Pandora Report 9.1.2017

Craving some satyrical genome editing? Check out the Onion’s pros and cons list on this biotechnology.

The De Novo Synthesis of Horsepox Virus: Implications for Biosecurity and Recommendations for Preventing the Reemergence of Smallpox 

The recent de novo synthesis of horsepox by Canadian researchers has raised concern and spurred serious conversations about the future of orthopoxviruses, like smallpox, and the dual-use research that could bring them back. GMU biodefense associate professor and graduate program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz evaluates this horsepox experiment and what it means for biosecurity and efforts to prevent the reemergence of smallpox. Koblentz notes that this experiment represents a significant crossroads within the field of biosecurity and that the techniques for synthesis of such viruses are increasingly reducing barriers to potential misuse. Unleashing smallpox back into the world would be a global disaster as most of the world is no longer immune. Koblentz points out that “The threat of smallpox has been held at bay for the past 40 years by 2 conditions: the extreme difficulty of acquiring the virus and the availability of effective medical countermeasures. Synthetic biology is on the brink of erasing both of these formidable barriers to the reemergence of smallpox as a global health threat.” He highlights the limited and rather lackluster legal and technical safeguards against smallpox synthesis and that the increasing normalization and globalization of it will likely create a boom of researchers performing such experiments. Think of the gold rush, but rather the orthopoxvirus syntehesis rush. As orthopoxviruses, are being used to develop new vaccines and oncolytic medical treatments, its popularity and wider range of applications carries with it inherent risks that should be considered. “The combination of rising demand and increasing supply could lead to the global diffusion of the capability and expertise to create orthopoxviruses de novo as well as modify these synthetic viruses. With this diffusion will come an increased risk that scientists, acting on their own volition or on behalf of a terrorist group, might misuse their know-how to create variola virus, or that governments could use civilian biomedical research with synthetic orthopoxviruses as a cover for offensive applications. The release of the smallpox virus— whether due to a biosafety failure, a breach in biosecurity, or an act of biological warfare—would be a global health disaster.” Koblentz draws attention to the challenges that the normalization and globalization of orthopoxvirus synthesis poses to national and international systems working to ensure life sciences research is safely conducted. He points out that there is no clear international legal framework to prevent the synthesis of the variola virus, few comphresensive legal safeguards, and that the private DNA industry (the main supplier of large synthetic DNA fragments) has inconsistent regulatory interventions. With these concerns, Koblentz suggests several recommendations to prevent the return of smallpox, ranging from the WHO’s World Health Assembly (WHA) passing a resolution to enshrine the WHO’s Advisory Committee on Variola Research (ACVVR) recommendations on the handling and synthesis of variola virus DNA into international law, to efforts within the DNA synthesis industry to declare a temporary moratorium on the synthesis of orthopoxvirus DNA fragments until effective WHO oversight can be established. Overall, Koblentz points to the importance of this experiment in terms of how such work is performed and the lack of informed debate surrounding the dual-use nature prior to the start of research. He emphasizes  “the risks posed by the routine and widespread synthesis of orthopoxviruses that could lead to the creation of a widely distributed network of laboratories and scientists capable of producing infectious variola virus from synthetic DNA.”

GMU Biodefense Master’s Open House – September 14th
We’re two weeks away from the first Master’s Open House and you won’t want to miss the chance to learn about GMU’s biodefense MS program. From 6:30-8:30pm on 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. From Anthrax to Zika, we’ve got the place for all things biodefense.

Stanford’s New Biosecurity Initiative  

Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) just announced their new biosecurity initiative, the Stanford Biosecurity Initiative, which will be led by David Relman and Megan Palmer. “Relman said the biosecurity initiative will seek to advance the beneficial applications of the life sciences while reducing the risks of misuse by promoting research, education and policy outreach in biological security. His CISAC leadership gives him the know-how to lead such a wide-ranging effort across diverse disciplines and communities,”. Palmer is a senior research scholar at Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and leads research on risk governance in emerging technology development and is an all around biotechnology guru. The biosecurity initiative also includes key Stanford partnerships and expertise within the fields of life sciences, engineering, law, and policy. Palmer noted that, “Stanford has an opportunity and imperative to advance security strategies for biological science and technology in a global age. Our faculty bring together expertise in areas including technology, policy, and ethics, and are deeply engaged in shaping future of biotechnology policy and practices.” We look forward to seeing the amazing work this new initiative will accomplish!                                                                                         

NAS Symposium on Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) for the Next Ten Years and Beyond
Don’t miss out on this September 18-19 event at the Keck Center. “In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report Global Security Engagement: A New Model for Cooperative Threat Reduction concluded that expanding and updating U.S. Government Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs in both form and function would enhance U.S. national security and global stability. The NAS Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) is convening a symposium to examine how CTR has evolved since that time and to consider new approaches for CTR programs and related WMD elimination efforts to increase their ability to enhance U.S. security. Speakers will include Amb. Laura Holgate, former U.S. Representative to the Vienna Office of the UN and IAEA, Amb. Ronald Lehman, Counselor to the Director of LLNL, William Tobey, former Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at NNSA, Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, and other key thinkers and practitioners from CTR programs as well as experts from outside of CTR implementing agencies who have experience addressing complex international security problems. The symposium is sponsored by the Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (PASCC) in the Naval Postgraduate School and will be open to the public. A ‘meeting in brief’ document will be issued by NAS after the symposium.”

International Biosecurity Fellows Reflect on SB7.0
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently partnered with Stanford’s Drew Endy to bring 32 emerging biosecurity leaders together for a fellowship program to attend the 7th International Meeting on Synthetic Biology (SB7.0) in Singapore. “In addition to attending the conference, fellows had the opportunity to engage with practicing experts and to discuss—with peers and senior scientists and government officials—biosecurity as it relates to synthetic biology. The fellows represented 19 countries on 6 continents and professions in the public and private sectors, the nonprofit space, and academia. The fellowship program was sponsored by the Open Philanthropy Project, hosted by Endy, and coordinated by the Center, BioBricks Foundation, and SynBioBeta. Center staffers Crystal Watson, DrPH, MPH, senior associate, and Matt Watson, senior analyst, organized the fellowship discussions and events and joined the fellows in Singapore for the 4-day experience. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, PhD, a senior associate at the Center and author of Synthetic Biology: Safety, Security, and Promise, spoke at SB7.0 and helped lead the fellowship’s panel discussions along with Watson and Watson.” Don’t miss out on GMU Biodefense PhD student Yong-Bee Lim’s reflection on page 39. Lim comments on the unique insight that comes from researchers with a non-technical background who still focus on the biosecurity, biosafety, and governance of emerging biotechnologies. “However, the enthusiasm of the technical conference attendees and fellows that I met about the advancements in synthetic biology was infectious. Whether Christina Smolke was talking about leveraging yeast to produce opioids to address medical access inequities, Kate Adamala was discussing synthetic cells as an alternative for research purposes, or Dorothee Krafft explained how her lab was seeking to synthesize a simple cell with alternate building blocks, their passion for their work came through. This allowed me the rare opportunity to enjoy the possibilities of these new avenues of innovation.” Don’t miss out on his tales of confiscated beef jerky and how there’s often a disparage between the science and security communities.

Building Airborne Isolation Units During Emergent Times  & Why the CDC Quarantined Potentially Defective Equipment
GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is taking a deep-dive into faulty PPE and hospital preparedness efforts that might just save us during an airborne outbreak. Popescu first looks at the recent CDC actions to pull defective PPE from the SNS. “The special focused on personal protective equipment (PPE) that was being stockpiled by the CDC for use against future outbreaks or public health emergencies, such as treating an influx of Ebola patients during an outbreak. The 60 Minutes investigative team filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain documents regarding MicroCool gowns that are part of the US Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). The filing of the Freedom of Information Act request is especially prudent as a group of hospitals were recently awarded $454 million in damages from PPE manufacturers Kimberly-Clark and Halyard Health (formerly a division of Kimberly-Clark) after a jury found they were liable for fraud and defects within the MicroCool gowns.” While these gowns were advertised as meeting standards for the highest level of impermeability, their efficacy is clearly in question. Many are concerned about the existing stockpiles hospitals have been holding onto since the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and if such PPE is still effective. Popescu also takes a look into a recent study that evaluated the potential for hospitals to readily and cheaply convert entire wings into negative-pressure, airborne isolation units. Such a measure would be necessary if there was an influx of infectious patients with SARS, MERS, or another disease that requires airborne isolation, as most hospitals have limited amounts of negative-pressure rooms. “Following their analysis, the team found that they were able to maintain negative pressure that was actually higher than the CDC recommendations for airborne isolation and there was no pressure reversal during the entering and exiting of the ward by medical staff. They did find that ‘pressures within the ward changed, with some rooms becoming neutrally or slightly positively pressured’, which means that healthcare staff would need to wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times in the unit and not just while in the patient rooms.” While this isn’t a permanent response measure, it does show proof of concept that would allow safer hospitalization for infectious patients during an airborne outbreak.

Stem Cells, Smallpox Vaccines, and FDA Crackdowns 
Earlier this week, the FDA announced it was taking action to shut down clinics that were advertising and performing unproven stem cell therapies. Clinics in California and Florida have received warning letters and the StemImmune Inc, clinic in San Diego, CA, received a visit from U.S. Marshals, who seized five vials of smallpox vaccine. “The FDA says it learned that StemImmune was using the vaccines as well as stem cells from body fat to create an unapproved stem cell therapy. On its website, StemImmune says ‘The patient’s own (autologous, adult) stem cells, armed with potent anti-cancer payloads, function like a ‘Trojan Horse,’ homing to tumors and cancer cells, undetected by the immune system’.” These clinics have been using stem cell treatments for patients suffering from Parkinson’s, ALS, COPD, heart disease, and pulmonary fibrosis. “Action by the FDA on clinics promoting unproven stem cell therapies is ‘a long time coming,’ says Sean Morrison, former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) and d irector of the Children’s Research Institute at UT Southwestern.”

Hurricane Harvey – Harbinger of Infectious Disease?
As hospitals are forced to evacuate patients and medical centers become overwhelmed, the George R. Brown Convention Center has become the city’s largest emergency shelter. It’s always challenging though, meeting the medical demands of so many people in an emergent environment. As providers work to meet basic medical needs there is another concern that bubbles up with an influx of people into a small environment…disease. Floodwater injuries are of course a concern, but we also worry about infectious diseases associated with overrun sewage systems, lack of potable water and safe food, and the existence of mega-shelters that are ripe for transmission of respiratory and diarrheal illness. That’s not even considering the potential for nasty resistant infections like MRSA, VRE, etc. Did I mention mosquitoes? “Based on experience following Hurricane Katrina, there will be several competing effects on the population of mosquitoes and the prevalence of arboviruses, such as Zika, dengue and West Nile, that they transmit. Mosquitoes need stagnant water to lay eggs. Winds and floods will wash away containers that would have been breeding pools, said Hayden, who studies weather and vector-borne disease. In the immediate future, both Hayden and Hotez anticipate that local mosquito populations will decline. But once the floodwaters recede, mosquitoes will recover. In 2006, a year after Katrina, Tulane University public-health experts reported that cases of West Nile infection increased more than twofold in communities that had been in that hurricane’s path. The study authors suggested that increased exposure was the culprit. Fleeing partially submerged buildings, people spent days outside waiting for rescue.” Sadly, it will take years to recover and rebuilding Houston after Harvey, and there are lessons we can apply from not only Harvey, but also Hurricane Sandy, towards future preparedness and response efforts. Matt Watson and Eric Toner from the Center for Health Security are drawing attention to the need for Congress to start gearing up for the health impacts following Harvey.  “Stepping back from the operational response, it’s important to recognize that Congress has a vital role to play in both preparing for and enabling recovery following large scale disasters. On the recovery front, it will be important for lawmakers to pass an emergency appropriation that provides emergency funding. It is critical that Congress reverse that trend and continue to support annual appropriations for hospital and public health preparedness so that the nation is able to respond to increasingly frequent natural disasters and other large-scale emergencies.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Distinguishing Virulent from Harmless Bacteria to Improve Biosurveillance- “Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory are working to eliminate false positives in detection of Francisella bacteria, a few species of which include highly virulent human and animal pathogens. The effort contributes to more efficient and effective biological surveillance, such as that conducted by the US Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, which provides early warning of infectious disease outbreaks, hazardous environmental exposures, or possible bioterrorist attacks by spotting trends of public health importance.”
  • Deadly Strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae Found In China– Chinese researchers are reporting a highly virulent, resistant, and deadly strain of the bacteria in five patients at a hospital in Hangzhou, China. “All five patients—who were admitted to the ICU between late February and April of 2016—had undergone surgery for multiple trauma followed by ventilation and subsequently developed carbapenem-resistant K pneumoniae infections and severe pneumonia that responded poorly to all available antibiotics. All five patients died of severe lung infection, multi-organ failure, or septic shock.”

 

Pandora Report 8.25.2017

Happy Friday and welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense. Have you ever wanted to take a tour of Dugway Proving Ground? Here’s your chance at a virtual tour through some amazing photography.

GMU Biodefense Graduate Programs & Information Sessions
Classes are just starting up and if you’ve ever wanted to take classes on synthetic biology and biosecurity, global health security policy, nonproliferation and arms control, biosurveillance, or emerging infectious diseases, we’ve got just the program for you! GMU offers both Masters and PhD programs in biodefense and has several informational sessions coming soon. Our program provides the perfect intersection of policy and science with courses taught by a range experts. If your time is limited or distance is a problem, we also offer an online MS program, which means you can study biodefense from anywhere!

