Pandora Report: 1.29.2021

Former members of Trump’s COVID-19 team are defending their failures to the public in various interviews. The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense has outlined a path forward to tackling biological threats. Biodefense faculty, students, and alumni have been busy sharing their knowledge and expertise in COVID-19, biosecurity, and nuclear security! Be sure to read Maddie Roty’s takeaways from a One Health event held as part of the GHSA Ministerial Meeting.

Incorporating One Health into Global Security: Educating the Public and Governments

Maddie Roty, a Biodefense MS student, attended an event held as part of the 2020 Global Health Security Agenda Annual Ministerial Meeting. This discussion, “Incorporating One Health into Global Security: Educating the Public and Governments,” addressed how to educate students about One Health and how to implement One Health initiatives in US government agencies. One Health is an important topic that promotes a multisectoral approach needed to address global health security issues from climate change to zoonotic spillover events, and to improve human and planetary conditions. The main lessons were that One Health is extremely interdisciplinary and requires increased commitment and funding from educators, government agencies and leaders, and the public to protect the human and planetary conditions. Read Roty’s takeaways here.

She Is Hospitals’ First Line of COVID Defense

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, is a go-to consultant for hospitals and the World Health Organization, helping to control infections and prepare for new outbreaks. Popescu also helps educate policymakers and the public using her expertise on the novel coronavirus and the approaches to containing it. She also serves as an infection prevention consultant for larger businesses and the City of Phoenix, Arizona, in their efforts to incorporate COVID-19 safety into the workplace. Popescu has “built COVID-19 response and preparedness programs for hospitals from scratch, and is constantly looking at case counts and analyzing data locally and internationally to ensure she’s providing the most informed recommendations possible.” She explained, “It’s extremely hard to build a robust response and preparedness program and be able to keep it agile, respond to changes in the science and data, and do it in a way that is pragmatic.” Popescu said.

CEPI Search for Scientific Advisory Committee Experts

Set up in response to the West African Ebola epidemic, CEPI launched in 2017 as a public-private partnership with the mission to stimulate and accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and enable access to these vaccines for people during outbreaks. Operating as both a funder and facilitator within the vaccine R&D ecosystem, CEPI’s initial focus (2017-2021), set up prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was to advance vaccine R&D programs against its priority diseases: Lassa fever, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Nipah, Ebola, Rift Valley Fever, and Chikungunya. CEPI also invested in platform technologies that can be used for rapid vaccine development against unknown pathogens (Disease X) and has supported enabling sciences activities, including within epidemiology and biological standardization efforts, to guide and ultimately accelerate our vaccine R&D efforts. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, CEPI moved quickly and in collaboration with its partners to build the largest COVID-19 vaccine portfolio to date. The CEPI Scientific Advisory Committee is a pivotal group providing the coalition with key experiences, knowledge and understanding to help guide decisions relating to our work. It has so far played an integral part in getting the coalition started, and in its work responding to recent events including Ebola and COVID-19. CEPI is now on the lookout for innovative individuals and ideas to continue CEPI’s groundbreaking efforts, both in CEPI’s near-term response to the pandemic and as the organization implements its new strategy to accelerate the speed at which it can respond to future infectious disease threats. Interested individuals can apply here.

The Apollo Program for Biodefense – Winning the Race Against Biological Threats

The COVID-19 pandemic, which is on track to take the lives of more than 400,000 Americans and cost our economy trillions of dollars, is a stark wake-up call for the United States to take biological threats seriously. The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense released a report, The Apollo Program for Biodefense – Winning the Race Against Biological Threats, that outlines a path forward to tackling biological threats. According to the Commission, “the existential threat that the United States faces today from pandemics is one of the most pressing challenges of our time; and ending pandemics is more achievable today than landing on the moon was in 1961.” The Apollo Program for Biodefense encompasses four main goals: (1) implement the National Blueprint for Biodefense; (2) produce a National Biodefense Science and Technology Strategy; (3) produce a cross-cutting budget; and (4) appropriate multi-year funding. The report includes input from a variety of scientists, technologists, and policy experts. Interviewed experts include Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, an adjunct professor in the GMU Biodefense Graduate Program; and Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program. Read the full report here.

Learn WMD

Learn WMD is a site dedicated to better understanding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) issues to help benefit scholars, students, and policymakers in the field. It is a one-stop-shop for WMD education. The site offers resources for instructors and learners. The Learn WMD Spreadsheet provides resources on WMD information, policy information, career development, and career and educational opportunities. Visit Learn WMD here.

