Pandora Report 07.23.2021

This week’s Pandora Report continues to cover developments in the investigation into SARS-CoV-2’s origins and brings you the latest news on COVID-19, from vaccine passports to the Tokyo Olympics. We round out the report with norms against chemical weapons use, recommendations to improve the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, and the good old-fashioned plague. And don’t miss the summary from the GMU Pandemics and Global Health Security workshop. 

The Debate Continues: Origins of SARS-CoV-2

For several weeks we have been covering the renewed debate over COVID-19’s origins. The WHO Director-General has urged China to increase its transparency about the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and allow greater access to its laboratories to help resolve questions about the virus’s origins. To push back on that narrative, Chinese officials and media are now claiming that the Maryland-based Fort Detrick Research Institute of Infectious Diseases should be investigated as a potential origin source for COVID-19, a theory that Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz calls “bizarre and ridiculous.” A new article from Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology and Director of the Global Alliance for Preventing Pandemics, describes the “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns of COVID-19.” Another recent piece, by Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Yanzhong Huang, provides a detailed overview of the recent debate and makes the case that ambiguity over COVID-19’s origins is threatening international efforts to cooperate on biosecurity and public health, with potentially long-lasting negative consequences.

CDC Vote of No Confidence in British “Freedom Day”

Despite a recent rise in COVID-19 cases, almost all lockdown restrictions in England were lifted on July 19th, what Prime Minister Boris Johnson is calling “Freedom Day.” Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland still have many of their restrictions in place, but in England, masks are no longer mandatory, capacity limits have been lifted, and social distancing requirements are limited to airports and people who have tested positive for the virus. While 68% of England’s adult population is fully vaccinated, in a single day last weekend the country recorded 48,161 new COVID-19 cases. Therefore, on Freedom Day the CDC raised its UK Risk Assessment Level for COVID-19 to “Level 4: COVID-19 Very High,” and the State Department raised its travel advisory level to “Level 4: Do Not Travel.”

Citius, Altius, Fortius…Infectious?

The Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” translates to “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Athletes strive to smash records and take home the gold. Unfortunately, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics may shatter a record as a super-spreader event of COVID-19. Precautionary measures for this year’s Olympics include daily testing, mask requirements, and distancing measures for athletes, and no fans will be in attendance. However, public health experts have pointed out potential issues with testing capacity and indoor ventilation systems, and they assess that “without stricter mitigation measures…clusters of infection are likely to propagate.” Cases are currently rising in Japan, and the country has struggled with vaccine distribution—only 17% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated. Additionally, 15% of Olympic athletes have not yet been vaccinated. At least 71 people involved with the Olympics have tested positive for COVID-19, and more are in isolation after exposure to the infected. A poll this week in a Japanese newspaper showed that 68% of Japanese respondents doubt the Olympics can be held safely and securely; the chart below shows opinions across multiple countries. The head of the Olympics organizing committee has not ruled out a last-minute cancellation, but said they are monitoring the situation closely.

This chart shows how many people in selected countries are opposed to holding the Olympic Games in Tokyo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID and Congress

Congress continues consideration of issues related to COVID-19, and several stakeholders have reached out to Congress to advocate for their view. A summary of these activities follows.

On July 14, the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing titled “Principles for Outbreak Investigation: COVID-19 and Future Infectious Diseases.” This hearing was the first in a series to understand how COVID-19 started and what can be done to lessen the toll of future outbreaks. Specifically, the committee examined the scientific underpinnings of the investigation into COVID-19’s origins because “the lack of transparency from the Chinese government about health emergencies of international consequence is a very serious geopolitical and science diplomacy challenge.” Though China has not been transparent with its data, the committee chair repeatedly emphasized that “the absence of data is not itself evidence of a lab leak or something more sinister.” You can watch the full hearing here, and we will cover any future hearings on this topic.

Leaders of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition have urged Congressional leadership to establish a national COVID-19 commission to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and assess the United States’ response to the pandemic. The stated purpose of the commission is “not to point fingers or assign blame, but rather to make the United States stronger and more resilient” for the next pandemic.

The Congressional Research Service published a report that reviews arguments about the pandemic’s potential implications for the international security environment. While some argue that the pandemic could be a “world-changing event with potentially profound and long-lasting implications,” others are more skeptical about these dramatic effects. The report reviews the areas of potential change and provides government assessments and potential issues for Congressional consideration. You can read the report here.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a white paper that will be disseminated to Congress and the Biden administration. Titled “Time to Escalate U.S. Leadership on COVID-19 and Beyond,” the white paper makes five key recommendations. First, the White House should establish a leadership structure to coordinate pandemic preparedness and response activities across the interagency. Second, the U.S. should develop a detailed strategy to achieve 70% vaccine coverage of low- and lower-middle-income countries by mid-2022. Third, the U.S. and international partners should establish an international financing mechanism to underwrite basic elements of pandemic preparedness in low- and middle-income countries. Fourth, the U.S. should systematically address the current economic crises in low- and middle-income countries. And finally, the U.S. should invest in basic global health security and epidemic preparedness, focusing on primary healthcare and immunization; research and development for vaccines, therapeutics, and manufacturing capacity; strengthening the WHO; and undertaking a domestic review of biosafety and biosecurity practices. You may also be interested in this newly released GAO report with additional recommendations to improve COVID-19 response.

And finally, the American Society for Microbiology has issued a letter to the House Appropriations Committee “urging them to reject attempts to impose restrictions on federally funded research or the operations of federal science agencies based on premature conclusions about how the pandemic emerged.” Such restrictions could impede potentially lifesaving research; any restrictions should be based firmly in science and not in political posturing.

COVID-19 Vaccine Inequities

Although much has been written about those who voluntarily choose to forego the COVID-19 vaccine, several recent stories highlight the struggles groups are facing in getting the vaccine even if they want it. The International Council of Nurses is sounding the alarm that healthcare workers are being left behind in efforts to provide vaccines against COVID-19 worldwide. Official WHO estimates count 6,643 healthcare worker deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, though the WHO itself estimates the real figure is at least 115,000 (if not much higher) because “many countries are not officially reporting the number of health and care workers who have died” from COVID-19. Just 1 in 8 healthcare workers is fully vaccinated, and the vast majority of these are in richer nations. This vaccine inequity among countries is incredibly stark: for example, while Canada has procured more than 10 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for every 1 resident, Haiti has just received its first delivery of vaccines—and only received 500,000 doses for a population of over 11 million. This global inequity can be attributed to several factors: export restrictions initially kept COVID-19 doses within vaccine manufacturers’ borders, the global purchase plan to provide vaccines for poorer countries was severely flawed and underfunded, and “intellectual property rights vied with global public health for priority.” You can read more about these factors here.

Another Successful Workshop on Pandemics and Global Health Security

On July 19-21, 38 individuals from across the United States and around the world participated in the Biodefense Graduate Program’s virtual summer workshop on Pandemics and Global Health Security. As usual, the workshop attracted a highly experienced group that represented the multiple sectors, agencies, and disciplines that are involving in preventing, preparing for, and responding to pandemics, bioterrorism, and other threats to global health security. This year’s attendees included members of government agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Sandia National Laboratory, the state health departments of Arkansas and New Mexico, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Defence Research and Development Canada; the private sector including Booz Allen Hamilton and the biosurveillance firm BlueDot; non-profits such as CRDF Global; universities including Aga Khan, George Mason, Howard, University of Maryland, Naval Postgraduate School, and the University of Sussex; and international organizations such as Europol and the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs.

Over the course of three half-days, the workshop attendees received briefings from world-class experts in the fields of virology, science communication, global health, medical countermeasures, ethics, hospital biopreparedness, and biodefense. While the format was virtual, participants were able to interact with the faculty and each other during stimulating Q&A and discussion sessions. Even though all of the presentations focused in some way on the COVID-19 pandemic, the instructors provided insights applicable to a wide range of biological threats. Based on the presentations and discussions, there is no shortage of lessons learned from the current pandemic that could be used to develop institutions and systems to prevent the next local outbreak of a novel respiratory disease from becoming a global pandemic.

Workshop on COVID-19 Credentials for International Travel, August 3-5

Last week we told you about an upcoming National Academies study on digital vaccine credentials, led by GMU Biodefense Assistant Professor Dr. Saskia Popescu. If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into the utility, feasibility, security, and ethics of establishing verifiable COVID-19 credentials for international travel, Dr. Popescu’s committee is hosting a 3‑day webinar to explore these issues. Participants will contribute perspectives from domestic and international governments, multilateral health and business organizations, academia, and private and non-profit sectors. You can register for the event here, and read the latest WHO guidance on vaccination proof requirements for travel here.

Don’t Forget the Classics: Updates on Plague

SARS-CoV-2 may be the trendy pathogen these days, but like bellbottom jeans and choker necklaces, plague appears to be making a comeback…in the academic literature at least. The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report just published updated recommendations for antimicrobial treatment and prophylaxis of plague. The original recommendations were published in 2000 and are being updated to incorporate new human clinical data, animal study data, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approvals of additional countermeasures. Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, is naturally present worldwide and has been recognized as a potential bioweapon—the CDC classifies it as a Category A agent. These recommendations can be used by clinicians and public health officials to prepare for and respond to a plague mass-casualty event. Additionally, a recent article in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal examined the potential for plague transmission from corpses and carcasses to humans. While the authors did not find direct evidence for this type of transmission in the literature, they described a transmission pathway and assessed the potential for transmission at each step. Ultimately, they concluded that “pneumonic plague can be transmitted by intensive handling of the corpse or carcass, presumably through the inhalation of respiratory droplets, and that bubonic plague can be transmitted by blood-to-blood contact with the body fluids of a corpse or carcass.” These findings should be used when developing protocols for handling bodies of people or animals who died of plague.

Opinion: Putin Escapes Accountability for Chemical Weapons Use

Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Anthony Ruggiero and research fellow Andrea Stricker contend that Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of the Biden administration’s relative inaction on the enforcement of the global norm against chemical weapons. Although Russia claims that its chemical weapons program was dismantled in 2017, there have been two confirmed cases of Russian chemical weapons use since then. Both cases involved assassination attempts with Novichok, a nerve agent “developed by the Soviet Union and presumably accessible only to Russian state authorities.” Russia also defies the norm against chemical weapons by supporting the erroneous claim that the Syrian government dismantled its chemical weapons stockpiles in 2014, despite multiple confirmed instances of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government since that time. The article authors argue that “Putin knows that if the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons cannot hold a lesser rogue state like Syria accountable, then it will never challenge Moscow.” You can read their assessment of the problem and proposed solutions here.

Improving the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office

In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) consolidated the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and Office of Health Affairs into the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office. This office “leads DHS efforts and coordinates with domestic and international partners to safeguard the United States against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear and health security threats.” Over the years, GAO has evaluated and made recommendations for a number of programs managed by legacy offices, including biosurveillance, nuclear/radiological detection, and chemical defense programs. GAO recently testified before Congress on the status of these recommendations and the consolidation into the CWMD Office. They identified ongoing challenges with the proposed replacement for the BioWatch system, low employee morale, collaboration between the National Biosurveillance Integration Center, and the Securing the Cities program. You can read the full testimony here.

How to Build a Global Pathogen Early Warning System

The Council on Strategic Risks has just released a report assessing the current state of global biosurveillance and recommending the creation of a global pathogen early warning system to “catch the full range of biological threats before they become devastating pandemics.” Informed by the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report identifies critical gaps in biosurveillance, such as inconsistent capabilities across geographic areas, poor information-sharing, and time delays. However, the report is generally optimistic that the foundation for robust global biosurveillance exists. The envisioned global pathogen early warning system would cover key high-risk nodes, and the technologies would be flexible and interoperable to work in a variety of operational settings. The authors also propose enabling recommendations, such as conducting additional deep dives into biosurveillance systems, investing in a wide range of tools, and launching confidence-building measures and other diplomatic efforts to develop trust and foster collaboration. You can learn much more in the report here.

Congratulations to Bonnie Jenkins on Her Recent Confirmation

Bonnie Jenkins has just been confirmed as the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. Undersecretary Jenkins has a long history within the arms control and national security communities, particularly in chemical, biological, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. She has served as the Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs and she is a military veteran, professor, and academic who has worked in government, think tanks, nonprofits, and philanthropy. Hers is a historic nomination of the first African American person to hold the rank of Undersecretary of State, and her expertise and perspective will help tackle key challenges in arms control and disarmament today.

Webinar: The Threat of Designer Pathogens, August 3

Since the completion of the human genome project in 2003, there has been a surge of investments and discoveries in the fields of gene sequencing and synthetic biology and biotechnology. However, such advancements give rise to new security challenges. Improvements in the accuracy, accessibility, and speed of synthesis technologies and their possible use by malicious actors increase the risk of newly emerging bioterrorism weapons and agents. NCT CBRNe is hosting a webinar to ask: What is the international stance regarding this threat? How can we deal with it? Which mechanisms exist to tackle it? You can register for the event here.

Schar School PhD Virtual Open House, August 11

You’re invited to attend a virtual open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government and our academic programs. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. The online session will provide an overview of our doctoral degree programs, and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. Register here.

