Pandora Report: 6.18.2021

Michelle Grundahl, a Biodefense MS student, shares her take on the recent meeting of the National Biodefense Science Board. A new report highlights the compound security threats caused by the “convergence of climate change with other global risks,” such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pandora Report is taking a short break, but we will be back soon with news and analysis for all things biodefense!

Biodefense Board Discusses Future of US Pandemic Preparedness

On May 26, 2021, the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) held a (virtual) public meeting that discussed actions that the United States needs to take to be better prepared for the challenges posed by public health emergencies such as pandemics, “Disease X,” and other biological threats. NBSB is the federal committee that advises the office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). During the meeting, the NBSB presented their recommendations to ASPR from its new report on ‘filling critical gaps’ in health emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. In addition, NBSB was briefed on the CDC’s new initiative to improve its data collection and analytical capabilities to improve information sharing and situational awareness during a public health emergency. Michelle Grundahl, a student in the Biodefense MS Program, shares her insights on the event. Read Grundahl’s article here.

Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and the Future of the Korea Bioscience Industry

HyunJung Kim, PhD candidate in the Biodefense Program, published an article – Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and the Future of the Korea Bioscience Industry (written in Korean) – in Monthly Chosun magazine. After the presidential summit between the United States and South Korea last month, Samsung Biologics, based in Seoul, and Moderna, based in Massachusetts, concluded an agreement for Samsung Biologics to produce Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine in Korea. While Korea has developed the second biggest biologics production capacity in the world, next to the United States, Korea lags in the development of new vaccines and therapeutics. Kim reviews the expansion of Korea’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) policy from in-vitro diagnostic kits to medical countermeasures. He points out that the new EUA policy contains provisions that hamper the development of Korea’s biopharma industry by encouraging the Korean government to import medicine from abroad instead of investing in innovation at home by small and medium-sized biotech companies. Read Kim’s article here.

Reading the Nuclear Tea Leaves: Policy and Posture in the Biden Administration

Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student, and Rebecca Hersman, Director of the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) at CSIS, released a report regarding nuclear policy in the Biden administration. The nuclear policy community is once again in the grips of pervasive anxiety that US nuclear policy -encompassing force modernization decisions, declaratory policy, and perceptions of adversary nuclear threat and risk – is either about to dramatically change or fail to change as dramatically as it should. In a polarized community characterized by mistrust and a highly politicized discourse, it is not surprising that the public conversation is filled with competing perspectives that seek to ensure that their voices are heard before the policies are set. As such, the current discourse appears particularly noisy. The greatest controversy centers on the modernization of the nuclear force, in particular the future of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force and commitment to the full triad of nuclear delivery systems, the role and primacy of nuclear weapons in our overall deterrence declaratory policy, the relative threat posed by Russia and China as drivers of US nuclear policy, and the relevance and utility of arms control in managing and reducing these threats. Read the report here.

Iraq National Pathogens List

Iraq has published a new national pathogens list that will guide the country’s approach to biorisk management. The list of human, plant, animal and zoonotic pathogens was produced by the interagency National Biorisk Management Committee. The national pathogen list will become part of Iraq’s system for regulating the import, export, and transfer of dual-use materials. In addition, the list will be used to determine appropriate biosafety and biosecurity measures that laboratories will need to implement. The Iraq National Monitoring Authority played a key role in the development of the list. Mahdi Al Jewari, senior chief biologist at INMA, was a visiting fellow with the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University in 2015. He and Biodefense program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz described Iraq’s effort to develop a comprehensive national biorisk management system in a 2016 article.

The World Climate and Security Report 2021

The Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security (IMCCS) released its second annual World Climate and Security Report, which highlights the compound security threats caused by the “convergence of climate change with other global risks,” such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The report shows that the growing pace and intensity of climate hazards will stress military and security services as they are deployed to climate-driven crises, while also handling direct climate threats to their own infrastructure and readiness. The authors urge security institutions around the globe to act as “leading voices urging significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, given recent warnings about the catastrophic security implications of climate change under plausible climate scenarios.” Key risks outlined in the report include overstretched militaries, escalating climate security risks across all regions, and insufficient climate security adaptation and resilience solutions. Key opportunities outlined in the report include embracing predictive modeling and climate risk assessment methodologies as well as updating and developing international laws and mechanisms to include environmental and climate security impacts. Read the report and summary here.

