Pandora Report: 08.13.2021

This week’s Pandora Report covers the full CBRN spectrum, from Syrian chemical weapons to the National Biodefense Strategy, and from Russian radiation combat skills training to North Korean nuclear provocation. We also look at other catastrophic risks, including a recent report on climate change. And if you’re looking to fill up your calendar for fall, don’t miss the list of upcoming events.

The Debate Continues: Origins of COVID-19

We have been covering developments in the investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 for weeks. Two recent articles take up this ongoing debate. Dr. Nicholas G. Evans and Anna Muldoon reject the idea that a lab accident associated with gain-of-function research experiments caused the COVID-19 pandemic. “Gain-of-function research” refers to research that modifies a biological agent so that it confers new or enhanced activity to that agent. While the U.S. government did fund experiments that manipulated coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, those experiments don’t qualify as gain-of-function research, and there is no evidence that the manipulated pathogens caused the pandemic. Evans and Muldoon break down the origins of the theory, its many permutations, and why it is an unlikely explanation for COVID-19; you can read more here.

Dr. Andrew Lakoff also tackles whether COVID-19 was the result of a lab leak, rather than a natural spillover event where a virus jumps from animals to humans. The lab leak hypothesis has been able to gain ground in part because scientists have so far been unable to identify the intermediary host animal that could confirm the spillover hypothesis. This uncertainty leads to “a situation of diagnostic uncertainty, both about how to attribute blame and about the horizon of future reform.” Lakoff frames this uncertainty as part of a larger question about laboratory safety and the trade-offs between advancing knowledge to protect from future pandemics and the risks associated with intentional or unintentional spillage of dangerous pathogens from research labs. You can read Lakoff’s piece here.

On Thursday, remarks from a WHO official added a twist to this ongoing conversation. For context, in 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a joint investigation with China into the virus’s origins. The team’s report, released in February 2021, concluded that a leak of the virus from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology was “extremely unlikely” to be the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the WHO chief has recently commented that a lab leak cannot yet be entirely ruled out as a source of the pandemic because of China’s lack of transparency on the issue. Now, new commentary from Ben Embarek, the head of this joint investigation, is raising even more questions about COVID-19’s origin story. In an interview for a Danish TV station’s documentary, Embarek expressed concerns about safety standards at a laboratory close to the seafood market where the first human cases of COVID-19 were detected. Embarek claims that the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention was handling coronaviruses “without potentially having the [appropriate] level of expertise or safety.” Embarek also said that the possibility of a lab staffer being infected with the coronavirus while collecting bat samples was “likely.”

Schar School Polling on COVID-19 Behaviors Featured in the Washington Post

The latest Schar School-Washington Post polling results are out, examining attitudes toward daily activities in light of the latest COVID-19 developments. Persistent coronavirus concerns and growth in remote work among D.C.-area residents during the pandemic may work against the comeback of downtown D.C. and other commercial districts in the region. And some residents “express hesitancy in returning to their pre-pandemic work and commuting lives when the pandemic eventually ends, likely fueling a disruption in the rhythm of traffic and mass transit.” Some interesting poll findings include:

  • About 4 in 10 area residents expressed virus-related concerns about attending crowded indoor gatherings
  • About 2 in 10 residents said they are concerned about dining indoors
  • About 2 in 10 residents also say they will ride metro often (including roughly 3 in 10 of those who rode at least weekly before the pandemic)
  • Workers are mixed on whether they want to return to their workplaces (and how often)

Want to learn more? You can check out the poll crosstabs here.

This Week in COVID-19

A new story in the Washington Post highlights the rise of the more contagious delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, which now accounts for over 93% of new COVID-19 infections in the U.S. Whereas outbreaks of the delta variant used to be concentrated in poorly vaccinated pockets, two-thirds of Americans in highly vaccinated counties now live in COVID-19 hot spots. The delta variant has changed calculations for what is needed to end the pandemic: “Epidemiologists had hoped getting 70 or 80 percent of the population vaccinated, in combination with immunity from natural infections, would bring the virus under control. But a more contagious virus means the vaccination target has to be much higher, perhaps in the range of 90 percent.” Given the current state of vaccine inequities, vaccine hesitancy, and blatant mis- and disinformation, such a target could take years to achieve.

Employers are revisiting their policies on vaccination, masking, and other requirements. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has mandated that all District government employees must get vaccinated against COVID-19 by September 19. Anyone with a religious or medical exemption will be required to submit a weekly COVID test. Similarly, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is seeking a mandate to require that all service members get the COVID-19 vaccine by mid-September—a date that could be moved up sooner if a vaccine receives full approval from the FDA.

As students prepare to return to school, only about 4 in 10 adolescents (age 12-17) have been vaccinated. Therefore, safety measures like masks, social distancing, and sanitation will be key. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security published guidance to improve indoor ventilation in schools to help reduce COVID-19 transmission. Tips include upgrading air filtration so that HVAC systems can bring in as much outdoor air as possible and adding HEPA air filtration units. The guidance also warns against unproven technologies such as ozone generators, ionization, and air disinfection with chemical foggers and sprays. You can check out the full report here or a graphic summary here.

