This week we discuss the CDC’s new pandemic “weather service”, the growing impacts of Shanghai’s ongoing lockdown, and the spread of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in the US and around the world. We also cover a couple of great new publications and have listed several upcoming events, including a new episode of CSIS’s Coronavirus Crisis Update podcast featuring Dr. Beth Cameron.
The CDC’s New Pandemic “Weather Service”
The CDC announced this week the formation of the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, comprised of about 100 scientists who will analyze technical data and communicate their findings to decision makers and the public regarding risk and changes in how COVID-19 is behaving. Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist and associate director for science at the CDC initiative, was quoted in the Washington Post stating, “We think of ourselves like the National Weather Service, but for infectious diseases.” She further explained the goals of the center, saying “We would love to be able for people to look to us to say, ‘I’m about to commute on the Red Line. … Should I bring a mask based on what’s happening with respiratory disease in my community? Should I have my birthday party outside or inside?’ Those kinds of decisions, I think, are where we would like to move toward.”
The center’s creation was a feature of the Biden administration’s first national security memorandum, dated January 21, 2021, though the center officially launched last Thursday at a summit on strengthening US early warning systems for health threats hosted by the Office on Science and Technology Policy. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s efforts to attract outside experts to this team are seen by some as acknowledgment on her part of the criticism that her agency has failed systemically to make effective use of surveillance, data collection, and risk communication throughout the pandemic. Health IT Analytics quoted Walensky announcing the center’s launch, writing ““I am excited we have launched CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics,” said CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, in the press release. “This new center is an example of how we are modernizing the ways we prepare for and respond to public health threats. I am proud of the work that has come out of this group thus far and eager to see continued innovation in the use of data, modeling, and analytics to improve outbreak responses.””
China’s “Zero-Covid” Toll Grows
Shanghai’s lockdown woes continue, with residents still struggling to gain adequate access to food and other basic supplies amid a lockdown said to be even worse than Wuhan’s in 2020. Authorities have even take to taping residents’ doors shut so they can tell if they left their homes without permission and the necessary escort. Simultaneously, whole neighborhoods have been relocated to quarantine facilities over 100 miles away in an effort to keep negative individuals away, though it remains unclear why the authorities have chosen to move negative people away instead of those who are positive. The BBC explained that many in the small town of Beicai were forced to leave randomly, writing “An official notice issued to residents told them to pack their belongings and leave their wardrobe doors open. They were also told to leave open the front door of their home. Images on social media of people queuing with packed suitcases at night-time showed the scale of the operation.” Worse yet, footage emerged this week of a community worker brutally beating a pet corgi to death with a shovel in Pudong after its owner tested positive for COVID-19 and was moved to quarantine.
Shanghai has reported just 17 deaths during this entire ordeal, again sparking many questions about the legitimacy of the country’s numbers, though it seems China defines COVID-19 deaths more narrowly, opting to label chronically ill patients who die while sick with COVID-19 as having died of their chronic condition. Furthermore, the New York Times writes, “It may never become clear how many similar stories there are. China does not release information on excess deaths, defined as the number of deaths — from Covid as well as other causes — exceeding the expected total in a given period. Public health scholars say that figure more accurately captures losses during the pandemic, as countries define Covid-related deaths differently.” On a related note, India continues to hold up the WHO’s efforts to publish their calculations indicating 15 million people have died from COVID-19 globally, a number completely dwarfing the current estimate of about 6.2 million.
The lockdowns are also causing major disruptions in the Yangtze River Delta region, which includes Shanghai and the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, that together represent about a fifth of the PRC’s national GDP. While some areas and factories have had their lockdowns eased, it has not been enough to stop the negative impacts on the global economy. Daily truck volumes moving through Shanghai were down 70% this week compared to just prior to when the lockdown began. The EU Chamber of Commerce also estimates that the availability of trucks in the city has shrunk by 40%, mirroring the lack of community and delivery workers currently facing the city amid rising tensions. The Wall Street Journal explained this week, “The logistics snarls in and around Shanghai further add pressure to an already battered global supply chain and to rising prices of goods in the U.S. They also complicate the Chinese government’s efforts to reopen factories shuttered due to lockdowns. Logistics managers expect weeks to months before some international shipments return to normal.” However, as the world continues to grapple with constant supply chain issues, it is becoming evident this might just be normal now.
