Pandora Report: 3.19.2021

The GP-write consortium is building a computer-aided design (CAD) program that can design a new organism. The Schar School of Government and Policy is hosting three upcoming events, one on drones and CBRN threats, one on the Chemical Weapons Convention, and another on lessons for the next pandemic. Sally Huang, a Biodefense PhD student, provides an assessment of China’s new biosafety law.

Commentary – Assessing China’s New Biosafety Law

Sally Huang, a Biodefense PhD student, assesses China’s new biosafety law, the first of its kind, unifying numerous preexisting biosafety policies under a single framework. The COVID-19 pandemic, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, has turned the world upside down. While the origins of the pandemic, either a natural spillover event from animals to humans or the result of an escaped virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, remain contested, there is no denying that the virus has served as a focusing event for political leaders. As a rare, sudden event that has inflicted large-scale harm upon the public, the pandemic has also functioned as a powerful catalyst for policymaking.  While China had been drafting new biosafety legislation since 2019, the pandemic accelerated its finalization after President Xi Jinping announced his intent to enhance biosafety measures in February 2020. The law’s approval also comes as China recently experienced one of its worst COVID flare-ups in 2021, challenging the country’s success in overcoming the virus. Read Huang’s commentary here.

Event – Policy Exchange: Pandemic Preparedness and Response – Are We Learning the Right Lessons?

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed how vulnerable the world was to the spread of a novel contagious pathogen. The United States found itself unprepared and unable to respond effectively to the pandemic. Join five Schar School faculty members – Professors Robert V. House, Lauren Quattrochi, Saskia Popescu, and Katalin Kiss – who are distinguished experts in global health security and pandemic response, for an interactive discussion about whether we are learning the right lessons and how to prepare for the next pandemic. This virtual discussion will be held on 24 March at 6 PM EST. Register here.

Ready or Not 2021: Protecting the Public’s Health Against Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism

The Ready or Not report series provides an annual assessment of states’ level of readiness to respond to public health emergencies. It recommends policy actions to ensure that everyone’s health is protected during such events. This 2021 edition tiers states into three performance categories – high, middle and low – and includes action steps states should take to improve their readiness while battling COVID-19 and for the next health emergency. The primary findings of the report include: a majority of states have made preparations to expand healthcare and public health capabilities in an emergency, often through collaboration; every state and DC had public health laboratories that had plans for a large influx of testing needs; and seasonal flu vaccination rates, while still too low, have risen significantly. The recommendations include: ensure effective public health leadership, coordination, and workforce; provide stable, sufficient funding for domestic and global public health security; and strengthen the healthcare system’s ability to respond and recover during and from health emergencies. Read the report here.

Could the Bioweapons Treaty be Another Tool for Addressing Pandemics?

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND corporation, raises the issue of how the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) could be strengthened to improve preparedness and response against a deliberate biological incident. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been central in the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has faced substantial criticism in its handling of pandemic in the very early days and the ongoing investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Though the WHO has the spotlight, “there is a separate international agreement that is similar in some ways to the regulations that guide the health body—a treaty that has the potential to play a critical role in preventing or addressing deliberate biological attacks—which themselves could spark a pandemic: The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).” This treaty possesses common interests with the WHO’s International Health Regulations (IHR), as they both require that all countries have the ability to “detect, assess, report, and respond to public health events.” According to Gerstein, “both depend on governments having the ability to conduct disease surveillance, provide personal protective equipment and medical countermeasures, and ensure biosafety and biosecurity in labs. And these capabilities and resources are important for responding to or mitigating either a naturally occurring event or a deliberate attack.” Underperformance in messaging, policy and guidance, and vaccine distribution compromised pandemic response, but the members of the BWC could work toward addressing these issues. Read Gerstein’s article here.

With This CAD for Genomes, You Can Design New Organisms

The GP-write consortium aims to build a computer-aided design (CAD) program that can “design a new organism as easily as you can design a new integrated circuit.” The inspiration for the consortium stems from the Human Genome Project of the 1990s and early 2000s, which coded the entire DNA sequence of a human and “catalyzed the development of DNA sequencing technologies.” It was revolutionary and led to the creation of new fields of medicine; the GP-write team imagines that the ability to “write” genomes would be similarly groundbreaking for medicine, energy, and materials. For example, if a scientist needs to add a new metabolic pathway to formulate a specific protein, the program will “make all the necessary changes in all the necessary places in the genome.” With such technology, biosafety and bioethics are a major concern. The program will meet the high biosafety standards of the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, checking any designed sequences against a database of dangerous sequences and checking that the cell or organism will not proliferate unchecked or cause harm to the environment.

