Pandora Report: 5.7.2021

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy shared new tools to find vaccines near you! You can text ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX) or 822862 (VACUNA). You can also visit vaccines.gov or vacunas.gov. The shot emoji gets a makeover. WHO and Germany launch the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence.

The ‘Vaccine’ Emoji Gets a New Look This Week

This month, the most popular emoji on Twitter was the one with its mouth agape and tears streaming down, depicting the pandemic mood of being overwhelmed with either anguish or relief as the vaccines roll out. The microbe emoji has also surged in use over the last year to describe SARS-CoV-2. The face mask and shot emojis are also quite popular, promoting these countermeasures. To better represent vaccines, the vaccine emoji has been redesigned from syringe with a bright red barrel and a drop of blood coming out from the needle to a syringe with a blue-gray hue without the blood droplet.

COVID-19 Vaccine Nationalism Will Cost Lives Worldwide

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, called the hoarding of COVID-19 vaccines by wealthy nations as a “catastrophic moral failure.” By mid-March, 14% of the global population had access to more than half of the vaccines in the world, and modeling suggests that this hoarding will lead to nearly twice as many deaths as would happen if vaccines were shared across the globe. “Vaccine nationalists” advocate for vaccinating the people in their own country by any means necessary, whereas “globalists” seek more equitable approaches for vaccine allocation that are based on need rather than payment. The US possesses an excess of the AstraZeneca vaccine that it anticipated would gain emergency authorization. After much pressure, the Biden administration decided to donate that stockpile, some 60 million doses, to nations in need. “Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccination does.” Equitable vaccination should be the default policy and action, not requiring pressure. In order to protect or strengthen the public health of a nation, we need to protect and strengthen the public health of all nations.

WHO, Germany Launch New Global Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Federal Republic of Germany will establish a new global hub for pandemic and epidemic intelligence, data, surveillance and analytics innovation. The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence will be a global platform for pandemic and epidemic intelligence, creating shared and networked access to vital multi-sectoral data, driving innovations in data analytics and building the communities of practice needed to predict, prevent, detect, prepare for, and respond to worldwide health threats. The Hub, based in Berlin and working with partners around the world, will lead innovations in data analytics across the largest network of global data to predict, prevent, detect prepare for and respond to pandemic and epidemic risks worldwide. It will be a new global collaboration of countries and partners worldwide, driving innovations to increase availability and linkage of diverse data; develop tools and predictive models for risk analysis; and to monitor disease control measures and infodemics.

Mitigating Future Respiratory Virus Pandemics: New Threats and Approaches to Consider

Despite many recent efforts to predict and control emerging infectious disease threats to humans, we failed to anticipate the zoonotic viruses which led to pandemics in 2009 and 2020. The morbidity, mortality, and economic costs of these pandemics have been staggering. We desperately need a more targeted, cost-efficient, and sustainable strategy to detect and mitigate future zoonotic respiratory virus threats. Evidence suggests that the transition from an animal virus to a human pathogen is incremental and requires a considerable number of spillover events and considerable time before a pandemic variant emerges. A new article in Viruses view argues for the refocusing of public health resources on novel respiratory virus surveillance at human–animal interfaces in geographical hotspots for emerging infectious diseases. Where human–animal interface surveillance is not possible, a secondary high-yield, cost-efficient strategy is to conduct novel respiratory virus surveillance among pneumonia patients in these same hotspots. When novel pathogens are discovered, they must be quickly assessed for their human risk and, if indicated, mitigation strategies initiated. In this review, the authors discuss the most common respiratory virus threats, current efforts at early emerging pathogen detection, and propose and defend new molecular pathogen discovery strategies with the goal of preempting future pandemics. Read the article here.

Insider Q&A: Ex-Biodefense Chief on Stopping the Next COVID

Dr. Rick Bright is a former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a government office tasked with procuring and developing medical countermeasures for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats along with emerging diseases. One year ago, Bright submitted a whistleblower complaint regarding the improper use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug, to treat COVID-19; the medication was later considered ineffective and too risky. In retaliation, Bright was demoted and he ultimately resigned from his position. Bright is now the Senior Vice President of Pandemic Prevention and Response at the Rockefeller Foundation.  In a conversation with AP News, Bright explains that, in the early days of the pandemic, he wishes there had been a “reliable, nonpolitical, early warning signal.” The lack of a strong signal, transparency, and information sharing needs to change before the next biological event. He also points out there is not necessarily a lack of data or information, rather there is a need to be able to “aggregate all that information in a trusted source that’s not beholden to politics or money.”

Event – The Global Health Security Index: A Tool for Decision Makers in Latin America

The Global Health Security Index – developed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (JHU), and The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) – is the first comprehensive assessment and benchmarking of health security and related capabilities across 195 countries. On 12 May, NTI and the Cayetano Heredia Peruvian University are hosting an event, “The Global Health Security Index: A Tool for Decision Makers in Latin America.” Panelists include Javier Rodriguez Zulato, Director of the Initiative for Global Security (IGS); Luciana Vazquez, Biosecurity and Biosafety Program Coordinator at IGS; Dr. Ricardo Teijeiro, IGS Biosafety and Biosecurity Program Argentine Society of Infectology (SADI); Luis Carrerra Fox, North America Liaison IGS/PandemichTech; Jessica Bell, Senior Program Officer at NTI; and Ernesto Gozzer, Professor at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heridia. Register here for the virtual webinar on 12 May at 2 PM EST.

Superspreaders of Malign and Subversive Information on COVID-19: Russian and Chinese Efforts Targeting the United States

The RAND Corporation released a report as part of its Countering Truth Decay initiative that examines the Russian and Chinese efforts to target the US through information manipulation. Activities to spread COVID-19-related malign and subversive information have been underway throughout the pandemic, but the report assesses evidence from the January to July 2020 period. Two types of sources were used: those formally linked to Russia and China and those shown to have indirect links to Russian or Chinese governments or networks. Using exploratory qualitative analysis, several trends were found, including: both countries falsely accused the United States of developing and intentionally spreading the virus; both countries modified their COVID-19-related messaging over time, focusing on conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins and impacts; Russia deployed wide-ranging media and targeted a variety of audiences, while China’s approach was ideologically uniform and appeared to target audiences that were less varied. Read the report here.

Virologist Angela Rasmussen on the Controversy Surrounding Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 Vaccine

Dr. Angela Rasmussen is a virologist and research scientist with the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security and VIDO-InterVac at the University of Saskatchewan. STAT had a conversation with Rasmussen about the controversy surrounding Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, which is based on technology similar to that of the Johnson and Johnson as well as AstraZeneca vaccines. According to a study published in The Lancet, the Sputnik vaccine showed 91.6% efficacy, ranking it as one of the most effective in the world. When asked why Brazil rejected the Sputnik vaccine, Rasmussen explained that with the adenovirus component, the virus could potentially replicate and cause downstream complications. Another issue is the worry about quality control of Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine, specifically, there may be “discrepancies in the manufacturing process.” In terms of soft power diplomacy, the concerns regarding the Sputnik vaccine may be dealing a blow to Russia’s attempt to assume a leadership role in the global vaccine efforts.

Listen to the full conversation here.

Event – Reinforcing the Norm Against Chemical Weapons: The April 20-22 Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention

At the second session of the 25th Conference of States Parties held in The Hague last month, the member states took several important steps to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use and to hold Chemical Weapons Convention violators accountable. Foremost among these was the decision to suspend the rights and privileges of Syria under the Convention. The Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition, in cooperation with the Arms Control Association, will host a briefing to review the results and implications of the 25th Conference of States Parties for the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the CWC regime. Panelists include Amb. Lisa Helfand, Permanent Representative of Canada to the OPCW (confirmed); Amb. Gudrun Lingner, Permanent Representative of Germany to the OPCW; Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, independent disarmament and security researcher at The Trench; and Dr. Paul Walker, moderator, Coordinator, Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition. Opening remarks will be given by H.E. Fernando Arias, Director-General of the OPCW. The panel will be held on 10 May 2021 at 10 AM EST. Register here.

Cheminformatics at the Stimson Center

As recent international incidents amply demonstrate, chemical weapons remain an enduring and very real challenge to international peace and security. However, frontline officers for border security and trade controls, as well as chemical industry employees, struggle to identify whether a chemical can be utilized as a chemical warfare agent and precursor. This challenge stems from at least three sources: (1) lists of controlled chemicals identify chemicals of concern through names and registry numbers – however, the lists may not cover the specific chemical in question, given that chemicals have a multitude of synonymous names and different variants of the same chemical; (2) some lists of controlled chemicals do not identify individual chemicals only chemical families, which can make the lists difficult to interpret by non-chemists; and (3) lists of controlled chemicals are subject to change and must be kept current. The Stimson Center is developing a tool to help overcome these challenges.

The Cheminformatics tool is composed of an up-to-date database of relevant lists of controlled chemicals to help address problems inherent to the way in which the identification of such chemicals is currently conducted by converting any entered chemical name or registry number into a chemical structure, and automatically checking whether that structure matches any entry of the database. Through September 2021, the Cheminformatics team will work to lay the groundwork for the development of a database tool that will allow frontline officers for border security and trade controls as well as chemical industry employees to easily assess if a given chemical falls within the scope of a national or international control list of chemical warfare agents and precursors. A demonstration of the prototype was given in late February to showcase its ability to query a database of controlled chemicals and verify if a specific chemical is included on a control list.

