Bioterrorism: Advances in Anthrax Response and Technology

In early August, the Minnesota Department of Health was investigating an apparent case of inhalational anthrax. The individual is believed to have acquired the infection from the natural environment. The patient was hospitalized in Minnesota after traveling through western states including North and South Dakotas and Wyoming.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation initially investigated the matter since anthrax can be used as a bioterrorism agent. It found no evidence suggesting a link between the illness and a criminal or terrorist act.1

This incident is one of many that highlight the concern of health and security experts about the potential for biological warfare in our country, and especially the involvement of anthrax. Anthrax is a potentially lethal microbe; victims can be infected through aerosolized particles, contaminated food and water, or dried powders.

One of the mechanisms the Federal Government has established for mitigating the effects of a large-scale attack is the National Postal Model, which provides for the delivery of medications to the homes of residents for self-administration in a widespread anthrax attack, as provided for in Presidential Executive Order 13527, “Establishing Federal Capability for the Timely Provision of Medical Countermeasures Following a Biological Attack,” issued on Dec. 30, 2009.2

Section 2 of this Presidential directive establishes the United States Postal Service (USPS) Delivery of Medical Countermeasures to cover a large-scale biological attack. It directs the secretaries of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, in coordination with the USPS, “to establish a national USPS medical countermeasures dispensing model for U.S. cities to implement in response to a large-scale biological attack, with anthrax as the primary threat consideration” (italics mine).

An accompanying plan, developed by the secretaries of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Defense, and the Attorney General, in coordination with the USPS, and in consultation with state and local public health, emergency management, and law enforcement officials, is to provide that law enforcement personnel, “as necessary and appropriate,” be assisted by  local federal law enforcement and other appropriate personnel to escort U.S. Postal workers delivering the medical countermeasures.”

WHAT IS NEW?

What has been happening in the bioterrorism arena regarding this initiative and research and technology?

Postal Model

Five metropolitan areas received National Postal Model grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, it was announced in August. HHS says the grants “are to fund planning and exercises to incorporate USPS employee volunteers into community plans to deliver medication after an anthrax bioterrorism attack.”

Receiving $50,000 grants for initial planning and exercises are Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government in Kentucky, the Boston (MA) Public Health Commission, the Philadelphia (PA) Department of Public Health, and the San Diego (CA) Health and Human Services Agency. The Minnesota Department of Health, which completed National Postal Model planning and initial exercises earlier this year, will receive a $200,000 grant to conduct a full-scale exercise simulating an anthrax attack in the metropolitan area.

HHS explains that in the event of an anthrax attack, people potentially exposed to anthrax would have to receive an initial supply of antibiotics with 48 hours. The USPS volunteers would pick up the antibiotic packages at an established location and, protected by law enforcement officers, deliver the antibiotics to homes in predetermined ZIP codes. For more information on the National Postal Model, visit www.phe.gov/postal.

CBRN Trailers

San Bernardino County, California, has acquired 43 specialized trailers that can be used for bioterrorism, disaster, or pandemic responses. The trailers can deliver antibiotics or other necessary supplies to the more than two million residents of the county. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding paid for the trailers.

The trailers were developed in response to an anthrax bioterrorism scenario in which public health officials would have to distribute antibiotics to a large population quickly.3

Bioterrorism Test

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) received a $2.4 million grant to develop pathogen tests for biodefense based on a platform from Seattle-based NanoString Technologies.  

LLNL will also partner with the University of Texas Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco, to develop assays capable of detecting 35 viral pathogens, including Ebola, Marburg, and Chikungunya, as well as common flu and cold varieties. The project is estimated to be completed in 2014.

At that time, LLNL is to have ready a commercial project to deploy should a terrorist attack occur. Pejman Niaraghi-Arani, researcher and lead investigator of the project, explains:  “The product will help prevent emergency response agencies from becoming overwhelmed.”

Portable Anthrax Detector

The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering of the University of Albany and Cornell University have been working to develop a portable anthrax detector that can analyze a simple in 15 minutes, according to BioPrepWatch.com.

The system loads a droplet of sample into the detector without manual intervention. The device contains fluidic inputs for adding the sample and reagents, removing waste, and carrying out DNA purification, and has an integrated chamber for amplifying only the target DNA using a polymerase chain-reaction system.

Researchers say the average time needed for DNA purification during these experiments was about 15 minutes and that when combined with real-time PCR analysis, the average time to detection was 60 minutes.4

PharmAthene SparVax™ Anthrax Vaccine Program

This week, PharmAthene, Inc. announced that “it has achieved significant progress in the development of its second-generation anthrax vaccine, SparVax™.” Among its achievements were completing initial technology transfer at the 100 liter scale, demonstrating 36 month stability, and completing a 1,500-liter engineering production run, demonstrating PharmAthene’s ability “to produce bulk drug substance for SparVax™ at the final commercial scale for the product.”

According to Dr. Thomas Fuerst, executive vice president and chief scientific officer, PharmAthene’s  “robust manufacturing process for SparVax™ “ provides “the capability to produce more than 200 million rPA vaccine equivalent doses of bulk drug substance at the 50 mcg dose range on an annual basis.”  

PharmAthene's rPA anthrax vaccine program has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. Additional information is at http://www.pharmathene.com.

References

1.      “Health department confirms case of anthrax in patient,” TwinCities.com, Christopher Snowbeck, www.twincities.com; accessed Aug. 10, 2011

2.      Federal Register: January 6, 2010, Vol. 75, No. 3, pp. 737-8.

3.      “California begins deploying specialized CBRN Trailers,” Paul Tinder, July 12, 2011. http://bioprepwach.com.

4.      “Portable anthrax detector that works in 15 minutes under development,” Jeffrey Bigongiari, July 7, 2011; http://bioprepwatch.com.

If you have comments or technology you would like to be considered for this column, please contact maryjd@pennwell.com.

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