George Mason University Announces New Vaccination Requirements

GMU has announced updated requirements for COVID-19 vaccinations among students, faculty, and staff in light of the most recent data. Everyone who works, studies, and lives on campus must get vaccinated and share verification of their vaccination status, except in cases of approved exemptions for medical and religious reasons. You can read more here.

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline is Approaching

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security (GHS) Network have teamed up to launch the fifth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition to find creative answers to the questions: What life science research should not be conducted, if any? Should red lines in life science research be drawn? If so, by whom? Teams of at least three participants, with members from two or more countries, must submit papers by July 28. Papers may be published online by NTI and GHS, and the winning team will also receive travel and lodging support to attend and present during a side-event at the 2021 Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties in Geneva. You can learn more about the competition here.

Pandora Report 07.16.2021

This week’s Pandora Report is packed full of insights from GMU Biodefense professors, alumni, and students on bioterrorism, vaccine passports, misinformation about biothreats, and genome editing. We also cover global food security, radiological terrorism, and the latest on chemical weapons, and bring you an update on the debate over SARS-CoV-2’s origins.

COVID-19’s Impact on the Risk of Bioterrorism

Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and Biodefense PhD student Stevie Kiesel have just published an article in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism titled The COVID-19 Pandemic: Catalyst or Complication for Bioterrorism? The pandemic has demonstrated how an infectious disease can cause massive casualties, destabilize governments, and garner intense media attention as countries struggle to respond effectively. The authors examine whether the pandemic is likely to inspire terrorists to consider biological weapons, hoping to replicate these effects, by reviewing existing schools of thought on bioterrorism risk and analyzing recent developments among extremists. You can read the article here (access required).

Is Your Office Safe from COVID-19?

GMU Biodefense Assistant Professor Dr. Saskia Popescu recently weighed in on evaluating the safety of a shared workspace as many companies begin planning how to bring workers back to the office. The CDC’s latest guidelines state that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in environments like an office, while those who aren’t fully vaccinated will need masks, physical distancing, and adequate ventilation. There are several steps you can take to assess and improve the safety of your workplace, including understanding cleaning procedures, purchasing a portable air filter, and following COVID-19 trends in your community to assess the likelihood that you may encounter SARS-CoV-2. However, Dr. Popescu cautions that “your workplace might not be a perfect microcosm of what is going on in your community” and local trends can change quickly, so she advises that vaccination, physical separation, and adequate ventilation and air filtration are key. You can read more here.

COVID-19 Vaccines: Booster Shots and Vaccine Passports

Dr. Popescu will also be chairing a National Academies study on digital vaccine credentials. This study will explore challenges and opportunities associated with a COVID-19 vaccine travel pass. You can read more about the study here, and you’ll find GAO’s recent primer on this issue here. Additionally, Dr. Popescu will be teaching an online class this fall on healthcare system resilience. This course will provide students with a foundation in how healthcare systems prepare for and respond to pandemics, disasters, and biological events. Students will review case studies, such as Ebola, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and COVID-19, to understand the unique challenges of building and sustaining the resilience of the American healthcare system and its role in global health security.

In other vaccine news, Israel is the first country in the world offering a third Pfizer shot amid a spike in COVID-19 cases attributed to the delta variant. The booster shot is offered to adults with a higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19, particularly those with a severe immunodeficiency or who have recently undergone an organ transplant. So far, the US contends that more evidence is needed before recommending a booster shot, and some hypothesize that COVID-19 boosters could come with a risk of more serious side effects.

GMU Biodefense Professor Serving on Committee to Address Biothreats Misinformation

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Associate Professor in the GMU Biodefense Program, will be serving on a National Academies Committee to consider scientists’ role in addressing misinformation and disinformation related to biological threats. Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley brings a diverse range of expertise in organization and management of weapons programs, tacit knowledge and weapons development, WMD terrorism, and bioweapons dissuasion. The COVID-19 pandemic provides just one example of the insidious nature of misinformation associated with biological agents, resulting in challenges with effective outbreak control and rising distrust in institutions. This committee will evaluate how to enable long-term engagement of scientists internationally to identify and address claims about biological threats that emerge from or are perpetuated by inaccurate and misleading information. More information on this committee is available here.

Food for Thought: A “Dramatic Worsening” of World Hunger in 2020

A United Nations report recently found “dramatic worsening of world hunger in 2020,” much of which is likely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly one-tenth of the global population, or nearly 811 million people, were considered undernourished last year. This represents a significant hurdle to the global goal of ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030. Since the mid-2010s, global rates of hunger have been creeping upwards. Though the challenge of reducing global hunger is at a “critical juncture,” this year will bring key opportunities to advance food security and nutrition at the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit, the Nutrition for Growth Summit, and the COP26 on climate change. The report also describes six “transformation pathways” that should be pursued to counteract the main drivers of hunger and malnutrition. You can read the full report here.

If you’re interested in learning more, Professor Philip Thomas will be teaching a course for the GMU Biodefense program this fall. Global Food Security will analyze threats to food security globally, including those related to climate change and environmental degradation; animal and plant diseases; access to clean water; agricultural terrorism; and antimicrobial resistance. The class will also explore the national and global health, economic, social, and ethical impacts of these disruptive forces and examine strategies for enhancing the security of the global food production and supply systems. In addition to teaching, Professor Thomas also heads the cross-cutting International Development Global Food Security Project, which addresses the numerous challenges confronting international food assistance issues. Prior to his current position, Professor Thomas worked for the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) for 45 years, serving as a key liaison between Congress and GAO on international food assistance, global food security, and United Nations management reform issues.

Public Health Preparedness News

COVID-19 will likely be a forerunner of future catastrophic pandemics, unless significant new investments and reforms are urgently made to bolster global and national capacities for pandemic preparedness and rapid response.” This is the finding of a recent report, A Global Deal for Our Pandemic Age, written by the G20 High Level Independent Panel on Financing the Global Commons for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. The Panel was tasked with proposing how finance can be organized to reduce the world’s vulnerability to future pandemics. They identified four major global gaps in pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response related to (1) globally networked surveillance and research, (2) resilient national systems, (3) the supply of medical countermeasures and tools, and (4) global governance. The Panel recommended an international funding increase of US$75 billion over the next five years to address these gaps. While this seems like a large sum, the Panel points out that “the costs to government budgets alone from pandemics are up to 700 times larger than the annual additional international investments proposed.”

Also informed by COVID-19, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently published 13 recommendations for legislation to strengthen the US’s public health and improve medical preparedness and response for future public health events. Highlights include expediting development of medical countermeasures, particularly for unknown viral threats; investing in the development of at-home diagnostic technology, new vaccine delivery platforms, and social science research into outbreak management; making several organizational changes to support epidemic forecasting, research, and response; and developing strategies for combatting health-related misinformation and infectious disease disaster recovery. You can read more about these proposals here.

WHO Releases Reports on Human Genome Editing

The WHO has just released two companion reports with the first global, multisectoral recommendations to help establish human genome editing as a tool for public health, with consideration for safety, effectiveness, and ethics. The reports include recommendations for governance and oversight in nine relevant areas: WHO leadership; international collaboration; human genome editing registries; international research and medical travel; illegal, unregistered, unethical, and unsafe research; intellectual property; education, engagement, and empowerment; ethical values; and WHO review. Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz has discussed the importance of robust international oversight of gene editing because of its potentially global implications if something goes wrong. If you’re interested in gene editing regulations, the Genetic Literacy Project has developed a set of interactive tools that track and index these regulations worldwide. The tracker is available here, and you can read the reports here.

Update: The Debate Over SARS-CoV-2’s Origins

Last week we brought you two sides of the debate over the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Since SARS-CoV-2 began spreading worldwide, researchers and policymakers have questioned where it came from. There have been two major theories: that SARS-CoV-2 is natural in origin and jumped from an animal to humans in a natural spillover event, or that SARS-CoV-2 resulted from a laboratory accident (or “lab leak”) at the Wuhan Institutes of Virology. There has also been a fair amount of criticism over the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) handling of the outbreak investigation. In February 2021, the WHO published a joint report with China on the investigation into SARS-CoV-2’s origins, finding that the virus most likely jumped from one animal species to an intermediary animal host and then to people. Now, the WHO has said that it will fix several “unintended errors” in that report and “look into other possible discrepancies.” Specifically, the virus sequence IDs associated with three early patients will be updated, and the report will clarify that the first family cluster was not linked to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan. A WHO spokesman has said that these changes are not relevant to the hypotheses about the virus’s origins. We will continue to bring you any relevant updates.

A Model Code of Conduct for Biological Scientists

In anticipation of the Ninth Review Conference of the BWC, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has partnered with Tianjin University to finalize a set of guiding principles and code of conduct for individual scientists and institutes engaging in biological research. This document builds on a working paper developed by China and Pakistan and submitted to the Eighth Review Conference of the BWC in 2016. The principles and standards established in the code of conduct are designed to be adaptable to many contexts and used to develop new or enhance existing guidance to fill any gaps in biosecurity governance at national or institutional levels. You can read the proposed code of conduct here.

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline is Approaching

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security (GHS) Network have teamed up to launch the fifth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition to find creative answers to the questions: What life science research should not be conducted, if any? Should red lines in life science research be drawn? If so, by whom? Teams of at least three participants, with members from two or more countries, must submit papers by July 28. Papers may be published online by NTI and GHS, and the winning team will also receive travel and lodging support to attend and present during a side-event at the 2021 Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties in Geneva. You can learn more about the competition here.

Rosatom Report Describes Radiological Terrorism Risk from the Islamic State

Rosatom, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, recently released its 2020 Annual Report. According to this report, Rosatom received information from the US Embassy in Moscow, through the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that the Islamic State was planning to acquire radioactive sources from a Russian site. Upon receiving this warning, in September 2020 “all Russian operators of sites handling radioactive material and associated facilities conducted unscheduled self-assessment of physical protection at sites.” For any of our readers who can read Russian, the Rosatom report is available here.

International collaboration to combat the threat of radiological terrorism is key. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) broke ground this week on the IAEA Nuclear Security Training and Demonstration Centre in Vienna, Austria. This facility, slated to break ground in 2023, will “help strengthen countries’ ability to tackle nuclear terrorism in areas such as the illegal trafficking on nuclear material and the physical protection of facilities and major public events.” You can read more about the site here.

Chemical Weapons: Deployment, Destruction, and Other Developments

Several recent stories will catch you up on the status of chemical weapons around the world. The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) published a munitions typology of chemical weapons deployed in the Syrian War to date. The research team identified six types of munitions that strong evidence shows were used in specific chemical attacks, though they advise that the current typology is not exhaustive and there is more work to be done. This effort is part of a larger GPPI project to document and analyze Syrian chemical weapons use—you can explore the full project here.

A new brief from the Congressional Research Service reviews the Russian government’s use of a chemical weapon against opposition figure and anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny. In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent “developed by the Soviet Union and presumably accessible only to Russian state authorities.” Upon further investigation, the US intelligence community assessed with high confidence that Russia’s Federal Security Service was responsible for the attack. In response, acting in accordance with the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991, the Biden administration imposed an initial round of sanctions in March 2021. The brief discusses these sanctions further here.

Meanwhile, the US continues to proceed with destruction of its chemical weapons stockpiles. In 1997, the US ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty and agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile by 2007. However, this deadline has been extended several times due to technical challenges with the safe destruction of chemical weapons, for Russia as well as the US. The Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (BGCAPP) in Kentucky is currently destroying M55 rockets containing VX nerve agent. Rockets are complex munitions, and the process involves disassembling nearly 18,000 rockets, draining and neutralizing the chemical agent to produce hydrolysate, moving the hydrolysate to holding tanks for off-site disposal, containerizing the drained rocket warheads for later destruction, and transporting the rocket motors to Alabama for destruction in a Static Detonation Chamber unit. You can read more about the work at BGCAPP here, and you can get a deeper dive into the chemical weapons destruction process here.

Schar School Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop: July 19-21

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Register here.

Pandora Report: 07.09.2021

This week’s Pandora Report kicks off with recommendations to enhance biosafety and biosecurity at laboratories working with deadly pathogens, from Biodefense Program students Joseph Rodgers (PhD) and Minh Ly (alumnus) and our Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz. We also take a look at the debate heating up around COVID-19’s origins, Syria’s controversial election to the WHO Executive Board, and a Chinese gene company that is gathering data from pregnant women in 52 countries. Finally, we have a round-up of informative events coming up in the next few weeks, as well as a podcast recommendation if you’ve got any long commutes or summer road trips planned.

Ensuring Biosafety and Biosecurity When Working with Deadly Pathogens

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Filippa Lentzos, senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London, have partnered with Biodefense PhD student Joseph Rodgers and Biodefense Master’s Program alumnus Minh Ly to further explore the risks associated with the proliferation of research labs that work on the world’s deadliest pathogens, Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs. Since 2001, the perception of biological risks from terrorist attacks and emerging infectious diseases has led to a “global construction boom of research labs,” with 59 BSL-4 labs in 23 countries. And the authors predict that this trend will continue, particularly because “as scientists seek to better understand viruses like the one that causes COVID-19, they will likely need more labs tailor-made for work with risky germs.”

