Pandora Report: 1.13.2023

Happy Friday! This week we cover DoD’s upcoming chem-bio defense changes, a recent accelerated preview from researchers at Boston University’s NEIDL, the arrest of an Iranian man in Germany on suspicion of planning an attack using ricin and cyanide, and more. We also include several new publications and podcasts, including our own Dr. Saskia Popescu’s piece about her experience catching COVID-19 as an epidemiologist working in infection prevention. We also have new events listed, including an upcoming Schar School graduate open house where you can learn more about the Biodefense Graduate Program. Stay safe and enjoy the MLK Day weekend!

Pentagon to Overhaul Chem-Bio Defense Despite Budget Trimming

Amid anticipation of the release of its first biodefense posture review, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced this week it is overhauling its approach to countering chemical and biological weapons. In a new document, “Approach for Research, Development and Acquisition of Medical Countermeasures and Test Products,” the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense explains that the Chemical and Biological Defense Program will expand the foci of its medical countermeasure development efforts. According to Politico, rather than continuing to focus on developing countermeasures for a specific list of threat agents, “Officials are launching a new plan to develop medical treatments, vaccines and personal protective equipment that can adapt to a range of evolving biological and chemical threats, said Ian Watson, DoD’s deputy assistant secretary for chemical and biological defense.”

Politico continued, quoting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense Ian Watson-“U.S. officials are particularly concerned about adversaries that already have advanced chemical and biological capabilities and have proven themselves willing to use them. Russia and China now have the technology necessary both to tweak current threats — from toxins to naturally occurring pathogens — to make them more deadly and to create new weapons, Watson said.”

“U.S. Sailors and Marines, assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), take part in a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) mass casualty drill on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) East China Sea, Oct. 22, 2018. Wasp, flagship of Wasp Amphibious Ready Group, with embarked 31st MEU, is operating in the Indo-Pacific region to enhance interoperability with partners and serve as a ready-response force for any type of contingency. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Barker)

The same article referenced Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, explaining “Gregory Koblentz…said the decision by the administration to look more holistically at chemical and biological threats is a strategic national security decision — one that could help the U.S. keep pace with countries such as China, Russia and Iran.” Koblentz was quoted later, saying “There’s definitely a much higher kind of salience and appreciation of how nation-states are using these technologies,” Koblentz said. “Until fairly recently, the focus has mostly been on ISIS and Al Qaeda using chemical and biological terrorism. This [strategy] might be another kind of paradigm shift.”

However, this announcement comes amid cuts to DoD’s chem-bio program funding overall. Roll Call reported recently that the nearly $2 billion in funding dedicated to all these programs will be cut by about $126 million, even in light of their comparatively slow growth and concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the Chemical Biological Defense Program received $1.26 billion in appropriations in the last omnibus spending bill-$66 million less than was requested.

Roll Call discussed these funding concerns with Andrew Weber, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Defense Programs under President Obama, and David Lasseter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction under President Trump and a visiting fellow at George Mason’s National Security Institute. Both indicated the funding for these programs needs to more than double, with Lasseter saying “Increasing the current investment to around $3 billion per year, while ensuring efficient and effective program execution, will enable the CBDP to develop cutting-edge capabilities like rapid, ruggedized point-of-care diagnostics, stand-off detection, predictive wearables, advanced protective suits and innovative platform technologies as well as stock and replenish existing medical countermeasures.”

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Check out this recent post from George Mason University about a Mason research team’s work to help USAMRIID find broad-spectrum therapeutics for to treat HFV infections-“Mason Collaboration Receives $3.2 million to Help Military Personnel Combat Hemorrhagic Diseases”

Months After Firestorm Surrounding SARS-CoV-2 Experiments, NEIDL Publishes Article on BA.1 Attenuation

In late October, news and social media were full of debate regarding a preprint authored by researchers at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories. As Science explained at the time of the controversy, “They took the gene for Omicron’s surface protein, or spike protein, which SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter cells and added it to the genome of a “backbone” virus—a variant of SARS-CoV-2 from Washington state that was identified soon after the pandemic first emerged in Wuhan, China, in early 2020. The objective was to tease apart whether Omicron’s spike protein explains why it is less pathogenic (meaning it causes less severe disease). The answer could lead to improved COVID-19 diagnostic tests and better ways to manage the disease, the preprint authors say.” As there had been no approval from NIAID, debates swirled over the benefits and safety of the research, and if it violated rules on NIH-funded gain of function (GoF) studies.

Now the same team has published an article that is available for accelerated preview in Nature, again attracting attention and sparking debate. This comes amid broader debates about risky research, including GoF research itself and calls to broaden definitions of what kinds of experiments require special reviews and safety measures. In April last year, Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz delivered a statement addressing this topic to the NIH, highlighting the problems the term “gain of function” has brought in policy debates. In his remarks regarding the Department of Health and Human Services Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens, Koblentz said “The first positive aspect of the Framework is that it does not use the term “gain of function.” The introduction of this term into the discussions on dual-use research in 2011-2012 triggered a long and unproductive debate about how to define this category of research. Carving out “gain of function” as somehow distinct or separate from dual-use research muddied the debate and continues to cause confusion today.”

