Pandora Report 5.13.2016

Nothing like a little biodefense news to get your Friday the 13th started off on an auspicious note! If you happened to be in Grand Central terminal in New York City on Monday, you may have witnessed a bioweapon simulation drill. A harmless, odorless gas was released on a subway platform to test air movement and the potential contamination range for a biological weapon within the subway system. The perfluorocarbon tracer gases allowed officials to observe particle dispersal and settlement. Last but not least, hundreds of passengers on a UK-to-US cruise are victims of a suspected norovirus outbreak. Health officials are working with the cruise line to determine the source of the outbreak and reduce transmission.

Evaluation and Oversight Recommendations for Gain-of-Function Research
The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) Working Group has released a draft of their evaluations and subsequent recommendations regarding the risks and benefits associated with gain-of-function (GOF) research. The report highlights the existing Federal policies in place to ensure the safety of current work with biological organisms and the recent biosafety failures at several Federal facilities. The NSAAB working group established seven major findings and seven recommendations. Findings include focus on the specific types of GOF research as only a small subset of GOF research (GOF research of concern – GOFROC) which may entail risks that are significant enough to warrant oversight, need for an adaptive policy approach, limited scope and applicability of oversight policies, etc. Recommendations include an external advisory body that is built upon transparency and public engagement, adaptive policy approaches to ensure oversight remains “commensurate with the risks associated with the GOF research of concerns”, etc. The recommendations also emphasized the need for strengthening of U.S. laboratory biosafety and biosecurity. The report provides a substantial overview of the GOF debate and existing concerns related to GOF studies with influenza, SARS, and MERS.

GMU Biodefense MS Application Deadline – June 1st!
Learn about the complex world of global health security from your living room or at one of our amazing campuses! GMU’s Biodefense MS program provides you with the knowledge and skills to understand and operate within the unique field of biodefense – where science and policy meet. Fall application deadlines have been extended to June 1st, which means you still have time to apply! Our MS program is offered in person or online, which allows students to balance work or family responsibilities while still earning a graduate degree in this exciting field.

Military & CDC Lab Biosafety Failures 
A few weeks ago, we wrote on the GAO office report on the laboratory failures and biosafety issues in relation to the investigations surrounding the 2014 National Institute of Health (NIH) smallpox discovery. The GAO report also points to laboratory safety/security failures that include shipping live anthrax and the poor dissemination of information to NIH staff after the smallpox discovery. This article, like many, emphasizes the lackluster Department of Defense (DoD) efforts regarding safety and security within their labs that handle select agents. Despite reports highlighting the poor education and training of laboratory personnel, infrequent lab inspection, and gaps in reporting, some are pointing to the eventual regression back to poor habits. Despite the GAO report, ‘the program is going to continue as before, with a new layer of managerial review that will not change matters, and with no accountability,’ says Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University who has been critical of the operations of high-containment labs. ‘The report makes it clear that DOD considers the matter concluded, and any impetus for change is going to have to come from outside DOD,’ Ebright says.” A recent report also noted that the CDC is among several other facilities to have their permits suspended in recent years for serious lab safety and security violations.  “The CDC’s own labs also have been referred for additional secret federal enforcement actions six times because of serious or repeated violations in how they’ve handled certain viruses, bacteria and toxins that are heavily regulated because of their potential use as bioweapons, the CDC admitted for the first time on Tuesday.” The CDC has stated that the suspensions involved a specific lead scientist and those labs associated with his/her work, which focused on Japanese encephalitis virus.

Is Dole the Food Safety Canary in the Coal Mine?
Food safety has long been considered America’s soft underbelly. Food-borne illness outbreaks are relatively common but are some a canary in the coal mine for diminishing industry standards? Executives at Dole are now involved in a criminal investigation related to their knowledge of the Listeria outbreak at their Springfield, Ohio plant. Executives were aware of the Listeria issues for over a year prior to shutting down the production plant. The company is now under investigation, highlighting a growing concern related to food safety standards within the U.S. This particular outbreak involved 33 people in the U.S. and Canada, of which four died. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, the senior Democrat on the U.S. House Committee that oversees FDA funding, wrote a letter to the FDA regarding the lag between company knowledge and action. DeLauro wrote: “Given that consumers have been severely sickened, and even killed, by salads produced at this facility, I urge you to immediately shut down the Dole Springfield plant. Their blatant disregard for the health and safety of American families shows that Dole executives put company profits first, at the expense of consumers, and this type of behavior should not be tolerated. The fact that Dole officials were aware of a food borne illness contamination in their facility, yet continued to ship out the product, is absolutely unconscionable. People have died, and rightfully the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into Dole’s Springfield plant. However, it is more than just foodborne pathogens that the FDA inspection reports point to. FDA reports dating back to March 2014 cite at least sixteen problems that could contribute to food safety issues in the facility. It is an outrage that people had to die in order for Dole to temporarily close this plant for four months during the January Listeria outbreak. … Dole must be held accountable”. Dole isn’t the only company heavily scrutinizing their processes. In light of recent outbreaks associated with their restaurants, Chipotle has hired two former food safety critics and consultants to help improve food safety. 

