Pandora Report: 12.17.2021

Congratulations to our new graduates: Dr. Henry Kim, Bianca Cruz, Nathaniel Morra, Deborah Cohen, Stephanie Clute, and Ashley Gonzalez-Bunce! The Pandora Report will be taking the holidays off – we wish you and your loved ones a happy holiday and wonderful New Year! We will see you again in 2022!

Congratulations to the New Graduates of the Biodefense Graduate Program!

This month, 6 students the Biodefense Graduate Program are graduating! Congratulations to newly minted Dr. Henry Kim! Congratulations to Bianca Cruz and Nathaniel Morra on graduating with the MS in Biodefense! Congratulations to Deborah Cohen, Stephanie Clute, and Ashley Gonzalez-Bunce for completing the certificate program! We wish you the best in your future professional endeavors! To all alumni, please stay connected by clicking here.

Army Training Emphasizes the Importance of Education in Preventing Chemical and Biological Attacks

Danyale C. Kellogg, a PhD student in the Biodefense Program, recently attended the Medical Management of Chemical and Biological Casualties course (MCBC), offered by the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD) and the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID) at USAMRICD’s facility in Edgewood, MD. She learned from instructors at these two legendary institutions how to identify chemical and biological warfare (CBW) agents, diagnose the conditions they cause, and mitigate their impacts. Upon applying to the Biodefense PhD program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason, she could not have predicted that during the first semester of she would be cutting a classmate out of Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) gear in the Maryland woods as part of a hands-on training exercise. This course was an incredibly informative, fascinating, and fun opportunity that was an excellent supplement to my graduate education. As an aspiring scholar-practitioner, understanding how the boots-on-the-ground manage these types of events and how such an event could impact broader operations and foreign policy is invaluable. Read about Kellogg’s takeaways here.

Jaime Yassif on Safeguarding Bioscience to Prevent Catastrophic Lab Accidents and Bioweapons Development

If a rich country were really committed to pursuing an active biological weapons program, there’s not much we could do to stop them. With enough money and persistence, they’d be able to buy equipment, and hire people to carry out the work. But what we can do is intervene before they make that decision. A recent guest on the 80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin, Jaime Yassif — Senior Fellow for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) — thinks that stopping states from wanting to pursue dangerous bioscience in the first place is one of our key lines of defense against global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs). Links to learn more, summary and full transcript. It helps to understand why countries might consider developing biological weapons. Jaime says there are three main possible reasons: (1) fear of what their adversary might be up to; (2) belief that they could gain a tactical or strategic advantage, with limited risk of getting caught; and (3) belief that even if they are caught, they are unlikely to be held accountable. In response, Jaime has developed a three-part recipe to create systems robust enough to meaningfully change the cost-benefit calculation. The first is to substantially increase transparency. If countries aren’t confident about what their neighbors or adversaries are actually up to, misperceptions could lead to arms races that neither side desires. But if you know with confidence that no one around you is pursuing a biological weapons program, you won’t feel motivated to pursue one yourself. The second is to strengthen the capabilities of the United Nations’ system to investigate the origins of high-consequence biological events — whether naturally emerging, accidental or deliberate — and to make sure that the responsibility to figure out the source of bio-events of unknown origin doesn’t fall between the cracks of different existing mechanisms. The ability to quickly discover the source of emerging pandemics is important both for responding to them in real time and for deterring future bioweapons development or use. And the third is meaningful accountability. States need to know that the consequences for getting caught in a deliberate attack are severe enough to make it a net negative in expectation to go down this road in the first place. But having a good plan and actually implementing it are two very different things, and today’s episode focuses heavily on the practical steps we should be taking to influence both governments and international organizations, like the WHO and UN — and to help them maximize their effectiveness in guarding against catastrophic biological risks. Jaime and Rob explore NTI’s current proposed plan for reducing global catastrophic biological risks. Listen to this podcast here.

Dr. Brian Mazanec Featured on FedScoop Podcast

Dr. Brian Mazanec, an alumnus of the Biodefense Graduate Program and a Schar School adjunct professor, serves as the Director of Defense Capabilities at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and was interviewed on the FedScoop podcast on 13 December about the government’s security clearance process. The clearance process has been on GAO’s High-Risk List since 2018. In a newly released report from the GAO, Personnel Vetting: Actions Needed to Implement Reforms, Address Challenges, and Improve Planning, evaluates the extent to which personnel vetting processes have implemented a reform based on the Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council (PAC) Principals. This report recommends that Congress consider requiring the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to develop performance measures for continuous evaluation. GAO also recommends that that DOD revise the National Background Investigation Services (NBIS) schedule to fully meet the characteristics of a reliable schedule and establish a milestone to complete strategic workforce planning. Listen to the episode here.

