Pandora Report 7.21

Beat the heat and cool down with your weekly report on all things biodefense! Have you ever wondered how researchers become bug-chasers? Check out this story on what turned a wildlife biologist into a plague-chaser in the Southwest.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
Thanks to our amazing faculty and attendees for a successful (and fun) summer workshop this week. We heard from Ed You on safeguarding the bio economy, Dave Franz explained the dual-use dilemma in life sciences, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley discussed barriers to bioweapons, Andy Kilianski explained the ins and outs of biosurveillance, Kendall Hoyt discussed the role of innovation and MCM, Sandy Weiner highlighted the social and cultural disease amplifiers, and so much more! Did I mention that Greg Koblentz brought the house down by discussing why biosecurity is a wicked problem? You can check out the Twitter stream here to see some amazing photos and dialogue during the three-day event. Participants from all over the globe, with backgrounds in everything from infectious diseases to defense and academia, participated in talks that truly ranged from anthrax to Zika, with pit stops on influenza and Ebola. With the 1918/1919 pan-flu centennial anniversary next year, we’re already starting to put together a great workshop for the summer of 2018, so keep on the look-out for more info in the future.

The Future of the GHSA and American Biodefense
Next week in Seoul, a meeting will be held for the Steering Group of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) to discuss what exactly the future entails for the group. While its five-year run will expire in 2019, many are pushing for the GHSA to be extended as it is a highly valuable piece to global health security and IHR compliance. “Recognizing that the GHSA’s work has never been more vital and would be impossible to replace, more than 100 health and health security organizations and companies operating in over 150 countries, including the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), this week banded together to urge GHSA’s extension for at least another five years.” The NTI signed on for several reasons – the world is still not prepared to handle a pandemic of a lethal/easily transmittable disease and frankly, the GHSA provides measurement, accountability, and transparency, which are all desperately needed in global health security efforts. The NTI recently released a statement regarding their support for extending the GHSA beyond 2019, highlighting its irreplaceability and proven ability to help measure and support change in countries working to strengthen their prevention and response to biothreats. Next week’s meeting with be the first since President Trump took office, which makes its outcome that much more important. NTI cites several GHSA successes in efforts to highlight the desperate need we have for it – commitment of more than 75 countries, developing and implementing the first agreed set of global metrics for national health security, mobilizing the private sector to engage in pandemic preparedness and response, etc. Discussions regarding the future of the GHSA comes at a poignant time as the House Appropriations Subcommittee approved FY 2018 State and Foreign Operations (SFOPs) and Health and Human Services (HHS) Appropriations Bills. The approval supports efforts to maintain global health funding. The bill includes funding for the State Department and USAID through the Global Health Program (the bulk of global health assistance) and despite President Trump’s FY2018 request (which would have cut it by $1.8 billion, or 28%), it’s providing $3.8 billion, which is roughly 5% less than FY 2017. Also within the bill – “funding provided to CDC for global health matched the FY 2017 enacted level ($435.1 million) and was $85.1 million (24%) above the President’s FY 2018 request. Funding for the Fogarty International Center (FIC) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) totaled $73.4 million, a slight increase above the FY 2017 enacted levels ($72.5 million); FIC was eliminated in the FY18 Request.” Despite the cuts that are suggested in his proposed FY 2018 request, the Trump administration is reportedly developing the first comprehensive strategy on biosecurity. A top White House homeland security official reportedly said that such efforts are underway and involve retired Admiral Tim Ziemer. “We have not had as a country a comprehensive bio-defense strategy ever,” White House homeland security adviser Thomas Bossert told the annual Aspen Security Forum, in Aspen, Colorado. “It’s high time we had a bio-defense strategy.” While Bossert points to the need for a biodefense strategy, it is crucial to remember that the U.S. has already gone through two biodefense strategies – the 2004 Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10 (Biodefense for the 21st Century) and 2009’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats. This news comes on the heals of Trump’s nominee for a key biosecurity position. Guy B. Roberts of Virginia was just nominated to be an Assistant Security, Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs within the DoD. “Mr. Roberts is currently president of GBR Consulting, a national security consulting firm. In that capacity, Mr. Roberts has provided subject matter expertise on arms control, non-proliferation, international legal issues and strategies to combat terrorism to over 30 international and domestic organizations and institutions. In addition, he is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct professor teaching courses on homeland security, international terrorism, non-proliferation, and arms control at Mary Washington University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Mr. Roberts previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Weapons of Mass Destruction Policy and Director of Nuclear Policy for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” You can catch some of his talks via C-SPAN here, and while there’s not a lot on his work in biodefense, you can read this paper within the USAF Institute for National Security Studies, entitled, “Arms Control Without Arms Control: The Failure of the Biological Weapons Convention Protocol and a New Paradigm for Fighting the Threat of Biological Weapons“. His paper notes that despite the 2001 U.S. rejection of the BWC protocol for more stringent compliance mechanisms, there was still substantial focus on biological weapons and potential threats (especially after the 2001 Anthrax attacks). Roberts notes that “The time for ‘better-than-nothing’ proposals is over. A united world, acting in concert across a broad front of areas utilizing the full panoply of financial, diplomatic, economic, and military resources at our disposal, with the firm determination to rid the world of these weapons of terror, is our best hope for success.” In all, with talks next week on the GHSA, presidential hopes of cutting health funding, and a supposed biosecurity plan in the works, the future of health security is seemingly in the air.

The Case of the Reconstituted Horsepox and Other Dual-Use Adventures 
Last week we, like so many others, were engrossed in the news that a Canadian research team had reconstituted horespox with $100,000 worth of supplies and mail-ordered DNA. The news of this unpublished study has raised a lot of red flags for those in the dual-use research community, as well as the debate on the remaining smallpox stockpiles. What’s most concerning about the project, led by virologist David Evans as the University of Alberta, is that it wasn’t stopped earlier on for DURC concerns and risk reviews. Gregory Koblentz, biodefense guru and director of the GMU graduate program, “says the work should never have been done. His worry isn’t so much that terrorists will cook up smallpox anytime soon. ‘My concern is that we have opened up the door to the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to synthesize [such] viruses without any oversight,’ Koblenz says. And if the necessary technology and expertise spread, it will become “that much easier at some point for those capabilities to be turned from peaceful uses to hostile uses’.” This project and the resulting discussions will surely play a pivotal role in the future of DURC and oversight, so we’ll make sure to keep you updated!

North Korea’s Bioweapons Program
GMU Biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley is taking a deep dive into the realities of North Korea’s potential bioweapons program. Working backwards from the 2015 photo tour with Kim Jun-un at a pesticide facility that certainly had dual-use potential and was a seemingly obvious attempt to send a message to the U.S.,  Ouagrham-Gormley highlights the sordid history that is North Korean bioweapons. While South Korea has repeatedly claimed North Korean maintains an active program, there have been inconsistent reports elsewhere and Ouagrham-Gormley hones in on realities about this well-publicized dual-use equipment and facility. She notes critical aspects that would be missing from an active bioweapons program (even if you have all the shiny equipment), like consistent electricity, economic stability, and an effective laboratory/research management. While there are gaps in intelligence regarding the conditions that would truly facilitate an active (and successful) bioweapons program, “analyses of past state and terrorist bioweapons programs indicate that the continuity and stability of scientific and production work must be ensured over a long period of time to allow scientists and technicians to accumulate the knowledge necessary for development of a working bioweapon.” While many suspect that a North Korean bioweapons program was launched in the 1960s and then new infrastructure was built in the 1970s, there are a lot of questions regarding the continuity of such efforts. Were there breaks in between? Changing research teams and inconsistent management/organization all severely impact the efficacy of such secretive work. Perhaps one of Ouagrham-Gormley’s most critical points (and why you should check out her book, Barriers to Bioweapons), is that to truly assess the alleged bioweapons program, one has to understand the state of natural and medical science in North Korea. “Without a solid foundation in natural and medical sciences, a bioweapons program cannot succeed. When Soviet authorities issued a decree to expand the country’s bioweapons program in the early 1970s, they had to face the reality that Soviet science had fallen behind and needed modernization. Years of Stalin’s purges, along with the policy of Lysenkoism—which negated the role of genetics in science—had resulted in the elimination of a whole generation of competent scientists. Decades of economic sanctions, and the desperate state of North Korea’s economy and society, have undoubtedly had an effect on the scientific sector.” With these notions, Ouagrham-Gormley questions if the North Korean bioweapons program is more of a Potemkin village. While there is limited information on the organized scientific research in North Korea or real potential for such a program to exist, more information is needed, which would be a great task for a BWC verification regime.

Center for Biosecurity ELBI Research and Policy Symposium 
This week the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security held their first research symposium for the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI). The current ELBI class and several alumni presented on research and projects they’re working on. The topics ranged from dual-use research to risk assessments, biosecurity, and more. During this time they also toured the Johns Hopkins Medical Center’s Biocontainment Unit. Two GMU biodefense students attended – Francisco Cruz (MS alumni and ELBI class of 2016) and Saskia Popescu (PhD student and ELBI class of 2017), who presented on the role of infection prevention in biodefense efforts.

Tackling the Next Epidemic With Big Technology
In an age of globalization and increasing spillover, the threat of naturally occurring outbreaks spreading from one corner of the globe to the other is a real fear. Fortunately, we also live in a time of great technological advances and a wealth of data. A recent article from B.Next highlights the availability of data technologies and how such big data can be woven into the fabric of public health prevention and intervention. Outbreaks and pandemics threaten global security and perhaps one of the biggest hurdles is matching the data needs with the limited supplies on the ground. Data gaps and lags are a massive problem when responding to an outbreak, especially in terms of specialized personnel and resource constraints. There are several technologies though, that could be applied to response efforts – novel data or means of collection, crowdsourcing methods, data cleansing, analytics, and visualization. “Improving response times for activities that have proven to be effective (i.e, non-pharamceutical interventions) need to be prioritized. The full potential of surveillance and advanced analytics for improving outbreak management has not yet been realized and, unfortunately, is not yet adequate to the task. We need a fundamental reconsideration of how to use combinations of data technologies for effective response management. Accomplishing this reconsideration and implementing it effectively will allow for faster, better, stronger responses. Past outbreaks have threatened national security, but they do not need to be as significant a threat in the future. Current and emerging data technologies can help tackle the next epidemic.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • USDA Test Finds Atypical BSE In Alabama Cow – A recent announcement from the USDA reported the finding of atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in an 11-year-old cow in Alabama. This would be the 5th case in the U.S. since 2012 and the cow did in fact have symptoms of the disease, which was picked up by routine surveillance. “The animal never entered the slaughtering process and has not posed a threat to the food supply or to human health. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) said in a press release yesterday that cow died after it was delivered to the livestock market and that routine tissue samples were taken and sent for testing. Tony Frazier, DVM, Alabama’s state veterinarian, said ‘This instance proves to us that our on-going surveillance program is working effectively’.”
  • Three Antibiotics Discovery Projects You Should Know About: With the threat of antimicrobial resistance only growing bigger, BARDA, CARB-X, and big pharma are bringing out the big guns with the Superbugs & Superdrugs USA this November. “Understanding the translational link between animals and humans; navigating the pitfalls of early drug discovery; and evaluating the potential of immunotherapies will be a major focus, as will hearing from a selection of biotech and pharma companies currently undertaking clinical research. This will include case studies from Pfizer, MedImmune, Merck, Visterra and ContraFect. Event highlights will include a keynote presentation by Tim Opperman, Senior Research Scientist from Microbiotix. The talk will discuss advances in the three-prong approach taken by Microbiotix to address the problem of MDR Gram-negative pathogens. It is claimed that all three discovery projects have demonstrated efficacy in murine models of infection.”
  • Stanford Hospital – A Canary In A Coal Mine: Stanford Healthcare is coming under increasing public scrutiny as a battle between members of an affiliated union have highlighted hospital infection rates as evidence for unsafe working conditions and patient safety. GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu takes a deeper dive into this situation and what it really means for healthcare infections and patient safety. “The healthcare industry is always in a battle against cutting costs, keeping patients safe, and maintaining high patient satisfaction; all while following federal regulations and requirements. Despite the alarmist nature that comes across in the media coverage on the Stanford case, we need to realize that this is only a glimpse through the window that is healthcare infection control and the struggle to follow best practices while working in an increasingly stressful environment. In this case, Stanford Health Care is the canary in the coal mine, alerting us that there’s a problem. They just happened to get the media scrutiny that comes with being pulled into a union debate involving the safety of employees.”

Pandora Report 7.14.2017

Welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense! We’ve got a lot of global health security goodies for you this week, so grab a coffee and let’s get our biodefense on!

Canadian Researchers Reconstitute Horsepox With Online DNA Order
Friday was an exciting day in the world of dual-use research of concern (DURC) and biosecurity efforts. News of a Canadian research team and their successful experiment in reconstituting horsepox, brought to light several concerns and gaps within DURC oversight. Led by virologist David Evans, the team was able to synthesize horsepox, a relative of smallpox, which is no longer found in nature. What is really concerning so many about this experiment is that Evans and his team were able to do this with little specialized knowledge, $100,000, and using mail-order DNA fragments. While the study hasn’t been published, it is drawing a lot of attention, not only for the potential that such a process could be applied to smallpox, but also that it failed to trigger more reviews at an institutional level for DURC risks. While the U.S. DURC oversight only applies to federally funded research with fifteen select agents, the Canadian processes cover such research that could disseminate knowledge, regardless of what organism is being used. GMU’s Dr. Gregory Koblentz spoke to Science and discussed DURC oversight, noting, “That should have captured the horsepox synthesis,”. “But as far as I understand, they did not engage in a systematic review of the broader dual-use implications of synthesizing an orthopox virus,” says Koblentz. “I don’t think this experiment should have been done.” Researchers and biosecurity experts around the world are weighing in on this study, especially since its publication is immiment. Tom Inglesby of the Center for Health Security pointed to three serious questions and concerns that this work raises – whether experimental work should be performed for the purpose of demonstrating that a dangerous or destructive  outcome could be created by using biology, how much new detail will be provided in the forthcoming publication regarding the processes for constructing an orthopox virus, and the international biosecurity and biosafety implications regarding the approval process for such experimental work. Perhaps one of the most startling aspects of all the commentary and reports on the horsepox experiment has been Evans own opinion on it all – “Have I increased the risk by showing how to do this? I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe yes. But the reality is that the risk was always there.” Where ever you might stand on the topic of dual-use research, bioethicist Nicholas Evans of the University of Massachusetts (of no relation to David Evans), said it best regarding this debated experiment – “an important milestone, a proof of concept of what can be done with viral synthesis. Aside from the oversight and life science research questions that this experiment brings to light, it also stirs the embers of the fiery debate regarding the destruction of the remaining smallpox stockpiles. The most recent blue ribbon panel review regarding the 2014 NIH variola incident sheds some light on the biosecurity and biosafety challenges of maintaining the stockpiles. You can check out the report of the Blue Ribbon Panel to Review the 2014 Smallpox Virus Incident on the NIH Campus  here. The report goes through the event itself, as well as their findings on the incident, response to the incident, and policy changes. Some of the contributing factors they identified included lack of responsibility for infectious materials in shared space, failure to find all variola samples in the 1980s, lack of complete and regular inventory of potentially hazardous biological materials, lack of policy for abandoned materials, history of NIH lapses following implementation of the Select Agent Regulations, etc.