Revisiting NIH Biosafety Guidelines
It’s been forty years since NIH established the Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant or Synthetic Nucleic Acid Molecules to assess the risks of genome editing. Now more than ever, with the speed of biotech development, it is relevant to take a moment and look back at the significance of such guidelines. “Responsibilities include setting up Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) to assess risks and potential hazards through standards for containment and laboratory practices. Noncompliance on any project, whatever the funding source, can result in loss of all such NIH funding. In his address to the workshop.” Since its inception, there have been several advances in the field, like DIY gene editing and CRISPR, which may require changes to the existing guidelines. “And conventional risk management practices that focus on listed pathogens may underestimate risks of new, unlisted organisms. The informality of voluntary guidelines has enabled prompt responses by funders and researchers to emerging evidence on benefits and risks of technologies. But what has worked with those receiving NIH funding with IBCs may not work with the wider range of actors who now have access to these technologies.” How can the NIH meet these challenges with a forty-year-old set of rules? A few things might help it maintain relevancy- participation in international forums, facilitating researchers/publishers/insurers to set common benchmarks on researcher conduct, engage more with institutional biosafety officials, and working to ensure there are more IBCs. Overall, there is a need to modernize the guidelines to better meet and serve the expanding plain of the life sciences.

Revisiting Compliance in the Biological Weapons Convention                                                                       Have you noticed a trend this week? Revisiting is the name of the game and that’s just what the latest occasional paper from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey is doing. The latest RevCon was a dud and the future of the BWC and its relevance is being tested. James Revill is looking at compliance and an incremental approach within the BWC. Revill notes that “compliance with the BWC is more than a simple binary choice to sign a commitment not to develop or produce biological weapons. It requires the adherence to all the obligations, both negative and positive, undertaken by BWC states parties in signing and ratifying the convention. In the BWC context, this is complicated by the ambiguity surrounding certain obligations, changes in science and security, and the limited resource capacity of some states to fulfill their obligations. Under such circumstances, without episodically revisiting compliance, there remains the risk that BWC will become ever more fragmented, outmoded and poorly implemented.” He emphasizes that despite many pushing for multilaterally negotiated, legally binding verification protocols, this is an unlikely outcome. An incremental approach to revisiting compliance, Revill suggests, could incorporate several activities – review relevant science and technology, enhance the collection and analysis of compliance indicators, develop the consultative mechanism, building the provision of assistance in the event of a violation of the BWC, explore voluntary visits, enhance the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism, and remedy the institutional deficient. Overall, he points to the wavering nature of norms against bioweapons and that “without revisiting compliance and tending the convention, there is a risk that the regime will be left to fester and fragment, in time potentially diminishing the norms against biological weapons.”

Meeting on the Attribution of Biological Crime, Terrorism, and Warfare
The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense will be hosting this October 3rd meeting in Washington D.C. “Effective prosecution and decisions regarding U.S. response depend on accurate attribution of biological attacks. Despite ongoing biological crimes and suspected development of biological weapons for the purpose of attacking the Nation, the United States has yet to establish this capability fully. The Study Panel will host a special focus meeting entitled Biological Attribution: Challenges and Solutions. This meeting of the Study Panel, chaired by former Homeland Security Advisor Ken Wainstein and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, will provide federal government, industry, and academic representatives with the opportunity to discuss their perspectives, experiences, challenges, and recommended solutions with regard to biological attribution.” Stay tuned for more details!

SynBio Salmagundi: Proposed Framework for Identifying Potential Biodefense Vulnerabilities Posed by Synthetic Biology – Report, SB7.0 & Options for Synthetic DNA Screening 
It’s a good day to get your synbio nerdom on with this potpourri of news! If you missed the webinar on Tuesday, you can now access the latest NAS interim report regarding the biodefense implications of synthetic biology. “Synthetic biology and related biotechnologies hold great promise for addressing challenges in human health, agriculture, and other realms. At the same time, synthetic biology raises concerns about possible malicious uses that might threaten human health or national security. This interim report is the first phase of a study by the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine to assess potential vulnerabilities. The report proposes a strategic framework that can be used to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern.” Within the report you can find definitions and study scope regarding synthetic biology in the context of biodefense, factors to assess capability for malicious use, technologies and applications to assess, and framework approach (parameters to consider, use and limitations, etc.). Check out this latest article regarding the screening processes of for synthetic DNA ordering. Sure, there are current screening processes (providers affiliated with the International Gene Synthesis Consortium voluntarily screen double-stranded DNA synthesis orders over 200bp to check for regulated pathogens and additional customer screening), but truly, the processes isn’t that easy…or cheap. Researchers, like Gigi Kwik Gronvall, pointed out actions that could help “preserve the effectiveness of DNA order screening as a security tool and develop additional mechanisms to increase the safety and security of DNA synthesis technologies.” Highlighting the DHHS screening guidance as quickly becoming obsolete, they emphasized options like including direct financial support to companies for screening, especially as we look to the future costs and responsibilities of the U.S. government. “The screening of dsDNA orders is not a panacea for biosecurity concerns: it is possible for nefarious actors to work around the screening. However, we believe that screening dsDNA orders still raises barriers to the development of biological weapons and may offer some protection against biosafety concerns.” The future of synthetic DNA ordering will surely be debated as experiments, like the recent horsepox reconstitution, bring to light new gaps. One such focus onto the realm of biosecurity and synthetic biology comes from Dr. Eric van der Helm, who participated at the latest SB7.0 synthetic biology conference. Van der Helm attended as part of the SB7.0 biosecurity fellowship and has highlighted some of the biorisks we worry about. He also points to the latest horsepox experiment which brought about so much attention to the biosecurity implications of reconstituting an extinct virus. “Synthetic biology has only been recently recognized as a mature subject in the context of biological risk assessment — and the core focus has been infectious diseases. The main idea, to build resilience and a readiness to respond, was reiterated by several speakers at the SB7.0 conference.  In the case of biosecurity, we’re already dependent on biology [with respect to food, health etc.] but we still have an opportunity to develop biosecurity strategies before synthetic biology is ubiquitous.  There is still an opportunity to act now and put norms and practices in place because the community is still relatively small.” Van der Helm emphasizes the need to have these conversations regarding biosecurity measures and synbio, like those at SB7.0, more frequently and openly.

North Korea’s Bioweapon Program: What do we actually know?
If you haven’t gotten enough on discussions regarding North Korea’s bioweapons program, check out GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley‘s latest interview in which she discusses what we know and what we might be missing. What a perfect way to enjoy the morning commute or a lunch break!

Post-Ebola Recovery – An Upside to an Epidemic
A recent mudslide in Sierra Leone is revealing a positive outcome from the 2014/2015 Ebola outbreak – sustained disaster response. Shortly after the mudslide, emergency response crews were already working alongside volunteers to help rescue victims. Sidi Tunis chatted with Buzzfeed, noting that “During Ebola we had a lot of community engagement, so they knew how to be first responders. They knew how to do search and rescues, they knew how to convey corpses safely to the morgue.” Many of the young men digging through rubble were already experienced, having helped with Ebola burial teams and the ambulance system was better equipped and supported as a result of the outbreak. “There was a lesson learnt from Ebola that instead of creating parallel system of NGOs, let’s take leadership from the start,” she said. “So this time it’s been led by the government from the onset, and having them take that ownership is more of a sustainable system.” “Still, NGOs playing a critical role are in a better position than they might typically have been. Three days after the mudslide, unclaimed bodies piling up in Freetown’s main mortuary posed another health risk. There were so many that they began to decompose in the tropical heat, prompting the government to order mass burials over the following two days. Workers from UNICEF were among those who helped scrub out the morgue during a massive clean-up operation that followed. ‘That needed a lot of infection prevention equipment – gloves, boots, aprons,’ James said. ‘UNICEF had emergency stock ready to go from Ebola’.”

Meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
Don’t miss out on this September 13th and 14th meeting in which the “Advisory Council will provide advice, information, and recommendations to the Secretary regarding programs and policies intended to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics by optimizing their use; advance research to develop improved methods for combating antibiotic resistance and conducting antibiotic stewardship; strengthen surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; prevent the transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections; advance the development of rapid point-of-care and agricultural diagnostics; further research Start Printed Page 38913on new treatments for bacterial infections; develop alternatives to antibiotics for agricultural purposes; maximize the dissemination of up-to-date information on the appropriate and proper use of antibiotics to the general public and human and animal healthcare providers; and improve international coordination of efforts to combat antibiotic resistance.” The meeting will be held at the DHHS Hubert Humphrey Building or you can attend online here.

Pandemic Readiness (Hint: We’re Not There Yet)
Despite funding for the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) and an increase in funding to the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program (PHEP), many are pointing out that these programs are chronically underfunded to begin with. “This House bill also does little to create a realistic public health emergency response fund, a standing pot of money to meet the immediate needs of a public health crisis. We saw how long it took to get emergency funds to respond to Zika, Ebola and Hurricane Sandy, with each event taking longer and longer to help these communities respond to devastating disasters.” You can also check out this latest meeting with Judy Woodruff and Liberian-born Dr. Raj Panjabi at Spotlight Health. Dr. Panjabi discusses the seriousness of infectious disease threats and the challenges of pandemic prevention.

Forecasting Outbreaks One Image at a Time
Tracking infectious diseases is a tough job and requires a lot of boots on the ground (shout out to gumshoe epidemiologists who go door to door doing contact tracing). Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been using computer modeling for a while to track disease movement, but a new partnership with Descartes Labs, is bringing high-resolution satellite imagery into the arsenal. “By mapping where high-moisture areas intersect with those social media signals and clinical surveillance data, we can help identify areas at risk for disease emergence and subsequently predict its potential path. Descartes Labs collects data daily from public and commercial imagery providers, aggregating the images into a single database. Our team at Los Alamos will use the Descartes Labs Platform to correlate satellite imagery with multiyear clinical surveillance data from approximately 5,500 Brazilian municipalities for mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, and Zika in order to better understand how they spread.” This new imagery will allow Los Alamos Lab researchers to focus on specific neighborhoods and other small geographical areas. By using retrospective analysis via historical data, they’ll make sure the mathematical models are accurate and ensure that future models are truly capable of prediction.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Munich Re Signs Strategic Agreement With Metabiota to Enhance Insurability Against Epidemic Losses – The risk analytics firm Metabiota has announced a strategic agreement with Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurers, to better establish insurability “by protecting companies and local economies from the financial loss related to epidemics. This really is the next frontier for the insurance industry – given the high risk of infectious disease outbreaks, it is imperative that we find new ways to manage and finance these risks for our customers.” Metabiota’s newest platform is a modeling method for estimating epidemic preparedness and risk, as well as the cost and severity of outbreaks by using historical data and disease scenarios and analytics.
  • Ebola Survivors Plagued With Long-term Disabilities – Imagine becoming infected with one of the most deadly viruses on the planet. Now, imagine by some stroke of luck and medical marvel, you’re able to survive. After the long, miserable road that is Ebola infection, survivors have been finding themselves with chronic conditions and high rates of disabilities. A new study found that Ebola survivors have seven times the disability rate compared to their close contacts. “In the first study, researchers followed 27 Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone for 1 year after diagnosis and found they were seven times more likely than their close contacts to report a disability. Almost 80% of the survivors (77.8%) reported a disability 1 year post-infection, compared with 11.1% of their close contacts. Disabilities included major limitations in vision, mobility, and cognition. ‘This study has demonstrated that a year following acute disease, survivors of the recent EVD outbreak have higher odds of persisting disability in mobility, vision, and cognition,’ the authors concluded. ‘Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression persist in EVD survivors and must not be neglected’.”
  • Minnesota Measles Woes & Anti-vaxxers– The benefits of vaccines have been under fire from anti-vaccine activists, despite the overwhelming good they’ve done for the world. While Minnesota continues to battle their worst outbreak of measles in decades, the antivaxxers are becoming energized in their efforts. “In Facebook group discussions, local activists have asked about holding ‘measles parties’ to expose unvaccinated children to others infected with the virus so they can contract the disease and acquire immunity.” The initial cases of this outbreak were in the Somali American community, which are believed to be the result of anti-vaccine activists speaking to community members and instilling fears and concerns. “Despite the anti-vaccine drumbeat, Minnesota’s Somali American community has begun to push back, according to some health-care providers. As part of an unprecedented collaboration clinicians and public health officials launched this summer, ­Somali American imams are urging families to protect their children by getting the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.”

Pandora Report 8.11.2017

Norovirus may be plaguing athletes in London for the World Championships, but we’re making sure to deliver the latest biodefense news to you (germ free)! Check out these WHO courses for managing public health emergencies.

CDC Invests $200 Million For Infectious Disease Preparedness
Last week the CDC announced that it awarded more than $200 million to help prevent, detect, respond to, and control biothreats posed by emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. The funds will go through the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity for Infectious Diseases (ELC) cooperative agreement and reach all fifty state health departments and several local health agencies in large metropolitan areas. The CDC announcement noted that the “CDC and states work together to improve local surveillance, laboratory diagnostic capabilities, and outbreak response. The CDC has awarded more than $200 million through the Epidemiology and ELC cooperative agreement to help states, cities, counties, and territories prevent, detect, respond to, and control the growing threats posed by emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. State programs are the foundation of the U.S. public health system and are integral to the nation’s efforts to combat infectious disease threats. CDC and states work together to improve local surveillance, laboratory diagnostic capabilities, and outbreak response.” This also includes $77 million to help state health departments combat antibiotic resistance in their areas. The 2017 funding enhances current Antibiotic Resistance Laboratory Network (AR Lab Network) activities by increasing testing nationwide for Candida fungal threats, strengthening national TB surveillance and infrastructure, and enhancing detection of drug-resistant gonorrhea. This surge of funds, mixed with a new strategy that combines market entry rewards with population-based payments from insurers, could help bring us ahead in the battle against the resistant bug. “The proposal, dubbed the Priority Antimicrobial Value and Entry (PAVE) award, would use limited public funds to cover the majority of revenue for the first 1 to 2 years a new antibiotic is on the market, but that revenue would be phased out over 5 years and replaced by revenue from population-based contracts with health insurers. The purpose of the PAVE award, the authors said in their recent Journal of the American Medical Association paper, is to guarantee a return-on-investment for antibiotic developers by ‘de-linking’ the revenue of new antibiotics from the volume used and to promote stewardship of those drugs, so that thy remain effective and available.”

