Pandora Report: 3.26.2021

New research finds fascinating new information on the Black Death. Chris Quillen, a Biodefense PhD student, shares his review of Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia by Dan Kaszeta. Dr. Saskia Popescu shares her insight on vaccine passports and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 without symptoms.

Book Review – Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia

Nerve agents are very much in the news these days. Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria repeatedly used Sarin against its own people during that country’s civil war. The Putin regime employed Novichoks in both Russia and the United Kingdom against citizens it deemed insufficiently loyal to Moscow. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un utilized VX in the assassination of his brother at an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Across the globe, the use of nerve agents is challenging the international nonproliferation regime in numerous ways. Against this backdrop, Dan Kaszeta’s Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia provides welcome background and context on these specific types of chemical weapons. A former Chemical Officer in the US Army with decades of chemical weapons experience including multiple stints at the White House, Kaszeta offers much-needed technical expertise on the invention, production, and investigation into nerve agents. Chris Quillen, a Biodefense PhD student, provides an informative review of the book. Read Quillen’s review here.

Did the Black Death Rampage Across the World a Century Earlier Than Previously Thought?

Monica Green, a historian, published a landmark article, “The Four Black Deaths,” in the American Historical Review that provided an update on the story of the Black Death, which is frequently considered the largest pandemic in human history. Between 1346 and 1353 CE, the plague hit the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa, and western Europe. Green traced the bacterial descendants of four distinct genetic lineages of the plague’s causative agent, Yersinia pestis, finding “concrete evidence that the plague was already spreading from China to central Asia in the 1200s.” This discovery shifts the origins of the Black Death by over a century, so the disease was slowly invading populations over several decades. Like SARS-CoV-2, the plague is a zoonotic disease, a threat that we need to take seriously. When asked what she thinks this means for the present-day pandemic, Green said, “The story I have reconstructed about the Black Death is 100 percent an emerging infectious disease story…an ‘emerging’ disease lasted for 500-600 years!!!”

ICYMI: Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads

This week, the Biodefense Graduate Program hosted a live webinar 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 discussed 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 was moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program.

Find the recording and presenters’ slides here.

Homeland Security for Radiological and Nuclear Threats

Mary Sproull, a biologist in the Radiation Oncology Branch of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a Biodefense PhD candidate, discusses the current state of homeland security for radiological and nuclear threats as well as the areas in need of improvement. Sproull lists the many available guidelines for emergency response, the organizations that provide guidance on emergency management of radiation events, and other resources for radiation injury. Given that exposure comes in a variety of forms – external and internal exposure to a radioactive isotope or external exposure to ionizing radiation energy – she asserts that the “greatest operational challenge of a radiological or nuclear event is diagnosing radiation injury.” Radiation is invisible to the naked eye, so an event results in a sizeable population of “worried well,” defined as individuals who do not have other physical injuries but are concerned about whether they have received a radiation exposure, may overwhelm available medical resources. In response to this operational challenge, there has been support for the development of new radiation biodosimetry diagnostics, which “estimate the dose of radiation a person has received” and are “used both for population screening to assure the worried well and to support existing triage algorithms.” Several of these diagnostics are expected to be added to the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). Additionally, several radiation-specific medical countermeasures have been granted Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensure for radiation injury treatment and have already been added to the SNS. Despite these achievements in preparedness for large scale emergencies involving radiation exposure, there still exist important areas in need of improvement: “capacity to manage burn victims and the overall willingness of first responders and other medical personnel to work with patients who have been either exposed and/or contaminated with radiation or radioactive materials.”

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2021

The MIT Technology Review released its list of 10 breakthrough technologies for 2021, an annual catalog published for the last two decades. The collection names a couple technologies related to biology and health. Unsurprisingly, mRNA vaccines are the first on the list. This is the technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines that received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Digital contact tracing through smartphone apps used Bluetooth or GPS to determine which individuals came into close proximity of each other. So, if an individual tested positive for COVID-19, others could be alerted of a possible exposure. The other breakthrough technologies include: GPT-3, a natural language computer model; TikTok recommendation algorithms that power the “For You” feed; lithium-metal batteries for electric vehicles; data trusts, “a legal entity that collects and manages people’s personal data on their behalf”; green hydrogen for clean energy; hyper-accurate positioning; remote everything; and multi-skilled AI.

SARS-CoV-2 Transmission Without Symptoms

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has a potentially long incubation period and spreads opportunistically among those who are unaware they are infected. Asymptomatic COVID-19 cases are those that do not develop symptoms for the duration of infection, whereas presymptomatic cases develop symptoms later in the course of infection, but both are crucial drivers of transmission. Transmission without symptoms poses specific challenges for determining the infectious timeline and potential exposures. Early in the pandemic, most transmission was from undocumented cases, suggesting that spread was driven by people who were either asymptomatic or experiencing such mild disease that it was not recognized as COVID-19. Contagious people without observable signs of illness make infection prevention efforts vulnerable to compliance with masking, distancing, hand hygiene, symptom screening, and ultimately, people staying home when possible. The lack of widespread testing in asymptomatic individuals further complicates COVID-19 mitigation and control efforts. Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University, and Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, share their insights on the SARS-CoV-2 transmission without symptoms in a new perspective piece in Science.

Vaccine Passports Won’t Stop the Spread of COVID

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Alexandra Phelan, a global health lawyer at Georgetown University, emphasize that “until coronavirus vaccines are distributed equitably and nations agree to immunization standards, vaccination passes will not end the spread of COVID-19.” Thus far, globally, almost 450 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, but many countries lack an adequate supply of vaccines to inoculate their populations. Other nations are rolling out vaccine certificate systems that provide proof of inoculation so that immunized people can enjoy relaxed restrictions. For international travel, entities like the World Economic Forum and IBM are developing vaccine passport systems, but there are some key challenges. For example, international law does allow countries to require proof of vaccination against diseases, but vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 are new and none are yet authorized for use throughout the world. Further, a nation may decide to only accept proof provided within its own borders. From an efficacy standpoint, not every vaccine may be effective against new variants of SARS-CoV-2. Though we are all keen for the pandemic to end and for normalcy to be restored, “any moves to institute vaccine passports must be coordinated internationally and should be coupled with global and equitable access to vaccines.”

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.

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