Pandora Report: 10.29.2021

Laboratory testing at the CDC has identified the bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei in an aromatherapy spray — the same type of bacteria that sickened four people in the United States earlier this year. The authors of a new article in Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease hypothesized that agents pre-occupied with espionage and counterterrorism may, at their peril, fail to correctly prioritize travel medicine. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that false or misleading health-related information can dangerously undermine the response to a public health crisis.

No Time to Die: An In-Depth Analysis of James Bond’s Exposure to Infectious Agents

Global travelers, whether tourists or secret agents, are exposed to a smorgasbord of infectious agents. The authors of a new article in Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease hypothesized that agents pre-occupied with espionage and counterterrorism may, at their peril, fail to correctly prioritize travel medicine. To examine our hypothesis, the authors examined adherence to international travel advice during the 86 international journeys that James Bond was observed to undertake in feature films spanning 1962–2021. Scrutinizing these missions involved ∼3113 minutes of evening hours per author that could easily have been spent on more pressing societal issues. They uncovered above-average sexual activity, often without sufficient time for an exchange of sexual history, with a remarkably high mortality among Bond’s sexual partners. Given how inopportune a bout of diarrhea would be in the midst of world-saving action, it is striking that Bond is seen washing his hands on only two occasions, despite numerous exposures to foodborne pathogens. They hypothesize that his foolhardy courage, sometimes purposefully eliciting life-threatening situations, might even be a consequence of Toxoplasmosis. Bond’s approach to vector-borne diseases and neglected tropical diseases is erratic, sometimes following travel advice to the letter, but more often dwelling on the side of complete ignorance. Given the limited time Bond receives to prepare for missions, the authors urgently ask his employer MI6 to take its responsibility seriously. We only live once. Read the article here.

Twenty Years After the Patriot Act, What Is the Future of Biosecurity?

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, recent graduate of the Biodefense PhD Program, co-authored an article – “Twenty Years After the Patriot Act, What Is the Future of Biosecurity?” – in Issues in Science and Technology. The USA Patriot Act was signed into law exactly 20 years ago, on October 26, 2001. While the law was profoundly shaped by the back-to-back events of the September 11 attacks and the 2001 anthrax attacks, it was deeply rooted in in fears about bioterrorism that had been growing since the 1990s. This anniversary provides a moment to reflect upon the Patriot Act’s legacy, as well as to imagine and plan for different biosecurity futures. The overall intent of the USA Patriot Act was clear: to prevent terrorism by raising the “barrier to entry” for potential terrorists. On its twenty-year anniversary, it is time to reflect: How well did this legislation promote or hinder biosecurity over time? In its attempts to control insider bioterror attacks, however, the implementation of the Patriot Act has triggered a series of unintended negative consequences on the life sciences, greatly disrupting who participates in science, where science is done, and how it is conducted. It is time to seriously consider whether the nation should continue these biosecurity programs as they stand today. As a diverse team of biosafety and biosecurity practitioners, the authors intend their reflections on the Patriot Act as a call to action to consider, plan, and prepare to address ongoing and emergent risks from the life sciences and biotechnology. Read the article here.

CDC Identifies Rare Bacteria in Aromatherapy Product

Laboratory testing at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified the bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei in an aromatherapy spray — the same type of bacteria that sickened four people in the United States earlier this year. The spray, “Better Homes & Gardens Lavender & Chamomile Essential Oil Infused Aromatherapy Room Spray with Gemstones,” was found 6 October 2021 in the home of a Georgia resident who became ill with melioidosis in late July. Melioidosis is a rare but serious disease in the United States, and it causes a wide range of symptoms that can be confused with other common illnesses, like flu or a cold. CDC is continuing testing to see if the genetic fingerprint of the bacteria in the bottle matches those of the bacteria identified in the four patients – one each in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, and Minnesota. Two of the four patients died.

The contaminated spray was sold at about 55 Walmart stores and on Walmart’s website between February and October 21 of this year when Walmart pulled remaining bottles of this spray and related products from store shelves and its website. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Walmart are issuing a recall for the lavender and chamomile room spray and five other scents in the same product line. Investigation continues into whether other related scents and brands may pose a risk. For more information on this contaminated product, click here.

