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 schar@gmu.edu.

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.

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

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

While government bureaucracies are lumbering through their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, how are non-state criminal and terrorist organizations’ operations being impacted? Have lockdowns and physical distancing guidelines hindered their ability to recruit, radicalize, and plan and conduct operations, or are these historically flexible and adaptable organizations taking advantage of pandemic conditions? A May 26 Wilson Center event, “Violent Non-State Actors and COVID-19: Challenge or Opportunity?” shed some light on this question.

On the first panel, three experts discussed how transnational criminal organizations have adapted to current conditions. Dr. Duncan Wood, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, described how cartels have responded to border shutdowns and supply chain issues. Partial border closures and increased police presence to enforce physical distancing orders have made it more difficult to (1) obtain necessary precursor chemicals for drugs like methamphetamine and (2) move drugs north and money south. Despite these disruptions, cartels have been flexible, shifting their transportation method and the drugs they are selling. Now, more shipments are arriving in the U.S. by sea, and fentanyl is becoming even more widely available in the U.S. because supply chain issues reduced the availability of heroin and methamphetamines but not fentanyl.

Eric Olson, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, highlighted an important trend that cartels as well as terrorist groups engage in whenever a state is weakened. In the absence of a state providing social services and security, violent non-state actors (VNSAs) have often stepped in to exploit that void. VNSAs as diverse as Hezbollah, Japanese organized crime network yakuza, Peruvian terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), and the Sinaloa cartel have throughout history provided resources to local communities in an effort to win hearts and minds and increase their influence in a territory. During the pandemic, VNSAs are poised to step in and provide resources and security if the state fails to do so. A botched pandemic response can also erode the legitimacy of the state, creating a vacuum that VNSAs could fill.

George Mason University’s Dr. Louise Shelley predicted that transnational criminal organizations will readily adapt to changes caused by the pandemic. Several characteristics of organized crime will facilitate this adaptation. Organized crime is generally a cash-heavy endeavor, which can be a huge advantage during a crisis. People and small businesses are suffering, and governments’ responses may not be adequate to help people keep their jobs and help small businesses stay afloat during lockdowns. Related to Eric Olson’s point about VNSAs filling vacuums left by state responses to the pandemic, Dr. Shelley argued that criminal organizations, rich in cash, could step in and provide relief to communities. This brings people and businesses under the thumb of the criminal organization, with effects that may not be felt immediately but that represent a fundamental shift of power to criminal organizations.

Dr. Shelley also noted that as transnational criminal organizations are cut off from their traditional supply chains, they will move to the cyber realm, and countries are not prepared to meet this threat. We have already seen a significant rise in child exploitation online as more traditional methods of human trafficking are impacted by lockdowns. The pandemic will also provide new criminal opportunities that can be facilitated online. For example, illicit medical supplies and pharmaceuticals that are newly in demand can easily be sold online, as long as supply chains remain intact. Additionally, there has been a rise in identity theft and other fraudulent activities aimed at stealing state resources intended to provide pandemic relief. The Washington state unemployment fund in particular has experienced a massive problem with identity theft, wherein identities of Washington state residents have been stolen and sold on the dark web. Criminals purchase these identities and use them to file for relief funds. Dr. Shelley argued that the U.S. remains vulnerable to cybercrime because of the decentralized nature of the government and a lack of coordination among relevant agencies.

During the second panel, Deputy Director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program Michael Kugelman and Wilson Center Middle East Fellow Dr. Marina Ottaway discussed how VNSAs in the Middle East have been impacted by COVID-19. Michael Kugelman continued the conversation about non-state actors providing support to local communities in the absence of a strong state by discussing the Taliban’s activities during COVID-19. The pandemic, he argued, poses a small challenge to the Taliban but offers a larger opportunity to expand their reach. The challenge is that COVID-19 could potentially take out a large number of Taliban fighters, who live in close quarters and who train heavily together in the spring. However, Mr. Kugelman believes this is a minor challenge because of the Taliban’s strong position at the moment: the Taliban controls a sizeable amount of territory, and the U.S. is winding down operations in the region. More likely is that the Taliban uses COVID-19 as an opportunity to win local hearts and minds as the Afghanistan government fumbles its pandemic response. Indeed, the Taliban’s recent public messaging has focused on providing information about the pandemic and assurances that local citizens will be cared for and health care workers will be given access to all Taliban-controlled areas. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released a report at the end of April warning that a combination of poor healthcare infrastructure, malnutrition, and ongoing conflicts could lead to a health disaster. If this comes to pass, it will provide an opportunity for the Taliban to provide services and undermine the Afghan government.

Finally, Dr. Ottaway described how the Islamic State believes that because governments are distracted by COVID-19 and afraid of committing troops, now is an opportune time to increase the pace and severity of attacks. This rhetoric has been borne out by escalating attacks in Syria and Iraq since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, with a 69% increase in ISIS’s armed activities in April 2020. The full impact of COVID-19 may not be known for years after the pandemic ends, but one important space to watch is how groups accustomed to rapidly changing conditions adapt and respond. Where do they see opportunities, and how can governments respond to this new environment?

If you missed this webinar, you can view the recording here.

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

By Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD Candidate

Introduction

On May 28th, the Council on Strategic Risks hosted a timely webinar to discuss The Future Bioweapons Threat: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic. This webinar brought together a diverse panel of experts areas from weapons of mass destruction (WMD), film and media, biotechnology and data science, and public heath to discuss how the pandemic highlights existing gaps in addressing natural and potentially man-made biological threats; and understanding the obstacles and potential solutions to address future man-made and natural biological threats.