A Revolution Is Sweeping the Science of Ancient Diseases

Dr. Johannes Krause, director of the archaeogenetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, co-authored the book A Short History of Humanity, which synthesizes twenty years of work with ancient DNA from humans and pathogens. In the past decade, ancient DNA have been used to study diseases – the plague, syphilis, hepatitis B, and a mysterious “cocoliztli” epidemic – using techniques based on decoding the genome of the Neanderthal. This has enabled a “boom” in ancient pathogen DNA examination and revealed information of forgotten or extinct diseases. Krause explains that the teeth from ancient remains are used to collect blood samples; this is because the pathogens of interest are blood-borne. In the DNA of Yersinia pestis, the causal agent for plague, scientists found that the “Black Death is literally the common ancestor, the mother of 80% of the strains that circulate in the world today.” Krause and his colleagues have found evidence of bacteria that look like Yersinia pestis from teeth in Europe that date back almost 5,000 years. Though Krause cannot specifically identify the disease, he does describe it as likely lethal, but not transmissible via fleas. Read the full interview here.

Pandora Report: 4.30.2021

This is World Immunization Week! The US is donating up to 60 million doses of the Astra Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine to the global vaccine effort. This week also marks the first 100 days of the Biden administration, which has already seen 200 million COVID-19 doses administered in the US.

World Immunization Week

The last week of April is World Immunization Week! World Immunization Week promotes the use of vaccines to protect people of all ages from disease. Every year, vaccines save millions of lives as one of the most successful health interventions. Despite their efficacy, nearly 20 million children worldwide are not vaccinated, leaving them vulnerable. This year’s theme is “Vaccines bring us closer,” which urges “greater engagement around immunization globally to promote the importance of vaccination in bringing people together, and improving the health and wellbeing of everyone, everywhere throughout life.” The World Health Organization’s campaign aims to increase trust, confidence, and investments in vaccines.

In great news, a vaccine against malaria, a disease that kills over 400,000 people each year, has proven 77% effective in early trials. The trial included 450 children in Burkina Faso and the shot was found to be safe and showed “high-level efficacy” over one year of follow up.

Epidemics That Didn’t Happen

In this COVID-19 era, we are constantly reminded of gaps or failures in pandemic preparedness; however, a new resource is offering examples of effective preparedness by showcasing epidemics that never hit or that were largely tempered. The examples include Yellow Fever in Brazil, Ebola in Uganda, Anthrax in Kenya, Monkeypox in Nigeria, and COVID-19 in Mongolia and Senegal.

Though anthrax is often associated with bioterrorism, it is an ancient disease that is found naturally in soil. The anthrax bacterium can infect livestock and wildlife, which, in turn, infect humans when their contaminated meat is consumed. In 2019, a local herder and two students located in a town in Kenya became very ill after eating the meat from a dead cow. All three were diagnosed with anthrax. A volunteer who had been trained by the Kenya Red Cross Society’s Community-Based Surveillance system, immediately sent an SMS alert to the system. This alert notified local health and veterinary authorities, and quickly spurred action to contain the outbreak. Ultimately, there were four human cases and one death. This and the other case studies highlight that outbreaks can be contained and epidemics can be prevented with strong preparedness and response measures, protocols, and activities.

Spillover or Endemic? Reconsidering the Origins of Ebola Virus Disease Outbreaks by Revisiting Local Accounts in Light of New Evidence from Guinea

New research published in the BMJ Global Health journal finds that the 2021 outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in Guinea originated in viral resurgence from a persistently infected survivor from the major 2013–2016 epidemic 5–7 years ago, prompting an urgent need to re-evaluate whether past EVD epidemics hitherto considered as independent zoonotic spillovers may have had similar origins. In the article, researchers reconsider local accounts from the West African epidemic that trace its origins to people, dismissed until now as implausible. The authors reinterpret existing scientific accounts of other alleged spillovers, finding that several past outbreaks probably originated in persistent infections over even longer latency. By recalibrating the balance between “spillover” and “flare-up,” they suggest that EVD manifests less as a series of discrete epidemics and more as an endemic disease in humans over long timescales and wide areas, helping to account for the increasing frequency of episodes. The authors recommend that more collaborative, respectful approaches with local communities are needed to understand the origins of outbreaks, to address them and to support rather than stigmatize sufferers and survivors. Read the article here.

India’s COVID-19 Crisis Prompts Global Response

India is currently experiencing a severe surge in COVID-19 cases, the worst in the pandemic. In fact, India broke the global daily record for the number of COVID-19 cases for a fifth straight day, with more than 350,000 new infections reported. Hospitals are facing critical shortages of oxygen and remdesivir, an antiviral used to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said, “the situation in India is beyond heartbreaking.” President Biden spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about sending raw materials for its Covishield vaccine to help quell the crisis.

How COVID-19 Prepared the Military for Future Biological Warfare

Although the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of society or transitioned it into a remote format, the vast majority of the military’s missions continued. These missions include activities ranging from air transportation to basic training. Since most of these activities cannot be conducted over Zoom, the military was forced to improvise and adapt operations to keep forces healthy, and were largely successful. According to Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, the pandemic is one of the few, if not only, times in which the military has “faced a true challenge to how it commands and controls its forces on a global scale.” The COVID-19 outbreak on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt provided important lessons about how to respond in a biological attack. The disease spread rapidly on the ship and led to the ship’s skipper pleading with Navy leadership for help, a plea that was leaked to the media. Lt. Cmdr. Brian Pike stated that the ship’s outbreak reveals the need to consider deploying technical experts in the detection and surveillance of biological threats on Navy ships to contain infectious diseases. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, asserts that improving detection capabilities on a vessel should entail monitoring the health of the crew and preparing for a situation in which the first sign of an attack is the presentation of symptoms. To do so, the Navy may need to add personnel that are skilled in disease surveillance or specially train existing personnel.  

Navalny’s Novichok Poisoning Was Putin Sending the World A Message, Experts Say

In August 2020, Alexei Navalny, an Russian opposition leader, was poisoned with a Novichok, an agent banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. After being hospitalized in Germany, Navalny returned to Russia and was imprisoned. In response to rising international pressure, Putin gave a “fiery state of the nation speech” that warned other nations to not attempt to cross the unspecified “red lines” in regard to Navalny. Navalny’s recent court appearance saw him at the end of a three-week hunger strike, and there are fears he may be close to death. He is not the first to be poisoned with a Novichok; Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned in 2018. According to Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, prior to the Skripals, the Novichok was not thought to be a weapon of assassination. Further, at that time, only about a dozen laboratories in the world were equipped to detect it. This means that the number of other enemies of the Kremlin that have been victims of a Novichok is unknown. As a clear and odorless agent, it is among the most lethal nerve agents known. Some experts are interpreting the Novichok poisonings as warnings to those who oppose Putin, but also as a message to NATO nations that “Russia is using a forbidden chemical weapon that Russia says it doesn’t have — that it can harm not only its own citizens but citizens in any city, any country outside of Russia.”

Harris to Tell UN Body It’s Time to Prep for Next Pandemic

On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris will address the United Nations in a virtual speech to make the case that “now is the time for global leaders to begin putting the serious work into how they will respond to the next global pandemic.” This speech will come near the 100-day mark of the Biden-Harris administration. According to excerpts, Harris will provide an overview of what the administration wants to focus on: improving accessibility to healthcare; investing in science, healthcare workers, and the well-being of women; and boosting capacity for personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccine and diagnostic test manufacturing.

Pandora Report: 4.23.2021

State Department releases its annual reports assessing arms control compliance and adherence. Dr. Brian Mazanec, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program, receives the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Honor Outstanding Federal Employees. Globally, to date, there have been nearly 145 million cases of COVID-19 and over 3 million deaths from the novel coronavirus. In much-needed good news, all adults (16 years and older) in the US are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

State Department Releases Arms Control Compliance Reports

The US Department of State released its reports regarding compliance with arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements and commitments. The report assesses the adherence of the US as well as other nations, including Iran, North Korea, Syria, China, and Russia. In short, the activities of the US in 2020 were “consistent with the obligations set forth in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).” Additionally, the US has “provided a full and complete declaration of its chemical weapons (CW) and associated CW facilities, and continues to work toward completing the destruction of CW and associated CW facilities, in accordance with its CWC obligations.” Turning to the activities of other countries, there are concerns about BWC compliance in China and Iran. North Korea and Russia are suspected of maintaining offensive biological weapons programs, which violates Article I of the BWC.

State’s 2021 report on CWC compliance alleges that Iran and Myanmar are in violation of the CWC for failing to declare former chemical weapons facilities. GMU’s Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and master’s student Madeline Roty encourage the US to help Myanmar come clean about its chemical weapons program in an article released in March 2020. The motivation and objective of the clandestine weapons program remains unclear, but speculation includes defense or offense measures against domestic insurgencies or neighboring countries. Despite its continued denial of the program, Myanmar seems to be moving toward transparency with its willingness to address concerns about its adherence (or lack thereof) to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The State Department also raises concerns about Chinese research with pharmaceutical-based agents (PBAs) and toxins with dual-use applications. Similarly, there are worries about Iran’s work with PBAs. In August 2020, Russia violated the CWC by deploying a Novichok nerve agent in an attempted assassination of Alexi Navalny. The US also accuses Syria of being in non-compliance with the CWC due to its repeated use of chemical weapons and its failure to fully declare its CW program and destroy chemical agents and munitions. Read the reports here and here.  

Watchdog Group Votes to Punish Syria for Chemical Weapons Use

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the entity tasked with enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), voted to remove the membership rights of Syria, which can no longer cast votes or hold committee positions. This determination is a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. The measure required a two-thirds majority: 87 countries approved the measure, 14 opposed, and 34 abstained. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, weighed in on the measure: “The penalties imposed today are a slap on the wrist compared to the magnitude of Syria’s egregious behavior, [but] they send a strong signal that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity.”