Analysis of the First Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge

The ability to identify the designer of engineered biological sequences — termed genetic engineering attribution (GEA) — would help ensure due credit for biotechnological innovation, while holding designers accountable to the communities they affect. In a new article, the authors present the results of the first Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge, a public data-science competition to advance GEA. Top-scoring teams dramatically outperformed previous models at identifying the true lab-of-origin of engineered sequences, including an increase in top-1 and top-10 accuracy of 10 percentage points. A simple ensemble of prizewinning models further increased performance. New metrics, designed to assess a model’s ability to confidently exclude candidate labs, also showed major improvements, especially for the ensemble. Most winning teams adopted CNN-based machine-learning approaches; however, one team achieved very high accuracy with an extremely fast neural-network-free approach. Future work, including future competitions, should further explore a wide diversity of approaches for bringing GEA technology into practical use. Read the full analysis here.

Emerging Technologies and Dual-Use Concerns: A Horizon Scan for Global Public Health

Advances in the life sciences and technology are making vital contributions to improving global health. New scientific insights that are subsequently translated into technology and refined, adapted and assimilated by innovative processes play a crucial role in advancing knowledge and addressing critical societal challenges. Yet, transformative developments in a wide range of fields can also pose risks to global health. It is therefore prudent to assess the potential adverse consequences of choosing particular technological pathways and potentially deleterious applications of technologies. Dual-use research of concern (DURC) is defined as life science research that is intended for benefit but which might be misapplied to do harm. A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) shares the results of an international horizon scanning exercise, organized by WHO to ensure foresight. The group of experts, from a range of disciplines, undertook a broad examination of scientific and technological developments that could give rise to concern over the next two decades and identified 15 priorities. This initiative includes development of a Global Guidance Framework to Harness the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences. Biodefense program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz serves on the WHO’s advisory board of independent, international experts that are contributing to the development of this framework. Read the report here.

WHO activities on the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences intend to increase awareness and provide tools to foster benefits and constrain risks stemming from dual use life sciences and technologies. Using its role as a leader in public health globally, WHO works with Member States and relevant stakeholders to harness responsible science and to establish mechanisms for adopting changes in practice that support safe, secure and responsible life sciences. WHO strives to remain abreast of the latest developments in relevant areas of research, science, and technology to proactively identify, anticipate, and prepare for issues that hold great potential for global health. Foresight is a set of tools and techniques that help Member States and stakeholders to better prepare for a changing world, to accelerate and fully harness the gains from emerging technologies and innovation while monitoring the risks and challenges that might arise from those technologies. This is for an informed decision-making and appropriate development of strategies and frameworks for oversight and governance. Watch the WHO videos on responsible use in the life sciences and foresight here and here.

Project Aimed at Improving Safety in Labs Dealing with Lethal Viruses Receives Major Funding Grant

A project aimed at improving biosafety and biosecurity practices in high-risk laboratories working on dangerous pathogens will be led by Dr. Filippa Lentzos, Co-Director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and Dr. Gregory Koblentz from George Mason University. The pair received funding to develop the Mapping Global Bio Labs project, an online tool that tracks the number of high biocontainment laboratories around the world. Also known as biosafety-level (BSL) 4 labs, these laboratories undertake hazardous research into lethal viruses to improve our understanding of diseases such as Ebola and Lassa Fever and to better prepare the world against new and emerging diseases. Research into pathogens is vital for public health, biomedical advances and disease prevention. However, these activities pose significant risks. Surges in the number of labs and an expansion in the high-risk research carried out within them have exacerbated safety and security risks. The debate on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on lab leaks and safety lapses in the course of scientific research. Whether or not the pandemic resulted from an accident, the key concern is it could have. The funding will create an improved, expanded, and much more detailed resource with which to monitor these high-risk labs worldwide. It is hoped the tool will enable international organizations such as the WHO to keep a closer eye on the activities undertaken in these labs and to ensure adequate biosafety and biosecurity measures are put in place.

