Pandora Report: 7.10.2020

The Pandemic Experts Are Not Okay

A recent article in The Atlantic sheds light on the risk of burnout that US public health specialists face as the coronavirus surges. The public-health experts who advise policy makers, monitor the pandemic, and prepare hospitals for cases are suffering from the physical and emotion exhaustion of their work, but also from the “wrath of a nation on edge” as Americans lash out after months of stay-at-home orders and response blunders. The burnout could leave the US in a “drought of expertise.” Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program and an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, is among the numerous experts who have been dedicated round-the-clock to fighting the pandemic since early this year. As Arizona was reopening, the intensive care unit of Popescu’s hospital was packed with COVID-19 patients, making those in the public health arena very nervous for a flood of new cases against which they may not be adequately equipped. Popescu also touched on the threats and harassment she experiences as an expert in the public’s eye, “I can say something and get horrendously attacked, but a man who doesn’t even work in this field can go on national TV and be revered for saying the exact same thing.” Despite the many struggles and barriers, public health experts are determined to continue their work against COVID-19.  

US Imprudently Initiates Withdrawal from the WHO

The latest miscalculation of the Trump administration is its formal notice of withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO). The withdrawal will not be official until 6 July 2021, so there is a window of opportunity, should Trump lose the election, for the decision to reversed. US withdrawal from the WHO would leave global health governance in a state of uncertainty by bringing up concerns about the economic viability of the WHO, the polio eradication program, the reporting system for infectious disease outbreaks, and other programs such as those combating the spread of antimicrobial resistance. Fears have arisen about the demise of US global health leadership and the future health of Americans. A letter signed by 750 scholars and global public health experts pleads for Congress to block the withdrawal, and argues that Trump lacks the unilateral legal authority to cancel the country’s membership. Given that the US funds the largest portion of the Health Emergencies Program, the letter also points out that the withdrawal will likely cost lives, both American and foreign. Also, the US will lose access to the WHO’s global system for important health data, a severe disadvantage as the US is still struggling with COVID-19. The withdrawal will lessen the capacity of the US and other nations to detect and control future outbreaks, heightening the risk of another pandemic in the not-so-distant future. The American Medical Association (AMA) issued a statement as well, calling on Congress to reject the administration’s withdrawal decision and fight to protect the relationship between the United States and the WHO. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, epitomizes this misstep in one of his recent tweets: “Withdrawing from the WHO in the middle of a pandemic is like shooting yourself in the foot during a marathon because your shoelaces are untied.”

COVID-19 Risk Index

Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program and an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, Dr. James P. Phillips, Chief of Disaster Medicine at GWU Emergency Medicine, and Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Vice Provost for Global Initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, developed a COVID-19 Risk Index to help you decide what you are comfortable doing as reopening continues. The Index is based on four key factors: (1) enclosed space; (2) duration of interaction; (3) crowds; and (4) forceful exhalation.

Medical Countermeasures for COVID-19

Though the scientific community has quickly designed 1,200 clinical trials for testing treatment and prevention strategies against the novel coronavirus, the data show that panic and disorganization are diluting these efforts. Robert Califf, the head of clinical policy and strategy at Verily Life Sciences and Google Health and a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, stated that studies are often too small to provide valid answers, lack suitable control groups, and overemphasize certain potential treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine. An analysis found that 39% of studies are enrolling or planning to enroll fewer than 100 subjects, so they are unlikely to produce sound results. In short, much energy and money are being wasted on fruitless endeavors. On an encouraging note, the RECOVERY trial has returned three very important findings: (1) dexamethasone, a cheap steroid, reduced the death rate of COVID-1 patients on ventilators by a third; (2) hydroxychloroquine does not benefit hospitalized patients with Covid-19; and (3) lopinavir and ritonavir, a pair of HIV drugs, have also not benefited hospitalized patients. Clinical trials cost anywhere from $10 million to hundreds of millions of dollars, so providing resources for poorly designed or theorized studies is extremely wasteful. The fixation on hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, was the result of research enterprise becoming “lopsided and unfocused.” Hydroxychloroquine showed promise in cell cultures; however, many of the studies testing the drug’s efficacy in patients were poorly designed. The WHO conducted a large study and found that neither hydroxychloroquine nor lopinavir-ritonavir combination therapy were found to benefit patients. Walid Gellad, Director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, considers the lack of leadership for the clinical trial agenda of the US as one of the key failures of this pandemic response.

Operation Warp Speed (OWS), the federal government’s newly-minted initiative to fast-track the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, is an attempt to provide leadership and direction for vaccine development. Despite its objective of transparency, OWS is under fire for its opaqueness about selected COVID-19 vaccine candidates. At a Senate subcommittee hearing about OWS, scientists with the initiative were rather mum when asked about the vaccine candidates that were chosen as frontrunners and the selection criteria used to make those choices. The names of the companies developing these candidates and a scientific review of 50 candidates are not available to the public. Another concern is the hypocrisy surrounding vaccine development with China. General Gustave Perna, co-leader of OWS, stated that he would not work with China; however, 4 of the 18 candidates that have entered clinical trials are made in China and 3 of these are set to start phase III trials. The triad of panic, disorganization, and opaqueness is undermining the ability of the US to quickly develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.

Lecture: Political Implications of COVID-19

Dr. Jennifer Victor, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Schar School, was a featured presenter this week for the COVID-19 and the Mason Impact virtual course. Victor’s lecture, Political Implications of COVID-19, covers why the US is struggling to contain the virus, how the virus affects existing political dynamics in the US, and how the virus may impact upcoming elections. In summary, the pandemic has worsened politics and exacerbated existing systemic inequalities in the US. Watch Victor’s lecture here.

Bipartisan Group of Former Government Officials Demand Science-Based Approach to Pandemic

This week, 57 former government scientists and public health officials released a statement calling for a science-based approach to guide pandemic response, a clear point of failure of the response. They encourage “independent and sound science” as the foundation for response decisions and efforts. Additionally, this bipartisan group criticized the administration for marginalizing the importance of science and expertise. The statement also acknowledges the need for coordination of scientists around the world, a likely reference to the unpopular decision of the Trump administration to withdrawal from the World Health Organization. Signers included officials from the Trump, Obama and George W. Bush administrations. A June article written by Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program – “Hear, see, speak no COVID: Why the Trump administration is bungling the response to the pandemic” – spotlighted the Trump administration’s failure to utilize scientific expertise as the heart of its botched response. Koblentz and Popescu pointed out that the administration has enlarged the gap between science and policy, blighting the efficacy of the US response to COVID-19.  

The Blame Game

Some people don’t know when to give up. Ted Postol, a former MIT professor, has long claimed that the Syrian government was not responsible for a sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 despite the conclusions of investigations conducted by the UNOPCWUS and French intelligence agencies, New York TimesBellingcatHuman Rights Watch, and a variety of Syrian NGOs. His failed effort to publish an article promoting his CW denialism in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal  were recently recounted in the online magazine Undark. Gregory Koblentz, Biodefense Graduate Program director, played a role in blocking publication of Postol’s article. In retaliation, Postol filed a complaint of “academic misconduct” against Dr. Koblentz with George Mason University. Although the complaint did not allege any behavior that meets the definition of academic misconduct (such as plagiarism, fraud, or falsification of data), George Mason University convened an independent committee of senior faculty members to review the complaint. The committee found that the complaint had no merit. 

While Postol was busy complaining, Dr. Koblentz published a peer-reviewed article on the status of international efforts to attribute CW attacks in Syria, including the work of the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). On April 8, the IIT published its first report which found that the Syrian Arab Air Force “pursuant to orders from the highest levels of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces” was responsible for three chemical attacks on the town of Ltamenah in March 2017. Two of these attacks, on March 24 and 30, were conducted the same way as the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun: all three chemical attacks involved a Syrian Su-22 airplane taking off from Shayrat airbase and dropping an M4000 binary chemical bomb filled with sarin produced using a recipe unique to the Syrian CW program.  The IIT examined several alternative scenarios, including that the attacks on Ltamenah had been staged, but “the IIT could not identify any other plausible explanation for the concurrence of information before it.” The IIT report has established yet again that the Syrian regime has engaged in the systematic use of chemical weapons against its own people. It’s time to stop debating what happened at Khan Sheikhoun and focus instead on how the Assad regime can be held accountable for its heinous and illegal acts.

OPCW Decision on Chemical Weapons in Syria

It’s official. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Executive Council (EC) condemned the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian air force in Ltamenah in March 2017.  The OPCW EC adopted this decision by vote: 29 yes, 3 no, and 9 abstain. The EC’s decision shows its deep concern that the Syrian Arab Republic failed to declare and destroy all of its chemical weapons and production facilities for chemical weapons. The decision reflects the conclusion that the Syrian Arab Republic did not cooperate with, and provide access to, the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). The EC demands that the Syrian Arab Republic immediately cease all use of chemical weapons and fully cooperate with the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat. Within 90 days, the Syrian Arab republic should complete three measures: (1) declare to the Secretariat the facilities where the chemical weapons were developed, produced, stockpiled, and operationally stored for delivery; (2) declare to the Secretariat all of the chemical weapons it currently possesses prohibited under the Convention, and the chemical weapons production facilities; and (3) resolve all of the outstanding issues regarding its initial declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile and programme. Within 100 days, the Director-General will report to the EC and all States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convection on whether the Syrian Arab Republic has completed all measures.

UNSC Convenes on COVID-19

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held an open video conference about pandemics and security, taking place the day after the adoption of resolution 2532 on pandemic response. Resolution 2532, which passed unanimously, demands a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations so that efforts against COVID-19 can unite to help the most vulnerable countries. The resolution is considered a compromise as it makes no reference to the World Health Organization or the topic of transparency. A COVID-19 resolution was difficult to pass largely due to the clash between the US and China over reference to the World Health Organization. At the conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres asserted the relevance of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in a pandemic, and urged considerable attention be paid to the deliberate use of diseases as weapons. In short, Guterres recommends a strengthening of the Convention and implores the 14 states that have yet to join to do so immediately. Guterres also emphasized the intersection of resilience against the threat of biological weapons and effective public health measures. He said, “the best counter to biological weapons is effective action against naturally occurring diseases.”

