Pandora Report 5.19.2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories You May Have Missed:

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

 

 

Pandora Report 10.23.2015

Happy Infection Prevention Week! Make sure to give any infection preventionists you know a big hug or at least a hearty handshake (only clean hands though!). Not only do we get to celebrate National Infection Prevention week, but it’s also National Biosafety Stewardship Month, so get your party hand sanitizer ready to go and let the frivolity begin! Foodborne illness is the name of the game this week and we’ll be discussing outbreaks. Friendly reminder – the influenza vaccine is available in most offices/clinics now, so get your flu shot as there have already been cases springing up across the US. Fun fact – did you know that a report published this week identified Yersinia pestis in the tooth of a Bronze Age individual, which means there were plague infected humans 3,300 years earlier than we thought!

National Biosafety Stewardship Month – October is National Biosafety Stewardship Month (thanks NIH!) to celebrate and encourage people to focus on biosafety policies, practices, and procedures. Given the lab biosafety issues we’ve seen recently, I think we can all safely (or should I say, “biosafely”?) agree that a little extra attention to these issues and the promotion of better practices is a great thing. Institutions are encouraged to use more of a just culture approach to incident reporting and to promote public transparency. Happy National Biosafety Stewardship Month!

Water Quality for the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, 2016
The 2016 Summer Olympics are fast approaching and with any large event, health issues become a main concern. The WHO is providing technical advice to the Brazilian national authorities regarding public health concerns, as well as to the International Olympic Committee and the Local Organizing Committee. Clean drinking water, sewage pollution, and a host of other health issues can become a nightmare during such a large-scale event. While there aren’t recommendations for specific viral testing of the water, the WHO does encourage additional testing in the event of an outbreak. Sanitary inspections and other preventative procedures are being recommended to avoid outbreaks and public health issues. As we get closer to the 2016 Olympics, it is very likely concerns over vector-borne diseases will be addressed through vector control and public health education.

CDC Launches Redesigned FOOD Tool for Foodborne Outbreaks 

Courtesy of CDC FOOD Tool
Courtesy of CDC FOOD Tool

The CDC has updated their online foodborne illness outbreak investigation tool! The Foodborne Outbreak Online Database Tool (FOOD Tool) allows the user to search the outbreak database by state, food, ingredient, year, location of food preparation, and organism. The FOOD Tool also provides the case information related to the outbreak, so users can see the number of affected persons, hospitalizations, deaths and laboratory-confirmed organisms. This database pulls from CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System (FDOSS) and allows users to not only look at data and trends over time, but also compare their cases to other outbreaks.

Syrian Refugee Resettlement and Why We Should Be Letting Them All In 
Dr. Trevor Thrall, one of our amazing GMU Biodefense professors, has written a piece for The Atlantic on the importance and benefits of taking in all Syrian refugees. Dr. Thrall discusses the limitations of addressing the root cause of the Syrian conflict and how the US and its European allies should take in refugees. Discussing the military alternatives to the Syrian crisis, he states, “going in militarily is not the answer, then. Instead, those civilians under threat should get out. Refugees typically receive support in the countries to which they flee, but the vast numbers involved in this case threaten to overwhelm Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, which have so far accommodated the vast majority of the outflow.” Dr. Thrall points out that while resettlement would cost a substantial amount of money, it would cost far less than military intervention and you simply can not ignore the moral superiority in aiding refugees.

