Pandora Report 07.23.2021

This week’s Pandora Report continues to cover developments in the investigation into SARS-CoV-2’s origins and brings you the latest news on COVID-19, from vaccine passports to the Tokyo Olympics. We round out the report with norms against chemical weapons use, recommendations to improve the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, and the good old-fashioned plague. And don’t miss the summary from the GMU Pandemics and Global Health Security workshop. 

The Debate Continues: Origins of SARS-CoV-2

For several weeks we have been covering the renewed debate over COVID-19’s origins. The WHO Director-General has urged China to increase its transparency about the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and allow greater access to its laboratories to help resolve questions about the virus’s origins. To push back on that narrative, Chinese officials and media are now claiming that the Maryland-based Fort Detrick Research Institute of Infectious Diseases should be investigated as a potential origin source for COVID-19, a theory that Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz calls “bizarre and ridiculous.” A new article from Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology and Director of the Global Alliance for Preventing Pandemics, describes the “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns of COVID-19.” Another recent piece, by Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Yanzhong Huang, provides a detailed overview of the recent debate and makes the case that ambiguity over COVID-19’s origins is threatening international efforts to cooperate on biosecurity and public health, with potentially long-lasting negative consequences.

CDC Vote of No Confidence in British “Freedom Day”

Despite a recent rise in COVID-19 cases, almost all lockdown restrictions in England were lifted on July 19th, what Prime Minister Boris Johnson is calling “Freedom Day.” Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland still have many of their restrictions in place, but in England, masks are no longer mandatory, capacity limits have been lifted, and social distancing requirements are limited to airports and people who have tested positive for the virus. While 68% of England’s adult population is fully vaccinated, in a single day last weekend the country recorded 48,161 new COVID-19 cases. Therefore, on Freedom Day the CDC raised its UK Risk Assessment Level for COVID-19 to “Level 4: COVID-19 Very High,” and the State Department raised its travel advisory level to “Level 4: Do Not Travel.”

Citius, Altius, Fortius…Infectious?

The Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” translates to “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Athletes strive to smash records and take home the gold. Unfortunately, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics may shatter a record as a super-spreader event of COVID-19. Precautionary measures for this year’s Olympics include daily testing, mask requirements, and distancing measures for athletes, and no fans will be in attendance. However, public health experts have pointed out potential issues with testing capacity and indoor ventilation systems, and they assess that “without stricter mitigation measures…clusters of infection are likely to propagate.” Cases are currently rising in Japan, and the country has struggled with vaccine distribution—only 17% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated. Additionally, 15% of Olympic athletes have not yet been vaccinated. At least 71 people involved with the Olympics have tested positive for COVID-19, and more are in isolation after exposure to the infected. A poll this week in a Japanese newspaper showed that 68% of Japanese respondents doubt the Olympics can be held safely and securely; the chart below shows opinions across multiple countries. The head of the Olympics organizing committee has not ruled out a last-minute cancellation, but said they are monitoring the situation closely.

This chart shows how many people in selected countries are opposed to holding the Olympic Games in Tokyo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID and Congress

Congress continues consideration of issues related to COVID-19, and several stakeholders have reached out to Congress to advocate for their view. A summary of these activities follows.

On July 14, the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing titled “Principles for Outbreak Investigation: COVID-19 and Future Infectious Diseases.” This hearing was the first in a series to understand how COVID-19 started and what can be done to lessen the toll of future outbreaks. Specifically, the committee examined the scientific underpinnings of the investigation into COVID-19’s origins because “the lack of transparency from the Chinese government about health emergencies of international consequence is a very serious geopolitical and science diplomacy challenge.” Though China has not been transparent with its data, the committee chair repeatedly emphasized that “the absence of data is not itself evidence of a lab leak or something more sinister.” You can watch the full hearing here, and we will cover any future hearings on this topic.

Leaders of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition have urged Congressional leadership to establish a national COVID-19 commission to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and assess the United States’ response to the pandemic. The stated purpose of the commission is “not to point fingers or assign blame, but rather to make the United States stronger and more resilient” for the next pandemic.

