Pandora Report 7.14.2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

Pandora Report 5.26.2017

Summer is in full swing and that means the mosquitoes are out in force. Before you make those pesky bugs your biggest enemy, don’t forget about the threat of antibiotic resistance and the current MCR-1 Klebsiella outbreak in China!

Congrats GMU Biodefense Graduates 
Last week we saw several MS and PhD students graduate from GMU’s biodefense program and we couldn’t be more excited to show off their hard work! Earning their MS in biodefense, we’d like to celebrate Kathryn Ake, Rebecca Earnhardt, Nicholas Guerin, Andrew Joyce, Ryan Lockhart, Patrick Lucey, Alison Mann, Jonathon Marioneaux, Scott McAlister, Greg Mercer, Katheryn Payton, Dana Saft, Colleen Tangney, and Anupama Varma. Earning their PhD in biodefense, we’re celebrating Keith W. Ludwick (Dissertation title: The Legend of the Lone Wolf: Categorizing Singular and Small Group Terrorism), Nereyda Sevilla (Germs on a Plane: The Transmission and Risks of Airplane-Borne Diseases), and Craig Wiener (Penetrate, Exploit, Disrupt, Destroy: The Rise of Computer Network Operations as a Major Military Innovation). Congrats to our biodefense graduates – we can’t wait to see what wonderful things you’ll accomplish in global health security!

U.S. Investment in Global Health Security  – The Good and The Bad
Whether it be an intentional, accidental, or natural biological event, infectious diseases can devastate local economies and populations. “Catastrophic” is a term commonly used for such events. Disease knows no borders or boundaries, which means that our global health security is only as strong as the weakest link. To aid in the stability of global health security, the State Department funds projects around the world to help improve biosafety and biosecurity. The philosophy is that if we can train local trainers to establish expertise and biorisk programs, it would lay the foundation for biosecurity/biosafety for the future. “The State Department carefully evaluates and selects the most impactful projects for each region, pairing local needs with appropriate subject matter expertise. One source of such expertise is Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), which has received State Department funding to implement numerous health security projects. Just this April, Lora Grainger, working at the Labs’ International Biological and Chemical Threat Reduction (IBCTR), travelled to Algeria to train Algerian trainers on a project funded by the State Department. Participants included scientists working in Algeria’s national network of laboratories managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Institut National de Médecine Véterinaire (INMV).” This partnership is just one of many and involves education that is tailored to the skills and needs of those being trained. Global health security is bigger than any one country and it’s vital to not only strengthen our own practices, but also facilitate its development in countries that might not have all the resources needed. Speaking of U.S. health security efforts, don’t forget to catch the Operation Whitecoat documentary on the June 1st.                                                                                                                                                              

While these are great efforts the U.S. is putting forward, there is also an internal struggle to maintain public health during a hiring freeze. The freeze was imposed by President Trump’s executive order in late January, which covers currently open positions, blocks transfers, and prevents new positions from being created. It was recently reporting that nearly 700 positions within the CDC are vacant due to the ongoing hiring freeze. “Like HHS, the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have maintained the freeze as a way of reducing their workforces and reshaping organizational structures after a directive last month from the Office of Management and Budget that said all federal agencies must submit a plan by June 30 to shrink their civilian workforces. HHS, State and EPA also face significant cuts in the Trump administration’s budget proposal for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The administration, which unveiled a ‘skinny budget‘ for fiscal 2018 in March, is scheduled to release its full budget next week. A senior CDC official said unfilled positions include dozens of budget analysts and public health policy analysts, scientists and advisers who provide key administrative support.” A new CDC document notes that at least 125 job categories have been blocked from being filled, which includes positions in the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.

Ebola in the DRC – Updates
While we’re honoring researchers and workers for their efforts during the 2014/2015 West Africa outbreak, Ebola continues to rage through the DRC. You can find daily situation reports here from the WHO, as the numbers of reported cases are constantly changing. The WHO is reportedly optimistic that it can contain the outbreak and many are curious to see how the new director general will handle such challenges. The latest situation report from the WHO is pointing to six more cases of Ebola, bringing the total suspected cases to 43. 365 people are currently under monitoring in the DRC. Researchers have also made substantial progress towards understanding how Ebola disables the immune system so effectively. In response to this latest outbreak, the WHO is requesting funding to ensure adequate response to the DRC outbreak.

Pandemics, BT, & Global Health Security Workshop – Instructor Spotlight
We’re excited to announce that Kendall Hoyt is our instructor spotlight this week! Dr. Hoyt is an Assistant Professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth where she studies U.S. biodefense policy and biomedical R&D strategy. She is also a lecturer at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College where she teaches a course on technology and biosecurity. She is the author of Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense, Harvard University Press, 2012. She serves on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Department of Defense’s Programs to Counter Biological Threats and on the advisory board of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. Kendall Hoyt received her Ph.D. in the History and Social Study of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002 and was a Fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2002-2004. Prior to obtaining her degree, she worked in the International Security and International Affairs division of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Washington DC office of McKinsey and Company, and the Center for the Management of Innovation and Technology at the National University of Singapore. Did I mention that she’s also done work on Ebola and has written extensively about medical countermeasures for the disease? Dr. Hoyt is not only an expert on biosecurity and the impact of technology, but will take students through the journey of medical countermeasures and security.

The Finish Line in Ending Pandemics and The Future of the WHO
The recent election of a new WHO director-general highlights the current global shift in priorities, and yet the reality is that we’re still fighting an uphill battle against infectious disease and the threat of a pandemic. Recent decades have shown that outbreaks have been increasingly common, taking advantage of globalization, growing populations, and spillover. Avian influenza has been knocking at the door for a while…while bursts of Ebola and SARS have shaken global health security to its core. MERS has also triggered such events in hospitals, leaving no environment safe from emerging infectious diseases. The list of worrying viral diseases has also grown and taught us a rather painful truth – pandora’s box is already open and every time we think we’ve closed it…we realize the seal just isn’t that tight. “Dynamic, rapidly evolving viral threats emerge with increasing frequency, exploiting new pathways in endless pursuit of their biologic imperative. These viruses are the paradigm of adaptive learning. Pushing and probing at our defenses, they shift to new hosts, opportunistically hijack transmission routes, and acquire capacities to evade immune detection. They are subject to no rules of engagement, and their viral intelligence is anything but artificial”. Our new strategy is now to strengthen our detection efforts and to build up response processes. Many have highlighted that what we’ve seen is just a small percentage of what’s out there, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep our heads buried in the sand forever. The future of international disease response will change with the appointment of the new WHO director-general, especially for poor countries dependent upon resources. On Tuesday, it was announced that Ethiopia’s Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was voted director-general. Dr. Ghebreyesus is the first ever African director-general and brings to the position a long history of health stewardship as a former health minister in Ethiopia. Not only is this election particularly significant as the future of the WHO will be heavily weighed against its failures in recent years, but recent accusations against the newly elected director-general have created further doubts as to the stability of the organization.

Double-edged Sword Research
A new report from the Swiss Academies of Art & Sciences is drawing attention to the need for continued conversation and engagement about the potential for misuse in life sciences. As a result of the workshop, a report was developed highlighting “six issues that should be considered when designing, conducting, and communicating research projects. Each issue is illustrated with examples from actual research projects.” In fact, CRISPR inventor, Jennifer Doudna, is drawing attention to the promises and perils of the gene-editing technology. She points to the worries of creating designer embryos while contrasting the promises of reducing mosquito-transmitted diseases. In fact, recent work has shown some promise in using CRISPR to fight HIV. “Part of the problem is HIV’s ability to squirrel itself away inside a cell’s DNA – including the DNA of the immune cells that are supposed to be killing it. The same ability, though, could be HIV’s undoing. ast week, a group of biologists published research detailing how they hid an anti-HIV CRISPR system inside another type of virus capable of sneaking past a host’s immune system. What’s more, the virus replicated and snipped HIV from infected cells along the way.” While this work has only been done in mice and rats, the concept is promising. Overall, these advances bring about exciting future possibilities, but it’s important to remember that there are dangers too – whether it be tampering with human evolution, contaminated CRISPR kits, nefarious actors using them for terrorism, etc. The complexities of CRISPR and genetic engineering are only growing, which makes the 2018 arrival of the peer-reviewed publication, The CRISPR Journal, even more relevant.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Model Systems and the Need For Curiosity-Driven Science– GMU Biodefense PhD student, Saskia Popescu, is looking at the importance of model systems and picking the brain of a top researcher in the field, Dr. Julie Pfeiffer. “Poliovirus is great to use to create model systems because not only does it grow easily, but it is also relatively safe due to vaccination for lab workers, not to mention that we have a pretty solid understanding of the virus based off a century of working with it. ‘We know a lot about poliovirus and we have great tools in our toolbox. If you’re going to tackle a tough problem, it helps to have a great toolbox. For other fields, the ideal toolbox may be fruit flies, worms, or yeast. Collectively, these model systems have illuminated biology and have led to major advancements in human health.’ stated Dr. Pfeiffer in her recent PLOS Pathogens article on the importance of model systems.” “Firstly, I asked if she thought there were other eradicated or ‘almost’ eradicated diseases that could make decent models. She replied, ‘No. We use poliovirus as a model system because of its great tractability, safety, and ease of use (not because it’s nearly eradicated). [Other eradicated diseases such as] smallpox and rinderpest would not be good model systems because they have been completely eradicated from circulation, making biosafety and tractability major issues. [That being said,] if the poliovirus eradication campaign is successful, the idea is to stop vaccination. If this happens, poliovirus will likely become a BSL3/4 agent and I will no longer work with it’.”
  • Is Your Daycare Prepared For a Pandemic?– Daycare centers may not be your first thought when it comes to pandemic preparedness, however a recent survey found that fewer than one in ten U.S. centers have taken steps to prepare for a pandemic flu event. “Researchers surveyed directors of licensed childcare centers in 2008 and again in 2016, to assess flu prevention measures before and after the 2009 pandemic outbreak of a new strain of H1N1 influenza. Among other things, they looked at flu prevention activities like daily health checks for kids, infection control training for staff, communicating with parents about illness and immunization requirements for children and staff.” Children are great sources for disease transmission and when guardians are needed at work, childcare capacity will be extremely important if a pandemic flu occurs.

