Welcome back to your weekly biodefense roundup! To start things off on a light note and since it’s official summer, enjoy this satirical piece on the existence of public pools. In truth, public pools are a mixture of fun and risk for waterborne diarrheal diseases, so remember to stay safe. The NIH has given the green light for CRISPR-Cas9 clinical trials for cell therapies related to cancer treatment. Japan is currently on alert for a possible North Korean ballistic missile launch. Lastly, even though the outbreak appears over, many are discussing the aftermath of Ebola and if it’s really behind us
Tales from the Front Lines of Disease Detective Cases
Foreign Policy‘s Laurie Garrett discusses epidemic fighters, especially the work of Ali Khan, and his quest to speak the truth about epidemics. Khan’s work as an EIS officer and former Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (PHPR) has given him a wealth of knowledge from being in the trenches of global outbreaks. Khan’s new book, The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers, discusses his experiences from the Amerithrax attacks to the debate on smallpox sample destruction. “Khan writes, the most vital problem-solving exercise has little to do with science, and everything to do with social customs. In 2015, Khan was involved in an out-of-control moment in the Ebola epidemic of Sierra Leone. Long after neighboring Liberia had its outbreak down to a handful of cases, the military-run campaign in Sierra Leone was losing the support of the people by imposing mass quarantines, shutting down entire regions of the country for long periods. Out of the discontent over loss of business, food, and trade arose false leaders claiming witchcraft practiced by the foreigners and magic were spreading the Ebola — not intangible things few could comprehend, like ‘viruses.'” The blend of public health preparedness and front-line outbreak response gives Khan a unique and appreciated perspective into the world of global health security.
Why Hasn’t Disease Wiped Out the Human Race?
University of Pittsburgh’s infectious disease physician, Amesh Adalja, discusses why an infectious disease event with the magnitude of the Andromeda Strain is a bit more unlikely than people realize. He notes that an “apocalyptic pathogen” needs to be in the right place at the right time – more specifically, a combination of having no existing treatment or vaccine and high transmissibility prior to the start of symptoms. “The three infectious diseases most likely to be considered extinction-level threats in the world today—influenza, HIV, and Ebola—don’t meet these two requirements. Influenza, for instance, despite its well-established ability to kill on a large scale, its contagiousness, and its unrivaled ability to shift and drift away from our vaccines, is still what I would call a ‘known unknown.’ While there are many mysteries about how new flu strains emerge, from at least the time of Hippocrates, humans have been attuned to its risk.” Adalja notes that beyond these three (I’ll call them the Big Three), all the other infectious diseases out there fall short of meeting the global extinction sweet spot. Perhaps one of the most crucial lessons to take away from Adalja’s comments isn’t that we should ignore or diminish the impact of infectious diseases, but that institutional failure and infrastructure instability can often do more damage during an outbreak than the disease. With the growing concern related to antibiotic resistance Dr. Adalja notes that “to me, antibiotic resistance represents the most pressing challenge in the realm of infectious disease and, if it is not overcome, we face the very real prospect of being dragged back to the pre-penicillin era in which even routine surgery was a gamble.”
Iceland, Horses, and Hendra
GMU Biodefense MS student, Greg Mercer, can’t even go on vacation without thinking about global health security, but lucky for us, that means we get to learn about Icelandic horses and Hendra! Fueling our fascination with all things related to One Health and spillover, Greg discusses the exportation of Icelandic horses (look at them, wouldn’t you want one?) but also that importation of horses is banned in Iceland. Even an Icelandic horse that was sent abroad for a short period of time can’t return home. Greg notes that its been this way for a hundreds of years and while the import rules maintain purebred status, the ban also protects against disease. “Iceland has few natural horse diseases, and the breeder I spoke to said that Icelandic horses are frequently unvaccinated, which would be very unusual in the rest of the world. When they’re exported, they have to be treated as if they don’t have any immune protection. The import ban prevents foreign diseases from entering the country (via other horses, anyway).” Check out Greg’s Icelandic experience and why horse diseases struck a cord during his travels.
Incorporating More One Health Into the Global Health Security Diet
Some may say we need more cowbell, but in the world of global health security, we need more One Health. The One Health Commission and the One Health Initiative are teaming up to help create and promote a global education plan that will focus on the “unifying interconnected health of humans, animals, and the environment that sustains all life on earth.” A recent paper looks to accumulate interested parties and help drive the project forward. The drive behind this partnership is to capture the younger generations and lay a strong foundation of One Health education and support. “The overall intent of the concept paper is to raise awareness about the urgent need for the development and to explore the concept further through a small pre-project proposal conference (possibly off and/or on-line) with a view to fleshing out a strong plan to fund the envisioned global learning program.” The group is currently organizing the pre-project proposal conference, but in the mean time, if you’ve already got some great ideas or are interested in participating in spreading the One Health message, check out their website here.