Summer Workshop – Last Chance to Register!
Our Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security starts on Monday, July 17th, which means you still have time to register! Don’t miss out on this wonderful opportunity to discuss everything from Ebola to the concerns surrounding the horsepox dual-use dilemma. This three-day workshop will feature experts across the field of biodefense and will provide participants with a wonderful opportunity for networking and brainstorming!

The Pentagon Weighs the Threat of Synthetic Bioweapons 
While the topic of synbio and DURC is still fresh in our minds, how is the Pentagon considering gene-editing as a potential threat? Sure, we prepare for natural outbreaks and acts of bioterrorism, but how does CRISPR come into the mix? “Pentagon planners are starting to wonder what happens if the next deadly flu bug or hemorrhagic fever doesn’t come from a mosquito-infested jungle or bat-crowded cave. With new gene editing tools like Crispr-Cas9, state enemies could, theoretically, create unique organisms by mixing-and-matching bits of genetic information.” In response to these questions and potential scenarios, deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense, Christian Hassell, is working to get some answers. Hassell and other Pentagon colleages funded a year-long review by the National Academies of Sciences to evaluate the health security threats of synbio. While the review is still going on, a preliminary report is undergoing “classified review” before it can be publicly released. This review will be vital to consider the future of gain-of-function research and other dual-use research of concern in the context of biodefense. “Scientists at the meeting expressed a range of ideas about how the military could best defend against biological threats. Sriram Kosuri runs a synthetic biology lab at UCLA that has developed libraries of DNA sequences that can be developed into new kinds of organisms. While he understands the possibility of a lab-engineered threat, he believes the Pentagon and federal health officials should focus on responding to emerging public health menaces rather than monitoring academic labs that use genetic manipulation tools. ‘There’s a legitimate threat of emerging viruses and we need to be prepared for those things,’ Kosuri said during a break in the meeting. ‘The tiny threat of engineered viruses is miniscule compared to that’.” The challenging part in all of this is that there’s no precedent – this is a new field of threat and risk analysis where historical examples are lacking. Hypothetical situations and response scenarios are the best we can offer, but some of the most valuable tools are the ones we already have, like surveillance or early-stage review processes.

Trump Appoints A Key Bioterrorism Position But Still Leaves Dozens Open
Biological threats aren’t just acts of bioterrorism, but also natural outbreaks or laboratory accidents. If the latest horsepox experiment hasn’t convinced you already, we live in a time of quite unique and diverse biothreats. The spectrum of threats requires an array of agencies and personnel with the skills and resources to prevent and respond to such an event. Unfortunately, we’re currently at a national disadvantage in terms of biodefense. If we look at just one small facet of biothreats (bioterrorism), the U.S. has twenty-six (now twenty-five with the nomination of Kadlec) major and vital roles that are vacant and have not been filled by the Trump administration. While some are awaiting confirmation, there are vacancies without even a nominee like the White House position of Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Department of Health and Human Services is missing a surgeon general and assistant secretary for health (awaiting confirmation), while the U.S. Agency For International Development lacks a nominee for the assistant administrator for global health. There are just a few of the vital positions we rely upon for preventing and responding to acts of bioterrorism. In the wider context of all biological threats, it may not seem like much, but the truth is that these vacancies leave the U.S. in a dangerously vulnerable position. Fortunately, President Trump announced on Monday his plans to nominate Robert P. Kadlec of New York to be the Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Preparedness and Response. “Currently, Dr. Kadlec is the Deputy Staff Director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Previously, he served as a Special Assistant to the President for Biodefense Policy for President George W. Bush. Dr. Kadlec holds a B.S. from the U.S. Air Force Academy; a M.D. from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and a M.A. in National Security Studies, Georgetown University.” He was also the Director for the Biodefense Preparedness on the Homeland Security Council and aided in drafting the Pandemic and All-Hazard Preparedness Act, as well as conducting the biodefense end-to-end assessment (culminating in the National Biodefense Policy for the 21st Century). You can even watch Dr. Kadlec speak on C-SPAN at the Bipartisan Policy Center & Kansas State University forum on biodefense in October of 2016. Dr. Kadlec also directed the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense during their efforts to establish guidance during critical biothreats.

Public Health Preparedness and Response National Snapshot 2017
The CDC just released their 2017 snapshot regarding U.S. public health preparedness and response, noting that “this year has shown us, once again, that we can’t predict the next disaster. But it has also shown us clearly how being prepared protects health and saves lives. Emergencies can devastate a single area, as we saw with Hurricane Matthew, or span the globe, like Zika virus. Disasters from 9/11 to Ebola have demonstrated that we absolutely must have people, strategies, and resources in place before an emergency happens.” Within the snapshot, there are four main sections- Prepare, Respond, Connect, and Looking Forward. Within these sections, you can look at Zika, laboratories as the front lines of America’s health, global training programs, delivering results through partnership, etc. I found the section on Health Security: How Is The U.S. Doing, quite interesting. They note that “as part of the Global Health Security Agenda, teams of international experts travel to countries to report on how well public health systems are working to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks. This process is known as the Joint External Evaluation.” The CDC and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) work together to establish evaluators , etc. Thankfully, this position is in the process of being filled so that these efforts can move forward. While this snapshot captures the range of issues that must be covered in public health preparedness, it also draws attention to how vital the roles in each agency are, which makes the vacancies that much more impacting.

Summary of Key Recommendations – Meeting to Solicit Stakeholder Input on Forthcoming 2017 National Biodefense Strategy
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, supported by the Open Philanthropy Project, recently held a meeting to discuss and consider the landscape of biological threats to the United States and what response measures, programs, and policies are in place, etc. Featuring members from across academia, industry, and government, these subject matter experts weighed in on this honest and frank discussion about U.S. biodefense strengths and weaknesses. There were several recommendations and topics that were discussed but some of the highlights include improving biosurveillance capabilities and laboratory network, performing risk assessments and characterizing threats, strengthening emergency response capabilities including decontamination efforts, prevention-related efforts, building global capacities for bio-threat preparedness and response, etc. They noted several components to improving U.S. biodefense – “internationally, laboratory and surveillance systems for early detection of new outbreaks will be most effective when they serve the needs of countries where they are housed. It will not work for the US to create systems to gather and export data that the US needs from countries if those countries do not get the information themselves and find it to be valuable.” In regards to healthcare system response and strengthening the workforce, the group pointed out that “national and international preparedness for biological threats requires a strong workforce, including public health experts and animal and plant disease scientists. To some degree, success at controlling infectious diseases in the US may have inadvertently resulted in workforce attrition in these fields. Federal support for developing the workforce in these fields is important”.

Strategies for Effective Biological Detection Systems: A Workshop
Don’t miss this workshop put on by the National Academies of Sciences on Monday, September 18th – Tuesday, September 19th. “The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will host a two-day public workshop on strategies for effectively updating biological detection systems. The workshop will explore alternative effective systems that would meet requirements for the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch Program as a biological detection system for aerosolized agents. There will be a focus on systems or strategies that could be deployed by 2027, and enable indoor surveillance and dual-use with day-to-day environmental surveillance that would be of value to the public health and medical communities. There will also be a focus on the integration of improvements and new technologies into the existing biological detection architecture.”

MRSA Screening – Healthcare Prevention Methods for Resistant Germs & Swabbing Our Way To A Solution for Antibiotic Resistance
Antibiotic resistance is a growing global issue and one of the hotspots for transmission of resistant germs is in hospitals. Given that MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is now a common bacteria in the community and healthcare world, hospitals are working to screen patients to ensure those with MRSA are isolated appropriately and they can stop the spread of infection. GMU biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu looks at MRSA screening practices within hospital intensive care units (ICUs) and the cost analysis that can make or break a program. Most hospitals utilize one of two approaches – preemptive universal precautions (isolate all ICU patients until microbiology labs can prove they are negative for MRSA) or targeted isolation (wait until labs come back and then isolate). Each tactic has benefits and weaknesses. Delays in isolation can translate to further spread of MRSA, while longer periods in isolation mean additional costs associated with isolation. A recent study evaluated these very two strategies and the “researchers found that the total cost of preemptive isolation ‘was minimized when a PCR screen was used ($82.51 per patient). Costs were $207.60 more per patient when a conventional culture was used due to the longer turnaround time.’ For ICUs that used targeted isolation, the researchers found that costs would be lowest when chromogenic agar 24-testing was used and not PCR.” What this study highlights is that there is inherently no best practice and that depending on laboratory capability, hospitals may have to plan their MRSA screening and isolation protocols off their microbiology department and cost centers. While hospitals are working to screen patients as a means of responding to microbial resistance, researchers are working against the clock to find solutions. Dr. Adam Roberts is one such innovative microbiologist in the UK who is using an old-school approach to respond to a new problem. Popescu was able to interview him regarding his Swab and Send program, which utilizes citizen scientists from around the world to collect samples that may help produce new antimicrobials from the environment. Roberts is working to utilize environmental samples that hold microorganisms which produce compounds that can help build new antibiotics. “The initiative also helps create a microbial database. For £30, Dr. Roberts’ team will send anyone a handful of sample tubes, a mailing envelope, and directions for what to swab (for example: a nutritious area bacteria would likely grow, likely something unsanitary). After you send back your swabs, you can check out Swab and Send’s Facebook page and see what microbes grew from the samples.” Check out Dr. Roberts’ comments on trends he’s seeing and how even GMU biodefense students are getting in on the swabbing!

Naval Research Lab Find High Prevalence of Antibiotic Resistance in Kenya
Microbial resistance has a way of popping up in even the most unexpected places and projects. The U.S. Navy Research Laboratory (NRL), U.S. Army Medical Research Directorate-Kenya (USAMRD-K), Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), and University of Washington, led a joint effort to evaluate intestinal tract bacteria and its resistance in patients across Kenya. The NRL-developed microarray they used is capable of detecting over 200 difference antimicrobial resistant genes. “These results suggest that there is selective pressure for the establishment and maintenance of resistant strains,” said Dr. Chris Taitt, research biologist, NRL Center for Bio/Molecular Science and Engineering. “This is potentially due to agriculture and prophylactic use of antibiotics and further suggests the need for more effective public health policies and infection control measures than those currently implemented.” “Specific to Kenya, widespread use of tetracycline in livestock production, use of trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (SXT) and chloramphenicol as first line therapeutics for typhoid, and prophylactic use of SXT in persons exposed to or infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) might have contributed to the high prevalence of resistance.” Surveillance of antimicrobial resistance has been a struggle on an international level however, joint efforts like this are vital to not only establishing global standards and processes, but also highlighting the importance it has for military personnel abroad.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Agroterrorism Bill – a new bill was recently introduced by U.S. Rep. David Young (R-IA) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) regarding the preparedness of the U.S. agriculture, food, and veterinary systems. “The Securing Our Agriculture and Food Act requires the DHS Secretary, through the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs, to ensure food, agriculture, animal, and human health sectors receive appropriate attention and are also integrated into the DHS’s domestic preparedness policy initiatives. The legislation specifically addresses issues seen after the 2015 avian influenza outbreak, which killed millions of turkeys, backyard flocks, and layer hens. It was the deadliest outbreak of avian influenza in Iowa’s history.”
  • What The G-20 Needs To Do To Fight The Next Ebola– The G-20 summit occurred last week in Hamburg and many were hoping for a renewed passion surrounding biological threats. While much attention was focused on climate change, there is also a call for efforts to prevent the next outbreak that will produce a pandemic. “Ultimately, strong health systems depend on communities, health workers, managers, researchers and other local stakeholders being empowered to respond to the inevitable, future waves of change we all face. At Health Systems Global, our members represent these multiple groups. Strengthening everyday resilience demands that we all — governments, donors, researchers, communities, health professionals — work with the resources that health systems already have — their people and relationships. This must be done as we take wider action to confront inequality at all levels. If we do not do that, then efforts to safeguard disease outbreaks will be meaningless.”

Pandora Report 6.23.2017

TGIF! Before we begin our weekly dose of all things biodefense, have you ever wondered the traits that predict animal or host spillover?

What Does A Post-Polio World Look Like?
Decades of battling diseases in eradication efforts has been a struggle throughout public health history, but what happens when you finally reach the finish line? Donors around the world have worked to eliminate polio and in the final stretch and last ditch efforts, many are asking what will happen when polio is eradicated and the donors are gone? The truth is that many polio eradication programs (which include vaccination and surveillance campaigns) actually form the foundation of public health for many countries and rural areas. These programs have been the backbone of establishing some semblance of public health for areas that many not receive it otherwise. “If and when polio is gone, however, much of the transition may fall to national governments. International funding stands to shrink dramatically. About 27 percent of WHO’s $587 million in spending in 2016 went to polio eradication efforts. The African region would also be particularly hard hit. Forty-four percent of WHO spending there went to polio efforts, and about 90 percent of all immunization staff and infrastructure on the continent are funded through the WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative.” We haven’t really considered what it means to eradicate a disease like polio and how the withdrawing of funds and personnel might impact countries. Moreover, many of the polio eradication programs are closely tied to other vaccination programs (measles, tetanus, pertussis, etc.) and if funds are lost because polio is eradicated, these other vaccination programs could take a hit. Aside from vaccination initiatives, if stable public health programs are not established prior to eradicating polio, there is also a risk for loss of disease surveillance. Current polio eradication programs highlight the role of surveillance, which is also used to facilitate laboratory development, all of which could impact pandemic preparedness and global health security. It is vital that efforts to eradicate polio are also met with work from political leadership to ensure a transition occurs that maintains public health efforts. “The transition as polio is eradicated will be complex, and needs to be carefully managed, country specific and country led. Polio surveillance systems can provide an important foundation, and are tremendous assets to health care systems, said Irene Koek, the deputy assistant administrator of global health at the United States Agency for International Development. Civil society organizations will have a role to play in advocating to keep local governments and ministries on target, said John Lange, the United Nations Foundation‘s senior fellow for global health diplomacy.”