 

Pandora Report 4.21.2017

If you missed the Infectious Disease Mapping Challenge webinar last week, you can catch the recording here! Ongoing reports are highlighting that the Trump administration is unprepared for a global pandemic.

How Prepared Is The U.S. For Disease Threats?
Scientific American sat down with former CDC director Tom Frieden to discuss his experiences and what he worries may be on the horizon for public health threats. When asked about immediate health issues facing the current administration, Frieden highlights the ongoing Zika outbreak, antibiotic resistance, emerging infections, and the ever-present risk of influenza. In terms of CDC preparedness, Frieden says that, “It’s a big problem that when there is an emerging threat, we are not able to surge or work as rapidly as we should, as a result of a lack of additional funding and legislative authority. When there is an earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t have to go to Congress and say, ‘Will you give us money for this?’ But the CDC does. We have made a really good start working with 70 countries to strengthen lab systems, rapid-response and field-monitoring systems, but it is going to take a while before countries around the world are adequately prepared. A blind spot anywhere puts any of us at risk.”

Bill Gates Warns of Increased Bioterrorism Threat
The entrepreneur and philanthropist has been drawing increasing attention to the threat of infectious diseases, especially in regards to bioterrorism. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London (RUSI), Gates stated that, “bioterrorism is a much larger risk than a pandemic.” “All these advances in biology have made it far easier for a terrorist to recreate smallpox, which is a highly fatal pathogen, where there is essentially no immunity remaining at this point.” He goes further to point out the unique aspects of infectious disease threats that make them more deadly than nuclear bombs. “When you are thinking about things that could cause in excess of 10 million deaths, even something tragic like a nuclear weapons incident wouldn’t get to that level. So the greatest risk is from a natural epidemic or an intentionally caused infection bioterrorism events. Whether the next epidemic is unleashed by a quirk of nature or the hand of terrorist, scientists say a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. So the world does need to think about this.” Gates pointed to the insufficient public health response in countries that are likely to experience emerging infections and the importance of foreign aid. Moreover, he highlights two major advancements since the 1918 pandemic – globalization and genetic editing. The DIY biohacker and potential for a single infectious person to travel around the globe in a day are all making the threat of a pandemic that much more real. Lastly, Gates emphasizes that the stability of a country and that of its health systems are vital in that an outbreak is more likely to become an epidemic in a country where both qualities are poor.

Biopreparedness – Developing Vaccines For An Eradicated Disease
Speaking of smallpox and the risk of bioterrorism…Filippa Lentzos is pointing to the smallpox vial discovery at the NIH and that despite the eradication of the disease, a biotech company, Bavarian Nordic, is still working to develop a vaccine. She notes that “possible avenues for the re-emergence of smallpox, including the impact of developments in synthetic biology, and it gives an inside view on the biodefence industry and its unusual business model.” Lentzos is an expert in the field of biodefense and focuses her work on the governance of emerging technologies like synthetic biology.

A Scope, A Resistant Germ, and Missing Data Walk into a Bar
GMU Biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking into the rise of the resistant bug and how medical equipment can pose increased risks for such infections. In 2015 several outbreaks occurred in patients following a procedure with a type of duodenoscopes made by Olympus. These scopes are “flexible medical devices that look like thin tubes and are inserted through the mouth, throat, and stomach into the small intestine—are reusable $40,000 medical devices that contain many working parts, including a camera, and are used for more than half a million procedures a year. The successful dynamics of the device also make it challenging to clean and disinfect. Just over two years ago, cases of drug-resistant infections started popping up in patients who had recently had the procedure that commonly uses duodenoscopes (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography or ERCP).” Following an outbreak of the highly resistant carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) at UCLA Medical Center, the scopes were recalled and interim cleaning guidance was provided by the CDC. Unfortunately, there is growing concern that the issues with the scope weren’t fully remedied. “In fact, Sen. Murray highlighted a recent outbreak in Europe (location not disclosed within the US Food and Drug Administration report) tied to the modified scopes. Although, modifications made by Olympus were done in response to the previous outbreaks and meant to reduce the risk of bacteria getting into the device’s channels and preventing proper cleaning and disinfection, Sen. Murray is now questioning Olympus regarding the devices and the role they played in this most recent outbreak. The senator is specifically asking for data proving that the repaired scopes could be properly disinfected between patient use.” As the threat of antibiotic resistance rises, the role of medical devices and manufacturer accountability will become increasingly relevant.

CRISPR Breakthrough Gives Hope for Disease Diagnostics 
CRISPR technology news often comes with a bit of controversy, but research recently published in Science is pointing to exciting new diagnostic capabilities. Feng Zhang and eighteen colleagues “turned this system into an inexpensive, reliable diagnostic tool for detecting nucleic acids — molecules present in an organism’s genetic code — from disease-causing pathogens. The new tool could be widely applied to detect not only viral and bacterial diseases but also potentially for finding cancer-causing mutations.” If you’re a fan of 221b Baker Street, you’ll be pleased to hear that the new tool is named SHERLOCK – Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing. The SHERLOCK tool utilizes the viral-recognition within CRISPR to detect genetic pathogen markers in some one’s urine, blood, saliva, or other body fluids. “They report that their technique is highly portable and could cost as little as 61 cents per test in the field. Such a process would be extremely useful in remote places without reliable electricity or easy access to a modern diagnostic laboratory.” This new finding has amazing potential for public health and rapid disease detection in rural areas to improve time to treatment, isolation, and prevention efforts.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity May 2017 Meeting
Don’t miss this May 11th meeting (2-4:30pm EST)! Items include presentations and discussions regarding: (1) the Blue Ribbon Panel draft report on the 2014 variola virus incident on the NIH Bethesda campus; (2) stakeholder engagement on implementation of the U.S. Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC); and (3) other business of the Board.  A detailed agenda and other meeting material will be posted on this website as they become available. This meeting will be a conference call only; there will be no in-person meeting. To join the call as a member of the public, please use the dial-in information below. The toll-free teleconference line will be open to the public at1:30 P.M. to allow time for operator-assisted check-in.  Members of the public planning to participate in the teleconference may also pre-register online via the link provided below or by calling Palladian Partners, Inc. (Contact: Carly Sullivan at 301-318-0841).  Pre-registration will close at 12:00 p.m. Eastern on May 8, 2017. Make sure to check the website for the public conference line and passcode.

Synthetic Bioterrorism – US Developing Medical Response 
Preparedness efforts against biological threats are now expanding to include synthetic biological threats. “Dr. Arthur T. Hopkins, acting assistant secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), testified that…’emerging infectious diseases, synthetic biology and engineered diseases…[is] an area where we are focusing and we have to continue to focus.’ To counter such current and emerging threats, DOD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program is developing new strategies to more rapidly respond, especially in the area of medical countermeasures, Hopkins said.” He noted that the DoD has commissioned the National Academy of Science to lead a study on the potential for such an event and its impact on national security.

Chemical Reaction: North Korea’s Chemical Weapons Are A Big Threat- And China Needs to Help Deal With Them
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is looking at the “role that China could play with respect to North Korea, in particular dissuading the use of chemical weapons. While tensions are high, the use of chemical weapons could be the “spark that could bring the region to war.” Gerstein notes that while the focus in Syria is internal, if Kim Jong Un used chemical weapons it would most likely be external- against South Korea or Japan (or even the U.S.). It is vital that there be a clear-cut response to the use of chemical weapons and action from China may just be the clear message that’s needed. “To prevent the unthinkable from occurring, the North Koreans must be dissuaded from using chemical weapons. They must be convinced that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that cannot be crossed. China should consider being the messenger for this message. China also should consider taking an active, forward-looking approach to prevent the use of chemical weapons by North Korea. When Syria deployed chemical weapons, there was speculation that Russia may have been complicit or at least aware of plans to conduct the attack.” Or perhaps some friendly games of volleyball are in order?

