Pandora Report: 9.17.2021

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD ’21, was just named to the inaugural class of Editorial Fellows at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists! The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred calls to “revamp” the Biological Weapons Convention. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, will be speaking on the “Science policy perspectives in the future of biodefense and biosecurity” panel of the 2021 BSL4ZNet International Conference on 14 October.

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim: Inaugural Editorial Fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD ’21, was just named to the inaugural class of Editorial Fellows at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where he will be writing a regular column on disruptive technology. He is a fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, focusing on biosecurity, biodefense strategy, and emerging and converging technologies. Dr. Lim is one of seven fellows who will “publish articles regularly on nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies—key areas in the Bulletin’s mission to inform the public, policymakers, and scientists about man-made threats to human existence.”

HDIAC Webinar: Critical Infrastructure Protection: Assessing the Risk in the Post Pandemic

The Homeland Defense and Security Information Analysis Center (HDIAC) hosted a webinar, “Critical Infrastructure Protection: Assessing the Risk in the Post Pandemic,” earlier this week. The pandemic has posed new challenges for critical infrastructure protection (CIP), including identifying decision-makers and executing organizations’ responses to incidents. Additionally, many institutions are facing emerging threats and hazards as they return to regular operations. This session reviewed emerging and traditional risks and discuss the steps needed to safely manage the overall change in risk paradigm. Further topics include the changes in asset management, risk trends, and tools to support the new normal of CIP risk resilience. The webinar’s slides are available here, and the recording is available here.

New Book: Emerging Threats of Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology

Synthetic biology is a field of biotechnology that is rapidly growing in various applications, such as in medicine, environmental sustainability, and energy production. However, these technologies also have unforeseen risks and applications to humans and the environment. Emerging Threats of Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology is an open access book that presents discussions on risks and mitigation strategies for these technologies including biosecurity, or the potential of synthetic biology technologies and processes to be deliberately misused for nefarious purposes. The book presents strategies to prevent, mitigate, and recover from ‘dual-use concern’ biosecurity challenges that may be raised by individuals, rogue states, or non-state actors. Several key topics are explored including opportunities to develop more coherent and scalable approaches to govern biosecurity from a laboratory perspective up to the international scale and strategies to prevent potential health and environmental hazards posed by deliberate misuse of synthetic biology without stifling innovation. The book brings together the expertise of top scholars in synthetic biology and biotechnology risk assessment, management, and communication to discuss potential biosecurity governing strategies and offer perspectives for collaboration in oversight and future regulatory guidance. Download a copy here.

COVID Heats Up Debate Over Biological Weapons Convention

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred calls to “revamp” the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Negotiations for the BWC concluded 50 years ago, but experts are currently “grappling with how to make the convention fit for the future – a need that COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief.” There is an institutional deficit between the BWC and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), treaties both aimed at banning their respective category of weapons; however, the CWC is “much stronger.” The BWC critically lacks a “strong implementation support unit, clear investigative powers, and frequent reviews of the convention and scientific developments.” Another major issue with the BWC is the lack of transparency, evidenced by the fact that less than half of its member states submit confidence building measures. Though the BWC grants investigatory powers, the details are “blurry,” especially regarding how an investigation should be conducted. Additionally, the BWC’s review conference is held every five years, making it difficult to keep up with the pace of scientific developments. The threat of terrorism is likely growing as technology and access to it grow.

Rise of AMR During COVID-19

A physician treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients is seeing how resistant secondary infections are complicating care and the pandemic response. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the characteristic in which microorganisms – viruses, bacteria, and fungi – change over time and exposure in ways that that render antimicrobial medicines futile against them. Globally, about 700,000 people die from these types of infections annually. According to Dr. John B. Lynch, an infectious diseases doctor at Harborview Medical Center and professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, “the simultaneous COVID-19 and antibiotic-resistant bacteria pandemics weaken our ability to prepare for and respond to the next public health threat.” A recent study examined 148 hospitals across 17 states from March through September 2020 and found increases across several types of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). Additionally, there were 24% more cases of hospital-acquired multidrug-resistant infections than expected without SARS-CoV-2, including a 30% increase in hospital-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections. These infections are especially difficult to treat and require an “arsenal of safe and effective antibiotics.” Unfortunately, this arsenal is currently lacking. The antibiotic pipeline is waning as many large drug companies have moved away from R&D into antibiotics, which are not a good financial return on investment. The overuse and misuse of antimicrobials is contributing to growing resistance. Lynch strongly recommends that the US “prioritize its response to antibiotic resistance to ensure we are better prepared for future threats.” The bipartisan Pioneering Antibiotic Subscriptions to End Upsurging Resistance (PASTEUR) Act, Lynch asserts, is a “strong step forward.” The PASTEUR Act “would fundamentally change the way the federal government pays for the most critically needed new antibiotics — a shift from paying for volume to paying for value.”

