Pandora Report: 8.7.2020

Genomic Epidemiology Data Infrastructure Needs for SARS-CoV-2: Modernizing Pandemic Response Strategies

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a framework to “define and describe the data needs for a system to track and correlate viral genome sequences with clinical and epidemiological data.” The report, Genomic Epidemiology Data Infrastructure Needs for SARS-CoV-2: Modernizing Pandemic Response Strategies, also provides a set of question that this framework could answer and explores regulatory and governance factors. Genomic data play an important role in vaccine development and monitoring, because a protein mutation has the potential to alter vaccine safety and efficacy. Such data provide insight into the causes of new cases – local spread or virus importation. Further, integrated analysis of genomic, clinical, and epidemiological data provides a distinct, real-time picture of the outbreak. The report is an output of the Committee on Data Needs to Monitor the Evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and Dr. Saskia Popescu, an alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program, is a member.

The Folly of Circumventing the CDC

Recently, the administration decided to circumvent the Centers for Disease Control in Prevention (CDC) in the collection of data regarding COVID-19 infections in hospitalized patients. Prior to this poor decision, these data were sent to the CDC’s public National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), but it is now sent a new system run by TeleTracking Technologies. NHSN is a 15-year old database that receives data from health care facilities about anything that impacts the occurrence of infection once a patient is admitted. The change was sudden as hospitalization data vanished from the CDC website, sparking immediate outrage. The American Public Health Association (APHA), the Johns Hopkins Center, and Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit led by former CDC director Tom Frieden, released a comprehensive report on COVID-19 data collection, characterizing it as an “information catastrophe.” The circumvention creates further worries that data will be lost or duplicated. A remedy to the catastrophe is not to sideline the CDC, but to untangle the data collection mess by creating comprehensive and standardized network for the US coronavirus response. NHSN collected institutional data, but was not collecting infection data outside of a healthcare setting; however, the network could be expanded to better capture all infection-related data. NPR conducted its own investigation into the new system for COVID-19 data collection, and some of its key findings include that the process by which the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded the multi-million dollar contract is normally used for innovative scientific research and that the contract may have been awarded as a no-bid contract. Such irregularities in the contract process are raising questions about the ethics behind the decision. Suspicious circumstances aside, bypassing the CDC – US authority on infectious diseases – in the collection and use of COVID-19 infection data harms the US response to the pandemic.

How Do We Know If a Virus Is Bioengineered?

Since the onset of the pandemic, theories and accusations that it was intentionally engineered have ricocheted through the public, despite the consensus that the virus’s genetics indicate that it is most likely a zoonotic pathogen. In fact, on 30 April, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) announced that the virus was neither human-made not genetically modified. The intelligence community came to this conclusion based, in part, on a Finding Engineering-Linked Indicators (FELIX) analysis, which found that the virus had not been engineered using foreign genetic sequences. That said, the detection of bioengineering is a “fraught task” given that there are many methods to identify engineering in a virus and there are many methods to engineer a virus. Tools such as FELIX are being deployed to “test the veracity of online stories claiming that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in a laboratory.” Though the result of the FELIX analysis provides evidence against the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was the result of engineering, Dr. Filippa Lentzos clarifies that this finding only rules out certain types of bioengineering. While other methods for testing and detecting intentional adjustments to a virus exist, they share a critical limitation: reliance on the records of known organisms and known “signatures of engineering.” These tools aim to increase biosecurity, but they bear the potential for dual-use purposes – offense and defense. Further, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, asserts that these detection tools send a message to the world the such research is “driven by this perception that the diffusion of increasingly sophisticated biotechnology is creating new potential threats that we are not prepared to detect.” Put simply, the US is signaling that it considers biothreats as clear and present dangers.

New Course Announcement: Building Health System Resilience

Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program, is offering a new course this fall: Building Health System Resilience! This course will provide students with a foundation in how healthcare systems prepare and respond to pandemics, disasters, and biological events. The ability of healthcare systems to respond to biological threats will have impacts at the community, national, and international levels. Health resilience in the United States is a particular challenge given multiple stakeholders, economic factors, and regulatory fragmentation. Students will review case studies, such as Ebola, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and COVID-19, to examine the unique challenges of building and sustaining the resilience of the American healthcare and its role in global health security. Dr. Popescu is an epidemiologist and infection preventionist who is currently working on the frontlines of the pandemic.

The Scramble for Vaccines and the COVAX Facility

The Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is offering an online event, The Scramble for Vaccines and the COVAX Facility. The COVAX Facility is an international initiative to develop and equitably distribute vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 in order to benefit all nations. The discussion panel includes Nikolaj Gilbert, President and CEO at PATH, Kendall Hoyt, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth University’s Geisel School of Medicine, and Nicole Lurie, Strategic Advisor to the CEO at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The event will be livestreamed here on 11 August at 9am EST.

Response Reset

The Center for Health Security in the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University released a report detailing federal, state, and local level policy actions that needed to rein in the COVID-19 pandemic. The report, Resetting Our Response: Changes Needed in the US Response to COVID-19, provides 10 recommendations to “reset” the largely bungled response. These recommendations include reinstituting stay-at-home orders in localities were healthcare systems are overloaded and scaling up contact tracing. Read the full report here.

Desperate Times Do NOT Call for Desperate Countermeasures

The mad scramble for a COVID-19 vaccine may be falling short in terms of safety and effectiveness. A vaccine trial is now underway that possesses a minute chance of supplying a vaccine before Election Day this November. Unfortunately, such a condensed timeline worries many public health experts, because political pressure on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to grant emergency approval of a vaccine could undermine efforts if the final product is unsafe or fails to impart protection against SARS-CoV-2. Prior to the pandemic, the anti-vaccination movement was gaining support from individuals across the spectrum of political ideologies; a poorly designed and disseminated COVID-19 vaccine could provide the movement with leverage to gain even more support. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former FDA deputy commissioner and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, emphasizes the importance of avoiding politicization of public health issues. The landmark phase 3 trial for the Moderna vaccine plans on enrolling 30,000 subjects, and another significant phase 3 trial for a vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech commenced this week. The fear with these phase 3 trials is that a rushed decision could be made to progress a candidate through the approval process before adequate data are collected and analyzed to ensure that it imparts protection against the novel coronavirus without causing severe adverse events. Though it is quite unlikely that the FDA would fail to require clear evidence in support of a vaccine before approving it for the masses, the possibility that political pressure could sway the approval of a vaccine that imbues only partial protection could, in the long-run, undermine testing and uptake for future vaccines. If so, what further restraints and risks will the next pandemic hold?

