Pandora Report: 7.31.2020

Zombies and Coronavirus: Planning for the Next Big Outbreak

If 2020’s next terrifying curveball is a zombie apocalypse, how will humankind survive given our many missteps in the COVID-19 pandemic? A panel of biodefense experts and a zombie apocalypse novelist weigh in on this question. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, participated 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 –moderated the discussion. Other panelists included 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. Dr. Hanson pointed out that, most unfortunately, humans have yet to learn much in our current predicament, calling the pandemic response “the ultimate group project gone bad.” Dr. Koblentz stated that, like a zombie apocalypse, pandemics are usually a surprise, so the novel coronavirus has taught us to expect the unexpected. Further relating disease outbreaks to zombie outbreaks, Koblentz highlights that the human element is “as much of a threat as zombies early on because of fear and ignorance, misinformation, disinformation.” Max Brooks asserted that the threat of a global outbreak is “no mere sci-fi concept.” Some of the panel’s takeaways include that we are not adept at predicting pandemics and that “science and public health officials need to collaborate with communicators — including those in the entertainment industry — to get their health information to the people.” Watch the panel here

China May Literally Be Sowing the Seeds of Discord

Over the last few weeks, people across the US have been receiving random and mysterious packages of seeds from China in their mail. One recipient of mystery seeds received what seemed like a surprise gift of earrings, but instead found unidentified seeds within. Thus far, the packages have been received by individuals in Minnesota, Utah, Louisiana, Virginia, and Washington. At present, the purpose of this odd conduct is not yet confirmed, but there are suspicions that it is a brushing scam. A brushing scam involves a foreign, third-party seller mailing unsolicited items to a person and then writing a fake glowing review of their own product online. The review is considered a “verified purchase” because the item was delivered via the mail. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued a warning regarding these shifty seeds:

USDA urges anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds to immediately contact their State plant regulatory official or APHIS State plant health director. Please hold onto the seeds and packaging, including the mailing label, until someone from your State department of agriculture or APHIS contacts you with further instructions. Do not plant seeds from unknown origins.

A Personal Interview with Rita Colwell in Advance of Her Book “A Lab of One’s Own”

Dr. Rita Colwell is best known for her research on the pathogenic bacterium Vibrio cholera, but she is also pioneer for far-reaching contributions to the fight against sexism in a male-dominated field. In her new book, A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science, Colwell’s shares her unique perspective on sexism in science. Since 1972, Colwell has served as a member of the faculty of the University of Maryland, and she was the first woman to serve as director of the National Science Foundation. She is also the president of the Rosalind Franklin Society, where she uses her leadership for the recognition and promotion of women in science. Julianna LeMieux, senior science writer for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (GEN), interviewed Colwell to ask about her career, the lessons she learned along the way, the messages she would like to pass on to the upcoming generation of female scientists, and why she wanted to add another book to her already impressive list of outputs and achievements. Watch the interview here.

Global Bio Summit 4.0 at MIT Media Lab – Global Bio-Enthusiasts Unite!

Curious about biohackers? Interested in learning more about community labs? Fascinated by how a small online community grew to encompass the globe? Do you want to engage with, virtually meet, and learn from the people that identify with this global community of biohackers, citizen scientists, bioartists, entrepreneurs, safety and security professionals, and other stakeholders? If so, then Global Bio Summit 4.0 is the event for you! The event will take place this year in mid-October in an all-virtual format.

Started in 2017, the Global Community Bio Summit is an annual conference that brings together the “global community of DIY Biologists / community biologists / biohackers / biomarkers and members of independent and community laboratories.” The goal of the Global Community Bio Summit is to bring people together to “convene, plan, build fellowship, and continue the evolution” of the global community biology movement.

The “4.0” represents how this year’s meeting is the 4th Global Bio Summit. In the past, the community has developed several products such as a Statement of Shared Purpose and a shared Document of Community Ethics. The Global Bio Summit is also home to the Global Community Bio Fellows Program, which is “designed to provide professional development, leadership training, and peer support for emerging leaders in the global community.” The meeting is organized by the Community Biotechnology Initiative at MIT Media Lab. Check out the preliminary details of Global Bio Summit 4.0 here.

Look through some of the links at the top of the page to see past Global Bio Summits and key products and projects associated with the Summit!Registration is currently open on the Bio Summit Website. The registration deadline is 11:59 PM PST on 10 August 2020.

