Pandora Report: 2.14.2020

To our amazing readers, we hope you’re having a lovely Friday and a happy Valentine’s Day! Did you know the CDC estimates that every year in the United States, more than 300,000 people cope with Trypanosoma cruzi infections (Chagas disease) due to those pesky kissing bugs.

The Coronavirus and Its International Ramifications
Don’t miss this February 21st event at GMU’s Van Metre Hall in Arlington, VA at 5pm -The CSPS Distinguished Speaker Series Presents: Coronavirus & International Security featuring: Steve Morrison, Ashely Grant, and Ketian Zhang. Join CSPS for a panel discussion on the broad implications of the coronavirus crisis, the role of the international community in global health management, and the implications for China, US-China relations, and East Asian security. The panel will be moderated by Ellen Laipson, CSPS Director. The event is free to the public but please register here to reserve your spot.

2019-nCoV/COVID-19 Outbreak Updates
The outbreak of COVID-19 has been quite the whirlwind so far. Case counts are changing so rapidly, that on Wednesday evening, over 60,000 cases were reported and by Thursday, it was well over 64,000. In quite possibly some of the worst timing, the HHS Budget in Brief was released this week, which revealed proposed funding cuts to CDC’s Public Health Preparedness and Response program by $25 million, as well as ASPR’s Hospital Preparedness Program. The CDC’s Global Health Security efforts might get an extra $50 million, which might not feel like much as their Emerging Zoonotic Infectious Disease programs and funding for the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity program are taking a huge hit.  While many were concerned about the rapid spike in cases as China sacked a senior city health official, the rise was due to a change in reporting definition, which was broadened to account for those without lab confirmation but meeting clinical definition. The United States now has 14 confirmed cases. The second case of the novel coronavirus among the U.S. evacuees from Wuhan, China, was also confirmed on Wednesday in the San Diego quarantine site. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the naming of the disease – COVID-19. The virus, previously known as 2019-nCoV, will be referred to as SARS-CoV-2 per the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, meaning that SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness/disease in humans. The role of healthcare transmission has been increasingly brought up, as roughly 500 healthcare workers were diagnosed by mid-January in Wuhan. The JAMA study recently released found that 41% of the 138 hospitalized cases they studied in Wuhan, were related to healthcare transmission. As the world struggles with personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, the CDC has provided guidance to hospitals regarding the shortages that impact healthcare worker safety. GMU Biodefense doctoral alum Saskia Popescu recently wrote on the U.S. healthcare system’s readiness during this time – “For hospital officials, preparing for cases of coronavirus infection means not only ensuring they have adequate supplies, but also the right processes put in place for the rapid identification and isolation of potential patients—which can be challenging during a patient surge.” More concerning, the CDC announced that their rollout of the COVID-19 diagnostic tests will be delayed across the U.S. Also, the cruise ship that has been quarantined for what’s felt like weeks now is finally being allowed to dock and its passengers to disembark in Cambodia.

Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense- Next Evolution: Overhauling Key Elements of Biodefense 
The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense is hosting this March 18, 2020 event “to inform our continuing assessment of biodefense programs with structural challenges that impede the government’s ability to safeguard the Nation. Topics to be discussed at this meeting include the: Select Agent Programs, BioWatch Program, and Hospital Preparedness Program.” RSVP here by March 13. Registration is required and attendance is free. This event will also be webcast (registration for webcast is encouraged). Lunch and refreshments will be provided. WEBCAST WILL GO LIVE just before 10:00 a.m. on March 18.

News of the Weird
Have you ever wondered what an authentic plague mask looked like? Now you can get a glimpse via the German Museum of Medical History as they are showing off a 16th century plague doctor mask here. “The mask had glass openings in the eyes and a curved beak shaped like a bird’s beak with straps that held the beak in front of the doctor’s nose. The mask had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator which contained aromatic items. The beak could hold dried flowers (including roses and carnations), herbs (including mint), spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge. The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells, known as miasma, which were thought to be the principal cause of the disease, before it was disproved by germ theory.”

Center for Health Security Announces New ELBI Fellows
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has announced the new class of fellows for the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI).  “As the current novel coronavirus epidemic shows, preparing for and responding to biological threats requires talented people from a range of fields working together to take on many complicated challenges,” said Tom Inglesby, MD, director of the Center. “Our 2020 Emerging Leaders fellows are the rising leaders who will be part of preparing for and responding to biological threats in our future, and we are very excited to work with them in the year ahead.”

