Pandora Report: 2.11.2022

It’s the Valentine’s Day Special Edition! Because we love our readers so much, we are bringing you a couple of special Valentine’s features in addition to our normal round up of updates, releases, and events, including Beth Cameron’s departure from the NSC. And no, it isn’t just you- masks really do make people look more attractive, according to one recent study! Finally, because we want you all to share the biodefense love, we have created special Pandora Report Valentine’s Day cards to be shared with all those dear to you. XOXO -The Pandora Report.

Dr. Beth Cameron to Leave the National Security Council

After a year in her position as the NSC Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense, Dr. Cameron will soon leave the position. She previously held the same position under President Obama from 2016 to 2017, helping author a pandemic playbook for the administration. In 2018, President Trump opted to eliminate the office she once led, moving its staffers onto other teams, drawing sharp criticism in 2020 as the pandemic began. She will be replaced by Dr. Raj Panjabi, the Global Health Malaria Coordinator at USAID and former CEO of Last Mile Health, a nonprofit that helps develop community healthcare systems globally. Panjabi’s transition comes as there is tension and debate within the administration about the direction of Biden’s COVID-19 response at home and abroad, including arguments that global vaccine donation efforts targeted at the developing world lack transparency.

Public Health Vaccines Announces Its First Clinical Trial Evaluating Its Nipah Vaccine

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) recently announced that its development partner, Public Health Vaccines, has initiated the first clinical trial for its Nipah virus vaccine. First identified in 1999, Nipah virus, the inspiration for the fictional MEV-1 virus in the film Contagion, is a zoonotic virus normally found in fruit bats that is known to cause illness in pigs and humans. Its case fatality rate ranges from 40% to 75%, treatment consists of supportive care, and clinical presentations can range from asymptomatic infections (subclinical) to acute respiratory infection and fatal encephalitis. The Cambridge, MA company announced on Wednesday that its single-dose PHV02 vaccine started its Phase 1 clinical trial to evaluate its safety and immunogenicity. As the virus can spread person-to-person, Nipah virus is a priority pathogen for the WHO and a category C bioterrorism agent for the CDC. In light of this, CEPI has invested over $100 million in four promising Nipah vaccine candidates, with the first, Auro Vaccines and PATH’s HeV-sG-V vaccine candidate, reaching clinical trials in March of 2020.

Department of State Established the Chemical Forensics International Technical Working Group

The US Department of State established the Chemical Forensics International Technical Working Group (CFITWG) “to address gaps in chemical forensic science and capabilities through an international partnership of experts from science, policy, academic, law enforcement, and export-control organizations.” The State Department website explains that, “The effort is an ad hoc and voluntary association of practitioners of chemical forensics, including participation by policy makers, members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) designated laboratories network and Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), academic institutions, and the law enforcement community. The group’s efforts have contributed to the work of the SAB to help strengthen the OPCW’s investigative options in the future. The group meets biennially.” Areas of interest for this group include “Identification of chemical attribution signatures and associated data analytics capabilities for selected classes of chemical threat agents including toxic industrial chemicals (TICs), chemical warfare agent surrogates, explosives, pharmaceutical agents (including counterfeits), drugs of abuse, pesticides, and toxins; Development of forensic tools such as analytical and chemometric procedures and standardize methods of data handling and security for advancement of best practices to support forensic-based analyses (such as those governed by the legal standards of admissible evidence and criminal procedure); and Investigation of chemical analysis tools and capabilities from other fields for forensic and retrospective analytical purposes (to include survey, compilation, and analysis of reports and publications, in the public sphere).”

Medicare Penalizes Highly-Rated Hospitals for Having High Numbers of Patient Infections

According to a recent article Kaiser Health News, Medicare has penalized 764 hospitals, nearly 40 of which it also happens to rate as the best in the country, for having some of the highest numbers of patient infections and potentially avoidable complications. The penalty is a 1% reduction in Medicare payments over 12 months and is based on experiences of Medicare patients discharged from hospitals between July 2018 and the end of 2019. The penalties are designed to force hospitals to focus on reducing things like bedsores, hip fractures, blood clots, and hospital acquired infections. Top names on the list of penalized hospitals include Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Cleveland Clinic, and two Mayo Clinic hospitals in Red Wing and Phoenix. 2,046 hospitals have been penalized at least once in the near decade since the Hospital-Acquired Condition Reduction Program began. Some researchers continue to cast doubt on whether or not these penalties motivate hospitals to improve their efforts to prevent these issues, which some attribute to the system’s arguable incentivization for hospitals to simply not report the number of these incidents that occur in their facilities accurately. Critics also point to the fact that the Affordable Care Act mandates these penalties be directed at the 25% of hospitals with the highest rates of these issues, even if they have improved or simply fall in the wrong place in a numbers game. Academic institutions argue too that they are disproportionately targeted by these penalties because they are more diligent in reporting such occurrences.

