Pandora Report: 9.25.2020

Happy fall y’all! The first days of autumn have been eventful with the ongoing pandemic and the interception of ricin-laced letters. The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response virtually met for the first time and laid out their plans for investigating how and why COVID-19 became a pandemic. Letters laced with ricin were intercepted in Texas and before reaching the White House, and a suspect has been charged. In wonderful news, our own Dr. Saskia Popescu was named as one of the 50 experts to trust and follow in a pandemic! Also, Stevie Kiesel shares her assessment of the Secret Service’s annual reports on mass attacks in public spaces.

Commentary – Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: An Assessment by the United States Secret Service

Stevie Kiesel, a PhD Student in Biodefense, shares her assessment of the US Secret Service annual reporting on mass attacks in public spaces. Just last year, 108 people were killed and 178 injured in 34 mass attacks conducted on US soil. These annual reports on mass attacks in public spaces could be greatly improved by analyzing the attackers’ ideologies, their affiliations (online or in real life) with extremist groups, and their online presence. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Schar School Job Talk: Careers in Policy and Security

Please join the Schar School at a virtual job talk for prospective students! Panelists will provide insight on how a graduate degree from the Schar School can benefit your career in policy and security. Panelists include Dr. Saskia Popescu, 2019 graduate of the Schar School’s PhD in Biodefense program, a nationally recognized expert in hospital-based infection prevention, and a Term Assistant Professor at the Schar School; Kathleen Lackey, Staff Officer with the Department of Defense and a 2018 graduate of the Schar School’s MA in International Security; Larry Hanauer, Vice President for Policy at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA); and Curt Goucher, Senior Manager of Talent Management and Strategy with the Intelligence and Homeland Security Division of General Dynamics Information Technology. Click here to register.

Scientists Are Working on Vaccines That Spread Like a Disease. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A growing subset of scientists think that the self-propagating properties of a virus could be exploited and used to spread immunity to infection. In theory, conferring immunity through an animal population could lower the chance of a zoonotic spillover; however, there are serious risks related to self-spreading vaccines. Self-spreading vaccines are “genetically engineered viruses designed to move through populations in the same way as infectious diseases, but rather than causing disease, they confer protection.” Dr. Fillipa Lentzos and Dr. Guy Reeves outline some of these risks in their recent article featured in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The primary security concern is the dual-use potential; these self-spreading vaccines could be used as a biological weapon. Though the Biological Weapons Convention bans biological weapons, it lacks any formal measures to ensure compliance. Given the degradation of the norm against chemical weapons, as evidenced by the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny with Novichok, the international community cannot withstand a similar weakening of the norm against biological weapons. The authors encourage “early, open, good-faith conversations about scientific aims and advances that cause particular dual-use concerns” in order to “make a collective decision about the technical pathways we are willing, or not willing, to take as a society.”

Ricin Letters

It was revealed last week that letters containing ricin, a poison found naturally in castor beans, were intercepted. One such letter was bound for Trump, but intercepted at an off-site mail processing facility, and others were sent to a detention facility and sheriff’s office in Texas. Mail address to the White House and other federal agencies in the DC area are irradiated and sampled for suspicious samples prior to arriving at the final destination.  The Joint Terrorism Task Force in DC is the lead on the investigation in partnership with the FBI, Secret Service, and Postal Inspection Service. An FBI statement on Twitter announced that there is “no known threat to public safety.” The investigation into all the ricin-laced letters has led to a suspect: Pascale Cecile Veronique Ferrier, 53, of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. An affidavit in support of criminal complaint was submitted by Jonathon Preston, a Special Agent Bomb Technician with the FBI, states his support of charging Ferrier with Threatening the President of the United States. According to Preston, all seven letters contained similar language, similar material, and four of them had fingerprints matching the suspect. Ferrier also shared Twitter and Facebook posts that used language akin to that in the letters, and the email associated with those social media accounts was linked to her. Further, upon detainment by Customs and Border Patrol Officers in Buffalo on 20 September, Ferrier made statements that she was “wanted by the FBI for the ricin letters.” Ferrier’s detention hearing is scheduled for 28 September.

