Pandora Report: 10.16.2020

Today is World Food Day! The pandemic, conflict, and climate change are increasing hunger across globe, so this year’s theme centers around growing, nourishing, and sustaining together. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN calls for global solidarity to help all populations recover from the crisis, and to make food systems more resilient and robust.  Speaking of the pandemic, winter is coming – how will the impending flu season impact the COVID-19 pandemic? As a friendly reminder, get your flu shot ASAP!

World CRISPR Day: 20 October

October 20th is World CRISPR Day! Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) is a technology that enables gene editing. World CRISPR Day will bring together the genome engineering community to discuss how to safely enable discovery, therapeutic innovation, and practical applications. Synthego is hosting a conference on World CRISPR Day that features Dr. Jennifer Doudna, 2020 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry and CRISPR pioneer. Register for the conference here.

Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the characteristic in which microbes – viruses, bacteria, and fungi – change over time and exposure in ways that render antimicrobial medicines futile against them. Globally, about 700,000 people die from these infections annually. The combination of growing resistance across microbes to multiple therapeutics with the lagging creation of new drugs has made AMR a global issue. In the US, there are over 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections and 35,000 deaths each year. Measuring economic impact is complicated, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that a specific subset of AMR infection caused at least $4.8 billion in medical costs in 2017.

To better address this growing threat to public health, the US just released the 2020-2025 National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (CARB), which shares the “coordinated, strategic actions that the United States Government will take in the next five years to improve the health and wellbeing of all Americans by changing the course of antibiotic resistance.” The latest CARB builds on the 2014 National Strategy for CARB and the 2015 National Action Plan. The updated Plan continues to prioritize infection prevention and control in order to reduce the spread of AMR infections and shrink the need for antimicrobial use. The Plan consists of a One Health Approach that integrates activities related to the health of humans, animals, plants, and the environment. Additionally, the Plan focuses on data collection and use in order to further the understanding of the process of resistance and to support the development of new diagnostics and treatment options. The US has five goals to reduce the incidence and impact of AMR infections: (1)  slow the emergence of resistant bacteria and prevent the spread of resistant infection; (2) strengthen national One Health surveillance efforts; (3) advance development and use of rapid and innovative diagnostic tests; (4) accelerate basic and applied R&D for new antimicrobials; and (5) improve international collaboration and capacities for AMR prevention, surveillance, control, and R&D. Read the latest CARB Plan here.

Murder He Wrote

A recent essay by Natasha Bajema, Founder and CEO of Nuclear Spin Cycle, LLC, and Ronit Langer, Scoville Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes the importance of protecting biodata for national security and for staying out of the slammer. The digitization of biodata – human genomes, gene sequences, DNA from living organisms, and other human health-related information – is revolutionizing medicine, but also altering human interaction in the real world. The authors describe three critical dimensions of biodata that are essential to protecting national security and “keeping you out of prison in the event you’re someday accused of murdering your colleague.” These three dimensions of biodata exhibit the strategic value of such data, but also reveal the mounting risks to US national security without suitable protections against discrimination, error, unauthorized access, misuse, and theft.

The three dimensions are the digital-to-physical, privacy, and big data. The digital-to-physical dimension is a game changer given that scientists can now use gene synthesis techniques to transform 2-D digital data into 3-D physical material that exists outside of a computer and forms the basis of living organisms. Within the privacy dimension, individuals are increasingly having their genomes sequenced by medical and commercial entities, so the tiny segment of their genome that is unique is now information that others can obtain and potentially exploit. Consumer-based DNA testing, like 23&Me, does not provide the same protections afforded to whole genome sequencing performed for medical reasons, which is part of an individual’s medical record protected under US law. The big data dimension focuses on the need to leverage the potential of gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR, to improve human health and power precision medicine by providing scientists with “accurate and digitized knowledge about gene sequences and genomes of living organisms.” Scientists and medical researchers need “access to reliable collections of big data and sophisticated machine learning tools to analyze massive volumes of biodata.”

Documentary – America’s Medical Supply Crisis

A new collaborative documentary from PBS Frontline, The Associated Press, and the Global Reporting Centre, America’s Medical Supply Crisis, addresses the question, “Why was the United States left scrambling for critical medical equipment as the coronavirus swept the country?” The film delves into the supply chain weaknesses and failures that led to personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages and the political delays that worsened it. The investigation includes primary source documents as well as interviews of experts in business and science, government officials, those involved in PPE production and distribution, and workers affected by the shortages. Watch the documentary here.

