It’s Friday, which means we have all made it through one more week of being hit left-and-right with all the Omicron news as the global case count reaches 320 million. That won’t stop now as this issue tracks a number of Omicron updates, including some preliminary information from studies in South Africa indicating that this variant is spreading so much because more people are carrying it asymptomatically. We round out this week with an assortment of other items, including multiple new publications and virtual events to stay at home with as hospitalizations continue to climb.
OMICRON, OMICRON, AND MORE OMICRON
From NPR: What we know about Omicron and when to get tested
As cases of the Omicron variant continue to surge globally, it is clear now that these cases can present differently than those with other strains, especially as the cough is often milder or non-existent while fever generally remains less common. This comes amid new changes in testing requirements and guidance, creating more confusion for many of us. To help you keep on top of all this new information, keep up with NPR’s ongoing reporting on Omicron symptoms and updates and changes in testing guidelines.
Preliminary findings from studies in South Africa indicate that Omicron has a much higher rate of asymptomatic ‘carriage’ than other variants of concern
These findings, part of the preliminary ones from the paper, “High Rate of Asymptomatic Carriage Associated with Variant Strain Omicron,” suggest the higher number of people carrying the Omicron variant while remaining asymptomatic likely is a major factor in the variant’s global spread- even within populations with previous high rates of COVID-19 infections. The studies these findings come from are ongoing, with the researchers seeking to better understand what Omicron asymptomatic carriage looks like in long-term care facilities and hospitals where high-risk populations might become infected more often. This all comes as the U.S. healthcare system once again is pushed to its limit, despite so much attention being paid to this variant’s milder nature. Though there are more incidental COVID-19 cases among those reporting to hospitals for other emergencies or routine procedures who then test positive, these still present hospitals with dangerous opportunities for the variant to spread internally, as Emily Anthes of the New York Times recently covered in an episode of The Daily. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University conducted research which preliminarily suggests the risk of being admitted to the hospital or ICU amid the Omicron surge is about half the risk there was during the Delta surge which, amid staggering numbers of hospitalizations, again emphasizes the importance of considering how asymptomatic carriers may drive outbreaks and threaten the healthcare system.
A National Strategy for the “New Normal” of Life With COVID
As the world breaks its previous record by adding another 100 million cases in just five months, world leaders are increasingly turning to the idea of living with COVID-19 as some sort of new normal. Before the Omicron surge, in fact, countries like South Korea even began to implement plans designed to help their people learn to live somewhat as they used to while remaining aware of the risk. Late last week, the New York Times reported that three opinion articles were published in JAMA by some of President Biden’s top transition advisors, including Drs. David Michaels and Ezekiel Emanuel, urging him to create a new domestic pandemic strategy designed to accept living with COVID-19 indefinitely rather than wiping it out. While it might seem odd for the authors to publish these articles in the journal rather than discussing their suggestions with the administration directly, the authors indicated they did so because they struggled to make progress in talking directly with the White House. Following their publication, Dr. Anthony Fauci declined to comment on them while the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, dodged questions about whether or not POTUS is warming up to the idea or not. However, some point to recent CDC guidance and President Biden’s efforts to keep schools and businesses open as evidence that he does favor this approach. As South Korea’s swift reversal on its planning and the current crisis state of the U.S. healthcare system indicate, the situation that was present when many such calls for living with the virus were made last year is not the one we are living in right now.
Tuberculosis Mortality Increases for the First Time in Over a Decade Amid COVID-19
A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine discusses how, as most of us have witnessed in some capacity, the COVID-19 pandemic has harmed other public health efforts, especially tuberculosis services. The article, “Covid-19’s Devastating Effect on Tuberculosis Care — A Path to Recovery,” explains how inequities in global health continue to exacerbate this problem. For example, just 8% of people in low-income countries had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose by the end of last year, combining higher poverty rates with more chances for new variants to emerge in these areas, further limiting access to tuberculosis care. The researchers explain the WHO estimates almost 10 million people contracted TB in 2020, though only 5.8 million were reported, marking an 18% decrease in reported cases from 2019. However, the decrease was concentrated in 16 countries, with those in Asia (particularly India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China) having the biggest decreases in reporting, all of which also experienced major COVID-19 outbreaks and healthcare disruptions during this period. They note that, in 2020, about 1.5 million people died from TB globally, the first year-over-year increase since 2005. This came with a 15% reduction in the number of people treated for drug-resistant TB (an increasingly pressing challenge globally) and a 21% decrease in people seeking preventative treatment for TB. It’s important to note, too, that this comes as the WHO continues to struggle and seek out a new TB vaccine as the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine is over a century old and is variably effective against adult pulmonary TB. This article serves as a good reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic does not exist in a vacuum and it is actively exacerbating ongoing global health challenges.
