This week’s Pandora Report is packed full of insights from GMU Biodefense professors, alumni, and students on bioterrorism, vaccine passports, misinformation about biothreats, and genome editing. We also cover global food security, radiological terrorism, and the latest on chemical weapons, and bring you an update on the debate over SARS-CoV-2’s origins.
COVID-19’s Impact on the Risk of Bioterrorism
Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and Biodefense PhD student Stevie Kiesel have just published an article in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism titled The COVID-19 Pandemic: Catalyst or Complication for Bioterrorism? The pandemic has demonstrated how an infectious disease can cause massive casualties, destabilize governments, and garner intense media attention as countries struggle to respond effectively. The authors examine whether the pandemic is likely to inspire terrorists to consider biological weapons, hoping to replicate these effects, by reviewing existing schools of thought on bioterrorism risk and analyzing recent developments among extremists. You can read the article here (access required).
Is Your Office Safe from COVID-19?
GMU Biodefense Assistant Professor Dr. Saskia Popescu recently weighed in on evaluating the safety of a shared workspace as many companies begin planning how to bring workers back to the office. The CDC’s latest guidelines state that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in environments like an office, while those who aren’t fully vaccinated will need masks, physical distancing, and adequate ventilation. There are several steps you can take to assess and improve the safety of your workplace, including understanding cleaning procedures, purchasing a portable air filter, and following COVID-19 trends in your community to assess the likelihood that you may encounter SARS-CoV-2. However, Dr. Popescu cautions that “your workplace might not be a perfect microcosm of what is going on in your community” and local trends can change quickly, so she advises that vaccination, physical separation, and adequate ventilation and air filtration are key. You can read more here.
COVID-19 Vaccines: Booster Shots and Vaccine Passports
Dr. Popescu will also be chairing a National Academies study on digital vaccine credentials. This study will explore challenges and opportunities associated with a COVID-19 vaccine travel pass. You can read more about the study here, and you’ll find GAO’s recent primer on this issue here. Additionally, Dr. Popescu will be teaching an online class this fall on healthcare system resilience. This course will provide students with a foundation in how healthcare systems prepare for and respond to pandemics, disasters, and biological events. Students will review case studies, such as Ebola, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and COVID-19, to understand the unique challenges of building and sustaining the resilience of the American healthcare system and its role in global health security.
In other vaccine news, Israel is the first country in the world offering a third Pfizer shot amid a spike in COVID-19 cases attributed to the delta variant. The booster shot is offered to adults with a higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19, particularly those with a severe immunodeficiency or who have recently undergone an organ transplant. So far, the US contends that more evidence is needed before recommending a booster shot, and some hypothesize that COVID-19 boosters could come with a risk of more serious side effects.
GMU Biodefense Professor Serving on Committee to Address Biothreats Misinformation
Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Associate Professor in the GMU Biodefense Program, will be serving on a National Academies Committee to consider scientists’ role in addressing misinformation and disinformation related to biological threats. Dr. Ben Ouagrham-Gormley brings a diverse range of expertise in organization and management of weapons programs, tacit knowledge and weapons development, WMD terrorism, and bioweapons dissuasion. The COVID-19 pandemic provides just one example of the insidious nature of misinformation associated with biological agents, resulting in challenges with effective outbreak control and rising distrust in institutions. This committee will evaluate how to enable long-term engagement of scientists internationally to identify and address claims about biological threats that emerge from or are perpetuated by inaccurate and misleading information. More information on this committee is available here.
Food for Thought: A “Dramatic Worsening” of World Hunger in 2020
A United Nations report recently found “dramatic worsening of world hunger in 2020,” much of which is likely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly one-tenth of the global population, or nearly 811 million people, were considered undernourished last year. This represents a significant hurdle to the global goal of ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030. Since the mid-2010s, global rates of hunger have been creeping upwards. Though the challenge of reducing global hunger is at a “critical juncture,” this year will bring key opportunities to advance food security and nutrition at the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit, the Nutrition for Growth Summit, and the COP26 on climate change. The report also describes six “transformation pathways” that should be pursued to counteract the main drivers of hunger and malnutrition. You can read the full report here.
If you’re interested in learning more, Professor Philip Thomas will be teaching a course for the GMU Biodefense program this fall. Global Food Security will analyze threats to food security globally, including those related to climate change and environmental degradation; animal and plant diseases; access to clean water; agricultural terrorism; and antimicrobial resistance. The class will also explore the national and global health, economic, social, and ethical impacts of these disruptive forces and examine strategies for enhancing the security of the global food production and supply systems. In addition to teaching, Professor Thomas also heads the cross-cutting International Development Global Food Security Project, which addresses the numerous challenges confronting international food assistance issues. Prior to his current position, Professor Thomas worked for the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) for 45 years, serving as a key liaison between Congress and GAO on international food assistance, global food security, and United Nations management reform issues.
Public Health Preparedness News
“COVID-19 will likely be a forerunner of future catastrophic pandemics, unless significant new investments and reforms are urgently made to bolster global and national capacities for pandemic preparedness and rapid response.” This is the finding of a recent report, A Global Deal for Our Pandemic Age, written by the G20 High Level Independent Panel on Financing the Global Commons for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. The Panel was tasked with proposing how finance can be organized to reduce the world’s vulnerability to future pandemics. They identified four major global gaps in pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response related to (1) globally networked surveillance and research, (2) resilient national systems, (3) the supply of medical countermeasures and tools, and (4) global governance. The Panel recommended an international funding increase of US$75 billion over the next five years to address these gaps. While this seems like a large sum, the Panel points out that “the costs to government budgets alone from pandemics are up to 700 times larger than the annual additional international investments proposed.”
