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.”

Pandora Report 3.24.2017

Welcome to the start of the weekend and World TB Day! The WHO estimates that just in 2015, 1/3 of people with TB missed out on quality care and 480,000 people developed multidrug-resistant TB.

Public Health Concerns in Trump’s New Budget
President Trump’s newly released proposed budget blueprint makes drastic cuts to many programs, of which, one of the hardest hit is HHS. On top of the cuts to science and public health, there is something buried within the budget that is concerning ex-CDC director, Dr. Tom Frieden. Frieden worries about the proposal to award block grants to states, which would allow them to decide how to respond to public health issues (think Ebola, Zika, etc.). “That proposal is ‘a really bad idea,’ according to Dr. Tom Frieden, who until this past January was director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, the CDC experts work with state and local governments to devise evidence-based plans to respond to public health issues, such as foodborne and infectious disease outbreaks. With a block grant, states can use the federal money to replace their own spending in certain areas or spend the money unwisely, ‘and never have to report what they have done or be held accountable for it,’ Frieden said.” A withdrawal of one fifth of NIH’s budget would mean a deep slash to biomedical and science research funding.  These cuts will also impact foreign aid, which has many worried about the role of public health interventions in foreign countries. Bill Gates recently talked to TIME magazine regarding the safety implications of cutting foreign aid. “I understand why some Americans watch their tax dollars going overseas and wonder why we’re not spending them at home. Here’s my answer: These projects keep Americans safe. And by promoting health, security and economic opportunity, they stabilize vulnerable parts of the world.” Gates points to the role of overseas public health work like polio eradication, Ebola outbreak response, and America’s global HIV/AIDS effort (PEPFAR), which points to the stabilizing role that strengthening public health can have in a country.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
From Anthrax to Zika, we’ve got the place to be in July for all things biodefense. This three-day workshop will provide you with not only seminars from experts in the field, but also discussions with others interested in biodefense. You can check out the flyer and register for the event here. The best part is that we’re doing an early-bird registration discount of 10% if you sign up before May 1st. A returning participant, GMU student/alumni, or have a group of three or more? You’re eligible for an additional discount! Check out the website to get the scoop on all our expert instructors and the range of topics the workshop will be covering.

Unseen Enemy Documentary 
Mark your calendars for this upcoming infectious documentary on the lurking pandemics that worry experts. Airing on April 7th, Unseen Enemy will follow researchers looking for the early warning signs of diseases that could cause the next pandemic. The National Academy of Medicine will be hosting a special D.C. premiere of the film on April 2nd, that you can even attend.

Expert Views on Biological Threat Characterization for the U.S. Government: A Delphi Study 
Biological threat characterization (BTC) is mixed bag of risk and reward. The laboratory research involving deadly pathogens as a means for biodefense can translate to better risk assessments but also the potential for biosafety failures. To better address this issue, researchers performed a Delphi study to gather opinions from experts around the country. “Delphi participants were asked to give their opinions about the need for BTC research by the U.S. government (USG); risks of conducting this research; rules or guidelines that should be in place to ensure that the work is safe and accurate; components of an effective review and prioritization process; rules for when characterization of a pathogen can be discontinued; and recommendations about who in the USG should be responsible for BTC prioritization decisions.” Following their assessment, the researchers found that experts agree that BTC research is necessary, but there is also a need for continued oversight and review of the research to reduce as much risk as possible. “It also demonstrates the need for further discussion of what would constitute a ‘red line’ for biothreat characterization research—research that should not be performed for safety, ethical, or practical reasons—and guidelines for when there is sufficient research in a given topic area so that the research can be considered completed.”

GMU Schar School PhD Info Session
If you love global health security and have been wanting to further your education, come check out our PhD info session next Wednesday, March 29th at 7pm in Arlington. You can come learn about our biodefense PhD program from the director, Dr. Koblentz, and hear from several students about their experiences. The info session is a great way to find out what a GMU Schar PhD entails, the application process, and what current students think!

What Biosecurity and Cybersecurity Research Have In Common
Kendall Hoyt is looking at the similarities between these two research fields and how work into the unknown can often expose and create vulnerabilities. Did I mention Kendall is one of the instructors at our biodefense Summer Workshop? Hoyt provides two examples to really hone in on this point – to defend against a dangerous pathogen, we have to isolate and grow it to try and develop treatment or a vaccine and to defend against a cyberattack, we need to know how to break into the computer system. That whole dual-use dilemma creates a lot of risk-versus-reward scenarios for biosecurity and cybersecurity researchers. While the research is highly relevant and necessary, government efforts to control or maintain oversight have been challenging. Do we pull back the reigns on innovation or run the risk of a security breach or a big “whoops” moment? “Intellectual property and cybersecurity legislation—namely the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—has similarly stifled legitimate scientific and commercial activities and delayed defensive applications. In one well-known example, fear of prosecution under DMCA deterred a Princeton graduate student from reporting a problem that he discovered: Unbeknownst to users, Sony BMG music CDs were installing spyware on their laptops.” Hoyt also points out the biosecurity efforts that have begun looking not just at the pathogens and publications, but the laboratory techniques that are used for such research. Certain experiments (like gain of function work) have the capacity to increase transmissibility or host range. “For all of their similarities, key differences between biosecurity and cybersecurity risks and timelines will dictate varied regulatory strategies. For example, zero-day exploits—that is, holes in a system unknown to the software creator—can be patched in a matter of months, whereas new drugs and vaccines can take decades to develop. Digital vulnerabilities have a shorter half-life than biological threats. Measures to promote disclosures and crowd-sourced problem-solving will therefore have a larger immediate impact on cybersecurity. Still, both fields face the same basic problem: There are no true ‘choke points’ in either field. The U.S. government is not the only source of research funds and, thanks in large part to the internet itself, it is increasingly difficult to restrict sensitive information.” In the end, Hoyt notes that both fields and their regulations will need to relax the governance process and be a bit more flexible and mobile with how they control items. Both fields are constantly evolving, which means regulators need to be just as fluid.

How To Prepare For A Pandemic
NPR decided to create a “Pandemic Preparedness Kit” based off the continuous questions related to the ongoing news of increasing infectious disease threats but little info in terms of practical things people can do. While these aren’t things you can go out and buy for your home, the list hits close to home in terms of things we should be focusing our efforts and funding on. Firstly, vaccines. This is a no brainer and yet, we’ve become the habitual users of the theme “create it when we’re struggling to contain an outbreak”. Secondly, virus knowledge. “One of your best weapons during a disease outbreak is knowledge, says Dr. Jonathan Temte of the University of Wisconsin. ‘Keep up with the news and try to understand what threats might be out there,’ he says. For example, new types of influenza are one of the biggest threats right now — in terms of pandemic potential, Temte says. But if you know how to protect yourself from one type of influenza, you can protect yourself from all of them.” Lastly, and my personal favorite, is very clean hands. While every disease is different, one of the most basic and fundamental truths for infection prevention and control is hand hygiene. These three are solid ways to better prepare for future outbreaks, pandemics, emerging infectious diseases, and just about anything infectious that makes you a bit worried.

CARB-X MissionWhen I first read the name of this group, I thought it was some kind of fitness fuel, but I was pleasantly surprised to see this initiative is working to fight antibiotic resistance. CARB-X is a collaboration between NIAID and BARDA to help accelerate the development of antibacterials over the next 25 years. The goal is to help combat antimicrobial resistance through a diverse portfolio and partnership. Make sure not to miss their March 30th meeting from 11am-noon on antibiotic resistance. “CARB-X (Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Accelerator) was launched in August 2016 to accelerate pre-clinical product development in the area of antibiotic-resistant infections, one of the world’s greatest health threats. CARB-X was established by BARDA and NIAID of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services along with Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. This partnership has committed $450 million in new funds over the next five years to increase the number of antibacterial products in the drug-development pipeline.” While CARB-X may not be the latest workout supplement, it’s definitely a boost to performance in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

New Roles and Missions Commission on DHS Is Urgently Needed
GMU biodefense PhD alum, Daniel Gerstein, is looking at DHS and pointing to the need for a Roles and Missions Commission. It’s been almost 15 years since DHS was created under rapid and urgent circumstances, which means that it’s time to look introspectively. “More generally, a roles and missions review could also examine whether the department is properly resourced for all its missions. For example, a joint requirement council was recently established for the department composed of less than 10 government civilians. Is this adequate for supporting requirements development activities for a department of over 240,000 personnel?” Gerstein looks at some of the big issues that require a comprehensive review, like centralization versus decentralization, management of R&D and engineering, and critical infrastructure issues related to national security and safety. Another component needing review is the human factors issue that impacts homeland security. How are the relationships between departments, with state and local authorities, or with the public? “The effort should not necessarily be viewed as a requirement for change, but rather an opportunity to reexamine DHS and its relations with the rest of government, the nation and its citizens, and even with our international partners across the globe. Finally, a homeland security roles and mission commission would be an ideal lead-in to a much needed update to the original 2002 authorizing legislation.”

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs
Don’t miss this event on Thursday, March 30th, hosted by New America with speakers Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker. “In today’s world, it is easier than ever for people and material to move around the planet, but at the same time it is easier than ever for diseases to move as well. Outbreaks of Ebola, MERS, yellow fever, and Zika have laid bare the world’s unpreparedness to deal with the threat from infectious diseases. In Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs Dr. Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker marshal the latest medical science, case studies, and policy research to examine this critical challenge.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Feds Are Spending Millions to Help You Survive Nuclear War – North Korea’s recent firing of four ballistic missiles from Pyongyang into the ocean off Japan’s coast has brought back worries of nuclear attacks. While the days of stocking a bomb shelter are in the past, the U.S. government isn’t slowing down efforts to protect Americans. “Over the last ten years the US has poured millions of dollars into technologies and treatments it hopes to never have to use, but could, in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. From assays that measure radiation exposure to cell therapies that restore dwindling blood cells to liquid spray skin grafts, government officials are now far better equipped to deal with diagnosing and treating people if the unthinkable were to happen. And the next generation of treatments are being funded right now.” DHHS projects like BARDA and Project BioShield are just some of the sources for ongoing research to strengthen protection, whether it be a nuclear blast or reactor melt-down.
  • Disinfection and the Rise of the Superbug – GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is addressing the growing disinfection needs as we teeter on the edge of the antibiotic abyss. Disinfection is already a challenge in healthcare however, the rise of more resistant germs means that efforts often need to be ramped up. The recent influx of Candida auris infections that we talked about last week really brings this issue to point in that this emerging infection is difficult to get rid of via traditional disinfection routes. “As new organisms are identified and existing ones become resistant to antimicrobials, the availability of strong disinfecting products has become even more pivotal.”
  • China and EU Cut Brazilian Meat Imports Amid Scandal– If you’re a fan of importing Brazilian meat, you may have to hold off for a while. A recent police anti-corruption probe is accusing inspectors of taking bribes to allow the sale of rotten and salmonella-contaminated meats from the largest exporter of beef and poultry. As the news unfolds, the Brazilian government is criticizing gate police as alarmist. “As the scandal deepened, Brazil’s Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi said the government had suspended exports from 21 meat processing units.”
  • Study on Interferon for Treatment of Ebola Infection – The common hepatitis treatment is now being tested out on Ebola patients to help alleviate their symptoms. The pilot study was performed from March-June of 2015 and  had some interesting results. “When compared to patients who received supportive treatment only, 67 per cent of the interferon-treated patients were still alive at 21 days in contrast to 19 per cent of the former patients. Additionally, the viral blood clearance was faster in those patients treated with Interferon ß-1a. Many clinical symptoms such as abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea were also relieved earlier in the interferon-treated patients. A further 17 patients in other Guinean treatment centres who matched the interferon-treated patients based on age and the amount of Ebola virus in their blood were included in the analysis. These added patients, who did not receive interferon, more than doubled their risk of dying as a result of not being treated with the drug.”

Pandora Report 3.17.2017

Happy Friday! In honor of  John Snow‘s birthday (the father of epidemiology), our featured image is the Broad Street pump map he used to combat cholera in the 19th century. Don’t miss out on the early registration discount for our biodefense summer workshop!

NAS Calls for Increased Federal Regulatory Agency Preparation for Growing Biotechnology Products 
The National Academies of Science (NAS) recent press release is emphasizing the need for federal regulatory agencies to prepare for greater quantities and ranges of biotechnology products. As the biotech world constantly evolves, regulatory agencies have struggled to keep up and this latest report states that in the next five to ten years, the pace will outmatch the U.S. regulatory system. According to the report, biotechnology, like CRISPR, has a rapidly growing scale and scope, which already stresses existing staff, expertise, and resources available at agencies like the EPA, FDA, and USDA. “To respond to the expected increase and diversity of products, the agencies should develop risk-analysis approaches tailored to the familiarity of products and the complexity of their uses, the report says. For biotechnology products that are similar to products already in use, established risk-analysis methods can be applied or modified, and a more expedited process could be used. For products that have less-familiar characteristics or more complex risk pathways, new risk-analysis methods may need to be developed.  Regulatory agencies should build their capacity to rapidly determine the type of risk-analysis approaches most appropriate for new products entering the regulatory system.” Within the report, NAS notes that the federal government needs to develop a strategy to combat the current issues and strengthen their ability to scan for future biotechnology products to better prioritize.

GMU Schar School Master’s Open House 
Have you ever wanted to study topics like CRISPR, bioterrorism, global health security, and pathogens of biological weapons? Good news – we’ve got just the program for you! Come check out GMU’s biodefense MS program at our Open House on Wednesday, March 22nd at our Arlington Campus, Founders Hall (Room 126) at 6:30pm. You can talk to some of our biodefense faculty and learn about our program. Whether you’re looking to take classes in person or earn a degree online, the biodefense MS is the best for the intersection of science and policy.

DARPA Works Towards “Soldier Cell” To Fight Bioweapons 
A bio-control system to fight off invading pathogens? Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie! Well, researchers at Johns Hopkins University just received funding from DARPA to develop the capacity to “deploy single-cell fighters” that would target and eliminate the lethality of certain pathogens. “‘Once you set up this bio-control system inside a cell, it has to do its job autonomously, sort of like a self-driving car,’ said Pablo A. Iglesias, principal investigator on the project. Iglesias, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Whiting School, shifted his research focus from man-made to biological control systems about 15 years ago. ‘Think about how the cruise control in your car senses your speed and accelerates or slows down to stay at the pace you’ve requested,’ Iglesias said. ‘In a similar way, the bio-control systems we’re developing must be able to sense where the pathogens are, move their cells toward the bacterial targets, and then engulf them to prevent infections among people who might otherwise be exposed to the harmful microbes’.” This angle, which is being focused on bacteria outside of the body, is just one potential tool in the biodefense arsenal.

Yellow Fever Outbreak in Brazil 
Since December of 2016, Brazilian health officials have reported an ongoing outbreak of yellow fever. The CDC has moved the alert to a  Level 2 – Practice Enhanced Precautions. A report recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine looks at the outbreak and the potential for cases in U.S. territories. In Brazil, there were 234 cases and 80 deaths reported between December and February. “Although it is highly unlikely that we will see yellow fever outbreaks in the continental United States, where mosquito density is low and risk of exposure is limited, it is possible that travel-related cases of yellow fever could occur, with brief periods of local transmission in warmer regions such as the Gulf Coast states, where A. aegypti mosquitoes are prevalent.”

GMU Biodefense Represented At Biothreats Conference
If you missed out on our coverage of ASM’s 2017 Biothreats conference, here’s a spotlight on GMU biodefense students attending this captivating three-day event. GMU’s biodefense program sent four graduate students to experience and report on the conference, which addressed biothreat research, policy, and response. “The program was exciting, according to the George Mason students in attendance. Mercer and Goble recall that the conference engaged topics of specific interest to them, their degree, and their futures. ‘I attended a panel that was very closely related to disease forecasting, my graduate thesis topic,’ Mercer said. ‘I was able to hear some of the cutting-edge research in that field, which was really helpful’. ‘I didn’t really have a part I didn’t like,’ Goble said. ‘I enjoyed the niche topics that were presented in both panel discussions and poster  sessions, from emergency operations to the FDA. All of these specific topics were extremely interesting to hear about and to know they are being researched’.”

Just How Well Did the 2009 Pandemic Flu Vaccine Strategy Work?
Researchers from the University of Nottingham recently looked at the success of vaccines in terms of preventing pandemic flu and reducing hospitalizations. Their work looked at the 2009 WHO-declared pandemic of the novel A(H1N1) virus, which infected around 61 million people around the world. Vaccines against the virus were rolled out globally between September and December of 2009, with the majority being inactivated A(H1N1)pdm09 influenza virus. Their work involved reviewing 38 studies between June 2011 and April 2016 regarding the effectiveness of the inactivated vaccine, which covered around 7.6 million people. “We found that the vaccines produced against the swine flu pandemic in 2009 were very effective in both preventing influenza infection and reducing the chances of hospital admission due to flu. This is all very encouraging in case we encounter a future pandemic, perhaps one that is more severe,” noted Professor Van Tam said. “Of course, we recognize that it took five to six months for pandemic vaccines to be ready in large quantities; this was a separate problem. However, if we can speed up vaccine production times, we would have a very effective strategy to reduce the impact of a future flu pandemic.” The 2009 pandemic A(H1N1) vaccine was 73% effective against laboratory confirmed cases and 61% against preventing hospitalizations. Interestingly, when looking at the vaccines’ effectiveness in different age groups, “they were shown to be less effective in adults over 18 years than in children, and effectiveness was lowest in adults over 50 years of age. Adjuvanted vaccines were found to be particularly more effective in children than in adults against laboratory confirmed illness (88 per cent in children versus 40 per cent in adults) and hospitalization (86 per cent in children versus 48 per cent in adults).”

Deadly Fungal Infection Arrives in U.S. 
While many are asking if surveillance methods for tracking the deadly CRE bacteria are adequate, a new issue is emerging in U.S. hospitals. Despite WHO’s recent plea for increased R&D surrounding certain resistant pathogens, it seems that more and more organisms of concern are springing up in U.S. hospitals. Since last summer, roughly three dozen people have been diagnosed with a highly resistant Candida auris infection. The fungal infection has caused worry ever since it was identified in 2009 due to its capacity as an emerging and resistant organism. Candida yeast infections are pretty common and known to cause urinary tract infections however, this strain is especially concerning because it easily causes bloodstream infections, has a stronger capacity for transmission between people, and is much more hardy in terms of living on skin and environmental surfaces. “Of the first seven cases that were reported to the CDC last fall, four patients had bloodstream infections and died during the weeks to months after the pathogen was identified. Officials said they couldn’t be sure whether the deaths were caused by the infection because all the individuals had other serious medical conditions. Five patients had the fungus initially isolated from blood, one from urine, and one from the ear.”

