Welcome to 2020! We’re excited to start the new year with a short newsletter to keep you up to date on all things biodefense.
Alcatraz of Viruses
The Island of Riems in the Baltic Sea, once inhabited by the Nazis for biological weapon research, is now a heavily restricted site for German scientists to develop vaccines against viruses. The island hosts the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, Germany’s National Institute for Animal Health, which is a hub for the study of pathogens like rabies, African swine fever, and Ebola, and maintains the primary objective of preparing for future infectious disease outbreaks. The deputy head of the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, Franz Conraths, dubbed the island to be the “Alcatraz of Viruses.” Given its nickname-sake, the island is subject to stringent security protocols in order to safely contain all pathogenic samples and protect researchers and visitors. Since 2008, the German government has invested over $300 million in the Institute for infrastructural upgrades; there are now 89 laboratories and 163 stables for the research animals within the facility. Animal welfare is an important pillar for the Institute, hence their efforts to minimize animal research and minimizing the suffering of any tested animal. That said, the potential for their vaccine research to save millions of human and animal lives, protect the livelihoods of farmers, and alleviate global hunger, according to the head of the diagnostics department, outweighs the desire to eliminate animal testing.
NAS Workshop Proceedings: Improving International Resilience and Response to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Events
In October 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) coordinated an international, science-based workshop in Tokyo regarding resilience to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) events. The CBRN resilience workshop, in collaboration with Niigata University and the Japan National Research Institute for Earth Sciences and Disaster Resilience (NIED), aimed to “increase understanding of the communication, interoperability, and coordination issues that arise among various international stakeholders who are responsible for responding to CBRN event.” Partakers included experts and representatives from the government/public sector, private sector and industry, international organizations, academia, and NGOs. The event included a simulation as well as various plenaries covering topics such as lessons from past CBRN events and strengthening collaborative capacity. The workshop included a Resilience Exercise that used an explosion created by the collision of a large Liquid Natural Gas Tanker into a chemical depot on the shore near the Tokyo Motor Show as its base scenario. The explosion was compounded when the adjacent industrial complex ignited and debris oil was launched into Tokyo Bay. The flames and smoke of the chemical fire travelled inland toward Tokyo, home to about 14 million people, and smoke is further spreading toward the Tokyo Big Sight complex. Additional simulation components include the challenges of responding to a cascading CBRN event and the difficulty stimulating multi-party discussion for rapid response and international cooperation. Examples of some of the issues recognized during the workshop include delayed information sharing, incongruent definitions and terminologies across organizations, and the lack of defined roles and responsibilities for response.
Antimicrobial Resistance – A New Plan For A New Year?
Since the CDC announced their latest report and findings that each year 2.8 million Americans are infected with a drug-resistant organism, 35,000 of whom later die, we can safely say we’ve got a big problem. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) isn’t new though and the problem has been boiling up for decades however it seems that we’re starting to truly take it seriously. From rivers to traveling patients, it’s hard to escape resistant microbes. New efforts to invigorate surveillance/reporting, as well as stewardship initiatives and even addressing the drying pipeline of antibiotics, are all tactics that have been employed. In fact, this latest piece is the one that is perhaps the most damning – big pharma has all but fled the antibiotic R&D field and those start-ups courageous enough to try, are increasingly falling upon financial ruin. “Antibiotic start-ups like Achaogen and Aradigm have gone belly up in recent months, pharmaceutical behemoths like Novartis and Allergan have abandoned the sector and many of the remaining American antibiotic companies are teetering toward insolvency.” Sadly, this is only adding to the issue as it paints a grim image for those considering any investment in antibiotic R&D. Many are calling for government intervention to help address the push-pull dynamics of antibiotic development – noting that “If this doesn’t get fixed in the next six to 12 months, the last of the Mohicans will go broke and investors won’t return to the market for another decade or two,” said Chen Yu, a health care venture capitalist who has invested in the field. Another component though is the heavy push on stewardship and prescribing practices, which often makes hospitals and providers weary against using new antimicrobials. Adding to this sentiment, Dr. Rick Bright, BARDA Director and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, wrote on the need for better diagnostics for resistant infections. Dr. Bright shares his own experiences with a simple-turned-complex infection that required several antibiotics. From delays in diagnostics/treatment, to being on six antibiotics, this is a great personal account of what it’s like to have a resistant infection and the inherent limits of existing diagnostics. “The gardening incident gave me personal insight into the many challenges that confront medical professionals and every patient fighting a resistant infection. I am more committed than ever to overcoming this challenge, to identifying solutions, and to partnering with private sector to get ahead of antimicrobial resistant infections and protect our nation’s health security. I hope more potential industry partners will look closely at the problem and join me by partnering through programs like CARB-X, BARDA DRIVe and other BARDA-supported initiatives.”
Happy Friday fellow health security friends! We will be on holiday next week, but rest assured, your favorite source for all things biodefense will be back right after the New Year. We hope you have a lovely holiday – remember, wash your hands!
Speeding Ahead- the Pace of Biotech Democratization
Gryphon Scientific researchers recent discussed in Nature the fast pace of biotech development and the challenges of establishing regulatory oversight and policies. They underscored that to set about such a course would require considerable dedication and resources – both in terms of financial and personnel. But what really does the investment into democratizing biotech look like? In this novel approach, researchers analyzed the exact pace of biotech and what those timeframes for democratization of novel techs look like. “Our assessment provides evidence that novel technologies currently can complete this transition in less than 4.5 years from their discovery and may do so in less than 3.5 years by the end of the next decade.” Investigating 22 biotechnologies, they highlighted milestones that point to the spread of such tech from lab to easily accessible. This is a highly enlightening article and includes data on reproduction of biotechnology trends and regression analysis that helps predict current and future trends in both the development and spread of these biotechnologies. “These results underpin the necessity for constant review of the security implications of the democratization of powerful biotechnologies, and the proactive development of policies, oversight and guidance systems, to ensure that they are leveraged responsibly by those outside the established scientific community.” You can find the article here.
GMU Class on Medical Countermeasures
Spring semester is fast approaching and if you’re a GMU biodefense student, don’t miss out on the chance to take BIOD766: Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics with Dr. Robert House. The course analyzes the process of developing new medical countermeasures against biological weapons and emerging infectious diseases such as SARS and pandemic influenza. Special attention is paid to the scientific, technical, political, regulatory, and economic obstacles to developing new vaccines and therapeutics. Examines the causes and potential solutions of public and private sector failures. Dr. House is an expert in the field of MCMs and worked for more than 11 years at DynPort Vaccine Company in Frederick, Md., where he held the positions of VP of Science and Technology, Chief Scientific Officer and President. During this time he developed extensive experience in winning and managing large USG-funded programs for developing medical countermeasures. He previously worked at Covance Laboratories in Madison, Wis. and IIT Research Institute in Chicago, Ill., where he managed highly successful programs in immunotoxicology assessment. Don’t miss out on your chance to take this engaging class with one of the top minds in the field.
Smallpox Virus Stocks
9 December 1979 was the historic day on which smallpox was confirmed as eradicated. A few months later, the World Health Assembly (WHA) officially declared that “the world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox.” Yet, four decades later, two nations maintain a stockpile of the variola virus that causes smallpox: The United States and the Russian Federation. Smallpox is an infectious and disfiguring viral disease that plagued humans for thousands of years, so its eradication is, arguably, one of the greatest achievements of our species and the greatest achievement of modern medicine. These specimens are stored under high-security conditions at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) laboratory in Atlanta and at Russia’s State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (Vector) in Novosibirsk, a town in Siberian. The decision to maintain a store of the virus is based on the completion of five fundamental goals goals: (1) further research in case of disease reemerge, (2) vaccine improvement, (3)creation of new treatments, (4) development of antivirals, and (5) improvements in diagnostics methods. According to guidance by the WHO, the stocks will be maintained until those goals are realized; however, disagreement exists on the status of their completion. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new drug for smallpox treatment; however, the WHO’s Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research concluded that another antiviral treatment is needed. Arguments against keeping these stockpiles include the risk of variola being used as a weapon of bioterrorism and the risk that an accident could spur an accidental release of the pathogen. Additionally, there exist fears of undeclared stocks and the intentions with those potential samples. David Relman, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, asserts that the arguments in favor of maintaining the stockpiles outweighs those of destroying them. Another expert, Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines, and Virotherapy at Arizona State University, who remains on the fence about retaining or destroying stockpiles, states “A great deal has been achieved on the original research goals, but the argument that more remains to be done is hard to refute…It is important to have these debates about whether mankind should deliberately eliminate feared pathogens, or study them.” As the debate continues, the future of the US and Russian variola virus stockpiles remains to be seen.
Tis the season of giving and here are some great books to buy as a gift for others or keep for yourself. Mark Kortepeter’s Inside the Hot Zone: A Soldier on the Front Lines of Biological Warfare is being released soon – “During Kortepeter’s seven and a half years in leadership at USAMRIID, the United States experienced some of the most serious threats in modern germ warfare, including the specter of biological weapons during the Iraq War, the anthrax letters sent after 9/11, and a little-known crisis involving a presumed botulism attack on the president of the United States. Inside the Hot Zone is a shocking, frightening eye-opener as Kortepeter describes in gripping detail how he and his USAMRIID colleagues navigated threats related to anthrax, botulism, smallpox, Lassa, and Ebola.” Nathan Myers’ Pandemics and Polarization – Implications of Partisan Budgeting for Responding to Public Health Emergencies is also out, “Partisan divisions over policy in the U.S. Congress and rising disease threats put millions of Americans at risk. The Zika public health emergency is used to illustrate the key functions of coordination, providing countermeasures, and engaging in disease surveillance which the government must engage in during such an emergency. The author looks at how the standoff over Zika funding negatively affected the government’s response within federal agencies, as well as at the state and local level. Also examined in the book are serious threats still on the horizon that are expected to require strong government action in the future. Possible policies to avoid future gridlock are considered.”
GMU Biodefense December Graduates
We’re so excited to celebrate the graduation of several students from the Schar School biodefense graduate and certificate programs. PhD graduates include Margaret D.M. Barber (Dissertation Title: Call of Duty? How Insurgent Organizations Choose to Provide Social Services) and Katherine V. Paris (Dissertation Title: An Assessment of the Risk of Misuse of Genome Editing Technologies). Congrats to Rubi Izquierdo on graduating with a MS in biodefense. We’re also happy to announce several students who completed their graduate certificates in Biodefense: Global Health Security and Terrorism and Homeland Security – Kelly Choic, Dianna Del Valle, Hiwot Yohannes, Joe Bob Merriman, and Gula Tang. Congrats! Read more about our biodefense graduate programs here.
Chinese Gangs Spreading African Swine Fever
African Swine Fever (ASF) is a viral infectious disease that is fatal for pigs, domestic and wild, and it is obliterating the Chinese pork industry, which is the largest in the world. To put the severity into perspective, certain estimates indicate that the number of pigs in China that have died from ASF exceeds the number of pigs in the entire US pork industry. Recent reports by PRC state media claim that Chinese criminals are intentionally propagating the ASF outbreak in an effort to drive down domestic pork prices so that these criminals can smuggle the meat and sell it as safe product. These criminal efforts range from spreading rumors about ASF to using drones that drop fomites into healthy farms. ASF-related losses plummeted China’s herd stock by over 40% to date, both as a result of infections and mass culling to contain the disease. Shortages in pork products, a cultural and nutritional protein staple in China, surged prices to over double the pre-outbreak prices. The price drops provided opportunities for the criminals to exploit the situation. Gang members traffic pigs or meat, regardless of its health and safety, to regions with especially high prices and sell it. The profit margin can reach 1,000 yuan (US$143) per pig for smugglers, and estimates fear a further rise of ¥65-75 per kilogram in the near future. Further price surges are expected as the Lunar New Year approaches, further incentivizing criminal meddling in China’s already suffering pork industry.
