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Recent ORAU annual meeting highlighted public health security associated with biological threats

Global threats require interdisciplinary responses and solutions

OAK RIDGE, Tenn.—Global health security requires meaningful, interdisciplinary actions to resolve the challenges of the 21st century. Public health professionals need the support of communities to predict and overcome a wide range of health threats ranging from pandemic diseases to bioterrorism. Distinguished speakers at the 73rd annual meeting of the ORAU Council of Sponsoring Institutions discussed emerging issues and presented viable solutions based on innovations in advanced technologies.

The recent two-day meeting hosted by ORAU at Pollard Technology Conference Center involved nearly 175 attendees representing more than 75 member universities.

The first day’s keynote speaker, retired Col. David R. Franz, D.V.M., U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, provided a brief history of pandemics, bioterrorism and global health security, beginning with the late 1940s Cold War. For decades, the focus of biosecurity was on hazardous materials, such as chemical and radiological agents. Perceptions changed with a series of anthrax letters sent randomly in the weeks following the terrorism events of September 11, 2001. Franz, who is a former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, traced the transition of biosecurity from those early days to the public health concern it is now. More recent incidents, such as illnesses caused by the Zika virus and avian influenza caused by the H5N1 virus, show the increased impact of widespread biological agents.

Franz focused on efforts to develop a national biodefense strategy that will bring a more appropriate balance between technological growth and regulating oversight. Overregulation of life sciences research enterprises impacts the nation’s ability to provide health care, sustain agriculture, compete globally, support the economy and uphold national security. He called for better evaluation of the benefits and the harm of biological defense regulations and strategy.

“Actions by a single person impact all of us,” said Franz. He described a 2016 incident involving the inadvertent shipments of live anthrax from a major Army biodefense lab in Utah to nearly 200 labs across the United States. An investigation placed the blame on human error. Franz emphasized the importance of guidelines to ensure security is sufficiently mitigated and managed, and he asserted that persons with access to biodefense labs should be deemed trustworthy and mentally stable.

The second day’s keynote speaker, Col. Matthew Hepburn, M.D., looked into the future during his presentation on pandemics and biosecurity threats. Warning against complacency, Hepburn said to solve problems linked to pandemics and national security the nation needs multi-professional, multi-disciplinary teams.

As a program manager with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Hepburn addressed the threats of infectious diseases that could compromise national security. Diseases, such as those caused by the Zika or Ebola viruses, are considered high-priority threats. Scientists developing vaccines face many barriers, one barrier being finding populations available for clinical trials. Hepburn seeks means to deliver pandemic prevention treatments in less than 60 days and envisions that soon gene-encoded vaccines will be available for long-term protection.

To better manage disease outbreaks, Hepburn’s office provides funding to investigate indicators to predict contagiousness after exposure. If health professionals could recognize which patients to quarantine and which patients to give medication to, then they could administer care and manage medical supplies more effectively.

ORAU President and CEO Andy Page emphasized the importance of research and discovery. “Throughout this conference, we have heard compelling discussions about global public health threats. The speakers have given us a new awareness of the innovative technology to help prevent and respond to these threats,” Page said.

“ORAU has a unique opportunity during this event to convene the people who can work together to make academic institutions better equipped to lead the way and meet the growing demands of scientific research and education,” Page said.

The day before the official opening of the annual meeting, current and new attendees participated in a session focused on leveraging ORAU membership and building collaboration with ORAU.

In addition to the keynote presentations, three panel discussions gave opportunities for attendees to focus on specific public health threats and possible solutions.

In the first panel discussion, experts explained how applications of bioinformatics can reinforce pandemic preparednesss, real-time disease assessment and food safety. Speakers were Rebecca Katz, Ph.D., co-director, Center for Global Health Science and Security, Georgetown University; Lauren Ancel Meyers, Ph.D., professor of integrative biology and statistics and data science, University of Texas at Austin; Lauren Castro, Ph.D. candidate, University of Texas at Austin; and Henk den Bakker, Ph.D., assistant professor, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Center for Food Safety, University of Georgia.

A second panel discussion focused on cyber biosecurity. It featured Diane DiEuliis, Ph.D., senior research fellow, National Defense University; Lynda Chin, M.D., executive director, Real-World Education Detection and Intervention Platform, University of Texas System, and professor of medicine, Dell Medical School, University of Texas at Austin; and Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Ph.D., associate professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and senior scholar, Center for Health Security, Johns Hopkins University.

A third panel discussion examined technological innovations related to biodefense readiness and medical capabilities. Speakers were Rachel Levinson, executive director, National Research Initiatives, Arizona State University; retired Lt. Col. Richard Schoske, Ph.D., chief, Diagnostics Detection and Threat Surveillance Division, Chemical and Biological Technologies Department, Defense Threat Reduction Agency; and Gregory Sayles, Ph.D., director, National Homeland Security Research Center, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

About ORAU

ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, education, security and health. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 100 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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