To reduce the risk of laboratory accidents and intentional misuse, the authors argue that all countries engaging in high-risk research should adopt international standards of biosafety and biosecurity. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed ISO 35001,  which focuses on management’s role in fostering a culture of biosafety and biosecurity and stresses the need for continuous improvement of practices and processes. The article’s authors recommend all biosafety labs (levels 1 through 4) adhere to ISO 35001. To implement this standard at the international level, countries “must agree on a third-party entity to systematically validate and certify compliance.” You can learn more about their recommendations for this third-party entity here, and you can see Dr. Lentzos’ and Dr. Koblentz’ interactive web-based map of global BSL-4 facilities and biorisk management policies here.

Debate Over the COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory

Speaking of potential misinformation regarding COVID-19, a debate has broken out over the origins of COVID-19. Since SARS-CoV-2 began spreading worldwide, researchers and policymakers have questioned where it came from. There have been two major theories: that SARS-CoV-2 is natural in origin and jumped from an animal to humans in a natural spillover event, or that SARS-CoV-2 resulted from a laboratory accident (or “lab leak”) at the Wuhan Institutes of Virology. Due to scant evidence, few scientists and researchers put much stock in the lab leak theory during the pandemic’s early days. However, in February 2021, the joint WHO-China mission to investigate COVID-19’s origins gave a much-maligned press conference to echo China’s confusing narrative and conclude that the virus most likely “leapt from one animal species to an intermediary animal host in which the virus adapted more before jumping to people.” This investigation also called the lab leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely” – though the next day the WHO Director-General said that no hypotheses had been ruled out. The lab leak theory has gained more traction recently, with President Biden recently ordering the intelligence community (which is currently split over the virus’s origins) to investigate this claim and report back in 90 days.

On Tuesday, a group of virus experts published a letter arguing that “there is substantial body of scientific evidence supporting a zoonotic (animal) origin for SARS-CoV-2” and “there is currently no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has a laboratory origin.” The authors point to the “clear epidemiological links to animal markets in Wuhan” and the lack of evidence that any early cases were connected to the Wuhan Institutes of Virology. Two days later, the BMJ published an article by investigative journalist Paul D. Thacker, who argued the lab leak theory “was treated as a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory” by “researchers who were funded to study viruses with pandemic potential.” Thacker calls out Peter Daszak as a key player in this campaign against the lab leak theory. Daszak is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organization that received U.S. government grants to research viruses for pandemic preparedness and that has subcontracted some of this research out to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak also participated in the WHO-China mission to investigate SARS-COV-2’s origins. (Daszak signed on to a recent letter in The Lancet reaffirming that “the strongest clue from new, credible, and peer-reviewed evidence in the scientific literature is that the virus evolved in nature, while suggestions of a laboratory-leak source of the pandemic remain without scientifically validated evidence that directly supports it in peer-reviewed scientific journals.”) On the same day Thacker’s article was published, the BMJ editor-in-chief also published her support of a “full, open independent investigation into [the pandemic’s] origins,” based on Thacker’s reporting.

We will continue to follow this debate and bring you any updates.

Why Was Syria Just Elected to the WHO’s Executive Board?

Zaher Sahloul, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the president of MedGlobal, argues that the Syrian representative’s recent election to the WHO’s Executive Board is yet another misstep in a troubled year for the WHO. As the Pandora Report covered last week, many perceive that the WHO has been far too deferential to China as China spread disinformation and attempted to obfuscate early information about COVID-19. Now, the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been granted a leading role in the WHO despite a list of atrocities including (but not limited to) repeated chemical weapons use, the weaponization of health care, the intentional degradation of health care infrastructure, and attacks on humanitarian targets such as aid convoys. Sahloul contends that the WHO is a “rigid institution disconnected from the field” that “relies on a weird and secretive system that approves a set of consensus candidates that governments within each region put forward via secret ballot.” Consequences of this bureaucratic inflexibility will be a sense of abandonment from Syrian healthcare workers and non-government organizations, as well as the Syrian people who have suffered greatly under Assad. Sahloul fears that this move will also fuel COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy because Syrians already greatly distrust the Assad regime’s health policies—they will now also distrust the WHO’s recommendations on vaccination because the Assad regime has just been rewarded with a WHO leadership role. You can read more in Sahloul’s article here.

Chinese Gene Company with Military Ties Harvesting Data from Pregnant Women

BGI Group, a Chinese gene company with a history of close collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army, has been using genetic data acquired from prenatal tests to conduct research on the traits of populations. BGI Group sells non-invasive prenatal tests, “which women take about 10 weeks into a pregnancy to capture DNA from the placenta in the woman’s bloodstream” and which are intended to screen for fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome. These tests also capture the mother’s genetic information and personal details (country, height, and weight). BGI then stores and re-analyzes leftover blood samples and genetic data. BGI uses artificial intelligence to analyze this data, often in collaboration with the country’s military. For example, in one study BGI used a military supercomputer to re-analyze this data and “map the prevalence of viruses in Chinese women, look for indicators of mental illness in them, and single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to find links between their genes and their characteristics.” Worldwide, over 8 million women in 52 countries have taken these tests, though BGI claims that it only stores location data on women in mainland China. The implications of this type of research are wide-ranging, and U.S. government advisors have been sounding the alarm for years. For example, in March the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has warned that the U.S. should view China’s push toward global dominance in biotechnology and artificial intelligence as a “new kind of national security threat.” You can read the full article here.

COVID-19 By the Numbers

A grim milestone was reached this week: 4 million dead from COVID-19. To put that in context, 64 countries have a population fewer than 4 million. Vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself and your community. For example, Maryland has reported that unvaccinated people made up 100% of COVID-19 deaths and a majority of the new cases and hospitalizations last month. As of July 7, 56% of U.S. adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 67% have received at least one dose. Vaccinations peaked in April and have slowed down through the summer, falling short of President Biden’s goal for 70% of American adults to receive at least one dose by July 4th. There are important regional differences: most Northeast states have reached or exceeded that 70% target, while most Southern states have remained stagnant with vaccination rates around 50-60%. Several factors account for this difference, including logistical challenges, difficulty reaching all communities with effective communications, and individual concerns over the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. The Biden administration laid out their plan to overcome these challenges in the U.S. COVID-19 Global Response and Recovery Framework. Objective 1 is to “accelerate widespread and equitable access to and delivery of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccinations” by accelerating vaccine and consumables manufacturing, supporting readiness to administer vaccines, expanding access to vaccines, and monitoring and evaluating the safety and effectiveness of vaccination programs. Additionally, the President recently announced new outreach efforts aimed at those who have not been fully vaccinated. These efforts will largely focus on identifying trusted messengers in communities and providing resources local doctors need to fully vaccinate their communities.

Podcast on Aerobiology and War

If you’re one of the many people starting to head back into the office and need something to listen to as you resume your commute, you may be interested in a Listen to History podcast episode that examines the early history of aerobiology and the relationship between public health and militarization. The podcast features Gerard J. Fitzgerald, a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University, where his research focuses on aspects of military environmental history involving militarized landscapes, industrialization, public health, and chemical and biological weapons. He is currently completing Turn on the Light: Airborne Disease Control in the United States, 1930-1960, a history of the impact of the contributions of civilian public health research during the interwar period to the origins of the United States biological weapons during World War II. You can listen to the podcast here or find it on Spotify under the episode title Aerobiology and the History of War.

The Biological Weapons Convention Summer Update

The Ninth Review Conference of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is slated to occur this year. Review Conferences are mandated by Article XII of the BWC treaty to review salient issues including operation of the BWC and relevant emerging scientific and technological developments. The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research released a report titled Preparing for Success at the Ninth Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference: A Guide to the Issues. The BWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) also just released an update on recent and forthcoming work. The 2020 Meetings of Experts were postponed last year due to the pandemic but will be held this year from August 30 through September 8. The ISU has hosted several webinars on cooperation and assistance efforts, science and technology developments, and strengthening national implementation of the BWC. They have also held several workshops to discuss establishing a database to facilitate assistance under the framework of Article VII of the BWC.

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline is Approaching

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security (GHS) Network have teamed up to launch the fifth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition to find creative answers to the questions: What life science research should not be conducted, if any? Should red lines in life science research be drawn? If so, by whom? Teams of at least three participants, with members from two or more countries, must submit papers by July 28. Papers may be published online by NTI and GHS, and the winning team will also receive travel and lodging support to attend and present during a side-event at the 2021 Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties in Geneva. You can learn more about the competition here.

CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues 2021 Virtual Summer Conference: July 13-14

The Center for Strategic & International Studies Project on Nuclear Issues (CSIS PONI) is holding their virtual summer conference on July 13 and July 14. This conference will feature presentations on the future of arms control, emerging technologies, public opinion perspectives on nuclear weapons, and more. Register for Day 1 here and for Day 2 here.

Webinar on Institutional Strengthening of the BWC: July 14

The Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit will be hosting a webinar on “Institutional Strengthening of the Convention” on July 14 from 13:00 to 14:30 CET (07:00 – 08:30 EST). You can register for this virtual event here.

Webinar on Disaster Preparedness and Vulnerable Populations: July 15

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are hosting their final webinar in a three-part series on Disaster Preparedness and Vulnerable Populations in light of COVID-19. The pandemic has brought to light many issues with disaster preparedness for vulnerable populations. The first webinar focused on disaster planning and response activities (recording available here). The second webinar focused on home health workers who provide services to individuals with disabilities and older adults (information available here). The third webinar will discuss how to incorporate the needs of individuals with disabilities and older adults into disaster planning; you can register for that event on July 15th here.

Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop: July 19-21

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Register here.

Pandora Report: 07.02.2021

This week’s Pandora Report is coming in hot, with the latest news and analysis on COVID-19, cyberbiosecurity, nuclear negotiations, and terrorism. Remember to observe the 4th of July safely–emergency room personnel have faced enough challenges recently, let’s all give them a break and celebrate responsibly.

Biodefense Alumni on Innovation, Nuclear Security, and Biological Threats

Biodefense alumni aren’t letting the heat get them down—they’ve published several recent pieces on a range of topics. Dan Gerstein analyzes the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which considers new approaches and investments to increase U.S. innovation and competitiveness. He concludes that while there is much to like in this legislation, as written there are several missed opportunities. Rebecca Earnhardt assesses President Biden’s posture on nuclear security and argues that civil society has a critical role to play by holding policymakers accountable, generating innovative ideas, promoting dialogue, and assisting with nuclear security implementation. Yong-Bee Lim examines U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories’ role in addressing biological threats, as well as the biosecurity challenges they face.

The Latest on COVID-19

The WHO has released new guidance urging everyone—including those fully vaccinated—to wear face masks as we continue to learn more about the Delta variant. However, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has so far held off on recommending mask-wearing for vaccinated individuals in the US, saying that vaccinated people “are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States.” Dr. Walensky acknowledges that the WHO is issuing guidance on a worldwide scale, and she does not criticize the WHO (or local U.S. policymakers such as those in Los Angeles) for recommending mask-wearing out of an abundance of caution. You can track the CDC’s latest data on COVID-19 variants here.

Vaccination continues to be your best defense against COVID-19 infection. Recent studies show that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are effective against several variants of concern, including Delta. Biodefense alumnus Saskia Popescu emphasizes the importance of vaccination in a recent New York Times piece: “I encourage people who are vaccinated to trust in the vaccines but be cognizant that new variants will continue to occur where transmission exists.” You can hear much more from Dr. Popescu at the GMU Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop coming up this month—see Events below for more information. And learn more about the lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19 about developing vaccines during a pandemic here.

Exacerbated Inequality During the Pandemic

While COVID-19 is a pressing public health concern, the pandemic has wide-ranging implications that will likely be felt for years after we’ve all gotten the jab and removed our masks. For example, the U.S. has experienced its biggest drop in life expectancy since World War II. This drop is attributable not only to COVID-19 deaths but also to interrupted access to healthcare during the pandemic. Whether that’s delayed preventative checkups, less frequent doctor’s visits to manage chronic diseases, or an inability to get help for addiction or mental health struggles that have become more prevalent during the pandemic, Americans have been unable to access—or have felt unsafe accessing—the healthcare they need. This disparity and others have hit minority communities particularly hard. If you are interested in learning more about systemic racism and U.S. health security during the pandemic, the journal Health Security recently published a special issue on the topic. And GMU Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop faculty member Nicholas Evans argues that “the story of equity in COVID-19…is a story of failure.”

COVID-19 Highlighted the Need for ASPR Reforms

Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) is making the case for reforming and strengthening the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). The ASPR is the principal advisor to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on federal public health and medical preparedness and response for public health emergencies, with responsibilities for medical surge capacity and medical countermeasures. Senator Burr argues that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed significant gaps in preparedness and response that must be addressed. He makes several recommendations to do so: First, promoting strong, effective leadership and coordination within HHS and across the interagency, particularly with FEMA and DoD. Second, expanding, strengthening, and sustaining public-private partnership in medical supply chain, health care system, and medical countermeasure sectors. And third, leveraging innovation, capacity, and capability improvements to encourage innovation not only in times of crisis, but in a preparedness context as well.