Chipotle’s Bad Tomatoes Came From Nation’s Largest Field Producer
To our readers in Minnesota, did you happen to eat at a Chipotle in August? If so, we hope you weren’t one of the affected individuals that contracted Salmonella Newport as a result of contaminated tomatoes. The Minnesota Department of Health investigated the 64 cases resulting from this outbreak, however it was just released that the contaminated tomatoes were actually supplied by Six L’s Packing Co (doing business as Lipman Produce), which is actually one of the largest tomato suppliers in the US. Packing 15 million boxes of tomatoes this past year, Lipman was later dropped as a supplier by Chipotle after learning of the source of contaminated produce. The tomatoes were removed but it’s estimated that during the window of exposure, roughly 560,000 people consumed Chipotle. The good news is that we’re out of the incubation period, so if you happened to eat at a Minnesota Chipotle, you’re in the clear.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • 80 Illnesses Linked to Shigella Outbreak; CA Seafood Restaurant Closed –  Mariscos San Juan in San Jose, CA is currently closed after the Santa Clara County Health Department connected a recent outbreak of Shigella to their food. While the exact source hasn’t been identified, over 93 people were sickened in relation to contaminated food at the restaurant.
  • Subway to Phase Out Poultry Products Raised With Antibiotics–  On Tuesday, Subway Restaurants announced that they will be transitioning to only serve poultry products that have been raised without antibiotics by early next year. Other chain restaurants, like Chick-fil-A and Chipotle, are jumping on the train to phase out chicken and turkey products that were raised with antibiotics.
  • Scottish Nurse and Ebola Complications – Pauline Cafferkey continues to battle post-Ebola complications. Reports last week noted neurological issues and it was recently reported that she has meningitis after the virus persisted in her brain and CSF after her initial recovery. Ongoing research is looking into the long-term effects of the disease as the West African outbreak was the largest in history and researchers have never had the opportunity to look at chronic issues associated with disease recovery.

Pandora Report 10.2

All this rain and grey weather (at least in DC) makes us want to curl up with a good book and luckily, we’ve got just the reading list! This week we’re sharing some top-notch work by our phenomenal faculty and alumni for you to enjoy. Earlier this week, straight out of a James Bond movie, Elon Musk presented Tesla’s Model X and its Bioweapon Defense Mode. Google had its 2015 Science Fair and a pretty amazing high school student took home top honors for her work on Ebola. Did I mention Kansas is prepping for the zombie apocalypse? Needless to say, there was a lot going on this week in the world of biodefense, so let’s venture down the rabbit hole….

 Zombie Preparedness Month Starts for Kansas 
I’m thinking we may need to take a class trip to Kansas since Governor, Sam Brownback, will be signing a proclamation to officially designate October as “Zombie Preparedness Month”! Brownback’s rationale is to emphasize preparedness in any form, stating, “If you’re prepared for zombies, you’re prepared for anything. Although an actual zombie apocalypse will never happen, the preparation for such an event is the same as for any disaster: make a disaster kit, have a plan, and practice it.” During Zombie Preparedness Month, state emergency management services will have activities and information for residents to help get their preparedness on. They’ll also be using social media to engage people people on these topics. The one thing we’ve learned in biodefense, Gov. Brownback, is to never say never!

Connecticut Teen Wins Google Science Award By Developing Affordable Ebola Test
High school junior, Olivia Hallisey, just took home the Google Science Fair top prize for developing an affordable and easy Ebola test in her project, “Ebola Assay Card”, which quickly (we’re talking 30 minutes quick!) detects the virus and doesn’t require refrigeration. Each test only costs $25 and picks up antigens on photo paper. Hallisey summarizes, “In this new device, that is stable and stored at room temperature, 30µl drops of water were used to dissolve silk-embedded reagents, initiating a timed-flow towards a center detection zone, where a positive (colored) result confirmed the presence of 500pg/ml Ebola(+)control antigens in 30min, at a cost of $25,” Hallisey hopes this project will encourage other girls to pursue their passions in science. Hallisey is truly an inspiration and we tip our hats to her passion for solving world problems while encouraging her peers!

Let’s Talk Dual-Use!
Come listen and chat with Dr. David R. Franz, former commander of USAMRIID, about balancing research and regulations when it comes to dual-use!
Date & Time: Monday, October 5, 2015, 4:30-6pm
Location: Hanover Hall, L-003 George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, see map

​Dr. Franz was the Chief Inspector on three United Nations Special Commission biological warfare inspection missions to Iraq and served as technical advisor on long-term monitoring.  He also served as a member of the first two US-UK teams that visited Russia in support of the Trilateral Joint Statement on Biological Weapons and as a member of the Trilateral Experts’ Committee for biological weapons negotiations.  He previously served as member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). Dr. Franz currently serves on several committees including the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control and the National Research Council Board on Life Sciences. Dr. Franz is a leader in the areas of cooperative threat reduction and health security and an expert in the development of U.S. regulations for biological threat reduction and biological security.  Dr. Franz will discuss the history and current debates related to U.S. and international regulations for select agents, dual use research of concern, and gain-of-function experiments.

