Pandora Report: 11.19.2021

Anti-vaccine influencers on social media are pushing bogus methods to “undo” the vaccine. A COP26 special report provides a health argument for climate action. The Pandora Report will be taking Thanksgiving week off to safely spend time with family and friends, and we wish you a lovely holiday!

How to Make Holiday Gatherings Safer: 6 Things to Keep in Mind

According to Dr. Saskia Popescu and Dr. Syra Madad, compared to the holidays in 2020, this year’s celebration season has two advantages: (1) we have safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19 and (2) we’re much more attuned to risk reduction measures like the availability of at-home testing, ventilation, and better masks that can make any type of gathering safer. Popescu and Madad urge us to keep six things in mind as we gather for the upcoming holidays: vaccination, testing, mask, people, place, and time and space.

Antibiotic-Resistant Infections Could Be a New “Hidden Pandemic,” UK Experts Warn

Experts in the UK are warning that antibiotic-resistant infections are the next big concern as a “hidden pandemic.” The World Health Organization describes this risk as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” In the UK, in 2020, one in five people with a bloodstream infection had a resistant one. As winter nears, experts fear that there will be another increase in antibiotic-resistant infections. The UK Health Security Agency has cautioned that the data suggest “resistant infections are likely to rise in the post-pandemic years and will require ongoing action.”

COP26

COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health

The 10 recommendations in the COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health propose a set of priority actions from the global health community to governments and policy makers, calling on them to act with urgency on the current climate and health crises.

The recommendations were developed in consultation with over 150 organizations and 400 experts and health professionals. They are intended to inform governments and other stakeholders ahead of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and to highlight various opportunities for governments to prioritize health and equity in the international climate movement and sustainable development agenda. Each recommendation comes with a selection of resources and case studies to help inspire and guide policymakers and practitioners in implementing the suggested solutions. Read the report here.

‘COP26 Hasn’t Solved the Problem’: Scientists React to UN Climate Deal

Government ministers at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) have reached a deal on further steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions after discussions overran by 24 hours. On 13 November, representatives from nearly 200 countries agreed the final text of the deal, which pledges further action to curb emissions, more frequent updates on progress and additional funding for low- and middle-income countries. Researchers have expressed relief that the meeting did produce an agreement, but some left COP26 dissatisfied at the lack of stronger commitments to reduce emissions, and failure to agree “loss and damage” finance for countries that are vulnerable to climate change. “COP26 has closed the gap, but it has not solved the problem,” says Niklas Hoehne, a climate researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Countries now need to come forward with more ambitious pledges to tackle climate change, he adds. Read more about scientists’ reactions to COP26 here.

Here’s What World Leaders Agreed To — And What They Didn’t — At the UN Climate Summit

After two weeks of intense negotiations in Glasgow, world leaders signed off on a new climate change agreement. Some nations pledged to impressive cuts to pollution, but many others “did not agree to rein in emissions fast enough for the world to avoid the worst damage from climate-driven storms, heat waves and droughts.” If countries stick to their promises, experts say that those goals may still be in reach. By 2030, emissions need to be cut by 45% to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Over 100 countries committed at the summit to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030. In a surprise statement, the US and China agreed to work together to “strengthen and accelerate climate action and cooperation” in the near-term. It was proposed that wealthier nations compensate developing nations for climate change-related “loss and damage.” This proposal ran into a brick wall, but “discussions will begin between nations about how loss and damage funding might work.” Wealthy nations have also not provided the promised $100 billion of funding to support climate action.

WHO & SOCIAL SCIENCE

SAGO Has a Politics Problem, And WHO Is Ignoring It

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) has recently been established to “define and guide studies into the origins [of Novel Pathogens]” and “advise WHO on prioritizing studies and field investigations into [Novel Pathogens].” In both of these, an attention to political questions like “which pathogens deserve investigation?” and “how should countries’ possible pathogen origins be prioritized?” will need to be addressed.

However, arguments have been made by WHO that SAGO should “follow the science” and “avoid politicization.” There is a clear tension here. The statement to “avoid politicization” is a political act in itself. It is an act that suggests states, government, and citizens have no business in holding science to account. In turn it is an act that both recognizes the role and importance of politics, but sees the answer as doing nothing about it. Politics is framed as a problem—a major stumbling block to both pandemic preparedness and response, and for science to do its work—but one best avoided rather than understood. Political expertise is reduced to the important work of diplomacy or political communication. There is also an assumption that all political engagement means partisan or geo-politics, which is a misnomer. Politics is located at all levels, from the micropolitics of the Wuhan laboratory to the geopolitics of the G7 and UN systems. The publication of the membership of SAGO shows a lack of attention to expertise in the social sciences, and politics in particular. This is sure to cause problems in two domains core to the functioning of SAGO: the politics of pathogenic origins, and the politics of global investigations. Read the article about the WHO and SAGO here.

Joint Research Centre and World Health Organization Join Forces to Use Behavioral Insights for Public Health

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded a Collaborative Research Arrangement that aims to mainstream behavioral insights into public health programs and policies worldwide. Behavioral insights can help improve understanding on how and why people behave in ways that affect their health, and help design policies and services that address behavioral factors for improved physical and mental well-being.

The Commission, through the JRC, will assist WHO in expanding its behavioral insights for health program. Both organizations will agree on specific areas of focus, which would include issues like non-communicable diseases, anti-microbial resistance and the use of behavioral insights to increase the capacity of health workforce.

This Collaborative Research Arrangement builds on the priority placed by European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen on public health. It will contribute to building the European Health Union and promoting reforms in health governance in the EU and worldwide. The JRC’s Competence Centre on Behavioral Insights, which works to support EU policymaking with evidence on human behavior, will drive the new collaboration.

ALL THINGS COVID-19

COVID Vaccine Holdouts Are Caving to Mandates – Then Scrambling to “Undo” Their Shots

A popular TikTok video posted by a Dr. Carrie Madej detailed the ingredients for a bath she claims will “detox” the vaccine for people who caved to the COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Though the ingredients for this supposed detox bath are mostly not harmful, its effects are completely fictional. This is just one of several examples of bogus methods to undo the vaccine posted by anti-vaccine influencers on social media. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist, stated that the “lifesaving vaccination process” begins as soon as a person is injected, and it cannot be counteracted.

How COVID Might Sow Chaos in the Brain

“Brain fog” is not a formal medical descriptor. But it aptly describes an inability to think clearly that can turn up in multiple sclerosis, cancer or chronic fatigue. Recently, the condition has grabbed headlines because of reports that it afflicts those recovering from COVID-19.

COVID’s brain-related symptoms go beyond mere mental fuzziness. They range across a spectrum that encompasses headaches, anxiety, depression, hallucinations and vivid dreams, not to mention well-known smell and taste anomalies. Strokes and seizures are also on the list. One study showed that more than 80 percent of COVID patients encountered neurological complications.

The mystery of how the virus enters and then inhabits the brain’s protected no-fly zone is under intensive investigation. At the 50th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, or SFN (held in virtual form this month after a pandemic hiatus in 2020), a set of yet-to-be-published research reports chronicle aspects of the COVID-causing SARS-COV-2 virus’s full trek in the brain—from cell penetration, to dispersion among brain regions, to disruption of neural functioning. Read more about COVID’s effects on the brain here.

Disparities in COVID-19 Outcomes by Race, Ethnicity, and Socioeconomic Status: A Systematic-Review and Meta-Analysis

Are race and ethnicity–based COVID-19 outcome disparities in the United States associated with socioeconomic characteristics? In this systematic review and meta-analysis of 4.3 million patients from 68 studies, African American, Hispanic, and Asian American individuals had a higher risk of COVID-19 positivity and ICU admission but lower mortality rates than White individuals. Socioeconomic disparity and clinical care quality were associated with COVID-19 mortality and incidence in racial and ethnic minority groups. In this study, members of racial and ethnic minority groups had higher rates of COVID-19 positivity and disease severity than White populations; these findings are important for informing public health decisions, particularly for individuals living in socioeconomically deprived communities. Read the full article here.

Vaccine Development: Capabilities and Challenges for Addressing Infectious Diseases

The CARES Act requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look at the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccine development. A new report discusses technologies, approaches, and associated challenges for vaccine (1) research and development, (2) testing, and (3) manufacturing, as well as (4) the economic factors that affect vaccine investment. Vaccines protect people from disease by preparing the body to respond to an infection. Vaccinations are a key part of individual and community health, but vaccine development remains complex and costly. Innovative technologies and approaches, such as those identified in this report, may enhance the nation’s ability to respond to infectious diseases. For example, reverse vaccinology and next generation platforms—combined with existing research—helped researchers develop some COVID-19 vaccines more quickly and effectively.

However, key challenges may hinder the adoption of these innovative technologies and approaches. Some promising technologies face issues and challenges such as inherent technical limitations and high cost. For example, organ chips may facilitate testing, but they are not yet able to replicate many of the complex functions of the human immune system. Similarly, single-use systems may increase the flexibility of vaccine manufacturing facilities, but may require extensive testing to ensure that they do not negatively affect the resulting vaccine. Further, economic challenges may hinder vaccine development. Experts attribute underinvestment in vaccines to market failures (i.e., market interactions that fall short of what would have been socially beneficial). For example, vaccines benefit those who are vaccinated, and, to some degree, those who are not. This additional benefit is not captured in the price, which reduces return on vaccine investment.

Overall, vaccine development is still difficult, complex, and costly. But GAO identified 16 innovative technologies and approaches that may enhance the nation’s ability to respond to high-priority infectious diseases. Read the report here.

Pandemic and Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Preparedness Collection

While the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, novel influenza viruses continue to be a constant pandemic threat. These viruses, which could appear at any time, can lead to circumstances and ramifications similar to or worse than the current experiences resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The global response to COVID-19 has expanded what is possible for rapid pandemic response in several areas, including vaccine research and development, more resilient supply chains, public health interventions and the need for global coordination. The reports in this collection explore how these unprecedented actions could inform and advance future pandemic and seasonal influenza vaccine preparedness efforts. The collection features four reports, addressing different areas of pandemic and seasonal influenza vaccine preparedness and response:

  • Vaccine Research and Development to Advance Pandemic and Seasonal Influenza Preparedness and Response: Lessons from COVID-19
  • Public Health Lessons for Non-Vaccine Influenza Interventions: Looking Past COVID-19 Countering the Pandemic Threat Through Global Coordination on Vaccines: The Influenza Imperative
  • Globally Resilient Supply Chains for Seasonal and Pandemic Influenza Vaccines

Read the collection here.

EVENTS

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response: Six Months On, What Has Changed?

In May 2021, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response released its main report, calling for urgent action to end the pandemic, and for leadership to implement a package of international reforms to make COVID19 the last pandemic of such devastation. Six months later, there has been some progress, but is it urgent and cohesive enough? Will it result in the universal health protection that people worldwide need?

The key areas to reform pandemic preparedness and response are: effective leadership, inclusive governance, finance, ensuring equitable access to global public goods like vaccines, and strengthening WHO – including through a pandemic treaty.

The former Co-Chairs of the Independent Panel, HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Rt. Honourable Helen Clark, have prepared a six-month progress report which includes solutions and next steps. How can we seize the moment to strengthen international, regional, national, and local systems for pandemic preparedness and response?

Please join on Monday November 22nd at 12 GMT, when the former Co-Chairs of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, the Right Honourable Helen Clark and Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will present their new assessment of progress and urgent actions required to end the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent another of such devastation. Register here.

Report Launch: Strengthening Global Systems to Prevent and Respond to High-Consequence Biological Threats

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Munich Security Conference (MSC) brought together senior leaders and experts from across Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe in March 2021 for a scenario-based tabletop exercise on reducing high-consequence biological threats. The virtual exercise—which convened leaders in public health, biotechnology industry, international security, and philanthropy— examined critical gaps in national and international biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, and explored opportunities to improve capabilities to prevent and respond to high-consequence biological events.

Join NTI for the launch of the report, Strengthening Global Systems to Prevent and Respond to High-Consequence Biological Threats, on 23 November at 7:45 AM EST. The report summarizes key findings and actionable recommendations derived from the 2021 tabletop exercise. The event will be chaired by NTI|bio Interim Vice President Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg and feature remarks from NTI|bio Senior Fellow Dr. Jaime Yassif, as well as senior international leaders in biotechnology industry and public health. This event is being hosted as a side event on the margins of the Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties. Register here.

Online Conference – One Health Intelligence: From Information to Action

On 29 November, the One Health Intelligence: From Information to Action conference will be held online. Speakers include experts from Ecohealth International, Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences at University of Copenhagen, Vétérinaires sans Frontières Suisse, and more. Register here.

2021 Global Health Security Index: Advancing Collective Action and Accountability Amid Global Crisis

COVID-19 continues to disrupt lives and livelihoods, stress health systems, and exhaust social protections and government budgets—and it will not be the last global health emergency the world will face. The need for durable national health capacities and political and social environments that foster effective prevention and response measures has never been clearer.

Join the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security for the launch of the 2021 Global Health Security Index on 8 December 2021 at 9 AM EST. The GHS Index is a comprehensive assessment that provides a benchmark for capacities to prevent, detect, and respond to epidemics and pandemics across 195 countries. Register here.

The Athena Agenda: Executing the Apollo Program for Biodefense

The Bipartisan Common on Biodefense published a baseline report in 2015, A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts, which warned that the United States was inadequately prepared for biological threats. Six years later, the US experience with COVID-19 continues to validate our original findings. The Commission’s January 2021 report, The Apollo Program for Biodefense: Winning the Race Against Biological Threats, details an ambitious goal-directed program to develop and deploy the technologies needed to defend against all biological threats, empower public health, and prevent pandemics within just ten years. Since the release of this report, the pandemic continues to cause devastation throughout the United States and the world. Likewise, the risk of an accidental or deliberate release of even deadlier pathogens continues to rise. The past year has only emboldened the idea that we cannot let a pandemic like the one we are facing, or something worse, ever happen again.

The Commission will convene an in-person meeting, The Athena Agenda: Executing the Apollo Program for Biodefense, to provide a better understanding of ongoing federal efforts to implement The Apollo Program for Biodefense, the role of the private sector in implementing The Apollo Program for Biodefense, how the public and private sectors can fully implement The Apollo Program for Biodefense within ten years. Register here.

Pandora Report: 11.12.2021

Happy Veterans Day and thank you to all who served! COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated that the United States is vulnerable to biological threats of pandemic scale, and, unfortunately, this awareness has come at exceptionally high costs when calculated in lives lost and the severely compromised welfare of American citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to renewed discussion of biological weapons and whether bad actors — both nations and terrorists — have refocused their attention on developing them.

Meet the PhD Biodefense Student and Counterproliferation Advisor Who Writes Sci-Fi and Spy Thrillers

Fiction writers are often asked what inspires their ideas. In the case of this important plot point, in the new book Interstellar Angel (An Astral Heat Romance) by Laura Navarre, the light-bulb moment for the story came during a real-life biodefense PhD class about genetically modified pathogens. That’s where she cooked up in her mind the fictional Valyrensis novicida, which, in the story, eradicates exactly 88 percent of the Valyrians, who are the galaxy’s leading race. The ensuing turmoil across the galaxy causes a pangalactic race war.

The novel, the first of a series, debuted on Amazon’s LGBTQ+ Science Fiction bestseller list when it was released in October. In a bit of apparent family competitiveness, Laura’s “sinister twin sister” Nikki has published The Russian Obsession, one of a trio of espionage thrillers rooted in the realities of high-tech intelligence.

Interesting family, yes? But wait: There’s a twist. Laura and Nikki Navarre are actually one and the same. Those are the noms de plume of Laura Schmidt Denlinger, a senior counterproliferation advisor and a PhD student at the Schar School of Policy and Government’s groundbreaking biodefense program.

By day, Denlinger is a Department of Energy National Laboratories employee on a long-term rotation to a sister US. government agency where she advances cutting-edge cooperative threat reduction work. Once you know what she does for a living, the idea of wiping out 88 percent of a galaxy’s population as detailed in her fiction isn’t so far-fetched. Read more here.

BRIEFER: Key US Initiatives for Addressing Biological Threats Part 6

The Nolan Center, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks, is releasing its sixth briefer in its series Key US Initiatives for Addressing Biological Threats, which focuses on the US Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, newly minted PhD from the Biodefense Graduate Program, was a co-author of this briefer. COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, has clearly demonstrated that the United States is vulnerable to biological threats of pandemic scale. Unfortunately, this awareness has come at exceptionally high costs when calculated in lives lost and the severely compromised welfare of American citizens.

However, the pandemic has also reinforced the aphorism that necessity is the mother of invention – shining a light on numerous examples of governments making the impossible possible. In the midst of COVID-19, one such example can be seen in the forward-thinking work conducted by DARPA. Through heavy focus and investment in 2012 in a program called ADEPT:PROTECT, DARPA was instrumental in exploring the use of messenger RNA (mRNA) as a platform to deliver “antibody-making instructions” against specific diseases: the very technology that the United States leveraged through the $40 billion Operation Warp Speed to rapidly accelerate the creation, testing, production, and distribution of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines around the globe.

As government agencies evaluate lessons from the ongoing pandemic, it is important to consider how to best leverage DARPA to address future biological threats and avoid strategic surprise. Further, it is important to delve into the organization itself in a bid to optimize its performance against rapidly-evolving biological threats of the future from natural and anthropogenic sources.

This is the focus of CSR’s sixth briefer in the series. In it, the authors highlight how DARPA has achieved past successes, and propose several recommendations to maximize the capabilities of DARPA for addressing biological threats:

  • Strong leadership that focuses on high-risk, high-reward research is necessary to lead DARPA in addressing the most pressing threats to national security and Servicemembers.
  • Have both top-down and bottom-up approaches with organizational structure.
  • Improve funding mechanisms and sources to best allocate resources for promising research.
  • Balance the high-churn that characterizes DARPA with extended timelines for DARPA Office Directors and Program Managers.

Read the sixth briefer here.

Biological Weapons in the “Shadow War”

Dr. Glenn Cross, an alumnus of the Biodefense Graduate Program, recently published an article in War on the Rocks about biological weapons. Do countries still need to worry about threats from biological weapons? The COVID-19 pandemic has led to renewed discussion of biological weapons and whether bad actors — both nations and terrorists — have refocused their attention on developing them. In a recent War on the Rocks article, Joseph Buccina, Dylan George, and Andy Weber argue that the “inadequate initial US response to COVID-19, coupled with new advances in biotechnology, could make biological weapons more appealing for US adversaries.” They add that China and Russia could use biological agents in a “low-boil” manner to undermine the United States as part of a “Shadow War,” a term first coined by Jim Sciutto, referring to a hybrid war, gray war, or non-linear war.

The specter of mass casualty biological weapons attacks — whether by nations or terrorists — is unrealistic. The United States should not overreact to the threat of biological weapons. Although the threat from biological weapons has not vanished, it is, in fact, at one of its lowest points since the Cold War’s end. Biological weapons are primarily a tool of assassination — largely for purposes of ensuring regime security in authoritarian states — and special forces operations. US policymakers should strengthen diplomatic and intelligence community efforts to protect the American people from this enduring — but manageable — threat. Read the article here.

The 2021 Report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Code Red for a Healthy Future

The Lancet Countdown is an international collaboration that independently monitors the health consequences of a changing climate. Publishing updated, new, and improved indicators each year, the Lancet Countdown represents the consensus of leading researchers from 43 academic institutions and UN agencies. The 44 indicators of this report expose an unabated rise in the health impacts of climate change and the current health consequences of the delayed and inconsistent response of countries around the globe—providing a clear imperative for accelerated action that puts the health of people and planet above all else.

The 2021 report coincides with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), at which countries are facing pressure to realise the ambition of the Paris Agreement to keep the global average temperature rise to 1·5°C and to mobilise the financial resources required for all countries to have an effective climate response. These negotiations unfold in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic—a global health crisis that has claimed millions of lives, affected livelihoods and communities around the globe, and exposed deep fissures and inequities in the world’s capacity to cope with, and respond to, health emergencies. Yet, in its response to both crises, the world is faced with an unprecedented opportunity to ensure a healthy future for all. Read the report here.

CLIMATE CHANGE

2021 WHO Health and Climate Change Survey Report

This report provides a vital snapshot of the overall progress that governments have made in the field of health and climate change to date, as well as insight into what work remains in order to protect their populations from the most devastating health impacts of climate change. The health and climate change country survey is conducted every three years and in addition to tracking global progress, the national data are presented in the health and climate change country profiles. 95 countries participated in the 2021 survey.

The survey is sent to the national health authorities, who in collaboration with other relevant ministries and stakeholders, provide updated information on key areas including: leadership and governance, national vulnerability and adaptation assessments, emergency preparedness, disease surveillance, adaptation and resilience measures, climate and health finance, and mitigation in the health sector. Regular updates on key health and climate change indicators provide insight into the implementation of policies and plans, the status of assessments of health vulnerability and capacity to respond to climate change and better understand the barriers to achieving health adaptation and mitigation priorities.

The 2021 global survey report provides an update to the 2017/2018 survey, and was published at the COP26 UN climate conference in November 2021. Read the report here.

This Is What the World Looks Like If We Pass the Crucial 1.5 Degree Climate Threshold

One point five degrees Celsius is the metric heard most on the podiums at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this year. The hope is that limiting the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2021, the world will halt severe climate disruptions that would further exacerbate hunger, drought, and conflict. This is not a new goal. At the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris, there was a push for “industrialized countries to improve on the 2-degree Celsius goal held at the time, since wealthier nations are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution.” Scientists expect a number of problems if average global temperatures exceed the limit. The Great Barrier Reef, located off the coast of Australia and massive enough to be viewable from space, would shrink tremendously. In fact, at 1.5 degrees Celsius, 70-90% of the world’s coral reefs could die off, and at 2 degrees Celsius, 99% will likely be lost. A hotter atmosphere will produce more rainfall and stronger storms. The UN’s climate research group predicts that sea levels could rise an additional one to three feet over the next 80 years.

