Pandora Report: 7.24.2020

Commentary – Event: Advancing Biosecurity in the Age of COVID

The response to COVID-19 has exposed a world that is largely unprepared to deal with emerging and novel biothreats, whether the outbreak is natural or intentional. The Global Health Security Network brought together two biosecurity experts to discuss how current projects to improve global health security can adapt during the pandemic and what changes the world needs to make to improve biosafety and biosecurity. Dr. Rebecca Katz moderated while also providing insight from her position as the Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, while Dr. Beth Cameron provided her perspective as the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s (NTI) Vice President for Global Biological Policy and Programs. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD Student, attended the event and shared her takeaways here.

Cyberbiosecurity and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted to importance of cyberbiosecurity in the protection of US research and development. 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 comingled 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 one of the nations racing to formulate a safe and effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the US is a target for malicious cyber activities aimed at acquiring data and information about vaccine R&D.  A joint cybersecurity advisory was issued by the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) to unmask the malicious cyber activities carried out by the group known as “APT29,” “CozyBear,” or “The Dukes.” The advisory details how the group, most likely a component of the Russian intelligence services, targeted entities engaged in COVID-19 vaccine development in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. This cyber espionage group is likely to working to steal information and intellectual property related to the development and testing of vaccines candidates. Prior to COVID-19, this Kremlin-linked hacking group used malicious software and novel hacking techniques to breach the Democratic National Committee in 2016, target US think tanks in 2017, defense contractors in 2018, and the ministries of foreign affairs in three European countries. A Kremlin spokesperson has vehemently denied that there was and is any involvement of the Russian government in these cyberattacks.

Russia is not the only origin of cybersecurity culprits with aims to steal valuable vaccine data. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has issued charges against two Chinese men – Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi – suspected of spying on US companies involved in SARS-CoV-2 research. These two Chinese hackers are believed to have been stealing trade secrets and intellectual property worth hundreds of millions of dollars since 2009. Their latest crime is the recent research into the “vulnerabilities in the networks of biotech and other firms publicly known for work on Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and testing technology.” The pair are also suspected of targeting firms in Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The ongoing cyberattacks on COVID-19 research and the recent history of cyberattacks on various organizations in the US highlights the need for a strong cyberbiosecurity infrastructure to protect data related to research and development. Beyond this pandemic, cyberbiosecurity plays an increasingly important role in the protection of data relating to public health in general, biotechnology, national security, agriculture, manufacturing, automation, and artificial intelligence.

In Case You Missed Koblentz

This week, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program and Associate Professor, gave a sample lecture entitled, “Will COVID-19 Generate More Interest in Biological Weapons?” If you were not able to attend the virtual lecture, fret not, you can access the recording here.

News of the Weird: Satellite Photos Suggest Russia Sent Trained Dolphins to War in Syria

In 2019, the Russian Navy’s marine mammal project received worldwide attention when a tame Beluga whale, believed to have escaped from a training program, was spotted in Norway. New evidence supports the possibility that the Russian Navy sent its trained dolphins to Syria. Satellite imagery of Tartus, Syria shows marine mammal pens in the water at a port where Russia bases its submarines. To take a gander at these pens yourself, visit Google Earth using the coordinates 34°54’35.16″N, 35°51’46.46″E; 44°34’53.12″N, 33°24’8.36″E; and 69°13’12.41″N, 33°23’4.72″E.

Zombies and Coronavirus: Planning for the Next Big Outbreak

At noon today, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, will participate in a panel discussing pandemics, bioterrorism, and international security as part of Comic-Con@Home. Justin Hurt – a Biodefense PhD Candidate and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear and Counter-Weapons of Mass Destruction Integration Officer for the United States Army staff – will moderate the discussion. Other panelists include Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Senior Scholar and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security; Dr. Shanna Ratnesar-Shumate, aerobiologist and principal investigator at Fort Detrick; Dr. Jarod Hanson, veterinarian and the executive officer at the United States Army Medical Institute of Infectious Disease; and Max Brooks, author of World War ZThe Zombie Survival GuideThe Harlem Hellfighters. Watch the preview here.  