Investigations into Chinese Lab Outbreaks
A painful truth: biosafety failures do occur…it’s the name of the game when working with dangerous pathogens. While we have the proper practices and safety processes to avoid exposures, human mistakes do happen. Currently, two Chinese agriculture research facilities are assessing how over 100 staff and students were not only exposed, but ultimately infected with Brucella. One institute, the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute reported 96 asymptomatic infections. Despite their forthcomings about the numbers, the institute has not released where the source of the exposure occurred. In the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, it was reported last week that 13 students were infected with the zoonotic disease. “The outbreak at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute was first uncovered in November when some students in the institute‘s foot and mouth disease research unit noticed that large numbers of their lab mice were infertile, according to The Beijing News. The mice tested positive for Brucella, as did four students. The institute then tested 317 people, and found that 96 had been infected.” Lab-associated infections with Brucella do occur frequently, as it is the most commonly reported bacterial infection in labs and the ease of aerosol transmission facilitates such cases. Sadly, this is not the first exposure and it will likely not be last, but it does give insight into the risks of such work and a clear need for heightened biosafety measures. You can read more here.
Mobile Lab Created Out of Ebola Frustrations
Often the greatest developments are created out of sheer frustration during situations – vaccines, biocontainment units, etc. In this case, a lab-on-wheels was developed to help combat outbreaks in countries that have limited laboratory resources. “A prototype was recently displayed at the annual American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) conference. The company that developed it, Greensboro, North Carolina–based Integrum Scientific, says the first vehicle may soon be tested in Uganda. Integrum Scientific’s lab units can be configured to provide on-site diagnostic capabilities for known pathogens or experimental diagnostics. This configuration also supports standard care during an outbreak or attack, providing routine chemistry, hematology, and blood products.” Check out the mobile lab here.
A Deep-Dive Into Samoa’s Measles Outbreak
Recent estimates put the outbreak on the small island at over 5267 cases with 73 associated deaths. Vaccination rates had dropped dramatically over the years, and were recently estimated at 31% prior to response efforts. The herd immunity threshold for measles is 93-95%, which means that the low rates of vaccination in Samoa were essentially a ticking time bomb. Thankfully, response efforts have gotten the islands vaccination rate up to 93%, which will hopefully slow the deadly outbreak. Currently, the island continues to be in a state of emergency, which was first declared in mid-November. The government has barred children 0-14 years of age from attending public gatherings and requires children of that age to also show proof of immunization prior to boarding inter-island ferries. “The government has also closed its offices (with the exception of public utilities) so that civil servants can aid in the response efforts. Response efforts have continued to pour in to help halt this devastating outbreak. The population of Samoa is just over 196,000 individuals and when there are more than 5000 cases, more than 2.6% of the population have been infected.” Read more here.
When A Lab Explosion Ruins Your Day – Stories of Vector
A few months back, an explosion at the Russian laboratory complex known as the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology (Vector), raised a red flag regarding the stockpiling of smallpox and realistically, biosafety/biosecurity. Not surprisingly, stories about where the explosion occurred, what was kept in that area, and all manner of horror movie-esque plots began to swirl. Gwyn Winfield though, has broken down the rumors, the realities, and the challenges of understanding what exactly happened when well, there’s not a lot of trust in Russian explanations. Gwyn takes care to highlight how fast speculation occurred though, and that while it may not have been easy to get answers right away, the theatrics of lab-to-bioweapon speculation does little good. Noting that the blast occurred on the 5th floor of building one – “The floor had been under repair since July, and since there was no research in progress there, and the area was not secure, there were no pathogens on that floor to be released.” As Winfield notes, the lack of information makes things challenging and while experts might make guesses, “the individuals that need to take the most lessons from this are exercise planners, globally but especially in Russia”. You can read the full article here.
The Microbiome and AMR
Microbiota bear effects on a variety of chronic diseases such as gastrointestinal, autoimmune, respiratory, neurological, and cardiovascular conditions; however, the microbiome also plays a role with infectious diseases. The growing body of research on the importance of the microbiome to human health links natural flora and the immune system, which are in a largely symbiotic relationship. More specifically, a healthy microbiome aids in the induction, training, and function of the immune system and, in return, the immune system maintains a happy balance between natural flora and the host human. Unfortunately, that relationship is under great threat as the persistent overuse of antibiotics destroys not only the invasive bacteria but also the healthy bacteria that help maintain immune function. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is ability of microbes – bacteria, viruses, fungi – to circumvent the mediating effects of antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal therapeutics. The overuse of antibiotics enables strong, resistant bacteria to survive in the host, so your gut ultimately populates with mostly resistant bacteria, even bacteria resistant to multiple drugs. Disruptions to the microbiome by antibiotic use adds to the spread and strength of antimicrobial resistance in harmful microbes. Our overreliance on the prescription of antibiotics to alleviate bacterial infections, even minor ones that the immune system may be able to overcome, and a lack of medication compliance resulting in misuse are chipping away at the clinical efficacy of these drugs. This is of considerable concern as microbes become cleverer and less susceptible to multiple medications, resulting in infections that are less and less treatable. According to the CDC, there are over 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections in the US each year and more than 35,000 people die from those infections. The critical task at hand is to develop alternative therapeutics that can treat infections while, at least, not contributing to further microbial resistance. As a mediator for colonization resistance and a symbiote of the immune system, the microbiome possesses potential as a therapeutic gateway to subvert resistance.
Biodosimetry Biomarkers and Serum Proteomic Signatures – GMU Biodefense Alum Tackles It All
GMU Biodefense doctoral student Mary Sproull is our resident guru on radiation – she’s a biologist in the Radiation Oncology Branch of the National Cancer Institute at NIH. Here are just two more reasons why Sproull is the go-to person for things like biodosimetry: she has two new publications that you’ll want to check out. The first, Comparisons of Proteomic Biodosimetry Biomarkets Across Five Different Murine Strains (try saying that five times fast) “seeks to compare the expression levels of five previously established proteomic biodosimetry biomarkers of radiation exposure, i.e., Flt3 ligand (FL), matrix metalloproteinase 9 (MMP9), serum amyloid A (SAA), pentraxin 3 (PTX3) and fibrinogen (FGB), across multiple murine strains and to test a multivariate dose prediction model based on a single C57BL6 strain against other murine strains.” Make sure to read this study as it discusses why these strain specific differences exist between expression levels. In the second article A Serum Proteomic Signature Predicting Survival in Patients with Glioblastoma, Sproull and the research team discuss this common brain tumor and how developing adequate biomarkers can help drive stronger patient outcomes. “Analysis of potentially relevant gene targets using The Cancer Genome Atlas database was done using the Glioblastoma Bio Discovery Portal (GBM-BioDP). A ten-biomarker subgroup of clinically relevant molecules was selected using a functional grouping analysis of the 40 plex genes with two genes selected from each group on the basis of degree of variance, lack of co-linearity with other biomarkers and clinical interest. A Multivariate Cox proportional hazard approach was used to analyze the relationship between overall survival (OS), gene expression, and resection status as covariates.”
Advancements in biotechnology pose potentials and perils as such technology becomes easier to access and use by a wide array of bio-users, not just formally trained scientists at professional laboratories. Gene editing, the alteration of an organism’s DNA, is one such biotechnology. A number of research and government entities are working diligently to maximize the potential benefits of gene editing while simultaneously minimizing its perils. Two such entities are the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The former is concerned with perils of synthetic biology while the latter is trying to unlock its potential. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine just released Strategies for Identifying and Addressing Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology: Proceedings of a Workshop in Brief, which summarizes the key discussions in an October 2018 meeting of experts and policymakers following a report for the DOD, Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology. The meeting’s purpose was to assemble federal personnel and the committee for the DOD report to consider the implications for actions DOD might take to quell potential misuse of synthetic biology capabilities. The committee evaluated 12 capabilities associated with (1) the synthesis and modification of pathogens; (2) production of chemicals, biochemicals, and toxins; and (3) modulation of human physiology. Each of the three capability areas were assigned relative levels of concern in terms of the usability of a technology, its usability as a weapon, its requirements of actors, and the potential for its mitigation. Additional workshop discussions included the potential of delivery mechanisms to serve as a barrier to the misuse of synthetic biology to produce weapons, the possibility to use synthetic biology to modify human physiology in new ways, and opportunities in computational biology to alleviate fears about synthetic biology capabilities through the prevention, detection, and attribution of its misuse. DARPA’s latest biotechnology project is the “Detect It with Gene Editing Technologies” program, more lovingly called DIGET. The primary objective of DIGET is “to provide comprehensive, specific, and trusted information about health threats to medical decision-makers within minutes, even in far-flung regions of the globe, to prevent the spread of disease, enable timely deployment of countermeasures, and improve the standard of care after diagnosis.” The DIGET dream deliverables are two devices: (1) a handheld and disposable point-of-need tool that simultaneously screens 10 or more pathogens or host biomarkers and (2) a multiplexed detection platform that simultaneously screens at least 1,000 clinical and environmental samples. DIGET seeks to incorporate gene editors and detectors biosurveillance as well as swift point-of-need diagnostics for endemic, emerging, and engineered pathogens. DARPA is hosting a Proposer’s Day meeting about the DIGET program on 11 December 2019.
Biological Threats to U.S. National Security – Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities
On Wednesday, Dr. Thomas V. Inglesby, Dr. Tara J. O’Toole, and Dr. Julie Gerberding gave testimony to this subcommittee within the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services. During the testimony, Dr. Inglesby “noted the growing threat of biological events that can emerge from nature, deliberate attack, or accidental release and reviewed current US government efforts in this arena. He presented recommendations to improve the government’s response to and preparedness for a major biological event.” You can read his full testimony here.
Revisiting the Biological Weapons Convention Protocol Lynn Klotz recently wrote on the gaps within the BWC in relation to compliance monitoring. Despite efforts to change this in the past, those pushing for a protocol to randomly select site visits as means to do quality checks, have been disappointed over the years as administrations cite that such additions would not truly verify or provide greater security. As Klotz underscores – this sentiment fundamentally misses the goal of the protocol…which is transparency. “But recent events serve to underscore that a protocol to the convention to address the treaty’s shortcomings is an idea that should be revisited. Unfounded Russian allegations about biological weapons development in former Soviet countries are threatening the effectiveness of the convention. This concern along with strong arguments for the high importance of transparency in international treaties calls for revisiting the protocol, which had provisions for both transparency and for dealing with allegations like Russia’s.” Citing the 2019 meeting in which Russia alleged that several former Soviet states had active bioweapons programs, distrust soon grew and disruption rippled throughout the BWC. Klotz emphasizes that this exact situation is a prime reason why a protocol should be revisited – to help build confidence through increasing transparency. Not a free-for-all, but rather through managed-access rules, such as random visits by inspection teams would help verify the absence of bioweapons. Klotz takes care to discuss why protocol efforts were abandoned in 2001 and the role of transparency in multilateral arms control regimes, which you can read more about here.
