Pandora Report 11.10.2017

Looking for a great podcast? Check out the American Society for Microbiology’s Meet the Microbiologist – especially the latest episode on biopreparedness and biosecurity with Gigi Kwik Gronvall. From island emergency preparedness to antimicrobial resistance and monkeypox, we’ve got you covered for all things biodefense this week.

Top 5 Challenges in Emergency Preparedness: An Island Perspective
Imagine dealing with a natural disaster or health security threat like a major outbreak, but instead of being on mainland where you can rapidly get aid, you’re on an island. GMU Biodefense MS student Tara Hines provides unique insight into emergency preparedness for islands and how these efforts must overcome unusual challenges. From the health security perspective, there are always challenges, but what would be the biggest ones if you were on an island, like Bermuda? “The great part about biodefense is that it integrates public health, public safety, and basic science to provide health security. This interdisciplinary approach lets us tap into all of these areas to identify potential problems and suggest possible solutions, before a disaster strikes. Plus, biodefense work can be done anywhere and is crucial everywhere!” Tara addresses the challenges of not only collaboration and communication, but also military history and capacity, and several other factors that come into play. Make sure to read about her take on these response efforts and what it has been like responding to such events from an island.

Center for Health Security – ELBI Fellowship Application Now Open
If you’re looking to become an EBLI fellow with the Center for Health Security, good news – applications are now open! “The Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship is an opportunity for talented career professionals to deepen their expertise, expand their network, and build their leadership skills through a series of sponsored events coordinated by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.” The GMU Biodefense program is proud to have seen four students selected for this prestigious fellowship. For more insights into the ELBI fellowship, check out 2017 fellow and current GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu’s take on her ELBI experience. If you are a GMU biodefense student or alum looking to apply and hoping to get a golden ticket (aka letter of recommendation) from Dr. Koblentz – make sure to email him ASAP and make sure to send him your CV/resume/statement letter prior to December 4th.

Summit on Global Food Security and Health: “Integrating Global Food Security and National Security: Problems, Progress, and Challenges”
We’re excited to see this amazing summit on food security and national security is right around the corner. Don’t miss your chance to attend this November 15th event at the Schar School of Policy and Government, Founders Hall Auditorium. “The Fourth Annual Summit on Global Food Security and Health will take place George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government on Wednesday, November 15, 2017 at our Arlington Campus from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm in the Founders Hall Auditorium at 3351 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, Va. The conference is co-sponsored by the Stimson Center, RTI International, and The Policy Studies Organization. Our focus this year is on the interrelationship between food security and national security, progress and challenges under Feed The Future (FTF) and the Global Food Security Act, and the growing importance of food security private-public partnerships, resilience, critical indigenous food security challenges, nutrition and health issues.  Summit speakers will represent a wide array of government, international organization, NGO, private sector, and academic experts. Our Summit follows the issuance of a recent USAID Feed The Future 2017 Progress Report, the enactment of the July 2016 Global Food Security Act, the related completion of new USAID global food security and food aid strategies, and the issuance of USAID’s December 2016 Feed The Future Global Performance Evaluation. The Summit will follow the World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines, Iowa , October 18 – 20 which addresses opportunities for innovative agriculture to eliminate the scourge of global hunger and poverty. Our GMU Summit takes place during a particularly important period marked by protracted uncertainty about U.S. support for International food aid, global food security, and foreign aid.” The event is free, but make sure you RSVP!

Antimicrobial Resistance, WHO Agriculture Recommendations, & USDA’s Not-So-Subtle Shade
AMR is slowly becoming the “I told you so” of infectious disease threats. Even Alexander Fleming warned of a day when antibiotics would no longer be effective. “Back in 2013, the UK’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies started warning the world that antibiotic resistance posed a deadly threat to humanity. But, she believes, that her lack of hard data meant few people took her seriously. ‘One crucial thing that got the whole world to take climate change seriously was the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change back in 2006’ she explains. ‘So we launched our own Stern Review – and found superbugs will kill us before climate change does’.” Reports since then have also highlighted the millions that will die every year due to AMR, but we’re still struggling with incentives for drug discovery and development. “Superbugs are a classic example of market failure – Dame Sally gave a timeline and a point of no return that we have to solve or we’re FUBAR. Government is too linear, industry sees no profit, VC’s don’t see any capital, labs have other problems and NGOs struggle to innovate.” While efforts to invigorate industry are underway, the WHO’s new recommendations are addressing AMR from the agriculture angle. The latest report is calling for a reduction in antimicrobial use across the board in food-producing animals and the halting of use in healthy animals for growth. “The formal guidelines issued by the WHO further recommended that when animals are diagnosed with a bacterial infection, antibiotics that are considered critically important for human medicine should not be used for treatment or to prevent the spread of the infection within a herd or flock, unless tests indicate those drugs are the only treatment option. Instead, antibiotics used for the treatment of sick animals should be chosen from those the WHO considers least important to human health.” Responding to these new recommendations, the USDA has thrown some not-so-subtle shade in their recent press release. The USDA Acting Chief Scientist, Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Yong, has stated that the WHO recommendations are “not in alignment with U.S. policy and are not supported by sound science. The recommendations erroneously conflate disease prevention with growth promotion in animals.” Fighting AMR is a like fighting a chimeric hydra – a multi-headed, regenerating beast made of different animals – all dangerous and different. What herculean effort will be required for us to win the battle of the superbug?

Schar School Master’s Open House – Biodefense MS
It’s the last MS Open House of the season and you won’t want to miss this opportunity to learn about our biodefense graduate programs and talk to faculty. Next Wednesday, November 15th at 6:30pm at GMU’s Arlington campus, you can get the scoop on earning your master’s degree in biodefense on campus or remotely – don’t miss out!

Panel Discussion: Security in the New Era of Targeted Sanctions
Don’t miss the Fall 2017 Symposium hosted by the National Security Law Journal on November 13th at 11:30am! Hosted at GMU’s Founders Hall Auditorium, you can hear from a distinguished panel of attorneys and policy experts specializing in foreign policy, economics, and current events for this event, two of whom are George Mason professors. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Dr. Mark Katz, and Dr. Adam Smith, will be panelists on this great symposium – infact, Dr. Koblentz will be speaking on the role of sanctions in responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Mark sure to RSVP by emailing symposium@nslj.org

Chasing a Killer – Hunting Monkeypox
While we talk of pandemic flu and synthetic biology, it’s easy to forget some of the more mysterious, and yet, equally sinister natural outbreaks that are occurring. The Congo Republic is currently battling a surprising outbreak of monkeypox, which is a cousin of smallpox. “Over the past year, reports of monkeypox have flared alarmingly across Africa, one of several animal-borne diseases that have raised anxiety around the globe. The Congolese government invited CDC researchers here to track the disease and train local scientists. Understanding the virus and how it spreads during an outbreak is key to stopping it and protecting people from the deadly disease.” In fact, the U.S. has experienced its own monkeypox outbreak – in 2003 due to an exotic pet that was imported (sounds like the beginning of that movie Outbreak…). Zoonotic spillover is normally how these outbreaks begin and while monkeypox is not as deadly as smallpox or ebola (a mortality rate of around 10%), researchers are working to understand the ecology of monkeypox hosts and reservoirs. Take a minute to check out this article as there are some wonderful photos and maps that will take you along for this on-the-ground virus hunting expedition.

CBFP Biosciences Fellowship Program
CBFP welcomes applications from early to mid-career biological scientists working in government ministries, government-operated biological science laboratories, and/or research and diagnostic facilities with experience in laboratory operations, research, and diagnostics from Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Only applications from these three countries will be considered. Selected fellows will conduct a science exchange fellowship of up to six months in duration to engage in research at a host institution including, but not limited to, the United States, Europe, and the Middle East beginning no earlier than September 2018. Applications are due December 17th, so make sure to apply here!

Canada To Prioritize Biothreat Reduction During G7 Presidency        In 2018, Canada will assume the G7 presidency role and Global Affairs Associate Deputy Minister Mark Gwozdecky has made it known that the country will prioritize biological threat reduction. “Infectious diseases have plagued mankind since the dawn of time. They’ve proven to be ruthless, persistent and all too adaptive and have been responsible for unparalleled death, suffering and economic loss,” Gwozdecky said.” He pointed to the recent outbreak of bubonic plague in Madagascar, which has infected more than 1,300 people, as an example of the ongoing challenges facing public health officials.” Efforts will also focus on the growing issue of antimicrobial resistance and the threat of biological weapons. Canada has continued to prioritize the full spectrum of biological threats and importance of biosecurity and biosafety within labs through its BSL4Znet network, which is a global information and resource sharing program to protect against biothreats. “While these threats, both natural and intentional are formidable, they are not beyond our means to overcome,” he said. “Key to this, however, will be enhanced cooperation, collaboration and collective effort.” “We look forward to engaging all of our partners to identify new ways, means and opportunities to strengthen global biological security,” Gwozdecky added.

The U.S. Government and Global Health Security
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest issue brief focuses on the roe of the U.S. government and global health security. Ranging from a number of threats like Ebola, HIV, and SARS, global health security efforts are vital and must be as diverse and adaptable as the infectious diseases they thwart. “U.S. funding for its primary global health security programs –activities primarily carried out by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Department of Defense (DoD) – has remained relatively flat from FY 2006 ($390 million) through FY 2017 ($402 million), with episodic funding spikes through supplemental funding mechanisms reflecting specific outbreak events, including Ebola in FY 2015 ($1 billion) and Zika in FY 2016 ($145.5 million). The Administration has proposed reduced global health security funding for FY 2018 ($353 million).” This comprehensive report addresses the current global situation of infectious disease outbreaks and reviews U.S. government efforts and funding.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Financial Misappropriations, Ebola, and The Red Cross – The Red Cross organization recently confirmed that nearly $6 million in donated funds were misappropriated during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. “The organisation’s own investigations uncovered evidence of fraud, with more than $2.1m (£1.6m) lost in Sierra Leone, probably stolen by staff in collusion with local bank officials, according to a statement. In Guinea, a mixture of fake and inflated customs bills cost it $1m.” Investigations found the prices of relief goods and payrolls were inflated and while this isn’t the first time corruption has been associated with humanitarian relief, the Red Cross has yet to issue an apology.
  • Minnesota’s Drug-Resistant TB Outbreak– Minnesota’s Ramsey County is battling a deadly multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) outbreak. “Six of the 17 have died, with three of those deaths being directly attributed to tuberculosis, said Kris Ehresmann, director for Infectious Disease at the Minnesota Department of Health, on Monday. Of the 17 cases, 14 were in the Hmong community and 10 are associated with individuals who participate in activities at a senior center, Ehresmann said.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 11.3.2017

Welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense. Today we get to celebrate Global One Health Day, in which the goal “is to build the cultural will necessary for a sea change in how planetary health challenges are assessed and addressed.”

High-Containment Laboratories: Coordinated Actions Needed to Enhance the Select Agent Program’s Oversight of Hazardous Pathogens
The latest U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report is focusing on high-containment labs and how we can enhance the Select Agent Program’s oversight of hazardous pathogens. “Safety lapses continue to occur at some of the 276 laboratories in the United States that conduct research on select agents—such as Ebola virus or anthrax bacteria—that may cause serious or lethal infection in humans, animals, or plants, raising concerns about whether oversight is effective. GAO was asked to review the federal oversight approach for select agents and approaches from other countries or regulatory sectors. This report (1) evaluates the extent to which the Select Agent Program has elements of effective oversight and strategic planning documents to guide it, and (2) identifies approaches selected countries and regulatory sectors have used to promote effective oversight.” The Select Agent Program is managed through a partnership between DHHS and USDA, which oversees how labs handle these deadly pathogens. The biosecurity and biosafety failures that have occurred in recent years highlights the challenges of not only performing such work, but also oversight. The GAO report found that the Select Agent Program hasn’t assessed the risks of its current structure, has reviews that may not target the highest-risk activities, continues to have significant workforce and training gaps, etc. Eleven recommendations were made, which range from “To improve transparency, the CDC director of the Select Agent Program should work with APHIS to determine what additional information about laboratories’ use of select agents, incidents, and violations of the select agent regulations is appropriate for the program to share with registered laboratories” to “improve independence, the Administrator of APHIS should formally document the reporting structure for the APHIS component of the Select Agent Program from the APHIS director of the program to the Administrator of APHIS”. You can read the full report here or get the highlights here.

GHSA Ministerial Meeting
Last week’s Ministerial Meeting at Kampala was a success and a great time to reflect on GHSA accomplishments from member countries. You can get all the information here regarding the success stories across GHSA members. We will also be reporting on stories from those attendees who were able to join NextGeneration GHSA for the meeting, so don’t miss out on some great deep-dives from GMU biodefense students and their stories from Kampala!

COMMENTARY: Pandemic preparedness and missed opportunities             CIDRAP Director Dr. Michael T. Osterholm is honing in on a dogma for so many within public health – we need pandemic preparedness and we’re just not prepared. Unfortunately, sometimes our efforts to change this can result in a backfire. “Last week PATH issued a report titled, Healthier World, Safer America: A US Government Roadmap for International Action to Prevent the Next Pandemic. PATH, a leading international nonprofit organization, is widely recognized for its work to save lives and improve health, especially among women and children.” “The PATH report, if it commented only on epidemic preparedness, would be a home run. But by stating that the recommendations in the report will stem the risk of the next pandemic, the report ends up contributing to the ongoing mischaracterization about what pandemic preparedness truly means and what is needed to reduce any impact of a future pandemic. Understanding the difference between a pandemic and epidemic is absolutely necessary for consequential preparedness and response planning and action to be accomplished.  Let me illustrate the difference between the two and why it matters.” Osterholm points to this very vital misstep that can easily add confusion when working towards preparedness. He highlights the substantial difference between pandemics and epidemics and that ultimately, before we can truly address preparedness and response, we need to sincerely understand the discrepancies. Osterholm also highlights the biothreats we should be worried about for potential pandemics – influenza and antimicrobial resistance. Osterholm points to these two pandemic concerns while highlighting the importance of the GHSA, the vital role of early and effective detection to epidemic diseases, and that pandemic clocks are ticking. “The influenza and antimicrobial pandemic clocks are ticking; we just don’t know what time it is. Misunderstanding and misrepresenting what we need to do to be better prepared takes an understanding of what a pandemic is and what it isn’t. To date we are not doing a very good job of understanding that point and responding accordingly. The PATH report is a clear reminder.”