Biosafety, Biosecurity, and COVID-19 Origins

Biosecurity experts are urging Congress to investigate a theory that SARS-CoV-2 (the causative agent of COVID-19) leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Of particular concern are so-called gain of function (GoF) experiments, which alter pathogens’ transmissibility, pathogenesis, or host range. Advocates of increased oversight are concerned that these experiments could lead to future pandemics with pathogens that have been engineered to be more lethal or transmissible to humans. Biodefense Program Director Gregory Koblentz believes that Congress needs to take a more active role in overseeing GoF research, rather than merely paying attention when something goes wrong. Dr. Koblentz is particularly concerned with China’s biosafety system, “because we don’t see the same kind of mechanisms for reporting and accountability in the Chinese biosafety system as we see in the U.S. and other countries.”

Milton Leitenberg, a senior research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, reviews China’s history of obfuscation from the 2002 SARS outbreak (SARS-CoV) to COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2), as well as the World Health Organization’s weak response when presented with disinformation. Through this lens, he then examines the evidence in the ongoing debate over SARS-CoV-2’s origins. Leitenberg argues it is plausible that a scientist at one of the Wuhan virology institutes contracted a laboratory acquired infection while working with bat coronaviruses because the institute “had been carrying out GoF research using bat coronaviruses and producing chimeric viruses using seamless, undetectable, molecular genetic technology.” This fact, coupled with the Chinese government’s relentless disinformation campaign regarding SARS-CoV-2, leads Leitenberg to the conclusion that “a government that is not involved in a massive cover-up of some kind would not indulge in such behavior.” The article linked above requires registration on CBRNE World to view, but registration is free.

Interested in learning more? The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has put together a list of their best pieces on biosafety and biosecurity, featuring many familiar faces to regular readers of the Pandora Report. Check it out here.

New Tool: The Dual-Use Quickscan

The Netherlands Biosecurity Office has just launched the Dual-Use Quickscan tool to identify potential dual-use aspects in research and raise awareness among researchers. Specifically, researchers working with microorganisms can use this tool to assess potential dual-use risks by answering 15 questions. These questions were informed by the scientific literature and encompass three categories: characteristics of the biological agent, knowledge and technology about the agent, and the consequences of misuse. The Quickscan can be embedded in a broader system of biosecurity and dual-use monitoring and awareness within organizations.

Cybersecurity and the Intersection with WMD Threats

For years, government officials, researchers, and policymakers have claimed that cyber threat warnings are blinking red. Recent headlines certainly seem to indicate that we’re under-prepared for many types of cyber-attacks, targeting critical infrastructure, U.S. government data, healthcare systems, and others. Former FEMA Administrator Brock Long and Kyle McPhee review the most pressing infrastructure-related vulnerabilities, many of which are related to cybersecurity. Some have argued that cyber weapons should be considered weapons of mass destruction (WMD) along with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons (CBRN). However, Shane Smith, senior policy fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, proposes that cyber weapons should not be considered WMD because cyber weapons are significantly different from CBRN weapons in terms of their lethality, mechanisms, historical use, and perceived utility, as well as proliferation challenges. However, Smith identifies several areas of convergence between cyber weapons and traditional WMD that should be considered when developing strategies to counter these threats. For example, cyber weapons could be used against nuclear or chemical plants; against nuclear command, control, and communication systems; or to amplify the consequences of a WMD attack. On the other hand, “cyber weapons could be valuable counterproliferation tools to disrupt or disable adversary WMD programs.”

Cyberbiosecurity is a relatively new concept that “encompasses cybersecurity, cyber-physical security and biosecurity as applied to biological and biomedical-based systems.” The important interrelationship between cybersecurity and biosecurity has been steadily gaining more attention since 2014, when the American Association for the Advancement of Science published a study that, in part, examined security issues related to big data and its relationship to the bioeconomy. Recently, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense held a virtual meeting to discuss current and future cyberbiosecurity threats and vulnerabilities, opportunities and solutions to address these threats, and the federal government’s role in doing so. You can view a recording of the event here.  

For an analysis of the latest threats related to cyberbiosecurity, you may be interested in Threats, Risks and Vulnerabilities at the Intersection of Digital, Bio & Health. This article assesses current and emerging cyberbiosecurity threats, risks, and knowledge gaps, and proposes ways for the public and private sectors to work together to promote legitimate research and development while maintaining an appropriate posture against malicious actors. The article recognizes the complexity of the cyberbiosecurity risk space, encompassing several new and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and 3D printing. Multi-disciplinary partnerships will be essential for mounting an effective response that does not overly burden scientific research. Check out the article for the author’s eight recommendations to begin addressing this complex issue.

Reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration achieved a nuclear policy win with the extension of the New START treaty through 2026. Secretary of State Blinken has now turned his attention to reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. The U.S. and France have attempted to increase pressure on Iran by warning that time to return to the nuclear deal is running out, while President Biden declared that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on his watch.

A number of issues complicate negotiations, including Iran’s presidential election (which just concluded) and recent U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting facilities used by Iran-linked militia groups. A War on the Rocks piece assesses the assumption that Iran wants to rejoin the deal. The authors conclude that the nuclear deal is likely to be revived, based on Iran’s actions as well as the benefits of rejoining the deal. However, Iran-watchers should keep an eye on the new, more conservative Iranian’s president’s approach, key negotiating demands, and Iran’s economic trajectory going forward.

A National Strategy for Domestic Terrorism

The Biden administration recently released its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. The strategy utilizes the intelligence community’s domestic extremist threat categories: racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists, animal rights/environmental violent extremists, abortion-related violent extremists, and all other domestic terrorism threats. (Clint Watts provides a breakdown of the acronyms du jour in this space, as well as an analysis of the hits and misses in this strategy.)

The strategy is organized around four pillars:

  1. Understand and share domestic terrorism-related information
  2. Prevent domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence
  3. Disrupt and deter domestic terrorism activity
  4. Confront long-term contributors to domestic terrorism.

Reception to the strategy has been fairly positive, although extremism experts have pointed out weaknesses, areas for improvement, and potential challenges.

Recently Released Resources on Terrorism

The European Union just released its Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, which provides data on terrorist attacks as well as terrorism-related arrests from 2020. The report highlights several persistent trends, such as youth radicalization, lone attackers who use unsophisticated attack methods, and the internet’s role in recruitment and radicalization. Based on reported data, the number of terrorist attacks has remained stable, though the number of terrorist arrests have dropped significantly, likely because of a shift in law enforcement priorities and resources during the pandemic. Interestingly, the report finds that COVID-19 “did not fundamentally modify core terrorist modi operandi;” while extremists incorporated the pandemic into their narratives, there is from this dataset no evidence that it significantly impacted terrorist operations.

The Financial Action Task Force’s newly released report on Ethnically or Racially Motivated Terrorism Financing looks at extreme right wing groups’ fundraising techniques. While extreme right wing terrorist attacks are largely carried out by self-funded lone actors, FATF’s report attempts to map how extremist groups make and move their money. The most common money-raising methods are donations (crowd-funded and private), group membership fees, commercial activities (merchandise sales, real estate ventures, etc.), and criminal activities. Much of the funding, therefore, comes from licit sources. The report concludes by highlighting the numerous challenges associated with addressing extreme right wing group financing, such as different legal regimes for combating this type of terrorism and inconsistent national designations of extreme right wing groups. Increasing transnational links among these groups necessitates more attention on these issues. However, the report raises far more questions than it answers, and much more work is needed on this topic.

Finally, those interested in counterterrorism will find a recently released free resource incredibly helpful: the Handbook of Terrorism Prevention and Preparedness covers a diverse range of topics, from radicalization to terrorist financing to consequence management and much more.

Event: Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Register here.

Pandora Report: 6.18.2021

Michelle Grundahl, a Biodefense MS student, shares her take on the recent meeting of the National Biodefense Science Board. A new report highlights the compound security threats caused by the “convergence of climate change with other global risks,” such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pandora Report is taking a short break, but we will be back soon with news and analysis for all things biodefense!

Biodefense Board Discusses Future of US Pandemic Preparedness

On May 26, 2021, the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) held a (virtual) public meeting that discussed actions that the United States needs to take to be better prepared for the challenges posed by public health emergencies such as pandemics, “Disease X,” and other biological threats. NBSB is the federal committee that advises the office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). During the meeting, the NBSB presented their recommendations to ASPR from its new report on ‘filling critical gaps’ in health emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. In addition, NBSB was briefed on the CDC’s new initiative to improve its data collection and analytical capabilities to improve information sharing and situational awareness during a public health emergency. Michelle Grundahl, a student in the Biodefense MS Program, shares her insights on the event. Read Grundahl’s article here.

Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and the Future of the Korea Bioscience Industry

HyunJung Kim, PhD candidate in the Biodefense Program, published an article – Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and the Future of the Korea Bioscience Industry (written in Korean) – in Monthly Chosun magazine. After the presidential summit between the United States and South Korea last month, Samsung Biologics, based in Seoul, and Moderna, based in Massachusetts, concluded an agreement for Samsung Biologics to produce Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine in Korea. While Korea has developed the second biggest biologics production capacity in the world, next to the United States, Korea lags in the development of new vaccines and therapeutics. Kim reviews the expansion of Korea’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) policy from in-vitro diagnostic kits to medical countermeasures. He points out that the new EUA policy contains provisions that hamper the development of Korea’s biopharma industry by encouraging the Korean government to import medicine from abroad instead of investing in innovation at home by small and medium-sized biotech companies. Read Kim’s article here.

Reading the Nuclear Tea Leaves: Policy and Posture in the Biden Administration

Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student, and Rebecca Hersman, Director of the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) at CSIS, released a report regarding nuclear policy in the Biden administration. The nuclear policy community is once again in the grips of pervasive anxiety that US nuclear policy -encompassing force modernization decisions, declaratory policy, and perceptions of adversary nuclear threat and risk – is either about to dramatically change or fail to change as dramatically as it should. In a polarized community characterized by mistrust and a highly politicized discourse, it is not surprising that the public conversation is filled with competing perspectives that seek to ensure that their voices are heard before the policies are set. As such, the current discourse appears particularly noisy. The greatest controversy centers on the modernization of the nuclear force, in particular the future of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force and commitment to the full triad of nuclear delivery systems, the role and primacy of nuclear weapons in our overall deterrence declaratory policy, the relative threat posed by Russia and China as drivers of US nuclear policy, and the relevance and utility of arms control in managing and reducing these threats. Read the report here.

Iraq National Pathogens List

Iraq has published a new national pathogens list that will guide the country’s approach to biorisk management. The list of human, plant, animal and zoonotic pathogens was produced by the interagency National Biorisk Management Committee. The national pathogen list will become part of Iraq’s system for regulating the import, export, and transfer of dual-use materials. In addition, the list will be used to determine appropriate biosafety and biosecurity measures that laboratories will need to implement. The Iraq National Monitoring Authority played a key role in the development of the list. Mahdi Al Jewari, senior chief biologist at INMA, was a visiting fellow with the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University in 2015. He and Biodefense program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz described Iraq’s effort to develop a comprehensive national biorisk management system in a 2016 article.

The World Climate and Security Report 2021

The Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) released its second annual World Climate and Security Report, which highlights the compound security threats caused by the “convergence of climate change with other global risks,” such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The report shows that the growing pace and intensity of climate hazards will stress military and security services as they are deployed to climate-driven crises, while also handling direct climate threats to their own infrastructure and readiness. The authors urge security institutions around the globe to act as “leading voices urging significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, given recent warnings about the catastrophic security implications of climate change under plausible climate scenarios.” Key risks outlined in the report include overstretched militaries, escalating climate security risks across all regions, and insufficient climate security adaptation and resilience solutions. Key opportunities outlined in the report include embracing predictive modeling and climate risk assessment methodologies as well as updating and developing international laws and mechanisms to include environmental and climate security impacts. Read the report and summary here.

The Ruthless Hackers Behind Ransomware Attacks on US Hospitals: ‘They Do Not Care’

A string of ransomware attacks on hospitals has been carried out in recent months. These attacks have forced some medical facilities to suspend surgeries and delay medical care. They are also costing hospitals millions of dollars. The Wall Street Journal tracked the major attacks conducted by a specific group, a gang of Eastern European cybercriminals known as the “Business Club” previously and Ryuk more recently, that has ties to Russian government security services. It is the “most prolific ransomware gang in the world,” responsible for one-third of the 203 million attacks in the US in 2020. It is estimated that the group accrued at least $100 million in paid ransoms last year. Bill Siegel, CEO of the ransomware recovery firm Coveware, plainly stated: “They do not care. Patient care, people dying, whatever. It doesn’t matter.” The assaults launched specifically at hospitals during the pandemic exposed concerning gaps in cybersecurity for the nation’s health systems. In this day in age, hospitals are highly dependent on computers, especially given the push to digitize patient records.

Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communique

The leaders of the G7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States – met in Cornwall on 11-31 June with the primary aims of beating the pandemic and building back better. The group released a communique outlining its agenda for global action. First, they will work to end the pandemic and prepare for the future by driving an intensified international effort, starting immediately, to vaccinate the world by getting as many safe vaccines to as many people as possible as fast as possible. Additionally, they will work to reinvigorate our economies by advancing recovery plans that build on the $12 trillion of support put in place during the pandemic. Efforts will be made to secure future prosperity by championing freer, fairer trade within a reformed trading system, a more resilient global economy, and a fairer global tax system that reverses the race to the bottom. Further, the group seeks to protect the planet by supporting a green revolution that creates jobs, cuts emissions, and seeks to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees. Finally, the members aim to strengthen partnerships with others around the world and embrace its values as an enduring foundation for success in an ever-changing world. Read the full announcement here.

