Pandora Report: 12.9.2022

Happy National Influenza Vaccination Week! This edition is heavily COVID-19-focused, discussing China’s rollback of its Zero-COVID policy, probes into government handling of the COVID-19 responses in the US and New Zealand, and how the pandemic has influenced slang terms. We also cover several new publications, newly available research resources, and an exciting upcoming event with the National Academies. Have a great weekend and get your flu shot now if you haven’t already and are able to do so!

Three Years Wasted? China Lifts Zero-COVID Policies

Nearly three years into this pandemic, China is abandoning its Zero-COVID policy. Zero-COVID or Dynamic Clearing aimed to eliminate transmission of the virus in the country through strict testing requirements and lockdowns. This included whole-building lockdowns when one person in an apartment complex tested positive, long lines for COVID-19 testing, and negative QR code requirements to enter everything from coffee shops to public toilets. The Party claimed this harsh system was justified as, supposedly, the country had just two COVID-19 deaths in the 18 months after initial containment. China’s shockingly low case counts and deaths have frequently been the subject of suspicion in the last few years. Interestingly, China went this hard on lockdowns and testing, but did not centrally mandate vaccinations.

The vaccine strategy the country did employ has also been heavily criticized. Today, 89% of the population is estimated to have received their initial COVID-19 vaccine with about 57% having received a booster. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. While the government initially claimed it was close to producing its own mRNA offerings and that it would approve the BioNTech offering, today there are no mRNA COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the PRC. (Interestingly, Indonesia has granted Walvax Biotechnology’s mRNA vaccine an emergency use authorization.) China’s vaccination campaign has instead depended on two domestically-produced inactivated offerings-Sinopharm BIBP and CoronaVac.

Mathieu, E., Ritchie, H., Ortiz-Ospina, E. et al. A global database of COVID-19 vaccinations. Nat Hum Behav (2021)

In mid-2021, the WHO approved these offerings for emergency use based on limited clinical-trial data indicating that CoronaVac was about 51% effective while Sinopharm was about 79% effective. This was alright relative to the 63% efficacy reported for AstraZeneca’s viral-vector vaccine, but it was not as effective as the 90%+ reported for the Pfize-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA offerings. Nature News explained the initial criticism of China’s vaccines, writing “Both the Chinese vaccines are inactivated vaccines, which use killed SARS-CoV-2 virus. Researchers say this type of vaccine seems to be less potent because it triggers an immune response against many viral proteins. By contrast, mRNA and viral-vector vaccines target the response to the spike protein, which is what the virus uses to enter human cells.”

Then the Omicron variant came…This created a situation in which the country had a particularly vulnerable elderly population with very low trust in the government, a Party caught up in its own vaccine nationalism, and a more transmissible variant. As we have discussed previously, this eventually led to even more lockdowns and forced relocations to isolation center than before, eventually leading to widespread protests. Now, after three years, the government is rolling back its strict Zero-COVID policy as concerns about a coming massive wave of cases and deaths grow.

Now people are being encouraged to stay home if they are sick unless they are severely ill as rising case counts threaten to overwhelm hospitals. When people do arrive at hospitals, workers screen them for fevers and more severe symptoms, turning away those with milder symptoms. This is especially problematic as a large part of the public-facing justification for Zero-COVID was that infection often leads to severe illness, conflicting with what the public is being told now.

The New York Times quoted Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese pulmonologist, saying “The infections are not scary. Ninety-nine percent of the people who get infected can fully recover within 7 to 10 days. As long as we get plenty of rest, isolate ourselves and stay at home, we can recover quickly.” However, this ignores the risk of things like Long COVID and is contradictory to models many are now pointing to.

Science Insider explained earlier this month that, “A study based on vaccination rates in March, published in Nature Medicine in May, found that lifting zero-COVID restrictions at that point could “generate a tsunami of COVID-19 cases” over a 6-month period, with 112 million symptomatic cases, 2.7 million intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, and 1.6 million deaths. Peak demand for ICU beds would hit 1 million, more than 15 times the current capacity.” The Economist released a more conservative estimate predicting 680,000 COVID-19 deaths in the absence of Zero-COVID in China. However, their model depended on everyone who needs an ICU bed getting one, “which they would not,” according to the publication.

