Pandora Report 9.16.2016

Is it time to outsource key tasks out of the WHO and into more capable agencies? On Monday, the U.S. carried out a massive airstrike on a suspected ISIS chemical weapons facility in Mosul, Iraq. Sri Lanka has made history by being declared malaria-free after three years since its last case. Sri Lanka had previously tried to eradicate malaria over fifty years ago, but the effort was met with failure and is frequently cited by malaria experts. Do you subscribe to the “five-second rule” when it comes to your food? You may want to give it a second thought as Rutgers researchers have recently disproven the notion – sadly, cross-contamination can’t be avoided in most cases. The CDC has added Bacillus cereus Biovar anthraces to the list of Tier 1 Select Agents.

GMU Biodefense Graduate Info Sessions
In case you missed last night’s MS Open House in Arlington, we’ve got plenty more graduate program information sessions. GMU will be hosting several more events this Fall, so make sure not to miss one! The next MS information session (for both in-person and online programs) is on Wednesday October 19th, 6:30pm in Founders Hall, room 126. If you’re looking at a PhD in biodefense, come to our information session on Wednesday, October 12th, from 7-8:30pm, at the Johnson Center in the Fairfax Campus, room 334. From Anthrax to Zika, we cover all the biodefense topics and applications in our information sessions.

Biological Threats in the 21st Century Book Launch!  
On October 14th, join us in celebrating the book launch of Biological Threats in the 21st Century! Biological Threats in the 21st Century introduces readers to the politics, people, science and historical roots of contemporary biological threats through rigorous and accessible chapters written by leading scholars and supplemented by expert point-of-view contributions and interviews. The book launch will feature a panel discussion on the threat of biological weapons and the role of scientists in bioweapons non-proliferation and disarmament. The event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be available beginning at 11:45 AM so please RSVP. Attendants will also be able to pick up the book at a 15% discount.

Identifying Future Disease Hot Spots
Check out the latest RAND report in which researchers are asking which countries might be particularly vulnerable to infectious disease outbreaks and how the U.S. can help support these countries to better prepare and respond to public health events. Pulling from a wide variety of literature and data, “authors created an index for identifying potentially vulnerable countries and then ranked countries by overall vulnerability score.” Researchers looked at the 25 most-vulnerable countries, which include the “disease belt” in the Sahel region of Africa. Of the 25 noted countries, 22 are in Africa, and the remaining are Afghanistan, Yemen, and Haiti. “Conflict or recent conflict is present among more-vulnerable countries. Seven of the ten most-vulnerable countries are current conflict zones. Of the 30 most-vulnerable countries, 24 form a solid, near-contiguous belt from the edge of West Africa to the Horn of Africa in Somalia — a disease hot spot belt. Were a communicable disease to emerge within this chain of countries, it could easily spread across borders in all directions.” The 25 least-vulnerable countries were found to be in Europe, North America, and Asia-Pacific. The least-vulnerable countries were found to have larger medical systems and expenditures, better health indicators, less corrupt and more stable governments, better human rights, and often technological sophistication.

Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (PACCARB) 
You can join (in listen-only) this teleconference and webcast on Monday, September 19th, to gain further insight into the battle of microbial stewardship. “With participation of Member States, non-governmental organizations, civil society, the private sector and academic institutions, the primary objective of this pubic meeting is to summon and maintain strong national, regional and international political commitment in addressing antimicrobial resistance comprehensively and multi-sectorally, and to increase and improve awareness of antimicrobial resistance.”

Ebola & Zika: Cautionary Tales 20988_lores
In the latest issue of Science, Michael T. Osterholm discusses the challenges of combating infectious disease outbreaks and the struggles to respond with vaccine development. Osterholm points to the need to drive development and funding mechanisms in coordination with surveillance of emerging infectious diseases (EID). Upon the indication that an EID is bubbling up, it would be prudent to have vaccines (even if they’re not licensed yet), ready for large trials. Moreover, the looming threat of EID’s should be the best motivator for developing candidate vaccines. “The handwriting is on the wall regarding the current Zika outbreak in the Americas. High human infection rates in the major impact regions, caused by virus-carrying mosquitoes and human sexual transmission, will continue for several more years. Eventually, the number of cases will drop as more of the community develops immunity. Zika vaccine trials in the Americas may be too late to be tested on the current high number of cases.” Pointing to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), he emphasizes the need to fill the vaccine preparedness hole. Current practices are slow and on an “as-needed” basis, but the truth is that we already have the incentives and EID presence to make the push towards correcting the insufficient process.

Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Dialogue with Students
The UN Security Council 1540 Committee and the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs collaborated with the Stimson Center to create an international essay contest for students. On September 30th, from 10:30am-4pm, they will be hosting an on-the-record discussion regarding the proliferation of WMD’s and honoring the winners of the essay contest.  The winners will be announced and some will even be presenting their ideas at this event. “The goals of the competition were to involve the younger generation in understanding and addressing the important issue of proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), i.e., chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and to solicit innovative student approaches to implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004) to support the Council’s Comprehensive Review of the resolution this year.” Panel discussions will include speakers such as Dana Perkins (Senior Science Advisor, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, former 1540 Expert), Will Tobey (Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University), Craig Finkelstein (Coordinator for the Working Group of the 1540 Committee on Transparency and Outreach), and more! The event will be at Harvard University’s Tubman Building in Cambridge, MA. You can RSVP for all or part of the event here.

