Pandora Report: 07.30.2021

In this week’s Pandora Report, we catch you up on the latest with COVID-19, but there are plenty of other stories if you’re feeling that pandemic fatigue. We also cover chemical and biological weapons and defense; misinformation and disinformation; and biosecurity. And we wrap up with some interesting upcoming (online) events.

The Mask Returns

Citing the surging delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the CDC is now urging everyone, including vaccinated people, in COVID hot spots to resume wearing masks indoors. Additionally, any individual with vulnerable household members should wear masks indoors. While the CDC continues to recommend in-person learning for students in the fall, they are now calling for universal masking for teachers, staff members, and students in schools regardless of vaccination status. This guidance comes after a summer surge in cases attributed to the delta variant as well as pockets of low vaccination rates in communities across the U.S. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky highlighted the danger associated with the delta variant, citing “its willingness to outsmart us and to be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it.” The latest findings from the CDC show that the delta variant appears to cause more severe illness than earlier variants and spreads as easily as chickenpox. And another coronavirus variant was discovered in Colombia and has been showing up in Florida, accounting for roughly 10% of new COVID-19 patients.

In light of these developments, several government entities are implementing new policies. The Smithsonian is now requiring everyone 2 years and older to wear masks in all its indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status. Earlier this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs led the way with a vaccine requirement for its staff. Across the U.S. government, federal workers and contractors are now required to prove their COVID-19 vaccination status or undergo a series of regular, rigorous safety protocols. Biden administration staff are required to wear masks indoors when traveling to any part of the country with a high transmission rate; masks will also be required inside the White House as Washington, D.C. is considered a hot spot. You can check whether an area is considered a COVID hot spot (with a “high” or “substantial” number of cases) using this CDC county map. Currently, nearly 65% of U.S. counties are considered hot spots.

If all this news has you down, you may want to consider a move. New Zealand was just rated the best place to survive global societal collapse, followed by Iceland, the United Kingdom, Tasmania, and Ireland. Read more, and decide if you would rank countries using the same criteria, here. Prefer a more down-to-earth solution? Check out this opinion piece on ways to improve preparedness for the next pandemic.

The National Football League Tackles COVID-19

The National Football League just implemented a policy stating that “if a game cannot be rescheduled during the 18-week schedule due to a COVID-19 outbreak among vaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will forfeit and be credited with a loss.” Players on both teams will not be paid for the lost contest, and if a team is “responsible” for a cancelled game due to unvaccinated players, the team will cover financial losses and be subject to disciplinary action. Vaccines are not currently mandatory for players, but this policy aims to provide an incentive for vaccination. Here’s hoping they don’t fumble the policy’s implementation.

COVID-19 Vaccines: A History

COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are the first approved vaccines ever to use modified messenger RNA (mRNA)—this allowed the vaccines to be rapidly developed. However, this rapid development was backed by a long history of research, starting with the discovery of DNA in 1951 and including one of this article’s featured subjects, Matthew Meselson. Meselson is incredibly well-known in the arms control community as a driving force behind the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, as well as for his role in the U.S.’s renunciation of biological weapons in 1969. Meselson worked for years on understanding DNA, working as part of the team that eventually discovered messenger RNA. This work informed the next generation of scientists who would eventually find a way to harness RNA to treat and prevent disease. You can read the full history here.

Examining the Legacy of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq

The latest issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists features a collection of articles highlighting the history of Iraq’s biological weapons to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), which was established after the 1991 Gulf War to oversee the elimination of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and the long-range missiles that could deliver them. The collection “does not aim to be a comprehensive account” but “it focuses on UNSCOM’s work to uncover Iraq’s large, hidden biological warfare preparations.” It includes articles and interviews from people who served in a range of roles at UNSCOM, including its executive chair, deputy chair, commissioner, chief inspectors, spokesperson, and official historian. You’ll find the full collection of articles here, though some articles required a login. This (free) readout of a recent webinar by Filippa Lentzos and Henrietta Wilson on how United Nations inspectors found and destroyed Iraq’s biological weapons is particularly interesting.

France Issues Moratorium on Prion Research after Deaths of Two Lab Workers

Five public research institutions in France have imposed a 3-month moratorium on the study of prions after a retired lab worker who had handled prions in the past was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Prions are abnormal, pathogenic agents that are transmissible and can induce abnormal folding of certain proteins that are found mostly in the brain; CJD is the most common prion disease in humans. France is currently investigating whether the patient, who worked at National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment laboratory, contracted CJD on the job. If so, this would not be the lab’s first case: in 2019, a 33-year-old lab worker died 10 years after pricking her thumb during an experiment with prion-infected mice. This incident led to tightened safety measures at French prion labs. The aim of the new moratorium is to “study the possibility of a link with the [new patient’s] former professional activity and if necessary to adapt the preventative measures in force in research laboratories.” French speakers can read the labs’ press release here.

Gain of Function Research: Exploring Benefits, Risks, and Ethics

The Pandora Report has long covered issues and debates over gain-of-function (GOF) research, where new properties are engineered into existing viruses. If you need a refresher on this debate, a new video provides an overview of GOF research and begins to explore its ethics. The MIT Technical Review also has out an interesting interview with Ralph Baric, a long-time coronavirus researcher who has been at the center of the latest GOF controversy due to his collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. You can read much more in the article here.  

