Pandora Report 2.23.2018

Happy Friday fellow biodefense friends! Curious about human migrant history? Ancient DNA is giving us some insight into our ancestors movements and habits. FluMist also just got the green light for use next flu season.

 Crossing the Rubicon: Horsepox Synthesis
Julius Caesar is said to have stated “alea iacta est” (the die is cast) as he led his army across the Rubicon river, triggering a point of no return in Roman history. In many ways, the horsepox synthesis is considered a new Rubicon for synthetic biology and the life sciences. While the lead researcher of the project and the private company backing it cite desires to advance progress in the pursuit of a new smallpox vaccine and identifying gaps (“Our hope is that this work will promote new and informed public health discussions relating to synthetic biology, stimulate new evaluation of [horsepox]-based vaccines, and advance the capacity to rapidly produce next-generation vaccines and poxvirus-based therapeutics.“), many are asking if they put profits ahead of public safety. The research team claimed they chose to synthesize the virus because they could obtain it no other way, but a recent article by NPR is challenging this. “There was another possibility, NPR has learned. Evans could have done research on a specimen of horsepox collected from the wild, but he didn’t pursue that alternative. He says using the natural virus might have prevented the pharmaceutical company he is working with from commercializing horsepox as a new vaccine for smallpox. But the head of the company told NPR that he had not been aware that this stored sample of horsepox was potentially available — and would not have wanted to synthesize the virus from scratch if he had known.” So now that we’ve ventured across the river, it seems that we may be learning more about dual-use research in general. Gregory Lewis notes that “Beyond the immediate issue of whether the horsepox work should have been performed (or published), the horsepox synthesis story highlights a more general challenge facing dual-use research in biotechnology: the unilateralist’s curse.” Lewis describes the unilateralist’s curse – “imagine that 100 scientists are individually deciding whether it would be a good idea to synthesize horsepox. All of them act impartially and in good faith: They would only conduct this work if they really thought it was on balance good for humankind. Each of them independently weighs up the risks and benefits of synthesizing horsepox, decides whether it is wise to do so, and acts accordingly. The situation arises from the fact that, if synthesis of horsepox is not to occur, all 100 scientists must independently decide not to pursue it; while if any of the scientists judges the benefits to outweigh the risks, he or she acts unilaterally to synthesize horsepox. Thus there is an ‘action bias’: Horsepox synthesis is more likely to occur when scientists act independently than when they agree to a decision as a group.” Has the quest for the “first strike” in scientific discovery outweighed the risks of dual-use research? The horsepox synthesis has cast a bright light upon the challenges of DURC oversight and the gaps we are struggling to even acknowledge. 

Examining Challenges & Possible Strategies to Strengthen U.S. Health Security
The National Academies of Science have released the latest proceedings of a workshop regarding the progress that has been made in the last 15 years towards improving health security, but also the gaps that exist. “On March 8–9, 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness for Disasters and Emergencies hosted a two-day public workshop to acknowledge these persistent issues; to evaluate past, and perhaps inadequate, approaches to addressing them; and to discuss intentional and innovative new solutions. This publication summarizes the presentations and discussions from the workshop.” The report includes proposed priorities and challenges, underlying issues in health security, and potential strategies for strengthening American health security. Such strategies include developing a shared agenda, promoting a culture of learning and sharing, building the evidence base for policy and operations, etc. “Levy called for a paradigm shift toward conceptualizing health care, public health, the business community, and other sectors as parts of a whole that need to be integrated to provide a better environment for the community at large and better care for the community on a day-to-day basis.” Optimizing the exchange of information was also discussed, as was ensuring the interoperability of data across multiple systems. Participants also examined the financial components of health security and making the business case for investment.

 Biohacker’s Remorse
Last year saw contaminated CRISPR DIY kits hit Europe, but it did little to calm the biohacking stunts of Odin CEO Josiah Zayner. In a recent article, Zayner pointed to the moment another biotech CEO dropped trouser and injected himself with an untested herpes treatment mid-conference, as a wakeup call. “’Honestly, I kind of blame myself,’ Zayner told me recently. He’s been in a soul-searching mood; he recently had a kid and the backlash to the CRISPR stunt in October had been getting to him. ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually,’ he said.” Zayner says his past actions were efforts to provoke people in the industry who are involved in regulation and ethics in regards to roadblocks for CRISPR and DIY kits, noting that it’s a moral and ethical dilemma. Unfortunately, his sentiments aren’t doing much for those who feel his actions were attention-seeking stunts and he has yet to prove his concern for the DIY CRISPR risks. In case anyone was wondering if Zayner is still up to his old tricks, he also provided his latest video (Gut Hack) in which he attempts to give himself a fecal transplant. While this sounds gross (and it is), what’s more concerning is that an unlicensed and untrained individual is attempting to perform a very specific task that requires a stringent infection control guidelines and procedures. For those of us who have spent years working to perfect policies and practices so this medical procedure can be used to treat patients suffering from Clostridium difficile, this is not something to be taken lightly and isn’t exactly a good indicator that Zayner has learned from his mishaps. 

When Poor Infection Control Results In A Lawsuit
Who is responsible when hospitals decide to neglect infection prevention and control? A critical component to patient safety during medical care, infection control failures can result in the spread of infection – like the transmission of Ebola to healthcare workers. A recent court decision may be setting precedent for infection control responsibility during outbreaks. A Seoul court recently ordered the South Korean government to pay compensation to a patient who acquired MERS-CoV after the government failed to implement infection control. The patient “became infected while being admitted at a hospital in Daejeon where patient 16 was staying. Patient 16 moved there not knowing that had been infected by a different person, identified as patient 1 who infected 28 others, at Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital in Gyeonggi Province. Patient 1, who had been admitted to St. Mary’s more than two weeks after returning from a trip to Bahrain, a Middle Eastern country, May 4, reported suspected symptoms of MERS with health authorities the morning of May 18. However, the Korea Centers for Disease and Prevention (KCDC) dismissed it, saying the country had no reports of a MERS outbreak.” The court notes that if quarantine would have been implemented appropriately, it could have stopped the spread.

Budgeting for Medical Countermeasures
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s latest report highlights not only the growing concern for infectious disease threats, but also the role of medical countermeasures. Pointing to Project Bioshield and the procurement of 27 medical countermeasures, the white paper “will summarize the progress to date in procuring medical countermeasures and prior congressional funding mechanisms for Project BioShield. It will also discuss ways to optimize funding for medical countermeasures so that the existing public-private partnership can continue to thrive: namely, by restoring the program’s original multi-year funding structure.”

Can Nanoparticles Help Us Battle Antimicrobial Resistance?
As news emerges of an extensively drug-resistant (XDR) typhoid strain in Pakistan, it’s hard to imagine winning the battle of the resistant bug. Can nanoparticles tackle AMR? A research team led by Andrea O’Connor at the University of Melbourne is taking on antimicrobial resistance through nanoparticles and collaboration with a nearby hospital. “Together, the team found that selenium (a mineral that humans require in their diets to boost immunity and aid metabolism) in the form of nanoparticles can stop the growth of bacteria such as ‘Golden Staph’ (Staphylococcus aureus). Their findings are published in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science. They think the nanoparticles do this by disrupting the membrane around the bacteria. ‘One of the ways that these nanoparticles can attack bacteria is by disrupting that membrane so they make the bacteria leaky, and then things can pass in and out of the bacteria in a way they normally wouldn’t’.” The team hopes that selenium nanoparticles have potential applications for when antibiotic efficiency dwindles, especially in terms of chronic wounds. Their nanoparticles have been tested against nine different kinds of bacteria and have found success against all of them.

 Tales From A Virus Hunter
With CDC and global health security funding in a dire situation, the days of virus hunters trekking through jungles and providing boots-on-the-ground support for outbreaks may be in jeopardy. Dr C.J. Peters is one of the old school virus hunters who tackled Rift Valley Fever and Bolivian hemorrhagic fever in their early days. “Peters was a virus hunter. That often meant spending time in the field, mostly in Latin America but also in Africa, where the work was interesting and the bosses far away. ‘If you’re in the shadow of the flagpole from headquarters, you’re in trouble,’ he explained. ‘Because there will be somebody poking into everything you’re doing.’ Virus hunting today is not what it used to be. There is still adventure to be had, with bold scientists seeking to uncover the mysteries of the unseen world and ultimately benefit human health. But things have also changed.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Flu Vaccine Act– Last week several US senators released their proposal to invest $1 billion in research for a universal flu vaccine over the next five years. “From a total investment of $1 billion, the proposed law would direct $200 million each year over fiscal years 2019 through 2023 to universal flu vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to a press release from Markey’s office. For comparison, he said the NIH’s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) spent about $64 million in fiscal year 2017 on universal flu vaccine research.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 2.9.2018

Happy Friday fellow biodefense enthusiasts! The Winter Olympics are already starting off with a bang as Korean health officials have confirmed 128 cases of norovirus among security personnel, police officers, and Olympic workers.

WHO Releases List of Blueprint Priority Diseases
The WHO has just released their annual review of the Blueprint list of priority diseases, which includes a special tool for “determining which diseases and pathogens to prioritize for research and development in public health emergency contexts”. While the list includes diseases like Ebola, MERS and SARS, Nipah, and Zika, it is the inclusion of Disease X that highlights the unknowns of infectious diseases in the future.  “Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease, and so the R&D Blueprint explicitly seeks to enable cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown ‘Disease X’ as far as possible.”