Community Lab in Baltimore Aims to Put Science in the People’s Hands

The Baltimore Under Ground Science Space (BUGSS) is a community laboratory, which was recently discussed in a Pandora Report Commentary by Biodefense PhD candidate Yong-Bee Lim, that provides research space for do-it-yourself biologists, hobbyists, and high school and home-schooled students. BUGGS exists to provide a learning and research environment for citizen scientists who would otherwise not have the space or tools to build their skills or work on projects. BUGGS has played host to several innovative projects in its brief lifespan. For example, Dr. Huon de Kermadec, a “biohacker,” is working with others scientists to develop an alternative to insulin as part of the Open Insulin Project. The Inner Harbor project is a collaboration between BUGGS, the National Aquarium, and the University System of Maryland’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology to catalogue all living species in the watershed of Baltimore.

Making BioWeapons Obsolete

The Council on Strategic Risks and Sandia National Laboratories convened thought leaders in government, academia, and the private sector to discuss the creation of a future in which the threat of biological weapons is greatly reduced. A summary of the discussions, Making Bioweapons Obsolete, covers the spectrum of topics and issues that must be addressed to reduce biothreats. Biothreats are changing due to three factors: (1) advances in technology; (2) increased concern about nation-state peer competitors; and (3) decreased focus of US on biothreats. The report considers bioterrorist and state attacks and assesses the differences in biodefense strategy dependent on the type of adversary. Read the report here.

CSHL Trustees Vote on the Future of Graduate School

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), established in 1890 as a biological teaching laboratory, voted to rename restore the original name of the graduate program to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory School of Biological Sciences, dissociating from James D. Watson. Though Watson made considerable contributions to CSHL and science, his views of race are incompatible with the mission and values of CSHL. Additionally, the Board of Trustees endorsed a plan by the faculty to start a new program at the graduate school about the social impact of the biological sciences.

Schar School Employee of the Month for July: Silva Pecini Morris

Silva Pecini Morris is the July Employee of the Month at the Schar School! Morris is the Director of Student Services and has worked at GMU for 15 years. She works hard to make the learning experience, for both graduate students and faculty, as smooth as possible. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, applauds Morris’s role in the education journey of his students:

“I have had several students express to me their gratitude for Silva’s help in navigating program requirements, scheduling, etc. Most of our students work full-time in fairly demanding jobs and some of them get detailed or deployed on short notice. Silva has been instrumental in helping these students stay on track and minimize the disruption to their graduate education.”  

Surveillance and Repression in China

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report on genomic surveillance in China, which is amassing the world’s largest police-run database. Chinese authorities are intentionally enrolling millions of individuals who do not have a history of serious criminal activity, including children of preschool age, and who do not have any control over how their DNA samples are collected, stored, and used. In late 2017, China expanded its DNA data collection beyond Tibet and Xinjiang to include millions of men and boys across the country. This mass collection of DNA data violates Chinese domestic law and global human rights norms. This program will “increase the power of the Chinese state and further enable domestic repression in the name of stability maintenance and social control.” Several biotechnology companies – Thermo Fisher Scientific, AGCU Scientific, and Microread Genetics – are working with the Chinese police to create the database, despite their ethical responsibility to make sure that their products and processes do not violate fundamental human rights and civil liberties.

DARPA’s Pandemic Programs

A recent output by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) provides a summary of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) pandemic-related programs and lists some of the considerations for maximizing biodefense research and development. DARPA established the Biological Technologies Office in 2014 to focus on the biological sciences and biotechnology and to supports programs that address pandemics. In response to COVID-19, DARPA pivoted these pandemic programs to focus on the pandemic. Current DARPA investments include the Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) program aimed at developing methods “capable of producing relevant numbers of doses against any known or previously unknown infectious threat within 60 days of identification of such a threat.” The P3 program focuses on developing a platform to aid rapid development of new medical countermeasures (MCMs) after the identification of any known or unknown infectious threat. An awardee of DARPA funds, Fluidigm, is collaborating with a consortium of medical schools to develop and early detection test for SARS-CoV-2. All of these programs are part wider-ranging biodefense work to address threats from naturally occurring epidemics, accidental biological exposures, biowarfare, and bioterrorism. The biodefense enterprise of the US is dispersed across multiple departments and agencies with varied missions, adding another layer of difficulty to preparing for and responding to a “diverse and evolving set of biological threats.” The General Accountability Office (GAO) recommends developing processes and duties for joint decision-making across these overlapping entities within the US biodefense enterprise. Leveraging the potential of DARPA and its pandemic-related programs could significantly improve the research, development, and commercialization of innovative biodefense technologies associated with preparedness and response.

Preventing the Next Pandemic – Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission

The United Nations released a report about stopping the transmission of zoonoses, diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. The report, Preventing the Next Pandemic – Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission, considers the fundamental causes of the emergence and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and other zoonotic diseases. The fact that diseases are emerging more frequently from animals indicates that rapid action is needed to fill the gaps in science to more efficiently develop tools to reduce the risk of future pandemics. Additionally, unsustainable human activities are contributing the increases in frequency of pathogens infecting humans from animals. The report identifies 7 human-mediated factors that are likely driving the emergence of zoonoses: (1) increasing human demand for animal protein; (2) unsustainable agricultural intensification; (3) increased use and exploitation of wildlife; (4) unsustainable utilization of natural resources accelerated by urbanization, land use change and extractive industries; (5) increased travel and transportation; (6) changes in food supply; and (7) climate change. Additionally, the adoption of a One Health approach is deemed the optimal method for preventing and responding to out zoonotic diseases outbreaks. The One Health concept is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes by recognizing the interconnection between humans, animals, plants, and their shared environment. Rad the full report and its recommendations here.

Pandora Report: 7.3.2020

Commentary – State Department Releases the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism

Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student and Associate Editor for the Pandora Report, provides a summary of the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism releases an annual report on terrorism across the globe. The 2019 report was just released, highlighting successes and persistent threats associated with international and domestic terrorism in nearly 100 countries.  The report begins with a discussion of notable successes in the counterterrorism landscape and identifies the persistent terrorist threats that will dominate counterterrorism policy in 2020. These threats can be divided into four categories: (1) the Islamic State’s ability to build global networks, (2) continued terrorism sponsored by Iran and carried out by its proxies, (3) al Qaeda’s ability to adapt, and (4) the rising threat from what the United States calls “racially or ethnically motivated terrorism” (REMT). These four themes are expanded upon in the country reports, summarized below. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Commentary – Reopening Community Labs in a Time of COVID: Balancing the Needs and Risks of DIYBio Spaces During a Global Pandemic

Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD candidate and member of the Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS), provides a summary of an event he moderated for a Global Community Bio Town Hall, “Re-Opening (or Re-Booting) Your Community Bio Lab in the Time of COVID.” Panelists for this discussion include Maria Chavez of BioCurious, Dr. Angela Armendariz of Genspace, Dr. Tom Burkett of BUGSS, and Dr. Popescu of University of Arizona and GMU. Topics in this panel included: unique opportunities and challenges COVID-19 has created for community labs; concerns about reopening community lab spaces or remaining closed; and decision-making regarding reopening and how to empower people to make such important decisions in a time of great uncertainty. Read Lim’s commentary here.


The New START Treaty is a treaty between the United States and Russia on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. The Treaty entered into force on 5 February 2011 and both nations were required to meet the Treaty’s central limits on strategic arms seven years later. The aggregate limits include: 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments; 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit); and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. Both the US and Russia announced their compliance with the limits by 5 February 2018, the deadline. New START is scheduled to expire in February 2021 unless Trump and Putin agree to extend it for five more years. In December 2019, the Russian government signaled its willingness to extend the Treaty; the Trump administration recently acknowledged the possibility of the extension, “but only under select circumstances.” As the US continues to stall on the New START extension, concerns mount over the future of the Treaty. If it is not extended, there will no longer be legally binding and verifiable limits on the US or Russian nuclear arsenals.

BioD Alumnus Testified at Senate Panel on Strategic National Stockpile & COVID-19

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND corporation, testified at the Senate panel on the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) and COVID-19. According to Gerstein, COVID-19 has uncovered major weaknesses in the national preparedness and response systems of the Us. One of the main weaknesses was with the SNS, a national repository of antibiotics, vaccines, chemical antidotes, antitoxins, and other critical medical supplies. His written remarks can be read in full here, and his oral remarks followed the theme:

“A bipartisan commission should be established to review the nation’s performance during this pandemic and the use of the SNS. Basic assumptions regarding emergency management and disaster preparedness and response —including the role of government at all levels—should be on the table. One outcome should be an agreement that public health must be elevated to and receive prioritization and funding as a national security issue, just as the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community.”

GAO COVID-19 Performance Audit

The General Accountability Office (GAO) produced a report, COVID-19: Opportunities to Improve Federal Response and Recovery Efforts, which details a performance audit for the period March-June 2020 of  the Department of Labor, Internal Revenue Service, and Small Business Administration. Given the economic hit caused by COVID-19 and the growing federal costs due to pandemic relief programs, monetary and fiscal efficiency and competency are of major concern to the long-term economic health of the US. The report’s main findings include: (1) the federal government continues to lack an aviation preparedness plan for infectious disease crises; (2) the Department of Labor has failed to provide state unemployment agencies with information about the risks of improper payments; (3) the Internal Revenue Service does not intent take additional steps to notify ineligible recipients on how to return payments; and (4) the Small Business Administration has failed to provide details on how it plans to identify and respond to risks in the Paycheck Protection Program to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud.

2020 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition

The 4th Annual NTI-NextGen Biosecurity Competition is underway! This year’s competition is seeking innovative and creative papers for online publication by NTI | bio and the NextGen GHS Network focused on biosecurity related to COVID-19 and future outbreaks/pandemics. The winners can attend the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting in Pattaya, Thailand in November 2020 and present during a side-event. Submissions should address the following question:

What are technical and/or political actions global health security community stakeholders should take either nationally or internationally to reduce biosecurity-related risks associated with COVID-19 and future outbreaks/pandemics?

To be eligible, participants must be current members of the Next Generation GHS Network and currently enrolled in an academic institution or have less than five years professional experience. Also, teams must have 3 participants and be from at least 2 different countries/regions. All submissions must be in English. Participants must consult with at least one expert in the field of biosecurity and/or biosafety, life sciences, or another related field. The deadline for submitting a paper is August 5. More information on the competition can be found here.

