This week’s Pandora Report kicks off with recommendations to enhance biosafety and biosecurity at laboratories working with deadly pathogens, from Biodefense Program students Joseph Rodgers (PhD) and Minh Ly (alumnus) and our Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz. We also take a look at the debate heating up around COVID-19’s origins, Syria’s controversial election to the WHO Executive Board, and a Chinese gene company that is gathering data from pregnant women in 52 countries. Finally, we have a round-up of informative events coming up in the next few weeks, as well as a podcast recommendation if you’ve got any long commutes or summer road trips planned.
Ensuring Biosafety and Biosecurity When Working with Deadly Pathogens
Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Filippa Lentzos, senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London, have partnered with Biodefense PhD student Joseph Rodgers and Biodefense Master’s Program alumnus Minh Ly to further explore the risks associated with the proliferation of research labs that work on the world’s deadliest pathogens, Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs. Since 2001, the perception of biological risks from terrorist attacks and emerging infectious diseases has led to a “global construction boom of research labs,” with 59 BSL-4 labs in 23 countries. And the authors predict that this trend will continue, particularly because “as scientists seek to better understand viruses like the one that causes COVID-19, they will likely need more labs tailor-made for work with risky germs.”
To reduce the risk of laboratory accidents and intentional misuse, the authors argue that all countries engaging in high-risk research should adopt international standards of biosafety and biosecurity. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed ISO 35001, which focuses on management’s role in fostering a culture of biosafety and biosecurity and stresses the need for continuous improvement of practices and processes. The article’s authors recommend all biosafety labs (levels 1 through 4) adhere to ISO 35001. To implement this standard at the international level, countries “must agree on a third-party entity to systematically validate and certify compliance.” You can learn more about their recommendations for this third-party entity here, and you can see Dr. Lentzos’ and Dr. Koblentz’ interactive web-based map of global BSL-4 facilities and biorisk management policies here.
Debate Over the COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory
Speaking of potential misinformation regarding COVID-19, a debate has broken out over the origins of COVID-19. Since SARS-CoV-2 began spreading worldwide, researchers and policymakers have questioned where it came from. There have been two major theories: that SARS-CoV-2 is natural in origin and jumped from an animal to humans in a natural spillover event, or that SARS-CoV-2 resulted from a laboratory accident (or “lab leak”) at the Wuhan Institutes of Virology. Due to scant evidence, few scientists and researchers put much stock in the lab leak theory during the pandemic’s early days. However, in February 2021, the joint WHO-China mission to investigate COVID-19’s origins gave a much-maligned press conference to echo China’s confusing narrative and conclude that the virus most likely “leapt from one animal species to an intermediary animal host in which the virus adapted more before jumping to people.” This investigation also called the lab leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely” – though the next day the WHO Director-General said that no hypotheses had been ruled out. The lab leak theory has gained more traction recently, with President Biden recently ordering the intelligence community (which is currently split over the virus’s origins) to investigate this claim and report back in 90 days.
On Tuesday, a group of virus experts published a letter arguing that “there is substantial body of scientific evidence supporting a zoonotic (animal) origin for SARS-CoV-2” and “there is currently no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has a laboratory origin.” The authors point to the “clear epidemiological links to animal markets in Wuhan” and the lack of evidence that any early cases were connected to the Wuhan Institutes of Virology. Two days later, the BMJ published an article by investigative journalist Paul D. Thacker, who argued the lab leak theory “was treated as a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory” by “researchers who were funded to study viruses with pandemic potential.” Thacker calls out Peter Daszak as a key player in this campaign against the lab leak theory. Daszak is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organization that received U.S. government grants to research viruses for pandemic preparedness and that has subcontracted some of this research out to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak also participated in the WHO-China mission to investigate SARS-COV-2’s origins. (Daszak signed on to a recent letter in The Lancet reaffirming that “the strongest clue from new, credible, and peer-reviewed evidence in the scientific literature is that the virus evolved in nature, while suggestions of a laboratory-leak source of the pandemic remain without scientifically validated evidence that directly supports it in peer-reviewed scientific journals.”) On the same day Thacker’s article was published, the BMJ editor-in-chief also published her support of a “full, open independent investigation into [the pandemic’s] origins,” based on Thacker’s reporting.
We will continue to follow this debate and bring you any updates.
Why Was Syria Just Elected to the WHO’s Executive Board?
Zaher Sahloul, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the president of MedGlobal, argues that the Syrian representative’s recent election to the WHO’s Executive Board is yet another misstep in a troubled year for the WHO. As the Pandora Report covered last week, many perceive that the WHO has been far too deferential to China as China spread disinformation and attempted to obfuscate early information about COVID-19. Now, the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been granted a leading role in the WHO despite a list of atrocities including (but not limited to) repeated chemical weapons use, the weaponization of health care, the intentional degradation of health care infrastructure, and attacks on humanitarian targets such as aid convoys. Sahloul contends that the WHO is a “rigid institution disconnected from the field” that “relies on a weird and secretive system that approves a set of consensus candidates that governments within each region put forward via secret ballot.” Consequences of this bureaucratic inflexibility will be a sense of abandonment from Syrian healthcare workers and non-government organizations, as well as the Syrian people who have suffered greatly under Assad. Sahloul fears that this move will also fuel COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy because Syrians already greatly distrust the Assad regime’s health policies—they will now also distrust the WHO’s recommendations on vaccination because the Assad regime has just been rewarded with a WHO leadership role. You can read more in Sahloul’s article here.
