Pandora Report: 1.20.2023

Happy (almost) Lunar New Year! This week we are covering several updates, including China’s COVID-19 cases and fatalities, a new GAO report on HHS’ oversight of high-risk research, and more. We also have several new publications this week, an interesting podcast episode on PPE, and plenty of newly-launched resources and open opportunities later on in the issue.

China Calims 60K COVID-19 Deaths as Lunar New Year Travel Surges

This week, China said it has recorded nearly 60,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 since lifting Zero COVID restrictions last month, up from the 37 it previously claimed had died since December 7. Previously, the country had reported just over 5,000 COVID-19 deaths in total since the initial outbreak of the disease in Wuhan in late 2019. The New York Times explains this, writing “Until Saturday, China had reported a total of just 5,272 Covid deaths since the pandemic began in the city of Wuhan in late 2019. That measure was narrowly defined as deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure caused by Covid. The new figure released Saturday included those who had Covid, but also died from other underlying illnesses.”

Reuters explains this figure further, writing “China recorded 59,938 Covid-related deaths from Dec. 8 to Jan. 12, Jiao Yahui, an official with China’s National Health Commission, said at a news conference in Beijing. That figure included 5,503 people who died of respiratory failure directly caused by Covid. Another 54,435 fatalities were linked to other underlying illnesses, Ms. Jiao said.” Reuters also notes that Jiao claims China was unable to release this information sooner because it “required a comprehensive examination of hospital reporting.”

It remains unclear whether or not China has changed the way it counts COVID-19 deaths so that it includes those with underlying conditions that contributed to their death from COVID-19. Furthermore, many are still skeptical of these numbers, and concerns about a further spike amid holiday travel persist. Combined with other factors like the economic impact this has had in China, and attempts to stamp out online discourse about the Party’s handling of the pandemic by blocking “fake information” that would cause a “gloomy sentiment”, this troubling situation is continuing to evolve.

Russia Announces Criminal Case Against Unnamed US Citizen Accused of Espionage Related to “Biological Topics”

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced this week it has opened a case against a US citizen, citing allegations of “…engaging in “espionage” related to “biological topics.” According to The Guardian, ““The American is suspected of collecting intelligence information in the biological sphere, directed against the security of the Russian Federation,” it added, without any further details.” Reuters reports that “The U.S. State Department said it was aware of the “unconfirmed reports” that Russia has opened a criminal case against a U.S. citizen on suspicion of espionage.” Reuters continued, writing “We’re looking into this matter and we’ll continue to monitor,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters on Thursday….Patel added Russia does not generally abide by obligations to provide timely notification of the detention of U.S. citizens in Russia.”

New GAO Report–“Public Health Preparedness: HHS Could Improve Oversight of Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released this report discussing its study reviewing the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) oversight policies and programs (“the Framework”). The report indicates that “GAO found that HHS’s Framework does not fully meet the key elements of effective oversight identified in past work. For example, the Framework does not provide a standard to help funding agencies interpret what “reasonably anticipated” means. Until HHS develops and documents such a standard, the Framework allows for subjective and potentially inconsistent interpretations of the requirement—leaving HHS without assurance the department is reviewing all necessary research proposals.”

The report, available here, discusses the GAO study and findings at length. It concludes with three recommendations–1) “The Secretary of Health and Human Services should work with HHS funding agencies to develop and document a standard for “reasonably anticipated” to ensure consistency in identifying research for departmental review that is “reasonably anticipated to create, transfer or use enhanced potential pandemic pathogens,”; 2) “The Secretary of Health and Human Services should work with HHS funding agencies to identify and share non-sensitive information with researchers, Congress, and the public about the departmental review process for research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens, including information on composition and expertise of those involved in the review process and how the evaluation criteria are applied,” and 3) “As HHS and CDC deliberate any changes to the DSAT program, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should assess and document the risk posed by the limitations of the existing DSAT exemptions for public health emergencies and seek legislative authority as needed.”

“This photograph depicts a microbiologist in what had been the Influenza Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while she was conducting an experiment inside a negatively-pressurized biological safety cabinet (BSC) within the Biosafety Level 3-enhanced laboratory. The airflow into the BSC helps prevent any airborne virus particles from escaping the confines of the cabinet, and as part of her personal protective equipment (PPE), she was wearing a powered air purifying respirator (PAPR), which was filtering the air that she was breathing.”| Credit: CDC PHIL

No More Biowordscramble–NIST Releases Bioeconomy Lexicon

Biosecurity, bioenergy, bioinspired, biorisk…If you have ever started to feel like the new trend in security jargon is adding “bio” to an already existing word, this one is for you. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently released its bioeconomy lexicon as directed in the Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy. NIST explains the need for this, writing “Biotechnology and biomanufacturing are increasingly vital to the global economy, including in the health care, food and agriculture, and energy sectors. Accordingly, there is a need for standardized terms and definitions to ensure a common understanding of the concepts, data, technical developments, and workforce opportunities as the bioeconomy grows both domestically and internationally.”

They continue by explaining the creation of the lexicon: “This initial lexicon was developed by NIST in consultation with an interagency working group consisting of several U.S. government departments and agencies as directed in the Executive Order noted above, and reflects consideration of relevant domestic and international definitions as well as those from private sector stakeholders. The lexicon harmonizes a base set of terms and definitions with the goal of helping to enable the development of measurements and measurement methods for the bioeconomy that support uses such as economic measurement, risk assessments, and the application of machine learning and other artificial intelligence tools. This lexicon is intended to be a living document, and NIST intends to periodically engage with government and private sector stakeholders to inform future updates to the lexicon terms and definitions as appropriate.”

“Assessing the Trajectory of Biological Research and Development in the Russian Federation”

In this piece for Joint Forces Quarterly, Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall and Aurelia Attal-Juncqua offer an overview of the Soviet and Russian biological weapons programs and insight into concerns about current Russian research today. Using information from a two-round Delphi study, they discuss their findings related to “Concerns About Management, Biosecurity, and Biosafety of Dual-Use Research of Concern in the Russian Federation” and “Current State of Biotech and Biological R&D in the Russian Federation.” They conclude with a number of observations and recommendations, including insight into how science diplomacy with Russia may be harmed, writing “Historically, science diplomacy has been a useful tool to keep communication lines open when security relations are fraught and has led to positive outcomes for both science and national security. However, Russia’s invasion of the sovereign Ukrainian nation makes any bilateral engagements between the United States and Russia unconscionable at this time. These actions are unlikely to be forgotten or forgiven swiftly, and sanctions are likely to persist for some time. Eventually, at an undetermined point in the future, such engagements will certainly again prove to be important for national security and scientific advancement.”

“The Myth of the “Poor Man’s Atomic Bomb”: Knowledge, Method, and Ideology in the Study of Chemical, Biological, and Nuclear Weapons”

Check out Biejan Poor Toulabi’s interesting recent article in the Journal of Global Security Studies. Abstract: “Chemical and biological weapons (CBWs) have often been characterized as a “poor man’s atomic bomb”: a cheap and easy to acquire alternative to nuclear weapons that is particularly appealing to so-called Third World states. This idea is also reflected in Western government and expert estimates that have long exaggerated the spread of CBWs, especially among states in the Global South. In this article, I break down the ways in which the idea that the spread of CBWs is prevalent and that it primarily happens among states in the Global South has come to exist and persist. By dissecting an oft-cited dataset on CBW spread, I unravel frequently occurring methodological flaws—such as conceptual confusion, misinterpretation of sources, and a bias toward proliferation charges originating from the US government—that breed and sustain inflated estimates and faulty allegations. Subsequently, I show that a dominant cognitive framework that centers on the metaphorical use of the terms “proliferation” and “poor man’s atomic bomb” primes analysts and policymakers to interpret the history and future of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons as being characterized by inevitable spread, particularly among the non-Western “Other.” In conclusion, I offer ways to counter the orthodoxies of this ideology in teaching, research, and policy.”