It’s Time For Your Bird Feeders to Fly the Nest (For Now)
The United States is currently experiencing an “unprecedented outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in our wild birds,” according to the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The strain being transmitted right now is a highly pathogenic form of H5N1, prompting culling across the country as the virus is detected in commercial flocks. The US recorded the euthanization of over 22 million commercial chickens and turkeys between the start of February and the start of April this year in response to the spread of the virus, following similar outbreaks in Europe earlier this year. The virus is shed in feces and respiratory droplets from infected birds, and it is known for being quite tough, able to survive for weeks in some environments. According to the New York Times, “The H5N1 strain of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, which is widespread in Europe, was first reported in North America in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador in December 2021. By mid-January, the virus had infected an American wigeon and blue-winged teal in South Carolina, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
Avian Influenza (AI) is typically found in migratory waterfowl like swans, geese, and ducks, who can carry these viruses without getting sick. As they migrate, they can spread the disease within their own groups as well as into other bird species. This is a problem when it infects birds like chickens or raptors, who become severely ill and die quickly. This year has seen AI have an unusually significant impact on birds of prey, however, with over three dozen bald eagles recorded dying from the disease heading into their spring nesting season, prompting further concern. The current outbreak is unique because of the very high levels of transmission of H5N1 in wildlife right now, says the Raptor Center. They also explain that more is known about how the virus impacts waterfowl, shorebirds, seabirds, and, to a lesser extend, birds like raptors. They note there is a significant knowledge gap in how songbirds are affected by HPAI outbreaks.
Dr. Victoria Hall at the University of Minnesota explained concerns about bird feeders during this time, writing:
“During these unprecedented times, we recommend doing anything that we can to try and help our wild bird populations. Because the science is unclear on the role of songbirds in this current H5N1 outbreak, one consideration is to not encourage birds to gather together at places such as bird feeders or bird baths. These are places where things like viruses could easily be exchanged between individuals.
In areas with HPAI transmission in any avian species, consider pausing the use of bird feeders and baths for the next couple of months until the rate of virus transmission in wild birds dramatically decreases. Not only will this action help to protect those beautiful feathered creatures that visit your yard, but will also help all wild bird species that are already having it hard this spring because of HPAI. We have it in our power to take a short term action so we are not accidentally assisting in the virus’ spread. This outbreak won’t last forever and I, for one, am greatly looking forward to when I can safely hang my bird feeders back up!”
The United States Geological Survey is updating their maps showing areas of the US where cases have been reported, which can further help in determining whether it is time to take some extra precautions like taking down the bird baths and feeders for now. Fortunately, hummingbird feeders are considered to be at the lowest risk since fewer types of birds visit them. Experts advise to consider pausing use of these feeders or, if their use is continued, clean them on a daily basis for now to help reduce risk.
Because this is the Pandora Report and not your neighborhood bird watching newsletter, here is where we scare you just a bit more: HPAI, particularly strains like H5N1, are of concern in global health security because, though they tend to only infect birds, the potential consequences if they were able to infect humans could be devastating. Specifically, the concern is that influenza A viruses that are circulating in poultry populations could recombine with human influenza A viruses, allowing them to become more transmissible in human populations. This could cause massive rates of infections and deaths globally. Right now, HPAI Asian H5N1 is epizootic in poultry populations in many countries, and that is not expected to change in the near future, so there will be some sporadic human infections in those who closely interact with these bird populations. Avian Influenza viruses like H5N1 are on the USDA’s portion of the Select Agents and Toxins List and they have been prominent features in discourse about dual use research of concern and gain of function studies on certain potential pandemic pathogens. Though HPAI H5N1 has more opportunities to infect people right now by virtue of more humans being exposed to infected animals amid the outbreaks, there is no indication that it has become better suited to infect and spread between people through genetic reassortment with human influenza A viruses. This is, however, a good reminder that human interactions with animal populations are not without risk, especially as human populations continue to encroach upon and damage wildlife habitats globally.
CSIS Coronavirus Crisis Update Ft. Dr. Beth Cameron
Dr. Beth Cameron, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the White House, joins CSIS for Episode #132 of this podcast. “The Biden administration is making progress on the Global Health Security and Pandemic Preparedness Fund, envisioned as a Financial Intermediary Fund at the World Bank. The fund will invest in a globally linked bio-surveillance and early warning system, aid to the most vulnerable countries to build their health security, and rapid research and development in regulatory systems to create, rapidly scale, and distribute medical countermeasures.” They discuss the need to “finish the job” and get out of this phase of the pandemic and the need for truly global surveillance systems and stronger information sharing to prevent the next biological threat. The second COVID-19 Summit has been announced for May 12, with the dual goals of ending the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthening preparedness for variants and future pandemic threats.
