Launching The Coronavirus Chronicles
It has been three months since the World Health Organization declared that the novel coronavirus now known as SARS-CoV-2 posed a public health emergency of international concern. Not since the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 has the world experienced a pandemic of the scope and severity caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Since SARS-CoV-2 first emerged, the faculty, students, and alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government have been working on the front lines, behind the scenes, and on the home front to respond to this unprecedented pandemic. After we heard some amazing stories from Biodefense students and alumni about how the COVID-19 pandemic had presented new personal and professional challenges and how they had been able to contribute, in ways large and small, to the pandemic response, the editors of The Pandora Report decided that these stories needed a wider audience. The Coronavirus Chronicles is a collection of stories, based on the personal and professional experiences of the faculty, students, and alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program, about life during the pandemic. We hope these stories help the public better understand the challenges posed by COVID-19 and how current and former members of the Biodefense Graduate Program have responded to these challenges and contributed to the pandemic response at the local, national, and international levels. The first installment of The Coronavirus Chronicles features three stories by Biodefense students and alumni. Biodefense PhD alumna Jennifer Osetek explains how she juggles multiple roles from working for the Coast Guard to teaching public health emergency preparedness to being a mom and Saskia Popescu discusses the challenges of infection prevention on the frontlines in hospitals. Finally, master’s student Madeline Roty highlights the importance of protecting your mental health as well as your physical health during the pandemic. New stories will be added to The Coronavirus Chronicles on a regular basis and new installments will be featured in future issues of The Pandora Report. If you are a student or alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program and would like to contribute a story, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Memoriam – Julian Robinson
The CBW world got a bit dimmer with the loss of Julian Perry Robinson on April 22. Julian was an avid researcher and contributor to the world of CBW nonproliferation, inspiring generations to study and work in biodefense. “A chemist and lawyer by training, Julian was a member of the SIPRI research staff during 1968–71 and the focal point of the work on CBW, which included the excellent six-volume series of books The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare (1971–76). During this period he was also responsible for groundbreaking reports on CBW issues published by the UN Secretary-General and the World Health Organization. All of these provided essential inputs into the negotiation of the Biological Weapons Convention which was opened for signature in 1972.”
Health Security Articles by Our Editorial Team
The latest issue of Health Security includes two articles by the Pandora Report’s managing editor Saskia Popescu and associate editor Rachel-Paige Casey. Both articles can be found here. Popescu co-authored the article “Restricted and Uncontained: Health Considerations in the Event of Loss of Containment During the Restricted Earth Return of Extraterrestrial Samples” with Betsy Pugel and Syra Madad. Currently, the scope of a satisfactory public health response to the release of biological material is limited to biological vectors with known pathogenicity and virulence; however, the scope should be expanded to include the release of biological material with unknown pathogenicity and virulence. The recent return of extraterrestrial samples from Mars, a planet which may harbor life, instigates the renewed framing of a public health response, particularly for an accidental release of a such novel and mystifying material. The article poses a set of question relating to the initial public health and healthcare response in the event that extraterrestrial samples are accidentally released from failures in biological containment mechanisms. These questions ask how the public health community prepares for such an event; what can be done to confine, decontaminate, and collect the material; and how will the public be prepared. Casey co-authored the article “Conflict and Cholera: Yemen’s Man-Made Public Health Crisis and the Global Implications of Weaponizing Health” with Christine Crudo Blackburn and Paul E. Lenze, Jr. The 2016-17 cholera epidemic in Yemen was, prior to COVID-19, the largest disease outbreak in modern history. Conservative estimates found that the number of suspected cases exceeded 1 million and, within the first 8 months of the outbreak, there were over 2,000 confirmed deaths. Although cholera is an ancient disease that continues to plague many countries, Yemen’s outbreak had several unique features. The outbreak, which disseminated at an unprecedented pace, was directly linked to the country’s ongoing armed conflict. This article assesses what the cholera outbreak in Yemen reveals about the connection between infectious disease and conflict, the targeting of healthcare infrastructure as a modern warfare tactic, and the implications of a strategy of infrastructure destruction have for global health security.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased fears of both another naturally-occurring disease event and a bioweapons attack. The Trump administration released a National Biodefense Strategy in 2018, but it also dismantled directorate of the National Security Council that focused on health security and biodefense, and it proposed budget cuts to the laboratory network that tests for biological threats. between FY2015 and FY2019, funding for civilian biosecurity dropped 27% to a number $1.61 billion lower than the bill for buying Black Hawk helicopters. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, spoke to how the pandemic has, frighteningly, showcased that the US public health infrastructure is comprehensive broken or overtaxed. In other words, we have now exposed a critical vulnerability that may be provide incentive for a bioterrorist. This vulnerability extends beyond public health and the beyond the US borders; the US and global economy may now have targets on their backs.
