Pandora Report 1.6.2017

Welcome to 2017 and a whole new year of biodefense news! While you’re heading back to work, make sure to wash your hands and stay safe – the CDC has reported increasing flu activity.

The Best of Bio and Chem Weapons Coverage in 2016
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has put together their “five best articles” for bio-chem weapons in 2016 and we were happy to see two familiar faces – GMU PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein and GMU Biodefense professor, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. Daniel Gerstein’s article, How genetic editing became a national security threat, discusses the threatening components of gene drive, like low cost and growing availability. “Armed with the proper genetic sequences, states or bioterrorists could employ genome editing to create highly virulent pathogens for use in such attacks. They could, for example, change a less dangerous, non-pathogenic strain of anthrax into a highly virulent form by altering the genome, or recreate pathogens such as the deadly smallpox virus, which was eradicated in the wild in 1980.” Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley teamed up with Kathleen Vogel to discuss the good, bad, and the hype of gene drive. They emphasize the importance of understanding gene drive to really discern the benefits and risks of the technological process. Looking at all angles, their article gives a wholistic approach to better appreciate the complexities of gene drive for biodefense. “Without a clear and detailed understanding of the range of social and technical factors that cause scientists to succeed or fail in their gene-drive endeavors, threat estimates can only rely on speculation and fantasy rather than fact.”

GMU Biodefense Students – Win Registration for 2017 ASM Biothreats Conference!
Calling all GMU Biodefense students – the program will be offering free registration to four lucky students to attend this premier biodefense event at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, DC on February 6-8th. This year, the meeting incorporates three major tracks, “Research, Response, and Policy” to cover relevant topics in basic and applied research; public health, emergency response and preparedness; and biosecurity, government, and policy responses. The exchange between these multidisciplinary communities will shape the future of this very important field. The keynote session on February 6 will be given by Thomas M. Countryman, Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security and Assistant Secretary to the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the Department of State.  Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of NIAID Director at the National Institutes of Health, will be presenting at a special session on February 7. You can find the rest of the agenda here. As an attendant for the 2016 conference, I can tell you that it’s a great experience for not only learning, but also networking. Please check your GMU email for the information Dr. Koblentz sent out. To apply: students are required to submit a 250-word essay about how attending the conference will benefit your education/professional aspirations by 5pm today (Friday, January 6th) to Dr. Koblentz. Winners will be announced the following Monday and those selected will be asked to write up summaries of at least two panels for publication in the Pandora Report.

USGS Disease Maps
screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-6-04-01-amLove maps and diseases? Or do you simply like knowing what kinds of vectored diseases are transmitted around you? Check out the USGS disease maps that also allow you to interact with them. Utilizing data from CDC’s ArboNET, you can look at transmission among humans, mosquitoes, birds, sentinel animals, and veterinary transmission. The observable diseases include West Nile Virus, St. Louis Encephalitis, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Western Equine Encephalitis,  La Crosse Encephalitis, Powassan Virus, Dengue fever (locally acquired and imported), and Chikungunya (locally acquired and imported). The USGS disease maps allow us to not only have a better understanding of vectored disease transmission, but also landscape epidemiology.

CRISPR Off-Switch
CRISPR is going to be a hot story in 2017 and here are the seven things to look for. The burgeoning concerns regarding CRISPR technology involve the rapid pace of development and lagging DURC policies, not to mention the inability to predict future outcomes. The interest and unease over this new form of genome editing has left many searching for an “off button”, but thankfully, researchers are believed to have found one.  While the new “off switch” isn’t capable of reversing changes that were already made, it can stop the system from making additional edits. “The switch is a series of ‘anti-CRISPR’ proteins that were discovered inside viruses that attack bacteria, where they’re used to disable the gene editing tool and sneak into the bacterial DNA. ‘Just as CRISPR technology was developed from the natural anti-viral defence systems in bacteria, we can also take advantage of the anti-CRISPR proteins that viruses have sculpted to get around those bacterial defences,’ said lead researcher Benjamin Rauch. The team isolated these anti-CRISPR proteins from Listeria bacteria that had been infected by viruses. The team isolated the proteins that appeared to be involved and tested whether any of them could stop CRISPR editing from taking place in human cells. They found that two of these proteins, AcrIIA2 and AcrIIA4, worked together to inhibit the CRISPR systems commonly used by scientists.”

