Pandora Report: 11.5.2021

The Intelligence Community (IC) assesses that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019 with the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019. A team of scientists with specific expertise in climate modeling simulated the climate of Arrakis, the desert planet in Dune, to find out what such a world would be like. The Rockefeller Foundation will provide up to USD150 million in funding to the Pandemic Prevention Institute (PPI), a collaborative organization with a global network of partners committed to building data sets and analytics needed to detect, mitigate, and prevent pandemics.

Advancing Equity in Science & Technology Ideation Challenge

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is seeking ideas from the public about how to promote equity in STEM. The ideas must include at least one of these topics: people with disabilities; underrepresented racial and ethnic groups; institutional and academic settings; community centered research, participation, and engagement; women and people with gender-expansive identities; or open call (none of aforementioned topics apply). Previously, OSTP Director, Eric Lander, and OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society, Alondra Nelson, hosted a series of 5 roundtable discussions, “The Time is Now:  Advancing Equity in Science & Technology.” The directors engaged with participants about their expertise and experiences navigating careers in science and technology, trying to understand the complexity of issues. The goal is to build a STEM ecosystem that will enable everyone to succeed. More information on the most recent roundtable, “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Overlapping Crises for Women and People with Gender Expansive Identities in STEM,” can be found here. Other previous roundtables include Honoring Disability Pride MonthDiversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism; Emerging Models and Pathways for Success in (a) Institutional and Academic Contexts, and (b) Community-centered Research, Participation, and Engagement. To participate in the Advancing Equity in Science & Technology Ideation Challenge, see here.    

The Nexus of Climate Change, Ecological Disruption, Stability, and Security

As the COVID-19 pandemic has made all too clear, are definition of national security is overdue. As we look to 2030, some of the biggest security risks the world faces will come not from states and governments alone, but also from complex transnational risks. This paper examines how climate change and ecological degradation, particularly deforestation and poor land use practices, intersect to undermine security and create instability. Within many states, these drivers are contributing to resource stress (e.g., food and water insecurity), governance strains, and internal migration. Between states, competition and nationalism are rising in response to these challenges. Extremists and violent non-state actors are also benefiting, which in turn threatens political stability and cross-border relations. Biological risks — stemming from greater human-animal interactions, and the accelerated emergence of infectious diseases — are woven through all of these interrelated issues.

A new paper begins by describing the relationship between forests, land use, and insecurity at the nexus of ecological disruption and climate change. It then proceeds to discuss how this nexus affects security in four categories: the intra-state, inter-state, and non-state actor levels, as well as looking at Indigenous and vulnerable populations through a lens of justice and equity. It concludes with concrete recommendations aimed at both managing existing risks while also preventing catastrophic risks in the longer-run. Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, newly minted PhD from the Biodefense Graduate Program, is one of the co-authors of this paper. Read it here.

Alternatives to Radioactive Materials: A National Strategy to Support Alternative Technologies May Reduce Risks of a Dirty Bomb

Radioactive material, which is dangerous if mishandled, is found in many medical and industrial applications. In the hands of terrorists, it could be used to construct a radiological dispersal device, or dirty bomb, that uses conventional explosives to disperse the material. Replacing technologies that use dangerous radioactive materials with safer alternatives may help protect people and reduce potential socioeconomic costs from remediation and evacuation of affected residents. Senate Report 116-102 included a provision for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review alternative technologies to applications that use radioactive materials. A new report examines (1) the potential for adopting alternative technologies in the United States for the six most commonly used medical and industrial applications; (2) factors affecting adoption of alternative technologies; and (3) federal activities relating to alternative technologies in the United States. GAO reviewed relevant documents to identify potential alternative technologies, conducted interviews with users of applications that employ radioactive material to identify factors affecting adoption of alternatives, and interviewed federal officials to discuss current federal activities relating to alternative technologies. Congress should consider directing an entity to develop a national strategy to support alternative technologies. The federal agencies involved in research and adoption of alternative technologies neither agreed nor disagreed with our matters for congressional consideration. Read the report here.