The Saga Continues: Disinformation and Conspiracy Theories about the Origins of COVID-19
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and the nations of the world still struggle to stop the spread and protect their people and economies, the desire for a boogie man persists. Conspiracy theories abound about the suspected surreptitious origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that plagues the world. Despite a bevy of experts denying the possibility that the coronavirus is the result of biological warfare and genetic analyses showing that this virus is not human-made, the shoddy hypothesis has a following of believers. In the Washington Post, Dan Kaszeta, a specialist in chemical and biological defense, provides further insight into the illegitimacy of the theories that the pandemic is the product biological warfare. Beyond the lack of evidence of human tampering, the inducement of a pandemic threatens the safety and security of the perpetrator’s own people, thereby disincentivizing the release of a pandemic-inducing bioweapon. There is no therapeutic or vaccine against this coronavirus that would engender protection of one’s own or a friendly population to the releaser. Further, the spread of disinformation relating to the pandemic is now being coined as a concurrent “infodemic.” One of the newest conspiracy theories is that the 5G network either transmits the coronavirus directly or weakens the immune system to imbue susceptibility to the virus. What will be tomorrow’s half-baked coronavirus conspiracy hoax?
Special Issue of Intelligence and National Security
The Journal of Intelligence and National Security released a Special Issue on Global Health Security, introduced with an article by Filippa Lentzos (a friend of GMU Biodefense), Michael Goodman, and James Wilson. Their article provides an overview of the health security threat spectrum: deliberate disease outbreaks, emerging infectious diseases and natural disease outbreaks at the other, and accidental disease events created by the significant scientific advances in the abilities to modify genes and microorganisms. Additionally, it traces how the perceptions about biological and health security threats have changed and expanded with outbreaks of naturally-occurring diseases, recognition of the unintended consequences of research, laboratory accidents, negligence, and emerging technologies. The authors argue that the traditional intelligence community must better engage with non-IS stakeholders and broaden its cadre to include new sources of intelligence in order to strengthen global health security and health intelligence. The Special Issue is an effort to encourage the development of a “multidisciplinary, empirically-informed, and policy-relevant approach to intelligence-academia engagement in global health security that serves both the intelligence community and scholars from a broad range of disciplines.” Read the full article here and all the articles in this Special Issue are open access.
COVID-19 MCM Update
The latest scientific study findings of potential COVID-19 therapeutics are a mixed bag of good news and bad news. Gilead’s remdesivir, an antiviral drug developed to treat hepatitis C and Ebola virus disease, shows no benefit to coronavirus patients according to a clinical trial conducted in China. This finding was accidentally revealed, but additional studies on the effects of remdesivir for coronavirus patients await their own conclusions. Conversely, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert for the US government, recently stated that data from another clinical trial is showing a positive effect from remdesivir in cutting a patient’s time to recovery. GEN’s list of front-runners for therapeutics and vaccines against COVID-19 currently includes 19 candidates; remdesivir remains on that list. In encouraging news, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the argument for supporting the development of a panviral drug. A panviral drug works broadly within or across viral families to incapacitate them. Such a drug is extraordinarily difficult to design because viruses hijack a host’s cellular machinery to survive and propagate; however, targeting a virus’s functions in a host cell may also negatively impact that cell’s normal function. Fortunately, researchers are starting to discover ways around that problem by refining which processes an antiviral drug targets.
The Trump Effect – International Institutions
From UNESCO to the Human Rights Council, and now the WHO, President Trump isn’t much of a fan of international institutions. “Global institutions are supposed to help facilitate cooperation during crises, but this time they’ve left nations to their own devices. That’s a departure from the past, and many experts suggest that it’s largely driven by the U.S.’s absence. ‘This makes the U.S. weaker, not stronger,‘ said Greg Koblentz, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. ‘This will either lead other countries to try and use these crises to push their own agendas, or everyone will be on their own and you’re going to get a zero-sum competition among countries competing for scarce resources and hording supplies and not sharing data, because the mechanisms for facilitating cooperation and burden sharing and information sharing will have fallen apart’.” Since the news of President Trump’s plans to halt U.S. funding to the WHO, many have pointed out that his frustrations with the international institution aren’t excuses for why the U.S. has performed so poorly in responding to COVID-19. Jeremy Konyndyk noted “First off, the decision to pause funding to the organization that is coordinating the global fight against a pandemic in the middle of a pandemic is hugely damaging. If they do move forward with fully cutting off funding, that doesn’t just disrupt COVID response; it disrupts a lot of different things the U.S. government relies on WHO to do, like polio eradication, or cholera in Yemen, or extinguishing the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo.”
