Pandora Report: 12.10.2021

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, poignantly emphasized, “when great powers compete during a pandemic, the only winner is the virus.” The 2021 GHS Index measures the capacities of 195 countries to prepare for epidemics and pandemics, and found that all countries remain dangerously unprepared for future epidemic and pandemic threats. State medical boards are receiving more and more complaints about false or misleading information about COVID-19, but only a handful have “taken action against doctors.”

Biodefense Vision of the Defense Secretary

A recent memorandum introduces Secretary of Defense’s Vision for Biodefense:

Since taking office, President Biden has emphasized the importance of bold approaches to defeat the current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, as well as transform the Nation’s approach to biodefense. We must prepare to operate in a biological threat environment and support the National biodefense enterprise, both at home and abroad. To support that vision, the Department of Defense (DoD) will prioritize biodefense across the full spectrum of biological threats, from naturally occurring to accidental and deliberate biological incidents.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department’ s preparation and response enabled it to protect DoD personnel, safeguard the DoD mission, and support a whole-of-nation response. However, after-action reviews have identified areas for improvement across the DoD biodefense enterprise that must be addressed. Therefore, I direct the Department to continue to fortify our immediate pandemic preparedness and to undertake a comprehensive Biodefense Posture Review (BPR). This review will assess the biological threat landscape and establish the Department’ s approach to biodefense, to include clarifying biodefense priorities, roles, responsibilities, authorities, capabilities, and posture.

Three principles will guide the Department’ s posture review: 1) Unify efforts through an empowered, collaborative, and integrated approach to biodefense across the Department; 2) Modernize DoD operations to optimize capabilities, capacity, resilience, and readiness; and 3) Synchronize biodefense planning with the Department’s new National Defense Strategy and with the efforts of other Federal departments and agencies and, as appropriate, allies and partners, to support national biodefense efforts in alignment with national goals and strategy.

The Deputy Secretary of Defense will oversee this work and provide implementation guidance for the BPR and pandemic preparedness efforts. The Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment will co-lead the BPR. Every component across DoD plays a role in biodefense; I expect that the entire Department will play a constructive role in this review.

2021 Global Health Security Index

The 2021 GHS Index measures the capacities of 195 countries to prepare for epidemics and pandemics. All countries remain dangerously unprepared for future epidemic and pandemic threats, including threats potentially more devastating than COVID-19. The Index found that although many countries were able to quickly develop capacities to address COVID-19, all countries remain dangerously unprepared for meeting future epidemic and pandemic threats. A great opportunity exists, however, to make new capacities more durable to further long-term gains in preparedness. Countries should allocate health security funds in national budgets and conduct assessments using the 2021 GHS Index to develop a national plan to identify their risks and fill gaps. International organizations should use the GHS Index to identify countries most in need of additional support. The private sector should use the GHS Index to look for opportunities to partner with governments. Philanthropies and funders should develop new financing mechanisms and use the GHS Index to prioritize resources. Read the report’s findings and recommendations, explore the data, view the country rankings, and learn more about the GHS Index.

Briefing by Mr. Christian Ritscher Special Adviser and Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh / Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant

Christian Ritscher, Special Adviser and Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, gave a statement earlier this month.

“A week ago, I stood at a mass grave outside Mosul containing the remains of the victims of executions carried out by ISIL at Badush Central Prison in June 2014. I listened to the story told by one survivor who had to go through this horror, and now has to carry its magnitude as he seeks to move on with his life. I also saw the commitment demonstrated by the national authorities and our team members as well as other partners, working in this remote location, despite the security challenges, to support the collection of evidence that may lay the foundations for justice, and to ensure that families will be able to bury the remains of their loved ones.

Evidence collected shows the detailed preparation of the attack by senior ISIL members, followed by the launch of the assault on the morning of 10 June. Prisoners captured were led to sites close to the Prison, separated based on their religion and humiliated. At least one thousand predominantly Shia prisoners were then systematically killed.

Through our analysis of digital, documentary, testimonial and forensic evidence, including internal ISIL documents, we have identified a number of individual ISIL members responsible for carrying out these crimes. Through the synthesis of this data, I can also announce to the Council today that we have finalized our initial case-brief in relation to this investigation, detailing our conclusion that crimes committed by ISIL members at Badush Central Prison constitute crimes against humanity of murder, extermination, torture, enforced disappearances, persecution and other inhumane acts, and the war crimes of wilful killing, torture, inhumane treatment, and outrage upon personal dignity.