1977 H1N1 Influenza Reemergence Reveals Gain-of-Function Hazards
Dr. Martin Furmanski discusses the gain-of-function (GoF) research hazards in relation to the 1977 H1N1 strain and it’s laboratory origins. Highlighting a previous article on the GoF debate, Dr. Furmanski notes that “separating the risks of vaccine development from those of basic GoF research is inappropriate, because GoF research seeks to discover antigenic and genomic changes that facilitate human-to-human transmission and/or augment virulence, with the aim of preemptively producing vaccines.” He also notes that while the 1977 H1N1 epidemic originated in a lab and it’s release was unintentional, the culprit laboratory matters little in the GoF debate.

Define Acceptable Cyberspace Behavior
GMU Biodefense alum, Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein, discusses the US-China cybersecurity agreement and the Friday announcement between Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama. The agreement highlights the mutual desire to prevent cybertheft of business secrets. Dr. Gerstein emphasizes that while this agreement is a step in the right direction, it points to larger preparedness and response capability gaps. He notes, “So while a U.S.-China agreement is a welcome step, it also underscores the greater issues facing the United States, and indeed the international community, in this largely ungoverned space.” Dr. Gerstein highlights the necessity to define cyberspace boundaries, especially as there are delays in DHS security system deployments while US vulnerabilities continue to develop.

Implementation for the US Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern
As of September 24, 2015, all institutions and USG funded agencies are now required to comply with the policies. Agencies now must have “a mechanisms in place to evaluate research that is potentially Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC).” Institutions must also organize an Institutional Review Entity (IRE) to review and manage compliance with these requirements.

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley’s  new book, Barriers to Bioweapons, received glowing reviews in the latest issue of Perspective on Politics. Her work, which is a staple for biodefense courses, and particularly this text, focusses on the perception of risk and lethality of bioweapons while addressing the realities of these assumptions. Ouagrham-Gormley discusses the key role of tacit versus explicit knowledge in the development and dissemination barriers for bioweapons. “The author identifies important factors internal to a weapons-development program- talented individuals and cohesive groups, corporate culture, communities of practice, organization structure- as critical nodes or ‘reservoirs’ of knowledge that must be configured to optimize the sharing of ideas and information.” The case studies of Iraqi and South African programs, as well as Aum Shinrikyo, lay the foundation for her points on the role of internal and external variables that can hinder or help a bioweapons program. Whether you’re reading  it for class (GMU Biodefense folks, I’m looking at you!) or you’re looking to brush up on nonproliferation, this book is a well-written and captivating necessity to understand bioweapon development. Did I mention how awesome the cover is?
Our very own GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Dr. Denise N. Baken, has a wonderful new book being released – let’s check it out! Al Qaeda : The Transformation of Terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa examines violence and the way it is marketed by the global terrorism industry.  Authors Denise Baken and Ioannis Mantzikos frame the violence discussion through the prism of its use by Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).Baken and Mantzikos look at the business parameters of violence –its cost, return on investment, efficiency, and effectiveness; They propose a new approach to that violence. One that looks at violence as a controlled commodity that evolved from Al Qaeda’s initial presentation of future possibilities, AQAP exploited those possibilities and ISIS pushed the boundaries of usability.
Stories You May Have Missed:

Pandora Report 9.11.15

Miss us? Good news – the Pandora Report weekly update is back! With a new school year comes new faces and some organizational change-up. Dr. Gregory Koblentz is now the Senior Editor of Pandora Report and Saskia Popescu (yours truly) will be taking over from Julia Homstad as the Managing Editor. I come from the world of epidemiology, public health, and infection control. Having just started in the GMU Biodefense PhD program, I look forward to venturing down the rabbit hole that is the Pandora Report!

There’s been some pretty fascinating news over the past few weeks, so let’s try and catch up…

Lab Safety Concerns Grow 

Our very own Dr. Gregory Koblentz, director of the GMU Biodefense program, was interviewed by USA Today regarding the lab security issues that now involve mislabeled samples of plague. “Since there are now concerns about the biosafety practices at multiple DoD labs there needs to be an independent review of the military’s biosafety policies and practices,” Koblentz said Thursday. He said the Critical Reagents Program is an important biodefense resource. “It’s crucial that all problems with handling and shipping inactivated samples be resolved quickly so the program can resume its important role in strengthening U.S. biopreparedness.”

