News Scan for Aug 29, 2014

US lab biosecurity review
Bioterror laptop found
Microbes in homes

White House asks labs to assess pathogen stocks, biosecurity

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) said yesterday that it has requested US researchers to conduct a "safety stand-down" to assess stocks of potentially dangerous pathogens and outlined longer-term steps to ensure lab biosecurity.

Media reports 2 days ago said the stand-down would last about 24 hours, but an OSTP memo sent on Aug 19 to federal researchers involved in life-sciences work said the process "may take place over several days."

The OSTP strongly urged labs within the next month to:

  • Conduct a comprehensive review of their current safety protocols
  • Inventory and document their culture collections
  • Increase awareness of biosecurity issues throughout the research community

The memo said, "During the Safety Stand-Down period, senior leaders will devote significant, dedicated time to review laboratory biosafety and biosecurity best practices and protocols, as well as to develop and implement plans for sustained inventory monitoring."

The two signers of the memo, Lisa Monaco and John Holdren, PhD, said in an OSTP statement, "Over the longer-term, we have established parallel processes by which federal and non-federal committees would review and generate specific recommendations to strengthen the government's biosafety and biosecurity practices and oversight system for federally-funded activities." Monaco is deputy national security advisor, and Holdren is OSTP director.

The two added, "We strongly encourage non-federal scientists who work with infectious diseases to participate voluntarily alongside their federal colleagues in implementing the steps outlined in our memo."

Nature News reported today that several federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have already begun the review.

Harvard's Marc Lipsitch, PhD, told Nature, "Overall the White House memo is encouraging as the first, small step in a comprehensive approach to biosafety and biosecurity, but it will have little effect unless many other changes are put in place, which remain unspecified at this time."
Aug 28 OSTP statement
Aug 19 OSTP memo
Aug 29 Nature News story
Related Aug 27 CIDRAP News scan


Islamic extremist's laptop found to hold bioterror manual

A laptop computer captured from an Islamic extremist in Syria contains detailed instructions on how to weaponize the bacteria that cause bubonic plague and use them in a terrorist attack, Foreign Policy reported yesterday.

Meanwhile, Britain raised its terror alert level to "severe," the BBC noted today.

The laptop was owned by a Tunisian national who studied chemistry and physics before joining the rebel group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria. It was confiscated from an ISIS hideout in January in Syria's Idlib governorate, which borders Turkey.

The laptop contained a 19-page manual in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and weaponize Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic plague, from infected animals. "The advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge," the manual states.

The computer also contained a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, permitting the use of weapons of mass destruction on non-Muslims.
Aug 28 Foreign Policy report

The BBC story said the UK's terror threat level is being raised from "substantial" to "severe" in response to conflicts in Iraq and Syria, Home Secretary Theresa May said, meaning an attack is "highly likely." The level is the second highest of five.

May, however, said there was no intelligence information to suggest an attack was imminent.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of a "growing" threat of British nationals fighting in Syria and Iraq and then returning home. He said that extremists who are attempting to establish an Islamic state in Syria represent a "greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before."

He said UK residents "might see some changes in terms of policing and the number of armed police."
Aug 29 BBC report


Study: Teeming microbes in a home closely relate to its inhabitants

The microbes within a dwelling closely reflect the microbiota of its inhabitants and change rapidly when the inhabitants move in or out, say the authors of a study in today's issue of Science.

The US research team studied the microbial communities of seven families and their homes over a 6-week period through analyzing samples from skin and from home surfaces. Three of the families moved during the study period, so both homes in each case were studied shortly before and after the moves.

People sharing a home were more microbially similar than those not sharing a home. Furthermore, the microbiomes of the homes differed substantially from each other (P < 0.0001) and could be sourced to the humans living there, as evidenced by the fact that the microbial communities on the hands, noses, and bare feet of the people in a home resembled those on surfaces in that home.

Microbes across household members were most similar on the hands, and those on the nose were most dissimilar. Regular physical contact between members of a household affected the microbes of each other, with people in relationship as well as married couples and their young children sharing most of their microbial community.

Households that included pets showed increased numbers of plant and soil bacteria.

When three of the families moved, the microbiota of their former home changed quickly and dramatically, as did that of the new home they moved into, where the microbiota of their former house followed them and colonized the new dwelling within days.

The authors conclude, "We suggest homes harbor a distinct microbial fingerprint that can be predicted by their occupants and that supersedes intersurface differentiation within the home." The substantial interactions among human, home, and pet microbiota they found could, they said, have "considerable human and animal health implications."
Aug 29 Science abstract

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