Dr. Brian Mazanec Receives the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Honor Outstanding Federal Employees

Dr. Brian Mazanec, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program, is among the recipients of the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Honor Outstanding Federal Employees. The award recognizes a dozen exceptional public servants for “performing outstanding service in the fields of applied science and engineering, basic science, leadership and management, legal achievement, and social science.” Dr. Mazanec serves as the director responsible for the strategic warfare and intelligence portfolio of the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). He has “demonstrated outstanding leadership, innovation, and excellence in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the national security enterprise, particularly the intelligence community, better preparing Congress and agencies to address critical emerging threats and challenges.” Mazanec has led work in intelligence and counterintelligence, counterterrorism, building foreign partner capacity, cybersecurity, and foreign military financing and sales. Congratulations, Dr. Mazanec!

Global Health Security: USAID and CDC Funding, Activities, and Assessments of Countries’ Capacities to Address Infectious Disease Threats before COVID-19 Onset

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its findings of a study about the Global Health Security funds used US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). USAID and the CDC invest in global health security to help other nations build their capacities to deal with infectious diseases. The GAO study found that USAID and the CDC had dispersed roughly $1 billion as of 31 March 2020 for global health security activities. This money went to at least 34 countries, including 25 recognized as partner countries with the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). This support helped build capacity in 17 GHSA partner countries, which helps them address infectious disease threats. Also, by the end of fiscal year 2019, most of those 17 nations possessed some capacity in each of the 11 technical areas, but continued to face various challenges. Read the report here.

‘Building Back Better’ Requires a New Approach to US Science and Technology

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, discusses the need for a new approach to US science and technology (S&T). Over the last several decades, there have been organizational and process changes to the US science and technology enterprise. Such changes include the establishment of the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as new US leadership in scientific research and development. Gerstein asserts that a makeover – based on a coherent plan – of the US S&T enterprise is needed to improve economic prosperity and national security.

Billions Spent on Coronavirus Fight, But What Happens Next?

Thus far, Congress has allocated billions of dollars to help state and local public health departments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic recedes, these funds may also dry up, leaving many public health departments with meager budgets yet again. Rolling back funding will leave communities – and the nation – unprepared for another health crisis, a lesson we should have learned well from the lingering pandemic. Dr. Mysheika Roberts, a health commissioner in Ohio, points out that more funding is needed consistently, not as a surge once an emergency has already started. According to Trust for America’s Health, money for public health emergency preparedness was cut nearly in half between the 2003 and 2021 fiscal years, accounting for inflation. Democratic US Senator Patty Murray of Washington leads several lawmakers aiming to “end the boom-bust cycle with legislation that would eventually provide $4.5 billion annually in core public health funding.”

How Safe Are You from COVID When You Fly?

A new interactive created by The New York Times details how air circulates in an aircraft. Dr. Nereyda Sevilla, graduate of the GMU Biodefense PhD Program, focused her dissertation on the transmission and risks of airplane-borne infectious diseases. Sevilla’s research analyzed the impact of air travel on the spread of pneumonic plague, a disease with a high mortality rate. Her results indicate that transmission via air travel depends on the type of disease, specifically, its duration of illness. Nereyda makes the following recommendations: (1) expand the definition of close contact on aircraft, (2) require health contact information with all plane tickets purchases, (3) expand self-sanitizing measures, (4) improve travel alerts and advisory notices during the ticket sales process, (5) perform temperature checks on a limited and random basis, and (6) improve crisis communication. Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, points out that passengers may also be exposed to the virus in airport terminals, where crowding makes social distancing quite difficult.

Pandora Report: 4.16.2021

The FDA and CDC recommend a pause on the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine due to a rare but severe blood clot. The OPCW’s IIT releases its second report on the chlorine attack on Saraqib in Syria. Russia aims to prevent the OPCW from holding perpetrators accountable for using chemical weapons.

FDA & CDC Urge Pause on Use of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a joint statement recommending a pause on the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine developed and produced by Johnson & Johnson. Thus far, over 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, an adenovirus vector vaccine, have been given. Among those doses, six cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot – a cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) – are under investigation, prompting the pause. These six cases have arisen only in women between the ages of 18 and 48 years, and symptoms presented 6-13 days after vaccination. Treatment of a CVST differs from treatment of other types of blood clots, which generally call for heparin, an anticoagulant; heparin may be dangerous in treating a CVST. The CDC convened a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on Wednesday to further assess these cases and their possible significance. The FDA is also investigating these rare but severe cases.

The Race for Antiviral Drugs to Beat COVID — and the Next Pandemic

In 2003, several infectious diseases emerged – two lethal influenza strains made the jump from birds to humans in Hong Kong as well as the Netherlands, and a new coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) appeared. These glaring warning flags were heeded by Robert Webster, a leading authority on avian influenza, who urged scientists and policymakers to prepare for the next outbreak by developing and stockpiling medications that target an extensive range of viral pathogens. Webster’s recommendation was unheeded. Webster stated: “The scientific community really should have developed universal antivirals against SARS. Then we would have had something in the stockpile for the emergence of COVID.” Remdesivir, a broad-spectrum antiviral, is the creation of the Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center (AD3C), a project launched seven years ago and backed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Unfortunately, though remdesivir was ready to go when SARS-CoV-2 hit, study findings were inconclusive on its benefits to COVID-19 patients. Additionally, this antiviral is “expensive, difficult to manufacture and must be given intravenously in a hospital — all undesirable attributes in the middle of a pandemic.” Another antiviral studied prior to the pandemic, molnupiravir, is easier to synthesize and is showing promise in shortening the duration of infectiousness among symptomatic COVID-19 cases. The nature of viruses – their compact genomes and lack of cellular anatomy – means they offer few “druggable targets.” According to John Young, Head of Infectious Diseases at Roche Pharma Early Research & Development, the COVID-19 pandemic is a “wake-up call” that industry needs to prepare for the next biological event. To better prepare, new projects have popped up that are dedicated to developing broad-spectrum antivirals for coronaviruses or influenza viruses.

Chemical Weapons in Syria

On 4 February 2018, the town of Saraqib in Syria was attacked with chlorine gas, a toxic chemical weapon banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released its second report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in early February 2018. The report “reiterates its mandate, the legal and practical challenges of its work, and the findings of the investigation focusing on the incident in Saraqib, Syrian Arab Republic, on 4 February 2018.” Additionally, the IIT’s investigation concluded that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that, at approximately 21:22 on 4 February 2018, a military helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Force under the control of the Tiger Forces hit eastern Saraqib by dropping at least one cylinder.”

The Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) has served as Assad’s “primary means of inflicting violence and suffering on civilians in opposition-held communities.” The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) has identified at least 336 chemical attacks using Sarin and chlorine that have been carried out by Syrian government forces. At least 34,000 Syrians have died from the air attacks dropping barrel bombs and other weapons. Many more have been injured and forced from their homes. Research by GPPI “outlines the Syrian air force’s transformation as a military organization, and offers a thorough account of its current state and operational patterns.”

Last month, the Biodefense Graduate Program hosted an event about the future of chemical weapons arms control. The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. The panelists discussed the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control. Find the recording and presenters’ slides here.

OPCW Member States Must Counter Russian Obstruction

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The OPCW’s Conference of States Parties will resume on 20 April and there is a draft decision pending vote on declaring Syria non-compliant with the CWC. A memorandum published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is the “first publicly available analysis of the voting patterns of the OPCW’s 193 member states.” There are two primary groups of non-cooperative states: one comprised of US adversaries that actively side with Russia and the other comprised of member states that tend to abstain. The group that abstains adds to the difficulty of reaching the threshold of two-thirds of the vote to pass decisions in the Executive Council, a key decision-making body. This analysis assigns 27 member states to the “adverse-voter category” and 38 to the “frequent-abstainer category.” The US maintains positive ties to many of the countries that often abstain. The memo recommends that the US “leverage these relationships to secure votes that uphold the integrity of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the OPCW.” Read the analysis here.

New RFP Includes CBW Topics

The Department of State has released a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) “seeking ambitious, innovative research proposals to address priority science and technology requirements for arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament-related monitoring and verification.” This request for proposal (RFP) is from the Key Verification Assets Fund, or V Fund, under State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC). Several of the topics center around chemical and biological weapons: identifying additional measures and reinforcing existing measures to deter chemical weapons use; chemical weapons (CW) forensic and investigative science; promoting measures/existing provisions to increase compliance with and adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention; and promoting and coordinating international capacity-building measures in support of the UN Secretary General’s Mechanism for investigations of alleged use of biological weapons.

Coronavirus Origins: How Unseen Wuhan Research Notes Could Hold the Answers – And Why Lab-Leak Rumours Refuse to Die

After a string of illnesses from an unknown coronavirus began in Wuhan, Dr. Shi Zhengli, Director of the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), began to worry that these cases were caused by an escaped virus. Shi’s team performed a genetic analysis of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and found that it did not match any of the stored samples in the WIV laboratory. Shi, nicknamed the “Bat Woman,” is considered the global authority on coronaviruses for her revolutionary research on the origins of the 2002 SARS outbreak, which likely emerged in horseshoe bats. Despite her impressive credentials and expertise, the genetic analysis has not assuaged many worries that the virus escaped WIV. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, cites the Chinese government’s requirement that all COVID-19 related research be approved before publication, which effectively serves as a “gag order” on Chinese scientists. According to Koblentz, “[government censorship] makes it much more difficult to discern how much of the information being provided is legitimate and genuine, and how much of it is part of a broader government-run effort to deflect blame from China and onto other parties for starting the outbreak.” Turning to the investigation into the origins of COVID-19, Koblentz states that the “search should include an independent audit of all labs in Wuhan working on bat coronaviruses and researching SARS.”