So, in the face of a potential “winter of death,” many are asking now why the country did not better prepare for this reopening in the three years it spent shutting the country down. Others are asking what this means for Xi Jinping and the Party as it seems likely they will have caved to public demand in a way that will lead to mass suffering in death. While the Party is likely to spin the narrative in whatever way benefits it most no matter what happens next, this is shaping up to be an even more eventful next couple of months for the PRC.

On a related note, James Fallows, President Carter’s speechwriter, interviewed long-term Mandarin translator Brendan O’Kane about ProPublica’s disputed piece on the Wuhan Institute of Virology we covered previously. The interview is fantastic and expertly explains the variety of problems in Toy Reid’s translations and why they fundamentally effect the integrity of the piece.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Majority Releases Report on Federal COVID-19 Response

This week Senate Democrats released their 241-page report covering the Trump administration’s early response to COVID-19, identifying both missteps on the part of the administration and multiple systemic issues in the federal government. The report, released by the Homeland Security Committee majority, relies on “documents and interviews with key Trump administration officials, including Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr. Robert R. Redfield, who served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” according to The New York Times.

The report identifies several issues like that “a public health emergency fund created to support state and local health systems had received no new appropriations since 1999 and had been “virtually empty” since 2012,” and that preparedness planning from 2005 through 2019 was too narrowly focused on influenza. Of the COVID-19 response, Committee Chairman Senator Gary Peters said, “There’s no question that political decisions were being made and that those decisions were unfortunately considered more important than what was being put out by public health officials.” He added, “And so that got politicized in a way that it should have never been politicized — and lives would have likely been saved.”

New Zealand Announces Inquiry Into COVID-19 Response

Prime Minister Jacinda Adern announced Monday this week a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Wellington’s COVID-19 response. Led by Australia-based epidemiologist Tony Blakely, the inquiry has 17 months to conduct research and form its report. New Zealand was both praised and criticized in its initial response to the pandemic, which focused on elimination and included closing the country’s borders and imposing strict lockdowns for much of the first two years. In August 2021, amid community transmission of the Delta variant in Auckland and Wellington, the country abandoned its elimination strategy and accelerated its vaccine rollout.

So far, beyond questions of the efficacy of the country’s lockdowns, a major point of criticism focuses on the country planning for a single disease. AP reports that “COVID-19 Response Minister Dr. Ayesha Verrall said one of the lessons was that having a prescriptive pandemic plan, like New Zealand’s influenza-based plan before COVID-19 hit, was not much use. “I imagine the lesson has been learned that just looking at the characteristics of one bug isn’t going to cut it,” Verrall said. “You have to look much more broadly.”

WHO Members States to Develop Zero Draft of Pandemic Accord

This week, the WHO announced that member states have agreed to develop a first draft of what will eventually become a legally binding agreement rooted in the WHO constitution to help protect the world from future pandemics. The draft will be prepared so it can be discussed in February 2023 at the fourth Intergovernmental Negotiating Body meeting. According to WHO, “This draft will be based on the conceptual zero draft and the discussions during this week’s INB meeting. The INB Bureau is comprised of six delegates, one from each of the six WHO regions, including the Co-Chairs Mr Roland Driece of the Netherlands and Ms Precious Matsoso of South Africa.”

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human lives, economies and societies at large must never be forgotten,” said Ms Matsoso. “The best chance we have, today, as a global community, to prevent a repeat of the past is to come together, in the spirit of solidarity, in a commitment to equity, and in the pursuit of health for all, and develop a global accord that safeguards societies from future pandemic threats.” 

