Pandora Report 8.26.2016

A new report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is pointing to a harsh reality that despite incomplete and inaccurate Syrian disclosures, there are traces of nerve agents in their laboratories. While they promised to destroy their entire arsenal, there is a growing concern that Damascus has not followed through on commitments to destroy all of its armaments.   Feel like a biodefense arts and crafts project?  You can learn to make a plague doctor’s mask here. Chem-Bio warfare suits may be getting a fashionable upgrade as companies like Lululemon and Under Armor are competing to revolutionize the protective equipment. 

UN Security Council – Calls for Eradicating WMD’s  689139
On Tuesday, GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Director and Professor, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, briefed the UN Security Council on how terrorists could exploit advances in science and technology to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He delivered the briefing as part of a Security Council open debate on WMD nonproliferation that is part of the comprehensive review currently being conducted of Resolution 1540. You can read the summary of the meeting here, but the focus was on the evolving threat of WMD’s falling into the hands of non-state terrorists and actors. Emphasizing the threat of biological weapons, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon “questioned the international community’s ability to prevent or respond to a biological attack.  He also suggested giving a closer look at the nexus between emerging technologies — such as information and communication technologies, artificial intelligence, 3-D printing and synthetic biology — and weapons of mass destruction.” Dr. Koblentz (27 minutes into the broadcast of the meeting here) pointed to the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a source for huge gains in both productivity and prosperity, but also a darker potential for mis-use by non-state actors. Within his talk, Dr. Koblentz noted the five advances in science and technology that “increase the risk of CBRN weapons proliferation to non-state actors”. The advances include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), 3D printing, accessibility of illicit items on the Dark Web, malicious software and cyber attacks, and genetic engineering tools like CRISPR-Cas9. While these advances reveal the diverse technology, there are also seven deadly traits within these emerging technologies – dual-use, disruptive, diffusion, reliance on a digital component, decentralization, deskilling, and the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement. Simply put, these seven characteristics make emerging technologies that much more challenging to prevent mis-use. “The international community faces a continuous challenge of encouraging innovation and maximizing the benefits of such innovation with the need to mitigate the security risks posed by these new technologies. I hope the Security Council will take advantage of the Comprehensive Review of Resolution 1540, which this open debate is an important contribution to, to update the resolution to take into account the impact of scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to non-state actors.” There was substantial discussion regarding the strengthening of Resolution 1540, especially to consider the implications of a biological attack in light of recent outbreaks like Ebola, MERS, and SARS.  During her remarks, Ambassador Michele J. Sison, U.S. Deputy Representative to the United Nations, described Dr. Koblentz’s briefing as, “a very interesting, but also very sobering intervention.” Hopefully, with the focus on these evolving threats, the current review of Resolution 1540 can be further strengthened and focused to reduce the risk of terrorists acquiring WMD’s.

A Tribute to D.A. Henderson
There are few times in the history of public health that we can say we’ve eradicated a disease. D.A. Henderson, smallpox guru and disease detective, led such efforts within the WHO and his absence has been felt throughout the health community. A legend among public health and biodefense students, his dedication to the field inspired generations. As an epidemiologist, his work in both infectious diseases and bioterrorism gave me hope that such a career was not only possible, but also filled with the kind of adventure that many only dreamed about. Having just read Scourge (and I would highly encourage you to read it), the dedication to the smallpox eradication efforts is still an inspiration. After conquering what many considered impossible, Henderson worked as Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies (now UPMC Center for Health Security), and following 9/11, led the Office of Public Health Preparedness. Described as a “Sherman tank of a human being- he simply rolled over bureaucrats who got in his way”, Henderson’s death is truly felt throughout the international community. In the wake of his death, we take a moment to truly applaud and appreciate all he’s given and inspired within global health security.

How Far Will the U.S. Luck Run?
With the anticipation and preparations for Zika having started months before it reached U.S. soil, many are wondering if our luck with infectious disease is running out. We were lucky with Ebola- a handful of cases and once we hit the panic button, we were able to overcome the crisis. Despite insufficient funds and battling diseases we had little to no experience in handling, U.S. efforts have been fortunate in their successes. Zika may be a different kind of ball game though – mosquito control efforts are flawed at best and with a disease that is often asymptomatic, we may have finally hit a wall. Did we really learn from Ebola? Have we strengthened our surveillance and response practices? Dr. Johnathan Fielding notes that “HHS must play a greater role in coordinating the global public health response through implementation of the Global Health Security Agenda, a cooperative arrangement launched in 2014 by over 50 nations, nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders; better coordination with other government agencies, and state, local and private sector partners; and clear delineation of roles and responsibilities within and among HHS offices.” We need both the monetary and personnel support to properly address the failures from Ebola, but also implement the recommendations that so many have made following the crisis. The contingency funding that has been pushed recently is an indication of our potentially faltering luck – have we reached such an impasse in which our politics will override our disease response capacity or capabilities?