The reliance and hope to end the current pandemic are concentrated in a still-hypothetical vaccine, but the reality is that a vaccine only allays part of the crisis and the realization of it is likely still months away. Despite the rose-colored outlook of the administration, a vaccine will likely not offer complete protection nor will it be readily accessible to all once one is approved. Though Operation Warp Speed is spurring investment in manufacturing facilities, producing hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine designed using nascent technologies remains quite a challenge. The FDA experienced such a challenge in 2009 when H1N1 (“swine flu”) threatened the world: when millions of doses of a vaccine were in production, there were not sufficient facilities to package them into individual vials. If this experience is repeated with a COVID-19 vaccine, the response would suffer another horrendous failure that could erode trust in vaccines and public health in general for many years to come. The development and quick dissemination of a robust vaccine are certainly critical milestones in the battle against the pandemic; however, the virus is likely here to stay as it is too prevalent. So, a more realistic goal is to design a vaccine that mitigates severe cases of disease and render COVID-19 “easier to live with.”

Update: Mystery Seed from China

The packages of mystery seeds sent via the mail to individuals across the country are continuing to pop up. Unsolicited packages from China have also been reported in Canada, the European Union, and Australia. Officials from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have identified 14 species of seeds found in the packets received on our soil as a medley of ornamental, fruit, vegetable, herb, and weed species. Specifically, cabbage, hibiscus, lavender, mint, morning glory, mustard, rose, rosemary and sage have been identified by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). More species are awaiting identification. All 50 states have issued warnings against planting the unsolicited seeds.

Dicey DIY COVID-19 Vaccine

Nearly two dozen scientists, including a renowned geneticist, are serving as lab rats for a DIY COVID-19 vaccine developed by Preston Estep. This vaccine undergoing an informal human trial is the product of a biologist who possessed no animal data nor ethics board approval. Estep formulated the vaccine in a borrowed laboratory located in Boston with merely its ingredients and a single willing subject. Estep and his posse of researchers established the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative, nicknamed Radvac, which published a white paper detailing their nasal vaccine. The group asserts that the risks of trying the DIY vaccine exceed the risks associated with the COVID-19 disease; however, the legality of their endeavor is unclear. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires authorization to test novel drugs through an investigational new drug approval, but Radvac does not have permission, nor did it get a seal of approval from any ethics board. The FDA released a statement ruling that self-administered gene therapy, such as Radvac’s DIY vaccine, violates drug safety laws since it lacks approval.

25% in US See At Least Some Truth in Conspiracy Theory that COVID-19 Was Planned

About 70% of Americans have heard a conspiracy theory alleging that the novel coronavirus pandemic was planned by “powerful people.” A June survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 5% of US adults believe that this conspiracy theory is definitely true and another 20% believe that it is probably true. The poll also asked demographic questions to respondents, showing that those with lower levels of educational attainment tended to believe the COVID-19 origin stories fueled by disinformation. Beyond the unsubstantiated notion that the virus was some sort of evil plot, absurd false claims, including some that have already been studied and repudiated, regarding the pandemic are going viral on social media. In particular, physician and minister Stella Immanuel – who has previously asserted that gynecological issues like endometriosis are caused by demon sperm – is spreading the falsity that the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine is a cure for COVID-19. Adding further fuel to this disinformation fire, Trump praised Immanuel as “spectacular” and supported her inaccurate advice to use the antimalarial against the coronavirus disease. Trump’s praising tweets have been deleted, and the videos that shared Immanuel’s untruths have removed from social media as it violates COVID-19 misinformation policies. Russia, an unsurprising purveyor of disinformation, has been accused of spreading spurious information about the pandemic. Specifically, Russian intelligence services are amplifying false arguments from China that the coronavirus was engineered by the US military. Russia seems to be pushing false propaganda in order to influence the upcoming US election. Though the disinformation spurring from Russia is quite concerning, the litany of disinformation stemming from within our own borders is, perhaps, more terrifying.

Possible Long-Term Symptoms in COVID-19 Patients

As we continue await medical countermeasures to fight COVID-19, doctors are worried about the long-term effects of the disease. A recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adds information about symptom duration and risk factors for delayed recovery. Although relatively little is known about the clinical course of COVID-19 and a patient’s return to baseline health, a new telephone survey of symptomatic adults who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection sheds a little light on the topic. Thirty-give percent of respondents who had a positive outpatient test result indicated that they had not returned to their usual state of health when interviewed 2-3 weeks after testing. Also, among adults aged 18-34 years who did not report prior chronic medical conditions, 1 in 5 had yet to return to their usual state of health. These initial survey results spur concern that COVID-19 can result in prolonged illness in those with relatively mild cases of COVID-19. 

Pandora Report: 7.31.2020

Zombies and Coronavirus: Planning for the Next Big Outbreak

If 2020’s next terrifying curveball is a zombie apocalypse, how will humankind survive given our many missteps in the COVID-19 pandemic? A panel of biodefense experts and a zombie apocalypse novelist weigh in on this question. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, participated in a panel discussing pandemics, bioterrorism, and international security as part of Comic-Con@Home. Justin Hurt – a Biodefense PhD Candidate and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear and Counter-Weapons of Mass Destruction Integration Officer for the United States Army staff –moderated the discussion. Other panelists included Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Senior Scholar and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security; Dr. Shanna Ratnesar-Shumate, aerobiologist and principal investigator at Fort Detrick; Dr. Jarod Hanson, veterinarian and the executive officer at the United States Army Medical Institute of Infectious Disease; and Max Brooks, author of World War ZThe Zombie Survival GuideThe Harlem Hellfighters. Dr. Hanson pointed out that, most unfortunately, humans have yet to learn much in our current predicament, calling the pandemic response “the ultimate group project gone bad.” Dr. Koblentz stated that, like a zombie apocalypse, pandemics are usually a surprise, so the novel coronavirus has taught us to expect the unexpected. Further relating disease outbreaks to zombie outbreaks, Koblentz highlights that the human element is “as much of a threat as zombies early on because of fear and ignorance, misinformation, disinformation.” Max Brooks asserted that the threat of a global outbreak is “no mere sci-fi concept.” Some of the panel’s takeaways include that we are not adept at predicting pandemics and that “science and public health officials need to collaborate with communicators — including those in the entertainment industry — to get their health information to the people.” Watch the panel here

China May Literally Be Sowing the Seeds of Discord

Over the last few weeks, people across the US have been receiving random and mysterious packages of seeds from China in their mail. One recipient of mystery seeds received what seemed like a surprise gift of earrings, but instead found unidentified seeds within. Thus far, the packages have been received by individuals in Minnesota, Utah, Louisiana, Virginia, and Washington. At present, the purpose of this odd conduct is not yet confirmed, but there are suspicions that it is a brushing scam. A brushing scam involves a foreign, third-party seller mailing unsolicited items to a person and then writing a fake glowing review of their own product online. The review is considered a “verified purchase” because the item was delivered via the mail. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued a warning regarding these shifty seeds:

USDA urges anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds to immediately contact their State plant regulatory official or APHIS State plant health director. Please hold onto the seeds and packaging, including the mailing label, until someone from your State department of agriculture or APHIS contacts you with further instructions. Do not plant seeds from unknown origins.