By establishing this comprehensive structural analysis of crimes committed at Badush prison, as we have previously with respect to attacks in Sinjar and Tikrit, we seek to strengthen the basis on which justice can be built together with national authorities.

We now have the chance, collectively, to make such prosecutions the norm, not a celebrated exception. In cooperation with Iraqi authorities and those of the Kurdistan region, together with survivors and with the support of this Council, we are building the evidence that can deliver meaningful justice for all those who suffered from ISIL crimes in Iraq. If we maintain our unity, we can capitalize on the opportunity that is now before us.”

Read the full briefing here.

Creating Dangerous Viruses in the Lab Is a Bad Way to Guard Against Future Pandemics

Dr. Lauren Kahn, a physician and policy researcher, discussed the risks associated with studying dangerous viruses. In 2011, an opinion piece was written by three top US government scientists on why research invoking the modification of highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1) was a worthy undertaking. Concurrently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was experiencing “blowback from funded experiments that modified the virus to be transmissible among ferrets.” Amid this controversy, the US government put a pause on 2014 federal funding for “selected research reasonably anticipated to increase transmissibility or pathogenicity of influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses.” Such research fell into the category of gain-of-function work. Kahn highlighted that “the federal government continues to fund such experimentation, but, as scientists, media, and online sleuths have delved into the origins of COVID-19, they have revealed weaknesses in past and current government oversight of projects modifying viruses.” But federal funding now supports this type of experimentation, especially as we battle the novel coronavirus. In regard to the pandemic, Kahn states that “ideally, Congress should hold a hearing to debate what kind of research should not be done and do more to investigate the origins of the pandemic.” In summary, “preventing pandemics through rapid identification and response is an important goal; the One Health approach that emphasizes animal and human health and disease surveillance is the key to doing this, not risky gain-of-function research.”

The Hot Zone, Season 2

National Geographic’s The Hot Zone: Anthrax follows the team of experts tracking down the killer and mailer of the anthrax letters. The six episodes in this season feature Tony Goldwyn as microbiologist Bruce Ivins, the suspected perpetrator of the actual 2001 anthrax attacks. Daniel Dae Kim stars as Matthew Ryker, an FBI agent specializing in microbiology. The trailer is available here.

Spring 2022 Open Courses: BIOD 762 & 766

For any GMU graduate students, the Biodefense Program is offering a couple fascinating courses this coming spring semester! Biotechnology and Society (BIOD 762) examines the growing role of biotechnology in modern society, including benefits to human and animal health, industrial applications, and potential for misuse. This course will be taught by Dr. Lauren Quattrochi, a classically trained as an electrophysiologist and neuro-pharmacologist. Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics (BIOD 766) is possibly more relevant now than ever before! The course analyzes the process of developing new medical countermeasures against biological weapons and emerging infectious diseases such as SARS and pandemic influenza, and gives special attention to the scientific, technical, political, regulatory, and economic obstacles to developing new vaccines and therapeutics. Dr. Robert House, who has a PhD in medical parasitology and is Senior Vice President of Government Contracts at Ology Bioservices, will be teaching BIOD 766.

ALL THINGS COVID-19

Jabbed in the Back: Mapping Russian and Chinese Information Operations During COVID-19

The Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) released a report, Jabbed in the Back, as part of a broader CEPA research project aimed at tracking and evaluating Russian and Chinese information operations around COVID-19.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spread disinformation about the efficacy of vaccines and the virus’s origins, a shift from Beijing’s previous disinformation campaigns, which had a narrower focus on China-specific issues such as Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Most of Beijing’s COVID-19 narratives aimed at shaping perceptions of China’s response to the pandemic and only rarely targeted other countries specifically. Russia recycled previous narratives and exacerbated tensions in Western society while attempting some propaganda about Russian scientific prowess. The Kremlin and the CCP learned from each other. While limited evidence exists of explicit cooperation, instances of narrative overlap and circular amplification of disinformation show that China is following a Russian playbook with Chinese characteristics. Russia is simultaneously learning from the Chinese approach. The largest difference between China’s and Russia’s information warfare tactics remains China’s insistence on narrative consistency, compared with Russia’s firehose of falsehoods strategy. Even with substantially greater resources, this largely prevents Chinese narratives from swaying public opinion or polarizing societies. The two authoritarian countries’ information operations have evolved over the last 18 months and will continue to do so with the spread of variants, vaccines, and inquiries into the virus’s origins. Read the report here.