TECHNOLOGY

Counterintelligence Head Narrows Focus to Five Technologies Critical to US Dominance

The top counterintelligence official of the US announced that he is “narrowing his team’s to safeguarding five key technologies, including semiconductors and biotechnology, seeing their protection from rivals as determining whether America remains the world’s leading superpower.” Michael Orlando is the acting director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC). The NCSC is “sharpening its priorities in order to conduct an effective outreach campaign to educate businesses and academia about the expansive efforts by China and Russia to collect cutting-edge research.” The NCSC also named Edward You, a career FBI agent and expert on biothreats, to a newly created position to focus on emerging and disruptive technologies. You said that a goal in his new role is to “raise awareness that China’s efforts to develop the world’s largest data set of genetic and other biological information pose a threat beyond individual privacy issues.”

Protecting Critical and Emerging US Technologies from Foreign Threats

Given the unique opportunities and challenges posed by emerging technologies, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) recently announced it is prioritizing its industry outreach efforts in a select few US technology sectors where the stakes are potentially greatest for US economic and national security. These sectors produce technologies that may determine whether America remains the world’s leading superpower or is eclipsed by strategic competitors in the next few years. These sectors include, but are not limited to: artificial intelligence, bioeconomy, autonomous systems, quantum, and semiconductors.

US leadership in emerging technology sectors faces growing challenges from strategic competitors who recognize the economic and military benefits of these technologies and have enacted comprehensive national strategies to achieve leadership in these areas. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) ranks as the primary strategic competitor to the United States because it has a well-resourced and comprehensive strategy to acquire and use technology to advance its national goals, including technology transfers and intelligence gathering through its Military-Civil Fusion Policy and a National Intelligence Law requiring all Chinese entities to share technology and information with the PRC military, intelligence, and security services. Russia views the development of advanced science and technology as a national security priority and is targeting US advances through the employment of a variety of licit and illicit technology transfer mechanisms to support national-level efforts, including its military and intelligence programs.

Basic steps that individuals can take to mitigate counterintelligence risks include: using multifactor authentication; reviewing social media settings to limit the amount of your information available to the public; and never leaving electronic devices unattended while abroad. Basic steps that organizations can take to mitigate counterintelligence risks include: carefully scrutinizing the security practices of suppliers, partners, and investors; strengthening cybersecurity and hygiene; and implementing insider threat programs.  

ALL THINGS COVID-19

The Impact of COVID-19 on Health and Care Workers: A Closer Look at Deaths

A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Workforce Department published a work paper that examines the impact of COVID-19 on health and care workers (HCWs), and estimates the global numbers of deaths due to COVID-19. Between January 2020 and May 2021, surveillance data reported to WHO showed 3.45 million deaths due to COVID-19. Of these only 6643 deaths were identified as being of HCWs, but this figure significantly under-reports the burden of mortality world-wide in this group. Based on the International Labour Organization’s estimated number of 135 million HCWs employed in human health and social activities and WHO’s surveillance data on all deaths reported to be due to COVID-19, mixed analytical approaches present a range between 80,000 to 180,000 deaths globally with a central population-based estimate of 115,500 deaths. In view of the mounting evidence that the number of deaths due to COVID-19 among HCWs is much greater than officially reported, the need for protection through vaccination cannot be overstated. In countries where vaccination rates of HCWs remain low, tailored communication strategies must be designed and actively pursued to increase uptake and avert vaccination hesitancy. Read the report here.

China-Linked Disinformation Campaign Blames COVID on Maine Lobsters

Marcel Schliebs is a disinformation researcher at the University of Oxford, and he tracked messaging spread on Twitter by Chinese diplomats and state media for 18 months. Schliebs discovered the emergence of a surprising (and unfounded) coronavirus origin theory: COVID-19 could have been imported to China via a batch of Maine lobsters from the US. Zha Liyou, the Chinese consul general in Kolkata, India, tweeted this claim, asserting that the lobsters were delivered to a seafood market in Wuhan, China, the city where SARS-CoV-2 first appeared. This Maine lobster theory is just the latest in a series of claims pushed by pro-China accounts since the pandemic hit. A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the UK stated that China was “opposed to the fabrication and spread of disinformation.” Further, “China is the biggest victim of disinformation, and the perpetrators are some politicians and media outlets eager for China-bashing in the US and a few other Western countries.”

COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation and Disinformation Costs an Estimated $50 to $300 Million Each Day

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that false or misleading health-related information can dangerously undermine the response to a public health crisis. These messages include the inadvertent spread of erroneous information (misinformation) or deliberately created and propagated false or misleading information (disinformation). Misinformation and disinformation have contributed to reduced trust in medical professionals and public health responders, increased belief in false medical cures, politicized public health countermeasures aimed at curbing transmission of the disease, and increased loss of life. As a country, we do not yet have a trusted set of approaches for managing misinformation and disinformation or exact methods for monetizing the costs resulting from their spread. The challenge to assigning an exact, high-confidence monetary cost to them is the lack of detailed data available on this issue. To begin to fill this gap, the Center for Health Security developed an initial conservative estimate of the total monetized costs of one facet of this issue—the misinformation or disinformation-informed decision to not get a COVID-19 vaccine. The total COVID-19 non-vaccination has caused at least $1 billion of harm each day in the United States since vaccines became widely available. Misinformation and disinformation have caused between $50 and $300 million worth of total harm every day since May 2021. A public health effort that reduced or effectively countered misinformation and disinformation and was able to reduce related non-vaccination by 10% would be worth between $5 and $30 million per day, or between $150 and $900 million per month, while the pandemic continues.

The World Was Woefully Unprepared for a Pandemic. Let’s Be Ready for the Next One.

Just three months before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) issued a working to the international community that a pandemic was on the horizon and the world was unprepared. Their expectation came to fruition with COVID-19. Now, 20 months into the pandemic that has killed nearly 5 million people and devastated the global economy, the world remains unprepared, both to end this pandemic quickly and prevent the next one. The pandemic has exposed a “broken world of haves and have-nots where access to vaccines, treatments and PPE depends on your ability to pay.” The lack of global equity in vaccine distribution is partially a result of the “fundamental misunderstanding of global solidarity as being founded on generosity, not justice. It is also caused by longstanding systemic inequities in the global health emergency and broader international system.” Despite its many challenges, the pandemic has offered an opportunity “to celebrate the life-saving and inspiring role that science can play in mitigating dangerous diseases.” In its new report, the GPMD calls for “stronger political leadership and accountability to change the way the international community prepares for future health emergencies.” Specific recommended actions include: countries working together with civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders to take urgent steps to strengthen the ecosystem of pandemic preparedness and response; negotiating an international agreement in WHO; creating a new financing instrument at the World Bank; developing end-to-end mechanisms to advance public goods for health emergencies and share data; and empowering the WHO with strengthened with resources and authority.

Brazilian Senate Report Accuses President Bolsonaro of Crimes Against Humanity for Mishandling of COVID-19 Pandemic Response

This week, a Brazilian Senate committee approved a 1,100-page report that describes “what happens when a country’s president adopts policies with utter disregard for human rights during a pandemic.” The report portrays Brazilian President Bolsonaro as a leader who “turned his back on science and endangered the health and lives of Brazilians.” SARS-CoV-2 has thus far killed more than 600,000 Brazilians, thousands of which could have been avoided. Bolsonaro refused to follow the public health recommendations of the World Health Organization, and tried to block Congress from following those guidelines. In July 2020, he vetoed legal provisions that would have made mask wearing mandatory in churches and in the country’s overcrowded prisons. When a critical oxygen shortage emerged in Amazonas state, the Bolsonaro administration instead sent inefficacious drugs and dozens of COVID-19 patients died. The same unproven drugs were sent to Indigenous people. The report recommended a cornucopia of criminal charges against the president and called for his impeachment. In a seven-to-four vote this week, a Brazilian Senate committee recommended that Bolsonaro face a series of criminal indictments for actions and omissions related to the nation’s COVID-19 death toll, which is the second highest in the world.