Instructor Spotlight – Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
We’re getting closer to the July 17th start date for our workshop (and the July 1st early registration discount expiration!) and this week we’re excited to show off one of our very own GMU Biodefense professors, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. An economics and defense expert, biodefense guru, and world traveler, Dr. Ouagrham-Gormley is the kind of professor whose class you spend the entire time on the edge of your seat. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She holds affiliations with GMU’s Biodefense Program, Center for Global Studies, and the Department of History and Art History’s Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) program. Prior to joining the faculty at George Mason in 2008, Professor Ben Ouagrham-Gormley was a Senior Research Associate with the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). While at CNS, she spent two years at the CNS Almaty office in Kazakhstan, where she served as Director of Research. She also was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the International Export Control Observer, a monthly publication focusing on proliferation developments and export controls around the globe. From 2004 to 2008, she was an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development (Cornell University Press, 2014). She received her PhD in Development Economics from the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris; a graduate degree in Strategy and Defense Policy from the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes Internationales in Paris; a master’s degree in Applied Foreign Languages (triple major in economics, law, and foreign languages —Russian, and English) from the University of Paris X-Nanterre, and a dual undergraduate degree in Applied Foreign Languages and English Literature from the University of Paris X-Nanterre. She is fluent in French, English, Russian, and spoken Arabic, and possesses beginner competence in Kazakh. For more information, visit https://schar.gmu.edu/about/faculty-directory/sonia-ben-ouagrham-gormley

President’s Budget Would Leave U.S. Vulnerable to Global Health Security Threats and Why We Need An Emergency Fund For Future Outbreaks
Cuts to public health, health research, and international aid have some pretty far-reaching implications and faculty from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security are pointing to the inherent vulnerability that would come from Trump’s proposed budget. Health security incorporates several programs and the reality is that an epidemic anywhere means an epidemic everywhere – simply put, the outbreaks that could pose a threat to the U.S. commonly begin abroad. “The proposed budget would cut $76 million from CDC’s Global Health programs, including cuts to Global Disease Detection and other programs that train and prepare countries to diagnose and respond to emerging diseases, and to the Global Immunization Program. It would reduce by $65 million CDC’s Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases programs, which aim to prevent and control outbreaks of diseases such as Zika. It cuts by $136 million the CDC Preparedness and Response Capability budget, which includes the funding for CDC’s Emergency Operations Center and the deployment of its people abroad to emergencies such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.” The CDC, among other agencies with biodefense positions, has a significant volume of vacancies that haven’t been filled.  More over, the authors point to the gap within the president’s budget regarding the future work of the GHSA, which is a vital multi-lateral effort to strengthen global health security. The budget has many worried because together, these cuts paint a bleak future for health security efforts – impacting surveillance, preparedness, and response efforts across the board. Global health security is simply not an investment we can afford to ignore. Did I mention that co-author Jennifer Nuzzo is also an adjunct professor at GMU’s biodefense program? Even if you’re not worried about the impact of the budget on health security, Ebola and Zika revealed just how necessary an emergency fund for outbreaks really is. “Creating a similar ‘rainy day’ fund—and providing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with permission to use it in advance—could save lives and money, both at home and overseas. The idea behind an emergency fund is not to displace efforts to combat infectious disease but to ramp them up to meet a crushing temporary need. During an outbreak the CDC can call on many doctors and nurses to work without pay, but the costs of transportation, medical supplies and protective equipment still have to be covered.” While the president’s 2018 budget includes such a fund, it fails to give a specific dollar figure and is already cutting into public health funding, which may be counterintuitive. “Lawmakers need to follow through by approving one or both of the proposed measures for the president to sign to ensure that the money will be there when the next public health emergency strikes.”

North Korea & A Sea of Sarin
The threat of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles from North Korea is a growing concern and while many focus on their nuclear and ballistic missile ambition, Reid Kirby is examining North Korean chemical weapons. Looking at the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and South Korean capital of Seoul, which houses more than 10 million people, many worry about North Korea’s ongoing vague threats. “Proponents of preemptive military action against North Korea’s nuclear program, along the lines of Israel’s 1981 Operation Opera against Iraq’s nuclear program, typically ignore North Korea’s history of asymmetrical responses. But North Korea’s capacity to inflict mass chemical casualties on the Seoul area in a ‘sea of sarin’ attack rivals its capacity for nuclear destruction.” In 2010, it was estimated that North Korea possessed 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons (mostly sarin and VX) and maintains roughly eight manufacturing facilities, which could ramp up production to 12,000 tons. Kirby addresses estimates of rounds per minute and calculations of how much sarin Seoul might receive in such an attack, noting that “a heuristic approach to estimating the total quantity of sarin required to inflict 25 percent casualties on a city such as Seoul under the specified conditions simplifies the problem into a box model of 600 square kilometers, with casualty rates integrated by area to find the necessary quantity. Using this approach, a ‘sea of sarin’ attack on Seoul would require about 400 kilograms of sarin per square kilometer”. He highlights the consequences of a 240-ton sarin attack on Seoul, noting that it would kill around 6.5% (higher lethal dosage) or potentially 25% of the population (if lower lethal dosage assumed). “If publicly stated intelligence estimates are to be believed, North Korea’s chemical arsenal represents a credible and present threat. How North Korea could apply this threat as a deterrent is speculative. But the destructive potential of the threat should give reasonable cause to hesitate regarding preemptive military options against North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions.”

Pandemic Flu Plan – A New Approach
The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) just released their updates to pandemic flu plans. “The original plan was geared toward a more severe scenario and set a goal of delivering pandemic vaccine within 6 months of a pandemic declaration. The new document incorporates lessons learned from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which resulted in a less severe event. It also spells out the goal of having the first vaccine doses ready within 3 months of pandemic strain emergence, along with approved broad-spectrum antivirals.” Within the plan there are now seven domains of focus, which include objectives, goals, and key steps. The domains are: surveillance, epidemiology, and lab activities, community mitigation measures, medical countermeasures, healthcare system preparedness and response, communications and public outreach, scientific infrastructure and preparedness, domestic and international response policy, incident response, and global partnerships. You can read the plan here, in which HHS notes that they are exploring several innovative approaches to pandemic flu preparedness like re-conceptualizing respiratory protection, accelerating vaccine and antiviral development, building on emerging technologies for innovative diagnostic and diagnostic testing, etc. “Taken together, the updated domains reflect an end-to-end systems approach to improving the way preparedness and response are integrated across sectors and disciplines, while remaining flexible for the conditions surrounding a specific pandemic. This more-nuanced and contemporary approach recognizes the interdependence of domain areas, which should lead to a better understanding of how the system functions as a whole.” The updated HHS pandemic plan emphasizes that while the nature of influenza and pandemics may change, the importance of planning and strengthening critical infrastructure will always be necessary.

DoD Tick-Borne Disease Research Program
There’s been increasing attention to the threat of tick-borne diseases and the DoD is ramping up research efforts. Their Tick-Borne Disease Research Program (TBDRP) looks to help increase not only treatment efforts, but also diagnostic capacity. Created in 2016, the TBDRP works to fill the gaps within tick-borne disease research through programs like the Idea Award which encourages and supports investigators in the early stages of their career. The New Investigator aspect of this award aims at those postdoctoral fellows working to develop independent research and in the early stages of faculty appointments. “There are currently at least 16 known tick-borne illnesses, with emerging diseases being discovered all the time. In the United States, the yearly cases of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, including spotted fever rickettsiosis, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis, have been increasing steadily for years, currently totaling tens of thousands of people diagnosed annually, with more likely undiagnosed. Globally, the US Military prioritizes tick-borne Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever as an operational threat abroad. The FY17 TBDRP intends to support conceptually innovative, high-risk/potentially high-reward research in the early stages of development that could lead to critical discoveries or major advancements that will accelerate progress in improving outcomes for individuals affected by Lyme disease and/or other tick-borne illnesses.”

Health Sector Resilience Checklist for High- Consequence Infectious Diseases
Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the CDC jointed together to take the lessons learned from Ebola and build a checklist to strengthen the U.S. in the event of such high-consequence outbreaks. This checklist focused on high-consequence infectious diseases (HCIDs), which are novel, moderate to highly contagious, moderate to highly lethal, not easily controllable by MCM or non-pharmaceutical intervention, and cause exception public concern (think Ebola, MERS, H5N1, etc.). “The principal aim of this project was to develop evidence-based recommendations to enable communities to build health sector resilience to events involving HCIDs based on the domestic response to confirmed cases of EVD in the United States.” Aside from the checklist, their findings highlight issues with governance and coordination, communication, public health issues, health-care specific issues, EMS, and laboratories.  The general checklist itself includes sections on preparedness, leadership, creative flexibility, command structure, public trust, managing uncertainty, and crisis and emergency risk communication. There are also checklists for public health, healthcare, EMS, and elected officials, which includes things like a collaborative relationship with partners at other healthcare facilities and awareness of resources related to public health law expertise.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Anthrax: DoD Develops Biological Select Agents & Toxins Surrogate Solution – “The Defense Biological Product Assurance Office (DBPAO), a component of the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, has announced the development of a Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) surrogate solution that will mitigate the risks associated with shipment and use of Bacillus anthracis. In addition to risk mitigation for Department of Defense (DoD) stakeholders and the community at large, this product demonstrates DBPAO’s commitment to providing quality reagents to the DoD and to the biodefense community. To accomplish this task, the DBPAO developed a Bacillus anthracis surrogate strain named Recombinant Bacillus anthracis with Assay Targets (rBaSwAT) using a recombinant DNA approach to create a BSL-2-level genetically modified organism that will allow continuation of operations with reduced risk. The strain is built in a novel, non-virulent Bacillus anthracis background and carries a comprehensive complement of anthrax specific molecular and immunological markers.”
  • Bioviolence- Matt Watson from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, is taking us through the history of bioviolence aka using infectious diseases for violent purposes. While not everyone truly sees the immediate threat of biological agents, Watson highlights the newer threats like synbio and biotechnologis that have growing potential for misuse. He also takes care to highlight the history of bioweapons to truly show the range of their application. “Of all the scourges of mankind, plagues and warfare are almost certainly the most dreaded and dangerous. Several times throughout history—and more frequently than most people are aware of—there have been attempts by individuals, organizations, and nation-states to harness the former in service of the latter.” If you want a brief overview of historical biological weapons and to truly understand the future of biothreats, don’t miss out on this great op-ed.
  • New York City Legionnares’ Cluster – Health officials are scrambling to investigate the source of a NYC Legionnaires’ cluster in Manhattan. “In a Jun 16 statement, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) said seven illnesses have been confirmed over the past 11 days. Four people are recovering in the hospital, two have been discharged, and one person in his or her 90s with underlying health conditions has died. Authorities are sampling and testing all cooling tower systems within a half-kilometer radius of the affected area of Lennox Hill. The health department is urging New Yorkers who have respiratory symptoms such as fever, cough, and chills to promptly seek medical care. In a typical year, about 200 to 400 Legionnaires’ cases are reported in New York City.” Legionnaires’ can be deadly for immunocompromised patients and is often a result of water treatment issues or poor disinfecting processes with spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, condensers, etc.

 

Pandora Report 6.9.2017

Hunting For Ebola and The Outbreak In The DRC
The hunt for Ebola’s hiding place has eluded scientists since its identification in 1976. Believing that bats are a natural reservoir, many are tracking them throughout the DRC. While we’ve picked apart the virus in BSL-4 labs for decades and continue to learn about its genomics, we’re tragically unable to truly understand the virus in its natural habitat. “But the virus’s natural history is a mystery, says virologist Vincent Munster, sitting outside his tent in the darkening jungle. ‘We know everything about its replication cycle but fricking nothing about where it comes from and how it causes outbreaks’. Earlier in his career, at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Munster took part in the controversial ‘gain of function’ experiments that engineered the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus to spread more readily among mammals-including, presumably, people. These days, however, Munster talks less about viral genes and proteins than about virus ecology: the web of interactions that allows a zoonotic virus to travel between species. Logging, hunting, and other human encroachment on pristine environments all play a role, bringing people into contact with the microbes that lurk there.” Researchers, like Munster, are sampling animals (especially bats) to try and find a pattern that would explain why they’re most likely to carry the virus and if that might fluctuate. Trying to find the virus in bats is equally challenging despite knowing that they carry it. Interestingly, the virus is wholly dangerous to primates and many consider it the biggest threat to gorillas apart from poaching. During their work, the researchers were alerted to a chimpanzee carcass and throughout their response, they note just how careful they must be when handling it. “It was covered in maggots, Munster says-‘just a huge, pulsating mess.’ Ebola may be scarce in living animals, but carcasses like that one practically explode with virus. ‘We’ve done those studies,’ Munster says. ‘Every cell, every orifice of that carcass is loaded with Ebola.’ To minimize the risk to researchers, Munster helped develop a protocol for collecting samples from dead animals: swabbing the outside instead of using sharp instruments to collect blood or tissue.” While their work continues, so does the latest outbreak of Ebola in the DRC. The most recent WHO situation reports noted a new suspected case and 15 contacts for monitoring. Currently, there are 5 confirmed cases, 3 probable, and 1 suspected. Four patients have died and four have survived, translating to a 50% case-fatality rate. You can also read the latest WHO new report on response efforts in the DRC here.

Pandemics, Bioterrorism, & Global Health Security Workshop Instructor Spotlight
Our instructor spotlight this week will shine on FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward You. Mr. You is like the action hero of the biological countermeasures world (ok, that might be a tad of an exaggeration, but wait until you read about all the amazing things he does with the FBI!). Mr. You is responsible for creating programs and activities to coordinate and improve FBI and interagency efforts to identify, assess, and respond to biological threats or incidents. These efforts include expanding FBI outreach to the Life Sciences community to address biosecurity. Before being promoted to the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Mr. You was a member of the FBI Los Angeles Field Office Joint Terrorism Task Force and served on the FBI Hazardous Evidence Response Team. Mr. You has also been directly involved in policy-making efforts with a focus on biosecurity. He is an active Working Group member of the National Security Council Interagency Policy Committee on Countering Biological Threats and an Ex Officio member of the NIH National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. He also serves on two committees for the National Academies of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine’s Forum on Microbial Threats and the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law’s Forum on Synthetic Biology. Prior to joining the FBI, Mr. You worked for six years in graduate research focusing on retrovirology and human gene therapy at the University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine. He subsequently worked for three years at the biotechnology firm AMGEN Inc. in cancer research. Special Agent You works to keep the communication channels open between the synthetic biology community and law enforcement to help identify threats and strengthen relations with the biohacker community. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn from Mr. You and pick his brain during our summer workshop in July!

