Pandora Report: 1.15.2021

We are days away from a transition of power, welcoming the Biden-Harris administration. A large study in the UK found that those who have had COVID-19 may be immune to reinfection for several months. The Sentinel from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point features commentary on the terrorism and counterterrorism challenges that the new administration will face.

Limitations of Quarantine

HyunJung Kim, a Biodefense PhD candidate, recently published an article in Monthly Chosun, an influential news media outlet in South Korea, explaining the different origins of emergency use authorization (EUA) policies between the US and South Korea. After the 2001 Amerithrax attacks, the US developed its EUA policy with a focus on homeland security, enabling the use of MCMs, while Korea’s EUA policy was developed with a focus on disease containment, only issuing approvals for diagnostic kits. The public health authority of South Korea has hesitated to use COVID-19 vaccines, comparing them to the efficacy and comprehensive use of diagnostic kits in the early days of COVID-19. Political leaders have praised themselves and emphasized their achievements, but they have neglected what the next steps should be. Kim recommends revising the EUA laws in Korea to allow for emergency use of vaccines and therapeutic drugs.

Memo to the President: Reimagining Public Health Preparedness and Response

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND corporation, highlights the unevenness of the US response to the pandemic that has challenged the United States politically, economically, and societally as never before in our nation’s history. In fact, the pandemic and the faltering response is upending 200 years of emergency management doctrine. Adding insult to injury, many Americans are losing trust and confidence in their government. Gerstein points out that as we near a transition of power in the US, the death toll for the first year of the pandemic is approaching the number of all Americans killed in World War II. He believes that a reimagining of US public health preparedness and response is needed to heal the national psyche and restore American confidence in itself and around the world.

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security Voted 2020 Arms Control Persons of the Year

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, the Founder and Executive Director of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS), and WCAPS itself have been voted the 2020 Arms Control Persons of the Year! Ambassador Jenkins and WCAPS were nominated for catalyzing support and action from leaders and practitioners in the national security and foreign policy communities to increase diversity into their ranks and boards of directors and pursue concrete steps to “root out institutional racism” in the governmental and non-governmental sectors in the field. WCAPS is a platform devoted to women of color that cultivates a strong voice and network for its members while encouraging dialogue and strategies for engaging in policy discussions on an international scale. Their vision is to advance the leadership and professional development of women of color in the fields of international peace, security, and conflict transformation. After the protests in 2020 against the police killings of George Floyd and other Black people, WCAPS organized a solidarity statement endorsed by leaders and individuals from 150 organizations and launched working groups to develop concrete strategies and tools to attack the problem.

COVID-19 Update

The B117 variant of SARS-CoV-2 is a new enemy that we are better equipped to fight than we were when the novel coronavirus first hit the world. We understand how this virus spreads, the health strategies that can help contain it, and how to effectively treat those infected with it. The “old” virus is helping us battle the new one, because people who have already had COVID-19 are highly resistant to B117. We must keep in mind that the new variant has two key advantages: pandemic fatigue throughout the population and the variant’s faster spread.

A large study in the United Kingdom of 20,000 healthcare workers suggests that most people are immune for several months after infection with SARS-CoV-2 for the first time. In fact, this research – called SARS-CoV-2 Immunity and Reinfection Evaluation (SIREN) – found that immune responses from past infection reduce the risk of catching the virus again by 83% for at least 5 months. Throughout COVID-19, reports of reinfections of with SARS-CoV-2 have been rare, but the cause of much concern. In the study, less than 1% of the approximately 6,600 participants who had already had COVID-19 suffered a repeat infection. According to SIREN lead investigator Susan Hopkins, the study data suggest that natural immunity might be as effective as vaccination, at least over the five-month period the study has covered so far.

The World Health Organization (WHO) sent a team of international experts to China to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team was initially denied entry, but will be allowed into the country this week. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that studies would begin in the city of Wuhan where the first human cases of SARS-CoV-2 were identified.

To be better prepared for future biological threats, the WHO released guidance for laboratories on maximizing the impact of SARS-CoV-2 sequencing now and other emerging pathogens in the future. Sequencing supports the monitoring of a disease’s spread and the evolution of a virus. Indeed, genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 enabled the world to develop diagnostic tests and other tools for outbreak management.

How COVID Unlocked the Power of RNA Vaccines

In 2013, Andy Geall’s team at Novartis’s US research hub in Cambridge, Massachusetts was asked if their new vaccine technology could be used against a novel strain of avian influenza. Within a couple weeks, the team had synthesized the RNA, assembled the vaccine, and tested the vaccine in cells and mice. At the time, however, the ability to manufacture clinical-grade RNA was limited and Novartis sold its vaccine business a couple years later. Today, as we battle SARS-CoV-2, two RNA vaccines have won emergency approval from public health authorities in several countries, including the US. In short, the era of RNA vaccines is here and all of the major pharmaceutical companies are testing the technology. As a more streamlined technology, RNA vaccine development allows researchers to fast-track many stages of vaccine research and development. RNA vaccines carry the directions for producing the proteins of invaders, aiming to “slip into a person’s cells and get them to produce the antigens, essentially turning the body into its own inoculation factory.” Additionally, this technology is “build for speed.” Using the genetic sequence of a pathogen, scientists can swiftly extract a potential antigen-encoding segment, insert that sequence into a DNA template, and synthesize the corresponding RNA before packaging the vaccine for delivery into the body. This technology may finally enable the creation of a universal flu vaccine, one of the holy grails of vaccine development. Despite its many advantages, there are some kinks to unravel. The need for cold storage of these vaccines can be a major hurdle for distribution. Also, a double dose tends to be needed for efficacy against a disease, a requirement that could lower immunization uptake and adherence. Finally, there is the concern of side effects, namely severe reactions characterized by fatigue or muscle pain. Though these effects are temporary, they may disincentive vaccination.