Latest Zika News
As more outbreaks occur, the question is quickly becoming – should government officials “allocate resources to support the advancement of traditional drugs and vaccines or emerging broad-spectrum therapies?” If you’re a Miami Beach resident, free Zika testing is now being offered at the Miami Beach Police Department. Utah is keeping public health investigators on their toes with a mystery Zika case.  CDC officials are investigating a man who contracted Zika but was not exposed via a mosquito or sexual contact. Recently published in the CDC’s MMWR, “Patient A was known to have had close contact (i.e., kissing and hugging) with the index patient while the index patient’s viral load was found to be very high,” CDC researchers said in the report. “Although it is not certain that these types of close contact were the source of transmission, family contacts should be aware that blood and body fluids of severely ill patients might be infectious.” If you need a laugh, the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah addressed Zika in a recent episode. Singapore is quickly becoming a Zika hot spot, leaving many researchers stumped about the strain. Experts are suspecting a significant mutation that ramped up the virus’s capability to spread. “What is most intriguing is the question as to whether some mutation has occurred in the Zika virus to make it more transmissible by the Aedes albopictus mosquito—this would be analogous to what happened with chikungunya,” said Paul Anantharajah Tambyah, the secretary-general of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection. The CDC has reported, as of September 14th, 3,176 cases of Zika virus in the U.S.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology – the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has a new contract with the U.S. DoD’s Office of the Deputy Assistant Security of Defense, Chemical, and Biological Defense (NCB/CBD) to assess the nature of biothreats given the innovations within synthetic biology. “NAS will appoint an ad hoc committee to study the manipulation of biological functions, systems, or microorganisms resulting in the production of a disease-causing agents or toxins. The study will start with development of a strategic framework to guide an assessment of the potential security vulnerabilities related to advances in biology and biotechnology, with a particular emphasis on synthetic biology.”
  • Evidence of Airborne H5N2 Found in Distant Barns – a recent study found H5N2 highly pathogenic avian influenza in air samples collected “inside, immediately outside, and up to 70 meters from affected barns during the 2015 outbreak in the Midwest”. The researchers also found H5N2 RNA in air samples collected 1 kilometer from the infected barns. “A total of 26 of 37 (67%) sampling events collected inside and 18 of 40 (45%) collected at 5 meters were positive for H5N2. Sampling at distances from 70 meters to 1 kilometer resulted in about 2% positives and 58% suspected findings. The researchers found HPAI H5N2 viruses in particles up to 2.1 micrometer in diameter.”
  • History of the War on Superbugs – The war on antibiotic resistance may seem new, but it’s actually been waging on for over 60 years. Even Alexander Flemming knew the potential for antibiotic misuse and resistance, noting that “There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily undergoes himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.” Sadly, even the identification of penicillin-resistant germs didn’t scare people, simply because it was a time of antibiotic renaissance – developments were happening all around us and that calmed the fear that should have been brewing.

Pandora Report: 3.18.2016

Spring is upon us! Whether you’re suffering from allergies or enjoying the bloom of the cherry blossoms, we’ve got you covered from the biodefense side. Don’t forget to add our GMU SPGIA Master’s Open House to your calendar next week (Wednesday, March 23rd at 6:30pm at our Arlington Campus). We’ll also be hosting a biodefense breakout session at 7pm with Dr. Koblentz (bonus: you can attend virtually! Extra bonus: our MS program is offered online, so you can learn to be a biodefense guru from anywhere in the world!). Bioarchaeologists are at it again in their quest to determine the fall of ancient Rome (hint: Yersinia pestis may have played a larger role than you’d think). Here’s hoping that with the announcement of the new Indiana Jones movie we’ll see Indy doing some bioarchaeology on ancient biowarfare!

The Real Lessons of Ebola and Zika 
Emerging infectious diseases are not a new concept for global public health, so why did Zika and Ebola catch us so off guard? Where was prevention – the backbone of public health- in this fight? After the pledging of billions of dollars and deployment of countless health professionals, the reality of reaction versus proactive prevention was never more apparent than during the Ebola outbreak. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Now, as we trudge our way through the Zika virus outbreak, many wonder why the Aedes mosquitoes are continuing to cause devastation when their role in outbreaks is so well known. “Controlling this mosquito would by itself ameliorate all these disease threats. Ironically, in South America, control of Aedes aegypti was largely successful earlier in the 20th century (with great expenditure of effort), only to be abandoned once the immediate threat receded.” So again, we must ask ourselves, why public health prevention measures are so frequently ignored. Inexpensive in comparison to the cost of an outbreak, these tools (surveillance, diagnostics, worldwide communication, etc.) are increasingly becoming stronger and more available. Zika and Ebola have proven the efficacy of these strategies and the damage of failing to use them, so what more will it take to get global public health measures a seat at the cool kids’ table? A recent study addressed the biosocial approaches to the Ebola outbreak, concluding that “biomedical and culturalist claims of causality have helped obscure the role of human rights failings (colonial legacies, structural adjustment, exploitative mining companies, enabled civil war, rural poverty, and the near absence of quality health care to name but a few) in the genesis of the 2013-16 pandemic.” Globally, we’re still struggling to recover from the outbreak – whether you’re on the the ground in the affected countries or in the public health agencies that attempted to help. In many ways, the lessons from this pandemic will continue to be identified and understood for years to come. The CDC has also just released an article regarding the perspectives on the outbreak here, where they discuss the factors that delayed disease detection, the role of civil instability, and the impact of historically limited ebola experience.

GMU Biodefense Alumni Career Services
Are you a GMU Biodefense alum? Don’t forget to sign up for the SPGIA CareersNow so you can get updates on job postings that are right up your alley! GMU has close ties within the biodefense industry and we love joining students with employers, so please make sure to sign up and utilize this great resource!

ISIS Chemical Weapons Attack
Officials are reporting on that on Saturday, terrorists linked to ISIS fired rockets into a residential part of Taza, a northern Iraqi town. These rockets are reported to have contained unspecified chemical substances that caused numerous deaths and injuries related to burns, dehydration, and suffocation. An American special forces team previously captured the lead ISIS chemical weapons engineer, however, “his capture has not stopped alleged chemical attacks by ISIS or other terrorists associated with the Islamist militant group. Earlier this week, for instance, officials in Iraq’s Kirkuk province claimed that around 100 people were injured in suspected chemical attack, also in Taza.” The attacks are recently reported to have injured 600 people and killed a 3-year-old girl. Many are now asking, where is ISIS getting their chemical weapons from?