RevCon Reports 16 and 17

CBW Events’ BioWeapons Prevention Project recently released its RevCon Report 16 and RevCon Report 17, concluding their coverage of the recent BWC Review Conference. Report 16 discusses the final day of the conference and offers reflections on RevCon as a whole. Report 17 provides an outline and discussion of the content of the Final Document. Richard Guthrie also includes discussion of what the Final Document lacks, writing “As well as what would normally be part II of the Final Document, noted above, there were a number of other elements missing. Perhaps the most significant is any substance on the processes that will be established for the review of S&T developments and the promotion of international cooperation under Article X. Other aspects which have had broad support ended up being removed in an attempt to reach consensus included creation of an Article VII database, endorsement of the Tianjin Guidelines, and any reference to gender issues.”

“118th Congress: Bioeconomy and Health Security”

In this piece for the Federation of American Scientists,  Michael A. Fisher, Sruthi Katakam and Maeve Skelly discuss opportunities the 118th Congress has to adopt policies that “help drive U.S. biotech and biomanufacturing to grow regional prosperity, deliver on conservation goals, and improve U.S. competitiveness and resilience.” They offer several ideas for improving competitiveness in the bioeconomy, safeguarding the country against biological threats, and several recommendations for appropriations. An especially interesting portion is that which is dedicated to countering global malnutrition to enhance US security, in which they write “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental impacts, and conflicts like the war in Ukraine, global rates of malnutrition are at eight percent and are forecast to become even worse. Providing life-saving treatment around the world serves a core American value of humanitarianism, and a priority for U.S. national security – the newly released National Security Strategy dedicates an entire section to food insecurity.”

In 2021 legislation, Congress directed USAID to advance programs to prevent and treat malnutrition around the world and develop a Global Nutrition Coordination Plan. That legislation also directed USAID to create the Nutrition Leadership Council, which can help elevate nutrition programs across U.S. global health interventions and foster collaboration with other sectors, development agencies, partner governments, and local actors. These are important steps to create a centralized food security program with harmonized funding – a system to deploy a more effective response to end global malnutrition and improve U.S. national security.”

“Congress should work with the Administration to begin scaling up global malnutrition assistance in FY 2024, in accord with the 2021 legislation.”

“‘Shot In The Arm’ Shows How Disinformation Can Be Deadly”

Dr. Lipi Roy discusses Shot in the Arm, a film that recently premiered at the Palm Spring International Film Festival, in this piece for Forbes. In it, she covers core elements of the film and how it contributes to the broader conversation surrounding vaccine hesitancy and disinformation going on today, consulting experts like Dr. Peter Hotez along the way. She writes in part, “Health-related misinformation can be deadly, and we must actively combat it. Healthcare professionals need to partner with finance, fashion, sports, media and entertainment industries to promote vaccines and science in general. Celebs like Hugh Jackman, Gayle King and Julia Roberts proudly – and publicly – promoted their Covid-19 vaccinations. I also believe that a politicized problem needs a political response: elected officials – guided by health experts – need to create policies to protect the public, as they did with seatbelts, air bags and bike helmets. Lastly, people who actively promote lies about science and medicine need to be held accountable. As a physician, if I lied to patients and withheld lifesaving treatments for their thyroid cancer or lupus, I would lose my medical license. Similar punitive action must be applied to people who actively propagate egregious lies about YOUR health and safety. Shot in the Arm is really the kick in the pants we ALL need to preserve the sanctity of science and protect the most vulnerable among us. Go see this film.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

PPE Breaches: Understanding the Risks and How to Respond 

“On the podcast episode “NETEC Guidance on Breach of PPE,” five NETEC [National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center] experts in personal protective equipment (PPE) talked about breaches in PPE and the importance of preparing health care workers to assess the risks and safely respond to a breach.”

One Health Approach for Effective Biodefense and Global Health Security

“The National Academy of Engineering’s Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable will convene a webinar on January 24 from 1-2 P.M. ET to discuss the latest National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan. Discussions will focus on the collaborative and transdisciplinary ‘One Health’ approach, per the Plan, for effective biodefense and global health security. Speakers (below) will explore the role of cross-sectoral partnerships as well as innovative approaches to achieve the goals and objectives outlined in the Strategy.” Learn more and register here.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) Meeting

The next NSABB meeting will take place virtually on January 27 at 1 pm EST. This meeting will cover “Draft Findings: Ensuring Biosecurity Oversight Frameworks Keep Pace with the Future of Science.” Learn more and register here.