Wildlife Disease Biologists – An Unstoppable Force 
Neither rain nor sleet could keep APHIS wildlife disease biologists out of the field collecting samples. Animal diseases are a major source for infections coming down the pipeline for humans (i.e. spillover events) and these researchers are on the front lines trying to make sure we have a heads up. APHIS’ Wildlife Services (WS) program includes 36 wildlife disease biologists who work diligently to collect samples from wild birds for avian influenza testing (among other things). “‘By monitoring the avian influenza strains circulating in wild birds, WS and its partners are able to provide an early warning system to America’s poultry producers,’ states Dr. Tom DeLiberto, Assistant Director of WS’ National Wildlife Research Center. ‘Our experts focus their sampling on waterfowl species and locations where we are most likely to detect avian influenza. This ensures our efforts are as efficient and informative as possible’.” I think we can all appreciate the brave few who venture into frigid waters to help trap and test wild birds to help detect the spread of infectious diseases.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Trends in Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction – Writers frequently use an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic backdrop for fictional stories. The Doomsday Clock is a visual representation of the general mood and often represents the fear and unease in the environment. Whether it be an environmental event or a killer virus, the end of humanity has been a frequent topic for many writers. “Often it is a fear of a naturally-evolving virus, as in Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014). Yet, with the advent of new biotechnologies, authors also considered the impact a malignant engineered virus would have on humanity, as seen in Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy (2003 onwards) and Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy (2010 onwards).”
  • Ebola Theme Issue – The Royal Society – Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B is focusing their latest biological sciences journal on the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In this edition, you can find opinion pieces discussing the contribution of engineering and social sciences, old lessons on new epidemics, and a wealth of information on outbreak evaluation and notes from the field.

Pandora Report 1.27.2017

The ghostbusters had proton packs and now researchers have DNA-analyzing smartphone attachments to help diagnose disease and fight antimicrobial resistance.

Doomsday Clock Moved 30 Seconds Closer to Midnight
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the clock setting was moved on Wednesday. This is the closest it has been to midnight since 1953 and now includes threats like climate change, cyberthreats, and biological weapons. The board has been critical of President Trump and noted that, “Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change … This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a U.S. presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.” You can get a better glimpse of the clock and its components here.

Possession, Use, and Transfer of Select Agents and Toxins; Biennial Review of the List of Select Agents and Toxins and Enhanced Biosafety Requirements- Final Rule
The CDC has released the final recommendations for select agent biosafety requirements in accordance with the 2002 Bioterrorism Response Act. The 2016 recommended changes included the removal of six biological agents, “add provisions to address the inactivation of select agents, add specific provisions to the section of the regulations addressing biosafety, and clarify regulatory language concerning security, training, incident response, and records.” However, as of January 19th, 2017,  HHS and USDA have published parallel amendments to the federal regulation for select agents and toxins. Following their review, HHS decided not to finalize the proposed changes to the list of select agents. They did however decide “to finalize provisions to address toxin permissible limits and the inactivation of select agents; to finalize specific provisions to the section of the regulations addressing biosafety; and to clarify regulatory language concerning security, training, incident response, and records”. The amendments are set to take effect 30 days from the date of publication.

Biodefense World Summit
Don’t miss out on the Biodefense World Summit in Alexandria, VA from June 27-28th! This will be the third summit in order to “bring together leaders from government, academia, and industry for compelling discussions and comprehensive coverage on pathogen detection, sample prep technologies, point-of-care, and biosurveillance. Across the four-track event, attendees can expect exceptional networking opportunities in the exhibit hall, across panel discussions, and shared case studies with members of the biodefense community from technology providers to policy makers.” Make sure you don’t miss out on GMU Biodefense PhD student, Mary Sproull’s presentation, “Recent Advances in Radiation Biodosimetry for Partial and Total Body Exposures” during the tools and technologies at the point-of-care session!

Missing Russian Smallpox Researcher  
This may sound like the plot of a horror movie (or Sum of All Fears), but the reality may be just as worrisome. Professor and Russian microbiologist, Ilya Drozdov has been put on Interpol’s wanted list. Having knowledge of Russia’s historical bioweapons program means that Dr. Drozdov’s disappearance has authorities worrying he may have gone abroad. Dr. Drozdov was head of Vector for five years, which means he has considerable knowledge in both the offensive program and the recent work regarding plague vaccines and HIV cures. “After quitting the institute, he returned to his native Saratov, but has now vanished. It is now confirmed that last month the 63 year old scientist – who needed top vetting clearance to lead Vector – was put on the Interpol wanted list, indicating fears he has gone abroad. He is accused by state investigators of misappropriating some 2 million roubles – then worth around $55,000, while his tenure also led to an outflow of staff unhappy at his management style. A criminal case was filed against him in 2014, and a Novosibirsk court has now approved his arrest in absentia, said Elena Chernyayeva, a regional deputy prosecutor. The microbiologist allegedly used the cash to purchase an apartment. There is no suggestion he has taken secrets abroad, but the Interpol alert indicates the Russian authorities have lost track of his whereabouts. There was criticism of him at Vector for the poor pay of its expert researchers, and ‘conflicts’.”

Bill Gates Talks Bioterrorism 
Last week we looked into the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), which aims to head off worldwide outbreaks through the development and stockpiling of vaccines. CEPI has received massive financial support and one sponsor in particular is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates recently warned, at the recent World Economic Forum, that there is a true gap in bioterrorism preparedness. “What preparedness will look like for intentionally caused things, that needs to be discussed,” he said. “It’s very hard to rate the probability of bioterrorism, but the potential damage is very, very huge. I think an epidemic, either naturally caused or intentionally caused, is the most likely thing to cause, say, 10,000 excess deaths,” Gates said. “He voiced the same concern in March during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session: ‘The problem of how we prevent a small group of terrorists using nuclear or biological means to kill millions is something I worry about,’ he wrote.” Other biotech gurus like Sam Altman noted that the 2011 H5N1 gain-of-function controversies have opened their eyes to synthetic viruses as a form of terrorism or bioerror.

Health Security Memos to the New Administration and Congress 
Despite a recent move, researchers at the Center for Health Security aren’t taking a break when it comes to global health security. They’ve recently written a series of commentaries for the new administration regarding facts and assessments that are critical for the world of health security. The memos range from healthcare preparedness to improving biosurveillance, partnering with communities to foster trust, communication of new disease threats, and much more.

FDA’s New Farm Antibiotics Policy – Is It Enough?
The new FDA Guidance for Industry (GFI) #213 is what some would consider a victory, while others are calling it a mediocre milestone at best. The new policy looks to reduce the usage of antibiotics in agriculture by requiring veterinary oversight. That’s right, prior to GFI #231, farmers could go to their local feed stores and buy penicillin and tetracycline over the counter to add to feed and water to promote growth. “Under GFI #213, which was first announced in 2013 and has taken 3 years to fully implement, pharmaceutical companies have been asked to voluntarily remove production purposes (such as growth promotion) from the labels of all medically important antibiotics used in food production. All affected companies have done so as of Jan 3, the FDA says. In addition, the guidelines require veterinary oversight for the continued use of these drugs for disease prevention and control in herds and flocks. From now on, all antibiotics used in water will require a prescription from a licensed veterinarian, and those used in feed will need a veterinary feed directive (VFD).” Sure, this is a move in the right direction, but are we ensuring the quality of veterinary oversight and truly changing the culture within farming to support responsible antibiotic usage?

