Pandora Report: 2.26.2021

The global norm against chemical weapons use is eroding and coordinated international action is needed to restore it. Scientists are racing to determine if the COVID-19 vaccines prevent people from contracting SARS-CoV-2 and spreading the virus. Three biodefense graduate students share their summaries and takeaways from the 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium.

6th International Biosafety & Biocontainment Symposium: Emerging Biorisk Challenges in Agriculture

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the chief scientific in-house research agency of the USDA. The USDA ARS hosted the 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium, held virtually in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, on February 2- 4, 2021. This symposium brought together experts in academia, research, government, and industry to discuss the emerging biorisk challenges in agriculture. This year, three students from the Biodefense Graduate Program attended the conference: Rachel-Paige Casey, Michelle Grundahl, and Stevie Kiesel. Their summaries and takeaways are available here.

Dual-Use Biology: Building Trust and Managing Perceptions of Intent

Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a mixed methods social scientist researching biological threats at King’s College London, considers how the international community can use the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention framework to strengthen compliance monitoring of rapidly increasing dual-use capacities around the globe. Lentzos’ analysis in The Nonproliferation Review comes at a time of heightened concern about potential future biological-weapons threats. It presents three conceptual layers within the treaty regime which states can draw from to inform their compliance judgments: one legally binding, one politically binding, and one wholly voluntary. The article outlines how these were established and how they have been used so far, and argues for an incremental, inclusive, practical, and forward-looking approach to evolving these structures to better manage perceptions of the intent behind dual-use capacities, and to further trust between states. Read the article here.

Reinforcing the Global Norm Against Chemical Weapons Use

The global norm against the creation and deployment of chemical weapons has eroded, and continues to erode. Coordinated international action is needed to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use, which will require “strengthening existing mechanisms in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) while shoring up the international community’s ability to respond to the use of chemical weapons by any state or non-state actor and to hold them accountable.” Given the lack of unity among the United Nations Security Council, “it is vitally important that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and coalitions of like-minded states pursue actions to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use.” Julia Masterson from the Arms Control Association recommends that states-parties “clarify and codify the rights and privileges a state risks losing for violating the CWC, establish a precedent for challenge inspections, and expand the mandate for the attributive Investigation and Identification Team.” Beyond clarifying and codifying, expanding the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, establishing a clearinghouse for details about perpetrators of chemical weapons, and pursuing the prosecution of users as war criminals could help reinforce the norm.

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.

Feds Now Say Right-Wing Extremists Responsible for Majority of Deadly Terrorist Attacks Last Year

For the first time, the US government is acknowledging that right-wing extremists were responsible for most of the fatal domestic terrorist attacks that occurred last year. This acknowledgement is based on an internal report circulated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week. The report was drafted by the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, a fusion center funded by DHS, and shared with police and law enforcement agencies nationwide through an intelligence-sharing system established after the 9/11 attacks. The Center reviewed last year’s domestic terrorist incidents and found that “right-wing [domestic violent extremists] were responsible for the majority of fatal attacks in the Homeland in 2020.” Indeed, in October 2020, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released an analysis of domestic terrorist activity in the US for just the first eight months of 2020, finding that “white supremacists and other right-wing extremists conducted two-thirds of the terrorist plots and attacks in the nation during that period.”

A GDP for Nature: How Measuring the Health of the Natural World Might Prevent the Next Pandemic

SARS-CoV-2 has undeniably revealed that the world is vulnerable to infectious diseases. This is not a new revelation, but one that has long been ignored. The factors that drive zoonoses to jump to humans from animals – the wildlife trade, intensive agriculture, deforestation, urbanization – are well-known. As these factors persist, infectious disease events (epidemics and pandemics) will continue to arise. Zoonoses account for about 60% of all known human infectious disease agents, as a result of direct or indirect interaction between humans and animals. The health and well-being of a country depend on meeting the dietary needs of the population. Dr. Laura Kahn, a physician and research scholar with the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, emphasizes that “to ensure that our food systems do not raise the risks of another pandemic, countries should prioritize the replenishment and protection of their natural resources and biodiverse ecosystems.” Dr. Kahn recommends formulating a One Health calculus akin to gross domestic product (GDP) – the total value of services and goods produced in one year for a nation as a measure of economic prosperity. This calculation could “measure the status of a nation’s natural resources, the purity of its environments, the biodiversity of its ecosystems, the sustainability of its agriculture, the health of its flora and fauna, the resiliency of its food security, and the life expectancies of its peoples.”