Preventing “A Virological Hiroshima”: Cold War Press Coverage of Biological Weapons Disarmament
Since we’re in the middle of an election year, it has become even more apparent the massive role media plays in not just politics, but also security. A recent analysis was published utilizing written pieces from the US New York Times, UK Times, and the Guardian, during the period of the Biological Weapons Convention negotiation in 1972. Representations of biological weapons during this time not only reflect the societal ideologies, but the the high-stakes environment that the journalists were experiencing. “We argue that a conventional discourse can be found wherein biological weapons are portrayed as morally offensive, yet highly effective and militarily attractive. Interwoven with this discourse, however, is a secondary register which depicts biological weapons as ineffective, unpredictable and of questionable value for the military.” Interestingly, at the time of these news reports, journalists only knew of WMD’s via nuclear and chemical weapons. According to the authors, no biological attacks had been documented and the state sponsored programs were still buried in the depths of secrecy. Biological weapons could only be considered in terms of historical pandemics like the Black Death and the 1918 Influenza pandemic. The authors note that “this negative portrayal of biological weapons as unpredictable and ineffective was certainly flagged in the context of downplaying the significance or value of the BWC. But where it was put to more nuanced use, exemplified in the interview with Matthew Meselson in the wake of the Nixon decision to abandon the US offensive programme, biological weapons were indeed portrayed as useless, not because they were innocuous but because they were redundant: the USA already had access to the horrific, indiscriminate means to annihilate entire cities.”

A Little Bit of Zika Goes A Long Way
Recent CDC data reports 258 travel-associated cases within the US. Laura Beil with the New York Times describes the worry that pregnant women are now facing after they traveled to affected regions and later were found to have Zika. You can also find a timeline and map of the outbreak here. Here’s a spot of good news though – the European Commission announced on Tuesday that the European Union released $11.1 million for Zika virus research. Rob Stein from NPR discusses the unique cry of babies with Zika-associated birth defects and the stories from the pediatricians and health professionals that are working to help the affected families. “It’s not just that they cry more easily, and longer — which they do. There’s also something strange — harsher and more pained — about the cries of many of these babies.Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 1.02.48 PM The realization that they even cry differently than normal babies drove home how many mysteries the world is facing because of the Zika virus.” Not surprisingly, ticket sales for the 2016 Summer Olympics have dropped since the announcement of the outbreak. Olympic-related event ticket revenues dropped 56.4% since mid-January. A new research article was just published regarding the seasonal occurrence and abundance of the Aedes mosquito and it’s role in potential Zika transmission within the US – specifically in regards to local transmission. Here’s a great map regarding the estimated risk of transmission within the US. 

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Use of Microbial Forensics in the Middle East/North Africa Region – The Federation of American Scientists (FSA) prepared a report for the Department of State Bureau of Arms Control and Verification regarding the use of microbial forensics as a means of combating biosecurity challenges. Whether naturally occurring or man-made, biological threats can pose a major challenge. Source recognition is “the key pre-condition that determines how a country will respond to a biological event, or take action in order to interrupt a potential emerging threat, ultimately centers around the ability to properly attribute the culpable sources (pathogens); in other words, governments need to determine the return address of the culpable microbe(s), be they from countries, individuals, or nature itself.”
  • Rice Krispies Food Safety Attack? An employee was recorded urinating on the production line for the cereal manufacturing company in 2014. Kellogg is now under investigation regarding the criminal activity and potential impact of the employee’s actions. I wonder, would you consider this a small-time biological attack?
  • Determinants and Drivers of Infectious Disease Threat Events in Europe – Researchers identified 17 drivers of infectious diseases threat events (IDTEs), categorizing them into 3 groups: globalization and environment, sociodemographic, and public health systems. They found that a combination of two or more drivers was responsible for most of the IDTEs and the driver “category of globalization and environment contributed to 61% of individual IDTEs, and the top 5 individual drivers of of all IDTEs were travel and tourism, food and water quality, natural environment, global trade, and climate.”

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Pandora Report: 2.26.2016

It’s been quite a week for global health security. Even the X-Files covered worldwide pandemics (that’s right, multiple diseases), CRISPR-Cas9, and military vaccination programs. Measles is hitting Nigeria hard as Lagos state officials announced the deaths of 20 children related to the outbreak. A recent study released by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that more than one third of participants believed Zika virus was a conspiracy theory related to genetically modified mosquitoes. Maybe they were also watching the X-Files? Before we begin, meningitis vaccine efforts were celebrated at the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) conference, due to success within Africa’s meningitis belt.

GMU Biodefense Students Awarded UPMC Biosecurity Fellowship
We’re happy to announce that two GMU Biodefense students have been selected as Fellows for the UPMC Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI)! Congrats to biodefense MS alum Francisco Cruz, and PhD candidate Siddha Hover! “The Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative is a competitive fellowship program designed to create and sustain an energetic, multidisciplinary, and intergenerational biosecurity community made up of motivated young professionals as well as current leaders. UPMC has selected 28 US and international emerging leaders in biosecurity from a wide array of backgrounds, including biological science, medicine, policy, the military, law, public health and the private sector.” Siddha Hover works for BAI, Inc. as an embedded contractor with the Department of Homeland Security, where she serves as DHS’s sole treaty analyst. In her role, she is responsible for reviewing all relevant DHS-sponsored research and activites for compliance with applicable arms control agreements. Siddha is currently pursuing her PhD in Biodefense. She holds a MSc in Biodefense from George Mason University and a MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Siddha notes that, “the GMU Biodefense program provided me with the foundational knowledge necessary to confidently begin a career in biodefense and enabled me to successfully apply for the ELBI Fellowship.” Francisco is a biologist in the Field Operations Branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Consequence Management Advisory Division (CBRN CMAD). As CBRN CMAD’s Biologist, Francisco provides operational guidance to federal, state, and local responders in the areas of decontamination and emergency response related to biological incidents. Francisco holds a B.A. in Biological Sciences from the University of Delaware. During his time at GMU, Francisco earned a Graduate Certificate in Critical Analysis and Strategic Responses to Terrorism, and earned his M.S. in Biodefense in December 2015. Congrats to Siddha and Francisco in their work furthering the field of global health security and representing GMU Biodefense in the ELBI program!