A Personal Interview with Rita Colwell in Advance of Her Book “A Lab of One’s Own”

Dr. Rita Colwell is best known for her research on the pathogenic bacterium Vibrio cholera, but she is also pioneer for far-reaching contributions to the fight against sexism in a male-dominated field. In her new book, A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science, Colwell’s shares her unique perspective on sexism in science. Since 1972, Colwell has served as a member of the faculty of the University of Maryland, and she was the first woman to serve as director of the National Science Foundation. She is also the president of the Rosalind Franklin Society, where she uses her leadership for the recognition and promotion of women in science. Julianna LeMieux, senior science writer for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (GEN), interviewed Colwell to ask about her career, the lessons she learned along the way, the messages she would like to pass on to the upcoming generation of female scientists, and why she wanted to add another book to her already impressive list of outputs and achievements. Watch the interview here.

Global Bio Summit 4.0 at MIT Media Lab – Global Bio-Enthusiasts Unite!

Curious about biohackers? Interested in learning more about community labs? Fascinated by how a small online community grew to encompass the globe? Do you want to engage with, virtually meet, and learn from the people that identify with this global community of biohackers, citizen scientists, bioartists, entrepreneurs, safety and security professionals, and other stakeholders? If so, then Global Bio Summit 4.0 is the event for you! The event will take place this year in mid-October in an all-virtual format.

Started in 2017, the Global Community Bio Summit is an annual conference that brings together the “global community of DIY Biologists / community biologists / biohackers / biomarkers and members of independent and community laboratories.” The goal of the Global Community Bio Summit is to bring people together to “convene, plan, build fellowship, and continue the evolution” of the global community biology movement.

The “4.0” represents how this year’s meeting is the 4th Global Bio Summit. In the past, the community has developed several products such as a Statement of Shared Purpose and a shared Document of Community Ethics. The Global Bio Summit is also home to the Global Community Bio Fellows Program, which is “designed to provide professional development, leadership training, and peer support for emerging leaders in the global community.” The meeting is organized by the Community Biotechnology Initiative at MIT Media Lab. Check out the preliminary details of Global Bio Summit 4.0 here.

Look through some of the links at the top of the page to see past Global Bio Summits and key products and projects associated with the Summit!Registration is currently open on the Bio Summit Website. The registration deadline is 11:59 PM PST on 10 August 2020.

A Vaccine Reality Check

The somewhat grim reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the development of a vaccine that can quickly be made accessible to the masses is “only the beginning of the end.” As we continue to wait and hope for such a vaccine, the still raging pandemic may force us to continue to stall any semblance of normal life until it comes to fruition. Uncertainties abound about the timeline of a hypothetical vaccine, the safety of a rapidly created new vaccine, the efficacy of the vaccine against the novel coronavirus, and the accessibility to it once a vaccine is formulated. Given all these uncertainties, many experts have made one prediction. “I think the question that is easy to answer is, ‘Is this virus going to go away?’ And the answer to that is, ‘No,’” says Ruth Karron, the director of the Center for Immunization Research at Johns Hopkins University. At this point, the virus is too widespread. A vaccine could still mitigate severe cases, rendering COVID-19 easier to live with, but the virus is likely here to stay. Thankfully, the pandemic will eventually end.

Fauci’s First Pitch

Though Dr. Fauci’s first pitch at the kickoff of the historic 2020 MLB Season was a flop, his loyal fan base was unfazed. Fauci is the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a key leader in the US COVID-19 response. He threw the first pitch at the seasoning opener game, the Washington Nationals versus the New York Yankees in late July. To commemorate the moment, a Topps baseball card showing a masked Fauci mid-pitch was released. The Fauci card is now the bestselling card in the history of the company’s collection of limited-edition cards, ToppsNow. ToppsNow cards are only available to purchase for 24 hours and over 51,000 Fauci cards were sold.

Designing Pull Funding for A COVID-19 Vaccine

A new research article in Health Affairs by Christopher M. Snyder, Kendall Hoyt, Dimitrios Gouglas, Thomas Johnston, and James Robinson about pull funding for a COVID-19 vaccine is available with free access. A widely accessible vaccine is vital to ease the health and economic consequences of COVID-19. Firms may be slow to develop and manufacture a vaccine without appropriate incentives and coordination. Additionally, competition among countries for a limited supply of an effective vaccine may drive up prices and undermine efficient allocation. Programs relying on “push” incentives – direct cost reimbursement – can be inhibited by a funder’s inability to appreciate a firm’s private cost information. To overcome these hurdles, the authors propose a “pull” program that incentivizes late-stage development (phase-3 trials and manufacturing) for COVID-19 vaccines by awarding advance purchase commitments to selected firms. They calculated the optimal size and number of funding awards using novel cost and demand data. The results of their baseline simulations show that the “optimal program induces the participation of virtually all ten viable vaccine candidates, spending an average of $110 billion to generate net benefits of $2.8 trillion, nearly double that generated by the free market.”

Ready to Play? NTI’s Hair Trigger Game Released!

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) launched a new mobile game, Hair Trigger, at the Games for Change Festival (G4C). Playing the role of a newly-elected US President, the game pits you against “luck and real-life nuclear close calls as you navigate competing pressures to build domestic support and carefully manage international relations while racing to remove all nuclear weapons from hair-trigger status.” The twist? You must do it all in cooperation with Russia. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR put their nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to retaliate against a surprise attack from the other. In 2020, decades later, the two nations combined possess about 1,700 missiles that are armed, aimed, and ready to fire in minutes. Learn about the dangers of the risky hair-trigger status of US and Russian nuclear weapons by playing Hair Trigger here.

GMU Study: Contact Tracing Effective in Controlling Spread of Coronavirus

A new study by professors at the Schar School at George Mason University indicates that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted in densely populated venues, like music concerts, and travels long distances, leading to the infection of new populations. The study was published this month in the journal of the International Society of Travel Medicine. The team of researchers include Schar School Director of Research, Associate Professor Naoru Koizumi and College of Science Interim Dean Ali Andalibi, and Schar School public policy PhD student Abu Bakkar Siddique. They spent two months, beginning in mid-February, following developments from a series of live house concerts held in Osaka, Japan. The researchers, examined the spread of the virus by identifying a “seed” person who then infected over 100 people in 13 prefectures through primary, secondary and tertiary transmissions. After the concert, the virus quickly spread to over 100 people, “but the effective contact tracing managed to stop the transmissions from this cluster completely within less than two months.” Their takeaways include that the US should better prioritize developing and executing contact-tracing methods to reduce the spread of the virus and that individuals should behave responsibly for themselves and for their loved ones with whom they live.

