Pentagon officials released a report Thursday detailing recurring problems at an Army bioterror facility that accidentally sent live anthrax to other labs for more than a decade.
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Despite several serious, high-profile lab incidents and promises to Congress of reforms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t send out a policy until last week to ensure the agency’s top lab safety official received reports of mishap
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Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work held a late press brief on Thursday to announce the findings of a Department of Defense-sponsored investigative committee. Its job was to review the department’s laboratory processes that resulted in the inadvertent shipment of live Bacillus anthracis spores to 86 laboratories in eight nations, including the United States. Bacillus anthracis spores can cause the disease anthrax, which has a high mortality rate in exposed, untreated people. The highlights of the report focus on a review of laboratory processes within the four U.S. military labs that produced anthrax spores. As it turns out, half of the tested batches from Dugway Proving Ground had live spores in them, and investigators do not yet fully understand how the process failed.
The report did note that the gamma irradiation process — meant to kill live spores before they are shipped — was not at fault. The real problem was the post-irradiation viability testing, which was supposed to provide final verification that the spores were dead before they were shipped. The testing failed for some, but not all shipments. The report also notes that researchers do not fully understand how Bacillus anthracis can recover from radiation damage and continue to develop live cells. While the source of all of the live spores was from the Dugway lab, its procedures were not significantly different than the other three military laboratories. While the protocols did work at three of the four military labs, more quality assurance and quality control processes clearly should have been in place at Dugway.
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Last July, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it had established a network of medical centers capable of responding to outbreaks of severe, highly infectious diseases as part of a larger effort to further strengthen the nation’s infectious disease response capability. HSS said it selected nine health departments and associated partner hospitals to become special regional treatment centers for patients with Ebola or other high morbidity infectious diseases.
But not all veteran public health authorities who’ve been involved in combating infectious disease outbreaks and developing response planning are completely supportive of HHS’ initiative, which we’ll get into.
HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) awarded approximately $20 million through its Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) to enhance the regional treatment centers’ capabilities to care for patients with Ebola or other highly infectious diseases. ASPR will provide an additional $9 million to these recipients in the subsequent four years to sustain their readiness.
Each awardee will receive approximately $3.25 million over the full five-year project period. The funding is part of $339.5 million in emergency funding Congress appropriated to enhance state and local public health and health care system preparedness following cases of Ebola in the United States stemming from the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
HHS said the facilities will be continuously ready and available to care for a patient with Ebola or some other equally as dangerous and severe, highly infectious disease, whether the patient is medically evacuated from overseas or is diagnosed within the United States.
These regional facilities are part of a national network of 55 Ebola treatment centers, but will have enhanced capabilities to treat a patient with confirmed Ebola or other highly infectious diseases. Even with the establishment of the nine regional facilities, the other 46 Ebola treatment centers and their associated health departments will remain ready and may be called upon to handle one or more simultaneous clusters of patients, HHS emphasized.
“This approach recognizes that being ready to treat severe, highly infectious diseases, including Ebola, is vital to our nation’s health security,” said HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) Dr. Nicole Lurie. “This added regional capability increases our domestic preparedness posture to protect the public’s health.”
HHS announced its new HPP Ebola Preparedness and Response Activities funding opportunity on February 20, stating that a total of $194,500,000 is to be awarded to states and other grantees for Ebola health care system preparedness and response, and the development of the regional Ebola treatment strategy.
This funding, in addition to the Ebola emergency funds awarded through the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) program, provides a total investment of $339,500,000 to enhance state, local and health care system preparedness for Ebola through the emergency appropriations passed with bipartisan support in Congress last December. These funds are supposed to build on gains made in health care and public health preparedness efforts over the past decade through the HPP and PHEP cooperative agreements with states.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, Division of State and Local Readiness, administers funds for preparedness activities to state and local public health systems through the PHEP cooperative agreement.
“I’d like to thank cities, states and hospitals across the country and the public health community for stepping up and taking action,” Lurie said. “We are building on the work we’ve already done and further investing in domestic preparedness to protect the public’s health from Ebola, as well as boosting preparedness for many other types of health threats.”
The nine awardees and their partner hospitals are:
Massachusetts Department of Public Health in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts;
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in partnership with New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation/HHC Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City;
Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in partnership with Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland;
Georgia Department of Public Health in partnership with Emory University Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta/Egleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia;
Minnesota Department of Health in partnership with the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota;
Texas Department of State Health Services in partnership with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in Galveston, Texas;
Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services in partnership with Nebraska Medicine – Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska;
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in partnership with Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado; and
Washington State Department of Health in partnership with Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children’s Hospital in Spokane, Washington.
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The Department of Homeland Security is planning on creating a “one-stop shop” that would centralize weapons of mass destruction defense, a restricting the long delay of which, lawmakers say, has left the U.S. vulnerable to an attack.
The new chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear office would create “departmental unity” between the Office of Health Affairs, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and elements of the Science and Technology Directorate, said Reginald Brothers, DHS undersecretary for science and technology.
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Law360, Washington (July 9, 2015, 3:56 PM ET) — The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report Wednesday that there’s still room for improvement when it comes to mapping out, coordinating and organizing a nationwide system for watching for biological threats, be they naturally occurring or the result of a terrorist attack.
There have been important strides in national biosurveillance, GAO director of Homeland Security and Justice Christopher P. Currie said in prepared remarks to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. However, the White House has yet to issue an implementation plan establishing a framework prioritizing resource investments or figure out how to leverage nonfederal resources from local and private actors, according to the report.
“Although the White House developed the National Strategy for Biosurveillance in July 2012, this strategy does not include information that identifies resource and investment needs as we previously recommended,” Currie said. “In June 2010, we found that there was no integrated approach to help ensure an effective national biosurveillance capability and to provide a framework to help identify and prioritize investments.”
The national strategy for biosurveillance was to be followed by an implementation plan within 120 days. That plan has yet to materialize, according to the report.
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North Korea might have just revealed that it has the capability to produce massive quantities of biological weapons.
On June 6, a North Korean scientist defected to Finland with 15 gigabytes of electronic evidence that he claims documents how the country is testing chemical and biological agents on its own citizens.
That same day, North Korea’s state media released photos of Kim Jong-un touring what it described as a pesticide factory called the Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute — but experts tell VICE News that this same facility is likely meant to produce massive quantities of weaponized anthrax.
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Bipartisan leaders of a congressional oversight committee, citing a USA TODAY Network investigation, are demanding federal regulators provide the names of research laboratories that have faced sanctions for safety violations while working with potential bioterror viruses and bacteria, according to a letter the committee sent Monday.
USA TODAY’s “Biolabs in Your Backyard” investigation revealed that more than 100 labs have faced enforcement actions since 2003 because of serious safety violations while working with “select agent” pathogens such as anthrax. Yet lab oversight is cloaked in secrecy, making it difficult to determine the effectiveness of the federal inspection and enforcement program.
Even when labs commit the most egregious safety violations, the investigation found, they often are allowed to keep operating and their names are kept secret by regulators.
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