GMU Biodefense Course Sampler- “Biosecurity as a Wicked Problem”
If you’re on the fence about going back to school, curious about our program, or just want to hear what a class in biodefense would be like, check out our course sampler on Wednesday, March 2nd, at 7pm, in our Arlington Campus in Founders Hall, Room 502. “The United States and the world face unprecedented threats to global biosecurity, including emerging infectious diseases, pandemics, natural disasters, bioterrorism, and laboratory accidents. Find out about the challenges posed by these threats and strategies for enhancing global health security.” How many times can you sample a course from not only an expert in the field, but also the director of the program? Dr. Koblentz will be your host for this evening lecture on biodefense, dual-use research, CRISPR-Cas9, biosecurity, and much more. Can’t attend in person? Don’t worry – we’re also live-streaming here. Come join us for a look behind the curtain of not only our GMU graduate programs, but also the world of global health security.

CRISPR and The Battle of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes 
CRISPR-Cas9 technology has been a hot topic since it was discovered and things have only ramped up since a Chinese research team announced last Spring that they successfully edited human embryo genes. While many raised concerns over “designer babies” and genetically modified livestock, the case for genetically modified mosquitoes has also been discussed. What if science could modify mosquito capabilities to carry disease? CRISPR-Cas9 research is getting much closer to making this a reality with the help of two research teams. “The first group, led by Valentino Gantz and Ethan Bier at the University of California–San Diego, and Anthony James at the University of California–Irvine, engineered a gene drive carrying a pair of genes designed to kill the malaria parasite inside the mosquito.The second group, led by Nikolai Windbichler, Andrea Cristanti, and Tony Nolan at the Imperial College London, developed a more brute force approach, building a gene drive that breaks an important mosquito gene and renders the females sterile—a strategy designed to decimate a mosquito population. Both groups reported that, when the genetically modified insects were crossed with wild ones, as much as 99 percent of the offspring carried the modified genes, a clear sign that the gene drives were working.” While field tests are still necessary to establish efficacy, it’s important to note the researchers are taking great strides to ensure public buy-in given the sensitivity of such work. Gene drive is becoming more accessible and the applications appear limitless however, ethical use of this pioneering innovation is crucial for future work.

Climate Change & Zika Virus – What’s the Link?
Somewhere between reporting on CRISPR-Cas9 mosquitoes and Zika updates, it seems like a perfect place to discuss what kind of impact climate change is having on infectious diseases…especially Zika virus. GMU Biodefense MS student and one of our contributors, Greg Mercer elaborates on the role climate change may have on the growing geographical distribution of mosquitoes that pose some of the biggest threats. Greg points out that “exactly how climate change drives the spread of Zika and other diseases is hard to define. In 2013, researchers at the University of Arizona published a paper examining the effect of climate factors on dengue and its Aedes vectors. Their conclusion highlighted just how far scientists still have to go in understanding the climate-disease link: ‘Climate influences dengue ecology by affecting vector dynamics, agent development, and mosquito/human interactions,’ they wrote, but ‘although these relationships are known, the impact climate change will have on transmission is unclear.’ Climate change introduces additional complications into an already complex system, the study authors explained: It’s difficult enough to understand how weather, climate, human interaction, or mosquito behavior contribute to the spread of a virus.” Researchers are now comparing the global distribution of Aedes mosquitoes and the spread of Zika, which leaves many to wonder if the threat of global disease will evolve with that of global climate change.

BARDA Seeks Advanced Public Health Consequence Modeling
The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) is currently working to find partners that can aid in the development of a modeling system that would support federal decision makers in their planning and response to CBRN events. “The tools developed under this acquisition will assist Federal decision makers with medical and public health decision making for the advanced development and implementation of an integrated National medical countermeasures infrastructure (e.g., vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and medical devices).” They’re hoping to build partnerships to establish a network for medical consequence modeling, simulation, visualization, and decision support. BARDA plans to include two functional areas within the network, 1- decision support, reach back, analysis, and modeling (DREAM), and 2- professional services and systems integration (PSSI). “These activities include assisting government decisions makers during the development of preparedness plans, the implementation of response strategies, and communications with a wide variety of stakeholders, both during day to day operations and in the course of declared public health emergencies as part of the BARDA Modeling Coordination Group.” Each functional area will have multiple Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) awards that can be earned and they are encouraging interested stakeholders to submit proposals.

To Zika and Back 

Courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations
Courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations

As Zika virus continues to spread and South Africa reports the first of their cases, many are wondering how these outbreaks tend to go from 0-60 in a hot minute. NIAID director, Anthony Fauci, discusses the reality of disease surveillance and revealed this slide during an interview, of which you can see the global examples of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Dr. Fauci points to the unpredictable nature that is public health and global health security. Global public health is still reeling from the effects and imperfect response of Ebola 2014, coupled with the scrutiny of a response to H1N1 that was considered too zealous. I’ve always considered public health and disease prevention to be the kind of work where few realize when you’ve done your job correctly but when you fail, it’s something you’ll be hearing about for decades. Global health security is challenging on a good day and public health tends to get little funding, especially in the countries that need it most. After the devastation of Ebola and all the after-action reports, many are wondering how did we miss the rise of Zika virus? Dr. Ken Stuart, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research in Seattle, says, “We were unaware of the severity of the disease … [and] were unaware this virus had the capability for getting distributed so rapidly.” Regarding the funding issues that often plague infectious disease efforts, he noted that “this really goes back to funding priorities. Much of the funding devoted to infectious disease today is in reaction to outbreaks. Therefore, we’re not generally prepared to respond quickly. In other cases there are diseases that are very rare but they have an advocacy group that generates research activities. In the case of diseases like Zika, which were isolated in remote areas of the world where that population had no resources or advocacy group, there was no push to do research.We’re not stuck with what we’ve got. There are conversations between federal funding agencies and private organizations to try to prioritize the utilization of their resources, and I would say the NIH has been a leader in supporting the fundamental research that actually, probably positions us best to be prepared to respond to these disease outbreaks.” In other Zika news, a CDC team just arrived in Brazil to study the associated birth defects and the White House is urging Congress to provide emergency funds to support Zika response efforts, rather than just re-directing funds from Ebola-related projects. You can also see a map tracing the spread of Zika and some background here. As of February 24, the CDC has reported 107 travel-associated cases in the U.S.