The Ruthless Hackers Behind Ransomware Attacks on US Hospitals: ‘They Do Not Care’

A string of ransomware attacks on hospitals has been carried out in recent months. These attacks have forced some medical facilities to suspend surgeries and delay medical care. They are also costing hospitals millions of dollars. The Wall Street Journal tracked the major attacks conducted by a specific group, a gang of Eastern European cybercriminals known as the “Business Club” previously and Ryuk more recently, that has ties to Russian government security services. It is the “most prolific ransomware gang in the world,” responsible for one-third of the 203 million attacks in the US in 2020. It is estimated that the group accrued at least $100 million in paid ransoms last year. Bill Siegel, CEO of the ransomware recovery firm Coveware, plainly stated: “They do not care. Patient care, people dying, whatever. It doesn’t matter.” The assaults launched specifically at hospitals during the pandemic exposed concerning gaps in cybersecurity for the nation’s health systems. In this day in age, hospitals are highly dependent on computers, especially given the push to digitize patient records.

Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communique

The leaders of the G7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States – met in Cornwall on 11-31 June with the primary aims of beating the pandemic and building back better. The group released a communique outlining its agenda for global action. First, they will work to end the pandemic and prepare for the future by driving an intensified international effort, starting immediately, to vaccinate the world by getting as many safe vaccines to as many people as possible as fast as possible. Additionally, they will work to reinvigorate our economies by advancing recovery plans that build on the $12 trillion of support put in place during the pandemic. Efforts will be made to secure future prosperity by championing freer, fairer trade within a reformed trading system, a more resilient global economy, and a fairer global tax system that reverses the race to the bottom. Further, the group seeks to protect the planet by supporting a green revolution that creates jobs, cuts emissions, and seeks to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees. Finally, the members aim to strengthen partnerships with others around the world and embrace its values as an enduring foundation for success in an ever-changing world. Read the full announcement here.

Exploring Science and Technology Review Mechanisms under the Biological Weapons Convention

The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) published a study that “seeks to inform discussions on establishing a dedicated and systematic S&T review process under the BWC through an examination of existing S&T review-type mechanisms employed in different regimes beyond the BWC, a survey of States Parties views on a possible review mechanism and a study of past and present discourse on this issue in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).” Study methods included assessing review-type mechanisms employed in regimes beyond the BWC; semi-structured interviews with experts; review of past BWC proposals; and a survey of the views of BWC States Parties. Though not all States Parties support the idea of a BWC science and technology review mechanism, and even those who desire such a mechanism differ in the details, two types of potential models became evident. The first is a limited-participation model that would loosely resemble mechanisms used in organizations such as the OPCW, and would draw from a group of 20–30 qualified geographically-representative technical experts nominated by States Parties. The second is an open-ended model that would allow any interested State Party to send (and fund) a maximum of one or two expert participants in the review process. Read the study here.

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. The course fee is $500. Register here.

Let Scientific Evidence Determine Origin of SARS-CoV-2, Urge Presidents of the National Academies

A statement from the Presidents of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) strongly encourages the use of scientific evidence in the investigation of the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences; John L. Anderson, President of the National Academy of Engineering; and Victor J. Dzau, President of the National Academy of Medicine write:

“The origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and the circumstances of the first cases of human infection, remain unknown.  Science is our best tool to ascertain, or to understand to the extent possible, the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, which could help prevent future pandemics.  However, misinformation, unsubstantiated claims, and personal attacks on scientists surrounding the different theories of how the virus emerged are unacceptable, and are sowing public confusion and risk undermining the public’s trust in science and scientists, including those still leading efforts to bring the pandemic under control. 