This topic recently garnered attention again as the omnibus appropriations bill progressed through Congress before being signed into law by President Biden. As we discussed last week, the new legislation also takes aim at GoF research, after GOP lawmakers pushed the administration to halt federally-funded GoF research, citing beliefs that such research is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. On page 3,354 of the more than 4,100 page bill, it reads, “(1) IN GENERAL.—Beginning not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall not fund research conducted by a foreign entity at a facility located in a country of concern, in the estimation of the Director of National Intelligence or the head of another relevant Federal department or agency, as appropriate, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, involving pathogens of pandemic potential or biological agents or toxins listed pursuant to section 351A(a)(1) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 262a(a)(1)).” It also requires the Office of Science and Technology Policy to review and update federal policy on potential pandemic pathogen research.

German Police Detain Iranian Man Accused of Plotting Attack, Acquiring Cyanide and Ricin

This week, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) reported that German police arrested a 32-year-old Iranian man on suspicion of planning an attack motivated by Islamic extremism. Police wearing protective gear entered the man’s apartment in Castrop-Rauxel, northwest of Dortmund, late Saturday night. According to Herbert Reul, State Minister for Internal Affairs, the police acted on a “serious tip” that prompted them to respond the very night they received it. News reports indicate that an allied intelligence service alerted Germany that the man was planning an attack. Though he is thought to have acquired cyanide and ricin, it is unclear how developed his plan was. However, Düsseldorf prosecutors later told DPA that “no toxic substances” were found in the initial search of the apartment.

Outgoing Eskom CEO Survives Cyanide Poisoning

Andre de Ruyter, the outgoing CEO of Eskom-South Africa’s state-owned electricity company-, reportedly survived an attempt to poison him with cyanide last month. De Ruyter, who will step down in March, fell ill after he was served a cup of coffee laced with the agent on December 12. According to Insider, “After drinking the coffee, De Ruyter became “weak, dizzy, and confused,” EE Business Intelligence reported, citing an unnamed source. He was shaking, vomiting, and eventually collapsed, the source said. The Financial Times reported sources as saying that De Ruyter was nauseous and became confused after the drinking the coffee. According to the FT, the coffee machine at Eskom’s office was out of order at the time of the incident, and he was served a coffee from a different source.”

The same news report also explained that, “Since taking over as CEO of Eskom, De Ruyter has attempted to crack down on corruption within South Africa’s energy sector, EE Business Intelligence reported. He has, however, also clashed with the country’s government, and in December, Eskom was accused of “actively agitating for the overthrow of the state” by South Africa’s energy minister Gwede Mantashe.”

Prison Colony Where Alexei Navalny is Held Suffers Flu Outbreak

Alexei Navalny, the prominent Putin critic who survived an attempted poisoning in 2020, is reportedly in worsening health amid a flu outbreak in the colony he is held in east of Moscow. Navalny claims that prison authorities intentionally placed a man sick with influenza next to him as a “bacteriological weapon,” and that he has been denied basic medications despite suffering a fever and cough. Last month, Navalny said he suffers from worsening back pain from long periods of time spent in the colony’s punishment cell and that he has been injected with multiple unknown drugs. He has also Tweeted through his lawyers that the authorities intentionally moved a mentally unstable man who howls at night into a cell near him.

Though his current symptoms are not life-threatening, there is speculation that this could be part of a deliberate attempt to make Navalny, Putin’s most out-spoken domestic supporter, die from natural causes. The Schar School’s Dr. Mark N. Katz, an expert on Russia, told Newsweek “”If Putin had wanted Navalny dead, he could have easily arranged for this.” He added “Putin may think he’ll be better off if Navalny dies from illness than directly at the hand of the state.” Russia denies any role in the 2020 attack against Navalny, which used a Novichok agent, a group of nerve agents developed in the Soviet Union. Navalny is currently serving an 11.5 year prison sentence on trumped up charges supporters say were created to silence him.

“Understanding Biosafety and Biosecurity in Ukraine”

Biodefense PhD student Ryan Houser, Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London recently published this piece in Health Security. Their abstract reads: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was accompanied by unfounded Russian allegations of bioweapon activities in Ukraine conducted by the United States and its allies. While false, such allegations can cause substantial damage to disarmament efforts and international cooperation for strengthening disease surveillance and global health security. The purpose of this article is to describe Ukraine’s biosafety, biosecurity, and dual-use policies and to provide important context for understanding the unwarranted Russian allegations. Moreover, the analysis of Ukraine’s biorisk management system highlights some of the international efforts underway to ensure that life sciences research across the world is conducted safely, securely, and responsibly. With the help of international partners, Ukraine has strengthened its biorisk management governance, as well as identified areas for improvement that it is working to address.”

“When the Infection Prevention Epidemiologist Gets COVID-19”

In this piece for Infection Prevention Today, Biodefense PhD Program alumna and current Schar School Assistant Professor, Dr. Saskia Popescu, discusses what it was like to catch COVID-19 in late 2022 as someone working in infection prevention. She offers insights into the pressures and guilt that many professionals have grappled with throughout this pandemic, writing “Safety isn’t binary, but rather a spectrum of risk and choice, and ultimately, it’s important to consider those individuals around us. I wish I would have been more vigilant in masking but am grateful I had the resources and capacity to mask and isolate appropriately when symptoms began. A friend recently joked that I had lost my street “cred” as an infection preventionist, which was both comical and a bit eye-opening. Mostly, it highlights much of the guilt or even shame many of us experience when we feel as if we’ve failed at the very thing we specialize in. I still beat myself up at times for getting COVID-19 and knowing better as an infectious disease specialist, but I also don’t want to associate any sense of shame with an infectious disease. We have all learned lessons during this pandemic, and a sustainable approach to COVID-19 will likely be one of the most important in the greater context of public health and infectious disease response.”