CDC Concludes CDP Ricin Exposure Inspection
The CDC just finished their inspection of the lab that sold the ricin toxin that was used by the Centers for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) training facility. The ongoing debate between the CDP and lab regarding the mishandling or misunderstanding points to bigger, systemic issues in regards to select agents. CDP states that the lab is to blame, noting that they ordered a less toxic version of ricin, while the lab rebutted by pointing out that the ricin was always properly labeled as the toxic version and they, in fact, never offered the less toxic version. The site visit and inspection findings are under review as the CDC determines if the lab is responsible and violated federal regulations. The conclusion of the inspection also comes at a challenging time for the CDC as the agency is taking heat for blacking out many details in reports recently released via the Freedom of Information Act. The released laboratory reports were requested by USA TODAY and only fuel the attention to lab incidents and poor biosafety practices.

NAS DURC Committee Meeting 
This week the National Academies held the Committee on Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC): Option For Future Management. You can get not only the webcast recording (check out 2:42:00 in and you’ll see GMU Biodefense director and professor, Gregory Koblentz, talk about the zero sum game in terms of regulating DURC research – to regulate or not to regulate, that is the question!), but also the full presentations. Since the 2011 H5N1 controversies, “it remains unclear as to whether there are practical mechanisms or approaches for managing such dual use research of concern (DURC) and, specifically, how to deal with situations where there is a pressing need, for public health reasons, to publish research findings while limiting, due to national security concerns, the dissemination of certain details that ordinarily would be published. This is especially true in cases where an initial assessment of proposed research does not anticipate results that would warrant such consideration.”

Zika Outbreak Updates
Scientists are currently unveiling the key proteins in the virus that made it so deadly. The first comprehensive description of the Zika genome has identified seven key proteins that are helping researchers understand the devastation the virus does to the human body. “To test the virus, Dr. Zhao used fission yeast, a species that in recent years has become a relatively common way to test how pathogens affect cells. Fission yeast was originally used to make beer, particularly in Africa, where it originated. (Its species name is Schizosaccharomyces pombe; pombe means beer in Swahili.) Over decades, fission yeast has been used by many scientists to find out mechanisms and behavior of cells. For the experiment, Dr. Zhao and his colleagues separated each of the virus’s 14 proteins and small peptides from the overall virus. He then exposed yeast cells to each of the 14 proteins, to see how the cells responded. Seven of the 14 proteins harmed or damaged the yeast cells in some way, inhibiting their growth, damaging them or killing them.” The Entomological Society of America has noted that socioeconomic factors provide protection against a large scale Zika outbreak in the U.S., but that small outbreaks are an ongoing concern. As of January 4th, the CDC reported 4,618 cases of Zika in the U.S., of which 216 were locally-acquired.