Biodefense Graduate Program Sample Lectures

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program and associate professor at George Mason University, is offering a sample class for anyone interested in the program. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the power of infectious diseases to wreak havoc on societies, cause economic upheaval, and weaken military capabilities. Will hostile states or terrorist groups seek to exploit these newly revealed vulnerabilities by developing and using their own biological weapons? How can countries and the international community reduce the risk that biology will be misused for malicious purposes? This sneak peek of the Biodefense Graduate Program will be available via Zoom on 22 July at 12:00 EDT. Register here to virtually attend.

Dr. Tonya Thornton Neaves, Director for Extramural Projects at the Schar School of Policy and Government, is offering a sample lecture on emergency management in the United States. Neaves walks us through how to talk about disasters, the history of relief responses and how we manage them, and even what those pesky “act of God” clauses” mean on your insurance policies. Take a deep dive into emergency management and learn how you and your community can be prepared for whatever might come your way. View the lecture here.

New COVID-19 Data Tools

A network of infectious disease epidemiologists at universities around the world working with technology companies aggregated mobility data to create the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network. The Network provides visualization tools and technical resources for the open sharing of data. The mobility data provides a real-time view of how people are moving around.  The Camber Systems Social Distancing Reporter offers an accurate and actionable understanding about the efficacy of social distancing and other policy measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. The Facebook Data for Good Mobility Dashboard provides anonymized, aggregated mobility data to help us understand how communities are responding to COVID-19 physical distancing interventions. Code repositories contain code, analytic tools, and best practices.

New Leadership at George Mason University

As George Mason University enters a new era of leadership, we wish to thank Anne Holton for her service as Interim President, leading us through much of the COVID-19 pandemic and making critical decisions during the turmoil.

Now, we welcome GMU’s 8th president, Dr. Gregory Washington! Dr. Washington comes to us from the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at University of California, Irvine where he served a dean. As a researcher, Washington specializes in dynamic systems, with an emphasis in the modeling and control of smart material structures and systems, and he is the author of over 150 technical publications. Watch President Washington’s message about what it means to be a Patriot here.

The Pandemic Risk of an Accidental Lab Leak of Enhanced Flu Virus: Unacceptably High

Scientists across the globe are working with influenza-causing viruses, possibly making changes that could incite an outbreak or, perish the thought, another pandemic. Lynn Klotz, Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a member of the Scientists’ Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons, lists three ways that a laboratory could spark a human outbreak: (1) an undetected or unreported laboratory-acquired infection hitches a ride into the community on a laboratory worker; (2) a virus is mischaracterized as “harmless” and handled under lower biosafety levels; and (3) a pathogen is intentionally released by someone with malicious intent and laboratory access. Human error is the cause of the most laboratory incidents that lead to potential exposures from BSL 3 laboratories in the US, which are designed for serious, if not deadly, pathogens. Influenza viruses, in particular, are of great concern because many infect humans and unleash deadly consequences, as the world experienced with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Lotz’s basic calculation for pandemic risk includes likelihood-weighted consequences = (probability of an event) x (consequences), and fatality burden = [(probability of a release) x (probability release leads to a pandemic)] x (number of fatalities). An illustrative calculation shows that each year a single facility conducts research, it carries the burden of some of the 50 to 100 million fatalities. Fouchier advises that enhanced biosafety level 3 laboratories are at least ten-fold safer than those of standard biosafety level 3, yielding a significantly lower fatality burden of 1,845 to 3,690 per year of operation. These calculations and comparison serve to support Lotz’s argument that the pandemic risk of an accidental or intentional lead of altered influenza virus is unacceptably high. According to his calculations, the possible benefits of such research do not outweigh the possible costs.

KHN and AP Investigate the State of the Nation’s Public Health Infrastructure

Kaiser Health News (KHN) and The Associated Press (AP) are examining the lackluster state of the public health infrastructure of the US. This newly-launched, multi-part investigation has already determined that the US public health workforce is underfunded and under threat, especially under the conditions of a public health crisis. So far, in the US, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 2.7 million individuals; killed almost 129,00; cost tens of millions of individuals their jobs; and cost $3 trillion in federal aid. The first story of the series, “Hollowed-Out Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus,” highlights the drops in spending from state health departments since 2010, the reduction in the public health workforce since 2008, and the budget cuts occurring across the US.

Mason Offers Free One-Credit Class: COVID-19 and Mason’s Work to Better Understand Pandemic

GMU is offering a free 1-credit course, UNIV: 391: COVID-19 and the Mason Impact, which will feature a different Mason faculty or staff member to lead a conversational presentation about an aspect of COVID-19 that has intersected with their scholarly work. After each presentation, students and faculty will interact in a Q&A. The recorded presentation will be made available for the general public on YouTube after the live session is completed. The course will be held from 5:00 – 6:15 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and will be moderated by Dr. Bethany Usher, Associate Provost and faculty member in Sociology and Anthropology. The objectives of the course include comparing how different disciplines have contributed to learning; demonstrating that research and scholarship at Mason contributes to the rapidly growing body of knowledge, and compare how different disciplines have contributed to the research; and making informed decisions about their own personal behaviors to mitigate risks of COVID-19 to the themselves and their communities. Registration is available until 6 July. Find more information on this free course and register here.

I Feel Fine: Fans of World-Ending Films ‘Coping Better with Pandemic’

Psychologists have found evidence that apocalyptic movies helped prepare people for COVID-19 and made fans more resilient. The desolation depicted by these films seemed to help viewers handle the real-life outbreak and its impacts. Coltan Scrivner, a psychologist specializing in morbid curiosity at the University of Chicago, conjectures that viewers of apocalyptic movies are learning vicariously. A survey of 310 participants were asked about movie preferences and viewing histories and then asked how prepared they felt as the pandemic started and what levels of anxiety, depression, irritability, and sleepless they experienced. Researchers found that horror movie fans reported less distress by the crisis than most; individuals who favored “prepper movies,” in particular, ranked as more resilient and better prepared, both mentally and practically.

GMU Virtual Event: Domestic Violence During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Gender and Policy (GAP) Center is hosting a virtual panel discussion on domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic on 15 July at 12:30 pm. Panelists include Elizabeth Gregory, Professor and Director, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, University of Houston, Founding Director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality; Jhumka Gupta, Associate Professor in the Department of Global and Community Health within George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services; Angela Hattery, University of Delaware, Co-Director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Gender Based Violence; Barbara Paradiso, Director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver; and Tiara Willie, Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Register for this virtual event here.

Workers Filed More Than 4,100 Complaints About Protective Gear. Some Still Died.

Since March, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has received over 4,100 COVID-related complaints about health care facilities. A Kaiser Health News (KHN) investigation discovered that at least 35 health care workers died after OSHA had received complaints about their respective workplaces. According to the complaint logs, health workers are in great need of better protective gear for their hospitals, medical offices, and nursing homes. Roughly one-third of the COVID-19 complaints related to health care remain open and about 275 investigations into these complaints are ongoing. For example, a March 16 complaint about Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, New Jersey states that workers were not permitted to wear masks in the hallway outside of the rooms of COVID-19 patients, and they were not provided with adequate PPE. An RN at Clara Maass voiced her concerns that her patients, who were not in the COVID area, were presenting with “suspicious symptoms.” This nurse ended up being exposed to a half dozen patients undergoing COVID testing before she presented with a cough and headache; she soon died of the virus.

How the World Missed COVID-19’s Silent Spread

The New York Times has launched a series of articles examining the mistakes, misunderstanding, and missed warning signs that enabled COVID-19 to plague the whole world. The two-month delay for a response and control measures likely cost many lives and many infections. Quicker employment of better testing, surveillance, contact tracing, and isolation measures may have saved a lot of individuals from infection and death from COVID-19. Though the actual numbers are yet known, it is now widely accepted that asymptomatic, and possibly presymptomatic, individuals can spread the virus. Dr. Camilla Rothe, a tropical medicine and infectious disease specialist in Munich, sounded the alarm on the virus’s ability to spread during the incubation period. Rothe published an article in Science about the silent spread of COVID-19. Though the World Health Organization noted that patient who have yet to display symptoms may be able to spread the virus, it maintained that symptomatic patients were the primary drivers of the pandemic. Also, soon after Rothe published her findings, her report was deemed “flawed” as the scientific establishment sought to downplay the risk inherent to the existence of spread from infected individuals without symptoms. Weeks later, research entities started to sluggishly concede that asymptomatic transmission is an important element of this pandemic. Though belated and still controversial, better research on asymptomatic spread is underway.

Commentary – State Department Releases the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student and Associate Editor of the Pandora Report

The US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism releases an annual report on terrorism across the globe. The 2019 report was just released, highlighting successes and persistent threats associated with international and domestic terrorism in nearly 100 countries.  The report begins with a discussion of notable successes in the counterterrorism landscape, including the destruction of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria; the military operation that killed the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; the military operation that killed rising leader al Qaeda leader Hamza bin Laden; the “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime; a multi-country effort to designate the entirety of Hizballah as a terrorist group; and the repatriation, prosecution, and rehabilitation of ISIS fighters and family members.

            The report then identifies the persistent terrorist threats that will dominate counterterrorism policy in 2020. These threats can be divided into four categories: (1) the Islamic State’s ability to build global networks, (2) continued terrorism sponsored by Iran and carried out by its proxies, (3) al Qaeda’s ability to adapt, and (4) the rising threat from what the United States calls “racially or ethnically motivated terrorism” (REMT). These four themes are expanded upon in the country reports, summarized below.


            The majority of terrorist activity in Africa occurs in East Africa, the Sahel, and the Lake Chad region. Major groups active in this region include al-Shabaab (East Africa, especially Somalia), ISIS-West Africa (Lake Chad), Boko Haram (Lake Chad), Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) (Sahel), ISIS-Greater Sahara (Sahel), and Allied Democratic Forces (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Many of these groups are aligned with ISIS, though al-Shabaab and JNIM are al Qaeda affiliates. A big challenge in Africa is that terrorist groups exploit local conflicts between ethnic groups. In Nigeria, for example, terrorist groups manipulated existing tensions between Fulani and Peuhl ethnic groups as a means of recruiting supporters and giving themselves an operational advantage.