“Building the CDC the Country Needs”

The Center for Strategic & International Studies recently published this report by Drs. J. Stephen Morrison and Tom Inglesby discussing the current state of CDC and the findings of the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security’s review of the agency. They explain, “This CSIS report enumerates the essential, concrete, near-term steps that will return CDC to a pathway of high performance: clarifying and better integrating CDC’s core domestic and global missions; enhancing CDC’s leadership and transparency by bolstering its communications and federal engagement capacities; creating a much stronger competency in Washington; and bolstering its operational and surge capabilities through updated frontline engagement, workforce development, data analysis, and budget flexibility. Across all reforms, greater attention to equity and accountability will be essential.”

“The Global Risks Report 2023”

In the 18th edition of the Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum discusses the findings of the latest Global Risks Perception Survey. The report addresses current crises, risks that are likely to be severe in the next decade, and mid-term future challenges centered around natural resource shortages. It finds that the cost of living will continue to dominate global risks in the next two years while failure to mitigate climate change will be the defining issue of the next decade, leading a formidable list that includes other issues like geoeconomic confrontation and widespread cybercrime and cyber insecurity.

What We’re Listening To 🎧

The BWC Global Forum: Biotech, Biosecurity & Beyond

This podcast series from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security aims to “…support BWC States Parties, policymakers and policy experts, and scientists understand advancements in biology and biotechnology and their impact on the Biological & Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC).” Currently, episodes include “De-Extinction Technologies”, “Human Genome Editing”, and “Wastewater Surveillance”. Learn more and listen here.

The Retort Episode 7-Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons

In this latest episode of the Retort, the University of Bath’s Dr. Brett Edwards discusses toxin and bioregulator weapons with Drs. Lijun Shang and Malcolm Dando. Check it out here.

George Mason Arlington Graduate Open House

Join us for the Graduate Open House on Thursday, January 19, from 5-7 p.m. on George Mason University’s Arlington Campus to learn more about the Biodefense Program and 40+ other programs from the Schar School of Policy and Government, the School of Business, and the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. At the in-person event, explore your graduate school options, connect with our representatives, and find out where a Mason graduate degree can take you next. Come early and work on your application with us! A computer lab is reserved starting at 4:30 p.m. for you to start your application and staff members will be on hand to answer your questions. Register today!

Opportunities, Threats and Proliferation Challenges Deriving from Bio-Technology and Bio-Engineering

“The International Affairs Institute (IAI) of Rome and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non Proliferation (VCDNP) cordially invite you to attend the next Young Women and Next Generation Initiative (YWNGI) public webinar event entitled: “Opportunities, Threats and Proliferation Challenges deriving from Bio-Technology and Bio-Engineering” which will be held on 16th January 2023 from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. Central European Time (CET) via Zoom.

The webinar will feature remarks by Dr Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs and Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non Proliferation (VCDNP); Dr Filippa Lentzos, Associate Professor in Science & International Security at King’s College London; and Dr James Revill, Head of the WMD and Space Security Programmes at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).” Learn more and register here.

Wastewater-Based Disease Surveillance for Public Health Action

“The National Academies’ Water Science and Technology Board and Health and Medicine Division invite you to a public release webinar of “Wastewater-Based Disease Surveillance for Public Health Action,” on Thursday, January 19, 2023 from 2-3 p.m. ET. The report explains how community-based wastewater disease surveillance has been useful during the COVID-19 pandemic in helping to inform important public health decisions. It also examines the value of wastewater surveillance applications for other infectious diseases, and presents a vision for the future of wastewater surveillance on a national scale.” Learn more and register here.

Closing the Knowledge Gaps

“BIO-ISAC, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will host a one-day event (with remote participation available) on January 24, 2023.”

“This gathering of thought leaders across the industry and its partners will address knowledge gaps about the bioeconomy itself. The event is expected to deliver recommendations that demonstrate the scope and breadth of industry impacts, identify specific safety needs and goals, and carve the path forward for a secure future.” Learn more and register here.

Novel Applications of Science and Technology to Address Emerging Chemical and Biological Threats

For the first time since 2019, this Gordon Research Conference is back, this time in sunny Ventura, CA. “The Chemical and Biological Defense GRC is a premier, international scientific conference focused on advancing the frontiers of science through the presentation of cutting-edge and unpublished research, prioritizing time for discussion after each talk and fostering informal interactions among scientists of all career stages. The conference program includes a diverse range of speakers and discussion leaders from institutions and organizations worldwide, concentrating on the latest developments in the field. The conference is five days long and held in a remote location to increase the sense of camaraderie and create scientific communities, with lasting collaborations and friendships. In addition to premier talks, the conference has designated time for poster sessions from individuals of all career stages, and afternoon free time and communal meals allow for informal networking opportunities with leaders in the field.” The conference will be held March 19-24, 2023. Learn more and apply here by February 19.

