Pandora Report: 7.17.2020

Commentary – Legislation to Watch: The Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, provides a summary and her insights on Senate Bill 3829, Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020. US SB3829 aims to “advance the global health security and diplomacy objectives of the United States, improve coordination among the relevant Federal departments and agencies implementing United States foreign assistance for global health security, and more effectively enable partner countries to strengthen and sustain resilient health systems and supply chains with the resources, capacity, and personnel required to prevent, detect, mitigate, and respond to infectious disease threats before they become pandemics.” Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Arizona reopened too fast. Epidemiologists knew it, but we couldn’t stop it.

Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program and an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, published a commentary in the Washington Post about the unnecessary hotspot status of Arizona. By mid-July, 1 out of every 59 Arizona residents has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and the state is consistently reporting over 4,000 per day. Though efforts are underway to increase testing capacity, state leadership began reopening too fast and too soon. Popescu and her colleagues have been laboring round-the-clock for months to quell the spread of COVID-19 and keep patients and health providers as safe and healthy as possible. One of her greatest frustrations (shared by droves of other experts in the health fields) is the politicization of masks and health data, which undermines the efficacy of public health efforts and the adoption of a sense of social responsibility. Arizona is again closing down, to an extent, but the delay in the original closures left the state in a no-win situation. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s rush to lift stay-at-home orders and reopen the state in rapid succession has left Arizona hospitals in a terrible jam. Now, 90% of ICU beds are in use and over 40% of hospitalized patients are admitted for COVID-19 infection, forcing Arizona to face an increasingly dangerous situation. Popescu uses her home state as a cautionary tale to warn other states from following in the footsteps of Ducey; opening too early and too quickly will bring the virus back everywhere. Read Popescu’s commentary here.  

Coronavirus Reporting Change to Bypass CDC

This week, the Trump administration announced an abrupt change to how coronavirus data must be reported. Unfortunately, this change will likely “increase the burden on facilities already strained by the pandemic and could impede the distribution of critical medicines.” The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notified state and hospital leaders that this new protocol for sending information regarding COVID-19 patients, supplies, and capacities to the federal government will bypass the CDC and replace its data collection network. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, sees the change as another move by the administration to sideline the CDC as a primary source of information. Koblentz states that the administration is trying not only to silence the CDC, but also to blind it in the midst of a public health emergency. Many experts in the public health field are berating the replacement of the CDC as a main data-keeper for the pandemic. There are worries that cutting out the CDC will diminish access to important COVID-19 data that are needed to quickly and correctly respond to the virus. Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program and an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, points out that the CDC database allows experts such as herself to extract helpful reports, but this functionality may not exist in the new system. Additionally, as part of the new protocol, the administration is urging governors to consider sending the National Guard to hospitals to assist with data collection about patients, supplies, and capacities. According to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Deborah Birx, the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator, the suggestion is based on hospital failures to report. A letter to Birx from a coalition of hospital groups counters the accusation by pointing out the that HHS system was flawed in regard to receiving submitted data. Representative Rosa L. DeLauro issued a statement accusing HHS of “operating as a dangerous, political apparatus [that] cannot be trusted to share accurate hospital information with Congress and the American public.” Senator Patty Murray is a ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee and she wrote a letter to Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Robert Kadlec, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), demanding explanations about the awarding of a non-competitive, multimillion dollar contract for a likely duplicative data collection system. In her letter, Murray points out that “clear, accurate, comprehensive data is desperately needed in our fight against COVID-19.”

Koblentz Sample Lecture

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.

Schools Should Prioritize Reopening in Fall 2020, Especially for Grades K-5, While Weighing Risks and Benefits | National Academies

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a statement encouraging schools to reopen for full time schooling this fall, especially for elementary students. According to NASEM, “opening schools will benefit families beyond providing education, including by supplying child care, school services, meals, and other family supports. Without in-person instruction, schools risk children falling behind academically and exacerbating educational inequities.” Reopening does not mean ignoring the risks and bypassing protective measures, however. The report provides several recommended precautions for reopening schools: (1) provide surgical masks for teachers and staff; (2) all students and staff should wear face coverings; (3) provide hand-washing stations; (4) limit large gatherings of students; and (5) prioritize cleaning, ventilation, and air filtration.

NTI and the NextGen GHS Network Launch 4th Annual 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.

Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Theoretical Considerations and Available Evidence

A new viewpoint paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Klompas, Baker, and Rhee discusses the existing evidence regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2. At present, the balance of evidence does not support that SARS-CoV-2 exhibits long-range aerosol-based transmission, at least as a primary mode of transmission. That said, there is no way to completely exclude the possibility of the virus’ transmission via aerosol. Though the data remains limited, the unlikelihood of aerosol-based transmission is valuable information for the public and healthcare settings as we all seek to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Weekly COVID-19 Disinformation and False Propaganda Report

Earlier this month, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) released a COVID-19 Disinformation and False Propaganda Report. Their analysis showed that between 25 June and 2 July, the tweet with widest reach that used the term “virus” was Trump’s claim that “cases up only because of our big number testing.” This claim, which reached over 82 million viewers, is false and misleading. Other misinformation for that week includes claims from a group in Florida that masks can kill. Social media is awash with continued conspiracy theories about the origins of the novel coronavirus. Minority groups are a particular target of misinformation, especially on the topic of vaccines. Claims that vaccinations are unsafe and that certain communities are being secretly used for experiment are trying to sow mistrust about medical research. Read more false claims here.  

Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the ability of a microbe (bacterium, virus, fungus, parasite) to resist the effects of an antimicrobial therapeutic to which it was previously susceptible. Once a microbe develops resistance to existing drugs and vaccines, it can infect a human, animal, or plant with much greater ease. As a microbe develops resistance to a broader range of therapies, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to treat or prevent. Penicillin – once the go-to antibiotic to treat pneumonia, respiratory tract infections, scarlet fever, and more – was considered the miracle drug during World War II. Its discovery by Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming was a serendipitous fluke in 1928, but it did not become widely available until 1945 due to the difficulty of mass production. In 2020, the miracle drug is losing its magic, particularly against infections of Staphylococcus aureus (the cause of Methicillin-resistant S.aureus) and Neisseria gonorrhoeae (the cause of gonorrhea). As AMR spreads across multitudes of microbes, rates of infections grow and new medicines are needed to treat these drug-resistant diseases. Unfortunately, as our need for new and novel medications grows, many of the companies that develop these drugs are running low on cash and investments. This week, 20 of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies announced the creation of a $1 billion fund to support money strapped biotechnology start-ups in developing new antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections, which are the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. The AMR Action Fund was established by the World Health Organization and bankrolled by Roche, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson to provide a “short-term but desperately needed lifeline” for a handful of small antibiotic companies, many of which are based in the United States.

Lost on the Frontline

Kaiser Health News (KHN) and The Guardian debuted a project documenting the lives of the US health workers who died of COVID-19. Thus far, the project has identified 795 workers who likely died of COVID-19 after helping infected patients. Profiles for 145 of these workers are available. View those lost on the frontlines here.

Robotic Sports Fans

The pandemic and countermeasures to quell it have spurred creative thinking in myriad ways, sometimes putting a whole an unexpected twist on the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention.” Since fans are not allowed at most sporting events in an effort to maintain social distancing, some stadiums have tried to fill their stands with “premium mannequins” to provide a semblance of normalcy at sporting events. At the stadium for FC Seoul, the inanimate fans were even sporting the team’s colors and keeping their moths covered with masks! In Japan, teams are employing humanoid and quadrupedal robots to keep the spirit alive. The US is facing the same dilemma of empty stadiums for their players, but fans can purchase cardboard cutouts of themselves to support the Oakland A’s or the San Francisco Giants. Germany is also closing stadiums to fans and offering cardboard cutouts for about $20 each.

Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Implications for Infection Prevention Precautions

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a scientific brief this month as an update to the late March brief about SARS-CoV-2 transmission. The latest brief covers updated insights regarding contact and droplet transmission, airborne transmission, and fomite transmission of the novel coronavirus. The brief also states that persons infected with the virus and present with symptoms can infects other, primarily via droplet transmission and close contact; however, infected individuals without symptoms can also spread the virus. To prevent transmission, the WHO encourages suspected cases to be tested and isolated as quickly as possible; all individuals to wear masks in public settings where social distancing is unfeasible; and everyone should practice frequent hand hygiene. Read the entire brief here.

‘Directing Doomsday’: Lessons Learned from Nuclear Weapons in Film

As you look for more movies to bide your time in quarantine, consider watching (or re-watching) films that underscore the threats from nuclear incidents. Such movies include Dr. Strangelove, Failsafe, Command and Control, By Dawn’s Early Light, and China Syndrome. Currently, there are over 13,000 nuclear weapons throughout the world, any of which could reap horrible damage at the drop of a hat. So, as you enjoy these films, think about the vulnerabilities and potential harm caused by nuclear weapons.

It’s Time for an Equal Playing Field: Diversity in International Security

A webinar offered by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) features a discussion about the lack of diversity in the nuclear threat-reduction field and the need for a dramatic shift toward diversity, inclusion, and equity. Ambassador Laura S. H. Holgate, vice president of the Materials Risk Management program at NTI and co-founder of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy (GCNP), shared that during she has witnessed women being talked over, disrespected, and harassed in professional settings. Jane Rhee, the executive director for Global Public Affairs at the Estee Lauder Company and a former Foreign Service officer, highlighted that simply asking why diversity matters puts a burden on people of color to have to defend their value. According to Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, founder and director of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS), the obstacles to attaining diversity, inclusion, and equity are created by hiring pipelines. To resolve this issue, Jenkins recommends that institutions develop comprehensive pipelines that recruit from minority-serving institutions. Watch the webinar here.

Overcoming the Bystander Effect in Chemical Ethics

Kabrena Rodda, a chemist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and veteran of the Air Force, worked with the American Chemical Society and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to establish an honor code for the international community of chemists based on The Hague Ethical Guidelines. With grassroots contributions from 18 countries about ethical standards for chemists, the Global Chemists’ Code of Ethics (GCCE) was born. The Code is important, because chemistry can be abused to produce harmful substances or lethal weapons. One of the problems this Code aims to overcome is the bystander effect, a psychological theory stating that an individual considers speaking about a problem to be the responsibility of someone else. Among chemists, the bystander effect is more likely when a chemist is timid about pressuring others or does not want to be viewed as a goody two-shoes by colleagues. The notion behind the GCCE is that “practicing its ideals in low stakes training scenarios can build the muscle memory chemists need to respond ethically if they encounter troubling situations in real life.” These trainings often take the form of role playing to show how a constructive choice can have better outcomes than a negative choice.

Countering Clandestine CBRN Labs: A Virtual Reality Training Tool

Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are a severe threat to international peace and security. Nations working to counter the acquisition of WMDs and materials to build them require technical knowledge to succeed. A collaboration between CRDF Global, the US Department of State, and the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre developed a virtual reality (VR) training tool that enables trainees to “explore realistic nontraditional terrorist workshops and identify signs of possible WMD production.” The VR tool was created with expertise from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Conflict Armament Research, and it was first employed in February 2020. The use of this immersive VR tool “provides spaces for stakeholders to expand their knowledge and awareness of clandestine terrorist laboratories, allowing for critical discussions on identifying possible threats and responses.”

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