A Dash of Zika Goes a Long Way ZikaFunding
The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics are fast approaching and the “wait and see” trepidation is starting to evolve into more heated debates about the safety of the games. With Brazil being the epicenter of this particular Zika virus outbreak, many are calling for action before the international games. “Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago.  Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession.  There are five reasons.” These reasons include the heavy hit Rio took by Zika, the current Zika strain is considered much more dangerous, the games will surely speed up the transmission of the virus on an international level and when this does happen, the role of technological response will become more challenging. Lastly, “proceeding with the Games violates what the Olympics stand for.  The International Olympic Committee writes that ‘Olympism seeks to create … social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles’.  But how socially responsible or ethical is it to spread disease? ” The CDC updated diagnostic testing guidelines this week, noting that higher levels of the virus can be found in the urine rather than blood. The White House is calling for emergency funding to help combat the spread of the disease and speed the development of a vaccine. What impact will Zika have in the future? The unique aspect of a virus that impacts developing brains earns it a special place in the history books and as this outbreak unfolds, the long-term impacts of infectious diseases will become all the more evident. As of May 11th, the CDC has reported 503 travel-associated cases in the the U.S. 

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Challenges of Emerging Infections and Global Health Safety – you can now access the Indo-U.S. workshop summary regarding the collaborations between people, businesses, and governments. “The Indo-U.S. Workshop on Challenges of Emerging Infections and Global Health Safety, held in November 2014, encouraged scientists from both countries to examine global issues related to emerging and existing infections and global health safety, to share experience and approaches, and to identify opportunities for cooperation to improve practice and research in these areas. This report summarizes the presentations and discussions from the workshop.”
  • The Internet of Things and Infectious Diseases – “The Internet of Things (IoT) is all about devices that are programmed to sense, report on and react to certain behaviours or conditions, providing a new level of efficiency, evidence-based data and automation.” So how can we use this for infectious diseases? Validation of outcomes, analysis of behaviors, and collaboration may just help us use the Internet of Things in healthcare to reduce infection and even perform syndromic surveillance. Outcomes and objective behavior analysis may help us increase hand hygiene or reduce hospital-acquired infections.
  • Anthrax Outbreak in Kenya– 16 people were sickened and hospitalized in Kenya after consuming tainted cows. Joseph Mbai, Murang’a County health chief officer said, “The four cows that were slaughtered were sickly and the owner decided to sell the meat to neighbors and share with others”. Those hospitalized (ten children, five men, and a woman) have been treated and discharged.

Pandora Report 9.6.14

This week we cover dengue in Japan, dog flu in NYC, more forgotten lethal specimens in government labs, and of course, an Ebola update.

Canine Influenza Cases Spreading in Manhattan

Flu season is rapidly approaching, and evidently, it doesn’t only affect humans. Veterinarians in Manhattan have reported cases throughout the borough. The cases are likely due to dogs playing with other infected dogs at parks and dog runs. Vets warn owners to watch for coughing dogs and if they are present to take their dog to another area. The good news is, just like their human counterparts, dogs, too, can receive a flu vaccine.

The Gothamist—“According to the ASPCA, symptoms include coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing, fever, lethargy and loss of appetite; most dogs will recover within a month, but secondary infections like pneumonia can be problematic.”

 

New Cases of Dengue Fever Should be a Wake-Up Call for Japan

As many as 70 people in Japan have been infected with Dengue fever—traditionally, a disease found in tropical climates—the country’s first outbreak since 1945. The diagnoses prompted authorities to fumigate an area of Yoyogi Park in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, which was the apparent source of the infections. Dengue fever is transmitted by mosquitos and produces an extremely high fever and pain in the joints. The disease is not transmitted person to person.

The Asahi Shimbun—“The most effective way to deal with a global dengue epidemic is to step up the efforts to exterminate mosquitoes in countries with a large number of patients, especially in urban areas.”

 

Forgotten Vials of Ricin, Plague, and Botulism found in U.S. Government Lab 

A strong feeling of deja vu hit this week when we learned about yet another case of forgotten vials of dangerous pathogens at U.S. labs. In this case, the containers were discovered during an investigation of NIH facilities after scientists found vials of smallpox earlier this summer. This search discovered a century (!!) old bottle of ricin, as well as samples of tularemia and meliodosis. The FDA also reported they found an improperly stored sample of staphylococcus enterotoxin.

The Independent—“The NIH does have laboratories that are cleared to use select agents, and those pathogens are regularly inventoried, the director of research services Dr. Alfred Johnson said. However, these samples were allowed to be stored without regulation.”

 

This Week in Ebola

We learned that new cases of Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo are genetically unrelated to the West African strain and that researchers from the Broad Institute and Harvard are working to sequence and analyze virus genomes from the West African outbreak. Senegal is working hard to manage contacts with the Guinean student who tested positive for the virus in the capital, Dakar. Human trials of an Ebola vaccine continued in the U.S. and are planned to take place in Mali, the U.K., and Gambia. A third American infected with Ebola will return to the U.S. and will be treated at a Nebraska medical containment unit which was built for the SARS outbreak. I read an article that hypothesized that Ebola may be able to be transmitted sexually which could account for a high number of cases, while the Washington Post pointed to the fact that the West Africa outbreak is drawing attention from diseases which are more widespread and kill more people—it’s the Kardashian of diseases. Lastly, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said that this outbreak of Ebola is “threatening the stability” of affected and neighboring countries, and Dr. Daniel Lucey, of the Georgetown University Medical Center, predicts that the current outbreak “will go on for more than a year, and will continue to spread unless a vaccine or other drugs that prevent or treat the disease are developed.”

 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons