Pandora Report: 4.20.2018

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika
The early-bird registration discount deadline is fast approaching, so make sure you’re signed up for the workshop on all things health security from July 18-20! Whether it’s the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, SARS and avian influenza, Ebola in West Africa, or dual-use research of concern, we’ll be covering it all in this three-day workshop. Where else can you mingle with some of the top minds in the field, engage with other passionate health security professionals, and learn about the latest issues in biodefense?

80,000 Hours Interview With Dr. Tom Inglesby – Careers & Policies That Can Prevent Global Catastrophic Biological Risks
If you’re not listening to the 80,000 Hours podcast, make sure to add it to your list. This is a wonderful podcast on making the right career choices and lucky us, they’re covering global health security jobs. In October, NTI’s Dr. Beth Cameron spoke about fighting pandemics and the challenge of preparing an entire country. Cameron spoke about the current state of American health security, what we’ve learned, new technologies, and more. This week, they spoke with Dr. Tom Inglesby from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security on how passionate health security gurus can pursue a career in the field, the top jobs, worrisome scientific breakthroughs, etc. You’ll even catch Dr. Inglesby discuss PhD programs and advisors in the field, in which he names GMU’s very own Dr. Gregory Koblentz! During his talk, Inglesby notes that “I don’t think it’s a good approach to think about it [catastrophic biological risk] as zero sum with other epidemic problems and here’s why: I think in many cases it’s gonna be similar communities that are thinking about these problems. I don’t think it’s likely, even if we really decided to get very serious as a world, I don’t think it’s likely that there will be a community solely dedicated. I don’t want to say never, because it could happen, but I don’t think it’s likely that there will be a robust enduring community of professionals that would only, solely be dedicated to global catastrophic risk, biological risks alone.”

An Afternoon with ASPR – Dr. Robert Korch and Dr. Dana Perkins
GMU Biodefense MS student Anthony Falzarano is reporting on his time at the National Academies monthly series on biological, chemical, and health security issues. “This luncheon – consisting of an open forum session with a two-member panel and a moderator – featured Dr. George W. Korch and Dr. Dana Perkins, both from the Department of Health and Human Services office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). Drawing from their current roles with ASPR as well as their illustrious careers and vast experiences, two presenters made for a compelling afternoon discussing health security issues and the work being done by ASPR to prepare for and address them.” Make sure to read his report-out on this luncheon to learn Dr. Korch’s favorite priorities for ASPR!

Chemical Weapons Attack on Douma – Update
Last Saturday, 105 missiles were fired against three Syrian chemical weapons facilities in a joint effort by the U.S., UK, and France. While this is unlikely to have completely removed Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities, many are wondering how effective the airstrike truly is. “‘This is now part of their standard combat doctrine’,” said Gregory Koblentz, a chemical weapons expert at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The attack April 7 that triggered the U.S.-led retaliatory strikes forced the surrender of a rebel group holed up in a suburb of Damascus. ‘It changed the course of battle on the ground,’ Koblentz said.” Social media is also increasingly playing a large role in the U.S. and Russian dialogue of the attacks. “The heavy reliance of President Donald Trump’s administration on publicly available information marks a shift from his predecessor’s, which insisted on obtaining physical evidence of chemical weapons use with an established chain of custody before considering the use of force. It also highlights the difficulties Western intelligence agencies have faced in obtaining such evidence — blood, hair, or soil samples — from the Damascus suburb of Douma in the days following the April 7 chemical weapons attack that left nearly 50 dead and hundreds wounded.” The Director-General of the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) recently provided an update on the fact-finding mission (FFM) in Douma, which you can find here. Challenges were found in OPCW actually getting into the site. “The United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) has made the necessary arrangements with the Syrian authorities to escort the team to a certain point and then for the escort to be taken over by the Russian Military Police. However, the UNDSS preferred to first conduct a reconnaissance visit to the sites, which took place yesterday. FFM team members did not participate in this visit.On arrival at Site 1, a large crowd gathered and the advice provided by the UNDSS was that the reconnaissance team should withdraw. At Site 2, the team came under small arms fire and an explosive was detonated. The reconnaissance team returned to Damascus.” “The delay in the inspectors’ arrival, 10 days after the attack, will raise fresh concerns over the relevance of the OPCW investigation and possible evidence-tampering. The efforts to investigate the attack, which has been blamed on Bashar al-Assad’s government and sparked a joint operation by the US, Britain and France to bomb chemical weapons facilities near Damascus, has been repeatedly delayed despite Syria’s claim to have established full control over Douma and the surrounding region.” Koblentz notes that “Douma has been completely surrounded by the Syrian government and has been subject to intensive bombardment as part of the regime offensive since February,. The problem is that the territory is now occupied by the Syrian government and the crime scene is no longer secure. It doesn’t lend itself to a credible investigation. It’s like the criminals came back to the scene of the crime and they can do whatever they want with the evidence before the cops show up.”

CRISPR, Avengers, & Super Soldiers, Oh My! 
As we get closer to the release of Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, discussions about super soldiers and genome editing are growing like a mean, green, fighting machine. A frequent topic of conversation during the December 2017 Meeting of States Parties (at least among the ELBI attendees!), Matt Shearer posed the question – is Captain America a biological weapon? What about the other Avengers though – like Hawkeye, who is one of the few “normal” humans in the group? “Hawkeye’s accuracy with a bow and arrow is heavily dependent on his eyesight, which is clearly more advanced than the average human’s. As far as we know, his genome has not been intentionally altered, leading us to believe that Hawkeye has inherited his extraordinary eyesight from his parents. This theory is strengthened by the fact in the Marvel comic books, Barney Barton, Clint’s brother, is also an accomplished archer thanks to his enhanced vision. Perhaps Hawkeye’s advanced eyesight is the result of thousands of years of genetic evolution in the form of adaptation, genetic drift, or mutation of his ancestor’s DNA.” Writers at Synthego decided to look at which genes would need CRISPR modification to improve vision – like targeting specific opsin genes OPN1SW, OPN1MW, etc.

Survey – Most Americans Favor More Funding to Support Biosecurity Capabilities
A new survey by Alliance for Biosecurity has found that public confidence in US preparedness to address biosecurity has dropped. “Nationally, 73% of the 1,612 Americans surveyed say they would have a favorable reaction ‘if Congress decided to increase the budget this year for developing preventive measures for biological and chemical threats.’ How elected officials act on biosecurity issues is important enough to affect voters at the ballot box, according to the survey. A majority of Americans – 52% –  say they are more likely to support their elected representative if that representative is ‘actively engaged in promoting and supporting biosecurity.’ Similarly, 52% say they would become less likely to re-elect a representative who voted AGAINST providing additional funding to the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Only 20% say voting against the additional funding would make them more likely to re-elect that representative.” The survey found that only 31% of Americans are confident in our national preparedness, which is a drop from the 50% found in a March 2016 survey.

Curious 2018
Are you planning on being in Germany July 16-18? Don’t miss out on the Curious2018 Future Insight conference in Darmstadt. “The Curious2018 Future Insight conference is a world-renowned event around the future of science & technology and its application to build a better world for humanity. The best minds in science, technology, and entrepreneurship will come together to make great things happen and join forces to realize the dreams of a better tomorrow.” Topics will include healthy lives, materials & solutions, life reimagined (synthetic biology!), vibrant digital, and bright future.

Foodborne Illness Outbreaks – Romaine Lettuce and Eggs
Cobb salads may be taking a beating this week as two main ingredients are setting food epidemiologists into overtime with E.coli and Salmonella outbreaks. Three days ago, it was announced that the source of a 16-state E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, had been identified as a romaine lettuce farm in Yuma, AZ. The CDC recently announced that 53 people have been sickened and the common ingredient amongst them was chopped romaine lettuce, which was traced back to the Yuma region. If that wasn’t bad enough, over 206 million eggs have been recalled across 9 states due to a Salmonella outbreak linked back to eggs from a farm in Hyde County, N.C., and distributed by an Indiana company. “The FDA said the voluntary recall is the result of 22 illnesses reported in East Coast states, which led to extensive interviews and an inspection of the Hyde County farm. The outbreak involves the Salmonella Braenderup subtype. Federal and state officials have been investigating the outbreak since early March.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Holding Russia Accountable in Salisbury– During this week, the UN Security Council and the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) met to discuss the most recent OPCW findings. Per the U.S. State Department – “The OPCW’s independent report, released last week, confirms the UK lab analysis regarding the identity of the chemical used in Salisbury. We applaud the OPCW’s expeditious support and technical efforts to uncover the facts. We fully support the UK and the need for today’s special meetings of the OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council to discuss the chemical weapons attack in Salisbury and the OPCW’s detailed independent analysis.”
  • Apartment Mice: Harborers of Disease? “In a study today in mBio, the researchers report that a genetic analysis of droppings collected from house mice in New York City detected several types of bacteria capable of causing gastrointestinal disease, including Shigella, Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Clostridium difficile. They also found genes that confer resistance to fluoroquinolones, beta-lactam antibiotics, and methicillin. Overall, more than a third of mice carried at least one potentially pathogenic bacterium, and nearly a quarter carried at least one antibiotic resistance gene.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 3.23.2018

TGIF and Pandora Report day! Tomorrow is World TB Day, in which we celebrate the progress made to eradicate TB, but also recognize the work that still needs to be done. Did you know that 53 million lives were saved through effective TB diagnosis and treatment from 2000-2016? In 2016 alone, there were nearly 500,000 cases of multidrug-resistant TB around the world and it takes $2.3 billion a year to fill the resources needed for existing TB interventions. If you happen to be traveling by air anytime soon, make sure to read these tips from public health experts.

How Prepared Are You For the Next Pandemic? Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
Three days filled with global health security and all things biodefense from anthrax to Zika – what more could you want in a workshop? Learn from the top minds in the field when it comes to pandemic preparedness, vaccine development, biosecurity, etc. Between the centennial of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the recent horsepox synthesis, and the lift on the gain-of-function research moratorium, these three days will be packed with exciting topics and discussions. From July 18-20th, come get your biodefense on with us in Arlington, VA – registration prior to May 1st also gets an early bird discount!

Shining A Spotlight On Soviet Nerve Agents
A nerve agent attack in the UK has made the poison, Novichok, a household name, but also pointed a very large spotlight on Russia’s scientists and defense labs. “Few experts in the rarefied area of chemical weapons defense are willing—or able—to shed further light on them. Information about the Novichok nerve agents is classified, says one U.S. military scientist who, like other U.S. government scientists, declined to speak with Science.” Whatever the plan, this failed attempt for the quick deaths of Skripal and his daughter have left many questions about delivery of the agent and how this heavily guarded secret nerve agent found its way onto UK soil. An article from The Trench discusses the use of these nerve agents, formal accusations from the UK, and compliance of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). “The OPCW experts travel to the UK under Article VIII, 38(e), which qualifies their activity as a ‘Technical Assistance Visit’ to help with the evaluation of an unscheduled chemical (the Novichock agent) is not listed in any of the three schedules in the Annex on Chemicals).  They will likely visit the sites of investigation and collect their own samples (if for no other reason than to validate any laboratory samples they may receive), take all materials and documents related to the forensic investigation back to the Netherlands where the sample will be divided up and sent to two or more designated OPCW laboratories.” On Wednesday, Russian diplomatic and military officials reportedly accused the UK of hiding evidence in the investigation of the attack. “Speaking to a lecture hall of diplomats, Vladimir Yermakov, deputy head of the ministry’s department for non-proliferation, suggested that the UK was ‘hiding facts’ about the case that may later ‘disappear’.” British diplomat Emma Nottingham noted that “Russia has offered us so far no explanation of how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom and no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law,”.

Pandemic Preparedness
“Are we prepared for the next pandemic?” Such a question pulls at the string of a much larger web that tends to leave many feeling unsettled. The scary truth is that we’re not ready. We know there will be a pandemic – history, science, and society, all tell us this. Encroachment on nature, increasing globalization and populations, and struggles against more frequent threats like seasonal flu and even antimicrobial resistance, all reveal a severe vulnerability to infectious diseases. Lessons from HIV, Ebola, and Zika, are just the latest and on the centennial of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, many hope that we learned from such events and can help prevent future ones. Predictions trickle across many sectors – loss of healthcare worker lives, financial and economic struggle, etc. “Such a pandemic could cause a global stock market crash that obliterates the livelihoods and savings of millions of survivors. ‘A severe and prolonged global pandemic could … hit global GDP by as much as 5-10% in the first year,’ noted the authors of the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch 2015 Global Pandemics Primer report. Oxford Economics has suggested that the cost of a global pandemic, including spillover across industry sectors, could be as great as $3.5tn – an impact far greater than the magnitude of the great financial crisis of 2008.” With funding for the GHSA in peril, the question of preparedness becomes even more relevant…and pessimistic. The tricky thing about infectious disease threats is that we’re not sure where the next one will come from. We have hints and sometimes we’ll get a whiff of which way the wind is blowing before the storm hits, but ultimately, there is so much we can’t predict. Given these challenges, prevention efforts, like those of the GHSA, should be seen as even more critical. Infectious disease prevention strategies are always a good return on an investment. It’s also the unexpected that impacts disease control and surveillance efforts. Local news is one that doesn’t often come to mind when considering epidemiology and infectious disease forecasting. “Epidemiologists rely on all kinds of data to detect the spread of disease, including reports from local and state agencies and social media. But local newspapers are critical to identifying outbreaks and forecasting their trajectories. ‘We rely very heavily on local news. And I think what this will probably mean is that there are going to be pockets of the U.S. where we’re just not going to have a particularly good signal anymore,’ said Majumder, a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

GMU Biodefense MS Open House & PhD Information Session
Looking to earn a Masters or PhD in a field that’s at the nexus of foreign policy and public health? GMU Biodefense is just the place for that. We’re hosting two information sessions for our biodefense graduate degrees – the MS Open House is next Wednesday at 6:30pm (Arlington Campus) and the next PhD Information Session is on Wednesday, April 18th at 7pm, in Arlington, VA. These are great opportunities to hear from faculty and students in each biodefense program about not only the application process, but also the classes and what it’s like to study what you love!

CDC Selects New Director
Dr. Robert R. Redfield was just announced as the new director for the CDC. Redfield will take over for interim director Dr. Ann Schuchat, who many were hoping would take post. The new director has a background in HIV and is said to be a dedicated researcher and physician. Unfortunately, Redfield also comes with a rather novel history for CDC directors – he has never worked for a public health department. “Critics also point to a resume marred with controversy. In the 1990s, Redfield was accused of falsifying data about an experimental HIV vaccine he worked on. He was eventually cleared of those charges, but the data had to be corrected.” On Tuesday, Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) raised concerns regarding his appointment, noting that, “This pattern of ethically and morally questionable behavior leads me to seriously question whether Dr. Redfield is qualified to be the federal government’s chief advocate and spokesman for public health.”

Brazil Calls for Country-Wide Yellow Fever Vaccination
Brazil has been battling a yellow fever outbreak since 2017 and vaccine shortages have only fueled the challenges of outbreak response. “Brazil announced yesterday that all citizens should be vaccinated against yellow fever. The country is currently experiencing a spike in cases in what has shaped up to become the largest yellow fever outbreak to hit the country since the 1940s.The Associated Press (AP) reported that Ricardo Barros, Brazil’s health minister, said all 27 of Brazil’s states will be targeted in a vaccination campaign that will aim to reach 78 million people by 2019. Before the announcement, the vaccine was recommended in all but four Brazilian states.”

Importance of GHSA
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu wants clinicians to understand the importance of the GHSA and why US investment is critical. “Like many components of public health and infectious disease, the importance of prevention is often forgotten until an outbreak occurs. Hospital preparedness and infection prevention were not necessarily ‘big ticket’ items in the United States until we had Ebola in Dallas, Texas, but it only takes 1 laboratory incident to remind us of the importance of biosecurity and biosafety.”

Food Defense Conference
The Food Protection and Defense Institute will be hosting this conference on May 22 & 24th in Minneapolis, MN. “As the food system is becoming ever more global, companies need to be prepared to protect not only their products but also their reputation. The Food Protection and Defense Institute will be hosting a 2-day Food Defense Certification Training Course on May 21 & 22, 2018 that will teach food industry professionals how to navigate basic food defense principles, recognize vulnerabilities, and create a tailored food defense plans.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 3.9.2018

Nerve agent attacks, horsepox synthesis, and funding global health security, oh my! On top of all the biodefense news we’ve got in store for you this week, we’re also thoroughly excited to announce the 2018 summer workshop on pandemics, bioterrorism, and global health security.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security – From Anthrax to Zika
We’re delighted to release the dates for the summer workshop on all things global health security. The recent publication of the horsepox synthesis study, uncertain future of U.S. investment in global health security, and a severe flu season, are just a handful of the topics we’ll be addressing in this three-day workshop from July 18-20, 2018. Did I mention that it’s also the centennial of the 1918/1919 pandemic? We face unprecedented microbial challenges in this modern age – whether it be the risk of nefarious actors misusing genome editing, antimicrobial resistance, or the speed at which a disease can circumvent the globe. Our workshop is the perfect place to learn from experts in the field and meet with a diverse group of fellow biodefense gurus. If you register before May 1st or are a returning member or GMU alum, you can even get a discount! From anthrax to Zika, our July workshop is the place to be for all things health security.

 The Herculean Challenge of Assessing the De Novo Synthesis of Horsepox 
Nine-headed Hydra or cleaning out the Augean stables? None of these tasks were particularly easy, and neither is truly assessing the risks and benefits of the recent horsepox synthesis. Two of the latest articles analyzing the implications of this research have been released this week in mSphere.  In the editorial, Michael J. Imperiale points to the increased attention on DURC and the debate surrounding the benefits of a new vaccine versus the potential for a nefarious actor to misuse the process. “The two articles posted today come from Gregory Koblentz at George Mason University, who argues that this work was poorly justified on two fronts, scientifically and commercially, and from Diane DiEuliis and Gigi Gronvall from National Defense University and the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, respectively, who discuss this study in the larger context of how the risks and benefits of dual use research are assessed and managed. (mSphere asked the leadership of Tonix to submit a manuscript, but we received no response.)” Koblentz first underlines the weak scientific foundation for the claim that the horespox synthesis aids in the development of a new smallpox MCM. He states that the “combination of questionable benefits and known risks of this dual use research raises serious questions about the wisdom of undertaking research that could be used to recreate variola virus.” Within his commentary, Koblentz addresses the scientific and commercial rationale for synthesizing the virus as well as the weak scientific basis for its use as a safer alternative for human vaccine use and the lack of demand for a new smallpox vaccine. “At the heart of the dual use research dilemma is the need to assess and balance the benefits and risks presented by an experiment or line of research. This is a difficult task given the largely theoretical risks posed by unknown adversaries in the future and the enticing yet uncertain benefits that the research may eventually yield. Indeed, measuring risks and benefits and weighing them can be a wicked problem that defies simple or straightforward conclusions. The difficulty of the task, however, does not excuse researchers, funders, or journal editors from trying to do so. While the benefits of biotechnology and life sciences research are beyond question, we should not take for granted the benefits of specific experiments or avenues of dual use research.” In their counterpoint article, Diane DiEuliis and Gigi Kwik Gronvall emphasize that the horsepox researchers went through due biosecurity diligence at their research institution, the importance of utilizing an analytical framework for assessing the risks and benefits of DURC, and discuss “relevant components of biosecurity policy and the biodefense enterprise (including the acquisition of medical countermeasures) in the United States.” DiEuliis and Kwik Gronvall point to the horespox synthesis (and the controversy) as an opportunity to evaluate how dual-use risks should be handled, the complicated approach to stockpiling MCM, and “the challenges of forecasting risks and benefits from a particular scientific discovery or technology”. They highlight the National Academies Imperiale report framework for evaluating the capacity for technology to be misused, which includes factors like weighing the use of the technology itself against consequence management, etc. They also note three issues that have been raised by the horespox paper that require additional consideration – “The decision of what to do with a technology or research area that is dual use cannot be black or white, MCMs cannot be a check-the-box procedure for the USG, The synthesis of and booting up of a pathogen should serve as strategic warning that current biosecurity controls and preparedness are insufficient.” DiEuliis and Kwik Gronvall note that “Now that the work has been published, the authors examined the research according to the Imperiale report framework, which aims to provide a systematic way to evaluate biosecurity risks. We again found that while dual use information would benefit highly experienced actors who are intent on misuse, the recreation of smallpox virus may require additional research and development steps than have been described in this publication: smallpox virus is less similar to horsepox virus than horsepox virus is to vaccinia virus, the tools to recreate horsepox virus were originally developed for vaccinia virus, and they might require additional troubleshooting for re-creation of smallpox virus.”

NTI Launches GHS Video: Act Now to Protect U.S. Investment in Global Health Security
The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has launched a new video urging Congress to act now and ensure funding for global health security. Dr. Elizabeth Cameron, NTI VP, global biological policy and programs, is spear-heading the endeavor to turn the tides and ensure sustained funding for global biodefense. “Without sufficient funding of $208 million a year for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and $172 million a year at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), we weaken the global network of protection, increase risk to American lives, and threaten investments from other governments and the private sector. Urge Congress to act now to provide sustained funding for global biodefense.” Cameron notes that “in response to the devastating Ebola crisis of 2014, the United States Congress authorized over $900 million in supplemental funding to support the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) for five years to help countries prepare for and address biological threats. This critical funding runs out at the end of fiscal year 2019, placing up to 80% of our global health security efforts abroad – offices, personnel, and programs – at risk. Also at risk?  U.S. health security and extended biodefenses. Without sufficient funding of $208.2 million a year for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and $172.5 million a year at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), we weaken the global network of protection, increase risk to American lives, and threaten investments from other governments and the private sector.”

Ominous Biosecurity Trends Under Putin
If you ever needed a reminder of the importance of investing in global health security, this just might provide that cold dose of reality. The latest book from Raymond Zilinskas and Philippe Mauger, Biosecurity in Putin’s Russia, assesses Russia’s actions regarding DURC and biosecurity measures. “They investigate — solely through open sources — the current Russian position. They especially dig into issues such as ‘genetic weapons’ (bioweapons aimed at damaging DNA, potentially of specific individuals or groups) and biodefence research. Their underlying intention throughout seems to be to examine the likelihood that the Russian government is itself willing to engage in banned activities related to biowarfare agents. The book thus becomes a technical-scientific detective story.” This is an in-depth analysis by two top biological weapons specialists – definitely worth the read!

A Nerve Agent, An Ex-Russian Spy, And A Bench in the U.K. 
Speaking of Russia…..a former Russian spy was recently found alongside his daughter in critical condition on a bench in Salisbury. The former spy, Sergi Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, were found slumped over on Sunday and in desperate need of medical attention. It is now being reported that they were poisoned by a nerve agent, which has raised the suspicion that this was an assassination attempt. “The development forces the British government to confront the possibility that once again, an attack on British soil was carried out by the government of President Vladimir V. Putin, which Western intelligence officials say has, with alarming frequency, ordered the killing of people who have crossed it. Prime Minister Theresa May and her cabinet ministers held a meeting on Wednesday of the government’s emergency security committee to discuss the matter. ‘This is being treated as a major incident involving attempted murder by administration of a nerve agent,’ said Mark Rowley, Britain’s chief police official for counterterrorism and international security.” Twenty-one people are also being treated for exposure to the nerve agent in connection to the attack.

Netflix Documentary – Rajneesh Salad Bar Bioterrorism
Get ready for some Netflix and nerdom on March 16th as the documentary on the largest bioterrorist attack in the United States is released. “In 1984, more than 700 people in The Dalles, OR, contracted Salmonella infections after followers of Rajneesh sprinkled the pathogen on salad bar ingredients in 10 local restaurants. The action was an effort to swing the results of an election.” Don’t miss out on the biosecurity twitter activity during a virtual viewing party – @pandorareport!

#NoImpunity: Will The Newest International Effort to Stop Chemical Attacks in Syria Succeed?
How can we stop the use of chemical weapons if there is no authority on attribution? GMU professor Gregory Koblentz is delving into the latest strategy to hold the Assad regime accountable for their continued use of chemical weapons. Between Russian vetoes that halt OPCW efforts and the death of the Joint Investigation Mechanism, many worry that the lack of punishment will encourage further CW use by the Assad regime. “To fill this gap in the global anti-chemical weapon architecture, France launched an international initiative in January to pressure the Assad regime to halt its use of chemical weapons. The Partnership Against Impunity, which uses the hashtag #NoImpunity on Twitter, is a group of 25 countries motivated by the twin goals of deterring future chemical attacks and bringing to justice the perpetrators of past attacks.” Sure, the sanctions by some of these countries are ultimately more symbolic than behavior-changing, but they are now infusing a dose of public shaming into the mix. “First, by curating a public database that lists all of the front companies and procurement agents used by the SSRC, the Partnership Against Impunity makes it easier for other countries and companies around the world to avoid doing business with Syria’s chemical weapons program. While sanctioning these shadowy companies and middlemen is like playing ‘whack-a-mole,’ it is an essential element of preventing Syria from rebuilding the capabilities that the OPCW destroyed after Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention.” The Partnership Against Impunity is also laying “the groundwork for future prosecutions of military officers and government officials who engaged in war crimes” and establishing a “concrete manifestation of the noble goal enshrined in the preamble of the Chemical Weapons Convention ‘to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons’.”

 Assessing CRISPR – The Dread And the Awe
Genome editing is a hot topic – both in terms of future possibilities, but also potential peril. GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and doctoral student Saskia Popescu are teaming up to review two new books on this gene editing technology. First, A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna, one of CRISPR’s creators, who discusses the revolutionary marvel with a mixture of hope and dread. “Doudna became aware of this paradox soon after publishing the seminal 2012 article that announced her discovery. She was surprised and delighted by the technology’s rapid spread and its use in a variety of fields, yet some applications—such as the use of Crispr to edit human embryos, as performed for the first time by Chinese scientists in 2015—made her uneasy about the future of the technology. Unscrupulous individuals’ interest in using Crispr for pure profit made her uneasy as well.” Next, Modern Prometheus by computational biologist and freelance writer, Jim Kozubek. “He ponders the power of genetic manipulation as a gateway to the dehumanization of medicine and the objectification of human beings. Kozubek draws comparisons with ‘Jurassic Park’ and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to pose larger questions about genetic engineering—and also to point out that, though people are fascinated with technological advances, they often neglect to consider technologies’ implications, notably on people themselves.”

The U.S. and Global Health Security At A Time of Transition
The Kaiser Family Foundation will be hosting this free event on Monday, March 12th from 2-3:30pm EDT at the Kaiser Family Foundation Barbara Jordan Conference Center in Washington, D.C. This event will seek to explore the future of U.S. global health security efforts, what role the U.S. will play in the future of the GHSA, and more through a panel of experts. “Jen Kates, Vice President and Director of Global Health and HIV Policy, will provide opening remarks, and Anne Schuchat, Acting Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), will give a keynote address on U.S. global health security efforts. Josh Michaud, Associate Director of Global Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, will moderate a follow up discussion with Beth Cameron, Vice President for Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI); Rebecca Katz, Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University; Nancy Knight,Director of the Division of Global Health Protection at CDC; and J. Stephen Morrison, Senior Vice President and Director of the CSIS Global Health Policy Center.”

New Paradigms for Global Health: Building Capacity through Science and Technology Partnerships
The American Association for the Advancement of Science and Hitachi Ltd. will be hosting this event on March 21st from 11:30am-12:30pm at the AAS headquarters in New York City. “Why are science and technology partnerships — and science diplomacy — more critical to global health than ever before? Jimmy Kolker, former U.S. ambassador to Uganda and to Burkina Faso and the Obama Administration’s chief HHS health diplomat, offers a practitioner’s perspective on new ways of integrating and advancing global health science, security, and assistance. Public-private and technical partnerships can enable the best experts to build sustainable capacity in low- and middle-income countries, strengthening global health science, policy, systems, and delivery.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • The Troubling Truth About Medicine’s Supply Chain –  Maryn McKenna (author of Big Chicken and all around global health guru) is lifting back the curtain on the painful reality that is America’s hospital supply chains. While not something the public generally considers, it’s something we need to start fixing. “Missing IV bags and missing pharmaceuticals seem like unrelated problems, a temporary disruption layered on top of a longstanding problem. But in fact, they are unavailable for the same reason. The United States has allowed the manufacturing of most of its drugs and medical devices to drift offshore, at the end of long, thin supply chains.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 2.16.2018

 

 White House Budget Hits Public Health
The White House has released their new plan, “Efficient, Effective, Accountable: An American Budget”, which sees an increase in military spending, funds for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and a 10%  increase in spending from 2017. “The plan also calls for major cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and other social programs — reductions that conservatives have long sought. But even with these reductions, which add up to more than $3 trillion in cuts over 10 years, the proposal would not bring the budget into balance because of the lost tax revenue and higher spending on other programs.” The 2019 budget proposal also includes $9.2 billion added after Congress lifted mandatory spending caps. “But the 2019 budget might not be as steady as it seems, because the White House is calling for the creation of three new institutes within the NIH. They include a National Institute for Research on Safety and Quality, which would replace the $324-million Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The Trump plan would also transfer the National Institute of Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research from the HHS’s Administration for Community Living, and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to the NIH from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).” The plan also includes a cap for how much salary a scientist can draw from an NIH grant (90%), gives NIH an additional $750 million for research towards the opioid crisis ($400 million of which must “be spent on public-private partnerships to develop new treatments”). Unfortunately, this proposed budget significantly weakens public health preparedness and response plans with a 43% reduction in the CDC’s Public Health Preparedness and Response Program. Furthermore, it includes hitting the CDC hard with a 12% reduction and plans to move the strategic national stockpile (SNS) to ASPR. Such plans severely impact global health security as funding for the GHSA is expected to drop. You can read a further overview on the health security outlook by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security here. There has also been increasing concern regarding the lack of a nominee for the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, especially since the de facto advisor is a 31-year-old political science major from Princeton

GMU Schar School MS Open House
Don’t miss out on our information session next week. This is a great chance to chat with faculty about the GMU Biodefense MS program (both online and in person). “The session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs, an introduction to our world-class faculty and research, and highlights of the many ways we position our students for success in the classroom and beyond. Our admissions and student services staff will be on hand to answer your questions.” FYI – GMU biodefense students are making headlines for their dedication and passion for health security, come join the nerdom!

Next Generation Global Health Security Mentorship Program
Interested in becoming a mentor  or protege in health security? The NextGen Global Health Security Mentorship Program is a great way to build partnerships and collaborations for those passionate about health security. “The NextGen Global Health Security (NGGHS) Mentorship Program is an annual program aimed at connecting early to mid-career professional and students interested in global health security with experts in the field to enhance professional development. Mentors and Protégés are free to establish a program that suits them best. Meetings can be based on current events, suggested topics and/or other common areas of interest. The pair will maintain correspondence either in person, over the phone or by email, as often as they have decided feasible.” If you’re a GMU biodefense alum, also make sure to update your information in Stay Connected so you’ll get the latest in biodefense program news and opportunities!

The Anniversary of Kim Jong Nam’s VX Assassination
February 13th marked the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport. Kim Jong Nam was attacked by two women who smeared VX nerve agent on his face. “The women claim they were tricked into believing they were part of a reality show, but the U.S. and South Korea say the murder was orchestrated by Pyongyang. The brazen killing came as North Korea was starting to accelerate its missile tests and countries around the world came under mounting pressure to enforce ever-tightening U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.” In the wake of the attack, Malaysia is working to distance itself from its previously close relationship with Pyongyang. The murder trial, which started in October of 2017, is set to end in March of this year, with the two women maintaining their innocence. 

Biosafety Failures in UK Lab
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released findings from their investigations into more than 40 “mishaps” at specialist labs from 2015-2017. The labs were run by hospitals, private companies, and Public Health England (PHE), which reveals an unfortunate trend across many sectors. “One scientist at a PHE laboratory became sick after contracting Shigella, a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes most cases of dysentery in Britain. The incident led the HSE to send the agency an enforcement letter to improve its health and safety practices.” Incidents range from failure to communicate safety requirements for mailing samples to airflow failures and lab workers acquiring illnesses from lab safety mishaps.

Antimicrobial Resistance: Forging A New Strategy Against An Old Threat
GMU Biodefense students love all things health security and that includes antimicrobial resistance. PhD student Saskia Popescu is tackling the woefully insufficient response we’ve had over the years to this growing threat. Pointing to current challenges, initiatives, and research strategies, Popescu discusses current trends and hopeful plans to combat AMR. “What is to be done? There are several initiatives, like the Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator (CARB-X), that seek to infuse life into the research and development of new drugs. There is also a push on health care providers and agriculture to reduce the use of antimicrobials. But these are all long-term solutions that may take years or decades to implement. Although long-term plans are critical, if you were hospitalized today with a highly resistant infection, what would be the short-term plan of action your heath care providers would take?”

ABSA Risk Group Database App
Check out the latest Risk Group Database resource (and app!) from the Association for Biosafety and Biosecurity (ABSA) International. “In many countries, including the United States, infectious agents are categorized in risk groups based on their relative risk. Depending on the country and/or organization, this classification system might take the following factors into consideration: pathogenicity of the organism, mode of transmission and host range, availability of effective preventive measures (e.g., vaccines), availability of effective treatment (e.g., antibiotics), and other factors.”

Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense Receives Grant to Advance Leadership and Reduce Catastrophic Risk
“The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense announced today a $2.5 million grant from the Open Philanthropy Project. The grant allows the Panel to continue its leadership role in assessing our nation’s biodefense, issuing recommendations and advocating for their implementation, and identifying viable avenues for needed change to policy. The grant comes amidst heightened global tensions as North Korea and other regimes seek to develop biological weapons. It also arrives on the 100th anniversary of a catastrophic influenza pandemic that took the lives of millions around the world, a stark reminder of the dangers of biological events.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • DHS Announces Finalists in $300k Biothreat Prize Competition –  “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), in collaboration with the Office of Health Affairs National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC), today announced five finalists for Stage 1 of the Hidden Signals Challenge. The challenge calls for the design of an early warning system that uses existing data to uncover emerging biothreats. The announcement was made at the American Society for Microbiology’s 2018 ASM Biothreats meeting.”
  • Seoul Virus Transmission – Have a pet rat at home? Make sure to practice safe rodent handling and hand hygiene as physicians are seeing cases of rodent-to-human transmission of Seoul virus. “After confirming Seoul virus infection in the Wisconsin patients, the CDC and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services investigated the source of the disease. ‘The outbreak spread from sales or trade of infected pet rats between people’s homes or between ratteries’ – places where rats are bred – ‘in 11 states,’ said Kerins, who coauthored the report.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 1.19.2018

Happy Friday and welcome to your favorite source for all things biodefense! We hope you’re able to avoid the onslaught of respiratory viruses that are circulating right now, but on the off chance that you’re battling a bug, here’s some infectious disease new that won’t get you sick.

Fighting Influenza
Whether you’re fighting the flu or watching the mayhem unfold in the news, you can’t escape influenza right now. We’re getting hit hard with flu season in the United States and the CDC has reported that activity is still rising and we’re not out of the woods yet. You can find the latest flu data here, but what is worrying so many is the hit that hospitals are taking across the country. It’s not just that we’re facing an IV bag shortage due to the devastation Hurricane Maria wreaked upon Puerto Rico, but that hospitals are being overrun with an onslaught of ILI (influenza like illness) patients. Wait times are through the roof, staff are stretched thin, patients are being admitted into overflow areas, hospitals are having to divert patients because they’re so full, triage areas have been set up in parking lots and emergency areas, and hospitals are even struggling to ensure they have enough PPE and influenza tests. This year marks the centennial of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, and it seems like what’s going on is out of a history book instead of down the street. As an infection preventionist and infectious disease epidemiologist, it is not surprising or unexpected that we’re running into these issues. It’s easy for people to point to the current situation and use it as an example of why we’re not ready for a flu pandemic – and they’re right, but it shouldn’t take what’s going on to see that. These are not new issues. Infection control and hospital preparedness has been struggling for a long time and it doesn’t take a pandemic to prove it. Even after the surge of funding and focus on hospital preparedness post-Ebola, we still struggle with these issues, but throw in budget cuts and an administration that is set to pull funding away from public health…well, the outlook is dismal.

With so much attention on influenza, pandemic preparedness, and how we’re just not ready for the next great flu pandemic, what kind of household interventions can we apply in our own little ecosystems? Researchers looked at a HPAI H5N1 outbreak and estimated the reduction in primary attack rates for household-based interventions. “We show that, for lower transmissibility strains, the combination of household-based quarantine, isolation of cases outside the household, and targeted prophylactic use of anti-virals will be highly effective and likely feasible across a range of plausible transmission scenarios. For example, for a basic reproductive number (the average number of people infected by a typically infectious individual in an otherwise susceptible population) of 1.8, assuming only 50% compliance, this combination could reduce the infection (symptomatic) attack rate from 74% (49%) to 40% (27%), requiring peak quarantine and isolation levels of 6.2% and 0.8% of the population, respectively, and an overall anti-viral stockpile of 3.9 doses per member of the population.” While we all may not access to anti-virals, the use of quarantine and isolation are all effective strategies. From an infection control standpoint, it can be tough to maintain such efforts in a household where one or two people are sick. When in doubt, wash your hands, cover your cough, and clean those high-touch surfaces/objects!

GMU Biodefense MS Open House
Mark your calendars for the February 21st Master’s Open House at GMU’s Arlington campus! If you’ve been thinking about getting a MS in biodefense (who wouldn’t want to take classes on biosurveillance, historical bioweapons programs, and more?!), this is a great chance to talk to faculty and learn about the admissions process. GMU has biodefense MS programs in person and online, so even if you’re not in the DC-area, you can get your biodefense on.

Smallpox, Horsepox, And The Trouble With Poxviruses
It seems only a few months ago that news broke of a Canadian research team’s de novo synthesis of horsepox. Since then, there has been considerable discussion surrounding not only the biosafety and biosecurity behind research involving an orthopoxvirus, but also the implications of normalizing orthopoxvirus synthesis, and again, if the remaining smallpox stockpiles should be destroyed. The latest report from researchers at the University of Alberta points to the potential smallpox vaccine developments that synthetic viruses could bring. “Virologist David Evans and his research associate Ryan Noyce produced an infectious horsepox virus, which they synthetically reconstructed using a published genome sequence and DNA fragments manufactured entirely by chemical methods. The team went on to show that the synthetic horsepox virus could provide vaccine protection in a mouse model of poxvirus infection.” Unfortunately, the implications of synthesizing an orthopoxvirus aren’t so simple. GMU biodefense professor and program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz evaluated the implications of such synthesis for biosecurity and what would be needed to prevent a reemergence of smallpox. “The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security. That threat has been held at bay for the past 40 years by the extreme difficulty of obtaining variola virus and the availability of effective medical countermeasures. The techniques demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox have the potential to erase both of these barriers. The primary risk posed by this research is that it will open the door to the routine and widespread synthesis of other orthopoxviruses, such as vaccinia, for use in research, public health, and medicine.” Koblentz notes that while there are potentially legitimate uses for synthesizing orthopoxviruses (safer smallpox vaccine development), it also means that such labs have the potential to produce smallpox from synthetic DNA and emphasized that action is needed now to avoid the misuse of synthetic biology by nefarious actors. “Unfortunately, the current legal and technical safeguards against the synthesis of smallpox virus are weak and fragmented. There is no clear international legal or regulatory framework to prevent the synthesis of smallpox virus. The WHO has a policy banning the synthesis of the smallpox and regulating who can produce and possess large fragments of smallpox DNA, but it hasn’t been widely adopted by states. Furthermore, there is no mechanism—at either the national or international level—for detecting or punishing violations of this policy.” GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu cited the importance of medical providers understanding the dual-use research of concern debate and that ultimately, biosecurity impacts us all. “From the healthcare perspective, it may not seem like something we should worry about, but the direction of gene editing and dual-use research of concern is something that is intrinsically linked to public health. Nefarious outcomes of such experiments, regardless of the origin or intent, will inevitably make their way into an emergency department, urgent care, or worse, the community. Although we may not be seeing the implications today, as medical providers and healthcare workers, we must keep our ears to the ground, listening for these biotech advancements, and then thinking through what they mean for us tomorrow.”

Blue Ribbon SLTT Ability to Respond to Large Scale Biological Events: Challenges and Solutions
If you missed the Wednesday meeting, here’s a recording to catch up on all things biodefense. “State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Ability to Respond to Large-Scale Biological Events: Challenges and Solutions government officials, federal and academic representatives, and subject matter experts will discuss their perspectives, experiences, challenges, and recommended solutions with regard to SLTT response to large-scale biological events.”

Gene Therapy Hits a Wall With Microbial Resistance
Can gene editing trigger an immune reaction in humans? A new study is suggesting that it may be a risk. “The CRISPR-Cas9 system, which functions as a genetic scissors and tape for editing DNA, is generally derived from either Staphyloccoccus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria.” Most of us though, have been exposed to these organisms throughout our lives. “This prior exposure could potentially render the gene editing ineffective, with the body quickly eliminating all the CRISPR–Cas9 proteins. Or worse, it could trigger the kind of immune storm that killed a young gene therapy patient named Jesse Gelsinger in 1999, derailing the field for more than a decade. ‘We share everyone’s excitement about doing Cas9 genome editing, but we want to make sure we have learned from what happened in the gene therapy world and not ignore the possibility that this could become a problem,’ Porteus says. ‘As we’re all thinking about developing Cas9-based therapeutics, we should think carefully about this potential problem’.”

Pediatric Rabies Death
A 6-year-old boy in Florida has died from rabies he contracted after being scratched by an infected bat. The boy’s father reports that he found the sick bat, put it in a bucket, and told him not to touch it however, he did and was scratched. In response, the father had the boy wash his hands thoroughly based off what he read online and opted not to take him to the hospital because the boy didn’t want to get shots. Unfortunately, within a week, the boy became ill and even after attempts at treatment, passed away. Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear, which highlights the importance of seeking care immediately after exposure.

Stories You May Have Missed:

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 1.12.2018

 The Bright Side of Synthetic Biology and Crispr
GMU biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley and Phd alum Shannon Fye-Marnien are looking at the realities of synthetic biology and fears of bioterrorism. Biological advances have inspired questions regarding the safety and potential for nefarious use, but are such technologies guilty until proven innocent or innocent until proven guilty? “As with previous advances in biology, Crispr is sometimes characterized as a blueprint for bioweapons development or bioterrorism, and it has elicited calls for increased control and regulation of science. But while it is important to examine the potential dangers of emerging technologies, reaching a balanced assessment of risks and benefits requires that technologies’ potential to improve human life be appreciated as well. Synthetic biology and Crispr offer a potentially enormous package of benefits, spanning from medicine to energy to agriculture and beyond. Discussions about the security and safety of synthetic biology and Crispr should not obscure these technologies’ potential to address a wide variety of complex and pressing problems.”

The United States Battles Influenza
Flu season is hitting hard in the United States as 46 states report widespread activity. 80% of cases are of the H3N2 strain, which is associated with severe symptoms and hospitalizations. “The flu is now widespread across the country and the peak of transmission probably occurred during the Christmas-New Year’s holiday week, just as many people were crowded into planes, buses and cars or in large family gatherings, said Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ‘H3N2 is a bad virus,’ Dr. Jernigan said. ‘We hate H3N2’.” 26 states (and New York City) are reporting high influenza-like illness (ILI) activity. The CDC has reported that “Influenza-like illness (ILI) went from 4.9% to 5.8%. ‎These indicators are similar to what was seen at the peak of the 2014-2015 season, which was the most severe season in recent years.” This tough influenza season is a helpful reminder that it could always get worse, especially in the context of the 1918/1919 influenza pandemic, which marks its centennial this year. Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker recently wrote an OpEd regarding the dismal truth – we’re not ready for a flu pandemic. Pointing to not only massive growth in population, but also challenges of supply shortages, and an outdated approach to vaccine research, they highlight the need to find a universal vaccine that can do battle against all influenza A strains with a longer immunity. “But there is no apparent effort to make these vaccines a priority in the current administration. Its national security strategy published last month cites Ebola and SARS as potential bioterrorism and pandemic threats, yet makes no mention of the risk of pandemic influenza nor any aspect of critical vaccine research and development. The next few weeks will highlight how ill prepared we are for even ‘ordinary’ flu. A worldwide influenza pandemic is literally the worst-case scenario in public health — yet far from an unthinkable occurrence. Unless we make changes, the question is not if but when it will come.”

GMU Biodefense Professor – Robert House
We’d like to welcome back professor Dr. Robert House to GMU biodefense, who will be teaching BioD766: Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics. Dr. House holds a PhD in medical parasitology and is a senior VP for government contracts at Ology Bioservices (previously Nanotherapeutics). The world faces a growing threat from microbiological agents in the form of terrorist weapons, pandemics (particularly influenza) and emerging/re-emerging diseases. Characteristics such as high pathogenicity/toxicity and lack of appropriate animal models, as well as lack of a viable commercial market, make it difficult to develop effective medical countermeasures for these agents. In his course, students will explore how the US Government is developing medical countermeasures (MCM) against these threats and will explore the various threat agents, the context of regulatory considerations, and the specifics of how MCMs are developed.

Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge Launched!
Do you love infectious diseases and maps? The goal of the challenge is to promote the use of geospatial mapping to address the objectives of the GHSA. The NextGen Network has partnered with the U.S. Department of State’s Virtual Student Foreign Service program to launch the 2018 challenge. You can find out more information from this engaging and informative webinar or at the page here. The deadline for signing up for the challenge is January 19, 2018. This is a great way to contribute to the GHSA goal of creating a world safe and secure from the threat of infectious diseases.

Biodefense Alum – Stay Connected! 
Are you a GMU Biodefense alum? If so, please make sure to keep your information updated in our Schar Stay Connected site. We have a strong alum community and would love to keep you up to date on future events and give shout outs for the amazing work our biodefense students accomplish.

Biopreparedness Needs to Start At the Frontlines of Disease Control
GMU biodefense PhD student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu evaluates the attention to biopreparedness and how our focus on bioterrorism fails to address the major gaps within disease control in the United States. “The Blue Ribbon Panel report and the CNN article both highlight the bureaucratic challenges with coordination at a national level across many agencies and sectors. The crux of it all is that from a grass-roots level, we’re struggling to better prepare and respond for a host of reasons. Public health funding is always in a chronic state of too little too late and often, we don’t push out resources until we’re already in the throes of a major incident (Ebola, Zika, etc.). Preparing for biothreats, regardless of origin, requires that we strengthen the most basic surveillance and response systems within public health and health care. During the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak, for example, there was a lot of attention on enhanced precautions. Although this was beneficial and brought attention to several gaps infection control and prevention measures, I found myself reminding staff that we can’t truly prepare and respond to rare events if we can’t get our daily practices down. The shear challenges of ensuring staff practice appropriate hand hygiene and isolation precautions in health care are indicators that we are struggling on the frontlines of disease preparedness.”

Lessons from A 2016 CRE Outbreak in A Kentucky Hospital
Hospital outbreaks are tough. The shear volume of people that go into a single patient’s room is considerable (healthcare workers, visitors, ancillary staff, etc.) and enough to spread germs throughout an entire hospital. Now imagine that the organism is a highly resistant one, such as carbapenemase-producing carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CP-CRE). A hospital in Kentucky experienced this very thing in 2016 and a recent CDC MMWR revealed just how difficult it can be to conquer an outbreak involving one of the worst resistant organisms you can imagine. “Over the next 4 months, scientists identified an additional 21 CRE isolates from patients at the hospital via screening and clinical cultures. The investigators believe organisms were imported into the facility and then spread among patients.” Epidemiological investigation found that five of the thirteen interviewed patients had received healthcare outside the local area and that three of the patients may have brought CP-CRE into the facility. “The authors of the report say their investigation highlights the potential role of cleaning equipment, which frequently moves between patient rooms, in CP-CRE spread. In addition, they note that although there is a low prevalence of CP-CRE in rural areas, rural hospitals should be aware that patients who’ve also accessed healthcare in areas with higher CP-CRE prevalence—primarily urban areas—can introduce these organisms into their facilities.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 1.5.2018

Welcome to our first Pandora Report of 2018! While things may have been relatively quiet over the holidays, we still have some health security gems for you to start the new year right.

 An Infection Preventionist’s Take on the 2017 Biological Weapons Convention
GMU Biodefense Phd student and infection preventionist Saskia Popescu recently attended the BWC Meeting of States Parties and is discussing the importance of civil society and why even the most unlikely participants are important for the future of the BWC. “It seems an unlikely story that an infection prevention (IP) epidemiologist would attend a Meeting of the States Parties (MSP) at the United Nations (UN), but here’s why civil society has an important role in the work that IPs do.” Highlighting the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and the role of NGOs, she uses communicable disease reporting as an example of how so many of us play an unsuspecting role. “In fact, I feel that there are 2 things that should underline the importance of NGOs and civil society being involved in international treaties such as the BWC: 1.) Inherently, our work plays into the CBMs. Who does communicable disease reporting at a county level? Yours truly, and that feeds into the state health departments and then up through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which goes into the CBM. 2.) With the rapid pace of advancements in the life sciences—such as gain-of-function research or genome editing like CRISPR—it is critical that treaties like the BWC be modernized to maintain relevancy. This requires experts from civil society who can work across international borders.”

Enhancing BioWatch Capabilities Through Technology and Collaboration
The latest proceedings of a workshop report from the National Academies are now available online. “The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) BioWatch program aims to provide an early indication of an aerosolized biological weapon attack. The first generation of BioWatch air samplers were deployed in 2003. The current version of this technology, referred to as Generation 2 (Gen-2), uses daily manual collection and testing of air filters from each monitor, a process that can take 12 to 36 hours to detect the presence of biological pathogens. Until April 2014, DHS pursued a next-generation autonomous detection technology that aimed to shorten the time from sample collection to detection to less than 6 hours, reduce the cost of analysis, and increase the number of detectable biological pathogens. Because of concerns about the cost and effectiveness of the proposed Generation 3 system (Gen-3), DHS cancelled its acquisition plans for the next-generation surveillance system.” Within the report, you can find an overview of BioWatch priorities, collaborative planning, recommendations from the GAO and DHS responses, and future opportunities at the state and local level. Some of the GAO’s findings included failure by DHS to develop performance requirements that would allow for conclusions about Gen-2’s ability to detect attacks, and that the modeling and simulation studies that DHS commissioned had not directly and comprehensively assessed Gen-2’s capabilities.

 GMU Biodefense MS Open House
Mark your calendars for the February 21st Master’s Open House at GMU’s Arlington campus! The session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs, an introduction to our world-class faculty and research, and highlights of the many ways we position our students for success in the classroom and beyond. Our admissions and student services staff will be on hand to answer your questions. This is a great chance to speak with biodefense faculty, learn about some of the awesome classes our students get to take, and find out why we study health security threats from anthrax to Zika.

Winter 2018 Mid-Atlantic Microbiome Meetup Biodefense and Pathogen Detection
Don’t miss out on this January 10th event at the University of Maryland College Park. The University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) is hosting this regional conference next week, the Winter 2018 Mid-Atlantic Microbiome Meetup, with a focus on biodefense and pathogen detection. The workshop is a great way to learn about the latest in synthetic biology, biodefense, and pathogen detection. Several federal agencies are sending experts, and the conference will include a keynote talk from Tara O’Toole, executive vice president of In-Q-Tel.

Three Global Health Issues To Watch in 2018
What are the biggest stories health reporters are looking to follow this year? STAT polled their reporters and predicted that the three big stories in public health would be the final push to end polio, how the WHO will do with a new Director General amidst shaken confidence, and vulnerability to pandemics as we march into the centennial of the 1918 Pandemic. “This year marks the centenary of the Spanish Flu, the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed somewhere between 50 million and 100 million people as the H1N1 flu virus swept the globe. Many of the people who died were in the prime of life. There are unsettling reports of people who were well at breakfast and dead by dinner. This uniquely fatal outbreak haunts influenza scientists and emergency response planners to this day. The latter know health systems don’t have the capacity to cope with the huge upsurges in illness that would accompany a major disease outbreak. A regular old bad flu season can severely tax hospitals. Those who worry about these issues will use the anniversary to focus attention on the risk of ‘the next Big One’.” What do you think the big pubic health topics will be this year? Tweet us @PandoraReport and we’ll report back on what the biodefense community is saying!

Three Children Hospitalized With Dengue Following Vaccination
Three Filipino children have been hospitalized with suspected dengue infections following their immunization with Dengvaxia, the latest Sanofi Pasteur dengue vaccine. “The hospitalizations come 1 month after Sanofi recommended Dengvaxia not be used in anyone who is dengue-naive. In recipients without previous dengue infections, the vaccine can lead to more severe illness.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Raw Water” Trend Sparks Public Health Concern – This is both hysterical and deadly – a new Silicon Valley obsession with untreated and unfiltered “raw” water. “When food-safety expert Bill Marler saw The New York Times’ trend piece on Silicon Valley’s recent obsession with raw water, he thought he was reading a headline from The Onion. According to The Times, demand for unfiltered water is skyrocketing as tech-industry insiders develop a taste for water that hasn’t been treated, to prevent the spread of bacteria or other contaminants.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 12.29.2017

This will be our last Pandora Report of 2017 and we’d like to take a moment and thank our wonderful readers for a great year of biodefense news! We hope you have a marvelous and safe New Years celebration. We’re starting the festivities early with some memories of infectious disease research from 2017.

Agroterrorism – A Threat To America’s Food Supply
Food vulnerability is not something people tend to think about very often and even less in the context of terrorism. There have been many experts noting that food safety is America’s soft underbelly for years, but just how vulnerable are we? “Agroterrorists have access to animal based bio-agents, which are easy to transport and simple to conceal. Just as ramming a speeding truck into a crowd is low-tech, an attack via the food chain has a low barrier to entry and little skill needed to execute. Weaponizing livestock is as simple as tending the flock or feeding the cattle. There is little expertise or special equipment required and given most animal borne pathogens are not communicable to humans, the logistics are easy. It really is farm to table pathogen delivery.” Increasing automation within food processing and rapid delivery from farm to table has the potential to be used as a weakness. Not only are these systems inherently weak against terrorist attacks, but one would severely damage the U.S. economy. A 2013 study found that outbreaks in FMD-free countries/zones could cause losses of more than $1.5 billion a year.

Biological Weapons Threat In The Spotlight – UN News
Check out this great podcast of UN news in which Dr. Tom Inglesby from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security discusses the BWC Meeting of States Parties and the importance of global cooperation to address biothreats. “He told Daniel Johnson that because most biological research now takes place ‘far outside the control of government’, a key objective should be to ensure that an information-sharing mechanism exists between industry and Member States.

Meeting of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense: SLTT Ability to Respond to Large-Scale Biological Events: Challenges and Solutions
Don’t miss this event on January 17th, 2018 in Miami, Florida! “The Nation continues to confront infectious disease events and the threat of biological terrorism. This meeting of the Study Panel, chaired by former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and former Representative James Greenwood, will provide the Study Panel with a better understanding of the ability of state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments to: respond to large-scale biological events, identify and utilize SLTT assets and resources for immediate response (prior to a declaration of a SLTT biological emergency or disaster), operate before federal assistance arrives and after federal resources are exhausted, and shift to population management when a biological event overcomes pre-hospital and hospital response protocols.”

Analyzing the Detection and Response Aspects of Global Health Security
GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is taking a trip down the detection and response rabbit hole of health security. Evaluating research on laboratory response networks, public health coordination, frontline epidemiology training, and more, she highlights the vulnerability we all share if even one country has a weak public health and healthcare infrastructure. “Response efforts often point to gaps within our plans, like the need to train staff on enhanced use of personal protective equipment during the Ebola outbreak, or cultural dynamics that challenge public health education efforts. Public health response is an evolving process and with each new challenge, lessons are learned and we hope that we can appropriately apply them in the future. The most important lesson is the global aspect of health security—an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak anywhere. Strengthening national prevention, detection, and response efforts will only serve to protect us all.”

WHO Priority List of Antibiotic-resistant Bacteria and Tuberculosis
The WHO has released a list of priority pathogens to help encourage the development of new antibiotics. “Detailing its findings in The Lancet Infectious Diseases yesterday, the WHO Pathogens Priority List Working Group used a multicriteria decision analysis method to select 20 antimicrobial-resistant bacteria. The experts then applied 10 criteria to assess priority: mortality, healthcare burden, community burden, prevalence of resistance, 10-year resistance trends, transmissibility, preventability in the community, preventability in healthcare settings, treatability, and drug pipeline.” The list of 20 bacterial species highlights three categories (critical, high, and medium priority), which includes “carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii andPseudomonas aeruginosa, and carbapenem-resistant and third-generation cephalosporin-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. The highest ranked Gram-positive bacteria (high priority) were vancomycin-resistantEnterococcus faecium and meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Of the bacteria typically responsible for community-acquired infections, clarithromycin-resistant Helicobacter pylori, and fluoroquinolone-resistantCampylobacter spp, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, and Salmonella typhi were included in the high-priority tier.”

 Drug Discovery, Development and Deployment
Speaking of the importance of drug R&D…the NIH has released their Drug Discovery, Development and Deployment Maps (4DM) to help engage and support this complicated process. There are two maps – one for small molecules and one for biologics, using monoclonal antibodies as the representative therapeutic. “The maps provide a common framework for discussing the therapeutic development process and serve as an education tool for those who are new to it. A common language and collective knowledge base for therapeutic development is essential to enable systemwide improvements that will benefit patients. The 4DM can help facilitate dialogue among those interested or participating in drug development to explore innovative solutions to existing bottlenecks and potential collaborative action to overcome those barriers and accelerate new medicine discovery.”

Bird Flu in South Korea
Avian influenza is wreaking havoc in South Korea. Officials have reported the culling of 201,000 birds in efforts to prevent the spread of H5N6 after it was found in four duck farms. “Last year, South Korea slaughtered more than 30 million birds to contain the worst outbreak of bird flu in the country‘s history.” Such efforts are especially important as the country prepares to host the Winter Olympics, which begin on February 9, 2018.

ASM Supports NIH Decision To Lift Funding Pause on GoF Research
Last week saw a surge of news regarding the official lift on the funding moratorium on GoF research. The news released an onslaught of over-the-top headlines and debates, but nonetheless the existence of GoF research will likely remain one that sparks concerns on both ends of the spectrum. The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) has come out in support of the lift on the funding pause though, noting that they are “in complete support of the National Institutes of Health lifting the funding pause on gain-of-function (GoF) experiments involving influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses. GoF research studies ways nature might make some viruses more virulent or transmissible. This is important in helping identify and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health, as well as to prepare for pandemics. ASM also applauds the review framework released by the Department of Health and Human Services. This process will ensure that any proposal that passes scientific peer review and fits the Potential Pandemic Pathogen (PPP) definition will undergo a multidisciplinary review process before funding is received. The review panel will provide oversight and facilitate safe and responsible conduct of this type of research.”

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • United States Flu Season Update– This flu season is already shaping up to be rough, so where are we? “Influenza A viruses have been most commonly identified, with influenza A(H3N2) viruses predominating. Several influenza activity indicators were higher than is typically seen for this time of year. The majority of influenza viruses characterized during this period were genetically or antigenically similar to the 2017–18 Northern Hemisphere cell-grown vaccine reference viruses. These data indicate that currently circulating viruses have not undergone significant antigenic drift; however, circulating A(H3N2) viruses are antigenically less similar to egg-grown A(H3N2) viruses used for producing the majority of influenza vaccines in the United States.” Outpatient visits have spiked with patients seeking care for influenza-like illness (ILI) across the U.S. The national average is 2.2% and last week saw 2.7% however, this week is now 3.5%, which points to a growing influenza season.

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 12.22.2017

Happy Holidays from your friends at the Pandora Report! We hope you have a lovely holiday weekend and enjoy this warm cup o’biodefense. If you’re still looking for the perfect gift for a microbe-loving person in your life, check out the latest holiday pack here.

International Criminal Court Adds Use of Biological Weapons to Rome Statute
Last week, during the Assembly of States Parties to the ICC, it was decided that three new crimes would be now be classified as war crimes within the Rome Statute. “The new war crimes added to the Rome Statute are, respectively, the use of biological and toxin weapons, the use of weapons causing injuries by fragments which in the human body escape detection by X-rays and the use of laser weapons causing permanent blindness. These weapons kill without discrimination or inflict very severe suffering. Their elevation to the rank of war crimes strengthens international law. The use of these weapons during armed conflicts will become even more difficult. The inscription of these new crimes in the Statute of Rome ensures also legal certainty to the victims and gives a specific recognition to their pain.” The Belgium Ministry of Foreign Affairs has come forward noting that “It was Belgium that had proposed these amendments to the Statute, the founding treaty of the ICC, as early as 2009. Belgium has tirelessly mobilized, through its diplomatic network and the voices of its foreign ministers, its ministers of justice and even its prime ministers to promote the adoption of these amendments.”

2017 National Security Strategy – Biodefense
Just in the nick of time, the National Security Strategy was released – and with a biodefense gem hidden on page 9! Pillar 1 (of 4) within the NSS includes a section on securing U.S. borders and territories, in which the “combat biothreats and pandemics” section is buried. Citing biological threats, whether it be natural outbreaks like Ebola, bioterrorism, or advancements in life sciences that have the potential to be mis-used, the NSS includes several priority actions. The three priority actions to combat biological threats are: “detect and contain biothreats at their source, support biomedical innovation, and improve emergency response. ”

Trump’s Biodefense Strategy – Naught, Nice, or MIA?
GMU biodefense MS student Janet Marroquin is taking a look at the Trump administration’s biodefense strategy and what the past year has shown us in terms of what we can expect. With the release of the NSS this past week, some direction is being given, but just how far have we come in terms of a true strategy? Marroquin delves into the nitty gritty and also gives us a holiday wish list for what we’d like to see on a biodefense strategy. She notes that “An important reform present in the proposed FY 2018 Federal budget is the call to dismantle the Academic Centers for Public Health Preparedness under the CDC and the distribution of its funds among state governments to support state-led public health preparedness.  Interestingly, this action seems to contradict expert recommendations to the federal government for the development of a centralized approach to health security.” In response to the release of the NSS, the Blue Ribbon Study Panel has released a statement and highlights, like Marroquin, the importance of a comprehensive approach.

Congrats to GMU’s Biodefense December Graduates!
We’re excited to announce the graduation of several GMU Biodefense students this winter. Congrats to our students graduating with a MS: Zamawang Almemar, Alexander Rowe, and Stephanie Smith – and congrats to those graduating with a Certificate in Biodefense: Mi Chung and Mary Oberlies. We can’t wait to see where the future takes you and the amazing biodefense adventures you’ll have!