A Short History of Biological Warfare: From Pre-History to 21st Century
Don’t miss out on the latest bioweapon gem from W. Seth Carus – a history on biological warfare! “It covers what we know about the practice of BW and briefly describes the programs that developed BW weapons based on the best available research. To the extent possible, it primarily draws on the work of historians who used primary sources, relying where possible on studies specifically focused on BW. By broadening our knowledge of BW, such studies have enabled us to write about the topic with more accuracy and detail than could have been done even a few years ago.” Carus breaks BW history into three sections – prehistory to 1900, 1900-1945, and then 1945-modern day. He focuses on the agents covered by the BWC and looks at the history of state-sponsored programs, the role of scientific advances in understanding microorganisms, use of BW in warfare, and more.

What It Means To Militarize Biotechnology
Biotechnology is a fickle beast and a frequently debated topic. While many focus on the security implications of gene-editing and other biotechnologies in the hands of nefarious actors, there has been an increasing militarization of the field. Military research and investment in biotechnology can be a bag of mixed outcomes and there has been little discussion regarding the growing military interest in it. “One such issue is the risk that military investment in biotechnology will adversely affect research priorities. Another is the possibility that military investment into defensive or public health projects by one state might be misinterpreted by other states as having offensive potential. In the same vein, the scarcity of publicly available information about military research into biotechnology might fuel public distrust of valuable and well-intended work. It is clear, for example, that research into preventing, identifying, and treating infectious diseases by various militaries around the world will continue to provide broader spin-off benefits—but publics in some states might be unsure why military rather than public health institutions lead such work.” Progress in fields like synthetic biology has brought forth almost a renaissance of research and also engagement in security discussions. Brett Edwards highlights the role of the Amerithrax attacks in bringing biology into the forefront of American terrorism worries. He notes that the synbio community has been heavily engaged in the debate of misuse and its implications for innovation and regulation. Working in the synbio field inherently carries with it a forced sensitization to these issues. Edwards emphasizes that the future should include international dialogue with researchers regarding biotechnology militarization. “This sort of dialogue might allow shared principles regarding state investment in biotechnology to be identified and articulated—principles that would both guide research priorities and establish hard limits about what is permissible. Such discussions could draw upon relevant principles in international human rights, humanitarian, and arms control law—including, but not limited to, treaties specifically dealing with biological, chemical, and environmental warfare.”

Air Travel or Bug Travel?
We’ve all been on that flight with one (or more) people who are visibly and audibly ill…and there’s nothing like that ominous feeling of “I’m definitely getting sick after this flight.” A new study investigated disease transmission on airplanes and found that things like plane size and boarding method can have some pretty profound implications for disease transmission. Sure, jamming ourselves into a metal box where it’s cold and we’re in close quarters should already be a redflag for disease transmission, but there are many more variables that impact airborne disease spread. Researchers started first with how Ebola might be transmitted on a plane. “Unfortunately for current fliers, the commonly used three-section boarding technique, where passengers board by first class, middle zone and back section, is actually the worst strategy for reducing the number of infected. The reason this works so poorly is that it forces passengers to stand together in the aisle while they all wait to get to their seats, which means more time for a tightly packed group to be exposed to the contagious passenger”. They found that changing the boarding method to a two-section, random method is much more protective. Also, the speed at which we all race off the airplane once we’re landed appears to have little impact. “For plane size, you might think the bigger the plane, the smaller your odds, right? Not quite. In fact, the study found that planes with less than 150 seats are better at reducing new infections; there are fewer susceptible people present overall, fewer people within a given person’s contact radius and less time spent moving through the plane to reach assigned seats. ‘Using smaller airplanes during an outbreak, instead of completely banning flights to a specific destination, can drastically reduce the probability of introduction of infection,’ Mubayi said.” The investigative team found that if airlines stuck to their existing boarding strategies during an ebola outbreak, there would be a 67% chance of infection rates reaching 20 air-travel-related cases per month. Regardless of plane size, if airlines modified their boarding strategies, the change for infection drops to 40%. Such work gives us great insight into strategies to help slow the rate of transmission during outbreaks through the powerful vector that is international air travel.

Computer Security and DNA Sequencing
A recent article on the implications of DNA sequencing and big data highlights investigations into the “robustness of such tools if (or when) adversarial attacks manifest”. Researchers noted that DNA synthesis can provide attackers with arbitrary remote code execution and highlight the need to look at the feasibility of such attacks. Performing their own attacks on a modified down-stream sequencing utility, they found data leakage and used such lessons to evaluate security hygiene of the more common DNA processing programs. Such work is especially prudent given that biohackers recently encoded malware in a DNA strand. University of Washington researchers revealed at the USENIX Security conference this week that it’s actually possible to encode malware into DNA strands, “so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer. While that attack is far from practical for any real spy or criminal, it’s one the researchers argue could become more likely over time, as DNA sequencing becomes more commonplace, powerful, and performed by third-party services on sensitive computer systems.” The researchers are calling it the “the first ‘DNA-based exploit of a computer system‘.” This new finding sounds like something out of a science fiction film, but points to the unexpected threats within DNA sequencing and data processing. Thankfully, the process was pretty unreliable and the researchers had to take some significant shortcuts, which means attacks like this may be not be in the immediate future. Nonetheless, it brings forth the need to consider the security implications of information stored within DNA.

Next Generation Global Health Security Network & the Nuclear Threat Initiative Webinar 
Don’t miss out on this webinar today, at 2pm EST regarding the Next Generation for Biosecurity in GHSA Competition! This webinar will provide an overview of eligibility and submission requirements for the NTI-sponsored biosecurity competition to develop regional and global partnerships among next generation professionals. Participants will also have an opportunity ask questions about the competition. Click here to add the event to your calendar.

Bio-Labs of the Future – The Promises & Perils of the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program takes a deep-dive into the bio-labs of the future . The rise of the biotech revolution and advances in gene-editing DNA synthesis, AI, etc. are all helping laboratories grow in connectivity and intelligence. “While this may be a boon for the development of novel vaccines and therapeutics by parties that have traditionally not had access to the necessary tools, it also opens the risk of nefarious use to engineer or edit biological agents or toxins. While there have been attempts at governance to limit the avenues by which a bad actor may gain access to the pathogens or tools to create biological weapons, the ever-increasing pace of innovation has left gaps that may be exploited.” Many are calling this time a Fourth Industrial Revolution, and with technologies like portable genomics sequencers, there is a need to examine the vulnerabilities, which includes things like growing accessibility. The Wilson Center paper highlights the need to evaluate threat, potential for exploitation of gaps, and provides policy recommendations.

Combating Biological Terrorism Roundtable Discussion
Don’t miss out on this event put on by the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies on Thursday, August 24th, noon-2pm at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (901 N Stuart Street, Suit 200, Arlington, VA 22203). Roundtable speakers include Professors Rita Colwell, S. Gerald Sandler, Rashid Chotani, and Normal Kahn. “Biological security concerns are a permanent fixture of history, ranging from Mother Nature’s infectious diseases to man-made threats. Recent epidemics, such as Ebola and Zika, and the potential dangers of biological terrorism urgently need to be addressed through international partnerships to reduce the gravest health risks at home and abroad. Experts with governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental experience will provide an assessment of future challenges and offer recommendations for an international comprehensive biosecurity strategies.” RSVP is required (please email icts@potomacinstitute.org).

The Future of the GHSA Matters for US Clinicians
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu discusses the importance of the GHSA and why it should matter to U.S. clinicians. “Fundamentally, the GHSA is a crucial component to ensuring a solid and reliable global foundation exists for responding to, detecting, and preventing public health crises. Whether you are a physician in an urgent care, a nurse in a major hospital, a public health epidemiologist, or working in national policy, the importance of the GHSA and its work is apparent and a future without it will only serve to weaken US and global health security.”

CBRN Insurance Approaches
GMU biodefense MS alum Zamawang F Almemar is looking at a new actuarial approach to a CBRN insurance policy. A WMD attack against a major city would have devastating consequences but countries often struggle with the realities of costly prevention efforts. It’s important to truly analyze the threats of national security and develop countermeasure infrastructure accordingly. Drawing parallels to homeowners insurance, “investing national resources to prevent and recover from the effects of a nuclear attack is an appropriate choice for national policymakers, but what level of protection is warranted to guard against non-state actor developed and employed chemical or biological weapons, or against a radioactive attack.” The authors looked to factors that may help determine how much should be spent on WMD “insurance” and a method for evaluation. While calculating some factors, like societal fears, are challenging, there are things to consider, like economic cost of property cost damage and recovery costs, economic and societal costs of injuries, deaths, disruption, and changes to society, etc. “Factors affecting the cost of implementing a protection action include the difficulty of taking the action, the equipment needed, and the extent of the measure being taken”. Regarding policy recommendations, the authors focus on the imminent threat from terrorist organisations, noting that “it is now of utmost importance for the new administration to prioritize cWMD efforts within the national defense strategy and to ensure there is a balance in appropriations investing in these cWMD efforts.”

A Shadow Network of Science Experts
At first glance, this sounds like an elusive club of James Bond-esque scientists. In reality, the truth gives a startling look into the White House. In effort to combat several science gaps within the new administration, there are reports that an unofficial network of Obama loyalists is working to continue the Obama science agenda. “Participants have provided counsel to Democratic lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill, and they have held group-wide strategy sessions much in the same fashion as they did when they worked out of a fourth-floor wing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House.” “In interviews, members of the new Obama group — which numbers in the dozens — said they have remained more engaged than they expected to before Trump’s victory in November. Beyond fielding policy questions from congressional offices, they have consulted with scientific societies, and advised organizers of the March for Science, among other activists — a few have even made those organizations their new professional homes. They have also assisted in analyzing the impact of White House budget proposals — which have outlined deep cuts to federal research agencies — and the impact of policies including Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords.”

Using Vaccines to Fight Antimicrobial Resistance
While we’re working to find new antimicrobials, reducing antibiotic use, and stopping the spread of AMR, there may be another strategy – vaccines. Many are pointing to the prevention of disease via vaccines as a means of countering infections in the first place, which are frequently misdiagnosed and treated with unnecessary antibiotics. Consider pneumococcal conjugate or influenza vaccines. “A study published in the Lancet led by Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy found that if every child under 5 years old in the 75 countries studied received pneumococcal conjugate vaccines, the resulting reduction of pneumonia would avert 11.4 million days of antibiotic use each year.” Vaccines can be an effective tool in reducing illness and these infections often lead to not only the missuse of antibiotics, but also hospitalizations that often result in exposure to resistant organisms. We know the benefits of vaccines against specific viral infections however, perhaps it’s time we start adding them to the arsenal against antibiotic resistance? Overcoming AMR will not be a result of a singular effort, but rather a mosaic of combined practices and changes as diverse as the reasons resistance occurred in the first place.

A Silent Anthrax Outbreak Within The Chimpanzee Population
Researchers in the Tai forest within the Ivory Coast are working to find out why chimpanzees are dying from anthrax. The anthrax strain, a new form of Bacillus cereus, known as Bcbva, has been responsible for 38% of local wildlife deaths in the forest. Anthrax in the rainforest environment is unique and this outbreak is challenging the ways we traditionally think about such infections. “In the savannah, anthrax almost always infects hoofed grazing mammals, which ingest soil laced with bacterial spores. Although it can spill over into humans, until 2001, there was no record of it afflicting wild primates. Now, we know that the Taï strain hits chimpanzees, as well as other unusual hosts like mongooses and porcupines. It even affects monkeys that spend all their time in the treetops, far away from contaminated soil. ‘We don’t know how they get infected,’ says researcher Fabian Leendertz. ‘How do the spores make it up in the trees?’” Fortunately, Bcbva isn’t active in other parts of Africa. Chimpanzees, like many great apes in this region are already fighting off disease like Ebola, so this new surge of an unsual disease is worrying researchers.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Hot Topics In Biodefense –  What would you consider the hottest topics? GMU’s Biodefense program has students just as diverse as the topics we face in global health security, which makes the classroom discussions pretty fantastic. One of our PhD students recently sat down and wrote about the biggest issues we face in biodefense and why this field is so crucial – check it out here.
  • Graphic Design – A New Public Health Tool?– A new exhibit at London’s Welcome Collection is drawing attention to the role of graphic design during outbreaks and epidemics. The designs range from ambulances, hospital interiors, posters, cigarette packaging, and street art. “Rebecca Wright, who has co-organised the show with graphic designer Lucienne Roberts, says that exhibits in a section about contagion are especially dramatic. An Italian ‘plague notice’ from 1681 ‘uses bold typography to give authority in time of panic,’ she says, adding that it is a beautiful object. Graphic design responding to the early spread of HIV/Aids is included, such the historic and controversial, ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign launched by the British government in 1986. ‘It was the first time every household in the UK received a health leaflet, Wright says.”
  • China & the U.S. Battle for Biotech – Check out this latest article on FBI Supervisory Special Agent, biosecurity guru, and GMU summer workshop instructor, Ed You on the U.S.-China dispute over genetic data and its implications for biotechnology. FYI – You’ll need access to the Financial Times.

Pandora Report 8.4.2017

We all know that kitchen sponges are like little densely populated germ cities, but did you know that cleaning them could make it worse?

Only Six Nations Have Evaluated Pandemic Readiness
A new report from the World Bank is calling out how little work has been done to evaluate and prepare for pandemic readiness. The report notes that only six countries have evaluated their capacity and capabilities for responding to a pandemic. Of these countries, three are wealthy (Finland, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.) and are were poor (Eritrea, Pakistan, and Tanzania). All six countries had gone under external evaluations and developed funding plans to rectify their inadequacies. “The annual number of disease outbreaks around the globe has more than tripled since 1980, and air travel spreads contagions across oceans far more often. To convince countries that preparedness pays, the report included estimates of the economic damage various epidemics had done. For example, the viral pneumonia SARS — which ultimately killed only 774 people — shrank China’s gross domestic product by 0.5 percent in 2003.” We’re seeing an increasing emphasis on the financial aspect of pandemics and as this report points out, knowledge is power. The report includes an entire section on incentivizing countries to prioritize allocation of funds to preparedness, assessment of economic vulnerability, sovereign credit rating, etc. It was interesting to see that antimicrobial resistance was not considered a pandemic. What would happen if a fully resistant bacteria swept the world?