Alleged Israeli Strike on Syrian Chemical Weapons Site

Syria is claiming that a June 8, 2021, Israeli airstrike on an underground site called al-Nasiriyah1 led to the destruction of evidence crucial to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW’s) ongoing investigations into Syrian chemical weapons use. Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz initially flagged this issue as part of a larger campaign of obstruction, arguing that “Syria is trying to destroy evidence showing that its declarations to the OPCW have been incomplete and inaccurate.” Nasiriyah is a former chemical weapons production facility; Syria declared it to OPCW inspectors but claimed that it was never used. OPCW inspectors have some evidence that suggests otherwise, but their investigation is so far incomplete. Additionally, the OPCW is also attempting to determine who was responsible for a 2018 chlorine attack in Douma, and Syria is claiming that crucial pieces of evidence in that attack (two gas cylinders) were “lost” in the Nasiriyah attack. Israel has not claimed responsibility for the air strike that took out Nasiriyah, though “in theory nothing should have been going on there that would make Israel want to bomb it.” Israel usually targets Iranian elements active within Syria, and Nasiriyah had been sealed according to the OPCW’s instructions.

State Department Nominee Calls Russia’s Chemical Weapons Use “Chilling and Shocking”

Karen Donfried, current nominee for assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, characterized Russia’s recent use of chemical weapons “chilling and shocking” and pledged to “stand up to Russia’s reckless and aggressive behavior” if she is confirmed to the position. Donfried also committed to using the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to push back against Russian influence and malign activities. The Congressional Research Service published a brief on Russia’s chemical weapons activities and the U.S. response; you can read the brief here.

New Chemical and Biological Systems Undergo Testing at Dugway

Two systems recently underwent operational testing at Dugway Proving Ground to provide a training exercise for users and to use data collected during the tests to inform senior leadership on how effective, suitable, and reliable these systems would be during real-world operations. Tests were conducted on the Joint Biological Tactical Detection System (a detector/collector that monitors for biological warfare agents) and the Contamination Indication Closure Assurance System (which indicates chemical agent contaminants so proper decontamination can take place). You can read more about these tests here.

Misinformation and Disinformation: A Threat to Public Health

Mis- and disinformation have always accompanied infectious disease outbreaks but have been particularly pernicious in response to COVID-19. A recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue takes a deep dive into the online networks of vaccine-skeptics in Germany, analyzing nearly half a million posts from December 2020 through April 2021. Groups and channels promoting anti-vaccine narratives skyrocketed during the study timeframe, and key figures (or “influencers”) created the illusion of peer-reviewed, scientific rigor by referencing each other, creating a “community of anti-vaccination experts.” The study also incorporates perspectives from (actual) experts in health, science, education, and public communication sectors to understand how we can begin to combat this rampant misinformation. You can read the report here.

The U.S. government is also recognizing and taking steps to counter the threat of misinformation. The Surgeon General just released a report on “Confronting Health Misinformation,” recognizing that during the COVID-19 pandemic, “people have been exposed to a great deal of information” and “while information has helped people stay safe throughout the pandemic, it has at times led to confusion.” Although the report acknowledges disinformation—the malicious spread of false information—it focuses on misinformation, which is spread without an intent to misinform. While this report is a step in the right direction, the government should not minimize disinformation and those who spread it. You can read the report here.

New from FEMA: Response to and Recovery from a Chemical Incident

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has just released Key Planning Factors and Considerations for Response to and Recovery from a Chemical Incident (the “Chem KPF”). The Chem KPF helps state, local, tribal, and territorial governments identify considerations that could substantially aid the recovery process by decreasing recovery timelines and costs, improving public health and safety, and addressing major resource limitations and critical decisions resulting from a chemical incident. A draft of this document was circulated for public review and comment in July, and the final version is now available here.

CSIS Report: Biosecurity and the Bioeconomy

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has just released a new report finding that the U.S. government’s pandemic response “has been enabled by the emerging bioeconomy, which provides core biosecurity capabilities that are essential to the success of the mission.” Government engagement with the bioeconomy has steadily increased, and today this engagement spans a range of agencies with a focus on laboratory and product safety as well as research and development. However, “the government lacks mechanisms for providing a broader strategic focus that integrates priorities, including biosecurity, in partnering with the bioeconomy.” Therefore, the government is often unable to fully capitalize on innovations happening throughout the bioeconomy, particularly those developing outside government-sponsored research. Biosecurity policymakers must engage strategically with the bioeconomy beyond the research and development stage—something that is sorely lacking today. The report recommends development of a strategic engagement mechanism, likely housed in the National Security Council and working with a lead federal agency such as the Department of Health and Human Services. You can read more here.

Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition Deadline Extended to August 3

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 August 3. 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.

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? Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz will be a panelist at this event, so be sure to register here.

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

Previously 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.

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.  

Workshop: Towards a Post-Pandemic World, September 21-24

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are hosting the second of a two-part series about what we’ve learned since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020. Presentations will examine responses to COVID-19 in the U.S. and abroad, featuring retrospective and prospective discussions on the impacts of the pandemic on human health and society and with a view towards enhancing resilience and preparedness for the future. The workshop will take place over four days and focus on a broad range of topics:

  • Sept 21: Anticipated Long-Term Effects of COVID-19
  • Sept 22: Addressing Uncertainties During a Pandemic
  • Sept 23: Mitigating the Next Pandemic through Current Recovery
  • Sept 24: Potentials for a Post-COVID World (Scenario Planning Exercise)

Each day’s session runs from 10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. EDT. You can register here.

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