            Eleven African countries experienced terrorist attacks in 2019: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Tanzania. Common terrorist tactics include the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), ambushes, abductions/kidnappings, targeted killings, and suicide bombings. Securing porous borders is a common struggle for these countries in their counterterrorism efforts. The report also points out that some countries have used counterterrorism legislation to suppress anti-government criticism and other political speech. Seven African countries experienced no terrorism in 2019: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda.

Middle East and North Africa

            With territorial losses in 2019, ISIS undertook more clandestine actions and continued expanding its transnational reach. ISIS and its affiliates were particularly active in Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, the Sinai Peninsula, Tunisia, and Yemen; Egypt saw a significant rise in the number of attacks. The US focused specific attention on airstrikes against ISIS targets in Libya. Al Qaeda was also active in this region, where they maintain safe havens in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Many actors see the turmoil in Yemen as an opportunity to exploit existing conflict for their own gain, much like in Africa. The devastating conditions in Yemen have created a pool of impoverished citizens susceptible to radicalization.

East Asia and the Pacific

            The report commends governments in East Asia and the Pacific for their regional cooperation on counterterrorism, which has resulted in a high number of terrorism-related arrests and prosecutions and improved cooperation on border and aviation security gaps. However, the region was not without its share of deadly attacks, perhaps most notably the Christchurch, New Zealand white supremacist attack against Muslims that killed 51. Australia also assessed the threat from REMT (which the Australian government calls “extreme right-wing terrorism”) to be increasing, though Islamist extremism currently poses a higher threat. Islamist extremists conducted a number of attacks elsewhere throughout this region, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia. Common tactics used include IEDs, small arms, and suicide bombings – new phenomenon this year in the Philippines. While other countries, such as Malaysia, experienced no attacks, there is still a danger of these countries being used as transit hubs for extremists. Additionally, Thailand experienced several attacks from domestic ethno-nationalist terrorists in its southern region. Finally, the report calls out China for using counterterrorism as a pretext to target political opponents and religious minorities, a trend also seen in Africa.

South and Central Asia

            Terrorist violence in South and Central Asia is characterized by insurgent attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, al Qaeda continuing operations from remote safe havens in the region, and “aggressive and coordinated” attacks by ISIS affiliates. Interestingly, in 2019, attacks by ISIS (particularly in Afghanistan) did not follow their typical seasonal pattern of reaching peak levels during the summer fighting season, then declining. Instead, levels rose during the summer months and remained high. Common terrorist tactics used during this period consist of IEDs (including vehicle-borne) and suicide bombings. In addition to these acts of international terrorism, Nepal also experienced several incidents of domestic terrorist attacks on infrastructure and government/political locations surrounding the 2019 elections. These attacks have been attributed to a political faction known as Biplav.


            Europe saw two trends in terrorism in 2019: (1) Islamist terrorists conducted operationally simple attacks against symbolic targets and (2) REMT recruiting, plotting, and operational activities increased significantly. I believe global efforts against REMTs are currently too disjointed to be effective, and policymakers fundamentally misunderstand the REMT threat. Although many European countries have acknowledged and begun trying to counter this threat, much more work needs to be done to coordinate these efforts. Multiple countries identified a heightened terrorist threat to migrants, refugees, Muslims, and Jews in particular.

Notable Islamist attacks in Europe in 2019 include the May shrapnel bomb detonated by an ISIS supporter in Lyon, France, as well as a number of thwarted plots. Notable REMT attacks in Europe in 2019 include an October shooting targeting Muslims in Bayonne, France; the murder of German politician Walter Lübcke by a neo-Nazi; the Halle synagogue shooting during Yom Kippur; and the attempted mass shooting at a mosque in Oslo, as well as a number of thwarted plots.

Western Hemisphere

            Islamist extremists continue to be active in South America, particularly the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Regional groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Shining Path, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are also active, taking advantage of porous borders and partnering with transnational criminal organizations. While most countries in the Western hemisphere experienced no terrorist attacks during 2019, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela experienced attacked from regional terrorist groups. A final trend to watch is ISIS recruiting in the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad and Tobago, which has seen a greater than average number of its citizens move to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS.  

Commentary – Reopening Community Labs in a Time of COVID: Balancing the Needs and Risks of DIYBio Spaces During a Global Pandemic

By Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD Candidate


COVID-19 has devastated much of the world. As of July 1, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that there have been over 10.3 million confirmed cases of this novel coronavirus with over 500,000 deaths, a mortality rate of nearly 5%. The United States alone accounts for roughly 25% of global cases and deaths – a fact that has done significant damage to the U.S. reputation in the international community.

One method that countries have used to address these high case numbers is to slow the infection rate amongst the general population. This method utilizes a two-pronged approach that is colloquially known as “flattening the curve.” One prong leverages communication platforms to encourage and inform best practices for citizens, such as washing hands frequently with proper technique, self-isolating when one is sick or suspects illness, and avoiding other people whenever possible. The second prong takes more aggressive action to limit the potential spread of the disease, such as instituting stay-at-home orders, moving education to online formats, and shutting down business operations where people congregate.

In the United States, many states are now trying to re-open their businesses and public spaces with varying levels of success. A group that is taking a more cautious approach to re-opening is Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIYBio) community labs – community science spaces where people come together to explore the life sciences, educate others in everything from scientific theory to lab skills, empower individuals to pursue communal or individual projects, and engage in biotech-driven entrepreneurial ventures.

On June 17th, the MIT Media Lab hosted a timely webinar to discuss Reopening Community Labs in a Time of COVID – Balancing the Needs and Risks of DIYBio Spaces During a Global Pandemic. This webinar brought together a diverse panel of experts from community labs, the life sciences, and public health to discuss the unique challenges and opportunities community labs have faced during the pandemic, the current state of the disease throughout the United States, and considerations and recommendations for reopening.

The panelists included Maria Chavez, the Executive Director and Board Member of BioCurious (a community lab based in Santa Clara, CA:; Dr. Angela Armendariz, Director of Operations and Lab Manager at Genspace (a community lab based in Brooklyn, NY:; Dr. Thomas Burkett, Founder, former Executive Director, and current Board Chair at the Baltimore UnderGround Science Space [BUGSS] (a community lab based in Baltimore, MD of which I am also a member:; and Dr. Saskia Popescu, who works as an infectious disease epidemiologist and infection Preventionist in Arizona (and is a proud alum of the Biodefense PhD program). I served as the moderator for the event.

COVID-19 Opportunities and Challenges in the DIYBio Community Lab Ecosystem

Community labs face many obstacles even during normal times. Panelists highlighted the overall negative perception of community labs outside of the DIYBio ecosystem: that these labs could be irresponsible or malicious, and could accidentally or inadvertently cause harm within the larger communities they operate in. This perception, plus a sense of responsibility for the communities that they live in, were the main reasons why many community labs shuttered their spaces even before they were legally required to do so.

Closing down the labs created difficulties of their own. Chavez noted that BioCurious depends significantly on entrepreneurs who use the lab as an incubator space, complete with lab equipment, bench space, and office space. The loss of this income was significant over the course of two months. Chavez was happy to report, however, that BioCurious would resume its operations as an incubator space once California begins reopening, while keeping the lab closed to other potential users. Armendariz echoed these sentiments of financial hardship – many community labs run on shoe-string budgets, and the fact that Genspace maintains paid staff means that it consumes significantly more capital than the average community lab. In terms of being able to run community projects, Burkett highlighted the Inner Harbor DNA Barcoding Project  as an example of how BUGSS was very fortunate to have a number of community lab projects that are mostly at the discussion and analysis stage; community projects at BUGSS would have ground to a halt if they required lab work.

However, community labs have learned to adapt to these hardships. All three panelists noted that their community labs had pivoted toward online formats to continue providing resources and helping educate others in a remote capacity. Some examples of remote community lab activities include convening expert panels to discuss the promise and challenges of vaccine development and clinical trials, making DIY disinfectants, discussing health inequities related to insulin access, and being a resource for the public to ask questions about science.

The State of the COVID in the United States

Popescu highlighted how the pandemic has essentially split America into two. There is one America where people are trying to return to a sense of normalcy, including going out to public spaces, eating at restaurants, and having large gatherings for everything from personal parties to political rallies. However, she noted that this America stands in stark contrast to the other America that she sees unfolding: one where the United States is experiencing significant upticks in COVID-19 cases.

She partially attributed the surge in cases to poor implementation of guidance related to reopening – states that chose to open rapidly despite the public health guidance have now erased all gains achieved through the earlier implementation of social distancing measures. This issue is also exacerbated by poor communication about cases; just because a state or community is reopening does not necessarily mean that there are no cases of COVID-19. This has unfortunate repercussions for public spaces as, most likely, this increases the likelihood that states will have to close everything down again to try and contain new outbreaks of COVID-19.

In addition, Popescu noted that the pandemic is exposing gaps in the nation’s preparedness against large-scale biological events. Hospital supplies have dwindled for essential personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks, gowns, and gloves. While these supplies have gotten significant attention in the COVID-19 discourse, Popescu pointed out that disinfectants are also in short supply. She stated that resupplying with bleach could help deal with the disinfectant issue, but that bleach also has the unfortunate effect of degrading medical equipment, lab equipment, and PPE.

Considerations and Recommendations for Reopening

While the situation in the United States is very troubling, Popescu noted that the national picture of COVID-19 does not necessarily reflect what is happening at the local level. For instance, the situation in Arizona may be quite different from the situation in the state of Virginia. Therefore, one recommendation she offered to the DIYBio community is to keep track of local news concerning COVID-19 cases, because the risks of reopening may be different depending on where the lab is located in the United States.

Popescu also highlighted that labs are inherently difficult to open given how people operate in close quarters in such spaces. The panelists all agreed with this, saying that community labs function as social spaces and education spaces where people congregate to learn, so lab work sometimes brings people less than 6 inches away from each other. To ameliorate these concerns, Popescu recommended that community labs:

  1. Build a plan to address safety measures to prevent infections and response measures in the event of a potential positive case of COVID-19 emerges within the community lab community
  2. Encourage and build a culture of transparency in the community lab space
  3. Be careful of COVID-19 snake-oil salesmen: products that claim to address COVID-19 concerns that seem “too good to be true” probably are
  4. Evaluate workflow to minimize potential transmission, including minimizing the number of people in the space, minimizing the length of time people work together, increasing the distance between people, decreasing high-energy activities like yelling, and being mindful of the type of environment that community labs operate in
  5. Be mindful of potential vulnerabilities, like removing masks in break rooms.
  6. Retrain personnel and users in safety protocols and safe lab practices
  7. Clean spaces regularly and, if in a rented space, find out who is responsible for making sure the space is cleaned
  8. Be flexible – as circumstances change, be able to change the lab’s actions, protocols, and procedures to keep up-to-date with the latest guidance from public health authorities


Reopening a community space while COVID-19 cases continue to rise is a path potentially fraught with peril. However, DIYBio community labs are committed to continuing their mission of engaging the public in science while they proactively limit access to their physical spaces to help their communities “flatten the curve.” As these spaces consider reopening, they are building bridges and broadening their ecosystem to get advice from public health experts and others to find ways to reopen and operate in responsible ways.

