• BiothreatsFunding restored to National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures lab

    The Fort Detrick, Maryland-based National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) is no longer facing an immediate jeopardy. The federal omnibus spending bill,  released last Wednesday evening, provided full funding for the biohazard laboratory – funding which the original administration’s budget proposal eliminated.

  • BioterrorismRestoring subways in the event of a bioterrorist attack

    Only a week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, envelopes containing anthrax spores were sent to several media companies and two senators. As a result, twenty-two people were infected and five died. Since these incidents, the U.S. has increased its efforts on measures countering bioterrorism. That incident stemmed from spores sent to individuals and offices where the reach was somewhat contained. Imagine if the spores had been taken onto a mass transit platform — like the subway. A subway incident can bring a whole city to a halt, and the effects can last much longer in the form of lingering fear and mistrust.

  • Designer pathogensAssessing the risks, benefits of horsepox synthesis

    Truly assessing the risks and benefits of the recent horsepox synthesis is not an easy task. Two of the latest articles analyzing the implications of this research have been released in mSphere. They point to the increased attention on DURC [dual use research of concern] and the debate surrounding the benefits of a new vaccine versus the potential for a nefarious actor to misuse the process.

  • Termination with extreme prejudiceBritain deploys specialist troops in city where ex-Russian spy collapsed

    Britain has deployed specialist troops to remove potentially contaminated objects from the site where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious after a suspected nerve-agent attack. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital since they were found on a bench outside a shopping center in the southern English city of Salisbury on 4 March.

  • Termination with extreme prejudiceToxicologist: Lab with “military capability” likely made poison used on Russian ex-spy

    British investigators have announced that a “nerve agent” was used in an attempt to murder Russian former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury on 4 March. But they have not specified what nerve agent was used in the attack. Alastair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology and a member of the British government’s advisory group on chemical warfare agents, said about the likely source of the toxic substance: “I think it’s more a case in which we are talking about a military capability. If you are a diligent chemist, you will find procedures for making sarin and tabun and various other chemical agents. But there’s the complexity in making it and how efficient the reaction is. And, of course, there is the risk of exposure in making something, too. So containment to make sure that the laboratory person is not exposed is absolutely crucial. So I think, really, what one is looking at here is probably more a military-type manufacture. But again, we just have to wait and see.”

  • The Russia connectionName your poison: Exotic toxins fell Kremlin foes

    The sudden illness in Britain of a Russian former spy has drawn comparisons with another poisoning in the United Kingdom – the 2006 assassination by Vladimir Putin’s agents of Russian former-spy-turned-Kremlin-critic Aleksandr Litvinenko. In using various poisons – some of them esoteric — to have his critics and adversaries killed inside Russia and abroad, Putin is continuing a storied KGB tradition. Here is a closer, if brief, look at some of the poisons Russian government agents have used on their lethal missions.

  • Designer pathogensNew 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.

  • Designer pathogensBioengineers today emphasize the crucial ingredient Dr. Frankenstein forgot – responsibility

    By Ian Haydon

    Mary Shelley was 20 when she published “Frankenstein” in 1818. Two hundred years on, the book remains thrilling, challenging and relevant — especially for scientists like me whose research involves tinkering with the stuff of life. Talk of “engineering biology” makes a lot people squeamish, and technology can turn monstrous, but I read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” not as an injunction against bioengineering as such. Rather, the story reveals what can happen when we – scientists and nonscientists alike – run away from the responsibilities that science and technology demand. Victor Frankenstein was certainly careless and perhaps a coward, unable to own up to the responsibility of what he was doing. We now know that science is best conducted with humility, forethought and in the light of day.

  • BiodefenseNew 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.”

  • Designer pathogensHorsepox synthesis, dual-use research, and scientific research’s “action bias”

    Julius Caesar is said to have stated “alea iacta est” (the die is cast) as he led his army across the Rubicon river, triggering a point of no return in Roman history. In many ways, the horsepox synthesis, published by two Canadian scientists last month, is considered a new Rubicon for synthetic biology and the life sciences. Experts say that now that we’ve ventured across the river, it seems that we may be learning more about dual-use research in general. One expert notes that “Beyond the immediate issue of whether the horsepox work should have been performed (or published), the horsepox synthesis story highlights a more general challenge facing dual-use research in biotechnology: the unilateralist’s curse.” Research unilateralism contains an “action bias”: Horsepox synthesis is more likely to occur when scientists act independently than when they agree to a decision as a group.

  • Medical countermeasuresBudgeting for medical countermeasures is essential for preparedness

    Preparedness against a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) threat requires a sustained and multi-pronged approach by both the public and private sectors. An essential component of this strategy is the development, procurement, and stockpiling of diagnostic tests, drugs, and vaccines in response to a potential event, as well as the ability to distribute these products where needed.

     

  • BiothreatsFive finalists in $300K biothreat prize competition

    Five finalists were announced today for Stage 1 of the $300,000 Hidden Signals Challenge. Issued by the DHS S&T, in collaboration with the Office of Health Affairs National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC), the challenge calls for the design of an early warning system that uses existing data to uncover emerging biothreats. The announcement was made at the American Society for Microbiology’s 2018 ASM Biothreats meeting.

  • Designer pathogensPreventing intentional or accidental creation of synthetic biological threats

    Battelle has been awarded a contract by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) to develop threat assessment software to help prevent the creation of dangerous organisms. Using predictive algorithms, the software would be able to determine the suspected function of a DNA fragment based solely on its sequence. It would be used to screen DNA sequences to determine whether the sequence is related to any known organisms, predict the function of unknown sequences, and assign a threat level based on the potential for harm. By screening and characterizing genetic sequences before they are synthesized, the software would enable the end user to vastly reduce the risk that biological threats will be created either intentionally or accidentally.

  • BioweaponsVanessa Trump, Obama's D.C. office receive envelopes with suspicious white powder

    The suspicious letter which was sent to Vanessa Trump, the wife of Donald Trump Jr., was postmarked from Boston and contained corn starch, law enforcement officials told CNN. Vanessa Trump and two other people were taken to New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center as a precautionary measure.

  • BiosurveillanceDistinguishing 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.