Pandora Report: 12.18.2015

Hungry, hungry anthrax hippos? If there’s one thing we love about the science community, it’s when a gem pops up in your inbox like this (thanks ProMed!). In Ebola news, public health officials are exploring the possibility that survivors may be a potential source of case surges. Fun history fact Friday: On December 18, 1620, the Mayflower docked at Plymouth Harbor and passengers began settlement and on December 14, 1980, the CIA issued a warning about Soviet arms sales to Third World nations. Take a break from holiday preparations with this week’s Pandora Report – we’re discussing everything from zombies to Bob Dylan lyrics!

Epidemiology of a Zombie Outbreak
Tara C Smith and the writers of The BMJ certainly know how to hook a biodefense nerd – epidemiology of zombie infections? Don’t mind if we do! Using historical tales and movie outbreaks, Smith takes us through several hypothetical zombie outbreaks we’ve experienced as viewers or readers for the past few decades. Tracing the origins of certain outbreaks and the transmission patterns via bite, this scientific approach to one of our favorite topics is fascinating.  Potential etiological considerations included weaponized Yersinia pestis, a mutation of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or a genetically modified form of the Ebola virus that was tested on chimpanzees (that later escaped!). Last but not least, we can’t forget to consider the ethical implications of such an outbreak. How do we handle resource depletion or quarantine? All things to consider before the zombie apocalypse!

Risk & Benefit Analysis of Gain of Function Research 
With the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) meeting fast approaching (January 7-8, 2016!), we’re recapping the role of gain-of-function (GoF) research in biodefense. Earlier this year, Gryphon Scientific was awarded a NIH contract related to assessment of GoF research and the risk-versus-benefits that may impact future federal funding. With the intent to make future recommendations, the assessment had three major tasks: a risk analysis (RA) of accidents and natural disasters, a biosecurity RA, and a benefit assessment. Extensive review and analysis of data from the intelligence and law enforcement community reviewed potential gaps within security practices. “The biosecurity RA is delivered in two parts because risks posed by malicious acts targeting laboratories that conduct GoF required a different analytical approach than the assessment of the risk generated by the misuse of published GoF research.” GMU Biodefense alum and previous Pandora Report editor, Julia Homstad, is also the lead author on Chapter 11 (Risk of Loss of Trust in Science). Perhaps one of my favorite points from the report was that “this assessment requires the identification of scientific and non-scientific barriers to the realization of these benefits.” You can also find Michael Selgelid’s White Paper regarding the ethical implications of GoF research. While the 1,001 pages may seem a daunting task, this is not only a highly relevant report, but approaches GoF concerns and risks in an engaging and holistic manner.

Bob Dylan Lyrics in Medical Literature?
Have you ever read a scientific article and felt a complete unknown, like a rolling stone? Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have been sneaking Bob Dylan song lyrics into their papers as part of a long-standing bet since 1997. “It all started in 1997 with a review in Nature Medicine entitled ‘Nitric oxide and inflammation: the answer is blowing in the wind.'” Carl Gornitzki and colleagues from The BMJ decided to do some additional digging in Medline and found that 213 of 727 found references were unequivocally citing Bob Dylan. Starting a few years after his musical debut, research papers included a variety of biomedical topics, like those of Hermanson et al., who managed to work “like a rolling stone” into their paper on epigenetics. The variety of lyrics found throughout the literature is certainly more than a simple twist of fate.

Outbreak Preparedness 2015 Report
Ever wonder how your state ranks in terms of emerging infectious disease preparedness? Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently published their 2015 report regarding state capabilities to protect against new infectious disease threats (MERS-CoV, multi-drug resistant organisms, etc.) and “resurging illnesses like whooping cough, tuberculosis, and gonorrhea.” The report found that over half of US states ranked at five or lower on a scale of ten. The five all-star states (scoring eight) were Delaware, Kentucky, Main, New York, and Virginia (go Virigina!). The report findings noted that “the nation must redouble efforts to protect Americans” and included points on healthcare-associated infections, flu vaccination rates, food safety, and superbugs. Check out the report to find where your state ranked!

Fighting Antibiotic Resistance in the United States18170_lores
On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee presented the 2016 Omnibus Appropriations bill, which revealed discretionary funding plans for the federal government. Buried in new legislation, the FDA and NIH will receive part of this discretionary funding to help fight antibiotic resistant bacteria and “advance prevision medicine initiatives”. The FDA is set to receive $2.7 billion, which was over a $10 million increase from FY2015. Within the bill, there is “funding for the Combating Antibiotic Resistance Bacteria (CARB) initiative ($8,732,000), the precision medicine initiative ($2,392,000), and the Orphan Product Development Grants Program ($2,500,000). The NIH will receive an extra $2 billion for FY2016, which supported projects specially for Alzheimer’s diseases research, brain research, antibiotic resistance, the Precision Medicine Initiative, etc. Given last week’s report on the phantom menace CRE and growing cases of multi-drug resistant organisms, it’s extremely important antibiotic resistance be given more attention.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • CDC Establishing Flu Vaccine Efficacy Lab Network – The CDC has provided funding for a network of US institutions to collect and analyze information related to annual flu vaccine effectiveness. “Participating institutions will coordinate enrollment of patients with acute respiratory illness, confirm influenza infection using a standardized reverse-transcription PCR (RT-PCR) assay, and estimate vaccine effectiveness.” The 30 million dollar funded project will run from July 2016-2021.
  • Avian Influenza in France – France has reported 30 outbreaks of avian influenza, specifically one of the highly pathogenic influenza. Unfortunately the strain in the most recent cases hasn’t been identified, but these outbreaks been attributed to one of the H5 strains.
  • Hawaiian Dengue Outbreak Update – Cases of dengue virus on Hawaii Island have now reached 157. There are 7 individuals considered still infectious and the Hawaii Department of Health (HDOH) continues their efforts to identify cases and reduce transmission. 140 of the cases are Hawaii Island residents, and 34 of the overall cases have been children under the age of 18.