GMU Hosts Health Security Career Panel
Last week, adjunct professor Ashley Grant, a lead biotechnologist at the MITRE Corporation, held a career panel at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University as part of her course on Global Health Security Policy. To highlight the different paths that graduate students in the Biodefense program can take in the health security field, Professor Grant convened a diverse panel of health security practitioners to discuss their jobs and the skills they have needed to succeed. The panel included professionals from a variety of different backgrounds ranging from local health providers to Federal employees. Students in the Schar School’s Biodefense Graduate Program were able to ask the panelists about the challenges of moving from a technical career path into science policy and opportunities for internships. The panel included Stuart Evenhaugen of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR)’s Strategy Division in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); Syra Madad, the Senior Director of System-Wide Special Pathogens Program at NYC Health + Hospitals; Halley Smith, a program lead with the U.S. Department of State Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, on detail from Sandia National Laboratories Global Chemical and Biological Security Program; Sapana Vora, the Deputy Team Chief for the U.S. Department of State’s Biosecurity Engagement Program (BEP) and Iraq Program in the Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR); and Malaya Fletcher, a Lead Scientist at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, DC. The panel also included LTC Justin Hurt a CBRN/WMD Organizational Integration Officer in the Army G-3/5/7 Office who is currently enrolled in the Biodefense PhD program. As biodefense graduate student Michael Krug noted, “The panel was immensely valuable in providing detailed insights and experiences into each of the panelist’s unique career paths. Emphasizing the demand for multi-disciplined approaches, as well as active communication to answer the many health security questions facing the world.”
A Little Bit of Plague and A Whole Lot of Panic
Plague – a word that still sparks fear after hundreds of years. Two cases were recently reported in China’s Inner Mongolia and of course, it involved a hunter and butchering/eating a wild animal. Diagnosed on November 5th, there were two additional cases reported in Beijing but from the Inner Mongolia area. “In both cases, the two patients from Inner Mongolia were quarantined at a facility in the capital after being diagnosed with pneumonic plague, health authorities said at the time. The Inner Mongolia health commission said it found no evidence so far to link the most recent case to the earlier two cases in Beijing.” As many have pointed out, the fear around this news has been more damaging to response efforts. Pneumonic plague is not as highly contagious as many news outlets have let on – only requiring Droplet + Standard isolation precautions and plague is easily treatable with antibiotics or prophylaxis.
Should We Be Celebrating CRISPR’s Anniversary?
It’s not many times an expert and innovator writes an article entitled “CRISPR’s unwanted anniversary” about a tech they were instrumental in developing. Dr. Jennifer Doudna recently wrote on those moments that can make or break a disruptive technology and in the case of CRISPR, it was last year, when Hong Kong-based scientist He Jiankui started the CRISPR baby drama. This was a pivotal moment in not only biotech, but also genome editing and its future. As Doudna notes, it’s comforting that scientists around the world reacted with conversations about the need for safeguards and transparency as CRISPR technology grows. In the face of this anniversary though, what has been done? Are there consequences for going against widely accepted norms? Doudna leaves us with the notion that “The ‘CRISPR babies’ saga should motivate active discussion and debate about human germline editing. With a new such study under consideration in Russia, appropriate regulation is urgently needed. Consequences for defying established restrictions should include, at a minimum, loss of funding and publication privileges. Ensuring responsible use of genome editing will enable CRISPR technology to improve the well-being of millions of people and fulfill its revolutionary potential.”
Hot Spots and Inadequate Monitoring for Bioterrorism – An American Story
Law professor Ana Santos Rutschman of Saint Louis University recently wrote on the usual and unusual biological suspects and how organisms like Salmonella can easily be overlooked as cases of bioterrorism (case in point the 1984 Oregon attack). Rutschman delves into preparedness efforts, like BioWatch, and how “there is a profound lack of coordination between federal agencies and local communities. When asked about what happens after notifications of a possible bioterrorism attack, Dr. Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, answered: “They go off but nobody knows what to do.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
Ongoing Outbreaks Trigger Laws to Limit Vaccine Exemptions – in the middle of measles outbreaks and pertussis cases occurring frequently, there is a desperate need for reducing vaccine exemptions that protect the anti-vaccine instead of the public’s health. “In 2018, the same research group published a study showing that, despite rising numbers of proposed antivaccine laws, pro-vaccine bills were more likely to become law. For the current study, the team looked at how health data might affect laws. The new findings come following a surge of measles activity in the United States this year, mostly fueled by a few large outbreaks that nearly cost the nation the measles elimination status that it achieved in 2000.”
Acinetobacter Baumannii Risk Factors– “After assessing 290 isolates, they found that 169 were endemic (96 of REP-1) and the most common site for isolation was the respiratory tract. In total, 109 patients (37%) had only Acinetobacter baumannii isolated, while some had up to 5 other organisms also identified. In those colonized, 69 were REP-1, and 64 with REP-2-5, the research team found that for those patients with REP-1, there was a 70% increase in carriage per increase in Schmid score (statistically significant), and a 50% increase in REP-2-5. Interestingly, prior colonization, longer lengths of stay, and immunosuppression did now have a statistically significant relationship with Acinetobacter baumannii colonization. “
We’re back and we’ve got quite a packed newsletter for you, so grab a beverage and get ready for the warm fuzzies of biodefense news.
Failing to PREDICT the Next Pandemic
A few weeks back, it was announced that funding for the PREDICT program would cease after $207 million was sunk into the initiative. GMU biodefense MS student Michael Krug has provided a deep-dive into what PREDICT worked towards, the debated success, and what its cancellation means. “However, even with the billions of dollars spent on ensuring a robust global biosurveillance network, it remains unknown if this network can predict what the next disease will be or where the next outbreak will occur.” Read more here.
An Antibiotic Eclipse – Scenario or Future?
GMU Biodefense doctoral alum and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu discusses the looming threat of antibiotic resistance and what a future with little to no treatment options would look like. From dwindling options for secondary infections related to influenza to declining surgeries, a future without antibiotics is dim. Popescu highlights what this looks like and how we’re quickly approaching it through both the drying antibiotic pipeline, but also limited surveillance, and challenges in changing both stewardship and infection control measures. The existential threat of antimicrobial resistance is very real and Popescu provides a scenario portraying the economic and human costs that antimicrobial resistance could impose on society 30 years from now, if it is not addressed soon. You can read the full article here. This is an especially relevant topic as the CDC just released new data, finding that annually, 2.8 million resistant infections and 35,000 related deaths occur in the United States. The CDC report notes that “However, deaths decreased by 18 percent since the 2013 report. This suggests that prevention efforts in hospitals are working. Yet the number of people facing antibiotic resistance in the United States is still too high.”
Event Recap – People, Pigs, Plants, and Planetary Pandemic Possibilities
If you happened to miss this November 5th event, no worries – GMU biodefense doctoral student Stevie Kiesel has provided an in-depth summary of the panel and discussions. Kiesel notes that the panel had insightful discussions on the need to understand local context and empower people and local public health communities. Local context is important for combating misinformation and getting a more accurate understanding of conditions on the ground. For example, the public health community must understand why a country may be disincentivized to report a disease outbreak in its early stages, when it is more easily controlled. Authoritarian governments who maintain tight messaging control may not want to admit to an active outbreak, or the economic drawbacks of announcing an outbreak may be so severe that leaders try to hide what’s going on. You can read more here.
Pandemic Policy: Time To Take A Page Out Of The Arms Control Book
Rebecca Katz is holding back no punches in her latest article on the broken policy approaches we have to international outbreak accountability, and frankly, it’s long overdue. Full disclosure, the first line is one of my favorites – “Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) was reduced to the equivalent of playground pleading: ‘But you promised!’” Katz highlights that in the face of countries failing to meet their obligations within the International Health Regulations (IHR), the WHO has little recourse to act and frankly, the path to accountability isn’t particularly clear. Ultimately, this problem could be solved though, if instead of rewriting the IHR, we modeled such treaties in the image of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) to help convene regular review conferences, discuss developments, and establish a regulatory response that could help drive accountability. “As the former US representative to the BWC, Charles Flowerree, wrote, treaties ‘cannot be left simply to fend for themselves’.”
The 5th Annual Pandemic Policy Summit at Texas A&M University
GMU Biodefense doctoral student Rachel-Paige Casey has provided an in-depth review of this important summit earlier this week. The objective of each Summit is to convene researchers, medical professionals, practitioners, private sector experts, NGO representatives, and political leaders to examine issues in pandemic preparedness and response, health security, and biodefense. The foci of this year’s Summit were the promises and perils of technology; BARDA leadership through its history and today; the effect of the anti-vaccine movement on pandemic preparedness and response; and ongoing outbreaks. Key discussions included the inadequacy of biopreparedness, worries regarding emerging biotechnologies, the modern vaccine hesitancy movement in the US, and the leadership and future of BARDA. You can read more about the summit here.
Catalyst- A Collaborate Biosecurity Summit
Don’t miss this February 22, 2020 event in San Francisco. “Catalyst will be a day of collaborative problem-solving for a broad range of people invested in the future of biotechnology, including synthetic biologists, policymakers, academics, and biohackers. We aim to catalyze a community of forward-looking individuals who will work together to engineer a future enhanced by biology and not endangered by it.The summit is free to attend for everyone accepted, and the application only takes a few minutes. We expect participants to come from diverse backgrounds, and welcome applicants who do not work professionally in biosecurity or biotechnology, who are early in their careers, and who are skeptical of how biosecurity discussions are typically framed. You can apply to attend here.
Firehosing – the Antivaxxer Strategy for the Transmission of Misinformation
Researchers Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews of Rand introduced this idea in 2016 and it’s proving to be pretty accurate for how anti-vaccine advocates are pushing out their opinions. Lucky Tran of The Guardian recently made the link between antivaxxers and the strategy of firehosing, which entails a massive flow of disinformation to overwhelm the audience. Just like it sounds, firehosing involves pushing out as many lies as frequently as possible to overwhelm people with information and making it nearly impossible for a logical response to combat that much disinformation. Tran stumbled across this application by seeing it on a television show with anti-vaccine influencers like Jay Gordon and he employed this strategy. “Anti-vax influencers such as Jay Gordon and Andrew Wakefield can keep repeating disproved claims – and in the case of Wakefield, doing so despite having had his medical license revoked – because their lying effectively debases reality and gains them followers and fame in the process.” The Rand study can be found here, which originally discussed firehosing in the context of Russian propaganda – as it has two “distinctive features: high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions. In the words of one observer, ‘[N]ew Russian propaganda entertains, confuses and overwhelms the audience’.” In the face of this relatively new tactic, there is a desperate need to remove false anti-vaccine content from social media and websites, and to put more pressure on media and news platforms to not provide support for such guests/conversations.
Crowd-Control Weapons – Are They Really Non-Lethal?
The term “non-lethal” or “less-than-lethal” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to crowd/riot-control weapons but just how non-lethal are these methods if they’re overused? Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) dug into this very issue because frankly, the use of these weapons is quite common and if they’re not used properly, or with the proper training, they can be devastating. Routine use or misuse of agents like tear gas can be deadly. The PHR conducted several investigations into their use by governments in Bahrain, Georgia, Kashmir, Turkey, and other countries and ultimately, what they found was some pretty startling misuse that can result in long-term health outcomes or even death. They put together a report and factsheets on specific “non-lethals” like acoustic weapons, rubber bullets, stun grenades, tear gas, and even water cannons. Within each factsheet, you can read about the history, how they work, device types, health effects, legality of use, and considerations and policy recommendations. Within the report, they reviewed usage of the weapons including things like people who suffered injuries or even death. As protests occur in China, the use of sonic weapons for crowd control are a very real reminder of the fine line we walk when using “non-lethals”.