“The Present and Future Promise of Synthetic Biology” at CSIS
Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) launched its Synthetic Biology: The Ongoing Technology Revolution Series with an inaugural forum. The speakers included Dr. Diane DiEuliis, Senior Research Fellow at National Defense University; Dr. Gigi Gronvall, Senior Scholar and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; and Dr. Jason Kelly, Founder of Ginkgo Bioworks. Synthetic biology, SynBio for short, encompasses the concepts, methods, and tools that enable the creation or modification of biological organisms; it traverses the fields of biology, chemistry, engineering, and computer science. Several emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and CRISPR, along with emerging technology companies, such as SynLogic and Evolva, were discussed as boons for a variety of sectors. Further, the exponential improvement in computers, especially in programming, bolsters other technologies and efficiencies in the field. SynBio is growing for industrial, military, personal, and amateur uses. The methods by which a variety of products – medicines, tires, makeup, and more – are made is updating to use more efficient and less extractive means thanks to these tools. Some defense specific technologies mentioned were the LALO tactical boot made from Susterra propanediol, BioBricks made from algae, and structural composite materials derived from a polymer resin matrix. Personalized medicine, such as CAR-T cell therapy cancer treatment, caters to the specific and unique set of characteristics of a patient and her/his health needs. There are a number of advantages to SynBio, but the risks cannot be ignored. As these tools and methods become more available and accessible to more people and groups, the risk of dual-use research of concern (DURC) swells. Specifically, we now must recognize that the misuse and abuse of emerging technologies is no longer limited to states and large groups as DIY biology enables virtually any individual capable of creating or modifying an organism. The sticky situation created by DURC is the continued and encouraged advancement of synthetic biology while also discontinuing and discouraging its misuse and abuse. But, how do we quantify the benefits versus the risks of a new or improved technology? And, by whom? These are questions with currently elusive answers; however, the field of SynBio will not slow so that policy can catch up. There exist some barriers and bottlenecks to the safe and appropriate use of the outputs of SynBio. There is often some level of strategic confusion around a new output, especially given that lack of a one-to-one replacement of old for new. This means that a new technology may not comprehensively replace an old one. Relatedly, best practices are yet to arise and a set of international standards and norms remains unclear. Additionally, the bioeconomy remains largely unmeasured, leaderless, and underappreciated in risk assessment and mitigation. The lack of regulatory standards for any new and incomparable product or process can cripple its advancement and adoption, a current problem for SynBio as well as the bioeconomy in general. On the bright side, there are solutions to these barriers and bottlenecks. Investments in early stage R&D for cutting-edge programming, like that for the Human Genome Project, would provide widespread support to new biotechnologies. Of the same vein, we should target investment in particularly promising innovations like advanced materials and distributed manufacturing. Most importantly, expanding the openness in the life sciences as a whole will gain us more in security than we will lose. A recording of the forum can be accessed here.

2019-2020 Flu Season: CDC Preliminary Burden Estimate
While much attention has been to COVID-19, the CDC just released their preliminary estimate for this flu season and it’s no wonder hospitals are feeling overwhelmed. 22-31 million flu illnesses, 10-15 million flu medical visits, between 210,000-370,000 flu hospitalizations, and 12,000-30,000 flu-related deaths. This data provides a good reminder for why vaccination is so important and basic infection control measures -hand hygiene, staying home when you’re sick, cough etiquette, etc.

Rogue Scientists and Deadly Pathogens?
It’s not surprising that the current COVID-19 outbreak is bringing about questions related to synbio and screening gaps that leave potentially damning vulnerabilities. What would happen if you asked a lab to send you the genetic code to the influenza strain that caused the 1918/1919 pandemic? “What if I sent them the instructions for a new disease that I have reason to believe is dangerous? What if I was doing legitimate research, but my lab didn’t adhere to modern safety standards? The answer is that a few DNA synthesis companies will send me what I asked for, with no screening to check whether they’re sending out a pathogen that ought to be carefully controlled. (Synthetic DNA is not a live virus, of course; I’d have to be a talented biologist with specialized knowledge, lots of resources, and access to expensive tools to use it maliciously.)” Screening though, presents its own challenges as DNA is a dual-use technology and tool, and we have existing policies set in place to avoid potentially dangerous events. “So new screening — and new regulations backing the international use of that screening — is needed. The aim of a new screening regime should be to ensure that requests for DNA are checked to determine whether they contain prohibited, dangerous sequences, without adding too much to the expense of screening and without slowing down legitimate researchers, who should be able to access DNA for their projects cheaply and quickly.”

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