ALL THINGS COVID-19

The Unvaccinated Drive COVID-19 Infections in the US

Winter is coming and COVID-19 infections are likely to increased among both the vaccinated and unvaccinated. But, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that there is “a significant difference between both groups across all age cohorts in the likeliness to become infected with the coronavirus.” Indeed, in August and September of this year, the infection rates per 100,000 individuals were 6-10 times higher among the unvaccinated compared with vaccinated people from the same age group. Further, hospitalization rates were 10-15 times higher for unvaccinated versus vaccinated people. Vaccination coverage in the US increases with the age group: 86% of individuals 65 years or older are vaccinated. The graph below from Statista shows the weekly rates of COVID-19 cases in certain age groups within the US based on vaccination status.

COVID-19 Misinformation is Ubiquitous: 78% of the Public Believes or is Unsure About At Least One False Statement, and Nearly a Third Believe At Least Four of Eight False Statements Tested

According to a new KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor report, over three-quarters of the US adult population believes or is uncertain about at least one of eight false statements regarding the COVID-19 pandemic or the COVID-19 vaccines. Sixty-four percent of unvaccinated adults either believe or are unsure about at least four of the eight false statements; among vaccinated adults, this drops to 19%. Almost half of Republicans believe or are unsure about four or more of the false statements, which is three times the figure for democrats. Sixty percent of adults say “they’ve heard that the government is exaggerating the number of COVID-19 deaths by counting deaths due to other factors and either believe it to be true (38%) or aren’t sure if it is true or false (22%).” Thirty-nine percent say “they’ve heard pregnant women should not get the COVID-19 vaccine and believe it to be true (17%) or aren’t sure (22%).” Finally, 31% say “they’ve heard that the vaccine has been shown to cause infertility and either believe it (8%) or aren’t sure if it’s true (23%).”

Rethinking Health Security After COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed major challenges to existing systems of global health governance. Even countries considered leaders in health preparedness, notably the US and the UK, struggled to contain COVID-19 domestically and were unable to mount an effective international response. As a result, the world suffered over 4.4 million deaths and an estimated 4.4 per cent decline in global GDP in 2020 alone – the deepest global recession since the end of World War II. The economic and health impacts of the pandemic have, meanwhile, fallen disproportionately on the world’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations.

COVID-19 has therefore laid bare deep fissures in the current global health architecture and highlighted the need for urgent reform. One proposal for reducing the risk of future pandemics is to elevate public health as a national security priority. For decades, policymakers and experts have argued that the concept of national security should extend beyond state-centric, military-focused threats, to include infectious diseases and climate change. Accordingly, the US and UK governments, both erstwhile leaders in global health and biological preparedness, have committed to promoting health security as a framework for mitigating the threat of future pandemics. A health security approach, it has been argued, will increase attention, resources, and institutional capacity for dealing with health crises.

Yet the reflexive tendency to frame health risks in security terms has precluded serious examination of the assumptions and trade-offs underlying the health security paradigm. In this report, the authors contend that, while the security implications of pandemics are clear, the concept of health security distracts attention from the underlying determinants of health that exacerbate the effects of severe disease outbreaks and disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. Rather than adopting a securitised approach to infectious disease, COVID-19 should prompt world governments to focus on the wider determinants of health – such as universal health coverage and access to quality health care, among other health-related UN Sustainable Development Goals – as a way to ameliorate the impact of pandemics and other crises. The report challenges the following assumptions that undergird health security and proposes recommendations for an alternative approach. Read the report here.

How an Outbreak Became a Pandemic: A Chronological Analysis of Crucial Junctures and International Obligations in the Early Months of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Understanding the spread of SARS-CoV-2, how and when evidence emerged, and the timing of local, national, regional, and global responses is essential to establish how an outbreak became a pandemic and to prepare for future health threats. With that aim, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has developed a chronology of events, actions, and recommendations, from December, 2019, when the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in China, to the end of March, 2020, by which time the outbreak had spread extensively worldwide and had been characterised as a pandemic. Datapoints are based on two literature reviews, WHO documents and correspondence, submissions to the Panel, and an expert verification process. The retrospective analysis of the chronology shows a dedicated initial response by WHO and some national governments, but also aspects of the response that could have been quicker, including outbreak notifications under the International Health Regulations (IHR), presumption and confirmation of human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2, declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, and, most importantly, the public health response of many national governments. The chronology also shows that some countries, largely those with previous experience with similar outbreaks, reacted quickly, even ahead of WHO alerts, and were more successful in initially containing the virus. Mapping actions against IHR obligations, the chronology shows where efficiency and accountability could be improved at local, national, and international levels to more quickly alert and contain health threats in the future. In particular, these improvements include necessary reforms to international law and governance for pandemic preparedness and response, including the IHR and a potential framework convention on pandemic preparedness and response. Read the article here.

How Trump’s Deal with Moderna Hampers the Global Vaccine Effort

Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a US government initiative established to accelerate the development of vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19, funneled billions of dollars into Moderna in its race to get a vaccine to the public, but it came with a catch: no doses delivered to the United States could be shared with outside its borders. This deal made under the Trump administration has become a “key stumbling block in the global fight against COVID-19,” as priorities are shifting to vaccinate the rest of the world. Moderna has “refused to grant access to its technology to vaccine manufacturers serving the developing world and at multiple points resisted pleas to increase aid to the neediest countries, angering critics who say the Trump administration should have driven a tougher bargain with Moderna when it had the chance.” When the deal was struck, government officials were focused on getting vaccines for use at home, and the need to send them abroad was not considered. Robbie Silverman, the senior manager of private-sector advocacy at global justice organization Oxfam America, said that nine of out ten doses of the Moderna vaccine have gone to wealthy nations.

North Korean Hospital Mum on Cause of Death for 10 “Suspected” COVID-19 Patients

A hospital in the DPRK sent 10 patients with COVID-19 symptoms to an unheated area during freezing cold weather. The nature of their deaths was falsified to “maintain Pyongyang’s claim that the country is completely virus free.” The hospital claims that these patients perished from malnutrition, but the patients themselves complained of fever and were diagnosed with pneumonia. North Korea has instituted extensive measures to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus, including lock down on entire cities and counties, travel bans between provinces, and trade suspensions. Despite its crumbling medical and healthcare infrastructure, the nation claimed that its preventive measures worked and “not a single person was infected” in April 2020. But, the DPRK government tracks “suspected cases” of COVID-19 without ever confirming cases that present with the associated symptoms. The 10 aforementioned patients were immediately buried without providing explanation to the families. An anonymous source said, “No one has died from the coronavirus in North Korea because the public will never know about it. Hospitals announce those deaths are due to tuberculosis or flu.” In March 2021, an internal survey found about 13,000 “suspected cases” in North Hamgyong. As of September 21st, only 43,000 of the 25 million people in North Korea were tested for COVID-19, and not a single case was confirmed.

EVENTS

Schar School Open House

The Schar School will be a hosting virtual open house for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 16 November at 6:30 PM EST. This online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs – such as the Biodefense Program – and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Register here.

Preventing the Next Pandemic—Leveraging Today’s Tools to Address the Biological Threats of the Future

We are at a critical point for preventing future pandemics and addressing biological sources of all origins. Many of the technologies needed are available today. However, challenges remain in garnering the resources to deploy existing tools broadly, ensuring that investments cover diverse solutions that create a healthy bio industrial base, and effectively fostering technologies that require additional research and development support.  The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) invites you to a webinar, “Preventing the Next Pandemic—Leveraging Today’s Tools to Address the Biological Threats of the Future,” on 15 November at 11:15 AM EST. The guest speakers are Dr. Vik Bajaj, the CEO and cofounder of Foresite Capital, and Dr. Luciana Borio, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Register here.

Hashing the Atom: Exploring Blockchain Solutions for Global Security

Join the Stimson Center’s Blockchain in Practice program for a two-day discussion on how distributed ledger technology (DLT) can help to secure the use and trade of nuclear, chemical, and other dual-use goods and technologies. The event will feature insights on how DLT solutions are not only demonstrating greater efficiencies in data management and business operations; but also, how DLT can be used to enhance nonproliferation and global security. Speakers will present a landscape of DLT solutions and highlight their experience with tech acceptance, adoption, and how DLT is building trust across organizations. The webinar is set for 17 – 18 November from 11 AM to 2 PM EDT each day. Register here.

Effective Chemical Supply Chain Security: Embracing Behavioral Change

The ongoing pandemic has changed the ways chemical manufacturers and distributors do business. Current issues like rapid commoditization, complex supply chains, aging assets, and increased need for dynamic operations planning make it more demanding than ever to achieve the productivity level that drives differentiation and innovation. With the overall global demand falling due to the pandemic, chemical and pharmaceutical producers and wholesalers have had to explore new avenues to revitalize the chemical trade and increase market responsiveness.

This trend has brought new security challenges and vulnerabilities to the industry as wholesalers, eager to compensate for early losses, sold to unvetted companies. State proliferators are masters at exploiting these vulnerabilities in the chemical industry for their Chemical Weapons programs and the development of fourth-generation agents. Hence proactive due diligence, customer vetting, and effective management of chemical supply chains are critical among all sectors. The new approach requires proper tools and procedures to mitigate pitfalls in chemical supply chains and encourage behavioral changes to broaden security awareness within organizations.

Join CRDF Global for a panel discussion exploring innovative chemical supply chain management methodologies and a practical approach to behavioral change led by Steve Hess, a chemical security and supply chain management consultant, and David Toddington, an IT and Law Enforcement expert and the founder of Toddington International. The webinar will take place on 16 November at 9 AM EST. Register here.

Pandora Report: 11.5.2021

The Intelligence Community (IC) assesses that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019 with the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019. A team of scientists with specific expertise in climate modeling simulated the climate of Arrakis, the desert planet in Dune, to find out what such a world would be like. The Rockefeller Foundation will provide up to USD150 million in funding to the Pandemic Prevention Institute (PPI), a collaborative organization with a global network of partners committed to building data sets and analytics needed to detect, mitigate, and prevent pandemics.

Advancing Equity in Science & Technology Ideation Challenge

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is seeking ideas from the public about how to promote equity in STEM. The ideas must include at least one of these topics: people with disabilities; underrepresented racial and ethnic groups; institutional and academic settings; community centered research, participation, and engagement; women and people with gender-expansive identities; or open call (none of aforementioned topics apply). Previously, OSTP Director, Eric Lander, and OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society, Alondra Nelson, hosted a series of 5 roundtable discussions, “The Time is Now:  Advancing Equity in Science & Technology.” The directors engaged with participants about their expertise and experiences navigating careers in science and technology, trying to understand the complexity of issues. The goal is to build a STEM ecosystem that will enable everyone to succeed. More information on the most recent roundtable, “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Overlapping Crises for Women and People with Gender Expansive Identities in STEM,” can be found here. Other previous roundtables include Honoring Disability Pride MonthDiversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism; Emerging Models and Pathways for Success in (a) Institutional and Academic Contexts, and (b) Community-centered Research, Participation, and Engagement. To participate in the Advancing Equity in Science & Technology Ideation Challenge, see here.    

The Nexus of Climate Change, Ecological Disruption, Stability, and Security

As the COVID-19 pandemic has made all too clear, are definition of national security is overdue. As we look to 2030, some of the biggest security risks the world faces will come not from states and governments alone, but also from complex transnational risks. This paper examines how climate change and ecological degradation, particularly deforestation and poor land use practices, intersect to undermine security and create instability. Within many states, these drivers are contributing to resource stress (e.g., food and water insecurity), governance strains, and internal migration. Between states, competition and nationalism are rising in response to these challenges. Extremists and violent non-state actors are also benefiting, which in turn threatens political stability and cross-border relations. Biological risks — stemming from greater human-animal interactions, and the accelerated emergence of infectious diseases — are woven through all of these interrelated issues.

A new paper begins by describing the relationship between forests, land use, and insecurity at the nexus of ecological disruption and climate change. It then proceeds to discuss how this nexus affects security in four categories: the intra-state, inter-state, and non-state actor levels, as well as looking at Indigenous and vulnerable populations through a lens of justice and equity. It concludes with concrete recommendations aimed at both managing existing risks while also preventing catastrophic risks in the longer-run. Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, newly minted PhD from the Biodefense Graduate Program, is one of the co-authors of this paper. Read it here.

Alternatives to Radioactive Materials: A National Strategy to Support Alternative Technologies May Reduce Risks of a Dirty Bomb

Radioactive material, which is dangerous if mishandled, is found in many medical and industrial applications. In the hands of terrorists, it could be used to construct a radiological dispersal device, or dirty bomb, that uses conventional explosives to disperse the material. Replacing technologies that use dangerous radioactive materials with safer alternatives may help protect people and reduce potential socioeconomic costs from remediation and evacuation of affected residents. Senate Report 116-102 included a provision for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review alternative technologies to applications that use radioactive materials. A new report examines (1) the potential for adopting alternative technologies in the United States for the six most commonly used medical and industrial applications; (2) factors affecting adoption of alternative technologies; and (3) federal activities relating to alternative technologies in the United States. GAO reviewed relevant documents to identify potential alternative technologies, conducted interviews with users of applications that employ radioactive material to identify factors affecting adoption of alternatives, and interviewed federal officials to discuss current federal activities relating to alternative technologies. Congress should consider directing an entity to develop a national strategy to support alternative technologies. The federal agencies involved in research and adoption of alternative technologies neither agreed nor disagreed with our matters for congressional consideration. Read the report here.

The ‘Echo Chamber’ of Syrian Chemical Weapons Conspiracy Theorists

The Assad regime in Syria has launched several attacks against its own people, including attacks using nerve agent sarin and chlorine gas. The regime has insisted it did not carry out these malicious activities. After a lethal sarin attack on Ghouta, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, yet their use of chemical weapons has continued. A cadre of small group and individuals in the West have “convinced themselves that one of the Middle East’s most oppressive regimes was the innocent victim of a plot to discredit it.” These deniers include university professors, retired spies, “independent” journalists, “anti-imperialists” and habitual conspiracy theorists. Eager to direct blame away from Assad, these deniers “claimed rebels were faking the attacks in an effort to falsely incriminate the regime and thus create a pretext for full-scale military intervention by Western powers.” Given the absence of credible evidence to support such a claim, they pointed to “confirmed examples from the past where deception had been used in warfare.” For example, they highlighted the “way false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had been used to build public support for the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.” They insist that the reports of Syria’s chemical attacks are a similar form of deception with similar ends. “It was an argument that could be made to sound plausible, and the deniers exploited it relentlessly.” In reality, “laboratory tests on samples from the scene of attacks linked them to the regime’s own stockpile.”

Revisiting and Realizing the Promises of Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is a frontier field that employs science and engineering approaches to design biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as redesign existing, natural, biological systems. Its applications have expanded to almost every major industry. Potentially the broadest impact area is the manufacture of bio-based products and the numerous applications of these products in health and well-being, food and feed, industrial chemicals and biofuel applications.

The potential benefits of synthetic biology are manifold – but will they be distributed equitably? Wealthy nations have been at the forefront of synthetic biology and the livelihoods of those in developing and emerging economies have often been overlooked. As we learn to engineer the living world, how can we ensure it is a world in which we want to live? A new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), Revisiting and Realizing the Promises of Synthetic Biology, looks at synthetic biology’s embodiment and advancement of equity, humility, sustainability and solidarity over time: four values that are important in realizing its future benefits and minimizing its potential negative consequences. It also provides recommendations on how policies could direct the future trajectory of synthetic biology to benefit all people and the planet. Read the report here.

Dune: We Simulated the Desert Planet of Arrakis to See If Humans Could Survive There

Dune, the epic series of sci-fi books by Frank Herbert, now turned into a movie of the same name, is set in the far future on the desert planet of Arrakis. Herbert outlined a richly-detailed world that, at first glance, seems so real we could imagine ourselves within it. However, if such a world did exist, what would it actually be like? A group of scientists with specific expertise in climate modeling simulated the climate of Arrakis to find out. They wanted to know if the physics and environment of such a world would stack up against a real climate model.

The mid-latitudes, where most people on Arrakis live, are actually the most dangerous in terms of heat. In the lowlands, monthly average temperatures are often above 50–60°C, with maximum daily temperatures even higher. Such temperatures are deadly for humans. The planet also gets very cold outside of the tropics, with winter temperatures that would also be uninhabitable without technology. Cities like Arrakeen and Carthag would suffer from both heat and cold stress, like a more extreme version of parts of Siberia on Earth which can have both uncomfortably hot summers and brutally cold winters. See their simulation here.

Ensuring an Effective Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise

The US medical countermeasures (MCMs) enterprise is interconnected, complex, and dynamic. It includes public and private entities that (1) develop and manufacture new and existing MCMs; (2) ensure procurement, storage, and distribution of MCMs; and (3) administer, monitor, and evaluate MCMs. The interagency group the Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE) is the nation’s sole coordinating body, based in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with interagency participation and responsible for ensuring end-to-end MCM preparedness and response. PHEMCE’s authorities limit its membership to federal entities. However, it must also collaborate closely with nonfederal and private-sector partners and stakeholders, as they are the ultimate implementers of PHEMCE’s mission and develop, manufacture, distribute, and administer the MCMs over which PHEMCE has responsibility. These engagements must support the entire life cycle of MCM preparedness and response, where appropriate, including threat identification, development, manufacturing, deployment, distribution, administration, and evaluation. An effective national MCM enterprise requires a mechanism to coordinate and integrate the activities and expertise of the diverse landscape of federal agencies involved in these activities, and PHEMCE has the legislative mandate to serve that role.

Recognizing the important role of PHEMCE in coordinating the federal MCM preparedness and response activities, HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) charged the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine with convening an ad hoc committee to evaluate PHEMCE’s policy and practices and make recommendations for a re-envisioned PHEMCE. The committee heard from knowledgeable experts reflecting a range of disciplines and experiences, including developers, producers, funders, responders, and federal, state, and local officials. The committee also examined government documents, including some first made public for this review.

Four priority areas of improvement emerged from committee deliberations: (1) articulating PHEMCE’s mission and role and explicating the principles guiding its operating principles and processes; (2) revising PHEMCE operations and processes; (3) collaborating more effectively with external public and private partners needed for the entire life cycle of MCMs, from research through use; and (4) navigating legal and policy issues. This report proposes recommendations for these four domains, re-envisioning PHEMCE to service its mandate to protect the nation in public health emergencies (PHEs). Read the report here.

ALL THINGS COVID-19

Office of the Director of National Intelligence: Updated Assessment on COVID-19 Origins

The Intelligence Community (IC) assesses that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019 with the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019. In addition, the IC was able to reach broad agreement on several other key issues. We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon. Most agencies also assess with low confidence that SARS-CoV-2 probably was not genetically engineered; however, two agencies believe there was not sufficient evidence to make an assessment either way. Finally, the IC assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged. After examining all available intelligence reporting and other information, though, the IC remains divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19. All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident.

The IC judges they will be unable to provide a more definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 unless new information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARS-CoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged. The IC—and the global scientific community—lacks clinical samples or a complete understanding of epidemiological data from the earliest COVID-19 cases. If we obtain information on the earliest cases that identified a location of interest or occupational exposure, it may alter our evaluation of hypotheses.

China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of COVID-19. Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information, and blame other countries, including the United States. These actions reflect, in part, China’s government’s own uncertainty about where an investigation could lead as well as its frustration the international community is using the issue to exert political pressure on China.

Read the report here.

COVID-19: Additional Actions Needed to Improve Accountability and Program Effectiveness of Federal Response

As the nation continues to respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic, increases in COVID-19 cases in July, August, and September 2021, primarily due to the Delta variant of the virus, have hampered these efforts. From the end of July 2021 to September 23, 2021, the number of new cases reported each day generally exceeded 100,000, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. This was a daily case count not seen since February 2021.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccination efforts continue. As of September 23, 2021, about 64 percent of the US population eligible for vaccination (those 12 years and older), or almost 183 million individuals, had been fully vaccinated, according to CDC.

The government must remain vigilant and agile to address the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and its cascading impacts. Furthermore, as the administration implements the provisions in the COVID-19 relief laws, the size and scope of these efforts—from distributing funding to implementing new programs—demand strong accountability and oversight. In that vein, GAO has made 209 recommendations across its body of COVID-19 reports issued since June 2020. As of September 30, 2021, agencies had addressed 33 of these recommendations, resulting in improvements including increased oversight of relief payments to individuals and improved transparency of decision-making for emergency use authorizations for vaccines and therapeutics. Agencies partially addressed another 48 recommendations. GAO also raised four matters for congressional consideration, three of which remain open.

In a new report, Government Accountability Office (GAO) outlines 16 new recommendations, including recommendations related to fiscal relief funds for health care providers, recovery funds for states and localities, worker safety and health, and assessing fraud risks to unemployment insurance programs. GAO’s recommendations, if swiftly and effectively implemented, can help improve the government’s ongoing response and recovery efforts as well as help it to prepare for future public health emergencies. Read the report here.

G-20 Announces New Global Body to Respond to Future Pandemics, But Stops Short of Committing Funds

In October, leaders of the G-20 announced the establishment of a “global body for coordinating government responses to the next international pandemic, but the initiative faced immediate criticism because it appears to lack resources.” This new Joint Finance-Health Task Force is intended to “improve planning among the wealthiest nations to respond to pandemics with additional health-care resources and financing measures.” The G-20 includes the United States, France, Italy, Russia, Brazil, China, India, and Japan. Unfortunately, the announcement of the Task Force was sans a pledge of funding. G-20 health and finance ministers stated, “We remain committed to build on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis to increase investment into longer term health capacity.” J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), shared his disappointment in the lack of funding despite “plenty of good analysis about what is failing and what needs to happen,” and that this initiative will “shift to a coalition of the willing approach.”