Ebola Outbreak Updates and Vaccine Approval
This week, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved the V920 vaccine for Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) and it is already being administered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The ongoing EVD outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) started in August 2018 and has now exceeded 3,000 cases and 2,000 deaths. Since the 2014-15 outbreak in West Africa, advances in medical research produced new vaccination and therapeutic options. The V920 vaccine, developed and produced by Merck, was tested during the outbreak and showed a 97% efficacy rate and protects against the Zaire species, which is the strain responsible for the current outbreak. Johnson-and-Johnson is also beginning trials for its investigational EVD vaccine. Johnson-and-Johnson’s vaccine requires two doses, a barrier for patient compliance, and does not contain any antigens from the Ebola Bundibugyo species of the virus. Dr. Dan Lucey, professor of medicine at Georgetown University, wrote an editorial in the British Medical Journal about the new treatments for EVD. Dr. Lucey’s article reviews the findings and shortcomings of the four-arm randomized controlled trial (RCT) evaluating the efficacy of four potential EVD treatments: ZMapp, remdesivir, mAb114, and REGN-EB3. The RCT was discontinued when a strict statistical threshold for decreased mortality was reached REGN-EB3, a monoclonal antibody drug. The punchline for the efficacy of REGN-EB3 is that it is efficacious if administered during the early stage of the disease but not as the diseases progresses. Lucey recommends continuing research on EVD treatments that are successful at later stages of the diseases. Last but not least, the article applauds the rigor and difficulty of this randomized-controlled trial given it was conducted during the outbreak, making it a precedent-setting achievement.
GMU Biodefense Alum Changing the Face of Aerospace Physiology
We’re excited to share some of the achievements of one of GMU’s biodefense alum – Nereyda Sevilla, a May 2017 doctoral graduate in Biodefense, who is a civilian aerospace physiologist for the Defense Health Agency working as Acting Director of the Military Health System Clinical Investigations Program. She was also recently awarded the Air Force Medical Service Biomedical Specialist Civilian of the Year Award and the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal. If you’d like to see more of Nereyda’s hard work in action, check out the article she and the Spatiotemporal Epidemiologic Modeler (STEM) Team published in the Sept 2019 edition of Health Security, “STEM: An Open Source Tool for Disease Modeling.” (Volume 17, Number 4, 2019).
Phase 3 Trial of Modified Vaccinia Ankara Against Smallpox
In the last Pandora Report, we discussed the FDA approval of the new smallpox vaccine JYNNEOS, that was tested by USAMRIID. The vaccine, developed by biotechnology company Bavarian Nordic, will enter the market under the name JYNNEOS. You can read about the Phase 3 efficacy trial of JYNNEOS (a modified vaccinia Ankara, MVA) as a possible vaccine against smallpox in the latest New England Journal of Medicine. GMU Biodefense professor and director of the graduate program, Dr. Gregory Koblentz noted that one of the key findings of this Phase 3 efficacy trial is that even though the FDA has approved a two-dose regimen for MVA (since it is a non-replicating vaccine that uses an ), a single dose of MVA provided the same level of protection as a single dose of the replicating vaccinia vaccine ACAM 2000. “At day 14, the geometric mean titer of neutralizing antibodies induced by a single MVA vaccination (16.2) was equal to that induced by ACAM2000 (16.2), and the percentages of participants with seroconversion were similar (90.8% and 91.8%, respectively).” An additional advantage of MVA over ACAM 2000 is that the former can be administered by a subcutaneous injection while the latter requires scarification through the use of a bifurcated needle. The article concludes that “No safety concerns associated with the MVA vaccine were identified. Immune responses and attenuation of the major cutaneous reaction suggest that this MVA vaccine protected against variola infection.”
Key Global Health Positions – A Who’s Who in the U.S. Government
Have you ever wondered who helps support global health within the U.S. government? The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) has created a substantial list on not only the positions, but also who (if anyone) is occupying them. From the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of the Treasury, you’ll want to utilize this list to not only realize the scope of global health efforts within the USG, but also who you might need to get in touch with.
Stories You May Have Missed:
African Swine Fever Continues to Spread in Asia – Unfortunately, this outbreak isn’t showing signs of letting up… “The update shows new outbreaks in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, South Korea and on the Russian side of the Chinese border reported during the first week of November. Meanwhile, formal confirmation is awaited of ASF outbreaks in Indonesia. The FAO reports that more than 4,500 pigs are said to have died in 11 regencies/cities in North Sumatra. Dead pigs were also found in a river. FAO is liaising with the Indonesian authorities to ‘confirm the cause and explore needs’.”
What’s New with Novichoks?
Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Program, and Stefano Costanzi, a chemistry professor at American University, have published an article in The Nonproliferation Review about recent efforts to add Novichok nerve agents to the Chemical Weapons Convention’s list of Schedule 1 chemicals which are subject to the highest level of verification. Novichok become a household word after Russian agents used this new type of chemical weapon in the attempted assassination of Sergei and Julia Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom in March 2018, but there is still a good deal of public confusion about this family of nerve agents. In “Controlling Novichoks After Salisbury: Revising the Chemical Weapons Convention Schedules,” Koblentz and Costanzi clarify the identity of the nerve agent used in the Salisbury incident and evaluate two proposals regarding Novichoks that will be considered by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in November. This will be the first time the CWC’s Schedules have been revised since the treaty was opened for signature in 1993.
Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense Cyberbio Convergence Recap & The Germy Paradox
GMU Biodefense graduate student Georgia Ray has provided us with a detailed summary of this Commission event. We’d also like to show off her blog, Eukaryote Writes, which just so happens to delve into bioweapons and how close we’ve gotten to actual use. Georgia notes “I’ve heard a lot about ‘nuclear close calls.’ Stanislav Petrov was, at one point, one human and one uncomfortable decision away from initiating an all-out nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR. Then that happened several dozen more times. As described in Part 1, there were quite a few large state biological weapons programs after WWII. Was a similar situation unfolding there, behind the scenes like the nuclear near-misses?” In Georgia’s in-depth review of the Cyberbio Convergence event, she notes that “Tom Dashchle described biosecurity as a cause area with ‘broad support but few champions’ and agreed with the importance of creating career paths and pipelines into the field. (Great news for optimistic current Biodefense program students like myself.) The panel also agreed on the importance of education starting earlier, through STEM education and basic numeracy skills.”
1918/1919 Pandemic Museum Exhibit
Check out the Mutter Museum for a permanent exhibit on the influenza pandemic that hit Philadelphia, PA. “On Sept. 28, 1918, in the waning days of World War I, over 200,000 people gathered along Broad Street in Philadelphia for a parade meant to raise funds for the war effort. Among the patriotic throngs cheering for troops and floats was an invisible threat, which would be more dangerous to soldiers and civilians than any foreign enemy: the influenza virus. Officials went ahead with the parade despite the discouragement of the city health department about the ever-spreading virus. Within 72 hours of the parade, all the hospital beds in Philadelphia were full of flu patients. Within six weeks, more than 12,000 people died — a death every five minutes — and 20,000 had died within six months.” Named “Spit Spreads Death”, the exhibit opens on October 17th and will include interactive maps, artifacts, and images. Personal stories and accounts from historians brings this exhibit to life and drives home the message.
The Story of Technology
GMU biodefense doctoral alum Dr. Daniel Gerstein has the latest book for you to add to the reading list – The Story of Technology. “Technology–always a key driver of historical change–is transforming society as never before and at a far more rapid pace. This book takes the reader on a journey into what the author identifies as the central organizing construct for the future of civilization, the continued proliferation of technology. And he challenges us to consider how to think about technology to ensure that we humans, and not the products of our invention, remain in control of our destinies? In this informative and insightful examination, Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein–who brings vast operational, research, and academic experience to the subject–proposes a method for gaining a better understanding of how technology is likely to evolve in the future. He identifies the attributes that a future successful technology will seek to emulate and the pitfalls that a technology developer should try to avoid. The aim is to bring greater clarity to the impact of technology on individuals and society.” As General David Petraeus (former commander of the troop surge in Iraq, US Central Command, and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, and former director of the CIA), noted “Gerstein brings a unique perspective to The Story of Technology, as both a national security expert and a technologist. He examines, in a compelling fashion, the inextricable link between humans and technological advancement—and specifically how the latter has granted America security, economic, and societal advantages. But he also cautions, rightly, that many of the foundations on which these advantages have been built are eroding, threatening our interests and perhaps even redefining what it means to be human. This book is a must-read for our national leaders, technology specialists, and general readers alike.”
Starting with the focus on food safety that we saw within the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the FDA is launching a new tool to help ensure food safety and security occurs in the U.S. “The new Food Safety Dashboard launched today is part of FDA-TRACK, which is one tool the FDA uses to monitor certain FDA programs through key performance measures and projects, and regularly updates to ensure transparency to the public. While we expect that it will take several years to establish trends in the data, the initial data show that since 2016, the majority of companies inspected are in compliance with the new requirements of the preventive control rules. Additional FDA data also show that overall, industry has improved the time it takes to move from identifying a recall event to initiating a voluntary recall, from an average of four days in 2016 to approximately two days in 2019. In fact, comparing the FSMA data with our recall data shows the bigger picture, demonstrating the effectiveness of preventive measures as food recalls once again have reached a five-year low.”
Ebola Outbreak Update
As cases continue to be identified, albeit slowly (total is now 3,198), much focus has been on community resistance as new research is being released. Researchers “explored community resistance using focus group discussions and assessed the prevalence of resistant views using standardized questionnaires. Despite being generally cooperative and appreciative of the EVD response (led by the government of DRC with support from the international community), focus group participants provided eyewitness accounts of aggressive resistance to control efforts, consistent with recent media reports. Mistrust of EVD response teams was fueled by perceived inadequacies of the response effort (“herd medicine”), suspicion of mercenary motives, and violation of cultural burial mores (“makeshift plastic morgue”). Survey questionnaires found that the majority of respondents had compliant attitudes with respect to EVD control. Nonetheless, 78/630 (12%) respondents believed that EVD was fabricated and did not exist in the area, 482/630 (72%) were dissatisfied with or mistrustful of the EVD response, and 60/630 (9%) sympathized with perpetrators of overt hostility. Furthermore, 102/630 (15%) expressed non-compliant intentions in the case of EVD illness or death in a family member, including hiding from the health authorities, touching the body, or refusing to welcome an official burial team.” GMU Biodefense doctoral alum Saskia Popescu notes that “This research shed light on many of the suspected social dynamics that challenge response efforts but also delved into detail of what is needed to refine education and community outreach to truly be effective.” The U.K. has issued Tanzania travel warnings over a probable Ebola death. “The U.K. advised travelers to Tanzania to be aware of a ‘probable’ Ebola-related death in the East African nation, its Foreign and Commonwealth Office said Tuesday in a statement on its website. About 75,000 British nationals visit Tanzania every year, it said.”
“James F. McDonnell, a presidential appointee who over the last two years downsized the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to prevent terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, has agreed to resign. McDonnell’s resignation, department sources said, comes at the request of acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and would become effective at noon on Thursday, according to an email McDonnell sent his staff at 12:57 p.m. EDT on Wednesday. McDonnell’s seven-sentence memo did not provide a reason for his resignation, saying only it was ‘time for a new leadership team to take things to the next level’.”