Some Doctors Spreading Coronavirus Misinformation Are Being Punished

State medical boards are receiving more and more complaints about false or misleading information about COVID-19, but only a handful have “taken action against doctors.” The Federation of State Medical Boards surveyed its 70 member boards across the nation this fall, and found two concerning statistics. More than two-thirds of the 58 responding boards saw an “uptick” in complaints, and only a dozen boards “reported taking some sort of disciplinary action against doctors for spreading false or misleading information.” Rachel Moran, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies coronavirus misinformation, said that misinformation delivered by doctors can be “particularly insidious” as a result of the credibility associated with their profession and the difficulty that patients may experience try to “debunk” their highly technical language. The Federation of State Medical Boards issued a statement in July “warning that doctors who spread coronavirus vaccine misinformation risk disciplinary action, including the revocation of their license.” The Federation stated that physicians bear an “ethical and professional responsibility to practice medicine in the best interests of their patients,” and this obligation is violated when they spread inaccurate information. Other certifying boards soon followed their statement, such as the American Board of Family Medicine, American Board of Internal Medicine and American Board of Pediatrics. At present, a handful of medical doctors have lost their licenses. For example, the Oregon Medical Board pulled the license of a doctor “who refused to follow public health guidelines in his clinic, spread misinformation about masks and overprescribed opioids.” On the flip side, some doctors have maintained or renewed their licenses “despite making dangerous statements about the virus.” For instance, Ohio-based licensed osteopathic physician and anti-vaccine advocate Sherri Tenpenny claimed that the COVID-19 vaccines could leave people “magnetized” and North Carolina osteopathic physician Rashid Buttar who has falsely stated that the COVID-19 vaccines “kill more people than COVID-19.”

The Uneven COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

­­US President Biden has set a goal for 70% of the world’s population to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of 2022. Currently, 45% of the world’s population has received the full number of doses prescribed by the vaccination protocol, according to Our World in Data.

After what has now been a year since the first person outside of clinical trials received a COVID vaccine, the global rollout is still a long way from reaching this target. As the following infographic shows, it has also been uneven. The highest proportion of the population fully vaccinated is in South America, at 60%. Europe is close behind with 59%. Oceania, North America and Asia line up close behind, all above 50% as 2021 comes to a close. In Africa though, a mere 8% have been fully vaccinated.

In summary: “We must do better.”

Advancing US-China Health Security Cooperation in an Era of Strategic Competition

Although the United States and China have entered a period of strategic competition, bilateral cooperation on health security is more important than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its novel nature and devastating impact globally, represents another critical opportunity for bilateral cooperation. A high-profile strategy to promote cooperation may achieve minimal traction when facing barriers that are difficult to overcome. One must remain realistic about what can be achieved in the near term. A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report lays out six concrete, actionable streams where there could be collaborative work. Three areas of cooperation—travel, public health infrastructure, and supply chain resilience—stand out as most likely to deliver substantive results in the short term. They face relatively few barriers to implementation but could generate major positive spillover effects. US-China health cooperation in another three areas—vaccines and therapeutics, biosafety and biosecurity, and countering disinformation—also promises high benefits for improving health security but faces higher substantive and political hurdles. The proposals suggested here can be advanced through a mixed, forward-looking strategy that involves mobilizing multiple stakeholders in promoting US-China cooperation over health security, including intervention from top leaders from both sides. There are political, economic, and practical obstacles at almost every turn, and the United States should proceed with appropriate caution and care. But the opportunity space for engaging China remains larger than the risks of not doing so. At the same time, strengthening America’s health security is critical to the national interest and needs to be understood as an urgent challenge. Time is of the essence. As, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, poignantly emphasized, “when great powers compete during a pandemic, the only winner is the virus.” Read the report here.

