Pandora Report: 3.13.2020

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
From July 13-16, 2020, GMU Biodefense will be hosting a workshop on all things health security, from anthrax to Zika. Leaders in the field will be discussing hot topics like vaccine development, medical countermeasures, synthetic biology, and healthcare response to COVID-19. This is also a great networking opportunity as past participants come from a range of government agencies, NGOs, universities, think tanks, and foreign countries. Don’t miss out on the early-bird discount for this immersive workshop – you can register here.

Policy vs. Pandemics: Polarization and Public Health Emergency Preparedness
Curious about partisanship in pandemic response? Join us at 6pm on March 26th for this event that is now virtual (log-in instructions to follow here). Political polarization is being blamed for many areas of dysfunction in the U.S. government, and the response to infectious diseases is not immune to this concern. This presentation will discuss how a lack of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans has hindered the ability of the nation to carry out essential public health emergency response functions, such as biosurveillance and the development and deployment of medical countermeasures. Particular attention will be given to bipartisan efforts to move forward with public health preparedness efforts, such as the implementation of the National Biodefense Strategy, in light of the challenges posed by the global coronavirus pandemic.  Dr. Nathan Myers is an associate professor of political science and public administration at Indiana State University. His research interests include public health policy, U.S. executive branch politics and administration, emergency planning and preparedness, and regulation of biotechnology. He is the author of Pandemics and Polarization: Implications of Partisan Budgeting for Responding to Public Health Emergencies(Lexington Books, 2019). Register for the event here

GMU Schar School Biodefense PhD and Master’s Open Houses – Moving to Virtual
UPDATE: While we originally had two great opportunities to learn more about GMU Biodefense graduate degrees – the PhD Open House on Wednesday March 18th at 7pm in Arlington, and the March 26th Master’s Open House, at 6:30pm, both events are cancelled and we will be providing virtual opportunities in the near future. Please stay tuned for more updates here.

COVID-19 – A Pandemic and Problems
This week the WHO finally declared the SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. On Wednesday, President Trump addressed the nation regarding COVID-19 with an attempt to calm the country regarding healthcare costs and employees/businesses impacted. “The dramatic centerpiece of Trump’s speech was a ban on travelers from Europe entering the U.S. for 30 days. In theory, this might at least prevent new cases from coming to the U.S. and seeding outbreaks. But many experts think it is far too late for that.” Over 125,000 cases have been reported, and nearly 1,300 cases have been identified in the United States as of Wednesday. Several states have declared emergencies and the CDC is discouraging people of older age and with chronic conditions related to the heart, lungs, or diabetes, to stay home if there are outbreaks in their communities, as there is an increased risk for severe disease should they acquire SARS-CoV-2. The U.S. State Department has issued a Global Level 3 Health Advisory, which “advises U.S. citizens to reconsider travel abroad due to the global impact of COVID-19. Many areas throughout the world are now experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and taking action that may limit traveler mobility, including quarantines and border restrictions. Even countries, jurisdictions, or areas where cases have not been reported may restrict travel without notice.” A new risk assessment by the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) noted that “It advised countries to quickly shift to mitigation strategies to protect vulnerable people and prevent overwhelmed hospitals. Reports of dire conditions in hospitals in Italy’s hot spots have been circulating on social media for the past few weeks and are now appearing in medical journal and media reports. The ECDC acknowledges that high numbers of patients needing ventilation have exceeded intensive care unit (ICU) capacity in some healthcare facilities in northern Italy.” Testing for the disease is ramping up in the U.S., but still quite slowly, meaning that not all people wanting the test will get it as it depends on clinical presentation and epidemiological risk factors. The challenge though, is that this is still influenza season and for many, there is concern about what to do if you have a fever and cough. Check out guidance here and GMU Biodefense alum Saskia Popescu’s comments -“Because this is such a novel situation, people want a novel approach to handling it. They want a novel way to better isolate themselves or some crazy new hand-hygiene technique,” says Saskia Popescu, senior infection prevention epidemiologist at HonorHealth, a health system in Phoenix. “That’s just not the case. These are tried and true methods — we just need to be really vigilant with them.” Worried about dating and intimacy during the outbreak? Here are some good recommendations on love in a time of COVID-19. “It’s okay to cancel a date because you don’t feel great, and the person you’re canceling with should be happy about that. But in honesty, it’s okay to encounter other humans in the wild. We are not at a point yet where you need to lock yourself in your house and never see another human.”