Crushing Coronas in the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the pandemic continues to rage, adults are increasingly seeking comfort from a bottle; alcohol sales are soaring across the US. An RTI International webinar discusses the effects of the pandemic countermeasures on drinking behavior. The March 2020 stay-at-home orders were often accompanied by relaxations of the regulations regarding alcohol, such as allowing curbside pickup. An RTI-funded survey of almost 1,000 Americans in May 2020 assessed the changes in alcohol consumption for the period February to April 2020. The survey found that women, parents, unemployed individuals, individuals of color, and adults with mental health issues increased their alcohol consumption during lockdown. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), recommends that women do not consume more than three drinks per day and seven drinks per week, and that men do not consume more than four drinks per day and 14 drinks per week. The survey showed that among its respondents, 35% reported excessive drinking in April (compared to 29% in February) and 27% reported binge drinking.

Yong-Bee Lim Featured on Titus Talks

Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD Candidate, was featured on Alexander Titus’ podcast, Titus Talks, to discuss the beauty of do-it-yourself (DIY) biology and the biotechnology community.  Lim’s studies how community biology laboratories play a significant role in the development of technology and the security implications of garage biology hackers. In this podcast episode, Lim walks through how his thinking transitioned from viewing DIY biology as a national security threat to viewing it as a community project to further technology and knowledge. Listen to the episode here.

Unilever: Ice Cream In, Personal Hygiene Out in Lockdown

According to Unilever, ice cream sales are up 26%, but sales for shampoo and deodorant are down. In regard to ice cream, the Magnum and Ben and Jerry’s brands were the biggest sellers for those buying more ice cream to take home. Sales of many personal care items are down due to the lack of socialization and the trend of working from home.

Biodefense in the Bulletin

GMU Biodefense is dominating the latest issue of the Bulletin Magazine! The magazine for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists currently features three Biodefense Graduate Program affiliates: Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Dr. Glenn Cross, and Dr. Daniel Gerstein. Ouagrham-Gormley’s article, written with Dr. Kathleen Vogel, discusses Jiankui He’s experiment in which used genome editing to create three human babies in in vitro fertilization. The paper explores the sources of funding for He’s experiment in order to determine what Chinese authorities knew or should have known and if He could have conducted the clinical phase of the project with no direct government knowledge. Cross and Lynn Klotz’s article provide a 21st century view of the Biological Weapons Convention and whether the Convention is relevant today, especially given its lack of an enforcement mechanism. Gerstein assesses the US federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and concludes that biosurveillance, leadership, and governance have all been lacking. Gerstein points out the importance of science and technology, areas largely underutilized in the response, and of consistent strategic communication.  

RUSI Virtual Conference

This year’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) conference will be conducted virtually on 23 September 2020 and focus on Countering CBRN At Home and Abroad. The conference offers the opportunity to examine the new norms of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) use; their implications in the future operating environment for military and civilian entities; and to think about how the United Kingdom can ensure deterrence and demonstrate its resilience in a new era of great power competition. For more information, click here.