Navigating the World that COVID-19 Made: A Strategy for Revamping the Pandemic Research and Development Preparedness and Response Ecosystem

The actions being taken to respond to the COVID-19 crisis are writing the opening chapters to the story of how we will prepare for and respond to the next pandemic threat. To prevent the devastation that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic from happening again, we must not only identify the successes and failures that have emerged from the global response, we must also anticipate how our response has changed government, industry, and civil society priorities for the pandemic R&D and response ecosystem in order to confront to future threats.

Beyond its human and economic toll, the COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed and redefined the realities of the global vaccine R&D and response ecosystem in the following ways: (1) there is now widespread recognition that safe and effective vaccines provide unparalleled health, social, and economic benefits during a pandemic; COVID-19 has made it clear that most nations will not share scarce supplies of early vaccines and related inputs in a crisis; COVID-19  demonstrated that pandemics can be profitable for vaccine manufacturers; and geopolitics constrained COVID-19 response and threaten future global health security.

Any future pandemic pathogen that emerges will do so in a world changed by and aware of these realities. To ensure that these lessons are heeded and to prevent the devastation of the present crisis from repeating in the next pandemic, governments, international institutions, and private sector actors must immediately act to address gaps and explore opportunities at each step along the vaccine value chain. The measures to be taken should include: (1) develop and fund an inclusive strategy for the R&D of prototype vaccine candidates for future pandemics; (2) engage local government and donor financing and policy support to enable global vaccine manufacturing scale up; (3) create and support equitable financing, procurement, and allocation mechanisms to help end COVID-19 and prepare for the future; (4) strengthen cross-border trade, standardization, and supply chain transparency in order to expand vaccine manufacturing and access during a crisis; (5) build the systems needed to enable vaccine distribution, allocation, and uptake for the next pandemic; (6) and plan for global coordination of post-market research studies

Read the report here.  

Operation Warp Speed: The Interagency and Public-Private Collaborations that Drove It

On Wednesday, October 27, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) hosted a webinar to discuss how the successes and challenges of Operation Warp Speed—the U.S. federal government’s effort to drive the development of COVID-19 vaccines—can be built upon in the future. This conversation on the future of rapid development, manufacturing, and delivery of medical countermeasures for biological threats was led by Christine Parthemore, CEO of CSR, and Andy Weber, Senior Fellow at CSR.

CSR hosted two incredible guests, Dr. Matt Hepburn and Dr. Monique K. Mansoura, who contributed a wealth of knowledge and insight on Operation Warp Speed and the partnerships that enabled it. Dr. Matt Hepburn is the Senior Advisor on Pandemic Preparedness to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Prior to his role at OSTP, he directed COVID-19 Vaccine Development under the Countermeasures Acceleration Group, formerly known as Operation Warp Speed. Dr. Monique K. Mansoura is the Executive Director for Global Health Security and Biotechnology at The MITRE Corporation, where she focuses on the sustainability of the biodefense industrial base. At MITRE, Dr. Mansoura was also a part of the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, which brought together healthcare organizations, technology firms, nonprofits, academia, and startups in order to more effectively deploy healthcare resources.

In the webinar, Dr. Hepburn and Dr. Mansoura discussed how cooperation between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense drove Operation Warp Speed, and how this is a stellar example that should be taken forward to nimbly solve future public health problems. In addition, the speakers emphasized that Operation Warp Speed was by no means perfect, and that lessons from what went wrong should be applied in future efforts. Dr. Hepburn and Dr. Mansoura also spoke on the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, the importance of building a forward-looking bio-industrial policy, as recommended in MITRE’s 10-Point Action Plan: Sustaining A Biopharma Industrial Base for a More Secure Nation, and much more. Listen to their conversation here.

The Rockefeller Foundation Invests USD150 Million to Prevent Future Pandemics and Calls for Greater Collaboration to Build a Global Early Warning System

The Rockefeller Foundation will provide up to USD150 million in funding to the Pandemic Prevention Institute (PPI), a collaborative organization with a global network of partners committed to building data sets and analytics needed to detect, mitigate, and prevent pandemics. The Foundation also renewed its call for expanded collaboration to strengthen the global pandemic and epidemic intelligence ecosystem at the World Health Summit in October. This marks the next chapter in the Foundation’s more than 100-year history of using science and technology to improve public health and uplift humanity. Together with the World Health Organization’s Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence in Berlin and the United Kingdom’s Global Pandemic Radar, the Pandemic Prevention Institute is helping transform global capability for stopping disease outbreaks.

The Pandemic Prevention Institute is also accelerating work to develop analytic tools and algorithms that detect early warning signals wherever they occur. Developing technology that sees and shares the signs of potential outbreaks, and supports sharing of those signals—instead of the data itself—is a crucial step to addressing data privacy and building an early warning system that works for all. Moving forward, the Pandemic Prevention Institute will actively seek new partners to define and invest in a common agenda through the RF Catalytic Capital, Inc. (RFCC), a charitable offshoot that The Rockefeller Foundation created in 2020 to enable foundations, governments, and other like-minded funders to combine their resources to build funding solutions for social impact and bring about transformational change. The RFCC, which is incubating the PPI, will eventually launch the Institute as a standalone entity.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM COVID-19 ACROSS THE GLOBE

Sweden During the Pandemic

Sweden represents an average European country as far as numbers of deaths during the first and second waves of the pandemic are concerned. During the third wave, mortality has been low and, up to now, Sweden has fared better than most countries in Europe. In the spring of 2020, Sweden chose a different path to many other countries, one based on a voluntary approach and personal responsibility rather than more intrusive measures. The majority of other countries, by contrast, made greater use of lockdowns or other intrusive regulatory interventions. Whether Sweden’s choice of path was reasonable, or whether it would have been better to introduce other types of measures to limit the spread of the virus, is a question the Commission will return to in its final report. To address that question, it is necessary to gain a better understanding of what information key decision-makers had as a basis for their assessments regarding disease prevention and control measures during the various phases of the pandemic. Several other aspects of Sweden’s handling of the crisis, moreover, remain to be investigated and assessed. These include, in particular, the impacts of the emergency on the economy and personal finances, and what capacity the Swedish machinery of government and its institutions had to manage a crisis. Only after that will the Commission be able to assess whether the path chosen by Sweden represented a reasonable balance between effective disease prevention and control and other interests. With answers to these questions, it will also be possible to better assess questions of responsibility.

The Commission has initiated a research programme – A Research Programme on COVID-19 in Sweden: Spread, Control and Impacts on Individuals and Society – based on very extensive gathering of data on medical and socio-economic outcomes, generally at the individual level, from a large number of sources. The Commission’s most important overall conclusions based on the review carried out to date and presented in this report include: (1) Sweden’s handling of the pandemic has been marked by a slowness of response; (2) Sweden’s pandemic preparedness was inadequate; and (3) its health care system has been able, at short notice, to adapt and to scale up care for people with COVID-19. Read the report here.

Russia: Six Lessons from One Pandemic

The Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation D.A. Medvedev recently wrote an article on six key lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. The first lesson of the pandemic is that threats must be taken seriously. And states must act proactively, not after the fact. The second lesson of the pandemic is that it can only be combated through the joint efforts of the international community. One by one, all are doomed to defeat. The third lesson of the pandemic is that the mutual trust of states is more important than commerce, ideology, and competition. The fourth lesson is that vaccine enforcement is not very effective, and education is needed. Fifth, every cloud has a silver lining. There are also positive aspects in the experience of the past two years, which, paradoxically, we owe to the pandemic. The main one is that we have learned to quickly respond to the most difficult and unpredictable challenges. Finally, this is a virus that will be with us for a long time. Read the article here.

EVENTS

2021 Global Conference on Health and Climate Change

The 2021 Global Conference on Health & Climate Change with a special focus on Climate Justice and the Healthy and Green Recovery from COVID-19 will convene at the margin of the COP26 UN climate change conference. The aim of the conference is to call on governments, businesses, institutions and financial actors to drive a green, healthy and resilient recovery from COVID-19. The Conference will support and highlight climate action recommendations that promote and protect health. It will also mobilize the rapidly growing movement of health professionals around the world who are now driving ambitious climate action. And it will generate cross-sectoral dialogue focused on integrated solutions for a green, just and healthy future. The conference has a fully developed hybrid program, with participation both online, and in-person at the Glasgow Caledonian University. The conference will be held tomorrow, 6 November, from 9 AM to 5:40 PM GMT. Register here.

Schar School Open House

The Schar School will be a hosting virtual open house for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 16 November at 6:30 PM EST. This online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs – such as the Biodefense Program – and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Register here.

Biorisk Management Perspective: Then and Now Webinar

In partnership with the American Biological Safety Association’s (ABSA) Biosafety and Biosecurity Month, APHL is proud to provide this free webinar! This program will provide attendees with an overview of biorisk management innovation throughout the years. Participants will hear from three biosafety professionals on their perspectives of biosafety and biosecurity practices and discuss the potential role of biosafety professionals into the future. This program is intended for anyone who works in or supervises a public health, clinical and academic/research laboratory. These can include clinical and public health laboratory staff, microbiology students, veterinary microbiology laboratory workers, veterinarians, medical doctors, biosafety professionals, academia or biotech industry laboratory workers and research scientists. The webinar will be held on 1 and 8 November from 11:30 AM to 4 PM EST. Register here.

Preparing for the Next Pandemic

The term “post-pandemic world” has become ubiquitous ever since COVID vaccines were made widely available to the developed world. Yet, the bio-policy implications of a world coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic are rarely evaluated critically and holistically. COVID-19 pandemic points to the reality that a multifaceted approach is necessary to prevent future pandemics or, should the need arise again, how to stop them in their tracks. A webinar offered by CDRF Global brings together experts from different corners of the biosafety and biosecurity space to discuss lessons learned from the world’s response to COVID-19 and analyze policy pathways moving forward. The panel will be held 8 November at 9 AM EST. Register here.

Pandora Report: 10.29.2021

Laboratory testing at the CDC has identified the bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei in an aromatherapy spray — the same type of bacteria that sickened four people in the United States earlier this year. The authors of a new article in Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease hypothesized that agents pre-occupied with espionage and counterterrorism may, at their peril, fail to correctly prioritize travel medicine. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that false or misleading health-related information can dangerously undermine the response to a public health crisis.

No Time to Die: An In-Depth Analysis of James Bond’s Exposure to Infectious Agents

Global travelers, whether tourists or secret agents, are exposed to a smorgasbord of infectious agents. The authors of a new article in Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease hypothesized that agents pre-occupied with espionage and counterterrorism may, at their peril, fail to correctly prioritize travel medicine. To examine our hypothesis, the authors examined adherence to international travel advice during the 86 international journeys that James Bond was observed to undertake in feature films spanning 1962–2021. Scrutinizing these missions involved ∼3113 minutes of evening hours per author that could easily have been spent on more pressing societal issues. They uncovered above-average sexual activity, often without sufficient time for an exchange of sexual history, with a remarkably high mortality among Bond’s sexual partners. Given how inopportune a bout of diarrhea would be in the midst of world-saving action, it is striking that Bond is seen washing his hands on only two occasions, despite numerous exposures to foodborne pathogens. They hypothesize that his foolhardy courage, sometimes purposefully eliciting life-threatening situations, might even be a consequence of Toxoplasmosis. Bond’s approach to vector-borne diseases and neglected tropical diseases is erratic, sometimes following travel advice to the letter, but more often dwelling on the side of complete ignorance. Given the limited time Bond receives to prepare for missions, the authors urgently ask his employer MI6 to take its responsibility seriously. We only live once. Read the article here.

Twenty Years After the Patriot Act, What Is the Future of Biosecurity?

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, recent graduate of the Biodefense PhD Program, co-authored an article – “Twenty Years After the Patriot Act, What Is the Future of Biosecurity?” – in Issues in Science and Technology. The USA Patriot Act was signed into law exactly 20 years ago, on October 26, 2001. While the law was profoundly shaped by the back-to-back events of the September 11 attacks and the 2001 anthrax attacks, it was deeply rooted in in fears about bioterrorism that had been growing since the 1990s. This anniversary provides a moment to reflect upon the Patriot Act’s legacy, as well as to imagine and plan for different biosecurity futures. The overall intent of the USA Patriot Act was clear: to prevent terrorism by raising the “barrier to entry” for potential terrorists. On its twenty-year anniversary, it is time to reflect: How well did this legislation promote or hinder biosecurity over time? In its attempts to control insider bioterror attacks, however, the implementation of the Patriot Act has triggered a series of unintended negative consequences on the life sciences, greatly disrupting who participates in science, where science is done, and how it is conducted. It is time to seriously consider whether the nation should continue these biosecurity programs as they stand today. As a diverse team of biosafety and biosecurity practitioners, the authors intend their reflections on the Patriot Act as a call to action to consider, plan, and prepare to address ongoing and emergent risks from the life sciences and biotechnology. Read the article here.

CDC Identifies Rare Bacteria in Aromatherapy Product

Laboratory testing at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified the bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei in an aromatherapy spray — the same type of bacteria that sickened four people in the United States earlier this year. The spray, “Better Homes & Gardens Lavender & Chamomile Essential Oil Infused Aromatherapy Room Spray with Gemstones,” was found 6 October 2021 in the home of a Georgia resident who became ill with melioidosis in late July. Melioidosis is a rare but serious disease in the United States, and it causes a wide range of symptoms that can be confused with other common illnesses, like flu or a cold. CDC is continuing testing to see if the genetic fingerprint of the bacteria in the bottle matches those of the bacteria identified in the four patients – one each in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, and Minnesota. Two of the four patients died.

The contaminated spray was sold at about 55 Walmart stores and on Walmart’s website between February and October 21 of this year when Walmart pulled remaining bottles of this spray and related products from store shelves and its website. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Walmart are issuing a recall for the lavender and chamomile room spray and five other scents in the same product line. Investigation continues into whether other related scents and brands may pose a risk. For more information on this contaminated product, click here.

Analysis of the First Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge

The ability to identify the designer of engineered biological sequences — termed genetic engineering attribution (GEA) — would help ensure due credit for biotechnological innovation, while holding designers accountable to the communities they affect. In a new article, the authors present the results of the first Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge, a public data-science competition to advance GEA. Top-scoring teams dramatically outperformed previous models at identifying the true lab-of-origin of engineered sequences, including an increase in top-1 and top-10 accuracy of 10 percentage points. A simple ensemble of prizewinning models further increased performance. New metrics, designed to assess a model’s ability to confidently exclude candidate labs, also showed major improvements, especially for the ensemble. Most winning teams adopted CNN-based machine-learning approaches; however, one team achieved very high accuracy with an extremely fast neural-network-free approach. Future work, including future competitions, should further explore a wide diversity of approaches for bringing GEA technology into practical use. Read the full analysis here.

Emerging Technologies and Dual-Use Concerns: A Horizon Scan for Global Public Health

Advances in the life sciences and technology are making vital contributions to improving global health. New scientific insights that are subsequently translated into technology and refined, adapted and assimilated by innovative processes play a crucial role in advancing knowledge and addressing critical societal challenges. Yet, transformative developments in a wide range of fields can also pose risks to global health. It is therefore prudent to assess the potential adverse consequences of choosing particular technological pathways and potentially deleterious applications of technologies. Dual-use research of concern (DURC) is defined as life science research that is intended for benefit but which might be misapplied to do harm. A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) shares the results of an international horizon scanning exercise, organized by WHO to ensure foresight. The group of experts, from a range of disciplines, undertook a broad examination of scientific and technological developments that could give rise to concern over the next two decades and identified 15 priorities. This initiative includes development of a Global Guidance Framework to Harness the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences. Biodefense program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz serves on the WHO’s advisory board of independent, international experts that are contributing to the development of this framework. Read the report here.

WHO activities on the Responsible Use of the Life Sciences intend to increase awareness and provide tools to foster benefits and constrain risks stemming from dual use life sciences and technologies. Using its role as a leader in public health globally, WHO works with Member States and relevant stakeholders to harness responsible science and to establish mechanisms for adopting changes in practice that support safe, secure and responsible life sciences. WHO strives to remain abreast of the latest developments in relevant areas of research, science, and technology to proactively identify, anticipate, and prepare for issues that hold great potential for global health. Foresight is a set of tools and techniques that help Member States and stakeholders to better prepare for a changing world, to accelerate and fully harness the gains from emerging technologies and innovation while monitoring the risks and challenges that might arise from those technologies. This is for an informed decision-making and appropriate development of strategies and frameworks for oversight and governance. Watch the WHO videos on responsible use in the life sciences and foresight here and here.

Project Aimed at Improving Safety in Labs Dealing with Lethal Viruses Receives Major Funding Grant

A project aimed at improving biosafety and biosecurity practices in high-risk laboratories working on dangerous pathogens will be led by Dr. Filippa Lentzos, Co-Director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and Dr. Gregory Koblentz from George Mason University. The pair received funding to develop the Mapping Global Bio Labs project, an online tool that tracks the number of high biocontainment laboratories around the world. Also known as biosafety-level (BSL) 4 labs, these laboratories undertake hazardous research into lethal viruses to improve our understanding of diseases such as Ebola and Lassa Fever and to better prepare the world against new and emerging diseases. Research into pathogens is vital for public health, biomedical advances and disease prevention. However, these activities pose significant risks. Surges in the number of labs and an expansion in the high-risk research carried out within them have exacerbated safety and security risks. The debate on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on lab leaks and safety lapses in the course of scientific research. Whether or not the pandemic resulted from an accident, the key concern is it could have. The funding will create an improved, expanded, and much more detailed resource with which to monitor these high-risk labs worldwide. It is hoped the tool will enable international organizations such as the WHO to keep a closer eye on the activities undertaken in these labs and to ensure adequate biosafety and biosecurity measures are put in place.

TECHNOLOGY

Counterintelligence Head Narrows Focus to Five Technologies Critical to US Dominance

The top counterintelligence official of the US announced that he is “narrowing his team’s to safeguarding five key technologies, including semiconductors and biotechnology, seeing their protection from rivals as determining whether America remains the world’s leading superpower.” Michael Orlando is the acting director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC). The NCSC is “sharpening its priorities in order to conduct an effective outreach campaign to educate businesses and academia about the expansive efforts by China and Russia to collect cutting-edge research.” The NCSC also named Edward You, a career FBI agent and expert on biothreats, to a newly created position to focus on emerging and disruptive technologies. You said that a goal in his new role is to “raise awareness that China’s efforts to develop the world’s largest data set of genetic and other biological information pose a threat beyond individual privacy issues.”

Protecting Critical and Emerging US Technologies from Foreign Threats

Given the unique opportunities and challenges posed by emerging technologies, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) recently announced it is prioritizing its industry outreach efforts in a select few US technology sectors where the stakes are potentially greatest for US economic and national security. These sectors produce technologies that may determine whether America remains the world’s leading superpower or is eclipsed by strategic competitors in the next few years. These sectors include, but are not limited to: artificial intelligence, bioeconomy, autonomous systems, quantum, and semiconductors.

US leadership in emerging technology sectors faces growing challenges from strategic competitors who recognize the economic and military benefits of these technologies and have enacted comprehensive national strategies to achieve leadership in these areas. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) ranks as the primary strategic competitor to the United States because it has a well-resourced and comprehensive strategy to acquire and use technology to advance its national goals, including technology transfers and intelligence gathering through its Military-Civil Fusion Policy and a National Intelligence Law requiring all Chinese entities to share technology and information with the PRC military, intelligence, and security services. Russia views the development of advanced science and technology as a national security priority and is targeting US advances through the employment of a variety of licit and illicit technology transfer mechanisms to support national-level efforts, including its military and intelligence programs.

Basic steps that individuals can take to mitigate counterintelligence risks include: using multifactor authentication; reviewing social media settings to limit the amount of your information available to the public; and never leaving electronic devices unattended while abroad. Basic steps that organizations can take to mitigate counterintelligence risks include: carefully scrutinizing the security practices of suppliers, partners, and investors; strengthening cybersecurity and hygiene; and implementing insider threat programs.  

ALL THINGS COVID-19

The Impact of COVID-19 on Health and Care Workers: A Closer Look at Deaths

A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Workforce Department published a work paper that examines the impact of COVID-19 on health and care workers (HCWs), and estimates the global numbers of deaths due to COVID-19. Between January 2020 and May 2021, surveillance data reported to WHO showed 3.45 million deaths due to COVID-19. Of these only 6643 deaths were identified as being of HCWs, but this figure significantly under-reports the burden of mortality world-wide in this group. Based on the International Labour Organization’s estimated number of 135 million HCWs employed in human health and social activities and WHO’s surveillance data on all deaths reported to be due to COVID-19, mixed analytical approaches present a range between 80,000 to 180,000 deaths globally with a central population-based estimate of 115,500 deaths. In view of the mounting evidence that the number of deaths due to COVID-19 among HCWs is much greater than officially reported, the need for protection through vaccination cannot be overstated. In countries where vaccination rates of HCWs remain low, tailored communication strategies must be designed and actively pursued to increase uptake and avert vaccination hesitancy. Read the report here.

China-Linked Disinformation Campaign Blames COVID on Maine Lobsters

Marcel Schliebs is a disinformation researcher at the University of Oxford, and he tracked messaging spread on Twitter by Chinese diplomats and state media for 18 months. Schliebs discovered the emergence of a surprising (and unfounded) coronavirus origin theory: COVID-19 could have been imported to China via a batch of Maine lobsters from the US. Zha Liyou, the Chinese consul general in Kolkata, India, tweeted this claim, asserting that the lobsters were delivered to a seafood market in Wuhan, China, the city where SARS-CoV-2 first appeared. This Maine lobster theory is just the latest in a series of claims pushed by pro-China accounts since the pandemic hit. A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the UK stated that China was “opposed to the fabrication and spread of disinformation.” Further, “China is the biggest victim of disinformation, and the perpetrators are some politicians and media outlets eager for China-bashing in the US and a few other Western countries.”

COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation and Disinformation Costs an Estimated $50 to $300 Million Each Day

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that false or misleading health-related information can dangerously undermine the response to a public health crisis. These messages include the inadvertent spread of erroneous information (misinformation) or deliberately created and propagated false or misleading information (disinformation). Misinformation and disinformation have contributed to reduced trust in medical professionals and public health responders, increased belief in false medical cures, politicized public health countermeasures aimed at curbing transmission of the disease, and increased loss of life. As a country, we do not yet have a trusted set of approaches for managing misinformation and disinformation or exact methods for monetizing the costs resulting from their spread. The challenge to assigning an exact, high-confidence monetary cost to them is the lack of detailed data available on this issue. To begin to fill this gap, the Center for Health Security developed an initial conservative estimate of the total monetized costs of one facet of this issue—the misinformation or disinformation-informed decision to not get a COVID-19 vaccine. The total COVID-19 non-vaccination has caused at least $1 billion of harm each day in the United States since vaccines became widely available. Misinformation and disinformation have caused between $50 and $300 million worth of total harm every day since May 2021. A public health effort that reduced or effectively countered misinformation and disinformation and was able to reduce related non-vaccination by 10% would be worth between $5 and $30 million per day, or between $150 and $900 million per month, while the pandemic continues.

The World Was Woefully Unprepared for a Pandemic. Let’s Be Ready for the Next One.

Just three months before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) issued a working to the international community that a pandemic was on the horizon and the world was unprepared. Their expectation came to fruition with COVID-19. Now, 20 months into the pandemic that has killed nearly 5 million people and devastated the global economy, the world remains unprepared, both to end this pandemic quickly and prevent the next one. The pandemic has exposed a “broken world of haves and have-nots where access to vaccines, treatments and PPE depends on your ability to pay.” The lack of global equity in vaccine distribution is partially a result of the “fundamental misunderstanding of global solidarity as being founded on generosity, not justice. It is also caused by longstanding systemic inequities in the global health emergency and broader international system.” Despite its many challenges, the pandemic has offered an opportunity “to celebrate the life-saving and inspiring role that science can play in mitigating dangerous diseases.” In its new report, the GPMD calls for “stronger political leadership and accountability to change the way the international community prepares for future health emergencies.” Specific recommended actions include: countries working together with civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders to take urgent steps to strengthen the ecosystem of pandemic preparedness and response; negotiating an international agreement in WHO; creating a new financing instrument at the World Bank; developing end-to-end mechanisms to advance public goods for health emergencies and share data; and empowering the WHO with strengthened with resources and authority.

Brazilian Senate Report Accuses President Bolsonaro of Crimes Against Humanity for Mishandling of COVID-19 Pandemic Response

This week, a Brazilian Senate committee approved a 1,100-page report that describes “what happens when a country’s president adopts policies with utter disregard for human rights during a pandemic.” The report portrays Brazilian President Bolsonaro as a leader who “turned his back on science and endangered the health and lives of Brazilians.” SARS-CoV-2 has thus far killed more than 600,000 Brazilians, thousands of which could have been avoided. Bolsonaro refused to follow the public health recommendations of the World Health Organization, and tried to block Congress from following those guidelines. In July 2020, he vetoed legal provisions that would have made mask wearing mandatory in churches and in the country’s overcrowded prisons. When a critical oxygen shortage emerged in Amazonas state, the Bolsonaro administration instead sent inefficacious drugs and dozens of COVID-19 patients died. The same unproven drugs were sent to Indigenous people. The report recommended a cornucopia of criminal charges against the president and called for his impeachment. In a seven-to-four vote this week, a Brazilian Senate committee recommended that Bolsonaro face a series of criminal indictments for actions and omissions related to the nation’s COVID-19 death toll, which is the second highest in the world.

From Worlds Apart to a World Prepared: GPMB 2021 Annual Report

This month, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) published its third annual report, From Worlds Apart to a World Prepared. The report argues that the failures of the COVID-19 pandemic were rooted in inequality and inaction and exacerbated by geopolitical division. The Board calls for a renewed global social contract and lays out six solutions for a safer world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a world that is unequal, divided, and unaccountable. The health emergency ecosystem reflects this broken world. It is not fit for purpose and needs major reform. Hundreds of expert recommendations have been made over the last two decades, new structures have been created, but the level of ambition and action has failed to match the global need. We know what to do. We just cannot seem to do it. The current pandemic has made us more aware of the urgent need for fundamental change. There is now momentum, but new governance and funding mechanisms are being discussed behind closed doors and in limited forums. Effective transformation requires cohesive, coherent, and collaborative action. We need a new global social contract to prevent and mitigate health emergencies. The new social contract must serve as the foundation of the global health emergency ecosystem. It should be based on the principles of equity, solidarity, inclusivity and reciprocity, accountability and transparency, sustainability and action. To move from words to action, the GPMB calls for immediate action on the six most critical solutions for reform. They are:

  • Strengthen global governance; adopt an international agreement on health emergency preparedness and response, and convene a Summit of Heads of State and Government, together with other stakeholders, on health emergency preparedness and response.
  • Build a strong WHO with greater resources, authority, and accountability.
  • Create an agile health emergency system that can deliver on equity through better information sharing and an end-to-end mechanism for research, development and equitable access to common goods.
  • Establish a collective financing mechanism for preparedness to ensure more sustainable, predictable, flexible, and scalable financing.
  • Empower communities and ensure engagement of civil society and the private sector.
  • Strengthen independent monitoring and mutual accountability.

Read the GPMB’s report here.

EVENTS

Schar School Open House

The Schar School will be a hosting virtual open house for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 16 November at 6:30 PM EST. This online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs – such as the Biodefense Program – and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Register here.

2021 Global Conference on Health and Climate Change

The 2021 Global Conference on Health & Climate Change with a special focus on Climate Justice and the Healthy and Green Recovery from COVID-19 will convene at the margin of the COP26 UN climate change conference. The aim of the conference is to call on governments, businesses, institutions and financial actors to drive a green, healthy and resilient recovery from COVID-19. The Conference will support and highlight climate action recommendations that promote and protect health. It will also mobilize the rapidly growing movement of health professionals around the world who are now driving ambitious climate action. And it will generate cross-sectoral dialogue focused on integrated solutions for a green, just and healthy future. The conference has a fully developed hybrid program, with participation both online, and in-person at the Glasgow Caledonian University. Register here.

Biorisk Management Perspective: Then and Now Webinar

In partnership with the American Biological Safety Association’s (ABSA) Biosafety and Biosecurity Month, APHL is proud to provide this free webinar! This program will provide attendees with an overview of biorisk management innovation throughout the years. Participants will hear from three biosafety professionals on their perspectives of biosafety and biosecurity practices and discuss the potential role of biosafety professionals into the future. This program is intended for anyone who works in or supervises a public health, clinical and academic/research laboratory. These can include clinical and public health laboratory staff, microbiology students, veterinary microbiology laboratory workers, veterinarians, medical doctors, biosafety professionals, academia or biotech industry laboratory workers and research scientists. The webinar will be held on 1 and 8 November from 11:30 AM to 4 PM EST. Register here.

Preparing for the Next Pandemic

The term “post-pandemic world” has become ubiquitous ever since COVID vaccines were made widely available to the developed world. Yet, the bio-policy implications of a world coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic are rarely evaluated critically and holistically. COVID-19 pandemic points to the reality that a multifaceted approach is necessary to prevent future pandemics or, should the need arise again, how to stop them in their tracks. A webinar offered by CDRF Global brings together experts from different corners of the biosafety and biosecurity space to discuss lessons learned from the world’s response to COVID-19 and analyze policy pathways moving forward. This panel will be held on 8 November at 9 AM EST. Register here.

Pandora Report: 10.22.2021

Mary Sproull, a PhD student in the Biodefense Program, recently co-authored a fascinating on article on radioactive mice from Fukushima. Dr. Rebecca Katz recently wrote a piece about the changes needed to the US 1948 resolution that authorized US participation in the World Health Organization. Prolonged and strict pandemic measures in North Korea are spurring a growing food crisis, leaving children and the elderly at risk of starvation.

Dennis M. Gormley: An Extraordinary Career, A Kind and Generous Man

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley wrote a heartfelt memorial on her late husband, Dennis M. Gormley:

“Dennis Gormley passed away on October 15, 2020, and I still can’t find the words to capture the sense of loss that I’ve been feeling ever since. Dennis was my husband and my best friend. For the past 17 years we were, as he liked to say, “joined at the hip,” working, traveling, laughing, and enjoying life with friends and family, always together. His passing created a big void in my life, but the outpouring of letters from former students, friends, colleagues, and perfect strangers reminded me that my sadness was shared by many and that his life and work will have a lasting impact on the security field and on the lives of those who crossed his path.

For many, Dennis is known as the world’s leading expert in cruise missile proliferation; sometimes he was introduced as the “king of cruise missiles.” His natural modesty made him wince at these grandiose titles but they were well deserved, and I particularly liked the second one, because if he was king, that made me queen of something. Dennis was indeed a forward thinker, often ahead of the curve as far as identifying security challenges. His book Missile Contagion, published in 2008, elevated the threat of land-attack cruise missiles to the level of collective consciousness, influencing how the United States and other countries think about this threat. His authority on cruise missiles was such that, at a conference overseas where he was invited as a speaker, a foreign government official asked him if he would authorize the sale of American cruise missiles to his country! In reflecting on why Missile Contagion has had such a profound impact on understanding the cruise missile threat and why so many researchers, including myself, continue to reread the book to remind themselves of specific details or technical information, I realized that Missile Contagion was in fact a microcosm of Dennis’s extraordinary career.”

Read the full memorial here.

Leidos Awarded DARPA Contract to Develop Advanced Protective Equipment for US Military

Leidos was just awarded a prime contract by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for its Personalized Protective Biosystem (PPB) program. The contract is for $19.3 million and five years. Leidos will “develop technology that reduces the need for burdensome protective equipment while increasing defense against both existing and future chemical and biological (CB) threats.” DARPA’s PPB program “addresses the national need for lightweight and adaptive personal protection equipment for military and healthcare personnel.” As part of this contract, Leidos will be launching the Smart Protective Integrated Dynamic Ensemble for Reactive, Multifaceted Agent Neutralization – SPIDERMAN – platform. The technology serves as both lightweight protection and “tissue-protective countermeasures.” The goal of SPIDERMAN is to “create new and improved ways to address different, emerging and uncharacterized threats through advanced technology.”

New Book – Perilous Medicine: The Struggle to Protect Healthcare from the Violence of War

Pervasive violence against hospitals, patients, doctors, and other health workers has become a horrifically common feature of modern war. These relentless attacks destroy lives and the capacity of health systems to tend to those in need. Inaction to stop this violence undermines long-standing values and laws designed to ensure that sick and wounded people receive care.

Leonard Rubenstein—a human rights lawyer who has investigated atrocities against health workers around the world—offers a gripping and powerful account of the dangers health workers face during conflict and the legal, political, and moral struggle to protect them. In a dozen case studies, he shares the stories of people who have been attacked while seeking to serve patients under dire circumstances including health workers hiding from soldiers in the forests of eastern Myanmar as they seek to serve oppressed ethnic communities, surgeons in Syria operating as their hospitals are bombed, and Afghan hospital staff attacked by the Taliban as well as government and foreign forces. Rubenstein reveals how political and military leaders evade their legal obligations to protect health care in war, punish doctors and nurses for adhering to their responsibilities to provide care to all in need, and fail to hold perpetrators to account.

Bringing together extensive research, firsthand experience, and compelling personal stories, Perilous Medicine also offers a path forward, detailing the lessons the international community needs to learn to protect people already suffering in war and those on the front lines of health care in conflict-ridden places around the world.

Get your copy here.

Proteomic Biomarker Analysis of Serum from Japanese Field Mice (Apodemus Speciosus) Collected within the Fukushima Difficult-to-return Zone

Mary Sproull, a PhD student in the Biodefense Program, recently co-authored a fascinating on article on radioactive mice from Fukushima. The environmental impact of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident is a source of ongoing concern as there is uncertainty regarding the effects of chronic radiation exposure on local plant and animal life from Fukushima-derived radionuclides. In the current study, changes in proteomic biomarker expression due to chronic environmentally-derived radiation exposures were examined in wild field mice. Serum from 10 wild field mice (Apodemus speciosus) native to the Fukushima difficult-to-return zone and from eight wild field mice native to the Soma area (control) were collected. External dose estimations were completed using measurements of ambient radiation levels and calculating 137Cs concentrations in soil. Internal dose was estimated by counting whole mice using an HPGe detector. Age of the mice was estimated using molar wear. Serum was screened using the aptamer-based SOMAscan proteomic assay technology for changes in expression of 1,310 protein analytes. A subset panel of protein biomarkers that demonstrated significant changes in expression between control and exposed mice was determined and analyzed using Ingenuity Pathway Analysis (IPA). Control animals had a calculated lifetime dose range from 0.001 to 0.007 Gy, and exposed animals had a calculated lifetime dose range from 0.01 to 0.64 Gy. No discernable effect of dose rate was seen as relative dose rate correlated with dose for all samples. Detectable values were obtained for all 1,310 proteins included in the SOMAscan assay. Subset panels of proteins demonstrating significant (p < 0.05) changes in expression with either an upregulated or downregulated 1.5-fold change over control were identified for both the sample cohort inclusive of all exposed samples and the sample cohort restricted to samples from animals receiving “low” dose exposures. These panels of proteins from exposed animals were analyzed using IPA, which highlighted changes in key biological pathways related to injury, respiratory, renal, urological, and gastrointestinal disease, and cancer. Significant changes in expression of proteomic biomarkers were seen in the serum of wild field mice that received environmental exposure to Fukushima-derived radionuclides. Findings demonstrate novel biomarkers of radiation exposure in wildlife within the Fukushima difficult-to-return zone. Read the article here.

It’s Time to Rethink Who Represents the US at the WHO

Dr. Rebecca Katz, a Professor and Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security, recently wrote a piece about the changes needed to the US 1948 resolution that authorized US participation in the World Health Organization. According to Katz, the US 1948 resolution interpreted the WHO’s requirement that a country’s representative to the executive board must be technically trained in health as a “mandate that whomever represents the United States be a graduate of a recognized medical school and have no less than three years of experience practicing medicine or surgery.” But, in the last 70 years, much has changed, and medical doctors are not the only global health professionals. In fact, the current Director-General of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is not a physician, but has a PhD in community health. Leadership in the US government includes not only medical doctors but also public health experts, epidemiologists, life science researchers, diplomats, crisis management experts, lawyers and journalists. Katz urges that it is “time to finally get rid of the rule that limits the representative to only those that are medically qualified and include the range of experts who are technically qualified in the field of health.”

BIOSAFETY

From CRISPR Babies to Super Soldiers: Challenges and Security Threats Posed by CRISPR

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouaghram-Gormley, an Associate Professor at the Schar School, recently published an article on the security threats posed by CRISPR in The Nonproliferation Review. The gene-editing technique CRISPR—clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats—is often depicted as a security threat because it could theoretically allow scientists or amateurs to edit the genome of a variety of organisms and potentially cause harm to humans, plants, and animals. The recent use of CRISPR by Chinese scientist He Jiankui to edit the genome of viable embryos, which resulted in the birth of twin girls, has exacerbated those fears. This article reviews the timeline of the CRISPR-babies experiment, highlights the challenges that contributed to the experiment’s failure, and evaluates the risks of CRISPR’s use for malevolent purposes. It concludes that although the potential for abuse is great, the technical obstacles are still too significant to allow successful modification that would threaten security. Read Ouaghram-Gormley’s article here.

Laboratory Exposure to Human Pathogens and Toxins, Canada 2020

A new study examined reported laboratory incidents in Canada in 2020. The Laboratory Incident Notification Canada surveillance system monitors laboratory incidents reported under the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act and the Human Pathogens and Toxins Regulations. The objective of this report is to describe laboratory exposures that were reported in Canada in 2020 and the individuals who were affected. Laboratory incident exposures occurring in licensed Canadian laboratories in 2020 were analyzed. The exposure incident rate was calculated and the descriptive statistics were performed. Exposure incidents were analyzed by sector, activity type, occurrence type, root cause and pathogen/toxin. Affected persons were analyzed by education, route of exposure sector, role and laboratory experience. The time between the incident and the reporting date was also analyzed. The annual incident exposure rate was 4.2 incidents per 100 active licenses. Most exposure incidents occurred during microbiology activities (n=22, 52.4%) and/or were reported by the hospital sector (n=19, 45.2%). Procedural issues (n=16, 27.1%) and sharps-related incidents (n=13, 22.0%) were the most common occurrences. Most affected individuals were exposed via inhalation (n=28, 49.1%) and worked as technicians or technologists (n=36, 63.2%). The rate of laboratory incidents was lower in 2020 than 2019, although the ongoing pandemic may have contributed to this decrease because of the closure of non-essential workplaces, including laboratories, for a portion of the year. The most common occurrence type was procedural while issues with not complying to standard operating procedures and human interactions as the most cited root causes. Read the study here.

A Guide to Training and Information Resources on the Culture of Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Responsible Conduct in the Life Sciences

The International Working Group on Strengthening the Culture of Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Responsible Conduct in the Life Sciences (coordinated by HHS/ASPR and USDA/APHIS) developed A Guide to Training and Information Resources on the Culture of Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Responsible Conduct in the Life Sciences, as an update to the 2019 Guide previously published. The International Working Group on Strengthening the Culture of Biosafety, Biosecurity, and Responsible Conduct in the Life Sciences (IWG, for short) is a platform for collaboration and community of practice comprised of representatives of governments, academia, industry, professional and international organizations, and other organizations from across the globe, using crowdsourcing to develop guiding principles and educational/training resources to support and promote a culture of global biosafety, biosecurity, ethical, and responsible conduct in the life sciences, based on the culture model and assessment methodology developed by IAEA for the nuclear safety and security culture. The group is convened by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture. Download the guide here.

NAVALNY POISONING

In Aftermath of Navalny Poisoning, Chemical-Weapons Group Tiptoes Toward Unprecedented Step

Thirteen months ago, a German military laboratory found that Aleksei Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption leader, had been poisoned with a powerful nerve agent, Novichok. Russia used the nerve agent despite being a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention. For the first time in the treaty’s history, suspicions and accusations may be investigated by a challenge inspection. Forty-five nations are calling on Russia to “provide a full explanation of the circumstances behind Navalny’s illness,” which almost killed him. In a 235-page document, Russia has pushed back at the accusations. The challenge inspection remains uncertain as the treaty was designed to “address the mass-scale production of chemical weapons, for which a country would have large factories or storage facilities to produce and stockpile the materials.” The production of Novichok would likely be a small-scale setup that is easy to hide and difficult to trace.

The Navalny Poisoning: Moscow Evades Accountability and Mocks the Chemical Weapons Convention

In related news, Russia “recently rejected a Western proposal to use the Chemical Weapons Convention’s (CWC) consultation and clarification procedures to resolve allegations that it is responsible for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.” Moscow has essentially “slammed shut the door to the least confrontational solution to the dispute.” Despite this, several nations have made it clear that they are unwilling to let their “demands for accountability for Novichok use go unanswered.” Any CWC state party has the option to trigger the treaty’s compliance mechanism and the Article IX (3) – (7) procedure in which Russia would be required to provide clarification. Another option is to initiate a challenge inspection to clarify the allegations that Russia deployed the nerve agent. Instead of embracing the diplomatic options, Russia continues to mock the CWC’s multilateral mechanisms.

ALL THINGS COVID-19

Public Health Under Siege

Public health in the US is under siege as the entire system struggles with understaffing and underfunding. The pummeled public health system is struggling to maintain services and care. A joint investigation between KHN and AP found that public health departments throughout the nation were understaffed and ill-equipped to handle the pandemic. An analysis revealed that at least 38,000 state and local public health jobs had disappeared since 2008, and spending for local public health departments plummeted by 18% per capita since 2010. A new study in PLOS one found that the “provision of many essential public health functions and tasks have been limited or eliminated while the US public health workforce responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The study showed healthcare workers are putting in more hours as critical services are scaled back, suspended, or eliminated. This “unsustainable burden” has overwhelmed public health, and the “public health disruptions caused by the pandemic will continue to affect the provision of services for years to come.” But, “action can be taken now to mitigate these effects and prepare the workforce for the future.”

Out of Luck with Vaccine Lotteries

In efforts to boost vaccinations against COVID-19, several states offered sizable cash lotteries for those who got the shots. Unfortunately, a study on the efficacy of these lotteries found that “no statistically significant association was detected between a cash-drawing announcement and the number of vaccinations before or after the announcement date.” The lotteries did not create a significant boost in vaccinations. Although the findings were disheartening, the authors hope that the study will “lead to a shift in focus away from ineffective and expensive lotteries, and on to further study of other programs that may more successfully increase vaccine uptake.”

What Can Masks Do? Part 1: The Science Behind COVID-19 Protection

This article is Part 1 of a commentary that explains the “differences in cloth face coverings and surgical masks, the science of respiratory protection, and the hierarchy of disease controls.” The authors state that they are “in favor of wearing the most protective facepiece for the setting—such as a non-fit tested respirator when spending more than a few minutes in a crowded indoor space—and in combination with other interventions.” The data related to cloth face coverings and surgical masks show that they offer “very limited source control (protection of others from pathogens by limiting emissions from an infected person).” This is because masks limit the number of larger respiratory particles in a space, but they do not prevent the emission of most small particles – aerosols – exhaled during respiratory actions like breathing or talking. Face coverings are not a replacement for vaccination and good ventilation, however. The authors “strongly support people wearing more effective facepieces, including respirators.”

Brazil Senators Drop Call for COVID-19 Homicide Charge Against Bolsonaro

In Brazil, an investigation into the government’s handling of COVID-19 led to evidence that President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration committed “crimes against life.” A report formally represented by a Brazilian senator called for Bolsonaro to be indicted on criminal charges for the bungled response. Indeed, an early draft of this report recommended that the president be indicted for homicide and genocide. This week, however, the senators once calling for his indictment dropped the call to indict the president for genocide and homicide, and are now condemning him for “crimes against humanity.” It is highly unlikely that charges or a trial will ever arise, but this does not bode well for Bolsonaro’s bid in the upcoming election. Unsurprisingly, his “popularity has suffered from a weak economy, rising inflation and his handling of the outbreak.”

