, ethnic, gender, and creative backgrounds. We will add accepted participants to the directory on a rolling basis with the goal of accepting everyone interested in joining.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Tackling Dirty Sinks – Did you ever think your hospital sink could be a disease reservoir? “Earlier this year, there were studies that identified sink proximity to toilets as a risk factor for contamination. Bugs like Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase-producing organisms tend to be prolific in moist environments and are often pervasive in intensive care unit sinks and drains. Researchers found that sinks near toilets were 4-times more likely to host the organisms than those further from toilets. More and more, infection prevention is having to look at hospital faucets and sinks for their role in hosting microbial growth. This was also a topic of interest at last week’s annual conference of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC 2019). Investigators with the University of Michigan Health System discussed how they worked to identify vulnerabilities and potential sink designs that might contribute to bioburden and biofilm in hospital faucets. Assessing 8 different designs across 4 intensive care units, the research team ultimately found that those sinks with a more shallow depth tended to allow higher rates of contamination (ie, splash of dirty water) onto equipment, surfaces, and patient care areas. In some instances, the splash of contaminated water could be found up to 4 feet from the sink.”

 

Pandora Report 11.16.2018

We’re back from the 5th Ministerial Meeting of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA)! We’ll be reporting out on this event in the coming weeks, so keep an eye out for all things GHSA. Influenza season is ramping up and you’ll want to check out the latest article on looking beyond the decade of vaccines.

Preventing Pandemics and Bioterrorism: Past, Present, and Future
We’re just weeks away from this exciting event – are you registered? Preventing Pandemics and Bioterrorism: Past, Present, and Future is a special event in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the George Mason University Biodefense Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. We invite you to attend this exciting opportunity to hear from Dr. Kadlec of ASPR about lessons learned for pandemic preparedness since the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, plans for implementing the new National Biodefense Strategy, and the importance of education for the future of biodefense. Following his speech and Q&A session, you are invited to an informal reception for academic and professional members of the biodefense community to socialize and network. Make sure to RSVP soon as seats are limited for this December 4th event.

Russian Disinformation & the Georgian “Lab of Death”
A recent BBC investigation has found some disturbing information regarding Russian media making false claims about a U.S.-funded lab in Georgia. “The Russian Foreign Ministry, Defence Ministry and pro-Kremlin media claimed recently that untested drugs were given to Georgian citizens at the lab, resulting in a large number of deaths. The US has accused Russia of disinformation in order to distract attention away from incidents such as the Salisbury poisonings.” This episode is part of a series the BBC is providing on disinformation and fake news.

Ebola Outbreak Updates
The Ebola virus disease outbreak in the DRC continues to grow. 15 cases were reported on Monday as well as another violent attack in Beni. “WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said on Twitter that he had been briefed on a violent attack that occurred in Beni on the night of Nov 10. ‘All WHO staff safe, but my heart goes out to families who have lost loved ones in this appalling and unacceptable attack, which we condemn in the strongest terms,’ he wrote. According to a local media report translated and posted by H5N1 Blog, which focuses on infectious disease news, at least five civilians were killed and several children kidnapped in an attack by rebels with the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in Beni’s Mayimoya district. The report said two other people were killed in two other attacks the same day in Beni’s Runwenzori neighborhood, one linked to ADF rebels and the other by suspected Mai Mai militia members.” The latest situation report lists 333 cases and 209 deaths, with 31 new confirmed cases reported during the reporting period (Nov 5-11). Early this morning, the DRC announced three more cases and 1 death. Health officials are also reportedly planning to launch a clinical trial of three antibody treatments and an antiviral drug, within the area. These drugs are currently in utilization in the Ebola treatment centers within the area but only under compassionate use. The UK is contributing funds to help Uganda step up prevention and preparedness efforts as well. “On a recent visit to The Medical Research Council/Uganda Virus Research Institute (URVI) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Entebbe, UK Minister for Africa Harriett Baldwin announced that the UK will support Uganda’s National Task Force with up to £5.1 million ($6.6 million USD) to support Ebola preparedness and prevention efforts in Uganda. This funding will support surveillance in high-risk districts at the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); risk reduction communication in communities; infection prevention and control measures as well as provide for improved case management.” Peter Salama, WHO Emergency Response Chief, has noted that the outbreak could last another six months – “It’s very hard to predict timeframes in an outbreak as complicated as this with so many variables that are outside our control, but certainly we’re planning on at least another six months before we can declare this outbreak over,”.