The ‘Echo Chamber’ of Syrian Chemical Weapons Conspiracy Theorists

The Assad regime in Syria has launched several attacks against its own people, including attacks using nerve agent sarin and chlorine gas. The regime has insisted it did not carry out these malicious activities. After a lethal sarin attack on Ghouta, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, yet their use of chemical weapons has continued. A cadre of small group and individuals in the West have “convinced themselves that one of the Middle East’s most oppressive regimes was the innocent victim of a plot to discredit it.” These deniers include university professors, retired spies, “independent” journalists, “anti-imperialists” and habitual conspiracy theorists. Eager to direct blame away from Assad, these deniers “claimed rebels were faking the attacks in an effort to falsely incriminate the regime and thus create a pretext for full-scale military intervention by Western powers.” Given the absence of credible evidence to support such a claim, they pointed to “confirmed examples from the past where deception had been used in warfare.” For example, they highlighted the “way false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had been used to build public support for the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.” They insist that the reports of Syria’s chemical attacks are a similar form of deception with similar ends. “It was an argument that could be made to sound plausible, and the deniers exploited it relentlessly.” In reality, “laboratory tests on samples from the scene of attacks linked them to the regime’s own stockpile.”

Revisiting and Realizing the Promises of Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is a frontier field that employs science and engineering approaches to design biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as redesign existing, natural, biological systems. Its applications have expanded to almost every major industry. Potentially the broadest impact area is the manufacture of bio-based products and the numerous applications of these products in health and well-being, food and feed, industrial chemicals and biofuel applications.

The potential benefits of synthetic biology are manifold – but will they be distributed equitably? Wealthy nations have been at the forefront of synthetic biology and the livelihoods of those in developing and emerging economies have often been overlooked. As we learn to engineer the living world, how can we ensure it is a world in which we want to live? A new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), Revisiting and Realizing the Promises of Synthetic Biology, looks at synthetic biology’s embodiment and advancement of equity, humility, sustainability and solidarity over time: four values that are important in realizing its future benefits and minimizing its potential negative consequences. It also provides recommendations on how policies could direct the future trajectory of synthetic biology to benefit all people and the planet. Read the report here.

Dune: We Simulated the Desert Planet of Arrakis to See If Humans Could Survive There

Dune, the epic series of sci-fi books by Frank Herbert, now turned into a movie of the same name, is set in the far future on the desert planet of Arrakis. Herbert outlined a richly-detailed world that, at first glance, seems so real we could imagine ourselves within it. However, if such a world did exist, what would it actually be like? A group of scientists with specific expertise in climate modeling simulated the climate of Arrakis to find out. They wanted to know if the physics and environment of such a world would stack up against a real climate model.

The mid-latitudes, where most people on Arrakis live, are actually the most dangerous in terms of heat. In the lowlands, monthly average temperatures are often above 50–60°C, with maximum daily temperatures even higher. Such temperatures are deadly for humans. The planet also gets very cold outside of the tropics, with winter temperatures that would also be uninhabitable without technology. Cities like Arrakeen and Carthag would suffer from both heat and cold stress, like a more extreme version of parts of Siberia on Earth which can have both uncomfortably hot summers and brutally cold winters. See their simulation here.

Ensuring an Effective Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise

The US medical countermeasures (MCMs) enterprise is interconnected, complex, and dynamic. It includes public and private entities that (1) develop and manufacture new and existing MCMs; (2) ensure procurement, storage, and distribution of MCMs; and (3) administer, monitor, and evaluate MCMs. The interagency group the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE) is the nation’s sole coordinating body, based in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with interagency participation and responsible for ensuring end-to-end MCM preparedness and response. PHEMCE’s authorities limit its membership to federal entities. However, it must also collaborate closely with nonfederal and private-sector partners and stakeholders, as they are the ultimate implementers of PHEMCE’s mission and develop, manufacture, distribute, and administer the MCMs over which PHEMCE has responsibility. These engagements must support the entire life cycle of MCM preparedness and response, where appropriate, including threat identification, development, manufacturing, deployment, distribution, administration, and evaluation. An effective national MCM enterprise requires a mechanism to coordinate and integrate the activities and expertise of the diverse landscape of federal agencies involved in these activities, and PHEMCE has the legislative mandate to serve that role.