Early Insights from Madagascar’s Plague Outbreak: Lessons Learned from Ebola?
Have we really learned some of those difficult lessons from Ebola? Joshua Hutton, Doctoral Candidate at the University of Sussex is evaluating the current plague outbreak in Madagascar under the lens of Ebola. Hutton looks at the epidemiology and cultural impact of these diseases, their similarities and differences, and what lessons can be learned. Hutton looks at the health systems within Madagscar and the Ebola-affected West African countries, noting that Madagascar has 1 doctor per 100,000, while Liberia has 0.1 and Sierra Leone has 0.2 per 100,000. “Furthermore, both Ebola and plague elicit very strong emotional reactions. Ebola has been sensationalized by popular books and major motion pictures (such as Outbreak). Its haemorrhagic symptoms, exaggerated in popular culture, instil fear and remain memorable as an object of cultural anxiety.” “Despite these similarities, there are some obvious differences that affect the public health responses to these outbreaks. The first is that plague is a very different pathogen from Ebola. While Ebola is a virus, Y. pestis is a well-characterised bacterium. One important implication of this difference is that while treatments for Ebola remain elusive, antimicrobials to combat plague do exist. Plague is curable when caught early enough. This not only helps the response, but also reduces the heavy emotional burden placed on healthcare workers who felt helpless caring for Ebola patients without a treatment.” Hutton also notes the differences between public health responses, especially by the WHO – highlighting the lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak. “The early response to this anomalous outbreak of pneumonic plague in Madagascar seems to suggest that lessons are being learned from the Ebola outbreak. While there are distinct differences between the two outbreaks – not the least the availability of rapid diagnostics to identify infected individuals and the availability of antibiotics to treat them – the broader context, the rapid response, and the engaging of local communities produce a cautious optimism for the future.

US-Malaysia Workshop on BWC
The November 30-December 1st workshop at the Council Chamber, Palais des Nations, will focus on BWC-relevant developments by international experts. This workshop will feature expert presentations about global activities during the past year that strengthen the BWC. The purpose of the workshop is to inform States Parties about recent developments relating to national implementation, cooperation and assistance, preparedness and response, and science and technology; and to exchange ideas about their relevance to the Convention.

 My Time As An Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Initiative Fellow                         Take a journey down the biosecurity rabbit hole with GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu and her experience as a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has maintained a fellowship since 2012 that seeks to provide opportunities for biosecurity professionals and helps to broaden their careers through contacts and experiences. The Emerging Leader in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) program is something I’ve been striving to join for years. I’ll admit it – it wasn’t my first time applying and while this is a highly competitive group, I was definitely disappointed when I didn’t get that acceptance email. Fortunately, 2017 was my year and I was selected as an ELBI fellow and that’s where this adventure begins.” Popescu describes her experiences at the three workshops, the engagement with some of the top minds in the field, and just how much fun it can be to geek out with fellow biosecurity nerds.

Fourth Annual Summit on Global Food Security and Health
Don’t miss this great opportunity to focus on the interrelationship between Food Security and National Security! Held at GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government on Wednesday, November 15th, you’ll want to make sure you register for this full-day summit! “The conference is co-sponsored by the Stimson Center, RTI International, and The Policy Studies Organization. Our focus this year is on the interrelationship between food security and national security, progress and challenges under Feed The Future (FTF) and the Global Food Security Act, and the growing importance of food security private-public partnerships, resilience, critical indigenous food security challenges, nutrition and health issues. Summit speakers will represent a wide array of government, international organization, NGO, private sector, and academic experts. Our Summit follows the issuance of a recent USAID Feed The Future 2017 Progress Report, the enactment of the July 2016 Global Food Security Act, the related completion of new USAID global food security and food aid strategies, and the issuance of USAID’s December 2016 Feed The Future Global Performance Evaluation. The Summit will follow the World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines, Iowa , October 18 – 20 which addresses opportunities for innovative agriculture to eliminate the scourge of global hunger and poverty. Our GMU Summit takes place during a particularly important period marked by protracted uncertainty about U.S. support for International food aid, global food security, and foreign aid.”

Preppers: On the Frontline of U.S. Preparedness
Are you prepared for an apocalyptic event? GMU Biodefense PhD student and VP of marketing at Emergent BioSolutions student Rebecca Fish is taking us on a deep-dive into the world of preppers. “In 2015, Emergent BioSolutions undertook a multi-phase research project to better understand the prepper movement.  A random sample of 1,022 people aged 18-65 was surveyed to explore prepping behavior.  Findings suggested that the average prepper is not as extreme as many television programs would have you believe.  Rather, your average prepper is an ordinary person trying to do his/ her best for his/her family by preparing for emergency events.  The defining characteristic of a prepper is a belief in self-sufficiency and a desire to be prepared for whatever life throws at you.” This study found some interesting data on preppers – 67% are married and 43% earn over $100,000 per year, while 45% hold a college or advanced graduate degree. The volume and commitment of preppers is also indicative of a market for MCM product and other CBRNe products. “After the 2011 Fukushima Daiiche nuclear disaster in Japan, potassium iodide tablets stocked out everywhere due to overwhelming demand. Similarly, during the Ebola crisis, CBNBC reported that sales of one type of full-body protective suit increased 131,000 percent on Amazon. Gas masks and Ebola survival guides shot up the rankings as well.” As a further example, twenty four percent of preppers in our research own a gas mask.  These data suggest that preppers have demonstrated interest in CBRNe supplies and represent a market for some preparedness supplies.” Fish not only provides new insight into the Prepper community, but also encourages us to start learning more about this group and their interests in preparedness.

BARDA Industry Day
Don’t miss out on BARDA Industry Day next week, from November 7-8th, at the Ronald Reagan Building. “BARDA remains committed to engaging with our industry and government partners to fulfill our mission, saving lives and protecting America through the research and development of medical countermeasures against serious threats. The theme of BARDA Industry Day 2017 is: Innovation in products and partnerships for flexible, dynamic response capabilities.” The keynote speakers will be Robert Kadlec, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Senator Tom Daschle, Founder and CEO of the Daschle Group.

 New Biosecurity Threats Appear in Less Familiar Forms                                    Following the anthrax attacks in 2001, focus within biodefense and biosecurity fell upon bioterrorism and the potential attack that could impact millions of Americans. Since then, health security has evolved to include a wider range of potential issues and threats – natural, manmade, and accidental. GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu highlights some of these newer threats and that while they may be less familiar to health professionals, it is vital we involve them in the narrative of hospital preparedness. Discussing the gaps within U.S. biodefense efforts, genetic engineering, and how dual-use research impacts bio-vulnerability, Popescu implores infectious disease practitioners to soak in this knowledge. “How can we, as infectious disease practitioners, prepare or respond? First, knowledge is key. It is crucial to understand the threats, whether they are a natural outbreak, a lab breach you read about, or even just a review of the signs and symptoms of organisms we tend to worry about but may not see in the United States (such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome, anthrax, etc). Researchers should also consider the implications of their work and take the necessary review processes to ensure the proper biosecurity measures are taken.”

Should FEMA Be a Stand Alone Agency?                                                                            GMU Biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is at it again – evaluating DHS and the potential for major realignments in the Department. “As Congress considers reauthorizing the Department of Homeland Security, principles guiding any major realignments could include assessing whether the organization would be performing operational or staff management functions. Additionally, those principles could examine whether mission effectiveness would be improved through those major realignments and whether implemented changes would introduce new points of friction or inefficiency.” Gertstein notes several major realignments under consideration – replace the National Protection and Programs Directorate at DHS with a new Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, remove FEMA from the DHS and make it a stand-alone department, and standing up a counter WMD organization. “As part of comprehensive department legislation, these realignments should be considered with an eye towards increasing operational effectiveness and efficiency while minimizing organizational friction in the transformed organizations and avoiding loss of key support relationships.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Unforgiving Math That Stops Pandemics– Another prime example of herd immunity and the importance of vaccination – “When talking about vaccination and disease control, health authorities often invoke “herd immunity.” This term refers to the level of immunity in a population that’s needed to prevent an outbreak from happening. Low levels of herd immunity are often associated with epidemics, such as the measles outbreak in 2014-2015 that was traced to exposures at Disneyland in California. A study investigating cases from that outbreak demonstrated that measles vaccination rates in the exposed population may have been as low as 50 percent. This number was far below the threshold needed for herd immunity to measles, and it put the population at risk of disease.”
  • Biosecurity Implications for the Synthesis of Horsepox, an Orthopoxvirus– Gigi Gronvall evaluates the biosecurity and biodefense implications of the recent horsepox synthesis. “The ability to recreate horsepox, or smallpox, will remain no matter what policy controls are put into place. It will be impossible to close off all avenues for nefarious misuse of gene synthesis, or misuse of biological materials more broadly. As a result, we advocate for the implementation of policy, regulations, and guidance that will make illicit recreation harder, more burdensome, more detectable, and, thus, more preventable without having sweeping negative consequences for the research enterprise. As part of our biosecurity efforts, we must also encourage and enable scientists to participate actively and to do all they can to safeguard their technical fields from irresponsible or illicit actions.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 10.27.2017

TGIF and Pandora Report day! Buckle up because we’ve got an abundance of biodefense news that covers GHSA, chemical weapons, synbio, and more.

 Global Health Security – WHO & PATH Reports and GHSA Ministerial Meeting
As the Global Health Security Agenda Ministerial meeting in Kampala, Uganda takes place this week, several reports were released highlighting the deficiencies in global biosecurity and biosafety efforts, as well as the importance of investing in global health security. Fortunately, on the eve of the GHSA Kampala summit, the Trump administration endorsed the future of the GHSA. Don’t forget to stay tuned to our weekly reports as two GMU Biodefense graduate students are participating (as recipients of the George Mason Global Health Security Ambassador Fellowship) in the Ministerial meeting alongside NextGen GHSA and they’ll be reporting on their experiences in the coming weeks. The first report this week is from NTI, which called on countries to improve biosecurity after WHO demonstrated that there are substantial biosecurity/biosafety gaps worldwide. NTI analyzed 39 Joint External Evaluation (JEE) peer reviews and mapped the related biosecurity and biosafety related scores. Here are their findings: “74% of the assessed countries demonstrated limited or no capacity for a whole-of-government national biosafety and biosecurity system. 64% of the assessed countries demonstrated limited or no capacity for biosafety and biosecurity training and practices. 41% of the assessed countries demonstrated limited or no capacity for linking their public health and security authorities during a suspected or confirmed biological event.” The map they’ve created is also a great visualization for how truly weak biosecurity and biosafety efforts are on a global scale. NTI also used this information to track commitments and biosecurity assistance and partners. The next report comes from PATH, which just released their work: Healthier World, Safer America: A US government Roadmap for International Action to Prevent the Next Pandemic The latest PATH analysis focuses on global health security and global efforts to respond to threats. “This paper aims to examine the benefits of investments in pandemic preparedness, as well as recommends the US Administration and Congress come together behind a comprehensive US strategy, robust investments, and continued vigilance both at home and abroad. The recommendations focus on global leadership, a US plan for international action, and research and development; underpinned by the risks of unsustainable funding, with special focus given to the Ebola supplemental funding sunset set to occur in FY2019.”

Reauthorizing & Improving The Department of Homeland Security
Don’t miss the recent National Interest series by GMU Biodefense PhD alum Daniel Gerstein  on the DHS reauthorization bill. This three-part series starts with a focus on why it’s time to improve the Department of Homeland Security. Gerstein notes that “reauthorization of the Department of Homeland Security is vital to clarifying responsibilities and setting expectations for the continued evolution of the department.” The second part in the series highlights methods for fixing the fractured department. “The question is not whether reauthorization of DHS is necessary. It  most definitely is. However, we should also ask whether the bill goes far enough and what other issues should a comprehensive DHS bill encompass? This second commentary considers whether the DHS structure with  relatively weak central authorities should be reevaluated. Interestingly, each successive secretary has sought to consolidate power and authorities at the department level. Is it time to legislate this outcome? ” Lastly, Gerstein addresses why updating the DHS Acquisition System matters. “This third commentary considers how to better align the department’s requirements, research, development and acquisition processes. Currently, the processes are not synchronized and should be harmonized to better align these critical departmental systems.”

Global Health Security Forum 2017 
Don’t miss out on this November 7th event hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies. The all-day event will be held at the CSIS headquarters and will even include an entire session on “Hurtling Toward a Genomic 9/11”! Don’t miss out on the “CSIS’s annual flagship conference on the top challenges facing U.S. and global security. This year’s Forum will focus on national security priorities ten months into the Trump Administration and one year prior to U.S. midterm elections.”

 The Collision Of Civil War And Threat Of Global Pandemics
Infectious disease outbreaks can be challenging for even the most stable country and those experiencing civil war are even more impacted by such biological events. Currently, there are 30 civil wars going on around the world – between cholera in Yemen, polio in Syria, and yellow fever in the DRC, countries that have experienced civil war also tend to experience infectious disease outbreaks. “The Daedalus issue, “Civil War & Global Disorder: Threats and Opportunity,” explores the factors and influences of contemporary civil wars. The 12 essays look at the connection of intrastate strife and transnational terrorism, the limited ambitions of intervening powers, and the many direct and indirect consequences associated with weak states and civil wars. Barry and Wise believe there is significant technical capacity to ensure that local infectious outbreaks are not transformed into global pandemics. But those outbreaks require some level of organized and effective governance—and political will. Prevention, detection, and response are the keys to controlling the risk of a pandemic. Yet it’s almost impossible for these to coincide in areas of conflict.” Civil war impacts not only communication, but access to health resources and can challenge early detection and response of outbreaks. Moreover, the traditional hotspots for emerging infectious diseases (tropical and subtropical areas where spillover is likely) are also areas continually “plagued by civil conflict and political instability.”

