Pandora Report: 8.21.2020

Welcome Back, Patriots!

Welcome back for Fall 2020! As we return, there are several resources provided by GMU that we can use to keep ourselves and the campus safe and healthy. Before stepping onto one of the campuses, all students, faculty, staff, contractors, and affiliates must take the Mason COVID Health Check survey daily. Based on your responses, the survey will provide you with one of three statuses – Green, Yellow, or Red – to give you the all-clear to go on campus or to guide you to the next steps if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or you were a close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Many classes are being offered virtually this semester and there are resources to help you optimize your online learning experience: Academic Success During COVID-19, How to Be a Successful Online Learner, Strategies for Online Learning Success, and Online Learning Basics. Also, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a wonderful resource for Mason students to get help from mental health providers and learning specialists. For more information on GMU’s Safe Return to Campus plans and protocols, please click here.

News of the Weird

The COVID-19 pandemic has instigated some odd coping strategies. In order to recreate the feeling of travel and, perhaps, pep up spirits, some airlines are offering flights to nowhere. Taiwan’s Civil Aviation Administration was the first to offer such a service by organizing a flight that never left the ground. This flying experience was complete with checking in, retrieving boarding passes, going through security checkpoints, and even in-flight services. The fake flight was so popular that Taiwan airports now offer “passengers” the option to depart, but land in the same airport. Eva Air, a major Taiwanese airline, held a Hello Kitty-themed flight that made a scenic loop over the country’s northeast coast. Researchers are also getting creative during COVID. A University of Pennsylvania study of nine dogs is testing whether dogs can scent a specific smell in people infected with SARS-CoV-2.  Blaze, one of the dogs, successfully selected a can containing urine from a hospitalized coronavirus-positive patient out of a selection of alternatives.

COVID-19 Data Will Once Again Be Collected by CDC

After a smart policy reversal, hospitals will return to reporting new cases to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Department of Health and Human Services is reversing their recent decision to change the way hospitals report critical information on the coronavirus pandemic to the government and bypass the CDC. Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told hospital executives and government officials in Arkansas that the new system to which hospitals report new cases is just an “interim system” and that data reporting would soon return to the CDC.

A Canary in a COVID Coal Mine: Building Better Healthcare Biopreparedness Policy

Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense Graduate Program, recently published a commentary in World Medical & Health Policy about improving healthcare biopreparedness policy. The COVID‐19 pandemic has overwhelmed much of the US healthcare system and highlighted gaps in preparedness and response to biological threats, such as limited personal protective equipment (PPE) and staffing issues. A lack of prioritization of hospital biopreparedness and inadequate infrastructure left the nation ill-equipped for the novel coronavirus. COVID‐19 has exposed a need to implement regulatory requirements on healthcare facilities to invest in preparedness for biological events. Read Dr. Popescu’s commentary here.

ICYMI: A Deadly Coronavirus Was Inevitable. Why Was No One Ready?

In early 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) added a new threat to its list of diseases with pandemic potential: Disease X. Disease X is not a specific illness, but a hypothetical ailment with the ability to induce an epidemic caused by a pathogen that is unrecognized as a danger to humans. SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, is Disease X. Unfortunately, when COVID-19 hit, the world was under-prepared, because governments had ignored blatant warnings and underfunded pandemic preparedness. The emergence of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 as zoonotic viruses were two such warnings. H1N1, Ebola Virus Disease, and Zika Virus Disease were three more. The risks of new pathogens are greater today than ever; new diseases often spring from animals, so the increases in global travel and components of trade and economic development are driving humans and animals closer together. Despite the threat of emerging infectious diseases, funding for pandemics tends to be sparse and dropping. Most of the efforts carried out for pandemic preparedness in the US focused on influenza, which is among the list of biological threats but not the only one. The Trump administration has supported some pandemic-related programs and added much-needed funds for the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) after money to combat Ebola ran dry. Regrettably, many programs and offices related to preparedness have been dismantled, suspended, or reduced.

Joint Call for Papers – Special Issues on Infodemiology

The World Health Organization (WHO) along with IULM University in Italy, Harvard University, and several scholarly journals just released a joint call for papers about infodemiology. The WHO defines infodemiology as the “science of managing infodemics,” and defines an infodemic as “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – occurring during an epidemic.” As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic and all the uncertainties related to SARS-CoV-2, a deluge of misleading or false information is distorting perceptions of disease risk and spreading disinformation about the disease, potential cures, and possible sources. Many of these inaccuracies are prominently featured on the internet, social networks, and the media. Given the ongoing COVID-19 infodemic, special issues focused on infodemics and infodemiology are needed. For more information on submissions, click here.

What Contact Tracing Data Is Telling Us About How COVID-19 Spreads

Contact tracing is a tool that can help slow the spread of an infectious disease by collecting information on the individuals that have come in close contact with a positive case of a disease.  NPR surveyed the health departments in all US states and territories three times about their contact tracing capacity. The latest survey also asked about what contact tracing data they are gathering and which data they are making publicly available. Most states are collecting data from their contact tracing programs; however, only 14 reported that the data were available on a government website. Only 9 states reported that their contract tracing staff numbers were publicly available.