Chinese Gene Company with Military Ties Harvesting Data from Pregnant Women
BGI Group, a Chinese gene company with a history of close collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army, has been using genetic data acquired from prenatal tests to conduct research on the traits of populations. BGI Group sells non-invasive prenatal tests, “which women take about 10 weeks into a pregnancy to capture DNA from the placenta in the woman’s bloodstream” and which are intended to screen for fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome. These tests also capture the mother’s genetic information and personal details (country, height, and weight). BGI then stores and re-analyzes leftover blood samples and genetic data. BGI uses artificial intelligence to analyze this data, often in collaboration with the country’s military. For example, in one study BGI used a military supercomputer to re-analyze this data and “map the prevalence of viruses in Chinese women, look for indicators of mental illness in them, and single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to find links between their genes and their characteristics.” Worldwide, over 8 million women in 52 countries have taken these tests, though BGI claims that it only stores location data on women in mainland China. The implications of this type of research are wide-ranging, and U.S. government advisors have been sounding the alarm for years. For example, in March the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has warned that the U.S. should view China’s push toward global dominance in biotechnology and artificial intelligence as a “new kind of national security threat.” You can read the full article here.
COVID-19 By the Numbers
A grim milestone was reached this week: 4 million dead from COVID-19. To put that in context, 64 countries have a population fewer than 4 million. Vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself and your community. For example, Maryland has reported that unvaccinated people made up 100% of COVID-19 deaths and a majority of the new cases and hospitalizations last month. As of July 7, 56% of U.S. adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 67% have received at least one dose. Vaccinations peaked in April and have slowed down through the summer, falling short of President Biden’s goal for 70% of American adults to receive at least one dose by July 4th. There are important regional differences: most Northeast states have reached or exceeded that 70% target, while most Southern states have remained stagnant with vaccination rates around 50-60%. Several factors account for this difference, including logistical challenges, difficulty reaching all communities with effective communications, and individual concerns over the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. The Biden administration laid out their plan to overcome these challenges in the U.S. COVID-19 Global Response and Recovery Framework. Objective 1 is to “accelerate widespread and equitable access to and delivery of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccinations” by accelerating vaccine and consumables manufacturing, supporting readiness to administer vaccines, expanding access to vaccines, and monitoring and evaluating the safety and effectiveness of vaccination programs. Additionally, the President recently announced new outreach efforts aimed at those who have not been fully vaccinated. These efforts will largely focus on identifying trusted messengers in communities and providing resources local doctors need to fully vaccinate their communities.
Podcast on Aerobiology and War
If you’re one of the many people starting to head back into the office and need something to listen to as you resume your commute, you may be interested in a Listen to History podcast episode that examines the early history of aerobiology and the relationship between public health and militarization. The podcast features Gerard J. Fitzgerald, a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University, where his research focuses on aspects of military environmental history involving militarized landscapes, industrialization, public health, and chemical and biological weapons. He is currently completing Turn on the Light: Airborne Disease Control in the United States, 1930-1960, a history of the impact of the contributions of civilian public health research during the interwar period to the origins of the United States biological weapons during World War II. You can listen to the podcast here or find it on Spotify under the episode title Aerobiology and the History of War.
The Biological Weapons Convention Summer Update
The Ninth Review Conference of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is slated to occur this year. Review Conferences are mandated by Article XII of the BWC treaty to review salient issues including operation of the BWC and relevant emerging scientific and technological developments. The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research released a report titled Preparing for Success at the Ninth Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference: A Guide to the Issues. The BWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) also just released an update on recent and forthcoming work. The 2020 Meetings of Experts were postponed last year due to the pandemic but will be held this year from August 30 through September 8. The ISU has hosted several webinars on cooperation and assistance efforts, science and technology developments, and strengthening national implementation of the BWC. They have also held several workshops to discuss establishing a database to facilitate assistance under the framework of Article VII of the BWC.
Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline is Approaching
The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security (GHS) Network have teamed up to launch the fifth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition to find creative answers to the questions: What life science research should not be conducted, if any? Should red lines in life science research be drawn? If so, by whom? Teams of at least three participants, with members from two or more countries, must submit papers by July 28. Papers may be published online by NTI and GHS, and the winning team will also receive travel and lodging support to attend and present during a side-event at the 2021 Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties in Geneva. You can learn more about the competition here.
CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues 2021 Virtual Summer Conference: July 13-14
The Center for Strategic & International Studies Project on Nuclear Issues (CSIS PONI) is holding their virtual summer conference on July 13 and July 14. This conference will feature presentations on the future of arms control, emerging technologies, public opinion perspectives on nuclear weapons, and more. Register for Day 1 here and for Day 2 here.
Webinar on Institutional Strengthening of the BWC: July 14
The Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit will be hosting a webinar on “Institutional Strengthening of the Convention” on July 14 from 13:00 to 14:30 CET (07:00 – 08:30 EST). You can register for this virtual event here.
Webinar on Disaster Preparedness and Vulnerable Populations: July 15
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are hosting their final webinar in a three-part series on Disaster Preparedness and Vulnerable Populations in light of COVID-19. The pandemic has brought to light many issues with disaster preparedness for vulnerable populations. The first webinar focused on disaster planning and response activities (recording available here). The second webinar focused on home health workers who provide services to individuals with disabilities and older adults (information available here). The third webinar will discuss how to incorporate the needs of individuals with disabilities and older adults into disaster planning; you can register for that event on July 15th here.
Pandemics and Global Health Security Workshop: July 19-21
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.