Event – Drones and the Future of Chemical, Biological, and Radiological (CBRN) Threats

This panel will explore the risks posed by the convergence of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons and drones. Drones allow terrorists to collect intelligence prior to an attack, bypass ground-based physical barriers, and carry out highly effective chemical and biological weapons attacks. For state actors, the growth and proliferation of drone swarms offer new, sophisticated ways to carry out CBRN attacks, defeat traditional CBRN weapons, and respond to a successful attack. At the same time, the United States Department of Defense is working hard to combat these threats and recently issued a new strategy around countering small drones. The underlying question spanning the panel is: how well prepared is the United States and the global community to tackle the challenges drones pose for CBRN warfare? And what more can be done? This webinar will be held 26 March at Noon EST. Register here.

Biden’s ‘No-Fail Mission’: Preventing the Next Pandemic

Dr. Beth Cameron, head of the National Security Council Directorate on Global Health Security and Biodefense, said, “We have a no-fail mission of monitoring and standing up a response to emerging biological threats.” On President Biden’s first days in office, he reestablished the National Security Council office on pandemic preparedness that Trump dismantled and signed an executive order to establish a national center for epidemic forecasting and outbreak analytics. These two offices “mark the beginning of an overhaul to the country’s biodefense infrastructure — an effort that experts say is long overdue.” The pandemic revealed that epidemic forecasting — the ability to quickly identify a novel virus, chart its trajectory, and possibly stop it — is critical to national security, and is key to a swift and effective response in the early days of an outbreak. Now, as COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out to finally end the pandemic, Cameron states that Biden’s goal will be to “cement the emergency offices such as hers as enduring institutions.” Already, Biden has rejoined the World Health Organization (WHO) and funneled billions of federal dollars to vaccine alliance COVAX.

CDC Identifies Public Health Guidance from the Trump Administration That Downplayed Pandemic Severity

A comprehensive review ordered by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was aimed at ensuring that all of CDC’s existing guidance related to COVID-19 is evidence-based and politics-free. Several issues were identified with the guidance posted under the Trump administration, including: (1) guidance was released that was not primarily authored by CDC staff; (2) less directive language was used in guidance; and (3) there was inconsistent publication of supporting evidence in a scientific brief in conjunction with every major new guidance. By early 2021, three documents were replaced or removed prior to or during the review: (1) “The Importance of Reopening of America’s Schools this Fall” was removed; (2) “Overview of Testing for SARS-COV-2” was replaced; and (3) “Opening up America Again” was removed. Walensky announced that she is “focused on moving CDC forward with science, transparency and clarity leading the way. It is imperative for the American people to trust CDC. If they don’t, preventable illness and injury can occur — and, tragically, lives can and will be lost. This agency and its critical health information cannot be vulnerable to undue influence, and this report helps outline our path to rebuilding confidence and ensuring the information that CDC shares with the American people is based on sound science that will keep us, our loved ones, and our communities healthy and safe.”

How One Firm Put an ‘Extraordinary Burden’ on the US’s Troubled Stockpile

The shortage of lifesaving medical equipment and supplies in 2020 was a clear example of the US government’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While health workers were resorting to wearing trash bags for protection, Emergent BioSolutions, a multinational biopharmaceutical company, profited from selling anthrax vaccines to the nation’s emergency reserve of vaccines and medicines. Last year, the government paid $626 million to Emergent BioSolutions to produce a vaccine for fighting anthrax while the COVID-19 pandemic metastasized without the proper resources to mitigate its spread. This left the government with fewer funds to put toward the medical and non-medical countermeasure supplies needed in a pandemic. In fact, an investigation by The New York Times found that “government purchases for the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), the country’s emergency medical reserve where such equipment is kept, have largely been driven by the demands and financial interests of a handful of biotech firms that have specialized in products that address terrorist threats rather than infectious disease.” Over the last 10 years, the US government has used about half of the SNS’s half-billion-dollar annual budget on just the anthrax vaccines from Emergent BioSolutions.

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.

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