It is clear the discussion and recommendations between community lab leaders and public health can be applied in many other contexts. View the event in its entirety with additional insightful comments throughout the webinar here.

Pandora Report: 6.26.2020

Commentary – Promising COVID-19 Therapeutics: From Remdesivir to Human Convalescent Plasma

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student and newly-appointed Assistant Editor for the Pandora Report, outlines the key takeaways from a virtual briefing held by the American Society for Microbiology, “From Remdesivir to Human Convalescent Plasma: Understanding COVID-19 Therapeutic Development.” In this briefing, Dr. Mark Denison from Vanderbilt University Medical Center discussed his work on two antiviral therapeutics, while Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health reviewed his work on convalescent plasma therapies. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Stevie Kiesel, New Assistant Editor for the Pandora Report

Kiesel is a part-time student in the Biodefense PhD program at George Mason University and a full-time transportation security analyst. Her areas of focus are terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction and the extreme right wing. Kiesel is a regular contributor to the Pandora Report and is now a member of the editorial board as an Assistant Editor.

Schar School Sample Class: Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program and associate professor at George Mason University, is offering a sample class for anyone interested in the program. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the power of infectious diseases to wreak havoc on societies, cause economic upheaval, and weaken military capabilities. Will hostile states or terrorist groups seek to exploit these newly revealed vulnerabilities by developing and using their own biological weapons? How can countries and the international community reduce the risk that biology will be misused for malicious purposes? This sneak peek of the Biodefense Graduate Program will be available via Zoom on 22 July at 12:00 EDT. Register here to virtually attend.

Hill Recoils at Proposed Cut to Pentagon Anti-Pandemic Effort

In spite of the ongoing pandemic, the administration asked Congress to approve a one-third cut the Pentagon’s budget for programs that prevent, detect, and respond to diseases, particularly in other countries. The Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP), charged with finding and fighting emerging diseases, is funded through the Pentagon budget and now faces the possibility of a major budget reduction. The $76 million slash to the Pentagon’s budget was proposed last February, before the pandemic made its mark in the US, but the proposal has received bipartisan pushback. For example, the new National Defense Authorization Act from the Senate Armed Services Committee would restore $50 million of the of the proposed reduction. This proposal is yet another example of the administration’s demotion of public health as a national priority. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, berated the proposal as shortsighted and points out that kneecapping BTRP will reduce America’s warning time for biological threats. Koblentz also points out the importance of global health security as a critical component of national security, perhaps more so now than ever before.

“Sorry, We’re Closed”: Applying Business Models to Failed Terrorist Organizations

Dr. Keith Ludwick, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD program, recently published an article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism about the application of specific, business organizational models to understand terrorism. His article argues that business modes can be used to better understand the organizational behavior of terrorist groups. Leadership and management are examined by combining two traditional business models with two terrorist organization, which successfully show which elements of terrorist group organization can lead to their failure, specifically due to a lack of concern for administrative functions. Broadly speaking, this paper suggests certain models within business organizational theory which offer insights into the future growth or decline terrorist organizations. Read Ludwick’s article here.

Free Book: Preparing for Pandemics in the Modern World

For those of us already worried about the next pandemic, even as we are still fighting COVID-19, a new book, Preparing for Pandemics in the Modern World, is available to the public as a free downloadable eBook from Texas A&M University. The book, edited by pandemic disease policy and control expert Dr. Christine Crudo Blackburn, was already in development before the outbreak of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Authors include Dr. Leslie Ruyle, an ecologist specializing in innovative solutions for conservation, conflict, and development; Dr. Gerry Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; Rebecca Fish, Vice President of Marketing and Product Strategy at Emergent BioSolutions; and Richard Crespin, Chief Executive Officer of CollaborateUp. Other contributors include Dr. David Morens, Senior Scientific Advisor for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, Chief of the Viral Pathogenesis and Evolution Section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and GMU alumnus. Topics include lessons from past public health disasters, spillover from zoonoses, the importance of ecological science and conservation to the One Health approach, the national security implications of supply chain disruptions, and the gaps in business planning for pandemics. Read the book here.

A Covid-19 Vaccine Should Be a Public Good. Here’s How to Make That Happen.

Kendall Hoyt, assistant professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and the author of Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense, encourages a coordinated global effort for the development, production, and dissemination of a safe and efficacious COVID0-19 vaccine. The establishment of organizations such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, have been helping shape the institutional framework for developing vaccines as public goods. To help provide low income countries with COVID-19 vaccines, once available, Gavi launched an Advance Market Commitment in which funders determine certain criteria for a vaccine and agree in advance to purchase large quantities of the vaccine that satisfies those criteria. Hoyt emphasizes that the race for a COVID-19 vaccine is not a zero-sum game, and that, through collaboration, political leaders face a historical opportunity to produce a vaccine as a global public good.  

Federal Review Finds Early CDC COVID-19 Test Kits Were Likely Contaminated

According to a federal review by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the early version of the COVID-19 test kids from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were likely contaminated. This review was conducted by HHS lawyers who said that the pressure the CDC faced to quickly provide a testing kit may have contributed to insufficient laboratory practices that lead to the increased risk of contamination. The review does not assign blame to any specific individual. In April, the Washington Post reported that early test kits generated false positive results caused by the contamination at 24 of the first 26 public health laboratories to use them.  A statement from Michael Caputo, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at HHS, defended CDC’s mistake by pointing out that the CDC began developing the kits within days of receiving the genetic sequence of the virus, and that the agency along with public health laboratories are “not intended to bear the weight or capacity of nationwide testing on this scale.” On the flip side, several scientists with experience in infectious disease testing have stated that sending out the test kits without adequate quality control was an indefensible mistake by the CDC, who should have taken more time to ensure the quality and safety of the kits.

Cyberbiosecurity in COVID-19

At present, the concept of cyberbiosecurity is defined as “developing understanding of the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of co-mingled life science, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate, and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness, and resilience.” As the term indicates, cyberbiosecurity is the amalgamation of biosecurity and cybersecurity, two intersecting realms that are largely considered and governed independently. The World Economic Forum points out that cyberbiosecurity threats are on the rise – with further exacerbation caused by the turmoil created from the ongoing pandemic  – and that a global prevention platform should be developed to identify and prevent these threats. This global prevention platform should target three critical challenges: (1) growing cyber-, bio-, and human insecurity; (2) disintegrating digital trust; and (3) converging risks in conflict-affected areas. As concerns about cyberbiosecurity mount, more research on the challenges and risks associated with cybersecurity and biotechnology is underway. For example, two recent articles in Health Security focus on such challenges and risks: “Healthcare Challenges in the Era of Cybersecurity” and “Assessing the Risks Posed by the Convergence of Artificial Intelligence and Biotechnology.” The first article details the rise in cyberattacks and the growing need for tools that help experts accurately quantify the impacts of these incidents, improved countermeasures for cybersecurity threats within the all-hazards disaster preparedness paradigm, and further epidemiologic research about the effects on patient care and outcomes from clinical cybersecurity attacks. The latter article explores the criteria required to evaluate risks associated with artificial intelligence and biotechnology, assesses three existing risk assessment frameworks, suggests a hybrid framework, and provides recommendations for future approaches to risk assessment for convergent technologies.

Coronavirus Hearings

Last Tuesday, the Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing entitled “Oversight of the Trump Administration’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Witnesses who testified in this hearing include Anthony Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); Admiral Brett Girois, MD, the Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); Stephen Hahn, MD, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though the White House maintains that the pandemic remains a priority for the administration, Trump continues to downplay the threats we still face from the novel coronavirus. In the hearing, Fauci discussed vaccines under development, and stated that a vaccine candidate from Moderna Therapeutics is expecting to begin late-stage testing in July, pending promising results from a mid-stage trial. According to Giroir, the Trump administration is currently reviewing the COVID-19 testing plans from each state, territory, and major city public health unit. Giroir also purports that the administration’s priority is to ensure that testing is available to those who need it. Hahn stated that the FDA has reached out to more than 1,000 manufacturers since the start of the year and has facilitated an increase in the availability of personal protection equipment for healthcare workers. Redfield echoed the need for Americans to get the flu vaccine due to risk of the coronavirus and seasonal flu placing a “tremendous burden” on US hospitals in the fall. The full prepared testimonies of the witnesses are available here.

Perna Nominated as CIO of Operation Warp Speed

General Gustave F. Perna, Commander of the US Army Materiel Command, has been nominated to be the Chief Operating Officer (CIO) for Operation Warp Speed (OWS). A CIO of OWS, Perna would co-lead and oversee the logistics of US search for a COVID-19 vaccine. In regard to his nomnation, General Perna answered questions for the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) covering duties, challenges and priorities, OWS initiatives, organization and staffing, relationships with other federal officials, research, and congressional oversight. The SASC panel voted to confirm Perna as CIO, advancing his nomination.

The Health Security Nexus: Reassessing Priorities After COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic emphasizes the need to elevate public health as a security issue, the securitization of health creates opportunities and costs that must be considered in the reallocation of military funds for pandemic preparedness and response. At present, there is no universal definition of health security, a concept that generally encompasses the risks and impacts of health crises as threat to peace and security, whether those threats be naturally-occurring or intentionally released. Among others, three important topics have surfaced in regard to health security: (1) protection of the health and wellbeing of the general population; (2) investment in global health security preparedness; and (3) preparedness for possible renewed interests in bioterrorism. One promising outlook is to develop a new global health agenda focused on fairness and collective responsibility, expanding beyond the narrow focus on security threats like bioterrorism.