The panelists included the Honorable Andrew C. “Andy” Weber, Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks and the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the Pentagon; Max Brooks, the author of World War Z and Devolution, as well as a Nonresident Fellow at The Modern War Institute and the Atlantic Council; Dr. Alexander Titus, Chief Strategy Officer at the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI) and Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks; and George Mason’s very-own Dr. Saskia Popescu, Senior Infection Preventionist and Epidemiologist at HonorHealth and Adjunct Professor at Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.

The event was moderated by Dr. Natasha E. Bajema, Founder and CEO of Nuclear Spin Cycle Publishing and Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks; and Christine Parthemore, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks.

Gaps in Biopreparedness and Biodefense

One main area the panelists and moderators focused on was understanding how the failures to detect, mitigate, and respond to COVID-19 may make a future biological weapon attack more likely. Mr. Weber warned how easily COVID-19 has spread through naval ships and other branches of the armed services, which enhances the allure of weaponizing biology to undermine operational readiness. Mr. Weber also argued that the cheapness and ease of developing biological weapons make them even more alluring in the modern day. These incentives, in turn, weaken deterrence against the use of offensive biological weapons.

Mr. Brooks echoed Mr. Weber’s thought and added how the superiority of U.S. conventional forces drives adversaries to find indirect ways to engage in conflict. Mr. Brooks noted that the ease of development and use of biological weapons makes it potentially attractive to use in a variety of situations – from deploying weapons at ports to shut down trade to even targeting American citizens to erode morale in the military.

Dr. Popescu expanded the conversation to include how the pandemic shed light on gaps in public health and its ability to detect, respond to, and recover from a large-scale bio-event. She highlighted how public health is expected to achieve the ideal (such as having testing every individual) in a reality where there are only a finite number of tests available, and a finite number of facilities and individuals to administer them. Dr. Popescu added preparedness is a difficult sell to senior hospital administrators since it requires private companies like hospitals to permanently assume additional overhead.

Dr. Titus discussed how the perception of technology as an end in and of itself, rather than a means to enhancing an organization’s mission, has slowed the adoption of emerging technologies like synthetic biology and big data science. These delays have significantly cost the U.S. in its ability to deter, detect, mitigate, respond to, and recover from biological events. Dr. Titus presented how the relationship between biotechnology development and application is not a one-to-one relationship: a biotech development that allows a more efficient way to produce molecules of interest in yeast cells does not mean that technology has to be limited to a single molecule of interest. Rather, he viewed investment and development in biotechnology as an opportunity to mitigate infinite threats with infinite capabilities.

Obstacles and Solutions to Future Biothreats

One major obstacle all the panelists discussed was the issue of sustained efforts and funding. All the panelists pointed out how money is thrown at an issue in any crisis setting. This includes biological events like Amerithrax in 2001 and the Ebola outbreak from 2014 – 2016. However, biodefense suffers significantly once the crisis passes and the funding streams dry up. Therefore, panelists argued that funding alone was insufficient to meet the biothreats challenges of the future – current and future Administrations need to consider biothreats a priority, with stable funding streams to match.

Mr. Weber highlighted his personal experiences as the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs during the Obama administration to display the bureaucratic and administrative complexities of addressing biothreats both domestically and internationally. He particularly emphasized a need to increase interagency communications and cooperation within the Department of Defense as well as other agencies to implement an all-hands approach to deal with future biological events.

Mr. Brooks saw a growing gap between citizens and policymakers as a major obstacle. Compared to the American citizens in the past, he viewed current citizens as disengaged from serious issues like biothreats and that this disengagement was encouraged, whether deliberately or not, by U.S. leadership. Mr. Brooks thought it was essential to bridge this gap, increase biodefense education, and cultivate buy-in from citizens if policymakers want to take concrete steps towards a safer world. He drew from his vast experience in helping shape the social consciousness to suggest making biodefense topics more tangible and impactful to the average citizen through fiction books, television shows, and movies, and recruiting influential celebrities as spokespeople for biodefense causes.

Dr. Popescu expressed concerns about communicating accurate information to the general public and a need to make this information that captures the general public’s attention. She also warned of potentially unscrupulous salesmen and armchair experts – individuals and companies that may exploit COVID-19 misinformation to sell “snake-oil” products ranging from sensationalist information to harmful cures, remedies, and cleaning agents to citizens. Finally, she strongly emphasized the need to discuss topics ranging from safer practices to operating in an ever-changing, uncertainty-filled environment as states begin to re-open after months of having citizens shelter in place.

Dr. Titus, along with other members of the panel, highlighted how inadvertent and deliberate misinformation is a major obstacle to getting buy-in and creating a plan of action to address biothreats. He, much in line with Dr. Popescu, noted that science communication alone is not sufficient to deal with misinformation campaigns on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. He asserted that disinformation spreads because it provides pay-offs to the recipient that factual information delivered in a dry, technical manner fails to deliver on. Compared to journal papers and books that experts often operate in, Dr. Titus noted that as little as 280 characters (2 tweets) is sufficient to sow doubt. Dr. Titus advocated for experts to find new ways to communicate with the public – new ways that do not require expertise to understand what experts are communicating.

Conclusion & Consensus

What is clear is the U.S. has a long way to go in addressing biological threats from natural and man-made sources. Further, the U.S. needs to adapt to new realities – a time where citizens’ trust of government is significantly lower, where citizens actively protest experts and their recommendations, and where misinformation is one tap on a smartphone away. And while the solutions are difficult to implement, the panelists and moderators of this timely webinar all believe that the end goal is worth it: a potential world where biological threats are a relic of history, as opposed to the unavoidable fate of humanity’s future.