ELBI Fellowship Application Opens
The Emerging Leader for Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) run by the Center for Health Security is now accepting applications. This is a great opportunity that several Biodefense students have been able to take advantage of for the last several years. GMU Biodefense has had several fellows – Yong-Bee Lim  is currently an ELBI fellow and Saskia Popescu, Siddha Hover, and Francisco Cruz have represented our biodefense program in previous years. If you’re a current GMU biodefense student or alumni and are interested in applying and plan to request a letter of recommendation from the Biodefense program director, please do so ASAP. Dr. Koblentz asks that applicants send a copy of their application materials (personal statement, essay, and current resume or cv) and an unofficial GMU transcript by December 5, 2018.

 One Health in the 21st Century Workshop
The One Health in the 21st Century workshop will serve as a snapshot of government, intergovernmental organization and non-governmental organization innovation as it pertains to the expanding paradigm of One Health. One Health being the umbrella term for addressing animal, human, and environmental health issues as inextricably linked, each informing the other, rather than as distinct disciplines. This snapshot, facilitated by a partnership between the Wilson Center, World Bank, and EcoHealth Alliance, aims to bridge professional silos represented at the workshop to address the current gaps and future solutions in the operationalization and institutionalization of One Health across sectors. The workshop will be held on November 26th at the Wilson Center. You can RSVP here.

USDA ARS 5th International Biosafety & Biocontainment Symposium: Biorisk and Facility Challenges in Agriculture
Registration is open for this February 11, 2019 event! The symposium will provide 2.5 days of scientific presentations and exhibits regarding agricultural biosafety and biocontainment.

WHO Report on Surveillance of Antibiotic Consumption
The WHO has just released their report on global antibiotic consumption and the surveillance methods surrounding efforts to reduce antimicrobial resistance. “Since 2016, WHO has supported capacity building in monitoring antimicrobial consumption in 57 low- and middle-income countries through workshops, trainings and technical support. At this stage, 16 of these countries were able to share their national data with WHO. Other countries are currently in the process of data collection and validation.In total, 64 countries and Kosovo1 contributed data on antibiotic consumption for this report, with the bulk of data coming from the European region and countries with pre- existing, mature surveillance systems. The consumption data showed wide intra- and interregional variation in the total amount of antibiotics and the choice of antibiotics consumed. The overall consumption of antibiotics ranged from 4.4 to 64.4 DefinedDaily Doses (DDD) per 1000 inhabitants per day.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Influenza Vaccine Efficacy Among Patients with High-Risk Medical Conditions in the U.S. – Researchers utilized data from the US Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Network from 2012-2016 to analyze vaccine effectiveness (VE) “of standard-dose inactivated vaccines against medically-attended influenza among patients aged ≥6 months with and without high-risk medical conditions. Overall, 9643 (38%) of 25,369 patients enrolled during four influenza seasons had high-risk conditions; 2213 (23%) tested positive for influenza infection.Influenza vaccination provided protection against medically-attended influenza among patients with high-risk conditions, at levels approaching those observed among patients without high-risk conditions. Results from our analysis support recommendations of annual vaccination for patients with high-risk conditions.”

 

 

Pandora Report 9.28.2018

Happy Friday biodefense gurus! October is right around the corner, which means the flu vaccine will be available soon. Make sure to get vaccinated this season, as the CDC just announced that 80,000 people died of the flu during the 2017/2018 season, which is the highest death toll in 40 years.