Third BWPP COVID-19 Impact Report

Since 2006, the BioWeapons Preventions Project (BWPP) and Richard Guthrie teamed up to produce daily reports from intergovernmental meetings of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to arise, this team is providing an additional series of reports that delves into lessons (hopefully) to be learned from past BWC activities, and discusses the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as examines impacts of the pandemic on future BWC activities. The BWPP just released its third COVID-19 Impact Report, which focuses on Articles VII and X of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in relation to disease outbreak response. Article VII covers the provision of assistance by states in the event that a state is “exposed to danger” because of a breach of the BWC, and Article X covers the renunciation by states of hostile uses of biological materials and technologies and the freedom to gain from the benefits of peaceful uses. This report introduces the idea that the shift of political attention toward disease response after COVID-19 will likely spur new discussions within the BWC. The third report is available here.

Promising COVID-19 Therapeutics: From Remdesivir to Human Convalescent Plasma

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

The constant flood of headlines decrying the US response to COVID-19 paints a bleak picture. From muddled messages at many levels of government to failures at ramping up contact tracing, from the breakdown in procuring enough personal protective equipment to a cultural resistance to wearing face masks, the US is rightly coming under scrutiny for its efforts to recover from the human and economic toll of this pandemic. But among the barrage of bad news are promising stories that are often overlooked. To draw attention to two potential safe and effective therapies for COVID-19, the American Society for Microbiology held a virtual briefing titled “From Remdesivir to Human Convalescent Plasma: Understanding COVID-19 Therapeutic Development.” Dr. Mark Denison from Vanderbilt University Medical Center discussed his work on two antiviral therapeutics, while Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health reviewed his work on convalescent plasma therapies.

            Dr. Denison covered two antivirals that have so far shown promising results against COVID-19: remdesivir and EIDD-2801. Remdesivir was originally developed to treat Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), and while its effectiveness against EVD was limited, it did appear promising against coronavirus diseases such as SARS and MERS in animal studies. Both remdesivir and EIDD-2801 are nucleoside analogs that interfere with viral RNA synthesis. Viruses must enter a cell and replicate in order to survive. Once inside a cell, the virus will undergo translation and process proteins, replicate itself within the cell (what Dr. Denison calls “making virus factories”), copy the virus RNA genome, and then assemble and release the new virus to continue spreading throughout the host. These nucleoside analogs interrupt the process of copying the virus’ RNA genome.

            In addition to their mechanism of action, these antivirals have other important similarities. Both potentially inhibit multiple coronaviruses (more study is needed to confirm); both have been proven to prevent disease and lessen disease severity when used early (in animal models); and both have been declared safe for human use. However, remdesivir is given intravenously, while EIDD-2801 is an oral drug. Options for antivirals given in multiple administration routes is important because while remdesivir may be given intravenously to patients in more critical condition in the hospital, EIDD-2801 can be prescribed for treatment at home. Both antivirals are available for human trials; EIDD-2801 is currently undergoing clinical testing, while remdesivir has been approved and provided for use in certain areas. Obviously, supply will outpace demand for these types of treatments for some time.

            Dr. Casadevall then reviewed his work on the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. Convalescent plasma is the liquid in the blood that holds blood cells; it can be obtained from donors through standard blood transfusion practices. Plasma from recovered patients contains antibodies that can neutralize a virus. For example, a recovered COVID-19 patient would donate their blood, and the virus-neutralizing antibodies found in their plasma would be extracted to make a therapy that can be used for prophylaxis (shortly after exposure to the coronavirus to prevent the virus taking hold) or therapeutically (to lessen the symptoms and/or duration of illness in a COVID-19 patient).

Convalescent plasma treatment has a long history of treating various diseases, such as the 1918 influenza epidemic, polio, mumps, measles, Argentine hemorrhagic fever, SARS, and MERS. We have learned that plasma can be an effective therapy for infectious diseases, particularly when administered early and in sufficient quantities for the particular agent being targeted. Dr. Casadevall believed early in the outbreak that convalescent plasma therapies had promise, and on March 1 he published an op-ed to bring attention to this possibility. Research into convalescent plasma therapies for COVID-19 soon picked up, and by March 27 the first US patients were treated with this therapy in Houston, Texas. Shortly after, the FDA expanded access to convalescent plasma treatment for COVID-19 patients, and by mid-April more than 1,000 medical centers offered this treatment option. Today, over 2,500 centers do so. China, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom have also seen success with convalescent plasma treatments. Italy, for example, has reported a 50% reduction in mortality in COVID-19 patients treated with convalescent plasma therapy when administered before admittance to an intensive care unit. Additional data from other countries will be made available in the coming weeks. Although the safety and efficacy of this treatment is not yet proven, Dr. Casadevall argues that there are positive signs: historical data, theoretical support based on antibody action, and early data during the pandemic.

Both Dr. Denison and Dr. Casadevall highlighted the likelihood that COVID-19 represents the new normal in emerging infectious diseases. Scientists have discovered a great number of coronaviruses in bats that could make the jump from bats to humans just as COVID-19 did. To combat this threat, research should be undertaken now to better understand zoonotic viruses and to develop antivirals that are broadly effective against coronaviruses. According to Dr. Denison, antiviral development should have several goals: a variety of routes of administration (oral, inhalation, and intravenous); a high barrier to resistance; safety; stability; scalability; and affordability. While COVID-19 has taught a great many lessons on how the US and countries around the world can improve their pandemic preparedness, this webinar highlighted the important research that must remain a priority not just at the height of the pandemic but as the world moves forward.

Pandora Report: 6.19.2020

Stevie Kiesel Commentary: Viruses and Violence: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Extremism

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insight on the how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting extremist behavior. Extremist groups are using the pandemic largely to regain territory and expand their sphere of influence; however, there have been attempts to exploit the virus as a bioweapon. Kiesel’s analysis focuses on Jihadist groups and far-right extremists, both of which are using the pandemic to bolster their recruitment and radicalization strategies. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Hear, see, and speak no COVID: Why the Trump administration is bungling the response to the pandemic

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Saskia Popescu, Alumna of the Biodefense Graduate Program and hospital epidemiologist, recently published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about the failure of the administration to appropriately utilize scientific expertise in its COVID-19 response activities. Koblentz and Popescu assert that the administration has been “deaf, dumb, and blind” during this catastrophe that has already claimed over 100,000 lives in the US. The pre-existing gap between science and policy has been ripped open by the Trump administration. An important lesson learned from this pandemic is the “importance of sound scientific advice and providing public health agencies with the independence to formulate and implement evidence-based policies to respond to threats to health security.” Read Koblenz and Popescu’s article here.

Keeping Up with COVID-19: An Update on Vaccine Development

The race to develop an efficacious and safe COVID-19 vaccine endeavors to reach an unprecedented timeline for FDA approval. The US government established Operation Warp Speed (OWS) to develop a vaccine by the end of the calendar year, a process which usually takes 10-15 years. Challenges regarding the desired speedy timeline may inhibit the ideal due date of OWS for a COVID-19 vaccine; however, scientists are seeing some hopeful signs that we can efficiently produce a safe and effective vaccine.

Unfortunately, predicting the timeline of an effective and safe human vaccine, verified via a phase 3 clinical trial, is extremely difficult. To shorten the timeline of phase 3 clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can authorize the use of a vaccine based on its immune correlate of protection (ICP): a type and amount of immunological response that correlates with vaccine-induced protection against an infectious disease and that is considered predictive of clinical efficacy. A vaccine can receive accelerated approval if vaccinated subjects present with levels of neutralizing antibodies (proteins that block viruses from infecting cells) that, at least, match the levels of naturally infected subjects. Regrettably, there is a lack of certainty regarding the level of neutralizing antibodies necessary to guarantee immunity. The ICP shortcut is favored by pharmaceutical companies who hope to persuade the FDA to soon approve their vaccines, at least for the vaccination of high-risk individuals for fear of dual attacks of influenza and COVID-19 this coming winter. Other scientists caution against the use of proxies such as ICP to determine approval of COVID-19 vaccine due to the uncertainty about immunity and the rocky track record of vaccines for other diseases that have been approved using proxies for efficacy and safety.

On a cheerier note, many experts are optimistic about a successful COVID-19 vaccine because so much effort and money are being poured into its development. Dr. John Mascola, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is hopeful that because our natural immune system is clearing the virus for many patients, a vaccine that closely mimics a natural infection will likely work. Luckily, SARS-CoV-2 has not significantly mutated, thus far, and this stability increases the likelihood of developing an vaccine that works well against the virus. Also, the vaccine need not be 100% effective, either in terms of preventing sickness or preventing infection. A vaccine that can significantly reduce sickness or disease severity along with lowering hospitalizations would be a win against the virus. According to Dr. Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a vaccine candidate worthy of approval should be 50% effective against symptoms and 70% effective against moderate to severe disease.

We Ran the CDC. Here’s How to Talk to the Public in a Health Crisis

Two former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote a commentary urging public health officials to greatly improve their public health communications to the public. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, communications from public health officials in the US and abroad have often failed to be accurate, transparent, and reliable. The authors cite the contradictory statements about asymptomatic transmission from WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove as the latest communication fiasco. They fear that such communication failures coupled with regular disregard for the scientific expertise of those at the CDC are undermining the institutions we need to positively impact public health. To improve communication, public health officials at the federal, state, and local levels must be: truthful and accurate, informed and current, aware of the audience, cautious of communication minefields, willing to quit or face termination. Health communicators play a “vital and visible leadership role” and they serve as the “backbone of the public health response.”

COVID-19 Reports from the BioWeapons Prevention Project

Since 2006, the BioWeapons Preventions Project (BWPP) and Richard Guthrie teamed up to produce daily reports from intergovernmental meetings of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to arise, this team is providing an additional series of reports that delves into lessons (hopefully) to be learned from past BWC activities, and discusses the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as examines impacts of the pandemic on future BWC activities. These reports are available here.

Data Integrity in COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic response has been fraught with inaccuracies and mistakes. Rebekah Jones, a data scientist for the Florida State Health Department, was fired last month; she helped develop Florida’s COVID-19 data portal. After her termination, she created her own COVID-19 dashboard using data that the former superiors wanted her to manipulate to make the number of coronavirus cases appear significantly lower. Her refusal to falsify her findings instigated her dismissal. Jones’ untainted dashboard shows that only 2 Florida counties are ready for the next phase of reopening, a conclusion that her former bosses at the Health Department did not accept. In another abuse of data, Vice President Mike Pence urged governors to spread the misleading claim that the rises in COVID-19 infections are primarily due to increased testing. According to a data analysis by the New York Times, in over a dozen states, the rates of positive cases are outpacing the increase in the average number of tests. Pence also characterized these surges in cases as “marginal.” Data from the CDC show a decrease in coronavirus hospitalizations nationally, but an increase in positive cases, and the number of coronavirus-related deaths could increase as more data are collected.