Pandora Report: 7.24.2020

Commentary – Event: Advancing Biosecurity in the Age of COVID

The response to COVID-19 has exposed a world that is largely unprepared to deal with emerging and novel biothreats, whether the outbreak is natural or intentional. The Global Health Security Network brought together two biosecurity experts to discuss how current projects to improve global health security can adapt during the pandemic and what changes the world needs to make to improve biosafety and biosecurity. Dr. Rebecca Katz moderated while also providing insight from her position as the Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, while Dr. Beth Cameron provided her perspective as the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s (NTI) Vice President for Global Biological Policy and Programs. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD Student, attended the event and shared her takeaways here.

Cyberbiosecurity and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted to importance of cyberbiosecurity in the protection of US research and development. Cyberbiosecurity is defined as “developing understanding of the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of comingled life science, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate, and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness, and resilience.”

As one of the nations racing to formulate a safe and effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the US is a target for malicious cyber activities aimed at acquiring data and information about vaccine R&D.  A joint cybersecurity advisory was issued by the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) to unmask the malicious cyber activities carried out by the group known as “APT29,” “CozyBear,” or “The Dukes.” The advisory details how the group, most likely a component of the Russian intelligence services, targeted entities engaged in COVID-19 vaccine development in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. This cyber espionage group is likely to working to steal information and intellectual property related to the development and testing of vaccines candidates. Prior to COVID-19, this Kremlin-linked hacking group used malicious software and novel hacking techniques to breach the Democratic National Committee in 2016, target US think tanks in 2017, defense contractors in 2018, and the ministries of foreign affairs in three European countries. A Kremlin spokesperson has vehemently denied that there was and is any involvement of the Russian government in these cyberattacks.

Russia is not the only origin of cybersecurity culprits with aims to steal valuable vaccine data. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has issued charges against two Chinese men – Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi – suspected of spying on US companies involved in SARS-CoV-2 research. These two Chinese hackers are believed to have been stealing trade secrets and intellectual property worth hundreds of millions of dollars since 2009. Their latest crime is the recent research into the “vulnerabilities in the networks of biotech and other firms publicly known for work on Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and testing technology.” The pair are also suspected of targeting firms in Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The ongoing cyberattacks on COVID-19 research and the recent history of cyberattacks on various organizations in the US highlights the need for a strong cyberbiosecurity infrastructure to protect data related to research and development. Beyond this pandemic, cyberbiosecurity plays an increasingly important role in the protection of data relating to public health in general, biotechnology, national security, agriculture, manufacturing, automation, and artificial intelligence.

In Case You Missed Koblentz

This week, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program and Associate Professor, gave a sample lecture entitled, “Will COVID-19 Generate More Interest in Biological Weapons?” If you were not able to attend the virtual lecture, fret not, you can access the recording here.

News of the Weird: Satellite Photos Suggest Russia Sent Trained Dolphins to War in Syria

In 2019, the Russian Navy’s marine mammal project received worldwide attention when a tame Beluga whale, believed to have escaped from a training program, was spotted in Norway. New evidence supports the possibility that the Russian Navy sent its trained dolphins to Syria. Satellite imagery of Tartus, Syria shows marine mammal pens in the water at a port where Russia bases its submarines. To take a gander at these pens yourself, visit Google Earth using the coordinates 34°54’35.16″N, 35°51’46.46″E; 44°34’53.12″N, 33°24’8.36″E; and 69°13’12.41″N, 33°23’4.72″E.

Zombies and Coronavirus: Planning for the Next Big Outbreak

At noon today, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, will participate in a panel discussing pandemics, bioterrorism, and international security as part of Comic-Con@Home. Justin Hurt – a Biodefense PhD Candidate and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear and Counter-Weapons of Mass Destruction Integration Officer for the United States Army staff – will moderate the discussion. Other panelists include Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Senior Scholar and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security; Dr. Shanna Ratnesar-Shumate, aerobiologist and principal investigator at Fort Detrick; Dr. Jarod Hanson, veterinarian and the executive officer at the United States Army Medical Institute of Infectious Disease; and Max Brooks, author of World War ZThe Zombie Survival GuideThe Harlem Hellfighters. Watch the preview here.  

Crushing Coronas in the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the pandemic continues to rage, adults are increasingly seeking comfort from a bottle; alcohol sales are soaring across the US. An RTI International webinar discusses the effects of the pandemic countermeasures on drinking behavior. The March 2020 stay-at-home orders were often accompanied by relaxations of the regulations regarding alcohol, such as allowing curbside pickup. An RTI-funded survey of almost 1,000 Americans in May 2020 assessed the changes in alcohol consumption for the period February to April 2020. The survey found that women, parents, unemployed individuals, individuals of color, and adults with mental health issues increased their alcohol consumption during lockdown. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), recommends that women do not consume more than three drinks per day and seven drinks per week, and that men do not consume more than four drinks per day and 14 drinks per week. The survey showed that among its respondents, 35% reported excessive drinking in April (compared to 29% in February) and 27% reported binge drinking.

Yong-Bee Lim Featured on Titus Talks

Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD Candidate, was featured on Alexander Titus’ podcast, Titus Talks, to discuss the beauty of do-it-yourself (DIY) biology and the biotechnology community.  Lim’s studies how community biology laboratories play a significant role in the development of technology and the security implications of garage biology hackers. In this podcast episode, Lim walks through how his thinking transitioned from viewing DIY biology as a national security threat to viewing it as a community project to further technology and knowledge. Listen to the episode here.

Unilever: Ice Cream In, Personal Hygiene Out in Lockdown

According to Unilever, ice cream sales are up 26%, but sales for shampoo and deodorant are down. In regard to ice cream, the Magnum and Ben and Jerry’s brands were the biggest sellers for those buying more ice cream to take home. Sales of many personal care items are down due to the lack of socialization and the trend of working from home.

Biodefense in the Bulletin

GMU Biodefense is dominating the latest issue of the Bulletin Magazine! The magazine for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists currently features three Biodefense Graduate Program affiliates: Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Dr. Glenn Cross, and Dr. Daniel Gerstein. Ouagrham-Gormley’s article, written with Dr. Kathleen Vogel, discusses Jiankui He’s experiment in which used genome editing to create three human babies in in vitro fertilization. The paper explores the sources of funding for He’s experiment in order to determine what Chinese authorities knew or should have known and if He could have conducted the clinical phase of the project with no direct government knowledge. Cross and Lynn Klotz’s article provide a 21st century view of the Biological Weapons Convention and whether the Convention is relevant today, especially given its lack of an enforcement mechanism. Gerstein assesses the US federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and concludes that biosurveillance, leadership, and governance have all been lacking. Gerstein points out the importance of science and technology, areas largely underutilized in the response, and of consistent strategic communication.  