Enjoying your weekly dose of the Pandora Report? Sign up to receive it every week so the fun never ends! 

The Pandora Report 10.4.13

Highlights include our shutdown soapbox, more rumors of Syrian BW, the WHO’s pandemic influenza preparedness plans, Boston’s BSL-4 lab, and a real-life zombie apocalypse. Happy Friday!

CDC Director: ‘Microbes Didn’t Shut Down’

As we wrap up our first week of the shutdown, we thought we’d take a second to assess the damage. Many critical biomedical experiments are hemorrhaging money. Health and Human Services has furloughed 52% of its employees. DHS has furloughed over 31,000 employees. The number that concerns us most, however, involves the CDC. We tweeted earlier this week that the CDC has had to furlough 8, 754 people, or 68% of its staff. This means that flu season is starting, and no one is watching. If we’re hit with a novel strain, a mutated strain, a particularly virulent strain,  we’d have no idea. This giant blind-spot isn’t limited to the US – CDC employees are some of the world’s top epidemiologists, often helping with investigations at outbreak hotspots globally. What are we currently very worried about in the Middle East? MERS. Hajj is around the corner, which means an influx of millions of people from around the world to the virus’ epicenter. Is it inconceivable that a pilgrim travels from New York to Mecca, picks up the virus and brings it back? Absolutely not. What’s inconceivable is that because of the shutdown, we might not know.

Wall Street Journal – “The CDC won’t be able to conduct routine inspections of high security labs around the nation that work with ‘select agent’ pathogens that pose severe threats to human and animal health such as Marburg virus or hemorrhagic fevers, said spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds. Most of the CDC’s own lab work has been stopped. The agency is not conducting surveillance for flu outbreaks. Only one CDC staffer is tracking reports of dangerous foodborne pathogens rather than the usual six staff – not a lot given that 48 million Americans develop foodborne illnesses every year.”

The World Hasn’t Tackled Syria’s Real WMD Nightmare

Foreign Policy has a piece out discussing Syria’s alleged biological weapons program. “Forget the nerve gas,” the byline states, “It’s Assad’s bioweapons program that should keep you up at night.” We disagree. For the many, clearly elucidated reasons why, please see Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley’s excellent piece, “On Not Falling Prey to Biological Weapons Alarmism in Syria” here.

Foreign Policy – “A recent U.N. report on chemical weapons use in Syria has strengthened claims that the regime killed more than a thousand innocent Syrians, including hundreds of children, with the nerve agent sarin. Video images after the Aug. 21 attacks showed victims frothing at the mouth, convulsing, and suffering tortured deaths. But the effects of a chemical attack, horrible as they are, can be minuscule compared with a worst-case assault with a biological weapon.”

WHO Group To Discuss Plan For Industry Use Of Pandemic Flu Viruses

A group of WHO experts is meeting next week to work on a plan, Pandemic Influenza Preparedness, for companies to pay for use of flu virus strains in development of patented treatments.  The meetings will include members of a special WHO Advisory Group, as well as key industry stakeholders. The funds gathered would then be used primarily for pandemic preparendess (70%), with the remaining funds used for global response efforts.

Intellectual Property Watch – “The focus of the three-day meeting will be to discuss the draft implementation plan for the use of Partnership Contribution funds through the end of 2016, a WHO source said. WHO is aiming for final completion of the process by year’s end. The second day of the meeting will be dedicated to consultations with industry and other stakeholders, the source said. Other issues to be discussed include the status of SMTA-2 negotiations (Standard Material Transfer Agreement), and ‘technical matters’ in the PIP Framework, the source said.”

Federal judge OKs Boston U disease research lab

Boston University’s proposed BSL-4 lab has cleared another hurdle to construction, with a federal judge dismissing the case against the lab’s construction. Residents of Boston’s South End have obstructed the lab’s construction for years, citing fears of exposure to pathogens like Ebola. While we can sympathize with any and all fears of Ebola exposure, in this case we think the judge was right. The research conducted in BSL-4 labs are critical to helping us detect, prevent, and treat some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens.

Seattle PI – “A Boston University laboratory built to study some of the world’s most dangerous diseases is one step closer to opening following a federal judge’s decision issued this week that it poses little risk to the public…The lab now only needs a final review from the Boston Public Health Commission. Some portions of the 192,000-square foot building have already opened to study less dangerous germs. The court’s decision “affirms our view that this type of research can be done safely in Boston,” BU spokesman Steve Burgay told The Boston Globe.”

Our Puff Piece of the Week: Scientists Discuss The Reality Of A Zombie Apocalypse

RedOrbit reached out to a bunch of microbiologists and asked them to imagine what a “real” zombie virus might look like. We approve.

In case you missed it:

Dr. Paul Walker, October Biodefense Seminar Speaker, Wins Prestigious Rights Livelihood Award
– Chemical Weapons Team Arrive in Syria: Blair on Why the End in Not Nigh
DTRA’s New, Highly Sensitive Bio-agent Detector
– Using an Army of Fish to Fight Dengue

(image: Rich Renomeron/Flickr)