• New framework for guiding controversial research still has worrisome gaps

    In December the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) release lifted the funding moratorium on Gain of Function (GoF) research, following the controversial projects involving H5N1 in 2011. The “Framework for guiding funding decisions about proposed research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens” is similar to the January 2017 “P3C0 Framework,” and it came with the bonus of restoring funding for such research – but there are still considerable concerns with how GoF research is evaluated and if these frameworks have really addressed the gaps.

  • New Congressional Biodefense Caucus launched

    A new Congressional Biodefense Caucus was launched last Monday. The caucus said it already has a bipartisan membership roll which includes twenty-seven Members of Congress. The caucus is “dedicated to strengthening our nation’s biodefense enterprise and national security.”

  • Distinguishing harmless bacteria from pathogens

    Bacteria underpins much of our world, acting behind the scenes to affect the health and behavior of animals and plants. They help produce food, provide oxygen, and even reshape the environment through a vast array of biological processes. They come in a phenomenal number of strains—many still unknown—and thrive in different ecological and environmental niches all over the world. But while their diverse behaviors make them essential to life, bacteria can also be deadly. This threat only grows as greater global travel brings people into contact with new places, foods, and animals, dramatically increasing the chances of exposure to dangerous microbial species known as pathogens.

  • Comparing pollution levels before and after Hurricane Harvey

    Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall in late August 2017, brought more than 64 inches of rain to the Houston area, flooding 200,000 homes, 13 Superfund sites, and more than 800 wastewater treatment facilities. As disasters become more frequent and populations living in vulnerable areas increase, interest in the health effects of exposure to the combination of natural and technological disasters has grown. A new study examined concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) before and after Hurricane Harvey in the Houston neighborhood of Manchester. Manchester, which is located near refineries and other industrial sites along the Houston Ship Channel, is a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood where residents face disproportionate health risks due to pollution and other environmental hazards.

  • U.S. ends 3-year ban on research involving enhanced-lethality viruses

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) yesterday announced it was ending its three-year moratorium on funding of gain-of-function research, that is, research which aims to make extremely dangerous viruses even more dangerous in order to find a vaccine or cure for them. The U.S. government instituted the ban in 2014, against the backdrop of rising worries that these “gain-of-function” studies would allow scientists to increase the ability of the infectious disease to spread by enhancing its pathogenicity, or its ability to cause disease. Scientists who supported continuing research involving enhancing the transmissibility of infectious disease were not helped by a series of safety mishaps at federal research facilities.

  • Biosecurity conference fosters international, multidisciplinary collaboration

    Biosecurity prevents unauthorized access, loss and intentional release of biological pathogens, information and equipment that may cause harm. Biosecurity professionals from across the United States and Mexico gathered on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus 7-8 December, the first time a biosecurity conference of this scope had taken place in Arizona and one of the largest ever to be held in the United States. Leaders in the field shared multidisciplinary approaches and perspectives on biosecurity.

  • DHS 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.

  • Better 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.

  • The 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.

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

    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.

  • Fashionable 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.

  • $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.

  • U.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.

  • Congressional 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.

  • Harnessing 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.