“Perhaps one of the increasingly more apparent challenges of battling antimicrobial resistance is that of surveillance. This presentation by Michael Y. Lin, MD, MPH, of Rush University Medical Center, discussed the Illinois XDRO Registry. Created in 2013, this data source for XDROs focuses on carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), carbapenemase-producing Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Candida auris. The registry essentially allows health care facilities to access data to identify if patients being admitted have a history of colonization or infection with the aforementioned organisms. Data is submitted through hospitals and allows for alerts to be created, automatically, which are sent via email, page, or even a text to the hospital’s infection preventionist when the patient is admitted. Perhaps one of the increasingly more apparent challenges of battling antimicrobial resistance is that of surveillance. This presentation by Michael Y. Lin, MD, MPH, of Rush University Medical Center, discussed the Illinois XDRO Registry. Of those patients who were unknown to the facilities, 33% were not in contact precautions when the alert occurred, indicating that it is highly beneficial for reducing disease transmission.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
EEE Cases Continue in Michigan– “The threat from Eastern Equine Encephalitis is continuing to grow, especially in Michigan where state health officials now say 12 counties have confirmed having human or animal cases of EEE. The mosquito-borne virus usually infects only about seven people annually, but there have been 28 human cases reported so far this year across the country. Nine people have died.”
Welcome to your favorite source for biodefense nerdom! We hope your week was wonderful and you’re ready for a dose of health security news…
STEM: An Open Source Tool for Disease Modeling Have you been looking for a good epidemiological modeling software? Lucky for you, there’s STEM (Spatiotemporal Epidemiologic Modeler) and one of GMU’s very own biodefense doctoral alums, Nereyda Sevilla, was part of a team who published on how great this software is. “The Spatiotemporal Epidemiologic Modeler (STEM) is an open source software project supported by the Eclipse Foundation and used by a global community of researchers and public health officials working to track and, when possible, control outbreaks of infectious disease in human and animal populations. STEM is not a model or a tool designed for a specific disease; it is a flexible, modular framework supporting exchange and integration of community models, reusable plug-in components, and denominator data, available to researchers worldwide at www.eclipse.org/stem. A review of multiple projects illustrates its capabilities. STEM has been used to study variations in transmission of seasonal influenza in Israel by strains; evaluate social distancing measures taken to curb the H1N1 epidemic in Mexico City; study measles outbreaks in part of London and inform local policy on immunization; and gain insights into H7N9 avian influenza transmission in China. A multistrain dengue fever model explored the roles of the mosquito vector, cross-strain immunity, and antibody response in the frequency of dengue outbreaks. STEM has also been used to study the impact of variations in climate on malaria incidence. During the Ebola epidemic, a weekly conference call supported the global modeling community; subsequent work modeled the impact of behavioral change and tested disease reintroduction via animal reservoirs. Work in Germany tracked salmonella in pork from farm to fork; and a recent doctoral dissertation used the air travel feature to compare the potential threats posed by weaponizing infectious diseases. Current projects include work in Great Britain to evaluate control strategies for parasitic disease in sheep, and in Germany and Hungary, to validate the model and inform policy decisions for African swine fever. STEM Version 4.0.0, released in early 2019, includes tools used in these projects and updates technical aspects of the framework to ease its use and re-use.”
GMU Biodefense Fall Courses – Are You Registered?
The start of the Fall semester is just around the corner and if you’re a GMU biodefense graduate student, you’ve got a great menu of courses this term. There are still open spots in three courses – Global Health Security Policy taught by Ashley Grant (lead biotechnologist at the MITRE Corporation and previously the Senior Biological Scientist at the Government Accountability Office where she led government-wide technical performance audits focused on biosafety and biosecurity issues), Nonproliferation and Arms Control with Richard Cupitt (Senior Associate and Director of the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program at Stimson and prior to joining Stimson, he served as the Special Coordinator for U.N. Security Council resolution 1540 in the Office of Counterproliferation Initiatives at the U.S. State Department from 2012 through 2016.), and Biosurveillance with Andrew Kilianski (GMU professor and CINO for the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense JPEO-CBRND). These are just a handful of the classes but since there are a few spots left in each, now is your change to grab a seat!
GMU Biodefense MS and PhD Open Houses
Have you been considering investing in your education and career through a graduate degree in biodefense? Check out one of our Schar School Open Houses to get a feel for what the MS and PhD programs are like – you can chat with faculty, students, and learn more about the coursework and application process. The Master’s Open House will be at 6:30pm on Thursday, September 12th, and the PhD Open House will be at 7pm on Thursday, September 19th – both will be held at our Arlington campus in Van Metre Hall.
Ebola Outbreak – New Cases in Remote Areas
Late last week two remote regions in the DRC reported cases of Ebola virus disease – North and South Kivu, of which there hadn’t been cases for several incubation periods. Moreover, there were 27 cases reported over 3 days, bringing the outbreak closer to 2,900. “According to Reuters, DRC officials today confirmed a new case of Ebola in the remote, militia-controlled territory of Walikale, which is 95 miles northwest of Goma. Goma recorded four cases of Ebola in the last 6 weeks, and it is unclear if the case in Walikale had any contact with other Ebola patients. Reuters also reported the DRC confirmed a third case in South Kivu region, which reported its first case late last week. South Kivu is more than 430 miles from the outbreak’s epicenter. The first cases in South Kivu were a mother and child who were likely exposed in Beni. For almost a year, the DRC’s Ebola outbreak—the second largest in history—was contained to North Kivu and Ituri provinces along the country’s eastern border.” Unfortunately, there has also been transmission within healthcare facilities where patients are being treated, as infection control is increasingly a challenge. “The World Health Organization (WHO) said today the third case of Ebola identified in South Kivu province was in a patient who contracted the virus at a health center where other Ebola patients had been treated. The details on the nosocomial transmission emerged in the WHO’s latest situation report on the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In the past week, two more DRC regions far from outbreak hot spots have reported cases: South Kivu province and Pinga health zone, which is in North Kivu province. The WHO is still investigating how the case-patient in Pinga contracted the virus, but investigations have shown a mother and child in Mwenga, South Kivu, became infected after contact with a patient from Beni, the city most hard hit by the outbreak this summer. The two towns are about 473 miles apart, and South Kivu province shares a border with Rwanda and Burundi.” The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is helping via $23 million funding towards Merck’s Ebola vaccine production. The WHO also just released their list of eight lessons being applied to the DRC outbreak in a “Ebola then and now” segment. This list includes things like putting research at the heart of response and supporting survivors.
Syria: Anniversary of the Ghouta Chemical Weapons Attack
The U.S. State Department recently released a statement on the attack that occurred six years ago. “On August 21, 2013, the Assad regime launched a horrific chemical attack with the nerve agent sarin on the Ghouta district in Damascus – killing more than 1,400 Syrians, many of them children. On this solemn anniversary we remember the numerous lives lost to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. We reiterate our resolve to prevent further use of these deadly weapons and to hold the Assad regime accountable for these heinous crimes. The regime’s barbaric history of using chemical weapons against its own people cannot and will not be forgotten or tolerated. Assad and others in his regime who believe they can continue using chemical weapons with impunity are mistaken. The United States remains determined to hold the Assad regime accountable for these heinous acts and will continue to pursue all efforts alongside partner countries to ensure that those involved in chemical attacks face serious consequences. We will continue to leverage all of the tools available to us to prevent any future use. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anyone, under any circumstances.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
Packed Dorms Help MERS Transmission – Crowded living spaces and a high stress environment encouraged the transmission of a respiratory virus? Shocker… “New findings from an investigation into a large MERS-CoV cluster in a women’s dormitory revealed that crowded living conditions can lead to higher attack rates and hints that even healthcare workers who don’t directly care for patients can play a role in disease spread. In other developments, Saudi Arabia reported one new MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) case.”
NIH Study to Offer Genetic Counseling – “A US government study that aims to sequence the genomes of one million volunteers will partner with a genetic-counselling company to help participants understand their results. It will be the largest US government study to provide such a service. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is leading the project, called All of Us. And on 21 August, the agency announced the award of a US$4.6-million, 5-year grant to Color. The firm, in Burlingame, California, will counsel every study participant with a genetic variant that could have serious health implications — such as BRCA mutations associated with breast cancer — when they receive their results. Color will also develop educational materials for all study participants, and will offer telephone consultations to anyone who wishes to discuss their results with a counsellor.”
Pandemic Bonds – Designed to Fail Ebola
Is the World Bank’s funding approach to outbreak response hurting the DRC during their fight against Ebola? Olga Jones discusses how the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF) works and how it is ultimately helping investors but not health security. “The World Bank has said that the PEF is working as intended by offering the potential of ‘surge’ financing. Tragically, current triggers guarantee that payouts will be too little because they kick in only after outbreaks grow large. What’s more, fanfare around the PEF might have encouraged complacency that actually increased pandemic risk. Following false assurance that the World Bank had a solution, resources and attention could shift elsewhere. Rather than a lack of funds, vigilance and public-health capacity have been the main deficiencies. When governments and the World Bank are prepared to respond to infectious-disease threats, money flows within days. In the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak in Mexico, clinics could diagnose and report cases of disease to a central authority that both recognized the threat and reacted rapidly. The Mexican government requested $25.6 million from an existing World Bank-financed project for influenza response and received the funds the next day.” Jones notes that “the best investment of funds and attention is in ensuring adequate and stable financing for core public-health capacities. The PEF has failed. It should end early — and IDA funds should go to poor countries, not investors.”
Maximizing Opportunities for US Bioeconomy Growth and National Security with Biology
“Recently, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Gingko Bioworks convened key science, technical, academic, and industry experts for a meeting to solicit stakeholder input on specific ways that national policy can strengthen the US bioeconomy. Their recommendations are synthesized in a summary report, released today. Participants considered the benefits to the US if its bioeconomy were to be expanded; examined the current health of the US bioeconomy; discussed existing US government programs, policies, and initiatives related to the bioeconomy; and identified priorities for strengthening the US bioeconomy.”
DRC Ebola Outbreak Updates Beni and Madnima continue to be hotspots for the disease as they have accounted for 60% of recent cases, not to mention ongoing violence and unrest. “The security situation increased in volatility as a result of a surge in attacks from suspected ADF elements in Beni Health Zone and successive demonstrations,” the WHO said. “A recent attack in Mbau on the Beni/Oicha axis led to the deaths of six civilians, including a prominent civil society leader. EVD operations in the area were temporarily suspended with resumption pending improvement in the security situation.” On a more positive note, two outbreak treatment trials are showing promise. “An independent monitoring board meets periodically to review safety and efficacy data, and at their Aug 9 review recommended that the study be stopped and all future patients be randomized to receive either Regeneron, an antibody cocktail, or mAB 114, an antibody treatment developed from a human survivor of the virus. The other two drugs involved in the original trial were zMapp, which in an earlier trial didn’t show statistically significant efficacy but performed better than standard care alone, and Remdesivir, an antiviral drug. Earlier in the outbreak, an ethics committee in the DRC approved the four experimental treatments for compassionate use, and patients at all of the country’s Ebola treatment centers have had access to them, along with safety monitoring. However, the formal clinical trial has been under way since November at four treatment centers with the help of the Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA), the International Medical Corps (IMC), and Doctors Without Borders (MSF). At a media telebriefing today, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said Regeneron was the drug that crossed the efficacy threshold, triggering a pause in the study. And he said the group recommended proceeding with mAb 114, because there were only small differences in the data between the two drugs.”