Federal Funding Resumes for Gain-of-Function Research
On Tuesday, it was announced that DHHS has ended the funding pause on GoF research. Suspended since the 2014 moratorium, guidance was released in January of this year by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for individual agencies reviewing research. While the OSTP P3C0 recommendations provided guidance for agencies looking to conduct, support, or planning to conduct such research, its sole purpose was “to recommend consistent and appropriate Federal agency review and reporting processes for the enhanced oversight of Federally funded research that is anticipated to create, transfer, or use enhanced pathogens with pandemic potential.” In fact, once agencies adopted a review process and satisfied such requirements, they could lift their moratorium on GoF research. It is this week’s NIH announcement however, that fully lifted the moratorium and provided framework for guiding funding decisions about such research (FYI – you won’t find many differences between the framework and the OSTP P3C0).  “The framework, condensed into a 6-page document, spells out a multidisciplinary review process that involved the funding agency and a department-level review group that considers the merits and possible research benefits and the potential to create, transfer, or use an enhanced potential pandemic pathogen (PPP).” Funding for GoF research on potential pandemic pathogens, like SARS, MERS, and avian influenza, was resumed jointly with the DHHS framework that seeks to guide funding of proposed research that would involve enhancing such pathogens. “The HHS P3CO Framework is responsive to and in accordance with the ‘Recommended Policy Guidance for Departmental Development of Review Mechanisms for Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight’ issued on January 9, 2017  and supersedes the previous ‘Framework for Guiding U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Funding Decisions about Research Proposals with the Potential for Generating Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1 Viruses that are Transmissible among Mammals by Respiratory Droplets’.” The new framework includes 8 criteria for department-level review, which includes “An assessment of the overall potential risks and benefits associated with the research determines that the potential risks as compared to the potential benefits to society are justified” and “The research will be supported through funding mechanisms that allow for appropriate management of risks and ongoing Federal and institutional oversight of all aspects of the research throughout the course of the research”.

GMU Biodefense Student Tackles USPS Safety
Speaking of awesome things GMU biodefense graduates are doing…Stephanie Smith is using her forensic chemistry background and new biodefense degree to tackle safety in the USPS. “I’m a forensic chemist by training, that’s what I’ve done my entire career,” she said. “I came to Mason to study the ‘bio-side’ of this complex advisor position, but I realized I was also expanding my knowledge beyond science and into the policy side.” Having studied a range of different topics like agroterrorism and biosurveillance during her time at GMU, Smith’s capstone project “was based on her idea that the method of detecting bioagents in the mail could be improved.” While she was working on her studies at GMU, she was also working at the USPS within the Security and Crime Prevention Group and was tasked with writing the job description for a new permanent scientific advisor position. “Once Smith wrote the job description for the new position of ‘Scientific and Technical Advisor, Dangerous Mail Investigations’ for the Postal Inspection Service, it was determined there was only one person qualified to fill a job that required knowledge of chemistry, biodefense, security and public policy. That would be Stephanie Smith. She got the job.”

2017-2018 PHEMCE Strategy and Implementation Plan
The latest Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE) SIP has been released, which highlights some of the priorities that the Department of Health and Human Services will focus on over the next five years. Within the SIP, you can find a summary of the major accomplishments, new activities, updates to the 2016 SIP activities, and specific information required annually under the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act (PAHPRA). The latest SIP includes accomplishments from 2016 that include regulatory science management, Zika and Ebola response, international collaboration on MCMs, etc. Some of the new projects include Ebola response, bacterial threat projects like CARB-X, etc. You can also read the PHEMCE multi-year budget for fiscal years 2016-2020 here.

GMU Biodefense Students Visit DARPA
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to go inside the walls of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), this article is just for you! GMU biodefense professor Andrew Kilianski took students from one of his classes to visit DARPA and gain a better understanding of their biodefense efforts. Dr. Kilianski is currently a biological scientist at the DoD and 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. In this segment, biodefense MS student Janet Marroquin takes us on a tour of DARPA and some of the fascinating projects they work on. “These projects range from surveillance tools to diagnostics and therapeutics, using futuristic mechanisms such as a dialysis-like purification of pathogen-infected blood or unobtrusive nanoplatforms that continuously monitor the physiological state of the patient for the detection of infectious disease. ”

Preventing An “Outbreak Anywhere” From Becoming An “Outbreak Everywhere”
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is addressing the trifecta of efforts within global health security – prevention, detection, and response. Drawing on the special edition Emerging Infectious Disease journal, she highlights the importance of prevention and the obstacles that are often met. “Prevention is the first component to health security, but in many ways, it is also the most difficult. Biological threats can come from anywhere: a naturally occurring outbreak, a laboratory accident, or even an act of biological terrorism. How do we prevent biothreats when they come from so many directions? Zoonotic diseases are one place to start as more than 60% of known diseases spread from animals and roughly 75% of new or emerging diseases in humans spread from animals.”

Is Captain America A Biological Weapon?
Attending the Biological Weapons Convention will make you ponder such things and Matt Shearer from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security is venturing down that rabbit hole. Article I of the BWC states that each state party will not develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or retain “microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;” and “weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.” Shearer poses a unique question about what constitutes a biological agent – what if there is no infection but rather a human who has been enhanced? “But normal humans, animals, and plants do not seem to count as “other biological agents” in the context of the BWC, but what about enhanced or modified versions like Captain America or, perish the thought, the accidentally enhanced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Have we been unwittingly cheering for bioweapons this whole time?”

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Cadavers in the Ballroom – Shockingly, this not the title of a zombie wedding movie, but rather a reality of medical conferences. This recent article found that some medical conferences, operating in grand ballrooms, utilize cadavers and body parts for teaching at their lectures. “When the deceased are cut open, there’s an increased risk of a disease being transmitted to others, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. ‘I will be the first to acknowledge there have been no big outbreaks or situations that have occurred yet from a dead body,’ Osterholm said. ‘But I am absolutely convinced it’s just a matter of time’.”
  • Building A National Capability to Monitor and Assess Medical Countermeasures Use During A Public Health Emergency – Don’t miss the latest NAS report on MCM use. “During public health emergencies (PHEs) involving chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear threats or emerging infectious diseases, medical countermeasures (MCMs) (e.g., drugs, vaccines, devices) may need to be dispensed or administered to affected populations to help mitigate the human health impact of the threat. The optimal MCMs determined for use during an emergency might be U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved but used in unapproved ways (e.g., in a new age group or against a new agent); FDA approved using animal models because human efficacy testing is not ethical or feasible; or not yet FDA approved for any indication.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport

Pandora Report 12.15.2017

Welcome back to your weekly dose of all things biodefense! We’ve got a packed newsletter for you, so buckle up. Curious about CRISPR and how it works? Check out the best and worst analogies here.

Read Out On The GHSA Ministerial Meeting in Kampala
If you missed our Read-Out on the GHSA meeting in Kampala, we’ve got a great overview with attachments. The NextGen Global Health Security Network Reflections can be found here and Coordinator Jamechia Hoyle was kind enough to provide her powerpoint from the Read-Out, which you can access here. The Read-Out involved presentations and discussions from not only NextGen GHSA Coordinator Hoyle, but also Jennifer Nuzzo from the Center from Health Security, and two GMU Biodefense MS students – Anthony Falzarano and Stephen Taylor. In fact, Anthony and Stephen provided several great photos from the Kampala summit, which you can see here. “While they discussed that the dialogue was driven by high level members of government. The overall consensus was the need to bring in non-governmental and academic voices. The panel members emphasized this by showcasing the work with Next Generation Global Health Security Leaders and the continued efforts to bring young professionals and students into these working groups. From the discussion, it is evident that GHSA’s efforts are being felt in many nations. The Response Center in Uganda, while small, had the hallmarks of the CDC and other organizational support.” Dr. Nuzzo brought her talk to a close with a poignant quote from the summit – “it is much cheaper to spend on preparedness than it is to spend on response.” Attendee and biodefense MS student Janet Marroquin noted that “the containment of the Marburg virus in Uganda during the conference perfectly illustrated the benefits of improved health security measures, but it is easy to overlook this success when good health is expected as a guarantee. In addition to bringing attention to current deficiencies in global health security, the GHSA is needed to look to the future and anticipate and prevent roadblocks in implementation.”

Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties – Recap
Last week, GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu attended the Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties (MSP) with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security ELBI program. This MSP started on somewhat of a bated breath as last year’s Review Conference was, as described by many, an epic failure. Having endorsed the Joint NGO Statement, Popescu noted that “the role of the NGOs felt even more important in such a disjointed climate where the future of the BWC was in many ways, up in the air. The importance of support and pushing for future cohesion regarding not only the intersessional process (ISP), but also S&T developments, was a significant point within the NGO statement.” As you can find in many of the live-tweeting that was occurring (#MSP2017), the MSP started off with a bang as Iran noted that they were not convinced further ISP work would be productive and if the BWC isn’t legally binding, it can’t truly be universal. Chairman Gill started the MSP with a quote from Rumi and worked tirelessly to maintain focus and forward momentum. Thankfully, despite several days of closed-door discussion, consensus was reached and the ISP was established to include 4 days of meetings of the MSP and 5 meetings of experts, which would focus on cooperation and assistance, development S&T, strengthening national implementation, assistance for preparedness and response, and the institutional strength of the BWC.  You can also find detailed overviews of each day here. A few of Popescu’s favorite moments from attending: “Sweden’s inclusion of antimicrobial resistance in their opening statement, Australia’s comments on the need for a more diverse attendance in the future and the growing presence of women within the BWC. It was also surprising how shockingly low the states costs for BWC inclusion are…and how some are delinquent by a few hundred dollars. Lastly and perhaps the most important part of the trip was getting to attend a pivotal event in biodefense history with such an amazing group of people who were all as excited and enthusiastic as I was. As we took a break to visit the WHO and peered upon the famous smallpox statue, I think it all hit us how vital this work is on a global level.”

Jurassic Ticks?
Paleontologists have recently announced the finding of a 99-million-year-old tick that not only was holding on for dear life within the feathers of a dinosaur, but provides evidence that these blood-suckers fed on dinosaurs. While this tick came from the Cretaceous period, it feels eerily similar to how Jurassic Park began. “This study provides the most compelling evidence to date for ticks feeding on feathered animals in the Cretaceous,” said Ryan C. McKellar, a paleontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada who was not involved in the study. “It demonstrates just how much detail can be obtained from a few pieces of amber in the hands of the right researchers.” Imagine the kind of dino-arboviruses we might come across with this finding! It’s hard not to chuckle at the timing of the announcement since the latest Jurassic World movie trailer was released just last week.