We Don’t Need Another Biodefense Strategy
Al Mauroni is taking a deep dive into the history of American biodefense strategies and why Thomas Bossert’s recent comments about a new one aren’t exactly promising. White House homeland security advisor Bossert announced this during a security forum in Aspen, noting that until the development of a new plan, the U.S. lacked a comprehensive biodefense strategy. When this was announced there was a collective “um….about that..” from many within the biodefense community. Mauroni points to the three recent biodefense strategies within the last fifteen years, highlighting what we’re all thinking – this won’t be the first comprehensive strategy. First, there was the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10 in 2005, then the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats (Presidential Policy Directive 2) in 2009, and most recently, the National Strategy for Biosurveillance in 2012. So, if we’ve had strategies for the better part of two decades, why is there a demand for a new one? Increased outbreaks and concern for biothreats have many calling for further funding of biodefense efforts, like that of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. Funding is one thing though, but a whole new strategy? “A recent article on the ‘proliferation’ of national strategies suggests that strategic guidance only adds to the confusion, allowing executive agencies to pick and choose what they want to implement.” Mauroni notes that “Going back to Bossert’s statement at the Aspen Security Forum, he referenced the 2001 anthrax-filled letters, pandemic influenza outbreaks, genetic engineering research, and the Global Health Security Agenda. He didn’t reference the protection of US military forces against adversarial use of biological warfare agents. All of these fall under the area of ‘biodefense,’ and there is no one agency that comprehensively addresses all of these threats. Because US government funding, authorities, and capabilities for biodefense reside in different agencies, it is very difficult to articulate objectives and responsibilities in one single strategy. There is no single point of authority to execute the strategy, and very often, no incentive to change given an inability to redirect resources or authorities”. Biodefense is a unique term though as it is often considered in a singular context and while the DoD plays a significant role in countering biological threats, there are other players. Biosafety and biosecurity is a large component, which rests heavily on both the private and public sectors. The DHHS leads in times of public health concerns (even if some of these efforts are duplicated by the DoD) and we can’t forget the role of public health surveillance and health security efforts like that of the GHSA. Mauroni leaves us with several points – “there cannot be one national biodefense strategy because there are at least three distinct policy areas that, while overlapping, are significantly different in execution of their policy objectives.” He notes that “I am not optimistic that the US government will consider a more diverse and complex policy process that articulates these differences. Having one national biodefense strategy offers a façade of simplicity and organization that three separate strategies will not.”

Opening Statements for ASPR Nominee
The nomination hearing for Dr. Robert Kadlec as Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began on August 1st. You can check out the transcript here, in which Kadlec highlights five priority issues he wishes to pursue if confirmed. His priorities include providing stable leadership and clear policy direction, creating a “national contingency health care” system, supporting the sustainment of robust and reliable public health security capabilities, re-invorgorating and advancing an innovative MCM enterprise, and working to reauthorize the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act in 2018. You can watch the nomination hearings here. Reports are pointing to his likely confirmation as his nomination “lacks controversy“.

European Report on Drug Resistance
Is the food we eat helping antimicrobial resistance take over? A new joint report from several European public health agencies notes that “To contain antibiotic resistance we need to fight on three fronts at the same time: human, animal and the environment. This is exactly what we are trying to achieve in the EU and globally with our recently launched EU Action Plan on antimicrobial resistance. This new report confirms the link between antibiotic consumption and antibiotic resistance in both humans and food-producing animals.” The impact of consuming antimicrobial agents is increasingly becoming an area of concern. While there are many factors that contribute to the rise of antimicrobial resistance, it’s not surprising that antibiotic use in food-producing animals would become a topic of interest. “Although consumption is defined differently in humans and animals, to make the comparison as consistent as possible, the report expresses consumption in milligrams of active substance per kilogram of estimated biomass (mg/kg). Human antimicrobial consumption is typically reported as defined daily doses per 1,000 inhabitants. Overall, the report found that average antimicrobial consumption was higher in food-producing animals than in humans, although the difference was largely influenced by a handful of countries with significant animal populations.” Analysis points to a relationship between consumption and antimicrobial resistance (seen in isolates in certain species of bacteria). This latest report underscores the complexity of antimicrobial resistance and the challenges in truly addressing this hydra-like problem. Perhaps we are what we eat?

Australian Raid Finds Chemical Weapon Attempts
The Sydney police raids across four properties, which resulted in four arrests, found components for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and construction on an “improvised chemical dispersion device”. Two men were ultimately charged with building the military-grade device and were reportedly supported by ISIS operatives but their attack plans were foiled. “Police will allege that components for an improvised explosive device (IED) were sent to Australia in air cargo from Turkey via Isis operatives in Syria. Two men, who remained in custody after facing court on Friday, then allegedly assembled the devices with instruction from ‘a senior Isis operative’, according to the Australian federal police deputy commissioner Mike Phelan.” In response to the attempt, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are working to improve screening. Fortunately, the chemical weapon was in the early stages of development.

Biothreat Worries Over Cancer Research
At last week’s DEF CON hacking conference in Las Vegas, Intel’s chief medical officer John Sotos brought forth a somewhat surprising topic – bioweapons. Building on his discussion of the cancer moonshot, Sotos discussed the same technology (DNA manipulation) having the potential for misuse and development into biological weapons. “’The reason you haven’t heard much about bioweapons is that they’ve been held back by a pretty severe limitation, which is the potential for blowback’,” Sotos said. It is hard for any attacker to use weaponised diseases because they spread beyond their initial distribution range: destroy your neighbouring nation and you destroy your own as well. Sotos noted, ‘the cancer moonshot is going to really drive new technologies to manipulate DNA because cancer is a disease of DNA. [And] the same exquisite targeting that allows it to attack only your cancer cells also overcomes the blowback potential for bioweapons’.” While this level of precision medicine isn’t available yet, it draws parallels to gene-editing tools like CRISPR, in which targeted application is becoming more real. Soto hones in on the fear that such genetic engineering capabilities will not only be possible, but used for nefarious purposes like stealing genetic codes or rewriting DNA to tamper with fertility. Soto’s points are valid and it is important to consider the full spectrum of use for biotech developments in the future however, we must not lose sight of the consistent and growing threat that is natural disease.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Saliva Secretions & Zika Transmission – A recent study found that rhesus monkeys, when infected with high levels of the virus, could theoretically transmit via saliva. When compared to rhesus monkeys with more common viral loads, it was possible, although extremely unlikely, that the highly infected monkey could spread via saliva “All three monkeys who were exposed to high doses of Zika virus (20-fold higher than that typically found in saliva) applied directly on their tonsils developed the disease. Another group of 7 monkeys were exposed to the virus via the saliva of monkeys who had received subcutaneous infections, representing a typical virus count. None of the monkeys exposed to doses typically found in saliva contracted the disease when their tonsils (5 animals), conjunctivae (1), or nasal passages (1) were exposed. ‘We tried to simulate sneezing, sharing utensils, and other mucosal exposures,’ said Friedrich. ‘But the amount of virus typically founding saliva was not enough to infect a monkey or suggest any seroconversion [development of detectable antibodies]’.”
  • Biodefense World Summit Coverage – Get the latest overview of the Biodefense World Summit here, with a focus on biosurveillance! Topics range from DHS work to enhancing situational awareness for global disease surveillance.

Pandora Report 7.14.2017

Welcome to your weekly dose of all things biodefense! We’ve got a lot of global health security goodies for you this week, so grab a coffee and let’s get our biodefense on!

Canadian Researchers Reconstitute Horsepox With Online DNA Order
Friday was an exciting day in the world of dual-use research of concern (DURC) and biosecurity efforts. News of a Canadian research team and their successful experiment in reconstituting horsepox, brought to light several concerns and gaps within DURC oversight. Led by virologist David Evans, the team was able to synthesize horsepox, a relative of smallpox, which is no longer found in nature. What is really concerning so many about this experiment is that Evans and his team were able to do this with little specialized knowledge, $100,000, and using mail-order DNA fragments. While the study hasn’t been published, it is drawing a lot of attention, not only for the potential that such a process could be applied to smallpox, but also that it failed to trigger more reviews at an institutional level for DURC risks. While the U.S. DURC oversight only applies to federally funded research with fifteen select agents, the Canadian processes cover such research that could disseminate knowledge, regardless of what organism is being used. GMU’s Dr. Gregory Koblentz spoke to Science and discussed DURC oversight, noting, “That should have captured the horsepox synthesis,”. “But as far as I understand, they did not engage in a systematic review of the broader dual-use implications of synthesizing an orthopox virus,” says Koblentz. “I don’t think this experiment should have been done.” Researchers and biosecurity experts around the world are weighing in on this study, especially since its publication is immiment. Tom Inglesby of the Center for Health Security pointed to three serious questions and concerns that this work raises – whether experimental work should be performed for the purpose of demonstrating that a dangerous or destructive  outcome could be created by using biology, how much new detail will be provided in the forthcoming publication regarding the processes for constructing an orthopox virus, and the international biosecurity and biosafety implications regarding the approval process for such experimental work. Perhaps one of the most startling aspects of all the commentary and reports on the horsepox experiment has been Evans own opinion on it all – “Have I increased the risk by showing how to do this? I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe yes. But the reality is that the risk was always there.” Where ever you might stand on the topic of dual-use research, bioethicist Nicholas Evans of the University of Massachusetts (of no relation to David Evans), said it best regarding this debated experiment – “an important milestone, a proof of concept of what can be done with viral synthesis. Aside from the oversight and life science research questions that this experiment brings to light, it also stirs the embers of the fiery debate regarding the destruction of the remaining smallpox stockpiles. The most recent blue ribbon panel review regarding the 2014 NIH variola incident sheds some light on the biosecurity and biosafety challenges of maintaining the stockpiles. You can check out the report of the Blue Ribbon Panel to Review the 2014 Smallpox Virus Incident on the NIH Campus  here. The report goes through the event itself, as well as their findings on the incident, response to the incident, and policy changes. Some of the contributing factors they identified included lack of responsibility for infectious materials in shared space, failure to find all variola samples in the 1980s, lack of complete and regular inventory of potentially hazardous biological materials, lack of policy for abandoned materials, history of NIH lapses following implementation of the Select Agent Regulations, etc.

Summer Workshop – Last Chance to Register!
Our Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security starts on Monday, July 17th, which means you still have time to register! Don’t miss out on this wonderful opportunity to discuss everything from Ebola to the concerns surrounding the horsepox dual-use dilemma. This three-day workshop will feature experts across the field of biodefense and will provide participants with a wonderful opportunity for networking and brainstorming!

The Pentagon Weighs the Threat of Synthetic Bioweapons 
While the topic of synbio and DURC is still fresh in our minds, how is the Pentagon considering gene-editing as a potential threat? Sure, we prepare for natural outbreaks and acts of bioterrorism, but how does CRISPR come into the mix? “Pentagon planners are starting to wonder what happens if the next deadly flu bug or hemorrhagic fever doesn’t come from a mosquito-infested jungle or bat-crowded cave. With new gene editing tools like Crispr-Cas9, state enemies could, theoretically, create unique organisms by mixing-and-matching bits of genetic information.” In response to these questions and potential scenarios, deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense, Christian Hassell, is working to get some answers. Hassell and other Pentagon colleages funded a year-long review by the National Academies of Sciences to evaluate the health security threats of synbio. While the review is still going on, a preliminary report is undergoing “classified review” before it can be publicly released. This review will be vital to consider the future of gain-of-function research and other dual-use research of concern in the context of biodefense. “Scientists at the meeting expressed a range of ideas about how the military could best defend against biological threats. Sriram Kosuri runs a synthetic biology lab at UCLA that has developed libraries of DNA sequences that can be developed into new kinds of organisms. While he understands the possibility of a lab-engineered threat, he believes the Pentagon and federal health officials should focus on responding to emerging public health menaces rather than monitoring academic labs that use genetic manipulation tools. ‘There’s a legitimate threat of emerging viruses and we need to be prepared for those things,’ Kosuri said during a break in the meeting. ‘The tiny threat of engineered viruses is miniscule compared to that’.” The challenging part in all of this is that there’s no precedent – this is a new field of threat and risk analysis where historical examples are lacking. Hypothetical situations and response scenarios are the best we can offer, but some of the most valuable tools are the ones we already have, like surveillance or early-stage review processes.

Trump Appoints A Key Bioterrorism Position But Still Leaves Dozens Open
Biological threats aren’t just acts of bioterrorism, but also natural outbreaks or laboratory accidents. If the latest horsepox experiment hasn’t convinced you already, we live in a time of quite unique and diverse biothreats. The spectrum of threats requires an array of agencies and personnel with the skills and resources to prevent and respond to such an event. Unfortunately, we’re currently at a national disadvantage in terms of biodefense. If we look at just one small facet of biothreats (bioterrorism), the U.S. has twenty-six (now twenty-five with the nomination of Kadlec) major and vital roles that are vacant and have not been filled by the Trump administration. While some are awaiting confirmation, there are vacancies without even a nominee like the White House position of Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Department of Health and Human Services is missing a surgeon general and assistant secretary for health (awaiting confirmation), while the U.S. Agency For International Development lacks a nominee for the assistant administrator for global health. There are just a few of the vital positions we rely upon for preventing and responding to acts of bioterrorism. In the wider context of all biological threats, it may not seem like much, but the truth is that these vacancies leave the U.S. in a dangerously vulnerable position. Fortunately, President Trump announced on Monday his plans to nominate Robert P. Kadlec of New York to be the Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Preparedness and Response. “Currently, Dr. Kadlec is the Deputy Staff Director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Previously, he served as a Special Assistant to the President for Biodefense Policy for President George W. Bush. Dr. Kadlec holds a B.S. from the U.S. Air Force Academy; a M.D. from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and a M.A. in National Security Studies, Georgetown University.” He was also the Director for the Biodefense Preparedness on the Homeland Security Council and aided in drafting the Pandemic and All-Hazard Preparedness Act, as well as conducting the biodefense end-to-end assessment (culminating in the National Biodefense Policy for the 21st Century). You can even watch Dr. Kadlec speak on C-SPAN at the Bipartisan Policy Center & Kansas State University forum on biodefense in October of 2016. Dr. Kadlec also directed the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense during their efforts to establish guidance during critical biothreats.