What We Know & Don’t Know About COVID-19

We are now seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the virus was completely novel, we now know that it can be spread by individuals who do not present with symptoms, whether they be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. Compared to other families of viruses, coronaviruses tend to mutate slowly, which is good news for vaccine research and development. Though we feared that the virus could be spread via contact with surfaces, research is showing that this is an unlikely transmission route. On average, symptoms present 5 days after exposure, but the range for symptom onset is 2-14 days. Infected individuals shed active virus particles for up to 10 days after the onset of symptoms. Though we are more knowledgeable about the novel coronavirus and its effects than we were at the start of 2020, many questions remain unanswered. The Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security released an updated Master Question List for COVID-19. This list “summarizes what is known, what additional information is needed, and who may be working to address such fundamental questions.”

New Data Science Competition: Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge (DrivenData)

Looking to apply your data skills to improving global health security? In partnership with Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and iGEM’s Safety and Security Program, altLabs is soliciting improved and inventive solutions to a crucial problem in genetic engineering: Where was this engineered? This challenge offers prizes for lab-of-origin prediction accuracy and creative real-world application, with a total prize pool of $60,000. Whether you’re a data scientist, bioinformatician, synthetic biologist, or an interested solver from a different field, we’re calling on you to compete!

Facebook’s Threat to Public Health

New research determined that Facebook, a social media platform with over 2.6 billion active users, is directing viewers toward COVID-19 disinformation. Though Facebook vowed to douse conspiracy theories and inaccurate news early in the pandemic, its algorithm seems to have funneled traffic to a network of sites that shares false news. According to NBC News, dozens of public and private Facebook groups with hundreds of thousands of members cumulatively are hotbeds for conspiracy theories and unproven cures related to SARS-CoV-2. Avaaz, a US-based nonprofit organization, analyzed Facebook’s top pages and reviewed all websites deemed untrustworthy in order to assess Facebook’s follow-through on stopping the spread of COVID-19 untruths. The study identified 82 websites and 42 Facebook pages to comprise the sample set of global health misinformation spreading networks. Their key findings include that Facebook has “superspreader” pages of health misinformation and that Facebook is “failing to keep people safe and informed during the pandemic.”  Read the full report, Facebook’s Algorithm: A Major Threat to Public Health, here.

Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem

The Global Engagement Center (GEC) of the US Department of State published a special report, Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem. The
GEC is the government’s dedicated office for countering foreign disinformation and propaganda and is tasked with exposing and thwarting threats from malign actors that employ such strategies. Russia’s prolific use of disinformation and propaganda makes it a top threat. Russia has encouraged the development of a disinformation and propaganda ecosystem in order to undermine democratic values, soil the international credibility of the US, and weaken the cohesion of the US and its allies and partners. This special report details the aforementioned ecosystem with a visual representation to demonstrate “how the different pillars of the ecosystem play distinct roles and feed off of and bolster each other.” Additionally, the report provides short profiles of certain proxy sites and organizations that play an intermediate role between pillars with apparent links to Russia and pillars designed to be completely deniable. Read the full report here.

Department of Defense Warns Troops Not to Catch Fire from Hand Sanitizers

In an unfortunate incident, an employee of the Department of Energy Federal Contractors Group washed his hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer, as recommended, which ignited when the employee touched a metal surface with a static electrical charge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using hand sanitizers containing at least 60% ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Due to an increasing occurrence of adverse events (blindness, cardiac effects, effects on the central nervous system, hospitalizations, and death), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against using sanitizers containing methanol, or wood alcohol.

Near Misses at UNC Chapel Hill’s High-Security Lab Illustrate Risk of Accidents with Coronaviruses

Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill may have been exposed to lab-created coronaviruses in several incidents since 2015. In February 2016, a UNC researcher in a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory was bit by a mouse infected with a lab-created type of SARS coronavirus. This bite occurred despite the scientist wearing a full-body Tyvek suit and double gloves. After the incident, that scientist was not quarantined, but allowed to go about her normal routines and be among the public as long as she wore a surgical mask and reported her temperature twice daily. Thankfully, she did not become ill; however, this safety breach became one among a list of “near-miss incidents” at the university involving several types of genetically engineered coronaviruses. Though the theory that the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of a breach of the Wuhan Virology Laboratory does not hold water, the novel coronavirus does highlight the pre-existing concerns of scientists regarding the potential for a laboratory accident to instigate an outbreak. After the bite in 2016, UNC deleted the name of the virus from incident reports it released for a public records request. Further, officials from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and UNC declined to explain the potential risks to the public of the 2016 breach or why the researcher was not quarantined. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, stated that “there is no reason for the public not to be informed about the nature of biological agents involved in lab research and accidents.” Indeed, making laboratory accident reports publicly available would help ensure accountability for facilities and funders, and it would “encourage them to learn from mistakes and reduce risk of them occurring.”

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