Russian Media Spreading Disinformation About US Bioweapons Amid Build-Up on Ukrainian Border

Tim Kirby, a US ex-patriate and host on Russian state-owned media network RT, recently alleged on his YouTube channel that the US is developing biological weapons in a network of laboratories in Eastern Europe. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently highlighted, Kirby was quoted saying, “Someone I’ve known for a few years has come forward,” Kirby told the almost 60,000 viewers who’ve watched the video so far, “to put together a picture of a network of bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine, that is very large and very Washington-supported that could be quite dangerous for us all.” The Bulletin continues, however, by explaining that Kirby is not alone and that this is being echoed at the top levels of the Russian government. This comes as Russia and China recently released a joint statement condemning supposed US bioweapons activities. Both China and Russia have historically stoked false allegations about US BW development and use, including throughout their histories of the Korean War. In 2021, China offered an alternative version of events in which the US military introduced COVID-19 into the country when it sent members of the US Army from Ft Detrick to Wuhan for the Military World Games in late 2019. The Chinese now also claim the Omicron variant entered the country on a piece of mail from Canada, further demonstrating how eager these countries are to avoid responsibility and sow disinformation. In particular, the Russians have focused on DTRA’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, prompting DTRA and the Department of State to make multiple statements fully denying the claims, particularly those made about the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, Georgia. However, as Russia starts a new round of such false claims while also amassing troops on its border with Ukraine, some point to the pattern of previous Soviet/Russian BW claim-making as potential evidence they are trying to sow distrust of the US in Ukraine and the rest of the Russian periphery ahead of an invasion.

Valentine’s Day Special Highlights

If You Don’t Have a Valentine This Year, the Kissing Bugs Might Have Your Back

Nothing says “I love you” quite like a deep dive on a spreading neglected tropical disease, right? We missed wishing you all an informative World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day on January 30, but we will take the chance now to discuss this specific NTD and some of the research currently being done on it. Chagas disease, also sometimes referred to as American trypanosomiasis, is a disease caused by the parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi, and is spread primarily by insects of the Triatominae subfamily, known as kissing bugs. Generally, the bugs climb onto people as they sleep, taking a blood meal before walking away. They defecate on people when doing so, allowing the parasite to infect them and cause the disease. As is the case in general with NTDs, there is an established link between poverty and Chagas transmission, associated largely with factors like poor housing and inadequate access to healthcare. Furthermore, according to a January 2022 study on seroprevalence of Chagas in children in New York, there is an “… estimated 1% to 5% risk of transplacental infection among children born to mothers with Chagas disease. This leads to chronic infection among children who may never visit an endemic region. Although up to 40% of neonates with congenital Chagas disease have signs of infection, neonatal diagnosis is rare in the US due to limited clinician awareness. Additionally, Chagas disease treatment with benznidazole is highly effective and well-tolerated during childhood, making pediatric diagnosis ideal for reducing future morbidity.,” further demonstrating how urgent this problem is.

This insect was a species of Triatoma, or kissing bug. Definitely not the kind of kiss you want this Monday…

Though screening is not common in the US, it is estimated by the CDC that approximately 238,000 to 347,000 individuals in the United States are infected with T. cruzi, highlighting that this is not an “over there” issue, though many were infected in Latin America. According to Johns Hopkins, some experts estimate as many as 11 million people in South and Central America and Mexico have the disease, with most not even knowing they have it (up to 70% are asymptomatic). Chagas does not go away on its own and, without treatment, can lead to death and is known to cause irreversible cardiac damage in 30% of patients and neurological and digestive lesions in 10%. Treatment is mostly limited to benznidazole and nifurtimox, which bring long administration periods, frequent side effects, and low efficacy once the disease is in its chronic phase. This means that combination therapies, as a study from this year re-affirmed, are important as they allow for more effective dosing and shorter treatment periods, though they are most effective in the acute phase of the disease (including in cases of congenital transmission), diminishing as it progresses. This disease poses a potential massive burden both economically and in terms of human cost, making further research into treatments that are effective in the chronic stage and slowing the spread of the disease incredibly important.

