Welcome to your weekly report on all things global health security – have you been wondering if a gym or coffee shop is safer to visit when things re-open? Check out this review here – but don’t forget to wash your hands!
The Coronavirus Chronicles
Last week we introduced our new series,The Coronavirus Chronicles, which 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. This week, we’re launching three more stories – doctoral student Janet Marroquin discusses conducting analyses of various chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense capabilities while also starting a PhD and parenting during the pandemic. One feature you’ll see this week is a focus on how labs are working to reopen in the midst of COVID-19. David Grimm noted this recently as “one of the biggest challenges labs face is how to keep their members physically distanced to limit any potential spread of SARS-CoV-2.” Check out our two lab-based stories in this week’s Coronavirus Chronicles for insight into how this unique, but critical work environment is trying to safely reopen. One of our graduate students delves into working in the laboratory setting and the challenges of biosafety and research, followed by Travis Swaggard who is a senior biologist and discusses what it’s like working with SARS-CoV-2 and testing different regions of the SARS-CoV-2 genome from synthetically derived sections of the virus. Read their full stories here in The Coronavirus Chronicles.
Schar School Event- Public Policy in the Pandemic Age: How COVID-19 is Reshaping our Government, Economy, and Society
Join the Schar School Faculty, Alumni, Schar Alumni Chapter, and Dean Mark Rozell for an engaging virtual panel on the future of public policy post COVID-19 – COVID-19: How the Pandemic is Reshaping our Government, Economy, and Society. This virtual event will be moderated by Biodefense Graduate Program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and will be held from 2-3:30pm EST on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting unprecedented challenges to the United States and the rest of the world. Not since the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 have we experienced a pandemic of this scale and severity. Aside from the steep and growing human toll of the outbreak, virtually every aspect of our personal and professional lives are being affected. The sheer breadth of issues impacted by COVID-19 is overwhelming: public health, medicine, government, the economy, international trade, education, national security, politics, and technology, to name just a few. The effects of the pandemic are also magnified by existing cleavages within our society ranging from hyperpartisanship to racial disparities to socioeconomic inequalities. You can read more about our distinguished panel members and register for the event here.
Complications and Misinterpretations about COVID-19 Testing
The development and employment of rapid and reliable diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2 infection are a hot topic as we continue to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first several weeks of the pandemic, the US failed to launch an adequate testing infrastructure that would enable sufficient testing capacity with reliable and valid testing methods. Molecular diagnostic techniques, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19, are espoused for their sensitivity (true positive rate), specificity (true negative rate), and safety. Molecular diagnostics can be performed on inactivated samples and are capable of detecting microbial DNA and RNA that are heavily diluted. An additional advantage of the molecular tests is their ability to distinguish between strains of the same virus, bacteria, or fungus. Serologic techniques look for the antibodies that are produced by the immune system to fight off a microbe; these types of tests can also detect exposure after an infection has resolved. Serology helps identify cases that occurred with very mild or no symptoms. Within the discussions about the need for diagnostic testing for COVID-19, the focus has recently shifted from molecular to serologic tests. It is important to note that these tests do not guarantee whether an individual has developed immunity to a specific pathogen. As of 5 May, the FDA has issued Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) to 60 test kit manufacturers and commercial laboratories producing molecular and serological tests, but only a dozen of these are received approval for serological diagnostics. Most of these EUAs are for diagnostics to be conducted in laboratories certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvements Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) to perform high complexity tests; some are approved for use in laboratories certified to perform moderate complexity tests. A recent survey of New York City discovered that 1 in 5 residents carried antibodies for the novel coronavirus, which indicates that they were exposed to the virus. This result confirms the fear of many experts that the lack of testing has led to an underestimation of the number of infections; for NYC, the estimated was one-tenth of the true number of infections. The fact that 20% of the NYC population may carry the antibodies does not necessitate that all those individuals developed immunity to COVID-19. Dr. Saskia Popescu, a Biodefense PhD graduate, pointed out that epidemiology for COVID-19 is leaning heavily on these imperfect tests, a dangerous move given that many individuals remain susceptible to infection. Popescu’s concerns echoes the cautions raised by other scientists that the presence of antibodies does not signify immunity, and even those who were infected but asymptomatic may be at risk of a second infection. Additional improved tests are needed to better assess the significance of antibodies in previously infected patients.