Public Health Preparedness and Response National Snapshot 2017
The CDC just released their 2017 snapshot regarding U.S. public health preparedness and response, noting that “this year has shown us, once again, that we can’t predict the next disaster. But it has also shown us clearly how being prepared protects health and saves lives. Emergencies can devastate a single area, as we saw with Hurricane Matthew, or span the globe, like Zika virus. Disasters from 9/11 to Ebola have demonstrated that we absolutely must have people, strategies, and resources in place before an emergency happens.” Within the snapshot, there are four main sections- Prepare, Respond, Connect, and Looking Forward. Within these sections, you can look at Zika, laboratories as the front lines of America’s health, global training programs, delivering results through partnership, etc. I found the section on Health Security: How Is The U.S. Doing, quite interesting. They note that “as part of the Global Health Security Agenda, teams of international experts travel to countries to report on how well public health systems are working to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks. This process is known as the Joint External Evaluation.” The CDC and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) work together to establish evaluators , etc. Thankfully, this position is in the process of being filled so that these efforts can move forward. While this snapshot captures the range of issues that must be covered in public health preparedness, it also draws attention to how vital the roles in each agency are, which makes the vacancies that much more impacting.

Summary of Key Recommendations – Meeting to Solicit Stakeholder Input on Forthcoming 2017 National Biodefense Strategy
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, supported by the Open Philanthropy Project, recently held a meeting to discuss and consider the landscape of biological threats to the United States and what response measures, programs, and policies are in place, etc. Featuring members from across academia, industry, and government, these subject matter experts weighed in on this honest and frank discussion about U.S. biodefense strengths and weaknesses. There were several recommendations and topics that were discussed but some of the highlights include improving biosurveillance capabilities and laboratory network, performing risk assessments and characterizing threats, strengthening emergency response capabilities including decontamination efforts, prevention-related efforts, building global capacities for bio-threat preparedness and response, etc. They noted several components to improving U.S. biodefense – “internationally, laboratory and surveillance systems for early detection of new outbreaks will be most effective when they serve the needs of countries where they are housed. It will not work for the US to create systems to gather and export data that the US needs from countries if those countries do not get the information themselves and find it to be valuable.” In regards to healthcare system response and strengthening the workforce, the group pointed out that “national and international preparedness for biological threats requires a strong workforce, including public health experts and animal and plant disease scientists. To some degree, success at controlling infectious diseases in the US may have inadvertently resulted in workforce attrition in these fields. Federal support for developing the workforce in these fields is important”.

Strategies for Effective Biological Detection Systems: A Workshop
Don’t miss this workshop put on by the National Academies of Sciences on Monday, September 18th – Tuesday, September 19th. “The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will host a two-day public workshop on strategies for effectively updating biological detection systems. The workshop will explore alternative effective systems that would meet requirements for the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch Program as a biological detection system for aerosolized agents. There will be a focus on systems or strategies that could be deployed by 2027, and enable indoor surveillance and dual-use with day-to-day environmental surveillance that would be of value to the public health and medical communities. There will also be a focus on the integration of improvements and new technologies into the existing biological detection architecture.”

MRSA Screening – Healthcare Prevention Methods for Resistant Germs & Swabbing Our Way To A Solution for Antibiotic Resistance
Antibiotic resistance is a growing global issue and one of the hotspots for transmission of resistant germs is in hospitals. Given that MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is now a common bacteria in the community and healthcare world, hospitals are working to screen patients to ensure those with MRSA are isolated appropriately and they can stop the spread of infection. GMU biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu looks at MRSA screening practices within hospital intensive care units (ICUs) and the cost analysis that can make or break a program. Most hospitals utilize one of two approaches – preemptive universal precautions (isolate all ICU patients until microbiology labs can prove they are negative for MRSA) or targeted isolation (wait until labs come back and then isolate). Each tactic has benefits and weaknesses. Delays in isolation can translate to further spread of MRSA, while longer periods in isolation mean additional costs associated with isolation. A recent study evaluated these very two strategies and the “researchers found that the total cost of preemptive isolation ‘was minimized when a PCR screen was used ($82.51 per patient). Costs were $207.60 more per patient when a conventional culture was used due to the longer turnaround time.’ For ICUs that used targeted isolation, the researchers found that costs would be lowest when chromogenic agar 24-testing was used and not PCR.” What this study highlights is that there is inherently no best practice and that depending on laboratory capability, hospitals may have to plan their MRSA screening and isolation protocols off their microbiology department and cost centers. While hospitals are working to screen patients as a means of responding to microbial resistance, researchers are working against the clock to find solutions. Dr. Adam Roberts is one such innovative microbiologist in the UK who is using an old-school approach to respond to a new problem. Popescu was able to interview him regarding his Swab and Send program, which utilizes citizen scientists from around the world to collect samples that may help produce new antimicrobials from the environment. Roberts is working to utilize environmental samples that hold microorganisms which produce compounds that can help build new antibiotics. “The initiative also helps create a microbial database. For £30, Dr. Roberts’ team will send anyone a handful of sample tubes, a mailing envelope, and directions for what to swab (for example: a nutritious area bacteria would likely grow, likely something unsanitary). After you send back your swabs, you can check out Swab and Send’s Facebook page and see what microbes grew from the samples.” Check out Dr. Roberts’ comments on trends he’s seeing and how even GMU biodefense students are getting in on the swabbing!

Naval Research Lab Find High Prevalence of Antibiotic Resistance in Kenya
Microbial resistance has a way of popping up in even the most unexpected places and projects. The U.S. Navy Research Laboratory (NRL), U.S. Army Medical Research Directorate-Kenya (USAMRD-K), Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), and University of Washington, led a joint effort to evaluate intestinal tract bacteria and its resistance in patients across Kenya. The NRL-developed microarray they used is capable of detecting over 200 difference antimicrobial resistant genes. “These results suggest that there is selective pressure for the establishment and maintenance of resistant strains,” said Dr. Chris Taitt, research biologist, NRL Center for Bio/Molecular Science and Engineering. “This is potentially due to agriculture and prophylactic use of antibiotics and further suggests the need for more effective public health policies and infection control measures than those currently implemented.” “Specific to Kenya, widespread use of tetracycline in livestock production, use of trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (SXT) and chloramphenicol as first line therapeutics for typhoid, and prophylactic use of SXT in persons exposed to or infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) might have contributed to the high prevalence of resistance.” Surveillance of antimicrobial resistance has been a struggle on an international level however, joint efforts like this are vital to not only establishing global standards and processes, but also highlighting the importance it has for military personnel abroad.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Agroterrorism Bill – a new bill was recently introduced by U.S. Rep. David Young (R-IA) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) regarding the preparedness of the U.S. agriculture, food, and veterinary systems. “The Securing Our Agriculture and Food Act requires the DHS Secretary, through the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs, to ensure food, agriculture, animal, and human health sectors receive appropriate attention and are also integrated into the DHS’s domestic preparedness policy initiatives. The legislation specifically addresses issues seen after the 2015 avian influenza outbreak, which killed millions of turkeys, backyard flocks, and layer hens. It was the deadliest outbreak of avian influenza in Iowa’s history.”
  • What The G-20 Needs To Do To Fight The Next Ebola– The G-20 summit occurred last week in Hamburg and many were hoping for a renewed passion surrounding biological threats. While much attention was focused on climate change, there is also a call for efforts to prevent the next outbreak that will produce a pandemic. “Ultimately, strong health systems depend on communities, health workers, managers, researchers and other local stakeholders being empowered to respond to the inevitable, future waves of change we all face. At Health Systems Global, our members represent these multiple groups. Strengthening everyday resilience demands that we all — governments, donors, researchers, communities, health professionals — work with the resources that health systems already have — their people and relationships. This must be done as we take wider action to confront inequality at all levels. If we do not do that, then efforts to safeguard disease outbreaks will be meaningless.”

Pandora Report 6.23.2017

TGIF! Before we begin our weekly dose of all things biodefense, have you ever wondered the traits that predict animal or host spillover?

What Does A Post-Polio World Look Like?
Decades of battling diseases in eradication efforts has been a struggle throughout public health history, but what happens when you finally reach the finish line? Donors around the world have worked to eliminate polio and in the final stretch and last ditch efforts, many are asking what will happen when polio is eradicated and the donors are gone? The truth is that many polio eradication programs (which include vaccination and surveillance campaigns) actually form the foundation of public health for many countries and rural areas. These programs have been the backbone of establishing some semblance of public health for areas that many not receive it otherwise. “If and when polio is gone, however, much of the transition may fall to national governments. International funding stands to shrink dramatically. About 27 percent of WHO’s $587 million in spending in 2016 went to polio eradication efforts. The African region would also be particularly hard hit. Forty-four percent of WHO spending there went to polio efforts, and about 90 percent of all immunization staff and infrastructure on the continent are funded through the WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative.” We haven’t really considered what it means to eradicate a disease like polio and how the withdrawing of funds and personnel might impact countries. Moreover, many of the polio eradication programs are closely tied to other vaccination programs (measles, tetanus, pertussis, etc.) and if funds are lost because polio is eradicated, these other vaccination programs could take a hit. Aside from vaccination initiatives, if stable public health programs are not established prior to eradicating polio, there is also a risk for loss of disease surveillance. Current polio eradication programs highlight the role of surveillance, which is also used to facilitate laboratory development, all of which could impact pandemic preparedness and global health security. It is vital that efforts to eradicate polio are also met with work from political leadership to ensure a transition occurs that maintains public health efforts. “The transition as polio is eradicated will be complex, and needs to be carefully managed, country specific and country led. Polio surveillance systems can provide an important foundation, and are tremendous assets to health care systems, said Irene Koek, the deputy assistant administrator of global health at the United States Agency for International Development. Civil society organizations will have a role to play in advocating to keep local governments and ministries on target, said John Lange, the United Nations Foundation‘s senior fellow for global health diplomacy.”

Instructor Spotlight – Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
We’re getting closer to the July 17th start date for our workshop (and the July 1st early registration discount expiration!) and this week we’re excited to show off one of our very own GMU Biodefense professors, Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. An economics and defense expert, biodefense guru, and world traveler, Dr. Ouagrham-Gormley is the kind of professor whose class you spend the entire time on the edge of your seat. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She holds affiliations with GMU’s Biodefense Program, Center for Global Studies, and the Department of History and Art History’s Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) program. Prior to joining the faculty at George Mason in 2008, Professor Ben Ouagrham-Gormley was a Senior Research Associate with the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). While at CNS, she spent two years at the CNS Almaty office in Kazakhstan, where she served as Director of Research. She also was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the International Export Control Observer, a monthly publication focusing on proliferation developments and export controls around the globe. From 2004 to 2008, she was an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Barriers to Bioweapons: The Challenges of Expertise and Organization for Weapons Development (Cornell University Press, 2014). She received her PhD in Development Economics from the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris; a graduate degree in Strategy and Defense Policy from the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes Internationales in Paris; a master’s degree in Applied Foreign Languages (triple major in economics, law, and foreign languages —Russian, and English) from the University of Paris X-Nanterre, and a dual undergraduate degree in Applied Foreign Languages and English Literature from the University of Paris X-Nanterre. She is fluent in French, English, Russian, and spoken Arabic, and possesses beginner competence in Kazakh. For more information, visit https://schar.gmu.edu/about/faculty-directory/sonia-ben-ouagrham-gormley

President’s Budget Would Leave U.S. Vulnerable to Global Health Security Threats and Why We Need An Emergency Fund For Future Outbreaks
Cuts to public health, health research, and international aid have some pretty far-reaching implications and faculty from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security are pointing to the inherent vulnerability that would come from Trump’s proposed budget. Health security incorporates several programs and the reality is that an epidemic anywhere means an epidemic everywhere – simply put, the outbreaks that could pose a threat to the U.S. commonly begin abroad. “The proposed budget would cut $76 million from CDC’s Global Health programs, including cuts to Global Disease Detection and other programs that train and prepare countries to diagnose and respond to emerging diseases, and to the Global Immunization Program. It would reduce by $65 million CDC’s Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases programs, which aim to prevent and control outbreaks of diseases such as Zika. It cuts by $136 million the CDC Preparedness and Response Capability budget, which includes the funding for CDC’s Emergency Operations Center and the deployment of its people abroad to emergencies such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.” The CDC, among other agencies with biodefense positions, has a significant volume of vacancies that haven’t been filled.  More over, the authors point to the gap within the president’s budget regarding the future work of the GHSA, which is a vital multi-lateral effort to strengthen global health security. The budget has many worried because together, these cuts paint a bleak future for health security efforts – impacting surveillance, preparedness, and response efforts across the board. Global health security is simply not an investment we can afford to ignore. Did I mention that co-author Jennifer Nuzzo is also an adjunct professor at GMU’s biodefense program? Even if you’re not worried about the impact of the budget on health security, Ebola and Zika revealed just how necessary an emergency fund for outbreaks really is. “Creating a similar ‘rainy day’ fund—and providing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with permission to use it in advance—could save lives and money, both at home and overseas. The idea behind an emergency fund is not to displace efforts to combat infectious disease but to ramp them up to meet a crushing temporary need. During an outbreak the CDC can call on many doctors and nurses to work without pay, but the costs of transportation, medical supplies and protective equipment still have to be covered.” While the president’s 2018 budget includes such a fund, it fails to give a specific dollar figure and is already cutting into public health funding, which may be counterintuitive. “Lawmakers need to follow through by approving one or both of the proposed measures for the president to sign to ensure that the money will be there when the next public health emergency strikes.”