Pandora Report: 4.9.2021

Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD candidate, and Andrew Weber propose a new funding vision for US biodefense. A new interactive, web-based tool will help prevent and control disease outbreaks. An open letter calls for further and more comprehensive inquiries into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

10 + 10 Over 10: A Funding Vision for the US Fight Against Biological Threats

Andrew Weber, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, and Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD candidate, propose a new funding vision for the US to fight biological threats. The authors point out that the US must establish “a vision of significant, sustained and stable government funding to drive focused and rapid private sector-developed solutions.” Their 10+10 Over 10 plan proposes that the US dedicate $10 billion per year to the Department of Defense (DOD) and $10 billion per year to Health and Human Services (HHS), all for biodefense-related programs and initiatives. These funding levels should be maintained for 10 years. The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the threat of naturally-emerging pathogens with pandemic potential, and spurred a reminder of the weaponizable potential of pathogens. The Biden administration has announced its commitment to tackling natural, accidental, and deliberate biological dangers as a top priority for national security, but this commitment requires adequate resources. The history of biodefense funding tends to include cuts made at critical times in order to fund other defense priorities. To better protect the nation from biological threats, the US must dedicate secure funding towards biodefense activities.

SpillOver

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) debuts a new framework and interactive web tool, SpillOver, which “estimates a risk score for wildlife-origin viruses, creating a comparative risk assessment of viruses with uncharacterized zoonotic spillover potential alongside those already known to be zoonotic.” SpillOver was created because the threat of zoonotic viral threats continues to rise, and “strategies are needed to identify and characterize animal viruses that pose the greatest risk of spillover and spread in humans and inform public health interventions.” The tool was designed using data from 509,721 tested samples of 74,635 animals, then the spillover potential of 887 wildlife viruses were ranked. The SpillOver platform, which is publicly accessible, “can be used by policy makers and health scientists to inform research and public health interventions for prevention and rapid control of disease outbreaks.” It is described as a “living, interactive database” that will be improve over time to better the “quality and public availability of information on viral threats to human health.” Access the SpillOver platform here.

Michael Krug, a graduate of the Biodefense MS program, wrote an article in late 2019 that highlights the critical need for comprehensive and quick biosurveillance tools – like SpillOver – to aid in pandemic preparedness. In November 2019, the decision was made to end USAID’s PREDICT project. PREDICT was established in 2009 to help develop wide-ranging detection capabilities; it was a component of the early-warning system. the project identified 1,200 viruses – including 160 novel coronaviruses – with the potential to induce a pandemic. Beyond identification, the project trained and supported staff across 60 foreign laboratories, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Special Issue of World Medical & Health Policy on Climate Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has held the limelight for the last year, but many other threats continue to strengthen. The latest issue of World Medical and Health Policy is dedicated to one of those powerful threats: climate change. The collection is a call to action for climate scientists, clinicians, activists, scholars of the medical and health humanities, and political scientists. The issue features a wide range of important and diverse research, commentaries, and book reviews. The articles cover climate crises and health inequities; improving the environmental sustainability of the operating room; and energy justice as a climate change and public health solution. Read the ungated issue here.

Calls for Further Inquiries into Coronavirus Origins

An open letter signed by several scientists and science communicators calls for a full investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic – how SARS-CoV-2 emerged and how it jumped into humans. This letter was prompted by the shortcomings of the China-World Health Organization (WHO) joint team’s report from their own investigation. The letter outlines several specific deficiencies in the team’s report: the study prioritized the discovery of a zoonotic origin rather than the full examination of all possible sources; critical records and biological samples that could provide essential insights into pandemic origins remain inaccessible; and different evidentiary standards were used to assess the four origin theories considered in the report. The scientists and science communicators calling for further inquiries provide three recommendations for next steps: (1) revise the existing Terms of Reference between the WHO and China; (2) pass a new World Health Assembly resolution regarding a comprehensive investigation; and (3) establish a parallel international investigation. Read the letter here.

KHN and Guardian US Win Batten Medal for “Lost on the Frontline”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) and the Guardian US were awarded the 2021 Batten Medal for Coverage of the Coronavirus Pandemic by the News Leaders Association (NLA). KHN and the Guardian conducted a year-long investigation – “Lost on the Frontline” – aimed at documenting the lives of the over 3,600 healthcare workers in the US who died of COVID-19 contracted on-the-job. “Lost on the Frontline” started with the death of Frank Gabrin, the first emergency room doctor to have perished from COVID-19, in April 2020. The project maintains a database of those lost on the medical frontlines. The Batten Medal is one of the NLA’s highest honors, and it recognizes “coverage of the pandemic that reflects the previously unthinkable challenges that newsrooms had to overcome in the face of this once-in-a-generation crisis.”

Research Indicates Environment is Unlikely to Affect Transmissibility of SARS-COV-2 Variants

According to new research from the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the “deactivating effects of heat and sunlight on SARS-CoV-2…are consistent across different variants of the virus.” This finding suggests that the “increased transmissibility of certain variants is not due to any difference in environmental survivability in aerosols.” The key takeaways from S&T’s research include: decay rates of infectious virus are strongly affected by simulated sunlight, and it seems that decay rates do not vary greatly among currently circulating variants. The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Fort Detrick has been studying the effects of environmental conditions on the stability of single isolates of SARS-CoV-2, including isolates from new strains of the novel coronavirus. Scientists have found that “while certain variants may spread faster or be more lethal, they survive similarly in the environment, and therefore differences in transmissibility are likely not due to differences in aerosol stability.”

Chesapeake Bay Biosafety Association (ChABSA)

The Chesapeake Area Biological Safety Association (ChABSA) is an affiliate of the American Biological Safety Association (ABSA), and it encompasses the unique knowledge base found in the Maryland-DC-Virginia region. ChABSA is dedicated to expanding biological safety awareness and reducing the potential for occupational illness and adverse environmental impact from infectious agents or biologically derived materials. ChABSA provides its members with numerous technical biosafety seminars throughout the year, which include local and national biosafety representatives. Student membership to ChABSA is $5 per year, which will also unlock discounts on upcoming seminars, workshops, and symposiums; inclusion on the job board distribution list; and scholarship opportunities for budding biosafety students. On 7-9 June, ChABSA will host a Virtual Scientific Symposium as an opportunity for biosafety and biodefense science students to convene. Register for the Symposium here.  

Pandora Report: 4.2.2021

March 26th marked the 46th anniversary of when the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) entered into force. England just launched the UK Health Security Agency to plan for, prevent, and respond to external health threats. On 7 April, the Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a virtual open house to showcase its graduate programs.

Event – Schar School Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House

The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting its last virtual open house of the spring semester! This online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs and graduate certificate programs, student services, and admissions requirements. The open house is scheduled or 7 April at 6:30 PM EST. Register here.

WHO Report on Pandemic’s Origins

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was written by 17 international experts selected by the WHO and approved by China. The standout conclusion of the report is that it is “extremely unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 leaked out of a Chinese laboratory that was already studying coronaviruses, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).” The report describes four likely scenarios: (1) transmission from an animal reservoir, such as a bat, to another host and then humans; (2) direct spillover into humans from an animal reservoir; (3) spillover from the frozen meat of an infected animal; and (4) a laboratory incident. These four scenarios range from “very likely” to “extremely unlikely,” respectively. Fourteen countries, including the US, have cast their doubts about the report and its veracity based on the lack of data and samples. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, acknowledged that the “experts found it difficult to get raw data and that the report did not gather sufficient evidence from which to garner concrete conclusions.” The report also points out the zoonotic source of SARS-CoV-2 remains unknown and that it is “not possible to determine precisely how humans in China were initially infected with SARS-CoV-2.”

Mason has 8 Graduate Programs Listed Among Top 25 Nationally

Eight graduate programs at George Mason University were listed in the top 25 nationally by the US News & World Report. At the Schar School of Policy and Government, the homeland security and international policy programs were among the top 10 nationally for public universities. Five of the Schar School’s specialties – homeland security, international policy, local government management, public management, and nonprofit management – ranked as the top program in the state and two – homeland security and international policy – ranked in the top five in the country among public institutions. GMU is the largest public research university in Virginia, spanning three campuses in Fairfax, Arlington, and Manassas.

New UK Health Security Agency

On 1 April, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) was established with Dr. Jenny Harries at the helm as the Chief Executive. This new agency will plan for, prevent, and respond to external health threats, including infectious diseases. The UKHSA will be England’s “leader for health security, providing intellectual, scientific and operational leadership at national and local level, as well as on the global stage.” Dr. Harries has served on the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and she played critical roles in England’s responses to COVID-19, Ebola, Zika, monkeypox, MERS, and the Novichok attacks.

BWC Newsletter from UNODA

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) released its latest issue of the BWC newsletter. Last week, on 26 March, marked the 46th anniversary of when the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) entered into force. There is a revised schedule for the 2021 BWC meetings: The Meetings of Experts are planned to take place from 30 August to 8 September 2021 and the Meeting of States Parties is planned to take place from 22 to 25 November 2021. All meetings will take place in Geneva, Switzerland. Upcoming BWC activities include the second series of informal webinars for informal discussions and exchanges of views to precede the Meeting of Experts, and the launch of Fiji’s National Preparedness Programme with online training for the Preparation and Submission of Confidence Building Measures under the BWC. Read the latest newsletter here.

