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Anthrax Countermeasures, Biopreparedness Complacency, Ebola Crisis Update

See what we’re reading this week at Global Biodefense on topics including anthrax countermeasures, biopreparedness complacency, and an update on the Ebola crisis in the DRC.

POLICY + PRACTICES

The World is Too Complacent About Epidemics. Here’s How To Change

The global community responds to new outbreaks with a now familiar cycle of engagement: urgent containment action (and even panic) supported by emergency funds and other resources (usually accompanied by convincing rhetoric that more will finally be done to avoid such calamities); and then, as the threat subsides, declining interest that culminates in a return to complacent neglect. Take any recent outbreak – West Nile, SARS, 2009 H1N1 and H5N1 influenza, MERS, Zika, the West Africa Ebola outbreak – and you will recognize this pattern. World Economic Forum

Biotechnology and Human Augmentation: Issues for National Security Practitioners

Theoretically, future advances in biotechnology may permit the augmentation of cognitive performance as military institutions continue to seek competitive advantage over potential adversaries. However, given the challenges of biocompatibility of silicon, significant enhancements to human performance in the near future are likely to be found in prosthetics, wearable computing, or human teaming with artificial intelligence. In the longer term, some forms of gene therapy may obviate the need for implants.  The Strategy Bridge

Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Capabilities: National Standards 2018 Update

The capabilities update focused on streamlining language and aligning content with new national standards, updated science, and current public health priorities and strategies and lessons learned. The capabilities also support topics such as pandemic influenza, environmental health, at-risk populations, and tribal populations. CDC Center for Preparedness and Response

Policy Approaches to Synthetic Biology and Do-it-yourself Biology

For many biosecurity concerns, there’s a challenge in getting diverse stakeholders to cooperate – everyone has competing incentives. But companies and biodefense are in agreement over the importance biocontainment of engineered organisms: even absent safety concerns, companies want to protect intellectual property rights by keeping their organisms’ genomes confined to their own labs. And it seems to be working. It’s important to note, however, that applied biosafety and risks of organisms escaping from laboratories is wildly under-researched – a great deal of our knowledge about escape rates and safety procedures comes from US biological weapons labs in the 1960s, and has not been updated or revisited since. Pandora Report

Measles Cases a Sign That Texas is Risking a Public Health Calamity

Texas had allowed medical and religious waivers since 1972, but the 2003 law allowed exemptions for “reasons of conscience.” Anyone can get an exemption. All you have to do is fill out a form, get it notarized, and send it back to the state. Consequently, the number of waivers in Texas has soared from 2,314 in the 2003-04 school year to 56,738 in 2017-18 — and that number is expected to grow. Houston Chronicle Editorial Board

SELECT AGENTS

Single Dose of DPX-rPA Protects Against Bacillus anthracis Spore Inhalation Challenge

This paper reports on  the evaluation of a single intramuscular injection of recombinant B. anthracis-protective antigen (rPA) formulated in the DPX delivery platform. Observations indicate that DPX-rPA may offer improvement over AVA by reducing the doses needed for protective immune responses and is a promising candidate as a new-generation anthrax vaccine. NPJ Vaccines

Why Does the Bubonic Plague Still Exist Today?

That animals carry the disease may answer the question of why the plague has persisted for so many centuries, even during periods without mass human outbreak. “Whether it’s being maintained at low levels in animal populations, and the low level eludes our detection, or whether the bacteria are maintained in a different [kind of] reservoir that just harbors it for long periods of time, we don’t know,” says David Markman. His research is focused on the possibility that plague bacteria might be stored in amoeba cells, hiding out and planning the next big outbreak. His lab has shown that Yersinia pestis can survive and multiply within amoeba, but, in the wild, plague-filled amoeba have yet to be discovered. Were Markman’s hypothesis correct, it would mean that plague-amoeba are sometimes ingested by a rodent or flea, and then kicked back into the infection cycle. Pacific Standard

CHEMICAL + RADIOLOGICAL

‘Third Man’ Linked to Skripal Poisoning

A third man may have been involved in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury last March. Sergey Fedotov was identified in reports as having come to the UK at the same time as the two suspects alleged to have carried out the attack. Investigative website Bellingcat said the man is a Russian military intelligence officer and it believes the name Fedotov is an alias. A Kremlin spokesman said Russia did not know “whether this is true at all”. MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal, 67, and his daughter Yulia, then 33, were poisoned with a nerve agent known as novichok in Salisbury in March 2018. Both of them survived. BBC News

Robots Dismantle and Neutralize 100,000 Mustard Agent Chemical Weapons

The Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, or PCAPP, in Colorado is celebrating the successful destruction of 100,000 munitions from the U.S. stockpile. Destruction of the munitions is required under the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms control treaty signed by more than 165 countries globally, including the U.S. in 1997. ZDNet