Congress Passes Defense Policy Bill

The fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act will allocate $768 billion to the national defense budget and mandate a number of policy changes within the Department of Defense. The bill is now awaiting the signature of the president, and it is expected to be signed into law before the end of 2021. This legislation was passed by the Senate in a vote of 89-10 on Wednesday, and passed by the House earlier this month with a 363-70 vote.  A Biden administration proposal would “cut spending on Defense Department programs that detect and counter diseases, even as COVID-19’s US death toll exceeds 800,000 people.” Under both the Biden and Trump administrations, the Pentagon has “asked Congress to scale back funding for the Biological Threat Reduction Program, despite successes that include funding a lab in Thailand that in January 2020 first detected the coronavirus outside of China.” Funding for the Chemical and Biological Defense Program, which works on the development of “everything from vaccines to protective suits” has also contracted. The Chemical and Biological Defense Program also helped Swine flu therapeutics, a vaccine for the Ebola virus and supported Operation Warp Speed. The National Defense Authorization Act would “add money above Biden’s requested amount for both of these programs. But appropriators, who provide the funds, are divided about how much to spend.”

Public Health Forward: Modernizing the US Public Health System

Public health serves a critical yet often invisible role in health. Although a disproportionate amount of attention is placed on medical care and the treatment of diseases, illnesses, and injuries, public health takes a communitywide approach to improving health and the social factors that contribute to good health. Healthy behaviors, social and economic factors, the physical environment, and other issues account for 80% of health outcomes, while clinical care is responsible for only 20%. Through such activities as promoting healthy eating and active living, controlling infectious disease outbreaks, and preventing injuries, public health efforts allow Americans to live longer, healthier lives and is essential to the viability and prosperity of communities across the country. However, many Americans do not recognize the value that public health systems bring to their communities until these systems are most needed.

Public Health Forward: Modernizing the US Public Health System defines a vision for health in the 21st century and provides a practical, prioritized, bipartisan set of actions for policymakers and public health officials to guide strategic investments and decision-making to achieve this vision. These actions are informed by evidence, build on previous consensus frameworks and objectives, and represent work by national thought leaders that has the support of public health practitioners across the country. The nation’s safety, security, and economic prosperity depends on a strong public health system. We respectfully urge state and local policymakers to act now to fully realize the potential of this unique moment and secure the future of the public’s health.

In 2026, the United States is becoming a healthier nation because elected and public health officials seized the historic opportunity to invest in new and transformative ways to modernize the governmental public health system. The system is prepared to respond to a range of public health challenges, including a pandemic, obesity, mental illness, substance abuse, and climate change. Read the report here.

Stakeholder Engagement Workshop on the Implementation of the United States Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern: Workshop Report

A new report documents the discussions of the 2017 Stakeholder Engagement Workshop on the Implementation of the United States Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern. It is not an official record of the Stakeholder Engagement Workshop. It was compiled to assist the research and policy communities as they consider updating US Government policies on Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). Neither the National Institutes of Health nor the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) produced a report out of the workshop, and it is hoped that this summary of the discussion, based on analysis of the videos of the workshop, will be useful for those interested in the development of the United States Policies on dual use research of concern.

Daniel Greene and Sam Weiss Evans analyzed the workshop, and drew together four themes from the discussions:

  • There are many different ways that institutions have composed their Institutional Review Entities (IREs), which are responsible for assessing the DURC potential of research carried out at the institution.
  • While there were a wide array of mitigation strategies employed, institutions rarely used redaction or blocked publications, instead focused on tailoring communication of the scientists, emphasizing the value of the research to the public and avoiding being inflammatory or drawing attention to misuse. Institutions also increased safety and security measures after conducting DURC reviews, and modified experiments to reduce the risks they posed.
  • While most of the speakers at the workshop said that DURC policies had minimal impact on research productivity, several participants noted examples of research slowdown, and claimed that oversight burdens had disincentivized potential DURC research, with specific examples of researchers stopping their projects once it became apparent that their research might be DURC.
  • The question of whether the overall scope of implementation of the policy was sufficient to capture concerning research appeared throughout the conversations as a central and ongoing challenge. At least six participants at the workshop noted examples of research that either had been done or could be done that could merit the label “DURC”, but that did not involve the 15 agents and 7 experiments of concern named in the USG DURC policy.

United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism

Shortly before the end of the conflict between Iran and Iraq, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 1987 that established the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (UNSGM). This mechanism serves as a verification instrument of the Geneva Protocol for investigating alleged uses of chemical and biological weapons.

In the framework of the UNSGM, two lists are compiled: one with experts and one with laboratories that can be supported by the UN member states. Spiez Laboratory is on one hand nominated as a designated analytical laboratory and on the other hand provides experts for a mission team in benefit of the UNSGM. For their fact-finding mission in Syria, the UN relied on the laboratory network of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The OPCW’s designated laboratories – including Spiez Laboratory – are internationally accredited and subjected to stringent quality tests every year. Since the Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997, these laboratories have validated their analytical procedures and precisely laid down the criteria for reporting the results.