CBRN Defence Capabilities Within the Biological Defence Domain Based on COVID-19 Lessons Learned

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how unprepared the world and NATO were to handle a public health emergency of this magnitude, despite improvements in civil and military biodefense as well as emergency management informed by previous pandemics. NATO’s security and resilience are contingent upon the organization and its member states being prepared for future epidemics and pandemics. The Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence (JCBRND Defence COE) introduced a comprehensive report to address chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) defense capabilities within the biodefense space based on observations, lessons identified, and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. The JCBRN Defence COE intends to provide CBRN expertise and experience to the benefit of the Alliance in prevention, protection, and recovery. In addition, “the JCBRN Defence COE intends to continue to provide operations support to NATO’s current and future crisis efforts; especially with its CBRN reachback, modelling and simulation, and strategic-level and operational-level planning.” See a presentation of the report here.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons: A Decade of Atrocities and the Path to a Global Zero Use Policy

More than ten years ago, the people of Syria peacefully protested the government of Bashar al-Assad, which responded with gunfire, arbitrary detentions, and torture. The atrocities continue with the regime’s most horrendous tactic, deploying chemical weapons against Syrian civilians over 300 times. To discuss the history of Syria’s chemical weapons program and the steps the US and the world can take to address the threat of chemical weapons in Syria, Joby Warrick, Washington Post national security reporter and author of the recently published book, Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World, joined FDD experts Anthony Ruggiero, Andrea Stricker, and David Adesnik. The event, hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and its International Organizations Program, provided granular detail on steps the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has taken to hold the Syrian government to account, the obstructionist role the Russian Federation has played, and what the United States and international partners can do to achieve the goal of a global zero chemical weapons use policy in the future. Listen to the event or read the transcript here.

Schar School Students Advance to Final Rounds of Pandemic Controlling Simulation Competition

The NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition is a day-long event that allows graduate students in public policy and related fields to test their skills on real-world data in simulations developed by the Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. This year, five graduate students from the Schar School participated with more than 400 students representing 120 universities from across 30 countries. Three of the five Schar graduate students advanced to the final round! This simulation used data from past pandemics and the current COVID-19 pandemic to paint a situation akin to what the world is experiencing now. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, described the importance of these simulations: “These crisis simulations help students think through the challenges of pandemic response and understand what we need to do today to be better prepared for tomorrow. The simulation also reinforces a key lesson from COVID-19: That pandemics pose threats not just to public health, but to the economy, political stability, and national security.”

Podcast — Episode 22: The Coronavirus as Rubik’s Cube, Part 2

The latest episode of GMU’s Access to Excellence podcast features Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, and Dr. Gregory Washington, President of the university. Their discussion covers public health, public policy, and the false dichotomy between public health and the economy. Listen here.

Pandora Report: 3.26.2021

New research finds fascinating new information on the Black Death. Chris Quillen, a Biodefense PhD student, shares his review of Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia by Dan Kaszeta. Dr. Saskia Popescu shares her insight on vaccine passports and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 without symptoms.

Book Review – Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia

Nerve agents are very much in the news these days. Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria repeatedly used Sarin against its own people during that country’s civil war. The Putin regime employed Novichoks in both Russia and the United Kingdom against citizens it deemed insufficiently loyal to Moscow. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un utilized VX in the assassination of his brother at an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Across the globe, the use of nerve agents is challenging the international nonproliferation regime in numerous ways. Against this backdrop, Dan Kaszeta’s Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia provides welcome background and context on these specific types of chemical weapons. A former Chemical Officer in the US Army with decades of chemical weapons experience including multiple stints at the White House, Kaszeta offers much-needed technical expertise on the invention, production, and investigation into nerve agents. Chris Quillen, a Biodefense PhD student, provides an informative review of the book. Read Quillen’s review here.

Did the Black Death Rampage Across the World a Century Earlier Than Previously Thought?

Monica Green, a historian, published a landmark article, “The Four Black Deaths,” in the American Historical Review that provided an update on the story of the Black Death, which is frequently considered the largest pandemic in human history. Between 1346 and 1353 CE, the plague hit the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa, and western Europe. Green traced the bacterial descendants of four distinct genetic lineages of the plague’s causative agent, Yersinia pestis, finding “concrete evidence that the plague was already spreading from China to central Asia in the 1200s.” This discovery shifts the origins of the Black Death by over a century, so the disease was slowly invading populations over several decades. Like SARS-CoV-2, the plague is a zoonotic disease, a threat that we need to take seriously. When asked what she thinks this means for the present-day pandemic, Green said, “The story I have reconstructed about the Black Death is 100 percent an emerging infectious disease story…an ‘emerging’ disease lasted for 500-600 years!!!”

ICYMI: Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads

This week, the Biodefense Graduate Program hosted a live webinar about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists discussed the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event was moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program.

Find the recording and presenters’ slides here.

Homeland Security for Radiological and Nuclear Threats

Mary Sproull, a biologist in the Radiation Oncology Branch of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a Biodefense PhD candidate, discusses the current state of homeland security for radiological and nuclear threats as well as the areas in need of improvement. Sproull lists the many available guidelines for emergency response, the organizations that provide guidance on emergency management of radiation events, and other resources for radiation injury. Given that exposure comes in a variety of forms – external and internal exposure to a radioactive isotope or external exposure to ionizing radiation energy – she asserts that the “greatest operational challenge of a radiological or nuclear event is diagnosing radiation injury.” Radiation is invisible to the naked eye, so an event results in a sizeable population of “worried well,” defined as individuals who do not have other physical injuries but are concerned about whether they have received a radiation exposure, may overwhelm available medical resources. In response to this operational challenge, there has been support for the development of new radiation biodosimetry diagnostics, which “estimate the dose of radiation a person has received” and are “used both for population screening to assure the worried well and to support existing triage algorithms.” Several of these diagnostics are expected to be added to the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). Additionally, several radiation-specific medical countermeasures have been granted Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensure for radiation injury treatment and have already been added to the SNS. Despite these achievements in preparedness for large scale emergencies involving radiation exposure, there still exist important areas in need of improvement: “capacity to manage burn victims and the overall willingness of first responders and other medical personnel to work with patients who have been either exposed and/or contaminated with radiation or radioactive materials.”

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2021

The MIT Technology Review released its list of 10 breakthrough technologies for 2021, an annual catalog published for the last two decades. The collection names a couple technologies related to biology and health. Unsurprisingly, mRNA vaccines are the first on the list. This is the technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines that received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Digital contact tracing through smartphone apps used Bluetooth or GPS to determine which individuals came into close proximity of each other. So, if an individual tested positive for COVID-19, others could be alerted of a possible exposure. The other breakthrough technologies include: GPT-3, a natural language computer model; TikTok recommendation algorithms that power the “For You” feed; lithium-metal batteries for electric vehicles; data trusts, “a legal entity that collects and manages people’s personal data on their behalf”; green hydrogen for clean energy; hyper-accurate positioning; remote everything; and multi-skilled AI.

SARS-CoV-2 Transmission Without Symptoms

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has a potentially long incubation period and spreads opportunistically among those who are unaware they are infected. Asymptomatic COVID-19 cases are those that do not develop symptoms for the duration of infection, whereas presymptomatic cases develop symptoms later in the course of infection, but both are crucial drivers of transmission. Transmission without symptoms poses specific challenges for determining the infectious timeline and potential exposures. Early in the pandemic, most transmission was from undocumented cases, suggesting that spread was driven by people who were either asymptomatic or experiencing such mild disease that it was not recognized as COVID-19. Contagious people without observable signs of illness make infection prevention efforts vulnerable to compliance with masking, distancing, hand hygiene, symptom screening, and ultimately, people staying home when possible. The lack of widespread testing in asymptomatic individuals further complicates COVID-19 mitigation and control efforts. Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University, and Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, share their insights on the SARS-CoV-2 transmission without symptoms in a new perspective piece in Science.

Vaccine Passports Won’t Stop the Spread of COVID

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Alexandra Phelan, a global health lawyer at Georgetown University, emphasize that “until coronavirus vaccines are distributed equitably and nations agree to immunization standards, vaccination passes will not end the spread of COVID-19.” Thus far, globally, almost 450 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, but many countries lack an adequate supply of vaccines to inoculate their populations. Other nations are rolling out vaccine certificate systems that provide proof of inoculation so that immunized people can enjoy relaxed restrictions. For international travel, entities like the World Economic Forum and IBM are developing vaccine passport systems, but there are some key challenges. For example, international law does allow countries to require proof of vaccination against diseases, but vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 are new and none are yet authorized for use throughout the world. Further, a nation may decide to only accept proof provided within its own borders. From an efficacy standpoint, not every vaccine may be effective against new variants of SARS-CoV-2. Though we are all keen for the pandemic to end and for normalcy to be restored, “any moves to institute vaccine passports must be coordinated internationally and should be coupled with global and equitable access to vaccines.”

Event – Drones and the Future of Chemical, Biological, and Radiological (CBRN) Threats

This panel will explore the risks posed by the convergence of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons and drones. Drones allow terrorists to collect intelligence prior to an attack, bypass ground-based physical barriers, and carry out highly effective chemical and biological weapons attacks. For state actors, the growth and proliferation of drone swarms offer new, sophisticated ways to carry out CBRN attacks, defeat traditional CBRN weapons, and respond to a successful attack. At the same time, the United States Department of Defense is working hard to combat these threats and recently issued a new strategy around countering small drones. The underlying question spanning the panel is: how well prepared is the United States and the global community to tackle the challenges drones pose for CBRN warfare? And what more can be done? This webinar will be held 26 March at Noon EST. Register here.

