Pandora Report: 4.16.2021

The FDA and CDC recommend a pause on the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine due to a rare but severe blood clot. The OPCW’s IIT releases its second report on the chlorine attack on Saraqib in Syria. Russia aims to prevent the OPCW from holding perpetrators accountable for using chemical weapons.

FDA & CDC Urge Pause on Use of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a joint statement recommending a pause on the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine developed and produced by Johnson & Johnson. Thus far, over 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, an adenovirus vector vaccine, have been given. Among those doses, six cases of a rare and severe type of blood clot – a cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) – are under investigation, prompting the pause. These six cases have arisen only in women between the ages of 18 and 48 years, and symptoms presented 6-13 days after vaccination. Treatment of a CVST differs from treatment of other types of blood clots, which generally call for heparin, an anticoagulant; heparin may be dangerous in treating a CVST. The CDC convened a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) on Wednesday to further assess these cases and their possible significance. The FDA is also investigating these rare but severe cases.

The Race for Antiviral Drugs to Beat COVID — and the Next Pandemic

In 2003, several infectious diseases emerged – two lethal influenza strains made the jump from birds to humans in Hong Kong as well as the Netherlands, and a new coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) appeared. These glaring warning flags were heeded by Robert Webster, a leading authority on avian influenza, who urged scientists and policymakers to prepare for the next outbreak by developing and stockpiling medications that target an extensive range of viral pathogens. Webster’s recommendation was unheeded. Webster stated: “The scientific community really should have developed universal antivirals against SARS. Then we would have had something in the stockpile for the emergence of COVID.” Remdesivir, a broad-spectrum antiviral, is the creation of the Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center (AD3C), a project launched seven years ago and backed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Unfortunately, though remdesivir was ready to go when SARS-CoV-2 hit, study findings were inconclusive on its benefits to COVID-19 patients. Additionally, this antiviral is “expensive, difficult to manufacture and must be given intravenously in a hospital — all undesirable attributes in the middle of a pandemic.” Another antiviral studied prior to the pandemic, molnupiravir, is easier to synthesize and is showing promise in shortening the duration of infectiousness among symptomatic COVID-19 cases. The nature of viruses – their compact genomes and lack of cellular anatomy – means they offer few “druggable targets.” According to John Young, Head of Infectious Diseases at Roche Pharma Early Research & Development, the COVID-19 pandemic is a “wake-up call” that industry needs to prepare for the next biological event. To better prepare, new projects have popped up that are dedicated to developing broad-spectrum antivirals for coronaviruses or influenza viruses.

Chemical Weapons in Syria

On 4 February 2018, the town of Saraqib in Syria was attacked with chlorine gas, a toxic chemical weapon banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released its second report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in early February 2018. The report “reiterates its mandate, the legal and practical challenges of its work, and the findings of the investigation focusing on the incident in Saraqib, Syrian Arab Republic, on 4 February 2018.” Additionally, the IIT’s investigation concluded that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that, at approximately 21:22 on 4 February 2018, a military helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Force under the control of the Tiger Forces hit eastern Saraqib by dropping at least one cylinder.”

The Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) has served as Assad’s “primary means of inflicting violence and suffering on civilians in opposition-held communities.” The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) has identified at least 336 chemical attacks using Sarin and chlorine that have been carried out by Syrian government forces. At least 34,000 Syrians have died from the air attacks dropping barrel bombs and other weapons. Many more have been injured and forced from their homes. Research by GPPI “outlines the Syrian air force’s transformation as a military organization, and offers a thorough account of its current state and operational patterns.”

Last month, the Biodefense Graduate Program hosted an event about the future of chemical weapons arms control. The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. 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. Find the recording and presenters’ slides here.

OPCW Member States Must Counter Russian Obstruction

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The OPCW’s Conference of States Parties will resume on 20 April and there is a draft decision pending vote on declaring Syria non-compliant with the CWC. A memorandum published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is the “first publicly available analysis of the voting patterns of the OPCW’s 193 member states.” There are two primary groups of non-cooperative states: one comprised of US adversaries that actively side with Russia and the other comprised of member states that tend to abstain. The group that abstains adds to the difficulty of reaching the threshold of two-thirds of the vote to pass decisions in the Executive Council, a key decision-making body. This analysis assigns 27 member states to the “adverse-voter category” and 38 to the “frequent-abstainer category.” The US maintains positive ties to many of the countries that often abstain. The memo recommends that the US “leverage these relationships to secure votes that uphold the integrity of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the OPCW.” Read the analysis here.

New RFP Includes CBW Topics

The Department of State has released a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) “seeking ambitious, innovative research proposals to address priority science and technology requirements for arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament-related monitoring and verification.” This request for proposal (RFP) is from the Key Verification Assets Fund, or V Fund, under State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC). Several of the topics center around chemical and biological weapons: identifying additional measures and reinforcing existing measures to deter chemical weapons use; chemical weapons (CW) forensic and investigative science; promoting measures/existing provisions to increase compliance with and adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention; and promoting and coordinating international capacity-building measures in support of the UN Secretary General’s Mechanism for investigations of alleged use of biological weapons.

Coronavirus Origins: How Unseen Wuhan Research Notes Could Hold the Answers – And Why Lab-Leak Rumours Refuse to Die

After a string of illnesses from an unknown coronavirus began in Wuhan, Dr. Shi Zhengli, Director of the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), began to worry that these cases were caused by an escaped virus. Shi’s team performed a genetic analysis of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and found that it did not match any of the stored samples in the WIV laboratory. Shi, nicknamed the “Bat Woman,” is considered the global authority on coronaviruses for her revolutionary research on the origins of the 2002 SARS outbreak, which likely emerged in horseshoe bats. Despite her impressive credentials and expertise, the genetic analysis has not assuaged many worries that the virus escaped WIV. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, cites the Chinese government’s requirement that all COVID-19 related research be approved before publication, which effectively serves as a “gag order” on Chinese scientists. According to Koblentz, “[government censorship] makes it much more difficult to discern how much of the information being provided is legitimate and genuine, and how much of it is part of a broader government-run effort to deflect blame from China and onto other parties for starting the outbreak.” Turning to the investigation into the origins of COVID-19, Koblentz states that the “search should include an independent audit of all labs in Wuhan working on bat coronaviruses and researching SARS.”

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