The Rise of Chikungunya
I always thought it sounded like the name of a monster and in some ways, that’s pretty spot on. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reported 16,668 confirmed and suspected cases of Chikungunya in 2016 so far. Colombia shouldered the majority of 2016 disease burden, with a spike of 1,189 new cases added to their previous count of 5,752. The PAHO is still playing catch-up on their year-end reporting for 2015, but it looks like 28,722 additional infections were added to their 2015 data. These updates mean that this region experienced 726,478 cases in 2015, and with the the new cases reported as of February 19, this current outbreak has been responsible for 1.89 million infections. Starting in 2013, this outbreak began on St. Martin and has been gaining traction ever since. Hopefully with the mosquito-control efforts related to Zika virus, the mosquito population also responsible for Chikungunya will begin to decline.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Breaking Down the Barriers of MDRO’s:  Scientists in the UK have discovered how drug-resistant bacteria create and maintain their defensive wall. Using the Diamond Light Source machine to “investigate in tiny detail a class of bugs known as Gram-negative bacteria”, they were able to find a defensive wall and it’s assembly beta-barrel machinery (BAM). This new research means that future treatments can aim at preventing bacteria from building these defense measures versus just attempting to attack the bacteria itself.
  • Melbourne Measles Outbreak – 14 cases have already been confirmed in the suburb of Brunswick, of which 2 were children from a primary school. Students that attend the same school and are not fully immunized were instructed to stay home to avoid exposure.
  • E. coli Outbreak in Raw Milk – Not surprisingly, a recall has been issued related to unpasteurized raw milk from a local dairy farm in Fresno, CA. 10 people have been confirmed with Shiga-toxin producing E. coli 0157:H7. Thankfully the shelf-life of the product has passed and public health officials, while stating that the investigation is on going, have confirmed that no health alert was issued since the product is believed to no longer be within the marketplace. Moral of the story – avoid raw, unpasteurized milk.

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Pandora Report: 2.19.2016

TGIF! We hope you had a lovely week while avoiding RAW Meal Organic Shake and Meal Replacement products. The FDA recently reported an outbreak of Salmonella Virchow linked to the moringa powder within these products. 11 people across nine states were impacted by the outbreak, leading to an expanded recall due to the contamination. In this week’s Pandora Report, we’re covering Zika virus, CRISPR, GMU’s Biodefense Open House, ISIS use of chemical weapons, and much more. Before we begin, you’ll be happy to hear that as of today, airline passengers flying from Guinea to the US will no longer have to fly through designated airports and undergo screening for Ebola.

Zika Response Plans 
The WHO just released their Zika Strategic Response Framework & Joint Operations Plan for January-June 2016. Within the report, readers can find a timeline of the outbreak, a current situation report (sitrep) and the three objectives, which include surveillance, response, and research. Response strategies include community engagement, control efforts for the Aedes mosquito, and efforts to support and guide “the potential impact on women of childbearing age and those who are pregnant, as well as families with children affected by Zika virus.” The WHO estimates that the community engagement components requires $15.4 million, 10 partners, and will involve public health risk communication, community engagement, and health care personnel. Overall, the WHO estimates that to “kickstart” the international response, it will take $56 million. Fortunately, the World Bank announced it’s commitment of $150 million to combat the growing epidemic. The FDA just released blood donation recommendations related to the outbreak to mitigate risk of contamination. They are recommending that “those at risk of having been infected with the Zika virus should not donate blood for four weeks. These include those who have had Zika virus symptoms or sexual contact with people who have traveled to countries known to have ongoing transmissions.” According to the CDC, as of February 10th, there have been 52 travel-associated Zika virus associated cases in the US. On Thursday, Pope Francis suggested that women could justifiably use contraception to avoid pregnancy in Zika affected countries.

Upcoming Events: SPGIA Master’s Open House and Biodefense Seminar!Biodefense_320x180
Interested in furthering your education and getting to study topics like bioweapons, disease outbreaks, and terrorism? Check out the GMU Master’s Open House on Thursday, February 25th, 6:30pm at our Arlington Campus in Founder’s Hall, Room 126. Dr. Koblentz, GMU biodefense program director and one of our amazing professors, will also be holding an informational session at 7pm. You can even virtually attend if you’re looking to get more details on the biodefense graduate program and what kinds of adventures it entails. Once you’ve gotten your feet wet by attending one of the Open Houses, try our Biodefense Course Sampler on Wednesday, March 2nd, at 7pm in Founders Hall (GMU Arlington Campus), room 502. Dr. Koblentz will be hosting the event to discuss the unique challenges the US faces when it comes to global health security. Ranging from biosafety to natural disasters, and even zombies, this is a great way to get a taste of the GMU Biodefense program! Make sure to RSVP though, since space is limited.

Workshop on Women’s Health in Global Perspective
GMU’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs will be hosting this engaging and informational workshop on March 3, 2016 (8:45am-4:45pm), at our Arlington campus, in Founders Hall 111 and 1113. The keynote address will be from Dr. Nancy Lee, director of the Office of Women’s Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. Panels will discuss contraception and prenatal care, violence against women, dealing with disease, cross border concerns, and the role of gender disparities in women’s health outcomes. Lunch will be provided and while this event is free and open to the public, you’ll need to register here.

