Pandora Report: 6.26.2020

Commentary – Promising COVID-19 Therapeutics: From Remdesivir to Human Convalescent Plasma

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student and newly-appointed Assistant Editor for the Pandora Report, outlines the key takeaways from a virtual briefing held by the American Society for Microbiology, “From Remdesivir to Human Convalescent Plasma: Understanding COVID-19 Therapeutic Development.” In this briefing, Dr. Mark Denison from Vanderbilt University Medical Center discussed his work on two antiviral therapeutics, while Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health reviewed his work on convalescent plasma therapies. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Stevie Kiesel, New Assistant Editor for the Pandora Report

Kiesel is a part-time student in the Biodefense PhD program at George Mason University and a full-time transportation security analyst. Her areas of focus are terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction and the extreme right wing. Kiesel is a regular contributor to the Pandora Report and is now a member of the editorial board as an Assistant Editor.

Schar School Sample Class: Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program and associate professor at George Mason University, is offering a sample class for anyone interested in the program. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the power of infectious diseases to wreak havoc on societies, cause economic upheaval, and weaken military capabilities. Will hostile states or terrorist groups seek to exploit these newly revealed vulnerabilities by developing and using their own biological weapons? How can countries and the international community reduce the risk that biology will be misused for malicious purposes? This sneak peek of the Biodefense Graduate Program will be available via Zoom on 22 July at 12:00 EDT. Register here to virtually attend.

Hill Recoils at Proposed Cut to Pentagon Anti-Pandemic Effort

In spite of the ongoing pandemic, the administration asked Congress to approve a one-third cut the Pentagon’s budget for programs that prevent, detect, and respond to diseases, particularly in other countries. The Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP), charged with finding and fighting emerging diseases, is funded through the Pentagon budget and now faces the possibility of a major budget reduction. The $76 million slash to the Pentagon’s budget was proposed last February, before the pandemic made its mark in the US, but the proposal has received bipartisan pushback. For example, the new National Defense Authorization Act from the Senate Armed Services Committee would restore $50 million of the of the proposed reduction. This proposal is yet another example of the administration’s demotion of public health as a national priority. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, berated the proposal as shortsighted and points out that kneecapping BTRP will reduce America’s warning time for biological threats. Koblentz also points out the importance of global health security as a critical component of national security, perhaps more so now than ever before.

“Sorry, We’re Closed”: Applying Business Models to Failed Terrorist Organizations

Dr. Keith Ludwick, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD program, recently published an article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism about the application of specific, business organizational models to understand terrorism. His article argues that business modes can be used to better understand the organizational behavior of terrorist groups. Leadership and management are examined by combining two traditional business models with two terrorist organization, which successfully show which elements of terrorist group organization can lead to their failure, specifically due to a lack of concern for administrative functions. Broadly speaking, this paper suggests certain models within business organizational theory which offer insights into the future growth or decline terrorist organizations. Read Ludwick’s article here.

Free Book: Preparing for Pandemics in the Modern World

For those of us already worried about the next pandemic, even as we are still fighting COVID-19, a new book, Preparing for Pandemics in the Modern World, is available to the public as a free downloadable eBook from Texas A&M University. The book, edited by pandemic disease policy and control expert Dr. Christine Crudo Blackburn, was already in development before the outbreak of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Authors include Dr. Leslie Ruyle, an ecologist specializing in innovative solutions for conservation, conflict, and development; Dr. Gerry Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; Rebecca Fish, Vice President of Marketing and Product Strategy at Emergent BioSolutions; and Richard Crespin, Chief Executive Officer of CollaborateUp. Other contributors include Dr. David Morens, Senior Scientific Advisor for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, Chief of the Viral Pathogenesis and Evolution Section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and GMU alumnus. Topics include lessons from past public health disasters, spillover from zoonoses, the importance of ecological science and conservation to the One Health approach, the national security implications of supply chain disruptions, and the gaps in business planning for pandemics. Read the book here.

A Covid-19 Vaccine Should Be a Public Good. Here’s How to Make That Happen.

Kendall Hoyt, assistant professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and the author of Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense, encourages a coordinated global effort for the development, production, and dissemination of a safe and efficacious COVID0-19 vaccine. The establishment of organizations such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, have been helping shape the institutional framework for developing vaccines as public goods. To help provide low income countries with COVID-19 vaccines, once available, Gavi launched an Advance Market Commitment in which funders determine certain criteria for a vaccine and agree in advance to purchase large quantities of the vaccine that satisfies those criteria. Hoyt emphasizes that the race for a COVID-19 vaccine is not a zero-sum game, and that, through collaboration, political leaders face a historical opportunity to produce a vaccine as a global public good.  

