Pandora Report: 7.3.2020

Commentary – State Department Releases the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism

Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student and Associate Editor for the Pandora Report, provides a summary of the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism releases an annual report on terrorism across the globe. The 2019 report was just released, highlighting successes and persistent threats associated with international and domestic terrorism in nearly 100 countries.  The report begins with a discussion of notable successes in the counterterrorism landscape and identifies the persistent terrorist threats that will dominate counterterrorism policy in 2020. These threats can be divided into four categories: (1) the Islamic State’s ability to build global networks, (2) continued terrorism sponsored by Iran and carried out by its proxies, (3) al Qaeda’s ability to adapt, and (4) the rising threat from what the United States calls “racially or ethnically motivated terrorism” (REMT). These four themes are expanded upon in the country reports, summarized below. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Commentary – Reopening Community Labs in a Time of COVID: Balancing the Needs and Risks of DIYBio Spaces During a Global Pandemic

Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD candidate and member of the Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS), provides a summary of an event he moderated for a Global Community Bio Town Hall, “Re-Opening (or Re-Booting) Your Community Bio Lab in the Time of COVID.” Panelists for this discussion include Maria Chavez of BioCurious, Dr. Angela Armendariz of Genspace, Dr. Tom Burkett of BUGSS, and Dr. Popescu of University of Arizona and GMU. Topics in this panel included: unique opportunities and challenges COVID-19 has created for community labs; concerns about reopening community lab spaces or remaining closed; and decision-making regarding reopening and how to empower people to make such important decisions in a time of great uncertainty. Read Lim’s commentary here.


The New START Treaty is a treaty between the United States and Russia on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. The Treaty entered into force on 5 February 2011 and both nations were required to meet the Treaty’s central limits on strategic arms seven years later. The aggregate limits include: 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments; 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit); and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. Both the US and Russia announced their compliance with the limits by 5 February 2018, the deadline. New START is scheduled to expire in February 2021 unless Trump and Putin agree to extend it for five more years. In December 2019, the Russian government signaled its willingness to extend the Treaty; the Trump administration recently acknowledged the possibility of the extension, “but only under select circumstances.” As the US continues to stall on the New START extension, concerns mount over the future of the Treaty. If it is not extended, there will no longer be legally binding and verifiable limits on the US or Russian nuclear arsenals.

BioD Alumnus Testified at Senate Panel on Strategic National Stockpile & COVID-19

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND corporation, testified at the Senate panel on the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) and COVID-19. According to Gerstein, COVID-19 has uncovered major weaknesses in the national preparedness and response systems of the Us. One of the main weaknesses was with the SNS, a national repository of antibiotics, vaccines, chemical antidotes, antitoxins, and other critical medical supplies. His written remarks can be read in full here, and his oral remarks followed the theme:

“A bipartisan commission should be established to review the nation’s performance during this pandemic and the use of the SNS. Basic assumptions regarding emergency management and disaster preparedness and response —including the role of government at all levels—should be on the table. One outcome should be an agreement that public health must be elevated to and receive prioritization and funding as a national security issue, just as the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community.”

GAO COVID-19 Performance Audit

The General Accountability Office (GAO) produced a report, COVID-19: Opportunities to Improve Federal Response and Recovery Efforts, which details a performance audit for the period March-June 2020 of  the Department of Labor, Internal Revenue Service, and Small Business Administration. Given the economic hit caused by COVID-19 and the growing federal costs due to pandemic relief programs, monetary and fiscal efficiency and competency are of major concern to the long-term economic health of the US. The report’s main findings include: (1) the federal government continues to lack an aviation preparedness plan for infectious disease crises; (2) the Department of Labor has failed to provide state unemployment agencies with information about the risks of improper payments; (3) the Internal Revenue Service does not intent take additional steps to notify ineligible recipients on how to return payments; and (4) the Small Business Administration has failed to provide details on how it plans to identify and respond to risks in the Paycheck Protection Program to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud.

2020 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition

The 4th Annual NTI-NextGen Biosecurity Competition is underway! This year’s competition is seeking innovative and creative papers for online publication by NTI | bio and the NextGen GHS Network focused on biosecurity related to COVID-19 and future outbreaks/pandemics. The winners can attend the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting in Pattaya, Thailand in November 2020 and present during a side-event. Submissions should address the following question:

What are technical and/or political actions global health security community stakeholders should take either nationally or internationally to reduce biosecurity-related risks associated with COVID-19 and future outbreaks/pandemics?