ISIS Use of Chemical Weapons
On Friday, CIA director John Brennan, confirmed that ISIS fighters have not only utilized chemical weapons, but also have the means and capabilities to make them. Reports indicate that ISIS is capable of making small quantities of chlorine and mustard gas. Brennan also pointed to potential exportation of chemical weapon to the West for financial incentives, noting that “there’s always a potential for that. This is why it’s so important to cut off the various transportation routes and smuggling routes they have used.” Confirmatory lab results from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) established the definitive presence of mustard gas in the attacks on Kurdish forces last year. “The OPCW will not identify who used the chemical agent. But the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the findings have not yet been released, said the result confirmed that chemical weapons had been used by Islamic State fighters. The samples were taken after the soldiers became ill during fighting against Islamic State militants southwest of Erbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.” Given their successful use of mustard gas and growing concerns over development capabilities, Brennan noted that “US intelligence is actively involved in being part of the efforts to destroy ISIS and to get as much insight into what they have on the ground inside Syria and Iraq.”

Ongoing Challenges and Future Considerations for DHS Biosurveillance Efforts 
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published their findings regarding the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) biosurveillance efforts, specifically the National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) and the BioWatch program. Initial findings in 2009 found that NBIC wasn’t “fully equipped to carry out its mission because it lacked key resources—data and personnel—from its partner agencies, which may have been at least partially the result of collaboration challenges it faced.” Recommendations were made and then in August 2012, NBIC released its Strategic Plan in response to the deficiencies, of which focal points included clarification of its mission and efforts to fulfill its roles of analyzer, coordinator, and innovator. Since 2012 though, GAO has noted several challenges DHS has faced in attempts to justify the BioWatch program. In 2015, “GAO found that DHS lacks reliable information about the current system’s technical capabilities to detect a biological attack, in part because in the 12 years since BioWatch’s initial deployment, DHS has not developed technical performance requirements for the system. GAO reported in September 2015 that DHS commissioned tests of the current system’s technical performance characteristics, but without performance requirements, DHS cannot interpret the test results and draw conclusions about the system’s ability to detect attacks.” Based off their findings, GAO recommended DHS not pursue the upgrades it was considering to the program. Some of the changes NBIC will be pursuing include its modification to the Daily Monitoring List  and better integration of projections and forecasts. You can find the report here, which also includes a table regarding benefits and challenges for structural changes within NBIC. Coincidentally, there was a webinar this week on “Defending Against Bioterror with Improved BioWatch Standards”. During the webinar, the presenters (Dr. Georges Benjamin and Dr. Bruce Budowle) emphasized that BioWatch is an integrated system that “needs to be used with care and caution, but it’s really a marvelous piece of technology.” They also spent time discussing how PCR results may pose problematic for end users and how BioWatch “is a good investment that should continue”.

Mental Health Challenges in Ebola Fighters
The 2014 outbreak left untold damages upon the affected countries. Unfortunately, mental health is one that may have gone unnoticed. While doctors and nurses raced to respond to the outbreak, the response to mental health was given little thought. Fighters in the Ebola battle are now fighting personal struggles with alcoholism, depression, and drug addiction. In countries that have even fewer mental health professionals than medical doctors, many are in desperate need. Some of these include young men that signed up to bury the bodies of Ebola patients in the grassy mud within Liberia. Drew Hinshaw discusses how these “burial boys” found themselves digging graves for their own children and are now left struggling to find work and are suffering from severe PTSD and the emotional effects of such an ordeal. “Liberia has just one psychiatrist for a population of four million, according to the health ministry. Sierra Leone, home to seven million, also has only one. The mental-health wing of the Liberian health ministry has just two staffers on payroll.” The truth is simple- the impact of an outbreak of this magnitude, especially within impoverished countries, has rippling effects that go on for years. Perhaps future outbreak response and preparedness models should include mental health support during and following the outbreak?

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Future of CRISPR– CRISPR technology has been making headlines since it’s initial discovery, especially with Science naming it the Breakthrough of the Year. Its ease of use has raised many red flags for those within the science and biosecurity community. One of its discoverers, Jennifer Doudna, worked to answer questions and dispel concerns regarding mis-use, stating that “she considers it one of her responsibilities as a researcher to ensure that she educates people about the technology and listens to their questions and concerns about its use. She says one of her biggest fears is “waking up one morning and reading about the first CRISPR baby, and having that create a public backlash where people ban or regulators shut this down, and I think that could be very detrimental to the progress of the field.”
  • UK Parliament Report – Lesson Learned from Ebola – The UK Parliament has released their findings on the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the UK’s response efforts. Pointing to the necessity of strong and reliable communication, they emphasized that research must be started swiftly during such events. “The willingness of Government agencies, third sector organisations, health and aid workers, universities, and pharmaceutical companies to go above and beyond to help tackle the outbreak was phenomenal. The swift pace at which clinical trials were approved and conducted particularly stood out.” For updates on the outbreak, you can see the WHO sitrep here.
  • MERS-CoV Updates – A new report from Emerging Infectious Diseases discusses the infection of alpacas in a region where MERS-CoV is endemic. Given the susceptibility of alpacas, this could broaden the geographical distribution of potential cases. Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) has started a Phase 1 clinical trial (the first to be tested in humans) for a MERS-CoV vaccine.

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Pandora Report: 11.27.2015

We hope you’re having a lovely holiday week and recovering from a day of full of tryptophan overload! This week we’re starting off with a look at the Government Accountability Office’s review of the BioWatch program. We’re discussing another panel review of the WHO Ebola response efforts, the role of tacit knowledge in bioweapons development, and how the Beagle Brigade is fighting bioterrorism one belly-rub at a time. Fun history fact Friday: on November 26, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt declared the government would bar strikes “at plants under government contract to provide war materials for the US military and its allies” and on November 25, 1915, Albert Einstein published his equations on the Theory of General Relativity!

Government Accountability Office Finds BioWatch Unreliable
The BioWatch program was introduced in 2003 to perform active environmental surveillance for potential bioweapon use. The struggle has been to accurately discern between organisms that are naturally occurring and those that are being intentionally released. With several false alarms, the program has been under heavy scrutiny. Timothy M. Persons, chief scientist of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), states that authorities “need to have assurance that when the system indicates a possible attack, it’s not crying wolf. You can’t claim it works”. DHS official Jim H. Crumpacker, points out that the system is used as an early warning and there is an inherent level of uncertainty and limitation. The report (published in October but not publicly released until November 23, 2015), which you can read here, states that from 2003-2014, BioWatch made 149 mistaken detections that were “false positives”. The report says that “GAO recommends DHS not pursue upgrades or enhancements for Gen-2 until it reliably establishes the system’s current capabilities.”