RUSI Virtual Conference

This year’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) conference will be conducted virtually on 23 September 2020 and focus on Countering CBRN At Home and Abroad. The conference offers the opportunity to examine the new norms of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) use; their implications in the future operating environment for military and civilian entities; and to think about how the United Kingdom can ensure deterrence and demonstrate its resilience in a new era of great power competition. For more information, click here.

Oldest Sequenced Smallpox Vaccine & Oldest Confirmed Case of Smallpox

Smallpox is a lethal infectious disease characterized by pus-filled blisters that erupt all over the body and caused by the variola virus. Before its global eradication in 1979, smallpox was fatal in up to 30% of cases. Scientists studying Civil War-era artifacts were able to recover viral particles from specimens left on the lancets, tin boxes, and glass slides included in vaccination kits discovered at a museum of medical history in Philadelphia. From these particles, they were able to recreate 5 genomes of viral vaccines developed in the 1860 to fight smallpox, making these the oldest smallpox vaccine samples ever sequenced. A century after these vaccine kits were used, the eradication of smallpox was achieved using vaccines quite different from the newly-sequenced old particles. In the mid-nineteenth century, vaccines were grown using a human chain of individuals exposed to the a “mild cousin” of smallpox. According to Clarissa Damaso, an associate professor of virology and molecular biology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the genomic sequences of historical smallpox vaccines can provide insight about the viruses once used to immunize against the disease. In related news, scientists recently uncovered the remains of the earliest confirmed case of smallpox. Variola virus DNA was found in the bones of people from Denmark to Russia dated from about AD 600 to AD 1,050, coinciding with the Viking age. A team studying the remains of almost 2,000 humans found variola virus DNA in the teeth and bones of 11 men and women from Denmark and Russia. The find aligns with written accounts that smallpox was in Europe by the late sixth century and discredits the notion that the disease was carried to England by the Normans or brought back to Europe by Crusaders.

Policing the Pandemic Worldwide: Best Practices for Law Enforcement Agencies

A recent op-ed from the Center for Global Policy (CGP) discusses best practices for law enforcement agencies during a pandemic. Law enforcement personnel are among the highest at-risk for infection, because they spend so much face time with the public. The changes instigated by the pandemic have shown that police institutions need significant reforms “to serve their communities better, including adopting new training curricula, establishing links between police and health institutions, investing more in community policing, fighting cybercrime, and increasing transparency in decision-making processes.” Under lockdown measures and restricted travel, reported crimes like theft and burglary have dropped substantially, but there has been a spike in domestic violence and cybercrime. CGP provides a list of recommendations to emulate the best practices of police organizations from nations abroad that are also adapting to the changing needs under COVID-19. These recommendations include developing standard operating procedures for police enforcement of lockdowns and social distancing; joining the Budapest Convention, the only global cybercrime treaty; establishing organizational links between health departments, experts on bioterrorism, and police institutions; and emphasizing transparency in police decision making. To quote scholar Zoha Waseem about policing problems in South Asia, shifting towards a model of policing that puts empathy and compassion at its core demands that police officers unlearn their traditional techniques and methods. It requires cultural shifts within institutions.”

Learning the Right Lessons

After any major event, lessons are often observed, but not learned. As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, questions as to its emergence remain unanswered. Knowing how the novel coronavirus was born would help inform future preparedness and response efforts for when the next pandemic hits. Many experts are calling for an independent and bipartisan panel styled after the 9/11 commission to evaluate the nation’s preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ongoing series of missteps by the US compromises the nation’s ability to stop the spread of the virus, and resulted in calamitous impacts on the population and the economy. Recently, the decision was made to sideline the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the collection and analysis of coronavirus data, a dangerous move as we see cases number rising again. Throughout the response, the politicization of evidence-based decision-making has led to the sharing of inaccurate information and the seeding of confusion on how the country should protect themselves. A coronavirus commission should seek to dissect mistakes in order to provide insight into improved response activities and decisions for the next outbreak.

Taking it one step further, Dr. Laura H. Kahn recommends the creation of a “new interdisciplinary federal agency with a mission to promote, improve, and protect the health of people and the environment as well as that of America’s animals, plants, ecosystems, and agriculture.” Leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been too little focus on pandemic threats and too little funding for pandemic-relevant programs. Given that environmental health and zoonotic threats are heavily linked, the proposed agency must embrace the One Health approach in order to better prepare the nation for the next biological event. Kahn recommends moving the administration of Medicare and Medicaid into the Social Security Administration and establishing a Department of Health Security in order to better position the federal government to protect health and the environment.

Earthquake Sensors Record Unprecedented Drop in Human Activity Due to Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken to squelch it have instigated an unprecedented drop in human activity, the likes of which have never been seen in the history of earthquake science. Earthquake sensors. Seismometers, detected a reduction of up to 50% in seismic noise since the shutdowns. This historical trend is discussed in a new report published in the journal Science. The report also asserts that given the strong correlation between seismic noise and independent measurements of human mobility, seismology offers an “absolute, real-time estimate of population dynamics.”

Commentary – Event: Advancing Biosecurity in the Age of COVID

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

The response to COVID-19 has exposed a world that is largely unprepared to deal with emerging and novel biothreats, whether the outbreak is natural or intentional. The Global Health Security Network brought together two biosecurity experts to discuss how current projects to improve global health security can adapt during the pandemic and what changes the world needs to make to improve biosafety and biosecurity. Dr. Rebecca Katz moderated while also providing insight from her position as the Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, while Dr. Beth Cameron provided her perspective as the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s (NTI) Vice President for Global Biological Policy and Programs. If you missed the livestream on 15 July, you can watch it on YouTube here

As the novel coronavirus emerged and began spreading across the globe, Dr. Cameron was working on a project to strengthen biosecurity and biosafety across five regional centers in Africa, leveraging a strong relationship with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that helped produce significant improvements in national public health capacity throughout the region. When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and travel was severely restricted, this team was preparing a series of workshops on laboratory biosafety and biosecurity. However, they took this opportunity to revamp the trainings to include information about biosafety in laboratories working with the novel coronavirus and to make them available asynchronously online. Such flexibility is a hallmark of a strong and agile institution, and creating new ways of collaborating and learning reduces barriers to access.