A Lot of Zika Goes a Long Ways 
Palm Beach is seeing its second case of Zika virus, with active transmission continuing in Florida. Florida Governor, Rick Scott, has expressed frustration that the promised federal support of antibody tests and lab support has not been delivered. “In a teleconference on Wednesday, Scott made a plea for more support in fighting Zika, complaining that ‘Congress and the White House have not been good partners.’ Scott said he asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 5,000 Zika antibody tests last week, but so far had only received less than 1,200.” Johns Hopkins is opening the first multidisciplinary Zika center, the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Zika Center, which is dedicated to caring for affected patients. As of August 24, the CDC has reported 2,517 cases of Zika virus in the U.S. The CDC has also awarded $6.8 million to partners to help support Zika response. “This funding will help enhance surge capacity for Zika case identification and mosquito surveillance. It will also help improve communications to key populations, by developing focused educational materials, sharing mosquito control guidance, and refining community public awareness campaigns.”

Human Mobility and Epidemics
Tracking infectious disease cases is never an easy task – whether it be an asymptomatic patient, mosquito-spread disease, or global travel, epidemiology and case tracking is not for the faint of heart. An increasingly mobile population is only adding to this difficulty. The first few days of an infection with Dengue or Zika are often so mild that many don’t even seek medical care. How many times have you had a fever and it didn’t stop you from traveling or going about your day? Disease ecologists are now looking at the impact of a fever on human mobility and the shock this may have during an outbreak of a vector-borne disease. “We’ve found that people with a fever visit 30 percent fewer locations on average than those who do not have a fever, and that they spend more time closer to home. It may sound like stating the obvious, but such data have practical applications to understand how human behavior shapes epidemics,” says Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, an assistant professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, and senior author of the study. “No one had previously quantified how a symptom such as fever changes mobility patterns, individually and across a population, in a tropical urban setting like Iquitos.” Not surprisingly, human mobility is a huge driver for spreading these diseases in urban settings. With the ongoing spread of Zika, researchers are continuing to learn about the impact of human behavior and mobility on the spread of these mosquito-spread diseases.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Global Reaches of Antibiotic Resistance – Check out my latest comments on the global implications of antibiotic resistance for first responders and security personnel. It’s a topic we’ve so frequently cited as an international health emergency, and yet it gets so little attention. In this article, I point to the obvious implications, but also the worries that dual-use technologies of concern and genetic modification could allow for increased resistance for a more sinister reason.
  • South Sudan Crisis Calls for Additional WHO Surveillance  – the continued chaos and violence in South Sudan has translated into the WHO ramping up disease surveillance efforts. More than 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDP) have been caught in the conflict, leaving the region more susceptible to malaria and diarrheal illnesses. “The conflict has exacerbated existing challenges with the health system and disease surveillance,” Dr Usman says. “With so many health workers and partners moving to safety, data is more difficult to collect and challenges have emerged as humanitarian access remains limited.” The WHO is coordinating with the Ministry of Health to strengthen surveillance efforts to help detect and respond to outbreaks.
  • FBI WMD Directorate Marks 10 Years – A program we’d rather have and not need than need and not have, the WMD Directorate within the FBI has been imagining worst-case scenarios for over a decade to better prepare and protect the U.S. “The Directorate has three sections: countermeasures, investigations and operations, and intelligence. In its first five years, the Directorate established itself as a central hub for WMD subject-matter expertise.” Assistant Director, John Perren, notes that while they’re intelligence driven, the things that keep him up at night aren’t what he knows, but what he doesn’t know.

Pandora Report 2.12.2016

This week we saw a lot of movement on the Zika response front – from increased funding to research teams prepping for field work, the outbreak hype is picking up traction as the horrors of Ebola are still fresh. Natural outbreaks aren’t the only thing drawing concern this week, as James Clapper, Director of US National Intelligence, added gene editing to the list of dangers posed by “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.” The annual worldwide threat assessment report stated that, “research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products,”. Good news for hospital preparedness, the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response and the CDC have announced continued funding for the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP). The HPP supports critical healthcare preparedness efforts in order to reduce the “supplemental state and federal resources during emergencies, and enables rapid recovery.” If you’re trying to work some biodefense into your Valentine’s Day, you’ve got a few options via Jane Austen-inspired zombie adventures in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or episodes of The Walking Dead. Whichever zombie adventure you choose, just remember to avoid cuddling with any armadillos (read on to find out why). Happy Friday!