Exploring Science and Technology Review Mechanisms under the Biological Weapons Convention

The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) published a study that “seeks to inform discussions on establishing a dedicated and systematic S&T review process under the BWC through an examination of existing S&T review-type mechanisms employed in different regimes beyond the BWC, a survey of States Parties views on a possible review mechanism and a study of past and present discourse on this issue in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).” Study methods included assessing review-type mechanisms employed in regimes beyond the BWC; semi-structured interviews with experts; review of past BWC proposals; and a survey of the views of BWC States Parties. Though not all States Parties support the idea of a BWC science and technology review mechanism, and even those who desire such a mechanism differ in the details, two types of potential models became evident. The first is a limited-participation model that would loosely resemble mechanisms used in organizations such as the OPCW, and would draw from a group of 20–30 qualified geographically-representative technical experts nominated by States Parties. The second is an open-ended model that would allow any interested State Party to send (and fund) a maximum of one or two expert participants in the review process. Read the study here.

Event – Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. The course fee is $500. Register here.

Let Scientific Evidence Determine Origin of SARS-CoV-2, Urge Presidents of the National Academies

A statement from the Presidents of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) strongly encourages the use of scientific evidence in the investigation of the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences; John L. Anderson, President of the National Academy of Engineering; and Victor J. Dzau, President of the National Academy of Medicine write:

“The origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and the circumstances of the first cases of human infection, remain unknown.  Science is our best tool to ascertain, or to understand to the extent possible, the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, which could help prevent future pandemics.  However, misinformation, unsubstantiated claims, and personal attacks on scientists surrounding the different theories of how the virus emerged are unacceptable, and are sowing public confusion and risk undermining the public’s trust in science and scientists, including those still leading efforts to bring the pandemic under control. 

We urge that investigations into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 be guided by scientific principles, including reliance on verifiable data, reproducibility, objectivity, transparency, peer review, international collaboration, minimizing conflicts of interest, findings based on evidence, and clarity regarding uncertainties.  In the case of SARS-CoV-2, there are multiple scenarios that could, in principle, explain its origin with varying degrees of plausibility based on our current understanding.  These scenarios range from natural zoonotic spillover (when a virus spreads from non-human animals to humans) to those that are associated with laboratory work. Scientists need to be able to evaluate all of these scenarios, and all viable hypotheses, with credible data.  Data accessibility, transparency, and full cooperation from China, of course, will be essential for a proper and thorough investigation. 

Although much still needs to be done to stop the pandemic, particularly in developing nations, science has made remarkable headway, especially through the rapid development of effective vaccines. The same scientific robustness, rigor, and cooperation should be applied to examining important questions about how the pandemic began.”

We May Never Know Where the Virus Came From. But Evidence Still Suggests Nature.

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, and Dr. Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah, emphasize that we may never uncover the origin of the novel coronavirus that has wreaked havoc on the world. At present, however, the evidence still suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is the product of nature. For instance, the genome sequence of the virus was analyzed by a group of prominent evolutionary virologists who assessed that it was “overwhelmingly unlikely” that there was laboratory manipulation. The worry that the virus could have come from a high-containment laboratory, specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), has surged in recent weeks. The two scientists assert that the work of laboratories and institutions like WIV are critical to preparing for and responding to pandemics. Additionally, they “agree that researchers should continue to study whether the virus could have emerged from a lab, but this cannot come at the expense of the search for animal hosts that could have transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to humans.” Rasmussen is among the distinguished faculty for the upcoming Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop hosted by the Biodefense Graduate Program.

It’s Time to Talk About Lab Safety

Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London, and Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of Biodefense Graduate Program, launched GlobalBioLabs.org, an interactive web-based map of global Biosafety Level 4 facilities and biorisk management policies. Lentzos shared that the aim of the project is to “increase public knowledge about Biosafety Level 4 labs, and importantly, to strengthen national and international virus management policies.” In their research, the two scholars found that there is “significant room for improvement in the policies in place to ensure that these labs were operated safely, securely and responsibly.” Regardless of the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the risk of laboratory accidents and incidents rises as the number of laboratories in the world expands. The new map includes 59 laboratories, the majority of which are in Europe with a total of 25 labs. Only 17 of the 23 countries that house BSL-4 laboratories have national biosafety associations or are members of international partnerships. About 60% of BSL4 labs are government-run public-health institutions, leaving 20% run by universities and 20% by biodefence agencies. Only three of the 23 countries with BSL4 labs – Australia, Canada and the US – have national policies for the oversight of dual-use research. The primary concern is that an accident could trigger the next pandemic. At a national level, Koblentz and Lentzos recommend that “countries with BSL-4 labs should have whole-of-government systems that can conduct multidisciplinary risk assessments of proposed research for safety, security and dual-use activities, such as certain gain-of-function research, that have significant potential to be repurposed to cause harm.” At the international level, they recommend that “structures be put in place to systematically oversee maximum containment facilities.”

SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Interest and Concern Naming Scheme Conducive for Global Discourse

The Virus Evolution Working Group of the World Health Organization convened a group to determine a naming system that will “enable clear communication about SARS-CoV-2 variants of interest and concern.” SARS-CoV-2 is the causative agent of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and, as with all viruses, it continuously adapts to changing environments via random genome mutations. There have been several mutations of SARS-CoV-2 since its emergence, and the naming of them has been based on three nomenclature systems, each of which has its own scientific method to classify and name lineages. This means that one variant could have multiple names. To simplify communication and information sharing, a new system was developed for the naming of Variants of Concern and Interest. The new labels use the Greek alphabet. The tables below show the new labels of Variants of Interest and Variants of Concern, respectively.

The US Has Hit 600,000 COVID Deaths, More Than Any Other Country

It has been 15 months since the first confirmed death due to SARS-CoV-2 was reported in the US, and the novel virus has now taken the lives of 600,000 people across the nation. The vaccines have slowed the trend from thousands to hundreds of deaths per day. At present, there are about 375 deaths per day on average, a major decline since January with an average of 3,000 per day. Many Americans are vaccinated or in the process of becoming so, helping to further overcome COVID-19; however, an alarming number of people are reluctant to get vaccinated.

Biodefense Board Discusses Future of US Pandemic Preparedness

By Michelle Grundahl, Biodefense MS Student

On May 26, 2021, the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) held a (virtual) public meeting that discussed actions that the United States needs to take to be better prepared for the challenges posed by public health emergencies such as pandemics, “Disease X,” and other biological threats. NBSB is the federal committee that advises the office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). During the meeting, the NBSB presented their recommendations to ASPR from its new report on ‘filling critical gaps’ in health emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. In addition, NBSB was briefed on the CDC’s new initiative to improve its data collection and analytical capabilities to improve information sharing and situational awareness during a public health emergency.

The NBSB’s All-Hazards Science Response Working Group draft report, Filling Critical Gaps: Comprehensive Recommendations for Public Health Preparedness, Response, and Recovery from the National Biodefense Science Board, is the result of a September 2020 request from ASPR to NBSB to review the 2007 Homeland Security Presidential Directive 21 (HSPD-21). HSPD-21 is the national strategy for ‘Public Health and Medical Preparedness’ that was formulated during the George W. Bush Administration as part of its strategy to protect the health of Americans during disasters. ASPR asked NBSB to answer three questions:

1) What, if any, of the 2007 focus areas (biosurveillance, countermeasures stockpiling and distribution, mass casualty care, or community resilience) should remain as highest priorities for capacity development by HHS? 

2) How might those focus areas be modified, updated, or expanded to promote additional advances in public health and medical preparedness in the United States? 

3) What should be new HHS focus areas for public health and medical preparedness, if any?

The key finding of the NBSB report is that the United States should always be prepared to “implement an immediate, effective, and coordinated public health response that is guided by scientific knowledge and protected from undue political influence…insulated from political considerations, with the ability to independently develop, directly distribute, and frequently update public health messages with scientific principles in mind, guided by analysis of available data, with inputs from the nation’s leading experts.” To achieve that objective, NBSB made five recommendations to enhance the country’s disaster preparedness and response based on strengthening One Health biosurveillance and situation awareness, enhancement of medical countermeasures, reinforcing health workforce readiness, increasing health facility resilience, and improving communication with the public during health crisis.

The NBSB’s first recommendation is to use a One Health threat assessment for biosurveillance and situational awareness. One Health is holistic approach that considers the systems involved in achieving optimal health outcomes for humans, animals, plants and their shared environment. NBSB recommended that federal departments, public and private research institutions, and private sector organizations should engage in One Health collaborations to protect against emerging human and animal disease risks. A One Health approach would continuously assess emerging human and animal disease risks by using research and predictive data capabilities (based on artificial intelligence) to assess patterns of animal, agricultural, and human health. Proactively discovering biothreats, including zoonotic or arthropod-borne disease, would create improved situational awareness about high consequence risks.  

The board specifically suggests the enhancement of medical countermeasures (MCM), manufacturing, and supply chain. The report provides detailed examples of this approach, and advises that the production of vaccines, drugs, personal protective equipment, and diagnostics should all be “on-shored” inside the United States for quick production and scale-up. For example, active pharmaceutical ingredients, as well as finished products, can be made in the United States instead of imported from foreign suppliers. In addition, assessment of emergency medical countermeasures and diagnostic tools, as well as readiness for manufacturing them, should be an ongoing process. Also, mechanisms for infectious disease, vector-borne and zoonotic disease research and related drug development require investment in computer modeling, in-vitro models, and better animal models. To support these goals, NBSB recommend that incentives should be provided to support private sector innovation. The board also suggests improving the transparency of the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE) to increase information sharing among relevant Federal agencies and private sector partners.  The PHEMCE – led by ASPR – consists of coordinated federal preparedness activities and medical countermeasures for natural, accidental, and intentional threats. Federal interoperable capabilities should be ready to be deployed systematically to proactively manage zoonotic and infectious diseases, climate change, supply chain shortages, workforce shortages, and additional threats to health security.

The health workforce is another focus area for achieving readiness and resilience during a public health crisis. The nation’s workforce needs more infectious disease specialists who are the first responders during an outbreak or a pandemic. The NBSB suggested that the training curriculum for health professionals should include disaster preparedness, emergency response, epidemic control, and training to use personal protective equipment. Likewise, first responders and incident commanders would benefit from additional emergency response education related to health threats and disasters. A critical point identified by NBSB is the need to review  Emergency Support Function (ESF)-8 of the National Response Framework which coordinates of public health and medical services in response to a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or other incidents of national significance. Another astute point is the consideration of the need for childcare, eldercare, and pet care to be available for health workers and first responders during disasters.

NBSB also identified health facility readiness and resilience (and the general soundness of healthcare systems) as having room for improvement as well. Some examples of improvements that are desperately needed are stronger health facility cybersecurity, better hospital collaborations for resource sharing (including staff), and planning for weather disasters overlapping with simultaneous health threats. As a lesson learned from COVID-19, telehealth and health license portability should continue post-pandemic. During COVID-19, health appointments could be held remotely online, and health professionals could work outside of their licensed jurisdictions. Since electronic health records are available over the internet, health professionals could see patients from anywhere.  

The NBSB also recommended improving public communication by developing and disseminating “timely, accurate, consistent, and trusted advisories, public health messages, and clinical guidelines” during a health crisis. Clear, consistent scientific messages should not be influenced by political concerns. Their communication recommendation noted that there should be an alignment of information using social media and local organizations. The goal is to provide accurate information to everyone; no one in society should be left out of receiving crisis communications.

The recommendations contained in this report build on previous reports by NBSB on how to “accelerate research and develop goals to prevent infectious diseases disasters.” For example, the May 13, 2020 report, Medical Countermeasure Research and Development Goals to Prevent Infectious Disease Epidemics, recommended nine items for the early detection and identification of pathogens, including early activation of MCM, coordination mechanisms, rapid MCM development pathways, adequate infrastructure and emergency funding – and the management of public trust. Another May 2020 report, Integrating Clinical Disaster Response Training with Community and State-Based Emergency Planning, recommended continued collaborations between clinical practitioners and disaster management authorities. That previous report focused on medical recommendations for healthcare organizations, local health departments, incident commanders, and emergency medical services to improve their capacity for disaster response, recovery, and mitigation.

The NBSB also heard from Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, Deputy Director for Public Health Science and Surveillance, about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Data Modernization Initiative. The CDC now has greater capacity to use electronic data and centralized laboratory reporting. They can receive and share massive data through the cloud. The CDC is still aiming for an even more modern, integrated, real-time public health surveillance data.  This initiative involves four core areas for strengthening core surveillance capabilities: 1) syndromic surveillance, 2) electronic case reporting (eCR), 3) electronic laboratory reporting, and 4) vital records. Syndromic surveillance can reveal local symptom trends by comparing hospital and health reports. Dr. Jernigan discussed real-time data surveillance during COVID-19, which used county-level monitoring of COVID-like Illness (CLI). Anomaly detections and syndromic surveillance programs, such as BioSense, are cloud-based.  Electronic case reporting is the real-time automated information exchange of electronic health records between public health agencies. Reporting laboratory results electronically reduces the turn-around time of waiting for results, allowing for faster intervention. Electronic lab reporting existed before COVID-19, but it was not automated or truly robust. Also, having up-to-date information on vital records, such as death certificates, is important for public health decision-making.

