Pandora Report: 6.19.2020

Stevie Kiesel Commentary: Viruses and Violence: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Extremism

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insight on the how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting extremist behavior. Extremist groups are using the pandemic largely to regain territory and expand their sphere of influence; however, there have been attempts to exploit the virus as a bioweapon. Kiesel’s analysis focuses on Jihadist groups and far-right extremists, both of which are using the pandemic to bolster their recruitment and radicalization strategies. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Hear, see, and speak no COVID: Why the Trump administration is bungling the response to the pandemic

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Saskia Popescu, Alumna of the Biodefense Graduate Program and hospital epidemiologist, recently published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about the failure of the administration to appropriately utilize scientific expertise in its COVID-19 response activities. Koblentz and Popescu assert that the administration has been “deaf, dumb, and blind” during this catastrophe that has already claimed over 100,000 lives in the US. The pre-existing gap between science and policy has been ripped open by the Trump administration. An important lesson learned from this pandemic is the “importance of sound scientific advice and providing public health agencies with the independence to formulate and implement evidence-based policies to respond to threats to health security.” Read Koblenz and Popescu’s article here.

Keeping Up with COVID-19: An Update on Vaccine Development

The race to develop an efficacious and safe COVID-19 vaccine endeavors to reach an unprecedented timeline for FDA approval. The US government established Operation Warp Speed (OWS) to develop a vaccine by the end of the calendar year, a process which usually takes 10-15 years. Challenges regarding the desired speedy timeline may inhibit the ideal due date of OWS for a COVID-19 vaccine; however, scientists are seeing some hopeful signs that we can efficiently produce a safe and effective vaccine.

Unfortunately, predicting the timeline of an effective and safe human vaccine, verified via a phase 3 clinical trial, is extremely difficult. To shorten the timeline of phase 3 clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can authorize the use of a vaccine based on its immune correlate of protection (ICP): a type and amount of immunological response that correlates with vaccine-induced protection against an infectious disease and that is considered predictive of clinical efficacy. A vaccine can receive accelerated approval if vaccinated subjects present with levels of neutralizing antibodies (proteins that block viruses from infecting cells) that, at least, match the levels of naturally infected subjects. Regrettably, there is a lack of certainty regarding the level of neutralizing antibodies necessary to guarantee immunity. The ICP shortcut is favored by pharmaceutical companies who hope to persuade the FDA to soon approve their vaccines, at least for the vaccination of high-risk individuals for fear of dual attacks of influenza and COVID-19 this coming winter. Other scientists caution against the use of proxies such as ICP to determine approval of COVID-19 vaccine due to the uncertainty about immunity and the rocky track record of vaccines for other diseases that have been approved using proxies for efficacy and safety.

On a cheerier note, many experts are optimistic about a successful COVID-19 vaccine because so much effort and money are being poured into its development. Dr. John Mascola, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is hopeful that because our natural immune system is clearing the virus for many patients, a vaccine that closely mimics a natural infection will likely work. Luckily, SARS-CoV-2 has not significantly mutated, thus far, and this stability increases the likelihood of developing an vaccine that works well against the virus. Also, the vaccine need not be 100% effective, either in terms of preventing sickness or preventing infection. A vaccine that can significantly reduce sickness or disease severity along with lowering hospitalizations would be a win against the virus. According to Dr. Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a vaccine candidate worthy of approval should be 50% effective against symptoms and 70% effective against moderate to severe disease.

We Ran the CDC. Here’s How to Talk to the Public in a Health Crisis

Two former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote a commentary urging public health officials to greatly improve their public health communications to the public. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, communications from public health officials in the US and abroad have often failed to be accurate, transparent, and reliable. The authors cite the contradictory statements about asymptomatic transmission from WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove as the latest communication fiasco. They fear that such communication failures coupled with regular disregard for the scientific expertise of those at the CDC are undermining the institutions we need to positively impact public health. To improve communication, public health officials at the federal, state, and local levels must be: truthful and accurate, informed and current, aware of the audience, cautious of communication minefields, willing to quit or face termination. Health communicators play a “vital and visible leadership role” and they serve as the “backbone of the public health response.”

COVID-19 Reports from the BioWeapons Prevention Project

Since 2006, the BioWeapons Preventions Project (BWPP) and Richard Guthrie teamed up to produce daily reports from intergovernmental meetings of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to arise, this team is providing an additional series of reports that delves into lessons (hopefully) to be learned from past BWC activities, and discusses the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as examines impacts of the pandemic on future BWC activities. These reports are available here.

Data Integrity in COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic response has been fraught with inaccuracies and mistakes. Rebekah Jones, a data scientist for the Florida State Health Department, was fired last month; she helped develop Florida’s COVID-19 data portal. After her termination, she created her own COVID-19 dashboard using data that the former superiors wanted her to manipulate to make the number of coronavirus cases appear significantly lower. Her refusal to falsify her findings instigated her dismissal. Jones’ untainted dashboard shows that only 2 Florida counties are ready for the next phase of reopening, a conclusion that her former bosses at the Health Department did not accept. In another abuse of data, Vice President Mike Pence urged governors to spread the misleading claim that the rises in COVID-19 infections are primarily due to increased testing. According to a data analysis by the New York Times, in over a dozen states, the rates of positive cases are outpacing the increase in the average number of tests. Pence also characterized these surges in cases as “marginal.” Data from the CDC show a decrease in coronavirus hospitalizations nationally, but an increase in positive cases, and the number of coronavirus-related deaths could increase as more data are collected.

OpenSmartEDU: Tools & Resources for Higher Education Operations in COVID-19

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and Tuscany Strategy Consulting (TSC) collaborated to develop a free resource, OpenSmartEDU, to “guide colleges and universities in planning operating strategies for both the near- and long-term amid the many challenges of COVID-19.” This resource boasts 3 planning tools: the COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Self-Assessment Calculator, and the Higher Education Planning Tool. The COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education is a practical planning tool to help institutions in two ways: (1) poses four central questions to determine if an institution is prepared to reopen for each of the major COVID-19 Phases and (2) outlines leadership, cross-functional, and functional workgroups to support comprehensive planning efforts. The Guide also provides additional guidelines, resources, and media reports to aid institutional planning. The Self-Assessment Calculator is an interactive Excel spreadsheet designed to help institutions identify and understand their baseline risk and the possible impacts that major countermeasures may have on their risk scores. The Higher Education Planning Tool (coming soon) will allow institutions to assign work, develop timelines, and incorporate important considerations in a live and centrally-located worksheet that available to multiple stakeholders.

Bat-Borne Virus Diversity, Spillover and Emergence

A recent article in Nature Reviews Microbiology discusses the latest advancements and findings regarding bat-borne viruses, considers current gaps in knowledge, and outlines the potential paths for future research, outbreak response activities, and prevention efforts. The majority of human viral pathogens are zoonotic and developed via cross-species transmission. Several human viruses – Ebola virus, Marburg virus, Nipah virus, Hendra virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS), and Middle East respiratory coronavirus (MERS) – have been linked to different bat species. Despite this list, the fields of bat virus ecology and molecular biology remain nascent and largely unexplored, compromising our ability to anticipate and prepare for the next outbreak of a bat-borne virus. Read the article here.

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