The Right Way to Reopen the Economy According to GMU’s Pearlstein
Steven Pearlstein, a GMU Schar School professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning business and economics columnist, briefly outlined his recommendations on reopening the US economy. The upshot of Gerstein’s article is that getting Americans back to work after the coronavirus lockdown should not be a politicized process, but one that focuses on protecting Americans while restarting the US economy. The sooner we can safely return to normal life, the better. He outlines several general principles for reopening the economy, but points out that decisions and policies should be tailor-made to a region, industry, or institution to maximize success. For instance, regarding special funding programs, workers should be prioritized over investors and low-wage workers should be prioritized over high-wage workers. In general, lenders can afford to wait for their money, whereas workers and suppliers cannot. Given that a large chunk of white-collar workers can work from home but many blue-collar workers lack that luxury, low-wage workers should be the first to receive help as they are more likely to have lost most, if not all, of their income under the social distancing measures. No matter what decisions are made, tradeoffs are inevitable. There is no perfect solution without some hiccups or shortcomings. So, the key question is how do we reopen in a way that minimizes costs and risks to public health?
Preventing CBW Proliferation In the Age of COVID-19
How are the OPCW, BCW, and 1540 committees working to combat biological and chemical weapons during the pandemic? Richard Cupitt, Senior Fellow and Director of the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program at Stimson and Adjunct Faculty at GMU Biodefense, has provided a review of how each nonproliferation organization is working during this time. Cupitt notes of the BWC, “Not surprisingly, many national governments have entertained the need to adopt and implement the BWC and contribute to its strengthening. And the requests for assistance have increased enormously according to several sources (although which requests, if any, that have gone to the BWC is confidential).” He emphasizes that for those like the OPCW, adjustments have been made to work remotely while maintaining a critical presence. Moreover, the economic recession will likely mean cuts to the budgets of many nations, which could impact the financial obligations of States parties to these international organizations.
Opportunity to support CBRN Research: The University of Maryland’s Integrated Discovery of Emerging and Novel Technologies (IDENT) Project Team Invites You to Join
GMU Biodefense MS alum Alexandra Williams, Junior Researcher at the Unconventional Weapons Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at UMD, is the co-research lead for the IDENT project and is inviting you to join. “This project has allowed me to apply the knowledge and experience I gained at GMU to conduct hands-on biodefense research and support US government CBRN mission space.” The IDENT Project seeks to develop a repeatable and scalable process for the discovery of emerging or disruptive technologies that may impact the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) mission space. The project is sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and is being designed and implemented by an interdisciplinary research team from the University of Maryland, ABS Consulting Group (ABSG), and the University at Albany (State University of New York). The IDENT Project team would like to invite rising and leading experts in the fields of biological and chemical defense to participate in the IDENT Knowledge Hub. The Knowledge Hub, a core component of the IDENT system, is a distributed, collaborative online software platform that includes broad horizon scanning and iterative-structured elicitation functionalities. The platform is also designed to incorporate additional expertise as needed through brief semi-structured probing interviews. If you would like to join the network of experts participating in the Knowledge Hub, refer a colleague, a fellow classmate, or would like more information about this effort, please reach out to Ms. Salma Bouziani at Bouziani@umd.edu and we are happy to provide you with any additional information.
Epic Fail: Why the US Wasn’t Prepared for the Coronavirus Pandemic
Daniel Gerstein, a graduate of the Biodefense PhD program and a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about why the US was not prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. The current administration largely failed to arrange a strong and timely response to COVID-19. The factors in this epic failure include, but are not limited to, inadequate biosurveillance systems, a disjointed emergency response network, and poor management of supply chain disruptions. Gerstein encourages a makeover for the emergency response system that lowers reliance on the federal government for a quick and effective response to outbreaks. In fact, certain state governments are already forming pacts to coordinate their responses to the outbreak and, perhaps, bypass the federal government. The pandemic has exposed the fissures in the national preparedness and response systems, which will require reconfiguring by relearning the lessons of crisis response and emergency management. Read Gerstein’s full article here.
First it was a sick tiger and now a new study from the CDC has reported that two pet cats living in separate ares of New York State have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. “In the NY cases announced today, a veterinarian tested the first cat after it showed mild respiratory signs. No individuals in the household were confirmed to be ill with COVID-19. The virus may have been transmitted to this cat by mildly ill or asymptomatic household members or through contact with an infected person outside its home.Samples from the second cat were taken after it showed signs of respiratory illness. The owner of the cat tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the cat showing signs. Another cat in the household has shown no signs of illness.” No word on if hairballs are considered fomites…
News of the Weird
Got chickens? You’re in good shape against COVID-19 according to a Swedish city. The city of Lund is “spreading chicken manure in its central park in an effort to deter crowds gathering for a festival. Tens of thousands of people usually descend on southern city to celebrate Walpurgis Night, which is marked across Scandinavia. But officials want to keep people away because of the coronavirus outbreak. There is no lockdown in Sweden, where data show most people have taken to voluntary social distancing.” For residents of Lund, they have emphasized that with the stench of chicken manure, who would want to sit and have a beer?