Happy New Year! 2020 was a tumultuous year and 2021 is off to a rocky start; however, the COVID-19 vaccines give us hope for a healthier and safer year. January is One Health Awareness Month! For Biodefense graduate students looking for a fascinating course to round out your spring semester, Dr. Robert House is offering a course on the development of vaccines and therapeutics.
SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19 that emerged in China, took over the world in 2020. The United States suffered 21,299,340 total cases and 361,123 total deaths from COVID-19. The world suffered 87,186,540 total cases and 1,883,761 total deaths. The first case in the US was identified on 20 January 2020, the same day the Chinese posted the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2. The start of 2020 also saw the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
February was the month of the COVID-19 testing fiasco in which test kit availability was severely limited and some available kits were found to be contaminated. Also, in February, phase one of the Economic and Trade Agreement Between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China went into effect. This agreement commits China to undertake structural changes to open up its economy and improve its trade regime, benefitting the United States in the process by increasing China’s importation of US goods.
On 10 March, Italy entered lockdown and on 11 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally declared the COVID-19 pandemic. By mid-March, areas of the US began lockdown and Americans were urged to stay at home as much as possible.
Studies showed that mask-wearing substantially reduced transmission, and on 3 April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that masks were vital weapons against SARS-CoV-2. This declaration was met with confusion given the previous opposing statements by various US leaders that masks were ineffective.
Amidst the pandemic, in May, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota by a white police officer, sparking nationwide protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, this tragic event spurred important discussions about racial health disparities in the US, an issue seen in the COVID-19 data. For every 10,000 Americans, there were 38 coronavirus cases: 23 for whites, 62 for Blacks, and 73 for Hispanics.
When fall arrived, the big debate about sending children back to school in-person arose, with many districts opting to remain virtual. Sadly, on 18 September, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87. A mere eight days later, Amy Coney Barrett was nominated as Ginsburg’s successor.
The presidential election held last November resulted in a new incoming president and vice president: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They will be sworn into office on 20 January 2021. By the tail end of 2020, two newly developed COVID-19 vaccines were granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the first shot was administered on 14 December.
Now, let us all bid adieu to 2020! Although 2021 is off to a rough start, the imminent change in US leadership and the continued administration of COVID-19 vaccines may, finally, turn our luck around.
Looking Ahead in 2021
After nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccinations are underway, diagnostic testing has increased, and some therapeutic treatments are showing promise, giving experts a clearer picture of what the future holds. In a prediction that we all hope comes to fruition, Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that by the end of 2021, the US could “approach some level of normality.” Unsurprisingly, this forecast depends on the vaccination of 75-85% of the population as well as the continuation of mask-wearing and social distancing. Experts expect that an “overwhelming majority of the population” will be able to get vaccinated by the second quarter of 2021. Hopefully, in summer 2021, we will be able to have large outdoor gatherings without masks. In the latter half of the year, workers may be able to return to their offices. Sometime in mid- or late-2021, we may be able to enjoy indoor dining and a movie without a mask. Safe travel may resume, but gradually.
On 20 January, of course, president-elect Joe Biden will assume office; however, the events on 6 January at the Capitol Building have added concern to an amicable transition-of-power. Last Wednesday, a throng of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building in DC in a raucous attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Biden as the election winner. On Thursday, Congress certified president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris’ victory. On 23 July, the Olympics are scheduled to begin in Japan, over a year after the original start date. What will it look like – a bubble with virtual streaming?
A Farewell to Arms Control
Dr. John R Walker, former Head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Research Unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, shares his insights from a 40-year career in arms control. Science and technology (S&T) will always offer risks and benefits to society. Walker states that we cannot ban technologies or lines of scientific inquiry, though many are inarguably dual-use, because such restrictions could inhibit advances in medicine, neuroscience, plant health, and several other disciplines. Instead, he encourages understanding the possible implications of S&T to ensure their safe and acceptable applications. Patience and persistence of purpose are the keys to establishing arms control and disarmament agreements. In recent years, multilateral negotiations have grown more “ill-tempered and polarized,” requiring “inexhaustible supplies of patience and persistence in the face of multiple challenges and frustrations.” Understanding the long and complex history of arms control treaties can lead to better decisions. According to Walker, we are in a never-ending process when it comes to arms control and disarmament: “Events are but one chapter, one closes and we move on to the next one.” Finally, diplomacy matters, as do the personalities at the negotiation table.
Spring Course with Dr. Robert House: Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics
As the world waits anxiously for a COVID-19 vaccine and various therapies against this virus move through the drug development pipeline, BIOD students have an opportunity to learn from a world-class expert with decades of experience developing MCMs against a range of biological threats. Dr. Robert House holds a PhD in medical parasitology and is Senior Vice President of Government Contracts at Ology Bioservices. Ology Bioservices was recently awarded $37 million from the Department of Defense to support the advanced development of a monoclonal antibody cocktail against COVID-19. The Department of Defense has also awarded Ology Bioservices with a contract valued at $11.9 million to work with Inovio on DNA technology transfer to rapidly manufacture DNA vaccines. Previously, Dr. House worked for over a decade at DynPort Vaccine Company, where he held the positions of Vice President of Science and Technology, Chief Scientific Officer, and President. During this time, he earned extensive experience in winning and managing large USG-funded programs for developing medical countermeasures. This Spring, Dr. House will be teaching the Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics course (BIOD 766), which will explore how the US Government is developing MCM against these threats. Students will learn about the various threat agents, the context of regulatory considerations, and the specifics of how MCMs are developed.