Pandora Report: 5.29.2020

Exploring the Frontiers of Innovation to Tackle Microbial Threats

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released proceedings from a workshop, dubbed Exploring the Frontiers of Innovation to Tackle Microbial Threats, help in December 2019. The workshop occurred, fittingly, in the same month as the birth of SARS-CoV-2, the viral agent of the COVID-19 pandemic the world is currently besieged by. This 1.5-day workshop of the Forum on Microbial Threats examined key developments in scientific, technological, and social innovations against microbial threats: diagnostics, vaccine development, antimicrobial therapies, nonpharmaceutical interventions, and disease surveillance tools. The proceedings outline important lessons learned, particularly regarding spurred innovations, from the poliovirus eradication campaign as well as the the on-the-ground work to quell Ebola virus disease outbreaks in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Dr. Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), moderated the panel on incubating R&D through novel ecosystems. The output also includes content from panels regarding systematic approaches to motivate innovations in antimicrobial resistance R&D, barriers to access and use of innovations, and strategies to overcome barriers to innovation uptake. The full report can be found here.

FAS Announces the COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) announced the launch of its COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force, an amalgamation of dozens of scientists and experts from across the United States. The Task Force is being established as a resource for federal and state legislators as well as other policymakers seeking sound scientific information regarding COVID-19 related topics. Such topics span biomedical research needs, diagnostic test development, and contact tracing challenges, all of which are important to reopening while containing the virus. The Task Force provides an open channel of communication to experts in numerous areas of need.

Student Spotlight: Laura Schmidt Denlinger

Schar School Biodefense PhD student Laura Schmidt Denlinger was promoted to the role of Deputy Team Chief for Counterproliferation Programs in the State Department Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation‘s Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction (ISN/CTR). As such, she coordinates CTR capacity-building programs that strengthen foreign partners’ ability to implement United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding WMD proliferation by North Korea and Iran, as well as the Chemical Security Program, Partnership for Nuclear Threat Reduction Program, and other lines of effort to counter emerging WMD proliferation threats.

GHSA Chair COVID-19 Statement

Dr. Roland Driece, Chair of the Global Health Security Agenda, recently provided a statement on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the role of the GHSA2024. Emphasizing the role of international coordination and unification of efforts from governments to NGOs, Driece noted that this event should not be seen as an indicator that our efforts to prepare have failed, but rather that “Because of the work of GHSA, we have more information than in any previous outbreak about which countries have the most prepared systems, and where the international community needs to direct assistance. As countries and partners work to respond to spread of COVID-19, national plans supported by the International Health Regulations and Joint External Evaluations are guiding action and providing resources for decision making, prioritisation, and actions.” Through the extraordinary efforts of everyone ranging from lab to information systems, this naturally occurring event coordinated to respond and it will require the continued investment in preparedness to response and prevent future pandemics.

New Evidence on Disease Dynamics

The raging pandemic has spurred a deluge of interesting new and early release articles in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A study transmission examining a cluster of COVID-19 cases associated with a shopping mall in Wenzhou, China indicated indirect transmission of the causative agent, likely via contaminated objects, virus aerosolization in confined spaces, or spread from close contact with asymptomatic infected persons. Another research team collected information on individual case reports and domestic travel across China to estimate important epidemiological measures, such as the disease’s incubation period and R0. Specifically, they found that in the early days of the outbreak, the doubling time was 2.3-3.3 days and the median R0 could hit 5.7, numbers that support the criticality of surveillance, contact tracing, and social distancing to slow transmission. A third study confirmed asymptomatic and human-to-human transmission via close contacts in family and hospital settings, information useful for practice in clinical diagnosis and treatment. Relatedly, further research found evidence supporting the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 while an infected patient was presymptomatic or asymptomatic. Transmission of the virus from presymptomatic and asymptomatic cases impacts the types of public health interventions needed to contain the virus. An analysis of coronavirus patients from Vietnam indicated that the virus was transmitted from a traveler from China. Additionally, an asymptomatic patient showed viral shedding, more evidence that transmission can occur in the absence of clinical signs and symptoms. An article examining transmission from a presymptomatic attendee at a meeting in Germany found evidence that the disease was further transmitted via handshaking and face-to-face contact. Read all these articles here.

Commentary – Public Policy in the Pandemic Age: How COVID-19 Is Reshaping Our Government, Economy, and Society

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD Student, attended a GMU webinar featuring a discussion among a panel of experts regarding public health response strategies, economic impacts of lockdown, and potential longer-term implications of COVID-19. The panel included experts in economics, presidential leadership, emergency management, and disease transmission. Read the full commentary here.

 

Public Policy in the Pandemic Age: How COVID-19 Is Reshaping Our Government, Economy, and Society

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

On May 20th, the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government hosted a webinar to discuss Public Policy in the Pandemic Age: How COVID-19 is Reshaping Our Government, Economy, and Society. Moderated by Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, this panel brought together experts in economics, presidential leadership, emergency management, and disease transmission to discuss public health response strategies; the economic impact of lockdowns and physical distancing; polarization; the role of state and local governments; and potential longer-term implications of COVID-19. Panelists included GMU Professor of Public Policy Dr. Maurice Kugler, GMU Associate Professor Dr. Jeremy Meyer, GMU Director for Extramural Projects Dr. Tonya Neaves, and Aerospace Physiologist Dr. Nereyda Sevilla.