BioWatch Documents Left Behind on Flight
Biowatch officials are doing a bit of a damage control at the moment as multiple copies of an official DHS document regarding performances during a bioterrorism simulation were left behind on an airplane prior to the Super Bowl. The errant document offered a critique of how officials performed during a simulated release of the infectious disease anthrax in Minneapolis on the day of the Super Bowl. Other sensitive material was also found, CNN said, without further description.” Ironically, it was a CNN employee who discovered the forgotten papers in the seat-back pocket of a commercial plane. “The reports were accompanied by the travel itinerary and boarding pass of the government scientist in charge of BioWatch, the DHS program that conducted the anthrax drills in preparation for Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. The reports were based on exercises designed to evaluate the ability of public health, law enforcement and emergency management officials to engage in a coordinated response were a biological attack to be carried out in Minneapolis on Super Bowl Sunday.” CNN waited to publish the incident until after Sunday’s game, but the papers revealed significant areas for response improvement during a bioterrorism incident. While not surprising, the identification of such gaps is critical for improvement however, it is the concerning nature of which they were left behind. Vulnerabilities are always present, but that doesn’t mean we want them being aired in the open for nefarious actors to utilize.

 GMU Biodefense PhD Student Selected As ELBI Fellow 
The Biodefense Graduate Program in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University is proud to announce that PhD student Yong-Bee Lim has been selected for the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellowship (ELBI) program within the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Selected from a group of over 120 international applicants, the 2018 ELBI class includes professionals and scholars with a passion for health security and biosecurity. This year-long fellowship will deepen the biosecurity expertise and broaden the network of those passionate about furthering the field. Yong-Bee was also the recipient of an internship with the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the SB7.0 Fellowship, which supported his attendance of an international synthetic biology conference in Singapore. His selection also marks the third consecutive year that the Schar School’s Biodefense program has had graduate students named ELBI fellows. Congrats Yong-Bee!

Smallpox Signalling
It’s been a couple of weeks since PLOS One published the horsepox synthesis paper and the truth is that many are still in awe that not only such work was done, but that it was published. Where were broader discussions regarding the merits of this research? Conversations about need to publish it? Moreover, what about the importance of oversight in the private biotech arena and not just those with federal funding? One thing is for certain though, this is a critical moment for life sciences and DURC oversight. “A vaccine against smallpox already exists. The research was carried out unilaterally, without a broader discussion of the merits beforehand. There are apparently few oversight mechanisms when experiments are done with private funding. The restrictions that now cover dual-use research funded by U.S. government — which include an independent review process, and a weighing of the risks and benefits, as well as the ethics — should be expanded to private-sector research.”

Topics of Interest at the DHS Meeting on Sequences of Interest
Synthetic biology has led to the creation of new products, markets, companies, and industries. At the same time, this technology poses potential risks to biosafety and biosecurity, as recently demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox virus, a cousin of variola, the virus that causes smallpox.  On January 29-30, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate sponsored a workshop to discuss the evolving role of databases that contain genetic sequences of pathogens and toxins that pose safety or security concerns, termed “sequences of interest.” The workshop brought together stakeholders from government, industry, and academia to discuss the need for such databases, review current databases and those under development, explore potential applications and users of these types of databases, and consider the potential risks that they pose due to malicious or inadvertent misuse. The workshop provided a valuable opportunity to explore the scientific and technical aspects of constructing such databases, maintenance and sustainability challenges, and the trade-offs involving functionality, accessibility, affordability, confidentiality, and security. While the workshop did not produce a consensus on the best path forward, it played an important role in educating the participants on the most critical issues and facilitating a dialogue among a diverse range of stakeholders on this important topic.  The workshop also came at a propitious time as stakeholders grapple with the changing landscape of the biotech industry and advances in DNA synthesis technology.  For instance, the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, a group of the leading DNA synthesis companies that have adopted customer and sequence screening protocols to prevent the misuse of their products, has expanded in size and geographic scope and recently updated its biosecurity protocols. The U.S. government is also reviewing the customer and sequence screening guidance it issued in 2010 and is considering whether, and how, to update it.  Should a decision be made to proceed, stakeholder engagement would be a significant part of the review, just as it was a significant part of the guidance’s original development.

The US Can’t Afford to Reduce Public Health Funding
GMU biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is evaluating the decision to reduce funding for global epidemic prevention activities and just how dangerous that would be for the United States. “Recent reporting suggests that the Trump administration is preparing to downsize the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) global epidemic prevention activities in 39 of 49 countries starting in 2019 when funding first authorized by Congress in 2014 expires. Such a move is potentially dangerous and could place the U.S. at significant risk.” Gerstein points to the notion of shared responsibility in global health security and how important efforts like the GHSA are for global public health. He also notes that the last decade alone has revealed just how undeniable public health is as a national security issue. “Without renewed funding, the long-term outlook could include weakened global disease surveillance and response systems, less capable partner nations and an increased likelihood of global disease outbreaks that would undoubtedly threaten the U.S.” Wanting more information regarding the implications of CDC cutting back on their global health security funding? Check out this article regarding the funding cliff the CDC is about to fall off.

Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia
The latest book from Raymond A. Zilinskas and Philippe Mauger delves into the biodefense world of Putin’s Russia. “In March 2012, at a meeting convened by the recently reelected Russian president Vladimir Putin, Minister of Defense Serdyukov informed Mr. Putin that a plan was being prepared for ‘the development of weapons based on new physical principles: radiation, geophysical wave, genetic, psychophysical, etc.’ Subsequently, in response to concerns expressed both in Russia and abroad, the Russian government deleted the statement from the public transcript of the meeting. But the question remains: Is Russia developing an offensive biological warfare program?”

Global Monitoring of Disease Outbreak Preparedness
The Harvard Global Health Institute has released their new report that is “a step towards developing a shared framework and monitoring mechanism” for outbreak response and preparedness. “This report is primarily intended for the community of policymakers and researchers concerned about the rising risks of domestic, regional, and global infectious disease epidemics, and the collective failure to take the coordinated actions required to reduce such risks. These risks include the expected health, economic, and societal costs that are borne by countries, regions, and even all nations in the case of pandemics (which are worldwide epidemics). These risks also include the consequences of increasing antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and its spread within regions and globally.” The report focuses on strengthening public health capacity as a foundation, improving S&T, reinforcing risk analysis and incentives for action, strengthening global mechanisms, and revised shared monitoring framework and next steps.

 The Fearsome Future of Flu
This year has been rough for seasonal flu and while it has been a cold dose of reality in terms of hospital response, are we really learning our lesson or just running from fire to fire? 2018 marks the centennial of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic and with a larger, more connected population, have we made ourselves safer? The next flu virus with pandemic potential will either enhance our response capabilities or exploit our most damning weaknesses. “And influenza viruses excel at the element of surprise. Few would have guessed Mexico as the origin of that 2009 H1N1 pandemic, for example, notes Fukuda. That outbreak was recognized in San Diego—never considered a hotspot—when a little girl happened to seek treatment at a clinic participating in a study focused on diagnosis, Adalja explains. That’s why he believes it is important to build up the diagnostic capacity for frontline clinicians, and not be satisfied with non-specific diagnoses—failing to pin down the specific microbial cause.” Unfortunately, we are still practicing the methods of frenzied response, delayed information sharing, and dangerous hysteria that can spread even faster through social media. These concerns highlight yet another reason why we need a universal flu vaccine.

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Event: Healthcare Disaster Resilience
Don’t miss this event at the National Press Club Holeman Lounge on Thursday, February 22nd from 8:30-10am EST. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security will release new policy recommendations for building a more effective disaster health system in the United States. Speakers include Dr. Luciana Borio from the White House National Security Council staff, Sally Phillips of HHS, Linda Langston from the National Association of Counties, as well as Drs.Tom Inglesby, Eric Toner, Monica Schoch-Spana from the Center for Health Security.

 Genetic Sequencing and the Dangers of DIY Genome Editing
Nebula Genomics will sequence your genome for just under $1,000 and you can even share it using a blockchain.  “Nebula is the brainchild of geneticist George Church, PhD student Dennis Grishin, and graduate Kamal Obbad, all from Harvard. Mirza Cifric, CEO of Veritas Genetics, which offers a genome-sequencing service for $999, is a founding advisor. When you pay to take a DNA test—through 23andMe, Helix, or Ancestry.com, for example—the company that does the testing owns your genetic data. Nebula wants to sequence people’s entire genomes and let them own it, allowing them to earn digital money by sharing it.” While professionals may be providing your genomic data through these companies, many are looking to actually learn to experiment with genes themselves. DIY gene therapy is becoming increasingly accessible, which has many worried and the FDA issuing a warning to the public. The FDA, on “November 21 cautioned against do-it-yourself (DIY) gene therapies. But even as the agency’s statement also warned that selling gene editing kits aimed at homemade therapeutics is illegal, CRISPR–Cas9 kits are available to buy online, and the number of providers is growing, raising concerns that DIY gene therapy enthusiasts could be putting themselves and others at risk.”

Biodefense Policy Landscape Analysis Tool
B-PLAT is a new tool from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientists Rachel Bartholomew and Kristin Omberg that aims to help coordinate national biodefense preparedness. It “captures and presents a slew of information about U.S. efforts to protect its citizens and others around the world from threats as diverse as the flu, diseases like Ebola, threats from terrorists, potential risks to water and food supplies, and myriad other concerns. The tool is freely available. In 2017, PNNL chartered an internally funded working group, the Policy Wranglers, to capture relevant biodefense policy directives, public laws, and corresponding sections of the U.S. Code, in a format conducive to visualization. The resulting tool can be utilized to better understand the current state of the U.S. biodefense enterprise.” A presentation on B-LAT will also be made at ASM’s Biothreats next week as part of a town hall on Tuesday.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • US Battles IV Bag Shortage During Record-Setting Severe Flu Season – GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking at the impacts of this IV bag shortage during the severe flu season. “Even prior to Hurricane Maria, the United States was already battling challenges with meeting the demand for IV fluids; however, the storm crippled Puerto Rico-based manufacturing sites for materials. In a news release on January 16, the FDA reported that they were taking additional steps to combat the shortages, such as ‘asking companies to submit data to extend expiration dates for these products.’ They noted that, ‘if expiration dates can be safety extended [for these products], it would allow some near-expiry product that remains at the hospital level to be used’.”
  • DARPA Program to Track Genetic Markers for Past WMD Material Exposure – “The program is being called Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO), and its endgame is the creation of a field-deployable system that could analyze someone’s epigenome and identify markers of whether or not–in that person’s entire lifetime–been exposed to WMD-associated materials. DARPA officials are billing it as worlds quicker than sending to a lab to test for biological or chemical agents in clothing or hair.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 1.26.2018

In this week’s Pandora Report we’re taking a trip down the horsepox synthesis rabbit hole, looking at influenza transmission, and so much more. But first..the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just announced that the Doomsday Clock has been moved and is now two minutes to midnight. You can also read the full testimony from Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, during the US Senate Committee hearing on the reauthorization of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act. The Senate has also just confirmed Alex Azar as the new head of Health and Human Services.