CDC Director Warns Loss of DHHS Funds Could Weaken Infectious Disease Prevention
Acting CDC director, Anne Schuchat, recently testified before Congress to make the case for for increased funding for several programs (one being the DHHS’s Prevention and Public Health Fund). Among other things, the Prevention and Public Health Fund is responsible for 12% of the CDC’s budget. Dr. Schucat’s testimony emphasized the previous usage of these funds in terms of vaccine delivery, disease surveillance, monitoring of water supplies, and tracking hospital-acquired infections. The growth of antibiotic resistance made her testimony and plea to Congress that much more relevant and urgent. “The CDC and other government agencies have in recent years cited the numerous public health threats posed by infectious diseases in general, and have lobbied officials for increased funding for research and development of novel vaccines and treatments as well as programs to effectively distribute interventions as needed. In 2016, for example, the CDC, DHHS, and National Institutes of Health requested federal funding to combat Zika, a request that was not approved until late in the year.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Science on Screen – Don’t miss this great event hosted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory! On March 18th, you can watch the second installment of the Science on Screen series, featuring “Lawrence Livermore scientists Monica Borucki and Jonathan Allen, who will present ‘Reconstructing a Rabies Epidemic: Byte by Byte.’ This informative and entertaining lecture will explain how biologists and computer scientists used cutting-edge, ultra-deep sequencing technology to study the dynamics of a 2009 rabies outbreak. This case study, based on a dramatic increase (more than 350 percent) in the gray fox population infected with a rabies variant for which striped skunks serve as the reservoir hosts, will be used to help illustrate the changes in the viral genome during cross-species viral transmission. This lecture is appropriately paired with the feature-length film, “Contagion” (PG-13).”
  • Clorox Gets Spot on EPA A-Team – Clorox just earned its varsity spot on the team against hospitality-acquired infections. The EPA approved two of the company’s products in killing clostridium difficile spores. C-diff is a constant battle in healthcare facilities, so having the new tool in the infection prevention and environmental disinfection toolkit, is a huge advantage for many. “In addition, the cleaners and wipes recently become EPA-registered to disinfect against other bacterial infections, such as those caused by Staphylococcus epidermidis, Candida glabrata, and Enterococcus hirae. Moreover, the products are also effective against several viral pathogens, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), measles, and Influenza A and B, among others.”

 

Pandora Report: 2.10.2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

 

 

Pandora Report 12.23.2016

microbiallsnowmanHappy Holidays from your friends at the Pandora Report and GMU Biodefense! If you’re starting a New Year’s resolutions list for things to improve, it sounds like you’ve got company – the WHO is rethinking how it responds to outbreaks.

The Grim Forecast of Antimicrobial Resistance 
In the wake of the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance, it seems that the worried voices are getting louder but the barriers are growing higher. The return to colistin use points to a growing desperation as physicians are forced to use antibiotics that were previously avoided due to such harsh side effects. Many hospitals have shared their tales of MDRO outbreaks – some stopping as mysteriously as they began, while others have clear culprits. Some hospitals have even begun initiating isolation for any patient who was hospitalized abroad within the last couple of years. It’s also becoming increasingly common for hospitals to pre-emptively test patients via MDRO screening to more rapidly isolate them. The concern is also that few truly new antibiotics have been developed in recent years. “Thirty-seven antibiotics are currently undergoing clinical trials, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which keeps track of the U.S. pipeline. Most, however, are based on existing drugs. While these derivatives are cheaper and easier to develop than new classes of drugs, bacteria have a head start in developing resistance to them.Further, most drugs in the pipeline target so-called Gram-positive bacteria, a group that includes the well-known superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). But recently, the main emerging threats have come from the group known as Gram negatives, which are harder to treat because they are encased in tough membranes that repel many drugs.” Many are pointing to a tipping point in 2017 – antibiotics will be consumed by farm animals more than humans worldwide. The UN General Assembly is calling for countries to start getting smart in terms of antibiotic usage but hasn’t set specific goals. Sadly, it seems that there aren’t many more ways this impending reality can be shared – data, shocking titles, future predictions, etc. Check out this factsheet on the use of antibiotics in agriculture and why it impacts resistance. The report has some great suggestions for future work, like refining antibiotic labels and working to collect and report better data. Here’s a spot of good news in this dismal truth – the FDA has just cleared a new one-hour MRSA test to help rapidly identify the lead bug in healthcare-associated infections.

