Pandora Report: 4.9.2021

Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD candidate, and Andrew Weber propose a new funding vision for US biodefense. A new interactive, web-based tool will help prevent and control disease outbreaks. An open letter calls for further and more comprehensive inquiries into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

10 + 10 Over 10: A Funding Vision for the US Fight Against Biological Threats

Andrew Weber, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, and Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD candidate, propose a new funding vision for the US to fight biological threats. The authors point out that the US must establish “a vision of significant, sustained and stable government funding to drive focused and rapid private sector-developed solutions.” Their 10+10 Over 10 plan proposes that the US dedicate $10 billion per year to the Department of Defense (DOD) and $10 billion per year to Health and Human Services (HHS), all for biodefense-related programs and initiatives. These funding levels should be maintained for 10 years. The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the threat of naturally-emerging pathogens with pandemic potential, and spurred a reminder of the weaponizable potential of pathogens. The Biden administration has announced its commitment to tackling natural, accidental, and deliberate biological dangers as a top priority for national security, but this commitment requires adequate resources. The history of biodefense funding tends to include cuts made at critical times in order to fund other defense priorities. To better protect the nation from biological threats, the US must dedicate secure funding towards biodefense activities.

SpillOver

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) debuts a new framework and interactive web tool, SpillOver, which “estimates a risk score for wildlife-origin viruses, creating a comparative risk assessment of viruses with uncharacterized zoonotic spillover potential alongside those already known to be zoonotic.” SpillOver was created because the threat of zoonotic viral threats continues to rise, and “strategies are needed to identify and characterize animal viruses that pose the greatest risk of spillover and spread in humans and inform public health interventions.” The tool was designed using data from 509,721 tested samples of 74,635 animals, then the spillover potential of 887 wildlife viruses were ranked. The SpillOver platform, which is publicly accessible, “can be used by policy makers and health scientists to inform research and public health interventions for prevention and rapid control of disease outbreaks.” It is described as a “living, interactive database” that will be improve over time to better the “quality and public availability of information on viral threats to human health.” Access the SpillOver platform here.

Michael Krug, a graduate of the Biodefense MS program, wrote an article in late 2019 that highlights the critical need for comprehensive and quick biosurveillance tools – like SpillOver – to aid in pandemic preparedness. In November 2019, the decision was made to end USAID’s PREDICT project. PREDICT was established in 2009 to help develop wide-ranging detection capabilities; it was a component of the early-warning system. the project identified 1,200 viruses – including 160 novel coronaviruses – with the potential to induce a pandemic. Beyond identification, the project trained and supported staff across 60 foreign laboratories, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Special Issue of World Medical & Health Policy on Climate Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has held the limelight for the last year, but many other threats continue to strengthen. The latest issue of World Medical and Health Policy is dedicated to one of those powerful threats: climate change. The collection is a call to action for climate scientists, clinicians, activists, scholars of the medical and health humanities, and political scientists. The issue features a wide range of important and diverse research, commentaries, and book reviews. The articles cover climate crises and health inequities; improving the environmental sustainability of the operating room; and energy justice as a climate change and public health solution. Read the ungated issue here.

Calls for Further Inquiries into Coronavirus Origins

An open letter signed by several scientists and science communicators calls for a full investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic – how SARS-CoV-2 emerged and how it jumped into humans. This letter was prompted by the shortcomings of the China-World Health Organization (WHO) joint team’s report from their own investigation. The letter outlines several specific deficiencies in the team’s report: the study prioritized the discovery of a zoonotic origin rather than the full examination of all possible sources; critical records and biological samples that could provide essential insights into pandemic origins remain inaccessible; and different evidentiary standards were used to assess the four origin theories considered in the report. The scientists and science communicators calling for further inquiries provide three recommendations for next steps: (1) revise the existing Terms of Reference between the WHO and China; (2) pass a new World Health Assembly resolution regarding a comprehensive investigation; and (3) establish a parallel international investigation. Read the letter here.

KHN and Guardian US Win Batten Medal for “Lost on the Frontline”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) and the Guardian US were awarded the 2021 Batten Medal for Coverage of the Coronavirus Pandemic by the News Leaders Association (NLA). KHN and the Guardian conducted a year-long investigation – “Lost on the Frontline” – aimed at documenting the lives of the over 3,600 healthcare workers in the US who died of COVID-19 contracted on-the-job. “Lost on the Frontline” started with the death of Frank Gabrin, the first emergency room doctor to have perished from COVID-19, in April 2020. The project maintains a database of those lost on the medical frontlines. The Batten Medal is one of the NLA’s highest honors, and it recognizes “coverage of the pandemic that reflects the previously unthinkable challenges that newsrooms had to overcome in the face of this once-in-a-generation crisis.”

Research Indicates Environment is Unlikely to Affect Transmissibility of SARS-COV-2 Variants

According to new research from the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the “deactivating effects of heat and sunlight on SARS-CoV-2…are consistent across different variants of the virus.” This finding suggests that the “increased transmissibility of certain variants is not due to any difference in environmental survivability in aerosols.” The key takeaways from S&T’s research include: decay rates of infectious virus are strongly affected by simulated sunlight, and it seems that decay rates do not vary greatly among currently circulating variants. The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Fort Detrick has been studying the effects of environmental conditions on the stability of single isolates of SARS-CoV-2, including isolates from new strains of the novel coronavirus. Scientists have found that “while certain variants may spread faster or be more lethal, they survive similarly in the environment, and therefore differences in transmissibility are likely not due to differences in aerosol stability.”

Chesapeake Bay Biosafety Association (ChABSA)

The Chesapeake Area Biological Safety Association (ChABSA) is an affiliate of the American Biological Safety Association (ABSA), and it encompasses the unique knowledge base found in the Maryland-DC-Virginia region. ChABSA is dedicated to expanding biological safety awareness and reducing the potential for occupational illness and adverse environmental impact from infectious agents or biologically derived materials. ChABSA provides its members with numerous technical biosafety seminars throughout the year, which include local and national biosafety representatives. Student membership to ChABSA is $5 per year, which will also unlock discounts on upcoming seminars, workshops, and symposiums; inclusion on the job board distribution list; and scholarship opportunities for budding biosafety students. On 7-9 June, ChABSA will host a Virtual Scientific Symposium as an opportunity for biosafety and biodefense science students to convene. Register for the Symposium here.  

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