GMU Institute for Sustainable Earth – Pandemic Webinars
The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic reveal both fragilities and resiliencies in our global society. Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth is hosting a webinar series to investigate some of these dimensions of the current health and economic crises through the lens of sustainability science. In moderated discussions with sustainability experts, these webinars will also explore how society could recover to a more resilient and sustainable state. Each week you can attend a new webinar regarding everything from preparedness and social resilience, ecological health, and social inequalities and the disparities of impact. Make sure you catch the Preparedness and Social Resilience event next week on Tuesday, May 12th from 2-3pm, which will include Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Associate Professor of Government and Politics and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program.
The Conspiracy Continues: Theories Persist that COVID-19 Came from a Lab
Despite a throng of scientists and researchers debunking the theories that COVID-19 was born from a Chinese laboratory, the accusations and fears that the pandemic is the result of a laboratory release linger. On 3 May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there is “enormous evidence” that the novel coronavirus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a claim made despite the assessment of the intelligence community concluding that the virus is neither human-made nor genetically modified. The magnitude of this supposed evidence is repeatedly stated but the specifics of it are not. Actual scientific evidence supports the expectation that SARS-CoV-2 is naturally-occurring and originated from bats before spilling over into the human population. Dr. Greg Koblentz, Director of the GMU Biodefense Graduate Program, further squashed the idea that the novel coronavirus was created in a laboratory based on what is known about the biology of the virus. Koblentz points out that there is little evidence suggesting a cover-up by the Chinese government for a supposed lab breach. The WIV’s transparency regarding genomic sequencing of the virus supports the more reasonable conclusion that they are not the source. Some of these conspiracy theories use the WIV’s extensive research on deadly bat viruses as a foundation for their claims. Such research activities are not hidden and much is event detailed in over 40 published studies and academic papers. Though the source of the virus is quite unlikely to be a villainous origin, its origin may not be isolated to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London encourages carrying out a credible investigation to unveil a complete picture of the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. Further, though there is minimal hard evidence that the pandemic could have been the result of a laboratory failure, even a remote possibility brings into question the stringency and efficacy of safety in basic scientific research. A study published in March found that only 45% of the first 435 COVID-19 patients had connections to the seafood market in Wuhan, supporting the notion that the virus was present in other settings from the beginning. That said, this evidence does not indicate that the origin is the WIV or another laboratory that developed the novel coronavirus through manipulation. The pathogen is almost certainly a product of nature, but a comprehensive understanding of the factors and conditions that led to this pandemic will provide valuable insight for handling the next outbreak.
Arizona Puts Politics Above Pandemic Response
Earlier this week an infectious disease modeling team from Arizona State University, which had been providing models to the state health department and through publicly-available resources, was quietly release from their duties and told to return the data. Not long after, the rumblings of concern that this was a politically-motivated decision, became increasingly loud. The suspension of the COVID-19 modeling working group was just after President Trump visited Phoenix, AZ (where the group is based) and ultimately, their findings weren’t aligning with Gov. Ducey’s sudden push to re-open the state. In fact, the decision to disband the modeling team was made just hours after Gov. Ducey decided to rapidly accelerate the opening of the state. Originally set for May 15th, it was announced earlier this week that businesses like salons and restaurants would re-open starting on Friday, May 8th. The concerns for this as a politically motivated decision were quickly made by AZPHA in their post here, which noted that “The letter asking them to stop work didn’t provide any reason for the request except that it was at the direction of ADHS’ senior leadership. The only remaining predictive model that the state health department is now using has been developed by FEMA. Neither that model nor the predictive modeling results from the FEMA model are publicly available. Last night’s action to disband the Arizona COVID-19 Modeling Working Group begs the question of whether the Modeling Working Group was discontinued because they had been producing results that were inconsistent with messaging and decisions being made by the executive branch.” Within a few days, it got national attention and gave rise to concern that the push to prematurely re-open states could be impeding public health efforts. “But experts said Arizona’s dismissal of academics, whose analysis seems at odds with the state’s approach, marked an alarming turn against data-informed decision-making.”
Bright, BARDA, and Whistleblowing
Ripples were sent this week as former director of BARDA, Rick Bright, filed a whistleblower complaint on Tuesday regarding his removal from office and reported pressure from Robert Kadlec, leader of ASPR, to “to buy drugs and medical products for the nation’s stockpile of emergency medical equipment from companies that were linked politically to the administration and that he resisted such efforts.” The 89-page complaint was a searing document that noted Bright’s removal due to his efforts to “prioritize science and safety over political expediency.” As biodefense expert Dr. Gregory Koblentz notes, “Rick Bright’s whisteblower complaint contains a litany of disturbing details about the failures of the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House to respond quickly and forcefully to the COVID-19 pandemic. The complaint shines a bright on the Trump Administration’s poor judgment, bureaucratic in-fighting, politically-driven decision-making, disregard for science, corruption, and incompetence.”