Chemical Weapons and Syria
On Tuesday, Russia vetoed a vote at the United Nations Security Council that would “renew a mandate to continue an investigation into who was responsible for the use of chemical weapons during Syria’s civil war.” The Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) was initially set up in 2015 to help identify those responsible for chemical attacks and is currently reviewing the April nerve agent attack in Khan Sheikhoun. “But Russia could not get enough support and instead used its veto to block adoption. Russia, along with the UK, China, France and the US, have veto powers at the Security Council. It is the ninth time Russia has blocked action against its ally Syria, something rights group Amnesty called ‘a green light for war crimes’.” The United States has already released a statement through the State Department – “We are disappointed, we are very disappointed that Russia put what it considered to be political considerations over the Syrian people who were so brutally murdered,”.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Pandemic PredictionPreparation, and Medical Countermeasure Communication 
Pandemic preparedness often feels like a teetering game of picking your poison. Will we see an avian influenza like H7N9 or will it be a novel disease? The CDC “evaluates every potentially dangerous strain, and gives them two scores out of 10—one reflecting how likely they are to trigger a pandemic, and another that measures how bad that pandemic would be. At the top of the list, with scores of 6.5 for emergence and 7.5 for impact, is H7N9.” While there isn’t strong transmission capacity between humans with the H5 and H7 viruses, the H7 strains are more worrisome in that they require fewer mutations to get to that point. Our efforts against avian influenza pandemics go beyond surveillance, and also focus on vaccine responses. “In the meantime, vaccines are being developed to match the viruses seen in the fifth and current epidemic. Other control measures have waxed and waned. When the first of the epidemics struck, Chinese health ministries closed markets and slaughtered birds. But as Helen Branswell reports in STAT, some of those containment efforts became more lax in 2015 and 2016.” Preparedness and response exercises can also gives great insight into problems that may arise when dealing with a pandemic. A recent pandemic simulation was held during the World Bank’s annual meeting in Washington D.C., in which participants addressed everything from hospital closures to mass quarantine. “For the World Bank simulation, organizers looked at the impact on travel and tourism of an outbreak of a mysterious respiratory virus in a hypothetical country. Discussions during the 90-minute session were off the record. But in interviews after the event, organizers said the step-by-step scenario made the theoretical possibility seem very real for participants. In particular, it drove home the need for speedy, accurate information-sharing and strong coordination within and across governments and institutions.” These kinds of exercises are crucial to not only address gaps, but bring together a variety of people that will be critical to pandemic response and recovery. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security also just released their self-guided exercise scenario that focuses on communication dilemmas that occur during development of medical countermeasures. The exercise is aimed at public health communicator and risk communications researchers, and revolves around a novel coronavirus outbreak in 2025. “Over a 3-year period, the virus spreads to every US state and more than 40 countries, where case fatality rates vary depending on the capabilities of local health systems. In the United States, an existing drug is repurposed to treat SPARS symptoms while federal regulators work with a pharmaceutical company to fast-track the production of a SPARS vaccine. The response differs in other nations. What follows is a nationwide vaccination effort and lingering strains on the US healthcare sector from a steady stream of patients seeking treatment for serious post-SPARS complications.”

Security Implications of Genome Editing – Meeting of Experts in Hanover
Earlier this month, a meeting of scientists and experts on policy and security gathered to discuss the potential implications of genome editing technologies like CRISPR. GMU Biodefense professor Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley attended, noting that “Over 100 CRISPR scientists form all over the world (China, India, U.S., Europe, Africa), and policy and security experts gathered in Hannover, Germany,  to discuss the security implication of the new gene-editing technique CRISPR.The group reviewed various threat scenarios and discussed potential policy responses. The meeting was particularly successful as both the scientists and security experts engaged in a productive dialogue about the importance of ensuring security without hampering the use of this new technology to promote progress in medicine and agriculture among other things.” The conference focused on establishing proactive international dialogue about genome editing and incorporating experts that range from ethics and philosophy to economics and political science. “Many workshop participants emphasised that it is vital to support and sustain a culture of responsibility and integrity in research and innovation and to engage with stakeholders. Moreover, researchers and policy makers must commit to continuing an open and inclusive dialogue that builds trust. As with other new and emerging technologies, a lack of communication about any uncertainties may undermine public confidence in science. Scientists and security experts should listen to concerns or fears regarding the misuse of genome editing, and provide their expertise on what is and is not likely.”

Synthesizing Biological Threats—A Small Leap From Horsepox to Smallpox
GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu discussed dual-use research concerns with GMU professor and graduate program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and how these relate to healthcare and infectious disease professionals. Drawing on the recent horsepox synthesis, Dr. Koblentz emphasized how this opens Pandora’s box even wider for potential smallpox synthesis and misuse of synbio. Popescu highlighted these concerns and how important it is for healthcare workers to be aware of such events and vulnerabilities. “From the healthcare perspective, it may not seem like something we should worry about, but the direction of gene editing and dual-use research of concern is something that is intrinsically linked to public health. Nefarious outcomes of such experiments, regardless of the origin or intent, will inevitably make their way into an emergency department, urgent care, or worse, the community. Although we may not be seeing the implications today, as medical providers and healthcare workers, we must keep our ears to the ground, listening for these biotech advancements, and then thinking through what they mean for us tomorrow.”

Step Away From The Backyard Poultry
Do you keep poultry in your backyard? If so, you may want to rethink it as the number of Salmonella infections related to contact with backyard poultry has quadrupled since 2015. “This year, nearly every state has been pecked by outbreak strains; only Alaska and Delaware can crow about dodging them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 1,120 cases. Nearly 250 of those involved hospitalization, and one person died.But that is likely just scratching the surface of the real numbers, according to CDC veterinarian Megin Nichols. ‘For one Salmonella case we know of in an outbreak, there are up to 30 others that we don’t know about,’ she told the AP.” The issue is that chickens and other fowl can carry organisms without having symptoms and shed them in their feces. While some hatcheries will test prior to selling their birds, it’s important that owners be aware of the risks for such infections.

The Schar School of Policy & Government Presents: Strategic Trade and International Security: Policy and Practice
This Brown Bag Seminar Presentation by Dr. Andrea Viski is the place to be on Thursday, November 2nd, from noon to 1:30pm. “Dr. Andrea Viski is the founder and director of the Strategic Trade Research Institute, an independent organization dedicated to providing authoritative research on issues at the nexus of global security and economic trade. She is also the editor-in-chief of the Strategic Trade Review, a peer reviewed journal dedicated to sanctions, export controls, and compliance. She previously worked for Project Alpha at King’s College London and for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). She has published numerous articles and book chapters in the areas of strategic trade controls, nuclear non-proliferation, and international law. Dr. Viski received her Ph.D. from the European University Institute, her M.A from Georgetown University’s Institute for Law, Science and Global Security, and her B.A in International Politics from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.” The seminar will be at Founders Hall 602, 3351 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22201.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Uganda’s Marburg Outbreak – Uganda has just confirmed the death of a 50-year-old woman as a result of the hemorrhagic fever, Marburg. “The victim, a 50-year old woman, died on October 11 at a hospital in eastern Uganda after “she presented with signs and symptoms suggestive of viral hemorrhagic fevers”, the minister said. The woman had nursed her 42-year old brother who died on September 25 with similar signs and symptoms and also participated in cultural preparation of the body for burial, she added.”
  • Big Chicken – Are you reading the latest book by Mary McKenna on antibiotic misuse in the poultry industry? “In Big Chicken, McKenna lays out in extensive detail the unintended consequences that resulted from experiments performed at Lederle Laboratories in December 1948 when scientist Thomas Jukes began adding trace amounts of the antibiotic aureomycin (later to be known as chlortetracycline) to chicken feed. The discovery that the drug could quickly fuel growth in chicks raised in confinement revolutionized the poultry industry, turning chicken into America’s favorite protein.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 10.20.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to our weekly rundown of all things health security!

Smallpox Could Again Be A Serious Threat
GMU Biodefense professor, graduate program director, and all around health security grand master, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, is working to make sure we’re not ignoring the threat of smallpox due to synthetic biology. The problem isn’t just within the amazing capabilities of synbio, but its dual-use nature, meaning that it has the potential to be misused by nefarious actors. This concern has become even greater with the horsepox recreated by Canadian researchers who demonstrated not only capability, but also the low cost of such work. It’s not a far jump from horsepox to smallpox, especially when we have mail-order DNA fragments available at prices that continue to lower. Koblentz notes just how much of a disaster a re-emergence of smallpox would be on a global level, especially since it’s highly contagious and routine immunization has long been gone. “If resurrecting horsepox virus provides a roadmap to synthesizing smallpox virus, then why would anyone try to synthesize it? Because there are potentially legitimate uses for. Tonix claims that the horsepox virus is a good candidate for developing a new, safer smallpox vaccine. Unfortunately, the current legal and technical safeguards against the synthesis of smallpox virus are weak and fragmented. There is no clear international legal or regulatory framework to prevent the synthesis of smallpox virus. The WHO has a policy banning the synthesis of the smallpox and regulating who can produce and possess large fragments of smallpox DNA, but it hasn’t been widely adopted by states. Furthermore, there is no mechanism—at either the national or international level—for detecting or punishing violations of this policy.” Aside from some substantial gaps in regulations, there are some voluntary industry screening processes however, these are pretty limited and tend to be minimal at best. Koblentz points out that there is still time to get ahead of the pox in this case – specifically by rallying international organizations, national governments, the DNA synthesis industry, and the synbio community. Check out his recommendations and comments in the article here!

Global Health Security Supplement – CDC’s EID Journal
Don’t miss out on this ahead-of-print alert for the December edition of the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Disease journal. Volume 23 will include a section on global health security, with articles on the contributions made by the CDC and other partners, establishment of the CDC Global Rapid Response Team, and Joint External Evaluations. There’s also a great commentary by Dr. Michael T. Osterholm on the unfinished journey of global health security. “All countries need to have the laboratory, trained workforce, surveillance, and emergency operations capabilities to prevent, detect, and respond to disease threats. Only when these accomplishments are realized can we truly be on the road to global health security for infectious diseases. Until then, the goal of global health security remains an unfinished journey.”

GMU Biodefense PhD Info Session – October 26th!
Don’t miss your last chance to catch our biodefense PhD info session before applications are due! On Thursday, October 26th at 7pm at our Fairfax campus, we’ll be hosting this session where you can meet with professors, current students, and find out how much fun getting a PhD can be. Where else can you study everything from synbio to Ebola and even how to stop biological threats? GMU Schar School’s Biodefense program is just the place for all things health security.

The Worrying State of Epidemic Preparedness & Global Spread of Hemorrhagic Fever Viruses: Predicting Pandemics
University of London professor Sanjeev Krishna studies neglected infectious diseases and like so many, wasn’t surprised at the 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak. He notes that globally, we could’ve been better prepared to handle the outbreak and that vaccine development, among other things, is critical. “At the start of this year an organisation was launched to lead the way, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Its mission is to bring politicians, academics, drug firms and philanthropists together to help prepare for the next epidemic. It was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, and is backed with $620m (£466m) from the governments of Norway, Germany, Japan, Canada, Belgium and Australia and the world’s two largest health charities the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is working to establish the lab and distribution infrastructure and access to funds needed to rapidly develop vaccines in a crisis.” CEPI Chief Executive Richard Hatchett has continually emphasized the importance of recognizing warning signs and investing in prevention efforts. Hatchett points out that the biggest lesson from Ebola, like so many outbreaks, is that we simply can’t be complacent about diseases with epidemic potential. Vaccine development can take a while and is costly (some say it’s about $1 billion per vaccine) and it’s taken groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust to really support some of these efforts when government investments have been lacking. These gaps in preparedness and funding are worrisome in the event of a pandemic flu. “Sir John Bell, scientist at Oxford University and author of the UK’s life sciences industrial strategy, agrees on the threat posed by flu, noting that the last flu pandemic in 1918 killed 50m to 100m people, around 3-5pc of the world’s population at the time. ‘The experience of the epidemic in 1919 should give ample cause for concern about the impact of such an event globally,’ he says.” The truth is that we’re still working to prepare and respond to these biological events, but the real question is – will we learn from our mistakes? You can also read Dr. Alaa Murabit’s comments on the challenges of securitizing health and how this UN High-Level Commissioner is tackling global health issues. Epidemics usually occur when health systems are unprepared.” These words ring especially true this week, during International Infection Prevention week (read below). Hemorrhagic viruses and hantavirus have shown an uncanny ability for epidemic expansion, whether it be through people or rodents across significant geographical areas. “The ultimate goal is to develop a resilient global health infrastructure. Besides acquiring treatments, vaccines, and other preventive medicine, bio-surveillance is critical to preventing disease emergence and to counteracting its spread. So far, only the western hemisphere has a large and established monitoring system; however, diseases continue to emerge sporadically, in particular in Southeast Asia and South America, illuminating the imperfections of our surveillance. Epidemics destabilize fragile governments, ravage the most vulnerable populations, and threaten the global community.” The truth is that we so frequently follow the pattern of poorly prepared health systems responding to epidemics and governments re-alligning preparedness efforts only after the event. The current world is in a state of flux to fix these health issues despite constant external stressors like conflict, growing populations, migration, climate change. Despite these challenges, it is vital we strengthen our health systems to more effectively and efficiently identify biological threats, prevent them, and respond to them.

Measuring Radiation Doses in Mass-Casualty Emergencies                 We’re getting a double-dose of GMU biodefense in this fascinating article on radiation measurement. GMU biodefense professor and graduate program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and doctoral candidate Mary Sproull (who is also a radiation guru at the Radiation Oncology Branch of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health) are teaming up to address diagnostic challenges and technologies in the event of a nuclear attack. This article is especially relevant with tensions rising between the United States and North Korea in the wake of nuclear tests. In the event of something this horrific, one of the challenges is to appropriately and accurately diagnosis and treat radiation-related injuries. “Fortunately, new types of diagnostics to address this critical need are being developed in the field of radiation biodosimetry. Radiation biodosimetry is the estimation, through observation of biological variables, of received dose from previous radiation exposure; the new diagnostics use changes in various biological markers to estimate the severity of radiation doses.” Koblentz and Sproull highlight several gaps within U.S. preparedness related to biodosimetry, especially in terms of surge capacity and how such diagnostic capabilities may be challenged in a large-scale event. They also point to research into new assays, like those using newly identified radiation biomarkers. Lastly, Koblentz and Sproull focus on recommendations to better integrate biodosimetry, whether it be integrating medical management of radiation injuries into healthcare provider education or equipping federal response teams with deployable point-of-care biodosimetry diagnostic capability.