Book Review – Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia

By Chris Quillen, Biodefense PhD student

Nerve agents are very much in the news these days. Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria repeatedly used Sarin against its own people during that country’s civil war. The Putin regime employed Novichoks in both Russia and the United Kingdom against citizens it deemed insufficiently loyal to Moscow. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un utilized VX in the assassination of his brother at an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Across the globe, the use of nerve agents is challenging the international nonproliferation regime in numerous ways.     

Against this backdrop, Dan Kaszeta’s Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia provides welcome background and context on these specific types of chemical weapons. A former Chemical Officer in the US Army with decades of chemical weapons experience including multiple stints at the White House, Kaszeta offers much-needed technical expertise on the invention, production, and investigation into nerve agents. The focus specifically on nerve agents is a welcome change from many other histories that tend to lump all chemical (and sometimes biological) weapons into one amorphous “poison gas” threat with little differentiation between them. While older chemical weapons such as sulfur mustard or phosgene are sometimes mentioned in comparison with nerve agents, the author never loses his focus on his primary subject. This focus also enables Kaszeta to bypass the introduction and extensive use of chemical weapons in World War I that tends to dominate many other similar histories. Instead, Toxic begins with the Nazi discovery of Tabun, Sarin, and Soman in the context of World War II and follows the history of the dissemination of this technology to the present day.

The in-depth discussion of Nazi nerve agents is one of the real strengths of this book.  Kaszeta conducted extensive archival research and revealed numerous interesting new details including insights into why nerve agents were not employed during the war, either on the battlefield or in the gas chambers. Similarly, his discussion of nerve agent development by the US, UK, and USSR during the Cold War is impressive even if it tends to focus heavily on weapon systems (likely reflecting Kaszeta’s military background). The sections on the Syrian Civil War and the Skripal poisoning in the UK are also notable for their impressive detail and valuable discussions into those investigations.

Kaszeta’s best analysis appears in recent events that he investigated as part of his work with the open-source research organization Bellingcat. He directly confronts the disinformation campaigns trying to deny Syria’s use of Sarin. The author correctly points out that much of the effort is not designed to disprove Syria’s actions, but simply muddy the waters enough to make investigators throw up their hands in defeat. Kaszeta similarly attacks Russian disinformation about the Skripal poisoning and uses a combination of technical knowledge and common-sense logic to demonstrate the weakness of Moscow’s denials. One would not expect to find much humor in a history of nerve agents, but Kaszeta’s devilish sense of humor makes several appearances, especially when disproving the lies of the Russian and Syrian governments about their nerve agent use.

That said, the book is inconsistent overall. The sections on the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin project and the VX assassination of Kim Jong Nam, in particular, lack the same level of attention as most of the others. The basics are all there, but the minimal amount of detail and the lack of insights are sometimes striking compared to other chapters. Relatedly, Kaszeta sometimes provides copious details on nerve agent production facilities and weapons systems and then fails to provide sufficient analysis of what it all means. This is nowhere more evident than in his too brief final chapter where he brings the entire history together. He, undoubtedly, has more insight to give and the book would likely be much improved if he shared more of it.

Kaszeta remains focused on nerve agents throughout his book, but he sometimes diverges from the broader historical narrative in distracting ways. The chapter on the psychological effects of nerve agents is a key example of this tendency. Kaszeta raises interesting questions about possible linkages between nerve agents and mental illness, but the topic seems out of place and his argument is underdeveloped. Perhaps lacking the appropriate medical knowledge to pursue on his own, the author simply wanted to raise the issue for others to investigate, but this story seemed a speculative diversion away from the main story.    

While most of Kaszeta’s conclusions are well-reasoned, one in particular stood out as questionable. He argues correctly that nerve agents were brought into being through the ingenuity and hard work of people working for the Nazi regime and every other related discovery builds upon that breakthrough. He then makes somewhat of a leap that without this important contribution, nerve agents never would have been invented at all. This conclusion seems debatable at best. Both sides in the Cold War would have continued their chemical weapons research even without discovering the Nazi nerve agents. The science of chemistry also would have continued to advance even without the military impetus. Investigations into the organophosphate compounds that form the basis of nerve agents would have continued regardless. After all, many nerve agent discoveries were originally based on research of pesticides. While the Nazi contribution cannot be denied, the idea that nerve agents would have remained undiscovered without it seems highly unlikely.      

The greatest contribution of Kaszeta’s Toxic is as a historical and technical reference on nerve agents, an important issue. The appendices, in particular, offer solid scientific descriptions of nerve agent issues and background information on several countries rarely discussed in the literature, such as the former nerve agent programs in France and Yugoslavia. Written in accessible language, the book uses Kaszeta’s scientific knowledge to shed light on important questions. For example, he argues that while Soman is more effective than either Tabun or Sarin, few countries have pursued Soman production because it involves the expensive precursor pinacolyl alcohol. He also uses this knowledge to debunk conspiracy theories. Specifically, some have argued that Sarin was only detected in Syria after a warehouse with the binary precursors of methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF) and isopropyl alcohol was bombed. As Kaszeta rightly argues, the bombing of such a building would create a massive fireball from the two flammable chemicals, which would not magically mix together to create a nerve agent. The author’s ability to apply his knowledge and experience to contemporary issues is invaluable. For anyone interested in the historical impact of chemistry or the role of chemical weapons in world affairs, this book is a worthy addition to their reading list.

Pandora Report: 3.19.2021

The GP-write consortium is building a computer-aided design (CAD) program that can design a new organism. The Schar School of Government and Policy is hosting three upcoming events, one on drones and CBRN threats, one on the Chemical Weapons Convention, and another on lessons for the next pandemic. Sally Huang, a Biodefense PhD student, provides an assessment of China’s new biosafety law.

Commentary – Assessing China’s New Biosafety Law

Sally Huang, a Biodefense PhD student, assesses China’s new biosafety law, the first of its kind, unifying numerous preexisting biosafety policies under a single framework. The COVID-19 pandemic, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, has turned the world upside down. While the origins of the pandemic, either a natural spillover event from animals to humans or the result of an escaped virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, remain contested, there is no denying that the virus has served as a focusing event for political leaders. As a rare, sudden event that has inflicted large-scale harm upon the public, the pandemic has also functioned as a powerful catalyst for policymaking.  While China had been drafting new biosafety legislation since 2019, the pandemic accelerated its finalization after President Xi Jinping announced his intent to enhance biosafety measures in February 2020. The law’s approval also comes as China recently experienced one of its worst COVID flare-ups in 2021, challenging the country’s success in overcoming the virus. Read Huang’s commentary here.

Event – Policy Exchange: Pandemic Preparedness and Response – Are We Learning the Right Lessons?

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed how vulnerable the world was to the spread of a novel contagious pathogen. The United States found itself unprepared and unable to respond effectively to the pandemic. Join five Schar School faculty members – Professors Robert V. House, Lauren Quattrochi, Saskia Popescu, and Katalin Kiss – who are distinguished experts in global health security and pandemic response, for an interactive discussion about whether we are learning the right lessons and how to prepare for the next pandemic. This virtual discussion will be held on 24 March at 6 PM EST. Register here.

Ready or Not 2021: Protecting the Public’s Health Against Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism

The Ready or Not report series provides an annual assessment of states’ level of readiness to respond to public health emergencies. It recommends policy actions to ensure that everyone’s health is protected during such events. This 2021 edition tiers states into three performance categories – high, middle and low – and includes action steps states should take to improve their readiness while battling COVID-19 and for the next health emergency. The primary findings of the report include: a majority of states have made preparations to expand healthcare and public health capabilities in an emergency, often through collaboration; every state and DC had public health laboratories that had plans for a large influx of testing needs; and seasonal flu vaccination rates, while still too low, have risen significantly. The recommendations include: ensure effective public health leadership, coordination, and workforce; provide stable, sufficient funding for domestic and global public health security; and strengthen the healthcare system’s ability to respond and recover during and from health emergencies. Read the report here.

Could the Bioweapons Treaty be Another Tool for Addressing Pandemics?

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND corporation, raises the issue of how the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) could be strengthened to improve preparedness and response against a deliberate biological incident. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been central in the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has faced substantial criticism in its handling of pandemic in the very early days and the ongoing investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Though the WHO has the spotlight, “there is a separate international agreement that is similar in some ways to the regulations that guide the health body—a treaty that has the potential to play a critical role in preventing or addressing deliberate biological attacks—which themselves could spark a pandemic: The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).” This treaty possesses common interests with the WHO’s International Health Regulations (IHR), as they both require that all countries have the ability to “detect, assess, report, and respond to public health events.” According to Gerstein, “both depend on governments having the ability to conduct disease surveillance, provide personal protective equipment and medical countermeasures, and ensure biosafety and biosecurity in labs. And these capabilities and resources are important for responding to or mitigating either a naturally occurring event or a deliberate attack.” Underperformance in messaging, policy and guidance, and vaccine distribution compromised pandemic response, but the members of the BWC could work toward addressing these issues. Read Gerstein’s article here.

With This CAD for Genomes, You Can Design New Organisms

The GP-write consortium aims to build a computer-aided design (CAD) program that can “design a new organism as easily as you can design a new integrated circuit.” The inspiration for the consortium stems from the Human Genome Project of the 1990s and early 2000s, which coded the entire DNA sequence of a human and “catalyzed the development of DNA sequencing technologies.” It was revolutionary and led to the creation of new fields of medicine; the GP-write team imagines that the ability to “write” genomes would be similarly groundbreaking for medicine, energy, and materials. For example, if a scientist needs to add a new metabolic pathway to formulate a specific protein, the program will “make all the necessary changes in all the necessary places in the genome.” With such technology, biosafety and bioethics are a major concern. The program will meet the high biosafety standards of the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, checking any designed sequences against a database of dangerous sequences and checking that the cell or organism will not proliferate unchecked or cause harm to the environment.