SARS-CoV-2 Dose, Infection, and Disease Outcomes for COVID-19 – A Review

The relationship between SARS-CoV-2 dose, infection, and COVID-19 outcomes remains poorly understood. This review summarizes the existing literature regarding this issue, identifies gaps in current knowledge, and suggests opportunities for future research. In humans, host characteristics including age, sex, comorbidities, smoking, and pregnancy are associated with severe COVID-19. Similarly in animals, host factors are strong determinants of disease severity although most animal infection models manifest clinically with mild to moderate respiratory disease. The influence of variants of concern as it relates to minimal infectious dose, consequence of overall pathogenicity, and disease outcome in dose-response remain unknown. Epidemiologic data suggest a dose-response relationship for infection contrasting with limited and inconsistent surrogate-based evidence between dose and disease severity. Recommendations include the design of future infection studies in animal models to investigate inoculating dose on outcomes and the use of better proxies for dose in human epidemiology studies. Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, is a co-author on this article, which can be found here.

UN Investigator: North Korea Kids and Elderly Risk Starving

Prolonged and strict pandemic measures in North Korea are spurring a growing food crisis, leaving children and the elderly at risk of starvation. A report to the UN General Assembly shows that North Korea’s agricultural sector is facing many challenges due to “a drop in imports of fertilizer and other agricultural items from neighboring China, the impact of UN and international sanctions stemming from its nuclear program, and an outbreak of African swine fever.” Protracted pandemic measures over the last nearly two yeas have caused “severe economic hardship and increased vulnerability to human rights violations among the general population.” Many factories and mines have shut down, and the numbers of homeless people and street children are rising. The report also says that “the government has reportedly mobilized urban residents, those recently discharged from the military, orphaned children and married women to bolster agricultural production and work on farms.”

EVENTS

Schar School Open House

The Schar School will be hosting a virtual open house for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 16 November at 6:30 PM EST. This online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs – such as the Biodefense Program – and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Register here.

Biorisk Management Perspective: Then and Now Webinar

In partnership with the American Biological Safety Association’s (ABSA) Biosafety and Biosecurity Month, APHL is proud to provide this free webinar! This program will provide attendees with an overview of biorisk management innovation throughout the years. Participants will hear from three biosafety professionals on their perspectives of biosafety and biosecurity practices and discuss the potential role of biosafety professionals into the future. This program is intended for anyone who works in or supervises a public health, clinical and academic/research laboratory. These can include clinical and public health laboratory staff, microbiology students, veterinary microbiology laboratory workers, veterinarians, medical doctors, biosafety professionals, academia or biotech industry laboratory workers and research scientists. Register here.

Preparing for the Next Pandemic

The term “post-pandemic world” has become ubiquitous ever since COVID vaccines were made widely available to the developed world. Yet, the bio-policy implications of a world coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic are rarely evaluated critically and holistically. COVID-19 pandemic points to the reality that a multifaceted approach is necessary to prevent future pandemics or, should the need arise again, how to stop them in their tracks. A webinar offered by CDRF Global brings together experts from different corners of the biosafety and biosecurity space to discuss lessons learned from the world’s response to COVID-19 and analyze policy pathways moving forward. Register here.

Pandora Report: 10.15.2021

This week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan shared a statement in regard to the annual report for the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). The World Health Organization (WHO) announced the 26 proposed members of the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). The Schar School will be hosting virtual open houses for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 21 October and 16 November at 6:30 PM EST!

New Book – The Molecularisation of Security: Medical Countermeasures, Stockpiling and the Governance of Biological Threats

The Molecularisation of Security: Medical Countermeasures, Stockpiling and the Governance of Biological Threats by Christopher Long investigates the way that the molecular sciences are shaping contemporary security practices in relation to the governance of biological threats. In response to biological threats, such as pandemics and bioterrorism, governments around the world have developed a range of new security technologies, called medical countermeasures, to protect their populations. This book argues that the molecular sciences’ influence has been so great that security practices have been molecularised. Focusing on the actions of international organizations and governments in the past two decades, this book identifies two contrasting conceptions of the nature or inherent workings of molecular life as driving this turn. On the one hand, political notions of insecurity have been shaped by the contingent or random nature of molecular life. On the other, the identification of molecular life’s constant biological dynamics supports and makes possible the development and stockpiling of effective medical countermeasures. This study is one of the few to take seriously the conceptual implications that the detailed empirical workings of biotechnology have on security practices today. Get your copy here.

The São Paulo Declaration on Planetary Health

Humanity, and indeed all of life on Earth, is at a crossroads. Over the past several decades, the scale of human impacts on Earth’s natural systems has increased exponentially to the point where it exceeds our planet’s capacity to absorb our wastes or provide the resources we are using. The result is a vast and accelerating transformation and degradation of nature. This includes not only global climate change but also global scale pollution of air, water, and soil; degradation of our planet’s forests, rivers, coastal, and marine systems; and the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.

The core insight of planetary health is that these disruptions and degradations of natural systems are a clear and urgent threat not only to the web of life but to humanity itself. The scale of our own environmental impacts is threatening our nutrition and mental health, increasing exposure to infectious diseases and non-communicable diseases, and driving population displacement and conflict. On our current trajectory, we can no longer safeguard human health and wellbeing.

The São Paulo Declaration on Planetary Health is a global call to action from the planetary health community charting a path forward to support a more equitable and resilient post-pandemic world. The Declaration’s cross-cutting recom­mendations were drafted during the 2021 Planetary Health Annual Meeting and Festival in São Paulo, Brazil, concluding with a global consultation of nearly 350 participants from more than 70 countries supported by the United Nations Development Programme.

Statement by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on the Global Health Security Agenda Annual Report

This week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan shared a statement in regard to the annual report for the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA):

“Over the past two years, the world has learned through hardship and tragedy just how dangerous and disruptive a threat to our global health security can be. More than 4.5 million people around the world have died from the COVID-19 pandemic and the global economy is still struggling to recover. That’s why the Biden-Harris Administration has put global health security back at the top of the US national security agenda—to defeat this pandemic and to invest in strengthening health systems globally so that we are better prepared to prevent, detect, and respond to the next global health threat.

Today, we are releasing the annual report, “Strengthening Health Security Across the Globe: Progress and Impact of United States Government Investments in the Global Health Security Agenda,” which details our progress and impact helping countries build health security capacity through the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) in fiscal year 2020. We are bringing a whole-of-government effort to address global health as a national security imperative, and this report describes how GHSA investments have been critical in advancing the COVID-19 response, and outlines our strategic approach for assisting countries to meet specific targets.

Initially, the GHSA was launched as a 5-year effort that began in 2014, but the success of the program and the incredible global need resulted in another 5-year plan, “GHSA 2024.” GHSA 2024 introduced the bold target of more than 100 countries completing a transparent evaluation of health security capacity, performing planning and resource mobilization to address their gaps, and implementing activities to improve their capacity. This Administration is committed to supporting and strengthening GHSA in the years ahead, and we will continue to use our partner country investments and technical expertise to help achieve the GHSA target.

Improving the capabilities of individual countries and our shared capacity to take on infectious disease threats has never been more important. The United States will continue to work expeditiously to end this pandemic, including by continuing to donate vaccine doses and drive efforts to vaccinate the world, and rally the world to build back better to prevent the next pandemic. It’s going to take ambitious actions to ensure sustained global financing and political leadership, but we can do it. We can invest in saving lives now and creating a more secure and healthy future. The GHSA is a vital part of that work.”

Read the report here.

Public Notice of Proposed New Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) Members

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced the 26 proposed members of the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). The SAGO will advise WHO on technical and scientific considerations regarding the origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential, and will be composed of a wide range of experts acting in their personal capacity. SAGO will also guide WHO on next steps for understanding the SARS-CoV-2 origins. The proposed members hail from all over the world, and have expertise in a variety of fields, including epidemiology, pathology, microbiology, virology, and genomics. The full list of proposed members can be found here.

An editorial in Science, “Preparing for Disease X,” highlights the importance of the SAGO in its mission to “advise the WHO on developing a framework to define comprehensive studies on the origins of such pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2—information that is essential for developing policies and enhancing preparedness to reduce the possibility of future zoonotic spillover events (transmission of a pathogen from animals to humans) and the chance that those events become major outbreaks.” Read the editorial here.

Biological Weapons

False Allegations of Biological-Weapons Use from Putin’s Russia

Milton Leitenberg, an expert in arms control and weapons of mass destruction, published an article, “False allegations of biological-weapons use from Putin’s Russia,” in The Nonproliferation Review this week. From 1949 until 1988, the Soviet Union conducted a nearly continuous campaign of false allegations of biological-weapon (BW) use by the United States. In 1995, senior Russian military officials revived this pattern of false allegations, which continues to the present day. Russian officials amplified the campaign after the US government funded the transformation of former Soviet BW facilities in the Commonwealth of Independent States under the Nunn–Lugar program. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in China in January 2020 prompted a very greatly expanded Russian-government BW-related disinformation effort. This paper aims to present a reasonably comprehensive account of these activities and to assess their significance. The Russian government under President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated open disdain for both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Read Leitenberg’s article here.

Remarks to United Nations First Committee

Ambassador Bonnie Denise Jenkins, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, gave remarks to the United Nations First Committee regarding the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC):

“The United States remains committed to leading the way on arms control and addressing complex global security challenges.  As President Biden said, we have a national security imperative and moral responsibility to manage and eventually eliminate the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.  The extension of New START was the beginning of our effort to resume a leadership role on arms control and nonproliferation.  We are now entering an era of relentless diplomacy, as demonstrated by our Strategic Stability Dialogue with Russia, that is focused on building a stable, predictable foundation for the future of arms control.

We must acknowledge that our current strategic environment is one of increased geopolitical tension and competition.  In that context, the United States will sponsor two resolutions this session: the Compliance with Non-Proliferation, Arms Limitation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments and Advancing responsible State behavior in cyberspace in the context of international security. Both address an essential element of international peace and security and their adoption would strengthen confidence in international norms.

We are also cognizant that some nations are pursuing policies to undermine the international rules-based order.  The international institutions that we have built over the past several decades are being undercut by autocratic regimes that seek to foster instability to the detriment of us all.  These regimes also pose new nuclear dangers that remind us of the importance of preventing nuclear war, avoiding nuclear arms races, and stopping the further spread of nuclear weapons.

And regrettably, the challenges we face include threats posed by other weapons of mass destruction.  We continue to witness the repeated and abhorrent use of chemical weapons in defiance of long-standing norms and international legal obligations, including the poisoning of Mr. Aleksey Navalny on Russian territory, and the Syrian Arab Republic’s use of chemical weapons.  We must steadfastly call out offenders and hold those who use chemical weapons accountable. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need to prevent future outbreaks – whether natural, accidental, or deliberate in origin. We will therefore take action to break the two-decade deadlock over strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention.  At the upcoming Review Conference, we must bring the Convention into the 21st century.  The United States will propose that BWC States adopt and implement specific measures to strengthen the BWC in key areas and take steps to intensively explore measures to strengthen implementation and promote compliance.”

Statement on Biological Weapons UN General Assembly First Committee

Dr. Filippa Lentzos from King’s College London gave a statement on biological weapons to the United Nations General Assembly First Committee that calls for “reaffirming commitments to the BWC and the Geneva Protocol, and reporting on measures taken to implement and strengthen BWC provisions.” Given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on health, society, and the economy, Lentzos urges the First Committee delegations to “seriously consider how to make the broader biological disarmament architecture more fit for purpose in today’s world.” A growing number of high biocontainment laboratories around the world are studying lethal viruses and preparing against unknown pathogens. According to Lentzos, “more countries are expected to build these labs in the wake of COVID-19” and “high risk and gain-of-function research with coronaviruses and other zoonotic pathogens with pandemic potential is likely to increase.” Scientific and clinical work on pathogens is critical to public health, biomedical advancements, and the prevention of disease; however, “surges in the number of labs and expansion in high-risk research carried out within them exacerbate safety and security risks.” Lentzos encourages the First Committee delegations to seriously and constructively consider the proposals already on the table for “how to evolve the biological disarmament architecture to uphold its central role in preventing the misuse of biology for hostile purposes.” Read Lentzos’ full statement here.

Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of the People’s Republic of China and the Russia Federation on Strengthening the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction

The Russian Federation and China issued a joint statement reaffirming “their conviction that the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BWC) is essential as a pillar of the international peace and security, and their determination to safeguard the authority and effectiveness of the Convention.” According to the statement, “the Russian Federation and China reiterate the need that the BWC should be fully complied with and further strengthened, including through its institutionalization and the adoption of a legally binding protocol to the Convention with effective verification mechanism, as well as through regular consultations and cooperation in resolving any issues related to the implementation of the Convention.” The two nations “call upon the BWC States Parties to continue joint efforts towards strengthening the Convention on a secure, legally binding basis.” Read the full joint statement here.

ALL THINGS COVID-19

The Origin of COVID-19: Evidence Piles Up, But the Jury’s Still Out

Evidence related to the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is “piling up,” but a definitive answer remains elusive. Despite investigations by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US intelligence community, how the COVID-19 pandemic emerged is still uncertain. A recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists highlights how the mounting circumstantial evidence supports either the theory that the virus emerged from a natural spillover or the theory that a laboratory leak introduced the virus is dependent upon who you ask. Research is showing the spillover of animal coronaviruses may be common and viruses identified in nature have had striking similarity to SARS-CoV-2, facts that may support the natural emergence theory. But, on the flip side, supporters of the lab leak theory point a finger at a research proposal submitted to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2018 that would have included WIV as a “key player in that multimillion-dollar effort to study bat viruses.” Another report emphasized the “extent to which genetic engineering on bat coronavirus was being done in Wuhan.”

Addressing Biocrises After COVID-19: Is Deterrence an Option?

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked discussion about the “potential dangers of biological weapons and biological terrorism.” Al Mauroni, the Director of the US Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, discusses his insights on the potential for deterrence against biological threats. Michael Mazaar defines deterrence as “the practice of discouraging or restraining someone … from taking unwanted actions, such as an armed attack;” the idea is to “stop or prevent an action from occurring.” According to Mauroni, the “efficacy of deterrence against biological threats depends, of course, on what the biological threat is.” The term “biological threat” is a catch-all that encompasses natural disease outbreaks, deliberate biological incidents, and accidental releases. Given that deterrence requires a “reasoning actor, …one cannot deter natural disease outbreaks or accidents at biological research laboratories as they have no human actor with malign intent to cause harm.” Deterrence against biological weapons attacks is also problematic because of “technological challenges involved with biodefense.” Deterring a terrorist from using a bioweapon is tricky, but “terrorist organizations can be deterred by threats of retaliation.” Mauroni highlights that for deterrence to be effective, “there must be communication between the defender and attacker as to expectations and consequences, and it requires the accurate perception of both to maintain stability and a balance of power.” In sum, a deterrence by denial strategy for countering biological threats will not succeed due to the “disparity between the significant number of biological warfare agents and hundreds of unprotected US cities and available defensive countermeasures.” Therefore, the US should “retain deterrence by punishment as its primary approach to discouraging deliberate biological attacks.”

How COVAX Failed on Its Promise to Vaccinate the World

The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access – COVAX – is a global initiative working toward at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, and it is co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the World Health Organization (WHO). Unfortunately, COVAX has not lived up to its promise to vaccinate the world. While wealthy nations are offering boosters to their populations, “98% of people in low-income countries remain unvaccinated.” COVAX has contributed 5% of all vaccines administered globally and just announced it would not make 2021 target of 2 billion doses. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and STAT reviewed confidential internal documents and spoke with officials from more over two dozen countries. This examination found that many countries are struggling to get information from COVAX personnel and have been “left in the dark over when, if ever, deliveries would arrive.” Other concerns include late supply shipments and the sidelining of organizations that represent the needs of poorer nations. A review of COVAX highlighted the “insufficient inclusion and meaningful engagement of low- and middle-income countries, civil society organizations and community representatives.” So far, the initiative has delivered 330 million doses and now plans to distribute 1.1 billion more in the next three months.

NIH Bat Coronavirus Grant Report Was Submitted More Than Two Years Late

A progress report that covered details of US-funded research on bat coronaviruses in China was more than two years overdue.  EcoHealth Alliance is a US-based non-profit that works on research related to preventing pandemics and promoting conservation in hotspot regions across the globe. The report ultimately “described the group’s work from June 2017 to May 2018, which involved creating new viruses using different parts of existing bat coronaviruses and inserting them into humanized mice in a lab in Wuhan, China.” The very late submission of was considered highly unusually, but “neither the NIH nor the EcoHealth Alliance offered an explanation for the date of the report.” The EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), longtime partners, have “come under intense scrutiny in the search for the pandemic’s origins.” Both entities are at the “center of the lab-origin hypothesis, the idea that the coronavirus could have emerged through a lab accident, the collection and storage of thousands of bat coronavirus samples, or through divisive research that makes viruses more transmissible in order to study how they evolve.”

Lessons Learned from FEMA’s Initial Response to COVID-19

During the initial months of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) COVID-19 response, the Nation faced dramatic shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare personnel as hospitals experienced an unprecedented demand for ventilators to treat patients. The objective of the audit by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was to determine how effectively FEMA supported and coordinated Federal efforts to distribute PPE and ventilators in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, FEMA worked closely with the US Department of Health and Human Services and other Federal agencies to facilitate the shipment of PPE and ventilators. However, the magnitude of the global event exposed weaknesses in FEMA’s resource request system and allocation processes. Specifically, WebEOC — the system FEMA used to process resource requests including those for PPE and ventilators — contained unreliable data to inform allocation decisions and ensure requests were accurately adjudicated. This occurred because FEMA did not develop controls to validate requests and prevent incomplete, inaccurate, or duplicate data entries; nor did FEMA ensure WebEOC users received training on proper use of the system. In addition, although FEMA developed a process to allocate the limited supply of ventilators, it did not have a similarly documented process for PPE. Finally, FEMA did not have strategic guidance clearly outlining the roles and responsibilities used to lead the Federal response. FEMA’s decision to prioritize ongoing pandemic response efforts without updating its written guidance and strategic plans hindered FEMA’s coordination efforts.

To its credit, FEMA evaluated its COVID-19 response operations, identifying similar key findings and recommendations aimed at improving current and future responses, including making updates to its WebEOC system. Read the report here.

EVENTS

Schar School Open Houses

The Schar School will be hosting virtual open houses for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 21 October and 16 November at 6:30 PM EST. This online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs – such as the Biodefense Program – and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Register here.

Combating Misinformation and Disinformation for COVID-19 and Future Public Health Threats

On 20 October, the Capitol Hill Steering Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Health Security is hosting a webinar: Combating Misinformation and Disinformation for COVID-19 and Future Public Health Threats. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that accurate and timely health-related information is crucial to mounting an effective response to a public health crisis. Contradictory messaging, misinformation, and undermining of public health experts have reduced the trust in public health responders, increased belief in false medical cures, and politicized public health measures aimed at curbing transmission of the disease. As can be seen in setbacks during the COVID-19 response, health-related misinformation and disinformation can lead to more infections, deaths, disruption, and disorganization of the effort. Speakers include: Anita Cicero from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Imran Ahmed from Center for Countering Digital Hate; Dr. Tara Kirk Sell from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; and Alexandra Veitch from Americas and Emerging Markets at YouTube. Register here.

Saving Sisyphus: Course Corrections for National Biodetection

In its 2015 report, A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense addressed inadequacies of BioWatch, the Department of Homeland Security environmental biodetection program. Established in 2003, the federal government intended for BioWatch to provide early warning of biological attacks on major metropolitan areas. However, after nearly two decades of operation, the system is ineffective. There is little evidence that the system effectively detects pathogens of interest, and even if it did, pathogen detection turnaround time is too slow for the government to effectively respond to any actual biological attack. If the federal government continues to spend more taxpayer money on next generation biodetection systems, a reassessment of current efforts is necessary.

Join in on 2 November at 10 AM EST for an in-person meeting of the Commission, Saving Sisyphus: Course Corrections for National Biodetection, to provide a better understanding of challenges facing federal biodetection programs, public and private advancements in environmental biodetection technology, and mission requirements for 21st Century biodetection capabilities. More details will be available here.

Pandora Report: 10.8.2021

Michelle Grundahl, a Biodefense MS student, presented a talk at the One Welfare World Conference! Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD ’21, published his first article as an Editorial Fellow: “Do-it-yourself vaccines in a pandemic: democratized science or home-brewed pipe dream?” The WHO announced its support of the widespread use of the RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S) malaria vaccine! The Schar School will be hosting virtual open houses for the Master’s and Certificate Programs on 21 October and 16 November at 6:30 PM EST.

Animal Disaster Response Using One Health Solutions – Case Studies of Responding to Animal Disasters: Hurricane Sandy, Joplin Tornado and COVID-19

At the One Welfare World Conference on 15-16 September 2021, Michelle Grundahl, student in the Biodefense MS program, presented a short talk, “Animal Disaster Response using One Health Solutions – Case studies of responding to animal disasters: Hurricane Sandy, Joplin Tornado and COVID-19.” Grundahl’s talk and the One Welfare World Conference took place during National Preparedness Month (September).

The presentation discussed the lived experiences of implementing One Health and Welfare during emergency responses involving companion animals. The three cases used were Hurricane Sandy, the Joplin Tornado, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the response of which all included a One Health approach. One Health is the recognition of the inextricable link between human health, animal health, and environmental health. Highlighted in the presentation were practical solutions that achieved optimal human and animal well-being during times of disaster. The human-animal bond can affect compliance with official emergency orders. When people cannot take their whole family (including pets) out of disaster zones, they might choose to stay in the danger zone. Read Grundahl’s article here.

Do-It-Yourself Vaccines in a Pandemic: Democratized Science or Home-Brewed Pipe Dream?