The Perilous Road of Horsepox Synthesis 
Unless you were in a state of flu-induced delirium, last Friday was a rather big day in with world of dual-use research of concern (DURC) news. The controversial publication of Dr. Evans’ synthesis of horsepox has brought about a flurry of discussion and debate regarding the implications of not only such research, but also the publication of it. Kai Kupferschmidt provided an overview of the history of this paper and what its publication means, so if you’re needing a refresher, I’d start there. As many within the biodefense and biosecurity industry read the paper, it sparked a renewed concern for how such research has exhumed a gap within DURC oversight and publication review. GMU’s biodefense guru and graduate program director Gregory Koblentz expanded upon his thoughts regarding these oversight failures. Pointing to not only the utter disaster that a smallpox re-emergence would be, he also evaluates the PLOS editorial statement and review of DURC work. “Given the serious potential risks that this research could be used to recreate variola virus, the blanket assertion by the PLOS Dual-Use Research Committee that the benefits of this research outweighs the risks is woefully insufficient. The committee dramatically understates the risks and overestimates the benefits this research presents. The U.S. government has outlined a number of factors to consider and questions to ask about dual-use research when weighing the risks and benefits of conducting and publishing such research. Although this research did not fall under current U.S. regulations on dual-use research of concern, the authors and publisher were well aware of the risks that I and others had raised and they had an ethical responsibility to carefully consider those risks before publishing the article.” NTI’s Dr. Elizabeth Cameron, VP of Global Biological Policy and Programs, weighed in on the publication and how it underlines the need for dialogue at a global level to reduce biological risks. Cameron notes that these hurdles aren’t getting smaller and the incremental approach just isn’t getting us where we need to be. “Moving forward, it’s clear that the capability to create and modify biological agents is outpacing governmental oversight and public debate. Now more than ever, scientific stakeholders, private sector actors, and biotechnology leaders should develop and take specific actions to mitigate risk and accelerate biosecurity innovation.” Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, has also put forth commentary on the horsepox synthesis, pointing to the lack of clear-cut benefits and and that ultimately, it created a new risk. Inglesby notes that “The most important locus of control should be whether specific research is approved and funded in the first place. When scientists are considering the pursuit of research that has the potential to increase highly consequential national population-level risks, national authorities and leading technical experts on those issues should be part of the approval process. When there are highly consequential international population-level implications, international public health leaders should also be involved. When researchers put forth claims about potential benefits of this work to justify extraordinary risks, those claims ought not be accepted without discussion; those claims should instead be examined by disinterested experts with the expertise to validate or refute them.” GMU biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu also discussed the importance of this publication and why medical providers and researchers should be paying attention to the DURC debate.

ASM Biothreats
The American Society for Microbiology will be hosting their annual conference on biological threats from February 12-14 in Baltimore, MD. If you’re not able to attend, we’ve got you covered with in-depth reporting and analysis by some of GMU’s finest biodefense graduate students. Following the conference, we’ll be providing this report-out as we did with the 2017 conference, so make sure to check back for the scoop on all things ASM Biothreats.

Chemical Weapons – No Impunity
The International Partnership Against the Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons has just been launched! “Ringing together around 30 countries and international organizations, its purpose is to supplement the international mechanisms to combat the proliferation of chemical weapons. This intergovernmental initiative deals exclusively with the issue of impunity for the perpetrators of chemical attacks worldwide, and is a forum for cooperation in which the participating States have made several commitments that include gathering, compiling, and retaining all available information on those who use chemical weapons, etc.” Efforts like this are increasingly needed as the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been met with little adverse outcome for those at fault. GMU’s Dr. Gregory Koblentz highlighted Syria’s CW killchain, noting that “Bringing these criminals to justice, however, will be a long, slow, and difficult process. Many individuals who comprise Syria’s chemical weapons kill chain were listed in a U.N. Security Council resolution that was vetoed by Russia and China on Feb. 28.” Koblentz also points out that “So far, the only concrete steps to hold these individuals accountable for their actions are financial sanctions and travel bans imposed by the U.S. and European governments. Although the sanctions themselves are largely symbolic, by identifying these individuals and specifying their role in the chemical attacks, the United States and its European allies are laying the groundwork for future prosecutions once Assad is no longer in power.”

Germ Transmission While Flying
Dr. Nereyda Sevilla, George Mason Biodefense PhD 2017 alum, presented the results of her dissertation at the Transportation Research Board (TRB) 97th Annual Meeting held January 7–11, 2018, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, D.C. The information-packed program attracted more than 13,000 transportation professionals from around the world. Nereyda’s poster entitled “Germs on a Plane:  The Transmission and Risks of Airplane-Borne Diseases” was part of the Young Professional’s Research in Aviation Session.  Her research explored the role of air travel in the spread of infectious diseases, specifically Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), H1N1, Ebola, and pneumonic plague. She concluded that modeling showed that the spread of Ebola and pneumonic plague is minimal and should not be a major air travel concern if an individual becomes infected. On the other hand, H1N1 and SARS have higher infectious rates and air travel will facilitate disease spread across the country.

Schar School Career Fair
Schar School students and employers looking for talented graduate students – on Wednesday, February 14th from 2-5pm, GMU’s Schar School will be hosting a Career Fair at the Arlington campus. “The Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, in conjunction with the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, will host our annual career and internship fair that attracts more than one hundred employers from federal, business, and non-profit organizations who are eager to meet our outstanding students.” For our readership – this is also a great place to recruit biodefense students who are passionate about health security!

Nonproliferation Review Call For Papers
Calling all writers of the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons persuasion – the Nonproliferation Review is accepting manuscripts for publication in 2018! “All submitted manuscripts that are accepted for publication in Volume 25 are eligible to win the Doreen and Jim McElvany prize of $5,000, a $3,000 runner’s-up prize, or a $1,000 honorable mention prize. The deadline to submit is July 6, 2018; however, due to the limited number of pages that we can publish in a single volume, eligible articles will be accepted for publication on a rolling basis. It is therefore in authors’ interest to submit early to ensure consideration for the prize. Submissions must contribute new ideas and insights to the nonproliferation field. The Review’s editors welcome submissions on any topic related to weapons proliferation, including but not limited to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and conventional weapons. Example topics include: activities and developments in international nonproliferation regimes; social, political, and economic dynamics of specific countries and regions with regard to weapons development and/or proliferation; new information on policies or weapons programs of specific countries; the spread of knowledge, materials, or technologies with potential destructive applications; the proliferation of new technologies impinging on international security; measures, either existing or proposed, to control proliferation; the causes of proliferation or nonproliferation; the consequences of proliferation, including its influence on strategic stability and its economic or environmental effects; and the relevant activities of non-state actors, such as nongovernmental organizations or terrorists.”

 Influenza Aerosols
A new study has found that influenza aerosol-spread is more common than previously thought, especially in relation to coughing and sneezing. “To measure transmission, each participant sat in a chamber for 30 minutes with his or her face in a large metal cone, part of a ‘Gesundheit machine’ that captures and measures influenza virus in exhaled breath. Patients were also asked to cough, sneeze, and say the alphabet three times. Altogether, researchers collected 218 nasopharyngeal samples and 218 breathing sample sessions. When the team analyzed the samples, they found that a significant number of patients routinely shed infectious virus—not just RNA particles—into particles small enough for airborne transmission. They were surprised to find that 11 (48%) of the 23 fine aerosol samples acquired when patients weren’t coughing had detectable viral RNA, and of those 8 contained infectious virus, suggesting that coughing isn’t a prerequisite for generating fine aerosol droplets.” The latest news points to not only the importance of staying home when sick, but also the ease of transmission of influenza viruses. While many thought transmission was limited to droplets (i.e. heavier particles that were sneezed/coughed out about three feet), this latest analysis may change the dynamics of isolation.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Addressing AMR in Lower-Income Countries – Fighting antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a global challenge, but we need to ensure that our strategies account for a range of countries and the unique barriers they face. “Although traditional efforts to reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance in these countries have focused on antibiotic use in individuals, LMICs must also address the increasing roles of animal and environmental exposures in this public health crisis, write Maya Nadimpalli, PhD, University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France, and colleagues. ‘In particular, current strategies do not prioritize the impacts of increased antibiotic use for terrestrial food-animal and aquaculture production, inadequate food safety, and widespread environmental pollution,’ the authors stress.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 1.19.2018

Happy Friday and welcome to your favorite source for all things biodefense! We hope you’re able to avoid the onslaught of respiratory viruses that are circulating right now, but on the off chance that you’re battling a bug, here’s some infectious disease new that won’t get you sick.

