Pandora Report: 5.21.2021

Congratulations to Dr. Yong-Bee Lim and Madeline Roty, MS for being awarded as Outstanding Students of the Biodefense Graduate Program! Register now for the early bird rate to the Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop. Dr. Angela Rasmussen discusses the latest changes to the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance.

Outstanding Students of the Biodefense Graduate Program

This year’s Outstanding Biodefense Master’s student is Madeline Roty, who graduated from the University of Michigan School of Nursing in May 2019. Her interests include healthcare preparedness, global health, and health education. Maddie was an active and vibrant member of the Biodefense community and served as President of the George Mason chapter of the NextGen Global Health Security Network. She was also an active contributor to Biodefense program’s blog and newsletter, The Pandora Report, and co-authored an article on Mynamar’s chemical weapons program that we published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Yong-Bee Lim is this year’s outstanding Biodefense PhD student. Yong-Bee earned a Presidential Fellowship when he entered the PhD program after completing his MS in Biodefense. Yong-Bee’s promise as a biosecurity expert was recognized by the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University when they selected him for the prestigious Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative. Yong-Bee’s dissertation on community labs and the do-it-yourself (DIY) biology movement has generated new knowledge and insights into this important and poorly understood community. His research identified the assumptions and flaws in the narratives used by the DIYBio and biorisk communities to discuss the risks and benefits DIYBio labs. His research will play a key role in helping bridge the gaps between the DIYBio and biorisk communities.

Event – Launch of GlobalBioLabs.org

You are invited to a public webinar, held on the side lines of the seventy-fourth World Health Assembly, to launch www.globalbiolabs.org, an interactive web-based map of global Biosafety Level-4 facilities and biorisk management policies. An accompanying policy brief, entitled Mapping Maximum Biological Containment Labs Globally, will also be released. This briefing is offered by Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London & Dr. Greg Koblentz of George Mason University. Register here.

An Israeli Airstrike Damaged Gaza’s Only Lab for Processing Coronavirus Tests, Officials Said.

The only laboratory in Gaza capable of processing COVID-19 tests has been rendered temporarily inoperable due to an Israeli airstrike. The strike targeted a nearby building in Gaza City, but shrapnel and debris damaged the laboratory and the administrative offices of the Hamas-run Health Ministry. According to Dr. Majdi Dhair, director of the ministry’s preventive medicine department, the damage will force the laboratory to shut down for at least a day, and testing will be paused. This means a delay in COVID-19 testing but also other tests for diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. Based on official data, merely 1.9% of the two million people in Gaza have been fully vaccinated.

Health Systems Resilience in Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons from 28 Countries

Health systems resilience is key to learning lessons from country responses to crises such as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). In this perspective, a new article in Nature Medicine reviews COVID-19 responses in 28 countries using a new health systems resilience framework. Through a combination of literature review, national government submissions and interviews with experts, the researchers conducted a comparative analysis of national responses. They report on domains addressing governance and financing, health workforce, medical products and technologies, public health functions, health service delivery and community engagement to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This work synthesizes four salient elements that underlie highly effective national responses and offer recommendations toward strengthening health systems resilience globally. Read the article here.

New International Expert Panel to Address the Emergence and Spread of Zoonotic Diseases

The launch of the new One Health High-Level Expert Panel is intended to “improve understanding of how diseases with the potential to trigger pandemics, emerge and spread.” The new panel will advise four international organizations: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE); The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); and The World Health Organization (WHO). The goal is to develop a “long-term global plan of action to avert outbreaks of diseases like H5N1 avian influenza, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and, possibly, COVID-19.” The panel will function under the One Health approach, which “recognizes the links between the health of people, animals, and the environment and highlights the need for specialists in multiple sectors to address any health threats and prevent disruption to agri-food systems.”

US Lags Behind Russia and China in Sending COVID-19 Vaccines to Struggling Nations in Need

At present, about 37% of Americans are fully vaccinated, but many nations are struggling to vaccinate their populations and are turning to Russia and China for more doses. On Monday, Biden announced that the US will send 20 million doses of COVID-19 doses to nations in need; this is in addition to the 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. The US has ordered enough COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate its population two-fold, but the world needs billions more doses. The World Health Organization announced that the world is at risk of “vaccine apartheid.” Dr. David Agus, a CBS News medical contributor, described worldwide vaccinations as a “moral imperative.” Agus asserts that if other countries do not or cannot vaccinate their people, new COVID variants could arise and endanger us all. In total, the US has offered to pledged to provide 80 million doses; however, China and Russia are set to deliver around 600 million doses each globally.

Event – Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop

COVID-19 has exposed just how unprepared governments, corporations, and societies are for a global pandemic. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only the most recent threat to global health security, it will certainly not be the last. Threats to global health security continue to evolve due to the emergence of new infectious diseases, globalization, advances in science and technology, and the changing nature of conflict. Pandemics and Global Health Security is a three-day virtual, non-credit workshop designed to introduce participants to the challenges facing the world at the intersection of pandemic preparedness and response, public health, national security, and the life sciences. Over the course of three days, participants will discuss how the biology and epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 contributed to the emergence of that virus as a global pandemic, lessons learned from Operation Warp Speed about the development of medical countermeasures, obstacles to hospital biopreparedness, challenges to science communication during a pandemic, the bioethics of resource allocation during a public health emergency, the future of global health security, and the role of science and technology in preventing and responding to pandemics. The workshop faculty are internationally recognized experts from the government, private sector, and academia who have been extensively involved in research and policy-making on public health, biodefense, and security issues. Live, interactive sessions will include Dr. Rick Bright, The Rockefeller Foundation; Dr. Nicholas G. Evans, University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, Department of Defense; Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, George Mason University; Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Saskia Popescu, George Mason University; Dr. Angela L. Rasmussen, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre; and Jessica Malaty Rivera, COVID Tracking Project. The workshop is organized by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and will be held virtually on July 19-21, 2021. Each day will run from 9am to 12:30pm ET. Register here.