North Korea & A Sea of Sarin
The threat of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles from North Korea is a growing concern and while many focus on their nuclear and ballistic missile ambition, Reid Kirby is examining North Korean chemical weapons. Looking at the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system and South Korean capital of Seoul, which houses more than 10 million people, many worry about North Korea’s ongoing vague threats. “Proponents of preemptive military action against North Korea’s nuclear program, along the lines of Israel’s 1981 Operation Opera against Iraq’s nuclear program, typically ignore North Korea’s history of asymmetrical responses. But North Korea’s capacity to inflict mass chemical casualties on the Seoul area in a ‘sea of sarin’ attack rivals its capacity for nuclear destruction.” In 2010, it was estimated that North Korea possessed 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons (mostly sarin and VX) and maintains roughly eight manufacturing facilities, which could ramp up production to 12,000 tons. Kirby addresses estimates of rounds per minute and calculations of how much sarin Seoul might receive in such an attack, noting that “a heuristic approach to estimating the total quantity of sarin required to inflict 25 percent casualties on a city such as Seoul under the specified conditions simplifies the problem into a box model of 600 square kilometers, with casualty rates integrated by area to find the necessary quantity. Using this approach, a ‘sea of sarin’ attack on Seoul would require about 400 kilograms of sarin per square kilometer”. He highlights the consequences of a 240-ton sarin attack on Seoul, noting that it would kill around 6.5% (higher lethal dosage) or potentially 25% of the population (if lower lethal dosage assumed). “If publicly stated intelligence estimates are to be believed, North Korea’s chemical arsenal represents a credible and present threat. How North Korea could apply this threat as a deterrent is speculative. But the destructive potential of the threat should give reasonable cause to hesitate regarding preemptive military options against North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions.”

Pandemic Flu Plan – A New Approach
The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) just released their updates to pandemic flu plans. “The original plan was geared toward a more severe scenario and set a goal of delivering pandemic vaccine within 6 months of a pandemic declaration. The new document incorporates lessons learned from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which resulted in a less severe event. It also spells out the goal of having the first vaccine doses ready within 3 months of pandemic strain emergence, along with approved broad-spectrum antivirals.” Within the plan there are now seven domains of focus, which include objectives, goals, and key steps. The domains are: surveillance, epidemiology, and lab activities, community mitigation measures, medical countermeasures, healthcare system preparedness and response, communications and public outreach, scientific infrastructure and preparedness, domestic and international response policy, incident response, and global partnerships. You can read the plan here, in which HHS notes that they are exploring several innovative approaches to pandemic flu preparedness like re-conceptualizing respiratory protection, accelerating vaccine and antiviral development, building on emerging technologies for innovative diagnostic and diagnostic testing, etc. “Taken together, the updated domains reflect an end-to-end systems approach to improving the way preparedness and response are integrated across sectors and disciplines, while remaining flexible for the conditions surrounding a specific pandemic. This more-nuanced and contemporary approach recognizes the interdependence of domain areas, which should lead to a better understanding of how the system functions as a whole.” The updated HHS pandemic plan emphasizes that while the nature of influenza and pandemics may change, the importance of planning and strengthening critical infrastructure will always be necessary.

DoD Tick-Borne Disease Research Program
There’s been increasing attention to the threat of tick-borne diseases and the DoD is ramping up research efforts. Their Tick-Borne Disease Research Program (TBDRP) looks to help increase not only treatment efforts, but also diagnostic capacity. Created in 2016, the TBDRP works to fill the gaps within tick-borne disease research through programs like the Idea Award which encourages and supports investigators in the early stages of their career. The New Investigator aspect of this award aims at those postdoctoral fellows working to develop independent research and in the early stages of faculty appointments. “There are currently at least 16 known tick-borne illnesses, with emerging diseases being discovered all the time. In the United States, the yearly cases of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, including spotted fever rickettsiosis, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis, have been increasing steadily for years, currently totaling tens of thousands of people diagnosed annually, with more likely undiagnosed. Globally, the US Military prioritizes tick-borne Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever as an operational threat abroad. The FY17 TBDRP intends to support conceptually innovative, high-risk/potentially high-reward research in the early stages of development that could lead to critical discoveries or major advancements that will accelerate progress in improving outcomes for individuals affected by Lyme disease and/or other tick-borne illnesses.”

Health Sector Resilience Checklist for High- Consequence Infectious Diseases
Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the CDC jointed together to take the lessons learned from Ebola and build a checklist to strengthen the U.S. in the event of such high-consequence outbreaks. This checklist focused on high-consequence infectious diseases (HCIDs), which are novel, moderate to highly contagious, moderate to highly lethal, not easily controllable by MCM or non-pharmaceutical intervention, and cause exception public concern (think Ebola, MERS, H5N1, etc.). “The principal aim of this project was to develop evidence-based recommendations to enable communities to build health sector resilience to events involving HCIDs based on the domestic response to confirmed cases of EVD in the United States.” Aside from the checklist, their findings highlight issues with governance and coordination, communication, public health issues, health-care specific issues, EMS, and laboratories.  The general checklist itself includes sections on preparedness, leadership, creative flexibility, command structure, public trust, managing uncertainty, and crisis and emergency risk communication. There are also checklists for public health, healthcare, EMS, and elected officials, which includes things like a collaborative relationship with partners at other healthcare facilities and awareness of resources related to public health law expertise.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Anthrax: DoD Develops Biological Select Agents & Toxins Surrogate Solution – “The Defense Biological Product Assurance Office (DBPAO), a component of the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, has announced the development of a Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSAT) surrogate solution that will mitigate the risks associated with shipment and use of Bacillus anthracis. In addition to risk mitigation for Department of Defense (DoD) stakeholders and the community at large, this product demonstrates DBPAO’s commitment to providing quality reagents to the DoD and to the biodefense community. To accomplish this task, the DBPAO developed a Bacillus anthracis surrogate strain named Recombinant Bacillus anthracis with Assay Targets (rBaSwAT) using a recombinant DNA approach to create a BSL-2-level genetically modified organism that will allow continuation of operations with reduced risk. The strain is built in a novel, non-virulent Bacillus anthracis background and carries a comprehensive complement of anthrax specific molecular and immunological markers.”
  • Bioviolence- Matt Watson from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, is taking us through the history of bioviolence aka using infectious diseases for violent purposes. While not everyone truly sees the immediate threat of biological agents, Watson highlights the newer threats like synbio and biotechnologis that have growing potential for misuse. He also takes care to highlight the history of bioweapons to truly show the range of their application. “Of all the scourges of mankind, plagues and warfare are almost certainly the most dreaded and dangerous. Several times throughout history—and more frequently than most people are aware of—there have been attempts by individuals, organizations, and nation-states to harness the former in service of the latter.” If you want a brief overview of historical biological weapons and to truly understand the future of biothreats, don’t miss out on this great op-ed.
  • New York City Legionnares’ Cluster – Health officials are scrambling to investigate the source of a NYC Legionnaires’ cluster in Manhattan. “In a Jun 16 statement, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) said seven illnesses have been confirmed over the past 11 days. Four people are recovering in the hospital, two have been discharged, and one person in his or her 90s with underlying health conditions has died. Authorities are sampling and testing all cooling tower systems within a half-kilometer radius of the affected area of Lennox Hill. The health department is urging New Yorkers who have respiratory symptoms such as fever, cough, and chills to promptly seek medical care. In a typical year, about 200 to 400 Legionnaires’ cases are reported in New York City.” Legionnaires’ can be deadly for immunocompromised patients and is often a result of water treatment issues or poor disinfecting processes with spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, condensers, etc.

 

Pandora Report 6.16.2017

Temperatures may be soaring but we’ve got all your biodefense news, including a frosty story on frozen diseases coming to life!

Big Data Takes on Epidemics
The potential applications for big data are vast and we’re just now starting to get a taste for how it can be utilized during an outbreak. Rapid access to data sets and available personnel to handle modeling is a challenge during emergent situations however, many are pointing out just how the data science revolution can be used to fight diseases. Metabiota Senior Director of Data Science Nita Madhav has put together a list of the five ways big data analytics are changing the fight against epidemics. First, better genetic data through genome sequencing that can help speed up genetic analysis during an outbreak. Second, cell phone mobility data. This is particularly interesting as it was used during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, which allowed experts to tract contacts of cases as a means of prevention. Cell phone mobility data also provides information on movement during outbreaks. Third, social media data, which can be used to predict peaks and perform sentiment analysis (think vaccination skepticism), but also as a means of pushing public health messaging. Fourth, mapping high risk areas. “Machine learning techniques can now yield global, high-resolution maps pinpointing where epidemics are likely to emerge and take hold. These techniques make use of remotely-sensed and other geographic data about environmental, human and animal factors to estimate how many people live in the riskiest places. For example, this type of analysis helped map likely locations for Zika virus to thrive and even identified areas where the virus would later establish itself, including southern Florida.” Last but not least, large-scale simulations, which allow epidemiologists to take all the data we currently have and generate tons of simulations to reveal gaps in response mechanisms. “These simulations help fill in gaps in observed data using synthetic outbreaks and deliver novel insights into possible outcomes of outbreaks, including expected numbers of illnesses, hospitalizations, deaths, employee absences and monetary losses. Ultimately, these insights can help inform the world about epidemic risks and the best ways to mitigate them.”

Chemical Weapons & ISIS
New analysis from Conflict Monitor by IHS Market is drawing attention to a significant reduction in chemical weapons used by ISIS in Syria in 2017 as well as a concentration of the chemical attacks in Iraq. The report highlights that 71 allegations of ISIS CW attacks have occurred since 2014 (41 in Iraq and 30 in Syria) however, the only alleged use in Syria in 2017 was on January 8th at Talla al-Maqri. “The operation to isolate and recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul coincides with a massive reduction in Islamic State chemical weapons use in Syria”, said Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit. “This suggests that the group has not established any further CW production sites outside Mosul, although it is likely that some specialists were evacuated to Syria and retain the expertise.” In response to ISIS use of chemical weapons, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is taking action against ISIS leader, Attallah Salman ‘Abd Kafi al-Jaburi (al-Jaburi), who was involved in several attacks ranging from vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) to the development of chemical weapons. OFAC is also taking action against Marwan Ibrahim Hussayn Tah al-Azaw, an Iraqi ISIS leader. “As a result of today’s action, all property and interests in property of these individuals subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.” OFAC Director John E. Smith noted that “today’s actions mark the first designations targeting individuals involved in ISIS’ chemical weapons development,” and that “the Department of the Treasury condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons by any actor, and will leverage all available tools to target those complicit in their development, proliferation, or use.”

Pandemics, Bioterrorism, & Global Health Security Workshop Instructor Spotlight
This week we’re excited to share that Sanford Weiner will be our instructor spotlight! Sanford is a Research Associate in the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Visiting Fellow at Imperial College, University of London. For several decades he has done international comparative policy studies of public health agencies, and research on national security policies and environmental policies. He has published on policymaking at the Centers for Disease Control, the phase-out of CFCs, toxic substance control, and innovation in the Air Force. He is currently studying responses to pandemic flu in Europe and the United States, and the politics of alternative energy projects. He directs a Professional Education summer course at MIT on “Technology, Innovation and Organizations.” He has also taught in professional education courses for the Royal Society Technology Fellows (London), the National University of Singapore, UC San Diego, and in Stockholm. Before MIT he was on the research staffs of the School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, the Health Policy Center at Brandeis, and the Harvard School of Public Health. Sanford looks to the need for organizational innovation and adaptation to address new threats, the politics of public health emergencies, and the importance of risk assessment and making evidence-based public health decisions. If you’re looking to talk about taking lessons from pandemic flu and applying them to polio, Zika, bioterrorism, and even Ebola, you won’t want to miss his lecture during our workshop!

The Awakening of Frozen Permafrost Diseases
Climate change has an undeniably impact on infectious diseases. Whether it be the vectors that spread them, movement of animals that act as hosts, or an increasing encroachment of humans into animal habitats, we simply can’t deny that the two are wholly interconnected. Unfortunately now we get to add zombie diseases to the list. Well, maybe not a zombie virus, but a bacteria or virus that has been trapped in the icy permafrost for thousands of years and is now waking up. “Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.” Last year we saw anthrax cases in the Arctic Circle due to exposure from infected reindeer carcasses that were exposed due to the melting of the frozen soil and snow. “As the Earth warms, more permafrost will melt. Under normal circumstances, superficial permafrost layers about 50cm deep melt every summer. But now global warming is gradually exposing older permafrost layers. Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time, perhaps as long as a million years. That means melting ice could potentially open a Pandora’s box of diseases.” Nothing like a good permafrost to keep the bacteria happily frozen and alive! What is so worrying about the melting permafrost is a range of threats – buried bodies of people who died from smallpox, unknown viruses or bacteria that we’ve never seen before, or even a resistant organism that changes the course of antibiotics forever.

Angry Birds – The Flu Version
While this isn’t the title of the latest game, the projectile you should be worried about is actually avian influenza droplets. China is currently battling against HPAI H7N9  outbreaks in poultry across three provinces. “Chinese health officials detailed four outbreaks in two OIE reports. Two occurred in different locations in Inner Mongolia province in the north, one at a large layer farm that began on May 21, killing 35,526 of 406,756 susceptible poultry. The remaining birds were culled to curb the spread of the virus.The other outbreak began Jun 5 at a poultry farm in Inner Mongolia’s Jiuyuan district, which led to the loss of 55,023 birds, including 2,056 that died from the disease.” These outbreaks spark fear for a number of reasons – the mass culling of birds is always economically devastating, the risk to human life, and really, the potential for sustained human-to-human transmission due to a few genetic tweaks that could result in a pandemic. That’s right, just three mutations should switch H7N9 into a lethal human-killing virus that has pandemic potential. H7N9 is one of the more concerning avian influenza strains because it’s already been known to do damage in terms of human cases (of the 1,500 cases, 40% died). “‘As scientists we’re interested in how the virus works,’ says Jim Paulson, a biologist at The Scripps Research Institute. ‘We’re trying to just understand the virus so that we can be prepared.’ That’s why he and his colleagues recently tinkered with a piece of the H7N9 flu — a protein that lets the virus latch onto cells. It’s thought to be important for determining which species the virus can infect. ‘So it’s not the whole virus,’ says Paulson. ‘It’s just a piece — just a fragment — that we can then study for its properties’. What they studied is how different changes affected the virus’ ability to bind to receptors found on the surface of human cells.” Paulson’s group found that just three tiny mutations made it able to sustain human transmission. This brings about the dual-use research of concern (DURC) and gain-of-function (GoF) research dilemma though – while we’re using it for good, couldn’t a person with bad intentions come along and turn it into a weapon? Or a lab error that results in an outbreak? While some argue for the need of GoF research, others agree with the 2014 White House moratorium that halted federal funding for such work. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands notes that, “‘The rest of the world is moving forward with this type of experiment already,’ says Fouchier, whose genetic experiments with a different bird flu virus sparked a public outcry in 2011. And so the U. S. can either join or not join. It’s up to them, but the work will continue,’.” Topics like avian influenza, pandemics, and dual-use/GoF research are all issues we’ll be discussing in the workshop this July, so don’t miss out!