Federal Review Finds Early CDC COVID-19 Test Kits Were Likely Contaminated

According to a federal review by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the early version of the COVID-19 test kids from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were likely contaminated. This review was conducted by HHS lawyers who said that the pressure the CDC faced to quickly provide a testing kit may have contributed to insufficient laboratory practices that lead to the increased risk of contamination. The review does not assign blame to any specific individual. In April, the Washington Post reported that early test kits generated false positive results caused by the contamination at 24 of the first 26 public health laboratories to use them.  A statement from Michael Caputo, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at HHS, defended CDC’s mistake by pointing out that the CDC began developing the kits within days of receiving the genetic sequence of the virus, and that the agency along with public health laboratories are “not intended to bear the weight or capacity of nationwide testing on this scale.” On the flip side, several scientists with experience in infectious disease testing have stated that sending out the test kits without adequate quality control was an indefensible mistake by the CDC, who should have taken more time to ensure the quality and safety of the kits.

Cyberbiosecurity in COVID-19

At present, the concept of cyberbiosecurity is defined as “developing understanding of the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of co-mingled life science, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate, and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness, and resilience.” As the term indicates, cyberbiosecurity is the amalgamation of biosecurity and cybersecurity, two intersecting realms that are largely considered and governed independently. The World Economic Forum points out that cyberbiosecurity threats are on the rise – with further exacerbation caused by the turmoil created from the ongoing pandemic  – and that a global prevention platform should be developed to identify and prevent these threats. This global prevention platform should target three critical challenges: (1) growing cyber-, bio-, and human insecurity; (2) disintegrating digital trust; and (3) converging risks in conflict-affected areas. As concerns about cyberbiosecurity mount, more research on the challenges and risks associated with cybersecurity and biotechnology is underway. For example, two recent articles in Health Security focus on such challenges and risks: “Healthcare Challenges in the Era of Cybersecurity” and “Assessing the Risks Posed by the Convergence of Artificial Intelligence and Biotechnology.” The first article details the rise in cyberattacks and the growing need for tools that help experts accurately quantify the impacts of these incidents, improved countermeasures for cybersecurity threats within the all-hazards disaster preparedness paradigm, and further epidemiologic research about the effects on patient care and outcomes from clinical cybersecurity attacks. The latter article explores the criteria required to evaluate risks associated with artificial intelligence and biotechnology, assesses three existing risk assessment frameworks, suggests a hybrid framework, and provides recommendations for future approaches to risk assessment for convergent technologies.

Coronavirus Hearings

Last Tuesday, the Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing entitled “Oversight of the Trump Administration’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Witnesses who testified in this hearing include Anthony Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); Admiral Brett Girois, MD, the Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); Stephen Hahn, MD, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though the White House maintains that the pandemic remains a priority for the administration, Trump continues to downplay the threats we still face from the novel coronavirus. In the hearing, Fauci discussed vaccines under development, and stated that a vaccine candidate from Moderna Therapeutics is expecting to begin late-stage testing in July, pending promising results from a mid-stage trial. According to Giroir, the Trump administration is currently reviewing the COVID-19 testing plans from each state, territory, and major city public health unit. Giroir also purports that the administration’s priority is to ensure that testing is available to those who need it. Hahn stated that the FDA has reached out to more than 1,000 manufacturers since the start of the year and has facilitated an increase in the availability of personal protection equipment for healthcare workers. Redfield echoed the need for Americans to get the flu vaccine due to risk of the coronavirus and seasonal flu placing a “tremendous burden” on US hospitals in the fall. The full prepared testimonies of the witnesses are available here.

Perna Nominated as CIO of Operation Warp Speed

General Gustave F. Perna, Commander of the US Army Materiel Command, has been nominated to be the Chief Operating Officer (CIO) for Operation Warp Speed (OWS). A CIO of OWS, Perna would co-lead and oversee the logistics of US search for a COVID-19 vaccine. In regard to his nomnation, General Perna answered questions for the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) covering duties, challenges and priorities, OWS initiatives, organization and staffing, relationships with other federal officials, research, and congressional oversight. The SASC panel voted to confirm Perna as CIO, advancing his nomination.

The Health Security Nexus: Reassessing Priorities After COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic emphasizes the need to elevate public health as a security issue, the securitization of health creates opportunities and costs that must be considered in the reallocation of military funds for pandemic preparedness and response. At present, there is no universal definition of health security, a concept that generally encompasses the risks and impacts of health crises as threat to peace and security, whether those threats be naturally-occurring or intentionally released. Among others, three important topics have surfaced in regard to health security: (1) protection of the health and wellbeing of the general population; (2) investment in global health security preparedness; and (3) preparedness for possible renewed interests in bioterrorism. One promising outlook is to develop a new global health agenda focused on fairness and collective responsibility, expanding beyond the narrow focus on security threats like bioterrorism.

Third BWPP COVID-19 Impact Report

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. The BWPP just released its third COVID-19 Impact Report, which focuses on Articles VII and X of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in relation to disease outbreak response. Article VII covers the provision of assistance by states in the event that a state is “exposed to danger” because of a breach of the BWC, and Article X covers the renunciation by states of hostile uses of biological materials and technologies and the freedom to gain from the benefits of peaceful uses. This report introduces the idea that the shift of political attention toward disease response after COVID-19 will likely spur new discussions within the BWC. The third report is available here.

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