Meeting of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense – National Biodefense Strategy: Implementation and Implications
Don’t miss this event at the Hudson Institute on Thursday, November 2nd from 10:30am to 2pm. “This meeting of the Study Panel will address implementation of the National Biodefense Strategy and its implications for the Office of Management and Budget, congressional authorization and appropriation, leadership, coordination, collaboration, and innovation. Thought leaders will draw upon current and previous experiences with implementing national strategies and high-level policy directives. These speakers will also share their thoughts on: (1) the biological threat, the priority they place on biodefense, and efforts to address their concerns; (2) what the Administration should consider as it goes about populating the Implementation Plan for the National Biodefense Strategy; and (3) how Congress should use the Strategy and its Implementation Plan to inform its biodefense oversight and legislative activities.” Make sure to RSVP here by October 30th if you’re attending in person – the event will also be webcast.

Doreen and Jim McElvany Nonproliferation Challenge
Don’t miss out on this wonderful opportunity through the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) to encourage innovative thinking and help address nonproliferation. “The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) and its journal, the Nonproliferation Review, aim to spur new thinking about nonproliferation and disarmament.To advance this goal, the Doreen and Jim McElvany Nonproliferation Challenge will recognize the most outstanding new ideas and policy proposals published in Volume 25 (2018) of the Nonproliferation Review. The Challenge will award a grand prize of $5,000, a $3,000 runner’s-up prize, and a $1,000 honorable mention prize.”

The Evolution of the Islamic State’s Chemical Weapons Efforts               The Islamic State has grown increasingly comfortable with using chemical weapons and Columb Strack is taking us through the evolution of their practices. While their use of chemical weapons seems to have been abandoned since the loss of Mosul in June 2017, intelligence sources have suggested that a new chemical weapons cell has been established within the Euphrates River Valley. “The Islamic State’s use of chemical agents in Iraq and Syria is characterized by three phases. During the initial phase, which encompasses the first year of the caliphate’s existence (between June 2014 and June 2015), chemical attacks drew on tried and tested techniques, adapted to include widely available industrial chemicals—mainly chlorine and phosphine—from stockpiles captured as part of the group’s territorial expansion. These attacks were carried out using crude delivery mechanisms, in most cases adding canisters of chemicals to roadside or vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The second phase, from July 2015 to January 2017, represents the enhanced capability the group had achieved by combining the production of sulfur mustard agent with the means to deliver it using projectiles, such as mortar bombs and improvised rockets. During this period, chemical attacks were carried out simultaneously across the caliphate, from Syria’s Aleppo province in the west to Iraq’s Kirkuk province in the east, indicating the existence of multiple operational units with the required expertise. Attacks peaked in April 2016, with eight separate recorded chemical attacks in one month. The third phase began with the last recorded chemical attack in Syria on January 8, 2017, and ended with the Islamic State’s apparent abandonment of its CW production following the loss of Mosul in July 2017.” Strack traces the history of intent and methodology development from two decades of experimentation by other militant groups. Strack also discusses experiments and sources for the weapons, including the seizure of military sites where chemical weapons could have been stored. Lastly, he discusses the slow degradation of capability that occurred following airstrikes against facilities and individuals, but that ultimately, the Islamic State has “the capability not only to transfer the know-how to produce toxic chemicals via secure online communications to operatives already living in target countries, but also to ship materials, including explosives, undetected.”

Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense- Animal Agriculture Vulnerabilities
Diseases that impact animals and have the potential to cross over to humans, let alone impact the agriculture industry, can be devastating. The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense has just released their report evaluating the threats to animal agriculture and how this can not only impact human health, but also the U.S. economy. “In December 2014, a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza entered the United States via migrating wild birds. The ensuing outbreak resulted in the largest animal health disaster ever experienced by the United States. Federal and state governments spent $879 million on outbreak response. The outbreak impacted 21 states, lasted until the middle of 2015, and led to the depopulation of more than 50 million birds on 232 farms. Subsequent trade bans impacted as many as 233,770 farms. The total cost to the U.S. economy was estimated at $3.3 billion. In 2015, the agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $992 billion (5.5%) to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), making it one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy. Given its critical importance to food safety and availability in the United States and around the world, protecting this sector is a matter of national security.” The report covers the threat to food and agriculture, zoonoses, how federal response is organized, collaborative efforts like biosurveillance, and the innovative work within next-generation medical countermeasures.

Why You Should Be Celebrating International Infection Prevention Week                                                                                                                                         Are you celebrating infection control this week? GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is pointing out how vast the role of infection prevention is across healthcare and why we should all be celebrating it. “October 15-21, 2017 marks International Infection Prevention Week and while this may seem like a week where we rally around hand hygiene, it’s much bigger than that. Infection prevention goes beyond the nuances of hand hygiene and expands to almost every corner of medical care and healthcare. Whether it be a dental clinic, operating room, or even an outpatient treatment center, infection prevention plays a vital role in keeping patients and healthcare workers safe. Not convinced? On any given day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 25 people in the United States will acquire a healthcare-associated infection (HAI). In a given year, it’s estimated that 722,000 HAIs occur, of which 25,000 of those patients die due to the infection. Realistically, it’s believed that the annual number of HAIs within the United States is closer to 2 million, which is astounding.”

Monkeypox in Nigeria
Nigeria is currently experiencing an outbreak of monkeypox after confirming three cases. “Since Sep 22, there have been 60 reports of suspected monkeypox cases from across Nigeria. The laboratory analysis showed that 12 suspected cases from the Bayelsa state were not positive for monkeypox. The NCDC said that all patients with suspected and confirmed monkeypox are currently receiving supportive medical care and improving. The NCDC offered no further details on the confirmed cases, besides noting that they were from Bayelsa state. The agency said the likely source of infection is through primary zoonotic transmission, and cautioned Nigerians to avoid contact with squirrels, rats, and any animals that appear sick.” Samples are currently being analyzed at the WHO regional office in Dakar, Senegal.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Did Disease Impact the Fall of Rome?– We know that disease can have devastating consequences on societies and even ancient Rome experienced several outbreaks of smallpox and plague, but just how impacting were these biological events? “Rome was far from the only advanced society shaken to its core by the explosive force of infectious diseases. The medieval Black Death sent some leading-edge polities (like the communities of Italy) backward, while opening the space for the ascent of others, such as England. The lethal role of pathogen exchange in the European conquest of the New World is relatively famous, if still imperfectly understood.”
  • Supportive Care Recommendations for Ebola Patients– Treatment for patients afflicted with Ebola can be tricky and there’s often little time to get the right mixture. “The study, by a team of international experts, was published yesterday in The Lancet. The authors write that at the beginning of the outbreak in 2013, case-fatality rates were 70%, but that number was lowered significantly (to 40%) as supportive care practices improved over the course of the outbreak. Using Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) methodology, the authors present evidence-based recommendations for patient care during the next Ebola outbreak. Oral hydration and intravenous hydration had the strongest recommendation. When administered properly, the measure carries no risk of transmission to healthcare workers, the experts say. and making sure patients, especially the very young, are adequately hydrated is a necessary supportive measure.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 9.15.2017

Global Health and the Future Role of the United States
The latest report from the National Academies of Science Engineering, and Medicine, is now available! “Growing forces for globalization have increased the interconnectedness of the world and our interdependency on other countries, economies, and cultures. Monumental growth in international travel and trade have brought improved access to goods and services for many, but also carry ongoing and ever-present threats of zoonotic spillover and infectious disease outbreaks that threaten all.” The report includes chapters on investing in global health for America and how such investments protect U.S. interests, the effects of globalization, and looking into the future. There are individual chapters on infectious diseases like pandemic influenza and global health security as national security, TB, and how we can enhance productivity and economic growth. “By investing in global health over the next 20 years, there is a chance to save the lives of millions of children and adults. Beyond these health benefits to individuals, global health is directly linked to economic productivity and growth worldwide. According to the Lancet  Commission on Investing in Health, the return on investments in global health can be substantial—as the benefits can exceed the costs by a factor between 9 and 20, for low-income and lower middle-income countries, respectively. Worldwide, investing in core capacities to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks through the development of multidisciplinary ‘One Health’ systems focused on the interface of human and animal health can result in an estimated savings of $15 billion annually from the prevention of outbreaks alone.” The report emphasizes the importance of continued commitment to global health and that ultimately, aid is truly an investment in global health, which benefits us all. Disease knows no borders and an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere. Melinda Gates also recently discussed the importance of foreign aid, noting that “If we don’t make these investments in global health, my argument to people is, you’re going to see a lot more things like Ebola in our own country, and we’ll be dealing with them in our own health clinics because borders are porous,”.

GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Information Sessions 
Don’t miss out on the chance to learn about our PhD program on September 21st! You can join the info session at 7pm at the GMU Arlington Campus. The GMU Schar School PhD info session will also include a panel of current PhD students to discuss their experiences and answer questions. This is also a great chance to chat with faculty and learn about admissions. Where else can you study a range of topics that include biosurveillance, select agents, global health security, and policy with such an engaged group of faculty and students?

Tom Frieden Launches New Global Health Initiative
Former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden is launching a new program to combat not only global cardiovascular disease, but also infectious diseases. The new initiative Resolve to Save Lives, will be located in New York City, and “will prevent heart attacks, strokes, and epidemics with the goal of saving 100 million lives and making the world safer from epidemics.” The initiative has $225 million in backing over the next five years by major funders including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations. Frieden hopes to work with major players like the WHO and CDC “to persuade more countries to ban trans fats and lower the salt content in foods and shore up defenses against disease outbreaks”.

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security ELBI Workshop
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) recently hosted their last event for the 2017 class. The 2017 group capped off their fellowships with a day of engaging lectures and discussions including talks from FBI SSA Ed You, STAT reporter Helen Branswell, MIT’s Peter Carr, and more. The group was able to tour the Ginkgo Bioworks and George Church labs while chatting with Andy Weber, George Church, Patrick Boyle, Tom Knight, and Devin Leake about the future of synbio and biotechnology. Last but not least, the fellows participated in a viral storm exercise, which challenged them through a real-world scenario that required policy, security, public health, and science responses on a global scale. GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu attended as a member of the class, noting that “one of my favorite parts from this workshop was getting to hear from Tom Inglesby and several analysts from the CHS regarding their research and initiatives they’ve worked on. Learning about projects like Outbreak Observatory, data-driven outbreak response (outbreak science), and healthcare capacities during natural disasters, was fascinating and really opened my eyes to the range of topics the CHS is involved in.”

Biological Engagement Programs: Reducing Threats and Strengthening Global Health Security Through Scientific Collaboration
Don’t miss out on this latest eBook addressing biological engagement programs and the health security perspective. “Biological engagement programs are a set of projects or activities between partner countries that strengthen global health security to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. Engagement programs are an effective way to work collaboratively towards a common threat reduction goal, usually with a strong focus on strengthening health systems and making the world a safer place. Cooperative programs are built upon trust and sharing of information and resources to increase the capacity and capabilities of partner countries.” You can download the PDF here – make sure not to miss the chapter “Strengthening Biosecurity in Iraq: Development of a National Biorisk Management System”, co-authored by GMU biodefense professor and graduate program director, Dr. Gregory Koblentz.

NAS Symposium on Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) for the Next Ten Years and Beyond
The National Academy of Science will be hosting this symposium on September 18-19 at the Keck Center in Washington, D.C. “In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report Global Security Engagement: A New Model for Cooperative Threat Reduction concluded that expanding and updating U.S. Government Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs in both form and function would enhance U.S. national security and global stability. The NAS Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) is convening a symposium to examine how CTR has evolved since that time and to consider new approaches for CTR programs and related WMD elimination efforts to increase their ability to enhance U.S. security. The symposium is sponsored by the Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (PASCC) in the Naval Postgraduate School and will be open to the public. A ‘meeting in brief’ document will be issued by NAS after the symposium. For detailed information on this event and a draft agenda please visit:  www.nas.edu/cisac.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • GAO Report on Medical Devices for Infectious Disease Rapid Diagnosis – The latest GAO report is looking to the capabilities and challenges of technologies that allow for the rapid diagnosis of infectious diseases. Diagnosis of bio-threats is a crucial component to prevention and control, which makes the efficacy of these technologies critical. “Some stakeholders GAO spoke to identified the need for more clinical studies to establish the benefits of these technologies. Implementation challenges included reluctance by medical users to adopt these technologies, due to factors such as (1) lack of familiarity with such technologies, (2) costs and resources to use them, and (3) reluctance to order, and pay for, all of the tests for a given multiplex assay. Further, in some situations, positive test results for rare diseases are more likely to be false positives; thus systematic testing for such diseases may result in wasted resources to address all patients who test positive.”
  • CSIS Event: The New Barbarianism- don’t miss out on this event organized by the CSIS Global Health Policy Center on Monday, September 18th, from 6:30-9pm at the Newseum. “This hour-long film explores the recent surge of violence we’ve witnessed against the health sector across multiple wars, both new and old, and the accompanying shredding of international humanitarian norms”. Make sure to register here.

Pandora Report 9.8.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly source for all things biodefense. Got plague? Good news – if you have some live chickens hanging around, you can try this medieval treatment.

Defense Against Biological Attacks
Biological threats come in all shapes and sizes – whether it’s an outbreak of Ebola, a biological weapon, a laboratory mishap, or even the potential for biosafety breaches following  a hurricane. Preparedness and response efforts need to be just as diverse. As Texas begins the process of rebuilding and the threat of nuclear weapons has been fresh in everyone’s mind, it is crucial we don’t forget about the importance of health security. Disease knows no borders and it’s easy to diminish the threat of it however, Laura Holgate and Elizabeth Cameron are drawing attention to the need for President Trump to prevent the next biological attack before it happens. “As Congress and the Trump administration mull a new biodefense strategy, we urge them to use this time — the time in between biological crises — to get ahead of the curve before the next major biological event inevitably comes our way.” They point to several different strategies that should to be followed – watch out for emerging threats in unstable regions, fund and renew the Global Health Security Agenda, replenish the budget to maintain global biosecurity, keep laboratory assets for attributing biological attacks, and use biosurveillance to stop outbreaks before they start. We need to take the National Bioforensics Analysis Center off the chopping block, stop slashing the biosecurity budget as programs like the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program are vital, and truly, the GHSA renewal is a no-brainer. These efforts not only defend against current threats, but work to address the next generation of bioweapons and biothreats.  Holgate and Cameron note that “We know that biological threats must remain at the top of the national security agenda, and leaders must recognize that stopping outbreaks at the source requires strong global and domestic capacity to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to naturally occurring outbreaks and biological attacks”

Health Security – Call for Papers
The Health Security journal is currently looking for papers on communication and health security: improving public health communication in response to large-scale health threats. Manuscript deadlines are October 20, 2017. “Effective communication is an essential tool in establishing an appropriate response to any large-scale health threat or disaster, such as a newly emerging infectious disease, terrorism, environmental catastrophe, or accident. Yet, public health communication is occurring in an increasingly complex world with competing messages, new platforms, and limited trust.A special feature in Health Security will be devoted to analysis of the current communication environment and efforts to effectively communicate during outbreaks of infectious diseases and other health threats. The journal seeks papers that address the wide range of policy, practice, and research issues relevant to communication in large-scale health events.” Topics might include exploration of the communication environment during recent infectious disease events or public health disasters, investigation of the role of social media and other emerging or recently emerging communication platforms, etc. Submission information can be found here.