OTHER ITEMS OF INTEREST
World Economic Forum Releases 2022 Global Risks Report
The World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Risks Report, as expected, is in large part defined by how the world continues to change as the pandemic drags on. The report discusses how the great gap between the developing and developed worlds in ongoing economic recovery risks deepening global divisions “at a time when societies and the international community urgently need to collaborate to check COVID-19, heal its scars and address compounding global risks.” Such risks identified in this edition include disorderly climate transition, digital dependencies and cyber vulnerabilities, barriers to migration, and space competition. Importantly, as Saadia Zahidi, managing director at the WEF, notes in the report, “Last year’s edition of the Global Risks Report warned of potential knock-on economic risks that are now clear and present dangers. Supply chain disruptions, inflation, debt, labour market gaps, protectionism and educational disparities are moving the world economy into choppy waters that both rapidly and slowly recovering countries alike will need to navigate to restore social cohesion, boost employment and thrive.” The last portion of the report also discusses how most countries have seen both great success stories and complete failures at different times throughout their pandemic response, indicating the need to develop flexible response strategies at the national level that use whole-of-society approaches for future pandemics.
Cultivating the Biosafety Profession
The International Federation of Biosafety Associations (IFBA) has just launched its new initiative, Cultivating the Biosafety Profession. Under this program, IFBA will place a priority on “formalizing biosafety and biosecurity as a career path within the higher education university system in selected universities around the globe.” This comes as many countries around the world suffer shortages of professionals trained to ensure biosafety in laboratory facilities that most need them. As such, this initiative will work to ensure that this profession is formalized while trying to attract young scientists and students to this less-visible profession, ultimately scaling up a skilled workforce that is better able to implement the WHO’s Laboratory Biosafety Manual. This will include a pilot undergraduate program at the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in Kenya, which IFBA hopes will later serve as a model for other universities and help normalize degree programs specific to biosafety and biosecurity. For more information on the initiative, read here.
Possible Link Between Epstein-Barr Virus and Multiple Sclerosis
Acclaimed New York Times health reporter and author of Flu, Gina Kolata, discussed in her article this week a new study from Science discussing the prevalence of multiple sclerosis (MS) in U.S. service members who were infected with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). The study, “Longitudinal analysis reveals high prevalence of Epstein-Barr virus associated with multiple sclerosis,” analyzed a cohort of over 10 million active duty service members over two decades, ultimately finding that 955 of them were diagnosed with MS while serving. The researchers, led by Dr. Alberto Ascherio at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, determined that the risk of developing MS increased 32x after infection with EBV while it did not increase after infection with other viruses. They note that their findings are not explained by known risk factors for MS and suggest that EBV might be a leading cause of MS. In fact, among the study’s group of service members who were not infected until later in their service, 32 of the 33 were infected with EBV before they developed MS. Kolata notes that the disease is rare, with the risk of developing it sitting at .5%. However, she continues, EBV is known to infect nearly all of us at some point (and stays in the body for life), though most of us will never notice. Other risk factors include things like smoking or low vitamin D levels, which these researchers also identified in their data. For more information, read Kolata’s article here.
HOT OFF THE PRESSES
The past, the present and the future are in our hands – Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Risk Mitigation
The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute has just released their new edition of Freedom From Fear Magazine detailing how the pandemic has highlighted global CBRN vulnerabilities, particularly as criminal elements take advantage of the disorder caused by the pandemic. While there is some debate about whether or not the pandemic will inspire terrorists and criminals to consider using biological weapons, this issue highlights how the CBRN field is often prone to fragmentation, which the authors argue causes threats to be studied in isolation, creating a counterproductive lack of coordination and more vulnerabilities. They advocate for the UNICRI’s CBRN Center of Excellence’s approach to global good governance and cooperation in this area by discussing what the 62 countries involved in the iniative have done in this area since the pandemic started. They conclude that, “A key lesson learned from the CBRN programme is the importance of protecting communities. Awareness of CBRN risks must be raised across the public at large, starting in local communities with CBRN stakeholders and extending to community leaders, NGOs, media, universities, students, and parents.”
Systematizing the One Health Approach in Preparedness and Response Efforts for Infectious Disease Outbreaks
One Health month brings us a new publication from the National Academies, this time documenting the proceedings of a workshop convened by the Forum on Microbial Threats on February 23-25, 2021. This workshop considered in particular “research opportunities, multisectoral collaboration mechanisms, community-engagement strategies, educational opportunities, and policies that speakers have found effective in implementing the core capabilities and interventions of One Health principles to strengthen national health systems and enhance global health security.” This proceedings of a workshop summarizes the presentations and discussions from the event and is available for pre-order from the National Academies Press here.