Reviving a 30,000-Year-Old Virus…Isn’t This How the Zombie Apocalypse Starts?

You may recall last year that French scientists stumbled across a 30,000-year-old virus frozen in the Siberian permafrost. Considered to be a “giant virus” (doesn’t that give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside?), this is actually the fourth ancient, giant viral discovery since 2003. The new plan is to try to revive the virus in order to better study it.

Dr. Claverie told Agency France-Presse, “If we are not careful, and we industrialise these areas without putting safeguards in place, we run the risk of one day waking up viruses such as smallpox that we though were eradicated.” Given the recent concerns over biosafety lab specimen transport, we’re all curious to see how this new organism, coined “Frankenvirus”, turns out!

Cucumbers and A Multi-State Salmonella Outbreak

CDC updates regarding the Salmonella Poona outbreak reveal the brevity of the potentially contaminated product. As of September 9th, there have been two deaths, 70 hospitalizations, and 341 confirmed cases across 30 states. Perhaps the most worrisome is that 53% of affected individuals are children under the age of 18. While the produce company, Andrew & Williamson, issued a voluntary recall of their “slicer” or “American cucumber on September 4th, there have been 56 additional cases reported since then. Isolated samples from cucumbers in question were found in Arizona, California, Montana, and Nevada. The California Department of Public Health issued a warning and pictures of the affected cucumbers. 

Stories You May Have Missed:

The Ebola Vaccine and the Ethics of Drug Trials

By Greg Mercer

The World Health Organization recently announced that a trial of the VSV-EBOV Ebola virus vaccine in Guinea has been “highly effective,” and that randomization in the trial would be stopped to allow for expansion of the range of subjects and protection of more people against the virus.  The trial began in March, and until recently, randomized subjects so that some received the vaccine immediately, while others received it later, after the virus’ gestation period.

A paper published in The Lancet details the study, and finds that the vaccine is highly effective and likely safe to use in the affected population.  The “recombinant, replication-competent vesicular stomatitis virus-based” vaccine is administered in a single dose via the deltoid muscle.  4,123 people received the vaccination immediately, while 3,528 people received the delayed vaccination (more on the study methodology in a moment). The researchers found that no subjects developed a case of Ebola after receiving the immediate or delayed vaccination, meaning that the vaccine proved 100% effective (with p=0.0036 at 95% CI).  These findings are excellent news for researchers, government officials, and those in the affected counties, and are fascinating from a scientific standpoint.

At The New Republic, Timothy Lahey, of Dartmouth, argues that these results, while promising, aren’t necessarily confirmed.  He notes that the lack of a placebo (because of the study’s particular methodology) makes it difficult to determine effectiveness, the vaccine could have failed to protect subjects from infection in a way that the study didn’t detect, and that a statistical aberration could mean that while the vaccine is not actually 100 % effective.  Regardless of whether these potential pitfalls affected the study or not, Lahey raises an important issue in drug testing for a disease like Ebola.  He is concerned that a lower standard for vaccines could mean that lower-income countries might not receive drugs of the same quality as rich countries, and points to past failed vaccines to illustrate the fallacy of believing that all vaccines work as intended.

The ethical dilemmas of drug testing have been front and center in the Ebola crisis.  Back in November, 2014, Nature reported on public health officials weighing the question of whether to use control groups when testing treatments for a disease with 70% mortality.  At the time, some advocated for applying experimental treatments (like the ZMapp antiviral cocktail, which had been used in patients but whose effectiveness was not entirely determined) to all patients, while others argued that these treatments might not be more effective than standard care, and that randomized trials guard against harmful side effects and provide a clearer picture of a drug’s effectiveness.

The VSV-EBOV vaccine was tested in the “ring” method that was previously used in the eradication of Smallpox.  This method eschews the double-blind placebo treatments commonly associated with drug trials.  Instead, this method creates a “ring” around new cases.  Contacts and contacts of contacts were identified by Guinea’s tracking system, and eligible adults were entered into randomization blocks, and received either the immediate or delayed vaccination.  This way, all of the subjects received the treatment, but in varying circumstances to establish effectiveness.  The full study is available via The Lancet.