While there are strict quality standards in the field of chemical weapons, there are no corresponding controls in the biological field. In the case of a UN mission investigating the alleged use of biological weapons, lab analyses might therefore more easily be questioned or even rejected. This is why Spiez Laboratory is committed to establishing corresponding quality assurance and reporting requirements for biological laboratories, so that future UN fact-finding missions relating to biological weapons can also be accepted both politically and scientifically without any reservations.

Apart from the establishment of standards in quality control, continuous advancement of analytical methodology is an important pillar. The developed methods are exchanged between laboratories to further international capacity building in detection of agents. Spiez Laboratory supports these efforts with the organization of a workshop series for designated laboratories of the UNSGM.

Spiez CONVERGENCE intends to inform participants about latest advances on chemistry making biology and biology making chemistry, as well as the adoption of such advances by the biotechnology and chemical industries. Participants discuss how such developments may affect production technologies for toxic chemicals, toxins and microorganisms and assess potential implications for chemical and biological arms control. Read the reports here and here.

Israeli Airstrikes in Syria Targeted Chemical Weapons Facilities, Officials Say

In the middle of the night on 8 June, Israeli warplanes conducted a “highly unusual airstrike deep inside Syrian territory.” The strikes killed seven soldiers, including an engineer who worked at a top-secret Syrian military lab. Following standard operating procedure, the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on the incursion into Syrian airspace. This attack targeted Syrian military facilities, not the usual Iranian targets. The Washington Post reports that “According to current and former intelligence and security officials briefed on the matter, the June 8 strike was part of a campaign to stop what Israeli officials believe was a nascent attempt by Syria to restart its production of deadly nerve agents.” Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, said, “Syria’s procurement of this chemical, even through black-market channels, is not indicative of a nefarious purpose.” Koblentz further described that “Syria has been hiding key components of its chemical weapons program ever since it signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013.” And given the fact that Syria has regained control over most of its territory, “it makes sense that the Assad regime would want to rebuild its chemical-weapons program to serve once again as a strategic deterrent against its longtime adversary, Israel.”

ALL THINGS COVID-19

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

A new brief concludes the CSIS Defense-Industrial Initiative Group’s series on enhancing future biosecurity, examining three cross-national case studies and aspects of the US response, to provide lessons learned from the overall project. The case studies include aspects of three government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: South Korea’s strategy for testing and diagnostics, New Zealand’s strategy for data management, and China’s strategy for laboratory research. The brief then examines aspects of current US government biosecurity preparations and responses, including the flagship Apollo Project. Lessons learned highlight the importance of accessible, effective data management for both biosurveillance and dispatching supplies to outbreak hotspots. The bioeconomy has the potential to act as surge capacity and innovation reservoir—if mechanisms for coordination and production are established ahead of crisis periods to take advantage of this resource. Likewise, biosecurity research and development (R&D) is a peacetime priority to ensure that resources are ready when they are needed: biosecurity-related defense R&D spending remained relatively flat through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrating that many of the technologies that turned the tide of a pandemic were developed over the years and decades before. Read the report here.

Analyzing COVID-19 Outcomes in the Context of the 2019 Global Health Security Index

The Global Health Security (GHS) Index benchmarks countries’ capacities to carry out the functions necessary to prevent, detect and respond to biological threats. The COVID-19 pandemic served as an opportunity to evaluate whether the Index contained the correct array of variables that influence countries’ abilities to respond to these threats; assess additional variables that may influence preparedness; and examine how the impact of preparedness components change during public health crises. Linear regression models were examined to determine the relationship between excess mortality per capita for the first 500 days of countries’ COVID-19 pandemic and internal Index variables, as well as external variables including social cohesion; island status; perceived corruption; elderly population size; previous epidemic experience; stringency of non-pharmaceutical interventions; and social and political polarization. COVID-19 outcomes were significantly associated with sociodemographic, political and governance variables external to the 2019 Index: social cohesion, reduction in social polarization and reduced perceptions of corruption were consistently correlated with reduced excess mortality throughout the pandemic. The association of other variables assessed by the Index, like epidemiological workforce robustness, changed over time. Fixed country features, including geographic connectedness, larger elderly population and lack of prior coronavirus outbreak experience were detrimental to COVID-19 outcomes. Finally, there was evidence that countries that lacked certain capacities were able to develop these over the course of the pandemic. Additional sociodemographic, political and governance variables should be included in future indices to improve their ability to characterize preparedness. Fixed characteristics, while not directly addressable, are useful for establishing countries’ inherent risk profile and can motivate those at greater risk to invest in preparedness. Particular components of preparedness vary in their impact on outcomes over the course of the pandemic, which may inform resource direction during ongoing crises. Future research should seek to further characterize time-dependent impacts as additional COVID-19 outcome data become available. Read the article here.

