Who is in Charge of Biodefense?

Photo credit: stock.xchng

Who is in charge of carrying out our nation’s biodefense policy?  This question was raised repeatedly in Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Labor-Health and Human Services subcommittee.  The hearing focused on bioterrorism, biosecurity, and medical countermeasures in contrast to last week’s senate hearing on terrorism during which the topic was barely mentioned.

The hearing was divided into two parts, with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifying first about the department’s recent review of the entire medical countermeasure enterprise. Continue reading

Bioterror Absent from Committee Agenda

Secretary Napolitano and Directors Mueller and Leiter

Terrorism is the “greatest security challenge of our age,” explained Senator Joe Lieberman, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, during a hearing last Wednesday on “Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland.”  Because of this great challenge, FBI Director Robert Mueller, said in his testimony that protecting America from terrorism is the FBI’s highest priority.  And as Maine Senator Susan Collins pointed out in her opening remarks we cannot risk another “failure of imagination” like the one that led to 9-11. Continue reading

GAO To Review FBI’s Case Against Bruce Ivins

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) will conduct an examination of the scientific and technical methods used by the FBI during its investigation of 2001 anthrax attacks, in response to a request made by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (NJ-D) earlier this year.

After an eight year-long investigation, the FBI closed the Amerithrax case back in February and concluded that Bruce Ivins, a troubled lab worker at Ft. Detrick, was solely responsible for the anthrax mailings that killed five people in 2001. However, skepticism has long lingered the minds of many on the science and validity behind these conclusions, particularly after Ivin’s suicide in 2008. Continue reading

Anthrax Outbreak in Bangladesh

Cow in Bangladesh (Credit: AFP)

An anthrax outbreak in Bangladesh has infected more than 500 individuals since August 18th.  The infections were acquired from eating or handling contaminated cattle.   In one instance, a man purchased a cow which became ill a few days later.  He brought the cow to a veterinarian where it was vaccinated against anthrax.  This would have been protective against future infections if the cow survived, but it did not treat the current infection.  The man slaughtered the cow when its condition deteriorated, and unknowingly fed the contaminated meat to over 40 families.  Contaminated meat is also being sold in the market, which has caused cattle and livestock sales to be around 1/10 of the expected levels.  Considering that around three quarters of the population rely at least partially on livestock for their livelihood, this outbreak is sure to take a heavy toll on the health of both the population and the economy. Continue reading

Prof. Thomas Butler – Miami International Airport

Dewar flask, metal canister similar to the one carried by Dr. Butler. (Credit: LegitReviews.com)

Prof. Thomas Butler, who was indicted in early 2003 of various charges including improperly transporting samples of plague bacteria (Yersinia Pestis) into the United States, was held overnight at the Miami International Airport after TSA agents found a “suspicious” metal canister in his bag, which they thought could be a pipe bomb. After searching for Prof. Butler in a database, officials learned of his past charges associated with plague bacteria. He had been on a teaching assignment in Saudi Arabia, which likely raised another red flag. With this information and a “suspicious” canister, airport officials decided to evacuate a portion of the airport and bring in the bomb squad. Continue reading

Guest Blog: Agricultural Biosecurity

Angus cattle on pasture. (Credit: USDA)

This post was researched and written by our bright, young summer intern, Sasha M.

In today’s media-thick world, an issue that comes up with surprising infrequence is biosecurity. Perhaps this is related to the fact that spell-check just came up to tell me it wasn’t a word. But Webster-compliant or not, biosecurity is a real issue in America. There are critical flaws in our ability to protect our citizens from biological attack, perhaps the most vulnerable area of which is our crops.

American farmers have achieved massive yields of food through monoculture, where thousands of adjacent acres of a genetically identical crop are grown.  However, a single disease to which the crop is vulnerable can easily destroy it all.  Wheat rust, particularly race Ug99, is currently spreading all over the world and destroying cereal crops (1). It is quickly spreading thanks to large, monoculture-practicing fields (2).  Weapons have also been developed specifically to spread wheat rust and cripple agriculture, which could prove deadly (3).
Continue reading

Position Filled: Project Manager for Biosecurity, Education

The Biosecurity Program at the Federation of American Scientists is expanding.

Job Title: Project Manager for Biosecurity

Location: Washington, D.C.

Description: FAS is looking for a smart, energetic individual to help manage the Biosecurity Program and further develop existing research programs on biological and chemical weapons. Job duties include developing high-quality educational material, including expanding our already top notch dual use education modules to include plant pathogens and other agricultural topics, creating an educational training video for the FBI based on past FAS research, engaging the biosecurity community to utilize the Global Forum on Biorisks online community portal and assisting with major conferences for the Virtual Biosecurity Center (VBC). Continue reading

Update: RNAi Based Treatments for Ebola

PMI Backbone Structure (Credit: AVI BioPharma)
PMO Backbone Structure (Credit: AVI BioPharma)
Another RNAi based treatment for Ebola has been developed. Researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) found that >60% of monkeys given a lethal dose of Zaire Ebola virus survived after treatment with AVI-6002, a targeted, positively charged, anti-sense phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomers (PMO) developed by AVI BioPharma . Another targeted PMO, AVI-6003, was able to protect 100% of monkeys from a lethal dose of Lake Victoria Marburg virus. Both drugs were given daily for either 10 or 14 days. Both the Zaire Ebola virus and Lake Victoria Marburg virus are filoviruses that can cause deadly hemorrhagic fevers and are potential biological weapons agents.

As explained before, viral RNAi treatments consist of small pieces of RNA, siRNA, that bind and block specific viral RNA sequences.   Continue reading

Biosecurity Mini-history: Early Use of Bioweapons

Hellebore flowers. Credit: SiGarb 21:59, 28 March 2006 (UTC)
Hellebore flowers. Credit: SiGarb 21:59, 28 March 2006 (UTC)

While most people today think of biological weapons as a relatively modern advancement, it is important to recognize that their existence predates recorded human history. Ancient civilizations had a working knowledge of plant and animal toxins, as well as of devastating diseases such as plague and smallpox.  While these people had yet to discover the origins of such diseases, they were aware of how diseases could spread from one person or animal to another. Continue reading

HHS BARDA Awards Four Contracts to Medical Countermeasure Technologies

BARDA, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), recently awarded four contracts for the research and development of innovative platform technologies in medical countermeasure development.

BARDA was established within HHS to manage the procurement and development of medical countermeasures, such as vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic tools, for biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear agents, as well as for other public health emergencies, such as pandemic influenza and emerging infectious diseases. BARDA’s Strategic Science and Technology Division identifies and selectively funds research and technology that will improve the effectiveness and shorten the time and cost of medical countermeasure development. The innovative technologies awarded have all demonstrated success in late-stage clinical development for countermeasures against pandemic influenza and anthrax, two prevalent diseases of concern in public health and biosecurity.

Contracts were awarded to the following organizations to continue development: the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI) in Seattle, VaxDesign Corp. in Orlando and Pfenex Inc. in San Diego. A collective total of $24.6 million is allotted for initial phases and up to $53.6 million over three years. Continue reading