South Africa’s History of Chemical & Biological Weapons
GMU biodefense alum Glenn Cross is taking a deep dive into the Rhodesian use of chemical and biological weapons from 1975-1980. His recent book, Dirty War, investigates the prevalence of such weapons during the Rhodesian War. During periods of manpower and material shortage, the army would use such unconventional techniques that included planting contaminated food and beverages, medicine, and other goods into guerrilla supplies. “Some of these supplies were provided to guerrilla groups inside Rhodesia; some were transported to guerrilla camps in Mozambique. In all, deaths attributed to CBW agents often exceeded the monthly guerrilla body count claimed by conventional Rhodesian military units – demonstrating the utility of CBW agents in a counterinsurgency campaign against an elusive enemy.” Cross’s investigation is particularly valuable in that knowledge has been spotty and few insiders have been willing to talk. “All (insiders willing to talk) share a consistent story about Rhodesia’s development and use of chemical and biological agents during the Bush War; they even chillingly admit that chemical and biological agents were used in experiments on captured insurgents.”

Tracking Microbes and Inspiring Antibiotic Development
The June 6th WHO statement on the Essential Medicines List (EML) is sending ripples throughout the public health community in regards to antimicrobial resistance. The changes to the EML include the creation of three new categories for antibiotics – ACCESS, WATCH, and RESERVE. These categories include recommendations regarding use and aims to shift prescribing to a more accurate practice. “Initially, the new categories apply only to antibiotics used to treat 21 of the most common general infections. If shown to be useful, it could be broadened in future versions of the EML to apply to drugs to treat other infections. The change aims to ensure that antibiotics are available when needed, and that the right antibiotics are prescribed for the right infections. It should enhance treatment outcomes, reduce the development of drug-resistant bacteria, and preserve the effectiveness of ‘last resort’ antibiotics that are needed when all others fail.” The revision to this list highlights a growing need for antibiotic innovation. BARDA director, Joseph Larsen, hopes to change this and speed up the pace of antibiotic development in the face of growing microbial resistance. Current antibiotic development can take years, cost millions of dollars, and often only generates a profit after 23 years. Larsen notes that there hasn’t been a new class of drugs for treating gram-negative bacilli for over fifty years and that the volume of candidate antibiotics in phase 3/4 trials is barely 10% of those in oncology trials. BARDA is hoping to facilitate innovation through their CARB-X program, “which is one of the world’s largest public-private partnerships focused on developing new antibacterial products. When they started this program, BARDA expected 50 grant applications, but received 368 applications within the first 2 cycles. The goal is to deliver at least 2 antibacterial products to clinical development within 5 years. BARDA is planning on investing $250 million over the next five years to CARB-X.” Antibiotic innovation will become increasingly important as resistance grows, which highlights the importance of tracing microbial movement. GMU biodefense PhD student, Saskia Popescu, is looking at a recent study on hospital bacterial tracing and what that means for infection prevention efforts. Researchers sampled patient rooms prior to a new medical center opening and continued sampling for nearly a year, finding that microbial communities had some interesting trends. While hospital disinfection failures are frequently a source for transmission, it was found that the microbial community shifts after the patient has been in a room for 24 hours. Moreover, researchers found that a majority of admitted patients were on antibiotics and that those with longer stays tended to show an evolutionary shift to resistance. “Overall, this new study highlights the movement of microbes within healthcare and how we can start improving our tactics to help reduce the risk of healthcare-associated infections and blossoming bacterial resistance.” Worst case scenario, we could just always stop shaking hands

Bioterrorism Budget Cuts & DoD Chemical & Biological Defense Annual Report
GMU biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is focusing on just how vulnerable the proposed budget would make the U.S. in the event of a bioterrorism attack. The budgetary cut to NBACC at Ft. Detrick would mean that laboratory and science response to bioterrorism would be significantly gutted without a replacement plan. “The NBACC’s scientists also are capable of conducting experiments to determine what level of concern is warranted if a potential threat is identifiedThe NBACC also has bioforensics analysis capabilities. This provides the ability to understand how and potentially where a pathogen was prepared, its virulence and physical characteristics and even what medical countermeasures and decontamination techniques might be the most effective.” This is especially vital as even the decontamination of a site can be challenging and expensive. The 2001 Amerithrax attacks highlighted these gaps – between responsibility, practices, protocols, and cost, the decontamination of the office buildings and postal handling facilities cost roughly $320 million and pointed out some pretty significant gaps within U.S. bioterrorism response. Gerstein implores policymakers to take a second look at this proposed budgetary cut and decide if leaving the US without these critical capabilities is truly a wise decision. “They should assess whether NBACC’s capabilities, as an insurance policy, is a price worth paying when weighed against the potential cost in human terms of even a limited bioterror attack.”

The 2017 DoD Chemical and Biological Defense 2017 Annual Report to Congress has just been released, which includes specific comments on response to ISIS and synthetic biology activities. Within the report you can find sections on advanced diagnostics, advanced medical countermeasures (check out the section on the cocktail of three monoclonal antibodies developed to fight Ebola), advances in non-traditional chemical agent defense, and more! One of my favorite sections was actually on information systems – “The Global Biosurveillance Portal (G-BSP) program achieved IOC. This capability will provide a web-based, cloud-hosted enterprise environment that will facilitate collaboration, communication, and information sharing in support of the detection, management, and mitigation of man-made and naturally occurring biological events. G-BSP also facilitates the fusion of multiple unclassified information sources for greater situational awareness and decision support.” A recent study published in The Lancet, highlights the importance of diagnostic preparedness. Citing the 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak as a prime example, researchers note that while the diagnostic response eventually worked, it was slow and expensive, which severely impacted outbreak response. “If a focused mechanism had existed with the technical and financial resources to drive its development ahead of the outbreak, point-of-care Ebola tests supporting a less costly and more mobile response could have been available early on in the diagnosis process. A new partnering model could drive rapid development of tests and surveillance strategies for novel pathogens that emerge in future outbreaks. We look at lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak and propose specific solutions to improve the speed of new assay development and ensure their effective deployment.”

Committee on Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology
Don’t miss this July 6th workshop held at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Keck Center at 500 5th Street NW, Washington DC.  Attendees will hear from several experts and discuss four main topics: human modulation, public health and military preparedness, efficacy of design, and emerging technologies to overcome existing technical barriers. The meeting won’t be webcast or made available virtually, so you’ll want to attend in person.

China’s Battle Against An H7N9 Outbreak
While the outbreak may be slowing, eight new cases were reported this past week. What worries many though are the recent studies published that point to the highly pathogenic variant that was infecting poultry. Currently in its fifth wave of H7N9 activity, Chinese cases are showing a shift to impact more middle-aged adults in rural areas. “In the second report, a team from China described the clinical course and genetic findings in a 56-year-old Guangdong province man who died from a highly pathogenic H7N9 virus that showed a marker for resistance to neuraminidase inhibitors (NIs), the antiviral drugs commonly used to treat influenza.” You can read the press release from the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region here.

Stories You May Have Missed:

Pandora Report 6.2.2017

Good news – the early registration discount for the Pandemics, Bioterrorism, & Global Health Security Summer Workshop has been extended to July 1st! We’ve got a full Pandora Report for you this week, so buckle up, it’s going to be quite a ride!

Worries, Woes, and Realities of Global Health Security
Novel diseases are a near certainty in life (perhaps the saying should be death, taxes, and disease?). Whether it be a natural event, an accidental lab exposure, or by the hand of a bioterrorist, the threat of a pandemic is real. Five infectious disease experts recently convened to discuss the threat of pandemics and what worries them most about future outbreaks. From this meeting they found five issues that truly worry them. First, the lack of trust in scientists and experts. Second, learning lessons from the past. “Tom Frieden said he’s concerned that people won’t study responses to recent pandemics enough to improve responses to future ones. ‘The world has a unique opportunity following Ebola to close gaps, to address blind spots around the world and to become much safer. If we don’t take action very quickly to close the gaps that are being identified, we will lose that opportunity,’ he said.” Third, antibiotic resistance and the continuous spread of resistant bacteria. Fourth, destruction of species and environments that might hold the key to future medical breakthroughs (we’ll be talking more about this one in a bit…). Lastly, they worry about funding for public health workers and that they have the resources needed when fighting epidemics on the front lines. Sadly, a newly established score card on global health found the U.S. lacking. This new measurement tool uses the Global Burden of Disease, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) to establish a healthcare access and quality index. Countries that improved in deaths avoidable due to healthcare at their economic level over the last twenty-five years were China, Ethiopia, the Maldive Islands, Peru, etc. “By that standard, the United States improved slightly over the same period, 1990 to 2015. But the American ranking is still so low that it’s ‘an embarrassment, especially considering the U.S. spends $9,000 per person on health care annually,’ said the report’s chief author, Dr. Christopher J. L. Murray, director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

Digital-to-Biological Converter  
Synthetic Genomics Inc. is bringing a bit of excitement to the world of synbio via their announcement within a peer-reviewed Nature article describing this new technology. The development of the digital-to-biological converter (DBC) marks a huge step in synthetic biology. The DBC produces biological compounds on-demand and without any human intervention. The unit is fully automated and allows the “user to create complex synthetic DNA in a single process. To demonstrate feasibility, researchers digitally transmitted a file with DNA sequence information to the DBC. The DBC converted that digital sequence into oligonucleotides, and utilized synthetic biology tools developed by Synthetic Genomics such as gene synthesis, error correction, and Gibson Assembly™ methods to create large and complex DNA constructs with high fidelity. Utilizing this DNA as a template, the DBC further produced a series of biological materials without any human intervention, such as RNA, proteins, and viral particles.Biological products created on the DBC included DNA templates for an influenza vaccine, an RNA-based vaccine, antibody polypeptides, and a bacteriophage.” Co-founder J. Craig Venter noted that the DBC is also the first machine of its kind and can receive digital biology in the form of DNA sequences via the internet or radio wave! “The DBC prototype fully integrates and automates processes from oligonucleotide design and synthesis to the production of biopolymers. Development of a smaller and portable DBC could enable reliable production at the point of demand and potentially reduce costs and increase access to bio-production in research laboratories. Finally, with the incorporation of large-scale synthesis technologies, one can envision the DBC being used in industrial settings to enable high-volume production of biologics such as proteins and RNA vaccines.”

ISIS & CRISPR Article Critique Writing Competition
Calling all GMU biodefense students! A recent article came out in Foreign Affairs that made some rather interesting comments regarding CRISPR, bioterrorism, and the threat of synthetic biology. We’re holding a competition for biodefense students (past and present) to write a critique on the article (700-1,000 words) and the winner (selected by Dr. Koblentz) will be featured in Global Biodefense. Please email me with any further questions and submissions (spopesc2@gmu.edu). The due date for this is June 17th. We look forward to reading your thoughts!

Pandemics, Bioterrorism, & Global Health Security Workshop Instructor Spotlight 
If you’re hoping to learn from a USAMRIID commander, NSABB member, UN Special Commission chief inspector, and veterinarian for the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), look no further than Dr. David R. Franz! He’s our spotlight instructor this week and will be teaching at our summer workshop in July. Dr. Franz has current standing committee appointments including the Department of Health and Human Services National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control, the National Research Council Board on Life Sciences, and the Senior Technical Advisory Committee of the National Biodefense Countermeasures Analysis Center. Dr. Franz was the chief inspector on three United Nations Special Commission biological warfare inspection missions to Iraq and served as technical advisor on long-term monitoring. He also served as a member of the first two US-UK teams that visited Russia in support of the Trilateral Joint Statement on Biological Weapons and as a member of the Trilateral Experts’ Committee for biological weapons negotiations. Dr. Franz was technical editor for the Textbook of Military Medicine on Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare released in 1997. He serves as a Senior Mentor to the Program for Emerging Leaders at the National Defense University. He also serves on the Board of Integrated Nano-Technologies, LLC. Dr. Franz holds an adjunct appointment as Professor for the department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Kansas State University. The current focus of his activities relates to the role of international engagement in the life sciences as a component of national security policy. Dr. Franz holds a DVM from Kansas State University and a PhD in physiology from Baylor College of Medicine. Even better, he’ll be lecturing on dual-use research at the workshop, so make sure to register!

Financial Cuts to Biodefense – Are We Digging Our Own Grave?
Despite a stark outlook painted from the looming threat of pandemics and the realities of American public health inadequacies, things are being further compounded by proposed budgetary hits to biodefense. A 10% increase in military spending means that other government agencies will take a hit, of which many are involved in biosecurity and biodefense. “The Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, which tracks outbreaks of disease, would be cut by $136 million, or 9.7 percent. The National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases — a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fights threats like anthrax and Ebola — would be cut by $65 million, or 11 percent. The CDC’s Center for Global Health would lose $76 million, or 18 percent. Its Emergency Operations Center, which conducts real-time monitoring of outbreak responses, and its Select Agents Program, which sets regulations in lethal toxin labs and helps researchers stay ahead of bioterrorists, face unspecified cuts as well.” Fear is flourishing as there are substantial gaps in the appointment of positions within key federal agencies that are responsible for outbreak response and global health security. The 700 vacancies at the CDC alone is troubling as cases of Ebola continue to bubble up in the DRC and China fights back against a deadly outbreak of avian influenza. Many experts, like J. Stephen Morrison, the director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, are horrified and note that these drastic cuts will surely impact health security. A recent op-ed by faculty from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security highlights the proposed budget and how it makes the U.S. vulnerable to bioterrorism. In the event of such an attack, there are several links in the response chain that will invariably lose capacity and capability following such budgetary cuts- first responders, hospital staff, public health professionals, MCM research, decontamination efforts, etc.  In fact, the recent announcement of the expected closure of  NBACC, the Fort Detrick research lab only fuels concern. “While the overall spending for the Department of Homeland Security increases in Trump’s budget request, that department also zeroes out funding for the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Fort Detrick.” NBACC is barely seven years old and is the government’s leading organization for forensic epidemiology in the event of a biocrime or bioterrorism. It is a world class facility for biodefense, collaborates with NIH and the DoD to conduct research gaps, and maintains several partnerships to strengthen U.S. biodefense and global health security. “’President Trump’s budget undermines important work being done in Frederick County to protect our troops and our national security. It guts federal investment in scientific research that saves lives, keeps our nation safe, and supports good-paying jobs in our state. The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center at Fort Detrick, which helps protect America from biological threats, is doing critical work and I will fight these cuts and this ill-conceived budget in the U.S. Senate,’ said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), who is a member of the Senate’s budget and appropriations committees.” Governor John K. Delaney (MD) recently voiced his concern for the potential closure of NBACC, noting that he is “100% opposed to the closing of the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center in Frederick and will fight this deeply misguided move by the Trump Administration. While DHS may be moving forward with plans to close the facility based on the assumption that the President’s request will be enacted, I want to stress that President Trump’s budget proposal is not law yet, that all funding and appropriations matters must go through Congress and that Trump’s budget overall has very little support in the House and Senate.” Unfortunately, as the threat of infectious diseases only grows, these cuts and closures will severely impact global health security. As the faculty from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security noted, “We urge Congress to reject the severe cuts proposed by the Trump administration and to support the continuation of these and other critical national biopreparedness and response assets, which protect the health and safety of all Americans.” On top of the budgetary impact to biodefense efforts, Thursday brought forth the troubling news that President Trump will end U.S. involvement in the Paris Climate Agreement . Many experts are highlighting the untold damage that will come from this move by way of climate change and international relations, but also the unintended consequence that is so easily forgotten – the spread of infectious diseases.