OMICRON

President Biden Announces New Actions to Protect Americans Against the Delta and Omicron Variants as We Battle COVID-19 this Winter

President Biden announced new actions to combat COVID-19 as the United States heads into the winter months and with the emergence of a new variant, Omicron. The United States has come far in its fight against the virus and is more prepared than ever to deal with the challenges of COVID-19. We have the public health tools we need to continue to fight this virus without shutting down our schools and businesses. As we head into winter, the President announced actions to provide additional protection to Americans and fight the Omicron and Delta variants, while keeping our economy growing. This plan includes:

  • Boosters for All Adults
  • Vaccinations to Protect Our Kids and Keep Our Schools Open
  • Expanding Free At-Home Testing for Americans
  • Stronger Public Health Protocols for Safe International Travel
  • Protections in Workplaces to Keep Our Economy Open
  • Rapid Response Teams to Help Battle Rising Cases
  • Supplying Treatment Pills to Help Prevent Hospitalizations and Death
  • Continued Commitment to Global Vaccination Efforts
  • Steps to Ensure We Are Prepared for All Scenarios

Implications of the Mutations in the Spike Protein of the Omicron Variant of Concern (VoC) of SARS-CoV-2

Dr. Gene Godbold, Senior Scientist at Signature Science, provided a summary of the science related to the Omicron variant of concern of SARS-CoV-2. The omicron variant appears to have arisen in Africa, perhaps Botswana, and was first detected by the viral sequencing efforts of neighboring South Africa in November of 2021. The changes in Spike protein, relative to other variants, have concerned virologists and public health personnel. The Spike of omicron has 30 amino acid changes, one insertion of three amino acids and three small deletions when compared to the original Wuhan strain. The net effect of the insertions and deletions is the loss of three amino acids relative to the Wuhan strain.

Spike is the best studied of all the proteins produced by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It largely, but not solely, governs the host immune response to the virus. Spike is responsible for both the adherence of the virus to host cells and the invasion of the virus into cells. Those two features are critical for viral transmission. All the vaccines that are currently available worldwide target Spike.

The mutations in the Spike protein of the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 are likely to result in a more transmissible variant and one that can evade neutralizing antibodies induced by vaccination better than previously seen variants. This is not to suggest that vaccination is likely to be defeated by the omicron variant, only that the protection conferred by vaccination is likely to be shakier than with previous variants of concern. The activated immune system is a potent defender, however, with many weapons to fight infection that are not altogether dependent upon the antibody response. Read the full explanation here.

EVENTS

ICYMI: COVID-19 and Intelligence

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on everything from global supply chains to individual lives, with its long-term implications only beginning to take shape. Pandemics, a public health issue, are proving to be a national security one as well. Are America’s national security institutions prepared to address this threat? What role should the intelligence community play? What reforms could improve global health surveillance?

he Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security and the Schar School’s biodefense program presented a discussion on these questions. Panelists includes Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA-15), a four-term congressman at the forefront of legislative efforts to reform the intelligence community’s approach to pandemic awareness; Dr. Julie Gerberding, who served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2002 to 2009, where she led the agency through the SARS outbreak, and is currently a senior leader at the pharmaceutical company Merck; and Matt Berrett, a former CIA assistant director and head of its Global Issues Mission Center, and cofounder of the Center for Anticipatory Intelligence at Utah State University. David Priess, our senior fellow and publisher and chief operating officer of Lawfare, moderated the event.

The panel was recorded and is available here. A related episode of Priess’ Lawfare Podcast is available here.

Building Apollo’s Arsenal: Acquiring COVID-19’s Lessons Learned for Government-Bioeconomy Partnership

Please join the CSIS Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group for a conversation on enhancing the future of biosecurity. The discussion will celebrate the launch of our new brief, which examines the ways that diagnostics, data, research and development undergird biosecurity preparedness and response. The panel will center on what comes next: what can policymakers do now to ensure the future of biosecurity remains strong? What government acquisition mechanisms can draw on the innovation of the bioeconomy? The ambitious Apollo Program for Biodefense demonstrates the current moment’s momentum, but what programs will be resilient, even after COVID-19 fades from the headlines? This webinar is scheduled for 14 December at 1:30 PM EST. Register here.

US-China Health Security Cooperation: Time is of the Essence

Although the United States and China have entered a period of strategic competition, bilateral cooperation on health security is of paramount importance. A new report from the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security – authored by Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Scott Kennedy, CSIS Senior Adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics – lays out six concrete, actionable streams for collaboration.

Please join the CSIS Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics and CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security for a discussion on the key takeaways of the report. Panelists will include Xiaoqing Boynton, Senior Director of International Affairs at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization; Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives; Deborah Seligsohn, Senior Associate with the CSIS Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University. Scott Kennedy will provide a background of the report and Yanzhong Huang will provide a summary of the report’s policy recommendations, respectively. J. Stephen Morrison, Senior Vice President and Director of the CSIS Global Health Policy Center, will host and moderate the discussion. This live webcast will be held 14 December at Noon EST. Register here.

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