Homeland Biodefense: Science & Technology Capability Review
Just in time for the holidays, it’s like the National Science and Technology Council just knew what biodefense geeks wanted. This report is the product of a comprehensive review of U.S biodefense capabilities, which aided in the prioritization of S&T issues to better strengthen response. The end result is a product of two phases- stage 1: “The goal of this activity was to identify S&T needs articulated by Federal subject matter experts including both science program managers and agency officials in charge of operational programs, to elicit feedback on where additional S&T investments could address operational needs.” Stage 2: “The goal of this activity was to provide coordinated interagency feedback on which needs represent the highest priority to the interagency working group, and to identify which Department or Agency should recommend or coordinate on actions to respond to each of those priority needs.” Scenarios were limited to a handful of events like aerosolized anthrax, avian influenza outbreak (possibly deliberate), food-borne attacks, etc. Perhaps some of the most notable findings were the need to improve abilities to systematically assess how much risk has been mitigated by biodefense investments, understand the impact of bioattacks on companion animals and wildlife, several deficiencies in regards to technical staff and lab infrastructure, etc.

Greek Food Terrorism Threats 
Member of an eco-anarchy group in Greece, FAI/IRF, are announcing their threats for food terrorism over the holiday. The time frame for attacks is December 22nd – January 5th, 2017 and the group has said that their focus is on causing economic disruption, not poisoning people. FAI/IRF has shown their process for poisoning various food and beverage items as their targets include Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever, and Delta. Many of these companies have chosen to withdraw specific products from an area in Greece. The group has shown how they can poison foods/beverages with chlorine and hydrochloric acid while leaving the packaging in place. “The four companies that withdrew products were named in the FAI/IRF statements. The eco-anarchists claim to be opposed to both capitalism and Marxism. They contend in their statement that Coke profits from ‘forced labor’ in China and Nestle is ‘held responsible’ for the death of 1.5 million children in the third world. No substantiation was provided for either claim.”

80140100189470lThe Commandant’s Reading List 
In the latest Army Chemical Review (Professional Bulletin of the Chemical Corps) you can find the Commandant’s Reading Program, compiled by Lieutenant Colonel James P. Harrell, which contains a great assortment of books to add to your reading list (or last minute shopping list!). From Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague to Michael Oldstone’s Viruses, Plagues, & History, you can pick up some top CBW books. GMU Biodefense’s very own director and professor, Gregory Koblentz, had his book, Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security, make this list, so make sure not to miss it!

Test Driving Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes
Take a tour through the world of genetically engineered mosquitoes at Imperial College London with genetic engineer, Andrew Hammond. What makes these particular mosquitoes especially unique is the use of gene drive to ensure virtually all offspring acquire the desired effects. “Hammond’s team is genetically engineering the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, which is the primary species that spreads the malaria parasite. Nearly all of the offspring of the modified mosquitoes inherit mutations that knock out the genes females need to make eggs. ‘If we can sterilize the females,’ he says, we ‘can actually eliminate a whole mosquito population without affecting those mosquitoes that don’t have the capability to transmit malaria’.” Hammond gives a great tour of the process for creating gene-drive mosquitoes while discussing the dangers of gene drive and genetic engineering. While there is a wealth of opportunity to do good with tools like CRISPR, there’s also the concern that there could be unintended consequences or events we can’t even imagine. To combat the potential risks, there are also research teams working to keep CRISPR in check.  “A team of scientists that previously identified genes within bacteriophage genomes that code for anti-CRISPR proteins has now discovered phages that harbor an antidote to the Cas9 enzyme that is a key component of the predominant CRISPR system that is today used as a gene-editing tool. The team, led by the University of Toronto’s Alan Davidson, described three bacteriophage-encoded, anti–Cas9 genes and showed that the corresponding proteins are able to block the activity of CRISPR-Cas9—derived from bacterial type II CRISPR-Cas systems—in human cells.”