Lassa Fever Outbreak Grows
The Lassa fever outbreak that began hitting Nigeria in August 2015 has continued to spread, worrying many health officials. 101 people have already died from the infection and roughly 175 people have become infected. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) stated, “As of today, 19 [including Abuja] states are currently following up contacts, or have suspected cases with laboratory results pending or laboratory confirmed cases.” Annually, Lassa fever causes 100,000-300,000 infections and 5,000 deaths in west Africa. Nigeria’s neighbor, Benin, is also seeing an increase in cases, in which seventeen have died and fifty have been infected.

Back Down the Zika Rabbit Hole
In response to the growing threat of Zika virus, the Obama administration announced on Monday that it would formally be requesting an emergency funding of $1.8 billion to combat the outbreak. The Department of Health and Human Services (including the CDC) would obtain the majority of the funds ($1.48 billion). CDC efforts will be ramped up as its emergency operations center was moved to a level 1 (the highest level) and teams are being coordinated to study the microcephaly-infection links. You can also check out the White House press release here. The WHO will be working to prioritize and fast-track research and development projects, of which Zika virus will be included. You can also find a great timeline here. According to the CDC, as of February 3, 2016, there were 35 travel-associated cases in the US. The Lancet also just released this piece discussing the labeling of Zika virus as a public health issue of concern.  On February 16, 2016, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are holding a workshop on research priorities to inform public health and medical practice for domestic Zika virus cases.

ASM-BiodefenseScreen Shot 2016-02-10 at 11.49.22 PM 
The 2016 American Society for Microbiology Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting took place this week in Arlington, VA. For a biodefense fan, this was a pretty amazing three-day experience. Conference attendees were treated to presentations on antimicrobial resistance, applied biodefense, medical countermeasure developments, agroterrorism, and much more. Did I mention the keynote speaker was Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC? I’m not even a little ashamed to admit how great it was to see Dr. Frieden emphasize that “nature is unpredictable but what is predictable is that we can be better prepared.” He also noted that “Zika is a rapidly changing situation” and the CDC would be sending a team within the next week to start a case-control study related to infection and microcephaly. Some highlights included getting to listen to Dr. Raymond Zilinskas discuss Russian biodefense efforts and how CBR training exercises increased in 2015. Dr. Jens Kuhn from the NIH wins the award for most humor during his fascinating presentation on Marburg and Ebola research within the Soviet bioweapons program. The infection preventionist in me greatly appreciated the session on antibiotic resistance and the role of medical tourism as an exposure for patients to CRE, not to mention how travel assists global clonal expansion. The Mayo Clinic’s Dr Tosh pointed out the short term (isolation of patients, hand hygiene, etc.), medium term (new microbial therapeutics, new diagnostics, etc.), and long term (specific pathogen therapy, decolonization, and immunologic therapy) response and control mechanisms for drug resistance. Last but not least, one of the biggest objectives from the applied biodefense presentations was the need for scientists to help inform policymakers about their work to drive the best policies. I would highly encourage anyone interested in the biodefense field to attend future conferences, as it was a wonderful learning experience and the poster/exhibitor sessions were an excellent way to learn about new research and network.

Lessons Learned: Using North Korea’s History to Better Understand Iran’s Nuclear Program
GMU biodefense professors, Dr. Thrall and Dr. Koblentz, discuss the use of North Korean nuclear history as a teaching tool regarding Iran’s nuclear program. By comparing and contrasting these two countries and their propensity for nuclear weapons, they look to similarities like the fact that both countries “are located in historically dangerous neighborhoods and face militarily superior adversaries. In North Korea’s case, South Korea and the United States; in Iran’s case, a Middle East full of Sunni Arabs and a nuclear-armed Israel. From a national security perspective, both countries have obvious reasons for pursuing a nuclear capability.” Given that both countries tend to be immune towards coercion, continued engagement and confrontation is vital. Using North Korea as a model for behavior, vigilant deterrence will be necessary to prevent Iran from cheating on the nuclear deal.