Boston University’s BioLab Nears Approval
This hotly debated BSL-4 lab has been a source of contention between researchers and surrounding neighbors for over a decade. Boston University received a $200 million federal grant nearly 15 years ago to build the regional lab as a new source for work with deadly pathogens however, neighborhood activists have been halting work since the beginning. Despite the ongoing debate, the lab is just one vote away from approval. “Supporters say it will speed the development of new vaccines and cures.  But after 15 year of fighting, the neighborhood that’s home to the lab is making a final push to keep the diseases away from the busy urban hub.”

The Scary Reality Behind WHO’S Updated Essential Medicine List
GMU Biodefense PhD student, Saskia Popescu, is taking a deeper dive into the recent announcement by the WHO regarding their reformatting of the EML list. The antibiotics sections haven’t seen an overhaul like this for 40 years, so what’s really afoot? Last week we discussed the changes- the categorization of antibiotics into three groups (ACCESS, WATCH, and RESERVE). Each list has a series of antibiotics and recommendations (i.e. for RESERVE, these are antibiotics which should be treated as the last resort of accessible antibiotics and should be used in “tailored” situations when other medications have failed. RESERVE antimicrobials should be targeted in national and international stewardship programs). While the updates make sense, they reveal a much deeper concern for developing countries and the growing threat of microbial resistance. “This extensive change to the EML highlights the dire situation that we are progressing towards in terms of microbial resistance. The EML provides the most basic medicine needed for patient care and its focus on antibiotic stewards highlights the stark reality even in the most dire of environments.”

Stacking Countermeasures for Layered Defense 
DTRA’s Joint Science and Technology Office’s (JSTO) Toxicant Penetration and Scavenging (TPS) research program is working to better defend us against chemical and biological weapons. “One such weaponized threat is the use of organophosphonates in an attack. These nerve agents inhibit acetylcholinesterase (AChE), an essential enzyme responsible for neurological function. Irreversible inhibition of AChE may lead to muscular paralysis, convulsions, bronchial constriction and death by asphyxiation. One of the projects in the TPS uses engineered DNA-enzyme nanostructures to create multi-enzyme pathway biocatalysts. These new biocatalysts are designed to process the destruction of chemical agents and their degradation compounds.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • MERS and Infection Control – There are endless opportunities when working in infection prevention & control to say, “I told you so” and the ongoing hospital MERS outbreaks only fuels that fire. “The World Health Organization (WHO) today provided new details on three MERS-CoV clusters in Saudi Arabia involving 32 out of the 35 cases reported between Jun 1 and Jun 10. The clusters are in three different hospitals in Riyadh. Cluster 2 is related to cluster 1, as the first case-patient in a second hospital initially visited the emergency room of the hospital implicated in cluster 1. According to the WHO, he was asymptomatic following the visit in hospital 1, and he continued to receive kidney dialysis sessions in the second hospital. The cluster involves the index case plus five healthcare workers and household contacts.The third cluster is not related to clusters 1 or 2. To date four cases are associated with this hospital; the index case involves a patient who had camel contact. Three healthcare workers have also been diagnosed.”

Pandora Report 5.19.2017

Your weekly dose of all things biodefense is here to fill you in on Ebola in the DRC, antibiotic resistance, the role of the U.S. in global health response, and more!

Ebola Rears Its Ugly Head in the DRC
Sadly, Ebola has returned as cases are sprouting up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). On Friday, May 12th, the WHO confirmed an outbreak of the Zaire strain involving nineteen cases and three deaths. “WHO and partners are completing the epidemiological investigation to better understand the extent of the current outbreak and who are potentially at risk of Ebola,” WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told CIDRAP News. “If pertinent, ring vaccination, as used in the phase 3 study in Guinea, would be the recommended delivery strategy.” These new cases will truly be a test to see if response efforts have changed since the 2014/2015 outbreak in West Africa. Between the WHO response and the potential for real-world testing of the new Ebola vaccine, many are hoping this will be the game-changer. The Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) has been activated and per the WHO website, “the need and feasibility of potential Ebola ring vaccination is being discussed.” Reuters reported that “the GAVI global vaccine alliance said on Friday some 300,000 emergency doses of an Ebola vaccine developed by Merck could be available in case of a large-scale outbreak and that it stood ready to support the Congo government’s efforts to bring the epidemic under control.Under an agreement between GAVI and Merck, the developer of an Ebola vaccine known as rVSV-ZEBOV, it said up to 300,000 doses of the shot would be available in case of an outbreak.” MSF (Medicins sans Frontieres) announced, shortly after the WHO confirmation of cases, that they would be sending a team of 14 people to Likati to launch “an emergency intervention” and that a team of 10 people from the Ministry of Health would also be joining. MSF noted that “the team will be made up of doctors, nurses, logisticians, water and sanitation experts, health promoters and an epidemiologist. Along with organisations already present in the area, the MSF emergency team will conduct an assessment of the situation and may construct an Ebola treatment centre and help care for those suspected or confirmed to be affected by the virus. Fifteen tonnes of medical and logistical supplies will be sent by cargo plane from Kinshasa to allow the team to immediately begin their intervention in Likati.” You can read more about the outbreak timeline here and check out this latest article on how the WHO is preparing to use the experimental vaccine.

Summer Workshop Instructor Spotlight: Andrew Kilianski
As we get closer to the July 17th start date for the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health security, we’d like to show off some of the wonderful instructors. Dr. Kilianski is currently a GMU professor and biological scientists at the Depart of Defense. His work focuses on combating current and future threats from weapons of mass destruction in addition to teaching classes on biosurveillance and virology in the GMU Biodefense graduate program. Dr. Kilianski was previously a National Research Council fellow with the US Army at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. During his tenure at ECBC, his research focused on biosurveillance and the identification and characterization of novel agents that threaten today’s warfighter. Dr. Kilianski’s research interests also included emerging viral pathogens and public health and biodefense policy, and he was selected as an Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative Fellow for 2015.  His research has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as PLoS Pathogens, Journal of Virology, and Emerging Infectious Diseases while also publishing multiple commentary and op-ed articles.  He received his Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from Loyola University Chicago where his dissertation research involved uncoupling virus-host interactions important for coronavirus pathogenesis and developing antiviral compounds against emerging coronaviruses (SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV). During the workshop, Dr. Kilianski will be lecturing on biosurveillance and its role as an integral component of any biodefense strategy and how U.S. policy has mandated that such efforts be accelerated. He notes that “this construct, and how the US and international entities engage in biosurveillance will be covered, as well as how recent Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks have tested the system. Emerging technologies and their role in biosurveillance will also be reviewed. Finally, paths toward integrated biosurveillance for the US and international communities will presented for group discussion discussion.” Dr. Kilianski is a wonderful instructor and his lectures are both engaging and thought-provoking. Don’t miss out on the early-bird registration discount (10%) being offered until June 1st!

GMU Biodefense PhD Student’s Research Could Change Disease Response, Especially When Air Travel Is Involved
Have you ever wondered about the role of air travel during outbreaks? Nereyda Sevilla will be graduating this month with her PhD in biodefense after looking into this very issue. “She believes she has a way to change how authorities and the public respond to disease outbreaks perceived to be transmitted by air travel. If she’s right, it could potentially save billions of dollars in misdirected federal and state money and give millions of air passengers more precise information about infections.” A civilian aerospace physiologist for the Medical Research and Acquisitions Division in the Office of the Air Force Surgeon General, and all around biodefense fan, Nereyda focused her research on the role of air travel and the spread of disease. Utilizing outbreaks like SARS, H1N1, and Ebola, she looked at air travel as a potential incubator for disease transmission. “Sevilla pointed out that despite the numerous aircraft involved, no one became infected with Ebola on an airplane. And yet authorities spent billions on entry and exit screenings, which heightened fear among the general population. Sevilla used an open-source model to study what would happen during a possible future outbreak of pneumonic plague, an infectious lung disease that continues to rear its deadly head around the world. The model could be a game-changing tool, said her professor.” Nereyda says that she’s “found the airplane is not what’s going to get you infected with disease. You’re more likely to get sick from waiting in the boarding area next to some one with a cold.” You can also read this article she wrote regarding the open-source model. Nereyda is a great example of the diverse and passionate students within the GMU biodefense program and we’re excited to show off her amazing research and congratulate her on graduating!

Global Health and the Future Role of the United States
The National Academies of Science just released their report on global health and the role of the U.S. as a leader through efforts like PEPFAR (U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), etc. The U.S. has taken a major role in strengthening global health security, whether it be through efforts like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, or through collaborative international efforts to help strengthen national health systems like the Global Health Security Agenda. “However, resources are not unlimited, and the case for continued commitment must be made. Against the backdrop of the influential legacy of the United States on the global health stage, the new administration is now faced with the choice of whether or not to ensure that gains in global health—won with billions of U.S. dollars, years of dedication, and strong programs—are sustained and poised for further growth.” The report also notes that “approximately 284,000 deaths were attributed to the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, for example, and 2 million excess deaths are projected for a future moderate influenza pandemic. In only a few short months in 2003, the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) cost the world $40–$54 billion, while in 2014, the United States alone committed $5.4 billion in response to the Ebola outbreak, $119 million of which was spent on domestic screening and follow-up of airline passengers.” Following a rigorous review, the committee established 14 recommendations that would aid in the delivery of a strong global health strategy and help the U.S. maintain its role as a leader in global health security. The 14 recommendations/actions are: improve international emergency response coordination, combat antimicrobial resistance, build public health capacity in low- and middle-income countries, envision the next generation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, confront the threat of tuberculosis, sustain progress towards malaria elimination, improve survival in women and children, ensure healthy and productive lives for women and children, promote cardiovascular health and prevent cancer, accelerate the development of medical products, improve digital health infrastructure, transition investments toward global public goods, optimize resources through smart financing, and commit to continued global health leadership.

Would You Survive the Oregon Trail?
If you ever played the video game, you know the chances of making it through this covered-wagon adventure without snakebites, dysentery, or some other misery, were quite low. “The game, one of the earliest educational computer games to reach wide distribution, simulated a 1848 covered-wagon trip from Missouri through the wild frontier of the western US.” Diseases were common to those of us who ventured across the Oregon Trail, but now you can take a quiz to see just how much you really know about those historic bugs.

GAO Report: U.S. Needs To Do More To Prevent Possible Bird Flu Pandemic
A recent Government Accountability Office report is pointing out just how vulnerable the U.S. would be if faced with an avian influenza pandemic. The GAO report focused on three areas – how outbreaks of avian influenza have affected human and animal health, and the U.S. economy, the extent to which the USDA has taken actions to address lessons learned from outbreaks in 2014 and 2016, and the ongoing challenges federal agencies face in their efforts to reduce the potential harm of such an outbreak. The report comes at a crucial time as China is currently battling an outbreak of the deadly H7N9 strain. Within the report there are several findings: “Unless the agency is responding to an emergency, the Agriculture Department doesn’t have the authority to require poultry producers to take preventive biosecurity measures to keep avian influenza from spreading from farm to farm.” The report notes that the USDA has found lessons learned from its responses to previous events however, they have not established plans for evaluating if these corrective actions actually resolved the issues. The topics within the lessons learned include biosecurity, communication, continuity of business, diagnostics, etc. Simply put, while they identified problems and took corrective actions, there has been virtually no evaluation as to their efficacy. Another issue raised within the GAO report focuses on vaccination and the challenges of egg-based vaccine manufacturing. DHHS stockpiles vaccines supplied by four companies, however only one has a U.S.-based manufacturing facility for egg-based vaccines. “We identified two other issues that federal agencies face associated with mitigating the potential harmful effects of avian influenza. First, outbreaks of the disease threaten the poultry that produce the eggs used in the production of human pandemic influenza vaccine. Second, funding for a voluntary surveillance program that gathers data on influenza A viruses in swine that could pose a threat to human health will be exhausted in fiscal year 2017”. Overall, the USDA must focus more on evaluation and working towards preparedness to combat the growing threat.