From Worlds Apart to a World Prepared: GPMB 2021 Annual Report

This month, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) published its third annual report, From Worlds Apart to a World Prepared. The report argues that the failures of the COVID-19 pandemic were rooted in inequality and inaction and exacerbated by geopolitical division. The Board calls for a renewed global social contract and lays out six solutions for a safer world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a world that is unequal, divided, and unaccountable. The health emergency ecosystem reflects this broken world. It is not fit for purpose and needs major reform. Hundreds of expert recommendations have been made over the last two decades, new structures have been created, but the level of ambition and action has failed to match the global need. We know what to do. We just cannot seem to do it. The current pandemic has made us more aware of the urgent need for fundamental change. There is now momentum, but new governance and funding mechanisms are being discussed behind closed doors and in limited forums. Effective transformation requires cohesive, coherent, and collaborative action. We need a new global social contract to prevent and mitigate health emergencies. The new social contract must serve as the foundation of the global health emergency ecosystem. It should be based on the principles of equity, solidarity, inclusivity and reciprocity, accountability and transparency, sustainability and action. To move from words to action, the GPMB calls for immediate action on the six most critical solutions for reform. They are:

  • Strengthen global governance; adopt an international agreement on health emergency preparedness and response, and convene a Summit of Heads of State and Government, together with other stakeholders, on health emergency preparedness and response.
  • Build a strong WHO with greater resources, authority, and accountability.
  • Create an agile health emergency system that can deliver on equity through better information sharing and an end-to-end mechanism for research, development and equitable access to common goods.
  • Establish a collective financing mechanism for preparedness to ensure more sustainable, predictable, flexible, and scalable financing.
  • Empower communities and ensure engagement of civil society and the private sector.
  • Strengthen independent monitoring and mutual accountability.

Read the GPMB’s report here.

EVENTS

Schar School Open House

The Schar School will be a hosting virtual open house for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 16 November at 6:30 PM EST. This online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs – such as the Biodefense Program – and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. 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. Register here.

2021 Global Conference on Health and Climate Change

The 2021 Global Conference on Health & Climate Change with a special focus on Climate Justice and the Healthy and Green Recovery from COVID-19 will convene at the margin of the COP26 UN climate change conference. The aim of the conference is to call on governments, businesses, institutions and financial actors to drive a green, healthy and resilient recovery from COVID-19. The Conference will support and highlight climate action recommendations that promote and protect health. It will also mobilize the rapidly growing movement of health professionals around the world who are now driving ambitious climate action. And it will generate cross-sectoral dialogue focused on integrated solutions for a green, just and healthy future. The conference has a fully developed hybrid program, with participation both online, and in-person at the Glasgow Caledonian University. Register here.

Biorisk Management Perspective: Then and Now Webinar

In partnership with the American Biological Safety Association’s (ABSA) Biosafety and Biosecurity Month, APHL is proud to provide this free webinar! This program will provide attendees with an overview of biorisk management innovation throughout the years. Participants will hear from three biosafety professionals on their perspectives of biosafety and biosecurity practices and discuss the potential role of biosafety professionals into the future. This program is intended for anyone who works in or supervises a public health, clinical and academic/research laboratory. These can include clinical and public health laboratory staff, microbiology students, veterinary microbiology laboratory workers, veterinarians, medical doctors, biosafety professionals, academia or biotech industry laboratory workers and research scientists. The webinar will be held on 1 and 8 November from 11:30 AM to 4 PM EST. Register here.

Preparing for the Next Pandemic

The term “post-pandemic world” has become ubiquitous ever since COVID vaccines were made widely available to the developed world. Yet, the bio-policy implications of a world coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic are rarely evaluated critically and holistically. COVID-19 pandemic points to the reality that a multifaceted approach is necessary to prevent future pandemics or, should the need arise again, how to stop them in their tracks. A webinar offered by CDRF Global brings together experts from different corners of the biosafety and biosecurity space to discuss lessons learned from the world’s response to COVID-19 and analyze policy pathways moving forward. This panel will be held on 8 November at 9 AM EST. Register here.

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