Ethical drug testing is a crucial consideration, and has an imperfect past.  The National Institutes of Health’s own ethics guide cites a study that led to the United States’ ethics rules: a study that withheld syphilis treatment from 400 African-American men.  And for many, there’s good reason to be concerned about the actions of international organizations and multinational corporations.  In 1996, Pfizer conducted a study of an experimental drug on children with meningitis in Nigeria. While Pfizer maintained that the study was philanthropic, allegations arose from Nigerians and international organizations that children and parents were not informed that they were part of a study, and that Pfizer withheld treatment without consent or administered dangerous drugs.  The incident spawned a series of lawsuits and a panel of Nigerian medial experts condemned Pfizer’s actions in 2006, as reported by The Washington Post.

Epidemics and drug testing present a multitude of practical and ethical concerns, but careful consideration of the issues and sound methodology can, as they did in Guinea, produce exciting scientific and humanitarian results.

Image Credit: Psychonaught

Pandora Report 05.17.15

Yowza! That’s another semester in the books for the GMU Biodefense students. Please excuse the sparse activity on the blog, but with the semester over, things should be getting back to normal.

This weekend we have a updates on Ebola and the bird flu outbreak in the U.S., plus other stories you may have missed.

Have a great week, (enjoy the Mad Men finale!) and see you back here next weekend!

Ebola is (still) living in an American doctor’s eye

As an update, Liberia has (finally) been declared Ebola free, the number of cases in Guinea continue to rise due to transmissions at funerals, and those in Sierra Leone are dying less from Ebola than from other diseases due to the collapse of the healthcare system. It’s been over a year and we are still learning things about Ebola and its persistence on hospital surfaces, sexual fluids, and now, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the eye. WHO volunteer Ian Crozier was diagnosed in Sierra Leone and transported to Emory University where he was treated. Months later he returned to the hospital with symptoms like blurred vision and acute pain in his left eye. The cause? Ebola.

The Washington Post—“Ebola may have found refuge in patients’ eyes because, researchers said, the eye is walled off from the immune system. As the New York Times put it: “The barriers are not fully understood, but they include tightly packed cells in minute blood vessels that keep out certain cells and molecules, along with unique biological properties that inhibit the immune system.” This phenomenon is called “immune privilege” — and it means the eye can harbor viruses.”

America’s $45 Billion Poultry Industry Has a (Really) Bad Case of Bird Flu

The title says it all, frankly. Since early December 2014 three strains of highly pathogenic avian influenza have been circulating in North America. A state of emergency has been declared in Iowa (one of the hardest hit states) and over 21 million birds have been killed to contain and prevent the spread of the virus. Beyond the culling of birds, the outbreak is having an affect on business—China, South Korea, and Mexico have banned imports of U.S. poultry (to protect their own industries.)

The Motley Fool—“Falling exports could hurt farmers, but it could also help to offset domestic price increases from less supply. Although, with tens of millions of bird deaths and no end in sight to the pandemic, domestic food prices could be the largest casualty in the end.”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: 8thstar

Pandora Report 4.19.15

Sunday has to be the biggest brunch day of the week, so it is only fitting that our lead story looks at the many (delicious and nutritious) uses of maple syrup. We also look at Dengue fever in Brazil, missteps in the U.S. fight against Ebola, and other stories you may have missed.

Once you’re updated, get out there and enjoy the rest of your weekend and the beautiful weather! Have a great week!

Syrup Extract Found to Make Antibiotics More Effective Against Bacteria

It seems like we look at growing antibiotic resistance every week here at Pandora Report. This week, researchers at McGill University in Montreal reported that a “concentrated extract of maple syrup makes disease-causing bacteria more susceptible to antibiotics.” This finding suggests that combining the extract with antibiotics could increase their effectiveness and lead to lower antibiotic usage overall. Honestly, is there anything maple syrup can’t make better?!

Infection Control Today—“‘We would have to do in vivo tests, and eventually clinical trials, before we can say what the effect would be in humans,” [Professor Nathalie] Tufenkji says. “But the findings suggest a potentially simple and effective approach for reducing antibiotic usage. I could see maple syrup extract being incorporated eventually, for example, into the capsules of antibiotics.’”