National Biosafety and Biocontainment Training Program (NBBTP)
Don’t miss the July 5th deadline for this amazing opportunity! “The NBBTP was conceived as a partnership between the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Division of Occupational Health and Safety (DOHS) at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The program is administered by CDIC, Inc. The NBBTP Fellowship is a two-year program designed to train Fellows specifically to support high containment research environments by acquiring knowledge and skills necessary to meet the scientific, regulatory, biocontainment, biosafety, engineering, communications, management, and public relations challenges associated with the conduct of research in these facilities. NBBTP Fellows do not engage in any primary patient care activities. The mission of the NBBTP is to prepare biosafety and biocontainment professionals of the highest caliber to meet the needs of the biomedical emerging disease and civilian biodefense research communities through the 21st century.”

Outbreak Insurance
Instead of a tiny gecko or duck, perhaps the mascot would be a friendly looking microbe? Metabiota has a new CEO and a plan for outbreak response that involves insurance. Bill Rossi thinks that this could be the key to stopping outbreaks and Metabiota plans to help by providing the monitoring tools that would facilitate its success. “The company’s chief executive said that the new policies will provide financing in the wake of deadly pandemics and encourage multi-national corporations and nation-states to invest in preventing the spread of disease. Metabiota launched its insurance product last month and has been pitching its services to insurers, nations, and companies ever since. Indeed, Metabiota is partnering with the African Risk Capacity (ARC) agency, an agency of the  African Union (AU) to help nations respond to threats.” Rossi points to the growing interest in pandemic insurance since the 2014 Ebola outbreak and acknowledges that there will have to be work to avoid potential abuse of such policies that would result in perverse incentives (i.e. profitable insurance payouts should a country be afflicted by an epidemic). Regardless of insurance, early detection systems are a necessary investment and that’s where Rossi and his Metabiota team come in. Metabiota is working with “sovereign nations and also the insurers who have the financial wherewithal to ensure that policies are put in place to prevent the spread of disease.” Epidemic insurance is looking better every day, especially after the World Bank revealed that most nations aren’t ready for a pandemic. Recently, a working group was tasked with evaluating the world’s pandemic readiness and sadly, they found that most countries simple aren’t prepared. “Recent economic estimates suggest the global total for a moderately severe to severe pandemic could be $570 billion, or 0.7% of the world’s income. The 131-page report said many countries chronically underinvest in critical public health tasks that help with early identification and containment of infectious diseases: surveillance, diagnostic labs, and emergency operations centers. It also spells out 12 recommendations to ensure adequate financial support and infrastructure”. The recommendations include preparing a detailed financial proposal to support implementation of the plan to improve preparedness, developing partners and building on existing collective and bilateral commitments to help finance preparedness in countries needing support, etc.

Unexpected Mutations Following CRISPR           
I guess what happens in CRISPR doesn’t stay in CRISPR, eh? A recent letter published in Nature notes that despite the hopes many had for the gene editing technology as a means of solving disease-causing mutations, a new study found that there were some unintended changes to other genes. “When correcting blindness in mice, researchers at Columbia University found that though CRISPR did manage to successfully edit the particular gene responsible for blindness, it also caused mutations to more than a thousand other unintended genes. The off-target effects of CRISPR have long been known, but this new research highlights just how extensive they can be, and highlights the importance of research to understand them.” Shortly after the letter was published in Nature, investments in genome-editing companies took a hit and stock prices dropped.

Ebola in the DRC
This week the DRC approved the use of the experimental Ebola vaccine rVSV-ZEBOV. The WHO plans to use a ring vaccination method to roll out the new vaccine. “The situation report also said that several cases of suspected Ebola have now been ruled out, meaning the outbreak appears to be not as extensive as once feared. As of Sunday, there were 2 confirmed, 3 probable, and 14 suspected cases. No new possible cases have been identified since May 11.” You can read the latest WHO situation reports here for updated case counts and geographic distribution.

Virus Hunters
Researchers are currently hunting for the next lethal virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The team is in the DRC with the PREDICT project, which is part of USAID’s Emerging Pandemics Threat program to create a database of zoonotic pathogens that are the most likely emerging pandemic threats. “If scientists can detail the places where lethal viruses simmer in wait, the thinking goes, they can head off a swelling pandemic and better manage outbreaks while they are still small and local. Researchers and other outbreak responders could consult this database to begin mapping the source of an emerging disease, for example, and quickly get to work on minimizing transmission and developing potential new vaccines that could save countless lives. ‘We have a job to do,’ Dr. Prime Mulembakani explains. ‘We also have the opportunity to be in contact, in close contact, with people who are on the front line—the communities who are really at risk for a virus spillover from animals into people.’ The irony of potentially disease-carrying bats hanging from the rafters of the local health center is not lost on Mulembakani, an epidemiologist by training, and he pauses for emphasis: ‘We need to stop these events from getting out of control’.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Pale Rider – The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World – Laura Spinney’s new book, Pale Rider, is coming out this fall, which details the history of the 1918 pandemic. Spinney takes the reader through a journey of the influenza virus history and how the pandemic was quickly forgotten after it took as many as 100 million lives. “By early 1920, nearly two years after the end of the first world war and the first outbreak of Spanish flu, the disease had killed as many as 100m people— more than both world wars combined. Yet few would name it as the biggest disaster of the 20th century. Some call it the ‘forgotten flu’. Almost a century on, Pale Rider, a scientific and historic account of Spanish flu, addresses this collective amnesia”.
  • Salmonella Outbreak in 47 States – Nearly 400 have been sickened following a salmonella outbreak tied to live poultry. “Since early January and through May 13 the outbreaks have sickened 372 people in 47 states. So far, 71 people have been hospitalized but no deaths have been reported. Just over a third (36%) of the sick patients are children. During the investigations, interviews revealed that 83% (190) of 228 sick people had contact with live poultry the week before they got sick. People bought live baby poultry from a variety of sources, including feed supply stores, Web sites, hatcheries, and relatives.”

 

Pandora Report 5.26.2017

Summer is in full swing and that means the mosquitoes are out in force. Before you make those pesky bugs your biggest enemy, don’t forget about the threat of antibiotic resistance and the current MCR-1 Klebsiella outbreak in China!

Congrats GMU Biodefense Graduates 
Last week we saw several MS and PhD students graduate from GMU’s biodefense program and we couldn’t be more excited to show off their hard work! Earning their MS in biodefense, we’d like to celebrate Kathryn Ake, Rebecca Earnhardt, Nicholas Guerin, Andrew Joyce, Ryan Lockhart, Patrick Lucey, Alison Mann, Jonathon Marioneaux, Scott McAlister, Greg Mercer, Katheryn Payton, Dana Saft, Colleen Tangney, and Anupama Varma. Earning their PhD in biodefense, we’re celebrating Keith W. Ludwick (Dissertation title: The Legend of the Lone Wolf: Categorizing Singular and Small Group Terrorism), Nereyda Sevilla (Germs on a Plane: The Transmission and Risks of Airplane-Borne Diseases), and Craig Wiener (Penetrate, Exploit, Disrupt, Destroy: The Rise of Computer Network Operations as a Major Military Innovation). Congrats to our biodefense graduates – we can’t wait to see what wonderful things you’ll accomplish in global health security!

U.S. Investment in Global Health Security  – The Good and The Bad
Whether it be an intentional, accidental, or natural biological event, infectious diseases can devastate local economies and populations. “Catastrophic” is a term commonly used for such events. Disease knows no borders or boundaries, which means that our global health security is only as strong as the weakest link. To aid in the stability of global health security, the State Department funds projects around the world to help improve biosafety and biosecurity. The philosophy is that if we can train local trainers to establish expertise and biorisk programs, it would lay the foundation for biosecurity/biosafety for the future. “The State Department carefully evaluates and selects the most impactful projects for each region, pairing local needs with appropriate subject matter expertise. One source of such expertise is Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), which has received State Department funding to implement numerous health security projects. Just this April, Lora Grainger, working at the Labs’ International Biological and Chemical Threat Reduction (IBCTR), travelled to Algeria to train Algerian trainers on a project funded by the State Department. Participants included scientists working in Algeria’s national network of laboratories managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Institut National de Médecine Véterinaire (INMV).” This partnership is just one of many and involves education that is tailored to the skills and needs of those being trained. Global health security is bigger than any one country and it’s vital to not only strengthen our own practices, but also facilitate its development in countries that might not have all the resources needed. Speaking of U.S. health security efforts, don’t forget to catch the Operation Whitecoat documentary on the June 1st.                                                                                                                                                              

While these are great efforts the U.S. is putting forward, there is also an internal struggle to maintain public health during a hiring freeze. The freeze was imposed by President Trump’s executive order in late January, which covers currently open positions, blocks transfers, and prevents new positions from being created. It was recently reporting that nearly 700 positions within the CDC are vacant due to the ongoing hiring freeze. “Like HHS, the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have maintained the freeze as a way of reducing their workforces and reshaping organizational structures after a directive last month from the Office of Management and Budget that said all federal agencies must submit a plan by June 30 to shrink their civilian workforces. HHS, State and EPA also face significant cuts in the Trump administration’s budget proposal for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The administration, which unveiled a ‘skinny budget‘ for fiscal 2018 in March, is scheduled to release its full budget next week. A senior CDC official said unfilled positions include dozens of budget analysts and public health policy analysts, scientists and advisers who provide key administrative support.” A new CDC document notes that at least 125 job categories have been blocked from being filled, which includes positions in the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.

Ebola in the DRC – Updates
While we’re honoring researchers and workers for their efforts during the 2014/2015 West Africa outbreak, Ebola continues to rage through the DRC. You can find daily situation reports here from the WHO, as the numbers of reported cases are constantly changing. The WHO is reportedly optimistic that it can contain the outbreak and many are curious to see how the new director general will handle such challenges. The latest situation report from the WHO is pointing to six more cases of Ebola, bringing the total suspected cases to 43. 365 people are currently under monitoring in the DRC. Researchers have also made substantial progress towards understanding how Ebola disables the immune system so effectively. In response to this latest outbreak, the WHO is requesting funding to ensure adequate response to the DRC outbreak.

Pandemics, BT, & Global Health Security Workshop – Instructor Spotlight
We’re excited to announce that Kendall Hoyt is our instructor spotlight this week! Dr. Hoyt is an Assistant Professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth where she studies U.S. biodefense policy and biomedical R&D strategy. She is also a lecturer at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College where she teaches a course on technology and biosecurity. She is the author of Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense, Harvard University Press, 2012. She serves on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Department of Defense’s Programs to Counter Biological Threats and on the advisory board of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. Kendall Hoyt received her Ph.D. in the History and Social Study of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002 and was a Fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2002-2004. Prior to obtaining her degree, she worked in the International Security and International Affairs division of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Washington DC office of McKinsey and Company, and the Center for the Management of Innovation and Technology at the National University of Singapore. Did I mention that she’s also done work on Ebola and has written extensively about medical countermeasures for the disease? Dr. Hoyt is not only an expert on biosecurity and the impact of technology, but will take students through the journey of medical countermeasures and security.

The Finish Line in Ending Pandemics and The Future of the WHO
The recent election of a new WHO director-general highlights the current global shift in priorities, and yet the reality is that we’re still fighting an uphill battle against infectious disease and the threat of a pandemic. Recent decades have shown that outbreaks have been increasingly common, taking advantage of globalization, growing populations, and spillover. Avian influenza has been knocking at the door for a while…while bursts of Ebola and SARS have shaken global health security to its core. MERS has also triggered such events in hospitals, leaving no environment safe from emerging infectious diseases. The list of worrying viral diseases has also grown and taught us a rather painful truth – pandora’s box is already open and every time we think we’ve closed it…we realize the seal just isn’t that tight. “Dynamic, rapidly evolving viral threats emerge with increasing frequency, exploiting new pathways in endless pursuit of their biologic imperative. These viruses are the paradigm of adaptive learning. Pushing and probing at our defenses, they shift to new hosts, opportunistically hijack transmission routes, and acquire capacities to evade immune detection. They are subject to no rules of engagement, and their viral intelligence is anything but artificial”. Our new strategy is now to strengthen our detection efforts and to build up response processes. Many have highlighted that what we’ve seen is just a small percentage of what’s out there, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep our heads buried in the sand forever. The future of international disease response will change with the appointment of the new WHO director-general, especially for poor countries dependent upon resources. On Tuesday, it was announced that Ethiopia’s Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was voted director-general. Dr. Ghebreyesus is the first ever African director-general and brings to the position a long history of health stewardship as a former health minister in Ethiopia. Not only is this election particularly significant as the future of the WHO will be heavily weighed against its failures in recent years, but recent accusations against the newly elected director-general have created further doubts as to the stability of the organization.