Taking Back Control: A Resetting of America’s Response to COVID-19
The Rockefeller Foundation released a report outlining a plan to reset the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report considers schools to be a critical component, because prolonged closures can negatively impact the success of students throughout their careers and functioning schools are central economic players. To safely teach our youth in schools, an estimated $42.5 billion in federal funding is needed for testing in schools, students should be tested at least weekly, and teachers and staff should be tested at least twice weekly. The plan recommends that the first wave of reopening schools should prioritize all of the nation’s 56,000 public elementary schools by 1 February, requiring about 85 million tests per month. Several weeks later, the 18,000 middle schools could reopen with 70 million tests per month. By 1 March, the nation’s 25,000 high schools could reopen. The report lists several executive actions for achieving its outlined goals, ranging from an executive order that clarifies liability protections for those who make good faith efforts to provide reliable testing to investments in the expansion of PCR laboratory throughput to prioritizing teachers for vaccines. Read the full report here.
A ‘Come as You Are’ Vaccination Plan
Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND corporation, describes the poorly coordinated and slow-moving distribution of COVID-19 vaccines as another part of the “come as you are” pandemic response of the US. By 29 December, 2.13 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were administered, which is a mere fraction of the year-end goal. The sluggish rollout of vaccines could undermine the advantages of their exceptionally speedy development. Operation Warp Speed (OWS) is a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) established to accelerate the development of vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19. Once vaccines were manufactured and moved to distribution points, state, local, territorial, and tribal authorities assumed responsibility for further distribution and administering the vaccine through public and private industry vendors. The lack of a centralized federal system to provide real-time vaccine availability information is causing severe delays and disruptions in distribution beyond first priority health workers. Several governors have already shared their worries about delays, shorting of deliveries, and a lack of accurate information on the status of anticipated deliveries. Additionally, there has been a communication failure regarding when and how Americans will get vaccinated.
New Websites for the BWC & UNODA
The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has a new website! The BWC is a multilateral disarmament treaty that effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. Read the latest related to the BWC at its new website, www.un.org/disarmament/biological-weapons. Information – official documents, statements, presentations – pertaining to all official meetings and conferences of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) can be found at: https://meetings.unoda.org/.
One Health Awareness Month 2021
January 2021 is One Health Awareness Month! US Senate Resolution 462 declared January 2020 as the first US One Health Awareness Month, which occurred just before the COVID-19 pandemic. In support, the One Health Commission and Louisiana One Health in Action created the One Health Awareness Month 2020 Social Media Campaign to urge collaborations between animal, environmental, plant, human, and public health scientists. For instance, today’s (8 January) topic is antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and One Health. To help spread the word, you can use the hashtags #OneHealth and #OneHealthAwarenessMonth!
SARS-CoV-2 Variant B117
A new variant strain of SARS-CoV-2 – dubbed SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01, or B117 – contains a series of mutations that became highly prevalent in London and southeast England in December 2020. Earlier this week, the United Kingdom issued another lockdown to quell a third surge in cases, driven in part by the spread of B117. The variant has now been detected in 40 countries, including the United States. The first identified case of the B1117 variant in the US occurred in Colorado on 28 December. As of 7 January 2021, there have been 52 B117 lineage cases in the US across California, Colorado, New York, Georgia, and Florida. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no evidence that this new variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death; however, it does spread easier and quicker than other strains. Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that the mutations of this variant allow the virus to better bind to the receptors of cells, aiding its transmission. At present, researchers think that the existing COVID-19 vaccines will likely protect against B117, but more data are needed to confirm.
COVID-19 Open Data
On 18 December, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started publishing the COVID-19 Community Profile Report publicly on their websites, which provides the American people with the same community level information that is available to federal personnel. The Community Profile Report (CPR) is generated by the Data Strategy and Execution Workgroup in the Joint Coordination Cell of the White House COVID-19 Task Force, and it provides aggregate information on the overall status of areas across the country. The CPR is managed by an interagency team with representatives from multiple agencies and offices within HHS (including CDC, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, and the Indian Health Service). Access the CPR here.
Genetic Data and Marketing: Challenges, Opportunities, and Ethics
A new study in the Journal of Marketing is the first to systematically assess the implications of individual-level genetic data owned by private firms and government in the field of marketing. The direct-to-consumer genetic testing (DTC-GT) industry has exploded over the last 20 years with over 30 million customers already. Concurrently, many countries have launched large-scale, publicly-funded genetic data collection efforts, creating vast datasets that are increasingly used by companies such as AirBnB and Spotify for marketing purposes. This study reviews current research in behavioral and social genetics to develop a framework that features the genome as a source of consumers’ profiles and actions. The researchers then survey the range of potential uses of genetic data for marketing strategies and research, noting serious ethical challenges. Such applications include the use of “genetic measures as bases for segmentation and targeting” as well as the use of genetic data for “creative strategies that leverage consumers’ fascination for their genomes.” The authors outline four unique features of genetic data that create ethical challenges: (1) individuals can easily be identified by a small fraction of their genetic data; (2) these data are informative about one’s relatives; (3) these data are predictive, to some degree, of almost every human trait; and (4) these data are immutable. These four features present a serious threat to consumer autonomy and privacy.