Pandora Report: 2.28.2020

Welcome to your favorite weekly source for all things biodefense! We’ll be doing a shorter, slightly delayed newsletter next week, but rest assured, your source for global health security news will be back in full force on March 13th. Fortunately, we’ve got a registration page for you to reserve a spot (with an early-bird registration discount!) for the 2020 workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika.

Experts Examine COVID-19 and an Unsettling Response by the Chinese Government
Missed the Coronavirus and Its International Ramifications February 21st event at GMU? Here’s a great recap. While the lively discussion was even-tempered, the information imparted about the global health crisis was often staggering. No less than a longtime veteran of international health emergencies—including investigating Japan’s nuclear reactor crisis—is alarmed. “This is an astonishing outbreak,” said senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Stephen Morrison, director of the center’s Global Health Policy Center. “What we think we know today could change tomorrow.”

International Security Crisis Reader
This week’s International Security Crisis Reader covers biosecurity and the global Covid-19 pandemic. An article by our own Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at GMU, is a featured piece. Koblentz’s Spring 2010 article, “Biosecurity Reconsidered: Calibrating Biological Threats and Responses,” describes how biosecurity arose as a critical component of the international security agenda, scrutinizes the contending definitions and conceptualizations of biosecurity, and outlines a taxonomy of naturally-occurring and human-made biological threats to international security. Other featured articles cover HIV/AIDS amidst the conflict in Africa, globalization and biosecurity, and intelligence assessments for biosecurity threats. The Crisis Reader can be found here.

SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 Pandemic Updates
This week has been non-stop in terms of COVID-19 news and cases. From possible community spread in California, and  8,400 people being monitored, to a state of emergency being called in certain counties, there’s been a lot going on. On Thursday evening, the CDC revised the criteria to guide evaluation of patients under investigation for COVID-19 – this now expands to those with symptoms and travel to an affected area (China, Iran, Italy, Japan, and South Korea), as well as those with severe acute respiratory illness requiring hospitalization without a source of exposure. A whistle blower recently came forward and “is seeking federal protection after complaining that more than a dozen workers who received the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, lacked proper training or protective gear for coronavirus infection control.” On Wednesday President Trump gave a press conference on the pandemic, breaking from what senior public health officials have said about the likelihood for additional cases in the United States. Vice President Pence has also been tasked with leading the COVID-19 response in the U.S., however there was concern on Thursday regarding the communication channels that are now being put in place. Shortages and communication gaps within response has been problematic in recent weeks, with comments of disruption being left to air without more guidance. Many are wondering how they can prepare though and experts have worked to dispel fear but also encourage general preparedness measures. GMU biodefense alum Saskia Popescu recently spoke on this, noting that “‘A lot of preparedness is planning ahead of time,”’ Popescu said.’“Practice makes permanent. If I have a plan, that means I don’t have to panic.’ ‘The most important thing right now is to remain calm,’ she said. ‘Remember, we don’t have that many cases in the U.S., and prevention strategies for this coronavirus are not new. We’ve been doing them for years’.” You can also hear her speak on NPR’s On Point with Jeremy Konyndyk regarding preparedness in the United States. Cases have continued to grow outside of China as Italy, South Korea, and Iran all report many infections. As COVID-19 cases spring up more and more outside of China, thoughts of containment have moved to mitigation. There has been increasing attention to the economic impact of the pandemic, and the UBS Chief Investment Office recently noted “While the situation in China appears to be improving, the next two weeks will be important in determining whether the authorities in Europe and elsewhere can quickly contain the outbreak, or whether there is a further rapid spread of the virus.The full impact on economic activity from the COVID-19 epidemic remains in a state of flux.” Moreover, they note that “In a risk case where containment in China takes much longer or the spread abroad significantly worsens, further reductions to growth would have to be made.” Realistically, how does one keep China’s economy running with 750 million in quarantine? Public trust has been hard hit and overstressed public health/healthcare systems aren’t helping. “The good news for Xi and the party at the moment is a decline in reported new cases and deaths nationwide (the vast majority in Hubei). The bad news, however, is that Hubei’s horrors have tarnished the trust many Chinese had in their officials’ ability to safeguard citizens’ lives and livelihoods.” Realistically, this also calls into attention the travel bans that despite continued use, fail to be truly effective. From discouraging transparency to the realistic issues in focusing on symptoms during respiratory virus season, these efforts appear more taxing than helpful. The economic impact of the outbreak will continue to be a topic of conversation though, as President Trump scrambles to downplay the stock market losses this week.