Going Goblin Mode

Coronacation, Miss Rona, the panini/pandemi lovato/✨panorama✨…the COVID-19 pandemic brought lots of interesting new slang. One such term, goblin mode, is getting special attention, however. If you gained a favorite sweatshirt over the course of the pandemic that you don’t wash as often as you probably ought to, this one’s for you. “Goblin mode,” a slang term for a “type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations,” was recently named Oxford Languages’ 2022 Word of the Year. The term dates back to at least 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that it went viral. “It captured the prevailing mood of individuals who rejected the idea of returning to ‘normal life’, or rebelled against the increasingly unattainable aesthetic standards and unsustainable lifestyles exhibited on social media,” Oxford Languages said in a press release.

NPR writes, “The slang particularly struck a chord with people who felt disillusioned by the third year of the pandemic and the ongoing political upheavals around the world. In response, they are rejecting societal expectations and making their own rules of how to live. The trend is marked by a departure from respectability and aesthetic. Instead, it encourages people to lean into their uncurated, self-indulgent and sometimes mischievous ways.”

Now, if you’re saying “But I’ve never heard of goblin mode,” here are some examples: Academic types-there is at least a 50% chance your office qualifies as being in goblin mode.

Cat parents-you know what we’re talking about here.

“Biodefense and Emergency Use Authorization: Different Originations, Purposes, and Evolutionary Paths of Institutions in the United States and South Korea”

Biodefense Program alumnus Dr. HyunJung Kim recently published this article in Globalization and Health. Abstract: “Background: Emergency-use-authorization (EUA) is the representative biodefense policy that allows the use of unlicensed medical countermeasures or off-label use of approved medical countermeasures in response to public health emergencies. This article aims to determine why the EUA policies of the United States and South Korea produced drastically different outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how these outcomes were determined by the originations and evolutionary paths of the two policies.”

“Method: Historical institutionalism (HI) explains institutional changes—that is, how the institution is born and how it evolves—based on the concept of path dependency. However, the HI analytical narratives remain at the meso level of analysis in the context of structure and agency. This article discusses domestic and policy-level factors related to the origination of the biodefense institutions in the United States and South Korea using policy-learning concepts with the Event-related Policy Change Model.”

“Results: The 2001 anthrax letter attack (Amerithrax) and the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak prompted the establishment of biodefense institutions in the United States and South Korea, respectively. Due to the different departure points and the mechanism of path dependency, the two countries’ EUAs evolved in different ways—the United States EUA reinforced the Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) function, while the South Korea EUA strengthened the Non-Pharmaceutical Intervention (NPI) function.”

“Conclusion: The evolution and outcomes of the two EUAs are different because both policies were born out of different needs. The United States EUA is primarily oriented toward protecting homeland security against CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) threats, whereas the South Korea EUA is specifically designed for disease prevention against infectious disease outbreak.”

“Preparing for Twenty-First-Century Bioweapons”

Biodefense Program alumnus Dr. Yong-Bee Lim recently co-authored this piece with Dr. Kathleen Vogel and David Gillum using the ongoing BWC RevCon to discuss the roles NGOs can play in advancing security. They write, “As the BWC enters its 50th year, it’s time to prepare for a future world with weapons and wars that do not look like those that the treaty was designed to prevent. In this complex process, NGOs can play vital, diverse roles in strengthening the BWC and enlarging the field of global actors that engage with nonproliferation and disarmament. NGOs can bring new resources and perspectives to a daunting task of envisioning how the life sciences themselves may evolve to permit new threats, as well as new means of control. By deliberately engaging participants from the entire world, particularly the Global South, the BWC has an opportunity to gain trust and cooperation at the grassroots level. In these capacities, NGOs may be indispensable in establishing global norms and policies against biological weapons threats and continuing the considerable success of the BWC in an unknown future.”

“Recounting the Top IPC Stories of 2022”

Biodefense Program alumna and Assistant Professor Dr. Saskia Popescu recently authored this piece for Infection Control Today summarizing top stories from 2022 and what to expect next year. In it she covers everything from polio, to mpox, to RSV, to Russia’s BW disinformation, so be sure to give it a read.