Oldest Sequenced Smallpox Vaccine & Oldest Confirmed Case of Smallpox

Smallpox is a lethal infectious disease characterized by pus-filled blisters that erupt all over the body and caused by the variola virus. Before its global eradication in 1979, smallpox was fatal in up to 30% of cases. Scientists studying Civil War-era artifacts were able to recover viral particles from specimens left on the lancets, tin boxes, and glass slides included in vaccination kits discovered at a museum of medical history in Philadelphia. From these particles, they were able to recreate 5 genomes of viral vaccines developed in the 1860 to fight smallpox, making these the oldest smallpox vaccine samples ever sequenced. A century after these vaccine kits were used, the eradication of smallpox was achieved using vaccines quite different from the newly-sequenced old particles. In the mid-nineteenth century, vaccines were grown using a human chain of individuals exposed to the a “mild cousin” of smallpox. According to Clarissa Damaso, an associate professor of virology and molecular biology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the genomic sequences of historical smallpox vaccines can provide insight about the viruses once used to immunize against the disease. In related news, scientists recently uncovered the remains of the earliest confirmed case of smallpox. Variola virus DNA was found in the bones of people from Denmark to Russia dated from about AD 600 to AD 1,050, coinciding with the Viking age. A team studying the remains of almost 2,000 humans found variola virus DNA in the teeth and bones of 11 men and women from Denmark and Russia. The find aligns with written accounts that smallpox was in Europe by the late sixth century and discredits the notion that the disease was carried to England by the Normans or brought back to Europe by Crusaders.

Policing the Pandemic Worldwide: Best Practices for Law Enforcement Agencies

A recent op-ed from the Center for Global Policy (CGP) discusses best practices for law enforcement agencies during a pandemic. Law enforcement personnel are among the highest at-risk for infection, because they spend so much face time with the public. The changes instigated by the pandemic have shown that police institutions need significant reforms “to serve their communities better, including adopting new training curricula, establishing links between police and health institutions, investing more in community policing, fighting cybercrime, and increasing transparency in decision-making processes.” Under lockdown measures and restricted travel, reported crimes like theft and burglary have dropped substantially, but there has been a spike in domestic violence and cybercrime. CGP provides a list of recommendations to emulate the best practices of police organizations from nations abroad that are also adapting to the changing needs under COVID-19. These recommendations include developing standard operating procedures for police enforcement of lockdowns and social distancing; joining the Budapest Convention, the only global cybercrime treaty; establishing organizational links between health departments, experts on bioterrorism, and police institutions; and emphasizing transparency in police decision making. To quote scholar Zoha Waseem about policing problems in South Asia, shifting towards a model of policing that puts empathy and compassion at its core demands that police officers unlearn their traditional techniques and methods. It requires cultural shifts within institutions.”

Learning the Right Lessons

After any major event, lessons are often observed, but not learned. As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, questions as to its emergence remain unanswered. Knowing how the novel coronavirus was born would help inform future preparedness and response efforts for when the next pandemic hits. Many experts are calling for an independent and bipartisan panel styled after the 9/11 commission to evaluate the nation’s preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ongoing series of missteps by the US compromises the nation’s ability to stop the spread of the virus, and resulted in calamitous impacts on the population and the economy. Recently, the decision was made to sideline the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the collection and analysis of coronavirus data, a dangerous move as we see cases number rising again. Throughout the response, the politicization of evidence-based decision-making has led to the sharing of inaccurate information and the seeding of confusion on how the country should protect themselves. A coronavirus commission should seek to dissect mistakes in order to provide insight into improved response activities and decisions for the next outbreak.

Taking it one step further, Dr. Laura H. Kahn recommends the creation of a “new interdisciplinary federal agency with a mission to promote, improve, and protect the health of people and the environment as well as that of America’s animals, plants, ecosystems, and agriculture.” Leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been too little focus on pandemic threats and too little funding for pandemic-relevant programs. Given that environmental health and zoonotic threats are heavily linked, the proposed agency must embrace the One Health approach in order to better prepare the nation for the next biological event. Kahn recommends moving the administration of Medicare and Medicaid into the Social Security Administration and establishing a Department of Health Security in order to better position the federal government to protect health and the environment.

Earthquake Sensors Record Unprecedented Drop in Human Activity Due to Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken to squelch it have instigated an unprecedented drop in human activity, the likes of which have never been seen in the history of earthquake science. Earthquake sensors. Seismometers, detected a reduction of up to 50% in seismic noise since the shutdowns. This historical trend is discussed in a new report published in the journal Science. The report also asserts that given the strong correlation between seismic noise and independent measurements of human mobility, seismology offers an “absolute, real-time estimate of population dynamics.”

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