Recognizing the important role of PHEMCE in coordinating the federal MCM preparedness and response activities, HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) charged the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine with convening an ad hoc committee to evaluate PHEMCE’s policy and practices and make recommendations for a re-envisioned PHEMCE. The committee heard from knowledgeable experts reflecting a range of disciplines and experiences, including developers, producers, funders, responders, and federal, state, and local officials. The committee also examined government documents, including some first made public for this review.

Four priority areas of improvement emerged from committee deliberations: (1) articulating PHEMCE’s mission and role and explicating the principles guiding its operating principles and processes; (2) revising PHEMCE operations and processes; (3) collaborating more effectively with external public and private partners needed for the entire life cycle of MCMs, from research through use; and (4) navigating legal and policy issues. This report proposes recommendations for these four domains, re-envisioning PHEMCE to service its mandate to protect the nation in public health emergencies (PHEs). Read the report here.


Office of the Director of National Intelligence: Updated Assessment on COVID-19 Origins

The Intelligence Community (IC) assesses that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019 with the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019. In addition, the IC was able to reach broad agreement on several other key issues. We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way. Finally, the IC assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged. After examining all available intelligence reporting and other information, though, the IC remains divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19. All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident.

The IC judges they will be unable to provide a more definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 unless new information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged. The IC—and the global scientific community—lacks clinical samples or a complete understanding of epidemiological data from the earliest COVID-19 cases. If we obtain information on the earliest cases that identified a location of interest or occupational exposure, it may alter our evaluation of hypotheses.

China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19. Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries, including the United States. These actions reflect, in part, China’s government’s own uncertainty about where an investigation could lead as well as its frustration the international community is using the issue to exert political pressure on China.

Read the report here.

COVID-19: Additional Actions Needed to Improve Accountability and Program Effectiveness of Federal Response

As the nation continues to respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic, increases in COVID-19 cases in July, August, and September 2021, primarily due to the Delta variant of the virus, have hampered these efforts. From the end of July 2021 to September 23, 2021, the number of new cases reported each day generally exceeded 100,000, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. This was a daily case count not seen since February 2021.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccination efforts continue. As of September 23, 2021, about 64 percent of the US population eligible for vaccination (those 12 years and older), or almost 183 million individuals, had been fully vaccinated, according to CDC.

The government must remain vigilant and agile to address the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and its cascading impacts. Furthermore, as the administration implements the provisions in the COVID-19 relief laws, the size and scope of these efforts—from distributing funding to implementing new programs—demand strong accountability and oversight. In that vein, GAO has made 209 recommendations across its body of COVID-19 reports issued since June 2020. As of September 30, 2021, agencies had addressed 33 of these recommendations, resulting in improvements including increased oversight of relief payments to individuals and improved transparency of decision-making for emergency use authorizations for vaccines and therapeutics. Agencies partially addressed another 48 recommendations. GAO also raised four matters for congressional consideration, three of which remain open.

In a new report, Government Accountability Office (GAO) outlines 16 new recommendations, including recommendations related to fiscal relief funds for health care providers, recovery funds for states and localities, worker safety and health, and assessing fraud risks to unemployment insurance programs. GAO’s recommendations, if swiftly and effectively implemented, can help improve the government’s ongoing response and recovery efforts as well as help it to prepare for future public health emergencies. Read the report here.

G-20 Announces New Global Body to Respond to Future Pandemics, But Stops Short of Committing Funds

In October, leaders of the G-20 announced the establishment of a “global body for coordinating government responses to the next international pandemic, but the initiative faced immediate criticism because it appears to lack resources.” This new Joint Finance-Health Task Force is intended to “improve planning among the wealthiest nations to respond to pandemics with additional health-care resources and financing measures.” The G-20 includes the United States, France, Italy, Russia, Brazil, China, India, and Japan. Unfortunately, the announcement of the Task Force was sans a pledge of funding. G-20 health and finance ministers stated, “We remain committed to build on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis to increase investment into longer term health capacity.” J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), shared his disappointment in the lack of funding despite “plenty of good analysis about what is failing and what needs to happen,” and that this initiative will “shift to a coalition of the willing approach.”