Panelists described a variety of failures in the U.S. response to COVID-19, from the late implementation of physical distancing measures to insufficient testing capacity to inconsistent messaging and a lack of a coordinated strategy at the federal level. Dr. Mayer presented data on the number of tests being conducted per million people in a variety of countries; he found that low levels of testing in the U.S. blinded policymakers and scientists to the scope of the outbreak. Testing delays combined with uncoordinated federal messaging and a lack of a coherent national strategy set the U.S. on a path to failure that would see cases skyrocket at a rapid pace.

Dr. Kruger highlighted the economic challenges and dangers associated with lockdown policies that many countries put in place because they failed to enact physical distancing measures earlier in the outbreak. Lockdowns were meant to be used as a tool to flatten the curve, prevent a catastrophic surge of patients stressing hospital systems, and give the U.S. time to ramp up testing capacity. As many parts of the country prepare to lift lockdowns, the danger that the government did not adequately prepare during this time is high. As we saw recently in Wuhan, China when they emerged from lockdown, additional cases must be met with a massive testing capacity to contain a second wave. Dr. Kugler spoke favorably of the strategies implemented by South Korea, Germany, and Switzerland that involve massive testing and targeted care and isolation. While such a strategy has fewer drawbacks, particularly economic drawbacks, than lockdowns, Dr. Kugler believes that the U.S. does not have the resources, personnel, technology, and strategic vision to successfully implement a similar course of action.

Dr. Mayer makes the interesting point that, generally, in moments of national crisis, polarization is (at least briefly) reduced and the president enjoys a significant boost in his approval rating. Yet with COVID-19, Trump has had a noticeably smaller “crisis approval surge” than other presidents. Trump himself is likely partially to blame for this effect, because he has used the pandemic as a wedge to achieve political goals. His rhetoric has generally not invoked national unity, but has stoked opposition to his rivals. Dr. Mayer argues that polarization makes us more vulnerable and less able to recover quickly from a crisis. A point Dr. Kugler made seems to reinforce this idea—lockdown measures take a much greater toll on low-income Americans who are out of work and who have very few options to fall back on. How many of you reading this are teleworking? This “digital divide” is furthering the very economic inequality that has historically increased Americans’ susceptibility to polarizing messages.

As bleak a picture of our current situation as this may have painted, the panelists suggested steps the U.S. can take starting today to improve the response. For example, Dr. Kugler describes a testing strategy that would allow physical distancing measures to be relaxed. This strategy involves testing 23 million Americans every day, so that every American is tested on a roughly biweekly basis. While there are many questions about whether the U.S. can ramp up capacity and coordinate this level of testing, Dr. Kugler identifies five key criteria that will make such a policy successful: harnessing a wide range of laboratories’ capabilities, making data open source so that the private sector can fully mobilize, implementing robust oversight capabilities, establishing clear and effective lines of communication, and developing a strategy that defines a clear, simple, and achievable target.

Testing is just one part of the strategy the U.S. needs. Dr. Neaves highlighted the importance of state and local governments to this pandemic response; these leaders have stepped in to fill a vacuum left by the absence of national strategy and coordination. Dr. Neaves praised the regional partnerships that states have developed, and she argued that state governors should write an after-action report describing their successes and challenges, as well as those of the federal government’s. Such a report developed by a bipartisan group of governors will be key for improving pandemic response in the future and rebuilding the social capital and trust that the U.S. response to COVID-19 has eroded.

Finally, Dr. Sevilla made an important point about how the lessons we learned and the precautions we put in place because of COVID-19 could benefit the U.S. in unanticipated ways. For example, physical distancing measures, increased use of masks, reduced crowding, and increased handwashing could reduce the transmission of common pathogens, such as the flu virus. This prediction emphasizes the wide range of benefits that can be realized by prioritizing public health. Whether the U.S. next faces a natural or intentionally released outbreak from an emerging or well-known pathogen, broad-based improvements in public health infrastructure can bring benefits. The U.S. should prioritize improving laboratory capacity; bolstering state and local capabilities; helping medical systems prepare for a sudden surge in patients; and training in disease recognition the doctors and nurses who will be on the frontlines of the next outbreak.

Pandora Report: 5.22.2020

Congrats to GMU Biodefense Graduates and Award Recipients!
While they won’t get to walk across the stage and celebrations are being done virtually, we are so proud of our new Schar School Biodefense graduate students who have completed their studies and are already out on the frontlines working to combat COVID-19. Our new PhD graduates are Ashley Hess, Margaret Midyette, Katherine Paris, and Saskia Popescu. New graduates of the MS program include Daniel Cooper, Edward Cope, Joseph DeFranco, Michael Krug, Alexandra Pugh, Georgia Ray, and Hwa Yun. We’re also excited to announce that Maliheh Bitaraf, Diana Ciricean, and John Kisko have just completed their Biodefense certificates. Congrats! During this graduation, three students are presented with Graduate Student Awards and we’re proud to announce that Michael Krug is the 2020 Outstanding Biodefense MS Student, Saskia Popescu is the Outstanding Biodefense PhD Student, and Yong-Bee Lim has received the Frances Harbour Award. Read more about our recipients here.

‘I Can’t Turn My Brain Off’: PTSD and Burnout Threaten Medical Workers
Though health care workers were already vulnerable to depression and suicide, the additional stress of COVID-19 further threatens their mental health as signs of stress- and trauma-related disorders rise. This New York Times piece by Jan Hoffman highlights how our health care heroes are hurting under the weight and losses from COVID-19. In tandem, a commentary by GMU’s own Madeline Roty describes the criticality of prioritizing the mental health of health care workers in and out of crises. The recent suicides of Dr. Lorna Breen and EMT John Mondello are heart-wrenching wakeup calls about the insufficient resources and support for the mental health of medical workers. Existing resources have experienced a surge in demand since the pandemic started as workers struggle with increased duties ands stress regarding the care of their patients, while being denied sufficient access to PPE and proper training for new policies and protocols. Additionally, workers suffer from the disconnect between themselves and their social networks – families, friends, and physical contact with both. The therapeutic power of a loving hug is no longer an option at the end of a grueling, and likely long, shift. The full article is available here.