Double-edged Sword Research
A new report from the Swiss Academies of Art & Sciences is drawing attention to the need for continued conversation and engagement about the potential for misuse in life sciences. As a result of the workshop, a report was developed highlighting “six issues that should be considered when designing, conducting, and communicating research projects. Each issue is illustrated with examples from actual research projects.” In fact, CRISPR inventor, Jennifer Doudna, is drawing attention to the promises and perils of the gene-editing technology. She points to the worries of creating designer embryos while contrasting the promises of reducing mosquito-transmitted diseases. In fact, recent work has shown some promise in using CRISPR to fight HIV. “Part of the problem is HIV’s ability to squirrel itself away inside a cell’s DNA – including the DNA of the immune cells that are supposed to be killing it. The same ability, though, could be HIV’s undoing. ast week, a group of biologists published research detailing how they hid an anti-HIV CRISPR system inside another type of virus capable of sneaking past a host’s immune system. What’s more, the virus replicated and snipped HIV from infected cells along the way.” While this work has only been done in mice and rats, the concept is promising. Overall, these advances bring about exciting future possibilities, but it’s important to remember that there are dangers too – whether it be tampering with human evolution, contaminated CRISPR kits, nefarious actors using them for terrorism, etc. The complexities of CRISPR and genetic engineering are only growing, which makes the 2018 arrival of the peer-reviewed publication, The CRISPR Journal, even more relevant.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Model Systems and the Need For Curiosity-Driven Science– GMU Biodefense PhD student, Saskia Popescu, is looking at the importance of model systems and picking the brain of a top researcher in the field, Dr. Julie Pfeiffer. “Poliovirus is great to use to create model systems because not only does it grow easily, but it is also relatively safe due to vaccination for lab workers, not to mention that we have a pretty solid understanding of the virus based off a century of working with it. ‘We know a lot about poliovirus and we have great tools in our toolbox. If you’re going to tackle a tough problem, it helps to have a great toolbox. For other fields, the ideal toolbox may be fruit flies, worms, or yeast. Collectively, these model systems have illuminated biology and have led to major advancements in human health.’ stated Dr. Pfeiffer in her recent PLOS Pathogens article on the importance of model systems.” “Firstly, I asked if she thought there were other eradicated or ‘almost’ eradicated diseases that could make decent models. She replied, ‘No. We use poliovirus as a model system because of its great tractability, safety, and ease of use (not because it’s nearly eradicated). [Other eradicated diseases such as] smallpox and rinderpest would not be good model systems because they have been completely eradicated from circulation, making biosafety and tractability major issues. [That being said,] if the poliovirus eradication campaign is successful, the idea is to stop vaccination. If this happens, poliovirus will likely become a BSL3/4 agent and I will no longer work with it’.”
  • Is Your Daycare Prepared For a Pandemic?– Daycare centers may not be your first thought when it comes to pandemic preparedness, however a recent survey found that fewer than one in ten U.S. centers have taken steps to prepare for a pandemic flu event. “Researchers surveyed directors of licensed childcare centers in 2008 and again in 2016, to assess flu prevention measures before and after the 2009 pandemic outbreak of a new strain of H1N1 influenza. Among other things, they looked at flu prevention activities like daily health checks for kids, infection control training for staff, communicating with parents about illness and immunization requirements for children and staff.” Children are great sources for disease transmission and when guardians are needed at work, childcare capacity will be extremely important if a pandemic flu occurs.

 

Pandora Report 5.12.2017

TGIF and welcome to your favorite weekly dose of all things biodefense! Check out this film from PBS Digital Studios Brain Craft exploring the technical and ethical questions about CRISPR and genetic engineering.

The Growing Threat of Pandemics: Enhancing Domestic and International Biosecurity
The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University just released their new white paper on biosecurity measures. The paper highlights the increased threat of pandemics due to globalization and ease of transportation. In their review they found nine priority areas that will help address the current biodefense problem. Their priority areas/action items are leadership, international response, the anti-vaccine movement, animal and human health, uniform health screening, public health and healthcare infrastructure, effective outbreak response, cultural competency, and academic collaborations. The white paper notes that “there should be uniform health screenings for individuals seeking permanent or extended temporary residence in the United States. Currently, there are discrepancies between the vaccination requirements for immigrants and the vaccination requirements for refugees.” The inclusion of the anti-vaccination movement was particularly interesting as few reports truly capture this in regards to biodefense efforts. “The increasing influence of the anti-vaccine movement in the United States is another growing threat. Leaders of the movement spread misinformation to parents with questions or anxiety over the safety of vaccines. Many within the anti-vaccine movement incorrectly believe that vaccines cause autism and the number of individuals seeking nonmedical exemptions to the vaccination requirements of schools is on the rise.”

Pandemic Summer Workshop Sneak Peek 
We’re getting closer to the July 17-19 workshop on pandemics, bioterrorism, and global health security, which means that starting next week, we’ll be highlighting some of the amazing faculty teaching the courses. Make sure to look for our spotlight on Dr. Andy Kilianski in next week’s Pandora Report as we’ll be looking at his work on biosurveillance and its role within U.S. biodefense efforts! Make sure to take advantage of the early registration discount before June 1st!

2017 Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge
Don’t miss this wonderful chance to show off your infectious disease mapping skills! The Next Generation Global Health Security Network and DigitalGlobe Foundation are “seeking undergraduate and graduate students, in a team or individually, to generate up to three maps (one map is perfectly acceptable) that illustrate a research question related to any of the categories detailed below. Maps can be analytic (examining relationships between multiple domains, phenomena, or data sources) or descriptive (depicting a single phenomenon or data source). While analytic projects are ideal, descriptive projects will be accepted as long as students/teams describe why their map depicts a notable phenomenon. Similarly, while international maps are preferred, domestic maps will be accepted if the student/team can provide justification as to why a map focusing on the U.S. is necessary (e.g., U.S. data sets on a given topic are the most comprehensive).”

Scientists Take On HIV By Using CRISPR
Researchers have just made headway in the battle against HIV/AIDS by using the genome editing technology, CRISPR-Cas9. Current treatment for HIV involves anti-retrovirals, which are pretty harsh on the body and come with several nasty side effects. In their fight against HIV, the research team used the CRISPR technology like a pair of scissors to get rid of the HIV-1 DNA in the body of mice. “If you cut out the DNA, you stop the virus from being able to make copies of itself. The team is the first to show HIV can be completely annihilated from the body using CRISPR. And with impressive effect. After just one treatment, scientists were able to show the technique had successfully removed all traces of the infection within mouse organs and tissue.”

Public Interest Report – Chemical Weapons
Don’t miss the latest publication from the Federation of American Scientists, which includes several articles on chemical weapons. The Public Interest Report (PIR) is a great source for articles on human rights, counterterrorism, and more. The most recent edition includes articles on the threat of toxic chemicals, investigations regarding the chemical attacks in Syria, the value of scientific analysis of chemical weapons attacks, and more. The president of the Federation of American Scientists, Charles D. Ferguson, also wrote a special message regarding the value of scientific analysis, specifically in regards to chemical weapons attacks. He highlights several articles regarding chemical weapons attacks over the years, one of which includes an analysis of symptoms and potential agents used. This specific work includes analysis from GMU professor, Keith Ward, and highlights the use of chemical weapons in Darfur and Sudan and the limitations of NGO documentation of chemical warfare agents. The article points to the specific symptoms following chemical weapons attacks and notes that “NGOs find themselves at considerable disadvantage compared to national governments when faced with evaluating evidence of alleged attacks using chemical weapons.”

Could Saving Animals Prevent the Next Pandemic?
70% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that some type of a spillover event had to occur. Ebola, HIV/AIDS, H1N1, and avian influenza are all examples of spillover that has resulted in human morbidity and mortality. The USAID PREDICT program is working to combat this growing threat of zoonotic diseases. PREDICT works to establish a global surveillance system for infectious diseases that can spillover into humans. PREDICT is a collaborative effort between the University of California at Davis’s One Health Institute and the School of Veterinary Medicine, as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society, Metabiota, EcoHealth Alliance, and the Smithsonian Institute’s Global Health Program. “In its first five years, PREDICT trained 2,500 government and medical personnel in 20 countries on things like the identification of zoonotic diseases and implementing effective reporting systems. They collected samples from 56,340 wild animals, using innovative techniques like leaving chew ropes for monkeys then collecting saliva afterwards. They also detected 815 novel viruses—more than all the viruses previously recognized in mammals by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses.” One of the tools PREDICT uses for surveillance is to monitor animal health and diseases that are circulating in them. “When you disrupt an ecosystem by removing a species through culling, you have a less healthy ecosystem and higher risk of disease,” says Megan Vodzak, a research specialist for Smithsonian’s Global Health Program. “Sometimes you increase the level of the virus within the population because you eliminate some but not all of the animals, and they’re still circulating it.” This brings about a humbling notion – conservation and human health might go hand in hand. Some researchers note that by protecting wildlife, we can help prevent spillover events and outbreaks. This concept however, is a bit more complex and has many on the fence regarding the actual role of conservation in human diseases. Some work has found that increases in biodiversity have no impact on human health, emphasizing the murky water of those trying to sell conservation as a tool for fighting pandemics. “When researchers do embark on conservation projects, she cautions that they should also consider other possible outcomes besides the protective benefit humans get from healthy wildlife and ecosystems. ‘We have to recognize that conservation could provide benefits for public health and it could endanger public health,’.”

The Battle of the Resistant Bug
We often think of an infectious disease threat emerging from some hidden jungle or quiet spillover event. While these are are true scenarios, I offer one more – the moment a bacteria becomes resistant to antimicrobials. Whether it be related to over-use in farming or over prescribing in healthcare, this is often a forgotten battleground. We’ve become accustomed to the ease and availability of antibiotics, which has translated to increased and improper use. Antibiotic resistant has frequently been overshadowed by the flashier of infectious disease threats however, this is to our detriment. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has proven time and time again to not only be a devious adversary, but one that gets little attention. Research and development into new antibiotics has lagged in recent years, which has only compounded the issue. One of the issues is also the lack of coordinated international surveillance and response strategies. Interestingly, Russian scientists recently developed an interactive world map, which shows human gut microbiota and their potential for resistance. The ResistoMap (pretty outstanding name, right?) makes it easier to track national resistance trends and potentially create an international response plan. “Using the ResistoMap, it is possible to estimate the global variation of the resistance to different groups of antibiotics and explore the associations between specific drugs and clinical factors or other metadata. For instance, the Danish gut metagenomes tend to demonstrate the lowest resistome among the European groups, whereas the French samples have the highest levels, particularly of the fluoroquinolones, a group of broad-spectrum anti-bacterial drugs.” While the rise of an emerging infectious disease should not be ignored, it is important that we remember the slower burn of antimicrobial resistance. Even Alexander Fleming saw the future involving a world without effective antibiotics, as he noted just following his acceptance of the 1945 Nobel Prize, “The thoughtless person playing with penicillin treatment is morally responsible for the death of the man who succumbs to infection with the penicillin-resistant organism.”

Regional Action Needed to Prevent Syrian Chemical Weapons Attacks
GMU biodefense PhD alum, Daniel M. Gerstein, is focusing on the role regional actors could play with respect to Syria, especially in terms of dissuading the use of chemical weapons. Despite the horrific attack in early April, global response has been surprisingly tepid and Russian support is ongoing, but Gerstein also highlights the “deafening silence” on the issue by countries within the region. Pressure could be applied from surrounding countries to indicate a strong message that the use of such weapons will not be tolerated. “Borders with Syria could be sealed to prevent any of the re­maining stocks from leaving the country. This would likely require a mix of military, law enforcement and border police to ensure that any illicit crossings are immediate­ly halted. In the event that chemi­cal weapons do breach the Syrian border, response forces should be prepared to stop suspect ship­ments, conduct searches of cargo and have appropriate protection to avoid becoming casualties them­selves.” Gerstein also notes that regional leaders could direct efforts towards Assad specifically, making it clear that Syria’s future will not include him, by calling for the International Criminal Court to indict him for war crimes.”Over the past 15 years, the norms against the use of chemical weap­ons have continued to be threat­ened, with increasing state and non-state actor use. Most of these attacks have occurred in the Middle East. This trend cannot be allowed to continue.”

The Chemical Attack in Syria – Sorting Truth from Propaganda
Rod Barton takes us through the April chemical weapons attack in Syria and argues against those who claim it was a “false flag” operation, staged by rebels to draw the U.S. into further intervention efforts. The most notable proponents of this argument have been former MIT professor Theodore Postol and Sydney University professor, Tim Anderson. In efforts to help break the cycle of a false narrative, the U.S. has released intelligence reports however, those who support the “false flag” narrative continue to point to misinformation and confusion about the April 4th attack as evidence. Barton argues against the “false flag” narrative by highlighting several points as evidence for the attack – victims seeking medical care following a Syrian air strike with classic symptoms of nerve agent poisoning, analysis samples that confirmed sarin, and the air raid crater found in the road north of the town, which tested positive for sarin and hexamine. Postol, on the other hand, while continuing to claim that the U.S. intelligence reports fail to prove definitively that the attack was done by the Assad regime, does not argue that it was sarin that killed the people in Khan Sheikhoun. “His case is largely based on the nature of distortion of the metal fragment in the crater – he claims this proves that it was not dropped from an aircraft, as stated by US intelligence. His theory is that a sarin-filled tube, possibly a 122mm artillery rocket body, was placed on the road by individuals on the ground and overlaid with a small explosive charge to disperse the agent.” Barton argues against Postol’s comments for several reasons – Postol fails to explain the origin of the sarin in the tubes, how the rebel groups managed to coordinate the detonation of their device with that of a Syrian government air raid, and that Postol fails to account for the evidence of a second chemical round that detonated around 300m from the road crater. Barton notes that “Postol was an eminent scientist and his views cannot simply be ignored. However, on this occasion the evidence to support his argument is not there – he has got it wrong. His writings on this subject have nevertheless been useful in that they have forced analysts to question the evidence closely to determine their degree of certainty in their assessments. But while the particulars are difficult to ascertain, there is still sufficient evidence to state beyond reasonable doubt that the Syrian military is responsible for the attack. In other words, the jury should convict – sadly, in today’s world, the reality may be different.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 3-D Structures vs. Infectious Diseases– Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is leading a team of international researchers to determine the 3-D atomic structure of more than 1,000 proteins to help develop treatments and vaccines against infectious diseases. “Almost 50 percent of the structures that we have deposited in the Protein Data Bank are proteins that were requested by scientific investigators from around the world,” said Wayne Anderson, PhD, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at Feinberg, and director of the project. “The NIH has also requested us to work on proteins for potential drug targets or vaccine candidates for many diseases, such as the Ebola virus, the Zika virus and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We have determined several key structures from these priority organisms and published the results in high-impact journals such as Nature and Cell.”
  • The Million Dollar Minnesota Measles Outbreak – the growing measles outbreak in Minnesota is projected to cost the state $1 million and is quickly growing. “When it began last month, public health officials knew this outbreak could be large and ongoing, because many Somali-Americans have been refusing the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine for years over unfounded rumors that the childhood immunization, whose first dose is routinely given to babies at 12 to 15 months, causes autism.” Sadly, the vaccination declinations in the Somali-Americans in Minnesota are considered to have been a result of targeting from anti-vaccine groups.