Combatting Legionella and Carbon Footprints
Can we reduce the burden of Legionnaire’s disease while reducing our carbon footprint? GMU Biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu discusses a new strategy to preventing this water-based bug. “Typical health care control methods range from routine sampling to temperature control measures, like keeping cold water below 20°C and hot water at a minimum of 60°C. This has been the tried and true approach to Legionella control since there will always be some small level of the bacteria in water and the ultimate goal is to avoid growth that can cause human disease. Investigators in the United Kingdom recently published a study assessing a large health care facility’s approach to reducing Legionella risk through use of copper and silver ionization at hot water temperatures that were deliberately reduced to 43°C within a new water system. The research team collected 1589 water samples between September 2011 and June 2017, looking for not only Legionella bacteria, but also copper and silver ion levels, and total viable counts. To also assess the internal costs and function of this system, investigators collected data on energy consumption and water usage.”
2015 HPAI Outbreaks in the US – Insight Into Airborne Transmission
“The unprecedented 2015 outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N2 in the U.S. devastated its poultry industry and resulted in over $3 billion economic impacts. Today HPAI continues eroding poultry operations and disrupting animal protein supply chains around the world. Anecdotal evidence in 2015 suggested that in some cases the AI virus was aerially introduced into poultry houses, as abnormal bird mortality started near air inlets of the infected houses. This study modeled air movement trajectories and virus concentrations that were used to assess the probability or risk of airborne transmission for the 77 HPAI cases in Iowa. The results show that majority of the positive cases in Iowa might have received airborne virus, carried by fine particulate matter, from infected farms within the state (i.e., intrastate) and infected farms from the neighboring states (i.e., interstate). The modeled airborne virus concentrations at the Iowa recipient sites never exceeded the minimal infective doses for poultry; however, the continuous exposure might have increased airborne infection risks. In the worst-case scenario (i.e., maximum virus shedding rate, highest emission rate, and longest half-life), 33 Iowa cases had > 10% (three cases > 50%) infection probability, indicating a medium to high risk of airborne transmission for these cases. Probability of airborne HPAI infection could be affected by farm type, flock size, and distance to previously infected farms; and more importantly, it can be markedly reduced by swift depopulation and inlet air filtration.”
Serbia Suspects African Swine Fever – Implications for Imports
One Health in a nutshell – the economic implications of zoonotic diseases like African swine fever (ASF). “Serbia has reported four suspected outbreaks of African swine fever among backyard pigs, the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) said on Monday, prompting neighbouring countries to ban imports of the animals. Three of the cases were detected in the Belgrade area and one in the district of Podunavski, the OIE said, citing a report from Serbia’s Agriculture Ministry. The suspected cases of the disease killed seven pigs while another 114 were slaughtered, the report showed. Bosnia, Montenegro and North Macedonia banned imports of pigs, wild boar and related products from Serbia to prevent the spread of the outbreak, the countries’ veterinary authorities said.”
A New Drug to Tackle Extensively Drug-Resistant TB
XDR-TB is a disease that causes significant health issues on a global scale and the effort to try and treat can be costly. A “new drug, pretomanid, has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in a treatment for XDR-TB. Amazingly, it’s the first time that a treatment for XDR-TB infections has been recognized for actually working—no other treatment has demonstrated any consistent effectiveness. Up until now, people with XDR-TB had to suffer through up to two years or more of toxic treatment that worked only one third of the time. Today’s news means that treatment time is drastically reduced—to six months—while the effectiveness of treatment is significantly improved. We welcome this approval as it shows the real-world impact of US government investment in finding new cures and vaccines for the world’s deadliest diseases. The developer of pretomanid, the nonprofit organization TB Alliance, could not have succeeded in advancing this breakthrough without support from the American people, through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and National Institutes of Health (NIH).”
Stories You May Have Missed:
Mega Malaria Vaccine Test Postponed in Kenya – “Kenya has postponed a large-scale pilot test for a malaria vaccine that could reduce the burden of the disease. The World Health Organisation (WHO) chose Malawi, Ghana and Kenya to vaccinate 360,000 children per year; and while the two nations began the rollout in April, Kenya is yet to start. The introduction in Kenya, planned for this Thursday, was postponed by the Ministry of Health. ‘I regret to inform you that the stakeholders breakfast meeting planned for this Tuesday, August 13, and the launch planned for Thursday, August 15, have been postponed to a later date to be communicated to you shortly. This is due to the upcoming Health Summit scheduled on August 14 and 15,’ head of the National Vaccines and Immunisation Programme, Dr Collins Tabu, said.”
Launch of the 2019 Next Generation Biosecurity Competition
Are you a global health security and biosecurity student or professional? “NTI | bio is partnering with the Next Generation Global Health Security (GHS) Network to advance the biosecurity and biosafety-related targets of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). Together, we are launching the third annual joint competition to foster a biosecurity professional track within the Next Generation GHS Network. The 2019 competition will spur next generation experts in health security to discuss catalytic actions that can be taken to reduce biological risks associated with advances in technology and promote biosecurity norms. For the 2019 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition, we will publish creative and innovative papers that promote regional, multi-sectoral, and global collaboration. Each team can include up to three people and should: 1) explore concrete collaborative actions that can be taken to build national, regional, and global norms for preventing deliberate and/or accidental biological events; and 2) promote cross-sectoral and cross-regional partnerships to advance biosecurity and biosafety. Papers should directly address the biosecurity targets included within the World Health Organization Joint External Evaluation and the GHSA Action Package on Biosecurity and Biosafety (APP3).” If you’re a GMU biodefense student or alum – you’re in luck as we’ve got a Next Generation Global Health Security Network chapter (membership is a requirement for the competition).
CSIS- Federal Funding for Biosafety Research is Critically Needed
The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) has just released their report on why we desperately need to provide funding for biosafety research in the face of new biotech and emerging infectious disease threats. “Currently, we lack the evidence basis to take new, needed measures to prevent accidents in biological laboratories, which, as mankind continues to expand its capabilities to manipulate life (including the viruses and bacteria that cause disease), leaves us more vulnerable to the accidental initiation of disease outbreaks with potentially dangerous consequences locally, regionally, and beyond. New biotechnologies are enabling scientists to design or modify life in ways not previously possible. These biotechnologies enable professional and amateur researchers to use simple life forms (e.g., bacteria and yeast) to create simple sensors and produce industrial chemicals, materials, and pharmaceuticals cheaply and from commonplace reagents. The manipulation of pathogens (the microbes that cause disease) fosters a better understanding of how these agents evolve and interact with the body, enabling the development of next generation cures. Despite the significant U.S. and global investment in biotechnology, concern has been voiced by scientists, policy experts, and members of the community that scientists may be ill-equipped to handle novel, manipulated microbes safely, potentially resulting in accidental infection of themselves or their local communities, accidental release into the environment, or even the initiation of a global pandemic.”
Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of Experts – Updates and Deciding on Emergency Assistance in Cases of Bioweapons Use
If you’ve been missing the MXs, Richard Guthrie has you covered with his daily accounts of these meetings and events. Thursday was the closing day of MX4 and focused on the financial situation. “The Chair of the 2019 Meeting of States Parties (MSP), Ambassador Yann Hwang (France), held informal consultations with delegates from states parties to discuss the financial situation for the BWC which remains difficult. Non- payments of agreed assessments by a number of states parties continue to cause problems. While some of these eventually appear as late payments, the ongoing deficit is sufficiently large to put the MSP at risk. As the financial accounting period is the calendar year, the MSP at the end of the year is always going to be the most vulnerable activity if there is a financial shortfall. In 2018, some economies were made on the MSP by having one informal day of activities without interpretation, putting a number of delegates at a disadvantage. The government of France has a clearly stated position on multilingualism within multilateralism and so the MSP Chair would be extremely reluctant to implement a similar route to financial savings. The Working Capital Fund established by the 2018 MSP is specifically designed not to subsidise non-payment, but to smooth out cash flow during the year. Depleting the fund — which is not even close to its target value – in its first year to cover the costs of the MSP would render it useless for purposes of supporting core activities such as the ISU. There are also financial implications of decisions that will need to be taken in relation to the Ninth Review Conference to be held in 2021.” Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders was also in attendance and has reported out on discussions surrounding Article VII – “Being one of the more obscure provisions in the BTWC, Article VII only attracted state party attention over the past ten years or so. In follow-up to the decision of the 7th Review Conference (2011), parties to the convention looked for the first time more closely at the provision during the August 2014 Meeting of Experts (MX). As it happened, the gathering coincided with the expanding Ebola crisis in West Africa. The epidemic gave urgency to the concrete implementation of Article VII. The daily images of victims and fully protected medical staff broadcast around the world left lasting impressions of how a biological attack from another state or terrorist entity might affect societies anywhere. Operationalising Article VII has proven more complex than anticipated. The provision comprises several clauses that fit ill together upon closer inspection and hence obscure its originally intended goals. In addition, it contains no instructions about how a state party should trigger it or the global community respond after its invocation.”
CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security Meeting
“On June 26, 2019, the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security convened for the third time since its launch in April 2018. The Commission’s core aim is to chart a dynamic and concrete vision for the future of U.S. leadership in global health security—at home and abroad.” “On June 26, Commission members—a diverse group of high-level opinion leaders who bridge security and health and the public and private sectors, including six members of Congress—met to discuss a proposed U.S. doctrine for global health security. Commission members deliberated and reached a broad consensus endorsing a doctrine of continuous prevention, protection, and resilience, which would protect the American people from the most pressing global health security threats we face today. The measures outlined in the paper are affordable, proven, and draw support from across the political spectrum. The time to act is now.” Participants called for Congress and the administration to take action across seven areas, including ensuring full and sustained, multi-year funding for the GHSA, ensuring ample and quick-disbursing finances, establishing a global health crises response corps, etc.
Combatting AMR Through Payment Shifts
In the battle against the resistant bug, sometimes you have to change tactics and bring in the big guns – like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Developing antimicrobials has been a particular challenge, despite efforts to push and pull research and development. BARDA Director Rick A. Bright recently discussed this problem, but now a new CMS rule could help guide change. “Without payment reform, the antimicrobials marketplace will not survive. CMS Administrator Seema Verma understands this reality and the necessity for a strong marketplace for both public health and national security purposes. On Friday, August 2, CMS issued its fiscal year (FY) 2020 Hospital Inpatient Prospective Payment System (IPPS) Final Rule. Among other changes to the way CMS pays for Medicare services, CMS recognized the need for greater payment of newer, potentially safer and more effective antimicrobial drugs. The new rule will (1) change the severity level designation for multiple ICD-10 codes for antimicrobial drug resistance from ‘non-CC’ to ‘CC’ (which stands for complications or comorbidities) to increase payments to hospitals due to the added clinical complexity of treating patients with drug-resistant infections, (2) create an alternative pathway for the new technology add-on payment (NTAP) for qualified infectious disease products (QIDPs), under which these drugs would not have to meet the substantial clinical improvement criterion, and (3) increase the NTAP for QIDPs from 50 percent to 75 percent. This final rule lessens economic incentives to utilize older antimicrobial drugs such as colistin, and shift medical practice to employ more appropriate, newer generation antimicrobials. Payment more closely aligned with the value of these lifesaving medicines will shift the current market realities of these drugs for companies, investors, and patients. No single action will solve the antimicrobial resistance problem; however CMS’ efforts undoubtedly can improve the marketplace and re-catalyze innovation in basic science discovery, and research and development efforts. We appreciate and congratulate Administrator Verma for taking such bold leadership in this fight. ”
Ebola in the DRC
The latest WHO dashboard is showing that the outbreak has reached 2,787 cases. Seven cases were reported from the DRC ministry of health earlier this week and there is growing concern about the impact the outbreak is having on children in the area. “Last December UNICEF sounded the alarm about the high number of children infected in the outbreak, noting that one of every third people confirmed infected in the DRC’s outbreak was a child, unusual for Ebola epidemics. The agency noted that 1 in 10 children were under age 5 and that kids were more likely to die from the disease than adults. Save the Children said in its statement yesterday that around 737 children have been infected with Ebola in the DRC’s outbreak. And based on the latest numbers, the impact on kids has increased. In the first 6 months of the outbreak, which was declared on Aug 1, 2018, just under 100 deaths in children had been reported. However, in the 6 months that followed, over four times as many have died. Heather Kerr, Save the Children’s country director in the DRC, said, ‘This is another grim milestone in a crisis that is devastating children in its path, especially the youngest. Some 40% of children who have contracted the disease are under the age of five, and many of them have died.’ She also said the outbreak has had a wider impact on children because of the high overall fatality rate from the virus, with thousands losing at least one of their parents or separated from their families.”