“Uncovering the Hard Work Behind the World’s Push for an Ebola Sudan Vaccine”

In this piece, Dr. Caitlin Rivers interviews Dr. Andrew Kilianski (an Adjunct Professor who teaches biosurveillance at the Schar School and Senior Director for Emerging Infectious Disease Vaccines at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI)) on his organization’s efforts to develop a vaccine candidate for Ebola Sudan virus. In it, Kilianski discusses IAVI and his role in it, the process of bringing a vaccine candidate through preclinical and clinical phases, and challenges organizations are facing in trying to respond to the current Ebola outbreak in Uganda.

2022 Bioeconomy Executive Order White Papers

From the Engineer Biology Research Consortium: “On September 12, 2022, President Biden released an Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy. This Executive Order calls for “a whole-of-government approach to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing towards innovative solutions in health, climate change, energy, food security, agriculture, supply chain resilience, and national and economic security.” The Executive Order follows additional action by the United States Congress to support the bioeconomy and biomanufacturing, most notably the passage of Title IV—Bioeconomy Research and Development in the Chips and Science Act.”

“To capitalize on this moment of importance and enthusiasm for a growing and robust U.S. bioeconomy, EBRC is publishing a series of policy white papers on topics of importance to EBRC members and the engineering biology community that we believe can provide guidance and recommendations to the federal agencies tasked with responding to the Executive Order.” These white papers are available here. Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz serves on the EBRC Security Working Group and contributed to the “Biosafety & Biosecurity Innovation Initiative” white paper.

“Stakeholder Perspectives on the Biological Weapons Convention”

From UNIDIR: “Efforts to enhance biological disarmament and build biosecurity can no longer be achieved by States alone. It will require support from stakeholders around the globe if we are to achieve progress in the Biological Weapons Convention and wider efforts to strengthen biological security. Unfortunately, stakeholder perspectives are not necessarily always well understood or reflected in biological disarmament diplomacy. And some sectors are almost entirely absent from discussions.”

“To address this challenge, UNIDIR invited a diverse range of stakeholders and representatives from around the world and with diverse backgrounds to contribute their insights to this report. The contributions reflect activities they had undertaken in support of the BWC, what more their respective communities could do, and provide recommendations on what States Parties to the BWC should do (or not do) to advance the BWC. Collectively, these contributions provide several concrete ideas for BWC States Parties to consider in seeking to strengthen the Convention.” Read here.

Disarmament, Security and Development Nexus: Compendium of UNIDIR Annual Youth Disarmament Essay Competition’s Best Essays

“The first annual UNIDIR Global Youth Disarmament Essay competition was launched in 2022, responding to the calls for giving a voice to young people on the connections between disarmament and development. The Republic of Korea generously supported this essay competition. The theme of the first UNIDIR Global Youth Disarmament Essay competition was the ‘Disarmament, Security and Development Nexus’. Students and young professionals aged between 18 to 29 years old were invited to submit an essay that explored one of the following areas: Disarmament, economic growth, and inequalities; Disarmament for sustainable cities; Innovative disarmament efforts in light of the 21st century’s environmental challenges; Gender mainstreaming for sustainable disarmament and development.” Check out the top five essays from the competition here.

“The Future Home of the World’s Most Dangerous Pathogens”

Sarah Scoles’ recent piece for Coda Media discusses the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility’s (NBAF) struggle to balance the important work it is designed to do with genuine and ingenuine community and broader concerns, writing, “In high-containment biology labs like NBAF, though, the line between antagonistic misinformation and grounded concern is thin. And that means NBAF has to balance (at least) three things: the value of its research, the real risks of keeping big-time germs around and public concerns, both real and imagined.”

Scoles covers the story of microbiologist Lisa Hensley’s journey to NBAF, the security features of the facility, and the public discussion about the lab fraught with fears ranging from “I don’t want my cattle to get sick because of an accident” and “they are planning the next great pandemic.” You won’t want to miss this one!

“Operational Evaluation of the FDA Human Foods Program”

From the Reagan-Udall Foundation: “On December 6, 2022, the Independent Expert Panel for Foods submitted its report on the Operational Evaluation of FDA’s Human Foods Program to FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf. The evaluation and report were facilitated by the Reagan-Udall Foundation at Dr. Califf’s request.”