FEMA’s Ricin Mishap 
Going through the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) training a few years back was a fascinating experience – how many times do you get to train with ricin or anthrax and then move into a pandemic preparedness exercise? For this biodefense student, that’s what I call a good time! Sadly, CDP just announced their entry into the club of biosafety failures. The facility is blaming an outside lab for shipping the wrong form of ricin powder…since 2011. “The training center says it submitted order forms asking for a type of ricin extract that is unlikely to cause serious harm. But officials from Toxin Technology, the Florida company that sent nine shipments to the center since 2011, told USA TODAY that its ricin products were all accurately labeled as ‘RCA60’ – a scientific name for the whole ricin toxin, which can be deadly. It’s unclear why training center staff didn’t recognize for years that they were working with a far more dangerous substance.” The news broke late last week and on Saturday, I received an email from CDP regarding the suspension of those classes and some comments on the incident. Here are some of the highlights:
-In November 2016, while making a purchase of ricin A-chain for training, CDP staff recognized an ongoing discrepancy in the documentation related to the type of ricin being provided. The vendor has now said the more toxic holotoxin version of the materials was provided since 2011. It was previously believed that all remaining ricin on campus had been destroyed. This week, it became known that, while CDP had indeed destroyed all of the ricin in question, additional ricin training material, a solution marked A-chain remains securely stored on the premises. This material was not received from the vendor in question and we are working with the appropriate authorities to safely dispose of the additional ricin material.
-As an example, the protective gear you wore exceeded what would be required for working with ricin slurry.  Students who trained with the agent were in full Level C personal protective equipment at all times when training.  We have no indication that students were exposed directly to the holotoxin or harmed by it.

Zika Outbreak Updates
Not surprisingly, researchers are pointing to the impacts of climate change on infectious diseases. Recently, many have noted the role of climate change and El Niño on laying the groundwork for Zika to spread so quickly and proficiently throughout South America. A new study describes interworking of the virus and the mechanisms it utilizes for damage in pregnant women and developing babies. The CDC has reported 4,756 cases in the U.S. as of December 21st.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Public Health Preparedness Assessment for Each State – The Trust For America’s Health assessment was just released for each state based on 10 indicators for preparedness. Sadly, it seems that most states are not prepared for disaster. Twenty-six states and Washington, D.C. scored a six or lower on the indicators for public health preparedness. “The most striking are gaps in the ability of the health care system to care for a mass influx of patients during a major outbreak or attack and lack of a coordinated biosurveillance system. ‘Biosurveillance does remain a major ongoing gap,’ Segal said. Given all the recent technological advances, there is the potential for a ‘near real-time’ surveillance system to detect outbreaks and to track containment effort, yet the dream eludes our government, she said.”
  • How A Pandemic Might Play Out Under Trump – The Atlantic’s Ed Yong is looking at how the incoming administration will handle the growing threat of emerging infectious diseases. Outbreaks can make or break leaders and often are canaries in the coal mine for systemic weaknesses. “They demand diplomacy, decisiveness, leadership, humility, and expertise—and they quickly unearth any lack of the same. ‘As far as I can tell, Trump has zero experience on this,’ says Jack Chow from Carnegie Mellon University, who has worked at both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the State Department under Colin Powell. ‘If I asked him, ‘What is your stance on global health?,’ I don’t know what he’d say. I don’t think anyone really does’.”