Special Call for Papers-Journal of Science Policy & Governance

The Journal of Science Policy & Governance recently announced a special call for papers “and competition to provide policymakers with a new perspective on how scientific expertise could be useful to the complex brew of 21st foreign policy and national security challenges, resulting in a special issue on Policy and Governance on Science, Technology and Global Security.” The journal invites “students, post-doctoral researchers, policy fellows, early career researchers and young professionals from around the world to submit op-eds, policy position papers and other articles addressing foreign policy and national security challenges. These include concerns about the use of nuclear or radiological weapons driven by the war in the Ukraine, hypersonic weapons, immigration driven by climate change, and emerging threats in cybersecurity and biosecurity.” The deadline for submission is April 30.

Additionally, there will be a science policy writing workshop on January 30 in addition to two webinars on February 20 and March 30 (one on Policy and Governance on Science and Technology and one on Foreign Policy and National Security, respectively) to help prospective authors prepare their submissions. Learn more about these events and register here.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is “In 1980, a Frenchman entered a cave while visiting Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya. A week later he became seriously ill, eventually dying in a Nairobi hospital. Which cave did he enter and what disease killed him?”

Shout out to Stephen M. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “Before perpetrating the infamous Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, this Japanese cult attempted to disseminate botulinum neurotoxin and Bacillus anthracis, among other agents. What was the name of this cult prior to its split/name change in 2007?” is Aum Shinryko.

What Can We Glean from a Bean: Ricin’s Appeal to Domestic Terrorists

By Stevie Kiesel

Stevie is a part-time PhD student in the GMU Biodefense program, and a full-time transportation security analyst. Her area of study is extreme right wing terrorism and WMD.

In June 2019, FBI leadership testified to the House Oversight and Reform Committee that “individuals adhering to racially motivated violent extremism ideology have been responsible for the most lethal incidents among domestic terrorists in recent years, and the FBI assesses the threat of violence and lethality posed by racially motivated violent extremists will continue.” In September 2019, the Department of Homeland Security published a Strategic Framework for Combating Terrorism and Targeted Violence, which acknowledges that “white supremacist violent extremism…is one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism” and “another significant motivating force behind domestic terrorism has been anti-government/anti-authority violent extremism.” A few weeks later, William Braniff, director of START at the University of Maryland, testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that “among domestic terrorists, violent far-right terrorists…are responsible for more…pursuits of chemical or biological weapons…than international terrorists.” Just as policymakers have been slow to acknowledge and act upon the threat of domestic CBRN terrorism, timely extant research on the issue is scarce as well. In this article, I focus on ricin as an agent of domestic terror. As government agencies acknowledge the threat domestic terrorism poses, policymakers and law enforcement should take ricin seriously as a potential weapon.

To understand the plausibility of ricin’s use as a weapon, I reviewed a number of journal articles, news articles, and court records from 1978 through 2019 and compiled data on 46 incidents of ricin acquisition and/or use. Of these 46 incidents, 19 could be credibly tied to terrorism, 19 were not related to terrorism, and 8 were unclear. The most common motivation after terrorism was murder (10 instances). Of the 19 terrorist incidents, 58% were committed by extreme right-wing terrorists, a term that here encompasses the following ideologies: neo-Nazi/neo-fascist, white nationalist/supremacist/separatist, religious nationalist, anti-abortion, anti-taxation, anti-government, and sovereign citizen. The remaining incidents were committed by Islamist terrorists (16%), Chechen nationalists (10%), or their exact ideology was unclear (16%). Continue reading “What Can We Glean from a Bean: Ricin’s Appeal to Domestic Terrorists”

Pandora Report 1.6.2017

Welcome to 2017 and a whole new year of biodefense news! While you’re heading back to work, make sure to wash your hands and stay safe – the CDC has reported increasing flu activity.

The Best of Bio and Chem Weapons Coverage in 2016
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has put together their “five best articles” for bio-chem weapons in 2016 and we were happy to see two familiar faces – GMU PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein and GMU Biodefense professor, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. Daniel Gerstein’s article, How genetic editing became a national security threat, discusses the threatening components of gene drive, like low cost and growing availability. “Armed with the proper genetic sequences, states or bioterrorists could employ genome editing to create highly virulent pathogens for use in such attacks. They could, for example, change a less dangerous, non-pathogenic strain of anthrax into a highly virulent form by altering the genome, or recreate pathogens such as the deadly smallpox virus, which was eradicated in the wild in 1980.” Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley teamed up with Kathleen Vogel to discuss the good, bad, and the hype of gene drive. They emphasize the importance of understanding gene drive to really discern the benefits and risks of the technological process. Looking at all angles, their article gives a wholistic approach to better appreciate the complexities of gene drive for biodefense. “Without a clear and detailed understanding of the range of social and technical factors that cause scientists to succeed or fail in their gene-drive endeavors, threat estimates can only rely on speculation and fantasy rather than fact.”

GMU Biodefense Students – Win Registration for 2017 ASM Biothreats Conference!
Calling all GMU Biodefense students – the program will be offering free registration to four lucky students to attend this premier biodefense event at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, DC on February 6-8th. This year, the meeting incorporates three major tracks, “Research, Response, and Policy” to cover relevant topics in basic and applied research; public health, emergency response and preparedness; and biosecurity, government, and policy responses. The exchange between these multidisciplinary communities will shape the future of this very important field. The keynote session on February 6 will be given by Thomas M. Countryman, Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security and Assistant Secretary to the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the Department of State.  Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of NIAID Director at the National Institutes of Health, will be presenting at a special session on February 7. You can find the rest of the agenda here. As an attendant for the 2016 conference, I can tell you that it’s a great experience for not only learning, but also networking. Please check your GMU email for the information Dr. Koblentz sent out. To apply: students are required to submit a 250-word essay about how attending the conference will benefit your education/professional aspirations by 5pm today (Friday, January 6th) to Dr. Koblentz. Winners will be announced the following Monday and those selected will be asked to write up summaries of at least two panels for publication in the Pandora Report.

