Pandora Report: 3.12.2021

Thursday, 11 March 2021, marked one year since the WHO declared the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns arise about Russia’s Sputnik COVID-19 vaccine. A research team from Los Alamos National Laboratory discuss the importance of cooperative engagement programs for biosurveillance and outbreak response.

Hospital Management of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive Incidents Course

The Hospital Management of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive Incidents (HM-CBRNE) course is an education and training opportunity for healthcare professionals to get up-to-date and hands-on instruction regarding the preparation for and management of casualties from a CBRNE event. The training is provided by the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD), and the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI). The course is taught by leading authorities in biological, chemical, radiation, and incident management. The content of the course focuses on facilitating mitigation of existing and potential gaps in hospital operations during a major weapons of mass destruction (WMD) event. Four students from the Biodefense Graduate Program had the opportunity to take the HM-CBRNE course: Deborah Cohen, Sally Huang, Maddie Roty, and Marisa Tuszl. Read their takeaways here.

Commentary – Systematizing the One Health Approach in Preparedness and Response Efforts for Infectious Disease Outbreaks

Michelle Grundahl, a Biodefense MS Student, attended a workshop – Systematizing the One Health Approach in Preparedness and Response Efforts for Infectious Disease Outbreaks – offered by the Forum on Microbial Threats of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The objective of this workshop was to confront our emerging health threats through systematizing and integrating the One Health approach.  One Health is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach — working at the local, regional, national, and global levels — with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment. Topics in this workshop included integrating One Health into existing coordination mechanisms (into national action plans for health security) and integrating animal and human health surveillance systems.  Essentially, this new paradigm in biodefense will create a framework across sectors and bring order among disparate expertise. The adopters of One Health are ready for the challenge. Read Grundahl’s takeaways from the workshop here.

WHO Declared Pandemic 1 Year Ago

This week, 11 March, marks one year since the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Thursday, more than 529,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and that number continues to climb. In the US, on Thursday, the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill was signed by President Joe Biden. The bill aims to assist households in covering costs during the pandemic and stimulate the economy. Important components of the bill include: stimulus payments that will send money to about 90% of households; additional $300 to weekly unemployment benefits; expansion of the child tax credit; and billions of dollars for K-12 schools to reopen, for small businesses, and for vaccine research, development, and distribution.

Biological Threat Detection and Response Challenges Remain for BioWatch

A redacted report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) contains four recommendations aimed at improving the BioWatch Program, an early warning system designed to detect the presence of biological agents that have been intentionally released into the air. The four recommendations to the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Assistant Secretary include: (1) conducting risk assessments of BioWatch’s posture and aligning its capabilities with the program’s mission; (2) revising and updating BioWatch cooperative agreements to ensure physical security of all CWMD portable sampling unit equipment; (3) utilizing the most recent threat assessment to enhance biological agent detection capabilities; and (4) conducting routine full-scale exercises and sharing the after-action reports with all stakeholders. According to the report, the CWMD Secretary in DHS concurred with all four recommendations and these improvements to the BioWatch Program are underway. This calendar year will see several milestones reached, including a full-scale exercise, a new threat assessment, and a revision to the BioWatch Management Plan.

States Taking Action on Biosecurity

Maryland is the second state, after California, to take up consideration of legislation to regulate the sale of DNA synthesis equipment and products for biosecurity purposes. The draft legislation, House Bill 1256 introduced by Delegate Karen Lewis Young, requires the state of Maryland to develop a process to certify that gene synthesis providers and manufacturers of gene synthesis equipment are screening customers and sequence orders and that recipients of state funds may only purchase synthetic DNA and equipment from vendors certified under this process. The draft bill was discussed in a hearing of the Health and Government Operations Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates on 9 March. Dr. Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, testified in favor of the bill. According to Dr. Gronvall, “These restrictions would make it harder for a potential nefarious actor to access genetic material for making pathogenic viruses from synthetic DNA, such as smallpox, Ebola or influenza. This bill can help to make the field of synthetic DNA safer and ensure responsible manufacturing processes.” A similar bill is under consideration in California. That bill, AB 70 introduced by Assembly member Rudy Salas, has been endorsed by the Scientists Working Group on Chemical and Biological Security at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. Given the key roles that both Maryland and California play in the nation’s growing bioeconomy, the approval of either bill would establish a de facto national standard for biosecurity in the field of synthetic biology. 