Navigating the World that COVID-19 Made: A Strategy for Revamping the Pandemic Research and Development Preparedness and Response Ecosystem

The actions being taken to respond to the COVID-19 crisis are writing the opening chapters to the story of how we will prepare for and respond to the next pandemic threat. To prevent the devastation that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic from happening again, we must not only identify the successes and failures that have emerged from the global response, we must also anticipate how our response has changed government, industry, and civil society priorities for the pandemic R&D and response ecosystem in order to confront to future threats.

Beyond its human and economic toll, the COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed and redefined the realities of the global vaccine R&D and response ecosystem in the following ways: (1) there is now widespread recognition that safe and effective vaccines provide unparalleled health, social, and economic benefits during a pandemic; COVID-19 has made it clear that most nations will not share scarce supplies of early vaccines and related inputs in a crisis; COVID-19  demonstrated that pandemics can be profitable for vaccine manufacturers; and geopolitics constrained COVID-19 response and threaten future global health security.

Any future pandemic pathogen that emerges will do so in a world changed by and aware of these realities. To ensure that these lessons are heeded and to prevent the devastation of the present crisis from repeating in the next pandemic, governments, international institutions, and private sector actors must immediately act to address gaps and explore opportunities at each step along the vaccine value chain. The measures to be taken should include: (1) develop and fund an inclusive strategy for the R&D of prototype vaccine candidates for future pandemics; (2) engage local government and donor financing and policy support to enable global vaccine manufacturing scale up; (3) create and support equitable financing, procurement, and allocation mechanisms to help end COVID-19 and prepare for the future; (4) strengthen cross-border trade, standardization, and supply chain transparency in order to expand vaccine manufacturing and access during a crisis; (5) build the systems needed to enable vaccine distribution, allocation, and uptake for the next pandemic; (6) and plan for global coordination of post-market research studies

Read the report here.  

Operation Warp Speed: The Interagency and Public-Private Collaborations that Drove It

On Wednesday, October 27, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) hosted a webinar to discuss how the successes and challenges of Operation Warp Speed—the U.S. federal government’s effort to drive the development of COVID-19 vaccines—can be built upon in the future. This conversation on the future of rapid development, manufacturing, and delivery of medical countermeasures for biological threats was led by Christine Parthemore, CEO of CSR, and Andy Weber, Senior Fellow at CSR.

CSR hosted two incredible guests, Dr. Matt Hepburn and Dr. Monique K. Mansoura, who contributed a wealth of knowledge and insight on Operation Warp Speed and the partnerships that enabled it. Dr. Matt Hepburn is the Senior Advisor on Pandemic Preparedness to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Prior to his role at OSTP, he directed COVID-19 Vaccine Development under the Countermeasures Acceleration Group, formerly known as Operation Warp Speed. Dr. Monique K. Mansoura is the Executive Director for Global Health Security and Biotechnology at The MITRE Corporation, where she focuses on the sustainability of the biodefense industrial base. At MITRE, Dr. Mansoura was also a part of the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, which brought together healthcare organizations, technology firms, nonprofits, academia, and startups in order to more effectively deploy healthcare resources.

In the webinar, Dr. Hepburn and Dr. Mansoura discussed how cooperation between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense drove Operation Warp Speed, and how this is a stellar example that should be taken forward to nimbly solve future public health problems. In addition, the speakers emphasized that Operation Warp Speed was by no means perfect, and that lessons from what went wrong should be applied in future efforts. Dr. Hepburn and Dr. Mansoura also spoke on the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, the importance of building a forward-looking bio-industrial policy, as recommended in MITRE’s 10-Point Action Plan: Sustaining A Biopharma Industrial Base for a More Secure Nation, and much more. Listen to their conversation here.