The Evolving Nature of China’s Military Diplomacy: From Visits to Vaccines

A new report by Meia Nouwens of the International Institute of Strategic Studies details the Chinese military’s place in China’s COVID-19-related foreign policy. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) military-to-military cooperation in response to the global coronavirus pandemic signals a growing role for the military within China’s diplomatic activities. Historically, the PLA played a minor role in Chinese foreign policy. However, in the wake of a more nationalist and assertive Chinese foreign policy, the PLA’s role in national diplomacy and security strategy has grown to serve both strategic and operational goals and has reached new heights in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Military-to-military COVID-19-related engagement has taken place within a larger context of Beijing’s expanded diplomatic efforts to improve China’s global reputation following its initial delayed and mishandled response at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. Publicly available data shows that COVID-19 military diplomacy began in March 2020, when the PLA sent protective equipment and clothing to Iran. In February 2021, the PLA began to donate COVID-19 vaccines to overseas militaries. The PLA’s vaccine assistance to 13 countries globally fits within a wider vaccine-centric diplomatic effort by the Chinese government but so far has been far smaller in scale. Geographically, the PLA mostly engaged with countries in the Asia–Pacific and Africa. The PLA’s activities were usually framed within the ‘responsible stakeholder’ narrative that China sought to promote through its civilian aid diplomacy. It is likely that the PLA sought to cooperate with militaries wherever it could and focused on countries with which it already enjoyed established friendly relations, rather than using the PLA’s military diplomacy to establish new strategic relations. The PLA’s military diplomatic activities relating to the coronavirus demonstrate that the PLA will increasingly play a greater role in China’s foreign diplomacy, in line with President Xi’s instructions. Read the report here.

Why Did the CDC Change Its Mask Guidance Now?

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance on mask wearing and social distancing such that vaccinated individuals are now able to go mask-free much more often. Though the underlying science is “solid,” the communication of these new recommendations was given with little prior notice and without satisfactory explanation to the public. Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, discusses these latest changes. Animal studies, clinical trials, and real-world data are showing that the “vaccines provide exceptional protection against symptomatic COVID-19.” Indeed, vaccinated individuals are unlikely to get sick when exposed to the virus. The data are also showing that the COVID-19 vaccines are “very effective at preventing infection in the majority of those vaccinated, with the exception of older people and those who are immune compromised.” Rasmussen also points out that recent studies reveal that “most vaccinated people who do get infected are not shedding enough infectious virus to spread it efficiently to others.” Though there have been “sustained declines” in new cases, prevalence and immunization rates differ by region and community. Many states and businesses have lifted their mask requirement policies, but the lack of a vaccination verification system leaves only the honor system. The guidance is intended to incentivize vaccination, but vaccine accessibility remains low for many people. Rasmussen encourages public health leaders to improve transparency and public engagement with guidance in the future.

Opinion: Vaccines Didn’t Stop the Yankees’ COVID-19 Outbreak. But the Case Proves How Well They Work.

Dr. Zach Binney, a sports epidemiologist and assistant professor at Oxford Oxford College of Emory University, and Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, examined the New York Yankees as a case showing the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines. Last week, nine fully vaccinated members of the Yankees tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Among the nine cases, at least seven show no symptoms. So far, the only individual to exhibit symptoms is third-base coach Phil Nevin, and it is possible that Nevin will be the only case in which the vaccine “failed.” Put simply, Nevin may have been able to develop a high enough viral load to spread the virus to the other eight cases, but their “vaccinated bodies likely fought it off quickly before they could develop symptoms or transmit it.” Though vaccines do not eliminate the possibility of infection, they do eliminate the risk of severe disease and death. “It is likely the vaccine worked as expected on the Yankees: it prevented many more cases, only allowed the virus to spread from one person and reduced disease severity.”

Just 12 People Are Behind Most Vaccine Hoaxes on Social Media, Research Shows

Research has found that 12 people – dubbed the “Disinformation Dozen” – are the sources of most of the misleading claims and falsities about COVID-19 vaccines, which have spread across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It is estimated that the Disinformation Dozen are responsible for 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms. The group includes anti-vaccine activists, alternative health entrepreneurs, and physicians, some of whom have multiple accounts across platforms. Though these dozen culprits have not been completely ejected from the platforms, their posts have been labeled misleading and false claims have been removed. Despite the efforts to counter misinformation and disinformation, false narratives continue to take hold.  A survey of US parents found that more than 25% do not intend to vaccinate their children.

Implementation of the International Health Regulations (2005)

The Review Committee provided for in Chapter III of Part IX of the International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR) released its report on the implementation of the IHR. The main objectives of the report were to: (1) assess the functioning of the IHR; (2) assess the ongoing global response to pandemic H1N1; and (3) identify lessons learned to strengthen preparedness and response for future public health emergencies. The three overarching conclusions are: (1) core national and local capacities called for in the IHR are not yet fully operational and are not now on a path to timely implementation worldwide; (2) WHO performed well in many ways during the pandemic, confronted systemic difficulties and demonstrated some shortcomings; and (3) the world is ill-prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global, sustained and threatening public-health emergency. The report’s recommendations include streamlining the management of guidance documents, reinforcing evidence-based decisions on international travel and trade, and developing and applying measures to assess severity. Read the report here.  

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