Warnings About Russia and Its Sputnik COVID-19 Vaccine

The European Union (EU) is warning member states to be cautious of the Sputnik COVID-19 vaccine, which was developed by Russia’s Gamaleya National Centre of Epidemiology and Microbiology. Christa Wirthumer-Hoche, head of the European Medicines Agency’s Management Board, said that the EU review of the Sputnik vaccine began on 4 March and data packages were arriving from the manufacturer. Due to vaccine supply shortages, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic have moved to approve the vaccine unilaterally. US officials warn that Russia has been spreading disinformation via social media platforms regarding Western COVID-19 vaccines, in an attempt to undermine vaccination campaigns and uptake. Indeed, the Washington Post reports that Russian intelligence agencies have launched a campaign to weaken public confidence in Pfizer’s vaccine, questioning its development and safety. The Department of State’s Global Engagement Center, which monitors foreign disinformation efforts, identified four publications that he said have served as fronts for Russian intelligence. These websites makes several misleading or erroneous claims related the efficacy of US COVID-19 vaccines, side effects, and the emergency authorization process.

Land Use-Induced Spillover: A Call to Action to Safeguard Environmental, Animal, and Human Health

The rapid global spread and human health impacts of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, show humanity’s vulnerability to zoonotic disease pandemics. Although anthropogenic land use change is known to be the major driver of zoonotic pathogen spillover from wildlife to human populations, the scientific underpinnings of land use-induced zoonotic spillover have rarely been investigated from the landscape perspective. The authors of a new article in The Lancet call for interdisciplinary collaborations to advance knowledge on land use implications for zoonotic disease emergence with a view toward informing the decisions needed to protect human health. In particular, they urge a mechanistic focus on the zoonotic pathogen infect–shed–spill–spread cascade to enable protection of landscape immunity—the ecological conditions that reduce the risk of pathogen spillover from reservoir hosts—as a conservation and biosecurity priority. Results are urgently needed to formulate an integrated, holistic set of science-based policy and management measures that effectively and cost-efficiently minimize zoonotic disease risk. The article considers opportunities to better institute the necessary scientific collaboration, address primary technical challenges, and advance policy and management issues that warrant particular attention to effectively address health security from local to global scales. Read the article here.

How Cooperative Engagement Programs Strengthen Sequencing Capabilities for Biosurveillance and Outbreak Response

A research team from Los Alamos National Laboratory discusses the importance of cooperative engagement programs for biosurveillance and outbreak response in Frontiers in Public Health. The threat of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases continues to be a challenge to public and global health security. Cooperative biological engagement programs act to build partnerships and collaborations between scientists and health professionals to strengthen capabilities in biosurveillance. Biosurveillance is the systematic process of detecting, reporting, and responding to especially dangerous pathogens and pathogens of pandemic potential before they become outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. One important tool in biosurveillance is next generation sequencing. Expensive sequencing machines, reagents, and supplies make it difficult for countries to adopt this technology. Cooperative engagement programs help by providing funding for technical assistance to strengthen sequencing capabilities. Through workshops and training, countries are able to learn sequencing and bioinformatics, and implement these tools in their biosurveillance programs. Cooperative programs have an important role in building and sustaining collaborations among institutions and countries. One of the most important pieces in fostering these collaborations is trust. Trust provides the confidence that a successful collaboration will benefit all parties involved. With sequencing, this enables the sharing of pathogen samples and sequences. Obtaining global sequencing data helps to identify unknown etiological agents, track pathogen evolution and infer transmission networks throughout the duration of a pandemic. Having sequencing technology in place for biosurveillance generates the capacity to provide real-time data to understand and respond to pandemics. The authors highlight the need for these programs to continue to strengthen sequencing in biosurveillance. By working together to strengthen sequencing capabilities, trust can be formed, benefitting global health in the face of biological threats. Read the article here.

WCO Strategic Chemicals List

The World Customs Organization (WCO) is “an independent intergovernmental body whose mission is to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of Customs administrations.” The WCO maintains the Strategic Trade Control Enforcement Implementation Guide (STCE), a document drafted to provide WCO members with “practical assistance related to enforcing strategic trade controls.” The STCE provides a list of strategic chemicals that included several substances listed by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) Schedules, the Australia Group (AG) Chemical Weapons Precursors List, the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) Munition Lists, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) Dual-Use List, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Equipment, Software, and Technology Annex, and the WCO Programme Global Shield (PGS). Annex V includes a curated and structurally annotated version of the STCE’s list of strategic chemicals. According to Dr. Stefano Costanzi, “Chemicals are better described through structures than through names.” This work was done within the scope of the Stimson Center’s Cheminformatics project, a collaborative project involving the Stimson Center’s Partnership in Proliferation Prevention’s Program and the Costanzi Research Group at American University.

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