Winter Is Coming

Winter is coming and brings with it some added complications to the raging pandemic: cold and flu season. The seasonal flu is a viral respiratory infection that presents with symptoms similar to COVID-19. Last year in the US, the fall and winter months saw a 40-fold increase in flu cases compared to the spring and summer months. Another red flag as we approach wintertime is that mortality from the 1918 influenza outbreak was five times as high in the US during the late fall and winter than in the summer. Unfortunately, the gaps in COVID-19 knowledge about the infectious dose needed to acquire the disease impedes transmission estimates; however, some preparations can be made. If possible, boost air circulation indoors and use good filters to reduce the amount of virus collecting in the space. The seasonal flu vaccine is more important now more than ever before, so get your flu shot ASAP!

Database Brings Clarity to Chemical Weapons Lists

A new database of chemical warfare agents (CWAs) includes molecular structures and other key information to help “facilitate communication between chemists and policymakers.” The database was developed by Stefano Costanzi, Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University; Charlotte K. Slavick, Department of Chemistry at American University; Brent O. Hutcheson, Department of Chemistry at American University; Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program; and Richard T. Cupitt, Senior Fellow and Director Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention Program at The Stimson Center. Chemical weapons are controlled by three international frameworks: The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) bans the use of any toxic chemical as a weapon; the Australia Group coordinates export regulations for CWA precursors; and the Wassenaar Arrangement is dedicated to arms control of CWAs. Each of these frameworks maintains its own list of CWAs and precursors, and the database organizes chemicals from all lists into an online database with additional details on each item. View the curated lists of chemicals here.

Upcoming Event – The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The Biodefense Graduate Program is sponsoring an event, The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapon Convention, in preparation for the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties on 30 November – 4 December, 2020. The chemical weapons nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Chemical weapons have made a comeback with deadly nerve agents being used by Russia, Syria, and North Korea against perceived “enemies of the state.” A new generation of chemical weapons that incapacitate, instead of kill, their victims are also under development. At their next annual meeting, members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons, will confront this resurgence in the chemical weapons threat. Please join a distinguished panel of international experts in a discussion about how restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Dr. Stefano Costanzi is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University in Washington DC. Dr. Malcolm Dando is a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent researcher/consultant on disarmament and security based in France. The event will be moderated by Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The event will be held as a live webinar on 17 November from Noon to 1:30 EST. Register at

Inside the Fall of the CDC

2020 will likely be the darkest era in the 74-year history of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has fallen from its station as the premier public health agency to a “target of anger, scorn and even pity.” ProPublica conducted its own investigation into the stumbles of the CDC in the COVID-19 response. The analysis ProPublica includes hundreds of emails and other internal government documents and interviews of over 30 CDC employees, contractors, and Trump administration officials with first-hand knowledge of key moments in the pandemic pandemonium. Senior staff members at CDC detail battles about protecting the US population from COVID-19, but also a war to protect science from the administration. Regrettably, these battles have mostly been lost by the CDC. According to ProPublica, in the aggregate, these documents and interviews paint a picture of “an insular, rigorous agency colliding head-on with an administration desperate to preserve the impression that it had the pandemic under control.” CDC experts, even veterans with international notoriety, were sidelined, silenced, or shifted to different roles. Nearly a year into the pandemic, many worry that the CDC has lost the public’s trust and confidence, and the timeline to recover that faith could take years. Most unfortunately, longtime CDC staff are also losing trust in their own agency. One interviewee said, “Many of us who might be viewed as complicit need to decide whether we need to leave. Or can we be part of the ‘never again’ so that the agency never gets this kind of political interference again?”

The Coronavirus Unveiled

The New York Times debuted an interactive article that details the structure of SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19. The resource covers the what is known about the virus’s protein spike, shield of sugar molecules, tangled genome, and more. Spike proteins play an essential role: latching onto host cells in our airway to allow the virus to slip inside. The virus uses a shield comprised of sugar to hide from the antibodies seeking to overpower it. On 10 January, Chinese scientists published the 30,000-letter sequence of the virus’s genome, which required the precise untangling RNA strands. Read the interactive article here to learn more about the pathogen the world is fighting.

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