Outbreak Alert: Seoul Virus in Illinois and Wisconsin Rat-Breeding Facilities
While we’ve been busy with the inauguration and Zika virus, there’s been an emerging outbreak creeping up in Illinois and Wisconsin. Eight people have been infected with Seoul virus after working in several rat-breeding facilities across the two states. While not commonly found in the U.S., this is the first known outbreak associated with pet rats. “A home-based rodent breeder in Wisconsin was hospitalized in December 2016 with fever, headache, and other symptoms. CDC tested a blood specimen and confirmed that the infection was caused by Seoul virus, a member of the Hantavirus family of rodent-borne viruses. A close family member who also worked with rodents also tested positive for Seoul virus. Both people have recovered. A follow-up investigation at several rat breeders that supplied the initial patient’s rats revealed an additional six cases of Seoul virus at two Illinois rat breeding facilities.” While related to Hantavirus, Seoul virus presents with more mild symptoms.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Post-Ebola reforms: ample analysis and inadequate action–  Check out a new analysis on WHO response and global reaction to the Ebola outbreak. “Given the importance of improving our ability to battle current (Zika, yellow fever, etc) and future outbreaks of infectious disease, we examined seven major reports and identified areas of consensus on action. We then assessed what progress has been made and what can be done to address the gaps. The seven reports were selected on the following criteria: scope (tackling problems beyond a single organization, country, or sector); diverse authorship (defined by country of origin, organizational affiliation, area of expertise, and gender); and public availability (excluding internal reviews).”
  • Using the lessons of economics to stop global pandemics before they start -Larry Summers is looking to economics to calculate the likely future impact of pandemics on the global economy. By combining the mortality cost and losses in income, he and fellow researchers found that “it was on the same range as that of climate change-  although at the lower end of the possible scale. A moderately severe pandemic, of the kind that occurs every few decades, would knock 4-5% off global output. The “ultra scenario”—a pandemic similar in virulence to the flu of 1918—would raise that to 12%, reducing GNI in some developing countries by more than half.”
  • How Prepared is the U.S. for Avian Influenza?– Many are pointing to an impending avian influenza outbreak and questioning how well American response measures will work. “On Jan 9, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed that a wild mallard duck in Montana had died from H5N2, a highly pathogenic avian flu strain that in 2015 affected farms in 15 states and led to the culling of more than 43 million poultry, with an estimated $3.3 billion in economic losses. ‘This confirmed H5N2 in a wild mallard duck in Montana keeps us on high alert,’ said Donna Karlsons, a public affairs specialist with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). ‘We know the disease is out there and serves as a great reminder for constant biosecurity vigilance. There is never a good time to ease up on biosecurity, and it remains our greatest asset to protect against avian influenza’.”

 

Pandora Report 12.16.2016

Sick to your stomach? Make sure to tweet about it! Seriously – the UK Food Standards Agency is using social media to track stomach bugs like norovirus. Before we venture down the biodefense rabbit hole, have you ever wondered what would happen if college students tried to hack a gene drive?

GMU Biodefense PhD Writes ‘Groundbreaking’ Thesis on Cyber Warfare– GMU Biodefense PhD graduate, Craig Wiener, is talking about his PhD experience and the amazing work he did on his dissertation. Craig’s story is pretty unique – between the commute from his position at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, to his background in biodefense and research in synthetic biology, he’s a prime example of the diverse and passionate students we see in the GMU biodefense program. “Wiener’s PhD dissertation, ‘Penetrate, Exploit, Disrupt, Destroy: The Rise of Computer Network Operations as a Major Military Innovation,’ is groundbreaking, said Gregory Koblentz, director of Mason’s biodefense graduate program, and it has nothing to do with biodefense. Wiener connected some rather complicated dots in determining the origins of computer network exploitation and computer network attacks in the U.S. intelligence community. ‘I’ve established that computer network operations are a major military innovation, and it was developed by the U.S. intelligence community…. It’s the first time the intelligence community has developed a weapon system,’ said Wiener.” A labor of love, his work will significantly contribute to the history of cyber warfare and is a prime example of what makes GMU such a wonderful university to study.

FDA Review of 2014 Variola NIH Incident

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-7-57-52-amThe newly released report, “FDA Review of the 2014 Discovery of Vials Labeled ‘Variola’ and Other Vials Discovered in an FDA-Occupied Building on the NIH Campus”, details the findings and corrective actions following the FDA’s internal investigation of the 2014 incident. The compilation includes several interviews, findings from reports and site visits, and a timeline of events leading to the discovery of the 327 vials on July 1, 2014. Some of the findings include: “There was no single individual responsible for the entire contents and operation of the shared cold storage area. FDA did not follow the CDC Select Agent Guidelines for the packaging and transfer of samples to a high containment facility for securing the materials.” There were six findings in the report, which included corrective actions, future actions, and compliance mechanisms. The report also includes the table regarding the disposition of the 327 vials. “It was noted that an internal, inward-looking investigation by the FDA had not formally started at the time of the hearing because both the CDC and FBI were in the midst of their own investigations of the incident.  However, FDA informally started an internal review and audit of the incident to understand the failure points to implement best policies and practices to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.”

Global Virome Project – You may remember reading  this summer about finding the next patient zero via a speaking engagement from USAID Director for Global Health Security and Development Unit, Dr. Dennis Carroll. The truth is that outbreaks like Zika and Ebola have shown us that countermeasures are invariably weak and viruses like to hide out in nature. This formidable reality has led to the development of the Global Virome Project, which looks to catalogue viruses from all over the world as a means of identifying the threats before they can identify us. “The idea has been around for a while and is supported by individual scientists and organizations including the US Agency for International Development, the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, HealthMap, ProMED, and the epidemic risk firm Metabiota. Now support for a global push may be picking up momentum, as scientists and health organizations find themselves repeatedly called upon whenever new threats arise.” An extension of the vision that brought about the PREDICT project, the Global Virome Project looks to make the process more efficient and effective by utilizing new methodology. While knowing the existence of a disease does not equate to preparedness, the understanding of how it interacts with humans and where it hides can help us determine risk and vaccine development. “For instance, knowing that the risk of contracting viruses carried in a species of bats is highest when their offspring are young might push ecotourism operators to avoid caves at those times. And Carroll said filling in more of the picture of the viral world will simply help scientists understand its patterns and interactions better. Right now, predictions are based on the behaviors of a few hundred known viruses, he said.”

2017-2022 Health Care Preparedness and Response Capabilities – The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response has released their report outlining “the high-level objectives that the nation’s health care delivery system, including HCCs [health care coalitions] and individual health care organizations, should undertake to prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies.” The report further breaks down the capabilities into four sections that will, when combined and fully followed, enable full readiness. The four sections are Foundation for Health Care and Medical Readiness, Health Care and Medical Response Coordination, Continuity of Health Care Service Delivery, and Medical Surge. The report is extremely detailed and includes a wide variety of methods for identifying and coordinating resource needs during an emergency, setting up a health care EOC, implementing out-of-hospital medical surge response, and much more.

Blue Ribbon Study Panel Report on Biodefense Indicators– I remember the excitement during the Blue Ribbon Study Panel presentation on their recommendations since the Ebola outbreak. The room was packed with so many contributors to biodefense and there was a sense of fervor regarding the possibilities that could come from their 87 recommendations. Sadly, it seems that enthusiasm isn’t enough to get the work completed. It seems that an overwhelming majority haven’t been completed, according to the latest report. In fact, Tom Ridge and Joseph Lieberman have taken to TIME magazine as a means to implore the incoming administration to help protect the U.S. from bioterrorism and infectious disease threats.

Nanotherapeutics Opens Plant Near Progress Park – Nanotherapeutics opened their new $138 million 183,000-square-foot plant near Progress Park in Alachua, which was built to fulfill a DoD grant that could be worth up to $359 million. “The purpose and the capability of this facility is really fundamentally to avoid a surprise and be better prepared,” said Chris Hassell, deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense. “Sixty years after Pearl Harbor we were surprised again with the anthrax mailings and other events of 9/11, so this whole issue of surprise is a common area of discussion, what can we do to avoid surprise, to defend it, to respond to it more effectively and to that end this facility is very important to our capability to do that.” The DoD maintains several contracts for vaccine and treatment manufacturing, however Nanotherapeutics has tackled several of the struggles with efficiency that have plagued several other efforts. Utilizing disposable bags within stainless steel equipment allows for less clean-up and quicker transitions to help make the process more efficient and successful. The new plant follows strict NIH and military guidelines regarding waste and handling of hazardous materials, not to mention a pretty hefty security system.

czqg73pwiaacplk-png-largeUNSC 1540 Resolution – The United Nations Security Council unanimously voted on Resolution 1540 this week, which is especially prudent given the devastation in Syria and use of chemical weapons. The overwhelming adoption of the 1540 review resolution furthered the fight to keep WMD’s out of non-state actor hands. Resolution 1540 was adopted in 2004 and extended periodically through 2012 as a means of imposing binding obligations on all states to adopt legislation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The open debate, “Preventing Catastrophe: A Global Agenda for Stopping the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction to Non-State Actors” took place on December 15th, ending the second review of 1540 implementation. “The Council is expected to adopt a resolution endorsing the review and noting the findings and recommendations contained in its report, which was agreed by the 1540 Committee last Friday”. The comprehensive review process has been somewhat challenging lately due to differences in Council member priorities and ambitions. “Russia and China made clear that they did not see the need for radical changes in the functioning or mandate of the Committee, whereas Spain, as the chair of the Committee, and other Council members, such as the UK and the US, were pushing for more substantive measures and new approaches. As a result, the discussions in the 1540 Committee on the report of the review were quite contentious, in particular with regard to its conclusions and recommendations. It took more than two months of intense negotiations after the Committee considered the first draft of the report on 27 September to reach agreement on the final document. The whole review process has taken almost two years.” We’ll make sure to keep you posted as news is released!