Managing Emerging Health Security Threats Since 9/11: The Role of Intelligence
Dr. Patrick F. Walsh, Associate Professor of Intelligence and Security Studies at Charles Sturt University in Australia, discusses the role of intelligence throughout the evolution of biosecurity since the 9/11 attacks. Dr. Walsh calls attention to the difficulties in defining biosecurity and that “cross-disciplinary focus is both a strength and weakness to understanding biosecurity threats. It is a weakness in that the presence of multiple players in the biosecurity field can result in a more fragmented understanding and operational response to various biosecurity threats. But it is also a strength in that, if intelligence systems are optimal, a multi-disciplinary approach allows a combination of expertise to assess and manage the bio-threat or risk.” Dr. Walsh presents the role of dual-use research, stolen biological agents, and the growing concern among biosecurity regulators and national security intelligence groups regarding the dwindling role of tacit knowledge and availability of equipment and technology. Dr. Walsh points out that the character of intelligence varies depending on the issue and one must account for the role of decision making. Lastly, he reminds us that “to conceptualize the role of intelligence in improving early warning of biosecurity threats is to examine how it can provide warning through various stages of the intelligence cycle, which includes the following stages—direction, collection, analysis, and dissemination.” While the role of intelligence will continue to evolve with biosecurity threats, Dr. Walsh emphasizes that strategic early warning capabilities are dependent upon the efficacy of intelligence framework. Improving these two facets of biodefense will allow critical infrastructure to not only respond to threats of bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases, but also the growing threats of microbial resistance and dual-use research. You can also find the article here (2016 Walsh Health Security and Intelligence Jan).

Biosecurity in the Age of Big Data: A Conversation with the FBI
Advances in life science and technology can solve many health issues, but they can also pose a threat if used within the wrong context. Dual-use research of concern, CRISPR, and biotechnologies have led to some remarkable revolutionary advances, however, where do these fit within the FBI’s security concerns for bioweapons? Keith Kozminski of Molecular Biology of the Cell met with FBI Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) and head of the Biological Countermeasures Unit at their Washington, DC headquarters, Edward You, to discuss the security implications of Big Data. SSA You detailed his work with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute to identify the security issues associated with Big Data when it comes to biology. Whether collaborating with companies like Amazon and IBM or government agencies like the CDC, SSA You has worked to identify potential vulnerabilities and how they can be addressed without halting innovation. SSA You states that “Over the last two years, we have had the issues with regard to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Defense (DoD). A lot of discussion also came when the J. Craig Venter Institute synthesized that bacterial genome. There were a lot of calls and discussions about the scientific community needing more ethics training and the need to develop a greater culture of responsibility. From a law enforcement perspective those are necessary but not sufficient. What has been lacking is the scientific community being provided security awareness—something that augments how they approach the life sciences.” While there are vulnerabilities across the board, SSA You emphasized the need for partnership between biologists and WMD coordinators to not only safeguard science, but reduce threats.

UN- Protecting Humanity from Future Health Crises: Report of the High-level on the Global Response to Health Crises 
The UN has released an advanced copy of their report regarding global health safety. Highlighting the efforts and failures within the Ebola outbreak, this report emphasizes the global burden of communicable diseases and how better response and preparedness is needed. The report points out that only a third of the 196 State Parties have fully implemented the International Health Regulations (IHR, 2005) and there has been little global investment in R&D for emerging infectious diseases. 27 recommendations were made to address issues at the national, regional, and international levels, of which one of the first was for the WHO to build a new Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response. The report also states that “all countries must meet the full obligations of the IHR” and “appropriate financing is required. Assistance should be provided to countries requiring additional support for IHR compliance, while WHO and the new Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response must be resourced to meet global needs.” Overall, the use of the 2014 Ebola outbreak as a case study for health security recommendations echoes the sentiment that Dr. Frieden once noted– “a disease outbreak somewhere is a risk anywhere”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Vaccines & Therapeutic Conference– Mark your calendars for the 14th annual conference from May 17-19, 2016, in Washington DC, that covers biodefense, antimicrobial resistance, and emerging infectious diseases. Given the recent push for emergency funding for Zika virus research, this conference will be a great resource for up and coming research.
  • Quality Training for BSL-4 Biocontainment Laboratories– Interested in BSL-4 lab training? The FDA and University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston National Medical Branch, will host training April 25-29, 2016. Held in Bethesda, MD, the course will include faculty and subject matter experts from the FDA, academia, and more.
  • Leprosy Spike in Florida– Florida has seen an increase in leprosy cases this year. Five cases have been reported in 2016 so far and 27 were reported in 2015. The spike in cases is suspected to be a result of armadillo transmission. If you find yourself traveling in Florida, you may want to avoid armadillo cuddling.