Pandora Report: 08.20.2021

In this week’s Pandora Report, we examine the debate over COVID-19 booster shots and global vaccine equity, and we bring you more updates on the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Feeling the pandemic fatigue? Then check out the stories on KGB AIDS disinformation, the new National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin, the Alexey Navalny poisoning, and radioactive Japanese snakes.

COVID-19 Booster Shots and Global Vaccine Equity

U.S. health officials just announced that an additional “booster” shot for COVID-19 mRNA vaccines will be available starting September 20, pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Anyone 18 and older who received a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine will be eligible for a booster dose 8 months after their second dose. People who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine will also likely need a booster shot to prolong the vaccine’s effectiveness and reduce severity of COVID-19 symptoms, but more research is needed before any recommendations are made. These boosters are necessary because the latest data seems to show that COVID-19 vaccines become less effective over time—check out three new studies in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC. However, Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, argues that the data doesn’t necessarily support the conclusion that boosters for the entire U.S. population should be implemented quickly; instead, she argues that “it’s possible the changes in vaccine efficacy may have to do with the changes in behaviors of people.” For example, infection rates began increasing over the summer among vaccinated Americans as mask mandates and other restrictions were lifted and people began resuming their normal routines. Dr. Murray argues that a better strategy is to get as many people fully vaccinated (without boosters) as possible to reduce the virus’s ability to mutate as it spreads quickly through large numbers of unvaccinated people.

While countries like Israel and the U.S. make additional doses of the vaccine available to their populations, others are questioning the morality of this move. Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization emergencies chief, likened the situation to “planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while…leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket.” Poorer nations will be unprepared for new and potentially deadlier variants of SARS-CoV-2. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky pushed back, saying that the U.S. has the capacity to help other nations while providing boosters to its own citizens. Walensky says the U.S. anticipates giving 100 million booster shots by the end of next year while distributing 200 million vaccine doses worldwide.

Google Developing Vaccine Access Tools

Google is developing a series of new tools to support COVID-19 vaccine access and distribution. For example, the COVID-19 Vaccination Access Dataset “quantifies access to vaccination sites, taking into account travel time via different modes of transportation” using the Google Maps Platform Directions API. This data can help identify areas with insufficient access to vaccines and deploy interventions. This dataset is the source for Ariadne Labs & Boston Children’s Hospital’s new Vaccine Equity Planner dashboard, which “integrates and visualizes the data with other data from relevant COVID-19 sources.” This tool can help identify vaccine deserts, where people have little to no convenient access to vaccines. Google also plans to introduce a COVID-19 Vaccination Search Insights tool to help explore the needs and trends of local communities.

COVID-19: Data Dereliction and the Summer Surge

Booster shots were the big COVID-19 story of the week, but a few other important stories made this news this week as well. Hospitals in the U.S. are in “crisis mode” amidst a summer surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Last week, all but four states experienced double-digit growth in COVID-19 hospitalizations. And eight states saw more than 400 new inpatients in a single week. The CDC is under fire for its slow pace collecting and sharing information, particularly on the delta variant: while data from May and June indicated that the delta variant would likely slow progress against COVID-19, the CDC’s failure to use and share real-time data led the Biden administration to paint an “overly rosy assessment of vaccine effectiveness.” A 6-month Politico investigation gets into the data details, finding delays in reporting COVID test results, arcane computer programs that impeded data collection, and severely understaffed contact tracing programs. To attempt to fill these data gaps, the CDC is developing the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics to focus on real-time information sharing to trigger governmental, private sector, and public actions in anticipation of domestic and global health threats.

Several recent articles shine a light on second-order effects of the pandemic. For example, a Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 1 in 7 residents of the D.C. area moved during the pandemic, either temporarily or permanently. Just under half said they moved because of COVID-19 or reasons related to the pandemic. Another 23% of residents said they have seriously considered moving because of the pandemic (and the ability to work remotely). Similarly, U.S. Census Bureau data shows a migration out of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas into smaller regions during the pandemic. Nearly a third of workers under 40 considered changing careers during the pandemic. Reportedly, “the pandemic altered how they think about what is important in life and their careers.” And a new article from PLOS One conducts a systematic review of mental health among healthcare workers and other vulnerable groups during the pandemic, finding that there is currently a research gap on mental health interventions and impacts during COVID-19.

Updates on the Origins of SARS-CoV-2

Continuing to wade through the murky waters of SARS-CoV-2’s origins, the World Health Organization put out a statement on August 12 on advancing the next series of studies to find the virus’s origins. The WHO statement calls for countries to work together without pointing fingers or using the investigation to settle political scores. (For more on origin obfuscation with a political motive, check out this article from Nicholas Wade.) They anticipate that the upcoming studies would “include a further examination of the raw data from the earliest cases and sera from potential early cases in 2019.” The WHO also stood up the International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) to advise the WHO on the development of a global framework to systematically study future emerging pathogens with pandemic potential.