GMU Global Health Security Ambassador
We’re excited to announce that two graduate students from the Schar biodefense program will be attending the 5th GHSA Ministerial Meeting in Bali, Indonesia. The two students, Annette Prieto and Saskia Popescu, will observe the Global Health Security Agenda in action and the the GHSA 2024 planning. Following their attendance in early November, we’ll be providing a report out on the events. Meet our two GMU Global Health Security Ambassadors – Annette Prieto has a background in Microbiology and Immunology and is currently a Biodefense student in the Master’s Program here at George Mason University. Before coming to George Mason, Annette focused on medical Microbiology at the University of Miami before moving into the laboratory and becoming a Teacher’s Assistant. From there, Annette became an Adjunct Instructor at Daytona State College and taught for a year before entering the Biodefense Program. Annette is also a part of the Next Generation Global Health Security Network. Saskia Popescu is a biodefense doctoral candidate at GMU and infection preventionist. She worked as an infection preventionist during the Dallas Ebola cluster, a 2015 measles outbreak, and is an external expert for the ECDC. She is a 2017 ELBI fellow and trained infectious disease epidemiologist. Saskia’s research focuses on the utilization of infection control in the U.S. healthcare system and it’s impact on biodefense. Make sure to check back in the weeks following their trip to learn about their experiences at the ministerial meeting.

Why Poor Pandemic Preparedness is Deadly
Ebola response efforts in the DRC are struggling and were suspended earlier this week, after violence between rebels and armed forces. While outbreak response in Beni have resumed, events like these are a prime example of why outbreaks can quickly spread beyond control and ultimately emphasize the need for pandemic preparedness. Drs. Tom Inglesby and Eric Toner from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently discussed the importance of investing in biopreparedness and how their Clade-X tabletop revealed many of the existing weaknesses. “Could a natural or man-made pandemic happen today? Yes. New lethal viruses are emerging from nature, and dizzying developments in biotechnology mean that biological weapons no longer are the sole province of a few state-sponsored programs — a manufactured pandemic could be unleashed by a rogue regime or by terrorists utilizing one of the thousands of laboratories around the world capable of making a dangerous pathogen. If the worst-case scenario unfolds, strong pandemic preparedness planning would save millions of lives. But progress is possible only with effective leadership.”

Rebuilding Health Security in the Wake of Ebola
GMU Biodefense graduate student Stephen Taylor discusses the latest talk from Georgetown University on global health security following the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak. “In the midst of this disaster, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control turned to health security experts at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security to support the expansion and augmentation of the Guinean public health infrastructure.  Dr. Alpha Barry, Dr. Erin Sorrell, Dr. Claire Standley, and Ms. Aurelia Attal-Juncqua supported on-the-ground efforts to develop and implement improved health security policy that would make Guinea more resilient against future infectious disease outbreaks.  The Guinean government’s priorities for capacity and capability building were to prevent further outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, improve the capacity of surveillance laboratories and capabilities of the healthcare workforce to identify outbreaks, and to better respond to outbreaks by streamlining and coordinating emergency response operations.  On September 14th, 2018, as part of its Global Health Security Seminar Series, Georgetown University hosted a panel discussion of Dr Sorrell, Dr. Standley, and Ms. Attal-Juncqua on their efforts in Guinea.”

 The AMR Challenge
The United Nations (UN) General Assembly was held this week and one particular topic captured our attention – antimicrobial stewardship and a new initiative to combat resistance. “The AMR Challenge is a way for governments, private industries, and non-governmental organizations worldwide to make formal commitments that further the progress against antimicrobial resistance. The challenge encourages a One Health approach, recognizing that the health of people is connected to the health and animals and the environment. The AMR Challenge launches at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September 2018. Organizations can make commitments beginning September 25, 2018 until September 2019. CDC will feature commitments throughout the year. At the 2019 UN General Assembly, antimicrobial resistance will continue to be a priority topic for world leaders.” Within the Challenge, there are commitments to tracking and sharing data, reducing the spread of resistant germs through infection prevention and control, improving antibiotic use, decreasing antibiotics and resistance in the environment, and investing in vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.

NASEM – Review & Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes
How do we protect the Earth from contamination following space exploration? How can we avoid bringing microorganisms from Earth to other planets and solar system bodies? The latest NASEM report discusses how scientists tackle these issues and implement such policies. As you read the text, you’ll also see one of the Center for Health Security’s ELBI fellows in there – Betsy Pugel of NASA. “For decades, the scientific, political, and economic conditions of space exploration converged in ways that contributed to effective development and implementation of planetary protection policies at national and international levels. However, the future of space exploration faces serious challenges to the development and implementation of planetary protection policy. The most disruptive changes are associated with (1) sample return from, and human missions to, Mars; and (2) missions to those bodies in the outer solar system possessing water oceans beneath their icy surfaces.” This gives new insight into a field we may not be considering in health security – what about interstellar health security?

