TGIF! We’ve got loads of global health security updates to keep you busy why you enjoy the warm spring weather. American special forces recently captured the chief ISIS chemical weapons engineer and you may want to avoid Wonderful Co. pistachios for a bit as they’re being linked to a salmonella outbreak.
The Smallpox Battlegrounds – Laboratories and Virtual Reality
Video game fans will be excited to hear about the new Tom Clancy game, The Division, released on March 8th. This isn’t your normal action-packed video game, but rather it has something more sinister about its premise. The Division focusses on a biochem attack involving a take over by a group called the Strategic Homeland Division aka “The Division”. The Division is compromised of sleeper agents that “act independently in the interest of restoring order after a mass event”. Now here’s where it gets spooky, the game’s premise involves a scenario that may give deja vu to many in the biodefense world- Operation Dark Winter. Operation Dark Winter was a June 2001 exercise/senior-level war game put on by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The scenario focussed on the impact and response of a smallpox outbreak coupled with tensions in the Taiwan Straits and additional crises. In a nutshell, the scenario found that “current organizational structures and capabilities are not well suited for the management of a BW attack”, media management would be challenging for the government, containment and infection prevention would present several issues, and we’d pretty much be in a whirlwind of trouble. If you’re more of a purest and The Division doesn’t appeal to you, there’s also The Collapse, which is an internet-based game that lets you simulate a smallpox outbreak. Unlike other games where the player designs the outbreak, this one is from the viewpoint of the patient. You’re patient zero with a weaponized strain of smallpox and your decisions carry with them a world of outcomes involving the spread of the disease and rate of infection. I spent some time playing The Collapse (starting at GMU for sheer irony) and found it to be very detail oriented and enjoyed the decision making components like which pharmacy I would go to, my travel destination, etc. If you’re not much of a gamer, here’s the recent WHO report on the deliberations regarding the destruction of variola virus stocks. To destroy smallpox or not to destroy smallpox, that is the question.
GMU Course Sampler & Open Houses
Looking to study and work with people that share your love of biodefense? Come check out our March 23rd GMU SPGIA Open House at 6:30pm, in Founders Hall, room 126 at our Arlington Campus! Not only will you be able to chat biodefense, but we’ll have an informational session afterward (7pm) with Dr. Koblentz (you can check out the 2/25 one here). Each session allows us to discuss global health security and answer questions related to our program and the growing field of biodefense. Can’t attend in person? Enjoy our 3/23 biodefense breakout session virtually! If you happened to miss our biodefense course sampler from 3/2, check out the recording from Dr. Koblentz’s talk on Biosecurity as a Wicked Problem.
Chinese Admission of False Korean War Allegations Involving US BW Use
Biodefense expert, Milton Leitenberg, discusses the allegations by North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, that the US used bioweapons during the Korean War. While the Soviet Central Committee declared the allegations fraudulent in 1998, China and North Korea continued to maintain that bioweapons were used. The recent publication by Wu Zhili (previously the director of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army Health Division during the Korean War) refutes these claims. Published posthumously, Wu’s testimonial is critical in dismantling the claims as he was “critically involved in the Chinese government’s manipulations that produced the Korean War BW allegations.” The initial allegations claimed that the US was testing bioweapons (specifically plague) on native Inuit peoples of Alaska and then was spreading smallpox in North Korea between December 1950- January 1951. The major allegation campaign began on February 22, 1952 though, as “the North Korean Foreign Minister again issued an official statement addressed to the United Nations Secretariat, charging that in January and February the US had made multiple air drops over North Korea, littering the earth with insects infected with the microorganisms that caused plague, cholera, and other diseases.” Leitenberg discusses these allegations and the Soviet admission of being “misled” and their claims that “the accusations against the Americans were fictitious…Soviet workers responsible for participation in the fabrication of the so-called ‘proof’ of the use of bacteriological weapons will receive severe punishment.” He goes on to discuss Wu’s publication and explanation of the tasks that were carried out to further the belief in US bioweapon applications.