Avian Influenza and Global Trade Conditions– A series of avian influenza outbreaks are challenging the positive 2017 outlook for the global poultry industry. These events are especially distressing for the poultry industry as the global pork and beef production is rising. “The return of avian influenza is now shaking up global trade conditions and is especially affecting the outlook for Asia, Europe and Africa,” the report said. “It will also be a test for the U.S. industry after last year’s multiple AI outbreaks. As many European and Asian countries are exporters of meat and breeding stock, this will certainly impact the outlook for the industry and could shake up meat and breeder trade again.” The increasing protectionism and disease-related traded restrictions have caused some slowing within the poultry trade. This report comes at an auspicious time as the WHO warns of a H7N9 pandemic.

Zika Virus Updates- The most recent Florida Department of Health daily updates can be found here, which found six new travel-related cases on 12/14 and no new locally acquired cases. The CDC has issued a travel advisory for Brownsville, TX due to Zika virus. A new study has estimated the prevalence of Zika by the time a microcephaly case is detected. Saad-Roy, et al. (2016) explain, “this model gives us the probability distribution of time until detection of the first microcephaly case. Based on current field observations, our results also indicate that the percentage of infected pregnant women that results in fetal abnormalities is more likely to be on the smaller end of the 1% to 30% spectrum that is currently hypothesized. Our model predicts that for import regions with at least 250,000 people, on average 1,000 to 12,000 will have been infected by the time of the first detection of microcephaly, and on average 200 to 1,500 will be infectious at this time. Larger population sizes do not significantly change our predictions.” The CDC has reported, as of December 14th, 4,617 cases in the U.S.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Biological Security Threats Situation Report – In this report from the Danish Centre for Biosecurity and Biopreparedness, you can find an assessment of current biological threats and risks. The authors note that “the overall likelihood of a major biological terrorist attack must be viewed as relatively low at the moment, but a successful attack could have grave consequences for societies.” Focusing on the capacity to respond to intentional attacks through biosecurity and biopreparedness is vital. The report looks at the risks from state, non-state terrorists, and criminals in its assessment.
  • DHS Backs Development of Livestock Disease Outbreak Readiness Program – America has a soft underbelly and it’s livestock and agriculture. The new funding for the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center (NABC) project to develop the readiness program is just over $330,000 and “will provide a clearinghouse for planning, training and knowledge products to help state, local, tribal and territorial entities prepare for transboundary livestock disease outbreaks.he program also entails extensive collaboration of academia, private industry and state governments. Faculty and staff in the Beef Cattle Institute and the College of Veterinary Medicine will provide subject matter expertise and assistance building the website, and student workers will be employed to assist with the project.”
  • ABSA International  – Don’t miss the USDA and the Agricultural Research Service’s 4th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium- Gobal Biorisk challenges: Agriculture and Beyond. This symposium will take place from February 6-9th at Baltimore Convention Center. Topics will range from biorisk management challenges in one health world, arthropod containment in plant research, and much more!

Pandora Report 8.26.2016

A new report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is pointing to a harsh reality that despite incomplete and inaccurate Syrian disclosures, there are traces of nerve agents in their laboratories. While they promised to destroy their entire arsenal, there is a growing concern that Damascus has not followed through on commitments to destroy all of its armaments.   Feel like a biodefense arts and crafts project?  You can learn to make a plague doctor’s mask here. Chem-Bio warfare suits may be getting a fashionable upgrade as companies like Lululemon and Under Armor are competing to revolutionize the protective equipment. 

UN Security Council – Calls for Eradicating WMD’s  689139
On Tuesday, GMU Biodefense Graduate Program Director and Professor, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, briefed the UN Security Council on how terrorists could exploit advances in science and technology to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He delivered the briefing as part of a Security Council open debate on WMD nonproliferation that is part of the comprehensive review currently being conducted of Resolution 1540. You can read the summary of the meeting here, but the focus was on the evolving threat of WMD’s falling into the hands of non-state terrorists and actors. Emphasizing the threat of biological weapons, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon “questioned the international community’s ability to prevent or respond to a biological attack.  He also suggested giving a closer look at the nexus between emerging technologies — such as information and communication technologies, artificial intelligence, 3-D printing and synthetic biology — and weapons of mass destruction.” Dr. Koblentz (27 minutes into the broadcast of the meeting here) pointed to the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a source for huge gains in both productivity and prosperity, but also a darker potential for mis-use by non-state actors. Within his talk, Dr. Koblentz noted the five advances in science and technology that “increase the risk of CBRN weapons proliferation to non-state actors”. The advances include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), 3D printing, accessibility of illicit items on the Dark Web, malicious software and cyber attacks, and genetic engineering tools like CRISPR-Cas9. While these advances reveal the diverse technology, there are also seven deadly traits within these emerging technologies – dual-use, disruptive, diffusion, reliance on a digital component, decentralization, deskilling, and the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement. Simply put, these seven characteristics make emerging technologies that much more challenging to prevent mis-use. “The international community faces a continuous challenge of encouraging innovation and maximizing the benefits of such innovation with the need to mitigate the security risks posed by these new technologies. I hope the Security Council will take advantage of the Comprehensive Review of Resolution 1540, which this open debate is an important contribution to, to update the resolution to take into account the impact of scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to non-state actors.” There was substantial discussion regarding the strengthening of Resolution 1540, especially to consider the implications of a biological attack in light of recent outbreaks like Ebola, MERS, and SARS.  During her remarks, Ambassador Michele J. Sison, U.S. Deputy Representative to the United Nations, described Dr. Koblentz’s briefing as, “a very interesting, but also very sobering intervention.” Hopefully, with the focus on these evolving threats, the current review of Resolution 1540 can be further strengthened and focused to reduce the risk of terrorists acquiring WMD’s.

A Tribute to D.A. Henderson
There are few times in the history of public health that we can say we’ve eradicated a disease. D.A. Henderson, smallpox guru and disease detective, led such efforts within the WHO and his absence has been felt throughout the health community. A legend among public health and biodefense students, his dedication to the field inspired generations. As an epidemiologist, his work in both infectious diseases and bioterrorism gave me hope that such a career was not only possible, but also filled with the kind of adventure that many only dreamed about. Having just read Scourge (and I would highly encourage you to read it), the dedication to the smallpox eradication efforts is still an inspiration. After conquering what many considered impossible, Henderson worked as Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies (now UPMC Center for Health Security), and following 9/11, led the Office of Public Health Preparedness. Described as a “Sherman tank of a human being- he simply rolled over bureaucrats who got in his way”, Henderson’s death is truly felt throughout the international community. In the wake of his death, we take a moment to truly applaud and appreciate all he’s given and inspired within global health security.

How Far Will the U.S. Luck Run?
With the anticipation and preparations for Zika having started months before it reached U.S. soil, many are wondering if our luck with infectious disease is running out. We were lucky with Ebola- a handful of cases and once we hit the panic button, we were able to overcome the crisis. Despite insufficient funds and battling diseases we had little to no experience in handling, U.S. efforts have been fortunate in their successes. Zika may be a different kind of ball game though – mosquito control efforts are flawed at best and with a disease that is often asymptomatic, we may have finally hit a wall. Did we really learn from Ebola? Have we strengthened our surveillance and response practices? Dr. Johnathan Fielding notes that “HHS must play a greater role in coordinating the global public health response through implementation of the Global Health Security Agenda, a cooperative arrangement launched in 2014 by over 50 nations, nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders; better coordination with other government agencies, and state, local and private sector partners; and clear delineation of roles and responsibilities within and among HHS offices.” We need both the monetary and personnel support to properly address the failures from Ebola, but also implement the recommendations that so many have made following the crisis. The contingency funding that has been pushed recently is an indication of our potentially faltering luck – have we reached such an impasse in which our politics will override our disease response capacity or capabilities?

A Lot of Zika Goes a Long Ways 
Palm Beach is seeing its second case of Zika virus, with active transmission continuing in Florida. Florida Governor, Rick Scott, has expressed frustration that the promised federal support of antibody tests and lab support has not been delivered. “In a teleconference on Wednesday, Scott made a plea for more support in fighting Zika, complaining that ‘Congress and the White House have not been good partners.’ Scott said he asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 5,000 Zika antibody tests last week, but so far had only received less than 1,200.” Johns Hopkins is opening the first multidisciplinary Zika center, the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Zika Center, which is dedicated to caring for affected patients. As of August 24, the CDC has reported 2,517 cases of Zika virus in the U.S. The CDC has also awarded $6.8 million to partners to help support Zika response. “This funding will help enhance surge capacity for Zika case identification and mosquito surveillance. It will also help improve communications to key populations, by developing focused educational materials, sharing mosquito control guidance, and refining community public awareness campaigns.”