The Athena Agenda: Advancing the Apollo Program for Biodefense
The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense recently released its newest report, the Athena Agenda, building on its January 2021 report, The Apollo Program for Biodefense: Winning the Race Against Biological Threats. This new report highlights the devastation brought in the year since the earlier report was published, arguing that COVID-19, despite these horrors, is not a once-in-a-century pandemic and that another major biological event will likely occur before the century’s end. The authors focus on reductions of biodiversity, exploitation of wildlife, animal-human interactions, advances in gene-editing and synthetic biology, and more in explaining the myriad of risks facing the world today. They write, “The Athena Agenda: Advancing The Apollo Program for Biodefense contains additional recommendations to execute The Apollo Program, building on the Commission’s previous work and taking into consideration the efforts of current and former Administrations and Congresses. This report provides the following specific governance and technology recommendations to implement The Apollo Program for Biodefense and identifies the US government organizations responsible for leadership and accountability, though certain actions may require or benefit from public-private partnerships.” Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz provided advice to the authors of this report.
The Bubble Benefits From Some GMU Biodefense Program Knowledge
Netflix’s new comedy film, The Bubble, premiered early this month featuring the likes of Karen Gillan and David Duchovny in its all-star cast. The film follows the plight of a film cast trying to make a movie during the COVID-19 pandemic, following them through their two week quarantine and an influenza outbreak on set that will not stop the studio from making them film (In other, real life news, 20% of workplace COVID-19 outbreaks in LA County are in the entertainment industry, but the show must go on!). While the film has not been too popular with critics, the writers did make an effort to get their commentary on pandemic life right, turning to GMU Biodefense PhD Program turned professor, Dr. Saskia Popescu, for guidance.
Biological Risks and Hazards In the World Today With Special Focus On Russia and Ukraine
Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research Policy is offering this event featuring Dr. Gregory Koblentz. The event will take place on May 4, 2022, from 12:00-1:30pm ET. This will be held as a Zoom webinar, and is open to the public. Information and registration for the event can be found here: tinyurl.com/iserpbiorisks .
Biological and Chemical Weapons Security and the War in Ukraine
On May 5 at 4 pm CT, join experts Asha George and Robert Pope in conversation with Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editor Matt Field to discuss security risks in Ukraine. The discussion will cover the role of US-supported biological labs in Ukraine, what Russia’s alleged use of poisons and chemical weapons in the past says about its intentions for use in the future, and how disinformation about the use of biological weapons in Ukraine weakens global security. Speakers include Dr. Asha George (Executive Director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense) and Dr. Robert Pope (Director of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Directorate of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency). Register here.
Lessons from COVID-19 for the Public Health Emergency Enterprise: What Happened to the Plans? – A Workshop
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness for Disasters and Emergencies is hosting a workshop exploring the nation’s Public Health Emergency (PHE) preparedness enterprise, through the lens of COVID-19 in the US. The workshop will be hosted on May 17 and 18, and will explore key components, success stories, and failure points throughout the entire PHE preparedness and response enterprise. Participants will also identify opportunities for more effective catastrophic disaster, pandemic, and other large scale PHEs planning at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels. Speakers include Dr. Deborah Birx (former Coronavirus Response Coordinator at the Office of the Vice President) and Dr. Gigi Gronvall (Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security). Register here.
Women in STEM with Syra Madad and Linda Mobula
The Harvard Belfer Center’s Women in STEM series developed and moderated by Dr. Syra Madad highlights women leaders in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The aim of the series is to recognize the various accomplishments and contributions by women in STEM fields while educating and empowering young women, providing valuable advice and sharing pearls of wisdom. Join Belfer Fellow Dr. Syra Madad in conversation with Dr. Linda Mobula (Senior Health Specialist at World Bank) on Wednesday April 27 at 1 pm ET. Visit the event website for more information and to register.
Russian WMD Disinformation Resources
The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. While a more comprehensive list and tool on the Pandora Report’s website is currently under construction, here are a couple of recent works on the matter:
“Biological Weapons Are Banned: Biological Research Is Not”
EUvsDisinfo released this interview with Dr. Jean-Pascal Zanders, founder of The Trench, this week discussing some of the basics of history and international law surrounding biological weapons and the implications of Russia’s claims.
Programme Biologique Militaire en Ukraine, Histoire d’Une Désinformation Russe/ Military Biological Program in Ukraine, History of Russian Disinformation
This French language resource from the Fondation Pour la Recherche Stratégique (Foundation for Strategic Research) discusses Russia’s historical CBW disinformation efforts and offers updates and analysis of recent developments, including Russia’s statements at the UN Security Council last month.