Pandora Report: 10.30.2020

Happy Halloween! For those of you with little monsters planning on trick-or-treating, consider building in a face covering into their costume to keep them safe from SCV2. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights on “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland.” Dr. Lauren Quattrochi is joining the GMU Biodefense family and she carved out time to share her academic and professional journey, and impart some words of wisdom to biodefense students and aspiring experts!

Recent Congressional Testimony: Worldwide Threats to the Homeland

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights on FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security about “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland.” He focuses on five main topics: cyber, China, lawful access, election security, and counterterrorism. This article reviews the FBI Director’s depiction of these topics and provides additional characterizations of them, based on recent reports, legislation, and strategic guidance. Read Kiesel’s article here.

Meet Dr. Lauren Quattrochi: Multidisciplinary Pharmacologist, Virologist, Electrophysiologist, and New Adjunct Faculty Member for the Biodefense Graduate Program

Dr. Lauren Quattrochi (aka Dr. Q) is joining the GMU Biodefense family! Dr. Q is a classically trained as an electrophysiologist and neuro-pharmacologist. Over the evolution of her career, she has worked within the biopharma industry, non-profits and for the past 4 years, in support of the government. She is currently a principal biotechnologist leading national level scientific and biosecurity initiatives within the US government. At the moment, Dr. Q serves as a technical advisor on both Hantavirus and COVID-19 vaccine development and manufacturing. This week, Dr. Q met with the Pandora Report to detail her academic and professional journey, and share her insights on a career in biodefense. Read about Dr. Q here.

Tips for Trick or Treating and Other Halloween Activities

Halloween is tomorrow and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided some guidance on how to stay healthy while trick-or-treating during a pandemic:

  • Avoid direct contact with trick-or-treaters
  • Give out treats outdoors, if possible
  • Set up a station with individually bagged treats for kids to take
  • Wash hands before handling treats or carry hand sanitizer
  • Wear a mask
  • Stay 6 feet away from other Halloween groups

We Need Science Now, More Than Ever

Sign up for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ free newsletter and get the best coverage of nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. For 75 years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been publishing evidence-based coverage of the critical issues that threaten our world, elevating the experts above the noise. Contributors include Pandora Report regulars such as Greg Koblentz, Saskia Popescu, and Filippa Lentzos. We don’t have a second to waste — sign up today.

A Guide to Investigating Outbreak Origins: Nature Versus the Laboratory

Richard Pilch, Miles Pomper, Jill Luster, and Filippa Lentzos published a report with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey. The report, A Guide to Investigating Outbreak Origins: Nature versus the Laboratory, outlines an easily adoptable step-by-step methodology based on traditional epidemiological principles to guide the investigation of outbreak origins. This guide comes at an apropos time given the major gaps exposed by COVID-19. The risks of natural outbreaks and laboratory accidents are swelling; the possibility of a deliberate biological attack adds to the worries associated with pathogens. The authors aim to minimize the invasiveness of their proposed process while simultaneously enabling a thorough examination of the root cause of an outbreak.   

The Costs of Ransomware Attacks on Hospitals

A joint advisory by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the FBI stated that there is “credible information of an increased and imminent cybercrime threat” from ransomware attacks targeting US hospitals and healthcare providers. Hackers are using Ryuk ransomware to encrypt data and block users from accessing it, and they are using Trickbot to filch data, impede health care services, and extort money from healthcare facilities. Ryuk has hit at least five hospitals this week and could affect hundreds more. According to Brett Callow, an analyst at the cybersecurity firm Emsisoft, 59 US health care providers and systems have been impacted by ransomware in 2020, which has caused the disruption of patient care at up to 510 facilities. Germany is also facing cyber-attacks on their hospitals. After hackers disabled computer systems at Düsseldorf University Hospital, a female patient scheduled for live-saving treatment had to be transferred to a hospital 19 miles away. The patient died during the transfer, and prosecutors have launched a negligent homicide case that could place the blame of her death on the hackers.

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

The Schar School of Policy and Government is pleased to offer $250,000 in scholarships, made possible by the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship, to eligible master’s students admitted to a security studies-related program for the Spring 2021 semester. Students in the Master’s in Biodefense program are eligible. The mission of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation is to “promote national security, entrepreneurship, and enhance quality of life by supporting education and global understanding.” These scholarships are intended to support future national security professionals and leaders. “The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation gift makes it possible for many students to attend our high-ranked security studies programs and prepare for careers in intelligence and security policy,” said Schar School Dean Mark J. Rozell. “We are grateful for this new partnership that will advance our shared goal of educating and training future policy professionals in these fields.” Distinguished Visiting Professor and former Director of the CIA and NSA Michael V. Hayden touted the gift:

“There has never been a time when the national security threats facing our nation have been as diverse. The Schar School is growing to meet those challenges, be they from peer rivals, persistent terrorist threats, or the consequences of technological developments. This scholarship fund will enhance the Schar School’s already stellar reputation in attracting a strong and diverse pool of graduate student candidates who will serve as our next generation of hands-on, solutions-driven national security leaders.”

Applications are due by 15 November 2020. To apply, click here.

Scientists Develop a Potential Antibiotic from Komodo Dragon Blood

As a possible creative basis for an antibiotic to combat the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), scientists at George Mason University have developed a synthetic molecule by combining two genes found in Komodo dragon blood. In preclinical testing, the antibiotic, DRGN-6, killed carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae, a bacterium that causes a particularly aggressive form of pneumonia and is highly drug resistant. This breakthrough discovery is a “critical first step” to a potential novel antibiotic, but research and development to devise a market-worthy product could easily take another decade.

