In the wake of the recent Ebola crisis, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications convened a hearing Wednesday to examine US preparedness for a bioterrorist attack.
“The risk of a biological terrorist attack to America is an urgent and serious threat. A bioattack could cause illness and even kill hundreds of thousands of people, overwhelm our public health capabilities, and create significant economic, societal and political consequences,” said subcommittee chairman Martha McSally (R-Ariz). “Our nation’s capacity to prevent, respond to, and mitigate the impacts of biological terror incidents is a top national security priority.”
The World Health Organization has admitted serious failings in its handling of the Ebola crisis and pledged reforms to enable it to do better next time, its leadership said in a statement posted on the WHO website on April 16, which was reported on Sunday by Reuters.
“We have learned lessons of humility. We have seen that old diseases in new contexts consistently spring new surprises,” said the statement, attributed to WHO Director-General Margaret Chan and the deputy director-general and regional directors.
“We have taken serious note of the criticisms of the Organization that, inter alia, the initial WHO response was slow and insufficient, we were not aggressive in alerting the world … we did not work effectively in coordination with other partners, there were shortcomings in risk communications, and there was confusion of roles and responsibilities,” it said.
The statement listed eight lessons learned, including areas where the WHO’s response to Ebola could have been better, such as information sharing and communication.
Being in the business of developing countermeasures and treatments for a biological outbreak or chemical or nuclear event is a lot like the story of the boy who cried wolf. How do we, as representatives of this industry, continuously convince our fellow citizens, the government and the world that we face a potential danger and we must all prepare in the unlikely event the unthinkable happens? That is our challenge – preparing for unthinkable and unpredictable events, while at the same time collectively hoping they won’t occur.
Unfortunately we live in a world in which the potential for a biological outbreak, natural or man-made, is ever-present. It could be a resurgence of Ebola, an intentional release of smallpox or anthrax, or the use of a chemical or nuclear weapon. As weapons technologies have become easier to acquire, and as the human population experiences naturally emerging infectious diseases at a greater rate than ever before, we can never be sure what or when the next threat will be. We must, therefore, strive to be prepared for the most likely and the most disruptive potential threats. This is true at home and equally true around the globe.
You walk into your shower and see a spider. You don’t know whether it is venomous—or whether it is even a real spider. It could be a personal surveillance mini-drone set loose by your nosy next-door neighbor, who may be monitoring the tiny octopod robot from her iPhone 12. A more menacing possibility: Your business competitor has sent a robotic attack spider, bought from a bankrupt military contractor, to take you out. Your assassin, who is vacationing in Provence, will direct the spider to shoot an infinitesimal needle containing a lethal dose of poison into your left leg—and then self-destruct.
Meanwhile, across town, an anarchist molecular-biology graduate student is secretly working to re-create the smallpox virus, using ordinary laboratory tools and gene-splicing equipment available online. Not content to merely revive an extinct virus to which the general population has no immunity, he uses public-source academic research to make it more lethal. Then he infects himself and, just as his symptoms start, strolls around the airport to infect as many people as he can.
Global biodefense market is expected to reach USD 13.33 billion by 2020, according to a new study by Grand View Research, Inc. Growing R&D investments in the field of biotechnology coupled with increasing threat of bioterrorism and disease outbreaks is expected to drive market growth during the forecast period.
DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah (April 16, 2015) — An innovative system to warn of a biological attack recently underwent an advanced technical demonstration at Dugway Proving Ground, or DPG, and is now in South Korea for an operations demonstration by Soldiers.
The Joint U.S. Forces Korea Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition, or JUPITR, system employs a variety of detectors working together to enhance biosurveillance, and reduce false positives.
“It’s a system of systems approach toward biological detection,” said Russ Bartholomew of DPG’s Life Sciences Division, and test officer for the JUPITR advanced technical demonstration at DPG.
Detecting harmful microbes within a natural background of airborne materials is a daunting, complex task. Bartholomew said that JUPITR is an array of instruments that includes acoustic, seismic, motion and other sensors with chemical and biological detectors. In a suspected biological attack, data from each instrument is scrutinized determine whether an attack occurred, and what type.
The Department of Defense defines a system of systems approach as, “a set or arrangement of systems that results when independent and useful systems are integrated into a larger system that delivers unique capabilities.”
Recently, at one of DPG’s massive outdoor test grids, JUPITR’s sensors were set in an array identical to the South Korea configuration. Benign microbes with characteristics similar to biological agents were released in varying scenarios, simulating biological attacks. Each scenario was electronically recorded, for playback at the South Korea operations demonstration.
In June 2012, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin published a paper in the journal Nature about airborne transmission of H5N1 influenza, or bird flu, in ferrets. The article changed the way the United States and nations around the world approached manmade biological threats.