The goal of the CDC’s data modernization plan is to collect accurate data, including from non-traditional sources that can forecast health threats, that can be shared easily with partners. Under this model, data would flow through the same data hubs, where a single data upload would inform various partners in a hub and spoke model. Faster access to larger data sets will allow for interoperability and dashboards that inform forecasting and decision-making. Combined data-set platforms can be used to create pandemic dashboards. Timely, high-quality data sharing is now scalable and the process can be used during future outbreaks to reduce the burden of manual reporting. Data standards for electronic data exchange and electronic data linkage, using databases such as the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS), will bolster the mapping of notifiable diseases.

Together, the draft report by the NBSB’s All-Hazards Science Response Working Group and the CDC’s data modernization plan can help strengthen public health emergency preparedness and response in the United States so that we can prevent pandemics – and be ready for unknown threats.  

Pandora Report: 6.11.2021

June is National Pet Preparedness Month! The FDA approved a new drug for the treatment of smallpox. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is here to stay.

Pet Preparedness Month

June is National Pet Preparedness Month! Pet parents should include animals in emergency plans: have an evacuation plan, microchip your pet, and develop a buddy system. You can also build a kit for your pet with food, water, medicine, a first aid kit, grooming items, and a photo of you with your pet. As the summer heat sets in, remember to keep your pet hydrated and do not leave them in a hot car. Also, mind hot pavement for their paws!

A new article in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness explores the evidence regarding the use of trained dogs to detect COVID-19 infections. Detection dogs are a promising non-invasive, efficient, and cost-effective screening method for SARS-CoV-2 infection. Read the article here.

Science & Tech Spotlight: Digital Vaccine Credentials

Digital vaccine credentials can confirm that a person has been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19. They can be a tool to reduce the disease’s spread, and allow travel and other activities to resume safely. Users of such credentials can provide their COVID-19 information on a mobile device through a secure, digital code for fast and contactless scanning. Airports and other venues could process larger numbers of people more quickly with these credentials than with paper vaccine cards. However, challenges that may limit the use of these credentials include concerns about the security and privacy of users’ health data. Read the full report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) here.  

HHS Launches First Venture Capital Partnership to Develop Transformative Technologies to Combat Future Pandemics, Other Health Emergencies

Through the BARDA Ventures program, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA – part of the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response – is launching a partnership with the nonprofit organization Global Health Investment Corporation (GHIC) to accelerate development and commercialization of technologies and medical products needed to respond to or prevent public health emergencies, such as pandemics, and other health security threats. Through this partnership, BARDA intends to provide GHIC with a minimum of $50 million over five years with potential for up to $500 million over 10 years. GHIC will launch a global health security fund with matching capital from other investors. This partnership will allow direct linkage with the investment community and establish sustained and long-term efforts to identify, nurture, and commercialize technologies that aid the US in responding effectively to future health security threats.

FDA Approves Drug to Treat Smallpox

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Tembexa (brincidofovir) to treat smallpox. Though smallpox was eradicated in 1980, there are worries that it could be deployed as a bioweapon. The disease spreads via direct contact among humans and symptoms arise 10-14 days after infection. Symptoms include fever, exhaustion, headache, backache, and the telltale rash consisting of small, pink bumps progressed to pus-filled sores before it crusts over and scars. As an eradicated disease, the efficacy of Tembexa was evaluated in animals infected with viruses that are closely related to the variola virus, and was determined by measuring animals’ survival at the end of the studies. Efficacy and safety were adequate for FDA approval. The most common side effects are diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

Gene Drives Are What’s Next

The next meeting of the Novel and Exceptional Technology and Research Advisory Committee (NExTRAC), a federal advisory committee that provides recommendations to the NIH Director and a public forum for the discussion of the scientific, safety, and ethical issues associated with emerging biotechnologies, will be held on 25 June 2021. The meeting will discuss a Draft Report of the Gene Drives in Biomedical Research Working Group, which was prepared in response to the charge given by the NIH Director at the December 2019 NExTRAC meeting to “consider whether existing biosafety guidance is adequate for contained laboratory research utilizing gene drive technology” and “outline conditions (if any) under which NIH could consider supporting field release of gene drive modified organisms.”

Review of Recounting the Anthrax Attacks

Dr. R. Scott Decker is a retired supervisory special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and he published the book, Recounting the Anthrax Attacks: Terror, the Amerithrax Task Force, and the Evolution of Forensics in the FBI. Al Mauroni, director of the US Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, wrote a review of the book, dubbing it “a valuable book for understanding how the FBI developed its case for the Amerithrax investigation, not just for the legal community that engages in bioterrorism cases, but for the defense community that engages in the policy aspects of this issue.” The FBI eventually attributed the anthrax attacks to Bruce Ivins, a research scientist working at the Army’s Fort Detrick laboratories. Read the review here.

The Forever Virus: A Strategy for the Long Fight Against COVID-19

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is here to stay. The novel coronavirus cannot be eradicated, because it infects over a dozen different species. Due to vaccine supply shortages and vaccine hesitancy, global herd immunity is “unreachable.” Even if every human on the planet could be vaccinated today, the virus would persist in various animal species. That said, vaccination must remain a primary goal in order to contain the disease. Though many hoped that the virus would be the cause of a short-term crisis, it is proving to be a chronic crisis against a very resilient pathogen. This is, in part, a result of many nations failing to heed the early warning signs and take the threat seriously, allowing grave damage to occur. “As a wealthy, powerful, and scientifically advanced country, the United States is optimally positioned to help lead the long fight against COVID-19.” And, in order to do this, the US must repair its reputation as a global public health leader. Beyond US leadership and support, the entire global framework for pandemic response needs a reboot. A recent report recommends elevating pandemic preparedness and response to the highest levels of the United Nations via the creation of a “global health threats council.” This council would be led by heads of state, separate from the World Health Organization, and “charged with holding countries accountable for containing epidemics.”  

Dr. Rick Bright, Senior Vice President of Pandemic Prevention & Response at The Rockefeller Foundation, is among the contributors of this piece. Bright is also among the distinguished faculty for the upcoming Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop hosted by the Biodefense Graduate Program.

The “Legal Epidemiology” of Pandemic Control

The centrality of law as a public health intervention has been undeniable during the COVID-19 pandemic. In just the first half of 2020, more than 1,000 laws and orders were issued by federal, state, and local authorities in the United States in an effort to reduce disease transmission. Legal interventions include stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and travel restrictions, as well as more particular rules for business operations, alcohol sales, curfews, and health care. Given their heavy use, importance, and obvious socioeconomic side effects, and the social and behavioral complexities of their implementation, one might have expected the National Institutes of Health (NIH), other research funders, and the research community to jump to the work of determining the right mix, intensity, and enforcement approaches of legal restrictions to control transmission with the least and most equitably distributed harms. No organized research program emerged. Funding for scientific evaluation of legal effects and public health systems research was paltry, at a time when hundreds of thousands of lives, the socioemotional development of millions of children, and billions of dollars in economic activity directly depended on questions about control measures, enforcement methods, the organization of the health system, and the many ways in which law was immediately influencing vulnerability, resilience, and social behavior. It is past time for a broad recognition in our health system that law is a ubiquitous treatment, one to which hundreds of millions of people are routinely exposed. The imperative is to scale up the infrastructure for at least three kinds of research: study of the mechanisms, effects, side effects, and implementation of laws designed to influence health, such as COVID control measures; research on how the legal infrastructure of the US health system — the allocation of powers and duties, as well as limits on authority — influences the effectiveness of the system; and perhaps most important for addressing health equity, studies of how laws that may appear to have no health purposes — such as the tax code, minimum wage, and labor rules — shape the social determinants of health.

The COVID Lab-Leak Hypothesis: What Scientists Do and Don’t Know

Most scientists say SARS-CoV-2 probably has a natural origin, and was transmitted from an animal to humans. However, a lab leak has not been ruled out, and many are calling for a deeper investigation into the hypothesis that the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), located in the Chinese city where the first COVID-19 cases were reported. On 26 May, US President Joe Biden tasked the US Intelligence Community to join efforts to find SARS-CoV-2’s origins, whatever they might be, and report back in 90 days. Scientists don’t have enough evidence about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 to rule out the lab-leak hypothesis, or to prove the alternative — that the virus has a natural origin. Many infectious-disease researchers agree that the most probable scenario is that the virus evolved naturally and spread from a bat either directly to a person or through an intermediate animal. Most emerging infectious diseases begin with a spillover from nature, as was seen with HIV, influenza epidemics, Ebola outbreaks and the coronaviruses that caused the SARS epidemic beginning in 2002 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak beginning in 2012. In theory, COVID-19 could have come from a lab in a few ways. Researchers might have collected SARS-CoV-2 from an animal and maintained it in their lab to study, or they might have created it by engineering coronavirus genomes. In these scenarios, a person in the lab might have then been accidentally or deliberately infected by the virus, and then spread it to others — sparking the pandemic. There is currently no clear evidence to back these scenarios, but they aren’t impossible. Read the breakdown of knowns and unknowns here.

Biden Would Slash Pentagon Money for Pandemic Prevention

President Biden proposed halving the Pentagon’s budget for the leading US government program for preventing, detecting, and responding to global disease outbreaks – the Biological Threat Reduction Program. The Biological Threat Reduction Program “finds and fights emerging global diseases that can threaten US troops and, ultimately, the world’s population.” This is a move that “even the White House’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill oppose as the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.” The proposed cut arose despite the assessment of US intelligence agencies and scientists that “pandemics will become increasingly common and as COVID-19 still rages in many countries and hangs on in America.” “The US military has been a leader in research and development of coronavirus vaccines and in disseminating them,” and the Pentagon plans to spend $500 million in FY22 on COVID-19 response and preparedness for future pandemics, despite the funding slash.  

COVID-19 Air Traffic Visualization

The RAND Corporation released a report, COVID-19 Air Traffic Visualization: COVID-19 Cases in China Were Likely 37 Times Higher Than Reported in January 2020, which presents strong evidence that China’s reported COVID-19 caseload was undercounted by a factor of nearly 40. In this report — one of several from a RAND Corporation team examining the role of commercial air travel in the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic — researchers use RAND’s COVID-19 Air Traffic Visualization (CAT-V) tool to estimate the likely number of infections in China in early 2020. The tool combines COVID-19 case data from Johns Hopkins University with detailed air travel data from the International Air Transport Association. From December 31, 2019, to January 22, 2020, China reported a daily average of 172 cases of COVID-19 among its residents. This number of confirmed cases was equivalent to just one per 8.2 million residents in the country per day. Using the detailed flight data over that same period of time, it was determined that the five countries most at risk of importing COVID-19 from China were, in descending order of risk, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the United States, and Taiwan. But far fewer than 8.2 million passengers flew from China to the five countries over that 23-day period. Just more than 1 million passengers flew from China to Japan and Thailand each, while slightly more than 750,000 flew to South Korea, 500,000 flew to the United States, and fewer than 400,000 flew to Taiwan (as illustrated in the map below). Thus, all of these passengers from China totaled fewer than 3.7 million, for an expected COVID-19 exportation rate of less than one case to all five of these countries combined. However, COVID-19 cases were already being reported in all five countries during this time. This trend would be exceedingly unlikely given the low reported case count in China. Read the report here.

Why Contact Tracing Couldn’t Keep Up with The US COVID Outbreak

A survey from NPR and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security found that many state health departments are “winding down the contact tracing programs they scrambled to grow last year.” Even though coronavirus infections are tapering off in most parts of the country, public health experts recommend maintaining a smaller workforce able to stay on top of ongoing outbreaks. This is a significant change from last winter when the US suffered from a shortage of people to respond and deliver case investigation and contact tracing. Adriane Casalotti of the National Association of County and City Health Officials likened the scramble to find these workers as “trying to build the plane while flying it.” Beyond the lack of personnel, there was an absence of federal leadership and communication from authorities (namely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the White House). Additionally, there did not exist a uniform approach for contact tracing programs. Low responsiveness was another challenge. An analysis of 14 contact tracing programs from June to October 2020 published in JAMA Network Open found that “no contacts were reported for two-thirds of persons with laboratory confirmed COVID-19 because they were either not reached for an interview or were interviewed and named no contacts.” A recent poll by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that only 52% of Americans trust the CDC, while the numbers for state and local health departments were even lower. Distrust also inhibited the utility of digital tools for contact tracing. For instance, in Utah, an app called Healthy Together used GPS location for contact tracing, but much of the population was uninterested in using it and unwilling to download it.  

BSL-4 Laboratories

Recently, Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London & Dr. Greg Koblentz of George Mason University launched GlobalBioLabs.org, an interactive web-based map of global Biosafety Level-4 facilities and biorisk management policies. Lentzos shared that the aim of the project is to “increase public knowledge about Biosafety Level 4 labs, and importantly, to strengthen national and international virus management policies.” Regardless of the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the risk of laboratory accidents and incidents rises as the number of laboratories in the world expands. The new map includes 59 laboratories, the majority of which are in Europe. Only 17 of the 23 countries that house BSL-4 laboratories have national biosafety associations or are members of international partnerships. The primary concern is that an accident could trigger the next pandemic. Watch a recording of the webinar launching the site here.