Fighting Influenza
Whether you’re fighting the flu or watching the mayhem unfold in the news, you can’t escape influenza right now. We’re getting hit hard with flu season in the United States and the CDC has reported that activity is still rising and we’re not out of the woods yet. You can find the latest flu data here, but what is worrying so many is the hit that hospitals are taking across the country. It’s not just that we’re facing an IV bag shortage due to the devastation Hurricane Maria wreaked upon Puerto Rico, but that hospitals are being overrun with an onslaught of ILI (influenza like illness) patients. Wait times are through the roof, staff are stretched thin, patients are being admitted into overflow areas, hospitals are having to divert patients because they’re so full, triage areas have been set up in parking lots and emergency areas, and hospitals are even struggling to ensure they have enough PPE and influenza tests. This year marks the centennial of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, and it seems like what’s going on is out of a history book instead of down the street. As an infection preventionist and infectious disease epidemiologist, it is not surprising or unexpected that we’re running into these issues. It’s easy for people to point to the current situation and use it as an example of why we’re not ready for a flu pandemic – and they’re right, but it shouldn’t take what’s going on to see that. These are not new issues. Infection control and hospital preparedness has been struggling for a long time and it doesn’t take a pandemic to prove it. Even after the surge of funding and focus on hospital preparedness post-Ebola, we still struggle with these issues, but throw in budget cuts and an administration that is set to pull funding away from public health…well, the outlook is dismal.

With so much attention on influenza, pandemic preparedness, and how we’re just not ready for the next great flu pandemic, what kind of household interventions can we apply in our own little ecosystems? Researchers looked at a HPAI H5N1 outbreak and estimated the reduction in primary attack rates for household-based interventions. “We show that, for lower transmissibility strains, the combination of household-based quarantine, isolation of cases outside the household, and targeted prophylactic use of anti-virals will be highly effective and likely feasible across a range of plausible transmission scenarios. For example, for a basic reproductive number (the average number of people infected by a typically infectious individual in an otherwise susceptible population) of 1.8, assuming only 50% compliance, this combination could reduce the infection (symptomatic) attack rate from 74% (49%) to 40% (27%), requiring peak quarantine and isolation levels of 6.2% and 0.8% of the population, respectively, and an overall anti-viral stockpile of 3.9 doses per member of the population.” While we all may not access to anti-virals, the use of quarantine and isolation are all effective strategies. From an infection control standpoint, it can be tough to maintain such efforts in a household where one or two people are sick. When in doubt, wash your hands, cover your cough, and clean those high-touch surfaces/objects!

GMU Biodefense MS Open House
Mark your calendars for the February 21st Master’s Open House at GMU’s Arlington campus! If you’ve been thinking about getting a MS in biodefense (who wouldn’t want to take classes on biosurveillance, historical bioweapons programs, and more?!), this is a great chance to talk to faculty and learn about the admissions process. GMU has biodefense MS programs in person and online, so even if you’re not in the DC-area, you can get your biodefense on.

Smallpox, Horsepox, And The Trouble With Poxviruses
It seems only a few months ago that news broke of a Canadian research team’s de novo synthesis of horsepox. Since then, there has been considerable discussion surrounding not only the biosafety and biosecurity behind research involving an orthopoxvirus, but also the implications of normalizing orthopoxvirus synthesis, and again, if the remaining smallpox stockpiles should be destroyed. The latest report from researchers at the University of Alberta points to the potential smallpox vaccine developments that synthetic viruses could bring. “Virologist David Evans and his research associate Ryan Noyce produced an infectious horsepox virus, which they synthetically reconstructed using a published genome sequence and DNA fragments manufactured entirely by chemical methods. The team went on to show that the synthetic horsepox virus could provide vaccine protection in a mouse model of poxvirus infection.” Unfortunately, the implications of synthesizing an orthopoxvirus aren’t so simple. GMU biodefense professor and program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz evaluated the implications of such synthesis for biosecurity and what would be needed to prevent a reemergence of smallpox. “The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security. That threat has been held at bay for the past 40 years by the extreme difficulty of obtaining variola virus and the availability of effective medical countermeasures. The techniques demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox have the potential to erase both of these barriers. The primary risk posed by this research is that it will open the door to the routine and widespread synthesis of other orthopoxviruses, such as vaccinia, for use in research, public health, and medicine.” Koblentz notes that while there are potentially legitimate uses for synthesizing orthopoxviruses (safer smallpox vaccine development), it also means that such labs have the potential to produce smallpox from synthetic DNA and emphasized that action is needed now to avoid the misuse of synthetic biology by nefarious actors. “Unfortunately, the current legal and technical safeguards against the synthesis of smallpox virus are weak and fragmented. There is no clear international legal or regulatory framework to prevent the synthesis of smallpox virus. The WHO has a policy banning the synthesis of the smallpox and regulating who can produce and possess large fragments of smallpox DNA, but it hasn’t been widely adopted by states. Furthermore, there is no mechanism—at either the national or international level—for detecting or punishing violations of this policy.” GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu cited the importance of medical providers understanding the dual-use research of concern debate and that ultimately, biosecurity impacts us all. “From the healthcare perspective, it may not seem like something we should worry about, but the direction of gene editing and dual-use research of concern is something that is intrinsically linked to public health. Nefarious outcomes of such experiments, regardless of the origin or intent, will inevitably make their way into an emergency department, urgent care, or worse, the community. Although we may not be seeing the implications today, as medical providers and healthcare workers, we must keep our ears to the ground, listening for these biotech advancements, and then thinking through what they mean for us tomorrow.”

Blue Ribbon SLTT Ability to Respond to Large Scale Biological Events: Challenges and Solutions
If you missed the Wednesday meeting, here’s a recording to catch up on all things biodefense. “State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Ability to Respond to Large-Scale Biological Events: Challenges and Solutions government officials, federal and academic representatives, and subject matter experts will discuss their perspectives, experiences, challenges, and recommended solutions with regard to SLTT response to large-scale biological events.”

Gene Therapy Hits a Wall With Microbial Resistance
Can gene editing trigger an immune reaction in humans? A new study is suggesting that it may be a risk. “The CRISPR-Cas9 system, which functions as a genetic scissors and tape for editing DNA, is generally derived from either Staphyloccoccus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria.” Most of us though, have been exposed to these organisms throughout our lives. “This prior exposure could potentially render the gene editing ineffective, with the body quickly eliminating all the CRISPR–Cas9 proteins. Or worse, it could trigger the kind of immune storm that killed a young gene therapy patient named Jesse Gelsinger in 1999, derailing the field for more than a decade. ‘We share everyone’s excitement about doing Cas9 genome editing, but we want to make sure we have learned from what happened in the gene therapy world and not ignore the possibility that this could become a problem,’ Porteus says. ‘As we’re all thinking about developing Cas9-based therapeutics, we should think carefully about this potential problem’.”

Pediatric Rabies Death
A 6-year-old boy in Florida has died from rabies he contracted after being scratched by an infected bat. The boy’s father reports that he found the sick bat, put it in a bucket, and told him not to touch it however, he did and was scratched. In response, the father had the boy wash his hands thoroughly based off what he read online and opted not to take him to the hospital because the boy didn’t want to get shots. Unfortunately, within a week, the boy became ill and even after attempts at treatment, passed away. Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear, which highlights the importance of seeking care immediately after exposure.

Stories You May Have Missed:

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 1.12.2018

 The Bright Side of Synthetic Biology and Crispr
GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and Phd alum Shannon Fye-Marnien are looking at the realities of synthetic biology and fears of bioterrorism. Biological advances have inspired questions regarding the safety and potential for nefarious use, but are such technologies guilty until proven innocent or innocent until proven guilty? “As with previous advances in biology, Crispr is sometimes characterized as a blueprint for bioweapons development or bioterrorism, and it has elicited calls for increased control and regulation of science. But while it is important to examine the potential dangers of emerging technologies, reaching a balanced assessment of risks and benefits requires that technologies’ potential to improve human life be appreciated as well. Synthetic biology and Crispr offer a potentially enormous package of benefits, spanning from medicine to energy to agriculture and beyond. Discussions about the security and safety of synthetic biology and Crispr should not obscure these technologies’ potential to address a wide variety of complex and pressing problems.”

The United States Battles Influenza
Flu season is hitting hard in the United States as 46 states report widespread activity. 80% of cases are of the H3N2 strain, which is associated with severe symptoms and hospitalizations. “The flu is now widespread across the country and the peak of transmission probably occurred during the Christmas-New Year’s holiday week, just as many people were crowded into planes, buses and cars or in large family gatherings, said Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ‘H3N2 is a bad virus,’ Dr. Jernigan said. ‘We hate H3N2’.” 26 states (and New York City) are reporting high influenza-like illness (ILI) activity. The CDC has reported that “Influenza-like illness (ILI) went from 4.9% to 5.8%. ‎These indicators are similar to what was seen at the peak of the 2014-2015 season, which was the most severe season in recent years.” This tough influenza season is a helpful reminder that it could always get worse, especially in the context of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, which marks its centennial this year. Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker recently wrote an OpEd regarding the dismal truth – we’re not ready for a flu pandemic. Pointing to not only massive growth in population, but also challenges of supply shortages, and an outdated approach to vaccine research, they highlight the need to find a universal vaccine that can do battle against all influenza A strains with a longer immunity. “But there is no apparent effort to make these vaccines a priority in the current administration. Its national security strategy published last month cites Ebola and SARS as potential bioterrorism and pandemic threats, yet makes no mention of the risk of pandemic influenza nor any aspect of critical vaccine research and development. The next few weeks will highlight how ill prepared we are for even ‘ordinary’ flu. A worldwide influenza pandemic is literally the worst-case scenario in public health — yet far from an unthinkable occurrence. Unless we make changes, the question is not if but when it will come.”

GMU Biodefense Professor – Robert House
We’d like to welcome back professor Dr. Robert House to GMU biodefense, who will be teaching BioD766: Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics. Dr. House holds a PhD in medical parasitology and is a senior VP for government contracts at Ology Bioservices (previously Nanotherapeutics). The world faces a growing threat from microbiological agents in the form of terrorist weapons, pandemics (particularly influenza) and emerging/re-emerging diseases. Characteristics such as high pathogenicity/toxicity and lack of appropriate animal models, as well as lack of a viable commercial market, make it difficult to develop effective medical countermeasures for these agents. In his course, students will explore how the US Government is developing medical countermeasures (MCM) against these threats and will explore the various threat agents, the context of regulatory considerations, and the specifics of how MCMs are developed.

Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge Launched!
Do you love infectious diseases and maps? The goal of the challenge is to promote the use of geospatial mapping to address the objectives of the GHSA. The NextGen Network has partnered with the U.S. Department of State’s Virtual Student Foreign Service program to launch the 2018 challenge. You can find out more information from this engaging and informative webinar or at the page here. The deadline for signing up for the challenge is January 19, 2018. This is a great way to contribute to the GHSA goal of creating a world safe and secure from the threat of infectious diseases.

Biodefense Alum – Stay Connected! 
Are you a GMU Biodefense alum? If so, please make sure to keep your information updated in our Schar Stay Connected site. We have a strong alum community and would love to keep you up to date on future events and give shout outs for the amazing work our biodefense students accomplish.

Biopreparedness Needs to Start At the Frontlines of Disease Control
GMU biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu evaluates the attention to biopreparedness and how our focus on bioterrorism fails to address the major gaps within disease control in the United States. “The Blue Ribbon Panel report and the CNN article both highlight the bureaucratic challenges with coordination at a national level across many agencies and sectors. The crux of it all is that from a grass-roots level, we’re struggling to better prepare and respond for a host of reasons. Public health funding is always in a chronic state of too little too late and often, we don’t push out resources until we’re already in the throes of a major incident (Ebola, Zika, etc.). Preparing for biothreats, regardless of origin, requires that we strengthen the most basic surveillance and response systems within public health and health care. During the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak, for example, there was a lot of attention on enhanced precautions. Although this was beneficial and brought attention to several gaps infection control and prevention measures, I found myself reminding staff that we can’t truly prepare and respond to rare events if we can’t get our daily practices down. The shear challenges of ensuring staff practice appropriate hand hygiene and isolation precautions in health care are indicators that we are struggling on the frontlines of disease preparedness.”

Lessons from A 2016 CRE Outbreak in A Kentucky Hospital
Hospital outbreaks are tough. The shear volume of people that go into a single patient’s room is considerable (healthcare workers, visitors, ancillary staff, etc.) and enough to spread germs throughout an entire hospital. Now imagine that the organism is a highly resistant one, such as carbapenemase-producing carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CP-CRE). A hospital in Kentucky experienced this very thing in 2016 and a recent CDC MMWR revealed just how difficult it can be to conquer an outbreak involving one of the worst resistant organisms you can imagine. “Over the next 4 months, scientists identified an additional 21 CRE isolates from patients at the hospital via screening and clinical cultures. The investigators believe organisms were imported into the facility and then spread among patients.” Epidemiological investigation found that five of the thirteen interviewed patients had received healthcare outside the local area and that three of the patients may have brought CP-CRE into the facility. “The authors of the report say their investigation highlights the potential role of cleaning equipment, which frequently moves between patient rooms, in CP-CRE spread. In addition, they note that although there is a low prevalence of CP-CRE in rural areas, rural hospitals should be aware that patients who’ve also accessed healthcare in areas with higher CP-CRE prevalence—primarily urban areas—can introduce these organisms into their facilities.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 9.8.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly source for all things biodefense. Got plague? Good news – if you have some live chickens hanging around, you can try this medieval treatment.

Defense Against Biological Attacks
Biological threats come in all shapes and sizes – whether it’s an outbreak of Ebola, a biological weapon, a laboratory mishap, or even the potential for biosafety breaches following  a hurricane. Preparedness and response efforts need to be just as diverse. As Texas begins the process of rebuilding and the threat of nuclear weapons has been fresh in everyone’s mind, it is crucial we don’t forget about the importance of health security. Disease knows no borders and it’s easy to diminish the threat of it however, Laura Holgate and Elizabeth Cameron are drawing attention to the need for President Trump to prevent the next biological attack before it happens. “As Congress and the Trump administration mull a new biodefense strategy, we urge them to use this time — the time in between biological crises — to get ahead of the curve before the next major biological event inevitably comes our way.” They point to several different strategies that should to be followed – watch out for emerging threats in unstable regions, fund and renew the Global Health Security Agenda, replenish the budget to maintain global biosecurity, keep laboratory assets for attributing biological attacks, and use biosurveillance to stop outbreaks before they start. We need to take the National Bioforensics Analysis Center off the chopping block, stop slashing the biosecurity budget as programs like the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program are vital, and truly, the GHSA renewal is a no-brainer. These efforts not only defend against current threats, but work to address the next generation of bioweapons and biothreats.  Holgate and Cameron note that “We know that biological threats must remain at the top of the national security agenda, and leaders must recognize that stopping outbreaks at the source requires strong global and domestic capacity to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to naturally occurring outbreaks and biological attacks”

Health Security – Call for Papers
The Health Security journal is currently looking for papers on communication and health security: improving public health communication in response to large-scale health threats. Manuscript deadlines are October 20, 2017. “Effective communication is an essential tool in establishing an appropriate response to any large-scale health threat or disaster, such as a newly emerging infectious disease, terrorism, environmental catastrophe, or accident. Yet, public health communication is occurring in an increasingly complex world with competing messages, new platforms, and limited trust.A special feature in Health Security will be devoted to analysis of the current communication environment and efforts to effectively communicate during outbreaks of infectious diseases and other health threats. The journal seeks papers that address the wide range of policy, practice, and research issues relevant to communication in large-scale health events.” Topics might include exploration of the communication environment during recent infectious disease events or public health disasters, investigation of the role of social media and other emerging or recently emerging communication platforms, etc. Submission information can be found here.

GMU Biodefense MS – Open House on September 14th
Don’t miss out on the Master’s Open House next week for the GMU Biodefense MS program!  From 6:30-8:30pm next Thursday, September 14th, at the GMU Arlington campus, you can speak to faculty, learn about admissions, and why biodefense students have a blast while getting their graduate degrees. This is a great chance to learn about the MS program (for both online or in-person) and chat with faculty about the exciting classes and activities GMU biodefense students get to enjoy.

The Biological Weapons Convention At A Crossroad
As Robert Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Which direction will the BWC take? Bonnie Jenkins investigates the uncertain future of the BWC, its current challenges, which direction it might take, and the direction it should take. Despite its relevance and capacity to endure decades of challenges, the latest RevCon was considered a monumental disappointment and left many in a state of disagreement. “Some of the major issues that were discussed at previous meetings—but at this point have no platform for discussion at the BWC—include advances in science and technology, disease outbreak preparedness and response, and national BWC implementation. Previously-held mid-year experts’ meetings have also been dropped, so there is now no chance for the exchanges with experts from relevant international organizations, including input from the World Health Organization that has been so useful in the past. These are all steps backward.” Despite a lack of Meeting of States Parties in August, there is hope that the December meeting with work towards developing an inter-sessional work program. On top of these barriers, the BWC has funding challenges, which severely impacts the Implementation Support Unit (ISU). Against these odds, the BWC ISU continues to promote universal membership and treaty implementation. Global initiatives are also beneficial to promotion of health security and prevention of biological weapons. “When global initiatives interconnect like this, it reinforces all of the initiatives. The Global Health Security Agenda, for instance, brings over 55 countries together to strengthen countries’ capacities to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats, whether natural, deliberate, or accidental.” These efforts seek to strengthen the BWC through global health security, but there is still work to be done. Jenkins suggests three tasks are crucial to maintain BWC relevancy and sustainability: “1) Sufficient and sustained funding by states parties, to include payments now in arrears; 2) Strong leadership and a successful December MSP that reaffirms the importance of the treaty to the international community and that also develops an inter-sessional work program; and 3) A vision for developing the role of the BWC as part of a larger interconnected global security architecture.”

Using Ebola Data to Fight Future Outbreaks
Learning from past outbreaks to avoid future failures is always a tough aspect of public health however, a new strategy is using data to help stop the next outbreak of Ebola. Researchers have developed a new platform to help organize and share Ebola data that was previously scattered and unable to be utilized. This was a significant issue on the ground during the 2014/2015 outbreak, which makes this project all the more important. “The information system is coordinated by the Infectious Diseases Data Observatory (IDDO), an international research network based at the University of Oxford, UK, and is expected to launch by the end of the year. At a meeting to discuss Ebola on 7–9 September in Conakry, Guinea, the team heading the platform will seek input from West African scientists, health officials and advocacy groups.” One of the most vital components to the system is the emphasis of partnership and involvement of African collaborators. Not only will this focus encourage the use of historical data, but will also allow utilization during future outbreaks. Control of the data has also been a challenging hurdle to overcome, as there are many cooks in the kitchen. “Amuasi says that he would have liked the database to be hosted and curated in Africa, rather than in Oxford, because training and paying African researchers to manage the platform would teach them how to use the information and improve their ability to respond to future outbreaks in the region. But he adds that this seems unlikely, because it would raise the cost of the project, and the infrastructure already exists at Oxford. Merson says that a copy of the database will be maintained in West Africa, although its exact location has yet to be determined. She adds that an African committee may be in charge of deciding who gets access to the data. And she says that fellowships are likely to be made available for West African students who want to work on the database.”

The Global Health Security Agenda: Public & Private Partnerships
The Global Health Security Agenda Consortium and EcoHealth Alliance will be hosting this meeting on Thursday, September 14th at 12pm. Held at the ONE UN New York Hotel in NYC, you can catch this event with speakers like Dr. Beth Cameron from the Nuclear Threat Initiative and Admiral Tim Ziemer from the US National Security Council. Make sure to RSVP here.