USGS Disease Maps
screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-6-04-01-amLove maps and diseases? Or do you simply like knowing what kinds of vectored diseases are transmitted around you? Check out the USGS disease maps that also allow you to interact with them. Utilizing data from CDC’s ArboNET, you can look at transmission among humans, mosquitoes, birds, sentinel animals, and veterinary transmission. The observable diseases include West Nile Virus, St. Louis Encephalitis, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Western Equine Encephalitis,  La Crosse Encephalitis, Powassan Virus, Dengue fever (locally acquired and imported), and Chikungunya (locally acquired and imported). The USGS disease maps allow us to not only have a better understanding of vectored disease transmission, but also landscape epidemiology.

CRISPR Off-Switch
CRISPR is going to be a hot story in 2017 and here are the seven things to look for. The burgeoning concerns regarding CRISPR technology involve the rapid pace of development and lagging DURC policies, not to mention the inability to predict future outcomes. The interest and unease over this new form of genome editing has left many searching for an “off button”, but thankfully, researchers are believed to have found one.  While the new “off switch” isn’t capable of reversing changes that were already made, it can stop the system from making additional edits. “The switch is a series of ‘anti-CRISPR’ proteins that were discovered inside viruses that attack bacteria, where they’re used to disable the gene editing tool and sneak into the bacterial DNA. ‘Just as CRISPR technology was developed from the natural anti-viral defence systems in bacteria, we can also take advantage of the anti-CRISPR proteins that viruses have sculpted to get around those bacterial defences,’ said lead researcher Benjamin Rauch. The team isolated these anti-CRISPR proteins from Listeria bacteria that had been infected by viruses. The team isolated the proteins that appeared to be involved and tested whether any of them could stop CRISPR editing from taking place in human cells. They found that two of these proteins, AcrIIA2 and AcrIIA4, worked together to inhibit the CRISPR systems commonly used by scientists.”

CDC Concludes CDP Ricin Exposure Inspection
The CDC just finished their inspection of the lab that sold the ricin toxin that was used by the Centers for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) training facility. The ongoing debate between the CDP and lab regarding the mishandling or misunderstanding points to bigger, systemic issues in regards to select agents. CDP states that the lab is to blame, noting that they ordered a less toxic version of ricin, while the lab rebutted by pointing out that the ricin was always properly labeled as the toxic version and they, in fact, never offered the less toxic version. The site visit and inspection findings are under review as the CDC determines if the lab is responsible and violated federal regulations. The conclusion of the inspection also comes at a challenging time for the CDC as the agency is taking heat for blacking out many details in reports recently released via the Freedom of Information Act. The released laboratory reports were requested by USA TODAY and only fuel the attention to lab incidents and poor biosafety practices.

NAS DURC Committee Meeting 
This week the National Academies held the Committee on Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC): Option For Future Management. You can get not only the webcast recording (check out 2:42:00 in and you’ll see GMU Biodefense director and professor, Gregory Koblentz, talk about the zero sum game in terms of regulating DURC research – to regulate or not to regulate, that is the question!), but also the full presentations. Since the 2011 H5N1 controversies, “it remains unclear as to whether there are practical mechanisms or approaches for managing such dual use research of concern (DURC) and, specifically, how to deal with situations where there is a pressing need, for public health reasons, to publish research findings while limiting, due to national security concerns, the dissemination of certain details that ordinarily would be published. This is especially true in cases where an initial assessment of proposed research does not anticipate results that would warrant such consideration.”

Zika Outbreak Updates
Scientists are currently unveiling the key proteins in the virus that made it so deadly. The first comprehensive description of the Zika genome has identified seven key proteins that are helping researchers understand the devastation the virus does to the human body. “To test the virus, Dr. Zhao used fission yeast, a species that in recent years has become a relatively common way to test how pathogens affect cells. Fission yeast was originally used to make beer, particularly in Africa, where it originated. (Its species name is Schizosaccharomyces pombe; pombe means beer in Swahili.) Over decades, fission yeast has been used by many scientists to find out mechanisms and behavior of cells. For the experiment, Dr. Zhao and his colleagues separated each of the virus’s 14 proteins and small peptides from the overall virus. He then exposed yeast cells to each of the 14 proteins, to see how the cells responded. Seven of the 14 proteins harmed or damaged the yeast cells in some way, inhibiting their growth, damaging them or killing them.” The Entomological Society of America has noted that socioeconomic factors provide protection against a large scale Zika outbreak in the U.S., but that small outbreaks are an ongoing concern. As of January 4th, the CDC reported 4,618 cases of Zika in the U.S., of which 216 were locally-acquired.