Hospitals in some U.S. states with low vaccination rates are reaching capacity with COVID-19 patients infected with the delta variant. Hospitalizations tend to be significantly higher in U.S. states with large numbers of unvaccinated people. The graphic from Statista below shows this trend. Out of the five least vaccinated states, four (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas) are experiencing elevated levels of hospitalizations. Wyoming also has a high level of unvaccinated people, but the state’s relatively sparse population density may afford it some natural level of protection against viral spread. States with vaccination rates of 60% or higher are not experiencing these dangerous surges of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

U.S. Scientist Settles Whistleblower Complaint Over COVID Treatments

Last April, Dr. Rick Bright was removed from his position as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA) after he pressed for rigorous vetting of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that Trump had wrongly touted as a treatment for COVID-19. Dr. Bright filed a whistleblower complaint against the federal government for his termination; that complaint was recently settled, and Dr. Bright will receive back pay and compensation for “emotional stress and reputational damage.” The Biden administration confirmed the settlement and praised Dr. Bright, who had advised President Biden during his transition.

The National Biodefense Strategy and Opportunities to Strengthen Preparedness

In 2018, the Trump Administration released the National Biodefense Strategy. The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) just published a review of the key accomplishments and future priorities under this strategy, which “aims to advance the U.S. health security enterprise through prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation efforts to combat infectious disease and biological threats.” Key accomplishments include a clinical trial for a universal flu vaccine, improvements to biosafety and biosecurity communications and guidance, launching of the Antimicrobial Resistance Challenge, and a range of activities in response to COVID-19. You can read more here.

Under the CARES Act, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was charged with conducting monitoring and oversight of federal efforts to prepare for, respond to, and recover from COVID-19. A new GAO study reviewed biological incident plans and after-action reports from exercises and real-world incidents from 2009-2019 to assess (1) interagency plans key federal agencies developed, and exercises they conducted, to help prepare for biological incidents and (2) the extent to which exercises and real-world incidents revealed opportunities to better achieve National Biodefense Strategy objectives. Based on this analysis, GAO made four recommendations each to the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Department of Agriculture. These recommendations center on agencies working with the Biodefense Steering Committee to communicate exercise priorities and conduct monitoring. You can read the report here.

Coming in Hot: Bad News from the IPCC Report on Climate Change 2021

Recent findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are a “code red for humanity,” according to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. The report provides climate projections for the 21st century, and things aren’t looking good. Climate change has already caused significant damage via droughts, heat waves, extreme rainfall, fires, and other extreme weather events. Now, the world is currently on track to surpass the warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in the next 15 years. Once this threshold is crossed, extreme weather events will become more severe and rising sea levels and increasing glacial melt will have catastrophic effects. A dedicated, global effort is needed to stave off the worst effects. Greenhouse gas emissions must be sharply slashed. If global emissions can hit net zero by 2050, then we should be able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. You can read the report here and check out a discussion of the science behind the report here. This report is sure to surface again at the U.N. Climate Change Conference scheduled for November 2021.

Can Parasitic Worms Protect against Chemical and Biological Weapons?

Researchers at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine are capitalizing on recent advances in genetic modification using CRISPR-Cas9 and studying whether the helminth genome can produce therapeutic molecules to protect humans against chemical and biological agents. Helminths are parasitic worms that live inside the human body. The intent of this project is to “reduce the burden of soldiers and medical responders who have to wear personal protective equipment when at risk of chemical or biological attack.” You can read more about the research here.

North Korea Conducting Tests at Nuclear Reactor Site

A draft U.N. report states that North Korea has conducted tests at the Yongbyon nuclear complex between December 2020 and February 2021. North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs despite the economic struggles it has faced during the pandemic. The report notes that “the external construction of a light water reactor seems to be complete” and “installation of machinery is likely to be in progress.” However, the 5 MW reactor at Yongbyon has shown no signs of operating since 2018. The report also describes how rampant smuggling and other illicit activities allow North Korea to skirt the U.N. economic embargo. You can read Nikkei’s summary of the draft report here; the final report will be released in September 2021.

The United States and South Korea will hold military exercises on August 16-26 this year. Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, called these exercises an “invasion rehearsal” and warned that this will motivate North Korea to work faster to strengthen its preemptive strike capabilities. These developments don’t bode well for the Biden administration’s desire to resume nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea.

Russian Soldiers Conduct Exercises in a Simulated Radioactive Contaminated Warzone

Russian troops recently conducted an exercise simulating an enemy attack using weapons of mass destruction that resulted in radiological contamination. The exercise was based in the Pechenga Valley, near the Russia-Norway border. Troops practiced detecting, measuring, treating, and decontaminating personnel and military vehicles. Read more about this exercise, and watch a YouTube video of the exercise released by the Russian military, here.