Launch of International Health Regulations Costing Tool
Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science & Security is launching their new open-access IHR costing tool. “In 2016, the World Health Organization adopted the Joint External Evaluation tool (JEE) to measure country-specific progress in developing the capacities needed to prevent, detect, and respond to public health threats, as mandated under the 2007 International Health Regulations (IHR). However, national governments and development partners have struggled to accurately define the costs of strengthening and maintaining critical health security systems that often depend on multi-sectoral coordination. This poses a serious dilemma for global health security and presents a compelling opportunity to improve the drafting and implementation of practical health security policies.” A joint effort with Talus Analytics, this new tool was developed to help estimate the cost to build capacity under the IHR. You can access the tool here (you may want to use Google Chrome).

IDSA Slams Budget Cuts to AMR
Biodefense budgets aren’t the only ones to be taking a beating… The president’s FY2018 budget released in May would cut the CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance Solutions Initiate (ARSI) by 14%, as well as 23% from the NIH and NIAID, which funds research on AMR. Leaders from Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) are rallying to oppose such efforts. “In a letter published yesterday in Annals of Internal Medicine, IDSA treasurer Helen Boucher, MD, past president Barbara Murray, MD, and current president William Powderly, MD, argue that the budget cuts for public health and research proposed by the Trump administration will not only diminish the nation’s surveillance capacity and its efforts to reduce infections and promote appropriate antibiotic use, but also undercut US leadership in global efforts to tackle the AMR threat, which is responsible for more than 700,000 deaths each year globally.” The letter emphasizes that such cut would severely impact AMR efforts, which is highly worrisome and dangerous given the severity of the global AMR threat. You can read the letter here.

An Integrated Approach to Forensic Investigation of Threat Agents
In the wake of a chemical or biological event, threat analysis is a high-stakes operation that has little room for error. Determining the substance, origin, and components all make for a stressful situation that requires effective analytical methods. “Traditional analytical methods are good at confirming the presence or absence of a particular agent or substance. If a sample is believed to contain Bacillus anthracis, standard biological analysis will quickly determine whether or not this is the case. But it will not provide insight into its virulence, origin or how it might have been manipulated. And if the sample turns out to be something other than B. anthracis, it will not tell you what it actually is. An integrated approach to CB forensics provides investigators with richer information. Integrated forensics combines advanced forensic science technologies to provide more comprehensive and timely technical intelligence.” Some of these strategies include advanced genomic analysis like massively parallel sequencing and advanced chemical analysis like gas chromatography and high resolution mass spectrometry. Currently, the extraction methods for biological analysis can render the sample unusable for chemical analysis, which make analysis problematic. A new strategy from Battelle is looking to combat these discrepancies, which involves a new process to “systematically triage samples and integrate biological and chemical forensics, as well as developing and testing new technologies to help investigators more quickly identify and characterize biological agents, including new, emerging and synthetic agents, to glean more forensic information from the samples.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Zika Vaccine Efforts Slow– Sanofi recently announced they are halting work on a candidate Zika vaccine. The vaccine was a joint effort with Walter Reed Army Institute of Research however, budgetary cuts and federal efforts to scale back put the project in jeopardy. “In its Sep 1 statement, Sanofi said BARDA informed the company on Aug 17 that the agency reassessed its Zika-related projects and have decided to focus on a more limited set of goals and deliverable, and that BARDA has decided to “de-scope” its contract with Sanofi for the manufacture and clinical development of an inactivated Zika vaccine. BARDA said it would limit its funding to a case definition and surveillance study, as well as any activities needed to pause work on the vaccine until an epidemic re-emerges. As a result, Sanofi said it doesn’t intend to continue developing or seek a license from WRAIR for the Zika vaccine candidate.”
  • Australia Battles Influenza – As Australia experiences a particularly harsh flu season, many are wondering what this will mean for Europe and North America.”In general, we get in our season what the Southern Hemisphere got in the season immediately preceding us,” Fauci said. An “intelligent guess,” therefore, is that the north will probably have a bad flu season. “With influenza, it is never 100%,” he said. “So when you talk about influenza, almost nothing is absolutely precision,” Fauci said. “In general, one can say we usually see here what they see there in their season.” Schaffner agrees: “There’s not a one-to-one correlation.” Still, hearing about Australia’s high number of flu cases, he said, “I started to tighten my belt.”

Pandora Report 5.5.2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May have Missed:

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

Pandora Report: 2.10.2017

Have you ever wondered what some of the most deadly diseases looked like in person? Check out this video depicting some of these germs and how they’d appear if you sat next to an infected person. Fortunately, this week was full of disease-filled media like this germ history video regarding the golden age of germs and how humans cause pandemics (spillover anyone?)

The Colosseum that is CRISPR Patent Wars
It seems like the ultimate display of gladiator games – researchers from major university (UC-Berkley, Harvard, and MIT) are in the midst of a battle for patent protection. You can check out the timeline here, but it seems that despite it being over two months since proceedings started, we’re not much closer to a conclusion. “A key feature of the U.S. debate is over which research group was the true first inventor of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, especially its use in eukaryotic cells. At the time the first patent applications were filed, the U.S. had a ‘first-to-invent’ system—which means the first person to develop an invention is entitled to have the patent, even if they were not the first to file a patent application (or the first to get a patent granted) for that invention. UCal has started “interference proceedings” against the Broad Institute to determine who was the first to invent the CRISPR/Cas9 system. UCal claims that they were the first to invent the use of the CRISPR/Cas9 system for gene editing, and that their earliest patent application enabled gene editing in eukaryotic cells. In contrast, The Broad Institute are arguing that UCal had not invented the use in eukaryotic cells at the time of filing its first patent application and are therefore claiming that The Broad Institute were the first to invent the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in eukaryotic cells.”

Public Health’s Greatest Threats 
We all have opinions regarding the greatest global threat- especially in terms of public health. Is it obesity? Cancer? Exposure to toxins or new emerging diseases? What about bioterrorism or bioerror? Dr. Larry Brilliant is an epidemiologist who focuses on the worst disease throughout history. He notes that the greatest threats to public health can be divided into biological and socio-political. “In the last 30 years, there have been at least 30 heretofore unknown viruses that have jumped from animals to humans, for worrying reasons Brilliant attributes to modernity and our increase in animal protein consumption. Still, the socio-political threats are the more immediately dangerous. There are centrifugal forces at play that are pushing society to two extreme camps. The domestic and global division caused President Trump’s ‘America First’ mentality and disregard for public health leaves us vulnerable to new viruses that, if they aren’t detected early enough, could be the next pandemic. ‘Right now because of the re-organization and nationalism… and dislike for the United Nations and its agencies, I think we’re in a period of grave vulnerability,’ says Brilliant.” Dr. Brilliant points to the reality that public health threats aren’t just biological, and as we saw with the 2014/2015 ebola outbreak (and Zika), the socio-political response can hinder or help public health efforts. While we’re always vulnerable to new diseases, are we becoming increasingly more susceptible from a socio-political standpoint?

ASM Biothreats 2017
From synthetic biology to national bioterror emergency response, the ASM conference was packed with biodefense goodies. We’ll be providing a detailed overview regarding certain sessions and the conference as a whole, so make sure to keep your eye out next week!

Find Out What New Viruses Are Brewing In your Backyard  screen-shot-2017-02-08-at-7-47-55-am
NPR is looking at what causes pandemics and where new diseases tend to spring up. By reviewing EcoHealth Alliance data, they note that within the past sixty years, the amount of new diseases appearing has quadrupled. Scarier yet, the number of outbreaks occurring each year has more than tripled since 1980. “We’re in a hyperinfectious disease world,” says epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis. While the tools for surveillance and detection have gotten better, it also became apparent to researchers that old diseases are returning from the grave, while emerging diseases are transgressing into new regions. “So the big question is: Why? Why is this era of new diseases happening now? ‘Well, we’ve been boiling the frog for a long time. Eventually, it’s cooked,’ says Toph Allen, a data scientist with EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that is trying to prevent pandemics by looking for diseases in wildlife. Wait. We’re boiling the frog? You mean, humans are responsible? Yes. Many scientists say we, humans, are to blame for this new disease era. That we’re responsible for turning harmless animal viruses into dangerous human viruses.” Unfortunately, it seems that humans have become especially skilled at causing spillover.

Center for Global Security Research Student Internship
Calling all GMU biodefense students! Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory’s Center for Global Security Research is looking for a student intern! The center has “openings for undergraduate and graduate students and recent bachelors or master’s level graduates within one year, to engage in practical research experience to further their educational goals.” The student may conduct “research in the fields of nuclear engineering, computational sciences, materials science and engineering, cyber security, interactive data mining, political science and international relations to support United States (US) policy and decision makers in developing strategies for national and international security. The Center for Global Security Research’s (CGSR) mission is to provide technology, analysis, and expertise to aid the US government in preventing the spread or use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and examining the policy implications of proliferation of WMD, as well as deterrence.”

Zika’s New Strategy – Spillback?
With over 5,000 cases in the U.S. alone, the Zika virus outbreak may be slowing, but it’s not gone. We’ve talked about spillover before, but what about spillback? We tend to worry about diseases spilling over from animals into humans, but what about the opposite direction? Researchers are now worried about Zika spillback into monkeys. “In areas where Zika infections are prevalent among humans and mosquitoes are abundant, the virus may be transmitted to wild primates, disease ecologist Barbara Han said February 6 at the American Society for Microbiology Biothreats meeting. If the disease gets established in monkeys or other wild primates, the animals may serve as reservoirs for future human outbreaks.” As scientists work to study this process and establish potential at-risk species, it’s a helpful reminder that infectious diseases like to keep us on our toes. Or should I say, paws?