A new study by Chinese researchers examines gaps and weaknesses in biosafety in provincial CDC laboratories. Specifically, researchers randomly selected 208 laboratory staff from 7 provincial CDCs to complete a self-administered survey to test biosafety awareness. While several characteristics (such as years of laboratory experience and laboratory funding) influenced respondents’ scores, overall “the biosafety knowledge, education, and training of CDC laboratory staff involved in pathogen detection need to improve by paying attention to the content and coverage of biosafety training, exploring new training modalities, and increasing funding for activities related to biosafety in CDC.” You can read the article pre-print here.

This research highlights potential lab safety gaps that could have contributed to a laboratory leak of SARS-CoV-2—though this article does not provide any direct evidence for the lab leak theory. However, Dr. Gregory Koblentz and Dr. Filippa Lentzos recently argued that “whether COVID came from a leak or not, it’s time to talk about lab safety.” Even if a lab leak isn’t determined to be the cause of our current pandemic, global lab safety gaps must be addressed to ensure inadequate biosafety isn’t the cause of a future pandemic.

Taking Stock of the Strategic National Stockpile

Although SARS-CoV-2 was a novel virus and the world had no immunity against it, we were not entirely unprepared for a pandemic, even from an emerging infectious disease. For decades, the U.S. has conducted exercises, invested in research and development for relevant technologies, and stockpiled medical supplies to prepare for a pandemic. However, a new article from the Institute for National Strategic Studies argues that the U.S.’s approach to preparing for a pandemic is outdated, from its biotechnology tools and platforms to its approach to the medical supply system. The authors examine the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) as an example of this antiquated approach. The SNS was created in 1998 as a surge capacity to provide a “stop-gap, short-term back up to individual states’ stockpiles” and house specialized medicines to protect against biological and chemical attacks (countermeasures that pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t produce otherwise). The authors argue that the U.S. needs a “modernized biotechnology construct for the SNS…that features agility and flexibility, that could meet a broader range of threats…and [that] takes advantage of the biotechnology revolution.” You can read the article here.

Planning for Pandemic Prevention

Although COVID has been called a “once in a generation” pandemic, many claim that pandemics caused by emerging infectious diseases will become all too common as globalization, international travel, and climate change create new conditions that allow these diseases to find a human host and rapidly spread. Though there is widespread consensus on the importance of preparing for future pandemics, the proposed approaches vary. Rear Admiral Kenneth Bernard (USPHS, Ret.) has argued that “battling a pandemic is a special kind of war” and should be treated (and defeated) as such.  This means developing a national command, control, and operational structure and capabilities to deal with biothreats (natural, accidental, or intentional), applying a military blueprint to a civilian command structure. Bernard praises Biden’s appointment of a Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council but believes this approach needs to be taken further.

A public health oriented approach is the more traditional method for pandemic preparedness. Along these lines, a new report from Harvard’s Scientific Task Force argues that research and investment should be focused on stopping the spillover of animal pathogens to humans—preventing human pandemics at the animal source. An estimated 50% of emerging infectious diseases over the past 50 years originated in wildlife (including HIV, H1N1, SARS, and Zika). Additionally, the rate at which new diseases have emerged is increasing, mainly driven by deforestation, wild animal trade, and industrial animal farms. Yet the world currently spends less than $4 billion per year addressing these drivers of spillover. Investments in conservation, biosecurity, and intergovernmental partnerships around spillover risk could help stop the spread of a virus before it reaches pandemic proportions.

Was the 1889-1891 “Russian Flu” Actually an Early Coronavirus Pandemic?

A recent study in Microbial Biotechnology uses contemporary medical reports from Britain and Germany on patients suffering from a pandemic infection in 1889-1891 to assess whether this pandemic—historically attributed to influenza—was actually an early coronavirus pandemic. The patients experienced many symptoms characteristic of coronavirus infection, including “multisystem affections comprising respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms including loss of taste and smell perception; a protracted recovery resembling long covid and pathology observations of thrombosis in multiple organs, inflammation and rheumatic affections.” Additionally, mortality rates were high among elderly patients while children experienced much less severe infections—a pattern common to COVID infections but not to influenza. Finally, “contemporary reports noted trans-species infection between pet animals or horses and humans, which would concur with a cross-infection by a broad host range bovine coronavirus dated by molecular clock arguments to an about 1890 cross-species infection event.” You can read the article here.

New National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) Bulletin

The Department of Homeland Security released an updated NTAS Bulletin on August 13 regarding the “current heightened threat environment” in the U.S. The bulletin outlines threats from “domestic terrorists, individuals and groups engaged in grievance-based violence, and those inspired or motivated by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences.” Several upcoming dates could be exploited by extremist actors for their symbolism, including the anniversary of the September 11th attacks and several religious holidays. The bulletin also emphasizes that extremist actors are “increasingly exploiting online forums to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and promote violent activity.” Additionally, these threats have been exacerbated by conditions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, including “grievances over public health safety measures and perceived government restrictions.” You can read the bulletin here.