Human Mobility and Epidemics
Tracking infectious disease cases is never an easy task – whether it be an asymptomatic patient, mosquito-spread disease, or global travel, epidemiology and case tracking is not for the faint of heart. An increasingly mobile population is only adding to this difficulty. The first few days of an infection with Dengue or Zika are often so mild that many don’t even seek medical care. How many times have you had a fever and it didn’t stop you from traveling or going about your day? Disease ecologists are now looking at the impact of a fever on human mobility and the shock this may have during an outbreak of a vector-borne disease. “We’ve found that people with a fever visit 30 percent fewer locations on average than those who do not have a fever, and that they spend more time closer to home. It may sound like stating the obvious, but such data have practical applications to understand how human behavior shapes epidemics,” says Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, an assistant professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, and senior author of the study. “No one had previously quantified how a symptom such as fever changes mobility patterns, individually and across a population, in a tropical urban setting like Iquitos.” Not surprisingly, human mobility is a huge driver for spreading these diseases in urban settings. With the ongoing spread of Zika, researchers are continuing to learn about the impact of human behavior and mobility on the spread of these mosquito-spread diseases.

Stories You May Have Missed: 

  • Global Reaches of Antibiotic Resistance – Check out my latest comments on the global implications of antibiotic resistance for first responders and security personnel. It’s a topic we’ve so frequently cited as an international health emergency, and yet it gets so little attention. In this article, I point to the obvious implications, but also the worries that dual-use technologies of concern and genetic modification could allow for increased resistance for a more sinister reason.
  • South Sudan Crisis Calls for Additional WHO Surveillance  – the continued chaos and violence in South Sudan has translated into the WHO ramping up disease surveillance efforts. More than 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDP) have been caught in the conflict, leaving the region more susceptible to malaria and diarrheal illnesses. “The conflict has exacerbated existing challenges with the health system and disease surveillance,” Dr Usman says. “With so many health workers and partners moving to safety, data is more difficult to collect and challenges have emerged as humanitarian access remains limited.” The WHO is coordinating with the Ministry of Health to strengthen surveillance efforts to help detect and respond to outbreaks.
  • FBI WMD Directorate Marks 10 Years – A program we’d rather have and not need than need and not have, the WMD Directorate within the FBI has been imagining worst-case scenarios for over a decade to better prepare and protect the U.S. “The Directorate has three sections: countermeasures, investigations and operations, and intelligence. In its first five years, the Directorate established itself as a central hub for WMD subject-matter expertise.” Assistant Director, John Perren, notes that while they’re intelligence driven, the things that keep him up at night aren’t what he knows, but what he doesn’t know.

Pandora Report 8.5.2016

August is here and so are the Zika cases…it does seems rather ominous that the Rio Olympics are starting a week after the confirmation of locally-acquired U.S. cases of Zika virus. Despite the outbreak and the concerns over water safety, the games must go on?

Syria Chemical Weapons Attack
Two chemical attacks were reported earlier this week in northern Syria. The first attack occurred in the city of Saraqeb, where chlorine gas-filled cylinders were dropped in a residential area. Russia has already begun denying any role in the attack and while officials haven’t formally called the Saraqeb incident a “chemical attack”, the evidence is mounting. “Evidence points to the Assad regime because the attack came from the sky and the opposition doesn’t have any aircraft, the source added. In the second alleged incident, the Syrian government claimed that ‘terrorist groups’ carried out a gas attack that killed five people in the old town of the besieged city of Aleppo on Tuesday afternoon, according to the state-run news agency SANA.” The second attack caused the death of five individuals and is considered a counteroffensive from Syrian regime forces and Russian allies. A physician tending to victims injured in Saraqeb noted that their symptoms are consistent with those of chlorine poisoning. On Wednesday, the Russian military informed the U.S. that “rebel forces were responsible” for the attacks.

Russia’s Frozen Anthrax Problem
Over ninety people are currently under healthcare observation and surveillance in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Siberia, related to an outbreak of anthrax. Eight cases have been confirmed and a young boy died on Monday from the outbreak that is believed to be associated with an infected reindeer carcass. While anthrax is a  naturally occurring bacteria in the soil and can be endemic in certain regions, the heatwave in Siberia is believed to have caused a decades-old reindeer carcass to become exposed. As a result of the exposure, thousands of reindeer have also been infected and officials are investigating the release of the anthrax spores into the environment from the carcass that was found in the 75-year-old permafrost. Siberia’s Governor, Dmitry Kobylkin, has declared a state of emergency and specialists from the Russian Chemical, Radioactive, and Biological Protection Corps have been called into assist with outbreak control and disposal of infected animals. A mass veterinary vaccination program is also underway to protect animals in northern Russia.

Spillover Special & Human Economic Activity
Wednesday night saw the premiere of the PBS documentary, Spillover, which focused on the impact and rise of zoonotic diseases. Given the recent Ebola outbreak and news of locally-acquired Zika virus cases, this documentary comes at an precarious time. Aside from a few dramatic moments, the documentary was both informative and visually captivating. It was refreshing to see the One Health approach to outbreaks within a documentary. The filmmakers appeared to have taken great care to present the complexity of the spillover process and the importance of global surveillance and the shock humans have on the environment. Between the documentary and Sonia Shah’s new article, the impact of human activity on microbes is becoming a much more prevalent and unavoidable topic. Shah points to an increasingly globalized economy and the glaring reality that sick people do in fact get on airplanes and spread their germs, These are the obvious points in the transmission chain though and she notes that we tend to forget the role of foreclosed homes, imported tires, and decorative bamboo as factors in disease transmission. “Today, abandoned properties and deteriorating infrastructure, brought on by housing crises and climate change, similarly threaten us with epidemics of mosquito-borne pathogens such as Zika.” Shah also points to the need to assess the public health implications of our “built environment the way we assess the environmental impact- before construction begins.” While we consider our carbon footprint, are we considering our epidemic one too?

UK’s HIV Gamechange with PrEP
A recent high court ruling that NHS England can pay for PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is being marked as a victory for HIV/AIDS campaigners in the UK. PrEP is a medication that can be taken daily to help people, who are at a very high risk of contracting HIV, lower their chances of infection. According to the CDC, “A combination of two HIV medicines (tenofovir and emtricitabine), sold under the name Truvada, is approved for daily use as PrEP to help prevent an HIV-negative person from getting HIV from a sexual or injection-drug-using partner who’s positive. Studies have shown that PrEP is highly effective for preventing HIV if it is used as prescribed. PrEP is much less effective when it is not taken consistently.” The court ruling is especially important as it will not only put pressure on pharmaceutical companies to lower the cost of the drug, but will now be available through the National Health Services (NHS), meaning that it will be widely available and accessible to a far wider range of people. “Condoms are cheap, but among some high-risk populations they are not used consistently. About 4,000 more people acquire HIV in the UK every year. The average cost of a lifetime of treating each one is put at about £360,000. The National Aids Trust brought the high court case following anger and consternation among campaigners after NHS England said it would not fund PrEP because it did not have the power to do so. It argued that it was the role of local authorities, which have been given control of public health measures including reducing smoking and family planning, as well as HIV prevention. Local authorities said they did not have the money to pay.” Accessible HIV prophylaxis is a huge step in prevention and despite the plans of NHS to appeal the decision, they are still putting aside funds for the cost of the medication.

Biodefense in Gaming Courtesy of Pandemic Inc game
Since we’re still reeling from the loss of prime-time contagion drama, nuclear systems engineer and aspiring biodefense wonk, Greg Witt, is helping us through this dark time via the enjoyable but inaccurate world of biodefense in gaming. Greg’s review of several popular video and board games will give you some great options for your next gaming adventure. “With pathogens like Zika, Ebola, and West Nile now household names, biodefense has rarely been more culturally relevant. Depictions of biodefense topics in popular culture are not limited to traditional media, though; numerous video games and board games have been released in the past few years in which biodefense plays an important role.” Discussing video games like Tom Clancy’s The Division and its underlying premise that is almost identical to Operation Dark Winter, to two of my personal favorites – Plague Inc. and Pandemic, Greg gives a tour through the minefield of biodefense gaming. Rest assured though, he points to the scientific failures and epidemiological snafus that plague these games, but do not ultimately deter our enjoyment while bringing biodefense to the general public.

Zika Updates 
Following last week’s news regarding a growing number of locally acquired cases in Florida, it was also reported that 41 U.S. military members have contracted Zika. “All cases were transmitted while abroad and one of the military service members is a pregnant female. Under Pentagon health policies, female service members are permitted to move out of countries where Zika exists.” Here’s a helpful little field guide for identifying the mosquitoes that are known to transmit Zika. A new model used by researchers from Northeastern University is pointing to a vastly underestimated amount of Zika in the U.S. They note that there is probably “way more Zika in the U.S. than has been counted”. Case counts are especially challenging in a disease that leaves many asymptomatic and unlikely to be tested. In response to the growing number of locally-acquired cases (currently at 14 cases) in Miami-Dade County, there will be aerial spraying for mosquito control.  The CDC has reported 1,825 total Zika infections in the U.S. as of August 3rd and has issued a travel warning for the Miami area. President Obama also pleaded with Congress to “do its job” and approve funding to fight the growing outbreak. Donald Trump was also recently asked about how he would handle the outbreak, noting that Florida Governor, Rick Scott, “seems to have it under control”. 