SWP Comment- Why the Containment of Infectious Diseases Alone Is Not Enough
You can now access this commentary by Daniel Gulati and Maike Voss here, which discusses the current DRC Ebola outbreak and that in “crisis situations like these, the interdependencies between health and security are highly complex. Which population groups and which diseases are perceived as suspected health risks, and why, is a normative question for donor countries. It has political consequences above all for affected developing countries. Where health and security are common goals, it is not enough to contain infectious diseases in developing countries. Instead, resilient, well-functioning, and accessible health systems must be established. This fosters the implementation of the human right to health, creates trust in state structures, and takes into account the security interests of other states. In the United Nations (UN) Security Council, the German government could advocate for policies based on the narrative ‘stability through health’.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
MERS and Healthcare Transmission– “Since its last update in June 2018, 219 cases were reported in four countries: Saudi Arabia (204), Oman (13), South Korea (1), and the United Kingdom (1). However, of the 97 secondary cases reported to the WHO, 52 were linked to transmission in hospitals, including 23 infections in healthcare workers. Since the virus was first detected in humans in 2012, 2,449 cases have been reported through Jun 30, 84% of them in Saudi Arabia. The virus is known to spread more easily in healthcare settings, and research is under way to better understand the factors that drive transmission. The WHO said awareness of the disease is still low, and the nonspecific early symptoms can make it difficult to identify cases. Gaps in infection prevention and control measures also contribute to disease spread. ‘Much more emphasis on improving standard IPC [infection prevention and control] practices in all health care facilities is required,’ the WHO said.”
Managing Measles: A Guide to Preventing Transmission in Health Care Setting– “Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of this outbreak from a health care perspective is preparation. Although some may not consider this to be a concern, between 2001-2014, 6% of US measles cases (that were not imported) were transmitted within a health care setting. Sadly, I experienced this firsthand during a 2015 exposure at the health care facility I worked at, in which a health care worker was exposed to the virus while treating a patient and subsequently became infected. As a result of the health care worker’s infection, 380 individuals were exposed and the response efforts were extensive and significantly disruptive to the daily infection prevention duties. Due to the fact that hospitals can easily act as amplifiers for airborne diseases like measles, the CDC has provided interim infection prevention and control recommendations for measles in health care settings. At its core, this guidance focuses on health aspects of both the employee and the patient. For health workers, it is critical to ensure presumptive evidence of immunity to measles and manage exposed/ill health care workers properly. On the patient side, rapid identification and isolation of known or suspected cases and proper isolation maintenance is critical. “
Greetings fellow biodefense friends! We hope your summer is winding down nicely and you’re ready for your weekly dose of all things health security. You might want to avoid pig ear dog treats as there’s currently an outbreak of multi-drug resistant Salmonella infections.
Bioweapons Convention – Meeting of Experts
The BWC Meeting of Experts (MX) is currently under way and you can get detailed, daily reports via Richard Guthrie’s BioWeapons Prevention Project, which has been covering the BWC since 2006. Guthrie notes “The first Meeting of Experts (MX1) in the 2019 series opened on Monday morning with Ambassador Victor Dolidze (Georgia) in the Chair. Owing to refurbishment work in the Palais des Nations, MX1 opened in Room XX [renowned for its elaborately decorated ceiling] instead of the usual location for BWC meetings two floors below. One advantage of using Room XX is that the proceedings can be webcast via <<http://webtv.un.org/>> After brief opening formalities, six sub-topics were covered during Monday, the full titles of which can be found in the agenda for MX1. There was a full day of activities which means that this report can only be a selective snapshot of proceedings. The background information document produced by the Implementation Support Unit (ISU) for the MX1 held in 2018 contains much information relevant to the discussions this year.” You can also find the Joint NGO Statements that were given here. “In her reflections on last year’s MX1, the Chair, Ambassador Almojuela of the Philippines, suggested several concrete proposals for further consideration at today’s meeting. These included: An action plan for Article X implementation; Guidelines on Article X reports; The creation of a BWC Cooperation and Assistance Officer position within the ISU; and An open-ended working group to monitor, coordinate and review activities of cooperation and assistance. These are all proposals that the NGO community strongly endorses, and which were also set out in our Position Paper last year. Ambassador Almojuela also proposed to further collaboration with INTERPOL, OIE and WHO; we would also wish to draw attention to the importance of further collaboration with non-governmental entities. We would also urge States Parties to facilitate regional S&T dialogues that are focused on regional BWC-related interests and problems, and that draw in regional and international expertise to share information and stimulate collaboration and cooperation.”
DRC Ebola Outbreak
The outbreak has now hit the one year mark and it continues to worsen – with 41 new cases reported since the end of last week. “According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) online Ebola dashboard, the outbreak total now stands at 2,671 cases. The dashboard also recorded a total of 1,782 deaths, an increase in 20 fatalities over the weekend. So far the DRC president’s office, which last week shifted outbreak response activities to its technical group, has not issued any detailed daily updates following the resignation of the country’s health minister.” A day later, the second case of Ebola was identified in the city of Goma. “Reports from DRC journalists and international media outlets said the case was announced at a media briefing where the head of a presidential expert committee, Jean Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, PhD, shared details about the development. The country’s president put the committee in charge of outbreak management on Jul 20, prompting the DRC’s health minister to resign. The infected man, a father of 10 children, is from Mongbwalu, about 43 miles from Bunia, the capital of Ituri province, according to a Tweet from DRC journalist Cedric Ebondo Mulumb. Goma and Bunia are about 347 miles apart, with road travel taking about 13 hours.” The WHO has recently noted how “relentless” this outbreak has been since it began one year ago.
GMU Biodefense MS and PhD Open Houses
Have you been considering adding to your education and career through a graduate degree in biodefense? Check out one of our Schar School Open Houses to get a feel for what the MS and PhD programs are like – you can chat with faculty, students, and learn more about the coursework and application process. The Master’s Open House will be at 6:30pm on Thursday, September 12th, and the PhD Open House will be at 7pm on Thursday, September 19th – both will be held at our Arlington campus in Van Metre Hall.
MERS-CoV: Novel Zoonotic Disease Outbreak a Hard Lesson for Healthcare
“Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) was first identified in 2012 and since then, sporadic but continued outbreaks have been occurring within the Arabian Peninsula. There have been 2,428 cases of the coronavirus since 2012, and 838 associated deaths. Reported across 27 countries, this has been a disease that seems to have found a stronghold and established itself as endemic. MERS-CoV challenges response in that while we have diagnostic testing now, there truly is not treatment outside of supportive measures. Spread through the respiratory secretions of infected individuals, there has also been transmission via close contact (i.e. caring or living with an infected person), and ongoing investigation into the role of camels in zoonotic transmission. The disease does circulate in dromedary camels in Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia, but cases have tended to be related to healthcare exposures and household contacts, with some camel-to-human transmission occurring. Hospitals are encouraged to ensure adherence to Standard, Contact, and Airborne isolation precautions, meaning that the patient should be placed in a negative pressure isolation room and healthcare workers should wear a gown, gloves, eye protection, and N95 respirator. Given the need for these isolation precautions, it’s not surprising that exposures often come from delays in isolation and crowded emergency rooms.”
WHO Statement on Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing
The World Health Organization has released the statement from this expert advisory committee held in March of this year. “At this meeting the Committee in an interim recommendation to the WHO Director-general stated that ‘it would be irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications of human germline genome editing.’ WHO supports this interim recommendation and advises regulatory or ethics authorities to refrain from issuing approvals concerning requests for clinical applications for work that involves human germline genome editing. ‘Human germline genome editing poses unique and unprecedented ethical and technical challenges,’ said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ‘I have accepted the interim recommendations of WHO’s Expert Advisory Committee that regulatory authorities in all countries should not allow any further work in this area until its implications have been properly considered.’ WHO’s Expert Advisory Committee continues its consideration of this matter, and will, at its forthcoming meeting in Geneva on 26-28 August 2019. evaluate, inter alia, effective governance instruments to deter and prevent irresponsible and unacceptable uses of genome edited embryos to initiate human pregnancies.”
Breaking Down Resistant Rumors and C diff Disinfectants
GMU biodefense doctoral student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu discusses how poor communication regarding resistant organisms can cause confusion and misleading headlines. A recent study noted resistance of Clostridioides difficile to disinfectants however, “The investigators sought to treat the gowns with disinfectant to test its efficacy and whether it would help with the bioburden. The research team found that after being treated with the 1000 ppm chlorine-based disinfectant for 10 minutes, the gowns still were able to pick up and hold the C diff spores. This concern over resistance sent shockwaves and many news outlets picked up on this as an indicator of what’s on the horizon. But an issue with the study was the disinfectant that was used. First and foremost, as an infection preventionist and the first to stand on my soapbox to shout about the perils of antimicrobial resistance, I know that the efficacy of our disinfectants will eventually fail. The issue with this study is that much of the media coverage speaks broadly of a chlorine-based disinfectant and goes into little detail about what exactly what used. For my infection prevention peers, you know that not all disinfectants are alike and, well, some just weren’t designed for combatting hardier bugs like C diff. This is the playbook we live by in health care.”
Rinderpest, Smallpox, and the Imperative of Destruction
To destroy or not to destroy…that is indeed the question. “In June, The Pirbright Institute (UK) announced that it had destroyed its final archived stocks of rinderpest, the devastating viral disease of cattle that was declared eradicated in 2011. Rinderpest is only the second infection to be eradicated from the wild. The decision raises the question once again of what to do with the remaining stocks of the first eradicated virus—smallpox. The Pirbright Institute did not hold the final stocks of rinderpest in existence; samples are also known to be stored in a handful of facilities in China, Ethiopia, France, Japan, and the USA. Still, The Pirbright Institute is the World Reference Laboratory for rinderpest, previously storing more than 3000 viral samples. That it has taken the decision to destroy them represents a bold commitment to permanently ridding the world of the disease and should encourage others to do the same. France plans to destroy its remaining stocks, and discussions continue at other facilities.” The debate surrounding the survival and destruction of smallpox stocks has been ongoing for decades – some argue the risk of accidental or intentional release is too great, while others argue that destruction would remove the potential for research…however the Pirbright Institute’s practice countered this with their “sequence and destroy” policy, which is encouraging others to push for this policy regarding smallpox. “Smallpox stocks have been earmarked for destruction since eradication of the disease in 1980. Yet, successive meetings of the World Health Assembly have postponed making a final recommendation while the threat of re-emergence from elsewhere remains. At its last meeting in September, 2018, the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research told WHO that live virus is still needed for the development of new antivirals, with split opinion on whether it is needed for diagnostics. Huge strides have been made in these areas in recent years. New more advanced and safer vaccines have been developed; new diagnostic tests are in development; and the first specific antiviral for smallpox—tecovirimat—was approvedby the US Food and Drug Administration in June last year, after some innovative regulatory manoeuvres. The deliberations over smallpox stocks happen regularly, but the decisions are ad-hoc. For rinderpest, destruction seems only a matter of time. Smallpox stocks will also likely be destroyed once diagnostics are finalised and a second antiviral, with a different mode of action in case of resistance, is approved (many are in development).”