Special Call for Papers-Journal of Science Policy & Governance

The Journal of Science Policy & Governance recently announced a special call for papers “and competition to provide policymakers with a new perspective on how scientific expertise could be useful to the complex brew of 21st foreign policy and national security challenges, resulting in a special issue on Policy and Governance on Science, Technology and Global Security.” The journal invites “students, post-doctoral researchers, policy fellows, early career researchers and young professionals from around the world to submit op-eds, policy position papers and other articles addressing foreign policy and national security challenges. These include concerns about the use of nuclear or radiological weapons driven by the war in the Ukraine, hypersonic weapons, immigration driven by climate change, and emerging threats in cybersecurity and biosecurity.” The deadline for submission is April 30.

Additionally, there will be a science policy writing workshop on January 30 in addition to two webinars on February 20 and March 30 (one on Policy and Governance on Science and Technology and one on Foreign Policy and National Security, respectively) to help prospective authors prepare their submissions. Learn more about these events and register here.

Closing the Knowledge Gaps

“BIO-ISAC, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will host a one-day event (with remote participation available) on January 24, 2023.”

“This gathering of thought leaders across the industry and its partners will address knowledge gaps about the bioeconomy itself. The event is expected to deliver recommendations that demonstrate the scope and breadth of industry impacts, identify specific safety needs and goals, and carve the path forward for a secure future.” Learn more and register here.

Novel Applications of Science and Technology to Address Emerging Chemical and Biological Threats

For the first time since 2019, this Gordon Research Conference is back, this time in sunny Ventura, CA. “The Chemical and Biological Defense GRC is a premier, international scientific conference focused on advancing the frontiers of science through the presentation of cutting-edge and unpublished research, prioritizing time for discussion after each talk and fostering informal interactions among scientists of all career stages. The conference program includes a diverse range of speakers and discussion leaders from institutions and organizations worldwide, concentrating on the latest developments in the field. The conference is five days long and held in a remote location to increase the sense of camaraderie and create scientific communities, with lasting collaborations and friendships. In addition to premier talks, the conference has designated time for poster sessions from individuals of all career stages, and afternoon free time and communal meals allow for informal networking opportunities with leaders in the field.” The conference will be held March 19-24, 2023. Learn more and apply here by February 19.

Call for Participants: Assess Biosafety and Biosecurity Oversight of Dual Use Research of Concern and Pathogens of Pandemic Potential

Kathleen Vogel and David Gillum of Arizona State University are conducting a research project to “…understand how dual use research of concern and pathogens of pandemic potential are regulated and how biosafety and biosecurity of this work is implemented, and if there are opportunities to improve the long-term benefits and minimize risks associated with this scientific work.” Their study includes a survey on this topic, which is accepting responses through January 27. Learn more and take the 20-25 minute survey here.

Notice of Funding Opportunity: Evidence-based Approaches to Implementing Biosafety in Diagnostic and Research Laboratories

This opportunity is offered by the Elizabeth R. Griffin Program at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security. Stakeholders can review this funding opportunity and submit applications here. Applications are due February 28.

Wilson Center Launches International Cooperation for Pandemic Preparedness Website

“As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its fourth year, the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center launched a new website today to address the changing paradigms in international health law and the critical need for strengthening global health security for the future.”

“This dynamic website, International Cooperation for Pandemic Preparedness, features renowned international health experts who break down eight critical issues the pandemic exacerbated, revealed, or created. Through video interviews and written analyses, the interactive examines what can happen at the international level when countries and international organizations work together to find needed solutions. In light of heightened demands for a pandemic treaty under the World Health Organization, expert advice on what is achievable at the international level has never been more critical to combating future COVID-19 variants and future pandemics.”

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, our question is “In 1985, an American extremist group’s compound was raided by more than 300 law enforcement officers from several federal, state, and local agencies following a three-day standoff. Among other items, officers seized about thirty gallons of potassium cyanide the group intended to use to poison water supplies of several cities. What was the name of this group?”

Shout out to Tracy S. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “In 1980, a Frenchman entered a cave while visiting Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya. A week later he became seriously ill, eventually dying in a Nairobi hospital. Which cave did he enter and what disease killed him?” is Kitum Cave and Marburg virus disease.

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