Expert Review of Ebola Outbreak Response
A 19 member review panel, convened by the Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reviewed the Ebola outbreak response as a gateway to “public debates alongside reports on outbreak response and preparedness”. Led by Dr. Peter Piot, one of the scientists to discover Ebola in 1976, the group pointed to several issues needing attention on a global scale. Findings pushed for the WHO to reorganize their disease outbreak functions and streamline processes to “avoid political pressure, build country core capacities, and ensure adequate funding”. The ten suggested reforms heavily emphasize the importance of core capacities within countries to be able to detect and respond to outbreaks. Strengthening a country’s capacity to do surveillance, response, and prevention is crucial in reducing the risk of multi-national outbreaks that spread like wildfire. The report also suggests incentives for early outbreak reporting and more science-based justifications for economic impacts like travel restrictions, etc.

Tacit Knowledge and the Bioweapons Convention
GMU Biodefense Professor, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, takes on the August 2015 Biological Weapons Convention and the exciting inclusion of tacit knowledge in bioweapons development. Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley has contributed heavily to the field of biodefense, specifically on the role that tacit knowledge plays as a key determinant of bioweapons development. In past nonproliferation efforts, tacit knowledge has been widely neglected. Tacit knowledge “consists of unarticulated skills, know-how, or practices that cannot be easily translated into words, but are essential in the success of scientific endeavors.” Simply put, it takes more than a manual or YouTube video to truly perform a scientific experiment, etc. Tacit knowledge is seen in scientists that have spent years not only learning, but experiencing the quirks and challenges of performing experiments. The lessons of failed endeavors, teachings of fellow scientists, and instincts built by years of experience, are all components in tacit knowledge. Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley points to the role tacit knowledge has played in the history of failed bioweapons programs (state and non-state). While some analysts believe the advancing biotechnologies will “de-skill” the field and lower the bar for bioweapons development, Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley highlights that tacit knowledge is a massive roadblock. Pointing towards the new focus on tacit knowledge, she notes that this will only help “advance key mandates of the bioweapons convention, naming the assessment of new technologies, the improvement of national implementation, and the strengthening of cooperation among member states.”

The New Line of Biodefense: Adorable Dogs

Courtesy of BarkPost
Courtesy of BarkPost

There are few times when I get to combine a love of rescue dogs and biodefense nerdom and fortunately, today is that day! The Beagle Brigade is a group of rescue beagles that have been specially trained “to sense for items used for bioterror which include contraband money, pests, and unlawful wildlife”. Even more, the Beagle Brigade is part of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). They work in baggage-claim areas at international airports, wearing green jackets, to help identify any meat, animal byproducts, fruit, or vegetables that could be carrying any diseases or pests that have the potential to cause a devastating outbreak in the US. They’ve been specially trained to pick up “restricted” (fruit, vegetable, etc.) versus non-restricted items and have a 90% success rate! I think we can safely say the Beagle Brigade wins the award for “most adorable biodefense strategy”.

Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes Battle Malaria 
Recently published work shows how researchers used “a controversial method called ‘gene drive’ to ensure that an engineered mosquito would pass on its new resistance genes to nearly all of its offspring – not just half, as would normally be the case.” These “mutant mosquitoes” are engineered to resist the parasite that causes malaria infections. This particular work solves the issue that many were facing when it came to passing down resistant genes through a species. While this may mark the end of a long battle against malaria, many are pointing to the ethical and dual-use concerns of such work. The growing concern surrounds the high speed of such technological innovation and the lagging of regulatory and policy guidelines, especially regarding work in wild populations. The potential to alter an entire ecosystem has many concerned over the ramifications of such work. The research team is currently working to prepare mosquitoes for field tests, however they are non-native mosquitoes.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Stories From A Biodefense PhD Student- GMU Biodefense PhD student, Craig Wiener, discusses his journey from master’s student to PhD candidate. Craig explains what sparked his interest in not only biodefense, but GMU’s program, and how that’s translated into real-world experiences. “Mason has provided me the depth and breadth of knowledge that I needed to converse with senior policymakers, technologists, and scientists,” he says. “It bridged the gap between science and policy so I could be respected in both worlds because I knew what I was talking about.”
  • East Bronx Legionnaires’ Outbreak Traced to Psychiatric Center–  The New York City Health Department announced that the cooling tower at  the Bronx Psychiatric Centre was the likely source of the break that hit East Bronx earlier this fall. Samples from four cases matched those taken from the water tower. Remediation and disinfection is being performed on the water tower.
  • Liberia Reports Death of Boy – A boy who was part of the family cluster of Ebola cases in Liberia, has died of the disease. The 15-year-old boy was one of the three confirmed cases reported on November 20th, which marked the end of the Ebola-free period for Liberia since September 3rd. There are currently 153 contacts and 25 healthcare workers being monitored.

Pandora Report 10.30.2015

The witching hour is upon us! Halloween is tomorrow and with that we must ask, how good are your zombie fighting skills? Good news if you’re in Arlington, VA, as it’s considered one of the top ten cities to survive the zombie apocalypse – good thing GMU has a campus there (we biodefense folks are the ultimate planners!). This week was busy with the release of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense’s National Report. I was able to attend the panel event, so read on for my comments and your weekly dose of biodefense news!

DSC_3586GMU Biodefense Program News & Alumni 
We’ve added a new page to salute our biodefense alumni and all that they do with their GMU education. GMU Biodefense students have a diverse background in their education, experiences, and interests, and we absolutely love getting to brag about all the amazing things they accomplish after their studies. Whether it’s a new publication or an award, we hope to pass along their accolades, so please check out our new page to see how GMU Biodefense alumni are contributing to the world of global health security!