A Strategy to Assess Spillover Risk of Bat SARS-Related Coronaviruses in Southeast Asia

Emerging diseases caused by coronaviruses of likely bat origin (e.g., SARS, MERS, SADS and COVID-19) have disrupted global health and economies for two decades. Evidence suggests that some bat SARS-related coronaviruses (SARSr-CoVs) could infect people directly, and that their spillover is more frequent than previously recognized. Each zoonotic spillover of a novel virus represents an opportunity for evolutionary adaptation and further spread; therefore, quantifying the extent of this “hidden” spillover may help target prevention programs. The authors derived biologically realistic range distributions for known bat SARSr-CoV hosts and quantify their overlap with human populations. This research then used probabilistic risk assessment and data on human-bat contact, human SARSr-CoV seroprevalence, and antibody duration to estimate that ∼400,000 people (median: ∼50,000) are infected with SARSr-CoVs annually in South and Southeast Asia. These data on the geography and scale of spillover can be used to target surveillance and prevention programs for potential future bat-CoV emergence. Read the article here.

1 in Every 500 US Residents have Died of COVID-19

As of 14 September, 663,913 people in the US have died of COVID-19. This toll equates to 1 in 500 Americans having died from the novel coronavirus. The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was granted approval by the Food and Drug Administration on 23 August, and two other vaccines – one from Moderna and another from Jansen – are available to the public under emergency use authorizations. Despite these shot options, little more than half of the population is fully vaccinated. Though vaccinations are the “best source of protection against the virus,” the rate of vaccination is slowing. With Pfizer approved, mandates are underway that require certain workers to get the COVID-19 shot, but many are against these measures. For example, in August, New York issued an order that required all health care workers be vaccinated against the virus by 27 September, but several Catholic and Baptist medical professionals filed a federal complaint in hopes of preventing enforcement of the mandate for religious reasons.

A Science in the Shadows

The Washington Post investigated the US support for gain-of-function experiments with potentially dangerous pathogens and the secrecy around it. Gain-of-function experiments are used to enhance certain aspects of a pathogen, often conducted using a combination of gene editing and serial passage of the pathogen between animal hosts. The controversy surrounding this realm of research stems from the concern that this work could cause a terrible outbreak. This concern has been a major topic of discussion as the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic remains a mystery. There are suspicions that SARS-CoV-2 was an escaped virus from a high-containment laboratory in Wuhan, China. This theory has shone a light on gain-of-function research, and its risks and benefits. View the interactive here.

The Grave Risk of Lab-Created Potentially Pandemic Pathogens

In 2012, the research work of Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka “renewed the debate over whether potential pandemic virus research is too dangerous to conduct.” These researchers published “studies on making avian influenza contagious through the air among mammals.” At the time of publication, highly pathogenic avian influenza, or H5N1, was already known to transmit human-to-human, if only rarely. This debate on developing pathogenic threats for research purposes led the US government to implement a moratorium on funding gain-of-function research. Dr. Lynn Klotz, PhD, a Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, shares his “grave concern that the probability of a pandemic caused by a lab incident or accident is much too high.” Klotz’s calculation demonstrated the “high likelihood of release into the community from at least one of the 14 facilities that now create airborne-transmissible potential pandemic viruses and made estimates of the probability that a release will seed a pandemic with potentially millions of fatalities.” These 14 facilities conduct research with avian and human pandemic influenza viruses. This calculation supports his “grave concern that the probability of a pandemic caused by a lab incident or accident is much too high.” Klotz estimates that the chance of a release from a laboratory for an estimated five years of research producing and studying mammalian airborne transmissible H5N1 avian influenza and human flu viruses is 15.8%. Human error can cause accidents that result in the release of a dangerous pathogen into the surrounding community. Given the risks, Klotz recommends a strong level of precaution, specifically a moratorium on this mammalian airborne transmissible avian influenza research.