Pandora Report: 6.4.2021

The Biden administration has released its fiscal year 2022 budget, which includes an increase of almost $1 billion for global health programs. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power. Register for the upcoming Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop!

Biden’s FY22 Budget

The Biden administration released its fiscal year 2022 (FY22) budget, which includes an increase of almost $1 billion for global health programs. There is also a section of the budget that provides “discretionary funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — the largest budget authority increase in nearly two decades — to restore capacity at the world’s pre-eminent public health agency.” In regard to the fight to end the COVID-19 pandemic, the budget provides $1 billion in foreign assistance to “establish Global Health Security Agenda capacity building programs in additional nations and increase investments in crosscutting research and viral discovery programs to detect and stamp out future infectious disease outbreaks.” In total, global health security funding is $905 million, a 376% above the FY21 enacted level. Funding for tuberculosis totals $319 million and funding for malaria totals $770 million, both matching the FY21 enacted levels. Funding for neglected tropical diseases totals $103 million, also matching the FY21 enacted level. KFF outlines a detailed comparison of funding for global health efforts between FY22 and FY21 here.

Ahead of the budget release, KFF analyzed the historical trends in US funding for global health, finding that funding through regular appropriations increased by almost $10 billion since FY 2001. Most of this increase is due to the establishment of President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Global Fund, and the President’s Malaria Initiative. Over the last decade, the US has offered nearly $12 billion in emergency supplemental funding for infectious diseases, but  90% of that funding was provided in the last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘A Perilous Point’: Global Agencies Call for $50 Billion Investment to Combat COVID-19

A statement from the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) urges investment of up to $50 billion to “boost manufacturing capacity and supplies and ease trade rules to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines and other medical products.” Additional funding to COVAX, the global vaccine distribution initiative, “could be widened to 40% and, possibly 60% by the first half of 2022.” COVAX has administered nearly 2.4 billion doses across 92 low and middle-income countries. But, an additional $8.3 billion is needed as the current resources would only cover about 30% of their populations through early 2022. According to an IMF analysis, “added investment could generate an estimated $9 trillion in additional global output by 2025.”

It’s No Joke: Borat Turns to Johns Hopkins Scientist for Serious COVID Vaccine Talk

Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, shares her vaccine expertise for British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest moviefilm. One of the topics Nuzzo addressed was the conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 vaccines are being used as vehicles to insert microchips into people. She clarifies, “a microchip wouldn’t fit through the tiny needle used to inject COVID-19 vaccines.” Nuzzo is among the distinguished faculty for the upcoming Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop hosted by the Biodefense Graduate Program.

Operation Warp Speed and Beyond Toolkit

The Operation Warp Speed and Beyond Toolkit has been developed for cleared and uncleared industry partners working on Operation Warp Speed (OWS). It provides OWS partners with the resources they need to better protect the important work they are doing. While some of these resources were developed with cleared contractors participating in the National Industrial Security Program (NISP) in mind, the guidance and information provided apply to any industry partner working on sensitive information that is sought after by an adversary, regardless of classification level or designation.

On September 10, 2020, Operation Warp Speed industry partners were invited to participate in a webinar that provided an overview of insider risk, cybersecurity, counterintelligence threats, and industrial security best practices. In case you were unable to attend the live webinar, you may view a recording of the webinar here.

WHA74: Strengthen Global Preparedness for Health Emergencies

The 74th World Health Assembly (WHA) concluded on 31 May, and it focused on ending the COVID-19 pandemic and how to prevent the next one. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), called for beginning negotiations this year on an international treaty to enhance pandemic preparedness. Though such a treaty was not adopted at this year’s WHA, member states agreed to create a working group that would look at the benefits of a treaty, a convention, or an international agreement. In late November, the ministers from the WHO’s 194 member states are set to convene and decide whether or not to start such negotiations. To the dismay of many, the WHA did not adequately consider a very current and critical topic: “a plan to vaccinate the world and end vaccine inequity.” No resolution or strategy was put forward to achieve global equitable vaccination. Thomas Schwartz, executive secretary of Medicus Mundi International, stated, “Unfortunately, the WHA is still not [a] place for member state[s] to be challenged, and the full transparency, with all sessions being live webcast, does not provide the setup for critical self-reflection.” On a better note, the WHA did pass two resolutions “advocating for government support for the Gender Equal Health and Care Workforce Initiative to address gender inequities in the health and care workforce.”

One for All: An Updated Action Plan for Global COVID-19 Vaccination

The Rockefeller Foundation released a new report, One for All: An Updated Action Plan for Global Covid-19 Vaccination, that calls on the “G7 and other donors to step up so that COVAX closes its US$9.3 billion funding gap by June 2nd, allowing it to unlock an additional 1.8 billion doses of vaccine, enabling 92 low- and middle-income countries to vaccinate half their adult population.” The lack of equitable vaccine distribution leaves much of the global population unvaccinated, posing a threat to ending the pandemic. Thus far, about half of North Americans and over one-quarter of Europeans have been vaccinated, but only about 14% of South Americans, 5% of Asians, and 1.2% of Africans. Further, 80% of vaccines have been administered in high- and upper-middle income countries, leaving low-income countries vulnerable and unprotected. The report provides a 5-point action plan to scale equitable vaccination around the world: (1) share more sooner; (2) make more quicker; (3) build in the global South; (4) support delivery systems; and (5) close the financing gap. Dr. Rick Bright, Senior Vice President of Pandemic Prevention & Response at The Rockefeller Foundation, is among the contributors of this report. Bright is also among the distinguished faculty for the upcoming Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop hosted by the Biodefense Graduate Program. Read the report here.

Event – Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Prior to June 18, the course fee is $400. Starting June 18, the course fee is $500. Register here.

The Assad Regime Continues

On Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad voted to extend his rule, “casting his ballot in an ex-rebel bastion where a suspected chemical weapons attack in 2018 prompted Western air strikes.” Syria has been in a decade-long conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half of the country’s population from their homes, all under Assad’s regime. The election was held despite a peace process led by the United Nations that called for voting under international supervision. Unfortunately, this week’s vote will allow Assad seven more years in power, extending his family’s rule to nearly 60 years.

Last month, the members of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) voted to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the treaty. The CWC prohibits the use, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons. The suspension is a “modest step” toward holding Syria accountable for its chemical weapons attacks and reinforcing the global prohibition against chemical weapons use. In 2013, Syrian forces deployed nerve gas on neighborhoods near Damascus, killing about 1,300 people. Unfortunately, the international responses to Syria’s atrocities have been lackluster. Despite the latest vote, the “Assad regime could continue to maintain, expand, and employ its illegal chemical weapons arsenal as a terror weapon against opposition forces and civilians.” A possible next step in the event that Syria does not comply with the CWC is to refer Syria to the UN Security Council (UNSC). Another option would be to “demand a challenge inspection in Syria pursuant to Article IX of the CWC to clarify outstanding inconsistencies with its stockpile declaration.”

WHO Gives Virus Variants New Names, Drawing from Greek Alphabet

The World Health Organization (WHO) has established a less technical method for naming the new variants of the novel coronavirus using the Greek alphabet. For example, B.1.1.7 is now Alpha. The tables below crafted by Bloomberg shows the new names for the variants of concern and the variants of interest.

Fall 2021 Courses in the Biodefense Graduate Program

If you are a Schar School student looking for another interesting class to take this fall, the Biodefense Graduate Program is offering two fascinating courses: Global Food Security (BIOD 726) with Philip Thomas and Building Health System Resilience (BIOD 610) with Dr. Saskia Popescu.

Global Food Security (BIOD 726) analyzes threats to food security globally including those related to climate change and environmental degradation; animal and plant diseases; access to clean water; agricultural terrorism; and antimicrobial resistance. It explores the national and global health, economic, social, and ethical impacts of these disruptive forces. The course also examines strategies for enhancing the security of the global food production and supply system.

Building Health System Resilience (BIOD 610) will provide students with a foundation in how healthcare systems prepare and respond to pandemics, disasters, and biological events. The ability of healthcare systems to respond to biological threats will have impacts at the community, national, and international levels. Health resilience in the United States is a particular challenge given multiple stakeholders, economic factors, and regulatory fragmentation. Students will review case studies, such as Ebola, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and COVID-19, to examine the unique challenges of building and sustaining the resilience of the American healthcare and its role in global health security.

Schar School Open House

You’re invited to attend a virtual open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government and our academic programs. The online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs and graduate certificate programs, student services, and admissions requirements. Attendees will be provided with an application fee waiver for the Fall 2021 graduate application. Biodefense applicants are eligible for funding from the Diane Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship. The fall application deadline is July 15th. The Open House will be held virtually on 9 June at 6 PM EST. Register here.

BSL-4 Laboratories

Last week, Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London & Dr. Greg Koblentz of George Mason University launched GlobalBioLabs.org, an interactive web-based map of global Biosafety Level-4 facilities and biorisk management policies. Lentzos shared that the aim of the project is to “increase public knowledge about Biosafety Level 4 labs, and importantly, to strengthen national and international virus management policies.” Regardless of the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the risk of laboratory accidents rises as the number of laboratories in the world expands. The new map includes 59 laboratories, the majority of which are in Europe. Only 17 of the 23 countries that house BSL-4 laboratories have national biosafety associations or are members of international partnerships. The primary concern is that an accident could trigger the next pandemic.

Pandora Report: 5.28.2021

The 74th World Health Assembly is underway in Geneva; you can watch the webcast here! Listen here as Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, will be interviewed on the With Good Reason podcast today, 28 May. The lab leak theory for the origin of COVID-19 is gaining traction.

Schar School Open House

You’re invited to attend a virtual open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government and our academic programs. The online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs and graduate certificate programs, student services, and admissions requirements. Attendees will be provided with an application fee waiver for the Fall 2021 graduate application. Biodefense applicants are eligible for funding from the Diane Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship. The fall application deadline is July 15th. The Open House will be held virtually on 9 June at 6 PM EST. Register here.

74th World Health Assembly

The 74th World Health Assembly (WHA) is underway until 1 June, and it is taking place virtually. The WHA is the decision-making body of World Health Organization (WHO), and it is attended by delegations from all WHO Member States. The primary functions of the WHA are to determine the policies of the WHO, appoint the Director-General, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed budget. The theme of this year’s meeting is, “Ending this pandemic, preventing the next: building together a healthier, safer and fairer world.” On Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the “application of wartime logic in the international battle against COVID-19.” Guterres explains the pandemic as being “at war with the virus.” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus lamented the “scandalous inequity” of vaccine distribution that is perpetuating the pandemic. Though COVID-19 is the main topic of this year, other issues include proposals for WHO reforms and the exclusion of Taiwan. Taiwan maintains hope that it will be granted a seat at the WHA meeting. The nation’s successful handling of COVID-19 for more than a year and a half has brought renewed attention to Taiwan’s absence from the WHA.”

MCMi Program Update on FDA

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plays a critical role in protecting the United States from chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and emerging infectious disease threats. The FDA ensures that medical countermeasures (MCMs)—including drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests—to counter these threats are safe, effective, and secure. The FDA works closely with interagency partners through the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE, or Enterprise) to build and sustain the MCM programs necessary to effectively respond to public health emergencies. The FDA also works closely with the US Department of Defense (DoD) to facilitate the development and availability of MCMs to support the unique needs of American military personnel. The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013 (PAHPRA), requires the FDA to issue an annual report detailing its medical countermeasure activities. This report responds to that requirement for the latest fiscal year available. The FY 2020 report includes a snapshot of the Agency’s COVID-19 response efforts through September 30, 2020. Read the report here.

DHS Exploring New Methods to Replace BioWatch and Could Benefit from Additional Guidance

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is following the agency’s acquisition policy and guidance to acquire Biological Detection for the 21st Century (BD21). This system-of-systems concept—an assembly of technologies to gain higher functionality—is intended to combine various technologies, such as biological sensors, data analytics, anomaly detection tools, collectors, and field screening devices to enable timelier and more efficient detection of an aerosolized attack involving a biological agent than the current biodetection system. The BD21 program is early in the acquisition lifecycle and DHS has not yet selected the technologies to be used. Potential technologies are still being analyzed to demonstrate that certain components of the overall concept are feasible, such as an anomaly detection algorithm.

However, BD21 faces technical challenges due to inherent limitations in the technologies and uncertainties with combining technologies for use in biodetection. For example, biological aerosol sensors that monitor the air are to provide data on biological material in the environment, but common environmental material such as pollen, soil, and diesel exhaust can emit a signal in the same range as a biological threat agent, thereby increasing false alarm rates. Program officials report that the risk of false alarms produced by biological sensor technologies could be reduced by using an anomaly detection algorithm in addition to the sensor. However, it is too early to determine whether integration of an anomaly detection algorithm will successfully mitigate the false alarm rate. Specifically, because the algorithms have never been developed and used for the purpose of biodetection in an urban, civilian environment.

BD21 program is following the agency’s acquisition policy and guidance to mitigate technological risks in acquisition programs, and plans to conduct technology readiness assessments (TRA) along the way. In 2020, DHS issued a TRA guide, but it lacked detailed information about how the department will ensure objectivity and independence, among other important best practices GAO has identified. If DHS follows GAO’s best practices guide, decision makers and program managers will be in a better position to make informed decisions at key acquisition decision events. Read the report here.