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • In Memoriam of Dr. Roger Gerrard Breeze– Dr. Breeze, a preeminent veterinary research scientist and biosecurity expert passed away in late June in Washington, D.C. We are grateful to have had Dr. Breeze as a professor for GMU’s agroterrorism courses and his contribution to the field of genetic engineering and molecular biology. “Dr. Breeze was a Member of the UK Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and a member of the U.S. National Academies – Institute of Medicine’s Forum on Microbial Threats and National Academies – Committee on Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures. For the past decade, Roger served as an advisor on biosecurity and biological/chemical weapons nonproliferation issues to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.”
  • GMU Biodefense PhD Awarded FAA Graduate Research Grant– Biodefense PhD student, Nereyda Sevilla, was recently awarded a grant from the FAA for her dissertation; Germs on a Plane: The Transmission and Risks of Airplane-Borne Diseases. The Graduate Research Award Program on Public-Sector Aviation Issues is a joint sponsorship from the Federal Aviation Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation and administered by the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) of the Transportation Research Board/National Academies. You can read more about Nereyda’s work with the surveillance tool, Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeler (STEM), here.

 

Pandora Report 5.13.2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

Pandora Report 3.11.2016

TGIF! We’ve got loads of global health security updates to keep you busy why you enjoy the warm spring weather. American special forces recently captured the chief ISIS chemical weapons engineer and you may want to avoid Wonderful Co. pistachios for a bit as they’re being linked to a salmonella outbreak.

The Smallpox Battlegrounds – Laboratories and Virtual RealityScreen Shot 2016-03-07 at 10.49.30 AM
Video game fans will be excited to hear about the new Tom Clancy game, The Division, released on March 8th. This isn’t your normal action-packed video game, but rather it has something more sinister about its premiseThe Division focusses on a biochem attack involving a take over by a group called the Strategic Homeland Division aka “The Division”. The Division is compromised of sleeper agents that “act independently in the interest of restoring order after a mass event”. Now here’s where it gets spooky, the game’s premise involves a scenario that may give deja vu to many in the biodefense world- Operation Dark Winter. Operation Dark Winter was a June 2001 exercise/senior-level war game put on by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The scenario focussed on the impact and response of a smallpox outbreak coupled with tensions in the Taiwan Straits and additional crises. In a nutshell, the scenario found that “current organizational structures and capabilities are not well suited for the management of a BW attack”, media management would be challenging for the government, containment and infection prevention would present several issues, and we’d pretty much be in a whirlwind of trouble. If you’re more of a purest and The Division doesn’t appeal to you, there’s also The Collapse, which is an internet-based game that lets you simulate a smallpox outbreak. Unlike other games where the player designs the outbreak, this one is from the viewpoint of the patient. You’re patient zero with a weaponized strain of smallpox and your decisions carry with them a world of outcomes involving the spread of the disease and rate of infection. I spent some time playing The Collapse (starting at GMU for sheer irony) and found it to be very detail oriented and enjoyed the decision making components like which pharmacy I would go to, my travel destination, etc. If you’re not much of a gamer, here’s the recent WHO report on the deliberations regarding the destruction of variola virus stocks. To destroy smallpox or not to destroy smallpox, that is the question.

GMU Course Sampler & Open Houses
Looking to study and work with people that share your love of biodefense? Come check out our March 23rd GMU SPGIA Open House at 6:30pm, in Founders Hall, room 126 at our Arlington Campus! Not only will you be able to chat biodefense, but we’ll have an informational session afterward (7pm) with Dr. Koblentz (you can check out the 2/25 one here). Each session allows us to discuss global health security and answer questions related to our program and the growing field of biodefense. Can’t attend in person? Enjoy our 3/23 biodefense breakout session virtually! If you happened to miss our biodefense course sampler from 3/2, check out the recording from Dr. Koblentz’s talk on Biosecurity as a Wicked Problem.

Chinese Admission of False Korean War Allegations Involving US BW Use
Biodefense expert, Milton Leitenberg, discusses the allegations by North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, that the US used bioweapons during the Korean War. While the Soviet Central Committee declared the allegations fraudulent in 1998, China and North Korea continued to maintain that bioweapons were used. The recent publication by Wu Zhili (previously the director of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army Health Division during the Korean War) refutes these claims. Published posthumously, Wu’s testimonial is critical in dismantling the claims as he was “critically involved in the Chinese government’s manipulations that produced the Korean War BW allegations.” The initial allegations claimed that the US was testing bioweapons (specifically plague) on native Inuit peoples of Alaska and then was spreading smallpox in North Korea between December 1950- January 1951. The major allegation campaign began on February 22, 1952 though, as “the North Korean Foreign Minister again issued an official statement addressed to the United Nations Secretariat, charging that in January and February the US had made multiple air drops over North Korea, littering the earth with insects infected with the microorganisms that caused plague, cholera, and other diseases.” Leitenberg discusses these allegations and the Soviet admission of being “misled” and their claims that “the accusations against the Americans were fictitious…Soviet workers responsible for participation in the fabrication of the so-called ‘proof’ of the use of bacteriological weapons will receive severe punishment.” He goes on to discuss Wu’s publication and explanation of the tasks that were carried out to further the belief in US bioweapon applications.

Gain of Function Research
Researchers, Dr. Lipsitch, Dr. Relman, and Dr. Ingelsby, have joined together to discuss the realistic future for research that seeks to alter pathogens. Pointing to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) meeting, they note that it “marks a turning point in a year-and-a-half-long policy process to consider the risks, benefits, oversight, and regulation of experiments that are designed to create influenza and other viruses that are simultaneously highly virulent and readily transmissible by respiratory droplets between mammals.” Focus has traditionally been on the pros and cons of gain-of-function (GOF) projects however, as time passes, a narrowing of concern seems to be focussed on experiments that seek to build chimeric viruses that are highly dangerous and transmissible. They recommend the following policy approach: lift the moratorium on GOFoc, seek international consensus, secure national and international agreement to restrict the performance of GOFoc studies, design a board, establish clear red lines for GOFoc research, and require the purchase by research institutions of specific liability insurance policies. You can also read the interview with the researchers regarding the implications of such research censorships. Dr. Filippa also discusses engineering a super flu here, noting that “the debate is really about risk assessment of this gain of function work and about who should be making those assessments. Should it just be scientists, should it be their institutions, should it be funders, should it be publishers or, much more broadly, should it be regulators, vaccine manufacturers, ethicists? ”

Zika Updates
CDC and NIAID officials are becoming frustrated as they feel Congress is blocking key efforts to fight the outbreak. A recently published report on research priorities to inform public health and medical practice for domestic Zika virus can be found here. The report emphasizes the growing spread of infection and subsequent need for additional research related to transmission, infection during pregnancy, and disease characteristics . The recent WHO stakeholders meeting provided updates on the most urgently needed tools to fight the growing pandemic. The roadmap includes diagnostic tests, inactivated vaccines targeted to childbearing-aged women, and new vector control mechanisms.  As of March 9th, there were 193 confirmed travel-associated Zika cases in the U.S.  A recent study found that 42% of questioned Americans believe the virus has high mortality rates. Aedes mosquitoes are also developing resistance to the go-to insecticide.

7 Sources for Understanding Epidemics
Feeling like all this Zika news has you needing to catch up on your outbreak cliff notes? The Washington Post has put together a nice list of seven books and movies you can enjoy to help ramp up your knowledge regarding the world of pandemics. This list is a great way to understand the different viewpoints of outbreaks and pandemics from social, medical, political, and scientific viewpoints. If you find yourself wanting more, here are some additional recommendations I’m throwing in: Spillover by David Quammen, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah, and The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. Feeling like something a little bit more dramatic? Check out Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone or Demon in the Freezer, or the movies Outbreak or World War Z. With the success of Contagion, I’m still hoping Hollywood will continue to back scientifically grounded films about pandemics (between ebola and Zika virus, they’ve got enough material!).

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Why Are Mosquitoes Just So Good At Spreading Disease? Mosquitoes have been causing outbreaks since the days of ancient Rome and yet we’re still battling them in the fight against Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and more. “According to Janet McAllister, an entomologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), not all mosquitoes are good at transmitting disease, but the ones that are have evolved to live closer to humans.”
  • Global Health Security Agenda– GHSA was launched in 2014 as a multilateral approach to help protect the world from infectious disease threats. Endorsed by the G7, this agenda facilitates a “partnership of nearly 50 nations, international organizations, and non-governmental stakeholders, GHSA is facilitating collaborative, capacity-building efforts to achieve specific and measurable targets around biological threats, while accelerating achievement of the core capacities required by the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) International Health Regulations (IHR), the World Organization of Animal Health’s (OIE) Performance of Veterinary Services Pathway, and other relevant global health security frameworks.”
  • Fumbling Ebola– The San Francisco-based epidemiology company, Metabiota, is being charged with making several mistakes according to the Associated Press (AP). Recovered communication reveals that the company fueled an already chaotic situation via misdiagnoses, adding to confusion, and poor sample tracking.
  • Guidelines for Ebola Survivor Care– The WHO has published guidelines on the management and care of patients who were previously infected with Ebola. Since there are roughly 10,000 ebola survivors and several have required hospitalization for complications, these recommendations are extremely prudent. The report includes counseling, considerations for special patient populations, and common sequelae and management recommendations.