Do you want to learn more about Chagas disease? Check out the This Podcast Will Kill You episode on it here. If you live in an area where there are kissing bugs, consider sending found bugs to Kissing Bugs & Chagas Disease in the United States, a community science program run by Texas A&M University working to use a One Health approach in their research while building clinician awareness of this disease nationally.

But If You Still Don’t Have a Valentine…At Least Your Mask Might Make You Look More Attractive

According to a January 2022 study published by researchers at Cardiff University, “Beyond the beauty of occlusion: medical masks increase facial attractiveness more than other face coverings,” face masks increased the rate at which female participants rated male faces as attractive. This, they explain, is contrary to the sanitary-mask effect, or the finding that medical face masks tend to prompt an image of disease, causing people to perceive masked faces as less attractive. The researchers acknowledge that faces could have been rated higher due to occlusion of negative features in general, rather than occlusion specifically with a face mask. However, their participants rated male faces as most attractive when wearing medical face masks as well as more attractive when wearing cloth masks than when not occluded at all. Base attractiveness was not shown to interact with the type of occlusion, suggesting that this effect was not due to simple occlusion of negative features. After two years perfecting smiling with just our eyes, it makes sense!

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Envisioning a New Strategy to Counter Great Power Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction

The US Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies at Air University has just released this new report authored by Albert J. Mauroni as part of “The Counterproliferation Papers.” The report argues that the past several administrations have been intentionally vague in defining how the US should prevent the proliferation of WMD globally, addressing general threats like weapons systems, natural diseases, and classes of weapons instead of specific threats. The author argues that, “In particular, this behavior has resulted in an erosion as to the norms and rules on the conduct of great powers using non-nuclear WMD in contemporary security scenarios. As a result, the U. S government requires a new strategic approach to countering WMD that adequately addresses CBRN-specific threats in the context of great power competition.” He goes on to argue that interagency efforts to coordinate counter-WMD efforts need to be more focused solely on nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons developed by nation-states specifically for military operations. Suggestions in the report include 1) creation of a new National Strategy for Countering WMD that explains how the US government wants to prioritize WMD threat sources and align its resources accordingly, 2) abandon what is described as the “agnostic view” of current national/DoD strategies “so as to adequately address Chinese/Russian WMD challenges as well as acknowledge the differences between peer/near-peer and lesser states, as well as violent extremist organizations,” and 3) encourage a more engaged NSC staff which oversees strategies developed by relevant executive agencies.

Council on Strategic Risks- How are Biological Threats Evolving?

On Friday, February 18 from 12:30pm – 2:00pm EST, join the Council on Strategic Risks as we host How are Biological Threats Evolving in a World with COVID-19, a webinar featuring a keynote address from Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) Deborah Rosenblum and discussion from a panel of experts. RSVP here. This webinar will center on understanding how biological threats are evolving, including how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced these risks. Hon. Sherri Goodman, Chair of the Board at CSR, will introduce Hon. ASD Rosenblum, who will provide her perspective on key biological threats and DoD’s efforts to address them. 

The discussion will feature three fantastic panelists: 

  • Dr. Filippa Lentzos, Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of the Centre for Science & Security at King’s College London, who will provide a geopolitical lens and discuss changing norms in bioweapons and biosecurity
  • Dr. Kevin Esvelt, Associate Professor and Leader of the Sculpting Evolution Group at MIT, who will explore the influence of technological change on biological threats 
  • Christine Parthemore, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks, who will share CSR’s soon-to-be-released report on how COVID-19 may influence state and non-state actors’ motivations regarding biological weapons.

The panel discussion will be followed by an audience Q&A. This webinar will be recorded and open to the public, including members of the press.