GMU Biodefense MS – Open House on September 14th
Don’t miss out on the Master’s Open House next week for the GMU Biodefense MS program!  From 6:30-8:30pm next Thursday, September 14th, at the GMU Arlington campus, you can speak to faculty, learn about admissions, and why biodefense students have a blast while getting their graduate degrees. This is a great chance to learn about the MS program (for both online or in-person) and chat with faculty about the exciting classes and activities GMU biodefense students get to enjoy.

The Biological Weapons Convention At A Crossroad
As Robert Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Which direction will the BWC take? Bonnie Jenkins investigates the uncertain future of the BWC, its current challenges, which direction it might take, and the direction it should take. Despite its relevance and capacity to endure decades of challenges, the latest RevCon was considered a monumental disappointment and left many in a state of disagreement. “Some of the major issues that were discussed at previous meetings—but at this point have no platform for discussion at the BWC—include advances in science and technology, disease outbreak preparedness and response, and national BWC implementation. Previously-held mid-year experts’ meetings have also been dropped, so there is now no chance for the exchanges with experts from relevant international organizations, including input from the World Health Organization that has been so useful in the past. These are all steps backward.” Despite a lack of Meeting of States Parties in August, there is hope that the December meeting with work towards developing an inter-sessional work program. On top of these barriers, the BWC has funding challenges, which severely impacts the Implementation Support Unit (ISU). Against these odds, the BWC ISU continues to promote universal membership and treaty implementation. Global initiatives are also beneficial to promotion of health security and prevention of biological weapons. “When global initiatives interconnect like this, it reinforces all of the initiatives. The Global Health Security Agenda, for instance, brings over 55 countries together to strengthen countries’ capacities to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats, whether natural, deliberate, or accidental.” These efforts seek to strengthen the BWC through global health security, but there is still work to be done. Jenkins suggests three tasks are crucial to maintain BWC relevancy and sustainability: “1) Sufficient and sustained funding by states parties, to include payments now in arrears; 2) Strong leadership and a successful December MSP that reaffirms the importance of the treaty to the international community and that also develops an inter-sessional work program; and 3) A vision for developing the role of the BWC as part of a larger interconnected global security architecture.”

Using Ebola Data to Fight Future Outbreaks
Learning from past outbreaks to avoid future failures is always a tough aspect of public health however, a new strategy is using data to help stop the next outbreak of Ebola. Researchers have developed a new platform to help organize and share Ebola data that was previously scattered and unable to be utilized. This was a significant issue on the ground during the 2014/2015 outbreak, which makes this project all the more important. “The information system is coordinated by the Infectious Diseases Data Observatory (IDDO), an international research network based at the University of Oxford, UK, and is expected to launch by the end of the year. At a meeting to discuss Ebola on 7–9 September in Conakry, Guinea, the team heading the platform will seek input from West African scientists, health officials and advocacy groups.” One of the most vital components to the system is the emphasis of partnership and involvement of African collaborators. Not only will this focus encourage the use of historical data, but will also allow utilization during future outbreaks. Control of the data has also been a challenging hurdle to overcome, as there are many cooks in the kitchen. “Amuasi says that he would have liked the database to be hosted and curated in Africa, rather than in Oxford, because training and paying African researchers to manage the platform would teach them how to use the information and improve their ability to respond to future outbreaks in the region. But he adds that this seems unlikely, because it would raise the cost of the project, and the infrastructure already exists at Oxford. Merson says that a copy of the database will be maintained in West Africa, although its exact location has yet to be determined. She adds that an African committee may be in charge of deciding who gets access to the data. And she says that fellowships are likely to be made available for West African students who want to work on the database.”

The Global Health Security Agenda: Public & Private Partnerships
The Global Health Security Agenda Consortium and EcoHealth Alliance will be hosting this meeting on Thursday, September 14th at 12pm. Held at the ONE UN New York Hotel in NYC, you can catch this event with speakers like Dr. Beth Cameron from the Nuclear Threat Initiative and Admiral Tim Ziemer from the US National Security Council. Make sure to RSVP here.

Launch of International Health Regulations Costing Tool
Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science & Security is launching their new open-access IHR costing tool. “In 2016, the World Health Organization adopted the Joint External Evaluation tool (JEE) to measure country-specific progress in developing the capacities needed to prevent, detect, and respond to public health threats, as mandated under the 2007 International Health Regulations (IHR). However, national governments and development partners have struggled to accurately define the costs of strengthening and maintaining critical health security systems that often depend on multi-sectoral coordination. This poses a serious dilemma for global health security and presents a compelling opportunity to improve the drafting and implementation of practical health security policies.” A joint effort with Talus Analytics, this new tool was developed to help estimate the cost to build capacity under the IHR. You can access the tool here (you may want to use Google Chrome).

IDSA Slams Budget Cuts to AMR
Biodefense budgets aren’t the only ones to be taking a beating… The president’s FY2018 budget released in May would cut the CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance Solutions Initiate (ARSI) by 14%, as well as 23% from the NIH and NIAID, which funds research on AMR. Leaders from Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) are rallying to oppose such efforts. “In a letter published yesterday in Annals of Internal Medicine, IDSA treasurer Helen Boucher, MD, past president Barbara Murray, MD, and current president William Powderly, MD, argue that the budget cuts for public health and research proposed by the Trump administration will not only diminish the nation’s surveillance capacity and its efforts to reduce infections and promote appropriate antibiotic use, but also undercut US leadership in global efforts to tackle the AMR threat, which is responsible for more than 700,000 deaths each year globally.” The letter emphasizes that such cut would severely impact AMR efforts, which is highly worrisome and dangerous given the severity of the global AMR threat. You can read the letter here.

An Integrated Approach to Forensic Investigation of Threat Agents
In the wake of a chemical or biological event, threat analysis is a high-stakes operation that has little room for error. Determining the substance, origin, and components all make for a stressful situation that requires effective analytical methods. “Traditional analytical methods are good at confirming the presence or absence of a particular agent or substance. If a sample is believed to contain Bacillus anthracis, standard biological analysis will quickly determine whether or not this is the case. But it will not provide insight into its virulence, origin or how it might have been manipulated. And if the sample turns out to be something other than B. anthracis, it will not tell you what it actually is. An integrated approach to CB forensics provides investigators with richer information. Integrated forensics combines advanced forensic science technologies to provide more comprehensive and timely technical intelligence.” Some of these strategies include advanced genomic analysis like massively parallel sequencing and advanced chemical analysis like gas chromatography and high resolution mass spectrometry. Currently, the extraction methods for biological analysis can render the sample unusable for chemical analysis, which make analysis problematic. A new strategy from Battelle is looking to combat these discrepancies, which involves a new process to “systematically triage samples and integrate biological and chemical forensics, as well as developing and testing new technologies to help investigators more quickly identify and characterize biological agents, including new, emerging and synthetic agents, to glean more forensic information from the samples.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Zika Vaccine Efforts Slow– Sanofi recently announced they are halting work on a candidate Zika vaccine. The vaccine was a joint effort with Walter Reed Army Institute of Research however, budgetary cuts and federal efforts to scale back put the project in jeopardy. “In its Sep 1 statement, Sanofi said BARDA informed the company on Aug 17 that the agency reassessed its Zika-related projects and have decided to focus on a more limited set of goals and deliverable, and that BARDA has decided to “de-scope” its contract with Sanofi for the manufacture and clinical development of an inactivated Zika vaccine. BARDA said it would limit its funding to a case definition and surveillance study, as well as any activities needed to pause work on the vaccine until an epidemic re-emerges. As a result, Sanofi said it doesn’t intend to continue developing or seek a license from WRAIR for the Zika vaccine candidate.”
  • Australia Battles Influenza – As Australia experiences a particularly harsh flu season, many are wondering what this will mean for Europe and North America.”In general, we get in our season what the Southern Hemisphere got in the season immediately preceding us,” Fauci said. An “intelligent guess,” therefore, is that the north will probably have a bad flu season. “With influenza, it is never 100%,” he said. “So when you talk about influenza, almost nothing is absolutely precision,” Fauci said. “In general, one can say we usually see here what they see there in their season.” Schaffner agrees: “There’s not a one-to-one correlation.” Still, hearing about Australia’s high number of flu cases, he said, “I started to tighten my belt.”

Pandora Report 8.25.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense. Have you ever wanted to take a tour of Dugway Proving Ground? Here’s your chance at a virtual tour through some amazing photography.

GMU Biodefense Graduate Programs & Information Sessions
Classes are just starting up and if you’ve ever wanted to take classes on synthetic biology and biosecurity, global health security policy, nonproliferation and arms control, biosurveillance, or emerging infectious diseases, we’ve got just the program for you! GMU offers both Masters and PhD programs in biodefense and has several informational sessions coming soon. Our program provides the perfect intersection of policy and science with courses taught by a range experts. If your time is limited or distance is a problem, we also offer an online MS program, which means you can study biodefense from anywhere!

Revisiting NIH Biosafety Guidelines
It’s been forty years since NIH established the Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant or Synthetic Nucleic Acid Molecules to assess the risks of genome editing. Now more than ever, with the speed of biotech development, it is relevant to take a moment and look back at the significance of such guidelines. “Responsibilities include setting up Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) to assess risks and potential hazards through standards for containment and laboratory practices. Noncompliance on any project, whatever the funding source, can result in loss of all such NIH funding. In his address to the workshop.” Since its inception, there have been several advances in the field, like DIY gene editing and CRISPR, which may require changes to the existing guidelines. “And conventional risk management practices that focus on listed pathogens may underestimate risks of new, unlisted organisms. The informality of voluntary guidelines has enabled prompt responses by funders and researchers to emerging evidence on benefits and risks of technologies. But what has worked with those receiving NIH funding with IBCs may not work with the wider range of actors who now have access to these technologies.” How can the NIH meet these challenges with a forty-year-old set of rules? A few things might help it maintain relevancy- participation in international forums, facilitating researchers/publishers/insurers to set common benchmarks on researcher conduct, engage more with institutional biosafety officials, and working to ensure there are more IBCs. Overall, there is a need to modernize the guidelines to better meet and serve the expanding plain of the life sciences.

Revisiting Compliance in the Biological Weapons Convention                                                                       Have you noticed a trend this week? Revisiting is the name of the game and that’s just what the latest occasional paper from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey is doing. The latest RevCon was a dud and the future of the BWC and its relevance is being tested. James Revill is looking at compliance and an incremental approach within the BWC. Revill notes that “compliance with the BWC is more than a simple binary choice to sign a commitment not to develop or produce biological weapons. It requires the adherence to all the obligations, both negative and positive, undertaken by BWC states parties in signing and ratifying the convention. In the BWC context, this is complicated by the ambiguity surrounding certain obligations, changes in science and security, and the limited resource capacity of some states to fulfill their obligations. Under such circumstances, without episodically revisiting compliance, there remains the risk that BWC will become ever more fragmented, outmoded and poorly implemented.” He emphasizes that despite many pushing for multilaterally negotiated, legally binding verification protocols, this is an unlikely outcome. An incremental approach to revisiting compliance, Revill suggests, could incorporate several activities – review relevant science and technology, enhance the collection and analysis of compliance indicators, develop the consultative mechanism, building the provision of assistance in the event of a violation of the BWC, explore voluntary visits, enhance the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism, and remedy the institutional deficient. Overall, he points to the wavering nature of norms against bioweapons and that “without revisiting compliance and tending the convention, there is a risk that the regime will be left to fester and fragment, in time potentially diminishing the norms against biological weapons.”

Meeting on the Attribution of Biological Crime, Terrorism, and Warfare
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense will be hosting this October 3rd meeting in Washington D.C. “Effective prosecution and decisions regarding U.S. response depend on accurate attribution of biological attacks. Despite ongoing biological crimes and suspected development of biological weapons for the purpose of attacking the Nation, the United States has yet to establish this capability fully. The Study Panel will host a special focus meeting entitled Biological Attribution: Challenges and Solutions. This meeting of the Study Panel, chaired by former Homeland Security Advisor Ken Wainstein and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, will provide federal government, industry, and academic representatives with the opportunity to discuss their perspectives, experiences, challenges, and recommended solutions with regard to biological attribution.” Stay tuned for more details!