On the China COVID Investigation, Take the Virus-Hunter Approach

The high-profile publication of the US intelligence community’s investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how little progress has been made on that front. The report reiterated two leading theories: the virus emerged in nature or the virus escaped from a laboratory. Much of the continued uncertainty is the result of the Chinese government obscuring the events around the early days of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and withholding important information to outside investigators. The World Health Organization (WHO) is initiating a second global investigation into the origins of COVID-19, which is to be led by more qualified investigators, but China continues to reject further inquiries. Pressure is mounting on the White House to “play hardball with China,” as in to compel cooperation via new penalties like sanctions on China’s laboratories. Dr. Michael Callahan, an infectious disease doctor, is the former biosafety physician for the US Department of State’s BioIndustry Initiative in the former Soviet Union and Bio-Engagement Program in Asia. Dr. Callahan offers a more promising method than force, one based on a “little-known 30-year US government effort to root out bioweapons in dangerous parts of the world, and to secure dangerous pathogens in foreign laboratories.” After the fall of the Soviet Union, Congress supported the idea of a “special forces” for laboratory biosecurity, and the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program was created. Under CTR, US biosecurity experts – infectious disease doctors, veterinarians, and microbiologists – were deployed in a “dispersed, field-based approach.” These field scientists “built partnerships in each country not just with governments, but with vaccine companies, local physicians and public health officials.” The CTR model was based on building trust through collaboration and doctor-to-doctor contacts. Callahan emphasized that “biosafety is built on collaboration, positive incentives and strong scientific and public health alliances.” Focusing on collaboration instead of “hardball tactics” could better open a line of communication with China regarding the origins of COVID-19.

Poisons & Pestilence Podcast: Shoot that Poison Arrow

A new podcast, Poisons and Pestilence, is debuting with an episode that covers the pre-history of poison arrows. Poisons and Pestilence is produced by Dr. Brett Edwards, an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the University of Bath. Listen to the podcast here.

Frontiers of Computing in Health and Society Symposium

George Mason University is organizing a two-day virtual symposium as part of the kick-off of a new thematic initiative to enhance diverse multidisciplinary research in computing, society, and healthcare, aligned with GMU’s new School of Computing. The two-day virtual “Frontiers of Computing in Health and Society” symposium will feature keynote talks, moderated panels, and lightning talk sessions organized around the broad themes of “AI, Social Justice, and Public Policy” (September 20) and “Computational Systems Biomedicine” (September 21). The conference is open to students, faculty, and the general public. The symposium will also be putting together “lightning talk” sessions on each of the two themes. Participants are encouraged to submit a short abstract on the registration page describing their research area for consideration for inclusion in one of these sessions. More information can be found here. Register here.  

Towards a Post-Pandemic World: Lessons from COVID-19 for Now and the Future

This public workshop is the second of a two-part series about what we’ve learned from a year and a half of living through a pandemic. Presentations will broadly examine responses to COVID-19 in the US and abroad and will host discussions on the long-term impacts of the pandemic on human health and society. The workshop will also examine the role of social sciences in pandemic response, including efforts to reinforce social capital through community engagement and partnerships, and the implications on improving health equity. Each session will highlight successes, missed opportunities, and emerging data in order to extract key understandings that leaders in government, public health systems, the private sector, and communities can incorporate into their ongoing pandemic responses right now – with a view towards enhancing resilience and preparedness for the future. The workshop will be held 21 – 24 September from 10:00 AM – 2:30 PM ET.

Each day of the workshop will take on a different genre of critical understandings from the pandemic to date:

  • September 21 (Day 1): Anticipated Long-Term Effects of COVID-19 – Impacts on Health Equity
  • September 22 (Day 2): Addressing Uncertainties during a Pandemic – Establishing Trust and Engagement, Managing Misinformation
  • September 23 (Day 3): Systematizing Recovery Efforts to Mitigate the Next Pandemic
  • September 24 (Day 4): Potentials for a Post-COVID World – Scenario Planning Exercise

Register here.

2021 BSL4ZNet International Conference

The Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network (BSL4ZNet) invites you to attend the 2021 BSL4ZNet International Conference, a four-day, online event that will be held virtually on 23 and 29 September as well as 7 and 14 October. The conference will convene under the overarching theme of Preparing and Responding to New Post-Pandemic Challenges. The conference aims to enhance knowledge and best practices, and promote collaboration and cooperation with participants from around the world.

The 2021 BSL4ZNet International Conference will be organized into four thematic sessions focused on the post-pandemic era and driving science forward.

