Pandora Report: 2.5.2021

A new fact sheet highlights concerns for US economic and national security from the data collection conducted by China. Join the Biodefense Graduate Program next month for a virtual event on Russia, Syria, and the future of the chemical weapons convention. Read Biodefense PhD student Stevie Kiesel’s article about conspiracy theories during pandemics, including COVID-19.

Conspiracies, Contagion, and Convergence: Troubling Trends and COVID-19

For hundreds (if not thousands) of years, disease outbreaks have been accompanied by exaggerated or downright false claims of origin, spread, and treatment. Some of these claims are misinformation—incorrect information spread without an intent to mislead. For example, shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, claims that garlic could cure COVID-19 spread across social media. The majority of posters did not appear to have malicious intent in sharing this content, making these claims misinformation. On the other hand, disinformation is deliberately misleading or biased information. Far-right Telegram users planned to weaponize disinformation when they urged followers to spread inaccurate information about COVID-19 safety precautions via flyers in certain neighborhoods. While misinformation and disinformation are both dangerous, disinformation is more insidious. Throughout history, both mis- and dis-information have spread prolifically during pandemics. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, provides a brief history of conspiracy theories during pandemics, discusses some popular COVID-19 conspiracies, and examines a potential convergence of various communities spreading similar conspiracy theories. Read Kiesel’s article here.

Schar School Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House: February 11, 2021

You’re invited to attend a virtual open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government and its academic programs. The online session will provide an overview of the master’s degree programs and graduate certificate programs, student services, and admissions requirements. The virtual event will be 11 February at 6:30 PM EST. Register here.

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.

China & Biotechnology

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center released a fact sheet outlining the risks to privacy and US economic and national security posed by China’s collection of genomic and healthcare data from the US. These data have been collected via legal and illegal means by a country that uses the mass collection of DNA domestically to help it “carry out human rights abuses against domestic minority groups and support state surveillance.” China has already obtained personal identifying information and personal health information on much of the US population. Chinese companies are compelled to share their collected data with the Chinese government, and there is no mechanism for these companies to refuse their government’s requests for data. These personal data provide China with opportunities to “precisely target individuals in foreign governments, private industries, or other sectors for potential surveillance, manipulation, or extortion.” From an economic standpoint, China’s “acquisition of US healthcare data is helping to fuel China’s Artificial Intelligence and precision medicine industries, while the PRC severely restricts US and other foreign access to such data from China, putting America’s roughly $100 billion biotech industry at a disadvantage.” This disadvantage could translate to Chinese biotechnology firms outpacing those of the US, potentially leaving the US more dependent on “Chinese innovation and drug development for its cures, leading to a transfer of wealth, co-opting of new businesses and greater job opportunities in China.” BGI Group, the world’s largest biotech firm based in China, is under suspicion of trying to collect DNA from Americans through its recent offer to assist in COVID-19 testing in the state of Washington. Supervisory Special Agent Edward You, a biochemist turned FBI investigator, highlights the Made in China 2025 national strategy in which the nation expresses its plans to be the “dominant leader in this biological age.”

A US Law Required the White House to Respond to Navalny’s Poisoning. Why Didn’t It?

Six days after the German Chancellor publicly pointed a finger at Russia for attempting to kill Aleksei Navalny with a powerful Soviet-era nerve agent, the top Democrat and top Republican of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a request to Trump, the US president at the time. The letter triggered a required 60-day evaluation period to assess if chemical weapons had been used by Russia against Mr. Navalny, which then spurs a sanctions process. This evaluation is part of the 1991 law informally known as the Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) Act. The 60-day window expired on 8 November 2020 with silence from the US government. Another letter was sent about the evaluation a month later. Speculation as to why the Trump White House stayed mum on the topic ranges from negligence to “interagency bureaucratic wrangling” to the administration’s desire to not upset the Kremlin. Two days after President Biden took office, leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee invoked the evaluation for a third time and accused the Trump administration of violating the law. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of Biodefense Graduate Program, commented on the matter, “The failure of President Trump to impose additional sanctions on Russia for the Navalny poisoning is consistent with the past pattern of the Trump administration refusing to confront Russia on key issues ranging from chemical-weapons use to election interference to cyberattacks.” Biden, however, intends to prioritize arms control and the Navalny Novichok attacks in its policy toward Russia.

COVID Performance Index

The Lowy Institute created a COVID Performance Index that explores how almost 100 countries with publicly available and comparable data on the virus have managed the pandemic to date, following their hundredth confirmed case of COVID-19. The Index sorts countries into broad categories by region, political system, population size, and economic development. Performance was measured using 14-day rolling averages of new daily figures calculated for several indicators: confirmed cases, confirmed deaths, confirmed cases per million people, confirmed deaths per million people, confirmed cases as a proportion of tests, tests per thousand people. Despite being near the initial outbreak site, countries in the Asia–Pacific, on average, proved the most successful at containing the pandemic. On the other hand, the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus overwhelmed Europe and then the US. Europe, however, made the greatest improvement over time. The Index also found that “despite initial differences, the performance of all regime types in managing the coronavirus converged over time.” In terms of population size, countries with fewer than 10 million people consistently outperformed their larger counterparts throughout 2020. Unsurprisingly, countries with higher per capita incomes were better equipped to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and performed better, on average, than developing countries.

Global Vaccine Timeline Stretches to 2023

The Economic Intelligence Unit released a report revealing that the “road to national inoculation protection against COVID-19 might still be a long one” depending on where you live. Indeed, it may take years for many places to vaccinate a majority of the adult population. The major economies in Latin America are on track to achieve widespread coverage by mid-2022, but the timeline for much of Asia will likely be much longer. Many Asian nations are not expected to reach 60-70% of their adult population until 2023. Japan will start its vaccination campaign in late February and should reach majority immunization by mid-2022, along with South Korea and Vietnam. The US along with most of Europe should reach a majority by the end of 2021.