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Pandora Report 12.11.2015

If you’re in Boston and enjoying a Chipotle burrito bowl, you may want to put the fork down. As many as 80 cases of norovirus were reported in association with a Boston Chipotle. The norovirus surge occurs just months after the multi-state Chipotle-linked E. coli 026 outbreak. This week we’re discussing superbugs Star Wars style, the decline of infectious disease specialists, Ebola lab stories from the field, and much more. Fun history fact Friday: on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed and on December 10, 1901, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden 

“Phantom Menace” Superbug?
In a lab far, far away… How could we resist a Star Wars reference to antibiotic resistance? A recent CDC MMWR reported a growing incidence of a particularly concerning antibiotic-resistant organism. Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) are continuing to raise concerns due to cases related to endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) scopes. Since it’s discovery, global health experts (including the CDC) have been keeping a close eye on CRE transmission and cases. A variant of CRE, called OXA-48-type carbapenemase, was seen in Enterobacteriaceae in Turkey in 2001. 52 isolates of CRE producing OXA-48-like carbapenemases were found in 43 patients in the US from June 2010-August 2015. A study in 2012 first referenced OXA-48-like carbapenemases as the phantom menace. The concerning issue with this particular CRE strain, aside from its known-resistance, is the growing emergence in the US. The difficulty in treatment and extreme care for isolation precautions makes patient care challenging. Interestingly, for those patients who provided a travel history, the majority (66%) had traveled internationally within the year before specimen collection and 55% were actually hospitalized outside the US for at least one night. The US cases involved several clusters and were spread across 19 states. Even more worrying, the laboratory diagnosis is tricky as “most U.S. clinical laboratories that test for CRE organisms wouldn’t identify this particular type of bacteria because it’s not part of standard testing.” The increase in cases and ease of hospital transmission are just a few more reasons why antimicrobial stewardship is so vital. May the force be with you!

Ebola Surveillance & Lab Response SeminarIMG_4700
In case you missed GMU’s seminar on global health security on Monday, 12/7, here’s a recap! Speakers included Dr. Matthew Lim (Senior Policy Advisor for Global Health Security, HHS, fmr Civil-Military Liaison Officer to WHO), Jeanette Coffin (Section Manager, Biosurveillance Division, MRIGlobal), and Phil Davis (Associate Scientist with MRIGlobal). Ms. Coffin and Mr. Davis discussed the operations, supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP). The mobile lab was launched in December 2014. With only six weeks to train, prepare staff, acquire equipment, deliver, assemble, and much more, it’s a pretty impressive feat that this team pulled off. Ms. Coffin and Mr. Davis discussed how they were able to reduce much of the travel delay and time lag for Ebola testing results. Using equipment to perform RNA extraction and PCR’s, lab technicians were working in tight quarters in Moyamba and Lakka, Sierra Leone. To date, the DTRA-CBEP mobile lab operations tested 7,242 samples for Ebola. While they discussed many of the strengths like flexibility, relationship with vendors, and self-containment, there were also several challenges. Difficulties ranged from inadequate power and internet, to road reliability, food/water safety, haggling, and security issues related to petty theft and missing supply containers. Sustainability was heavily discussed as their expected withdrawal is June 2016 and the team hopes to provide education for ongoing surveillance. Next, Dr. Matthew Lim spoke of the history and impact this outbreak had on global health security. He emphasized “how much this has overturned the paradigm we have about health and security”. Dr. Lim’s discussion was fascinating in that he speaks from experience at both the WHO and HHS, pointing to the role of member states and how WHO funding cutbacks impacted outbreak response. He noted that the Global Health Security Agenda heavily emphasizes partnership of it’s 50 state members, NGO’s, and within the 11 action packages. He explained that global health affairs, in many ways, join foreign policy and health policy, highlighting the need for less siloing and more partnership to help encourage capacity measures. Overall, the standing-room-only seminar touched on both the operational struggles and the overarching role of global health security in both the Ebola outbreak, but also future preparedness efforts.

Daesh and Chem/Bioweapons?
The UK and France have moved to call ISIS, “Daesh”, to remove the association with Islam. Given Daesh’s use of mustard gas, is bioterrorism a stretch? Sandra Maksimovic-Sara of Outbreak News Today discusses their attempts to obtain biological and chemical weapons as a means of using non-conventional weapons to change their modus operandi. While she doesn’t mention tacit knowledge, Maksimovic-Sara notes that “for a biological and chemical terrorist attack, there must be some know-how and background and a professional approach, which is so far away from impatient aggressive Islamic terrorists gathered in Daesh. They want fast track acts and fast track results.” While preparedness efforts must account for a variety of attacks, it’s vital to remember technical limitations. As Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley noted, tacit knowledge is a significant hurdle for non-state actors to overcome in their quest for bioweapons.

To Quarantine or Not To Quarantine? 
The fallout of the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak is still ongoing and while many US hospitals feel they are better prepared to handle cases, there are many that experienced negative treatment related to preparedness efforts. There have been several returned travelers from the affected countries that were put into quarantine upon arrival in their home country. While many were involved in patient care, there are several that had no interaction with patients and experienced what many would call, “fearbola“. While quarantine efforts are important for those that may have had patient interaction, risk assessments are vital. Sheri Fink of The New York Times notes that several states “have the legal authority to impose quarantines, often exceeded those guidelines, restricting the movements of returning health workers and others.” Many who were quarantined experienced public harassment, media scrutiny, and some have filed lawsuits for civil rights violations.

France’s Bioterrorism Preparedness
Given the November terrorist attacks in Paris, it’s not surprising that France is looking to ramp up their biodefense efforts. Following the arrival of a third generation vaccine, France has decided to revise its smallpox preparedness and response plans. Last revisited in 2006, the plan is to vaccinate first responders and healthcare professionals that are most likely to identify and care for smallpox cases. Smallpox has long been an organism of concern for bioweapon applications. In coordination with the Secrétariat Général de la Défense et la Security Nationale, (SGDSN- General Secretariat for Defense and National Security) these plans will include the new vaccine, Imvanex, that was developed by the Danish biotech company, Bavarian Nordic, “on behalf of the US under Bioshield”. While the new plan involves “circles” of people, the new transgenic vaccine has vastly decreased the side effects that were commonly associated with first and second generational variola vaccines. In the past, smallpox vaccines were associated with high volumes of side effects, which was a roadblock to previous mass-vaccination efforts as a biodefense strategy. France has several biopreparedness strategies that include a syndromic surveillance program, SurSaUD, a White Plan, and many other efforts to prevent, identify, and respond to health security threats. The updated French plans hope to “frustrate and deter terrorists” as well as respond to concerns of re-emerging infectious diseases. Elisande Nexon presents an overview of France’s biopreparedness efforts and the public health threats they may encounter. While the November attacks in Paris will most likely initiate additional changes to France’s biopreparedness, their existing methods are extensive and reveal national support for biodefense.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Infectious Disease Specialists on the Decline – The National Resident Matching Program (responsible for matching medical students with specialty training programs) announced that of the 335 infectious disease fellowship positions available, only 218 were filled. This is especially concerning as it follows several years of low matching for infectious disease positions. The Infectious Disease Society of America has even begun brainstorming recruiting tactics for what many consider a “thinking specialty” that may not have the glamor or pay that draws students into the field. Speaking from experience as an infection preventionist, the infectious disease physicians I have worked with were by far the most dedicated, intelligent, and passionate people. I think we can all safely agree that the world needs more infectious disease specialists, especially following outbreaks like those of Ebola and Zika virus.
  • USAMRIID Supported Study Traces Ebola Outbreak – a recent study lead by USAMRIID found that a majority of the Liberian Ebola cases “can be traced back to a form of the virus transmitted from Sierra Leone”. The sequencing of hundreds of isolates also supports the role of high-density neighborhoods as an accelerant for the outbreak. Interestingly, researchers found that the Ebola strain diversified in Liberia prior to being transmitted to cases in Guinea and Mali.
  • Yamuna River Harbors High Volume of Antibiotic-Resistant Organisms – Researchers found that the Yamuna river in Dehli, India, had an alarmingly high amount of resistant organisms. There were large quantities of several organisms found that showed resistance to many common antibiotics like ampicillin, streptomycin, etc.
  • MERS Was the Most 2015 Googled Word in Korea – also considered Korea’s “hottest” Twitter issue, MERS became the most searched topic after the first patient was confirmed on May 20th.