The Coronavirus Chronicles
We recently introduced our new series, The Coronavirus Chronicles, which is a collection of stories, based on the personal and professional experiences of the faculty, students, and alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program, about life during the pandemic. From lab safety to parenting and even healthcare work, The Coronavirus Chronicles have detailed the lives of so many of our students and alumni working in COVID-19 response. We hope these stories help the public better understand the challenges posed by COVID-19 and how current and former members of the Biodefense Graduate Program have responded to these challenges and contributed to the pandemic response at the local, national, and international levels. This week, we’re launching a new story by biodefense graduate student Madeline Roty, who discusses the psychology effects of virus outbreaks. As you read above, this is a very real issue and extends beyond healthcare workers. Roty notes that “Fear of infecting others and time in quarantine or isolation contribute to psychological distress. Some healthcare workers have been forced to quarantine due to exposure to the virus or isolate after becoming infected. Many others are choosing to adhere to a modified quarantine in which they go to work but separate themselves from family, even in the absence of a known exposure.” Read her analysis into mental health and outbreaks here

The Future Bioweapons Threat: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic
Looking for a webinar to discuss lessons learned from COVID-19 and the implications for bioweapons threat analysis? The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is thrilled to present its first LIVE webinar on May 28 from 3:00-4:30pm EST, which will examine the future bioweapons threat from the perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists include Max Brooks, author of World War Z and Devolution, Nonresident Fellow at The Modern War Institute and Atlantic Council, Honorable Andrew C. “Andy” Weber, Senior Fellow at Council on Strategic Risks, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the Pentagon, GMU Biodefense alum Dr. Saskia Popescu, Epidemiologist and Senior Infection Preventionist, HonorHealth, and Dr. Alexander Titus, Chief Strategy Officer, Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute and Senior Fellow at Council on Strategic Risks. Register for event here.

Everyone Wins from Vaccine Cooperation
In a time of increasing finger-pointing, the best chance we have at a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is likely through international coordination and cooperation. Dr. Kendall Hoyt, friend of GMU Biodefense, worked with Susan Athey and Michael Kremer to discuss the critical need for vaccine cooperation on international levels. Vaccine R&D isn’t easy and frankly, incurs a lot of risk. “The best way to manage these risks is to collaborate. Multilateral investment in a diversified portfolio of vaccine candidates would help to scale up production capacity as soon as a vaccine’s safety and efficacy have been established. Provided that much remains unknown about the novel coronavirus, we estimate that an investment of about $145 billion (.17% of world GDP) would be ideal, but that a program just half that size would yield substantial benefits. Although the United States and China are pursuing individual investment strategies, both could still advance their own national interests through international collaboration, either by way of the ACT Accelerator or via pooled contracts negotiated directly between countries and firms.” As the authors emphasize, global coordination doesn’t just reduce risk through managing supply chain disruptions, but also ensures export controls don’t interfere and ultimately, the benefits can be more broadly distributed.

Planning for a COVID-19 Vaccination Program
A commentary published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a group of medical doctors at Children’s National Hospital urge the public health community to initiate a proactive educational campaign to inoculate both the general public and health care workers against misinformation about the imminent COVID-19 vaccine. More specifically, this campaign should engage via traditional (television, radio, print ads) and social media platforms immediately to monitor, counter, and prevent the dissemination of false beliefs regarding the forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine.  The authors recommend four steps to promote widespread public acceptance of the vaccine: (1) rapid and equitable distribution of a vaccine immediately after confirmation of its efficacy and safety; (2) any plan for mass vaccination should address probable hurdles to vaccine acceptance using “linguistically and culturally competent messaging”; (3) public health leaders should design a robust COVID-19 vaccine educational campaign that incorporates social and traditional media, with foci on countering misinformation and leveraging the popularity of influencers; and (4) front line health care workers should be trained on how to convey strong recommendations for COVID-19 vaccine uptake. The article is available to read for free here.