Does the CDC’s New Quarantine Rule Violate Civil Liberties?
With a new vaccine and hopeful approach to emerging infectious diseases, have we buried Ebola? Back in August, the CDC proposed a new rule regarding its powers to respond to potential outbreaks via screening, testing, and quarantining people traveling into or within the U.S. You can read the new rule here, but it focuses on “non-invasive public health prevention measures” and reporting requirements for commercial passenger flights of death or illness to CDC, etc. While this may seem pretty reasonable given health emergencies like Ebola and SARS, many ” epidemiologists, lawyers, and health organizations say that the rule, in its current form poses a serious threat to civil liberties, allowing authorities to detain and examine people with little heed to due process and informed consent.” Attempted in 2005, this rule was initially met with criticism, however the recent Ebola outbreak has changed the way we approach travel during times of infectious disease outbreaks. Public health emergencies are defined as ‘communicable disease events’ that the director believes could be high risk for death or serious illness. “It is already authorized to detain people suspected of carrying diseases like plague, Ebola, and (somewhat improbably) smallpox. But the new rule does away with a formal list. It extends the same powers to any “quarantinable communicable disease,” and uses wider range of symptoms (from a list that federal agents can update as the need arises) for defining ‘ill’ people.” While the CDC can detain travelers prior to decision to quarantine, it notes that this shouldn’t last longer than 72 hours and fails to make provisions for a lawyer if the person can’t afford one. “The rule also gives the CDC ultimate authority to carry out medical tests and treatments, stating that ‘the individual’s consent shall not be considered as a prerequisite to the exercise of any authority’.” What are your thoughts? We’d love to hear from our readership – please email or tweet @PandoraReport to give us your thoughts!

USDA ARS 4th International Biosafety & Biocontainment Symposium Registration Deadline
Don’t miss the January 13th registration deadline for this event in Baltimore, Maryland! From February 6-9, the focus of the symposium will be Global Biorisk Challenges-Agriculture and Beyond. Seven presymposium courses will address topics including unique biocontainment challenges, decontamination and inactivation, and institutional governance. Topics include biorisk management challenges in a One Health World, arthropods, HPAI, risk assessments, and more!

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 85 People Suspected to Have Contracted Rabies– Like something out of a zombie movie, 85 people are suspected of having contracted wild rabies after being bitten by bats in Peru. “Regional director of Health of Cusco, Julio César Espinosa La Torre said that among the group of victims with a bat bite are the 15 soldiers transferred to Lima, of this group, two cases were confirmed, of which one is deceased. Espinoza la Torre said that to date, more than 912 civilians and 680 soldiers have been vaccinated in Alto and Bajo Urubamba, in the district of Megantoni, who must receive up to four doses, every 7 and 14 days.”
  • Anticipating Epidemics Using Computational Models – the White House recently released a report to strengthen the capacity for outbreak prediction. Spearheaded by the National Science and Technology Council, Toward Epidemic Prediction: Federal Efforts and Opportunities in Outbreak Modeling, looks to predictive modeling and data utilization to better understand the “processes that drive disease emergence and transmission could help to predict and prevent large-scale outbreaks. These programs range from foundational research into disease emergence and spillover, to predictive modeling contests, to the development of decision-support technologies for public health responders.”
  • Pandemic Chats – Struggling to chat to a younger generation about diseases? Check out how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is talking to the next generation about the next pandemic.

Pandora Report 12.23.2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

Pandora Report 7.26.15

Mason students are working through their summer courses and I’m happy to say mine is OVER! Let the summer begin (two months late)! This week we’ve got great news about Polio in Nigeria and a somber anniversary in Japan. We’ve also got other stories you may have missed.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend and have a great week!

A-Bomb Victims Remembered in Potsdam, Where Truman Ordered Nuclear Strikes

Coming up on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, German and Japanese citizens in the city of Potsdam held a remembrance ceremony for both the victims that died in the blast and the future. Japan has become, according to the former President of the International Court of Justice, the world’s conscience against nuclear weapons and power. Why? Japan is “the only country in the world to have been the victim of both military and civilian nuclear energy, having experienced the crazy danger of the atom, both in its military applications, destruction of life and its beneficial civilian use, which has now turned into a nightmare with the serious incidents of Fukushima.”

Japan Times—“The Potsdam Conference was held between July 17 and Aug. 2 in 1945. The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and another bomb on Nagasaki three days later. On Aug. 15 that year, Emperor Hirohito announced to the nation that Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration, in which the United States, Britain and China demanded the nation’s unconditional surrender.”

Nigeria Beats Polio

Very, very, very exciting news: Nigeria has not had a case of polio in a year. A year! This makes Nigeria polio free and the last country in Africa to eliminate the disease. The achievement was possible with contributions from the Nigerian government (where elimination of the disease was a point of “national pride”), UNICEF, the WHO, the CDC, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, and other organizations. With Nigeria’s accomplishment, there are only two other countries in the world where polio still exists—Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Voice of America—“Carol Pandek heads Rotary International’s polio program. She told VOA via Skype that a year being polio-free is a milestone for Nigeria, but noted that it is not over. “Now they need to continue to do high quality immunization campaigns for the next several years,” she said, as well as have a strong surveillance system so, should there be any new cases, they can be identified as soon as possible.”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Fg2

Pandora Report 6.21.15

Changing things up this week, our lead story is a nuclear photo essay. We’ve also got Russian nuclear posturing and a bunch of other stories you may have missed.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there and enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Next Exit, Armageddon: Photos of America’s Nuclear Weapons Legacy

I love a good photo essay, especially those focused on abandoned places—so this is the perfect* combination of that and nuclear history. Many times on the blog I’ve made somewhat flippant comments about visiting nuclear sites on summer vacation. However, evidently there is great public interest in this. As such, the National Park Service and the Department of Energy will establish the Manhattan Project National Historical Park that will include sites as Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford.