Does the CDC’s New Quarantine Rule Violate Civil Liberties?
With a new vaccine and hopeful approach to emerging infectious diseases, have we buried Ebola? Back in August, the CDC proposed a new rule regarding its powers to respond to potential outbreaks via screening, testing, and quarantining people traveling into or within the U.S. You can read the new rule here, but it focuses on “non-invasive public health prevention measures” and reporting requirements for commercial passenger flights of death or illness to CDC, etc. While this may seem pretty reasonable given health emergencies like Ebola and SARS, many ” epidemiologists, lawyers, and health organizations say that the rule, in its current form poses a serious threat to civil liberties, allowing authorities to detain and examine people with little heed to due process and informed consent.” Attempted in 2005, this rule was initially met with criticism, however the recent Ebola outbreak has changed the way we approach travel during times of infectious disease outbreaks. Public health emergencies are defined as ‘communicable disease events’ that the director believes could be high risk for death or serious illness. “It is already authorized to detain people suspected of carrying diseases like plague, Ebola, and (somewhat improbably) smallpox. But the new rule does away with a formal list. It extends the same powers to any “quarantinable communicable disease,” and uses wider range of symptoms (from a list that federal agents can update as the need arises) for defining ‘ill’ people.” While the CDC can detain travelers prior to decision to quarantine, it notes that this shouldn’t last longer than 72 hours and fails to make provisions for a lawyer if the person can’t afford one. “The rule also gives the CDC ultimate authority to carry out medical tests and treatments, stating that ‘the individual’s consent shall not be considered as a prerequisite to the exercise of any authority’.” What are your thoughts? We’d love to hear from our readership – please email or tweet @PandoraReport to give us your thoughts!

USDA ARS 4th International Biosafety & Biocontainment Symposium Registration Deadline
Don’t miss the January 13th registration deadline for this event in Baltimore, Maryland! From February 6-9, the focus of the symposium will be Global Biorisk Challenges-Agriculture and Beyond. Seven presymposium courses will address topics including unique biocontainment challenges, decontamination and inactivation, and institutional governance. Topics include biorisk management challenges in a One Health World, arthropods, HPAI, risk assessments, and more!

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 85 People Suspected to Have Contracted Rabies– Like something out of a zombie movie, 85 people are suspected of having contracted wild rabies after being bitten by bats in Peru. “Regional director of Health of Cusco, Julio César Espinosa La Torre said that among the group of victims with a bat bite are the 15 soldiers transferred to Lima, of this group, two cases were confirmed, of which one is deceased. Espinoza la Torre said that to date, more than 912 civilians and 680 soldiers have been vaccinated in Alto and Bajo Urubamba, in the district of Megantoni, who must receive up to four doses, every 7 and 14 days.”
  • Anticipating Epidemics Using Computational Models – the White House recently released a report to strengthen the capacity for outbreak prediction. Spearheaded by the National Science and Technology Council, Toward Epidemic Prediction: Federal Efforts and Opportunities in Outbreak Modeling, looks to predictive modeling and data utilization to better understand the “processes that drive disease emergence and transmission could help to predict and prevent large-scale outbreaks. These programs range from foundational research into disease emergence and spillover, to predictive modeling contests, to the development of decision-support technologies for public health responders.”
  • Pandemic Chats – Struggling to chat to a younger generation about diseases? Check out how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is talking to the next generation about the next pandemic.

Pandora Report 12.23.2016

microbiallsnowmanHappy Holidays from your friends at the Pandora Report and GMU Biodefense! If you’re starting a New Year’s resolutions list for things to improve, it sounds like you’ve got company – the WHO is rethinking how it responds to outbreaks.

The Grim Forecast of Antimicrobial Resistance 
In the wake of the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance, it seems that the worried voices are getting louder but the barriers are growing higher. The return to colistin use points to a growing desperation as physicians are forced to use antibiotics that were previously avoided due to such harsh side effects. Many hospitals have shared their tales of MDRO outbreaks – some stopping as mysteriously as they began, while others have clear culprits. Some hospitals have even begun initiating isolation for any patient who was hospitalized abroad within the last couple of years. It’s also becoming increasingly common for hospitals to pre-emptively test patients via MDRO screening to more rapidly isolate them. The concern is also that few truly new antibiotics have been developed in recent years. “Thirty-seven antibiotics are currently undergoing clinical trials, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which keeps track of the U.S. pipeline. Most, however, are based on existing drugs. While these derivatives are cheaper and easier to develop than new classes of drugs, bacteria have a head start in developing resistance to them.Further, most drugs in the pipeline target so-called Gram-positive bacteria, a group that includes the well-known superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). But recently, the main emerging threats have come from the group known as Gram negatives, which are harder to treat because they are encased in tough membranes that repel many drugs.” Many are pointing to a tipping point in 2017 – antibiotics will be consumed by farm animals more than humans worldwide. The UN General Assembly is calling for countries to start getting smart in terms of antibiotic usage but hasn’t set specific goals. Sadly, it seems that there aren’t many more ways this impending reality can be shared – data, shocking titles, future predictions, etc. Check out this factsheet on the use of antibiotics in agriculture and why it impacts resistance. The report has some great suggestions for future work, like refining antibiotic labels and working to collect and report better data. Here’s a spot of good news in this dismal truth – the FDA has just cleared a new one-hour MRSA test to help rapidly identify the lead bug in healthcare-associated infections.