SynBio Salmagundi: Proposed Framework for Identifying Potential Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology – Report, SB7.0 & Options for Synthetic DNA Screening 
It’s a good day to get your synbio nerdom on with this potpourri of news! If you missed the webinar on Tuesday, you can now access the latest NAS interim report regarding the biodefense implications of synthetic biology. “Synthetic biology and related biotechnologies hold great promise for addressing challenges in human health, agriculture, and other realms. At the same time, synthetic biology raises concerns about possible malicious uses that might threaten human health or national security. This interim report is the first phase of a study by the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine to assess potential vulnerabilities. The report proposes a strategic framework that can be used to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern.” Within the report you can find definitions and study scope regarding synthetic biology in the context of biodefense, factors to assess capability for malicious use, technologies and applications to assess, and framework approach (parameters to consider, use and limitations, etc.). Check out this latest article regarding the screening processes of for synthetic DNA ordering. Sure, there are current screening processes (providers affiliated with the International Gene Synthesis Consortium voluntarily screen double-stranded DNA synthesis orders over 200bp to check for regulated pathogens and additional customer screening), but truly, the processes isn’t that easy…or cheap. Researchers, like Gigi Kwik Gronvall, pointed out actions that could help “preserve the effectiveness of DNA order screening as a security tool and develop additional mechanisms to increase the safety and security of DNA synthesis technologies.” Highlighting the DHHS screening guidance as quickly becoming obsolete, they emphasized options like including direct financial support to companies for screening, especially as we look to the future costs and responsibilities of the U.S. government. “The screening of dsDNA orders is not a panacea for biosecurity concerns: it is possible for nefarious actors to work around the screening. However, we believe that screening dsDNA orders still raises barriers to the development of biological weapons and may offer some protection against biosafety concerns.” The future of synthetic DNA ordering will surely be debated as experiments, like the recent horsepox reconstitution, bring to light new gaps. One such focus onto the realm of biosecurity and synthetic biology comes from Dr. Eric van der Helm, who participated at the latest SB7.0 synthetic biology conference. Van der Helm attended as part of the SB7.0 biosecurity fellowship and has highlighted some of the biorisks we worry about. He also points to the latest horsepox experiment which brought about so much attention to the biosecurity implications of reconstituting an extinct virus. “Synthetic biology has only been recently recognized as a mature subject in the context of biological risk assessment — and the core focus has been infectious diseases. The main idea, to build resilience and a readiness to respond, was reiterated by several speakers at the SB7.0 conference.  In the case of biosecurity, we’re already dependent on biology [with respect to food, health etc.] but we still have an opportunity to develop biosecurity strategies before synthetic biology is ubiquitous.  There is still an opportunity to act now and put norms and practices in place because the community is still relatively small.” Van der Helm emphasizes the need to have these conversations regarding biosecurity measures and synbio, like those at SB7.0, more frequently and openly.

North Korea’s Bioweapon Program: What do we actually know?
If you haven’t gotten enough on discussions regarding North Korea’s bioweapons program, check out GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley‘s latest interview in which she discusses what we know and what we might be missing. What a perfect way to enjoy the morning commute or a lunch break!

Post-Ebola Recovery – An Upside to an Epidemic
A recent mudslide in Sierra Leone is revealing a positive outcome from the 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak – sustained disaster response. Shortly after the mudslide, emergency response crews were already working alongside volunteers to help rescue victims. Sidi Tunis chatted with Buzzfeed, noting that “During Ebola we had a lot of community engagement, so they knew how to be first responders. They knew how to do search and rescues, they knew how to convey corpses safely to the morgue.” Many of the young men digging through rubble were already experienced, having helped with Ebola burial teams and the ambulance system was better equipped and supported as a result of the outbreak. “There was a lesson learnt from Ebola that instead of creating parallel system of NGOs, let’s take leadership from the start,” she said. “So this time it’s been led by the government from the onset, and having them take that ownership is more of a sustainable system.” “Still, NGOs playing a critical role are in a better position than they might typically have been. Three days after the mudslide, unclaimed bodies piling up in Freetown’s main mortuary posed another health risk. There were so many that they began to decompose in the tropical heat, prompting the government to order mass burials over the following two days. Workers from UNICEF were among those who helped scrub out the morgue during a massive clean-up operation that followed. ‘That needed a lot of infection prevention equipment – gloves, boots, aprons,’ James said. ‘UNICEF had emergency stock ready to go from Ebola’.”

Meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
Don’t miss out on this September 13th and 14th meeting in which the “Advisory Council will provide advice, information, and recommendations to the Secretary regarding programs and policies intended to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics by optimizing their use; advance research to develop improved methods for combating antibiotic resistance and conducting antibiotic stewardship; strengthen surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; prevent the transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; advance the development of rapid point-of-care and agricultural diagnostics; further research Start Printed Page 38913on new treatments for bacterial infections; develop alternatives to antibiotics for agricultural purposes; maximize the dissemination of up-to-date information on the appropriate and proper use of antibiotics to the general public and human and animal healthcare providers; and improve international coordination of efforts to combat antibiotic resistance.” The meeting will be held at the DHHS Hubert Humphrey Building or you can attend online here.

Pandemic Readiness (Hint: We’re Not There Yet)
Despite funding for the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) and an increase in funding to the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program (PHEP), many are pointing out that these programs are chronically underfunded to begin with. “This House bill also does little to create a realistic public health emergency response fund, a standing pot of money to meet the immediate needs of a public health crisis. We saw how long it took to get emergency funds to respond to Zika, Ebola and Hurricane Sandy, with each event taking longer and longer to help these communities respond to devastating disasters.” You can also check out this latest meeting with Judy Woodruff and Liberian-born Dr. Raj Panjabi at Spotlight Health. Dr. Panjabi discusses the seriousness of infectious disease threats and the challenges of pandemic prevention.

Forecasting Outbreaks One Image at a Time
Tracking infectious diseases is a tough job and requires a lot of boots on the ground (shout out to gumshoe epidemiologists who go door to door doing contact tracing). Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been using computer modeling for a while to track disease movement, but a new partnership with Descartes Labs, is bringing high-resolution satellite imagery into the arsenal. “By mapping where high-moisture areas intersect with those social media signals and clinical surveillance data, we can help identify areas at risk for disease emergence and subsequently predict its potential path. Descartes Labs collects data daily from public and commercial imagery providers, aggregating the images into a single database. Our team at Los Alamos will use the Descartes Labs Platform to correlate satellite imagery with multiyear clinical surveillance data from approximately 5,500 Brazilian municipalities for mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, and Zika in order to better understand how they spread.” This new imagery will allow Los Alamos Lab researchers to focus on specific neighborhoods and other small geographical areas. By using retrospective analysis via historical data, they’ll make sure the mathematical models are accurate and ensure that future models are truly capable of prediction.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Munich Re Signs Strategic Agreement With Metabiota to Enhance Insurability Against Epidemic Losses – The risk analytics firm Metabiota has announced a strategic agreement with Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurers, to better establish insurability “by protecting companies and local economies from the financial loss related to epidemics. This really is the next frontier for the insurance industry – given the high risk of infectious disease outbreaks, it is imperative that we find new ways to manage and finance these risks for our customers.” Metabiota’s newest platform is a modeling method for estimating epidemic preparedness and risk, as well as the cost and severity of outbreaks by using historical data and disease scenarios and analytics.
  • Ebola Survivors Plagued With Long-term Disabilities – Imagine becoming infected with one of the most deadly viruses on the planet. Now, imagine by some stroke of luck and medical marvel, you’re able to survive. After the long, miserable road that is Ebola infection, survivors have been finding themselves with chronic conditions and high rates of disabilities. A new study found that Ebola survivors have seven times the disability rate compared to their close contacts. “In the first study, researchers followed 27 Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone for 1 year after diagnosis and found they were seven times more likely than their close contacts to report a disability. Almost 80% of the survivors (77.8%) reported a disability 1 year post-infection, compared with 11.1% of their close contacts. Disabilities included major limitations in vision, mobility, and cognition. ‘This study has demonstrated that a year following acute disease, survivors of the recent EVD outbreak have higher odds of persisting disability in mobility, vision, and cognition,’ the authors concluded. ‘Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression persist in EVD survivors and must not be neglected’.”
  • Minnesota Measles Woes & Anti-vaxxers– The benefits of vaccines have been under fire from anti-vaccine activists, despite the overwhelming good they’ve done for the world. While Minnesota continues to battle their worst outbreak of measles in decades, the antivaxxers are becoming energized in their efforts. “In Facebook group discussions, local activists have asked about holding ‘measles parties’ to expose unvaccinated children to others infected with the virus so they can contract the disease and acquire immunity.” The initial cases of this outbreak were in the Somali American community, which are believed to be the result of anti-vaccine activists speaking to community members and instilling fears and concerns. “Despite the anti-vaccine drumbeat, Minnesota’s Somali American community has begun to push back, according to some health-care providers. As part of an unprecedented collaboration clinicians and public health officials launched this summer, ­Somali American imams are urging families to protect their children by getting the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.”

Pandora Report 8.18.2017

ECDC Tool for Prioritizing Biothreats
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has released their tool for the prioritization of infectious disease threats. “This qualitative tool, implemented as an Excel workbook, is based on multi-criteria decision analysis. It ranks infectious disease threats in a transparent, comparable and methodologically reproducible manner. The tool enables the relative ranking of different infectious disease threats. It is intended as a supplement to other methods that also support decision-making in preparedness planning.” Part of the tool involves a scoring of diseases, in which it suggests that a multidisciplinary expert group works to establish reliable information and adequate scoring. The ECDC tool also includes a handbook and manual for users to get the most out of it.

 Long Ignored: The Use of CBW Against Insurgents
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Glenn Cross investigates the use of chemical and biological weapons in counterinsurgency campagins like that of Rhodesia, South Africa, and Syria. Cross notes that history has shown the efficacy of CBW against ill-equipped and often poorly trained insurgents. He points to the debate regarding application of use – some say that these weapons are used when conventional forces are ineffective and often a last resort, while others note that the lack of an international and effective response have given insurgents incentive. “The conclusion from these examples is that regimes in extremis — when the battle is for their very survival — seem to have little compunction about resorting to chemical and biological weapons use. The much-heralded international norms and conventions prohibiting and condemning chemical and biological development and use go out the window when a regime’s survival is at stake. The examples of Rhodesia and Syria show that the international community must be united and demonstrate the requisite political will to enforce norms if the use of chemical and biological weapons is to be prevented.” Cross highlights two case studies, Rhodesia and Syria, pointing to the use of biological weapons by Rhodesian forces as being the only example of a nation using bioweapons since the end of WWII. While the regime was aware of treaty obligations, it had no bearing on their decision to use such weapons. So what are effective constrains on the use of CBW? The case studies reveal that regimes care little about their efficacy, international norms, or international agreements, but it is really deterrence that likely prevents the use of such weapons. The credible threat of military action is the strongest deterrent and realistically, until international norms include uniform enforcement amongst nations, they won’t be as effective. “As we’ve seen in Syria, such consensus is elusive, and the international community has failed to act. As a consequence, the world faces a sad, but inevitable conclusion. The Syrian regime is unlikely to ever face justice for its use of chemical weapons.”

A View from the CT Foxhole: Edward You, FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit
As if we need any more reasons to think Edward You is a biosecurity action hero! The Combating Terrorism Center recently sat down with Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI’s WMD Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit, and discussed not only his role within the FBI but also their work and coordination with partners. You notes that hisprimary mission is to support outreach and engagement, but probably most importantly it is to backstop the WMD Coordinators who are positioned in the field. They have to cover the whole broad range of modalities—chem, bio, nuke, explosives. They do the initial engagements, the partnerships, the initial response, but they can always call back to headquarters where we leverage all of our expertise as subject matter experts. We can bring in the laboratory division; we can bring in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if necessary, the Department of Homeland Security to support them when they run into an incident out in the field.” He emphasizes the importance of the relationship the FBI has with the private sector, not only in terms of shared interests, but also communicating security problems to help get more buy-in and coordination. When asked about the DIY biohacker, You notes that “We look at these community labs as a big positive force in the economy and engines of innovation. That has helped us overcome the natural tendency for such outfits to be a little bit anti-establishment. By engaging with them, we’re helping them to raise their level of awareness that they could potentially be targeted by malicious actors seeking to subvert their work, steal their technology, or recruit insiders on their staff. By helping them establish a form of ‘neighborhood watch,’ they will be best positioned to identify and report on instances of suspicious activity both internal and external to their community. Who better to identify threats than the community members themselves?” While the partnerships with DIY labs haven’t garnered any leads to potential threats, they help the FBI understand the direction biotech is heading, which allows them to flag areas of concern faster than if they used a top-down approach. You also addresses the 2016 Europol warning of potential ISIS experimentation with bioweapons, commenting that “With ISIS, al-Qa`ida, or any other threat actor for that matter, we are faced with two significant challenges. The first is ideology. What happens if that lone individual that becomes persuaded by their ideology happens to be a microbiologist or a biochemist? The counter WMD mission has always proceeded by identifying the actors expressing the intent to acquire, develop, or use WMDs (e.g., counterproliferation efforts). And historically, significant effort and investments have been made to counter the biological weapon threat ranging from state/non-state actors to individual level biological crimes (e.g., attempted ricin poisonings). But this introduces the second challenge. Unlike the chemical and radiological/nuclear realms where materials of concern are highly regulated and the expertise is almost arcane, biology could be classified as dual use or multi-use. The strength of the field is based on the fact that it is inherently open in nature (e.g., peer-reviewed scientific journals), which has led to significant advances in areas such as healthcare.” Lastly, You points to what he considers the greatest biosecurity threat facing the U.S. – the concerns of non-state actors, but also the role of data in terms of gene editing and other biotech, noting that “we may have have been short-sighted. Most of our legal frameworks have been focused on privacy and not on security.” “Because there’s a lack of understanding about where bio is going, we’re in danger of falling behind, and my biggest concern is that for lack of our foresight and being strategic in this space, I think China is going to become a potential biological superpower.” Did I mention that Edward You is frequently a speaker at our summer workshops?

North Korea’s Chemical Arsenal Complicates U.S. Options 
As concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program grows, the threat of chemical weapons has seemingly been downplayed. Tackling nuclear threats through preemptive strikes could push North Korea to utilize their chemical weapons program and sizable stockpile, which is considered to be one of the largest. “Experts are also disturbed by Kim Jong-un’s brazen public assassination of his half-brother using the nerve agent VX, saying it demonstrates the regime’s willingness to use deadly toxins. ‘I think if people paid more attention to the chemical side, they’d be less inclined to talk about preemption and going first against North Korea,’ said Greg Koblentz, a researcher of weapons of mass destruction at George Mason University.” In the event that chemical weapons are deployed, the South Korean capitol of Seoul would surely take a hit, which is home to 25 million people. While details of North Korea’s biological weapons program have given little insight into what is actually going on, there is considerably more knowledge regarding their chemical weapons initiatives. “The exact composition and size of North Korea’s chemical arsenal is unclear, but it’s believed to include everything from antiquated chlorine gas all the way up to sarin, VX, and other highly lethal nerve agents. These weapons are distributed at facilities across the country, often tucked away in underground bunkers or other sites unknown to U.S. and allied intelligence. The weapons are also deployed along the armistice line, which sits just 35 miles north of Seoul.” While there are limits to their chemical weapons capabilities, they surely provide little comfort to South Korean citizens and those living in Seoul.