OpenSmartEDU: Tools & Resources for Higher Education Operations in COVID-19

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and Tuscany Strategy Consulting (TSC) collaborated to develop a free resource, OpenSmartEDU, to “guide colleges and universities in planning operating strategies for both the near- and long-term amid the many challenges of COVID-19.” This resource boasts 3 planning tools: the COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Self-Assessment Calculator, and the Higher Education Planning Tool. The COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education is a practical planning tool to help institutions in two ways: (1) poses four central questions to determine if an institution is prepared to reopen for each of the major COVID-19 Phases and (2) outlines leadership, cross-functional, and functional workgroups to support comprehensive planning efforts. The Guide also provides additional guidelines, resources, and media reports to aid institutional planning. The Self-Assessment Calculator is an interactive Excel spreadsheet designed to help institutions identify and understand their baseline risk and the possible impacts that major countermeasures may have on their risk scores. The Higher Education Planning Tool (coming soon) will allow institutions to assign work, develop timelines, and incorporate important considerations in a live and centrally-located worksheet that available to multiple stakeholders.

Bat-Borne Virus Diversity, Spillover and Emergence

A recent article in Nature Reviews Microbiology discusses the latest advancements and findings regarding bat-borne viruses, considers current gaps in knowledge, and outlines the potential paths for future research, outbreak response activities, and prevention efforts. The majority of human viral pathogens are zoonotic and developed via cross-species transmission. Several human viruses – Ebola virus, Marburg virus, Nipah virus, Hendra virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS), and Middle East respiratory coronavirus (MERS) – have been linked to different bat species. Despite this list, the fields of bat virus ecology and molecular biology remain nascent and largely unexplored, compromising our ability to anticipate and prepare for the next outbreak of a bat-borne virus. Read the article here.

Viruses and Violence: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Extremism

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

It has become a cliché to point out the massive scale of change being wrought by COVID-19. From the toll in human lives to economic hardship to the impact on mental health, life has changed immensely since earlier this year. There are so many questions about how we recover and what changes are permanent. Even as COVID-19 looms as a threat to global health, other security issues cannot be overlooked. Therefore, I will examine how extremist groups understand and exploit the pandemic and how their operations have changed because of it. In April 2020, the Tony Blair Institute acknowledged that “extremist groups are beginning to recognize the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing opportunities to exploit fears, exacerbate tensions and mobilize supporters while government are occupied with trying to address COVID-19.” Extremists across the ideological spectrum have incorporated the pandemic into their messaging and their operations, though groups have differed on just what COVID-19 means and how to best exploit the pandemic and its resultant unrest.

Jihadist groups have primarily seen the pandemic as an opportunity to regain territory and expand their influence while governments are consumed with pandemic response and a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, according to European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove. However, there has been one incident of a jihadist plot to use the coronavirus as a biological weapon. Two men were arrested in Tunisia for encouraging men infected with COVID-19 to gain access to Tunisian security forces and cough, sneeze, or spit on them. One man admitted that he attempted to carry out this plan, but he was thwarted by security measures. There have also been isolated incidents of discussion about intentionally spreading coronavirus, either with live vectors or corpses, but overall COVID-19’s main operational impact on jihadist groups appears to be the opportunity it presents to strike at government forces while their resources are already stretched thin.

Far-right extremists (FREs) have “gone much further in directly exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic.” For example, FREs on social media have suggested that anyone who becomes infected with COVID-19 should attempt to spread the virus at synagogues, law enforcement offices and other government buildings, public transportation, retail stores, and neighborhoods with high minority populations. Suggested methods of spreading the virus include coughing, sneezing, and spitting on people or inanimate objects (like door handles and elevator buttons) and collecting bodily fluids in a spray bottle then spraying the fluids on frequently touched objects.

FREs have also viewed stay-at-home orders and other government-mandated pandemic prevention measures as unacceptable violations of their liberty. An inconsistent and oftentimes incoherent federal messaging strategy encouraged the proliferation of conspiracy theories of either the implementation of an authoritarian government regime or a coup orchestrated by the President’s political opponents, depending on who you ask. Indeed, some FREs have called the stay-at-home orders “medical martial law.” In this vein, Bradley Bunn was arrested by the FBI for possession of four pipe bombs while on his way to an armed protest against public health restrictions at the Colorado State Capitol. He later told investigators that he planned to use the bombs against anyone who tried to take his weapons.

Author compilation of popular coronavirus memes on FRE social media

Just as some messaging and recruitment tactics among jihadis and FREs share similarities, so, too, have these groups showed similar themes in their rhetoric and activities surrounding COVID-19. For example, both groups have espoused a great deal of antisemitism as it relates to the pandemic. The Pakistani Taliban and US far-right conspiracy theorists have both argued that COVID-19 was engineered by Jewish people as part of a plot to achieve world domination.

Another point of ideological consistency between these two groups lies in the philosophy of accelerationism. Broadly and as it applies to political extremism, accelerationist thinkers disavow non-violent political processes as a means to achieve change; the ends they seek often involve a dramatic reimagining of society, and incremental change will never accomplish these ends. For jihadis, this means tearing down existing governments and replacing them with a caliphate. Since March 2020, the Islamic State has increased its armed activities in areas where it believes governments are weak and encouraged recruits to “capitalize on the fear, ensuing chaos, and stress caused by COVID-19 by conducting attacks throughout afflicted and vulnerable populations in Europe and the United States.” Far-right accelerationists similarly believe that society must be fundamentally destroyed and replaced. The most popular accelerationist ideology among the far right posits that a genocidal race war will be waged, resulting in the creation of a white ethno-state. While some believe that this race war is inevitable and will come about on its own, others believe that they must spark the race war through violence.

Far-right accelerationist ideology inspired a March 2020 attack that was fortunately thwarted while the suspect was en route to his target. Timothy Wilson had been planning a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) attack before the pandemic; he had considered targets such as a nuclear plant, an Islamic Center, a synagogue, and Walmart headquarters. However, Wilson ultimately moved up the date for the planned attack and changed his target to a Missouri hospital center. According to an FBI joint intelligence bulletin, Wilson “cited the likely increased impact and media attention on the health sector during the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to accelerate the timing and selection of a healthcare facility.” The modern extreme right is characterized by a decentralized structure, with individuals often “operating alone but…tied together through virtual communities on the Internet.” Wilson had been active in a number of communities that espoused accelerationist and neo-Nazi ideologies; he had communicated with members of the now-defunct neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division and expressed sympathies for a similar group, The Base.

A final noteworthy similarity between jihadist and far-right groups is the impact the pandemic has had on their recruitment and radicalization strategies. As more people are stuck inside, socially isolated, and many experiencing economic hardships, both types of groups have increased their online presence and tailored their materials toward this new reality. These groups often have their own culture and inside references. For example, FREs began calling the corona-virus “corona-chan,” referencing it reverentially for its potential to sow chaos. Between February and March 2020, the term was used over 13,000 times on 4chan and saw a 375% increase in interactions on Reddit and a 1,920% increase in interactions on Facebook. Before the pandemic, “corona-chan” was not a term with any other meaning. This means that increased interactions occurred because people were engaging with far-right social media.

Unfortunately, just as indicators show that engagement with extremist communities online is on the rise, counter-extremism programs are reporting less engagement. A United Kingdom counter-radicalization program called Prevent has reported that referrals to the program have fallen by about 50%. Even as more people are at home, online, and isolated, fewer people are reaching out for help to escape the radicalizing influence of extremist groups from across the ideological spectrum.

Pandora Report: 6.12.2020

Dr. Andy Kilianski in Operation Warp Speed

Dr. Andy Kilianski, an adjunct professor in the GMU Biodefense Graduate Program, is one of the newly appointed experts leading the Department of Defense’s arm of Operation Warp Speed (OWS). Operation Warp Speed is a public-private partnership created to efficiently facilitate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 countermeasures. Kilianski was appointed as the subject matter expert in “security and assistance” for this fast-moving Manhattan Project-style initiative. According to Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, “Strengthening cyberbiosecurity is a vital element of our national effort to develop new vaccines and therapeutics against COVID-19. Kilianski’s appointment is a perfect illustration of how the biodefense program tries to bridge the gap between science and policy.” At the start of June, OWS announced five COVID-19 vaccine candidates: Moderna’s mRNA1273, AstraZeneca and Oxford University’s AZD1222, a candidate from Johnson & Johnson, a candidate from Merck, and Pfizer and BioNTech’s BNT162.

New Guidance for Decision Makers on Assessing COVID-19 Data

The newly established Societal Experts Action Network (SEAN) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) produced a rapid expert consultation to guide leaders using COVID-19 measurements, such as hospitalizations and number of confirmed cases, to better understand the disease’s spread in their regions. SEAN connects decision makers with researchers in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences to relay evidence-based expert guidance regarding local, state, and federal policies and responses related to COVID-19. This guide was created to facilitate insight into the strengths and weaknesses of COVID-19 data by applying 5 criteria to 7 types of data available to support decision making. The goal is to guide decision-makers toward the data type most appropriate to answer each of their questions, and then to use that data effectively. The 7 data types are the number of confirmed cases, hospitalizations, emergency department visits, reported confirmed COVID-19 deaths, excess deaths, the fraction of viral tests that are positive, and representative prevalence surveys (viral and antibody tests). The 5 criteria are representativeness; bias; uncertainty, and measurement and sampling error; time; and space. Read the full guide here.

The Military and Pandemics: Early Lessons and Future Actions

This week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted an online event to discuss the major steps taken by the US military toward augmenting the civilian medical system while simultaneously sustaining its own operations. This discussion focused on lessons learned, the possibility of restructuring military services to improve future responses to events such as pandemics. Panelists included Lieutenant General David Barno (Ret.) from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Nora Bensahel from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and Melanie Marlowe from the CSIS International Security Program.