VICE News—“Elsewhere in the US, the ruins of the Manhattan Project and the arms race that followed remain overlooked. In North Dakota, a pyramid-like anti-missile radar that was built to detect an incoming nuclear attack from the Soviet Union pokes through the prairie grass behind an open fence. In Arizona, a satellite calibration target that was used during the Cold War to help American satellites focus their lenses before spying on the Soviet Union sits covered in weeds near a Motel 6 parking lot. And in a suburban Chicago park, where visitors jog and bird watch, nuclear waste from the world’s first reactor — developed by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi for the Manhattan Project in 1942 — sits buried beneath a sign that reads ‘Caution — Do Not Dig.’”

*Check out the photos. They’re truly extraordinary.

Putin: Russia to Boost Nuclear Arsenal with 40 Missiles

Everything old is new again, it seems. This week Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will put more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles into service in 2015. It is said that the new missiles are part of a military modernization program. However, the announcement comes on the heels of a US proposal to increase its own military presence in NATO states in Eastern Europe.

BBC—“Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the statement from Mr. Putin was “confirming the pattern and behaviour of Russia over a period of time; we have seen Russia is investing more in defence in general and in its nuclear capability in particular”.

He said: “This nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia is unjustified, it’s destabilising and it’s dangerous.” He added that “what Nato now does in the eastern part of the alliance is something that is proportionate, that is defensive and that is fully in line with our international commitments.’”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Federal Government of the United States

Pandora Report 11.16.14

Its getting pretty cold outside, right? So what better way to spend your Sunday than catching up on all the best stories of the week! This week we’ve got Wikipedia as a predictive took for the spread of disease, a catchy new name for Chikungunya, MERS CoV in Saudi Arabia, some stories you may have missed, and, of course, an Ebola update.

How Wikipedia Reading Habits Can Successfully Predict the Spread of Disease

In my absolute favorite story of the week, researchers have identified a link between the spread of disease and the corresponding page hits of those diseases on Wikipedia. No, the Internet isn’t giving people E-bola, but page views seem to have a predictive effect on infectious disease spread. During the three-year study, looking at readers’ habits, the researchers could predict the spread of flu in the U.S., Poland, Thailand, and Japan, and dengue in Brazil and Thailand at least 28 days before those countries’ health ministries.

The Washington Post—“Official government data—usually released with a one- or two-week lag time—lagged four weeks behind Wikipedia reading habits, according to Del Valle; people, she said, are probably reading about the illnesses they have before heading to the doctor.”

The ‘Vacation Virus’

As Chikungunya makes it way through the Americas, awareness of the disease becomes more important—including the creation of a catchy nickname! The vector, transmissibility, and symptoms are similar to Dengue and with Chikungunya being relatively new to the western hemisphere, a story like this one may be helpful in putting a human face on a growing problem.

The Atlantic—“It might be parochial to call Chikungunya a “vacation virus”; however, as Americans prepare to hit the Caribbean beaches in the coming winter months, awareness campaigns are ramping up. Last week, the travel section of the New York Times ran a feature on Chikungunya highlighting how tourism agencies and organizations are both downplaying the scope of the outbreak and advising simple measures to deal with the virus. (Avoid mosquitos.)”

MERS Cases on the Rise in Saudi Arabia

Since September 5, there have been 38 new cases of MERS-CoV in Saudi Arabia, bringing the total number of cases in Saudi Arabia to 798. The WHO said that due to the non-specific symptoms of MERS, it is critical that health care facilities consistently apply standard precautions with all patients regardless of their initial diagnosis. Furthermore, until more is understood about MERS, immunocompromised individuals should practice general hygiene measures, like hand washing, and avoid close contact with sick animals. Nearly one third of the new cases were reported by patients who had recently had close contact with camels.

Outbreak News Today—“The continued increase in cases prompted Anees Sindi, deputy commander of the Command and Control Center (CCC) to say, “MERS-CoV is active and we need to be on full alert.” In addition, the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health launched a new public information campaign in Taif in response to the recent spike in new cases of MERS-CoV in the region. Medical professionals will be made available at public locations with the aim of educating citizens on the need to avoid unprotected contact with camels because of the risk of infection with MERS-CoV, underlining the crucial role of the community in preventing the spread of the disease in the Kingdom.”

This Week in Ebola

Ebola is on the rise again in Sierra Leone bringing the number of deaths to 5,147 and cases to 14,068. It appears that the virus is finding new pockets to inhabit including villages outside the Liberian capital and in Bamako, the capital of Mali (eclipsing earlier success in that country at containment.) Despite these new infections outside of Monrovia, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has ended the state of emergency in that country. Unsurprisingly, the epidemic has imposed a financial burden on the affected countries including losses in agricultural trade and the service industries. Elsewhere in Africa, Ugandan health officials have declared the country free of an Ebola-like Marburg virus. Stateside, a new report from the CDC outlines steps taken in Dallas to prevent further virus spread and a third Ebola patient headed to the bio containment unit at the Nebraska Medical Center for treatment. Finally, 80 U.S. Military personnel helping to fight Ebola in Liberia returned home this week, and though none are displaying symptoms, they will be monitored for 21 days at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Pandora Report 11.9.14

We’ve got some timely stories this week: just in time for Veteran’s Day, we look at military exposure to chemical agents in Iraq, and at the beginning of flu season we look at the newest suspension of Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s H5N1 research. We’ve also got an Ebola update.