Stories You May Have Missed:
Surge in Drug-Resistant HIV Across Africa, Asia, and the Americas – “Surveys by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveal that, in the past 4 years, 12 countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas have surpassed acceptable levels of drug resistance against two drugs that constitute the backbone of HIV treatment: efavirenz and nevirapine. People living with HIV are routinely treated with a cocktail of drugs, known as antiretroviral therapy, but the virus can mutate into a resistant form. The WHO conducted surveys from 2014 to 2018 in randomly selected clinics in 18 countries, and examined the levels of resistance in people who had started HIV treatment during that period. More than 10% of adults with the virus have developed resistance to these drugs in 12 nations (see ‘Resistance rises’). Above this threshold, it’s not considered safe to prescribe the same HIV medicines to the rest of the population, because resistance could increase. Researchers published the findings this month in WHO report.”
Ebola Outbreak Updates- From PHEIC Declaration to Vaccines
On Wednesday, the WHO declared the outbreak a PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern). “‘It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts. We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system,’ said Dr. Tedros. ‘Extraordinary work has been done for almost a year under the most difficult circumstances. We all owe it to these responders — coming from not just WHO but also government, partners and communities — to shoulder more of the burden.’ The declaration followed a meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee for EVD in the DRC. The Committee cited recent developments in the outbreak in making its recommendation, including the first confirmed case in Goma, a city of almost two million people on the border with Rwanda, and the gateway to the rest of DRC and the world.” A new case of Ebola has been identified in the city of Goma, which represents what the WHO is calling “a game-changer” since the city is a major transportation hub. On July 11th, it was announced that “the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) ministry of health and government officials have agreed that Merck’s rVSV-ZEBOV is the only vaccine that will be used during the current, ever-growing Ebola outbreak in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. ‘Due to the lack of sufficient scientific evidence on the efficacy and safety of other vaccines as well as the risk of confusion among the population, it was decided that no clinical vaccine trials will be allowed throughout the country,’ the ministry said in its daily update yesterday. As of yesterday, a total of 158,830 people have been vaccinated with rVSV-ZEBOV, which clinical data suggest has as high as a 97.5% effectiveness rate against the virus.”
Trump Administration Gutting WMD Detection Programs
Despite 2017 pledges to secure, eliminate, and prevent the spread of WMD and related materials, a new investigation has found that such efforts through the Department of Homeland Security, have been drastically impacted. “Among the programs gutted since 2017, however, was an elite Homeland Security ‘red team,’ whose specialists conducted dozens of drills and assessmentsaround the country each year to help federal, state and local officialsdetect such potential threats as an improvised nuclear device concealed in a suitcase, or a cargo ship carrying a radiation-spewing ‘dirty bomb.’ Another Homeland Security unit, the Operations Support Directorate, had helped lead up to 20 WMD-related training exercises each year with state and local authorities. The directorate participated in less than 10 such exercises last year and even fewer so far this year, according to internal Homeland Security documents.” The Homeland Security’s National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center has also seen a hit as their leadership is out and staffing has dropped from 14 to 3. “A separate Homeland Security component, the International Cooperation Division, which worked closely with foreign counterparts and the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency to track and stop thesmuggling of dangerous nuclear materials overseas, has been disbanded.” “Homeland Security also has halted work to update a formal ‘strategic, integrated’ assessment of chemical, biological and nuclear-related risks.” The investigation also notes that more than 100 scientists and policy experts who specialize in radiological and nuclear threats, have either been reassigned or pushed into jobs that are wholly unrelated to their works. ‘The changes have undermined the U.S. government’s multi-agency commitment since 2006 to build and maintain a ‘global nuclear detection architecture,’ according to the present and former officials.”
Weaponized Ticks, Lyme Disease, and the Smith Amendment
Remember that time a conspiracy-theory book triggered an investigation into whether the DoD ever weaponized ticks? Well here we are…. Earlier this week the US House of Representatives voted on the Smith Amendment on Bioweaponization of Ticks – and it passed. A lot of this stems from stories of Plum Island and the whispers that Lyme disease actually originated from the testing site and ticks were either intentionally or accidentally released into the surrounding areas…triggering the disease a few decades ago. Since the release of a book on the “secret history of Lyme disease and biological weapons”, there’s been a renewed interest in the bedtime story of the disease’s sinister origin story. Unfortunately, the proposed investigation really doesn’t hit the nail on the head. For one, it’s been widely known for years that ticks, among other vectors, were a part of the bioweapons and biodefense research. Two, the “smoking gun” within the book that’s been used to reinvigorate interest, claims an interview with Dr. Willy Durgdorfer (the researcher who identified Lyme disease) gave confirmation of the true origin of the disease….alas, this was reported post-mortem, when he was not able to confirm or deny such statements. Third, Lyme disease actually has some pretty old origins. Last, but not least, this new amendment doesn’t even touch on Lyme disease…but rather focuses on if the DoD did experiments with insects and vectors as disease delivery systems…which we already know to be true. Ultimately, this does a disservice to not only the people with Lyme disease, but also encourages conspiracy theories.
Using “Outbreak Science” to Strengthen Usage of Models in Epidemics
If you’ve been on the frontlines of an outbreak, you’ve likely heard of disease modeling…but sometimes it can be hard to actually apply this technology to drive change. A new article has created “outbreak science” as an inter-disciplinary field to apply epidemic modeling in a way that can really help. “Nevertheless, the integration of those analyses into the decision-making cycle for the Ebola 2014–2016 epidemic was not seamless, a pattern repeated across many recent outbreaks, including Zika. Reasons for this vary. Modeling and outbreak data analysis efforts typically occur in silos with limited communication of methods and data between model developers and end users. Modeling “cross talk” across stakeholders within and between countries is also typically limited, often occurring within a landscape of legal and ethical uncertainty. Specifically, the ethics of performing research using surveillance and health data, limited knowledge of what types of questions models can help inform, data sharing restrictions, and the incentive in academia to quickly publish modeling results in peer-reviewed journals contribute to a complex collaborative environment with different and sometimes conflicting stakeholder goals and priorities. To remedy these challenges, we propose the establishment of ‘outbreak science’ as an inter-disciplinary field to improve the implementation of models and critical data analyses in epidemic response. This new track of outbreak science describes the functional use of models, clinical knowledge, laboratory results, data science, statistics, and other advanced analytical methods to specifically support public health decision making between and during outbreak threats. Outbreak scientists work with decision makers to turn outbreak data into actionable information for decisions about how to anticipate the course of an outbreak, allocate scarce resources, and prioritize and implement public health interventions. Here, we make three specific recommendations to get the most out of modeling efforts during outbreaks and epidemics.” From establishing functional model capacity and fostering relationships before things happen to investing in functional model capabilities, this guide could be a game-changer for outbreak response.
Building a Case of (non?)compliance Concern
Looking for a new book? Check out this review of Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia – “In the early 1990s, the world was rocked when defectors from the Soviet Union revealed the existence of a massive civilian and military biological-weapons program that had employed more than 65,000 people from 1928 to 1992, directly contravening the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). In 2012, Raymond Zilinskas, a leading biological- weapons expert, coauthored with Milton Leitenberg a comprehensive account of the program, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History, a reference source so thorough that it ran to nearly a thousand pages. Last year, Zilinskas, in collaboration with Philippe Mauger, produced Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia, a sequel of sorts in which the cautionary note that Zilinskas and Leitenberg sounded earlier—that Russia’s relationship with biological weapons remained complicated, and that the current status of its old programs could not be verified—proved to have been foreshadowing.”
Modeling the Complexities of the Gut for Biodefense Application
“The Nutritional Immunology and Molecular Medicine Laboratory (NIMML), with research funding assistance from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), has developed a high-resolution model of the gut immune system to help solve emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases and biodefense challenges. The advanced model predicts new emerging behaviors and responses to biological threats. The gut ecosystem includes trillions of interactions between host epithelial and immune cells, molecules (cytokines, chemokines and metabolites) and microbes is a massively and dynamically interacting network, like a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle with pieces that are constantly changing shape. These interactions with cooperativity and feedback lead to nonlinear dynamics and unforeseen emergent behaviors across spatiotemporal scales. The NIMML agent-based modeling (ABM) of the gut uses an array of HPC-driven advanced computational technologies such as the ENteric Immunity SImulator (ENISI) – multiscale modeling (MSM). These models and tools simulate cell phenotype changes, signaling pathways, immune responses, lesion formation, cytokine, chemokine and metabolite diffusions, and cell movements at the gut mucosa.”
Radiation Injury Treatment Network Meeting
Are you attending this event later this month? If so, check out GMU Biodefense doctoral student Mary Sproull discussing Radiation Biodosimetry – A Mass Screening Tool for Radiological/Nuclear Events.
New WHO insight into 14 cases has identified 2 clusters that involved 4 of the infected people. “Of the 14 patients, 3 had been exposed to camels, a known risk factor for contracting the virus. Ten were men and four were women, and patient ages ranged from 22 to 80. Eleven had underlying health conditions, which is a risk factor for MERS. Ten were from Riyadh region, with other cases reported from Jeddah, Medina, Najran, and Al Qassim. One of the clusters involved two people living in the same household in Al Kharj in Riyadh region, a 22-year-old woman who had diabetes and epilepsy and a 44-year-old woman who had no underlying health conditions. The other cluster consisted of a 65-year-old male patient and a 23-year-old female healthcare worker in Riyadh. Five of the people died from their infections.”
CDC Announces E Coli Outbreak Linked to Ground Bison
Put down your bison burger and take a slow step back….”The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have announced that they are collaborating with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to investigate a multistate outbreak of E coli O103 and E coli O121 infections. Early epidemiologic and traceback information point to ground bison products as the likely source of the outbreak. As of July 12, 2019, there have been 21 individuals infected with E coli in this outbreak. In total, 6 individuals have been infected with the O103 strain, 13 cases of the O121 strain have been confirmed, and 2 individuals have been found to be infected with both strains.”
Stories You May Have Missed:
Polio in Pakistan – “The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) today reported nine new cases of wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1), and, for the first time in more than a year, China has confirmed a case of vaccine-derived poliovirus. In addition, Angola has a new circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) case. The Pakistan patients reported symptom onset on dates ranging from May 28 to Jun 20. The total number of WPV1 cases recorded in Pakistan this year is now 41; last year, the country recorded 12 cases over the entire year. Five of the nine cases originated in Bannu province, where health workers have been targeted by anti-vaccine extremists.”
Food Defense and Intentional Adulteration Rule Training – “The Food Protection and Defense Institute is hosting a Food Defense and Intentional Adulteration Rule training on August 20-21 in Minneapolis, MN. This two-day course provides the convenience and interaction of a single, in person class to more comprehensively learn the breadth and interconnections of IA Rule requirements including how to: Prepare a Food Defense Plan Conduct vulnerability assessments including the full FSPCA Intentional Adulteration, Conducting Vulnerability Assessment Course (IAVA) Identify and explain mitigation strategies, Conduct reanalysis”