We urge that investigations into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 be guided by scientific principles, including reliance on verifiable data, reproducibility, objectivity, transparency, peer review, international collaboration, minimizing conflicts of interest, findings based on evidence, and clarity regarding uncertainties.  In the case of SARS-CoV-2, there are multiple scenarios that could, in principle, explain its origin with varying degrees of plausibility based on our current understanding.  These scenarios range from natural zoonotic spillover (when a virus spreads from non-human animals to humans) to those that are associated with laboratory work. Scientists need to be able to evaluate all of these scenarios, and all viable hypotheses, with credible data.  Data accessibility, transparency, and full cooperation from China, of course, will be essential for a proper and thorough investigation. 

Although much still needs to be done to stop the pandemic, particularly in developing nations, science has made remarkable headway, especially through the rapid development of effective vaccines. The same scientific robustness, rigor, and cooperation should be applied to examining important questions about how the pandemic began.”

We May Never Know Where the Virus Came From. But Evidence Still Suggests Nature.

Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, and Dr. Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah, emphasize that we may never uncover the origin of the novel coronavirus that has wreaked havoc on the world. At present, however, the evidence still suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is the product of nature. For instance, the genome sequence of the virus was analyzed by a group of prominent evolutionary virologists who assessed that it was “overwhelmingly unlikely” that there was laboratory manipulation. The worry that the virus could have come from a high-containment laboratory, specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), has surged in recent weeks. The two scientists assert that the work of laboratories and institutions like WIV are critical to preparing for and responding to pandemics. Additionally, they “agree that researchers should continue to study whether the virus could have emerged from a lab, but this cannot come at the expense of the search for animal hosts that could have transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to humans.” Rasmussen is among the distinguished faculty for the upcoming Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop hosted by the Biodefense Graduate Program.

It’s Time to Talk About Lab Safety

Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London, and Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of Biodefense Graduate Program, launched GlobalBioLabs.org, an interactive web-based map of global Biosafety Level 4 facilities and biorisk management policies. Lentzos shared that the aim of the project is to “increase public knowledge about Biosafety Level 4 labs, and importantly, to strengthen national and international virus management policies.” In their research, the two scholars found that there is “significant room for improvement in the policies in place to ensure that these labs were operated safely, securely and responsibly.” Regardless of the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the risk of laboratory accidents and incidents rises as the number of laboratories in the world expands. The new map includes 59 laboratories, the majority of which are in Europe with a total of 25 labs. Only 17 of the 23 countries that house BSL-4 laboratories have national biosafety associations or are members of international partnerships. About 60% of BSL4 labs are government-run public-health institutions, leaving 20% run by universities and 20% by biodefence agencies. Only three of the 23 countries with BSL4 labs – Australia, Canada and the US – have national policies for the oversight of dual-use research. The primary concern is that an accident could trigger the next pandemic. At a national level, Koblentz and Lentzos recommend that “countries with BSL-4 labs should have whole-of-government systems that can conduct multidisciplinary risk assessments of proposed research for safety, security and dual-use activities, such as certain gain-of-function research, that have significant potential to be repurposed to cause harm.” At the international level, they recommend that “structures be put in place to systematically oversee maximum containment facilities.”

SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Interest and Concern Naming Scheme Conducive for Global Discourse

The Virus Evolution Working Group of the World Health Organization convened a group to determine a naming system that will “enable clear communication about SARS-CoV-2 variants of interest and concern.” SARS-CoV-2 is the causative agent of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and, as with all viruses, it continuously adapts to changing environments via random genome mutations. There have been several mutations of SARS-CoV-2 since its emergence, and the naming of them has been based on three nomenclature systems, each of which has its own scientific method to classify and name lineages. This means that one variant could have multiple names. To simplify communication and information sharing, a new system was developed for the naming of Variants of Concern and Interest. The new labels use the Greek alphabet. The tables below show the new labels of Variants of Interest and Variants of Concern, respectively.

The US Has Hit 600,000 COVID Deaths, More Than Any Other Country

It has been 15 months since the first confirmed death due to SARS-CoV-2 was reported in the US, and the novel virus has now taken the lives of 600,000 people across the nation. The vaccines have slowed the trend from thousands to hundreds of deaths per day. At present, there are about 375 deaths per day on average, a major decline since January with an average of 3,000 per day. Many Americans are vaccinated or in the process of becoming so, helping to further overcome COVID-19; however, an alarming number of people are reluctant to get vaccinated.

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