Zika Weekly Updates
Inovio Pharmaceuticals announced on 6/20 that it received FDA clearance for the phase 1 clinical trials for its Zika vaccine. Clinical trials are set to begin by the end of this year for the DNA-based vaccine. A new study finds that the Zika epidemic can be fielded by climate variations on multiple timescales. Researchers utilized a novel timescale-decomposition methodology and found that “the increasingly probable 2016-2017 La Nina suggests that ZIKV response strategies adapted for a drought context in Brazil may need to be revised to accommodate the likely return of heavy rainfall.” The CDC has also recently issued guidance for travelers visiting friends in areas with ongoing transmission of Chikungunya, Dengue, or Zika. The NIH is launching a large study in efforts to answer questions about Zika virus and pregnancy. Hoping to enroll 10,000 pregnant girls and women (ages 15 and older) in their first trimesters, the study will look to long-term impacts on babies and the role that previous dengue infections play in birth defect frequency. You can find the recently published article regarding the history of a newly emerging arbovirus here, which summarizes “the history of Zika virus from its first detection to its current worldwide distribution.” In the early hours of Thursday morning, the House passed the $1.1 billion Zika funding bill. The White House threatened to veto the bill though. “The threat from deputy White House with press secretary Eric Schultz came as the Senate prepared for a vote next week, likely Tuesday, even though there’s no guarantee that the Senate can round up the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster as Democrats call the bill partisan and inadequate.” Several studies have pointed to the linkage between earlier dengue infection and worsened Zika infections, however there is also a potential for a certain antibody against dengue being a target for a vaccine. The CDC has confirmed, as of June 22nd, there have been 820 cases within the U.S. and DC.
One Step Closer to the Zombie Apocalypse
Researchers from the University of Washington recently reported that several hundred genes actually increase in expression after death. Scientists found that “the transcriptional abundance of some 500 genes was significantly changed after death in healthy zebrafish and in healthy mice. While gene expression overall declined after death, the expression of some genes increased shortly after death and others increased 24 hours or 48 hours later. These genes, the researchers note, were commonly involved in stress, immunity, inflammation, apoptosis, and cancer.” It’s believed that this post-mortem gene expression is a result of residual energy and this may happen in humans as well. This new discovery leaves many asking about the definition of death if a person’s genes are still active for up to 48 hours after they die.
Listeria Troubles Dozens of Schools
Pre-prepared sandwiches are being recalled across 38 school districts as a result of a possible Listeria contamination. “The potentially contaminated food was produced at a facility where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found Listeria monocytogenes ‘on multiple food contact surfaces where the products were produced on several different occasions’ during routine FDA environmental sampling, according to the recall notice.” While students have been let out on summer break, the concern is that Listeria can take 70 days for symptoms to appear. This latest food safety issue comes after Molly & Drew recalled some of its beer bread mix due to concerns over E. coli contamination. E. coli outbreaks been plaguing the news lately as a result of the General Mills flour outbreak that sickened 38 people across 20 states.
Stories You May Have Missed:
- CRISPR vs. Flaviviruses – researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have found a “single-gene pathway that is vital for viruses like Zika to spread infection between cells”. Even better, the team found that when they shut down a gene in this pathway, flaviviruses aren’t able to leave the infected cell and thus replicate. Using CRISPR technology to selectively shut down a single gene in the pathway, they were able to shut down flavivirus infection without negatively affecting the cells.
- DRC Declares Yellow Fever Outbreak– The DRC Heath Minister recently declared a localized epidemic of yellow fever after reporting 67 cases. 58 of these cases were considered imported as they were from Angola, where the outbreak has grown beyond 3,100 cases and 345 fatalities. The outbreak has crept across Angola, Uganda, and now the DRA as a result of vaccine shortages.
- MER-CoV Outbreak in Riyadh Hospital – the WHO released information regarding the outbreak that begin with a woman whose illness wasn’t detected until after her stay in a surgery ward. Her hospitalization exposed 49 healthcare workers and all but 2 of the 22 MERS cases reported in Saudi Arabia (June 16-18) are related to this outbreak.