Operation Denver and the KGB’s AIDS Disinformation Campaign

A new article from Douglas Selvage in the Journal of Cold War Studies shows “how the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi) came to play a key role in the disinformation campaign launched by the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) in 1983 regarding the origins of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).” From the abstract: “The KGB launched the campaign itself, but in the mid-1980s it sought to widen the effort by enlisting the cooperation of intelligence services in other Warsaw Pact countries, especially the Stasi. From the autumn of 1986 until November 1989, the Stasi played a central role in the disinformation campaign. Despite pressure from the U.S. government and a general inclination of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to curtail the campaign by the end of 1987, both the KGB and the USSR’s official Novosti press agency continued until 1989 to spread false allegations that HIV was a U.S. biological weapon. Even after the KGB curtailed its disinformation in 1989, the Stasi continued to disseminate falsehoods, not least because it had successfully maintained plausible deniability regarding its role in the campaign. The Stasi worked behind the scenes to support the work of Soviet–East German scientists Jakob Segal and Lilli Segal and to facilitate dissemination of the Segals’ views in West Germany and Great Britain, especially through the leftwing media, and to purvey broader disinformation about HIV/AIDS by attacking U.S. biological and chemical weapons in general.”

The article takes a deep dive into one example of disinformation in the form of allegations of biological weapons development, but history certainly has other examples, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. This article is the second part of a series. You can read part I here and part II here.

Biological Threat Advisory Board for Heat Biologics Welcomes New Board Members

Heat Biologics, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on developing first-in-class therapies to modulate the immune system, has announced two new additions to its newly formed Biothreat Advisory Board: Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and Andrew C. Weber, Former Assistance Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Defense Programs. They join David Lasseter, Former Deputy Assistance Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Former Representative Jack Kingston on the board. You can read more about the board and its members here.

European Union Statement on the Anniversary of Navalny’s Poisoning

The European Union Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy released a statement in advance of the one year anniversary of Alexey Navalny’s poisoning with a military chemical nerve agent. Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, was poisoned with Novichok, which was “developed by the Soviet Union and presumably accessible only to Russian state authorities.” The statement calls for the Russian Federation to “investigate this assassination attempt in full transparency and without further delay, and to fully cooperate with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to ensure an impartial international investigation.”

Scientist Really Thought Job Would Be Less Grant Writing and More Glow-in-the-Dark Lizard Making

A lighthearted take for your Friday from The Onion: “As she settled in Friday for another long night of onerous paperwork, local scientist Dr. Rudha Zarah told reporters that when she accepted her research position, she had envisioned herself spending a lot less time on grant writing and a lot more time on glow-in-the-dark lizard making. ‘I realize every academic job involves some administrative work, but come on—I’ve been here eight months now, and I haven’t created a single lizard with bright neon pink, blue, or purple skin,’ said the 34-year-old postdoctoral fellow, lamenting the fact that the state-of-the-art genetics laboratory she worked in had ‘a perfectly good CRISPR machine collecting dust’ while she filled out page after page of funding requests that had nothing to do with glow-in-the-dark lizards. ‘Look at all these forms! This is ridiculous. I didn’t get a PhD in bioengineering just to sit behind a desk all day. I got it to pursue my dreams of tinkering with DNA until I gave life to a phosphorescent iguana with a few extra legs and eyebrows and maybe even wings. Unfortunately, it could be a decade or more before I make tenure and am able to spend my time dunking reptiles in uranium until they start to pulsate in otherworldly colors.’ At press time, Zarah confirmed she had been pleasantly surprised to learn Stanford’s institutional review board had signed off on her proposal to genetically engineer a 16-eyed, hyperintelligent human-koala hybrid.”

Radioactive Snakes May Monitor Fukushima Fallout

The article above may be satirical, but the fictional Dr. Zarah would love to work on a project recently reported in Ichthyology and Herpetology. Fukushima’s native rat snakes seem able to act as living monitors of radiation levels in the region where, a decade ago, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant experienced a catastrophic meltdown. There is a high correlation between levels of radiocesium (a radioactive isotope of cesium) in the snakes and environmental radiation levels. The rat snakes have relatively small home ranges and don’t travel far outside their neighborhood; they are also susceptible to accumulating radionuclides. These features make them excellent bioindicators—animals whose health provides insight into environmental health. You can read more about this work here.

Webinar: The New IPCC Climate Report, August 25

Global warming due to human use of fossil fuel is now undeniable, as affirmed in the latest Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Virginians are not exempt from the ongoing changes – there will be a new normal, and we all need to prepare for it. Knowing where, when, and by how much our accustomed climate will change is critically important to plan for the coming decades. An upcoming seminar will explain why and how climate is changing, the impacts on our Commonwealth and the world, and possible responses. People alive today may include the last generation that can take action to avoid the most dire consequences – it’s time to learn more about the climate crisis and what we can do about it. You can register for the webinar, being held August 25 at 1pm, 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

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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