The Eroding Norms Against Chemical Weapons Use Will Need More Than Another Syria Censure to Survive

Last month, the members of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) voted to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the treaty. The CWC prohibits the use, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons. The suspension is a “modest step” toward holding Syria accountable for its chemical weapons attacks and reinforcing the global norm of prohibition against chemical weapons use. In 2013, Syrian forces deployed nerve gas on neighborhoods near Damascus, killing about 1,300 people. Unfortunately, the international responses to Syria’s atrocities have been lackluster. Despite the latest vote, the “Assad regime could continue to maintain, expand, and employ its illegal chemical weapons arsenal as a terror weapon against opposition forces and civilians.” A possible next step in the event that Syria does not comply with the CWC is to refer Syria to the UN Security Council (UNSC). Another option would be to “demand a challenge inspection in Syria pursuant to Article IX of the CWC to clarify outstanding inconsistencies with its stockpile declaration.”

Will Biden Blink Over Navalny?

This week, Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, announced that President Biden and Russian President Putin will meet in Geneva, Switzerland on 16 June. This highly anticipated meeting comes as relations between the US and Russia plummet to a historic low since the Cold War. The US is compelled to respond to the use of chemical weapons as a result of the first round of sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act. This first set of penalties was in response to the Novichok attack on Alexei Navalny, and included “personal sanctions on seven senior Russian officials believed to have been involved in the decision to poison and later imprison the opposition leader, who was arrested upon his return to Moscow in January, as well as penalties on several entities involved in Russia’s chemical weapons program.” Thus far, Russia has not made any effort to signal its intent to not use these weapons again, so a second round of sanctions is required by law. The administration hopes that the upcoming meeting will “restore predictability and stability to the US-Russia relationship.” The Biden administration must tread carefully, however, as severe sanctions before the summit could derail the interaction but overly mild sanctions could be perceived as “too soft.” Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, explains, “There’s a tension between wanting to punish Russia for its use of chemical weapons but, at the same time, allowing for the relationship to improve between the countries on strategic issues.”

Launch of GlobalBioLabs.org

GlobalBioLabs.org has officially launched! This is an interactive web-based map of global Biosafety Level-4 facilities and biorisk management policies. An accompanying policy brief, entitled Mapping Maximum Biological Containment Labs Globally, was also released. This brief is offered by Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London & Dr. Greg Koblentz of George Mason University. The map is available here and the report is available here.

COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory

On Wednesday, President Biden implored the US intelligence community to “redouble their efforts” in determining the origin of SARS-CoV-2. This is an about-face from the previous reliance on the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the pandemic. This is a shift from the assessment that the novel coronavirus emerged naturally, jumping from an animal species to humans. The theory that the virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China is gaining traction, but is far from conclusive. The Adminsitration’s message follows a letter from 18 prominent biologists published in the journal Science that calls for a new investigation into all conceivable origins of the novel coronavirus, and implores Chinese laboratories and agencies to “open their records” for independent analysis. They write:

“As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general, the United States and 13 other countries, and the European Union that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.”

On the other hand, many researchers find the tone of growing demands for an investigation to be “unsettling.” There are worries that the “volatility of the debate could thwart efforts to study the virus’s origins.” These demands are also exacerbating existing tensions between the US and China, an unfortunate development with crucial meetings about curbing the pandemic and preparing for future health emergencies underway and upcoming. Global health policy experts assert that it is critical for the world to “work together to curb the pandemic and prepare the world for future outbreaks.” Actions needed immediately include the expansion of vaccine distribution and the reform of biosecurity rules, such as standards for reporting virus-surveillance data.

Event – Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Prior to June 18, the course fee is $400. Starting June 18, the course fee is $500. Register here.

Pandora Report: 5.21.2021

Congratulations to Dr. Yong-Bee Lim and Madeline Roty, MS for being awarded as Outstanding Students of the Biodefense Graduate Program! Register now for the early bird rate to the Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop. Dr. Angela Rasmussen discusses the latest changes to the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance.

Outstanding Students of the Biodefense Graduate Program

This year’s Outstanding Biodefense Master’s student is Madeline Roty, who graduated from the University of Michigan School of Nursing in May 2019. Her interests include healthcare preparedness, global health, and health education. Maddie was an active and vibrant member of the Biodefense community and served as President of the George Mason chapter of the NextGen Global Health Security Network. She was also an active contributor to Biodefense program’s blog and newsletter, The Pandora Report, and co-authored an article on Mynamar’s chemical weapons program that we published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Yong-Bee Lim is this year’s outstanding Biodefense PhD student. Yong-Bee earned a Presidential Fellowship when he entered the PhD program after completing his MS in Biodefense. Yong-Bee’s promise as a biosecurity expert was recognized by the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University when they selected him for the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative. Yong-Bee’s dissertation on community labs and the do-it-yourself (DIY) biology movement has generated new knowledge and insights into this important and poorly understood community. His research identified the assumptions and flaws in the narratives used by the DIYBio and biorisk communities to discuss the risks and benefits DIYBio labs. His research will play a key role in helping bridge the gaps between the DIYBio and biorisk communities.

Event – Launch of GlobalBioLabs.org

You are invited to a public webinar, held on the side lines of the seventy-fourth World Health Assembly, to launch www.globalbiolabs.org, an interactive web-based map of global Biosafety Level-4 facilities and biorisk management policies. An accompanying policy brief, entitled Mapping Maximum Biological Containment Labs Globally, will also be released. This briefing is offered by Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London & Dr. Greg Koblentz of George Mason University. Register here.

An Israeli Airstrike Damaged Gaza’s Only Lab for Processing Coronavirus Tests, Officials Said.

The only laboratory in Gaza capable of processing COVID-19 tests has been rendered temporarily inoperable due to an Israeli airstrike. The strike targeted a nearby building in Gaza City, but shrapnel and debris damaged the laboratory and the administrative offices of the Hamas-run Health Ministry. According to Dr. Majdi Dhair, director of the ministry’s preventive medicine department, the damage will force the laboratory to shut down for at least a day, and testing will be paused. This means a delay in COVID-19 testing but also other tests for diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. Based on official data, merely 1.9% of the two million people in Gaza have been fully vaccinated.

Health Systems Resilience in Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons from 28 Countries

Health systems resilience is key to learning lessons from country responses to crises such as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). In this perspective, a new article in Nature Medicine reviews COVID-19 responses in 28 countries using a new health systems resilience framework. Through a combination of literature review, national government submissions and interviews with experts, the researchers conducted a comparative analysis of national responses. They report on domains addressing governance and financing, health workforce, medical products and technologies, public health functions, health service delivery and community engagement to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This work synthesizes four salient elements that underlie highly effective national responses and offer recommendations toward strengthening health systems resilience globally. Read the article here.

New International Expert Panel to Address the Emergence and Spread of Zoonotic Diseases

The launch of the new One Health High-Level Expert Panel is intended to “improve understanding of how diseases with the potential to trigger pandemics, emerge and spread.” The new panel will advise four international organizations: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE); The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); and The World Health Organization (WHO). The goal is to develop a “long-term global plan of action to avert outbreaks of diseases like H5N1 avian influenza, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and, possibly, COVID-19.” The panel will function under the One Health approach, which “recognizes the links between the health of people, animals, and the environment and highlights the need for specialists in multiple sectors to address any health threats and prevent disruption to agri-food systems.”

US Lags Behind Russia and China in Sending COVID-19 Vaccines to Struggling Nations in Need

At present, about 37% of Americans are fully vaccinated, but many nations are struggling to vaccinate their populations and are turning to Russia and China for more doses. On Monday, Biden announced that the US will send 20 million doses of COVID-19 doses to nations in need; this is in addition to the 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. The US has ordered enough COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate its population two-fold, but the world needs billions more doses. The World Health Organization announced that the world is at risk of “vaccine apartheid.” Dr. David Agus, a CBS News medical contributor, described worldwide vaccinations as a “moral imperative.” Agus asserts that if other countries do not or cannot vaccinate their people, new COVID variants could arise and endanger us all. In total, the US has offered to pledged to provide 80 million doses; however, China and Russia are set to deliver around 600 million doses each globally.

Event – Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Register here.

The Evolving Nature of China’s Military Diplomacy: From Visits to Vaccines

A new report by Meia Nouwens of the International Institute of Strategic Studies details the Chinese military’s place in China’s COVID-19-related foreign policy. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) military-to-military cooperation in response to the global coronavirus pandemic signals a growing role for the military within China’s diplomatic activities. Historically, the PLA played a minor role in Chinese foreign policy. However, in the wake of a more nationalist and assertive Chinese foreign policy, the PLA’s role in national diplomacy and security strategy has grown to serve both strategic and operational goals and has reached new heights in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Military-to-military COVID-19-related engagement has taken place within a larger context of Beijing’s expanded diplomatic efforts to improve China’s global reputation following its initial delayed and mishandled response at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. Publicly available data shows that COVID-19 military diplomacy began in March 2020, when the PLA sent protective equipment and clothing to Iran. In February 2021, the PLA began to donate COVID-19 vaccines to overseas militaries. The PLA’s vaccine assistance to 13 countries globally fits within a wider vaccine-centric diplomatic effort by the Chinese government but so far has been far smaller in scale. Geographically, the PLA mostly engaged with countries in the Asia–Pacific and Africa. The PLA’s activities were usually framed within the ‘responsible stakeholder’ narrative that China sought to promote through its civilian aid diplomacy. It is likely that the PLA sought to cooperate with militaries wherever it could and focused on countries with which it already enjoyed established friendly relations, rather than using the PLA’s military diplomacy to establish new strategic relations. The PLA’s military diplomatic activities relating to the coronavirus demonstrate that the PLA will increasingly play a greater role in China’s foreign diplomacy, in line with President Xi’s instructions. Read the report here.

Why Did the CDC Change Its Mask Guidance Now?

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance on mask wearing and social distancing such that vaccinated individuals are now able to go mask-free much more often. Though the underlying science is “solid,” the communication of these new recommendations was given with little prior notice and without satisfactory explanation to the public. Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, discusses these latest changes. Animal studies, clinical trials, and real-world data are showing that the “vaccines provide exceptional protection against symptomatic COVID-19.” Indeed, vaccinated individuals are unlikely to get sick when exposed to the virus. The data are also showing that the COVID-19 vaccines are “very effective at preventing infection in the majority of those vaccinated, with the exception of older people and those who are immune compromised.” Rasmussen also points out that recent studies reveal that “most vaccinated people who do get infected are not shedding enough infectious virus to spread it efficiently to others.” Though there have been “sustained declines” in new cases, prevalence and immunization rates differ by region and community. Many states and businesses have lifted their mask requirement policies, but the lack of a vaccination verification system leaves only the honor system. The guidance is intended to incentivize vaccination, but vaccine accessibility remains low for many people. Rasmussen encourages public health leaders to improve transparency and public engagement with guidance in the future.

Opinion: Vaccines Didn’t Stop the Yankees’ COVID-19 Outbreak. But the Case Proves How Well They Work.

Dr. Zach Binney, a sports epidemiologist and assistant professor at Oxford Oxford College of Emory University, and Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, examined the New York Yankees as a case showing the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines. Last week, nine fully vaccinated members of the Yankees tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Among the nine cases, at least seven show no symptoms. So far, the only individual to exhibit symptoms is third-base coach Phil Nevin, and it is possible that Nevin will be the only case in which the vaccine “failed.” Put simply, Nevin may have been able to develop a high enough viral load to spread the virus to the other eight cases, but their “vaccinated bodies likely fought it off quickly before they could develop symptoms or transmit it.” Though vaccines do not eliminate the possibility of infection, they do eliminate the risk of severe disease and death. “It is likely the vaccine worked as expected on the Yankees: it prevented many more cases, only allowed the virus to spread from one person and reduced disease severity.”

Just 12 People Are Behind Most Vaccine Hoaxes on Social Media, Research Shows

Research has found that 12 people – dubbed the “Disinformation Dozen” – are the sources of most of the misleading claims and falsities about COVID-19 vaccines, which have spread across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It is estimated that the Disinformation Dozen are responsible for 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms. The group includes anti-vaccine activists, alternative health entrepreneurs, and physicians, some of whom have multiple accounts across platforms. Though these dozen culprits have not been completely ejected from the platforms, their posts have been labeled misleading and false claims have been removed. Despite the efforts to counter misinformation and disinformation, false narratives continue to take hold.  A survey of US parents found that more than 25% do not intend to vaccinate their children.

Implementation of the International Health Regulations (2005)

The Review Committee provided for in Chapter III of Part IX of the International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR) released its report on the implementation of the IHR. The main objectives of the report were to: (1) assess the functioning of the IHR; (2) assess the ongoing global response to pandemic H1N1; and (3) identify lessons learned to strengthen preparedness and response for future public health emergencies. The three overarching conclusions are: (1) core national and local capacities called for in the IHR are not yet fully operational and are not now on a path to timely implementation worldwide; (2) WHO performed well in many ways during the pandemic, confronted systemic difficulties and demonstrated some shortcomings; and (3) the world is ill-prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global, sustained and threatening public-health emergency. The report’s recommendations include streamlining the management of guidance documents, reinforcing evidence-based decisions on international travel and trade, and developing and applying measures to assess severity. Read the report here.