Homeland Biodefense: Science & Technology Capability Review
Just in time for the holidays, it’s like the National Science and Technology Council just knew what biodefense geeks wanted. This report is the product of a comprehensive review of U.S biodefense capabilities, which aided in the prioritization of S&T issues to better strengthen response. The end result is a product of two phases- stage 1: “The goal of this activity was to identify S&T needs articulated by Federal subject matter experts including both science program managers and agency officials in charge of operational programs, to elicit feedback on where additional S&T investments could address operational needs.” Stage 2: “The goal of this activity was to provide coordinated interagency feedback on which needs represent the highest priority to the interagency working group, and to identify which Department or Agency should recommend or coordinate on actions to respond to each of those priority needs.” Scenarios were limited to a handful of events like aerosolized anthrax, avian influenza outbreak (possibly deliberate), food-borne attacks, etc. Perhaps some of the most notable findings were the need to improve abilities to systematically assess how much risk has been mitigated by biodefense investments, understand the impact of bioattacks on companion animals and wildlife, several deficiencies in regards to technical staff and lab infrastructure, etc.

Greek Food Terrorism Threats 
Member of an eco-anarchy group in Greece, FAI/IRF, are announcing their threats for food terrorism over the holiday. The time frame for attacks is December 22nd – January 5th, 2017 and the group has said that their focus is on causing economic disruption, not poisoning people. FAI/IRF has shown their process for poisoning various food and beverage items as their targets include Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever, and Delta. Many of these companies have chosen to withdraw specific products from an area in Greece. The group has shown how they can poison foods/beverages with chlorine and hydrochloric acid while leaving the packaging in place. “The four companies that withdrew products were named in the FAI/IRF statements. The eco-anarchists claim to be opposed to both capitalism and Marxism. They contend in their statement that Coke profits from ‘forced labor’ in China and Nestle is ‘held responsible’ for the death of 1.5 million children in the third world. No substantiation was provided for either claim.”

80140100189470lThe Commandant’s Reading List 
In the latest Army Chemical Review (Professional Bulletin of the Chemical Corps) you can find the Commandant’s Reading Program, compiled by Lieutenant Colonel James P. Harrell, which contains a great assortment of books to add to your reading list (or last minute shopping list!). From Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague to Michael Oldstone’s Viruses, Plagues, & History, you can pick up some top CBW books. GMU Biodefense’s very own director and professor, Gregory Koblentz, had his book, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security, make this list, so make sure not to miss it!

Test Driving Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes
Take a tour through the world of genetically engineered mosquitoes at Imperial College London with genetic engineer, Andrew Hammond. What makes these particular mosquitoes especially unique is the use of gene drive to ensure virtually all offspring acquire the desired effects. “Hammond’s team is genetically engineering the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, which is the primary species that spreads the malaria parasite. Nearly all of the offspring of the modified mosquitoes inherit mutations that knock out the genes females need to make eggs. ‘If we can sterilize the females,’ he says, we ‘can actually eliminate a whole mosquito population without affecting those mosquitoes that don’t have the capability to transmit malaria’.” Hammond gives a great tour of the process for creating gene-drive mosquitoes while discussing the dangers of gene drive and genetic engineering. While there is a wealth of opportunity to do good with tools like CRISPR, there’s also the concern that there could be unintended consequences or events we can’t even imagine. To combat the potential risks, there are also research teams working to keep CRISPR in check.  “A team of scientists that previously identified genes within bacteriophage genomes that code for anti-CRISPR proteins has now discovered phages that harbor an antidote to the Cas9 enzyme that is a key component of the predominant CRISPR system that is today used as a gene-editing tool. The team, led by the University of Toronto’s Alan Davidson, described three bacteriophage-encoded, anti–Cas9 genes and showed that the corresponding proteins are able to block the activity of CRISPR-Cas9—derived from bacterial type II CRISPR-Cas systems—in human cells.”

