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Is The US Prepared For Bioweapons Decontamination?

A new report by the UPMC Center for Biosecurity suggests that the US remains unprepared for the task of decontaminating the site of a major biological weapon attack.  Decontamination after the comparatively small-scale Anthrax attacks of 2001 is estimated to have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, while shuttering some facilities for as long as two years.  By comparison, the costs of a larger scale attack on a major city could be staggering.

In particular, the report singles out several major problems:

-          Multiple Federal agencies have potentially conflicting responsibilities in the aftermath of an attack.  For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be sampling the site for a criminal investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency would be working on decontamination and the Department of Health and Human Services (home of the Centers for Disease Control) would be tracking the epidemiology of any disease outbreak.

-          Research into the problem is split between at least five federal agencies with major programs that examine decontamination.  This work is also comparatively underfunded in the context of broader biodefense spending.

-          A number of potentially crucial issues remain unanswered; there are limited techniques for taking samples of large, outdoor areas, and it is unclear how much danger there might be of further spreading infectious material during a cleanup effort.

The report calls for the government to clarify the roles of Federal agencies, as well as building owners, in the aftermath of an attack.  It also recommends increased investment in research and infrastructure, especially trained first responder personnel.

Soviet Bioweapon Researchers Discuss Past, Future

Two leading Russian biological weapons scientists presented their inside view of the Soviet bioweapons program at a March 29th panel sponsored by the George Mason University Biodefense Program.  Dr. Guennady Lepioshkin, who headed the Anthrax production plant at Stepnogorsk in Kazakhstan, and GMU Professor Sergey Popov, who headed projects at the Vector Institute and other laboratories in Obolensk, Russia, presented candid personal accounts of life as bioweapons researchers.   Beyond their individual tales, the session offered several lessons that remain relevant to the modern discussion of biosecurity – cautionary tales about the publication of dual use research and the destructive potential of synthetic biology. Continue Reading →

Capitol Briefing on Biological Weapon Threats

A March 19th briefing at the US Capitol brought together a panel of experts to discuss the threat of biological weapons.  The briefing, titled “Deterring Biological Threats”, was hosted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and focused heavily on the historical records of the destructive potential of the Cold War bioweapons programs in the US and the USSR.  With more modern threats, such as Al Qaeda’s well-documented search for Anthrax, the amount of interest in biological attacks appears to be increasing.  The means of actually deterring and preventing these biological threats remain less clear. Continue Reading →

New Industry Biosecurity Conference To Host Experts from Government, Academia

A tight funding environment for academic research, coupled with rapid technological advances, has created an environment where innovation will increasingly occur in industry and at start-up companies.  Regulation in new fields, such as synthetic biology, trails the cutting edge of research, creating an extra need for industry to be involved in the discussion surrounding biosecurity.

A new conference hopes to fill this role by bringing top Administration and Agency officials directly to the site of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) annual meeting.  Organized with the Partnership for Global Security (PGS) and the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response (ISTAR), the new Biosecurity conference is notable in that it demonstrates a commitment by BIO to examine biosecurity issues.

Looking to foster the discussion, the Obama administration is sending a significant number of participants from various relevant agencies; Gary Samore, the White House Coordinator for the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, and Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, are expected to participate in the opening session.  The conference will also hold sessions on food security, public health surveillance, countermeasures, and risk mitigation.

More information is available at the conference web site, http://convention.bio.org/biosecurity/

Broad Consensus on Gene Synthesis Guidelines

Participants at a January 11th forum on Minimizing the Risks of Synthetic DNA, held at the AAAS, appeared to be in general agreement on the principles behind proposed US guidelines to safeguard the rapidly advancing technology of gene synthesis.

Synthetic biology, a new field made possible by developments in genome sequencing and genetic engineering, seeks to take an engineering-based approach to biological problems.  The story of the malaria drug Artemisinin provides an example of the advances that this new approach can produce.  The drug is currently made from a plant extract, and crop quantities are insufficient to meet global demand.  Through synthetic biology, scientists have been able to engineer yeast capable of performing the multiple reactions necessary to create the drug’s precursor.