“The evaluation of FDA’s Human Foods Program launched on September 8, 2022. The evaluation focused on structure/leadership, authorities, resources, and culture, expecting to provide recommendations that would equip FDA to carry out its regulatory responsibilities, strengthen its relationships with state and local governments, and secure the nation’s food supply for the future. (The review excludes cosmetic and dietary supplement responsibilities.)”

Improving the IC’s Leveraging of the Full S&T Ecosystem

From the National Academies: “The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) depends on knowledge of cutting edge science and technology (S&T) to inform intelligence missions and compete with its adversaries. At the request of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Academies established a committee to explore ways in which the intelligence community might best leverage the S&T ecosystem.”

“Please join us for a webinar on our new report, Improving the Intelligence Community’s Leveraging of the Full Science and Technology Ecosystem, on Wednesday, December 14 at 11 am ET. During the webinar, members of the committee will present the report’s key findings and discuss how the IC can better leverage S&T knowledge that exists across the broader government, domestic, and global environments.” Register here.

Call for Nominations: Future of the Nation’s Laboratory Systems for Health Emergency Response: A Workshop

“A planning committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will organize and convene a two-day public workshop. During this workshop, invited participants from government, non-governmental organizations, and private sector organizations will explore the United States’ laboratory and testing responses to past, present, and potential health emergencies (e.g., COVID-19; monkey pox; chemical, radiological or nuclear threats), and will discuss the future of laboratory capabilities, capacities, and coordination for health emergencies response across public and private entities nationally. This workshop will focus on operational aspects of laboratory response, rather than technology development, including topics such as collaboration, coordination, information sharing, workforce, capacities and capabilities, and access.” Learn more and submit nominations here.

Violent Non-State Actor Chemical, Biological Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Data Portal Goes Live

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Unconventional Weapons & Technology Division has launched its new Violent Non-State Actor Chemical, Biological Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Data Portal. START explains that, “In order to provide a basis for rigorous empirical analysis of the CBRN terrorism phenomenon, UWT developed three databases: Profiles Of Incidents involving CBRN and Non-state actors (POICN); Chemical And Biological Non-State Adversaries Database (CABNSAD); and Radiological And Nuclear Non-State Actor Database (RANNSAD). These databases represent the largest open source publicly available databases on ideologically motivated CBRN events and individuals who pursue and/or use CBRN weapons.”

NCSC Safeguarding Science Toolkit

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center and its partners recently announced “a unique collaboration between elements of the U.S. intelligence and scientific communities to help the U.S. research enterprise mitigate the broad spectrum of risk it faces from nation-state, criminal, and other threat actors…The Safeguarding Science online toolkit is designed for individuals and organizations in the U.S. scientific, academic, and emerging technology sectors who are seeking to develop their own programs to protect research, technology, and personnel from theft, abuse, misuse, or exploitation.”

“The Safeguarding Science toolkit was designed with the scientific community for the scientific community. It provides research stakeholders with a single location to access security best practices from across government and academia and to select those tools tailored for their individual needs. NCSC and its partners seek to promote a robust and resilient U.S. research ecosystem that emphasizes integrity, collaboration, openness, and security, all of which facilitate innovation.”

The Pandora Report Wants to Hear from Biodefense Program Alumni!

Calling all graduates of the Biodefense Program-do you have any news to share from this year? We want to hear from you! The Pandora Report will be creating a year-in-review for our late December issue, and we want to include updates from current students and alumni alike. It can be anything from promotions, publications, new jobs, etc. that you would like to share. Share your updates with us at biodefense@gmu.edu before December 23 to be featured in the year-in-review and anytime you want to stay in touch.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week: In 1979, there was a suspicious outbreak of anthrax that killed over 60 people in a town located near a military research complex. For years, authorities blamed this outbreak on consumption of contaminated meat, though it was actually the result of an accidental release of Bacillus anthracis. What town did this happen in? (City Name, Country)

Shout out to Georgios P. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “Which country most recently became a State Party to the Biological Weapons Convention?” is Namibia.

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