A Vaccine Reality Check

The somewhat grim reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the development of a vaccine that can quickly be made accessible to the masses is “only the beginning of the end.” As we continue to wait and hope for such a vaccine, the still raging pandemic may force us to continue to stall any semblance of normal life until it comes to fruition. Uncertainties abound about the timeline of a hypothetical vaccine, the safety of a rapidly created new vaccine, the efficacy of the vaccine against the novel coronavirus, and the accessibility to it once a vaccine is formulated. Given all these uncertainties, many experts have made one prediction. “I think the question that is easy to answer is, ‘Is this virus going to go away?’ And the answer to that is, ‘No,’” says Ruth Karron, the director of the Center for Immunization Research at Johns Hopkins University. At this point, the virus is too widespread. A vaccine could still mitigate severe cases, rendering COVID-19 easier to live with, but the virus is likely here to stay. Thankfully, the pandemic will eventually end.

Fauci’s First Pitch

Though Dr. Fauci’s first pitch at the kickoff of the historic 2020 MLB Season was a flop, his loyal fan base was unfazed. Fauci is the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a key leader in the US COVID-19 response. He threw the first pitch at the seasoning opener game, the Washington Nationals versus the New York Yankees in late July. To commemorate the moment, a Topps baseball card showing a masked Fauci mid-pitch was released. The Fauci card is now the bestselling card in the history of the company’s collection of limited-edition cards, ToppsNow. ToppsNow cards are only available to purchase for 24 hours and over 51,000 Fauci cards were sold.

Designing Pull Funding for A COVID-19 Vaccine

A new research article in Health Affairs by Christopher M. Snyder, Kendall Hoyt, Dimitrios Gouglas, Thomas Johnston, and James Robinson about pull funding for a COVID-19 vaccine is available with free access. A widely accessible vaccine is vital to ease the health and economic consequences of COVID-19. Firms may be slow to develop and manufacture a vaccine without appropriate incentives and coordination. Additionally, competition among countries for a limited supply of an effective vaccine may drive up prices and undermine efficient allocation. Programs relying on “push” incentives – direct cost reimbursement – can be inhibited by a funder’s inability to appreciate a firm’s private cost information. To overcome these hurdles, the authors propose a “pull” program that incentivizes late-stage development (phase-3 trials and manufacturing) for COVID-19 vaccines by awarding advance purchase commitments to selected firms. They calculated the optimal size and number of funding awards using novel cost and demand data. The results of their baseline simulations show that the “optimal program induces the participation of virtually all ten viable vaccine candidates, spending an average of $110 billion to generate net benefits of $2.8 trillion, nearly double that generated by the free market.”

Ready to Play? NTI’s Hair Trigger Game Released!

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) launched a new mobile game, Hair Trigger, at the Games for Change Festival (G4C). Playing the role of a newly-elected US President, the game pits you against “luck and real-life nuclear close calls as you navigate competing pressures to build domestic support and carefully manage international relations while racing to remove all nuclear weapons from hair-trigger status.” The twist? You must do it all in cooperation with Russia. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR put their nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to retaliate against a surprise attack from the other. In 2020, decades later, the two nations combined possess about 1,700 missiles that are armed, aimed, and ready to fire in minutes. Learn about the dangers of the risky hair-trigger status of US and Russian nuclear weapons by playing Hair Trigger here.

GMU Study: Contact Tracing Effective in Controlling Spread of Coronavirus

A new study by professors at the Schar School at George Mason University indicates that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted in densely populated venues, like music concerts, and travels long distances, leading to the infection of new populations. The study was published this month in the journal of the International Society of Travel Medicine. The team of researchers include Schar School Director of Research, Associate Professor Naoru Koizumi and College of Science Interim Dean Ali Andalibi, and Schar School public policy PhD student Abu Bakkar Siddique. They spent two months, beginning in mid-February, following developments from a series of live house concerts held in Osaka, Japan. The researchers, examined the spread of the virus by identifying a “seed” person who then infected over 100 people in 13 prefectures through primary, secondary and tertiary transmissions. After the concert, the virus quickly spread to over 100 people, “but the effective contact tracing managed to stop the transmissions from this cluster completely within less than two months.” Their takeaways include that the US should better prioritize developing and executing contact-tracing methods to reduce the spread of the virus and that individuals should behave responsibly for themselves and for their loved ones with whom they live.

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