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD ’21, was recently named to the inaugural class of Editorial Fellows at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where he will be writing a regular column on disruptive technology. He is a fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, focusing on biosecurity, biodefense strategy, and emerging and converging technologies. Dr. Lim is one of seven fellows who will “publish articles regularly on nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies—key areas in the Bulletin’s mission to inform the public, policymakers, and scientists about man-made threats to human existence.”

This week, Lim published his first article as an Editorial Fellow: “Do-it-yourself vaccines in a pandemic: democratized science or home-brewed pipe dream?” Experts predict that more pandemics are coming. Climate change will drive migrations and other ecological disruptions that put species into greater contact with one another. Continued human encroachment on nature will increase the risks that a pathogen will jump from animals to people. For the next pandemic, instead of waiting a year for scientists, governments, and companies to produce and distribute life-saving vaccines, wouldn’t it be nice to whip something up … in your own kitchen? Read Lim’s article here.  

WHO Approves the First Malaria Vaccine

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced its support of the widespread use of the RTS,S/AS01 (RTS,S) malaria vaccine among children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high P. falciparum malaria transmission. The recommendation is based on results from an ongoing pilot program in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi that has reached more than 800,000 children since 2019. “This is a historic moment. The long-awaited malaria vaccine for children is a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Using this vaccine on top of existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year.” Malaria remains a primary cause of childhood illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 260,000 African children under the age of five die from malaria annually. Key findings of the pilot studies include that the vaccine is feasible to deliver, it has a strong safety profile, and it was highly cost effective.

Applying Arms Control Frameworks to Autonomous Weapons

Zachary Kallenborn, a research affiliate with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism and a policy fellow at the Schar School, shares his insights on the application of arms control frameworks to autonomous weapons. Mankind’s earliest weapons date back 400,000 years—simple wooden spears discovered in Schöningen, Germany. By 48,000 years ago, humans were making bows and arrows, then graduating to swords of bronze and iron. The age of gunpowder brought flintlock muskets, cannons, and Gatling guns. In modern times, humans built Panzer tanks, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and nuclear weapons capable of vaporizing cities. Today, humanity is entering a new era of weaponry, one of autonomous weapons and robotics.

The development of such technology is rapidly advancing and poses hard questions about how their use and proliferation should be governed. In early 2020, a drone may have been used to attack humans autonomously for the first time, a milestone underscoring that robots capable of killing may be widely fielded sooner rather than later. Existing arms-control regimes may offer a model for how to govern autonomous weapons, and it is essential that the international community promptly addresses a critical question: Should we be more afraid of killer robots run amok or the insecurity of giving them up? Read the article here.

20 Years After the Anthrax Attacks, We’re Still Unprepared

October marks 20 years since the anthrax letter attacks, which “launched the most complex and concentrated public health response in US history to that point, rivaled only today by the effort to respond to COVID.” Those who played a role in the response to the anthrax attacks say that the attacks “presented hard lessons that could have helped the COVID response if they had been remembered.” The response quickly engulfed public health as tens of thousands of potentially exposed persons had to be evaluated. Across the nation, panic ensued with spills of anything powdery. The Laboratory Response Network, supported by the CDC, analyzed over 125,000 samples, and the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile delivered 3.75 million doses of antibiotics across Florida, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and DC. Despite this tragedy and several other health crises, the US was woefully unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Thomas Frieden, former Director of the CDC, highlighted that “public health funding has always followed the pattern of, ‘Out of sight, out of mind. You get big infusions of money, but you really can’t build capacity effectively with one-time dollars.” It is the effort between crises that builds capacity. Throughout the pandemic, but especially in the early days of it, public health professionals struggled to access critically important data, making it evident to investigators “how much remains to be done to create rapid, sensitive systems for gathering information.” The echoing lesson from the anthrax attacks to now is that “looking back—something that is built into public health systems, which tend to analyze outbreaks and trends after they occur—is insufficient for future protection.”

Insidious Scourge – Critical Infrastructure at Biological Risk

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense released a report, Insidious Scourge – Critical Infrastructure at Biological Risk, developed to help each of the critical infrastructure sectors defend against biological threats. Critical infrastructure and national critical functions are threatened by, vulnerable to, and experience the consequences of biological attacks, accidents, and naturally occurring diseases—in other words, they are at biological risk. Biological events could destroy, incapacitate, and disrupt critical infrastructure and prevent our society from both functioning properly and protecting itself. Illness and death, physical compromise of sectors, data theft and compromise, just-in-time inventories, mass gatherings, unprotected transit and other distribution systems, and poor awareness of where and how diseases spread are all of concern. When biological events overwhelm critical infrastructure, effects on society cascade, further weakening our country. The report emphasizes that every critical infrastructure sector must maintain awareness of biological threats; prepare for biological events; and respond to biological events efficiently and effectively. The report makes several new recommendations, including:  Congress should mandate federal defense of critical infrastructure against biological threats; the Administration should establish a critical infrastructure biodefense program at the Department of Homeland Security; and sectors and sector specific federal agencies should identify and eliminate vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure to biological threats. Read the report here.

Francis Collins to Step Down as NIH Director by Year’s End

Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced his resignation earlier this week after nearly 30 years of service. Collins plans to step down at the end of this calendar year, stating that he thinks it is time for a “new scientist to lead the NIH into the future.” Throughout COVID-19, Collins has “been on the front lines urging Americans to wear masks and get vaccinated.” During his 12 year stent as Director, the Institute’s budget increased by 38%, and Collins proposed a number of initiatives for Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, opioid use disorder, rare diseases and, the coronavirus pandemic.

Havana Syndrome

Havana Syndrome is series of unexplained medical symptoms – migraines, fatigue, vertigo, anxiety, dizziness, cognitive difficulties, memory loss – first experienced by State Department personnel stationed in Cuba in 2016. A leading theory behind the cause of Havana Syndrome is that a mysterious weapon is being deployed by a malign actor. In Cube, noises were linked to the syndrome, but these sounds were most likely caused by crickets and not microwave weapons. A declassified scientific review commissioned by the US State Department concluded that the “sounds accompanying at least eight of the original 21 Havana syndrome incidents were most likely caused by insects.” This report also concluded that it is “highly unlikely” that the symptoms are caused by microwaves or ultrasound beams. Specifically, the report stated, “no plausible single source of energy (neither radio/microwaves nor sonic) can produce both the recorded audio/video signals and the reported medical effects.”

Synthetic Virology: The Experts Speak

Synthetic virology—the re-creation and manipulation of viruses to study their properties—provides a powerful way of investigating how viruses cause infections and how to combat pathogenic subtypes. This is particularly true for hard-to-culture viruses. However, this approach also raises the prospect that bad actors could create more deadly viruses. Over a decade ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning that “advances in genome sequencing and gene synthesis would render substantial portions of [variola] accessible to anyone with an internet connection and access to a DNA synthesizer,” leading to concerns about future attempts to engineer viruses from the smallpox family. In a new article, Nature Biotechnology convenes a group of experts and a biohacker to discuss the current state of synthetic virology. How far has the technology has advanced, what is currently possible, and what might the future hold in terms of best practices for advancing scientific knowledge and promoting biosecurity? Read the article here.

SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY

Built With Biology: Q2 2021 Report

SynBioBeta released its latest assessment of the synthetic biology industry. The report’s key takeaway is that the industry is on track to raise more money in 2021 than in the previous 11 years combined. One of the most impactful applications of synthetic biology is saving lives, ending disease, and reducing pain – driving continuous and high levels of investment in the space. The median funding for Health and medicine startups so far this year is $73 million, a change of 62% over last year, and 211% of the median of all deals (“Grand Total” in the chart above) since 2009. Food and beverage production has a huge impact on the health of humans and the environment – and synthetic biology startups are addressing all of those needs. Through 2Q 2021, the median investment in synbio Food and Nutrition startups is $27.9 million, down to 39% of last year’s sudden boom, but still 278% of the median since 2009. The median investment in synbio Agriculture startups so far in 2021 is $11.35 million, up 252% versus last year. Read the report here.

California Governor Vetoed AB 70

On 5 October, California Governor Gavin Newsom returned Assembly Bill 70 without his signature. This bill, also called Gene Synthesis Security bill, which would have created the first biosecurity regulations for the field of synthetic biology. Governor Newsom cited a lack of funding and lack of a national approach to the issue as the grounds for his veto. According to the announcement, the bill would require the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to “establish a new state regulatory program to provide oversight over gene synthesis providers and manufacturers of gene synthesis operating equipment,” and it would also “require gene synthesis businesses to demonstrate membership in a voluntary industry consortium or be verified by CDPH to use customer and sequence screening protocols that meet or exceed the protocols established by that consortium.” Funding the program would “authorize CDPH to begin charging fees from the entities to be regulated before the program is established and before businesses are required to be in compliance.” The Governor asserts that “this structure is not implementable.” While the scope and sophistication of the synthetic biology industry continues to grow, biosecurity policy falls further behind.

ALL THINGS COVID-19

Masks and Respirators for the 21st Century: Policy Changes Needed to Save Lives and Prevent Societal Disruption

Masks and respirators have played an essential role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic for both healthcare workers and the public. However, the masks and respirators that both healthcare workers and the public have needed to rely upon leave much to be desired. Despite drawbacks in terms of comfort and fit, the ubiquitous disposable masks and disposable N95 respirators used by the vast majority of healthcare workers have not appreciably improved since the mid-1990s. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has been advised to wear masks as well. Masks have long been known to be effective means of “source control” (i.e., reducing transmission of respiratory droplets from the wearer to others). More recently evidence has accumulated that properly constructed and worn masks as well as respirators afford a limited but not inconsequential degree of protection to the wearer as well. Existing masks and respirators run the gamut in terms of effectiveness and wearability. In a future large-scale outbreak or pandemic, it is possible to increase the protection of healthcare workers and the public from infection through more efficient, well-fitting, and comfortable masks. The design and manufacture of better masks and respirators are possible by harnessing emerging technologies, the innovative research and development spirit evidenced since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the availability of resources to support technological innovation.

A new report from the Center for Health Security provides an overview of the history and types of masks and respirators that exist and consider the development, manufacture, approval, and stockpiling of better respiratory protection for healthcare workers, the nonhealthcare workforce, and the public in the United States. The report addresses issues related to acceptance and willingness to wear face coverings, masks, or respirators. It also discusses ways to foster ingenuity in designs of new devices, promote advanced development, obtain regulatory approval, and stockpile a reasonable number of devices.

The authors found that better medical masks and respirators (collectively referred to as devices) than the ones we have been using for decades are possible, but progress in their development and manufacture is blocked by a confluence of factors including industrial inertia, lack of competition, complacent consumers (health systems prior to COVID-19), regulatory barriers, an uncertain market, and lack of US government policy. Widespread public use of effective, commercially available masks and respirators could help save many thousands of lives during the next severe pandemic of a respiratory pathogen and reduce the resulting economic damage. It is important to have a ready supply and surge manufacturing capacity of high-quality devices when severe or catastrophic respiratory epidemics emerge. Widespread public use of effective, commercially available masks during periods of other respiratory disease would reduce transmission of common respiratory pathogens such as influenza that kills on average more than 15,000 Americans per year.

Read the report here.

WSU to Lead $125 Million USAID Project to Detect Emerging Viruses

Washington State University (WSU) will lead a new five-year, $125 million global project with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) that is aimed at better identifying and preventing future pandemics. The USAID Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens – Viral Zoonoses (DEEP VZN) project will “build scientific capacity in partner countries to safely detect and characterize unknown viruses which have the potential to spill over from wildlife and domestic animals to human populations.” DEEP VZN plans to partner with 12 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to conduct large-scale animal surveillance using those nation’s laboratory facilities. The project will focus on uncovering previously unknown pathogens from three viral families: coronaviruses, which includes SARS-CoV-2; filoviruses, which includes the Ebola virus; and paramyxoviruses, which includes Nipah virus. These three families have a large potential for viral spillover from animals to humans. One of the first tasks is to select the partner countries for DEEP-VZN based on their “high risk for emerging infectious disease, capacity to safely conduct viral discovery work and commitment to share data with global partners.”

This project aligns with the work of Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London & Dr. Greg Koblentz of George Mason University, who launched GlobalBioLabs.org, an interactive web-based map of global Biosafety Level-4 facilities and biorisk management policies. Their work calls for stronger international biorisk management policies for laboratories that engage in high-risk research, including gain of function research.

FDA Center Directors on Lessons from the EUA Pathway: Flexibility Serves Us Well

In a workshop at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) center directors emphasized that the “flexibility of emergency use authorizations (EUAs), and allowing the FDA to accept more uncertainty during the pandemic so far, has ultimately aided its response to COVID-19.” Dr. Patrizia Cavazzoni, Director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, points out that the agility of the EUAs, which gave FDA the ability to quickly revoke, was critically important. Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, Director of Center for Devices and Radiological Health, wishes that this level of flexibility was offered during times outside of crises.

Before The Pandemic, The United States Had Begun Building a Special Pathogen System. What Can We Learn from Its COVID-19 Response?

A new Health Affairs Blog post is part of a set of posts about a National Special Pathogen System of Care that will be published over the next few months. Health Affairs received support for the series from the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center. This blog series will describe how the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC)—a consortium comprising faculty and staff from Emory University, the University of Nebraska Medical Center/Nebraska Medicine, and the New York Health and Hospitals Corporation, Bellevue Hospital Center—assessed aspects of the US health care system’s COVID-19 response to date. This assessment resulted in the development of a coordinated national strategy for a systematic response to special pathogens: the National Special Pathogen System (NSPS) of Care. The NETEC developed the strategy with support from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). Successful implementation of the strategy will engage health care leaders, public health, and government at all levels. The series will describe current capacity of our system to identify and safely manage such pathogens and then address: (1) how to leverage the existing care delivery system to prepare for and respond to various outbreak scenarios; (2) the critical need for a public-private partnership to coordinate the response; (3) how a national special pathogens system of care would function in a pandemic; and (4) the steps that must be taken to make the strategy a reality. Read the blog here.

We’re Already Barreling Toward the Next Pandemic

If the US had learned from its mishandling of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, it would have been better prepared for the variant that was already ravaging India.” In the spring and early summer of this year, President Biden had “all but declared victory against SARS-CoV-2,” and the CDC announced that vaccinated people could be unmasked indoors. Then, the Delta variant hit the US, again overburdening hospitals and healthcare workers. “Delta was an audition for the next pandemic, and one that America flubbed.” Despite the impressive and rapid authorization of COVID-19 vaccines, the rate of uptake has plateaued, and the death toll continues to climb despite these vaccines being widely available. Though Biden has called for a new council of national leaders and a new fund focused on infectious disease threats, many worry that COVID-19 might leave the US weaker against the next disease, as the temporary surge in investments are funneled improperly. This is not a new trend. The US has repeatedly “failed to sustain progress in any coherent manner in its capacity to handle infectious diseases.” This pattern shows a “Sisyphean cycle of panic and neglect that is now spinning in its third century. Progress is always undone; promise, always unfulfilled.”

EVENTS & ANNOUNCEMENTS

Schar School Open Houses

The Schar School will be hosting virtual open houses for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 21 October and 16 November at 6:30 PM EST. This online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs – such as the Biodefense Program – and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Register here.

The Schar School Is Hiring!

The Schar School is hiring! Positions available include the Don E. Kash Postdoctoral Fellowship in Science and Technology Policy; a Full, Associate, or Advanced Assistant Professor; and a Full or Associate Professor.

The George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government invites applications for the Don E. Kash Postdoctoral Fellowship in Science and Technology Policy. The Schar School is seeking talented recent graduates with the potential to contribute to the School’s research and teaching capacity at the intersection of technology and policy. For this cycle, the School is looking for postdoctoral applicants focusing on emerging technology, society, and public policy. Areas of interest in relation to public policy include, but are not limited to, big data surveillance and privacy; algorithmic bias and discrimination; legal and human rights issues relating to AI and big data; digital innovation and the digital divides; and regulation and oversight of emerging technology. Apply here.

The Schar School also invites applications for three tenure-line hires. Rank and field are open. The School encourages applications from talented scholars with diverse backgrounds who are committed to being part of and contributing to a nationally and internationally recognized school of policy and government. Apply here.

The Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at the Schar School invites applications for a faculty position at the level of Professor or Associate Professor. TraCC seeks an imaginative and entrepreneurial colleague with an international reputation among both scholars and practitioners to assume a senior role, and as a faculty member within the school, teaching in TraCCC-related areas. TraCCC is the first center in the United States devoted to researching and shaping the policy discussion around transnational, corruption and terrorism.  The center addresses such diverse concerns as new and emerging security challenges, environmental crime and corruption, human trafficking, illicit trade, counterfeits, and antiquities smuggling. It uses advanced data analytics in much of its research. TraCCC’s research is global, diverse and multidisciplinary, focusing on problems of crime and corruption stemming from post-Soviet countries, the Middle East, and China, as well as Central and South America. Apply here.

Policy Exchange: The Future of Global Health Security

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed unexpected weaknesses in our preparedness for pandemic threats, and it continues to pose serious challenges around the world. How are health authorities in the United States and around the world trying to reduce these vulnerabilities so we are better equipped for the next pandemic?

Join faculty members from the Schar School’s Biodefense master’s program as we discuss the future of global health security considering lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel will feature Adjunct Professors Ashley Grant and Andrew Kilianski, and Term Assistant Professor Saskia Popescu. The discussion will be moderated by Associate Professor Gregory Koblentz, director of the Master’s in Biodefense Program. Register here.

Saving Sisyphus: Course Corrections for National Biodetection

In its 2015 report, A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense addressed inadequacies of BioWatch, the Department of Homeland Security environmental biodetection program. Established in 2003, the federal government intended for BioWatch to provide early warning of biological attacks on major metropolitan areas. However, after nearly two decades of operation, the system is ineffective. There is little evidence that the system effectively detects pathogens of interest, and even if it did, pathogen detection turnaround time is too slow for the government to effectively respond to any actual biological attack. If the federal government continues to spend more taxpayer money on next generation biodetection systems, a reassessment of current efforts is necessary.

Join in on 2 November at 10 AM EST for an in-person meeting of the Commission, Saving Sisyphus: Course Corrections for National Biodetection, to provide a better understanding of challenges facing federal biodetection programs, public and private advancements in environmental biodetection technology, and mission requirements for 21st Century biodetection capabilities. More details will be available here.

Animal Disaster Response Using One Health Solutions – Case Studies of Responding to Animal Disasters: Hurricane Sandy, Joplin Tornado and COVID-19

By Michelle Grundahl, Biodefense MS Student

At the One Welfare World Conference on 15-16 September 2021, Michelle Grundahl, a student in the Biodefense MS program, presented a short talk, “Animal Disaster Response using One Health Solutions – Case studies of responding to animal disasters: Hurricane Sandy, Joplin Tornado and COVID-19.” Grundahl’s talk and the One Welfare World Conference took place during National Preparedness Month (September). Also, October is National Animal Safety and Prevention Month.

The presentation discussed the lived experiences of implementing One Health and Welfare during emergency responses involving companion animals. The three cases used were Hurricane Sandy, the Joplin Tornado, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the response of which all included a One Health approach. One Health is the recognition of the inextricable link between human health, animal health, and environmental health. Highlighted in the presentation were practical solutions that achieved optimal human and animal well-being during times of disaster. The human-animal bond can affect compliance with official emergency orders. When people cannot take their whole family (including pets) out of disaster zones, they might choose to stay in the danger zone.

A key consideration for emergency management involving animals is the human-animal bond. An ideal goal is to maintain human-animal safety (and well-being) during disasters. Physical safety and mental comfort for people (and their pets) result in optimal welfare. The tactics implemented in these responses, namely mass sheltering or mass feeding efforts, resulted in positive outcomes for people and their pets. What will future disasters entail? Will they be natural or man-made? Could climate change exacerbate these disasters? Will Disease X be pandemic influenza that is virulent and zoonotic? Could the future of disasters in America involve biological terrorism?

Why do we prepare for disasters involving animals? The statistics are fuzzy, but, about 68% of American households have at least one pet.  Including animals in mass care plans can decrease the health and safety threats to humans as well as animals if the environment becomes hazardous. Safety risks for humans (and pets) can be minimized by using pet evacuation plans. We can mitigate the economic impact of emergencies. We can also prevent, or decrease, the spread of disease. Minimizing animal and human suffering during emergencies is a One Health solution.

Hurricane Katrina is an unfortunate baseline of America’s animal disaster planning. In 2005, Hurricane Katrinaled to historic flooding in New Orleans. This tragedy cost the lives of many humans, but also many pets died or were presumed dead and lost forever. Authorities would not allow petson rescue boats and busses nor in emergency shelters. Since then, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 (PETS Act) ensures that “State and local emergency preparedness operational plans address the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals following a major disaster or emergency.” The lesson learned by government officials (and others) was that emergency management plans only work if people can – and want- to follow them.

On 29 October 2012, unprecedented power outages and flooding in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania accompanied Superstorm (hurricane) Sandy. Many emergency shelters opened, and some of them accepted pets. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, co-located pet shelters opened with the Red Cross because of previous pet sheltering mass care planning efforts. People that needed shelter could bring petsto some of these human shelters. This option helped community members avoid physical danger while taking their animals out of the danger zone. The Bucks County Animal Response Team (of which the author is a member) managed the largest shelter in the region, which operated for seven days and accepted pets. One Health disaster response solutions realize that we must maintain the physical and emotional connections between victims and their pets during an extremely stressful time.

In 2011, an F-5 tornado hit Joplin, Missouri. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Joplin Humane Society managed a massive emergency pet shelter. Three warehouses contained around 1,000 cats and dogs. Maintaining the health of the workers and the animals required serious collaborative effort. People arrived from near and far to adopt approximately 800 animals. The approach of this response leveraged a large scale-up of an emergency animal shelter, and was located in the same community as the incident. This One Health approach used the social sciences to carefully craft its public relations to communicate to the public about how to find their animals and adopt remaining animals.