Dr. Andrew Kilianski: Professor, Scientist, and Security Expert
Dr. Andrew Kilianski, an adjunct professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government’s Biodefense Graduate Program, is among the newly appointed experts leading the Department of Defense’s contribution to Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics for use against COVID-19. Specifically, Dr. Kilianski was appointed the subject matter expert leading DOD’s support in the area of Security and Assistance for this new Manhattan Project-style initiative. His role will presumably relate to defending vaccine researchers and pharmaceutical firms against cyberespionage threats. US and British cybersecurity agencies have issued multiple warnings about attempts by countries such as China and Iran to hack universities and private firms in order to steal intellectual property related to research on COVID-19 medical countermeasures. According to Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School, “Strengthening cyberbiosecurity is a vital element of our national effort to develop new vaccines and therapeutics against COVID-19. Dr. Kilianski’s appointment is a perfect illustration of how the Biodefense program tries to bridge the gap between science and policy.” Dr. Kilianski has been teaching courses on viral threat agents and biosurveillance for the Biodefense program since 2016. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced George Mason, and universities around the country, to shift to online teaching, Dr. Kilianski was already in the middle of teaching his virology course online. The Biodefense Graduate Program rotates all of its courses between being offered online and in-person, enabling students anywhere in the world to complete the entire Master’s degree online. The flexibility offered by online courses is not only good for students, but also allowed Dr. Kilianski to continue teaching even while he faced increased demands at work for his expertise. When classes resume in the fall, Dr. Koblentz noted, “Dr. Kilianski will be able to bring unique insights back into the classroom. Not everyone gets a professor with that kind of experience.” Since 2019, Dr. Kilianski has served as the Chief Intelligence Officer (CIO) for Chemical, Biological, Nuclear, and Radiological (CBRN) Defense for the Department of Defense. His previous work at DOD encompassed weapons of mass destruction, infectious diseases, and emerging biotechnology. Prior to joining DOD, Dr. Kilianski was a National Academy of Sciences Fellow with the US Army at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, where he conducted cutting-edge research on integrated biosurveillance and the identification and characterization of novel agents that threaten warfighters. Dr. Kilianski earned his PhD in Microbiology and Immunology from Loyola University Medical Center where he specialized in the study of coronaviruses. His scientific research has been published in an array of notable journals such as PLoS Pathogens, Journal of Virology, and Emerging Infectious Diseases. His research included the discovery of virus-host interactions necessary for coronavirus pathogenesis and research on vaccines and antiviral agents against the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses.

A Healthy Dose of Realism: Stopping COVID-19 Doesn’t Start with the WHO
Dr. Frank Smith III, the director of the Cyber and Innovation Policy Institute (CIPI) at the US Naval War College, encourages a renewed viewpoint on the COVID-19 response and how to make progress. Smith proposes that states, leaders, and organizations abandon their mud-slinging behaviors toward the World Health Organization (WHO) and, instead, focus on leveraging international partnerships and cooperation to combat COVID-19. According to Smith, the WHO is a relatively weak entity that bows to the will of powerful states, thereby echoing the balance of power in the world. Instead of throwing stones at the WHO, focus should shift to power nation-states that can act swiftly and significantly. He encourages concerted action between the United States and China, following the footsteps of the unprecedented collaboration between the US and Russia in the smallpox eradication campaign. The full article is available here.

STGlobal Consortium Seeking Graduate Students for STS/STP Conference
The STGlobal Consortium is now seeking graduate student volunteers to serve on the planning committee for our 2021 STS/STP conference, to be held in April 2021 in Washington, DC.  As you may know, the STGlobal Conference is a student-run and student-focused conference focused on the societal and policy aspects of science and technology, including such related concerns as sustainability, science communication, and science education.  Programming will include opportunities for graduate students to present and receive feedback upon research in a friendly and collaborative environment; workshops for development of research and professional skills; and opportunities to connect with students, professionals, and organizations working in the aforementioned areas. Service on the planning committee offers students a valuable opportunity to gain experience in the organization and facilitation of an academic conference, as well as to communicate and collaborate with other students in their fields from across the United States and the world.  If you know any graduate students who might be interested in serving this year, please pass on this message to them directly; and please feel free to disseminate this communication among your networks.  Students who wish to participate should email contact@stglobal.org for further information.

 

 

 

Heroes are Human Too: The Toll of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of Healthcare Workers

By Madeline Roty

Since 1949, May has been Mental Health Month. This May, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, mental health has become especially relevant and demands increased awareness and action. On April 26th, Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency room physician working on the frontlines in New York City, died by suicide. Her death drew attention to the toll the pandemic places on the mental health of healthcare workers. The United Nations recently published a policy briefin which they advocated for action to protect mental health and acknowledged healthcare workers as a vulnerable population. Though information is still emerging about the impact of COVID-19, initial data indicate that almost half of healthcare workers are experiencing negative mental health effects related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing that virus outbreaks contribute to increased psychological distress and burnout in healthcare workers, Kisely et. al. conducted a rapid review and meta-analysis of 59 papers from previous epidemics, including SARS, MERS, Ebola, and Influenza Type A, as well as COVID-19. This rapid review identifies predisposing factors, protective factors, and helpful strategies to prevent and manage psychological distress in all healthcare professionals in any clinical setting. The findings of this study and its implications, limitations, and importance are discussed and used to make recommendations to better protect healthcare workers. Continue reading “Heroes are Human Too: The Toll of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of Healthcare Workers”

GMU Biodefense Graduate Student Awards – 2020

OUTSTANDING BIODEFENSE MS STUDENT AWARD

This year’s Outstanding Biodefense Master’s student is Michael Krug. Michael entered the program with a background in biochemistry but he quickly mastered the policy aspects of biodefense as well and graduated with an impressive GPA of 3.97. Michael also took an active leadership role in the Biodefense program and co-founded the George Mason chapter of the Next Generation Global Health Security Network which is composed of students and young professionals around the world who work on issues at the next of health and security. This group brought in outside speakers, including former Senate Majority leader Thomas Daschle, and held several social events for students. Michael was also busy off-campus with internships in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and with the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank where he worked on their comprehensive survey of how well countries are prepared for pandemics and other threats to global health security. Michael is now working as a global health officer in the Office of Pandemics and Emerging Threats in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Michael’s passion for bridging the gap between science and policy and strengthening global health security makes him an outstanding choice for this award.