Have a great week!

More Than 600 Reported Chemical Exposure in Iraq, Pentagon Acknowledges

With Veteran’s Day on Tuesday, The New York Times uncovered an unfortunate military oversight that could affect over 600 service members. Originally, NYT found 17 soldiers who had been exposed to abandoned, damaged, or degraded chemical weapons in Iraq. Later 25 more came forward, and after a review of Pentagon records, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that hundreds of troops told the military they were exposed. The Pentagon says it will now expand outreach to veterans who believe they may have been exposed.

The New York Times—“Phillip Carter, who leads veterans programs at the Center for a New American Security, called the Pentagon’s failure to organize and follow up on the information “a stunning oversight.” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the military must restore trust by sharing information.”

Kawaoka’s Controversial Flu Research at UW-Madison On Hold Again

Once again, Yoshihiro Kawaoka has halted his research of H5N1 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kawaoka created an altered version of the H5N1 flu virus to look at transmissibility between mammals. On October 17, the Obama administration said they would postpone federal funding for gain-of-function studies, including those involving flu, SARS and MERS. Roughly 50% of Kawaoka’s work involves gain of function, and he paused all experiments that “might enhance pathogenicity or transmissibility.”

Wisconsin State Journal—“The White House announcement comes in response to incidents this year involving anthrax, flu and smallpox at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. “The incidents occurring at federal facilities this summer have underscored the importance of laboratory safety, and they also prompted calls for a reassessment of the risks and benefits that are associated with research involving dangerous pathogens,” Samuel Stanley, chairman of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, said during a meeting of the group Oct. 22.”

This Week in Ebola

The Ebola ‘outbreak’ in Texas is over and MSF has confirmed the decline of cases in Liberia, however, Ebola cases have risen ‘sharply’ in Sierra Leone. While Kari Hickox remained in the news explaining the reasons she fought against quarantine, it appears, as feared, that mandatory quarantine for volunteers returning from West Africa is causing some to re-consider their commitments. Meanwhile the U.S. Army has identified five possible bases for returning troop quarantine and the Pentagon has awarded a $9.5 million contract Profectus BioSciences, Inc. for development of an Ebola vaccine. President Obama asked Congress for $6 billion to fight Ebola in the U.S. and West Africa. NBC News reported that “The U.S. is keen to be seen as leading the international response to Ebola” but there is another country in the Americas contributing to the fight—Cuba. Also in the Americas, Canada’s policy of denying visas for people coming from West Africa is called into question, and five American airports are learning a lot about infection control. Back in West Africa, Nigeria’s success in fighting Ebola has been attributed to their fight against polio. Lastly, on the heels of Mark Zuckerberg’s $25 million donation to fight Ebola, he launched a button at the top the newsfeed that links users to places where they can donate, too.

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: NBC News

Pandora Report 9.6.14

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

Canine Influenza Cases Spreading in Manhattan

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

This Week in Ebola

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

 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Abrin: More Deadly and Less Common than Ricin

By Chris Healey

Abrin was among toxins found during an apartment search of a San Francisco man charged with possessing explosive material. An FBI affidavit states the suspect told investigators he acquired abrin to ease the suffering of cancer patients.

Abrin is a protein-based toxin from the jequirity bean, colloquially known as a rosary bead. The toxin is lethal in minute doses and causes serious symptoms in even smaller amounts. It is almost identical to a better-known toxin—ricin. Abrin is more lethal than ricin. Toxicologists estimate abrin’s lethal dose between .1 and 1 microgram per kilogram. In comparison, ricin is lethal between 5 and 10 micrograms per kilogram.

Both abrin and ricin consist of two proteins, A chain and B chain, linked by a disulfide bond. The proteins work together to enter the cell and disrupt its activity. B chain grants cell entry, while A chain transports to the ribosome and destroys it. Cells die shortly after ribosome destruction.

Abrin’s nonuse despite toxic superiority to ricin is ostensibly due to a matter of availability. As a byproduct of castor oil, an ingredient in soap and mechanical lubricant, ricin is very common. Conversely, rosary beads serve a limited purpose in prayer and are not consumed or destroyed in their role. One set of rosary beads can last for years before replacement is necessary. Their limited and reusable role makes them uncommon.

Availability also contributes to abrin and ricin’s historical precedence. According to a study conducted by the Federation of American Scientists, ricin has been maliciously used 37 times since 1983. Malicious abrin use is almost nonexistent except for several reports in India and Sri Lanka in the early 20th century.

Abrin is released from crushed jequirity beans. Individuals who handle beans whole and unaltered, as in prayer, are not exposed. Even in cases of jequirity bean ingestion, intoxication is dependent on how thoroughly beans are chewed. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and colic. Some less common symptoms include irregular heartbeat, irrationality, hallucinations, and seizures. In fatal cases, cause of death has been traced to gastrointestinal damage.

Abrin is a select agent designated by the Department of Health and Human Services. It is illegal to manufacture or possess any quantity of the toxin. Although jequirity beans contain abrin, they are not illegal. The law is broken when abrin toxin is isolated from a bean.

 

(Image Credit: Satdeep gill)