Meetings of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

As stipulated by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is hereby giving notice that a meeting is scheduled to be held for the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria (PACCARB). The meeting will be open to the public via Zoom and teleconference; a pre-registered public comment session will be held during the meeting. Pre-registration is required for members of the public who wish to present their comments at the meeting via Zoom/teleconference. Individuals who wish to send in their written public comment should send an email to CARB@hhs.gov. Registration information is available on the website http://www.hhs.gov/​paccarb and must be completed by February 25, 2022 for the March 2, 2022 Public Meeting. Additional information about registering for the meeting and providing public comment can be obtained at http://www.hhs.gov/​paccarb on the Upcoming Meetings page. The meeting is scheduled to be held on March 2, 2022, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET (times are tentative and subject to change). The confirmed times and agenda items for the meeting will be posted on the website for the PACCARB at http://www.hhs.gov/​paccarb when this information becomes available. Pre-registration for attending the meeting is strongly suggested and should be completed no later than February 25, 2022.

Inaugural Public Meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters (NACCD)

The inaugural public meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters (NACCD) will be held on Thursday, February 17 from 11:00am – 4:00pm ET.  Pre-registration for this event is required and can be accessed along with additional meeting information through the online event page

Join the new advisory committee, as they are sworn in along with the presentation and discussion of challenges, opportunities, and priorities for national public health and medical preparedness, response and recovery, specific to the needs of children and their families in disasters.  In addition to having an opportunity to introduce and meet the new advisory committee, we will have presentations from the ASPR Pediatric Disaster Centers of Excellence, HRSA Regional Pandemic Preparedness Network and subject matter experts and colleagues on current challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and related mental health crisis impacting children and families.                                                   

Following the presentations, committee members are inviting subject matter experts from industry, academia, health systems, health consumer organizations, and state, local, tribal, and territorial public health, and emergency management agencies to provide comments to the NACCD.  Those wishing to speak during the meeting or who wish their written remarks to be addressed during the meeting, may email NACCD@hhs.gov.  Individual remarks during the meeting are limited to 4 minutes each and displaying images and/or slides for public speakers will not be available. For inclusion in the public speaking portion of the agenda, please provide name, position title, organizational or sectoral association, and a brief summary of planned comments.  Those selected for public comments will receive confirmation by email prior to the meeting with additional instructions.  The floor will be opened to as many relevant comments as possible.

Westminster Health Forum- Priorities for the UK Health Security Agency and Preparedness for Future Health Threats

This conference will discuss priorities for the new UK Health Security Agency. It will be an opportunity to discuss priorities and future outlook for the new agency – and key issues for the development and implementation of its role in improving national public health and responding to future health threats. Sessions in the agenda look at:

  • the UKHSA’s role – scope, priorities and opportunities for collaboration
  • prevention and mitigation – key issues for resources, use of data, and health surveillance capabilities
  • public health research – priorities for investment and funding, innovation, and collaboration
  • community health and local healthcare  – collaboration and local responses, reducing inequalities, and the role of the UKHSA
  • international collaboration – priorities for development and opportunities for UK leadership
  • lessons from COVID 19 – the UK’s response, the role of genomics, and preparing for future health threats

A keynote session will be offered by Dame Jenny Harries, Chief Executive, UKHSA. There will be further keynote contributions from Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, Saïd Professorship of Vaccinology, Jenner Institute & Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, University of Oxford; Professor Kate Ardern, Director of Public Health, Wigan Council and Lead Director of Public Health for Health Protection and Emergency Planning, Greater Manchester Combined Authority; Dr. Laura Blackburn, Head of Science, PHG Foundation; and Richard Sloggett, Founder and Programme Director, Future Health; and former Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. This will be taking place April 27, 9 am- 1 pm GMT. More information and registration is available here.

Michigan State- 2022 Innovation Forum: Bridging Technologies and Market Needs

Free registration is now open for the “2022 Innovation Forum: Bridging Technologies and Market Needs,” held virtually on February 25-26, 2022. It is sponsored by the Global Alliance for Rapid Diagnostics (GARD), a multidisciplinary group of researchers and practitioners from around the world committed to improving global health by reducing the spread of infectious diseases through early diagnosis. The focus of this symposium is to serve as a marketplace where innovative technologies can match the customers’ needs. Through this symposium, you will have the opportunity to meet and learn from people worldwide so that we can come together to develop solutions to help those in low-resource populations, prevent future pandemics, and save lives. Register at this link.

Pandora Report Valentine’s Day Cards

Nothing says “I love and am thinking of you” in the middle of a pandemic quite like these Valentine’s cards. Send a couple to your friends and share them on your socials to spread the love. Don’t forget to tag us on Twitter @PandoraReport and on Instagram @thepandorareport!

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