Finally- a book on health security intelligence
Routledge has just published the first book on health security intelligence, aptly named Health Security Intelligence, edited by an all-star team comprised of Drs. Michael S. Goodman, James M. Wilson, and Filippa Lentzos. Check out the blurb:
Health Security Intelligence introduces readers to the world of health security, to threats like COVID-19, and to the many other incarnations of global health security threats and their implications for intelligence and national security.
Disease outbreaks like COVID-19 have not historically been considered a national security matter. While disease outbreaks among troops have always been a concern, it was the potential that arose in the first half of the twentieth century to systematically design biological weapons and to develop these at an industrial scale, that initially drew the attention of security, defence and intelligence communities to biology and medical science. This bookcharts the evolution of public health and biosecurity threats from those early days, tracing how perceptions of these threats have expanded from deliberately introduced disease outbreaks to also incorporate natural disease outbreaks, the unintended consequences of research, laboratory accidents, and the convergence of emerging technologies. This spectrum of threats has led to an expansion of the stakeholders, tools and sources involved in intelligence gathering and threat assessments.
This edited volume is a landmark in efforts to develop a multidisciplinary, empirically informed, and policy-relevant approach to intelligence-academia engagement in global health security that serves both the intelligence community and scholars from a broad range of disciplines.
The chapters in this book were originally published as a special issue of the journal, Intelligence and National Security.
This book is available for purchase here and, at the time of writing, Routledge is currently offering it for 20% off.
COVID-19 Guidance and Mental Health Resources for K-12 Schools
The Federal School Safety Clearinghouse is hosting an information webinar on current COVID-19 guidance and resources for schools hosting grades kindergarten through grade 12. It will be hosted on January 20, from 3:00 to 4:00 pm EST on Adobe Connect and will feature guest speakers from the CDC and Mental Health Technology Transfer Network. Presenters will provide attendees with an overview of the guidance and share resources to help address mental health challenges in students, parents, teachers, and school personnel. Register here.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists- 75th Anniversary Doomsday Clock Announcement
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will host a live virtual news conference at 10:00 am EST on January 20, to announce the 2022 Doomsday Clock time. This year marks the Clock’s 75th anniversary, with it acting as a metaphor for how close humanity is to self-annihilation since 1947. This has served as a call to action in order to move the Clock’s hands backwards, which has happened a total of eight times…though they have moved forward sixteen times. This year’s event will feature Hank Green (science communicator known for his science communication work and appearances on SciShow, Crash Course, and Vlogbrothers), Dr. Rachel Bronson (president and CEO, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), Dr. Asha M. George (executive director, Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, and member, Science and Security Board (SASB), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), Dr. Herb Lin (senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and Hank J. Holland Fellow in Cyber Policy and Security at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and member, Science and Security Board (SASB), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), Sharon Squassoni (research professor at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy, Elliott School of International Affairs, at the George Washington University, and co-chair, Science and Security Board (SASB), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), Dr. Scott D. Sagan (Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science, the Mimi and Peter Haas University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) at Stanford University, and member, Science and Security Board (SASB), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), and Dr. Raymond Pierrehumbert (Halley Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford, lead author on the IPCC Third Assessment Report, and member, Science and Security Board (SASB), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). More information, including access to links, can be found here.
Stunting the Surge: What Leaders Need to Know for 2022 Pandemic Planning
The Naval Post Graduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security is hosting this event on January 25 at 2:00 pm EST. This webinar will feature senior officials from the executive branch who will provide updates and guidance on the Omicron variant and planning considerations for state and local leadership moving into the new year. Panelists include ADM Rachel L. Levine, Dr. Barbara Mahon, Dawn O’Connel, and James Blumenstock. Participants are also encouraged to submit questions in advance! Register here.
CBRN Winter Quarterly Forum
The National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) is virtually hosting their winter CBRN quarterly forum on January 19, from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm EST. This event will explore various factors affecting a healthy CBRN industrial base and resilient CBRN supply chain. The workshop is interactive, capitalizing on attendees’ expertise to create recommendations on improving the health and resiliency of the CBRN industrial base and supply chain. Register here.
How are emerging technologies (re)-shaping the security landscape?
King’s College London’s War Studies at 60 seminars continue with the Centre for Science and Security Studies’ panel of global experts addressing the intersection of emerging technology, society, and global order. The expert panel will feature Dr. Hassan Elbahtimy, Sean Ekins, Dr. Filippa Lentzos, Dr. Time Stevens, and Dr. Kathleen M. Vogel. Questions to be addressed include, “How do we identify and assess the opportunities and risks of these advances? What new actors and networks are gaining currency in this space? Do these technologies carry the potential to disrupt the existing order or can they be a tool to stabilise it? How can they be most effectively governed and regulated? And ultimately Do they enhance or undermine peace and security?” This event will take place on January 19 from 6:30 pm to 8:00 pm GMT. Register here.