Brazilian Teams on Alert because of Dengue Fever Outbreak

Brazilian soccer teams are on high alert because of a dengue fever outbreak that has already affected some of the country’s top teams. This week three players were diagnosed with the mosquito borne disease, which normally takes about two weeks to recover from. Players have been forced to use insect repellent during games and practices and health officials have been asked to check fields and training centers for mosquito breeding sites.

USA Today—“Cases of dengue fever have increased significantly across Brazil this year, with most of them reported in Sao Paulo state. Brazil’s health ministry said there have been more than 460,000 cases of the disease in the country in 2015, which accounts for almost 5,000 cases a day. More than 130 people have died so far this year, the ministry said.”

Empty Ebola Clinics in Liberia Are Seen as A Misstep in U.S. Relief Effort

After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and deploying 3,000 U.S. troops to build Ebola treatment centers (E.T.C.) in Liberia, the facilities have largely sat empty. Only 28 Ebola patients have been treated at the 11 E.T.C.s built by the U.S. military. Nine of the centers never had a single Ebola patient. Looking back, the emphasis on building E.T.C.s had far less of an impact than the “inexpensive, nimble measures taken by residents to halt the outbreak.”

The New York Times—“Had the Americans and other donors been more flexible, critics and some officials contend, the money could have been put toward rebuilding Liberia’s shattered health care system—or backing the efforts of local communities—instead of focusing on treatment centers that would scarcely be used.”

Stories You May Have Missed

 

Image Credit: Dvortygirl

#tbt GMU’s Person of the Year 2014

We all remember that Time Magazine awarded the Ebola Fighters their Person of the Year, right?

Well, George Mason President Angel Cabrera recognized Audrey Ferguson, an Ebola fighter who attended GMU, as his Mason Person of the Year. This is what he had to say about Audrey:

I was delighted, and not surprised, that one of our alumni was among the many unsung heroes who “risked, persisted and sacrificed” to save lives.  And I loved the piece of Mason Pride that she found and shared with us from the heart of Liberia.

When Audrey first came to Mason, she intended to study global affairs. Then she decided to pursue nursing and minor in global affairs, a combination not possible at many other institutions. It’s great that Mason enabled her to pursue both interests and helped prepare her for the important work that she is doing in our community and around the world.

Read Dr. Cabrera’s post here.

Pandora Report 4.5.15

I love when the stories find me, so we’ve got some big ones this week including the nuclear deal with Iran and the arrival of multi-drug resistant Shigella in the United States. We’ve also got an Ebola update and other stories you may have missed.

Enjoy your (Easter) Sunday, have a great week and see you back here next weekend!

An Iran Nuclear Deal Built on Coffee, All-Nighters and Compromise

For months—many, many, months—there has been discussion of potential for Iranian nuclear weapons and what the U.S. planned to do about it. This week, those questions were finally answered as a nuclear agreement between American and Iranian officials was reached in Lausanne, Switzerland.

New York Times—“The agreement calls for Tehran to slash its stockpile of nuclear materials and severely limit its enrichment activities, theoretically bringing the time it would take to produce a nuclear weapon to a year — a significant rollback from the current estimate of two to three months.

Both sides made significant compromises. For the United States, that meant accepting that Iran would retain its nuclear infrastructure in some shrunken form. For Iran, it meant severe limits on its production facilities and submitting to what Mr. Obama has called the most intrusive inspections regime in history.”

Drug-Resistant Food Poisoning Lands in the U.S.

Before I travelled to China in 2012, my doctor prescribed me ciprofloxacin. It was, in his opinion, almost guaranteed I would come into contact with some sort of bacteria that would result in the dreaded “travel tummy.” Now, Cipro-resistant Shigella (a bacterial infection of the intestines) is becoming a growing problem in Asia and around the world. Over the past year, the resistant strain has shown up in 32 U.S. states and was linked with international travel to India, the Dominican Republic, and Morocco. However, in many instances, people who got sick hadn’t travelled outside the U.S. meaning the strain has already started to circulate unrelated to international travel. This could be a real problem.