The Rockefeller Foundation Invests USD150 Million to Prevent Future Pandemics and Calls for Greater Collaboration to Build a Global Early Warning System

The Rockefeller Foundation will provide up to USD150 million in funding to the Pandemic Prevention Institute (PPI), a collaborative organization with a global network of partners committed to building data sets and analytics needed to detect, mitigate, and prevent pandemics. The Foundation also renewed its call for expanded collaboration to strengthen the global pandemic and epidemic intelligence ecosystem at the World Health Summit in October. This marks the next chapter in the Foundation’s more than 100-year history of using science and technology to improve public health and uplift humanity. Together with the World Health Organization’s Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence in Berlin and the United Kingdom’s Global Pandemic Radar, the Pandemic Prevention Institute is helping transform global capability for stopping disease outbreaks.

The Pandemic Prevention Institute is also accelerating work to develop analytic tools and algorithms that detect early warning signals wherever they occur. Developing technology that sees and shares the signs of potential outbreaks, and supports sharing of those signals—instead of the data itself—is a crucial step to addressing data privacy and building an early warning system that works for all. Moving forward, the Pandemic Prevention Institute will actively seek new partners to define and invest in a common agenda through the RF Catalytic Capital, Inc. (RFCC), a charitable offshoot that The Rockefeller Foundation created in 2020 to enable foundations, governments, and other like-minded funders to combine their resources to build funding solutions for social impact and bring about transformational change. The RFCC, which is incubating the PPI, will eventually launch the Institute as a standalone entity.


Sweden During the Pandemic

Sweden represents an average European country as far as numbers of deaths during the first and second waves of the pandemic are concerned. During the third wave, mortality has been low and, up to now, Sweden has fared better than most countries in Europe. In the spring of 2020, Sweden chose a different path to many other countries, one based on a voluntary approach and personal responsibility rather than more intrusive measures. The majority of other countries, by contrast, made greater use of lockdowns or other intrusive regulatory interventions. Whether Sweden’s choice of path was reasonable, or whether it would have been better to introduce other types of measures to limit the spread of the virus, is a question the Commission will return to in its final report. To address that question, it is necessary to gain a better understanding of what information key decision-makers had as a basis for their assessments regarding disease prevention and control measures during the various phases of the pandemic. Several other aspects of Sweden’s handling of the crisis, moreover, remain to be investigated and assessed. These include, in particular, the impacts of the emergency on the economy and personal finances, and what capacity the Swedish machinery of government and its institutions had to manage a crisis. Only after that will the Commission be able to assess whether the path chosen by Sweden represented a reasonable balance between effective disease prevention and control and other interests. With answers to these questions, it will also be possible to better assess questions of responsibility.

The Commission has initiated a research programme – A Research Programme on COVID-19 in Sweden: Spread, Control and Impacts on Individuals and Society – based on very extensive gathering of data on medical and socio-economic outcomes, generally at the individual level, from a large number of sources. The Commission’s most important overall conclusions based on the review carried out to date and presented in this report include: (1) Sweden’s handling of the pandemic has been marked by a slowness of response; (2) Sweden’s pandemic preparedness was inadequate; and (3) its health care system has been able, at short notice, to adapt and to scale up care for people with COVID-19. Read the report here.

Russia: Six Lessons from One Pandemic

The Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation D.A. Medvedev recently wrote an article on six key lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. The first lesson of the pandemic is that threats must be taken seriously. And states must act proactively, not after the fact. The second lesson of the pandemic is that it can only be combated through the joint efforts of the international community. One by one, all are doomed to defeat. The third lesson of the pandemic is that the mutual trust of states is more important than commerce, ideology, and competition. The fourth lesson is that vaccine enforcement is not very effective, and education is needed. Fifth, every cloud has a silver lining. There are also positive aspects in the experience of the past two years, which, paradoxically, we owe to the pandemic. The main one is that we have learned to quickly respond to the most difficult and unpredictable challenges. Finally, this is a virus that will be with us for a long time. Read the article 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. The conference will be held tomorrow, 6 November, from 9 AM to 5:40 PM GMT. Register here.

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.

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. The panel will be held 8 November at 9 AM EST. Register here.

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