Another example of thinking outside the box to provide timely, useful, easily accessible information to policymakers and the public is COVID Local, a project Drs. Cameron and Katz both work on to produce a decision framework to support leaders trying to safely open their community. This project has so far resulted in both US and international guides full of checklists, metrics, and key objectives to ensure a safe reopening informed by the best available science.

Drs. Cameron and Katz had numerous suggestions for how to improve biosafety and biosecurity efforts, some inspired by lessons learned from COVID-19 and others for which they have advocated for years. Particularly relevant today is the need to support institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). While these institutions should never be above reproach, they should not be abandoned with no plan for addressing the purpose they served. Depoliticizing these institutions, conducting lessons learned reviews, and implementing evidence-based changes will serve the US and the international community much better.

That being said, current institutions leave an important gap that should be addressed. The BWC focuses on deliberate misuse of biological agents, while the WHO is responsible for natural outbreaks. However, no entity in the international system tracks emerging biosecurity risks. Such an entity could add a great deal of value by developing norms and standards for biosecurity research and soliciting buy-in from the private sector, academia, and non-governmental organizations so that these standards represent a wide range of perspectives and are more likely to be adhered to.

A final suggestion was informed by the initial confusion (since dispelled) that the novel coronavirus represented an act of biological warfare. Dr. Cameron suggested that a mechanism must be created to investigate the circumstances of potentially suspicious outbreaks (or as Dr. Cameron calls them, “high consequence events of unknown biological origins”). This mechanism must be depoliticized and led by a coalition of countries so that it does not appear punitive or politically motivated. This concept is similar to the idea of a challenge inspection, found in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). If a CWC member country suspects another member country of non-compliance with the CWC, they can request a challenge inspection, which is undertaken in a short amount of time after the request is submitted. The request must contain evidence for suspicions of non-compliance. Dr. Cameron believes that the concept of a challenge inspection is useful for investigating suspicious outbreaks, but the requirement for evidence of nefarious activity should not apply. Investigations of suspicious outbreaks should not be accusatory but should attempt to fully understand the epidemiological origins of an outbreak so that the appropriate action can be taken. The details of such a mechanism, as well as which entity would have responsibility for the mechanism, need further development.

This hour-long discussion only scratched the surface of the topic of biosecurity and biosafety. And while the webinar attendees were from many countries of the world, more global cooperation is essential to improving biosafety and biosecurity in any meaningful way. To that end, the NTI and the Global Health Security Network are sponsoring the Fourth Annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition. Teams of researchers are encouraged to work with colleagues across the globe to answer the following question: “What are technical and/or political actions global health security community stakeholders should take either nationally or internationally to reduce biosecurity-related risks associated with COVID-19 and future outbreaks/pandemics?” While this webinar certainly had a number of great ideas to answer this question, COVID-19 has exposed a great deal about the current status of biosecurity risks, and there is much to be said on the topic.

Pandora Report: 7.17.2020

Commentary – Legislation to Watch: The Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, provides a summary and her insights on Senate Bill 3829, Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020. US SB3829 aims to “advance the global health security and diplomacy objectives of the United States, improve coordination among the relevant Federal departments and agencies implementing United States foreign assistance for global health security, and more effectively enable partner countries to strengthen and sustain resilient health systems and supply chains with the resources, capacity, and personnel required to prevent, detect, mitigate, and respond to infectious disease threats before they become pandemics.” Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Arizona reopened too fast. Epidemiologists knew it, but we couldn’t stop it.

Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program and an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, published a commentary in the Washington Post about the unnecessary hotspot status of Arizona. By mid-July, 1 out of every 59 Arizona residents has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and the state is consistently reporting over 4,000 per day. Though efforts are underway to increase testing capacity, state leadership began reopening too fast and too soon. Popescu and her colleagues have been laboring round-the-clock for months to quell the spread of COVID-19 and keep patients and health providers as safe and healthy as possible. One of her greatest frustrations (shared by droves of other experts in the health fields) is the politicization of masks and health data, which undermines the efficacy of public health efforts and the adoption of a sense of social responsibility. Arizona is again closing down, to an extent, but the delay in the original closures left the state in a no-win situation. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s rush to lift stay-at-home orders and reopen the state in rapid succession has left Arizona hospitals in a terrible jam. Now, 90% of ICU beds are in use and over 40% of hospitalized patients are admitted for COVID-19 infection, forcing Arizona to face an increasingly dangerous situation. Popescu uses her home state as a cautionary tale to warn other states from following in the footsteps of Ducey; opening too early and too quickly will bring the virus back everywhere. Read Popescu’s commentary here.  

Coronavirus Reporting Change to Bypass CDC

This week, the Trump administration announced an abrupt change to how coronavirus data must be reported. Unfortunately, this change will likely “increase the burden on facilities already strained by the pandemic and could impede the distribution of critical medicines.” The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notified state and hospital leaders that this new protocol for sending information regarding COVID-19 patients, supplies, and capacities to the federal government will bypass the CDC and replace its data collection network. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, sees the change as another move by the administration to sideline the CDC as a primary source of information. Koblentz states that the administration is trying not only to silence the CDC, but also to blind it in the midst of a public health emergency. Many experts in the public health field are berating the replacement of the CDC as a main data-keeper for the pandemic. There are worries that cutting out the CDC will diminish access to important COVID-19 data that are needed to quickly and correctly respond to the virus. Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program and an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, points out that the CDC database allows experts such as herself to extract helpful reports, but this functionality may not exist in the new system. Additionally, as part of the new protocol, the administration is urging governors to consider sending the National Guard to hospitals to assist with data collection about patients, supplies, and capacities. According to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Deborah Birx, the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator, the suggestion is based on hospital failures to report. A letter to Birx from a coalition of hospital groups counters the accusation by pointing out the that HHS system was flawed in regard to receiving submitted data. Representative Rosa L. DeLauro issued a statement accusing HHS of “operating as a dangerous, political apparatus [that] cannot be trusted to share accurate hospital information with Congress and the American public.” Senator Patty Murray is a ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee and she wrote a letter to Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Robert Kadlec, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), demanding explanations about the awarding of a non-competitive, multimillion dollar contract for a likely duplicative data collection system. In her letter, Murray points out that “clear, accurate, comprehensive data is desperately needed in our fight against COVID-19.”

Koblentz Sample Lecture

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

Schools Should Prioritize Reopening in Fall 2020, Especially for Grades K-5, While Weighing Risks and Benefits | National Academies

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a statement encouraging schools to reopen for full time schooling this fall, especially for elementary students. According to NASEM, “opening schools will benefit families beyond providing education, including by supplying child care, school services, meals, and other family supports. Without in-person instruction, schools risk children falling behind academically and exacerbating educational inequities.” Reopening does not mean ignoring the risks and bypassing protective measures, however. The report provides several recommended precautions for reopening schools: (1) provide surgical masks for teachers and staff; (2) all students and staff should wear face coverings; (3) provide hand-washing stations; (4) limit large gatherings of students; and (5) prioritize cleaning, ventilation, and air filtration.