Podcast “Syria(s) Problem: Chemical Weapons & International Norms from Power Problems
Don’t miss this episode of the bi-weekly podcast Power Problems from the Cato Institute hosted by Emma Ashford and GMU biodefense professor Trevor Thrall. In this episode on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, GMU biodefense professor and graduate program director Gregory Koblentz discusses how the use of such weapons calls into question the utility of international norms. Some of the show notes also include the discussion of taboos against chemical weapons, and antibiotic resistance as a biological threat.

Is North Korea’s Bioweapons Threat Growing With Increasing Biotech Expertise?
Are the technical hurdles to biological weapons eroding in North Korea? Advances in the life sciences have brought forth a wealth of new capabilities, like manipulating DNA, but are we also lowering the bar for bioweapons development? There’s been increasing talk regarding the potential for North Korea to develop and deploy biological weapons. While there certainly has been a lowering of technical hurdles in some aspects of bioweapons development, has North Korea truly developed a functioning program? “The gains have alarmed U.S. analysts, who say North Korea — which has doggedly pursued weapons of mass destruction of every other variety — could quickly surge into industrial-scale production of biological pathogens if it chooses to do so. Such a move could give the regime yet another fearsome weapon with which to threaten neighbors or U.S. troops in a future conflict, officials and analysts say. Current and former U.S. officials with access to classified files say they have seen no hard evidence so far that Kim has ordered production of actual weapons, beyond samples and prototypes. And they can only speculate about the reasons.” Many note that their possession of biological agents is known but that the unknown is just how far along a bioweapons program might be. The development of a high-functioning and successful bioweapons program requires significant funding, human resources, and tacit knowledge. Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley recently broke down just how realistic these concerns are (hint: she’s a GMU biodefense professor and guru on tacit knowledge). In response to this week’s increased attention on a potential program in North Korea, Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley was also interviewed regarding the cost of a biological weapons program and just how much it would take to truly develop and maintain one. “The cost of maintaining an active biological weapons program is high, according to Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She said the Soviet Union spent ‘several billion dollars’ on its program, while terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo spent about $10 million, though the latter ‘failed at every step.’ The United States spent about $700 million on its program, which was active over the course of roughly 27 years. ‘The challenge is in acquiring the expertise to handle and manipulate living organisms that are fragile and unpredictable: that requires time and a work organization that ensure continuity and stability of work,’ Ben Ouagrham-Gormley said. ‘These are conditions that are difficult to maintain in a covert program. That’s why most covert bioweapons programs have failed thus far’.”

Global Health Security and the US Export Economy
It’s easy for many to think that outbreaks only impacts public health, but the truth is that the effects of health security threats are felt across many sectors and industries. The export economy is not immune to disruption should there be a public health emergency. A recent study reviewed economic vulnerability to the US export economy that would be impacted by disruptions in 49 countries. These 49 countries are currently being targeted by the CDC and partners to improve capabilities to prevent/respond to public health infectious disease threats throughout laboratories, workforce, surveillance, and response systems. Enhancing global health security by strengthening the country capacity is the goal for these 49 countries. “US exports to the 49 countries exceeded $308 billion and supported more than 1.6 million jobs across all US states in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, services, and other sectors. These exports represented 13.7% of all US export revenue worldwide and 14.3% of all US jobs supported by all US exports. The economic linkages between the United States and these global health security priority countries illustrate the importance of ensuring that countries have the public health capacities needed to control outbreaks at their source before they become pandemics.” The numbers are startling, especially if you consider that the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic was estimated to have a global economic impact of almost $40 billion USD. The total value of US material goods/services exported to all countries was estimated to be $2.3 trillion in 2015. The findings of this study point to the significant economic disruption that would occur if a health security event occurred in one of these 49 countries. Global health security is truly an investment that provides a return, as we know that an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere.

CyberbiosecurityDNA Has Gone Digital – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
As biotechnology and biology go full-steam ahead, there is increasing use of technology and informatics databases to support such innovation. Where does that leave us in terms of cybersecurity? Coined as “cyberbiosecurity”, many in the field, like Colorado State University’s Jean Peccoud, are drawing attention to the risk this new frontier has for researchers, industry, and the government. Peccoud and his colleagues point to the potential for accidental or intentional breaches, noting that “In the past, most biosecurity and biosafety policies were based on sample containment,” Peccoud says. “Now, it’s so easy to read DNA sequences, for example, or to make DNA molecules out of sequences publicly available from bioinformatics databases. Most projects have a cyber dimension, and that introduces a new category of risk.” Traditional biosecurity efforts focus on containment of the organism from accidental or nefarious use, but that doesn’t really focus on the computational aspect of new biotech, like synthetic biology. “The authors recommend employee training, systematic analyses to examine potential exposure to cyberbiosecurity risks, and the development of new policies for preventing and detecting security incidents. ‘Once individuals in a community are aware of cyberbiosecurity risks, they can begin to implement safeguards within their own work environments, and work with regulators to develop policies to prevent cyberbiosecurity breaches,’ they write.” Peccoud also pointed to the potential for computer viruses to impact the physical world. Citing the 2010 computer virus that caused equipment failure at an Iranian nuclear plant, such malware could result in biological outcomes that could be dangerous. It doesn’t take much of a venture down the rabbit hole to think about the automated processes that are used in laboratories, especially high-containment labs, and how they could be damaging if commandeered for nefarious purposes. So what can be done? The first step is truly recognizing the threat – “The threats are bidirectional. And not all cyberbiosecurity threats are premeditated or criminal. Unintentional errors that occur while translating between a physical DNA molecule and its digital reference are common. These errors might not compromise national security, but they could cause costly delays or product recalls.” Synthetic biology and biotech have taken us to places we would’ve never dreamed of, but it’s critical that the ability to manipulate DNA be protected through proper measures and we protect the digital components as well. The growing attention to cyberbiosecurity also comes at a time when the FDA has issued a warning on DIY gene therapy, noting that “the sale of these products is against the law. FDA is concnered about the safety risks involved.” “Last month, Josiah Zayner, CEO of The Odin, which sells DIY biology kits and supplies through its website, posted a video in which he injected himself with the gene-editing tool CRISPR during a biohacker conference in California. That video has been viewed more than 58,000 times on YouTube. In its statement, which FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted on November 21, the same day it was posted to the agency’s website, the regulator took aim directly at companies selling CRISPR supplies intended for self-administration.”

Biodosimetry: A Future Tool for Medical Management of Radiological Emergencies                                                                                                                          How can we better manage patients in radiological emergencies? GMU biodefense PhD student Mary Sproull and professor/graduate program director Gregory Koblentz are looking at biodosimetry as a medical management tool for this very predicament. “The field of radiation biodosimetry has advanced far beyond its original objectives to identify new methodologies to quantitate unknown levels of radiation exposure that may be applied in a mass screening setting. New research in the areas of genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, transcriptomics, and electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) applications have identified novel biological indicators of radiation injury from a diverse array of biological sample materials, and studies continue to develop more advanced models of radiation exposure and injury. In this article, we identify the urgent need for new biodosimetry assessment technologies, describe how biodosimetry diagnostics work in the context of a broad range of radiation exposure types and scenarios, review the current state of the science, and assess how well integrated biodosimetry resources are in the national radiological emergency response framework.”

Fellowship in Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft
The International Security Program of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the MIT Security Studies Program at the Center for International Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences are launching a collaborative program to mentor the next generation of foreign policy scholars. The Project on Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft is made possible with support from the Charles Koch Foundation: a $1,846,200 grant to MIT and one for $1,853,900 to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Those interested in this fellowship should apply to the International Security Program Fellowship when the Belfer Center’s online application system becomes available on December 15, 2017.  Those desiring to apply before then may apply through MIT’s application system. For more information, click here.

National Academies Publication – Combating Antibiotic Resistance
The National Academies has released their latest report on a one health approach to the global threat that is antimicrobial resistance. “As of 2017, the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance continues unabated around the world, leaving devastating health and economic outcomes in its wake. Those consequences will multiply if collaborative global action is not taken to address the spread of resistance. Major drivers of antimicrobial resistance in humans have been accelerated by inappropriate antimicrobial prescribing in health care practices; the inappropriate use of antimicrobials in livestock; and the promulgation of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment.” The report focuses on the global momentum to counter AMR, microbial movements across the one health domain, utilization of social and behavioral sciences to combat AMR, R&D, and strengthening partnerships and international cooperation. AMR is a multi-sectoral, international problem that requires a One Health approach to combat it – reports like these are a critical step towards combatting AMR

Boston University’s Needle Gets the Greenlight
After years of controversy and $200 million in federal funds spent on a BSL 4 high-containment lab, the Boston University Lab “The Needle” is finally opening. Located in the heart of the city, local citizens raised substantial opposition over biosafety concerns for the neighboring areas. It’s taken nearly a decade to get to this point, but the Boston Public Health Commission gave the official greenlight for the lab to open. “The commission’s OK was the final step allowing the study of Biosafety Level 4 pathogens — those that have no treatment or vaccine, such as Ebola. Level 4 research could begin in a month or two at the facility, called the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratories. Facing fierce opposition from neighbors and others concerned that dangerous germs would escape, the biolab underwent more than a dozen years of risk assessments, public hearings, and failed lawsuits. It received more than 50 permits and approvals from federal, state, and city agencies, most recently passing muster a year ago with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Doreen and Jim McElvany Nonproliferation Challenge
To advance this goal, the Doreen and Jim McElvany Nonproliferation Challenge will recognize the most outstanding new ideas and policy proposals published in Volume 25 (2018) of the Nonproliferation Review. The Challenge will award a grand prize of $5,000, a $3,000 runner’s-up prize, and a $1,000 honorable mention prize. The deadline to submit is 11:59 pm/EST, July 6, 2018. However, due to the limited number of pages that we can publish in a single volume, eligible articles will be accepted for publication on a rolling basis. We therefore encourage interested authors to submit early. Decisions on the winners of the scholarly award will be announced in early 2019

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Most Americans Think A Zombie Pandemic Is Likely – We recently stumbled across this survey and were surprised to find that while a surprisingly high number of Americans think a zombie plague is going to happen, few are prepared for it. “Only 9% of respondents considered it likely that undead zombies might ever walk the earth. Nearly three times that many respondents (28%) consider it likely that a worldwide epidemic of a neurological disease that makes people more aggressive and likely to lose control of their thoughts and motor functions.”

Thank you for reading the Pandora Report. If you would like to share any biodefense news, events, or stories, please contact our Editor Saskia Popescu (biodefense@gmu.edu) or via Twitter: @PandoraReport