This was not the researchers’ intent.
The team had altered the virus’s amino acid profile, allowing it to reproduce in mammal lungs, which are a bit colder than bird lungs. That small change allowed the virus to be transmitted via coughing and sneezing, and it solved the riddle of how H5N1 could become airborne in humans.
The U.S. government initially supported the work through grants, but members of Congress, among other critics around the world, responded to the publication of the research with alarm and condemnation. A New York Times editorial described the experiment and similar research conducted in the Netherlands, eventually published in the journal as “An Engineered Doomsday.” So the researchers agreed to a voluntary moratorium on their findings. In October, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that it would halt funding for research into how to make diseases more lethal — so-called “gain-of-function” studies — and asked anyone doing such research on deadly diseases to cease and desist.
Modern biological research continues to generate new technology at a staggering pace, bringing to society new challenges and new opportunities. A recent appearance is the so-called CRISPR/Cas9 technology for altering genes in the body’s cells, including, most troublingly, early embryonic cells.
To understand the challenge brought by this technology it is important to make a distinction between somatic cells and germ-line cells. Somatic cells are the run-of-the-mill cells of our bodies: muscles, nerves, skin and the like. Germ-line cells are the egg and sperm cells that, when joined, give rise to offspring. Making gene changes in somatic cells can have dramatic effects, but they are not transmitted to the next generation and therefore fall comfortably into the category of pure therapeutics and generate minimal controversy. It is changes in germ-line cells that create heritable alterations.
The advent of CRISPR/Cas9 again sees a biomedical technology challenging norms and raising concerns. CRISPR/Cas9 makes it comparatively easy to modify germ-line inheritance by inserting, deleting or altering bits of DNA. It may be possible to make these alterations quite precise, with no undesired changes in the genome. Nevertheless, such changes would be inherited not only by the next generation but by all subsequent generations. Thus the decision to alter a germ-line cell may be valuable to offspring, but as norms change and the altered inheritance is carried into new genetic combinations, uncertain and possibly undesirable consequences may ensue.
If America were to be beset by a biological or chemical weapons attack, who would be in charge of responding?
According to the consensus of the post-9/11 Commission Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense arrived at during its fourth and final meeting last week, “The federal government doesn’t have a good answer to that question.”
“The last thing we want to do is experience a successful bio-attack in the United States and not be in a position to respond,” said former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.). “It’s hard to get people’s attention about biological and chemical threats that can’t be seen or touched but have devastating consequences nonetheless. We have to make this a public health issue.”
Following Rogers’s testimony, panel co-chair Tom Ridge presided over five discussions that explored methods of responding to biological and chemical weapons attacks — and the “leadership vacuum” that plagues response efforts – especially the response to a large-scale, mass casualty bio or chemical attack.
“The federal government has stated that a public health disaster or pandemic is one of the top strategic threats our country faces,” said Dr. Kenneth Bernard, a former biodefense official in the Clinton and Bush administrations. “Yet, we were still largely unprepared for the Ebola outbreak this year. We’re not managing our leadership properly.”
Three veterans of the Clinton and Bush administrations spoke of a “balkanized” response to biological and chemical threats. They called for future presidents to make biodefense a bigger priority — and to delegate authority to a White House official to coordinate the activities of federal agencies.
In the nearly 14 years since the anthrax attacks, the United States has made progress on how to deal with potential bioterror threats, experts said Wednesday at the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense.
As the Ebola virus continues to ravage west Africa and with evidence that the Islamic State is trying to weaponize bubonic plague, however, experts on the panel said the U.S. still has a lot of work to do.
“It’s been a long slog,” former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told members of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. The panel has met four time over the last few months and plans to send biodefense recommendations to Congress.
As a Michigan Republican in Congress for 14 years – and chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence for the last four – Rogers witnessed the evolution of biodefense on the federal level. That has included the creation of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the federal arm that manages the development and procurement of countermeasures against a number of agents and infectious diseases.
Dan Abdun-Nabi can attest to that. When his company, Emergent BioSolutions, was founded in 1998, the Department of Defense was still viewed as the necessary overseer of bioterror initiatives.
That paradigm shifted in 2001 after the anthrax attacks left five civilians dead and infected 17 others.
“What we learned is bioterror is not only a military issue,” Abdun-Nabi, who serves as Emergent’s president and CEO, said. “It affects civilians and we learned we were ill-prepared to address a large-scale bioterrorist attack on civilians in this country.”
Since then, Emergent BioSolutions has gone on to become the only Food and Drug Administration-licensed creator of an anthrax vaccine. Known as Biothrax, the goal is to eventually have 75 million doses of the vaccine in the Strategic National Stockpile.