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Over 350 Organizations Write Trump About Vaccine Safety – More than 350 organizations have written to President Trump highlighting their “unequivocal support for the safety of vaccines”. Leading medical organizations and healthcare professionals have resorted to this measure since the January meeting Trump had with Robert F. Kennedy regarding a potential commission on autism and vaccines. “Vaccines protect the health of children and adults and save lives,” the letter opens. “Vaccines have been part of the fabric of our society for decades and are one of the most significant medical innovations of our time.” It continues: “Claims that vaccines are unsafe when administered according to expert recommendations have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature.”
  • Got C-diff? Grab Some Vancomycin!Clostridium difficile is an infection preventionist’s worst nightmare. This spore-forming bug is tough to kill, can cause mortality, and often wreaks havoc on hospitals. A recent study looked at the treatment efficacy of vancomycin versus metronidazole, with the goal of preventing recurrence of the disease. “Analysis of the data showed that there was no difference in risk of recurrence between those treated with vancomycin or metronidazole in any of the severity groups. And in patients with mild-to-moderate disease, there was no significant difference found in the risk of all-cause 30-day mortality. But among the patients with severe infection, patients treated with vancomycin were 4% less likely to die within 30 days of any cause than those treated with metronidazole. Stevens and her colleagues calculated that to prevent one death among patients with severe C difficile infection, 25 would need to be treated with vancomycin.”
  • Fighting Cholera– Cholera has been a scourge throughout history and sadly, we’re still battling it. Researchers have finally developed an effective vaccine and stockpiled it, however efforts are still in progress to get it to the most hard-hit countries, like Bangladesh. “Merely creating that stockpile — even of a few million doses — profoundly improved the way the world fought cholera, Dr. Margaret Chan, secretary general of the W.H.O., said last year. Ready access to the vaccine has made countries less tempted to cover up outbreaks to protect tourism, she said. That has sped up emergency responses and attracted more vaccine makers, lowering costs. ‘More cholera vaccines have been deployed over the last two years than in the previous 15 years combined,’ Dr. Chan said.”

 

 

Pandora Report 10.7.2016

TGIF and cheers to another week of biodefense news! Check out the GAO multimedia video on the risks of incomplete inactivation of pathogens. A whistleblowing former Pasteur Institute official in South Korea is reporting that a scientist for the South Korean branch took MERS-CoV samples on a commercial flight from Seoul to Paris without proper clearance and violated UN rules and French laws. The CDC is reporting a spike in the number of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) reported. This rare polio-like illness can cause paralysis and was linked to outbreaks of enterovirus D68 in 2014. Ever wondered about opportunities to finance pandemic preparedness? Bill Nye has a new video on the “science illiteracy” of U.S. leaders, pointing to Ebola and climate change response as indicators of mistrust of science within the U.S.

Don’t Miss the Biological Threats in the 21st Century Book Launch!
screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-8-00-42-pm
Make sure to RSVP by Sunday for the upcoming (October 14th)  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, first come, first serve, beginning at 11:45 AM so please RSVP. Attendants will also be able to pick up the book at a 15% discount.

GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Open Houses Biodefense_133x400
We invite you to attend an open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government. The session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs, an introduction to our world-class faculty and research, and highlights of the many ways we position our students for success in the classroom and beyond. Our admissions and student services staff will be on hand to answer your questions. Check out the next MS info program on Wednesday, October 19: 6:30pm-8:30pm- Arlington Campus, Founders Hall, Room 126

Drawing on world-class original research and high-level practical experience, our faculty prepare students to be creative and effective participants in policy-making and political discourse.  By working closely with these faculty to conduct research that influences decisions at the local, national and international levels, our PhD graduates emerge prepared for high-powered careers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The next PhD info session will be on Wednesday, October 12, 2016: 7:00pm-8:30pm – Fairfax Campus, Johnson Center, Room 334

The State of Vaccine Skepticism in Maps
Typically, we look at graphs of vaccine exemptions, but you can now explore vaccination confidence throughout the world via interactive maps. A recent study looked at public confidence in vaccines, asking 66,000 people in 67 countries their thoughts and beliefs in vaccines. Researchers found that France was the least confident in vaccine safety and that “one peculiar conflict emerges from Southeast Asia, where the public seemingly has little doubt as to the safety, importance, or effectiveness of vaccines, yet may eschew them on religious grounds.” Attitude and confidence in vaccines is strongly correlated with vaccine exemptions or refusal. As we saw with California and the Disneyland-associated measles outbreak in 2015, vaccine-preventable disease are becoming a growing issue, not just within the U.S., but on a global level. Since we’re on the topic – make sure to get your annual flu shot as the CDC is recommending people get their flu vaccines before the end of October. You can find more on the 2016/2017 flu season here.

Las Alamos is Now Tracking Global Disease Outbreaks
biosurveillance-map
Biosurveillance is a mixed bag of tricks – some prefer focusing on symptoms, others on vectors, but overall, there’s been a steady dispute regarding how best to pursue it. Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is working to break through the fog and establish a new method “describing disease that is designed to bring this disparate field together and gain international traction. Their new system of classification is called the Anthology of Biosurveillance Diseases, and they have set up an online database to support it.” The new system takes into account many important parts of the epidemiology and biosurveillance practices for disease tracking. Detailed description of vectors, search capabilities by symptoms, and a wide range of synonyms for diseases are all components to this new system. This is no easy task and the system designers know that as new diseases are found or knowledge expands for existing ones, there will be no rest for the wicked. Biosurveillance has so many moving parts and this database is the first step in trying to get them all into one area to better strengthen the surveillance system and thus the capacity for response by public health. While they work to make the updating process automated,  the database has been made available online here.

ISSF Roundtable on Barriers to Bioweapons
If you haven’t read GMU Biodefense Associate Professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley‘s Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Weapons Development, get the scoop from this latest review. Dr. Ouagrham-Gormley’s book breaks down the realities behind bioweapons development and that weaponization of biological agents is much more difficult than many realize. Not only is this one of my favorite books, depicting the realities of tacit knowledge as a major roadblock for non-state bioweapons development, but this review gives great insight from multiple subject matter experts from several academic institutions. “The reviewers place Ben Ouagrham-Gormley’s work in the context of the literature on nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and note that she impressively draws from multiple literature, including business school case studies, anthropology, and organizations and management. To these strengths, I would like to add three others: first, Barriers to Bioweapons is well organized and very well written—a model of rich empirics and theoretical sophistication. Second, Ben-Ouagrham-Gormley successfully tackles a large and hard problem: showing how state structures and processes shape specific technical and scientific outcomes. Third, in addition to her excellent discussion of tacit knowledge, Ben Ouagrham-Gormley writes with great insight about knowledge reservoirs, knowledge transfer, and knowledge loss in and across organizations.”

Enhancing International Nuclear Nonproliferation in an Increasingly Dangerous World
GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Daniel M. Gerstein points to the vulnerability of international nuclear nonproliferation and how this U.S. national security strategy is “teetinger on a dangerous precipice.” What can the U.S. do? Between North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s halting of the bilateral Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement with the U.S., the stakes are progressively getting higher. Gerstein notes that new national programs tend to focus on deterrence against regional adversaries and terrorist interest in acquisition of nuclear capabilities hasn’t waned, but rather the interest has grown as proliferation challenges become chronic. He notes several key steps to help reverse these trends – “First and foremost, the United States should reassure allies about the viability of U.S. nuclear security guarantees and the stockpile. The next administration will need to conduct a Nuclear Posture Review to set the country’s nuclear policy for a five- to 10-year period. Second, the United States should emphasize its absolute support for the goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT – nonproliferation, disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Third, the two most immediate state nuclear proliferation issues must be addressed: Iran and North Korea. On Iran, the United States should build support for the JCPOA, both domestically and across the globe.” International strategies must account for the unpredictable nature and capabilities of North Korea and push for China to increasingly pressure them to abandon their nuclear program.

All Things Zika
After reporting an additional 2,391 cases of locally acquired Zika virus in the first week of September, Puerto Rico is continuing to battle the disease as their case counts top 20,000. Texas is currently enhancing Zika surveillance in the Rio Grande Valley. Brazilian researchers are reporting a constellation of brain injuries from their work with 11 babies whose congenital Zika infections were detected before birth. “Though brain damage varied among the babies, the most common findings were brain atrophy and changes related to disturbances in neuronal migration. Defects ranged from mild brain atrophy and calcifications to severe malformations including absence of the thalamus and lissencephaly. Other findings included hypoplasia of the cerebellum, cerebellar vermis, and corpus callous.” As the outbreak rages on, U.S. public health officials are bracing for the first wave/generation of babies born with Zika-related birth defects. This Generation Zika is expected to be an extraordinary demand on special-needs care. “Data on newborns in Colombia suggests that Zika-infected women who are asymptomatic may give birth to children with Zika-related abnormalities. With that in mind, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended testing for Zika during routine obstetric care for pregnant women who may have been exposed to the virus.” As of October 5th, the CDC has reported 3,818 cases of Zika in the U.S. Hurricane Matthew will be hitting Florida soon and as the state braces for impact, there are growing concerns about the increase of mosquito populations following flooding.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Legionnaires’ Outbreak Grows – The Minnesota Department of Health is reporting another spike in Legionnaires’ cases in the midst of an ongoing outbreak. They recently reported 23 new cases, all of which are people who live, work, or spend time in the Minneapolis suburb, Hopkins. “Seven locations with cooling towers have been identified as possible sources. Samples have been collected from those towers. But officials point out that cooling towers are not regulated in Minnesota, so there is no registry or master list of towers.”
  • The Biology of Anthrax Conference- Make sure to check out the upcoming November 15-18 conference in Tampa, Florida. While primarily a sporadic pathogen of herbivores, its use as a bio-terror agent has highlighted its ability to infect humans. This conference aims to bring together investigators active in this area with a view to sharing observations and ideas and fostering new collaborations and synergies. Participants at previous conferences in Cardiff in 2009 and 2014 included representatives from academia, industry, policy makers and government.

