• WMDDHS establishes the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction office

    Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen last week announced the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office. DHS says that the CWMD Office will elevate and streamline DHS efforts to prevent terrorists and other national security threat actors from using harmful agents, such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear material and devices to harm Americans and U.S. interests.

  • Gas masksBetter gas mask filters

    In research that could lead to better gas mask filters, scientists have been putting the X-ray spotlight on composite materials in respirators used by the military, police, and first responders, and the results have been encouraging. What they are learning not only provides reassuring news about the effectiveness of current filters in protecting people from lethal compounds such as VX and sarin, but they also provide fundamental information that could lead to more advanced gas masks as well as protective gear for civilian applications.

  • Synthetic biologyThe Gene Drive Files: Who is in charge of bioengineering research?

    Synthetic biology, also called “gene drives” or “bioengineering” – a field that uses technologies to modify or create organisms or biological components – can be used to benefit mankind, but may also be used by terrorists and nation-states to develop design pathogens which could be unleased to kill tens of millions of people. Critics of gene drives are alarmed by the fact that the U.S. military has been the main funder of synthetic biology research in the United States. Given the possible security vulnerabilities related to gene drives developments, a new report by the National Academies of Sciences proposes a framework to identify and prioritize potential areas of concern associated with the field. “While biotechnology is being pursued primarily for beneficial and legitimate purposes, there are potential uses that are detrimental to humans, other species, and ecosystems,” says one of the report’s authors. A nonprofit monitoring synthetic biology research releases new documents ahead of a key UN scientific conference on bioengineering.

  • BioengineeringCould gene editing tools such as CRISPR be used as a biological weapon?

    By James Revill

    The gene editing technique CRISPR has been in the limelight after scientists reported they had used it to safely remove disease in human embryos for the first time. Concerns are mounting that gene editing could be used in the development of biological weapons. In 2016, Bill Gates remarked that “the next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus”. More recently, in July 2017, John Sotos, of Intel Health & Life Sciences, stated that gene editing research could “open up the potential for bioweapons of unimaginable destructive potential.” Biological warfare is not an inevitable consequence of advances in the life sciences. The development and use of such weapons requires agency. It requires countries making the decision to steer the direction of life science research and development away from hostile purposes. An imperfect international convention cannot guarantee that these states will always decide against the hostile exploitation of biology. Yet it can influence such decisions by shaping an environment in which the disadvantages of pursuing such weapons outweigh the advantages.

  • DetectionFashionable detector-on-a-ring detects chemical, biological threats

    Wearable sensors are revolutionizing the tech-world, capable of tracking processes in the body, such as heart rates. They’re even becoming fashionable, with many of them sporting sleek, stylish designs. But wearable sensors also can have applications in detecting threats that are external to the body.

  • Biothreats$300K challenge to uncover emerging biothreats

    DHS S&T has launched the Hidden Signals Challenge, a $300,000 prize competition that seeks concepts for novel uses of existing data to uncover emerging biothreats. The Challenge calls upon data innovators from a wide variety of fields to develop concepts that will identify signals and achieve timelier alerts for biothreats in our cities and communities.

  • BiothreatsU.S. not prepared to identify perpetrators of biological attacks: Expert panel

    When violent attackers use biological agents to inflict harm, not only must law enforcement attribute the crime to the correct perpetrator, they must also identify the pathogens used and their sources exactly and quickly. That was the focus of a special meeting last week hosted by the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense.

  • BiodefenseCongressional amendments restore Maryland BioLab4 funding

    Members of the Maryland congressional delegation attached amendments to the Homeland Security and Defense Department authorization bills to prevent the closure of the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. President Trump’s budget for 2018 had eliminated funding for NBACC as part of cutting the budget of DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) by 28 percent. At the end of May 2017, the research center received a letter from DHS stating that the facility’s closing procedures should start on 1October, with anticipated decommissioning by 30 September 2018.

  • Disease outbreaksHarnessing AI to catch disease fast

    Up to 27,000 microbiology laboratories around the world could benefit from a ground-breaking automation technology. The Automated Plate Assessment System (APAS) can automatically screen microbiology culture plates for the presence of various disease-causing pathogens, revolutionizing the workflow in modern microbiology labs. The smart software uses artificial intelligence to analyze microbial growth in much the same way as a microbiologist would, but with faster and more consistent results.

  • BiothreatsDistinguishing virulent from harmless bacteria to help biological surveillance

    Biological “detectives” are tracking down biothreats such as the bacteria that causes tularemia (“rabbit fever”), but they constantly face the challenge of avoiding false positives. Sounding the alarm over a bioattack, only to find it’s a harmless relative in the same genus, reduces credibility and public trust. Researchers are narrowing down the confusion over Francisella bacteria, a few species of which include highly virulent human and animal pathogens, fish pathogens, opportunistic human pathogens, tick endosymbionts, and free-living isolates inhabiting brackish water.

  • Toxic threatsIdentifying toxic threats, preparing for surprise

    Predicting chemical attacks is no small task, especially when there are so many toxic substances. There is no crystal ball to aid us in sorting through them all to identify and characterize the potential threats. Instead, intelligence and defense communities use a broad network of tools to forecast hazards to safeguard our warfighters and nation. A new project from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) seeks to improve the U.S. defensive capability by creating a crystal ball to more rapidly determine the toxicity of such chemical hazards and increase our ability to prepare for surprise.

  • Layered defenseStacking countermeasures for layered defense against chemical, biological threats

    Just as we must protect computer systems against assaults in the form of viruses and trojans in the cyber world, we must protect our soldiers from a multitude of chemical and biological threats on the battlefield. No one countermeasure can mitigate every threat, which is why the Joint Science and Technology Office at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is developing a portfolio of novel capabilities and medical countermeasures to protect our troops.

  • ZikaDevice rapidly, accurately, inexpensively detects Zika virus at airports, other sites

    About the size of a tablet, a portable device that could be used in a host of environments like a busy airport or even a remote location in South America, may hold the key to detecting the dreaded Zika virus accurately, rapidly and inexpensively using just a saliva sample. While scientists across the world are scrambling to find some sort of immunization, researchers are working to develop a diagnostic tool to reduce the impact of the outbreak until a vaccine is identified.

  • Biological emergenciesBiological emergences: Incremental progress not enough

    While acknowledging some positive efforts over the past year by the White House and Congress, the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense says the incremental progress is not enough to defend against biological emergencies, let alone catastrophic events. The report, Biodefense Indicators – One Year Later, Events Outpacing Federal Efforts to Defend the Nation, states that while the biological threat is real and continues to grow, our nation remains woefully under-prepared for dangerous biological incidents.

  • Chem/bio weaponsShark antibodies for chemical, biological threat detection, treatment

    New research shows that shark antibodies offer new alternatives to chemical and biological threat detection and treatment tools. In an era of Department of Defense belt-tightening, the goal is to find more innovative, cost-effective approaches to protecting our warfighters.