Pandora Report 5.5.2017

Welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense. We hope you’ll celebrate World Hand Hygiene Day today by practicing awesome hand hygiene to help stop the spread of germs! Will Bill Gates save us from the next Ebola?

Summer Workshop Discount Extended
We’re excited to announce that the early registration deadline has been extended to June 1st for the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security! This is a great opportunity to experience a 3-day workshop led by some of the top biodefense people in the field, not to mention networking opportunities with fellow global health security gurus. Don’t miss out on this July 17-19th workshop in which you’ll learn about bioterrorism, synthetic biology, dual-use research of concern, and how experts are working to stop the next pandemic.

Three Insights from the World Bank’s Tim Evans on Global Health
“While in the previous year the U.S. was the biggest single source of development aid finance for health at $12.8 billion — 34 percent of the global total — its future position is less clear. Specifics on U.S. commitments to global health were lacking in U.S. President Donald Trump’s ‘skinny budget‘ released in March. The latest budget document released this week, meanwhile, shows proposed cuts to USAID’s global health funds.” At a recent event hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Tim Evans, senior director of health, nutrition, and population at the World Bank Group, pointed to three important lessons. Firstly, we must catalyze domestic resource mobilization. Domestic spending impacts a country’s capacities and universal healthcare development. “Evans said the global health community needs to rethink the way it views and packages development assistance, from largely being linked to service provision to one that can strengthen countries’ domestic resource mobilization.” Second, he notes that it is crucial to build a demand for health. Policy shifts and economic strain increasingly threaten global health security efforts. He notes that there is a “very strong need to think about building demand and not to pretend that because you’re doing health and saving lives that everybody thinks that’s a great idea,”. “Actively cultivate that community, because you know if you don’t, then it doesn’t take much of a counter force — and we’ve seen this in the areas of vaccines and immunizations — to erode that base of support.” Lastly, the growing threat of disease requires that we expand beyond the “public sector-only mindset”. It’s critical to consider and utilize the private sector for public health efforts. He mentioned that “the public sector has massively important functions. But we have to look in a granular way, various ways, in which the private sector is active, will be active, and work with that in ways that are going to address burden of disease in cost effective manners,”.

Has The Deep State Hoodwinked Trump?
GMU Professor Charles P. Blair and biodefense MS student Rebecca Earnhardt are pointing to Trump’s recent military action in Syria and what really happened behind closed doors. “Though many of the administration’s more centrist supporters cheered the US missile strike on the Syrian air base, characterizing it as a bold move necessitated by the weakness of Barack Obama, other Trump supporters argued that the president had been tricked into a grand mistake. Was Trump the victim of a ruse by the ‘deep state’—a monolithic alignment of federal power centers so intent on maintaining command that it was willing to derail the new administration by encouraging it to pursue unwise military action? Or was the president misled by an even more ominous version of the deep state: one that subverts legitimate civilian leadership in a bid to recouple the United States to ‘regime change’ and similar globalist policies of militant ‘humanitarian’ interventionism?” Blair and Earnhardt look at this history of “deep state”, the rise of the “new world order”, and the growth of fringe beliefs in conspiracy and the notion of a hidden organization (think The X-Files, Men in Black, and the Matrix). “This elevated circulation of cross-pollinated conspiratorialism, now manifest in the increasingly normalized views of the fringe far right, has been facilitated not just by television and movies, as discussed above, but also by Internet platforms.” While not all associate the deep state with some totalitarian global group (which reminds me of James Bond‘s Spectre and Mission Impossible‘s Syndicate), the increasing belief in “sanitized conspiracies” has highlighted some changes how we form beliefs and what that translates to. Earnhardt and Blair also note that that while such beliefs have increased while faith in government, science, and the press have declined.

Why Are We More at Risk Than Ever for a Global Pandemic? 
GMU Biodefense PhD student, Saskia Popescu, looks at the seven reasons we’re more at risk than ever for a global pandemic. While concurring with a recent list following CNN’s pandemic documentary, she highlights two gaps within it – attitude towards infectious diseases and the role of healthcare infrastructure. “The current attitude towards infectious diseases puts us more at risk. Ebola brought the realities of borderless outbreaks to the forefront, especially with availability of faster information. Industrialized countries view diseases—emerging infectious diseases, in particular—differently than developing countries. In the United States, we relish our vaccine availability enough that we refuse it and often see emerging diseases as third world problems. Ebola showed us two things; the unfounded and irrational fear that occurred in the United States, and the lack of preparedness or acknowledgement that a disease in West Africa could venture across the pond.” She highlights the damaging implications of viewing emerging infectious diseases as “third world country problems” and what cultural shift is needed for this to change. The second missing component to the list is healthcare infrastructure and infection control efforts. “Physicians and nurses alike are desperately needed in developing countries; however, it is important to include another role that is often forgotten: infection control and prevention. Although there are fewer doctors and nurses in outbreak regions, there is also something to be said about the grossly underfunded and underutilized role of infection control as a preparedness and response tool. Whether it is in the United States or in a developing country, infection prevention and control programs are vital for both patient and employee safety, frequently understaffed, and economically strained.” Highlighting the nosocomial cases in Dallas, TX, she notes that infection control is bigger than just hospital-acquired infections and trickles down to antimicrobial resistance, communicable disease reporting, and patient isolation. “Overall, the way we look at emerging infectious diseases, our role in preventing and responding to them, and how we utilize (or fail to utilize) healthcare have created a substantial vulnerability for future public health threats. We have more than enough proof to show how vulnerable we all are to infectious diseases and how vital hospital infection control is to not only internal infections, but also preventing the spread from the community. Now is the time to truly utilize a holistic approach—including infection control programs, public education and cultural awareness, and more—to prevent the next pandemic.”

U.S. Biodefense Failures
Despite the bipartisan nature of biothreat preparedness, the U.S. struggles to to support such efforts. A recent Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense meeting highlighted yet again, the lack of leadership for U.S. biodefense efforts -whether that be an agency or person. “For at least two decades, infectious disease experts have been urging the U.S. government to do more to keep the country prepared for outbreaks of diseases such as a new strain of flu, Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. They’ve also noted that other countries have prepared biological weapons such as smallpox and anthrax and have used chemical weapons — such as Syria’s use of sarin gas against its own citizens.” Despite the constant supply of warnings from experts regarding the eventuality of a new flu pandemic, the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and concerns over dual-use research and gene editing, we just can’t seem to get it together. We know what the threat of infectious diseases, whether it be natural, intentional, or accidental, is real and will only increase as populations grow and globalizations strengthens. “The United States needs to be ready ahead of time, with stockpiles of drugs, vaccines and equipment, plans for deploying them and someone with the authority to make fast decisions, Cole and other experts said. The 2017 budget agreement worked out early Monday by Congress would provide just $57 million specifically to prepare for a new pandemic of influenza.” The truth is that U.S. response tends to be more reactive than proactive. We’ve gotten lucky so far in that the diseases weren’t highly transmissible with high fatality rates, but the truth is that our luck won’t hold forever.

Contaminated CRISPR Kits
This is quite an interesting twist in the concerns over DIY-gene editing…. While many worry about the outcomes of biohackers and garage genome editors, a recent finding of contaminated CRISPR kits sold by the company, The Odin, has added a new worrisome layer. The kits are normally sold online for $150 for those interested in doing gene engineering at home however, this recent finding by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has resulted in a halting of all CRISPR kits imported into Germany. The kits were meant to contain harmless laboratory strains of E. coli HME63, however multiple kits were found to be contamined with several pathogens, including some that are antibiotic resistant. Klebsiella pneumoniae, Enterobacter, and Enterococcus faecalis were the microbial culprits found in the contaminated kits. The ECDC has stated that there is a low risk for users “because the manipulation of the kit does not involve percutaneous injury-prone manipulations. However, infection resulting from the contamination of broken skin or mucous membranes may occur, even though the kit recommends and provides disposable gloves. Furthermore, the kit includes lyophilised materials that need to be reconstituted, which may lead to contamination of the mucosae of the eyes, mouth and nose. Finally, the risk of infection may be increased for immunocompromised or immunosuppressed persons.” You can find the ECDC statement here, which notes that LGL, the Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority, issued the press release in late March. There is also concern related to the potential release of drug-resistant organisms into the environment, of which the ECDC noted, “the potential contribution of the contaminated kit to the increasing burden of antimicrobial resistance in the EU/EEA is marginal, and the associated public health risk is considered very low”. They also encouraged users of the kits to appropriately dispose of their used materials to avoid releasing any drug-resistant bacteria into the environment.

Eastern Europe Antibiotic Usage Report
A new WHO report is providing information regarding antibiotic consumption and usage in 11 non-EU countries and Kosovo from 2011-2014. “The most commonly used class of antimicrobials was beta-lactams, whose share of the total ranged from 35.4% in Belarus to 65.6% in Azerbaijan, the report says. Cephalosporins accounted for between 6.1% (Azerbaijan) and 30.3% (Turkey) of total consumption, while the share for quinolones ranged from less than 0.1% in Uzbekistan to 17% in the Republic of Moldova. The report notes that cephalosporins and quinolones are broad-spectrum antibiotics and are considered second-line drugs in many prescribing guidelines. The two groups combined accounted for 10% (Azerbaijan) to 38% (Moldova) of total consumption.”

Workshop on Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology
Don’t miss this May 25th event at the National Academy of Sciences Building! This meeting will be open to the public, and will run from 8:30am until 4:30pm. The committee will hear from speakers who will discuss the current state of the science in DNA synthesis, assembly, and engineering; pathogen engineering and zoonosis; and ease of use as it relates to synthetic biology. There will be question and answer periods following each panel discussion, and members of the public will be invited to ask questions of the panelists, so we invite you to attend in person, if you are able. You can also check out the draft agenda here. It will be interesting to see if the workshop will discuss CRISPR kits and the potential for contamination.

Stories You May have Missed:

  • NIH Sets Research Cap on Funding for Scientists–  On Tuesday it was announced that for the first time, the NIH will restrict the amount of funding any individual scientists can hold at a given time via a point system. It is “part of an ongoing effort to make obtaining grants easier for early- and mid-career scientists, who face much tougher odds than their more-experienced colleagues. According to the agency, just 10% of grant recipients win 40% of the agency’s research money. Advocacy organizations and groups that advise the NIH director have been urging the agency to address this inequality for more than a decade. They are also concerned that increasing competition for grant money drives researchers to spend more time on paperwork and personnel issues associated with grants, and less time in the lab.”
  • Yellow Fever Vaccine Levels Are Dangerously Low – The CDC recently announced that the supply of yellow fever vaccine will be depleted by this summer. France is said to be able to cover the U.S. populations in need of the vaccine by the time the U.S. supply runs out, however the ongoing manufacturing problems continue to strain response efforts. “A number of vaccine doses were lost while Sanofi was transitioning vaccine production from an old site to new construction, slated to open in 2018.The United States uses 500,000 doses of yellow fever vaccine each year, distributed to travelers and military personnel who will be visiting yellow fever–endemic regions. Just 1 dose of the vaccine confers lifelong immunity, with recipients showing 80% immunity to yellow fever virus 10 days after inoculation and 99% immunity within 30 days. According to unpublished data from Sanofi, approximately 60% of these doses are distributed among about 4,000 civilian clinical sites.”
  • Attacking Antibiotic Resistance With Behavioral Approaches
    A recent Dutch study looked at antimicrobial stewardship strategies and found that by letting providers determine the root-cause of inappropriate antibiotic prescribing, they were more effective in responding to the problem. “The aim of the study was to test the effectiveness of a stewardship approach in which prescribers were asked to determine the root causes of inappropriate antimicrobial prescribing in their department, then develop one or more interventions to improve prescribing based on those root causes. The theory behind this strategy is that if you respect prescriber autonomy and allow prescribers to create their own program to improve prescribing, they will value this approach more and show more commitment to it.  Overall, there were 21,306 clinical admissions during the baseline period and 15,394 clinical admissions during the intervention period, with the appropriateness surveys including 1,121 patients and 882 patients, respectively. In the baseline period, 64.1% of antimicrobial prescriptions were considered appropriate, compared with 77.4% in the intervention period, an increase of 20.7% that equaled 4,927 improved days of therapy.”

Pandora Report 4.28.2017

If you’ve ever wondered about the 1998 story regarding the WWI anthrax sugar cube, we’ve got this gem for you.

March for Science
This past Saturday (Earth Day), cities around the world saw hoards of scientists and supporters of research marching to both celebrate science, but also push for the preservation of funded and publicly communicated research. “The March for Science is a celebration of science.  It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.  Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?” Cities like Chicago saw 40,000 participating in the march, armed with lab coats, pink knit brain hats, and some pretty outstanding signs. Even some furry friends got involved to celebrate science. The D.C. march battled against rainy weather and included speakers like Bill Nye on the National Mall.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
The May 1st deadline for an early registration discount is fast approaching, so don’t miss your chance to attend this educational and captivating workshop for a lower price! The three-day workshop will provide you with not only seminars from experts in the field, but also discussions with others interested in biodefense. You can check out the flyer and register for the event here. A returning participant, GMU student/alumni, or have a group of three or more? You’re eligible for an additional discount! Check out the website to get the scoop on all our expert instructors and the range of topics the workshop will be covering. From Anthrax to Zika, this is the place to be in July to get your biodefense nerdom on!

French Intelligence Brings Insight Into Syrian Chemical Weapons          A new French intelligence National Evaluation report details the direct evidence linking the April 4th chemical weapons attack in Syria to the Syrian regime. “The French report casts fresh doubts on the efficacy of what at the time was billed as a landmark U.S.-Russian chemical weapons pact, which was signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in late 2013. The pact was touted as practically eliminating Syria’s ‘declared’ chemical weapons program.” The French report is considered the most detailed evaluation of environmental analysis (among others) following the Syrian chemical weapons attacks. Not only does the April 4th sarin match that previously used by the Syrian regime, but it also points to the hexamine chemical signature found in the Syrian chemical weapons program. “The French intelligence report provides the most robust scientific evidence linking the Syrian government to the sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun,” said Gregory Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate program at at George Mason University.”This scientific evidence is a direct refutation of the misinformation being peddled by Russia and Syria.”