NPR—“‘If rates of resistance become this high, in more places, we’ll have very few options left for treating Shigella with antibiotics by mouth,” says epidemiologist Anna Bowen, who led the study. Then doctors will have to resort to IV antibiotics.

Shigella is incredibly contagious. It spreads through contaminated food and water. “As few as 10 germs can cause an infection,” Bowen says. “That’s much less than some other diarrhea-causing germs.’”

This Week in Ebola

It’s been awhile since we’ve had an Ebola update, which should mostly be interpreted as a good sign. And there are good signs, like the two experimental trials of Ebola vaccine candidates have proven to be both safe and effective. However, during a three-day countrywide shutdown in Sierra Leone, 10 new cases of Ebola were found. The good news is that there were not hundreds of hidden cases, as some feared, and the Head of Sierra Leone’s Ebola Response has said the small figures indicate that the country is now at the “tail end” of the epidemic. If things are going relatively well in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ebola still remains entrenched in Guinea. This week Guinea closed its border with Sierra Leone as an effort to stamp out the virus. Even those who aren’t sick, or have recovered, must still deal with the after effects of the disease. This week, the Liberian government recommended that all Ebola survivors practice “safe sex indefinitely” until more information can be collected on the length of time the virus may remain present in bodily fluids. All these stories should serve as a reminder that even though Ebola may not be as present in the news, the disease is still affecting people around the world.

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Zeynel Cebeci

Pandora Report 3.21.15

This week we’ve got stories about pets and antibiotic resistance, a new Ebola patient in Liberia, rapid neutralization of chemical weapons, and other stories you may have missed.

Have a great week and see you back here next weekend!

Antibiotic Use in Pets Could Give Rise to Superbugs, Experts Warn

We all know that the overuse and over-prescription of antibiotics is leading to the end of antibiotic effectiveness and the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. According to Health Canada, this extends beyond humans to our furry friends, too. Many pet owners are purchasing the drugs at pet stores, but just like with humans, pets require monitored use of antibiotics and appropriate prescriptions for antibiotic treatment.

CBC News—“‘It might be cheaper, but it might cost you more in the long run if you don’t treat it right — if the dog gets another problem or needs a different antibiotic, or gets sicker, or dies because of inappropriate treatment. Or it might be that it builds up a resistance bacterium, then it gets an infection later that’s harder to treat or passes it to you and you get the disease,” said [Dr. Scott] Weese [infectious disease specialist at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph].

Liberia Officials: New Patient Tests Positive for Ebola

This week, 16 Americans were flown from West Africa (via a really cool plane) back to the U.S. after exposure to Ebola from an infected Partners in Health co-worker. And lest those fighting the outbreak become too complacent, a new case of the virus has been diagnosed in Liberia. This news is especially devastating because the last patient with Ebola in Liberia was discharged on March 5 and the country was in the midst of the 42-day countdown that ensures the country is disease free. This new patient arrived in the emergency room of a Monrovia hospital on Thursday night, March 20.

Time—“She was identified as a suspected Ebola case and transferred to the hospital’s transit unit, where she could be isolated while awaiting test results. She is now at a treatment center. In a worrying sign, it is not clear where the woman became infected. She doesn’t seem to be linked to any of the people on an Ebola contacts list, [Dr. Francis]Kateh [acting head of Liberia’s Ebola Incident Management Team] said.”

A New Synthetic Compound Can Neutralize Chemical Weapons in Minutes 

A team of scientists from Northwestern University have developed a new compound that can deactivate chemical weapons in minutes. A naturally occurring enzyme usually produced by bacteria—called phosphotriesterases—can deactivate some pesticides, and nerve gases, in milliseconds. Researchers attempted to reproduce the same effects using a synthetic catalyst.

Gizmodo—“In tests published in Nature Materials, the team used their catalyst to deactivate a pesticide similar to nerve agents but safer to use in the lab. Experiments showed that the new compounds—known as NU-1000—deactivated half of the pesticide in 15 minutes. Further testing by U.S army facilities has shown that it neutralizes half of the nerve agent GD—more toxic than the well-known sarin—in just three minutes. The researchers claim that that’s 80 times faster than any previous compound has managed.”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Lhixon