First Issue of Relaunched BWC Newsletter

The BWC Newsletter just relaunched and will be released on a regular basis in 2021! The BWC Newsletter reports on events, updates, and activities related to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Its first issue looks back on the BWC activities in 2020, a year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, several informal webinars were held to keep BWC discussion going and the recordings and presentations from these events are available online. These webinars cover strengthening national implementation; cooperation; and assistance, response, and preparedness. The BWC website is migrating to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) Headquarters website. The Convention’s 45th anniversary was 26 March 2020, and biological weapons have not been used in war since they were banned in 1975. Read the newsletter here.  

Nuclear Security in Review, 2020

Rebecca Earnhardt, graduate of the Biodefense MS program and research associate at the Stimson Center, and Nickolas Roth, Senior Fellow and Director at the Stimson Center, take a look back at the events of 2020 that influenced nuclear security. The International Conference on Nuclear Security convened experts, policymakers, and government officials to discuss nuclear security progress and future directions. The Advancing Insider Threat Mitigation (INFCIRC/908) International Working Group (IWG) was launched at the conference, and was formed to “raise awareness of the significant and unique threats posed by insiders while sharing best practice guidance on how to best mitigate insider threats.” The COVID-19 pandemic forced nuclear facilities to significantly adjust their operations, which entailed remote work, postponements, and quarantines. The 64th International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference focused on national regulation and compliance with the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM/A). The November 2020 US elections are expected to impact international nuclear security with hope that the Biden administration will renew US nuclear security leadership. The authors assert that 2021 “presents many opportunities for generating momentum in nuclear security cooperation while taking stock of lessons learned through the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Event – Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads: Russia, Syria, and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a live webinar on 23 March about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists will discuss the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event is moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program. Register here.

Catalysts of the COVID-19 Chaos

The big question that we all keep asking remains: How did COVID-19 take over the world for nearly a year and counting? On 1 December 2019, a man in his 70s fell ill with what became the first known case of COVID-19. By the end of December 2019, several people suffering from high fever and assumed pneumonia had been admitted to hospitals in Wuhan, China. On New Years Eve, the director general of China’s Center for Disease Control was receiving offers of help from around the world. That same day, the Wuhan Health Commission issued a press release stating that 27 cases of viral pneumonia had been identified; however, the release also stated that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. Days later on 3 January 2020, laboratories across China were scrambling to map the complete genetic sequence of the virus. Two days later, renowned virologist Zhang Yongzhen obtained a complete sequence. It was not until several days later that it was announced the new virus was a coronavirus and the sequence was released. Additionally, China did not confirm the existence of human-to-human transmission until 20 January 2020.  Wang Linfa, a bat virologist at Duke-Nus Medical School in Singapore, said, “January 20th is the dividing line, before that the Chinese could have done much better.”

A BBC documentary reveals additional evidence of delayed action from China in the early days of the outbreak. A doctor from a Wuhan hospital said he and his colleagues suspected that the virus was highly transmissible in early January 2020, but they were prevented from warning anyone. Further, a Professor at Georgetown University said that China’s failure to report the existence of the virus was a violation of international health regulations. These delays and failures denied the rest of the world that time to prepare, strategize, and warn their own populations of the coming novel coronavirus.

Now, a WHO team of experts, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, are in Wuhan to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2. This week, the members completed the required 14-day isolation upon arrival in China. Specifically, the Independent Panel is tasked with “charting what went wrong, what lessons can be learnt from that, and what could be done better in future.” The objective of this investigation is not to specify a guilty country in the pandemic. Their latest report emphasizes an unequivocal message: course correction in pandemic response is needed immediately. The Independent Panel strongly recommends that all countries immediately and consistently adopt the public health measures which will reduce the spread and the impact of COVID-19: mask-wearing, social distancing, and contact tracing and isolation.

Exit Interviews

Former members of Trump’s COVID-19 team are now attempting to explain the failures in the pandemic response. Moncef Slaoui, an immunologist who was the science head of Operation Warp Speed (OWS), recently resigned from his post, but has agreed to help the Biden transition team into February. In an interview with Science, Slaoui stated that he reluctantly accepted the position with OWS, because he thought he could “help solve one of the world’s most urgent problems.” He asserts that most of the problems with administering OWS vaccine doses “stem from overwhelmed local public health systems, issues outside of Warp Speed’s purview.” This statement does not account for a false claim made by the Trump administration that a stockpile of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses would be made available for immediate distribution. Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s COVID-19 response coordinator, claims that some members of the Trump White House believe that Covid-19 is a hoax. Birx, who promotes data-driven responses to disease outbreaks, “suggested such efforts were undermined by people working in the Trump White House.” Birx also claims that Trump presented graphs that she did not create. Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stated that his greatest disappointment was the “lack of consistency of public health messaging and the inconsistency of civic leaders to reinforce the public health message.” Redfield also proclaims that he “stood up for the agency at every turn,” despite the current tattered state of the CDC’s reputation. Instead, he points a critical finger at federal and state level civic leaders for not echoing the public health measures and mitigation measures recommended by the CDC.