Global Percentage of Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infections Among the Tested Population and Individuals with Confirmed COVID-19 Diagnosis: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

What is the percentage of asymptomatic individuals with positive test results for SARS-CoV-2 among tested individuals and those with confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis? In a systematic review and meta-analysis, the authors evaluated the percentage of asymptomatic infections among individuals undergoing testing (tested population) and those with confirmed COVID-19 (confirmed population). The review included cross-sectional studies, cohort studies, case series studies, and case series on transmission reporting the number of asymptomatic infections among the tested and confirmed COVID-19 populations that were published in Chinese or English. From the analysis of 95 unique studies with 29,776,306 individuals undergoing testing, the pooled percentage of asymptomatic infections was 0.25% among the tested population and 40.50% among the population with confirmed COVID-19. The high percentage of asymptomatic infections highlights the potential transmission risk of asymptomatic infections in communities. Read the article here.

How COVID Vaccines Shaped 2021 in 8 Powerful Charts

A year ago, vaccine drives against COVID-19 were just beginning. Now, more than 4.4 billion people have had one or more dose — about 56% of the world population. The vaccination of so many in such a short space of time, so soon after the unparalleled rapid development of the vaccines, has saved huge numbers of lives and is a triumph for science and research. Sadly, the vaccines have not been shared or taken up equitably across the world, nor even, sometimes, within nations. But the extraordinary roll-out of a plethora of COVID-19 vaccines — or the lack thereof — has been a major force shaping politics, science and everyday human experience in 2021. In a graphic-led story, available here, Nature offers a guide to the successes, failures and impact of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021.

The Government Asked Us Not to Release Records From The CDC’s First Failed COVID Test. Here They Are.

In February 2020, nine officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) convened with an expert from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to figure out why the nation’s first coronavirus test failed. The CDC had already sent out thousands of flawed test kits to nearly 50 public health labs across the country. It turned out the reagents of the tests were likely contaminated at the small, underfunded Respiratory Virus Diagnostic (RVD) Lab. A short report from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was released in June 2020 and it summarizes that “the findings of the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) regarding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) manufacturing of the initial COVID-19 test kits that could not be validated by public health laboratories.” An email sent from a lab official to CDC leadership three days after the report was released “called into question the central conclusion that the respiratory virus lab was to blame.” This email stated that “the report contained false statements and that HHS investigators had received genetic test results showing that the real source of the contamination was the core lab positive controls — revealed by their distinct genetic signature.” Another email stated that the contamination in the COVID test kits did “not match the cloned coronavirus gene made by the RVD lab to serve as positive controls.” To date, the CDC has not released an official explanation of the problem, nor has the HHS inspector general released their report.

We Have Enough COVID Vaccines for Most of the World. But Rich Countries Are Stockpiling More Than They Need for Boosters.

It has now been two years since SARS-CoV-2 first emerged in humans, and pharmaceutical companies have pushed out “enough vaccines to inoculate most of the world against COVID-19.” Yet, dozens of developing nations are struggling with dire shortages as rich countries develop their stockpiles with “hundreds of millions more doses than they need.” According to Duke’s Global Health Innovation Center and the COVID Collaborative, there are about 11 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses will have been manufactured by the end of 2021. STAT emphasizes that “overall, 56% of the global population has received at least one dose, but those vaccines are wildly unevenly distributed, with just 7.1% of people in low-income countries having received at least one dose.” About 847 million more doses are needed to bring all countries up to the 40% vaccination rate. Analyses show, shockingly, that the “vaccine shortage for low-income countries is less than the surplus vaccines within the G7 countries and the European Union.” According to STAT, “vaccines could be distributed internationally faster if wealthier countries allowed COVAX or countries in dire need to take newly created vaccines first; just Switzerland and the US have done so.” The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which brings together governments and global health organizations including the WHO and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, recently announced an additional $23.4 billion is needed for vaccine distribution by September 2022.

Playing With Fire: Terrifying COVID Lab Leak Feared to Have Infected Dozens in Taiwan in Chilling Echo of Wuhan

A female laboratory worker in Taipei tested positive for coronavirus and may have caught it from working on experiments in a Biosafety Level-3 lab. Authorities have started tracing over 85 people as contacts of the infected worker. This incident follows research by Dr. Filippa Lentzos and Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz regarding high containment labs across the world. Their work highlights the significant risks created by these labs amid the pandemic. More specifically, BSL-4 labs are designed to work with dangerous viruses for which there are no vaccine or treatments. Lentzos and Koblentz emphasize that the “risks of work with dangerous pathogens mean that extremely high-levels of safety and security protection must be applied and that the work must be conducted responsibly.”

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