OUTSTANDING BIODEFENSE PHD STUDENT

Saskia Popescu is this year’s outstanding Biodefense PhD student. Saskia has long been fascinated by the intersection of health and security. She entered the program with an MPH and Master’s in International Security. Saskia’s dissertation, “How Cost Containment Undermines Disease Containment: Political and Economic Obstacles to Investing in Infection Prevention and Control,” used concepts from political economy to explain why hospitals don’t spend enough on infection prevention and control programs despite their huge value to public health. Saskia also has extensive experience working in a hospital as an infection preventionist so her dissertation was able to combine both theory and practice. Unfortunately, her work was prescient in predicting the types of shortages and infection control failures we’ve seen throughout the country during the current pandemic. Saskia has also been busy with extracurricular activities. In 2017, Saskia was chosen for the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University. In 2018, she was selected to be a George Mason Global Health Security Student Ambassador and attend the 5th Global Health Security Agenda Summit in Bali, Indonesia. Saskia has also made a huge contribution to the Biodefense Program as the managing editor of The Pandora Report, our weekly newsletter which provides news and analysis on global health security issues to thousands of readers every week. Saskia has a knack for discussing complex issues in a jargon-free way and throwing in a little snark on the side. Saskia exemplifies the type of scholar the Biodefense PhD program is designed to produce: data-driven, science-based, theoretically-informed, analytically-rigorous, policy-relevant, and passionate about changing the world for the better.

FRANCES HARBOUR AWARD

The Frances Harbour Award is given to a biodefense student in recognition of his or her community leadership. Frances Harbour was an associate professor of government in the School, and a founding member and past president of the International Ethics Section of the International Studies Association. She was also a Social Science Research Council/John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow in International Peace and Security Studies

This year’s award goes to Yong-Bee Lim, who is (hopefully) in the final year of his dissertation on the do-it-yourself biology movement. Yong-Bee has been a visible and vocal part of the Biodefense program since he started as a Master’s student. Yong-Bee earned a Presidential Fellowship when he entered the PhD program and worked closely with several faculty members in the Biodefense program. Yong-Bee was a pleasure to work with and has consistently impressed the faculty with his work ethic and creativity. Along the way, Yong-Bee has worked at prestigious institutions such as the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Lab and the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at National Defense University. In 2018, Yong-Bee was chosen for the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University. Yong-Bee has also been a fantastic ambassador for the program and was always willing to volunteer his time to help recruit new students and mentor existing ones. We can’t wait for him to finish his dissertation and graduate—but we’ll also be very sad to see him go.

Pandora Report: 5.15.2020

The Coronavirus Chronicles
We recently introduced our new series,The Coronavirus Chronicles, which is a collection of stories, based on the personal and professional experiences of the faculty, students, and alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program, about life during the pandemic. From lab safety to parenting and even healthcare work, The Coronavirus Chronicles have detailed the lives of so many of our students and alumni working in COVID-19 response. We hope these stories help the public better understand the challenges posed by COVID-19 and how current and former members of the Biodefense Graduate Program have responded to these challenges and contributed to the pandemic response at the local, national, and international levels. This week, we’re launching a new story by biodefense doctoral alum Jomana Musmar, who shares how she’s responding to COVID-19 with HHS while multitasking as a mother and spouse to an ED physician. Jomana’s experiences provide insight into the challenges we’re facing in terms of pandemic response and lesson we can all take away, noting that “Another important lesson learned is the need for everyone—from households to corporations to governments—to have a Plan B for continuity of operations for every aspect of life. Our reliance on the internet, laptops, and mobile phones has shown how pivotal a role this technology plays in being able to survive.”

COVID-19 Reopening and Recovery: Proposed Plans for the US
GMU biodefense doctoral student and Pandora Report associate editor Rachel-Paige Casey is breaking down the recovery plans to help get the U.S. back from COVID-19. “Throughout April, strategies regarding the reopening of the US economy and its associated public health factors were published by the White House with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. The four strategies discussed here either outline phases for resuming activity or describe systems to enable and assist safe reopening.” Casey details the four strategies, their phases, and provides a risk assessment in this detailed review of what experts are suggesting for COVID-19 recovery. Read more here.

Schar School Event- Public Policy in the Pandemic Age: How COVID-19 is Reshaping our Government, Economy, and Society
Join the Schar School Faculty, Alumni, Schar Alumni Chapter, and Dean Mark Rozell for an engaging virtual panel on the future of public policy post COVID-19 – COVID-19: How the Pandemic is Reshaping our Government, Economy, and Society. This virtual event will be moderated by Biodefense Graduate Program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and will be held from 2-3:30pm EST on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting unprecedented challenges to the United States and the rest of the world. Not since the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 have we experienced a pandemic of this scale and severity. Aside from the steep and growing human toll of the outbreak, virtually every aspect of our personal and professional lives are being affected. The sheer breadth of issues impacted by COVID-19 is overwhelming: public health, medicine, government, the economy, international trade, education, national security, politics, and technology, to name just a few. The effects of the pandemic are also magnified by existing cleavages within our society ranging from hyperpartisanship to racial disparities to socioeconomic inequalities. You can read more about our distinguished panel members and register for the event here.

The Future Bioweapons Threat: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic
Looking for a webinar to discuss lessons learned from COVID-19 and the implications for bioweapons threat analysis? The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is thrilled to present its first LIVE webinar on May 28 from 3:00-4:30pm EST, which will examine the future bioweapons threat from the perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists include Max Brooks, author of World War Z and Devolution, Nonresident Fellow at The Modern War Institute and Atlantic Council, Honorable Andrew C. “Andy” Weber, Senior Fellow at Council on Strategic Risks, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the Pentagon, GMU Biodefense alum Dr. Saskia Popescu, Epidemiologist and Senior Infection Preventionist, HonorHealth, and Dr. Alexander Titus, Chief Strategy Officer, Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute and Senior Fellow at Council on Strategic Risks. Register for event here.