 Chatting With the WHO
New WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke with Foreign Affairs’ regarding his plans for the future of the WHO and efforts to combat global disease. Tedros notes that epidemics or pandemics keep him up at night, especially something like the 1918 pandemic and the “serious gaps we have”. He comments that “I think the world should unite and focus on strong health systems to prepare the whole world to prevent epidemics—or if there is an outbreak, to manage it quickly—because viruses don’t respect borders, and they don’t need visas.” In regards to irrational beliefs as a public health threat, Tedros highlights the role of governments (and the WHO in supporting them) to communicate with communities and use media as a tool for teaching. Tedros discussed the WHO’s response to Ebola and when asked about hesitancy governments may experience regarding raising the alarm for an outbreak, he noted that “it’s not an issue between the WHO and the member state in question; it’s about the overall implementation of the International Health Regulations [the rules that govern how states respond to outbreaks]. That involves not only the country in question but other countries, as well. For instance, a country may fear the impact on the economy if it reports a certain disease. And if the other countries, instead of banning travel or other measures, could be supportive and implement the IHR, then the country could be encouraged to report immediately.”

Book Review – Barriers to Bioweapons
As the summer winds down, you may find yourself needing a new book to delve into. GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ougrham-Gormley‘s book, Barriers to Bioweapons, is a great addition to any lover of health security and the realities of biological experiments. This latest book review gives a witty and entertaining overview of her work, noting that “Barriers to Bioweapons argues that actually, we’re not all living on borrowed time – that there are real organizational and expertise challenges to successfully creating bioweapons. She then discusses specific historical programs, and their implications for biosecurity in the future.”

Pandemic Preparedness & A Global Catastrophic Biological Risk By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu tackles the importance of pandemic preparedness and the latest publication from the Center for Health Security regarding global catastrophic biological risks. “We may think written plans and the occasional table-top exercise are making us more prepared to handle a pandemic, but true preparation goes far beyond that. The ability to prevent, detect, respond, and control outbreaks is a hefty investment that countries are still struggling to make, and as a new report recently revealed, a paltry amount of countries may be ready for a pandemic.” She highlights the latest World Bank report that only six countries have truly taken efforts to evaluate their readiness to handle a pandemic. Like many things, the devil is in the details, and often that is as simple as a real name for a problem. A recent publication from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security sought to fix this by establishing a working definition for global catastrophic biological risks (GCBR). “What makes this definition unique, aside from it being the first working definition for GCBRs, is that it highlights several components, such as sustained catastrophic damage, and instead of highlighting a specific number of deaths, it looks to a range of negative outcomes, such as infertility. The challenging task of defining such a globally feared, but poorly understood risk was daunting; however, the Center for Health Security has provided us with a working tool that can now be applied to policy, and future preparedness and response efforts.”

H5 Hits the Philippines and Plague in Arizona
The Philippines is reporting its first highly pathogenic H5 avian influenza outbreak. Hitting a commercial poultry farm in Luzon, the outbreak began in July and killed 36,485 of the 190,000 birds. “A report today in the Manila Times, based on a media briefing with Emmanuel Pinol, the country’s agriculture secretary, said the outbreak was confirmed in the city of San Luis and that six poultry farms were affected. Most of the poultry deaths were in layer chickens. Pinol told reporters that the outbreak may have begun as early as April when deaths were reported in quail housed above ducks. He said ducks are the likely source of the outbreak, since they had contact with migratory birds. The Manila Times report said the outbreak site is 37 miles north of Manila and is close to swamps that are stopovers for migratory birds from the Asian mainland.” Public health officials in Arizona have announced that fleas in two counties have tested positive for plague (Yersinia pestis). While plague is endemic in the southwest, public health officials still work to ensure residents are aware that there is an increased risk. Officials are warning residents to be mindful of the potential for exposure via pets. “Fleas can bite rabbits, prairie dogs and other rodents — and anything that may eat them — and transfer the disease to pets, who in turn can infect humans. Cats who get plague transmit it through their cough. Dogs typically carry the fleas on their fur. Health officials cautioned county residents and visitors to keep their pets leashed and to avoid touching dead animals. Evidence of a large die-off could indicate plague is present, they say.”

Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology
Don’t miss out on these events by the National Academies Committee on Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology:

  • August 21 – the committee’s interim report and proposed framework will be released at 11am EDT here
  • August 22 – a public release webinar and report briefing will be held from 11am-12pm EDT. Committee Chair Michael Imperiale and committee members Patrick Boyle and Andrew Ellington will be reviewing the interim report and the proposed framework. This webinar is free to attend and open to the public, but you must register to attend. You can register at the following link:  https://nasevents.webex.com/nasevents/onstage/g.php?MTID=e39277a767b1f0190db4f7ee491c01271  You will be able to submit questions and comments during this webinar through a text-based feature but will not be able to speak directly with the presenters.
  • August 23-24: The meeting will be held at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Keck Center at 500 5th Street NW, Washington, DC Room 208. You must register to attend the meeting in person; the Keck Center is a secure building and we will need to have your name on the guard’s list to enter the building. You can register by emailing synbiodefense@nas.edu. If you would like to attend via teleconference, you can access the conference by dialing the following: to listen, please dial 1-(866) 668-0721 and use conference code 380 454 1676.

The committee is also soliciting feedback from the public on the interim report and the associated framework. You can submit questions or comments through September 5, 2017 at the following link:  http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/3758337/A-Proposed-Framework-For-Identifying-Potential-Biodefense-Vulnerabilities-Posed-By-Synthetic-Biology  Due to the anticipated volume of questions, the committee may not explicitly address every comment received but all comments will be considered and reviewed. PLEASE NOTE: if you submit a question, your question and any associated identifying information you provide will be added to the study’s public access file as per the National Academies’ requirements to comply with FACA.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Uganda Ebola-like Illness Demystified- Public health officials in Uganda are sighing with relief as results from the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) have reported the death of a 20-year-old woman in Luweero was due to carbon monoxide poisoning and not the suspected Ebola virus. “There are currently 3 female cases admitted at Bishop Asili hospital, Luweero. However, results from UVRI indicate that all cases were negative for Ebola, Marburg, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Rift Valley fever, and Sosuga viruses. ‘The ministry of health team is working closely with the District Health Team to monitor, review, and manage these cases as well as orienting health workers on management and referral protocols of suspected cases,’ reads the statement.”

Pandora Report 8.4.2017

We all know that kitchen sponges are like little densely populated germ cities, but did you know that cleaning them could make it worse?

Only Six Nations Have Evaluated Pandemic Readiness
A new report from the World Bank is calling out how little work has been done to evaluate and prepare for pandemic readiness. The report notes that only six countries have evaluated their capacity and capabilities for responding to a pandemic. Of these countries, three are wealthy (Finland, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.) and are were poor (Eritrea, Pakistan, and Tanzania). All six countries had gone under external evaluations and developed funding plans to rectify their inadequacies. “The annual number of disease outbreaks around the globe has more than tripled since 1980, and air travel spreads contagions across oceans far more often. To convince countries that preparedness pays, the report included estimates of the economic damage various epidemics had done. For example, the viral pneumonia SARS — which ultimately killed only 774 people — shrank China’s gross domestic product by 0.5 percent in 2003.” We’re seeing an increasing emphasis on the financial aspect of pandemics and as this report points out, knowledge is power. The report includes an entire section on incentivizing countries to prioritize allocation of funds to preparedness, assessment of economic vulnerability, sovereign credit rating, etc. It was interesting to see that antimicrobial resistance was not considered a pandemic. What would happen if a fully resistant bacteria swept the world?

We Don’t Need Another Biodefense Strategy
Al Mauroni is taking a deep dive into the history of American biodefense strategies and why Thomas Bossert’s recent comments about a new one aren’t exactly promising. White House homeland security advisor Bossert announced this during a security forum in Aspen, noting that until the development of a new plan, the U.S. lacked a comprehensive biodefense strategy. When this was announced there was a collective “um….about that..” from many within the biodefense community. Mauroni points to the three recent biodefense strategies within the last fifteen years, highlighting what we’re all thinking – this won’t be the first comprehensive strategy. First, there was the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10 in 2005, then the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats (Presidential Policy Directive 2) in 2009, and most recently, the National Strategy for Biosurveillance in 2012. So, if we’ve had strategies for the better part of two decades, why is there a demand for a new one? Increased outbreaks and concern for biothreats have many calling for further funding of biodefense efforts, like that of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. Funding is one thing though, but a whole new strategy? “A recent article on the ‘proliferation’ of national strategies suggests that strategic guidance only adds to the confusion, allowing executive agencies to pick and choose what they want to implement.” Mauroni notes that “Going back to Bossert’s statement at the Aspen Security Forum, he referenced the 2001 anthrax-filled letters, pandemic influenza outbreaks, genetic engineering research, and the Global Health Security Agenda. He didn’t reference the protection of US military forces against adversarial use of biological warfare agents. All of these fall under the area of ‘biodefense,’ and there is no one agency that comprehensively addresses all of these threats. Because US government funding, authorities, and capabilities for biodefense reside in different agencies, it is very difficult to articulate objectives and responsibilities in one single strategy. There is no single point of authority to execute the strategy, and very often, no incentive to change given an inability to redirect resources or authorities”. Biodefense is a unique term though as it is often considered in a singular context and while the DoD plays a significant role in countering biological threats, there are other players. Biosafety and biosecurity is a large component, which rests heavily on both the private and public sectors. The DHHS leads in times of public health concerns (even if some of these efforts are duplicated by the DoD) and we can’t forget the role of public health surveillance and health security efforts like that of the GHSA. Mauroni leaves us with several points – “there cannot be one national biodefense strategy because there are at least three distinct policy areas that, while overlapping, are significantly different in execution of their policy objectives.” He notes that “I am not optimistic that the US government will consider a more diverse and complex policy process that articulates these differences. Having one national biodefense strategy offers a façade of simplicity and organization that three separate strategies will not.”

Opening Statements for ASPR Nominee
The nomination hearing for Dr. Robert Kadlec as Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began on August 1st. You can check out the transcript here, in which Kadlec highlights five priority issues he wishes to pursue if confirmed. His priorities include providing stable leadership and clear policy direction, creating a “national contingency health care” system, supporting the sustainment of robust and reliable public health security capabilities, re-invorgorating and advancing an innovative MCM enterprise, and working to reauthorize the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act in 2018. You can watch the nomination hearings here. Reports are pointing to his likely confirmation as his nomination “lacks controversy“.

European Report on Drug Resistance
Is the food we eat helping antimicrobial resistance take over? A new joint report from several European public health agencies notes that “To contain antibiotic resistance we need to fight on three fronts at the same time: human, animal and the environment. This is exactly what we are trying to achieve in the EU and globally with our recently launched EU Action Plan on antimicrobial resistance. This new report confirms the link between antibiotic consumption and antibiotic resistance in both humans and food-producing animals.” The impact of consuming antimicrobial agents is increasingly becoming an area of concern. While there are many factors that contribute to the rise of antimicrobial resistance, it’s not surprising that antibiotic use in food-producing animals would become a topic of interest. “Although consumption is defined differently in humans and animals, to make the comparison as consistent as possible, the report expresses consumption in milligrams of active substance per kilogram of estimated biomass (mg/kg). Human antimicrobial consumption is typically reported as defined daily doses per 1,000 inhabitants. Overall, the report found that average antimicrobial consumption was higher in food-producing animals than in humans, although the difference was largely influenced by a handful of countries with significant animal populations.” Analysis points to a relationship between consumption and antimicrobial resistance (seen in isolates in certain species of bacteria). This latest report underscores the complexity of antimicrobial resistance and the challenges in truly addressing this hydra-like problem. Perhaps we are what we eat?

Australian Raid Finds Chemical Weapon Attempts
The Sydney police raids across four properties, which resulted in four arrests, found components for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and construction on an “improvised chemical dispersion device”. Two men were ultimately charged with building the military-grade device and were reportedly supported by ISIS operatives but their attack plans were foiled. “Police will allege that components for an improvised explosive device (IED) were sent to Australia in air cargo from Turkey via Isis operatives in Syria. Two men, who remained in custody after facing court on Friday, then allegedly assembled the devices with instruction from ‘a senior Isis operative’, according to the Australian federal police deputy commissioner Mike Phelan.” In response to the attempt, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are working to improve screening. Fortunately, the chemical weapon was in the early stages of development.

Biothreat Worries Over Cancer Research
At last week’s DEF CON hacking conference in Las Vegas, Intel’s chief medical officer John Sotos brought forth a somewhat surprising topic – bioweapons. Building on his discussion of the cancer moonshot, Sotos discussed the same technology (DNA manipulation) having the potential for misuse and development into biological weapons. “’The reason you haven’t heard much about bioweapons is that they’ve been held back by a pretty severe limitation, which is the potential for blowback’,” Sotos said. It is hard for any attacker to use weaponised diseases because they spread beyond their initial distribution range: destroy your neighbouring nation and you destroy your own as well. Sotos noted, ‘the cancer moonshot is going to really drive new technologies to manipulate DNA because cancer is a disease of DNA. [And] the same exquisite targeting that allows it to attack only your cancer cells also overcomes the blowback potential for bioweapons’.” While this level of precision medicine isn’t available yet, it draws parallels to gene-editing tools like CRISPR, in which targeted application is becoming more real. Soto hones in on the fear that such genetic engineering capabilities will not only be possible, but used for nefarious purposes like stealing genetic codes or rewriting DNA to tamper with fertility. Soto’s points are valid and it is important to consider the full spectrum of use for biotech developments in the future however, we must not lose sight of the consistent and growing threat that is natural disease.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Saliva Secretions & Zika Transmission – A recent study found that rhesus monkeys, when infected with high levels of the virus, could theoretically transmit via saliva. When compared to rhesus monkeys with more common viral loads, it was possible, although extremely unlikely, that the highly infected monkey could spread via saliva “All three monkeys who were exposed to high doses of Zika virus (20-fold higher than that typically found in saliva) applied directly on their tonsils developed the disease. Another group of 7 monkeys were exposed to the virus via the saliva of monkeys who had received subcutaneous infections, representing a typical virus count. None of the monkeys exposed to doses typically found in saliva contracted the disease when their tonsils (5 animals), conjunctivae (1), or nasal passages (1) were exposed. ‘We tried to simulate sneezing, sharing utensils, and other mucosal exposures,’ said Friedrich. ‘But the amount of virus typically founding saliva was not enough to infect a monkey or suggest any seroconversion [development of detectable antibodies]’.”
  • Biodefense World Summit Coverage – Get the latest overview of the Biodefense World Summit here, with a focus on biosurveillance! Topics range from DHS work to enhancing situational awareness for global disease surveillance.