However, engineering life also presents the opportunity to create existing, augmented, and/or novel pathogens.  Current restrictions on select agent pathogens, such as Smallpox, are based on the physical safeguarding of live bacterial and viral stocks to keep them from malicious users.  With modern gene synthesis technology, a would-be attacker could potentially obtain a complete pathogen genome by ordering it from commercial DNA providers.

It is in this context that Monday’s forum brought together a wide variety of stakeholders, ranging from Federal regulators to major gene synthesis firms and research organizations.  Though the specifics of guideline implementation were occasionally questioned, there was a surprising degree of consensus concerning future policies implemented by private industry. Continue Reading →

Debating New Biosecurity Research Regulations

US Senate consideration of a new biosecurity bill has been delayed to accommodate requests for additional information from the Administration.  The Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2009 (S.1649), introduced by Senators Lieberman and Collins at the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, seeks to overhaul the US response to biosecurity threats.  In particular, the legislation focuses on research into potentially dangerous infectious diseases.

Highly infectious diseases are currently designated as select agents and regulated by the Departments of Agriculture (diseases of plants and livestock) or Health and Human Services (human pathogens).  The new legislation would replace this single list with three “tiers”, and research using the most dangerous agents would be overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.  An amendment by Senator Claire McCaskill would allow DHS to shut down labs that do not comply with safety regulations.  However, the bill would also implement so-called personnel reliability programs, common in nuclear research, as a condition for researchers to access the labs.  Recent reports by the government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and the National Academies’ Board of Life Sciences did not recommend such measures at this time.

Though Lieberman, who chairs the committee, has made the bill a top priority, it is unclear when time would permit consideration of the legislation on the Senate floor.

Science Magazine Biodefense News – Army Bans Pathogen Work

Today Science Magazine is reporting that the Army has banned all pathogen research at one of its labs at the Armed Forced Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Washington, DC. This decision was made December 2, 2008 as a result of an earlier failed Biological Surety Inspection, and not made public.

Science reports that “officials found that lab managers ignored information about certain employees that could have disqualified them from having access to dangerous pathogens. The redacted version of the IG’s [Inspector General's] report released to Science does not divulge the nature of this so-called potentially disqualifying information, but it could be anything from alcoholism to mental instability.”

On October 28, 2008 AR 50-1 came into effect, stipulating a strict Biological Personnel Reliability Program for DOD employees as part of their Biological Surety Program. It includes and intense background investigation and interviews  of employees as well as regulations regarding substance abuse and mental health.

In early February the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) also suspended its research on biological select agents and toxins when it was realized that there were problems with the system of accounting for high risk microbes and biological materials in the laboratories at Fort Detrick, MD.

HHS, DHS and CDC Webcast on Swine Flu

Today at 1pm EST HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and acting Director of the CDC Richard Besser will be webcast answering questions about Swine Flu from the American people.  The webcast will be available at www.hhs.gov and questions can be emailed to hhsstudio@hhs.gov.

The World Health Oraganization has now raised the Pandemic Alert Level to Phase 5 meaning that they believe there is a “strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.” There currently have been 109 confirmed cases of Swine Flu in the US and one death. Continually updated information on the situation and statistics as well as fact sheets and interim guidance documents can be found on the CDC Swine Flu page at www.cdc.gov/swineflu.

Researchers Worldwide Rally to Help Scientist Exposed to Ebola

SciecneInsider has the details surrounding an Ebola researcher who pricked her finger with a needle during an experiment last week. Virologists around the world are collaborating to try to save their colleagues life. An exposure to Ebola from a needle stick does not often lead to infection with the deadly illness, but a group of scientists immediately got together to discuss a long list of experimental vaccines and treatments that could possibly prevent infection or slow progression of the disease. As a result, the exposed researcher was given a vaccine that has previously been shown to provide protection in monkeys who had been exposed to Ebola. The incubation period of Ebola is typically between 4 and 21 days, and it has only been 6 days since the needle stick incident. Thus far there is no indication that the researcher has contracted an Ebola infection, but virologists are anxiously following her case.