WHO Seeking Experts for Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research

The WHO is seeking experts to serve as members of the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research (ACCVR). The ACCVR was established in 1999 to advise the WHO on the research needed to reach global consensus on the destruction of existing variola stocks and develop a research plan for priority work on the virus. The ACCVR meets annually to provide oversight of this research agenda. The WHO is seeking experts to fill gaps in knowledge about new biotechnologies and public health preparedness measures that would apply to a potential re-emergence of smallpox. You can read more about the committee here.

UN: Work Still Remains on Destruction of Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Last week, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs updated ambassadors on the latest developments under Resolution 2118, which calls for Syria to cooperate with the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program. Resolution 2118 was adopted in 2013, and 8 years later, “there is still work to be done” before the resolution can be considered fully implemented. The briefing included discussions on re-establishing the norm against chemical weapons, the postponement of an OPCW Declaration Assessment Team visit to Syria, the incomplete nature of Syria’s chemical weapons declaration, and the June 8 attack on a Syrian military installation that housed a declared former chemical weapons production facility. You can read more about these issues here.

Medicine Manufacturing Limits Puts U.S. Health Security at Risk

A new study from the Center for Analytics and Business Insights has found that in the United States, no manufacturing source exists for more than 80% of the active ingredients in medicines that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deems essential for public health (such as antibiotics, antivirals, blood pressure pills, and steroids). The U.S. is incredibly reliant on foreign production of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs); the pandemic has highlighted this reliance on long, complex supply chains. The majority of large-scale API manufacturing sites are in India and China (less than 5% of sites are in the U.S.). The graphic below summarizes the dearth of U.S. sources for several key medicines, and you can read more on this study here.

Veterinary Intelligence: Integrating Zoonotic Threats into Global Health Security

A new article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine argues that a One Health approach to zoonotic disease threats is an integral element of the global health security architecture. Recent experiences with COVID-19, Ebola, and other emerging infectious diseases highlights the “systematic disregard of zoonotic disease within what still remains a predominantly human-centric public health approach.” The authors argue that medical and veterinarian communities should be “synergistic collaborators” in outbreak response; veterinary intelligence is a critical but neglected component of health security intelligence. The goal end state is a “systematized health security intelligence framework [that] opens up horizons for a more holistic disease preparedness system, able to detect and respond to an array of infectious disease threats…whether they emerge in animals or humans.” You can read more here.

Webinar: Reviewing the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise, August 13

An ad hoc committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is conducting a study to evaluate existing Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasure Enterprise (PHEMCE) policy and practices and make recommendations for a re-envisioned PHEMCE, particularly after COVID-19. This review will provide high-level strategic guidance to the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) on emerging issues, research, and activities relevant to the PHEMCE programs, goal, and activities. The committee will review key materials from ASPR and provide recommendations on business practices, medical countermeasure preparedness, and conduct an enterprise-wide review of programs, priorities, and harmonization across agencies.

The first event was held on August 6, but on August 13, from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m., the committee will have an opportunity to engage in discussions with ASPR regarding key public documents, as well as hear from different former members of the Enterprise Senior Council, the body that provides strategic direction and policy oversight for HHS in Medical Countermeasure preparedness activities, and other key PHEMCE partners and stakeholders. Register for the August 13 session here.

Webinar: Red Teaming the Post-COVID-19 Biological Weapon Threat, August 26

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented global disruption, including loss of life, economic crises, and political disagreements. Beyond these short- and medium-term challenges, the pandemic may have shifted the strategic dynamics surrounding biological weapons (BW). Will some leaders be more likely to put their countries on the path to pursuing biological weapons? Will the pandemic make other countries even less interested in having anything to do with biological weapons? To examine these questions, the National Defense University Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction is hosting a webinar on August 26. Speakers include Gary Ackerman and Ted Plasse. They will describe a project that utilized Asynchronous Strategic Dynamics Red Teaming (ASDyRT) to investigate the extent to which COVID-19 might impact the strategic decision making of 30 states that currently do not possess an offensive BW program, to examine the decision elements that might precipitate changes in current strategic BW decisions by state leaders, and to explore the operational characteristics of any new programs. Results and the implications for BW monitoring, defense, and nonproliferation will be discussed. You can register for the webinar here.

Virtual 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.

Virtual Conference: Preparing and Responding to New Post-Pandemic Challenges, September 23-October 14

The Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network (BSL4ZNet) invites you to attend the 2021 BSL4ZNet International Conference, taking place virtually from September 23 to October 14. The conference will convene international scientific experts from government, academia, and industry under the overarching theme of Preparing and Responding to New Post-Pandemic Challenges. The conference aims to enhance knowledge and expertise, disseminate findings from ongoing research, and promote collaboration and cooperation with participants from around the world. The conference will consist of presentations and panel discussions in four sessions:

  • September 23: Emerging and Re-emerging Pathogens
  • September 30: BSL3 and BSL4 Biosafety and Biosecurity: International Perspectives
  • October 7: One Health Perspectives
  • October 14: Zoonotic Outbreaks and Pandemics: Science Policy and Science Diplomacy

Registration opens August 16. Get more information here

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