Strong International Relationships Enabled DTRA to Provide COVID-19 Support to Partners Abroad

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program has tapped into existing partnerships and engagements to “enable partner nations to leverage CTR-provided equipment and training to combat this pandemic wreaking havoc in their countries, including assistance with identifying the first SARS-CoV-2 case outside of China.” CTR works with international and interagency partners to mitigate weapons of mass destruction-related threats to US forces, the US Homeland, US allies, and US interests. Global health security and the mitigation of biological threats are key components of national security. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the “value in ensuring that our foreign partners are adequately trained and equipped to secure biological threats at their source.” CTR’s Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP) has provided training and equipment to over 130 institutions in more than 30 countries to help improve their ability to detect, diagnose, and report biological incidents and outbreaks with pandemic potential. Scientists in Thailand used diagnostic equipment and training provided by to determine the first COVID-19 case outside of China. Georgian scientists trained by CTR at the Richard Lugar Public Health Research Center (constructed by CTR) developed a COVID-19 molecular diagnostic testing capability that enabled Georgia to limit the mortality of the virus to five deaths.

How Epidemiology has Shaped the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nature’s third progress report highlights key findings from epidemiology a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Epidemiology is the study of how diseases spread and why. Lockdowns were instituted to quell the virus early by keeping people separated. Mask-wearing also reduces the risk of transmission and infection, a practice that is now largely expected in society as we continue to battle the novel coronavirus and its variants. Though the efficacy of mask-wearing had not yet been tested with controlled trials and direct data prior to the pandemic, by summer 2020, several studies had found that “masks contribute to slowing the spread of coronavirus.” In early 2021, we are facing the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, creating a new questions and challenges for epidemiologists. The pandemic is also reshaping epidemiology, expanding it. Now, epidemiology is increasingly involving physicists, mathematicians, computer and network science experts. The US will establish an interagency National Center for Epidemic Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics. COVID-19 has forced epidemiologists and their models in the policy and media spotlight, so these experts have had to learn how to communicate their analyses and predictions to the whole population. This is especially challenging given the limitations of statistical models and probabilistic estimation, which come with a level of inherent uncertainty but are important tools.

Inequalities in COVID-19 Vaccinations

Black Americans are being administered COVID-19 vaccinations at a significantly lower rate than white Americans, and the gap is not closing as states expand eligibility. In the 23 states with available vaccination data, white residents are being vaccinated at rates double (or higher) than that of Black residents. In Pennsylvania, the black vaccination rate is 0.6% and the white vaccination rate is 2.6%, meaning that white residents are vaccinating at a rate 4.2 times higher. There are similar figures for New Jersey and Mississippi. Several more states are vaccinating white residents at rates double to triple that of black residents. Additionally, on average, the white population is being vaccinated at a rate 2.6 times higher than the Hispanic population. One of Biden’s first executive orders prioritized COVID-19 data collection, and the CDC plans to add race and ethnicity data to its dashboard; however, it is uncertain when these updates will happen.

This is How America Gets Its Vaccines

The Biden administration has pledged to administer 100 million doses in his first 100 days in office. To achieve this, the administration will face an uphill battle with the current system that gets vaccines from manufacturer to patient. Tiberius, the vaccine allocation planning system of HHS, and VTrckS, the vaccine ordering portal of the CDC, are the two central systems that sit between vaccine factories and medical clinics. Put simply. Tiberius turns data into usable information and VTrckS is how states order and distribute shots. At step one, manufacturers, like Pfizer or Moderna, produce a vaccine. In COVID-19, the two aforementioned manufactures developed messenger RNA vaccines, a nascent technology that requires very cold temperatures. This type of vaccine had never been produced at scale before, and manufacturers overestimated how quickly doses could be made and distributed, causing the first major hiccup in the rollout. In step two, the US government sets vaccine allocations based on production estimates and inventory numbers. Tiberius takes that allocation number and divvies up vaccines based on Census data; VTrckS operates as the online store that health departments visit to order vaccines. States distribute the vaccine locally in step three after learning how many doses they were allotted through Tiberius. In step four, manufacturers ship out the vaccine; for the COVID vaccines, that means shipping millions of vaccines to 64 jurisdictions in -70 degrees Celsius conditions. Finally, in step five, local clinics administer the vaccine to the population. According to experts, one of the biggest challenges with the campaign under Trump was the decision to leave administration to the states, straining local governments that are understaffed, possess limited technical capabilities, and work with outdated systems. Several experts have emphasized that the federal government must take greater initiative to supply states with better technology options.

Millions Earmarked for Public Health Emergencies Were Used to Pay for Unrelated Projects, Inspector General Says

An investigation into a whistleblower complaint found that federal officials “repeatedly raided a fund earmarked for biomedical research in the years leading up to the covid-19 pandemic, spending millions of dollars on unrelated salaries, administrative expenses and even the cost of removing office furniture.” This investigation was conducted by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and was overseen by the Office of Special Counsel. The search focused on hundreds of millions of dollars in funding earmarked for the development of vaccines, drugs and therapies by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). The inspector general verified some of the claims made by the whistleblower, discovering that staff referred to the agency as the “bank of BARDA” and admitted that R&D dollars were “regularly tapped for unrelated projects.” Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote to Biden, “I am deeply concerned about [the] apparent misuse of millions of dollars in funding meant for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic.” Kerner also stated that it is “equally concerning how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade.”

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