The overarching theme and point of agreement across the three panelists was the inevitability of major changes in direction, priorities, and budget of the US military. Regarding the budget, the Department of Defense (DoD) should expect a significant drop that likely requires scaling back or eliminating large legacy programs and the shrinking of active duty forces. Barno expects priorities to shift from an external focus on protecting Americans to protecting Americans at home as the cyber and space domains continue to surpass the land, air, and sea domains. The traditional defense barriers placed around the world by the US military are ill-equipped to protect those on US soil, as we are currently experiencing in the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, Barno anticipates that the reserve component of the military will play a bigger role now as it is essentially a dual-purpose force that helps provide food and supplies and augments civilian medical efforts in national emergencies along with its more soldierly objectives. Bensahel stressed the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest catastrophe to hit the US since World War II; the death toll from COVID-19 now exceeds that of all US military deaths in overseas events since World War II. She also asserts that national security will now be redefined as Americans shift their notion of national security as susceptible to outside threats, like state or non-state actors, to susceptible to intangible threats. Americans will think more of their own personal security. Marlowe maintains that the military should not be the linchpin responder in a national emergency, such as a pandemic, but that the civilian sector should be the primary responder. As a support to the civilian efforts to contain the spread of the virus and treat infected individuals, the US military erected field hospitals, moved important cargo, evacuated US citizens from other nations, and provided hospital ships. In summary, the US military is about to undergo significant changes in its resources and objectives as the pandemic alters the meaning and parameters of national security. View the recording of this event here.

Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean False Allegations of Biological Weapons Use During the Korean War

During the Korean War, the USSR, China, and North Korea accused the US of using biological weapons against enemies. After the construction of the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, the first high containment laboratory in the Republic of Georgia, the Kremlin accused Lugar Center, along with other US-backed laboratories, of producing biological weapons. Throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, mudslinging accusations that SARS-CoV-2 is a biological weapon are being flung from many China, Iran, Russia, and the United States. China has carried on a disinformation campaign against the US using unfounded claims that the US military introduced the new virus into Wuhan last fall during the Military World Games. Iranian officials have insistently promoted conspiracy theories that COVID-19 is a biological weapon created by the US to target Iran and its pharmaceutical industry. Russia has bolstered the claims of Iran by peddling their conspiracies on social media platforms. US officials have accused China of sabotaging the R&D efforts of Western nations toward developing a COVID-19 vaccine. False allegations of bioweapons use are injurious geopolitical tactics that degrade the legitimacy and authority of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). The BTWC is a multilateral arms control treaty signed by 183 countries that bans the development, stockpile, production, and transfer of biological agents and toxins. False claims of BTWC violations weaken the treaty regime by compromising the efficacy of international cooperation and collaboration against tangible threats of bioterrorism.

Coronavirus: Asymptomatic Transmission Still an ‘Open Question’

Along with numerous other uncertainties persisting in the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of the disease’s transmission from asymptomatic patients is the latest to rouse media attention. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove is an infectious disease epidemiologist who serves as the WHO’s technical lead on the Covid-19 pandemic clarified that the actual rates of asymptomatic transmission are not yet known. Van Kerkhove’s clarification came just a day after her statement in an 8 June Press Conference that asymptomatic transmission is quite rare. At present, the data are not conclusive on the risk of asymptomatic spread. Adding insult to injury, there is confusion regarding the definition of an asymptomatic case. Though some cases of the virus are truly asymptomatic, the term is also applied to patients that have simply not begun to present with symptoms; some patients are in labeled as asymptomatic when they are actually presymptomatic. Asymptomatic cases are those that never present with symptoms, whereas presymptomatic cases are those individuals who test positive when they are symptom-free but later show them. These contradicting statements from the WHO are especially concerning given that research from different entities are finding that asymptomatic patients could be the cause of as much as half of the spread. The Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom has been routinely testing a sample of its population, finding that of those individuals testing positive for COVID-19, less than one-third report “any evidence of symptoms” at the time of testing. The uncertainty and contradicting statements regarding asymptomatic transmission leave the public and its decision-makers in a pickle: are asymptomatic cases fueling the spread of COVID-19, and, if so, how do we adjust our response efforts?

Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker

The New York Times published a Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker that provides updates on the status of vaccine candidates that have reached human trials as well as a selection of candidates in cell or animal testing. Vaccine candidates must make it through four important stages before regulatory approval: (1) Preclinical Testing in animals, (2) Phase I Safety Trials using a small number of human subjects, (3) Phase II Expanded Trials with hundreds of human subjects, and (4) Phase III Efficacy Trials with thousands of subjects. Normally, the process to approval is quite sluggish; however, under emergent conditions, there are options to accelerate a viable candidate to approval. The Tracker categorizes vaccine candidates as genetic, viral vector, protein-based, and whole-virus. View the Tracker here.

Pandora Report: 6.5.2020

Commentary – Violent Non-State Actors and COVID-19: Challenge or Opportunity?

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD Student, attended a Wilson Center webcast discussing the challenges and opportunities for non-state actors around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts on the panel include the Honorable Jane Harman, Dr. Duncan Wood, Eric Olson, Michael Kugelman, Dr. Louise Shelley, and Marina Ottaway. Read Kiesel’s event summary here.

Commentary – The Future Bioweapons Threat: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD Candidate, attended a webinar about the future threat of bioweapons given the ongoing pandemic, preparedness for the intentional use of bioweapons, and strategies for countering disinformation. Expert panelists include the Honorable Andrew C. Weber, GMU Alumna Dr. Saskia Popescu, Dr. Alexander Titus, and Max Brooks. Read Lim’s event summary here.

Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House Library

For anyone who missed the virtual open house or would like to revisit the event, the video recordings of the Schar School program directors are available in the Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House Library! Here, you will also find the application link and additional information about the Schar School and its research. For any questions, contact the Schar School Graduate Admissions Office at

US “Withdrawal” from WHO

At the end of May, the administration announced its withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) citing the body’s protection of China during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic as the final straw. This withdrawal follows the April decision to halt US funding to WHO. This decision has sparked outrage among the public health and biodefense communities. A statement from Ernest J. Moniz and Beth Cameron of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) warns that termination of the US-WHO relationship will “significantly impair the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, threaten American and global health, and undermine international security.” Instead, they encourage the administration to assume a leadership role in “strengthening the WHO’s ability to reduce biological risks, detect threats early, and respond rapidly and effectively.” The supposed withdrawal does not consider the gap the US will leave open in the international community, providing an opening for another global powerhouse, like China, to better secure its values and agendas. Additionally, there is uncertainty as to the legality of withdrawal from WHO, because the US is one of the state members of the WHO Constitution. According to Harold Hongju Koh of the Yale Law School, the administration lacks the legal ability to withdraw the US from the WHO and there are actions that can be undertaken by Congress or public health advocates to prevent a withdrawal if a method of legal withdrawal is found.

Point of View: Bioengineering Horizon Scan 2020

Horizon scanning is a type of foresight methodology in which systematic investigation is used to detect early signs of weak signals indicating potential change.  This methodology aims to identify the opportunities and threats associated with technological, regulatory, and social changes. This article posted in Genetics and Genomics reports results of a new horizon scan for bioengineering based on inputs from an international group of 38 participants. The authors identified 20 issues identified in the scan that are likely to realized within the next 5 years, 5-10 years, or 10+ years. These issues span several topics such as the regulation of genomic data, increased philanthropic funding, malicious uses of neurochemicals, crops for changing climates, and agricultural gene drives. Early identification of these issues is important for researchers, policy-makers and the general public.

How to Reopen America

COVID-19 has crippled US businesses, reducing the economy to a condition not seen since the Great Depression nearly a century ago. Since pandemic reached our soil, public health experts have stressed the need to practice social distancing and comply with shelter-in-place orders in order to flatted the infection curve and reduce the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and fatalities. Despite these directives and mandates, the impacts of the pandemic on public health, the economy, governance, and social wellbeing have been tremendous. The Brookings Institution just released a report analyzing how to reopen America and how to address fundamental issues. The experts who compiled this report present several ideas for protecting for protecting public health, restarting the overall economy, and improving social well-being. Read the full report here.

“The CDC Waited its Entire Existence for this Moment,” What Went Wrong?

A recent article in the New York Times outlines the critical missteps of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that weakened the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The article cites issues outdated technology, a lack of data, slow bureaucratic movement, conflicting guidelines, and a lack of cohesion within the administration as key factors contributing to the hampered response. Now, as the country initiates reopening, the CDC continues to struggle to provide clear and timely guidance relating to COVID-19. Mistrust is growing toward the once exalted health agency, even as the need for their direction and information remains. Read the full article here.

Did the SARS-CoV-2 virus arise from a bat coronavirus research program in a Chinese laboratory? Very possibly.

Milton Leitenberg, the first American recruited to work at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), discusses the still unknown origin of the SARS-CoV-2. Leitenberg asserts that there is not enough hard evidence to definitely claim that virus originated as a result of natural evolution or as an escapee of coronavirus bat research; the evidence is circumstantial thus far. There are two virology institutes in Wuhan that have conducted sizable projects on novel bat viruses and other animals have been infected with these viruses for research purposes. Unfortunately, laboratory accidents and the subsequent escape of dangerous pathogens are rather commonplace around the world. Suspiciously, Beijing has worked to obscure the origins of the pandemic with disinformation and withholding information. Given factors such as these, there is a possibility that the virus is the product of some type of laboratory accident. Calls continue for an international commission independent of the WHO to investigate the origins of the virus, whether it be zoonotic spillover or naturally-occurring; however, Leitenberg doubts the realization of such a commission. At present, the data indicate that SARS-CoV-2 is “uniquely adapted” to infect human hosts, but they do not provide any definitive insight into its conception.

The Council of Europe continues working to enhance international co-operation against terrorism, including bioterrorism

As the pandemic continues, the Council of Europe Committee on Counter-Terrorism (CDCT) is continuing its work to improve international cooperation against terrorism, both “traditional” and biological. Though the CDCT does not possess any concrete evidence of an elevated risk of a bioterrorism attack, it pledges to continue its efforts in developing legal standards, facilitating contacts between competent authorities, and organizing a coordinated and strong response to emerging threats. The CDCT encourages coordinated responses to bioterrorism threats, a variety of expert responders, and health and legal monitoring based on common surveillance systems for case detection. More resources from the CDCT regarding response to terrorism threats can be found here.