In February of 2020, we became concerned about a new pneumonia of unknown etiology. Will this be a zoonotic disaster? Will pets get sick? Will the hospitalization or death of people lead to homeless animals who have been exposed to COVID-19 and require sheltering? What infection control procedures, emergency protocols, and kennel plans do we need? The response in Southeastern Pennsylvania was coordinated with local emergency management and included thoughtful messaging to the public. We identified kennel partners, created kennel worker protocols, and considered potential personal protection equipment (PPE) resource challenges to keep both people and animals healthy. As the pandemic unfolded, SARS-CoV-2 instead became an economic disaster for many pet owners. The human economic disruption caused vulnerability and food insecurity for people…and their animals. The One Health response became the creation of pet food donation and outreach. New relationships were forged using human food distribution channels. Drive-through food events and food pantries embraced the new paradigm of including the whole family by allowing pet food to be distributed, too.

A common thread of these disasters is thatthe human-animal bond is a significant factor factored in the decision-making of pet owners during disasters. Emergency management plans can keep all humans safe when pet-owning humans follow the requests of emergency managers. Outcomes for pets and people are improved when community emergency management involves mass care plans for the whole family. When pets and people are safe together during and after a disaster, we see optimal well-being for all.

Plan in advance for your family – and your pets! Never leave your animals behind. When it is not safe for you to stay in a disaster area, it is not safe for them either. Tag or microchip your pets and find pet-friendly hotels as part of your household emergency plan. Reach out to local emergency managers in your community and ask them how to best plan for animals in disasters.

Pandora Report: 10.1.2021

October marks the 20th anniversary of the anthrax letter attacks, which killed five people and sickened 17. A new article in Nature examines the resurgence of Ebola virus in Guinea this year, suggesting a new paradigm for outbreaks. In COVID-19, the health system is seeing widespread overwork and discontent among healthcare workers, causing an acceleration in the preexisting downward trend.

20th Anniversary of the Anthrax Attacks

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the anthrax letter attacks, which targeted major media outlets and members of Congress. Anthrax spores were sent in letters, killing five people and sickened several more. Bacillus anthracis causes anthrax, and its spores can “remain inactive for decades until they find a favorable environment to germinate, such as blood or tissue.” Infection can occur via inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact. Anthrax can be treated by certain antibiotics; however, inhalational anthrax is usually lethal if not diagnosed and treated very early. In 2001, before the attacks, the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI) was studying “how to render anthrax spores harmless through irradiation.” AFRRI’s work confirmed that electron beams and X-rays, both forms of ionizing radiation, could sanitize mail. An electron beam “passes through an electromagnetic lens, which focuses the beam on the target,” but due to limited penetration, e-beams could only be used on letters and flat envelopes. X-rays penetrate deeper, making them a better option for parcels and boxes. Since the Postal Service needed to process about 1.8 million pieces of contaminated mail, e-beam and X-ray machines needed to be scaled up. Scaling up became a logistical nightmare as the processing facility could only push through about 2,000 kilograms per hour. Though it took weeks to process all the mail items and up to a few months to get the items to their intended destination, irradiation was the key to decontaminating nearly 2 million pieces of mail after Amerithrax.

Scientific Risk Assessment of Genetic Weapons Systems

For any emerging technology, defense and homeland security analysts strive to understand (1) its dual-use potential, meaning whether the same research and technology applied for peaceful purposes may be diverted to illicit ends, for example to develop a weapon; (2) the State and sub-State actors with access to that dual-use potential, whether peacefully or illicitly directed; and (3) motivational factors and indicators of intent that might suggest these actors would divert the emerging technology to illicit ends. Precision medicine represents one such emerging technical space. Precision medicine is defined as medical care designed to optimize benefit for particular groups, especially based on genetic (or molecular) profiling. A long-speculated but incompletely understood dual-use consideration of precision medicine is the possible development of a genetic weapon system, defined as a weapon system designed to optimize effect on particular groups based on genetic profiling.

This Occasional Paper assesses the potential for precision medicine to be diverted to develop a population-specific genetic weapon system, examines relevant state capabilities and motivations to pursue such an effort, and offers policy recommendations to manage the dual-use implications of this emerging biomedical field while still preserving its potential benefit for human welfare. Read the paper here.

Identifying and Prioritizing Potential Human-Infecting Viruses from Their Genome Sequences

Determining which animal viruses may be capable of infecting humans is currently intractable at the time of their discovery, precluding prioritization of high-risk viruses for early investigation and outbreak preparedness. Given the increasing use of genomics in virus discovery and the otherwise sparse knowledge of the biology of newly discovered viruses, a team of researchers developed machine learning models that identify candidate zoonoses solely using signatures of host range encoded in viral genomes. Within a dataset of 861 viral species with known zoonotic status, their approach outperformed models based on the phylogenetic relatedness of viruses to known human-infecting viruses (area under the receiver operating characteristic curve [AUC] = 0.773), distinguishing high-risk viruses within families that contain a minority of human-infecting species and identifying putatively undetected or so far unrealized zoonoses. Analyses of the underpinnings of model predictions suggested the existence of generalizable features of viral genomes that are independent of virus taxonomic relationships and that may preadapt viruses to infect humans. Their model reduced a second set of 645 animal-associated viruses that were excluded from training to 272 high and 41 very high-risk candidate zoonoses and showed significantly elevated predicted zoonotic risk in viruses from nonhuman primates, but not other mammalian or avian host groups. A second application showed that the models could have identified Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) as a relatively high-risk coronavirus strain and that this prediction required no prior knowledge of zoonotic Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-related coronaviruses. Genome-based zoonotic risk assessment provides a rapid, low-cost approach to enable evidence-driven virus surveillance and increases the feasibility of downstream biological and ecological characterization of viruses. Read the article here.

Resurgence of Ebola Virus in 2021 in Guinea Suggests a New Paradigm for Outbreaks

A new article in Nature examines the resurgence of Ebola virus in Guinea this year, suggesting a new paradigm for outbreaks. Seven years after the declaration of the first epidemic of Ebola virus disease in Guinea, the country faced a new outbreak—between 14 February and 19 June 2021—near the epicentre of the previous epidemic. The researchers use next-generation sequencing to generate complete or near-complete genomes of Zaire ebolavirus from samples obtained from 12 different patients. These genomes form a well-supported phylogenetic cluster with genomes from the previous outbreak, which indicates that the new outbreak was not the result of a new spillover event from an animal reservoir. The 2021 lineage shows considerably lower divergence than would be expected during sustained human-to-human transmission, which suggests a persistent infection with reduced replication or a period of latency. The resurgence of Zaire ebolavirus from humans five years after the end of the previous outbreak of Ebola virus disease reinforces the need for long-term medical and social care for patients who survive the disease, to reduce the risk of re-emergence and to prevent further stigmatization. Read the article here.

New Book – The Role of Law Enforcement in Emergency Management and Homeland Security

Keith Ludwick, Biodefense PhD alum and former FBI Special Agent, recently published a book chapter, “Terrorism Prevention: Structures and Processes,” that explains how federal, state, and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies are responsible for different aspects of counterterrorism in the United States.  The book, Role of Law Enforcement in Emergency Management and Homeland Security, is edited by Mark Landhal and Tonya Thornton, formerly of the Schar School of Policy and Government. This book is part of the Community, Environment and Disaster Risk Management series, which deals with a wide range of issues relating to global environmental hazards, natural and man-made disasters, and approaches to disaster risk reduction. As people and communities are the first and the most important responders to disasters and environment-related problems, this series aims to analyze critical field-based mechanisms which link community, policy and governance systems. This book examines the role and involvement of law enforcement agencies across the spectrum of homeland security and emergency management. The chapters, developed by expert practitioners and academics in the field, focus on the mission areas of mitigation and protection, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. The introductory chapter sets the stage and the following content targets structures and activities specific to each mission area of homeland security and emergency management. Find the book here.

ALL THINGS COVID-19

Select Subcommittee to Hold Hearing on Challenges Facing Public Health Departments Amid Pandemic Response

This week. Rep. James E. Clyburn, Chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, held a hybrid remote/in-person hearing examining challenges facing the nation’s state and local public health departments as they respond to the coronavirus pandemic. The hearing also addresses the dangerous politicization of public health and identify ways to rebuild and strengthen the country’s public health infrastructure.

For decades, state and local public health departments have been chronically underfunded and understaffed.  These challenges have impaired the government’s ability to improve the health of the US population and respond effectively when crises arise.  Compounding matters, throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the reckless politicization of public health has contributed to unprecedented levels of personal attacks against public health workers, high burnout rates and rapid turnover in the public health workforce, and recruitment challenges for many departments—all of which have threatened the success of the nation’s coronavirus response.

With the American Rescue Plan, Congress and the Biden Administration are making strong investments in the US public health infrastructure—but more must be done to ensure that state and local public health departments receive the funding and resources they need over the long term.  During the hearing, experts discussed potential solutions to these challenges, and ways local, state, and federal officials can work together to strengthen the public health system. Watch the hearing here.

Functioning of the International Health Regulations During the COVID-19 Pandemic

When the International Health Regulations (IHR) came into force in 2007, WHO announced that “the global community has a new legal framework to better manage its collective defenses to detect disease events and to respond to public health risks and emergencies.” The IHR aim to enable the prevention, detection, and containment of health risks and threats, the strengthening of national capacities for that purpose, and the coordination of a global alert and response system. In the prolonged and unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, some have stated that the IHR “are a conservative instrument that constrain rather than facilitate rapid action.” The Review Committee on the Functioning of the IHR (2005) during the COVID-19 Response, found instead was that much of what is in the IHR is well considered, appropriate, and meaningful in any public health emergency. However, many countries only applied the IHR in part, were not sufficiently aware of these regulations, or deliberately ignored them, and that WHO did not make full use of the powers given to it through the wording and spirit of the IHR. Thus, the IHR are not deficient, but their implementation by member states and by WHO was inadequate. Recognizing the limited mandate of the IHR Review Committee on COVID-19, which was focused solely on the IHR-related aspects of the COVID-19 response, the Review Committee proposes that there was a collective failure in three areas: compliance and empowerment; early alert, notification, and response; and financial and political commitment. Read the article here.

COVID-19 Panel of Scientists Investigating Origins of Virus Is Disbanded

Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University, announced that he has disbanded a task force comprised of scientists that was investigating the “origins of COVID-19 in favor of wider biosafety research.” Sachs, who is the chairman of a COVID-19 commission affiliated with the Lancet, explained that he ended the task force over concerns about its links to EcoHealth Alliance. EcoHealth Alliance is a nonprofit under scrutiny from scientists, members of Congress, along with other officials for “using US funds for studies on bat coronaviruses with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)” in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic first emerged. Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, led the task force, but has recused himself from that role. Dr. Sachs said, “I just didn’t want a task force that was so clearly involved with one of the main issues of this whole search for the origins, which was EcoHealth Alliance.” Sachs also said that the “Lancet COVID-19 Commission would continue studying the origins for a report to be published in mid-2022 but broaden its scope to include input from other experts on biosafety concerns including government oversight and transparency regarding risky laboratory research.”

MENTAL HEALTH OF HEALTHCARE WORKERS

Symptoms of Depression, Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Suicidal Ideation Among State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Public Health Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Increases in mental health conditions have been documented among the general population and health care workers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health workers might be at similar risk for negative mental health consequences because of the prolonged demand for responding to the pandemic and for implementing an unprecedented vaccination campaign. The extent of mental health conditions among public health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, is uncertain. A 2014 survey estimated that there were nearly 250,000 state and local public health workers in the United States. To evaluate mental health conditions among these workers, a nonprobability–based online survey was conducted during March 29–April 16, 2021, to assess symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation among public health workers in state, tribal, local, and territorial public health departments. Among 26,174 respondents, 53% reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition in the preceding 2 weeks, including depression (32.0%), anxiety (30.3%), PTSD (36.8%), or suicidal ideation (8.4%). The highest prevalence of symptoms of a mental health condition was among respondents aged ≤29 years (range = 13.6%–47.4%) and transgender or nonbinary persons (i.e., those who identified as neither male nor female) of all ages (range = 30.4%–65.5%). Public health workers who reported being unable to take time off from work were more likely to report adverse mental health symptoms. Severity of symptoms increased with increasing weekly work hours and percentage of work time dedicated to COVID-19 response activities. Implementing prevention and control practices that eliminate, reduce, and manage factors that cause or contribute to public health workers’ poor mental health might improve mental health outcomes during emergencies. Read the article here.

US Public Health Workers Leaving ‘In Droves’ Amid Pandemic Burnout

Prior to the pandemic, the public health workforce was shrinking. In COVID-19, the health system is seeing widespread overwork and discontent among healthcare workers, causing an acceleration in the preexisting downward trend. By the end of last year, more than 180 public health officials were fired or resigned from their posts in 38 states, and the current number of resignations is likely much higher. Adding insult to injury, public health departments are facing significant budget cuts and challenges to their power. There is rising fear in public health that the “toll of the pandemic poses an existential threat to their line of work.”

Building Resilience and Well-Being: Keys to Avoiding the Worst of a Looming Shortage of Healthcare Workers

Nurses and other healthcare workers are facing “unprecedented levels of work stress as the world approaches two years of this global pandemic.” This is pushing our health system toward a “potentially disastrous retention crisis among nurses that will hit hard in the next five years.” The Maslach Burnout Inventory identifies several components that influence burnout, such as emotional exhaustion and low personal accomplishment. A review assessing the risk of burnout associated with the COVID-19 pandemic found that 34% of nurses reported high emotional exhaustion and 15% reported low personal accomplishment. The high rate of burnout can “directly affect nurses’ health, increase turnover, and lead to compromises in the quality of patient care.” The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes the critical levels of burnout and just announced $103 million in grant funding for reducing burnout and promoting resilience, and $29 million of this funding will go toward hospital grants for programs that enhance evidence-informed resilience. A recent analysis by Perceptyx shows that increased workload is the leading concern for healthcare workers. Along with easing workloads, resilience needs a boost. Responses from healthcare workers highlight six recommendations to boost resilience: (1) think past today to build more optimism; (2) act on employee feedback to improve feelings of control; (3) reward accomplishments, even small ones; (4) build community; (5) create a sense of fairness; and (6) live your values, increase safety.

BIOECONOMY

National Threats to the Bio-Economy with SSA Edward You

America’s hospitals and health systems are at risks of attacks that threaten the bio-economy. How do these threats affect patients and citizens and what we can do about it to help reduce risks? FBI supervisory special agent Edward You is a former colleague of John Riggi, the senior advisor for cybersecurity and risk at the American Hospital Assocation. You is a highly accomplished 17-year veteran of the FBI and one of the nation’s leading experts on threats to the bio-economy. In a new podcast, You and Riggi discuss their work defending hospitals and health systems against high impact ransomware attacks and cyber espionage campaigns. Listen here.

Another Voice: California Biosecurity Bill Safeguards Bioeconomy and Public Health

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and member of the Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Security of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, recently wrote an article on the California biosecurity bill. According to Koblentz, “California Gov. Gavin Newsom now has the opportunity to reduce the risk posed by synthetic smallpox — and other novel biological threats —and keep California’s bioeconomy innovative and strong.” The California Assembly recently approved the Gene Synthesis Security bill (AB 70), which would “close this vulnerability by requiring companies that produce or sell synthetic DNA in California to have screening standards that meet or exceed those used by members of the International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC).” The Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Security urges the governor to sign this important legislation. If this bill is adopted, California would “establish the first legally binding biosecurity measure for the synthetic biology industry in the US – and in the world.” Koblentz emphasizes that “California has the potential to set a de facto national standard for biosecurity.” This bill will make Californians safer and “boost the state’s bioeconomy by creating a level playing field that enables companies to compete on the affordability and quality of their products without making trade-offs on security.”

NAVALNY

New Book – Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?

Who is Alexei Navalny? Poisoned in August 2020 and transported to Germany for treatment, the politician returned to Russia in January 2021 in the full glare of the world media. His immediate detention at passport control set the stage for an explosive showdown with Vladimir Putin.

But Navalny means very different things to different people. To some, he is a democratic hero. To others, he is betraying the Motherland. To others still, he is a dangerous nationalist. This book explores the many dimensions of Navalny’s political life, from his pioneering anti-corruption investigations to his ideas and leadership of a political movement. It also looks at how his activities and the Kremlin’s strategies have shaped one another.

The book – Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? – makes sense of this divisive character, revealing the contradictions of a man who is the second most important political figure in Russia—even when behind bars. In order to understand modern Russia, you need to understand Alexei Navalny. Find Navalny here.

MIT is hosting a virtual forum about the book on 7 October at Noon EST. Register here.

CNN’s Emmys for Navalny Coverage

At the 42nd Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards, CNN won eight Emmys honoring news programming. CNN’s recognitions include breaking news coverage, investigative reporting, and news discussion and analysis. Two of the awards were for “Outstanding Investigative Report in a Newscast” and “Outstanding Research: News,” both in regard to CNN’s work on the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

EVENTS

Webinar – Disinformation and the Evolving Threats of Chemical Weapon Proliferation

CRDF Global is offering a webinar, “Disinformation and the Evolving Threats of Chemical Weapon Proliferation,” on 4 October at 10 AM EST. As the chemical weapons threat evolves to include new types of chemicals used in new ways, one element of this proliferation challenge has more to do with technology and society than it does with chemical compounds and delivery systems. Proliferator states, Russia chief among them, have employed information operations to evade attribution and accountability for actions that violate global non-proliferation norms. While addressing proliferation challenges has traditionally been relegated to government professionals and academic experts, mitigating the proliferation risks posed by disinformation campaigns must be a whole-of-society effort.  

This panel will bring together leading experts Sarah Jacobs Gamberini from the National Defense University Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction and former head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons laboratory, Dr. Marc-Michael Blum, to discuss how and why Russia employs disinformation campaigns that threaten non-proliferation norms. Register here.

11th Annual Global Summit on Regulatory Science

The 11th Annual Global Summit on Regulatory Science will be held virtually on 4 – 6 October from 7 – 10 AM CT. The summit is organized by the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), a research campus of the Food and Drug Administration located in Arkansas. This year’s theme is “Regulatory Sciences for Food/Drug Safety with Real-World Data & Artificial Intelligence (AI).” Opening remarks will be made by FDA Acting Commissioner, Janet Woodcock. The two keynote speakers are Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response at FDA, and Stephen Quest, General Director at Joint Research Center of the European Commission. The summit will include platform presentations from scientists representing Brazil, Canada, the EU, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, and the US. There will be a live debate on the topic, “Is Regulatory Science Ready for AI?” Further, there will be a workshop to showcase data-science tools currently in regulatory use by FDA, European Medicines Agency (EMA), and Swissmedic. Register here.

GET Africa Global Emerging Pathogens Treatment Consortium

The 7th African Conference on One Health and Biosecurity will take place 27 – 29 October in Lagos, Nigeria. The theme is a “Universal Approach to Addressing Biosecurity Threats: Genomic Intelligence and Vaccines.” Speakers include Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies; Professor akin Abayomi, Honourable Commissioner for Health of Lagos State; Professor Charles Wiysonge, Epidemiologist and Vaccinologist for the South African Cochrane Center; Dr. Valierie Oriol Matthieu, Global Medical Affairs Lead for Vaccines at Janssen Vaccines & Prevention; Dr. Sam Ujewe, Senior Research Ethics Advisor at the Canadian Institutes for Health Research; Professor Mayowa Owolabi, Dean of Faculty of Clinical Sciences at University of Ibadan; Dr. Mutiu Bamidele, Director of Lagos State Biobank; Pasquela De Blaiso, Managing Director of Integrated Systems Engineering SRL; Professor Abiodun Denloya, Professor of Applied Epidemiology at Lagos State University; Dr. Michaela Mayrhofer, Head of ELSI Services and Research; Dr. Tom Rausch, Communication Expert at Ministry of Health Luxembourg; Dr. Ayodotun Bobadoya, COO at Global Emerging Pathogens Treatment Consortium; and Professor Christian Happi, Professor of Molecular Biology and Genomics at Redeemers’ University. Register here.

2021 EPA International Decontamination Research and Development Conference

The EPA International Decontamination Research and Development Conference will be held virtually 1 – 5 November 2021. Characterization and cleanup of a site are critical challenges that the United States and EPA would face in rapidly recovering from a major chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) hazard incident. This conference is designed to facilitate presentation, discussion, and further collaboration of EPA’s Homeland Security Research Program (HSRP), which focuses on an all-hazards approach to cleaning up contaminated buildings (both interior and exterior) and infrastructure. The conference continues to focus strongly on matters involving CBR threat agents but also include “all hazards” elements.

The virtual conference speakers and group leaders will be experts in their fields from EPA and other federal agencies, state and local agencies, tribes, academia, and NGOs and associations. This year’s conference will be a mix of pre-recorded and live sessions, including oral, poster, and Technology Café presentations. Register here.

BARDA Industry Day 2021 Virtual Event

This BARDA Industry Day 2021 Virtual Event will be held 3-4 November 2021. BARDA Industry Day is our annual conference, held to increase awareness of US government medical countermeasure priorities, interact with BARDA and ASPR staff, and network with public and private sector colleagues working in the health security space.  This annual gathering of more than 1300 stakeholders from the public and private sector provides an opportunity to increase understanding of the US government medical countermeasure priorities and funding goals; interact with BARDA and ASPR staff; and showcase innovations. Innovators may apply for limited openings to present during Lightning Talks sessions. Lightning Talks are for individuals, academic institutions, pharmaceutical companies, biotech, and other industry innovators to showcase their innovative technologies. More information is available here. Registration opening soon!

One Health: Integrating Human, Animal and Environmental Health

A virtual science conference on One Health: Integrating Human, Animal and Environmental Health will be held 3 December 2021. The One Health movement, which has come to prominence in the last decade, advocates greater cross-sectoral collaboration and communication across the human-animal-environment interface. There has been a long-standing recognition that population health is intrinsically linked to both animal and environmental health, and that issues such as population growth, changes in climate and land use, and the movement of animals and people, have a huge impact on the collective health of our world today. The Conference will examine the potential societal benefits of the multifaceted One Health methodology, analyze how successful it has been to-date, determine whether One Health could be the key to future pandemic prevention, and ascertain what steps are needed to accelerate implementation. It will explore whether the interpretation of One Health has been biased towards an anthropocentric view of “health,” and it will also seek to answer the question: will something as far-reaching as the COVID-19 pandemic be the catalyst needed to finally make the aspirational goals of One Health a reality? Register here.