Event – Drones and the Future of Chemical, Biological, and Radiological (CBRN) Threats

This panel will explore the risks posed by the convergence of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons and drones. Drones allow terrorists to collect intelligence prior to an attack, bypass ground-based physical barriers, and carry out highly effective chemical and biological weapons attacks. For state actors, the growth and proliferation of drone swarms offer new, sophisticated ways to carry out CBRN attacks, defeat traditional CBRN weapons, and respond to a successful attack. At the same time, the United States Department of Defense is working hard to combat these threats and recently issued a new strategy around countering small drones. The underlying question spanning the panel is: how well prepared is the United States and the global community to tackle the challenges drones pose for CBRN warfare? And what more can be done? This webinar will be held 26 March at Noon EST. Register here.

Biden’s ‘No-Fail Mission’: Preventing the Next Pandemic

Dr. Beth Cameron, head of the National Security Council Directorate on Global Health Security and Biodefense, said, “We have a no-fail mission of monitoring and standing up a response to emerging biological threats.” On President Biden’s first days in office, he reestablished the National Security Council office on pandemic preparedness that Trump dismantled and signed an executive order to establish a national center for epidemic forecasting and outbreak analytics. These two offices “mark the beginning of an overhaul to the country’s biodefense infrastructure — an effort that experts say is long overdue.” The pandemic revealed that epidemic forecasting — the ability to quickly identify a novel virus, chart its trajectory, and possibly stop it — is critical to national security, and is key to a swift and effective response in the early days of an outbreak. Now, as COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out to finally end the pandemic, Cameron states that Biden’s goal will be to “cement the emergency offices such as hers as enduring institutions.” Already, Biden has rejoined the World Health Organization (WHO) and funneled billions of federal dollars to vaccine alliance COVAX.

CDC Identifies Public Health Guidance from the Trump Administration That Downplayed Pandemic Severity

A comprehensive review ordered by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was aimed at ensuring that all of CDC’s existing guidance related to COVID-19 is evidence-based and politics-free. Several issues were identified with the guidance posted under the Trump administration, including: (1) guidance was released that was not primarily authored by CDC staff; (2) less directive language was used in guidance; and (3) there was inconsistent publication of supporting evidence in a scientific brief in conjunction with every major new guidance. By early 2021, three documents were replaced or removed prior to or during the review: (1) “The Importance of Reopening of America’s Schools this Fall” was removed; (2) “Overview of Testing for SARS-COV-2” was replaced; and (3) “Opening up America Again” was removed. Walensky announced that she is “focused on moving CDC forward with science, transparency and clarity leading the way. It is imperative for the American people to trust CDC. If they don’t, preventable illness and injury can occur — and, tragically, lives can and will be lost. This agency and its critical health information cannot be vulnerable to undue influence, and this report helps outline our path to rebuilding confidence and ensuring the information that CDC shares with the American people is based on sound science that will keep us, our loved ones, and our communities healthy and safe.”

How One Firm Put an ‘Extraordinary Burden’ on the US’s Troubled Stockpile

The shortage of lifesaving medical equipment and supplies in 2020 was a clear example of the US government’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While health workers were resorting to wearing trash bags for protection, Emergent BioSolutions, a multinational biopharmaceutical company, profited from selling anthrax vaccines to the nation’s emergency reserve of vaccines and medicines. Last year, the government paid $626 million to Emergent BioSolutions to produce a vaccine for fighting anthrax while the COVID-19 pandemic metastasized without the proper resources to mitigate its spread. This left the government with fewer funds to put toward the medical and non-medical countermeasure supplies needed in a pandemic. In fact, an investigation by The New York Times found that “government purchases for the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), the country’s emergency medical reserve where such equipment is kept, have largely been driven by the demands and financial interests of a handful of biotech firms that have specialized in products that address terrorist threats rather than infectious disease.” Over the last 10 years, the US government has used about half of the SNS’s half-billion-dollar annual budget on just the anthrax vaccines from Emergent BioSolutions.

Event – Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads: Russia, Syria, and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a live webinar on 23 March about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists will discuss the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event is moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program. Register here.

Commentary – Assessing China’s New Biosafety Law

By Sally Huang, Biodefense PhD Student

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, has turned the world upside down. While the origins of the pandemic, either a natural spillover event from animals to humans or the result of an escaped virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, remain contested, there is no denying that the virus has served as a focusing event for political leaders. As a rare, sudden event that has inflicted large-scale harm upon the public, the pandemic has also functioned as a powerful catalyst for policymaking [i]. While China had been drafting new biosafety legislation since 2019, the pandemic accelerated its finalization after President Xi Jinping announced his intent to enhance biosafety measures in February 2020. The law’s approval also comes as China recently experienced one of its worst COVID flare-ups in 2021, challenging the country’s success in overcoming the virus.

On October 17, 2020, China’s Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress approved the Biosafety Law of the People’s Republic of China [ii]. This law is the first of its kind, unifying numerous preexisting biosafety policies under a single framework [iii]. Yet, one may be wary of the law’s credibility in effectively addressing biosafety gaps in China’s infectious disease framework given the political drama surrounding China’s response to the pandemic. China is under heightened scrutiny as the international community questions the origin of the pandemic, China’s initial handling of the COVID-19 outbreaks in Wuhan, and whether Chinese institutions and facilities are prepared to counter future infectious disease threats. Thus, even though China proactively initiated the Biosafety Law to address biosafety concerns, its rapid completion could be seen as a reflexive action to ameliorate the international community’s skepticism. The Biosafety Law’s broad and sometimes vague approach to addressing pathogen management, biohazardous agent accountability, capacity-building, and preparedness also highlight that there is much work to be done beyond approval of the law.

China’s Biosafety Law is unlike a highly detailed US law. Rather, it is analogous to a US government-issued strategy, a high-level document setting forth broad principles for subsequent legislative actions and policies. Thus, Chinese ministries will have to subsequently provide additional details to build upon the Biosafety Law. While strategy documents retain a certain amount of ambiguity to set the stage for more prescriptive, future policies, China’s Biosafety Law exhibits a noticeable lack of clarity. An analysis of the Biosafety Law’s key elements will therefore help inform outside parties about how China plans to navigate the infectious disease and biotechnology landscape moving forward.

Prior to diving into China’s Biosafety Law, it is worth taking a few moments to describe the linguistic differences between how Western and Chinese scientific communities use the terms, biosafety and biosecurity. When using these terms, the Western scientific community references two separate, but interrelated disciplines. The Chinese scientific community commonly uses the term shengwu anquan (biosafety) while also presently developing familiarity with shengwu anbao (biosecurity). Due to the widely varying opinions on what biosecurity means depending on where one works, Chinese scientists characterize shengwu anbao (biosecurity)as a subcategory of shengwu anquan (biosafety) as opposed to an independent field of study. An unintended consequence of this is the Chinese scientific community’s tendency to use these terms interchangeably [iv]. This may be a result of China’s intent to grow their biosecurity sector under the aegis of their biosafety policies, which were made more comprehensive following the country’s 2003 SARS outbreak [v]. On the other hand, this may cause confusion to the unbeknownst reader. In an effort to best maintain the Biosafety Law’s context in this article, the evaluation below adopts China’s interpretation of biosafety and biosecurity. Therefore, readers should keep in mind that as biosecurity (as described below) encompasses the security of biotechnologies, it is applied in the context of biosafety.

China’s Biosafety Law: Why Now?

COVID-19 highlighted the absence of a central agency and legal framework in China to provide direction for policies related to the management of threats posed by infectious diseases and biotechnology. Even with nearly a hundred existing biosafety laws and regulations, China has struggled with communicating, coordinating, and enforcing biosafety regulations. This demonstrates that a variety of policies can foster inconsistencies and poor policy oversight [vi]. As a result, China’s regulations are problematically left open to interpretation by all levels of government [vii]. Left unattended, these issues could balloon into long-term complications that could disrupt or contradict efforts to combat infectious diseases. Thus, China’s new Biosafety Law is meant to unify preexisting biosafety policies under one single framework to promote national biosafety standards and regulations, and demonstrate to the world their commitment to improving biosafety practices and infectious disease preparedness.

What Does the Biosafety Law Aim to Do?

Comprised of 88 articles, China’s Biosafety Law aims to bolster prevention and response to the threat of biological agents, nurture responsible laboratory conduct, and promote stable development of biotechnology to ensure the well-being of the ecosystem and population. As a basic, all-encompassing law, it takes a broad approach to formulating supervisory parameters for various issues of concern beyond biosafety and biosecurity. It bestows the Chinese State Council—the executive body of state power in charge of carrying out policy—with the authority to enforce, oversee, and lead investigations for all activities addressed under the law [viii]. With the Biosafety Law serving as the chief blueprint, it will work towards integrating various areas to fortify national and economic security, and social stability as well as set a precedent for future policies. The main components of China’s Biosafety Law include biosafety, biosecurity, public health preparedness, ethics, and biodefense.