Pandemic Shows Need for Biological Readiness

The Arms Control Association released a new article, “Pandemic Shows Need for Biological Readiness,” written by Andy Weber, a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks and a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors. Weber points out that too many Americans have suffered and perished as a result of Trump’s pandemic response failures. He poses the question, what if, instead, the pandemic was caused by the deliberate release of a sophisticated biological weapon? A bioengineered pathogen could be several times more lethal than SARS-CoV-2, which has about a 2% mortality rate. Not only is technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, but the “taboo against developing and using banned biological weapons is eroding.” Recently, Syria, Russia, and North Korea have used banned chemical weapons in attacks in Syria, the United Kingdom, and Malaysia. Last summer, a Novichok nerve agent was deployed against Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in Siberia. Weber encourages the Biden administration to “make crystal clear that preventing biological threats is a core mission of US defense and national security agencies, in addition to the traditional health agencies.” There are three existential risks to the survival of humanity – biological, climatological, and nuclear – and Biden should use all of the powers of the presidency to lead a muscular approach to reducing these dangers.

Genetic Engineering Attribution

Genetic engineering techniques are used to overcome hurdles in agriculture, manufacturing, and medicine; however, these technologies also carry the potential for dangerous misuse. Tracing the origins of a genetically engineered product, whether for due credit or accountability, is a very difficult task. A challenge critical to security is determining the instigator of a human-caused biological event – attribution. Recent scientific developments have enabled techniques that may be capable of “detecting whether an organism involved in such an event has been genetically modified and, if modified, to infer from its genetic sequence its likely lab of origin.” The authors of a new article in Nature Communications – including Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program – believe that these techniques could be turned into “powerful forensic tools to aid the attribution of outbreaks caused by genetically engineered pathogens, and thus protect against the potential misuse of synthetic biology.”

To help spur invention into the improved tools that are needed to progress genetic engineering attribution, altLabs sponsored the Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge (GEAC) on the DrivenData competition platform, which offered monetary prizes for algorithms that could accurately predict the origin of genetically engineered DNA sequences. Over 300 teams participated and winning prizes were awarded to six of these teams. The best teams were able to accurately predict the source laboratory of an unfamiliar plasmid DNA sequence 95% of the time when given 10 guesses per sequence. These results of the competition reveal the potential for new machine learning approaches to improve existing tools for genetic engineering attribution.

Event – Flying in the COVID-19 Era

Join the National Academies for a two-day virtual workshop on air travel in the age of COVID-19 on February 4-5, 2021. During the workshop, experts will discuss the latest research on COVID-19 transmission, what airlines and airports are doing to keep people safe, and mitigation strategies for preventing the spread of the virus during travel. The workshop will include medical community leaders in COVID-19 research including Dr. Victor Dzau, President of the National Academy of Medicine, and Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. Their keynote addresses will provide the latest medical research updates on COVID-19. Also joining the event is Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program. Workshop speakers from the aviation industry, including airline representatives, aviation support services, airport authorities, and aircraft manufacturers, will discuss their experiences and ongoing challenges. Register here.

Event – Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants: What You Need to Know

B.1.351 in South Africa. B.1.1.7 in the United Kingdom. These emerging coronavirus variants, some billed as more contagious forms of SARS-CoV-2, have dominated reports as they popped up across the globe within the last couple months. Genetic mutation is anticipated, especially for RNA viruses as they multiply, but at what point should clinicians and the scientific community become concerned? With a novel pathogen like SARS-CoV-2, there are still many unknowns. How did these variants emerge? Are they indeed more transmissible? Do they cause more serious disease? What does the scientific evidence support? What should the public response be? Will the developed vaccines provide coverage against these variants?

Join MJH Life Sciences for a COVID-19 Coalition webinar event, “Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants: What You Need to Know,” for an enlightened conversation with a panel of frontline experts, including a virologist, an epidemiologist, and an immunologist, hosted by Dr. Carlos del Rio. Register here.

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