Pathogens on a Plane
Airports and airplanes are dreaded areas during any kind of outbreak, endemic or novel. In light of the ongoing pandemic, researchers Christopher Robertson and Keith Joiner at the University of Arizona suggest that airlines require vaccination for all passengers or require proof of medical exemption. Unfortunately, a vaccine for COVID-19 is yet to exist and the vaccine would not counteract the exposure from unidentified cases of infection, especially given incubation periods. If a vaccine for an infectious disease of concern is unavailable to the public or nonexistent, then the vaccination requirement will serve little purpose in quelling its spread. That said, there is certainly room for improvement regarding the precautions and measures taken against infectious disease spread from air travel. Dr. Nereyda Sevilla, graduate of the GMU Biodefense PhD Program, focused her dissertation on the transmission and risks of airplane-borne infectious diseases. Sevilla’s research analyzed the impact of air travel on the spread of pneumonic plague, a disease with a high mortality rate. Her results indicate that transmission via air travel depends on the type of disease, specifically, its duration of illness. Nereyda makes the following recommendations: (1) expand the definition of close contact on aircraft, (2) require health contact information with all plane tickets purchases, (3) expand self-sanitizing measures, (4) improve travel alerts and advisory notices during the ticket sales process, (5) perform temperature checks on a limited and random basis, and (6) improve crisis communication.

Myanmar’s Chemical Weapons Program
GMU’s Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and master’s student Madeline Roty  encourage the US to help Myanmar come clean about its chemical weapons program in a new article. Myanmar’s secret chemical weapons program, now believed to be inactive, is a commonly underacknowledged topic, even by the US government. It was not until early 1988, 5 years after intelligence arose about Myanmar seeking to product chemical weapons, that the US publicly accused Myanmar of developing chemical weapons. The motivation and objective of the clandestine weapons program remains unclear, but speculation includes defense or offense measures against domestic insurgencies or neighboring countries.  Despite its continued denial of the program, Myanmar seems to be moving toward transparency with its willingness to address concerns about its adherence (or lack thereof) to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Recent reporting of chemical weapons deployment by the Myanmar military remain unconfirmed but suspected. This is especially concerning given the persecution of the minority Rohingya, likely targets of all kinds of weapons. In an optimistic turn, last month, the country hosted a US delegation of experts to discuss the CWC, an important step toward transparency. Hopefully, for both its status among the liberal international order and the safety and security of its people, Myanmar will choose a path of openness about its chemical weapons programs.

NPT’s Uncertain 50th Birthday
5 March 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) entrance into force, and the 25thanniversary of its indefinite extension.  The NPT is an international treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and related technology, promote cooperation for peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and work toward comprehensive nuclear disarmament. Advocates of the NPT can boast that only 13 states have ever possessed nuclear weapons and, of those, 4 disarmed in a nuclear reversal. Opponents of the NPT can highlight the growing threat of non-NPT nuclear weapons possessors (India, Israel, Pakistan) and states of immediate proliferation concern(Iran, DPRK, Syria). This year will also see a quinquennial Review Conference for the NPT, to be held at the United Nations in New York City and attended by representatives from the 191 states that are party to the treaty. Unfortunately, the upcoming Review is anticipated to be disastrous as members without nuclear weapons remain dissatisfied that 5 member states (US, UK, France, China, and Russia) continue to maintain their nuclear weapons stockpiles, and more members consider nuclear hedging as part of their national security strategies. The upcoming Review will provide further insight on the state of the nuclear weapons non-proliferation norms regime.

Pandemics and Podcasts
This week we’ve got two great podcasts for you – the first is from Foreign Policy and entitled (appropriately) Don’t Touch of Your Face. “On the last day of 2019, China reported an unusual outbreak in Wuhan, a port city with a population of 11 million. Within two months, the disease would spread to almost every continent on the globe and kill thousands of people. From Foreign Policy, a podcast about the extent of the COVID-19 contagion, the threat it poses, and what countries are doing to contain it. Join FP’s James Palmer and Amy Mackinnon as they track the spread of the virus and explore what it means for people’s everyday lives.” Our second podcast to share is Authors of Mass Destruction, which “focused on helping authors write great stories while getting the details right. Tune in for interviews with leading experts on weapons of mass destruction and emerging technologies, author interviews, technical modules, and reviews of what TV shows and movies get right and wrong. The podcast will help authors who write about mass destruction develop impactful ideas for their page-turning plots and provide tips for conducting research.” Don’t miss the recent podcast with GMU Biodefense alum Saskia Popescu on bioweapons, healthcare preparedness, and everything from Ebola to antimicrobial resistance.



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