Biosafety Prevention and Standards

China defines biosafety as the effective prevention and response to threats of biological agents and related factors to peoples’ lives and the ecosystem, and the stable development of biotechnologies [ix]. Although the law lists various areas in which biosafety would apply, it does not clearly define laboratory safety procedures or implementation of containment principles in the event that accidental outbreaks were to take place. This is interesting as the Western definition of biosafety more clearly lists criterion and values for protecting lab personnel and the public from the threat of biological agents [x]. However, it is worth noting that biosafety is explicitly written as “an important part of national security” within the Law as numerous articles describe the boundaries of biosafety activities and appropriate behavior in China [xi]. Article 6, for example, emphasizes the need to strengthen international cooperation and fulfill biosafety obligations under international treaties. This is especially pertinent to China’s compliance to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in order to improve governance over the movement of pathogens and modified organisms [xii].

Article 8 empowers individuals to report activities endangering biosafety with the goal of preventing government authorities from ignoring early warning signs and valuable information provided by experts. This is a significant provision that could provide protection for whistleblowers. During the earliest stage of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, for example, Dr. Li Wenliang, a doctor treating patients with the novel coronavirus was detained and reprimanded by Chinese authorities for raising alarms about the hazards of the virus via social media. After his death from contracting COVID-19, he was hailed as the “hero who told the truth” as the Chinese public became outraged over the initial cover-up and number of lives that could have been saved if authorities had heeded the warnings [xiii]. The inclusion of this provision should pose a sanguine outlook for whistleblower protections, but specific assurances are not described. Only time will tell how Chinese government officials will act in the future.

The biosafety-focused articles also promote joint agency collaboration to enhance biosafety capacity-building. Article 42 stipulates that China should formulate a unified biosafety standard for pathogenic microorganisms in laboratories. Article 45 establishes hierarchical management for biosafety laboratories (BSLs) to ensure that research on pathogens is carried out responsibly in appropriate BSLs as categorized by risk level. Expanding upon responsible operation of pathogens, Article 68 calls for construction of a national biosafety infrastructure to accommodate high-grade pathogens and bolster national preparedness and response. As of now, China has only two BSL-4 labs [xiv]. The Biosafety Law does not dictate which types of biocontainment labs will be built. However, China is reportedly planning on building thirty additional BSL-3 labs and at least one BSL-4 lab over the next five years [xv].

Most reflective of the COVID-19 environment is Article 70 which details the State Council’s role in ensuring “the production, supply and deployment of medical rescue equipment, treatment drugs, medical devices and other materials needed for emergency response to biosafety incidents” [xvi]. Like any other country combatting COVID-19, healthcare workers and first responders in China are on the frontlines and require proper protective gear and medical countermeasures to help those in need.

Public Health and One Health

With the pandemic sparking additional concerns about novel infectious disease outbreaks, multiple provisions of the law address public health concerns. Article 18 dictates China will establish a biosafety inventory system to catalogue important biological data, including animal and plant, and other invasive species. Article 15’s biosafety risk investigation and evaluation system, combined with Article 16’s unified national biosafety information sharing system, will then help identify animal and plant epidemic risks that endanger China’s biosafety. China is also poised to streamline communication between government departments to efficiently classify and manage potential outbreaks. Article 47 aims for more controlled management of experimental animal research in laboratories to better protect the public. These articles reflect China’s efforts to amend loopholes in its public health and biosafety systems after SARS escaped Beijing labs twice in 2004. Continued speculation of the origin of COVID-19 also places pressure upon China to straighten their public health systems.

Articles 22, 23, and 27 through 30 have a One Health focus—an interdisciplinary approach that recognizes the intersection between human, plant, and animal health [xvii]—and dedicate attention to the development of monitoring systems to trace and manage epidemics among plants and animals. Article 31 stresses the importance of strengthening capacity building measures for prevention and control of animal and plant agents at borders and ports. Article 32 expresses China’s aim to protect wildlife and prevent the spread of infectious diseases of animal origin. This will be vital for countering infectious diseases that are approximately 60-75% zoonotic [xviii]. To further champion animal and plant epidemic protections, Article 60 sets out to formulate lists of invasive alien species as guides for creating relevant management measures. By taking a One Health approach to recognizing and reducing infectious disease threats, these articles demonstrate China’s hope in preserving biodiversity, ecosystems, and the natural environment.

Security of Biotechnology Research and Applications

The Biosafety Law does not include a definition for biosecurity. Instead, biosecurity is considered a part of biotechnology dual-use research of concern (DURC). China’s singular attention to biosafety after the 2003 SARS outbreak meant that the Chinese scientific and legislative community did not become familiar with biosecurity until later on [xix]. According to Michael Barr, there are widely varying opinions on biosecurity in China and there is a “divergence of awareness” [xx] depending on where one works, but biosecurity is generally considered a subcategory of biosafety. This differs from the Western scientific community’s interpretation of biosecurity, in which biosafety and biosecurity are separate, but complementary, disciplines.

Recognizing the role of DURC in biotechnologies and how it influences pathogen management, Article 34 strengthens the safety management of biotechnology research while prohibiting research activities that endanger public health and damage ecosystems or biodiversity. Article 36 seeks to formulate biotechnology R&D standards and classifies biotechnology R&D activities as high-risk, medium-risk, and low-risk “according to the degree of risk of harm to public health, industrial agriculture, ecological environment, etc” [xxi]. Article 39 emphasizes the importance of regulating the purchase and introduction of biotechnologies and related biological factors in accordance with a control list and prohibits individuals from purchasing or possessing items on this list. The law does not provide any details on the contents of this control list.

Ethics

The Biosafety Law also covers ethical issues such as how China should improve supervision of Human Genetic Resources (HGRs). The ethical handling of HGRs has become an important issue in China after Dr. He Jiankui used CRISPR technology to produce gene-edited babies in an attempt to reduce their susceptibility to HIV [xxii]. This controversial experiment raised a number of red flags for the international scientific community—not only was it a flagrant flouting of medical and research ethics, but it also evinced China’s ineffective regulations and scientists’ lack of compliance. Therefore, Article 53 calls for strengthened supervision of the collection, preservation, and utilization of HGRs and related biological resources. Article 54, which empowers the State Council to carry out necessary investigations, provides a means of verifying compliance with these new provisions. Details on how the State Council would conduct these investigations, however, are not provided. Nonetheless, the universally negative response to Dr. He’s experiment provided a strong incentive for China to redefine its HGR regulations and reshape its bioethics standards.

Promoting Biodefense

Through Article 61 of the Biosafety Law, China hopes to “take all necessary measures to prevent biological terrorism and the threat of biological weapons”[xxiii]—echoing the Biological Weapons Convention’s (BWC) objective of prohibiting the development, manufacture, acquisition, stockpiling, possession, and utilization of biological weapons [xxiv]. China has already passed legislation for domestic implementation of the BWC and reported its biosecurity policies and enforcement measures to the United Nations Security Council’s 1540 Committee. In 2019, however, the US State Department reported that China was engaged in “biological activities with potential dual-use applications, which raises concerns regarding its compliance with the BWC” [xxv].

Article 62 tasks the State Council with creating China’s own version of the US’s Select Agent and Toxins List which is used to regulate access to dangerous pathogens that could be used by terrorists. Though criteria for this list are not described, a biological agent control list would provide China with a more formal method for managing, monitoring, and investigating suspicious purchases or activities with biological agents at risk of being misused to cause harm. Meanwhile, Article 65 calls for investigations of remnants of biological weapons found within China and the construction of facilities for their storage and disposal. The discovery and disposal of abandoned biological weapons holds historical significance for China as the country was subjected to multiple biological attacks by Japan during the Sino-Japanese War, and Chinese prisoners of war and captured civilians were victims of Japanese BW experiments conducted by Unit 731 in Manchuria during this time [xxvi]. At the end of the war, Japanese abandoned the site and destroyed records. However, recent discoveries of new records and an incubator used for the production of Yersinia pestis (the causative agent for plague) at sites in China indicates that the destruction of Unit 731’s equipment and materials was not completely thorough [xxvii]. Thus, other experimental equipment and biological munitions have the potential to be unearthed. These efforts to clean up the legacy of Japan’s biological weapons program in China complements China’s long-standing effort to safely destroy abandoned Japanese chemical weapons [xxviii].

Penalties for Violating the Biosafety Law

The Biosafety Law concludes with a final chapter on penalties for individuals who violate the law through the abuse of power, neglect of duties, engagement in malpractice for personal gain, fabrication of false information, and/or criminal acts. Penalties for such violations are financial fines that range between thousands to millions of yuan depending on the scope of the violation committed. The law does not delineate any prison time or any other form of penalties distinct from financial fines. With these current penalties, China hopes to influence scientific institutions and personnel to comply with the Biosafety Law. Yet, these articles do not describe pertinent criminal laws that would apply nor does it address whether novel criminal laws will be created to enforce the Biosafety Law—leaving the parameters for legal responsibility and investigations ambiguous.

Conclusion

Even as the Biosafety Law reflects China’s strategic positioning to incorporate biosafety, biosecurity, and biotechnology into its national security system, this ambitious set of laws needs to be accompanied by verification and accountability measures to ensure its proper implementation. What’s more, it will be interesting to see how China’s new expansive benchmarks will hold up, especially as the wording of key articles may be too broad and vague to be interpreted clearly. Nevertheless, countering infectious disease threats will be a balancing act requiring steadfast commitment and investment. COVID-19 has served as a long-awaited wake-up call for China to re-center their policy efforts and develop purposeful strategies to reduce the threats posed by natural and man-made biological threats. As the world continues to face infectious disease threats, the Biosafety Law serves as a preliminary touchstone for Chinese scientists and institutions to elaborate upon. This new law is the beginning of a long process of heightening biosafety from a local concern to a national one and developing the policies, processes, and institutions necessary to implement the law. Only then can the Biosafety Law begin to be the comprehensive and effect


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