Biosafety Challenges in COVID-19 (So Far)

By Rachel-Paige Casey, Biodefense PhD Student

The 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium, presented by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS), brought together experts from government, academia, and industry to discuss emerging biorisk challenges in agriculture. Speakers highlighted how the convergence of food, agricultural, and natural resource challenges require coordination and intensification of food safety, nutrition, and food security efforts to mitigate risks.

I attended this virtual conference along with my GMU Biodefense Program colleagues Ms. Stevie Kiesel and Ms. Michelle Grundahl. You can find their discussions of other symposium sessions here. This report provides an overview and commentary on Session III – Emerging Issues, which covered several of the challenges facing the agriculture sector that arose as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Feeding the Nation During a Pandemic – Insights on Challenges and Triumphs from the Food Industry

Dr. Karleigh Bacon from The Kraft Heinz Company provided a summary of the observed trends in the food industry since the start of the pandemic. Overall, retail sales are up as consumers have increased the number of items in their carts and they are stocking up with each grocery run in order to make fewer trips to the store. At the grocery store, consumers are returning to the “center aisles” with packages foods, baking supplies, paper goods, and cleaning products. Indeed, sales of comfort foods are soaring and baking has become an increasingly popular hobby. On the other hand, food service sales are down for restaurants, hotel services, and schools. Online sales have surged to double or triple their pre-pandemic levels. The food industry’s response to COVID-19 aimed to maintain the stability of the food supply chain by focusing on communications management, operations management, and supply chain management. The response from the food industry, much like the health sector, had to be quick and agile, which requires clear communication. The Operational Risk Management team was assembled to conduct daily calls with the manufacturing sector to communicate new policies and operational statuses. Additionally, new lines of communication were established with the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA FSIS for response management. Turning to employee health and safety as a critical component of operations management, personal protective equipment (PPE) became required and health screenings became an automated step before entry into production facilities. Production lines were altered to maintain social distance between workers, moving from a spread of six to twelve feet. Cleaning and sanitizing schedules were ramped up to improve employee health and safety in the workplace. The compliance to health and safety protocols was critically important to maintaining production with healthy employees. To meet surges in demand in the first several months of the pandemic, production facilities ramped up to churn out as much food as possible. The surge in retail food demand fell and foodservice sales enjoyed a small increase during Summer 2020 when pandemic restrictions were relaxed. Thankfully, there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted through food items. The most significant impact on food supply chains was the concurrent immediate decrease in foodservice production and increase in retail production. Unsurprisingly, factories and plants suffered from PPE and sanitizing solutions shortages, but also from shortages in meat products and packaging components.

Legal Issues—Lessons Learned on COVID-19 Response

R. Brooks Moore, Deputy General Counsel for The Texas A&M University System, discusses legal, compliance, and policy issues that arose as this public education system transitioned to a remote environment and plans to return to in-person learning and work. Prior to the pandemic, the status quo was that instruction, research, and most other forms of work were conducted primarily in-person. Transitioning to remote learning and work created external legal and compliance issues: overlapping and conflicting lines of authority in a prolonged emergency like a pandemic; details and conditions of directives and funding; waivers of statutory and regulatory requirements, and implementing requirements and documenting compliance. With federal, state, and local authorities all vying for authority in an emergency, the system struggled to determine what actions to take. This also caused confusion with lines of funding, which may require compliance with a specific entity. In a state of disaster, the governor has the power to waive laws and regulations temporarily, so the university had to learn how to operate under these new conditions. Documenting compliance was considered a top priority to maintain compliance with the moving targets of requirements as the pandemic changed over time. Of course, the university also faces internal legal and compliance issues: internal decision-making and communications authority; closure decisions; implementation of remote education and work; employment, student, and vendor concerns; and transparency. Perhaps the biggest struggle was determining who has the decision-making authority within the system to choose how to respond to the pandemic. Similarly, it was critical to determine who has the authority to speak for the university in regard to the pandemic and the system’s response decisions. Education transitioned to an online format, but other activities or facilities were unable to go remote, so decisions had to be made on what to leave open and what to close. A common thread through many of these external and internal legal and compliance issues was the confusion around what entities or personnel had authority to make decisions for the response and communicate those decisions across the system.

Biosafety Community Outreach During COVID-19

David Gillum from Arizona State University (ASU) gave an overview of biosafety community outreach during COVID-19. How do we adapt and how will we thrive? In every challenge, there is an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. The COVID-19 pandemic put biosafety front and center of society in 2020. Biosafety was a hot topic in mass media, research, and industry. According to Gillum, disasters provide kinetic energy and foment change, and inspires many to be agents of change for the better of all. Arizona State University experienced changing priorities with the novel coronavirus: managing inventories, reviewing SARS-Co-V research, navigating travel restrictions, adjusting research levels, testing, and vaccinating. “Pivot” is now the word du jour and “building the plane as we fly it” is the favored catchphrase for ASU. Over the last several years, Gillum has helped coordinate a variety of biosecurity outreach on several topics – academic espionage, chemical security, cybersecurity, economic espionage, insider threats, and personnel reliability – with the FBI, the Arizona Biosafety Alliance, and the community. He asserts that the public should be at the table with a voice in the biosafety and biosecurity discussion. Biosafety professions should be the sources of relevant and accurate information for the public.

Lessons Learned So Far

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a number of policy gaps related to biosecurity, especially outside the laboratory. The food industry, higher education, and community outreach came upon unexpected hurdles as a result of the novel coronavirus. Communication and clarity are the common elements needed across many of the challenges created by COVID-19. Knowing what entities – federal, state, and local – have the authority on each topic or issue is critical to a strong response and clear communication of response activities. Clarity on the protocols and chain of command in an emergency is necessary to maximize efficiency and effectiveness of the response. Clear communication also helps ensure compliance with procedures or mandates across the workforce, student body, or community. Though learning how to function in COVID-19 has been a bumpy ride, the trials that came with the pandemic have also provided opportunities to better prepare for the next biological event so that we can adapt and thrive under any conditions.

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