NTI and the NextGen GHS Network Launch 4th Annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition

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

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

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

Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Theoretical Considerations and Available Evidence

A new viewpoint paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Klompas, Baker, and Rhee discusses the existing evidence regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2. At present, the balance of evidence does not support that SARS-CoV-2 exhibits long-range aerosol-based transmission, at least as a primary mode of transmission. That said, there is no way to completely exclude the possibility of the virus’ transmission via aerosol. Though the data remains limited, the unlikelihood of aerosol-based transmission is valuable information for the public and healthcare settings as we all seek to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Weekly COVID-19 Disinformation and False Propaganda Report

Earlier this month, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) released a COVID-19 Disinformation and False Propaganda Report. Their analysis showed that between 25 June and 2 July, the tweet with widest reach that used the term “virus” was Trump’s claim that “cases up only because of our big number testing.” This claim, which reached over 82 million viewers, is false and misleading. Other misinformation for that week includes claims from a group in Florida that masks can kill. Social media is awash with continued conspiracy theories about the origins of the novel coronavirus. Minority groups are a particular target of misinformation, especially on the topic of vaccines. Claims that vaccinations are unsafe and that certain communities are being secretly used for experiment are trying to sow mistrust about medical research. Read more false claims here.  

Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the ability of a microbe (bacterium, virus, fungus, parasite) to resist the effects of an antimicrobial therapeutic to which it was previously susceptible. Once a microbe develops resistance to existing drugs and vaccines, it can infect a human, animal, or plant with much greater ease. As a microbe develops resistance to a broader range of therapies, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to treat or prevent. Penicillin – once the go-to antibiotic to treat pneumonia, respiratory tract infections, scarlet fever, and more – was considered the miracle drug during World War II. Its discovery by Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming was a serendipitous fluke in 1928, but it did not become widely available until 1945 due to the difficulty of mass production. In 2020, the miracle drug is losing its magic, particularly against infections of Staphylococcus aureus (the cause of Methicillin-resistant S.aureus) and Neisseria gonorrhoeae (the cause of gonorrhea). As AMR spreads across multitudes of microbes, rates of infections grow and new medicines are needed to treat these drug-resistant diseases. Unfortunately, as our need for new and novel medications grows, many of the companies that develop these drugs are running low on cash and investments. This week, 20 of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies announced the creation of a $1 billion fund to support money strapped biotechnology start-ups in developing new antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections, which are the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. The AMR Action Fund was established by the World Health Organization and bankrolled by Roche, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson to provide a “short-term but desperately needed lifeline” for a handful of small antibiotic companies, many of which are based in the United States.

Lost on the Frontline

Kaiser Health News (KHN) and The Guardian debuted a project documenting the lives of the US health workers who died of COVID-19. Thus far, the project has identified 795 workers who likely died of COVID-19 after helping infected patients. Profiles for 145 of these workers are available. View those lost on the frontlines here.

Robotic Sports Fans

The pandemic and countermeasures to quell it have spurred creative thinking in myriad ways, sometimes putting a whole an unexpected twist on the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention.” Since fans are not allowed at most sporting events in an effort to maintain social distancing, some stadiums have tried to fill their stands with “premium mannequins” to provide a semblance of normalcy at sporting events. At the stadium for FC Seoul, the inanimate fans were even sporting the team’s colors and keeping their moths covered with masks! In Japan, teams are employing humanoid and quadrupedal robots to keep the spirit alive. The US is facing the same dilemma of empty stadiums for their players, but fans can purchase cardboard cutouts of themselves to support the Oakland A’s or the San Francisco Giants. Germany is also closing stadiums to fans and offering cardboard cutouts for about $20 each.

Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Implications for Infection Prevention Precautions

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a scientific brief this month as an update to the late March brief about SARS-CoV-2 transmission. The latest brief covers updated insights regarding contact and droplet transmission, airborne transmission, and fomite transmission of the novel coronavirus. The brief also states that persons infected with the virus and present with symptoms can infects other, primarily via droplet transmission and close contact; however, infected individuals without symptoms can also spread the virus. To prevent transmission, the WHO encourages suspected cases to be tested and isolated as quickly as possible; all individuals to wear masks in public settings where social distancing is unfeasible; and everyone should practice frequent hand hygiene. Read the entire brief here.

‘Directing Doomsday’: Lessons Learned from Nuclear Weapons in Film

As you look for more movies to bide your time in quarantine, consider watching (or re-watching) films that underscore the threats from nuclear incidents. Such movies include Dr. Strangelove, Failsafe, Command and Control, By Dawn’s Early Light, and China Syndrome. Currently, there are over 13,000 nuclear weapons throughout the world, any of which could reap horrible damage at the drop of a hat. So, as you enjoy these films, think about the vulnerabilities and potential harm caused by nuclear weapons.

It’s Time for an Equal Playing Field: Diversity in International Security

A webinar offered by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) features a discussion about the lack of diversity in the nuclear threat-reduction field and the need for a dramatic shift toward diversity, inclusion, and equity. Ambassador Laura S. H. Holgate, vice president of the Materials Risk Management program at NTI and co-founder of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy (GCNP), shared that during she has witnessed women being talked over, disrespected, and harassed in professional settings. Jane Rhee, the executive director for Global Public Affairs at the Estee Lauder Company and a former Foreign Service officer, highlighted that simply asking why diversity matters puts a burden on people of color to have to defend their value. According to Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, founder and director of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS), the obstacles to attaining diversity, inclusion, and equity are created by hiring pipelines. To resolve this issue, Jenkins recommends that institutions develop comprehensive pipelines that recruit from minority-serving institutions. Watch the webinar here.

Overcoming the Bystander Effect in Chemical Ethics

Kabrena Rodda, a chemist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and veteran of the Air Force, worked with the American Chemical Society and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to establish an honor code for the international community of chemists based on The Hague Ethical Guidelines. With grassroots contributions from 18 countries about ethical standards for chemists, the Global Chemists’ Code of Ethics (GCCE) was born. The Code is important, because chemistry can be abused to produce harmful substances or lethal weapons. One of the problems this Code aims to overcome is the bystander effect, a psychological theory stating that an individual considers speaking about a problem to be the responsibility of someone else. Among chemists, the bystander effect is more likely when a chemist is timid about pressuring others or does not want to be viewed as a goody two-shoes by colleagues. The notion behind the GCCE is that “practicing its ideals in low stakes training scenarios can build the muscle memory chemists need to respond ethically if they encounter troubling situations in real life.” These trainings often take the form of role playing to show how a constructive choice can have better outcomes than a negative choice.