Pandora Report 7.28.2017

Happy Friday! As we close out the month of July, Texas has reported its first local case of Zika in 2017. If you’re not convinced about the threat of antimicrobial resistance, check out this video on the ability for bacteria to resist even new antibiotics.

The Reality of Trump’s R&D Cuts 
There’s been a steady stream of reports regarding the hits to global health spending that the new administration is making. The proposed 2018 “A New Foundation for American Greatness” budget hits financing of global health security, which is already poorly funded. While Bill Gates met with president Trump several times in efforts to persuade him of the importance of investing in global health and the R&D that goes into it, it seems that the continued assaults to funding aren’t going anywhere. A recent report by the Global Health Technologies Coalition and the Policy Cures Research of Australia took a different approach to swaying the president – money and fear. “The report explains that between 2007 and 2015 an investment of $14 billion (£10.7bn) in global health R&D resulted in a $33 billion injection back into the economy and the creation of 200,000 jobs. Spending since 2000 resulted in 42 successful products, including 11 for malaria and ten for TB. Want to ‘Make America Safe Again?’ Start by investing in R&D.” Just like the Nuclear Threat Initiative highlighted last week in their focus on the GHSA and importance of investment in global health, this report drives home the economics of global health security. We know that an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere, but for many, it can be difficult to see that when we’re not experiencing a major outbreak on American soil. Despite the impact of Ebola cases in the U.S. in 2014, the rise of antimicrobial resistance, and growing concerns regarding dual-use research and biosafety, there is a consistent struggle to truly get support for not only global public health, but also the R&D that supports biodefense efforts. The report notes that “Between 2007 and 2015, the US government invested nearly US$14 billion dollars in R&D for global health. In comparison, in 2015 alone, the US government spent $1.05 trillion on Medicare and health, $609 billion on the military, and $102 billion on education. Despite relatively limited investment, US government support was essential in helping advance 42 new technologies approved since 2000 – including 11 new products for malaria, 10 for tuberculosis (TB), and 1 for HIV/AIDS.” The U.S. is not an island – we rely on global cooperation and R&D alliances to help fight off current and future microbial threats. Global health security means that we must invest in efforts at home and abroad and to decimate an already limited budget for such efforts would have worldwide ramifications. FYI – the DoD released their guidance on global health engagement  (hint: global health cooperation and engagement is important).

Worry About Water Bugs, Not Sharks
While everyone is up in arms about Michael Phelps not really racing a great white shark, some are saying, “hey…there’s actually a lot of microscopic water germs that are way scarier!” “You’re 75 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark. On average, one person dies of a shark attack every other year in the United States.” The real danger rests in our love of water activities during the summer, whether it be a public pool, water park, private pool, or lake. FYI, I’ve seen one too many presentations on outbreaks associated with splash pads…they are diarrheal disease hotspots.  Here are some of the bugs you should actually be worried about in water – crypto, pseudomonas, shigella, legionella, norovirus, cyanobacteria, and the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri. How can we dodge these party-crashers? Avoid swallowing the water…don’t go swimming if you’ve had diarrhea recently, check those chlorine and pH levels, and make sure to rinse off from time to time.

Emergent Biosolutions Goes On A Spending Spree
While the future of global health R&D is a little bleak, Emergent Biosolutions is sprinkling some funding around to expand its drug portfolio. “Five days after the company agreed to pay $97.5 million to acquire the smallpox vaccine assets of pharmaceutical giant Sanofi it handed another $96 million to GlaxoSmithKline, one of biggest healthcare providers in the world, to acquire raxibacumab, an antibody that treats a form of anthrax that can be inhaled. Both deals are part of a broader expansion plan that Emergent’s executives hope will turn it into a $1 billion-a-year company by 2020.” These investments are more in the direction of defense against high-consequence biothreats, and their Chief Executive, Daniel Abdun-Nabi, is pointing to not just nefarious biological events, but also those related to climate change. Abdun-Nabi notes that “There’s a real worry starting to grow across the globe about the re-emergence of pathogens that we might not have seen for a number of years,”.

Infection Control vs. MERS
Not surprisingly, infection control failures are a big source for MERS-CoV transmission. Despite ongoing outbreaks and training on PPE and isolation precautions, there’s a pretty significant trend in healthcare – poor infection control practices. A recent WHO report revealed the findings of a risk assessment regarding 199 MERS cases in four countries. Since December, 1/3 of MERS cases have been linked to healthcare facilities and while initial signs and symptoms are non-specific, they found that simply improving standard precautions (also known as universal precautions) could make a difference. Using basic infection control practices, like putting a mask on a patient with a cough, or utilizing isolation precautions when caring for a febrile patient, are all easy and critical components to preventing the spread of disease. “How MERS-CoV spreads in hospitals still isn’t clear and is the topic of scientific studies. The WHO, however, said observations suggests transmission occurs before infection prevention and control steps are applied and patients are isolated. The agency added that hospital outbreak investigations suggest that aerosolizing procedures done in crowded emergency department or medical wards without adequate control measures may have led to human-to-human spread and environmental contamination.” This is an interesting finding for several reasons. Firstly, infection control steps should be applied the second a patient walks into a healthcare facility. During measles outbreaks (and influenza season), many hospitals put kiosks in the hospital entrance that contain alcohol-based hand sanitizer and masks, with signs highlighting the importance of such practices and to wear one if you have a cough. Secondly, utilize your triage staff. Either isolate or ask patients to wear masks during their triage process to prevent the spread of infection. We often wait until patients are in rooms to use PPE but the truth is that it can start a lot earlier. Also, emphasizing hand hygiene from the beginning can be monumentally helpful for everyone involved in patient care. Yes, healthcare workers are a significant part of the transmission chain, but visitors and the patients themselves play a big role. Overall, this study draws attention to infection control failures however, these aren’t new for those of us working in healthcare, and MERS is just a good example of how we can improve them. Preemptively isolating a patient won’t hurt, but delayed isolation can kill.

First Human Embryos Edited in U.S. 
Researchers in Oregon are now the first team to attempt creating a genetically modified human embryo in the U.S. “The effort, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, involved changing the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, according to people familiar with the scientific results.” Such work has not been previously done in the U.S. and Mitalipov’s team has shown it can be successful. While the embryos weren’t allowed to develop past a few days and there were never intentions of implantation, the altering of DNA codes within human embryos is a significant leap for biotechnologies like CRISPR. While many highlight concerns with the future of such work and the risk of “designer babies”, the NAS report in February has been seen as a green light to test germline modification. “The advisory committee drew a red line at genetic enhancements—like higher intelligence. ‘Genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if available only to some people,’ said Alta Charo, co-chair of the NAS’s study committee and professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In the U.S., any effort to turn an edited IVF embryo into a baby has been blocked by Congress, which added language to the Department of Health and Human Services funding bill forbidding it from approving clinical trials of the concept.”

MSF Lessons Learned During the DRC’s Recent Ebola Outbreak
There have been dozens of analyses since Ebola burned through West Africa in 2014/2015 however, a latest report from Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is providing insight regarding the 2017 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The small outbreak (which seems odd to say about a disease like Ebola, but that was until 2014) resulted in the deaths of four people in a remote part of the DRC. When news first sprung up that cases were identified, the world waited with bated breath as the memories of the the last horrible outbreak were all too fresh. Fortunately, rapid field team and resource deployments aided in the quick response that halted the disease in its tracks. MSF was a part of such efforts and since the outbreak was declared over, they have identified five major lessons. Firstly, train frontline health workers. This one is music to my ears, especially in terms of the poor infection control practices among healthcare workers that made them 21-32 times more likely to acquire the diseases. “Healthcare workers play a crucial role not only for the health of the people they serve directly, but also for general epidemiological surveillance for outbreaks like Ebola, but also for more common deadly infectious diseases such as measles and cholera. A health system cannot rely on just one person to play the crucial role of on-the-ground surveillance. What is needed are proper surveillance systems in resource-poor countries, which were clearly lacking in West Africa at the beginning of the epidemic.” Secondly, a forgotten disease finally taken seriously – this is all too true in that many did not know of Ebola until it sent shockwaves through West Africa. Now, the disease is top of the agenda and rapid mobilization is triggered. Third, back to basics, which means that while we can focus on vaccines and new drugs, we can’t forget the basic pillars of outbreak control, like surveillance, isolating and treating the sick, looking for new cases, contact tracing, burying the dead safely, and engaging and mobilizing the local community. Fourth, location matters. The recent outbreak occurred in a very remote and forested area, which impacts movement of contacts, as well as acquisition of supplies. “As in all previous outbreaks before West Africa isolation played a key factor for the containment of the virus.” Lastly, medical interventions are not the magic bullet. “MSF was willing and actively preparing to use the Ebola treatments that are still in development. However the outbreak was over before the process to allow the use of experimental products was complete, so none could be used this time. This outbreak however acted as a booster to speed up the process of preparing medical protocols so that new drugs, still in the experimental phase, can be used in a way that is as safe and ethical as possible.” In the end, the rapid control and early response measures, coupled with the limited size of the outbreak, helped prevent its spread before the vaccine could even really make a difference.

Global Catastrophic Biological Risks Definition – Center for Health Security
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security released their working definition for global catastrophic biological risks (GCBR) in efforts to draw attention to this special category of global threats and focus future efforts to combat them. The definition is: “Those events in which biological agents—whether naturally emerging or reemerging, deliberately created and released, or laboratory engineered and escaped—could lead to sudden, extraordinary, widespread disaster beyond the collective capability of national and international governments and the private sector to control. If unchecked, GCBRs would lead to great suffering, loss of life, and sustained damage to national governments, international relationships, economies, societal stability, or global security.” You can read the article and ten commentary pieces written by a variety of leading scientists and public health experts here.

How Infectious Diseases Shape Culture
When we think of infectious diseases, we tend to imagine morbidity and mortality. While this is accurate, there’s a lot more that these microbes impact, like language, culture, etc. We know that during the European bubonic plague in the 14th century, urbanization and economic development were slowed, but those skilled laborers who survived were highly valued. Consider even the food we eat, which has several cultural dynamics within it. We avoid raw meat, raw milk, and even stopped eating raw cookie dough or cake batter (ok, let’s be honest, we still lick the bowl, right?). “Many words and expressions commonly used in English have origins linked to an infectious disease. One such common phrase, used for a person who may not have symptoms of an infectious disease but can transmit it, is to call them a Typhoid Mary. In 1906 Mary Mallon, a cook, was the first healthy person identified in the USA as a carrier of the typhoid bacilli that causes typhoid fever, a serious disease for the Western world in the 19th century (but which globally exists and has often existed in poor communities).” Consider even the term, “feeling lousy”, which originated in conjunction to those with lice who became anemic and experienced general malaise. “In the late 1880s Tunisia experienced severe infectious disease epidemics of cholera and typhoid, and famines, which so badly depleted its economy that it was unable to pay off its debts. This made it vulnerable to French occupation and then colonisation.” There’s been a substantial body of literature that looks to the security implications of disease and how it may leave countries open to political and military disputes (check out Andrew Price-Smith’s Contagions and Chaos). The recent outbreak of Ebola has even changed the way American healthcare handles preparedness. Long thought a rare disease that we would never see, hospitals around the country now have Ebola Response plans and work to train front-line staff in case an outbreak occurs again.

Reports of Pediatric Deaths Following UN Sanctions Is Untrue 
A recently article in BMJ Global Health is highlighting the fictitious statements made by Saddam Hussein’s government during the UN sanctions in 1990. “The United Nations Security Council imposed the sanctions in 1990 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions remained in place after the Iraqi army was expelled, on the grounds that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction would need to be destroyed before they could be lifted. The sanctions greatly restricted Iraq’s ability to export oil and therefore to import supplies of food and medicines, prompting international concerns that the country’s children were being particularly hard hit.” Following these sanctions, a 1999 national survey was conducted by UNICEF and the Iraqi government, which reportedly found that “children in the centre and south of the country were dying at over twice the rate of 10 years earlier”. These results were used by several outlets for either support or refusal to invade Iraq. The researchers in BMJ Global Health have found that the results were “a deception” and studies done since 2003 have found no evidence of such high rates. The researchers concluded that “The rigging of the 1999 Unicef survey was an especially masterful fraud. That it was a deception is beyond doubt, although it is still not generally known.”

Stories You May Gave Missed:

  • CARB-X Awards $17.6M To Fight Global Antimicrobial Resistance – the private initiative, CARB-X, was established with the purpose of facilitating global efforts to combat antimicrobial resistance. This week they announced $17.6 million will fund research efforts by scientists in India, Ireland, France, Switzerland, the U.S., and the U.K. “The seven supported projects include five potential antibiotics targeting Gram-negative bacteria, a new treatment for drug-resistant gonorrhea, a new drug molecule that targets resistance in cystic fibrosis infections, and Phase I development of an oral, broad-spectrum antibiotic. The latest round of awards is part of a $455 million commitment by the U.S. Government and the Wellcome Trust over five years. The first 11 projects to receive funding were confirmed in March, and additional funding announcements are expected later this year.”
  • Biodefense World Summit – If you missed this event in June, check out some of these highlights that include talks on pathogen detection, food safety, and the importance of biodefense in the U.S.!
  • Papaya-linked Salmonella Outbreak – Just went you thought it was safe to go back to the summer fruit salad…. Sadly, salmonella is a current risk for papaya-lovers across the U.S. as an outbreak of Salmonella Kiambu has sickened 47 people across 12 states. “Most of the cases were reported in five eastern states: New York (13), New Jersey (12), Virginia (6), Maryland (5), and Pennsylvania (4).  Seven states across a wide swath of the country, however, have each reported 1 case: Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas, and Utah. So far, 12 people have been hospitalized. The death involved a person from New York City. Illness onsets began May 17, with the most recent on Jun 28.Patient ages range from less than 1 year to 95 years, with a median age of 27. About two-thirds are female, and, of 31 patients with available information, 18 (58%) are Hispanic. The epidemiologic and lab investigations both point to tainted papayas as the source of the outbreak. Interviews with 25 sick patients found that 11 (44%) had eaten papayas, a significantly higher proportion of papaya consumption than in healthy Hispanic people (16%) interviewed around the same time.”