To be eligible, participants must be current members of the Next Generation GHS Network and currently enrolled in an academic institution or have less than five years professional experience. Also, teams must have 3 participants and be from at least 2 different countries/regions. All submissions must be in English. Participants must consult with at least one expert in the field of biosecurity and/or biosafety, life sciences, or another related field. The deadline for submitting a paper is August 5. More information on the competition can be found here.

Biodefense Graduate Program Sample Lectures

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.

Dr. Tonya Thornton Neaves, Director for Extramural Projects at the Schar School of Policy and Government, is offering a sample lecture on emergency management in the United States. Neaves walks us through how to talk about disasters, the history of relief responses and how we manage them, and even what those pesky “act of God” clauses” mean on your insurance policies. Take a deep dive into emergency management and learn how you and your community can be prepared for whatever might come your way. View the lecture here.

New COVID-19 Data Tools

A network of infectious disease epidemiologists at universities around the world working with technology companies aggregated mobility data to create the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network. The Network provides visualization tools and technical resources for the open sharing of data. The mobility data provides a real-time view of how people are moving around.  The Camber Systems Social Distancing Reporter offers an accurate and actionable understanding about the efficacy of social distancing and other policy measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. The Facebook Data for Good Mobility Dashboard provides anonymized, aggregated mobility data to help us understand how communities are responding to COVID-19 physical distancing interventions. Code repositories contain code, analytic tools, and best practices.

New Leadership at George Mason University

As George Mason University enters a new era of leadership, we wish to thank Anne Holton for her service as Interim President, leading us through much of the COVID-19 pandemic and making critical decisions during the turmoil.

Now, we welcome GMU’s 8th president, Dr. Gregory Washington! Dr. Washington comes to us from the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at University of California, Irvine where he served a dean. As a researcher, Washington specializes in dynamic systems, with an emphasis in the modeling and control of smart material structures and systems, and he is the author of over 150 technical publications. Watch President Washington’s message about what it means to be a Patriot here.

The Pandemic Risk of an Accidental Lab Leak of Enhanced Flu Virus: Unacceptably High

Scientists across the globe are working with influenza-causing viruses, possibly making changes that could incite an outbreak or, perish the thought, another pandemic. Lynn Klotz, Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a member of the Scientists’ Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons, lists three ways that a laboratory could spark a human outbreak: (1) an undetected or unreported laboratory-acquired infection hitches a ride into the community on a laboratory worker; (2) a virus is mischaracterized as “harmless” and handled under lower biosafety levels; and (3) a pathogen is intentionally released by someone with malicious intent and laboratory access. Human error is the cause of the most laboratory incidents that lead to potential exposures from BSL 3 laboratories in the US, which are designed for serious, if not deadly, pathogens. Influenza viruses, in particular, are of great concern because many infect humans and unleash deadly consequences, as the world experienced with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Lotz’s basic calculation for pandemic risk includes likelihood-weighted consequences = (probability of an event) x (consequences), and fatality burden = [(probability of a release) x (probability release leads to a pandemic)] x (number of fatalities). An illustrative calculation shows that each year a single facility conducts research, it carries the burden of some of the 50 to 100 million fatalities. Fouchier advises that enhanced biosafety level 3 laboratories are at least ten-fold safer than those of standard biosafety level 3, yielding a significantly lower fatality burden of 1,845 to 3,690 per year of operation. These calculations and comparison serve to support Lotz’s argument that the pandemic risk of an accidental or intentional lead of altered influenza virus is unacceptably high. According to his calculations, the possible benefits of such research do not outweigh the possible costs.

KHN and AP Investigate the State of the Nation’s Public Health Infrastructure

Kaiser Health News (KHN) and The Associated Press (AP) are examining the lackluster state of the public health infrastructure of the US. This newly-launched, multi-part investigation has already determined that the US public health workforce is underfunded and under threat, especially under the conditions of a public health crisis. So far, in the US, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 2.7 million individuals; killed almost 129,00; cost tens of millions of individuals their jobs; and cost $3 trillion in federal aid. The first story of the series, “Hollowed-Out Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus,” highlights the drops in spending from state health departments since 2010, the reduction in the public health workforce since 2008, and the budget cuts occurring across the US.