The Spanish Flu, Epidemics, and the Turn to Biomedical Responses
We already discussed the impact of poor pandemic preparedness, but what about biomedical efforts? A recent article from AJPH discusses the role of the 1918/1919 pandemic in bringing biomedical approaches to the forefront of outbreak response. “A century ago, nonpharmaceutical interventions such as school closings, restrictions on large gatherings, and isolation and quarantine were the centerpiece of the response to the Spanish Flu. Yet, even though its cause was unknown and the science of vaccine development was in its infancy, considerable enthusiasm also existed for using vaccines to prevent its spread. This desire far exceeded the scientific knowledge and technological capabilities of the time. Beginning in the early 1930s, however, advances in virology and influenza vaccine development reshaped the relative priority given to biomedical approaches in epidemic response over traditional public health activities. Today, the large-scale implementation of nonpharmaceutical interventions akin to the response to the Spanish Flu would face enormous legal, ethical, and political challenges, but the enthusiasm for vaccines and other biomedical interventions that was emerging in 1918 has flourished.”

HHS Sponsors TPOXX
Speaking of biomedical measures…the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) just announced its sponsorship of a new formulation of the world’s first approved smallpox treatment – TPOXX. This purchase will be used for the Strategic National Stockpile and will work with Siga Technologies to develop an IV formulation of the drug. “Purchase of TPOXX in pill form and development of an IV formulation will be completed under a contract between Siga Technologies and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), part of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. BARDA will use funding from the Project BioShield Special Reserve Fund. The contract can be extended for up to 10 years and $629 million if necessary to complete development of the IV formulation.”

NASEM – Engaging the Private-Sector Health Care System in Building Capacity to Respond to Threats to the Public’s Health and National Security
Don’t miss the latest NASEM report on the intersection of preparedness and healthcare. From Ebola patients to natural disasters, and even terrorism, the private-sector healthcare system plays a critical role in response. “As a result, disasters often require responses from multiple levels of government and multiple organizations in the public and private sectors. This means that public and private organizations that normally operate independently must work together to mount an effective disaster response. To identify and understand approaches to aligning health care system incentives with the American public’s need for a health care system that is prepared to manage acutely ill and injured patients during a disaster, public health emergency, or other mass casualty event, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine hosted a 2-day public workshop on March 20 and 21, 2018. This publication summarizes the presentations and discussions from the workshop.”

USDA ARS 5th International Biosafety & Biocontainment Symposium
ABSA has just announced this event being held on February 11-14, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. “The focus of the symposium will be Biorisk and Facility Challenges in Agriculture. Seven professional development courses will address topics including life science security, facility maintenance and operational issues, agricultural risk assessment, emergency response and preparedness for livestock disease outbreaks, waste management, and strategic leadership. Courses will be held on Monday, February 11. There will be 2 1/2 days of scientific presentations covering various topics including; governance updates, design methodologies, deferred maintenance, rabies, occ health laboratory to the field, gene editing, risk management and communication, and many others. The poster and networking reception will be held on Wednesday, February 13, attendees will have the opportunity to meet with presenters and discuss their presentations. Exhibits showcasing the latest biosafety, biosecurity, and biocontainment products and services will be open February 12-13.”

Next Generation Biosecurity Webinar 
Don’t miss this webinar today, Friday 9.28, at 11am (CDT, Mexico City). Hosted by Next Generation GHSA, this webinar will be with Luis Alberto Ochoa Carrera, Coordinator of Biosafety and Biochemistry of the GHSN and Coordinator of the Biosafety Laboratory Level 3 of the National Reference Laboratory (InDRE) of Mexico.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Airplanes and Airports – Hubs for Germs: GMU biodefense doctoral candidate Saskia Popescu discusses the latest on germ transmission during air travel. “Most people have a general sense that air travel tends to involve exposure to germs. Whether it’s through the thousands of people we will come into contact with, the sick person next to us on the plane, or the dirty surfaces, many of us get a sense of unease knowing there is a real chance we may arrive at our destination with a microscopic companion.”