Biden’s Foci

Biden and his team plan to restructure and expand the operations of the White House National Security Council (NSC) with new senior positions on global health, democracy and human rights, and cyber and emerging technology. This planned expansion signals a significant shift in priorities. Additionally, a “stronger position on China than has been the case in past Democratic administrations” is expected. Also, Russia will again have its own NSC senior director. So far, most of Biden’s top national security picks are veterans of the Obama administration. These include Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, Antony Blinken as secretary of state, and Yohannes Abraham as NSC chief of staff. Dr. Elizabeth Cameron, a biologist and biodefense expert, wrote the Obama “pandemic playbook” as NSC director for global health security and she will return as the senior director for global health security and biodefense.

The incoming Biden administration announced its COVID-19 plan. The Biden-Harris administration is committed to: (1) listening to science; (2) ensuring that public health decisions are informed by public health professionals; and (3) promoting trust, transparency, common purpose, and accountability in our government. The plan consists of seven key points: (1) ensure all Americans have access to regular, reliable, and free testing; (2) fix personal protective equipment (PPE) problems for good; (3) provide clear, consistent, evidence-based guidance for how communities should navigate the pandemic and the to make it through; (4) effective, equitable distribution of treatments and vaccines; (5) protect older Americans and others at high risk; (6) rebuild and expand defenses to predict, prevent, and mitigate pandemic threats, including those coming from China; and (7) implement mask mandates nationwide.

National Security Challenges in 2021

Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware discuss the challenges that the Biden administration will face in regard to terrorism and counterterrorism. The administration will be forced to grapple with old threats, including the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida, but also the ever-changing and deteriorating domestic terrorism landscape. Hoffman and Ware assert that the battle for the safety of the American homeland remains fraught with challenges and risks that will require enduring vigilance and energy, as well as a new set of counterterrorism policies, to more effectively address the totality of the new terrorism threat. Read the full analysis here.

David Lasseter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, supports the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense & Global Security by developing and overseeing the implementation of strategies and policies of all Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction policy issues. These policy issues include preventing the proliferation of WMD-related materials; the DoD Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program; and Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) defense; and overseas Oceans Policy for the Department, which includes advancing global mobility through freedom of navigation policy. In a recent interview with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Lasseter addresses the security implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the biological threat landscape, the changes in perspective about the likelihood or impact of bio-threats, emerging biotechnologies, and the types of terrorist threat actors or groups are the most cause for concern when it comes to weaponizing biology. He mentions several threats across the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threat spectrum. For instance, the lack of transparency on nuclear modernization in China is a concern. Russia continues to violate international arms control treaties and repeatedly use banned weapons, like Novichoks. North Korea comes with a mountain of baggage: WMD development, proliferation, and use; nuclear, chemical, biological capabilities and delivery systems; a history of proliferation and aggressive rhetoric against the United States. Beyond specific country concerns, the threat of dual-use technology and science is always a worry.

Upcoming Event – Combating Wildlife Crime and Reducing the Transmission of Zoonotic Diseases

The Stimson Center is hosting a discussion, “Combating Wildlife Crime and Reducing the Transmission of Zoonotic Diseases,” that will include representatives from Congress, the US Government, Ambassadors, and scientific experts on combating wildlife crime. Wildlife crime is transnational, organized, and often fueled by corruption. It devastates the security of communities, while destroying ecosystems and wildlife. In addition, evidence that COVID-19 jumped from a zoonotic-host has led to renewed calls to further regulate the wildlife trade. In response, the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime is encouraging States to amend international law by adding a fourth Protocol on wildlife crime to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime; and incorporating public and animal health criteria into the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The discussion is scheduled for 25 January at 10 am EST. Register here.

Upcoming Event – COVID-19: UV-C Devices & Methods for Surface Disinfection

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Research and Development hosts a free Homeland Security Research Webinar Series. The next webinar is “COVID-19: UV-C Devices and Methods for Surface Disinfection.” EPA researchers are evaluating ways to disinfect large spaces (schools, businesses, mass transit), including the use of alternative methods to kill viruses, such as ultraviolet light (UV-C), that claim to reduce or eliminate virus transmission via surfaces. Because these disinfection devices can be considered pesticide devices, they are regulated by the EPA. Researchers are assessing UV-C methods and technologies on multiple materials against SARS-CoV-2 and potential surrogate viruses. This webinar will be held on 21 January from 2-3 EST. Register here.

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