Gain of Function Research
Researchers, Dr. Lipsitch, Dr. Relman, and Dr. Ingelsby, have joined together to discuss the realistic future for research that seeks to alter pathogens. Pointing to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) meeting, they note that it “marks a turning point in a year-and-a-half-long policy process to consider the risks, benefits, oversight, and regulation of experiments that are designed to create influenza and other viruses that are simultaneously highly virulent and readily transmissible by respiratory droplets between mammals.” Focus has traditionally been on the pros and cons of gain-of-function (GOF) projects however, as time passes, a narrowing of concern seems to be focussed on experiments that seek to build chimeric viruses that are highly dangerous and transmissible. They recommend the following policy approach: lift the moratorium on GOFoc, seek international consensus, secure national and international agreement to restrict the performance of GOFoc studies, design a board, establish clear red lines for GOFoc research, and require the purchase by research institutions of specific liability insurance policies. You can also read the interview with the researchers regarding the implications of such research censorships. Dr. Filippa also discusses engineering a super flu here, noting that “the debate is really about risk assessment of this gain of function work and about who should be making those assessments. Should it just be scientists, should it be their institutions, should it be funders, should it be publishers or, much more broadly, should it be regulators, vaccine manufacturers, ethicists? ”
CDC and NIAID officials are becoming frustrated as they feel Congress is blocking key efforts to fight the outbreak. A recently published report on research priorities to inform public health and medical practice for domestic Zika virus can be found here. The report emphasizes the growing spread of infection and subsequent need for additional research related to transmission, infection during pregnancy, and disease characteristics . The recent WHO stakeholders meeting provided updates on the most urgently needed tools to fight the growing pandemic. The roadmap includes diagnostic tests, inactivated vaccines targeted to childbearing-aged women, and new vector control mechanisms. As of March 9th, there were 193 confirmed travel-associated Zika cases in the U.S. A recent study found that 42% of questioned Americans believe the virus has high mortality rates. Aedes mosquitoes are also developing resistance to the go-to insecticide.
7 Sources for Understanding Epidemics
Feeling like all this Zika news has you needing to catch up on your outbreak cliff notes? The Washington Post has put together a nice list of seven books and movies you can enjoy to help ramp up your knowledge regarding the world of pandemics. This list is a great way to understand the different viewpoints of outbreaks and pandemics from social, medical, political, and scientific viewpoints. If you find yourself wanting more, here are some additional recommendations I’m throwing in: Spillover by David Quammen, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah, and The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. Feeling like something a little bit more dramatic? Check out Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone or Demon in the Freezer, or the movies Outbreak or World War Z. With the success of Contagion, I’m still hoping Hollywood will continue to back scientifically grounded films about pandemics (between ebola and Zika virus, they’ve got enough material!).
Stories You May Have Missed:
- Why Are Mosquitoes Just So Good At Spreading Disease? Mosquitoes have been causing outbreaks since the days of ancient Rome and yet we’re still battling them in the fight against Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and more. “According to Janet McAllister, an entomologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), not all mosquitoes are good at transmitting disease, but the ones that are have evolved to live closer to humans.”
- Global Health Security Agenda– GHSA was launched in 2014 as a multilateral approach to help protect the world from infectious disease threats. Endorsed by the G7, this agenda facilitates a “partnership of nearly 50 nations, international organizations, and non-governmental stakeholders, GHSA is facilitating collaborative, capacity-building efforts to achieve specific and measurable targets around biological threats, while accelerating achievement of the core capacities required by the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) International Health Regulations (IHR), the World Organization of Animal Health’s (OIE) Performance of Veterinary Services Pathway, and other relevant global health security frameworks.”
- Fumbling Ebola– The San Francisco-based epidemiology company, Metabiota, is being charged with making several mistakes according to the Associated Press (AP). Recovered communication reveals that the company fueled an already chaotic situation via misdiagnoses, adding to confusion, and poor sample tracking.
- Guidelines for Ebola Survivor Care– The WHO has published guidelines on the management and care of patients who were previously infected with Ebola. Since there are roughly 10,000 ebola survivors and several have required hospitalization for complications, these recommendations are extremely prudent. The report includes counseling, considerations for special patient populations, and common sequelae and management recommendations.
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