Pandora Report 2.5.2016

Fear of mosquitoes continues to grow as Zika virus joins the list of burdening arbovirus infections. Perhaps the biggest surprise this week wasn’t that imported Zika cases continue to spring up across the US, but rather that the first sexually transmitted case occurred in Dallas, Texas. I’m starting to think Dallas, TX, could use a break from emerging infectious diseases… As influenza season picks up in the US, Avian influenza outbreaks are popping up in Taiwan, South Africa, and Macao. Good news- it’s safe to go back to your favorite burrito bowl! The CDC declared the Chipotle-associated E. coli outbreak over, however, their co-CEO has voiced frustration over delayed reporting. In the interview, he felt that it gave the “mistaken impression that people were still getting sick” and news was “fueled by the sort of unusual and even unorthodox way the CDC has chosen to announce cases.” Before we venture down the biodefense rabbit hole, don’t forget to stay healthy and safe this Super Bowl Sunday. Spikes in cases and flu-related deaths (in those >65 years of age) can jump by 18%  in the home regions of the two teams. Take care to avoid respiratory viruses and food-borne issues while cheering on your favorite team this weekend!

Medical Counter Measures for Children
Having worked in pediatrics, I was thrilled to see the American Academy of Pediatrics publish the updated guidelines. Throughout my work in infection prevention and collaborations with hospital emergency preparedness and local county health departments, it became increasingly evident that in many ways, this is a patient population that is easily forgotten. There is a woefully apparent gap in preparedness methodology to recognize and modify practices to meet the unique needs of children. While many may laugh at the notion that “children aren’t just little adults”, those who have worked in pediatrics can attest to these common misconceptions. Children are not only more susceptible to the devastation of disasters and CBRN attacks, the medical counter measures often do not account for pediatric dosages. The published report discussed their work over the past five years to better address and fill major gaps in preparedness efforts when it comes to medical counter measures (MCM) for children. “Moreover, until recently, there has been a relative lack of pediatric MCM development and procurement; many MCMs were initially developed for use by the military and have been evaluated and tested only in adults.” Some of the recommendations that were made from this report include: “the SNS and other federal, state, and local caches should contain MCMs appropriate for children in quantities at least in proportion to the number of children in he intended population for protection by the cache” and “federal agencies collaborating with industry, academia, and other BARDA partners, should research, develop, and procure pediatric MCMs for all public health emergency, disaster, and terrorism scenarios and report on progress made.” Perhaps one of the most interesting recommendations was that “the federal government should proactively identify anticipated uses of MCMs in children during a public health emergency and, where pediatric FDA-approved indications do not exist, establish a plan to collect sufficient data to support the issuance of a pre-event EUA that includes information such as safety and dosing information and the federal government should use existing entities with pediatric SMEs, such as the PHEMCE, PedsOB IPT, and the DHHS National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters, and continue to collaborate with private sector partners offering pediatric expertise to provide advice and consultation on pediatric MCMs and MCM distribution planning.” Overall, these recommendations and the push for data collection and clear progress reporting are definitely a step in the right direction.

GMU Open House
Interested in a master’s degree that allows you to focus on bioweapons, global health security, and WMD’s? Check out GMU’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs (SPGIA) Open House on Thursday, February 25th at 6:30pm, at our Arlington Campus in Founders Hall, room 126. Representatives from our Biodefense program will be there to answer all your questions. Better yet, check out our Biodefense Course Sampler on Wednesday, March 2nd, at 7pm (Arlington Campus, Founders Hall, room 502). Dr. Gregory Koblentz,  director of the Biodefense graduate program, will be presenting “Biosecurity as a Wicked Problem”. Come check out our curriculum and get a taste of the amazing topics we get to research!

From Anthrax to Zikam6502e1f
Researchers at the University of Greenwich are finding a potential cancer-fighting strategy using the anthrax toxin. Lead scientist, Dr. Simon Richardson, is working with his team to convert the anthrax toxin into a delivery tool for medications.“This is the first time a disarmed toxin has been used to deliver gene-modulating drugs directly to a specific compartment within the cell. We’ve achieved this without the use of so called helper molecules, such as large positively charged molecules like poly(L-lysine). This is important as while these positively charged molecules, known as polycations, can condense DNA and protect it from attack by enzymes before it reaches the target, they are also known to be toxic, break cell membranes and are sent quickly to the liver to be removed from the body. In this study we demonstrate that using disarmed toxins without a polycation is effective, at a cellular level.” In the world of Zika virus….On Monday, the WHO Zika virus team met and announced that the outbreak should now be considered a public health emergency of international concern. Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO director general, stated, “I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014 constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.” Given the level of uncertainty regarding the disease, many feel this was a justified classification of the outbreak. The first case of sexual transmission within the US also occurred in Dallas, Texas. The patient became sick after having sexual contact with an individual who became symptomatic upon return from Venezuela. Chile and Washington DC have just confirmed their first three cases this week. Mexico’s Health Ministry is trying to downplay the Zika impact on tourism, however as the outbreak unfolds, it will be interesting to see long-term tourism repercussions within the affected countries. The state of Florida is ramping up their mosquito elimination, control, and education efforts to combat the growing epidemic, as it is one of the mosquito-heavy states within the US. Governor Rick Scott recently declared a health emergency in four Florida counties. If you’re on the lookout for educational tools, there are several helpful CDC informational posters regarding mosquito bite prevention.

US Military and the Global Health Security Agenda
In effort to protect military members and support global public health, the DoD (specifically, the Military Health System in coordination with the Defense Health Agency’s Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch) developed the 2014 Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). The GHSA established a five-year plan with specific agenda items, targets, and milestones that would incorporate its 31 partner countries. The DoD’s Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System (GEIS) will also support these efforts through their biosurveillance practices in over 70 countries. The international work is as varied as the challenges one might see in global biosurveillance. The Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch (AFHSB) “leveraged existing febrile and vector-borne infection control efforts in Liberia to support the recent Ebola outbreak response. The Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research served as a central hub for Ebola diagnostic testing with the help of the Naval Medical Research Unit-3 in Cairo, Egypt and two Maryland-based facilities, the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick.” Surveillance efforts will also look at antimicrobial resistance and the development of additional research laboratories to work in coordination with host-nations and certain regional networks. You can also read Cheryl Pellerin’s work on DoD Biosurveillance and the role it plays in maintaining global public health efforts. Pellerin reports on the duties of the GEIS and the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID) in not only global health security, but also protecting US military personnel from infections while abroad.

Norovirus Outbreak in Kansas
There are few things that will make a food-borne disease epidemiologist (or infection preventionist for that matter) as frustrated as a norovirus outbreak. It hits quickly, is highly infectious, and tends to leave you with stories from case-control interviews that will make you either laugh, cry, or need some fresh air. A Kansas City suburb is currently experiencing a 400 person outbreak of gastroenteritis associated with the New Theatre Restaurant. Initial lab reports have confirmed norovirus as the culprit. The Vice President of the restaurant said that three employees have also been confirmed as norovirus cases. To date, the almost 400 people who reported symptoms are said to have eaten at the restaurant between January 15 to present. Norovirus is a pretty unpleasant gastroenteritis (you’ve probably heard it called the “cruise ship bug”) as it has a low infectious dose (estimates put it as low as 18 viral particles, while 5 billion can be shed in each gram of feces during peak shedding). Norovirus outbreaks tend to spring up quickly and infect high volumes of people, making it difficult for public health officials to jump ahead of the outbreak. Perhaps one of the biggest components to stopping the spread of infection is good hand hygiene, environmental cleaning, and staying home when sick.

TB Transmission on Airplanes
We’ve all been there – you’re seated next to someone with a nasty cough or cold and you just know you’re going to get sick. But what happens if you’re on a plane and there’s a person a few rows away that has tuberculosis (TB)? The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) reviewed evidence of TB transmission on airplanes to update their Risk Assessment Guidelines. Of all the records/studies reviewed, 7/21 showed some evidence for potential in-flight (all flights lasted more than 8 hours) TB transmission, while only one presented evidence for transmission in this environment. The interesting component is that this low transmission risk is considered only for in-flight, as they excluded transmission on the ground since the before and after flight ventilation system is not in full-function mode. The one study that did show transmission risk involved six passengers that were in the same section as the index case, of which, four were seated within two rows. After their review, they found that the risk for TB transmission on airplanes is “very low”. They noted that “the updated ECDC guidelines for TB transmission on aircraft have global implications due to inevitable need for international collaboration in contact tracing and risk assessment.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Resistant HIV – A recent study published in The Lancet discusses drug resistance after virological failure with the first-line HIV medication, tenofovir-containing ART (antiretroviral  therapy). This treatment is used as both a prevention and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Researchers found “drug resistance in a high proportion of patients after virological failure on a tenofovir-containing first-line regimen across low-income and middle-income regions”. This study highlights the growing need for surveillance of microbial drug resistance.
  • Active Monitoring of Returning Travelers – Ebola Surveillance – The CDC’s MMWR for the week of January 29, 2016, discussed NYC monitoring of returned travelers from October 2014-April 2015. Monitoring of returned travelers from Ebola-affected countries was one strategy the US employed to prevent imported cases. This report reviews the 2,407 travelers that returned from affected countries, of which no cases were detected. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH)’s active monitoring system proved successful, however it was very taxing on resources and reinforces the need to minimize duplication and enhanced cooperation. Speaking of Ebola, investigators from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Vanderbilt University, the Scripps Research Institutem and Integral Molecular Inc., have performed research to establish that “antibodies in the blood of people who have survived a strain of the Ebola virus can kill various types of Ebola.” Further work will now seek to understand immune response to the virus and how we can modify treatments and potential vaccines to be more effective.
  • DoD BioChem Defense take a glimpse into the global biosurveillance and defense efforts within the DoD Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP). Working within several joint programs and striving to get ahead of outbreaks and attacks with early warning systems, this program faces the challenges of monitoring biochem threats on an international scale.

Enjoying your weekly dose of the Pandora Report? Sign up to receive it every week so the fun never ends!