The Quest to Rid Facebook of Vaccine Misinformation

A number of creative conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines have spread across social media platforms like wildfire: it causes blindness or infertility; it contains a microchip or fetal tissue; and Bill Gates is using it to get even wealthier. An analysis of more than 14 million social-media posts mentioning vaccines or vaccination during a three-month period last year discovered the emergence of two vaccine narratives: (1) emphasis on safety concerns and (2) focus on mistrust of the individuals and institutions involved in vaccine development. Facebook (along with Instagram, its subsidiary)  “drives vaccine discourse on social media” by allowing conspiracy-related content, but it has recently taken some actions to quell the spread of vaccine misinformation on the platform. Nearly one year ago, Facebook stated that it was collaborating with several fact-checking organizations to “detect false claims, hide some groups and pages from Facebook’s search function, and add warning labels with more context.” At the end of 2020, the platform banned certain COVID-19 vaccine-related content, including claims that the vaccine contains fetal tissue or carries the Antichrist’s “mark of the beast.” Now, Facebook is consulting with leading health organizations to expand its efforts to remove false claims on Facebook and Instagram about COVID-19, vaccines for the disease, and vaccines in general. Unfortunately, some experts question if these actions are sufficient to stop misinformation from invading the platform and spreading across its users. A partnership between Critica, Weill Cornell Medicine, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania launched a pilot program that is “deploying infodemiologists to respond directly when misinformation about vaccines is posted by Facebook users commenting on news articles.” Infodemiologists are “health experts who fight false information in a similar way to how epidemiologists with the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service fight epidemics.” These experts work on the virtual frontlines to detect any outbreak of misinformation or disinformation that threatens public health.

Coronapod: Our Future with an Ever-Present Coronavirus

What’s the endgame for the COVID-19 pandemic? Is a world without SARS-CoV-2 possible, or is the virus here to stay? The latest episode of Coronapod, a podcast from Nature that provides a weekly pandemic report, discusses what it means if the novel coronavirus becomes endemic. A recent Nature survey asked over 100 immunologists, infectious-disease researchers, and virologists working on the coronavirus whether it could be eradicated. The survey found that 90% of respondents expect SARS-CoV-2 to become endemic – remain in circulation in parts of the world for many years – but it could pose less danger over time. Listen to the Coronapod here.

Biosecurity Risks Associated with Vaccine Platform Technologies

A new article in Vaccine, co-authored by Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, discusses the biosecurity risks surrounding vaccine platform technologies. Vaccine platforms have been critical for accelerating the timeline of COVID-19 vaccine development. Faster vaccine timelines demand further development of these technologies. Currently investigated platform approaches include virally vectored and RNA-based vaccines, as well as DNA vaccines and recombinant protein expression system platforms, each featuring different advantages and challenges. Viral vector-based and DNA vaccines in particular have received a large share of research funding to date. Platform vaccine technologies may feature dual-use potential through informing or enabling pathogen engineering, which may raise the risk for the occurrence of deliberate, anthropogenic biological events. Research on virally vectored vaccines exhibits relatively high dual-use potential for two reasons. First, development of virally vectored vaccines may generate insights of particular dual-use concern such as techniques for circumventing pre-existing anti-vector immunity. Second, while the amount of work on viral vectors for gene therapy exceeds that for vaccine research, work on virally vectored vaccines may increase the number of individuals capable of engineering viruses of particular concern, such as ones closely related to smallpox. Other platform vaccine approaches, such as RNA vaccines, feature relatively little dual-use potential. The biosecurity risk associated with platform advancement may be minimized by focusing preferentially on circumventing anti-vector immunity with non-genetic rather than genetic modifications, using vectors that are not based on viruses pathogenic to humans, or preferential investment into promising RNA-based vaccine approaches. To reduce the risk of anthropogenic pandemics, structures for the governance of biotechnology and life science research with dual-use potential need to be reworked. Scientists outside of the pathogen research community, for instance those who work on viral vectors or oncolytic viruses, need to become more aware of the dual-use risks associated with their research. Both public and private research-funding bodies need to prioritize the evaluation and reduction of biosecurity risks. Read the article here.