The Congressional Research Service published a report that reviews arguments about the pandemic’s potential implications for the international security environment. While some argue that the pandemic could be a “world-changing event with potentially profound and long-lasting implications,” others are more skeptical about these dramatic effects. The report reviews the areas of potential change and provides government assessments and potential issues for Congressional consideration. You can read the report here.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a white paper that will be disseminated to Congress and the Biden administration. Titled “Time to Escalate U.S. Leadership on COVID-19 and Beyond,” the white paper makes five key recommendations. First, the White House should establish a leadership structure to coordinate pandemic preparedness and response activities across the interagency. Second, the U.S. should develop a detailed strategy to achieve 70% vaccine coverage of low- and lower-middle-income countries by mid-2022. Third, the U.S. and international partners should establish an international financing mechanism to underwrite basic elements of pandemic preparedness in low- and middle-income countries. Fourth, the U.S. should systematically address the current economic crises in low- and middle-income countries. And finally, the U.S. should invest in basic global health security and epidemic preparedness, focusing on primary healthcare and immunization; research and development for vaccines, therapeutics, and manufacturing capacity; strengthening the WHO; and undertaking a domestic review of biosafety and biosecurity practices. You may also be interested in this newly released GAO report with additional recommendations to improve COVID-19 response.

And finally, the American Society for Microbiology has issued a letter to the House Appropriations Committee “urging them to reject attempts to impose restrictions on federally funded research or the operations of federal science agencies based on premature conclusions about how the pandemic emerged.” Such restrictions could impede potentially lifesaving research; any restrictions should be based firmly in science and not in political posturing.

COVID-19 Vaccine Inequities

Although much has been written about those who voluntarily choose to forego the COVID-19 vaccine, several recent stories highlight the struggles groups are facing in getting the vaccine even if they want it. The International Council of Nurses is sounding the alarm that healthcare workers are being left behind in efforts to provide vaccines against COVID-19 worldwide. Official WHO estimates count 6,643 healthcare worker deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, though the WHO itself estimates the real figure is at least 115,000 (if not much higher) because “many countries are not officially reporting the number of health and care workers who have died” from COVID-19. Just 1 in 8 healthcare workers is fully vaccinated, and the vast majority of these are in richer nations. This vaccine inequity among countries is incredibly stark: for example, while Canada has procured more than 10 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for every 1 resident, Haiti has just received its first delivery of vaccines—and only received 500,000 doses for a population of over 11 million. This global inequity can be attributed to several factors: export restrictions initially kept COVID-19 doses within vaccine manufacturers’ borders, the global purchase plan to provide vaccines for poorer countries was severely flawed and underfunded, and “intellectual property rights vied with global public health for priority.” You can read more about these factors here.

Another Successful Workshop on Pandemics and Global Health Security

On July 19-21, 38 individuals from across the United States and around the world participated in the Biodefense Graduate Program’s virtual summer workshop on Pandemics and Global Health Security. As usual, the workshop attracted a highly experienced group that represented the multiple sectors, agencies, and disciplines that are involving in preventing, preparing for, and responding to pandemics, bioterrorism, and other threats to global health security. This year’s attendees included members of government agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Sandia National Laboratory, the state health departments of Arkansas and New Mexico, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Defence Research and Development Canada; the private sector including Booz Allen Hamilton and the biosurveillance firm BlueDot; non-profits such as CRDF Global; universities including Aga Khan, George Mason, Howard, University of Maryland, Naval Postgraduate School, and the University of Sussex; and international organizations such as Europol and the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs.

Over the course of three half-days, the workshop attendees received briefings from world-class experts in the fields of virology, science communication, global health, medical countermeasures, ethics, hospital biopreparedness, and biodefense. While the format was virtual, participants were able to interact with the faculty and each other during stimulating Q&A and discussion sessions. Even though all of the presentations focused in some way on the COVID-19 pandemic, the instructors provided insights applicable to a wide range of biological threats. Based on the presentations and discussions, there is no shortage of lessons learned from the current pandemic that could be used to develop institutions and systems to prevent the next local outbreak of a novel respiratory disease from becoming a global pandemic.

Workshop on COVID-19 Credentials for International Travel, August 3-5

Last week we told you about an upcoming National Academies study on digital vaccine credentials, led by GMU Biodefense Assistant Professor Dr. Saskia Popescu. If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into the utility, feasibility, security, and ethics of establishing verifiable COVID-19 credentials for international travel, Dr. Popescu’s committee is hosting a 3‑day webinar to explore these issues. Participants will contribute perspectives from domestic and international governments, multilateral health and business organizations, academia, and private and non-profit sectors. You can register for the event here, and read the latest WHO guidance on vaccination proof requirements for travel here.