Human Embryo Genome Editing: The Debate Continues

A detailed report, Heritable Human Genome Editing, was published in September by an international commission of the US National Academy of Medicine, US National Academy of Sciences, and the UK’s Royal Society. The CRISPR Journal just released “Reactions to the National Academies/Royal Society Report on Heritable Human Genome Editing,” which proposes a “translational pathway for the limited approval of germline editing under certain circumstances and assuming various criteria have been met.” Three dozen experts in genome editing, medicine, bioethics, law, and more share their frank feedback to the report on Heritable Human Genome Editing.

Women of Color Advancing Peace & Security

The Women of Color Advancing Peace & Security (WCAPS) released Policy Papers by Women of Color, Second Edition: CBRN Policy and Global Health Security. The second edition features articles from members of the WCAPS working groups: Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Security Policy; and Global Health Security. Papers cover topics such as diversity issues in the nuclear threat reduction workforce, threat analysis of small industrial radiological equipment, and the negative impact of AI-enabled automation on the US nuclear command, control, and communications system. Read these policy papers here.

$275 Million Commitment to Brew Better Molecules for Manufacturing

A coalition comprised of the Department of Defense and more than 80 companies, universities, states, and research institutes have committed to invest at least $275 million over the next seven years to augment microbial production of biomolecules. The funding is aimed at supporting the biomanufacturing industry so that it can supply a wide range of businesses with large quantities of chemicals at the low prices needed for them to be competitive with petroleum-based alternatives. The public-private partnership, the Bioindustrial Manufacturing and Design Ecosystem (BioMADE), seeks to “employ the same principles of genetic engineering and engineering biology used in the pharmaceutical industry to produce chemicals other than drugs on a scale similar to that used to ferment corn into ethanol for transportation.”

State Department: Reducing Revisionist State Biological and Chemical Weapons Threats

The Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN/CTR) at the Department of State is funding cooperative agreements to detect and disrupt the ability of “revisionist proliferator states” to develop chemical and biological weapons (CBW) capabilities. Revisionist proliferator states utilize a variety of underhanded or illegal methods to procure sensitive equipment and weaponizable materials for illicit CBW purposes. The Reducing Revisionist State Biological and Chemical Weapons Threats funding opportunity seeks to support “creative and competitive proposals that utilize open-source information to map potential illicit revisionist state CBW procurement networks, develop targeted interventions to disrupt access to dual-use biological materials and equipment, and limit access to necessary biological and chemical scientific knowledge and expertise.”

Keep Focus on Emerging Infections, Disease X: Analysts

A recent report from a global health think tank found that the United States was the biggest infectious disease research donor, but also the biggest funding beneficiary. Between 2014-18, funding for research and development mostly went toward diseases that received much public attention, instead of diseases that were possible causes of future pandemics (like Disease X) or that caused the greatest health burdens. This imbalance shows that funding is not based on a forward-looking approach, hindering our ability to prevent and prepare for the next big outbreak. Madhukar Pai, director of the International Tuberculosis Centre at McGill University in Canada, predicts that funding data will reveal a “100% covidisation” of infectious disease R&D funding for 2020 and 2021.

COVID‐19 and the Boundaries of Open Science and Innovation

As the world becomes increasingly digitized, the concept of Open Science plays an increasingly important role in research and technology. Open Science, empowered by digital communication technologies, endeavors to make publicly-funded scientific research available to any scientist or researcher through the unhindered sharing of results, data, methods, reagents, and technologies. Minari, Yoshiwaza, and Shinomiya point out that mandates and policies designed to support Open Science can clash with privacy, data protection, and security. They highlight that “privacy and data protection legislation… reign supreme over data sharing for human‐related biomedical research.” The sharing of information related to pathogens and infectious diseases can also create biosecurity concerns. The authors recommend a system to trace data back to their origins in order to assure data quality and legitimacy.

Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: What We Know

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released proceedings of a workshop, Airborne Transmission of SARS-COV-2, detailing what is currently known on the topic. Individuals generate aerosols and droplets across broad spectrums of sizes and concentrations, and aerosol production varies based on the person and activity.  Strong evidence exists that aerosol transmission is an important pathway for the spread of SCV2; however, research is challenging and more study is needed. In good news, ultraviolet (UV) light significantly decreases virus stability, but lower temperatures and humidity may increase stability. Evidence also shows that face coverings, like masks, reduce community transmission of the novel coronavirus.

How COVID-19 is Affecting the Global Response to AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria

The COVID-19 pandemic is greatly impacting the world’s most vulnerable communities by threatening progress on the fights against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), and malaria. It is estimated that a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could lead to over half a million additional deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa. Though 2020 celebrated the distribution of the 2 billionth bed net for malaria prevention, the pandemic has disrupted malaria services like insecticide-treated net campaigns and access to antimalarials. As a result of these troubles, sub-Saharan Africa could see a doubling of malaria deaths. Lockdowns and medical services limitations could “erase five years of progress on TB, increasing the annual number of deaths and cases over the next five years.” The estimated cost of a 3-month lockdown and 10-month restoration of services is an additional 6.4 million TB cases and 1.4 million deaths.

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