The Monthly Roundup: June 2011

Popular headlines in biosecurity news

The Monthly Roundup is a new article featuring the top news stories from the Virtual Biosecurity Center (VBC). The VBC is a global resource for daily biosecurity news and current topics. Every month, a collection of the VBC’s most popular headlines will be summarized with a brief analysis to keep you updated on the latest in biosecurity.

1. Smallpox Destruction Gets Deferred

On May 24th, 2011, after much anticipation and debate, the World Health Assembly agreed to postpone the destruction of the last known stockpiles of the smallpox virus until 2014. The consensus was reached after two days of deliberation at the 64th World Health Assembly (WHA), the 193 state-comprised forum of the World Health Organization (WHO), which took place from May 16-24, 2011 in Geneva.

Smallpox, a deadly infectious disease caused by the Variola major and Variola minor viruses, was declared globally eradicated over 30 years ago. Live samples of the virus have since been securely held at two WHO repositories in the U.S. and Russia for research purposes. The decision to destroy the remaining stocks was first put forth in 1996 and has since been repeatedly postponed.

The issue spurred a great divide between nations at the Assembly. The U.S., alongside 26 supporting nations that included Russia, Japan and the UK, firmly argued for continued retention through a five-year delay to conduct further vaccine research, which could help prevent the deadly virus from being used as a biological weapon, according to Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services. Opponents to the U.N. resolution included Iran, serving on behalf of 22 countries of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean region, China and the Philippines, who advocated for prompt destruction of the stocks emphasizing that no justification existed for continued retention.

The WHA will revisit the issue again at the 67th Assembly in 2014 to set a destruction deadline.

Recommending Reading:

“After U.S. Pressure, Smallpox Wins Reprieve Again” by Martin Enserink
ScienceInsider, AAAS


2. FESAP Releases Recommendations for the Categorization of Select Agents

On June 14, 2011, the Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP), formed by President Barack Obama under an executive order in 2010 to reassess the U.S. select agent program, released a report with recommendations for a new categorization of select agents.

In the report, the Panel identified 11 biological agents that pose the greatest security risk in biomedical research and recommended the agents to be categorized as Tier 1 biological select agents and toxins (BSAT).

Tier 1 BSAT, also deemed as “The Dirty 11,” is comprised of Bacillus anthracis, Burkholderia mallei, Burkholderia pseudomallei, Ebola virus, Foot-and-mouth disease virus, Francisella tularensis, Marburg virus, Variola major virus and Variola minor virus, Yersinia pestis and Clostridium botulinum.

The Panel also recommended the removal 19 agents and 6 toxins from the list of 82 agents that are recognized in the current select agent program, some of which included Herpes B virus, Eastern and Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis virus, Conotoxin and Shiga toxin.

The new recommendations seek to focus U.S. security measures on pathogens that pose the highest risk for deliberate misuse by terrorists or rogue researchers, such as Bruce Ivins in the Amerithrax case, and improve the much-debated relevancy of the current select agent list.

Recommended Reading:

“Recommendations Concerning the Select Agent Program” (PDF)
Report by Federal Experts Security Advisory Panel (FESAP)


3. E. coli Outbreak in Europe – Vulnerabilities in the Food Supply

The subject of food safety was a matter of much discussion after the recently devastating E. coli outbreak throughout Europe that prompted a major international public health scare.

Deemed as one of the worst E. colii outbreaks in recent history, the illness that began in Germany has already claimed 38 people and the hospitalization of thousands in Europe. Weeks of investigation found German-grown sprouts, contaminated with a rare and deadly strain of E. coli (O104:H4) to be the cause.

The investigation put to rest some initial speculations that the outbreak stemmed from a bioterror attack but brought attention to the present vulnerabilities in food supplies. As Richard Gray indicates in an article published The Telegraph, food and drink are at a growing risk of being deliberately contaminated by terrorist groups. Agriculture bioterrorism, also known as agroterorism, has existed as looming biosecurity threat in recent years, particularly in the U.S. An attack on food supply would have devastating effects on public health, as well as the economy.

Although accidental food contamination is usually a more likely cause of such incidences, the European outbreak can be served as lesson learned in global food security.

Recommended Reading:

“Food Chain at risk of being poisoned by terrorist groups” by Richard Gray
The Telegraph


4. Global Eradication of Rinderpest

On May 25, 2011, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) declared rinderpest successfully eradicated. This marks the second time in history that an infectious disease has been eradicated (smallpox was the first). The formal declaration by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is expected on June 28, 2011.

Rinderpest, the German name for “cattle plague,” is a viral animal disease that caused the death of hundreds of millions of cattle, subsequently followed by human famine in Africa, Asia and Europethroughout history. The disease, caused by the virus of the family Paramyxoviridae, was used as an ancient form of biological warfare to trigger epidemics and starvation and was said to accompany the fall of the Roman Empire and the conquest of Christian Europe by Charlemagne, as noted by Greg Cima, author of “Rinderpest eradicated” in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The FAO Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme, launched in 1994, proved successful through the use of preventative measures and cattle vaccination to control the spread of the disease over the course of many years. The achievement proves to be one of the first campaigns to use vaccination as a strategy for disease elimination and serves as a valuable example of how veterinary science can protect animal and human health.

Recommended Reading:

“Rinderpest Eradicated” by Greg Cima
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association


5. Anthrax Strikes Bangladesh Again

Approximately 30 confirmed people have been infected with anthrax in Sirajganj, Bangladesh earlier this month, designating the country’s second critical anthrax outbreak in less than a year. No deaths have been reported so far.

Villagers became ill after handling and consuming contaminated cattle and goat. The Sirajganj District, which stands as “the hub of the nation’s livestock export and import industry due to its proximity to the Indian border,” according to Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), has had an ongoing problem with contaminated livestock in the past year.

The first outbreak was detected in Sirajganj District of Bangladesh in August 2010, where over 500 people became infected with cutaneous anthrax by ingesting or handling contaminated livestock. Since the initial outbreak, the deadly disease has remained a concern to the country’s agricultural livestock and human health, as the population relies greatly on livestock for their food supply.

Health authorities from the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) are currently overseeing the outbreak and attempting to control the disease from spreading further.

Recommended Reading:

“Bangladesh: Anthrax threat to livelihoods, human health”
Report by the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR)


The Monthly Roundup is written by Renée Tran, Operations Coordinator of the Virtual Biosecurity Center at the Federation of American Scientists.

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