OUTBREAK NEWS + THREAT SURVEILLANCE

Ebola Death Toll Tops 500 In Eastern Congo

Since the outbreak started in eastern Congo, 505 people have died and 806 cases have been recorded, the ministry said in a statement on Saturday. More than 77,000 people have been vaccinated against the virus since August. SBS News Australia

‘Whack-a-mole’ Ebola Outbreak Could Morph From Epidemic To Endemic, Says Expert

Listen to an interview with Laurie Garrett, explaining how infected militants are making the disease hard to contain. “Suddenly there’s an outbreak over here, and then 100 miles away there’s now an outbreak over there, and then 10 miles into the rainforest there’s ones here. And often it’s impossible to figure out how they’re connected.” CBC Canada

Measles Cases Have Increased 2538% in The Philippines This Year

The Calabarzon region to the south of Manila has seen a jump of 2,538%, with 575 reported cases so far in 2019 — compared with 21 in 2018. The area has seen nine deaths since the beginning of the year. Department of Health Undersecretary Eric Domingo said the relatively low number of measles vaccinations in the country could be attributed to the aborted Dengvaxia vaccination program that began in 2016. While unrelated to the measles vaccine, the Dengvaxia scandal caused a plummet to vaccine confidence in the nation. CNN

Measles Epidemic Rocks Madagascar

The outbreak has infected 50,000 people and killed 300, most of them children, since cases began to crop up in October 2018. While the US faces measles outbreaks from New York to Washington state, reigniting discussions about the risk of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, Madagascar has been fighting the worst eruption of the disease in decades. Since October, the African island nation has seen more than 50,000 cases of the highly contagious viral infection, which has so far taken the lives of more than 300 people, mostly kids, the country’s secretary general of the ministry of health said. That’s more than double the numbers reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) in mid-January. The Scientist

RESEARCH + TECH

New DNA Database Allows Far Faster Searches for Pathogen Genomes

A search for data on the DNA segment that confers bacterial resistance to colistin took 256 computers working together for an entire weekend. Why did this process take so long? Because the computers at Public Health England had to open up and search the sequencing files of 24,000 genomes one by one. So Iqbal decided to build a Google of sorts for bacterial and viral genomes. He and his colleagues downloaded all available genomes—nearly 500,000 at the time—from a public database called the European Nucleotide Archive. The 170,000-gigabyte data set took six whole weeks to download. Then, the team indexed the data. The resulting tool is called BIGSI, for BItsliced Genomic Signature Index. Defense One

University of California to be Granted Pioneering CRISPR Patent

The University of California will soon be granted a potentially valuable patent on the revolutionary gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, according to a document filed by the U.S. patent office on Friday. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decision to grant the patent could further fuel a long-running rivalry between the university and the Broad Institute, a biological and genomic research center affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University that also holds patents on CRISPR. Reuters

Building Self-Tests for World’s Most Common Infectious Diseases

When an HIV outbreak hit Indiana’s rural Scott County in 2015, the sparsely staffed health department was stretched to confirm cases among an entire community with lab tests that aren’t portable and could take weeks to return results. This meant that it took over a year to confirm 235 HIV cases for the area. Even at-home tests for HIV currently require a person to wait a couple months after possible infection before testing themselves. What if patients could reliably test themselves at home and know results in minutes, after less than a couple weeks of an infection? Phys.org

In silico Re-assessment of a Diagnostic RT-qPCR Assay for Universal Detection of Influenza A Viruses

Generally, proper oligonucleotide selection for microbial detection is a comprehensive procedure encompassing multiple steps and several software applications. Although various LS-MSA visualization, editing, and manipulation software applications are currently available, many of them require local installation and greater expertise, and sometimes command-line knowledge. Furthermore, derivative instruments for oligonucleotide evaluation, like quick LS-MSA filtering, variant composition assessment, and sequence sub-selection are generally sparse. This in silico re-assessment pipeline clearly illustrated the utility of the SequenceTracer in alignment sub-filtering with the ability to infer the important spatiotemporal characteristics of template variants with potentially adverse effects on a given diagnostic qPCR/RT-qPCR assay. Nature

SPECIAL INTEREST

The Hot Zone Trailer: Julianna Margulies (Hazmat) Suits Up for Ebola Drama

Julianna Margulies is coming into close contact with the Ebola virus in the first trailer for the National Geographic limited series The Hot Zone. Based on the bestselling 1995 nonfiction book, the six-part series is “a dramatic, fact-based thriller” chronicling the origins of the Ebola virus. Margulies plays Dr. Nancy Jaax, a real-life U.S. Army scientist who puts her life on the line to prevent a potential outbreak. The Hot Zone debuts May 27 and will air over three nights. TV Line

North Korea’s Bioweapons Program, Eradicating Viral Hepatitis, Working in BSL-2 Plus

Why Ebola Vaccine on Trial in DRC is Raising Hopes