12111966_10104338304988922_3051154411712634566_n-1Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense Releases Report– I had the pleasure of attending the Blue Ribbon panel on Wednesday, in which they reviewed their report, “A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts”. The panel event saw Senator Joe Lieberman, former Governor Tom Ridge, and former Homeland Security Advisor, Kenneth L. Wainstein, discuss the challenges of biodefense, the report, and answer several questions regarding their findings. The report is comprised of 33 recommendations that range from unification of biodefense budgeting to optimizing the National Biosurveillance Integration System and to improving surveillance and planning for animal and zoonotic outbreaks. Along with these 33 recommendations, there are 100 action items. Perhaps one of the biggest take-aways from the report is the recommendation that the Office of the Vice President of the US assume authority over biodefense efforts. There is heavy emphasis on a unified budget and centralization to combat the redundancy and current siloing we see in existing programs.  Senator Lieberman discussed the role of the research and private sector’s involvement, with former Gov. Ridge noting that “we need to start thinking differently about how we incentivize the private sector.” The panel discussed that despite our past efforts, the Ebola outbreak in 2014 showed that the “threat is real, lets not wait for it to occur” and as former Gov. Ridge noted, “we don’t give bioweapon threats the attention they need. The threat is ahead of us.” Senator Lieberman commented on the Ebola situation,  noting that our response was dismal and despite 10 months of warning, basic human errors led to a failure in providing hospitals with general guidelines. Whether it is an intentional bioweapons attack, outbreak of an emerging infectious disease, or unintentional, accidental release due to lab safety errors, the panel’s goal of having centralized leadership reveals the complex nature of these challenges. Also, did I mention that they included infection control in their guidelines (#18)?! Overall, I found the event highly engaging and was pleased to hear the panel members approach these topics with not only a sense of urgency, but a holistic manner to meet the challenges of biodefense.

Jump Start – Accelerating Government Response to A National Biological Crisis
UPMC Center for Health Security has released their July 2015 report that “examines a scenario in which the US is suddenly faced with a newly emerged intentional biological threat that could produce catastrophic public health consequences and threaten our economy, government, and social structure.” The report reviews governance, public health response, medical countermeasures, healthcare system response, decontamination and remediation, and environmental detection, while making recommendations. Utilizing published literature and subject matter expert interviews, the Jump Start report scenario occurs in central Moscow subway stations and Red Square. It discusses responses in a post-Amerithrax world and highlights the need to stop the spread of infectious diseases while emphasizing that in a similar scenario, the US government should push out table-top exercises at a national level to test readiness to biothreats. The role of healthcare infrastructure and capacity comes into play, highlighting the limitations that diagnostic testing plays – even if the solutions aren’t available. I’d be curious to see a more detailed analysis of how we approach novel agents and the time-lag this can often cause in diagnosis. Also – what would be the ethical dilemmas regarding invasive medical treatments for a novel agent? Medical ethics became a very real issue during Ebola preparedness (perhaps not as well discussed in media circuits) as the invasive care capabilities of healthcare professionals in the US correlates with increasing risk for disease transmission.

White House Calls for Better Biosafety –  As fallout from several lab safety breaches, the White House issued recommendations that focus on labs that are registered to work with pathogens from the Select Agents list. Ranging from increased training to assessing the number of high containment labs we have in the US, this memo, with a deadline for the recommendations, sets the tone for change when it comes to biosafety.

Saudi Arabi MERS Cluster – reports from Saudi Arabi’s Ministry of Health have confirmed a healthcare-associated cluster of MERS-CoV cases that involved seven individuals. The initial patient was seen in the emergency department of Almana General Hospital, with five other patients exposed in the hospital, and an additional case that is believed to not have had a healthcare exposure. All patients are under observation in the King Fahad Hospital. One of the patients is reported to be a nurse. In previous weeks, there was a cluster of cases related to janitors living together in Riyadh.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The African Development Bank Group (AfDB) has approved a $33.3 million grant towards a Post Ebola Recovery Social Investment Fund (PERSIF) for efforts in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The US State Department is contributing a $5 million grant towards this to help support livelihood development for women, girls, and orphans from the affected countries. The goal is to build resilience in the affected countries and strengthen the economic systems while improving governance and communication.
  • Nigeria was just removed from the WHO’s list of polio-endemic countries! After halting the spread of wild poliovirus transmission during a 15 month period, Nigeria was declared free of the disease! The WHO is continuing to work on the remaining two polio-endemic countries; Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Three more cases of Ebola in Guinea were reported this week. The three patients are all family members, with one being a pregnant woman. Guinea experienced several cases last week while Liberia has been EVD-free since September 3rd and Sierra Leone just passed their six week mark without a new case.
  • The WHO announces that TB surpassed HIV as the leading cause of death from infectious disease in 2014. Better surveillance enabled global public health teams to identify new cases. In Indonesia alone, there were one million new cases reported this year. The WHO notes that while surveillance efforts are revealing new cases, progress is still insufficient, especially in regards to drug resistance.

 

Biodefense Graduates: Brian Mazanec

GMU Biodefense Graduate Brian Mazanec’s Deterring Cyber Warfare: Bolstering Strategic Stability in Cyberspace (written with Bradley Thayer) was released on December 5. The book looks at cyber warfare, which is especially relevant after the latest North Korean cyber attack on Sony. The description of the book follows:

Deterrence theory was well developed during the Cold War for the deterrence of kinetic attacks. While the deterrence of cyber attacks is one of the most important issues facing the United States and other nations, the application of deterrence theory to the cyber realm is problematic.
This study offers an introduction to cyber warfare and a review of the challenges associated with deterring cyber attacks. Mazanec and Thayer recommend efforts in three specific areas to aid the deterrence of major cyber attacks: by cultivating beneficial norms for strategic stability; by continuing efforts in the area of improving cyber forensics and defences; and, finally, by developing and communicating a clear declaratory policy and credible options for deterrence-in-kind so as to make escalation unavoidable and costly. This timely study reflects increased international interest in cyber warfare, and is based on the recognition that information networks in cyberspace are becoming operational centres of gravity in armed conflict.
Deterring Cyber Warfare is Prime eligible which means, if you’re a member, you can get it just in time for Christmas! You can order online here.