The World Needs a DARPA-Style Project to Prevent Pandemics             We truly are not ready for a global pandemic. Across the board, all the reports, studies, and experts say the same and the latest article from Tom Ridge and Dante Disparte highlights this unpleasant reality. Zika, Ebola, SARS, and avian influenza have all shown us just how globally unprepared we are for such an event. “In public health, it is much easier to play offense than it is to play defense. Playing offense well, however, is going to require a lot more coordination – both internationally and within national borders. We believe an important first step in this effort is for the U.S. and governments around the world to develop an equivalent to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), that focuses cross-sector efforts on advancing biological and pandemic risk readiness.” No single sector can fix this problem, but rather it requires cross-sector collaboration to tackle organisms that know no borders. Ridge and Disparte insist that a a global “invest now or pay later” economic philosophy is needed to break away from stovepiping that allows biological threats to appear sector specific. “As with DARPA, the science and technology community are the unsung heroes in improving global biodefense and pandemic risk readiness. But unlike advanced military research, which is conducted under strict secrecy, the scientists working on improving our defenses to emerging threats must have a charter that encourages open collaboration and transparency. All too often research and technology investments, particularly those in the private sector, follow a zero-sum approach.”

U.S. Preparedness Index Points to Scattered and Mediocre Progress
The National Health Security Preparedness Index (NHSPI) was just released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which tracks progress at the state level regarding their capacity to respond to health emergencies. The good news is that overall, the U.S. score has increased over the past couple of years – 6.8 in 2016, up from 6.7 in 2015, and 6.4 in 2013. “Of six main dimensions—ranging from mobilizing resources after health incidents to involving stakeholders during crises—the nation as a whole improved except for one area: the ability to prevent health impacts from environmental or occupational hazards. That area is the only one showing decline from 2013”. Overall trends pointed to preparedness improvements except for those states in the Deep South and Mountain West States. Sadly, Alaska ranked lowest in the 10-point scale. “Challenges some states face include grappling with health policy uncertainties because of health insurance proposals, a situation that detracts attention and energy from other health security needs. Also, the analysis found that extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity in many parts of the country, putting extra burden on food and water systems and other infrastructure areas. Though federal aid helps reduce fiscal capacity differences across states, federal preparedness funding falls far short in eliminating the health security gaps that separate affluent from poorer states, according to the report.” Policy recommendations based off their findings focus on engaging private sector, including health insurance coverage as a health security strategy, developing emerging response funding, etc.

Hospital Preparedness Program Performance Measures 
Speaking of preparedness…the 2017-2022 Hospital Preparedness Program Performance Measures Implementation Guidance was released via the Office of the Assistance Secretary for Preparedness and Response. “ASPR’s Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) enables the health care delivery system to save lives during emergencies and disaster events that exceed the day-to-day capacity and capability of existing health and emergency response systems. HPP is the only source of federal funding for health care delivery system readiness, intended to improve patient outcomes, minimize the need for federal and supplemental state resources during emergencies, and enable rapid recovery. HPP prepares the health care delivery system to save lives through the development of health care coalitions (HCCs) that incentivize diverse and often competitive health care organizations (HCOs) with differing priorities and objectives to work together.” Within the latest guidance, you can find capabilities regarding healthcare and medical readiness, continuity of healthcare service delivery, and medical surge.

Meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
Don’t miss the upcoming meeting on the battle against the resistant bug! You can catch this in person or via webcast on May 3rd (9am-5pm ET) and May 4th (9am-3pm ET). “The Advisory Council will provide advice, information, and recommendations to the Secretary of HHS regarding programs and policies intended to support and evaluate the implementation of Executive Order 13676, including the National Strategy for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria and the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. The Advisory Council shall function solely for advisory purposes.” If you’re planning to attend, make sure to register ASAP as this will be a great venue to discuss new treatments, alternatives for antibiotics, and transmission prevention strategies.

Unexplained Deaths in Liberia 
The good news is that heath officials have ruled out Ebola in the nine unexplained deaths following a funeral-related event. The bad news is that we’re still not sure what caused the deaths. “The United Nations has issued a precaution to its staff in Liberia regarding an unusual number of deaths at the FJ Grante Hospital, where the patients died. The agency added that health workers in the area have been advised to don personal protective equipment, even when treating patients who aren’t suspected cases.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Sandia National Labs Honored in Fight Against Ebola– The New Mexico-based laboratories are being honored for their hardworking and dedication during the Ebola outbreak. “On April 11, Dmitri Kusnezov, chief scientist and senior adviser to the secretary of energy, visited Sandia to honor nearly 60 Sandians for work to mitigate the effects of the Ebola epidemic and the work of the Technology Convergence Working Group.” The Sandia lab teams worked to cut down detection times to help reduce the risk of transmission while rule-out cases were awaiting confirmation. Their teams also aided in modeling and analyzing Liberia’s national blood sample transport system.
  • Unpasteurized Cow’s Milk and Cheese Outbreaks – If you’re a fan of unpasteurized milk, you may want to reconsider. A recent study found that unpasteurized dairy products cause 840 times more illness and 45 times more hospitalizations than their pasteurized counterparts. “We estimated outbreak-related illnesses and hospitalizations caused by the consumption of cow’s milk and cheese contaminated with Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coliSalmonella spp., Listeria monocytogenes, and Campylobacter spp. using a model relying on publicly available outbreak data. In the United States, outbreaks associated with dairy consumption cause, on average, 760 illnesses/year and 22 hospitalizations/year, mostly from Salmonella spp. and Campylobacter spp. Unpasteurized milk, consumed by only 3.2% of the population, and cheese, consumed by only 1.6% of the population, caused 96% of illnesses caused by contaminated dairy products.”

Pandora Report 4.21.2017

If you missed the Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge webinar last week, you can catch the recording here! Ongoing reports are highlighting that the Trump administration is unprepared for a global pandemic.

How Prepared Is The U.S. For Disease Threats?
Scientific American sat down with former CDC director Tom Frieden to discuss his experiences and what he worries may be on the horizon for public health threats. When asked about immediate health issues facing the current administration, Frieden highlights the ongoing Zika outbreak, antibiotic resistance, emerging infections, and the ever-present risk of influenza. In terms of CDC preparedness, Frieden says that, “It’s a big problem that when there is an emerging threat, we are not able to surge or work as rapidly as we should, as a result of a lack of additional funding and legislative authority. When there is an earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t have to go to Congress and say, ‘Will you give us money for this?’ But the CDC does. We have made a really good start working with 70 countries to strengthen lab systems, rapid-response and field-monitoring systems, but it is going to take a while before countries around the world are adequately prepared. A blind spot anywhere puts any of us at risk.”

Bill Gates Warns of Increased Bioterrorism Threat
The entrepreneur and philanthropist has been drawing increasing attention to the threat of infectious diseases, especially in regards to bioterrorism. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London (RUSI), Gates stated that, “bioterrorism is a much larger risk than a pandemic.” “All these advances in biology have made it far easier for a terrorist to recreate smallpox, which is a highly fatal pathogen, where there is essentially no immunity remaining at this point.” He goes further to point out the unique aspects of infectious disease threats that make them more deadly than nuclear bombs. “When you are thinking about things that could cause in excess of 10 million deaths, even something tragic like a nuclear weapons incident wouldn’t get to that level. So the greatest risk is from a natural epidemic or an intentionally caused infection bioterrorism events. Whether the next epidemic is unleashed by a quirk of nature or the hand of terrorist, scientists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. So the world does need to think about this.” Gates pointed to the insufficient public health response in countries that are likely to experience emerging infections and the importance of foreign aid. Moreover, he highlights two major advancements since the 1918 pandemic – globalization and genetic editing. The DIY biohacker and potential for a single infectious person to travel around the globe in a day are all making the threat of a pandemic that much more real. Lastly, Gates emphasizes that the stability of a country and that of its health systems are vital in that an outbreak is more likely to become an epidemic in a country where both qualities are poor.

Biopreparedness – Developing Vaccines For An Eradicated Disease
Speaking of smallpox and the risk of bioterrorism…Filippa Lentzos is pointing to the smallpox vial discovery at the NIH and that despite the eradication of the disease, a biotech company, Bavarian Nordic, is still working to develop a vaccine. She notes that “possible avenues for the re-emergence of smallpox, including the impact of developments in synthetic biology, and it gives an inside view on the biodefence industry and its unusual business model.” Lentzos is an expert in the field of biodefense and focuses her work on the governance of emerging technologies like synthetic biology.

A Scope, A Resistant Germ, and Missing Data Walk into a Bar
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking into the rise of the resistant bug and how medical equipment can pose increased risks for such infections. In 2015 several outbreaks occurred in patients following a procedure with a type of duodenoscopes made by Olympus. These scopes are “flexible medical devices that look like thin tubes and are inserted through the mouth, throat, and stomach into the small intestine—are reusable $40,000 medical devices that contain many working parts, including a camera, and are used for more than half a million procedures a year. The successful dynamics of the device also make it challenging to clean and disinfect. Just over two years ago, cases of drug-resistant infections started popping up in patients who had recently had the procedure that commonly uses duodenoscopes (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography or ERCP).” Following an outbreak of the highly resistant carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) at UCLA Medical Center, the scopes were recalled and interim cleaning guidance was provided by the CDC. Unfortunately, there is growing concern that the issues with the scope weren’t fully remedied. “In fact, Sen. Murray highlighted a recent outbreak in Europe (location not disclosed within the US Food and Drug Administration report) tied to the modified scopes. Although, modifications made by Olympus were done in response to the previous outbreaks and meant to reduce the risk of bacteria getting into the device’s channels and preventing proper cleaning and disinfection, Sen. Murray is now questioning Olympus regarding the devices and the role they played in this most recent outbreak. The senator is specifically asking for data proving that the repaired scopes could be properly disinfected between patient use.” As the threat of antibiotic resistance rises, the role of medical devices and manufacturer accountability will become increasingly relevant.

CRISPR Breakthrough Gives Hope for Disease Diagnostics 
CRISPR technology news often comes with a bit of controversy, but research recently published in Science is pointing to exciting new diagnostic capabilities. Feng Zhang and eighteen colleagues “turned this system into an inexpensive, reliable diagnostic tool for detecting nucleic acids — molecules present in an organism’s genetic code — from disease-causing pathogens. The new tool could be widely applied to detect not only viral and bacterial diseases but also potentially for finding cancer-causing mutations.” If you’re a fan of 221b Baker Street, you’ll be pleased to hear that the new tool is named SHERLOCK – Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing. The SHERLOCK tool utilizes the viral-recognition within CRISPR to detect genetic pathogen markers in some one’s urine, blood, saliva, or other body fluids. “They report that their technique is highly portable and could cost as little as 61 cents per test in the field. Such a process would be extremely useful in remote places without reliable electricity or easy access to a modern diagnostic laboratory.” This new finding has amazing potential for public health and rapid disease detection in rural areas to improve time to treatment, isolation, and prevention efforts.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity May 2017 Meeting
Don’t miss this May 11th meeting (2-4:30pm EST)! Items include presentations and discussions regarding: (1) the Blue Ribbon Panel draft report on the 2014 variola virus incident on the NIH Bethesda campus; (2) stakeholder engagement on implementation of the U.S. Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC); and (3) other business of the Board.  A detailed agenda and other meeting material will be posted on this website as they become available. This meeting will be a conference call only; there will be no in-person meeting. To join the call as a member of the public, please use the dial-in information below. The toll-free teleconference line will be open to the public at1:30 P.M. to allow time for operator-assisted check-in.  Members of the public planning to participate in the teleconference may also pre-register online via the link provided below or by calling Palladian Partners, Inc. (Contact: Carly Sullivan at 301-318-0841).  Pre-registration will close at 12:00 p.m. Eastern on May 8, 2017. Make sure to check the website for the public conference line and passcode.

Synthetic Bioterrorism – US Developing Medical Response 
Preparedness efforts against biological threats are now expanding to include synthetic biological threats. “Dr. Arthur T. Hopkins, acting assistant secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), testified that…’emerging infectious diseases, synthetic biology and engineered diseases…[is] an area where we are focusing and we have to continue to focus.’ To counter such current and emerging threats, DOD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program is developing new strategies to more rapidly respond, especially in the area of medical countermeasures, Hopkins said.” He noted that the DoD has commissioned the National Academy of Science to lead a study on the potential for such an event and its impact on national security.

Chemical Reaction: North Korea’s Chemical Weapons Are A Big Threat- And China Needs to Help Deal With Them
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is looking at the “role that China could play with respect to North Korea, in particular dissuading the use of chemical weapons. While tensions are high, the use of chemical weapons could be the “spark that could bring the region to war.” Gerstein notes that while the focus in Syria is internal, if Kim Jong Un used chemical weapons it would most likely be external- against South Korea or Japan (or even the U.S.). It is vital that there be a clear-cut response to the use of chemical weapons and action from China may just be the clear message that’s needed. “To prevent the unthinkable from occurring, the North Koreans must be dissuaded from using chemical weapons. They must be convinced that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that cannot be crossed. China should consider being the messenger for this message. China also should consider taking an active, forward-looking approach to prevent the use of chemical weapons by North Korea. When Syria deployed chemical weapons, there was speculation that Russia may have been complicit or at least aware of plans to conduct the attack.” Or perhaps some friendly games of volleyball are in order?

Wildlife Disease Biologists – An Unstoppable Force 
Neither rain nor sleet could keep APHIS wildlife disease biologists out of the field collecting samples. Animal diseases are a major source for infections coming down the pipeline for humans (i.e. spillover events) and these researchers are on the front lines trying to make sure we have a heads up. APHIS’ Wildlife Services (WS) program includes 36 wildlife disease biologists who work diligently to collect samples from wild birds for avian influenza testing (among other things). “‘By monitoring the avian influenza strains circulating in wild birds, WS and its partners are able to provide an early warning system to America’s poultry producers,’ states Dr. Tom DeLiberto, Assistant Director of WS’ National Wildlife Research Center. ‘Our experts focus their sampling on waterfowl species and locations where we are most likely to detect avian influenza. This ensures our efforts are as efficient and informative as possible’.” I think we can all appreciate the brave few who venture into frigid waters to help trap and test wild birds to help detect the spread of infectious diseases.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Trends in Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction – Writers frequently use an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic backdrop for fictional stories. The Doomsday Clock is a visual representation of the general mood and often represents the fear and unease in the environment. Whether it be an environmental event or a killer virus, the end of humanity has been a frequent topic for many writers. “Often it is a fear of a naturally-evolving virus, as in Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014). Yet, with the advent of new biotechnologies, authors also considered the impact a malignant engineered virus would have on humanity, as seen in Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy (2003 onwards) and Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy (2010 onwards).”
  • Ebola Theme Issue – The Royal Society – Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B is focusing their latest biological sciences journal on the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In this edition, you can find opinion pieces discussing the contribution of engineering and social sciences, old lessons on new epidemics, and a wealth of information on outbreak evaluation and notes from the field.