FEMA’s Ricin Mishap 
Going through the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) training a few years back was a fascinating experience – how many times do you get to train with ricin or anthrax and then move into a pandemic preparedness exercise? For this biodefense student, that’s what I call a good time! Sadly, CDP just announced their entry into the club of biosafety failures. The facility is blaming an outside lab for shipping the wrong form of ricin powder…since 2011. “The training center says it submitted order forms asking for a type of ricin extract that is unlikely to cause serious harm. But officials from Toxin Technology, the Florida company that sent nine shipments to the center since 2011, told USA TODAY that its ricin products were all accurately labeled as ‘RCA60’ – a scientific name for the whole ricin toxin, which can be deadly. It’s unclear why training center staff didn’t recognize for years that they were working with a far more dangerous substance.” The news broke late last week and on Saturday, I received an email from CDP regarding the suspension of those classes and some comments on the incident. Here are some of the highlights:
-In November 2016, while making a purchase of ricin A-chain for training, CDP staff recognized an ongoing discrepancy in the documentation related to the type of ricin being provided. The vendor has now said the more toxic holotoxin version of the materials was provided since 2011. It was previously believed that all remaining ricin on campus had been destroyed. This week, it became known that, while CDP had indeed destroyed all of the ricin in question, additional ricin training material, a solution marked A-chain remains securely stored on the premises. This material was not received from the vendor in question and we are working with the appropriate authorities to safely dispose of the additional ricin material.
-As an example, the protective gear you wore exceeded what would be required for working with ricin slurry.  Students who trained with the agent were in full Level C personal protective equipment at all times when training.  We have no indication that students were exposed directly to the holotoxin or harmed by it.

Zika Outbreak Updates
Not surprisingly, researchers are pointing to the impacts of climate change on infectious diseases. Recently, many have noted the role of climate change and El Niño on laying the groundwork for Zika to spread so quickly and proficiently throughout South America. A new study describes interworking of the virus and the mechanisms it utilizes for damage in pregnant women and developing babies. The CDC has reported 4,756 cases in the U.S. as of December 21st.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Public Health Preparedness Assessment for Each State – The Trust For America’s Health assessment was just released for each state based on 10 indicators for preparedness. Sadly, it seems that most states are not prepared for disaster. Twenty-six states and Washington, D.C. scored a six or lower on the indicators for public health preparedness. “The most striking are gaps in the ability of the health care system to care for a mass influx of patients during a major outbreak or attack and lack of a coordinated biosurveillance system. ‘Biosurveillance does remain a major ongoing gap,’ Segal said. Given all the recent technological advances, there is the potential for a ‘near real-time’ surveillance system to detect outbreaks and to track containment effort, yet the dream eludes our government, she said.”
  • How A Pandemic Might Play Out Under Trump – The Atlantic’s Ed Yong is looking at how the incoming administration will handle the growing threat of emerging infectious diseases. Outbreaks can make or break leaders and often are canaries in the coal mine for systemic weaknesses. “They demand diplomacy, decisiveness, leadership, humility, and expertise—and they quickly unearth any lack of the same. ‘As far as I can tell, Trump has zero experience on this,’ says Jack Chow from Carnegie Mellon University, who has worked at both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the State Department under Colin Powell. ‘If I asked him, ‘What is your stance on global health?,’ I don’t know what he’d say. I don’t think anyone really does’.”