The Independent Panel Set to Establish the Facts of How and Why COVID-19 Became a Global Pandemic

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response is tasked with providing an evidence-based path for the future to effectively address health threats. The Independent Panel intends to establish the facts of how and why COVID-19 became a pandemic and to generate recommendations for “safeguarding human health and economic and social wellbeing in the face of future global health threats.” The Independent Panel held its first meeting (virtually) on 17 September and it will conduct an impartial, independent and comprehensive review of the response to COVID-19. In the first meeting, members discussed the Terms of Reference to ensure that the Panel works “openly and transparently” and seeks the “best possible advice, experience, and knowledge.” The thematic areas for the program of work include the review of the pandemic from its initial phase and the analysis of broader societal and economic impacts. Scheduled reporting includes a briefing to the WHO Executive Board at its session scheduled 5-6 October, a progress report to the resumed 73rd World Health Assembly scheduled from 9-14 November, a second progress report to the WHO Executive Board scheduled from 18-26 January 2021, and then the Panel will then report to the 74th World Health Assembly in May 2021.

Healthcare Workers Make Up 1 in 7 Reported Coronavirus Infections Globally

One in seven COVID-19 cases reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) is a healthcare worker. In some countries, that proportion is as high as one in three. These numbers are disproportionately high compared with the numbers of healthcare workers, which account for about 3% of the population in most countries. Two factors contributing to these elevated rates are the greater rates of testing for healthcare workers as frontline responders in a pandemic and the high-risk nature of working in healthcare. A study published this summer found that the risk of infection for healthcare workers was about three times greater than the risk for the general community. The WHO did clarify that the data did not provide clear insight into whether healthcare workers were infected in clinical settings or at home.

50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic

A list of the 50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic includes Dr. Saskia Popescu, graduate of the Biodefense PhD Program and Term Assistant Professor for the Program! Dr. Popescu is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arizona College of Public Health Department of Epidemiology and Biostats. She is an epidemiologist and hospital infection preventionist in Arizona, a hotspot for the virus. To keep up with Dr. Popescu’s insights on the pandemic, follow her on Twitter @SaskiaPopescu.    

COVID-19: Federal Efforts Could Be Strengthened by Timely and Concerted Actions

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congressional Committees regarding federal actions to support public health, individuals, and the economy in COVID-19 evaluates federal actions to the pandemic. The report identified several issues in need of attention by Congress and the administration, including: the medical supply chain is unable to prevent shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies; there is a lack of clarity about the federal government’s plan for distributing and administering a COVID-19 vaccine; COVID-19 data reveal that there is a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths exists among minority groups and those data contain gaps; and the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service lack updated information on the number of eligible recipients who have not received an economic impact payment. Beyond the long list of areas in need of improvement, the report lays out 16 recommendations for executive action, such as better developing and communicating plans that outline the specific actions that the federal government intends to take to help alleviate medical supply gaps necessary to respond to the remainder of the pandemic. Read the full report here.

In Response: Yan et al Preprint

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security published a response to the preprint report, Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route, by Li-Meng Yan, Shu Kang, Jie Guan, and Shanchang Hu. The report in question provides a theory about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, but, according to the Center for Health Security, the authors failed to provide accurate or supportive evidence to back up their claim. In short, the refuted report, which is not peer-reviewed, states that “SARS-CoV-2 shows biological characteristics that are inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus” and that “evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 should be a laboratory product created by using bat coronaviruses ZC45 and/or ZXC21 as a template and/or backbone.” The Center for Health Security response thoroughly details the errors in the report and provides accurate information about each topic.

Lists of Chemical Warfare Agents and Precursors: Structural Annotation and Chemical Fingerprint Analysis

A recent publication by Stefano Costanzi, Charlotte Slavick, Brent Hutchinson, Gregory Koblentz (GMU Biodefense Program Director), and Richard Cupitt (GMU Adjunct Professor) provides “curated and structurally annotated chemical weapons (CW) control lists from three key international nonproliferation frameworks: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Australia Group (AG), and the Wassenaar Arrangement.” These lists were constructed to facilitate communication between scientific advisors and policymakers in chemical weapons nonproliferation. They are also aimed at enabling the work of chemists and cheminformaticians working on CW nonproliferation. The tables include 2D structural images, downloadable 2D structures, and links to NCBI’s PubChem and NIST’s Chemistry WebBook cards that offer quick access to physicochemical, analytical chemistry, and toxicological information. The article examines a discrepancy in a CW control list covering the defoliant Agent Orange and suggests a solution to address it, as well as the results of chemical fingerprinting analyses. The tables for the curated lists of chemicals are available here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 23 September, there is a PhD Virtual Open House at 7pm EDT. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” To read the latest Master’s in Biodefense Career Report, click here. Register for these open houses and lectures here.

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