Mason Offers Free One-Credit Class: COVID-19 and Mason’s Work to Better Understand Pandemic

GMU is offering a free 1-credit course, UNIV: 391: COVID-19 and the Mason Impact, which will feature a different Mason faculty or staff member to lead a conversational presentation about an aspect of COVID-19 that has intersected with their scholarly work. After each presentation, students and faculty will interact in a Q&A. The recorded presentation will be made available for the general public on YouTube after the live session is completed. The course will be held from 5:00 – 6:15 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and will be moderated by Dr. Bethany Usher, Associate Provost and faculty member in Sociology and Anthropology. The objectives of the course include comparing how different disciplines have contributed to learning; demonstrating that research and scholarship at Mason contributes to the rapidly growing body of knowledge, and compare how different disciplines have contributed to the research; and making informed decisions about their own personal behaviors to mitigate risks of COVID-19 to the themselves and their communities. Registration is available until 6 July. Find more information on this free course and register here.

I Feel Fine: Fans of World-Ending Films ‘Coping Better with Pandemic’

Psychologists have found evidence that apocalyptic movies helped prepare people for COVID-19 and made fans more resilient. The desolation depicted by these films seemed to help viewers handle the real-life outbreak and its impacts. Coltan Scrivner, a psychologist specializing in morbid curiosity at the University of Chicago, conjectures that viewers of apocalyptic movies are learning vicariously. A survey of 310 participants were asked about movie preferences and viewing histories and then asked how prepared they felt as the pandemic started and what levels of anxiety, depression, irritability, and sleepless they experienced. Researchers found that horror movie fans reported less distress by the crisis than most; individuals who favored “prepper movies,” in particular, ranked as more resilient and better prepared, both mentally and practically.

GMU Virtual Event: Domestic Violence During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Gender and Policy (GAP) Center is hosting a virtual panel discussion on domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic on 15 July at 12:30 pm. Panelists include Elizabeth Gregory, Professor and Director, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, University of Houston, Founding Director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality; Jhumka Gupta, Associate Professor in the Department of Global and Community Health within George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services; Angela Hattery, University of Delaware, Co-Director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Gender Based Violence; Barbara Paradiso, Director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver; and Tiara Willie, Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Register for this virtual event here.

Workers Filed More Than 4,100 Complaints About Protective Gear. Some Still Died.

Since March, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has received over 4,100 COVID-related complaints about health care facilities. A Kaiser Health News (KHN) investigation discovered that at least 35 health care workers died after OSHA had received complaints about their respective workplaces. According to the complaint logs, health workers are in great need of better protective gear for their hospitals, medical offices, and nursing homes. Roughly one-third of the COVID-19 complaints related to health care remain open and about 275 investigations into these complaints are ongoing. For example, a March 16 complaint about Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, New Jersey states that workers were not permitted to wear masks in the hallway outside of the rooms of COVID-19 patients, and they were not provided with adequate PPE. An RN at Clara Maass voiced her concerns that her patients, who were not in the COVID area, were presenting with “suspicious symptoms.” This nurse ended up being exposed to a half dozen patients undergoing COVID testing before she presented with a cough and headache; she soon died of the virus.

How the World Missed COVID-19’s Silent Spread

The New York Times has launched a series of articles examining the mistakes, misunderstanding, and missed warning signs that enabled COVID-19 to plague the whole world. The two-month delay for a response and control measures likely cost many lives and many infections. Quicker employment of better testing, surveillance, contact tracing, and isolation measures may have saved a lot of individuals from infection and death from COVID-19. Though the actual numbers are yet known, it is now widely accepted that asymptomatic, and possibly presymptomatic, individuals can spread the virus. Dr. Camilla Rothe, a tropical medicine and infectious disease specialist in Munich, sounded the alarm on the virus’s ability to spread during the incubation period. Rothe published an article in Science about the silent spread of COVID-19. Though the World Health Organization noted that patient who have yet to display symptoms may be able to spread the virus, it maintained that symptomatic patients were the primary drivers of the pandemic. Also, soon after Rothe published her findings, her report was deemed “flawed” as the scientific establishment sought to downplay the risk inherent to the existence of spread from infected individuals without symptoms. Weeks later, research entities started to sluggishly concede that asymptomatic transmission is an important element of this pandemic. Though belated and still controversial, better research on asymptomatic spread is underway.

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