Getting Our Hands on Older Antibiotics & The Broken Chain of Hospital Reporting
A recent article in Clinical Microbiology and Infection looked at the recommendations and availability regarding older antibiotics. Researchers found that these antibiotics are not universally available or marketed, which means that physicians have to use other, less optimal, antibiotics that are broad-spectrum. “For example, in the treatment of sore throat, amoxicillin is used instead of penicillin. Fluoroquinolones are used instead of nitrofurantoin, fosfomycin or pivmecillinam for the treatment of cystitis, and co-amoxiclav or cephalosporins for the treatment of skin and soft tissue infections instead of appropriate oral formulations of antistaphylococcal penicillins. Additionally, some old antibiotics such as temocillin or i.v. fosfomycin are valuable alternatives for the treatment of some resistant bacteria. The limited access to these old antibiotics is a threat to antibiotic stewardship.” “In 2011, the ESCMID Study Group for Antimicrobial stewardshiP (ESGAP) showed that 22 out of 33 old but potentially useful antibiotics were marketed in fewer than 20 of the 38 included countries in Europe, USA, Canada, and Australia; economic motives were the major reason for not marketing these antibiotics. ESGAP and the international network ReAct (Action on Antibiotic Resistance) updated this survey in 2015. The situation was worse than in 2011, with even fewer antibiotics available in the included countries.” As if the battle of the resistant bug wasn’t bad enough, it seems that hospitals and their federal oversight systems are failing. Hospital reporting and CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid) validation of such data was recently found to be not only poor, but often inaccurate. GMU biodefense PhD student, Saskia Popescu, looks at the process for which hospitals report healthcare-associated infections and drug resistant organisms for reimbursement through CMS and just how broken the CMS data validation process actually is. “During their annual data evaluation, CMS is supposed to randomly select 400 participating hospitals and request samples of medical records to evaluate the clinical-process-of-care measures and HAI measures. Additionally, they are encouraged to look at a targeted sample of 200 additional hospitals based off a certain threshold, which would be if they failed validation the year before or submitted data after the CMS deadline. CMS has several selection criteria for this ‘targeted’ sample, which includes ‘threshold-based criteria’—hospitals that fail to report half of their HAI’s, late reporting, a new hospital, etc.—or, ‘analysis-based criteria’—abnormal or conflicting data patterns and a rapid change in data patterns. Unfortunately, the report shows that CMS failed to use these measures when they did this targeted sample review in 2016 (which looked at data from 2013/2014). During this review, CMS only selected 49 hospitals and none of these hospitals were chosen from this analysis-based criteria (ie, they were not looking for those with aberrant data patterns or suspicious changes in reporting).”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Operation Whitecoat Documentary– Don’t miss out on the June 1st release of the post-WWII documentary on Operation Whitecoat (1954-1973). “During the Cold War, more than 2,300 non-combatant conscientious objectors from the Seventh-day Adventist church volunteered to serve their country by participating in U. S. Army medical experiments focused on developing defensive medical countermeasures against the Soviet Union’s bio-warfare capabilities. These volunteers were exposed to experimental vaccines and infectious pathogens.Operation Whitecoat tells the story of these patriots–their commitment to both their religious principles and desire to serve in America’s defense, their courage to participate in these tests, and their contributions that went far beyond Army biodefense.”
  • How Plagues Help Scientists Puzzle Out the Past –I imagine bioarchaeologists as a mix between Indiana Jones and one of the researchers from Contagion – learning about the past to prevent future pandemics. Plagues and pandemics carry with them a lot of information – how society at the time handled it, health and wellness, medical care, etc. “The tragedy of mass causalities exposes lives that would, statistically, rarely be unearthed, including the adolescents and adults who form the bulk of a living population, so rarely represented in a cemetery. Calamities such as plague that knock everyone into the grave with one indiscriminate sweep are one of the few chances bioarchaeologists have to overcome something known as the Osteological Paradox, a term coined by researcher James Wood and colleagues to cover the very awkward point that, in studying past lives, the evidence bioarchaeologists actually have to go on are past deaths. “

 

 

Pandora Report 5.12.2017

TGIF and welcome to your favorite weekly dose of all things biodefense! Check out this film from PBS Digital Studios Brain Craft exploring the technical and ethical questions about CRISPR and genetic engineering.

The Growing Threat of Pandemics: Enhancing Domestic and International Biosecurity
The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University just released their new white paper on biosecurity measures. The paper highlights the increased threat of pandemics due to globalization and ease of transportation. In their review they found nine priority areas that will help address the current biodefense problem. Their priority areas/action items are leadership, international response, the anti-vaccine movement, animal and human health, uniform health screening, public health and healthcare infrastructure, effective outbreak response, cultural competency, and academic collaborations. The white paper notes that “there should be uniform health screenings for individuals seeking permanent or extended temporary residence in the United States. Currently, there are discrepancies between the vaccination requirements for immigrants and the vaccination requirements for refugees.” The inclusion of the anti-vaccination movement was particularly interesting as few reports truly capture this in regards to biodefense efforts. “The increasing influence of the anti-vaccine movement in the United States is another growing threat. Leaders of the movement spread misinformation to parents with questions or anxiety over the safety of vaccines. Many within the anti-vaccine movement incorrectly believe that vaccines cause autism and the number of individuals seeking nonmedical exemptions to the vaccination requirements of schools is on the rise.”

Pandemic Summer Workshop Sneak Peek 
We’re getting closer to the July 17-19 workshop on pandemics, bioterrorism, and global health security, which means that starting next week, we’ll be highlighting some of the amazing faculty teaching the courses. Make sure to look for our spotlight on Dr. Andy Kilianski in next week’s Pandora Report as we’ll be looking at his work on biosurveillance and its role within U.S. biodefense efforts! Make sure to take advantage of the early registration discount before June 1st!

2017 Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge
Don’t miss this wonderful chance to show off your infectious disease mapping skills! The Next Generation Global Health Security Network and DigitalGlobe Foundation are “seeking undergraduate and graduate students, in a team or individually, to generate up to three maps (one map is perfectly acceptable) that illustrate a research question related to any of the categories detailed below. Maps can be analytic (examining relationships between multiple domains, phenomena, or data sources) or descriptive (depicting a single phenomenon or data source). While analytic projects are ideal, descriptive projects will be accepted as long as students/teams describe why their map depicts a notable phenomenon. Similarly, while international maps are preferred, domestic maps will be accepted if the student/team can provide justification as to why a map focusing on the U.S. is necessary (e.g., U.S. data sets on a given topic are the most comprehensive).”

Scientists Take On HIV By Using CRISPR
Researchers have just made headway in the battle against HIV/AIDS by using the genome editing technology, CRISPR-Cas9. Current treatment for HIV involves anti-retrovirals, which are pretty harsh on the body and come with several nasty side effects. In their fight against HIV, the research team used the CRISPR technology like a pair of scissors to get rid of the HIV-1 DNA in the body of mice. “If you cut out the DNA, you stop the virus from being able to make copies of itself. The team is the first to show HIV can be completely annihilated from the body using CRISPR. And with impressive effect. After just one treatment, scientists were able to show the technique had successfully removed all traces of the infection within mouse organs and tissue.”

Public Interest Report – Chemical Weapons
Don’t miss the latest publication from the Federation of American Scientists, which includes several articles on chemical weapons. The Public Interest Report (PIR) is a great source for articles on human rights, counterterrorism, and more. The most recent edition includes articles on the threat of toxic chemicals, investigations regarding the chemical attacks in Syria, the value of scientific analysis of chemical weapons attacks, and more. The president of the Federation of American Scientists, Charles D. Ferguson, also wrote a special message regarding the value of scientific analysis, specifically in regards to chemical weapons attacks. He highlights several articles regarding chemical weapons attacks over the years, one of which includes an analysis of symptoms and potential agents used. This specific work includes analysis from GMU professor, Keith Ward, and highlights the use of chemical weapons in Darfur and Sudan and the limitations of NGO documentation of chemical warfare agents. The article points to the specific symptoms following chemical weapons attacks and notes that “NGOs find themselves at considerable disadvantage compared to national governments when faced with evaluating evidence of alleged attacks using chemical weapons.”

Could Saving Animals Prevent the Next Pandemic?
70% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning that some type of a spillover event had to occur. Ebola, HIV/AIDS, H1N1, and avian influenza are all examples of spillover that has resulted in human morbidity and mortality. The USAID PREDICT program is working to combat this growing threat of zoonotic diseases. PREDICT works to establish a global surveillance system for infectious diseases that can spillover into humans. PREDICT is a collaborative effort between the University of California at Davis’s One Health Institute and the School of Veterinary Medicine, as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society, Metabiota, EcoHealth Alliance, and the Smithsonian Institute’s Global Health Program. “In its first five years, PREDICT trained 2,500 government and medical personnel in 20 countries on things like the identification of zoonotic diseases and implementing effective reporting systems. They collected samples from 56,340 wild animals, using innovative techniques like leaving chew ropes for monkeys then collecting saliva afterwards. They also detected 815 novel viruses—more than all the viruses previously recognized in mammals by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses.” One of the tools PREDICT uses for surveillance is to monitor animal health and diseases that are circulating in them. “When you disrupt an ecosystem by removing a species through culling, you have a less healthy ecosystem and higher risk of disease,” says Megan Vodzak, a research specialist for Smithsonian’s Global Health Program. “Sometimes you increase the level of the virus within the population because you eliminate some but not all of the animals, and they’re still circulating it.” This brings about a humbling notion – conservation and human health might go hand in hand. Some researchers note that by protecting wildlife, we can help prevent spillover events and outbreaks. This concept however, is a bit more complex and has many on the fence regarding the actual role of conservation in human diseases. Some work has found that increases in biodiversity have no impact on human health, emphasizing the murky water of those trying to sell conservation as a tool for fighting pandemics. “When researchers do embark on conservation projects, she cautions that they should also consider other possible outcomes besides the protective benefit humans get from healthy wildlife and ecosystems. ‘We have to recognize that conservation could provide benefits for public health and it could endanger public health,’.”

The Battle of the Resistant Bug
We often think of an infectious disease threat emerging from some hidden jungle or quiet spillover event. While these are are true scenarios, I offer one more – the moment a bacteria becomes resistant to antimicrobials. Whether it be related to over-use in farming or over prescribing in healthcare, this is often a forgotten battleground. We’ve become accustomed to the ease and availability of antibiotics, which has translated to increased and improper use. Antibiotic resistant has frequently been overshadowed by the flashier of infectious disease threats however, this is to our detriment. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has proven time and time again to not only be a devious adversary, but one that gets little attention. Research and development into new antibiotics has lagged in recent years, which has only compounded the issue. One of the issues is also the lack of coordinated international surveillance and response strategies. Interestingly, Russian scientists recently developed an interactive world map, which shows human gut microbiota and their potential for resistance. The ResistoMap (pretty outstanding name, right?) makes it easier to track national resistance trends and potentially create an international response plan. “Using the ResistoMap, it is possible to estimate the global variation of the resistance to different groups of antibiotics and explore the associations between specific drugs and clinical factors or other metadata. For instance, the Danish gut metagenomes tend to demonstrate the lowest resistome among the European groups, whereas the French samples have the highest levels, particularly of the fluoroquinolones, a group of broad-spectrum anti-bacterial drugs.” While the rise of an emerging infectious disease should not be ignored, it is important that we remember the slower burn of antimicrobial resistance. Even Alexander Fleming saw the future involving a world without effective antibiotics, as he noted just following his acceptance of the 1945 Nobel Prize, “The thoughtless person playing with penicillin treatment is morally responsible for the death of the man who succumbs to infection with the penicillin-resistant organism.”

Regional Action Needed to Prevent Syrian Chemical Weapons Attacks
GMU biodefense PhD alum, Daniel M. Gerstein, is focusing on the role regional actors could play with respect to Syria, especially in terms of dissuading the use of chemical weapons. Despite the horrific attack in early April, global response has been surprisingly tepid and Russian support is ongoing, but Gerstein also highlights the “deafening silence” on the issue by countries within the region. Pressure could be applied from surrounding countries to indicate a strong message that the use of such weapons will not be tolerated. “Borders with Syria could be sealed to prevent any of the re­maining stocks from leaving the country. This would likely require a mix of military, law enforcement and border police to ensure that any illicit crossings are immediate­ly halted. In the event that chemi­cal weapons do breach the Syrian border, response forces should be prepared to stop suspect ship­ments, conduct searches of cargo and have appropriate protection to avoid becoming casualties them­selves.” Gerstein also notes that regional leaders could direct efforts towards Assad specifically, making it clear that Syria’s future will not include him, by calling for the International Criminal Court to indict him for war crimes.”Over the past 15 years, the norms against the use of chemical weap­ons have continued to be threat­ened, with increasing state and non-state actor use. Most of these attacks have occurred in the Middle East. This trend cannot be allowed to continue.”

The Chemical Attack in Syria – Sorting Truth from Propaganda
Rod Barton takes us through the April chemical weapons attack in Syria and argues against those who claim it was a “false flag” operation, staged by rebels to draw the U.S. into further intervention efforts. The most notable proponents of this argument have been former MIT professor Theodore Postol and Sydney University professor, Tim Anderson. In efforts to help break the cycle of a false narrative, the U.S. has released intelligence reports however, those who support the “false flag” narrative continue to point to misinformation and confusion about the April 4th attack as evidence. Barton argues against the “false flag” narrative by highlighting several points as evidence for the attack – victims seeking medical care following a Syrian air strike with classic symptoms of nerve agent poisoning, analysis samples that confirmed sarin, and the air raid crater found in the road north of the town, which tested positive for sarin and hexamine. Postol, on the other hand, while continuing to claim that the U.S. intelligence reports fail to prove definitively that the attack was done by the Assad regime, does not argue that it was sarin that killed the people in Khan Sheikhoun. “His case is largely based on the nature of distortion of the metal fragment in the crater – he claims this proves that it was not dropped from an aircraft, as stated by US intelligence. His theory is that a sarin-filled tube, possibly a 122mm artillery rocket body, was placed on the road by individuals on the ground and overlaid with a small explosive charge to disperse the agent.” Barton argues against Postol’s comments for several reasons – Postol fails to explain the origin of the sarin in the tubes, how the rebel groups managed to coordinate the detonation of their device with that of a Syrian government air raid, and that Postol fails to account for the evidence of a second chemical round that detonated around 300m from the road crater. Barton notes that “Postol was an eminent scientist and his views cannot simply be ignored. However, on this occasion the evidence to support his argument is not there – he has got it wrong. His writings on this subject have nevertheless been useful in that they have forced analysts to question the evidence closely to determine their degree of certainty in their assessments. But while the particulars are difficult to ascertain, there is still sufficient evidence to state beyond reasonable doubt that the Syrian military is responsible for the attack. In other words, the jury should convict – sadly, in today’s world, the reality may be different.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 3-D Structures vs. Infectious Diseases– Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is leading a team of international researchers to determine the 3-D atomic structure of more than 1,000 proteins to help develop treatments and vaccines against infectious diseases. “Almost 50 percent of the structures that we have deposited in the Protein Data Bank are proteins that were requested by scientific investigators from around the world,” said Wayne Anderson, PhD, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at Feinberg, and director of the project. “The NIH has also requested us to work on proteins for potential drug targets or vaccine candidates for many diseases, such as the Ebola virus, the Zika virus and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We have determined several key structures from these priority organisms and published the results in high-impact journals such as Nature and Cell.”
  • The Million Dollar Minnesota Measles Outbreak – the growing measles outbreak in Minnesota is projected to cost the state $1 million and is quickly growing. “When it began last month, public health officials knew this outbreak could be large and ongoing, because many Somali-Americans have been refusing the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine for years over unfounded rumors that the childhood immunization, whose first dose is routinely given to babies at 12 to 15 months, causes autism.” Sadly, the vaccination declinations in the Somali-Americans in Minnesota are considered to have been a result of targeting from anti-vaccine groups.

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.”