Synthetic Biology Surprise: Synthesis of Vaccinia Virus
Dr. Gregory D Koblentz, the Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, published an article this week in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about a frightening feat in biotechnology that remains unnoticed amidst the chaos of Covid-19. In January, Tonix Pharmaceuticals discreetly announced that it had successfully synthesized the vaccinia, the virus used for the smallpox vaccine, in a press release about a poster it presented at an American Society for Microbiology conference. Tonix’s “achievement” was sought after despite serious concerns from several biosecurity experts, many of whom raised criticism of the firm’s synthesis of horsepox virus in 2017. Of grave concern is the utility of synthesized vaccinia as the benefits do not outweigh the risks. In fact, synthesis is unnecessary for researching vaccinia as samples are widely available.  Any claims that Tonix’s work was intended to help develop an improved or safer smallpox vaccine are undercut by the recently licensed JYNNEOS vaccine, a 3rd generation smallpox vaccine developed by Bavaria Nordic. The resources and skills needed to synthesize even complicated viruses are becoming more readily available as synthetic biology and the flourishing bioeconomy lower costs and simplify processes. Unfortunately, the lack of regulations and oversight for DNA synthesis, whether in the name of peaceful research or otherwise, is not matching pace with its accessibility to scientists and DIY bio-users. This is yet another example of the possibilities – both beneficial and detrimental – made reality by synthetic biology, and the risks of puny safeguards for its tools and data.

Upcoming Event: The Story of Technology by Daniel Gerstein, PhD
On 4 March 2020, the CSPS Speaker Series is hosting Dr. Daniel Gerstein, a GMU Biodefense PhD alumnus, to discuss his new book, The Story of Technology: How We Got Here and What the Future Holds. The book examines the rapid proliferation and pervasive influence of technology in human societies. Dr. Gerstein is a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, and he has served in the Department of Homeland Security as Under Secretary (Acting) and Deputy Under Secretary in the Science and Technology Directorate. Dr. Gerstein will be joined by Ellen Laipson, Director of the Master’s in International Security program and CSPS, and Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Program. The event will take place at Noon in Room 113 of Van Metre Hall. Drinks and cookies will be provided. Register here.

Opportunities with the GHSA Next Gen Network
The Global Health Security Agenda’s Next Generation Network just announced its 2020 theme: Inclusive Expansion. Toward that, applications for the Next Gen Mentorship Program are open until 18 March and matches will be announced on 2 April. Apply here for the Mentorship Program. Additionally, leadership positions are available as regional coordinators; apply here. Other opportunities include helping to translate documents into multiple languages. To assist, email your name and language proficiencies to the coordinator at nextgenghsa@gmail.com. For more information on the Global Health Security Agenda click here and for more information on the GHSA Next Generation Network click here.

Covering COVID-19: What do you need to know?
Don’t miss this March 10th event hosted by the Association of Health Care Journalists. The COVID-19 outbreak story is evolving quickly and there are many unknowns about the epidemic, including how contagious the virus is, its mortality rate and whether there is undetected spread occurring outside of China. Providing accurate information to the public is more important than ever in this moment of uncertainty. Hear a panel of infectious disease experts and a journalist explain what is known, what to watch out for, where to find trusted resources and how to combat misinformation and confusion. Speakers include: Maryn McKenna, independent journalist, author; Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Human Health at Emory University. Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.A., director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Saskia Popescu, senior infection preventionist at Honor Health, ELBI Fellow, and managing editor of Pandora Report.

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