Also informed by COVID-19, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently published 13 recommendations for legislation to strengthen the US’s public health and improve medical preparedness and response for future public health events. Highlights include expediting development of medical countermeasures, particularly for unknown viral threats; investing in the development of at-home diagnostic technology, new vaccine delivery platforms, and social science research into outbreak management; making several organizational changes to support epidemic forecasting, research, and response; and developing strategies for combatting health-related misinformation and infectious disease disaster recovery. You can read more about these proposals here.
WHO Releases Reports on Human Genome Editing
The WHO has just released two companion reports with the first global, multisectoral recommendations to help establish human genome editing as a tool for public health, with consideration for safety, effectiveness, and ethics. The reports include recommendations for governance and oversight in nine relevant areas: WHO leadership; international collaboration; human genome editing registries; international research and medical travel; illegal, unregistered, unethical, and unsafe research; intellectual property; education, engagement, and empowerment; ethical values; and WHO review. Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz has discussed the importance of robust international oversight of gene editing because of its potentially global implications if something goes wrong. If you’re interested in gene editing regulations, the Genetic Literacy Project has developed a set of interactive tools that track and index these regulations worldwide. The tracker is available here, and you can read the reports here.
Update: The Debate Over SARS-CoV-2’s Origins
Last week we brought you two sides of the debate over the origins of SARS-CoV-2. 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. There has also been a fair amount of criticism over the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) handling of the outbreak investigation. In February 2021, the WHO published a joint report with China on the investigation into SARS-CoV-2’s origins, finding that the virus most likely jumped from one animal species to an intermediary animal host and then to people. Now, the WHO has said that it will fix several “unintended errors” in that report and “look into other possible discrepancies.” Specifically, the virus sequence IDs associated with three early patients will be updated, and the report will clarify that the first family cluster was not linked to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan. A WHO spokesman has said that these changes are not relevant to the hypotheses about the virus’s origins. We will continue to bring you any relevant updates.
A Model Code of Conduct for Biological Scientists
In anticipation of the Ninth Review Conference of the BWC, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has partnered with Tianjin University to finalize a set of guiding principles and code of conduct for individual scientists and institutes engaging in biological research. This document builds on a working paper developed by China and Pakistan and submitted to the Eighth Review Conference of the BWC in 2016. The principles and standards established in the code of conduct are designed to be adaptable to many contexts and used to develop new or enhance existing guidance to fill any gaps in biosecurity governance at national or institutional levels. You can read the proposed code of conduct here.
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.
Rosatom Report Describes Radiological Terrorism Risk from the Islamic State
Rosatom, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, recently released its 2020 Annual Report. According to this report, Rosatom received information from the US Embassy in Moscow, through the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that the Islamic State was planning to acquire radioactive sources from a Russian site. Upon receiving this warning, in September 2020 “all Russian operators of sites handling radioactive material and associated facilities conducted unscheduled self-assessment of physical protection at sites.” For any of our readers who can read Russian, the Rosatom report is available here.
International collaboration to combat the threat of radiological terrorism is key. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) broke ground this week on the IAEA Nuclear Security Training and Demonstration Centre in Vienna, Austria. This facility, slated to break ground in 2023, will “help strengthen countries’ ability to tackle nuclear terrorism in areas such as the illegal trafficking on nuclear material and the physical protection of facilities and major public events.” You can read more about the site here.
Chemical Weapons: Deployment, Destruction, and Other Developments
Several recent stories will catch you up on the status of chemical weapons around the world. The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) published a munitions typology of chemical weapons deployed in the Syrian War to date. The research team identified six types of munitions that strong evidence shows were used in specific chemical attacks, though they advise that the current typology is not exhaustive and there is more work to be done. This effort is part of a larger GPPI project to document and analyze Syrian chemical weapons use—you can explore the full project here.
A new brief from the Congressional Research Service reviews the Russian government’s use of a chemical weapon against opposition figure and anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny. In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent “developed by the Soviet Union and presumably accessible only to Russian state authorities.” Upon further investigation, the US intelligence community assessed with high confidence that Russia’s Federal Security Service was responsible for the attack. In response, acting in accordance with the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991, the Biden administration imposed an initial round of sanctions in March 2021. The brief discusses these sanctions further here.
Meanwhile, the US continues to proceed with destruction of its chemical weapons stockpiles. In 1997, the US ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty and agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile by 2007. However, this deadline has been extended several times due to technical challenges with the safe destruction of chemical weapons, for Russia as well as the US. The Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (BGCAPP) in Kentucky is currently destroying M55 rockets containing VX nerve agent. Rockets are complex munitions, and the process involves disassembling nearly 18,000 rockets, draining and neutralizing the chemical agent to produce hydrolysate, moving the hydrolysate to holding tanks for off-site disposal, containerizing the drained rocket warheads for later destruction, and transporting the rocket motors to Alabama for destruction in a Static Detonation Chamber unit. You can read more about the work at BGCAPP here, and you can get a deeper dive into the chemical weapons destruction process here.
Schar School 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.