 Social Distancing During Pandemics According to the GAO
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a brief report about the science behind social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19. Based on historical studies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asserts that the area of highest risk is within 3 feet of an infected individual, but a buffer radius of 6 feet is recommended. These recommendations are founded on studies in the fields such as fluid mechanics, epidemiology, and microbiology. Other studies found that infectious droplets can travel beyond 6 feet, but the degree of infectivity of particles that travel relatively long distances is uncertain. The distance that an infectious droplet can travel depends on several factors such droplet size, humidity level, and air currents. For instance, the smaller the droplet, the farther it can potentially travel. The goal of social distancing (keeping a personal bubble with a 6-foot radius) is to reduce the rate of transmission; however, it is not a perfect non-medical countermeasure. The speeds and distances of viral particle travel from coughing or sneezing are difficult to determine with absolute precision. Additional challenges beyond the science and calculations are related to the difficulty in application: the psychological impacts of social distancing and isolation are yet to be fully realized. Read the full two-page here.

DHS S&T Launches Indoor Predictive Modeling Tool for Coronavirus Stability
This week, the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a predictive modeling tool that estimates the natural decay of SARS-CoV-2 based on temperature within the 70-95°F range and relative humidity between 20-60%. The current iteration of the model is for stainless steel or ABS plastic surface types; nitrile (a compound used in disposable gloves) surface type will be available soon. For example, on a stainless steel or ABS plastic surface with a temperature of 77°F/25°C and relative humidity of 33%, the half-life of the virus is 11.52 hours, or 0.48 days. This model was developed to inform response efforts regarding the persistence of the virus on certain surfaces (fomites) and under specific combinations of conditions. Additional enhancements in the pipeline for this model include droplets in the air vs. on a surface, expanded temperature and humidity ranges, different surfaces. The model can be found here.

Pandemic dispatch: An infection-prevention expert on shortages, misinformation, and health worker strain on the coronavirus front line
GMU Biodefense doctoral alum and infection prevention epidemiologist Saskia Popescu discusses her experiences on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic. “For the past four months, I’ve had a front row seat to the coronavirus pandemic. Working in a major hospital system, I’ve seen first-hand the issues that have come to define the crisis: the concerns about supplies, the torrent of misinformation, and the critical problem of health care worker exposure to COVID-19. Infection preventionists such as myself work in hospitals to stop the spread of infections among patients, staff, and visitors alike. Despite our training, the coronavirus has tested hospital programs like mine, forcing us to drastically change our daily practices.” Read more here.

News of the Weird: Pajama Sales in a Pandemic
Though many industries are struggling to survive as sales have plummeted during the response to COVID-19. Pajamas, however, are in high demand as many of us remain at home; pajama sales have soared by 143%since lockdown. Real pants are optional when working from home.   According to CNN Business, eCommerce sales were up almost 50% in April, because in-person retail shopping is currently limited, if not impossible. Other items with growing demand include beer and liquor and creative audio equipment like sound mixers.

News of the Weird: Cocktail-Friendly Face Masks
Artist Ellen Macomber designed an unconventional face mask that sports a small hole fit for a straw that allows the wearer to enjoy cocktails in Covid-19. Macomber is based in the Big Easy, also called New Orleans, a city known for its round-the-clock party life. These bedazzled and flamboyant face masks run $60 a pop. She does admit that the masks are not the “best form of prevention” given its opening right into the mouth.

Biosecurity Is the Lesson We Need to Learn from the Coronavirus Pandemic
Dr. Daniel Gerstein, graduate of the Biodefense PhD program, and Dr. James Giordano wrote in The National Interest about the biosecurity lessons we need to learn from the coronavirus pandemic. Though there is no scientific evidence that the novel coronavirus was human-made, humans do bear some the blame for this pandemic. Humans disrupt and destroy the environment and its habitats, mix species as bush meat in wet markets, and experiment with dangerous pathogens. The COVID-19 pandemic and the human behavior that encouraged it signal the need to develop a new approach to biosafety and biosecurity that “addresses the full range of biological threats that humankind and the global environment will face in the future.” As humans continue to intrude into natural habitats, the risk of zoonotic disease spillover continues to increase. Over the last thirty years, 30 new human pathogens have been found, most of which originated in animals. Gerstein and Giordano encourage the expansion of biosafety and biosecurity to include consideration of the global biological ecosystem. Read the full article here.

WHO Announces the Launch of New Informational Apps
The World Health Organization (WHO) launched two COVID-19 apps for smartphones. One is for healthcare workers and the other is for the general public. For healthcare workers, the WHO Academy app provides information on COVID-19 resources, guidance, training, and virtual workshops. For the general public, the WHO Info app provides access to the latest COVID-19 news and developments. Both apps can be downloaded for free from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store.

 

COVID-19 Reopening and Recovery: Proposed Plans for the US

By Rachel-Paige Casey

Throughout April, strategies regarding the reopening of the US economy and its associated public health factors were published by the White House with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. The four strategies discussed here either outline phases for resuming activity or describe systems to enable and assist safe reopening. All these plans consider the importance of testing to continue slowing the spread of COVID-19 as normal life gradually resumes. Other nations, such as South Korea, have successfully built high-capacity testing and tracing infrastructures in the wake of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the US has failed to develop its own robust testing and tracing system. At present, US testing capacity has plateaued at about 150,000 tests per day, equating to a little over 1 million tests per week, a figure deemed insufficient by experts in public health and medicine. Continue reading “COVID-19 Reopening and Recovery: Proposed Plans for the US”