  1. Emerging and re-emerging pathogens, on September 23, 2021
  2. BSL3 and BSL4 biosafety and biosecurity: international perspectives, on September 29, 2021
  3. One Health perspectives, on October 7, 2021
  4. Zoonotic outbreaks and pandemics: science policy and science diplomacy perspectives, on October 14, 2021 

The diverse line-up of international keynote speakers and panelists include scientific experts and leading science professionals from government, academia, industry, and non-profit organizations, working in the areas of research, emerging and re-emerging bio-threats laboratory management, biosafety and biosecurity, science diplomacy and policy. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, will be speaking on the “Science policy perspectives in the future of biodefense and biosecurity” panel on 14 October. Expect to hear and engage in discussions on how to leverage the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, and other zoonotic outbreaks, through reflections and lessons learned to navigate a post-pandemic era.

Register here.

Preparing for the Next Pandemic: A Preview of Bipartisan Congressional Action

On 22 September at 1 PM ET, join the Capitol Hill Steering Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Health Security webinar: Preparing for the Next Pandemic: A Preview of Bipartisan Congressional Action.

Congressional leaders on the Senate HELP Committee and House Energy & Commerce Committee have long supported bipartisan legislation to improve and sustain domestic pandemic preparedness. This session will feature senior health policy staff representing Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Chair and Ranking Member of the Committee, and Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Kathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Chair and Ranking Member of the House E&C Committee.

The Health Policy Directors will discuss their plans and policy priorities for working together on bipartisan legislation to improve the nation’s public health and medical preparedness and response, by implementing lessons learned from COVID-19.

Register here.

US Chemical Weapons Stockpile Elimination: Progress Update

As part of its treaty obligations to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the United States must finish destroying all of its declared chemical weapons stockpiles by September 2023. With two years remaining before the stockpile elimination deadline, the CWC Coalition seeks to discuss what has been accomplished, what still lies ahead, and the importance of meeting the 2023 deadline. Since becoming a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, the United States has worked steadily to destroy its declared chemical weapons stockpiles. As of May 2021, the United States has destroyed 96.52% of its Category 1 chemical weapons stockpile and all of its Category 2 and Category 3 chemical weapons. The United States is the last of eight declared stockpile possessor states to complete its safe and permanent demilitarization of chemical weapons. Catch up with progress updates on 23 September at 10 AM EST.  

Speakers include Dr. Brandi Vann, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense; Irene Kornelly, Chair of the Colorado Citizens’ Advisory Commission; and the moderator, Paul Walker, Coordinator, CWC Coalition. Register here.

Upcoming Meeting of the National Biodefense Science Board

The National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB or the Board) is authorized under Section 319M of the Public Health Service (PHS) Act, as added by Section 402 of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2006 and amended by Section 404 of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act. The Board is governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which sets forth standards for the formation and use of advisory committees. The NBSB provides expert advice and guidance on scientific, technical, and other matters of special interest to the Department regarding current and future chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological agents, whether naturally occurring, accidental, or deliberate.

The NBSB will meet in public (virtually) on September 28, 2021, to discuss high priority issues related to national public health emergency preparedness and response. A more detailed agenda will be available on the NBSB meeting website.

Africa CDC Inaugural One Health Conference

The Africa CDC, a specialized technical agency of the African Union (AU), is working to strengthen Africa’s public health institutions to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks on the continent. Africa CDC recognizes that a One Health approach is critical to this mission and for the accelerated implementation of the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) and to achieve the AU Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want.

Increasing globalization, urban density, ease of travel, animal movement, environmental changes and habitat overlap between humans and animals, all provide opportunities for the emergence and spread of diseases that adversely impact both human and animal health, prosperity, and food security. COVID-19 and Ebola virus disease are two recent examples of how these various factors have directly impacted Africa. To combat these current outbreaks and get ahead of the next, a One Health approach must be taken.

One Health is a collaborative, multisectoral and transdisciplinary approach used to attain optimal health outcomes for people, animals, plants, and their shared environment. Practically, One Health involves the collaboration between human, animal, and environmental health sectors as well as other relevant stakeholders, in the design and implementation of programs, policies, legislation, and research intended to achieve better health outcomes for all.

To celebrate and share the various One Health work taking place on the continent, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) is hosting a 3-day virtual One Health Conference from 1-3 November 2021. Presenters will include representatives from Africa Union Member States, RECs, Africa Union technical agencies, Africa CDC RCCs, research institutions and technical partners.

Register here.

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