Schar School Open Houses

The Schar School PhD Virtual Open House will be held 6 October 2021 at 6 PM EST. This online session will provide an overview of our doctoral degree programs – such as the Biodefense Program – and our Graduate Admissions team will be available to answer questions about admissions requirements, application deadlines, and materials to prepare. By working closely with faculty who draw on world-class research and practical experience, the Schar School prepares students for a high-powered career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Register here.

The Schar School will also be hosting virtual open houses for the Master’s and Certificate Programs! These sessions will take place on 21 October and 16 November at 6:30 PM EST. The online session will provide an overview of our master’s degree programs and graduate certificate programs, student services, and admissions requirements. Register here.

Pandora Report: 9.24.2021

This week we have a new student writer, Lauren Eichberger (Reynolds), a Biodefense Certificate student, shares her summary and takeaways a virtual event held by from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO). Progress has been made over the last several days toward bringing justice to victims of the Kremlin’s campaign of assassination on British soil. A former US ambassador to the OPCW explains how the body is the “epicenter of a global chemical weapons crisis and a front line in a broader confrontation between the West and Russia.”

Commentary – Two Decades After 9/11: What We’ve Learned About Public Health Preparedness and Leadership

September 11th, 2001 is a date the United States will never forget. Following this tragedy, there were calls to improve our national security against “physical” attacks and amend preparedness plans. Now, in 2021, two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation finds itself in a comparable situation with a call for greater biosecurity and health care preparedness. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) held a virtual event, “Two Decades After 9/11: What We’ve Learned About Public Health Preparedness and Leadership” that discussed these two calls-to-action. Lauren Eichberger (Reynolds), a Biodefense Certificate student, shares her summary and takeaways from the event. Read Lauren’s commentary here.

Worldwide Threats to the Homeland: 20 Years After 9/11

Christopher Wray, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), made a statement before the House Homeland Security Committee about the threats facing the US. Director Wray shared that the FBI is currently investigating over 100 types of ransomware, has recently arrested over 600 gang members in a single month, and that the Bureau is opening a new China counterintelligence investigation every 12 hours. According to Wray, the greatest terrorist threats to the US are lone actors, largely because they move quickly from radicalization to action. In the wake of 9/11, 20 years ago, the FBI underwent a transformation that dramatically expanded national security operations, and changed the focus to “disrupting attacks before they occur and on working with and through our partners around the world and at every level of government here at home.” His testimony covers the violence and destruction of property at the US Capitol building on 6 January, top terrorism threats, cyber attacks, foreign malign influence, and lawful access. Read Wray’s testimony here.

New Book – Denying the Obvious: Chemical Weapons and the Information War Over Syria

Brian Whitaker, a former Middle East Editor of the Guardian newspaper, wrote a new book, Denying the Obvious: Chemical Weapons and the Information War Over Syria. In 2011 mass demonstrations broke out in Syria calling for an end to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The regime responded brutally and within months what had begun as political unrest turned into a full-scale war between government forces and a variety of armed groups. In the midst of that turmoil, the regime began using chemical weapons – banned under international law. The regime’s guilt was beyond reasonable doubt though it denied responsibility and Russia, as its chief ally, weighed in with vigorous support. So, too, did a number of small groups and individuals in the west – apparently sincere people who convinced themselves that one of the Middle East’s most oppressive regimes was the innocent victim of a plot to discredit it. Among them were an assortment of university professors, retired spies, “independent” journalists, “anti-imperialists” and more than a few habitual conspiracy theorists. They accused rebel groups of faking the chemical attacks – a claim that became the starting point for a disinformation campaign stretching far beyond Syria. This is the story of that campaign: how it originated, the ideas that drove it, and how it was choreographed with assistance from Russia. Read the new book here.

Progress Towards Accountability for Putin’s Use of Poison

On 21 September, two announcements brought justice a little bit closer to victims of the Kremlin’s campaign of assassination on British soil. The first announcement, from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), dealt with the case of Alexsandr Litvinenko, the former Russian spy, who was poisoned in London with the radioactive substance polonium-210 in 2006. The British government has accused two Russian citizens, Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitriy Kovtun, of being responsible for the poisoning. The ECHR ruled 6-1 that “there was a strong prima facie case that, in poisoning Mr. Litvinenko, Mr. Lugovoy and Mr. Kovtun had been acting as agents of the Russian State.”  Furthermore, the court noted that the Russian government had “failed to provide any other satisfactory and convincing explanation of the events or counter the findings of the UK inquiry” and that “the Russian authorities had not carried out an effective domestic investigation capable of leading to the establishment of the facts and, where appropriate, the identification and punishment of those responsible for the murder.” The court granted the plaintiff, Maria Anna Carter aka Marina Litvinenko, payment from Russia – 122,500 euros in non-pecuniary damages and costs – but rejected her claim for punitive damages. The same day, the BBC reported that the British authorities were ready to charge a third person, Denis Sergeev, in the use of Novichok nerve agent in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, another former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia. This botched attack led to the poisoning of two police officers and two civilians, one of whom, Dawn Sturgess, died. Sergeev had been previously identified by Bellingcat as a high-ranking GRU officer who oversaw the Skripal operation. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, there was “sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction” and that it was in the public interest to charge Sergeev even though Sergeev is in Russia and Russia refuses to extradite its citizens. Also, this week, a third man known as ‘Sergey Fedotov’ was identified and prosecutors from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) concluded that available evidence is sufficient “to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and that it is clearly in the public interest to charge Sergey Fedotov.” Authorized charges against Fedotov include: conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal; attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, Yulia Skripal and Nick Bailey; causing grievous bodily harm with intent to Yulia Skripal and Nick Bailey; and possession and use of a chemical weapon, contrary to the Chemical Weapons Act 1996.

Syria, Russia, and the Global Chemical Weapons Crisis

Kenneth D. Ward, former US ambassador to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), explains how the OPCW is the “epicenter of a global chemical weapons crisis and a front line in a broader confrontation between the West and Russia.” Indeed, he emphasizes that the “world is now precariously perched on the knife’s edge of a new era of chemical weapons use.” In August 2013, the Syrian military launched sarin attacks against the opposition-controlled town of Ghouta, killing 1,400 people. By the end of the next month, “the international community had legally anchored the US-Russian joint framework in a decision of the OPCW Executive Council and in a UN Security Council resolution, which included measures to address any Syrian failure to comply with the resolution’s provisions or with the prohibitions of the CWC.” In 2014, Syria’s declared stocks of chemical weapons were being removed for destruction, but signs emerged that the regime would not “comply fully with its commitments under the CWC and the UN resolution.” It was around this time that the joint framework began to unravel. In the following years, attacks with chemical weapons continued, both by the Assad regime against the Syrian people and by other nations, such as Russia’s use of nerve agents in attempted assassinations. After Russia used a chemical weapon in the United Kingdom, the UK initiated a special session of CWC states-parties to forge an international response, which resulted in the adoption of the decision, “Addressing the Threat from Chemical Weapons Use.” This decision “dealt with Syria’s continued possession and use of chemical weapons,” “clarified the mandate of the OPCW Technical Secretariat in the context of the CWC,” and “authorized the release of OPCW information to any entities established under the auspices of the UN investigating chemical weapons use in Syria.” Ward states that the “United States must accord high priority to defending the CWC and lead an international effort to hold perpetrators accountable in all relevant forums.” He also emphasizes that “to successfully weather the assault on the convention and the norm, diplomacy must be paired with concerted international investment in the OPCW.” Read Ward’s full article here.

Terrorist Attacks Against Vaccinators: A Review

Vaccinators fulfill an important role in a nation’s public health by reducing the burden of disease on the population. Understanding patterns of attack employed against vaccinators is important to determine how to protect them. A new study conducted a search of the Global Terrorism Database for terrorist attacks against vaccinators that occurred between the years 1970 and 2018. Using the search terms “hospital,” “healthcare,” “clinic,” “doctor,” “nurses,” “vaccinators,” and “vaccinations,” 2,322 healthcare-related entries were identified. The researchers then manually searched the dataset for incidents related to attacks on vaccinators, which resulted in the identification of 133 attacks against vaccinators. The majority (128 out of 133) of attacks occurred during or after 2010. Every attack except one has occurred in the Middle East, South Asia, or sub-Saharan Africa. Pakistan has seen the most attacks against vaccinators, with 112 incidents recorded. Vaccinators continue to be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Protection of healthcare personnel during mass vaccination efforts is critical so that they can continue their life saving mission. Read the article in Health Security here.

The Future of Zoonotic Risk Prediction

In the light of the urgency raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, global investment in wildlife virology is likely to increase, and new surveillance programmes will identify hundreds of novel viruses that might someday pose a threat to humans. To support the extensive task of laboratory characterization, scientists may increasingly rely on data-driven rubrics or machine learning models that learn from known zoonoses to identify which animal pathogens could someday pose a threat to global health. A new article synthesizes the findings of an interdisciplinary workshop on zoonotic risk technologies to answer the following questions. What are the prerequisites, in terms of open data, equity and interdisciplinary collaboration, to the development and application of those tools? What effect could the technology have on global health? Who would control that technology, who would have access to it and who would benefit from it? Would it improve pandemic prevention? Could it create new challenges? Read the article here.

Here’s What We’ve Learned About COVID-19—An Update

The Science and Technology Directorate (S&T)’s Master Question List (MQL) is a resource that consolidates recent and accurate COVID-19 information, and is regularly updated with the latest results and data relevant to the pandemic. The latest MQL update includes answers to some new questions covering the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, and the long-term symptoms of COVID-19 infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the vast majority of US COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are occurring in unvaccinated individuals, at 95-99.9% and 94-99.8%, respectively. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were found to be 88% effective overall in a study published by the US National Library of Medicine. Long-term infections persist for more than four weeks, and affects 5-10% of patients. The most common chronic symptoms include fatigue, loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath, and headache. Find the current MQL here.

Leader of WHO’s New Pandemic Hub: Improve Data Flow to Extinguish Outbreaks

Chikwe Ihekweazu, an epidemiologist and former leader of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), talks about his exit from NCDC and shares his hopes and fears for the new Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence in Berlin. Upon his departure, the NCDC staffed about 700 people, included two emergency operation centers, and maintained surveillance teams to detect and respond to infectious disease incidents. In his new leadership role at the Hub, Ihekweazu says that he wants to “make the mechanics of reporting disease-related information easier, and also demonstrate that the World Health Organization can use that data to help countries that share it.” His main source of anxiety is that “expectations are so high that people will expect us to demonstrate results immediately — to, you know, identify a single case of a new virus anywhere in the world and stop it.” The aim of the Hub is to “offer [its] leadership, knowledge, systems for data sharing and analytics to help countries be more confident in the decisions they have to make.” Though Ihekweazu has physically left Nigeria, the country is always in his heart, and he is “always thinking about how to make Nigeria better, and how to make the continent work better.”

The Latest COVID-19 Figures

As of 23 September, worldwide, there have been 230,351,063 COVID-19 cases; 4,723,172 deaths; and 6,012,794,821 vaccine doses administered. According to STAT’s COVID-19 Tracker, COVID-19 deaths have now exceeded 675,400 in the US. To put that figure in perspective, in 1918, the Spanish flu caused a pandemic that claimed the lives of an estimated 675,000 Americans across about two years. At present, deaths in the US account for about 14% of the 4.7 million losses worldwide from the pandemic; the US population accounts for only 4.2% of the global population. In the US, 99% of new COVID-19 cases are of the Delta variant. Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, said the fact that new cases are overwhelmingly caused by the Delta variant is “not unexpected, because it’s more transmissible, but it is also a strong reminder that we need to have continuous vigilance.” Popescu emphasizes, “don’t let your guard down,” because we still need “continuous surveillance, genomic sequencing, access to testing and public health interventions.” For everyone, this includes wearing a mask to curb transmission.

COVID-19 Cited in Significant Increase in Healthcare-Associated Infections in 2020

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that there were significant increases in healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) during 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. This surge is “quite troubling and must serve as a call to action.” Ann Marie Pettis, President of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC), emphasizes that “as a nation we must take significant efforts to bolster our infection prevention and control programs throughout the healthcare continuum.” A new report from the CDC, COVID-19 Cited in Significant Increase in Healthcare-Associated Infections in 2020, analyzes data collected through the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), the country’s largest healthcare-associated infection surveillance system. According to the report, “major increases were found in 2020 compared to 2019 in four serious infection types: central line-associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, ventilator-associated events, and antibiotic resistant staph infections.” This analysis “highlights the need for healthcare facilities to strengthen their infection prevention programs and support them with adequate resources so that they can handle emerging threats to public health, while at the same time ensuring that gains made in combatting HAIs are not lost.”

Mental Health and Social Support for Healthcare and Hospital Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently published a new study, “Mental Health and Social Support for Healthcare and Hospital Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” that aims to identify the issues most critical to healthcare workers’ mental health, wellbeing, and motivation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare and hospital workers providing care and support to infected patients during a pandemic are at increased risk for mental distress. Factors impacting their mental health include high risk of exposure and infection, financial insecurity due to furloughs, separation from and worries about loved ones, a stressful work environment due to surge conditions with scarce supplies, traumatic experiences due to witnessing the deaths of patients and colleagues, and other acute stressors. Finding ways for institutions to support the mental wellbeing of healthcare and hospital workers in an acute pandemic-related crisis situation is of critical importance. The factors affecting mental health are deeply connected to work-related motivation and attendance. Willingness to come to work is multifactorial and is dependent upon an individual’s self-perception of risk, as well as having the skills and resources necessary to perform work tasks given the nature of the public health emergency. Social and material support for healthcare workers in a variety of high-stress and high-risk settings is important for supporting workers’ mental health and in maintaining their commitment in challenging conditions. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare workers has been profound, characterized by death, disability, and an untenable burden on mental health and well-being.

The study was conducted using a cross-sectional survey (1,189 responses) and 73 semi-structured interviews with individuals currently employed at the Johns Hopkins Health System (JHHS) and Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM) hospitals located in Maryland and the District of Columbia. The study population included healthcare providers and direct support services staff, including workers in frontline environmental services, food services, and security. The responses from the survey and interviews revealed that the trauma of witnessing COVID-19 death was exacerbated by the general stress of working during the pandemic and that the significant mental health burden created by the pandemic/infectious disease environment itself was characterized by the ongoing uncertainty and ambiguity about the scientific understanding of the virus. Additionally, stressors negatively impacting employee mental health stemmed from the workplace, resulting in reduced trust of and increased perceptions of betrayal in the institution. Read the full study here.

In 2020, Maddie Roty, recent graduate of the Biodefense MS program, discussed the psychological effects of the pandemic on healthcare workers in her piece, “Heroes are Human Too: The Toll of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of Healthcare Workers.” Read Maddie’s article here.

Charting a Strategic Path Forward for DHS in an Evolved Threat Landscape

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and an adjunct professor at the Schar School, discusses why the upcoming Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) strategic plan should take on new importance given the challenges the nation and DHS are facing. The QHSR is due to Congress by the end of calendar year 2021 and the Strategic Plan by February 2022. Together, they will articulate DHS’ missions and goals, the strategies to achieve each goal, and long-term performance measures to evaluate the progress. There are two possible paths for DHS with these documents. The first approach is to “dust off and update the 2014 QHSR and the DHS Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2020-2024. The core values and guiding principles could be revalidated and minor changes made to the five operational missions and enterprise support functions.” Gerstein offers a second approach for developing the QHSR report and DHS Strategic Plan: “recognize that fundamental and profound changes have occurred in the threats and risks confronting our nation and are continuing to stretch the department in its key mission areas.” The second approach recognizes the “need for charting, or at least considering, a new operational and organizational path forward.” Gerstein argues that the latter approach is most prudent to follow given the length of time that has passed since the establishment of the Department and the changing threats and risks. Read the article here.

After-Action Findings and COVID-19 Response Revealed Opportunities to Strengthen Preparedness

The COVID-19 pandemic shows how catastrophic biological incidents can cause substantial loss of life, economic damage, and require a whole-of-nation response involving multiple federal and nonfederal entities. The 2018 National Biodefense Strategy outlines specific goals and objectives to help prepare for and respond to such incidents. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to conduct monitoring and oversight of federal efforts to prepare for, respond to, and recover from COVID-19. GAO’s report, After-Action Findings and COVID-19 Response Revealed Opportunities to Strengthen Preparedness, addresses: (1) interagency plans key federal agencies developed, and exercises they conducted, to help prepare for biological incidents; and (2) the extent to which exercises and real-world incidents revealed opportunities to better achieve National Biodefense Strategy objectives. GAO reviewed biological incident plans and after-action reports from exercises and real-world incidents from calendar years 2009 through 2019, including a non-generalizable sample of 19 reports selected based on threat scenario and other factors. GAO interviewed federal and state officials to obtain their perspectives on plans, exercises, and the COVID-19 response. GAO outlines 16 recommendations to the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture. These recommendations center largely around the secretaries working through the Biodefense Steering Committee to define the set of capabilities that each agency needs to prepare for and respond to nationally significant biological incidents, and to periodically assess and communicate exercise priorities among the capabilities they identify. Read the report here.

European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA): Getting Ready for Future Health Emergencies

On 16 September, the European Commission launched the European Health Emergency preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to health emergencies. HERA will anticipate threats and potential health crises, through intelligence gathering and building the necessary response capacities. When an emergency hits, HERA will ensure the development, production and distribution of medicines, vaccines and other medical countermeasures – such as gloves and masks – that were often lacking during the first phase of the coronavirus response. It will be fully operational early 2022. Its functioning will be reviewed and adapted on an annual basis until 2025, when a full review will be carried out. HERA is a key pillar of the European Health Union announced by President von der Leyen in her 2020 State of the Union address and will fill a gap in the EU’s health emergency response and preparedness.

Event – The US Food and Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization: Lessons Learned from the Past to Guide the Future

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine is offering a workshop on 5-6 October that will look at the past, present, and possible future of the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization. The workshop will examine the US Food and Drug Administration’s historic and recent use of the Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) for diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines. It will also provide an overview of the current regulatory framework for EUAs and discuss whether any possible revisions would help to ensure that EUAs are based upon the best and most reliable scientific evidence or enhance public confidence and trust in the EUA process and products.  The workshop will also examine EUAs and similar mechanisms used by other entities within the global health regulatory system, lessons that US and global regulatory and public health partners can learn from one another, and ways to enhance international cooperation between the FDA and its global partners. Register here.

Event – 2021 BSL4ZNet International Conference

The Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network (BSL4ZNet) invites you to attend the 2021 BSL4ZNet International Conference, a four-day, online event that will be held virtually on 23 and 29 September as well as 7 and 14 October. 
The conference will convene under the overarching theme of Preparing and Responding to New Post-Pandemic Challenges. The conference aims to enhance knowledge and best practices, and promote collaboration and cooperation with participants from around the world.

The 2021 BSL4ZNet International Conference will be organized into four thematic sessions focused on the post-pandemic era and driving science forward.

  1. Emerging and re-emerging pathogens, on September 23, 2021
  2. BSL3 and BSL4 biosafety and biosecurity: international perspectives, on September 29, 2021
  3. One Health perspectives, on October 7, 2021
  4. Zoonotic outbreaks and pandemics: science policy and science diplomacy perspectives, on October 14, 2021 

The diverse line-up of international keynote speakers and panelists include scientific experts and leading science professionals from government, academia, industry, and non-profit organizations, working in the areas of research, emerging and re-emerging bio-threats laboratory management, biosafety and biosecurity, science diplomacy and policy. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, will be speaking on the “Science policy perspectives in the future of biodefense and biosecurity” panel on 14 October. Expect to hear and engage in discussions on how to leverage the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, and other zoonotic outbreaks, through reflections and lessons learned to navigate a post-pandemic era.

Register here.

Upcoming Meeting of the National Biodefense Science Board

The National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB or the Board) is authorized under Section 319M of the Public Health Service (PHS) Act, as added by Section 402 of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2006 and amended by Section 404 of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act. The Board is governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which sets forth standards for the formation and use of advisory committees. The NBSB provides expert advice and guidance on scientific, technical, and other matters of special interest to the Department regarding current and future chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological agents, whether naturally occurring, accidental, or deliberate.

The NBSB will meet in public (virtually) on September 28, 2021, to discuss high priority issues related to national public health emergency preparedness and response. A more detailed agenda will be available on the NBSB meeting website.

Event – Africa CDC Inaugural One Health Conference

The Africa CDC, a specialized technical agency of the African Union (AU), is working to strengthen Africa’s public health institutions to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks on the continent. Africa CDC recognizes that a One Health approach is critical to this mission and for the accelerated implementation of the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) and to achieve the AU Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want.

Increasing globalization, urban density, ease of travel, animal movement, environmental changes and habitat overlap between humans and animals, all provide opportunities for the emergence and spread of diseases that adversely impact both human and animal health, prosperity, and food security. COVID-19 and Ebola virus disease are two recent examples of how these various factors have directly impacted Africa. To combat these current outbreaks and get ahead of the next, a One Health approach must be taken.

One Health is a collaborative, multisectoral and transdisciplinary approach used to attain optimal health outcomes for people, animals, plants, and their shared environment. Practically, One Health involves the collaboration between human, animal, and environmental health sectors as well as other relevant stakeholders, in the design and implementation of programs, policies, legislation, and research intended to achieve better health outcomes for all.

To celebrate and share the various One Health work taking place on the continent, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) is hosting a 3-day virtual One Health Conference from 1-3 November 2021. Presenters will include representatives from Africa Union Member States, RECs, Africa Union technical agencies, Africa CDC RCCs, research institutions and technical partners. Register here.