Pandora Report: 2.7.2020

ASM Biothreats – Full Coverage
It’s our favorite time of year – sharing detailed summaries of some of the top discussions, presentations, and panels from the 2020 ASM Biothreats conference. Check out the landing page here, which will give you an overview of our GMU Biodefense students who attended and brief descriptions and links to their work. Since this conference took place as the 2019-nCoV outbreak was growing into a PHEIC, these talks are very timely and critical to response and future preparedness efforts. From diagnostic innovations to MSF efforts during outbreaks, this was one of the best years yet – we also have coverage of NIAID Director Dr. Fauci’s talk on coronavirus infections. Don’t miss out on our detailed review of this wonderful conference.

2019-nCoV Outbreak Updates: From Quarantine to PPE Supply Chain Concerns 
It seems like every day is overloaded with new information about the 2019-nCoV outbreak. The rapid pace of information has helped in some ways but hurt in others – from those acting as experts to hastily published papers that grabbed headlines but were fundamentally flawed. Over 50,000 flights to China have been cancelled amid fear of the outbreak and the U.S. is still employing travel bans. Late Thursday, the CDC announced that it would be distributing testing kits to help expand laboratory capacity. “Initially, about 200 test kits will be distributed to U.S. domestic laboratories and a similar amount will be distributed to select international laboratories. Each test kit can test approximately 700 to 800 patient specimens.” The latest case counts are changing frequently, but as of Thursday evening there were 30,818  confirmed. 11 cases have been identified in the United States, fueling concern regarding PPE and other healthcare supplies. Maryn McKenna recently spoke to these issues as mask shortages could potentially spread globally, especially since most of the world’s supply come from China. “95 percent of the surgical masks used in the US and 70 percent of the respirators—thicker, tight-fitting masks that offer better protection against viruses—are made overseas. That leaves the mask supply vulnerable to labor disruption if a pandemic sickens manufacturing workers, as well as to flat-out diversion if a government decides to keep its own stock at home. ‘This is 100 percent a vulnerability,’ says Saskia Popescu, a biosecurity expert who is the senior infection-prevention epidemiologist in an Arizona hospital system. ‘Personal protective equipment is always going to be a problem when there is an outbreak of something novel, because public health guidance will be unclear at first and there will be a run on supplies. Masks being made offshore is one more stress on the system’.” The FDA announced on February 4th that they had issued “an emergency use authorization (EUA) to enable emergency use of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2019-nCoV Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel. To date, this test has been limited to use at CDC laboratories; today’s authorization allows the use of the test at any CDC-qualified lab across the country.” As cases grow, small clusters challenging public health efforts have sprung up, like a cruise ship being held in Yokohama as Japanese health authorities screen and quarantine passengers following the confirmation that ten people aboard have the disease. China has also been sending in spray trucks of bleach to help the outbreak, which has baffled many. “The truth is that coronaviruses have really poor survivability on surfaces,” Saskia Popescu, a senior infection prevention epidemiologist who works at a Phoenix-based healthcare system, told Insider. “This is an organism that is generally spread through respiratory droplets. So that cough, that sneeze, and yes, your hands can get contaminated and then you touch your eyes, your mouth, and things like that.” She said the widespread use of disinfectants like bleach which is what was being used in truck sprayers in at least one Chinese city, Yichang, according to a local report is “a little over the top.” The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense will be hosting a February 10th even – Containing the Coronavirus: Challenges to Thwarting the Outbreak, from 1:30pm- 3:30pm and can be attended in person or via webcast. “Panel participants will offer their perspectives on the role of the federal government in managing the crisis, the lack of transparency by the Communist Chinese Government, implications for U.S national security, and how the country can better prepare for when the next pandemic strikes.”

Bioweapons, Secret Labs, and the CIA: Pro-Kremlin Actors Blame the US for Coronavirus Outbreak
As the 2019-nCov outbreak rages and experts around the world work to identify its causes and quell its spread, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL) reports that pro-Kremlin actors are blaming the United States of America for this expanding public health emergency. Specifically, these actors purport that the US employed bioweapons to disseminate the virus in China; however, this theory is, unsurprisingly, gaining little traction. Russia and its fringe members possess a history of wielding disinformation as a tactic against the US. For example, in 1983, Russia launched Operation Infektion, which falsely claimed that the AIDS virus was developed in a clandestine US bioweapons laboratory. Related theories continue to pop up from various Russia-based outlets as well as Russian YouTube channels with tales that the US designed the virus with the intent of sabotaging China’s economy from within its borders. These narratives implicate supposed US bioweapons programs, the CIA, and the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi as the origins of the fictitious nefarious plot. Regardless of the spuriousness of these claims, this latest disinformation campaign serves as a strong “reminder of Russia’s long history of employing anti-U.S. influence operations during public health crises.”

Event Summary: Battling Insecurity, Mistrust, and Disease
GMU Biodefense PhD student Greg Witt recently attended an event hosted by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and is providing us with a detailed account of the critical conversations on battling insecurity. The event was a follow-on to a series of technical workshops hosted by NTI and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) as part of the Initiative to Strengthen Biosecurity and Biosafety, which aims to resolve safety and security gaps related to biological threats in Africa. Opening remarks were delivered by NTI Co-Chair and Chief Executive Officer Ernest Moniz, who highlighted the complex, intertwined relationship between conflict and infectious disease and the consequent risks this connection poses to international and health security in Sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Moniz described a tabletop exercise conducted by NTI and partner institutions as part of the 2019 Munich Security Conference, in which a fictional country in the midst of domestic unrest experienced a deliberate terrorist attack utilizing a highly-lethal biological agent. The results of this simulation were, in his words, “eye-opening, and not in a good way.” Read his full summary here.

One Health Advocacy: Education and Policy in Action – Webinar
Join the International Student One Health Alliance as we learn from Drs. Deborah Thomson and George Lueddeke about advocating for One Health through education and policy. Deborah Thomson, DVM is from the United States and is a One Health curriculum developer and the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Congressional Science and Engineering Policy Fellow. Her presentation will be “Non-Traditional One Health in Action.” This event will be held from 9am ET on Sunday, February 9th. You can register here.

Outbreak Updates
There has been one additional case of Ebola in the DRC in recent days. The outbreak has now infected 3,427 people. The CDC has released Week 4 flu data (ending January 25), with a large number of states experiencing high influenza-like illness activity. “Visits to healthcare providers for influenza-like illness (ILI) increased from 5.1% last week to 5.7% this week.”

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