Don’t Forget the Classics: Updates on Plague

SARS-CoV-2 may be the trendy pathogen these days, but like bellbottom jeans and choker necklaces, plague appears to be making a comeback…in the academic literature at least. The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report just published updated recommendations for antimicrobial treatment and prophylaxis of plague. The original recommendations were published in 2000 and are being updated to incorporate new human clinical data, animal study data, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approvals of additional countermeasures. Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, is naturally present worldwide and has been recognized as a potential bioweapon—the CDC classifies it as a Category A agent. These recommendations can be used by clinicians and public health officials to prepare for and respond to a plague mass-casualty event. Additionally, a recent article in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal examined the potential for plague transmission from corpses and carcasses to humans. While the authors did not find direct evidence for this type of transmission in the literature, they described a transmission pathway and assessed the potential for transmission at each step. Ultimately, they concluded that “pneumonic plague can be transmitted by intensive handling of the corpse or carcass, presumably through the inhalation of respiratory droplets, and that bubonic plague can be transmitted by blood-to-blood contact with the body fluids of a corpse or carcass.” These findings should be used when developing protocols for handling bodies of people or animals who died of plague.

Opinion: Putin Escapes Accountability for Chemical Weapons Use

Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Anthony Ruggiero and research fellow Andrea Stricker contend that Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of the Biden administration’s relative inaction on the enforcement of the global norm against chemical weapons. Although Russia claims that its chemical weapons program was dismantled in 2017, there have been two confirmed cases of Russian chemical weapons use since then. Both cases involved assassination attempts with Novichok, a nerve agent “developed by the Soviet Union and presumably accessible only to Russian state authorities.” Russia also defies the norm against chemical weapons by supporting the erroneous claim that the Syrian government dismantled its chemical weapons stockpiles in 2014, despite multiple confirmed instances of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government since that time. The article authors argue that “Putin knows that if the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons cannot hold a lesser rogue state like Syria accountable, then it will never challenge Moscow.” You can read their assessment of the problem and proposed solutions here.

Improving the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office

In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) consolidated the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and Office of Health Affairs into the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office. This office “leads DHS efforts and coordinates with domestic and international partners to safeguard the United States against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear and health security threats.” Over the years, GAO has evaluated and made recommendations for a number of programs managed by legacy offices, including biosurveillance, nuclear/radiological detection, and chemical defense programs. GAO recently testified before Congress on the status of these recommendations and the consolidation into the CWMD Office. They identified ongoing challenges with the proposed replacement for the BioWatch system, low employee morale, collaboration between the National Biosurveillance Integration Center, and the Securing the Cities program. You can read the full testimony here.

How to Build a Global Pathogen Early Warning System

The Council on Strategic Risks has just released a report assessing the current state of global biosurveillance and recommending the creation of a global pathogen early warning system to “catch the full range of biological threats before they become devastating pandemics.” Informed by the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report identifies critical gaps in biosurveillance, such as inconsistent capabilities across geographic areas, poor information-sharing, and time delays. However, the report is generally optimistic that the foundation for robust global biosurveillance exists. The envisioned global pathogen early warning system would cover key high-risk nodes, and the technologies would be flexible and interoperable to work in a variety of operational settings. The authors also propose enabling recommendations, such as conducting additional deep dives into biosurveillance systems, investing in a wide range of tools, and launching confidence-building measures and other diplomatic efforts to develop trust and foster collaboration. You can learn much more in the report here.

Congratulations to Bonnie Jenkins on Her Recent Confirmation

Bonnie Jenkins has just been confirmed as the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. Undersecretary Jenkins has a long history within the arms control and national security communities, particularly in chemical, biological, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. She has served as the Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs and she is a military veteran, professor, and academic who has worked in government, think tanks, nonprofits, and philanthropy. Hers is a historic nomination of the first African American person to hold the rank of Undersecretary of State, and her expertise and perspective will help tackle key challenges in arms control and disarmament today.

Webinar: The Threat of Designer Pathogens, August 3

Since the completion of the human genome project in 2003, there has been a surge of investments and discoveries in the fields of gene sequencing and synthetic biology and biotechnology. However, such advancements give rise to new security challenges. Improvements in the accuracy, accessibility, and speed of synthesis technologies and their possible use by malicious actors increase the risk of newly emerging bioterrorism weapons and agents. NCT CBRNe is hosting a webinar to ask: What is the international stance regarding this threat? How can we deal with it? Which mechanisms exist to tackle it? You can register for the event here.

Schar School PhD Virtual Open House, August 11

You’re invited to attend a virtual open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government and our academic programs. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. The online session will provide an overview of our doctoral degree programs, and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. Register here.

George Mason University Announces New Vaccination Requirements

GMU has announced updated requirements for COVID-19 vaccinations among students, faculty, and staff in light of the most recent data. Everyone who works, studies, and lives on campus must get vaccinated and share verification of their vaccination status, except in cases of approved exemptions for medical and religious reasons. You can read more 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.

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