Countering Clandestine CBRN Labs: A Virtual Reality Training Tool

Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are a severe threat to international peace and security. Nations working to counter the acquisition of WMDs and materials to build them require technical knowledge to succeed. A collaboration between CRDF Global, the US Department of State, and the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre developed a virtual reality (VR) training tool that enables trainees to “explore realistic nontraditional terrorist workshops and identify signs of possible WMD production.” The VR tool was created with expertise from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Conflict Armament Research, and it was first employed in February 2020. The use of this immersive VR tool “provides spaces for stakeholders to expand their knowledge and awareness of clandestine terrorist laboratories, allowing for critical discussions on identifying possible threats and responses.”

Commentary – Legislation to Watch: The Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

In 2013, before becoming Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense, retired General Jim Mattis testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that “if [the US doesn’t] fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Mattis went on to say that “the more we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.” Though Mattis was expressing worry about an American withdrawal during the Obama administration, the US’s failure to lead (or indeed, even muster an adequate domestic response) a COVID-19 response also demonstrates the downsides of an isolated America. From the first emergence of the novel coronavirus, the US response has been confused, clouded by other interests, and continually divorced from scientific reality. Diplomacy and coordinated international action have taken a backseat precisely when they are needed most, in the realm of global health security. However, Senator James Risch (R-ID) has introduced a bill hoping to clarify and improve the US’s global health security and diplomacy objectives.

Senate Bill 3829, introduced in May 2020 and currently titled the Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020, aims to “advance the global health security and diplomacy objectives of the United States, improve coordination among the relevant Federal departments and agencies implementing United States foreign assistance for global health security, and more effectively enable partner countries to strengthen and sustain resilient health systems and supply chains with the resources, capacity, and personnel required to prevent, detect, mitigate, and respond to infectious disease threats before they become pandemics.” The bill endorses a “One Health” approach to global health security, which brings together stakeholders from the local to the global level, across all relevant sectors, to achieve optimal health outcomes by recognizing health implications inherent in the interconnected nature of today’s world.

As currently written, the bill calls for several actions to meet its objectives. First, the President should maintain a comprehensive Global Health Security Strategy with clear objectives and evaluation mechanisms. The bill acknowledges that the 2019 Global Health Security Strategy is sufficient for 2021, but also lays out a framework for improvements in the next iteration of the Strategy. Second, the bill establishes a new position within the State Department to coordinate US government activities to advance global health diplomacy and security overseas. Third, the bill recognizes the importance of supporting partner country efforts to strengthen their own public health systems and supply chains, which would foster outbreak detection earlier in a disease’s progression.

Fourth, the bill calls for “accelerating progress under the United States Global Health Security Strategy, the Global Health Security Agenda, the World Health Organization (WHO) International Health Regulations, and other relevant frameworks.” Unfortunately this may pose a bit of a challenge now that the US has begun the process of withdrawing from the WHO. Going forward, this bill should be modified to address how to adhere to the spirit of the International Health Regulations, even if the US is no longer a member of the WHO.

Finally, the bill contains several provisions regarding funding. It calls for enhanced support for public-private partnerships on research, development, and deployment of diagnostic tools and medical countermeasures – a sound strategy in line with other US government agencies that should not falter once we feel like we are safely past the current pandemic. Section 107 of the bill authorizes $3 billion for fiscal years 2021-2025 to advance the Global Health Security Strategy, while Section 201 authorizes the Secretary of State to begin negotiations with the World Bank or the International Development Association to establish a Trust Fund for Global Health Security. This fund, overseen by member states who are both donors and participants, would provide resources for a wide range of initiatives related to global health security, pandemic preparedness, and infectious disease control. Such a fund would provide further incentives for countries to strengthen their public health infrastructure, reducing the likelihood of pandemic disease by improving detection and response capabilities at the source. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to discuss this bill with experts from the Department of State, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on June 18, 2020. All three of the men who provided testimony reiterated how quickly infectious diseases can go global and how strengthening indigenous public health systems will go a long way toward lessening the impact of future outbreaks. They also stressed the importance of transparency, accountability, and clearly defined objectives and metrics, themes that are present throughout the bill.

Many times, this hearing returned to the question of the WHO’s role and what shortcomings the pandemic exposed. Chairman Risch argued that the WHO has an extremely important role, but this pandemic revealed significant weakness when trying to respond to a fast-moving international crisis. On the other hand, Garrett Grigsby, who testified as the Director of the Office of Global Affairs at HHS, repeatedly returned to the theme that the WHO’s failure to call out the Chinese government early in the crisis represented an egregious error, repeating a mistake made during the 2002 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Now that the US has announced its intention to withdraw from the WHO, what country will step in to take the United States’ place as a heavyweight player? Senator Murphy (D-CT) expressed concern that this vacuum of leadership presents an opportunity for China to gain a great deal of influence, nixing any potential US push to improve secrecy around infectious disease outbreaks. However, Senator Barrasso (R-WY) argued that withdrawing from the WHO gives the United States leverage to place conditions on their return, allowing the US to push harder for transparency measures. Time will tell if the withdrawal was a tempered tactic to gain more leverage for reform, or simply a temper tantrum. Until then, it will be interesting to see how the language of Senate Bill 3829 changes, and indeed whether it goes anywhere at all.

Pandora Report: 7.10.2020

The Pandemic Experts Are Not Okay

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

US Imprudently Initiates Withdrawal from the WHO

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

COVID-19 Risk Index

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

Medical Countermeasures for COVID-19

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

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

Lecture: Political Implications of COVID-19

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

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

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

The Blame Game

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

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

OPCW Decision on Chemical Weapons in Syria

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

UNSC Convenes on COVID-19

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

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

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

Making BioWeapons Obsolete

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

CSHL Trustees Vote on the Future of Graduate School

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

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

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

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

Surveillance and Repression in China

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

DARPA’s Pandemic Programs

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 7.3.2020

Commentary – State Department Releases the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism

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

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

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

New START

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

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

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

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

GAO COVID-19 Performance Audit

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

2020 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition

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

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

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

Biodefense Graduate Program Sample Lectures

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

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

New COVID-19 Data Tools

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

New Leadership at George Mason University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the World Missed COVID-19’s Silent Spread

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

Commentary – State Department Releases the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism


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

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

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

Africa

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

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

Middle East and North Africa

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

East Asia and the Pacific

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

South and Central Asia

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

Europe

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

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

Western Hemisphere

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

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

By Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD Candidate

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State of the COVID in the United States

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

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

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

Considerations and Recommendations for Reopening

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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