Can COVID Vaccines Stop Transmission? Scientists Race to Find Answers

Even as many countries are administering COVID-19 vaccines, studies are ongoing to assess whether inoculations prevent people from contracting SARS-CoV-2 and spreading the virus. If widely distributed, vaccines that prevent transmission could help to control the novel coronavirus. Preliminary studies suggest that some vaccines likely help block transmission of SARS-CoV-2; however, confirming that effect and determining its strength remains a tricky task. The trickiness is due to the other factors that may explain the decrease in infections in a given area, such as lockdowns or behavior changes. To be frank, it is possible that the vaccines will not prevent or significantly lower the chances of SARS-CoV-2 infection, but they may render individuals less infectious, which will reduce transmission. Measuring viral load – roughly defined as the amount of virus in a person – is a respectable proxy for infectiousness, and it is being studied by researchers in Israel. Scientists are also tracking the close contacts of vaccinated individuals to find out whether those contacts gain any indirect protection against infection.

Executive Summary – The 6th Global Health Security Agenda Ministerial Meeting

The 6th Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting was held in November of 2020. The main objectives of the meeting were to “exchange experiences on disease prevention and control among various sectors and countries, update the progress of action packages implementations, enhance the engagement of multisectoral cooperation, identify gaps in implementation and fill them with through concrete action as well as jointly address means and ways forward to improve the GHSA mechanism and collaboration on the global health concern issue.” The meeting highlighted several issues but also several recommendations. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that the world remains ill-prepared to counter pandemic threats, despite several red flags with previous outbreaks. The negative impacts of the pandemic reverberated beyond public health – severe supply shocks, heightened food prices, widespread layoffs, and compromised education. The official report of the meeting emphasizes that security is a global issue that requires global coordination and collaboration across countries, sectors, and organizations. Another major takeaway is that the economy and health are integrated and interdependent. Also, there is a vital need for “mass compliance” with basic public health preventive measures in order to minimize the transmission of SARS-CoV-2.  New policies should be tailored to support health care systems and improve the socioeconomic situation to aid the recovery of the economy. Also, “health is not a cost, but an investment.” Read the final report here.

In case you missed it, Maddie Roty, a Biodefense MS student, attended a Meeting event, “Incorporating One Health into Global Security: Educating the Public and Governments,” which addressed how to educate students about One Health and how to implement One Health initiatives in US government agencies. Read Roty’s takeaways here.

Three Biodefense Grads Set to Lead Global Health Organization

Three 2019 graduates from the Master’s in Biodefense program have been elected to top leadership positions in the Next Generation Global Health Security Network, an international organization of nearly 1,000 early- to mid-stage professionals and students who work on the full spectrum of issues related to global health, ranging from combating antibiotic resistance to preventing the next pandemic. Next Generation Global Health Security Network—NextGen, for short—is an affiliate of the Global Health Security Agenda, a collaboration founded in 2014 by representatives from 44 countries (now 69) and organizations, including the World Health Organization. The new officers are Kate Madison Kerr, who will coordinate the global network; Anthony Falzarano, who will manage the organization’s finances; and Jessica Smrekar, the newly appointed coordinator for the United States. “It is an incredible feat that three Schar School graduates are assuming leadership of an organization this large, and I’m incredibly proud of it,” said Kerr. “[NextGen] truly was my first introduction to anything on a global scale and it allowed me to begin interacting with and learning from global partners,” Smrekar said of her NextGen experience. “As a mentee in the 2018 mentorship program, I was able to create a research project that was accepted to the inaugural Global Health Security Conference in Sydney, Australia, in 2019.”

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