We hope you’re having a lovely holiday week and recovering from a day of full of tryptophan overload! This week we’re starting off with a look at the Government Accountability Office’s review of the BioWatch program. We’re discussing another panel review of the WHO Ebola response efforts, the role of tacit knowledge in bioweapons development, and how the Beagle Brigade is fighting bioterrorism one belly-rub at a time. Fun history fact Friday: on November 26, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt declared the government would bar strikes “at plants under government contract to provide war materials for the US military and its allies” and on November 25, 1915, Albert Einstein published his equations on the Theory of General Relativity!
Government Accountability Office Finds BioWatch Unreliable
The BioWatch program was introduced in 2003 to perform active environmental surveillance for potential bioweapon use. The struggle has been to accurately discern between organisms that are naturally occurring and those that are being intentionally released. With several false alarms, the program has been under heavy scrutiny. Timothy M. Persons, chief scientist of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), states that authorities “need to have assurance that when the system indicates a possible attack, it’s not crying wolf. You can’t claim it works”. DHS official Jim H. Crumpacker, points out that the system is used as an early warning and there is an inherent level of uncertainty and limitation. The report (published in October but not publicly released until November 23, 2015), which you can read here, states that from 2003-2014, BioWatch made 149 mistaken detections that were “false positives”. The report says that “GAO recommends DHS not pursue upgrades or enhancements for Gen-2 until it reliably establishes the system’s current capabilities.”
Expert Review of Ebola Outbreak Response
A 19 member review panel, convened by the Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reviewed the Ebola outbreak response as a gateway to “public debates alongside reports on outbreak response and preparedness”. Led by Dr. Peter Piot, one of the scientists to discover Ebola in 1976, the group pointed to several issues needing attention on a global scale. Findings pushed for the WHO to reorganize their disease outbreak functions and streamline processes to “avoid political pressure, build country core capacities, and ensure adequate funding”. The ten suggested reforms heavily emphasize the importance of core capacities within countries to be able to detect and respond to outbreaks. Strengthening a country’s capacity to do surveillance, response, and prevention is crucial in reducing the risk of multi-national outbreaks that spread like wildfire. The report also suggests incentives for early outbreak reporting and more science-based justifications for economic impacts like travel restrictions, etc.
Tacit Knowledge and the Bioweapons Convention
GMU Biodefense Professor, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, takes on the August 2015 Biological Weapons Convention and the exciting inclusion of tacit knowledge in bioweapons development. Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley has contributed heavily to the field of biodefense, specifically on the role that tacit knowledge plays as a key determinant of bioweapons development. In past nonproliferation efforts, tacit knowledge has been widely neglected. Tacit knowledge “consists of unarticulated skills, know-how, or practices that cannot be easily translated into words, but are essential in the success of scientific endeavors.” Simply put, it takes more than a manual or YouTube video to truly perform a scientific experiment, etc. Tacit knowledge is seen in scientists that have spent years not only learning, but experiencing the quirks and challenges of performing experiments. The lessons of failed endeavors, teachings of fellow scientists, and instincts built by years of experience, are all components in tacit knowledge. Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley points to the role tacit knowledge has played in the history of failed bioweapons programs (state and non-state). While some analysts believe the advancing biotechnologies will “de-skill” the field and lower the bar for bioweapons development, Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley highlights that tacit knowledge is a massive roadblock. Pointing towards the new focus on tacit knowledge, she notes that this will only help “advance key mandates of the bioweapons convention, naming the assessment of new technologies, the improvement of national implementation, and the strengthening of cooperation among member states.”
There are few times when I get to combine a love of rescue dogs and biodefense nerdom and fortunately, today is that day! The Beagle Brigade is a group of rescue beagles that have been specially trained “to sense for items used for bioterror which include contraband money, pests, and unlawful wildlife”. Even more, the Beagle Brigade is part of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). They work in baggage-claim areas at international airports, wearing green jackets, to help identify any meat, animal byproducts, fruit, or vegetables that could be carrying any diseases or pests that have the potential to cause a devastating outbreak in the US. They’ve been specially trained to pick up “restricted” (fruit, vegetable, etc.) versus non-restricted items and have a 90% success rate! I think we can safely say the Beagle Brigade wins the award for “most adorable biodefense strategy”.
Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes Battle Malaria
Recently published work shows how researchers used “a controversial method called ‘gene drive’ to ensure that an engineered mosquito would pass on its new resistance genes to nearly all of its offspring – not just half, as would normally be the case.” These “mutant mosquitoes” are engineered to resist the parasite that causes malaria infections. This particular work solves the issue that many were facing when it came to passing down resistant genes through a species. While this may mark the end of a long battle against malaria, many are pointing to the ethical and dual-use concerns of such work. The growing concern surrounds the high speed of such technological innovation and the lagging of regulatory and policy guidelines, especially regarding work in wild populations. The potential to alter an entire ecosystem has many concerned over the ramifications of such work. The research team is currently working to prepare mosquitoes for field tests, however they are non-native mosquitoes.
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Stories From A Biodefense PhD Student- GMU Biodefense PhD student, Craig Wiener, discusses his journey from master’s student to PhD candidate. Craig explains what sparked his interest in not only biodefense, but GMU’s program, and how that’s translated into real-world experiences. “Mason has provided me the depth and breadth of knowledge that I needed to converse with senior policymakers, technologists, and scientists,” he says. “It bridged the gap between science and policy so I could be respected in both worlds because I knew what I was talking about.”
- East Bronx Legionnaires’ Outbreak Traced to Psychiatric Center– The New York City Health Department announced that the cooling tower at the Bronx Psychiatric Centre was the likely source of the break that hit East Bronx earlier this fall. Samples from four cases matched those taken from the water tower. Remediation and disinfection is being performed on the water tower.
- Liberia Reports Death of Boy – A boy who was part of the family cluster of Ebola cases in Liberia, has died of the disease. The 15-year-old boy was one of the three confirmed cases reported on November 20th, which marked the end of the Ebola-free period for Liberia since September 3rd. There are currently 153 contacts and 25 healthcare workers being monitored.