Pandora Report: 9.25.2020

Happy fall y’all! The first days of autumn have been eventful with the ongoing pandemic and the interception of ricin-laced letters. The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response virtually met for the first time and laid out their plans for investigating how and why COVID-19 became a pandemic. Letters laced with ricin were intercepted in Texas and before reaching the White House, and a suspect has been charged. In wonderful news, our own Dr. Saskia Popescu was named as one of the 50 experts to trust and follow in a pandemic! Also, Stevie Kiesel shares her assessment of the Secret Service’s annual reports on mass attacks in public spaces.

Commentary – Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: An Assessment by the United States Secret Service

Stevie Kiesel, a PhD Student in Biodefense, shares her assessment of the US Secret Service annual reporting on mass attacks in public spaces. Just last year, 108 people were killed and 178 injured in 34 mass attacks conducted on US soil. These annual reports on mass attacks in public spaces could be greatly improved by analyzing the attackers’ ideologies, their affiliations (online or in real life) with extremist groups, and their online presence. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Schar School Job Talk: Careers in Policy and Security

Please join the Schar School at a virtual job talk for prospective students! Panelists will provide insight on how a graduate degree from the Schar School can benefit your career in policy and security. Panelists include Dr. Saskia Popescu, 2019 graduate of the Schar School’s PhD in Biodefense program, a nationally recognized expert in hospital-based infection prevention, and a Term Assistant Professor at the Schar School; Kathleen Lackey, Staff Officer with the Department of Defense and a 2018 graduate of the Schar School’s MA in International Security; Larry Hanauer, Vice President for Policy at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA); and Curt Goucher, Senior Manager of Talent Management and Strategy with the Intelligence and Homeland Security Division of General Dynamics Information Technology. Click here to register.

Scientists Are Working on Vaccines That Spread Like a Disease. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A growing subset of scientists think that the self-propagating properties of a virus could be exploited and used to spread immunity to infection. In theory, conferring immunity through an animal population could lower the chance of a zoonotic spillover; however, there are serious risks related to self-spreading vaccines. Self-spreading vaccines are “genetically engineered viruses designed to move through populations in the same way as infectious diseases, but rather than causing disease, they confer protection.” Dr. Fillipa Lentzos and Dr. Guy Reeves outline some of these risks in their recent article featured in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The primary security concern is the dual-use potential; these self-spreading vaccines could be used as a biological weapon. Though the Biological Weapons Convention bans biological weapons, it lacks any formal measures to ensure compliance. Given the degradation of the norm against chemical weapons, as evidenced by the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny with Novichok, the international community cannot withstand a similar weakening of the norm against biological weapons. The authors encourage “early, open, good-faith conversations about scientific aims and advances that cause particular dual-use concerns” in order to “make a collective decision about the technical pathways we are willing, or not willing, to take as a society.”

Ricin Letters

It was revealed last week that letters containing ricin, a poison found naturally in castor beans, were intercepted. One such letter was bound for Trump, but intercepted at an off-site mail processing facility, and others were sent to a detention facility and sheriff’s office in Texas. Mail address to the White House and other federal agencies in the DC area are irradiated and sampled for suspicious samples prior to arriving at the final destination.  The Joint Terrorism Task Force in DC is the lead on the investigation in partnership with the FBI, Secret Service, and Postal Inspection Service. An FBI statement on Twitter announced that there is “no known threat to public safety.” The investigation into all the ricin-laced letters has led to a suspect: Pascale Cecile Veronique Ferrier, 53, of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. An affidavit in support of criminal complaint was submitted by Jonathon Preston, a Special Agent Bomb Technician with the FBI, states his support of charging Ferrier with Threatening the President of the United States. According to Preston, all seven letters contained similar language, similar material, and four of them had fingerprints matching the suspect. Ferrier also shared Twitter and Facebook posts that used language akin to that in the letters, and the email associated with those social media accounts was linked to her. Further, upon detainment by Customs and Border Patrol Officers in Buffalo on 20 September, Ferrier made statements that she was “wanted by the FBI for the ricin letters.” Ferrier’s detention hearing is scheduled for 28 September.

The Independent Panel Set to Establish the Facts of How and Why COVID-19 Became a Global Pandemic

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response is tasked with providing an evidence-based path for the future to effectively address health threats. The Independent Panel intends to establish the facts of how and why COVID-19 became a pandemic and to generate recommendations for “safeguarding human health and economic and social wellbeing in the face of future global health threats.” The Independent Panel held its first meeting (virtually) on 17 September and it will conduct an impartial, independent and comprehensive review of the response to COVID-19. In the first meeting, members discussed the Terms of Reference to ensure that the Panel works “openly and transparently” and seeks the “best possible advice, experience, and knowledge.” The thematic areas for the program of work include the review of the pandemic from its initial phase and the analysis of broader societal and economic impacts. Scheduled reporting includes a briefing to the WHO Executive Board at its session scheduled 5-6 October, a progress report to the resumed 73rd World Health Assembly scheduled from 9-14 November, a second progress report to the WHO Executive Board scheduled from 18-26 January 2021, and then the Panel will then report to the 74th World Health Assembly in May 2021.

Healthcare Workers Make Up 1 in 7 Reported Coronavirus Infections Globally

One in seven COVID-19 cases reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) is a healthcare worker. In some countries, that proportion is as high as one in three. These numbers are disproportionately high compared with the numbers of healthcare workers, which account for about 3% of the population in most countries. Two factors contributing to these elevated rates are the greater rates of testing for healthcare workers as frontline responders in a pandemic and the high-risk nature of working in healthcare. A study published this summer found that the risk of infection for healthcare workers was about three times greater than the risk for the general community. The WHO did clarify that the data did not provide clear insight into whether healthcare workers were infected in clinical settings or at home.

50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic

A list of the 50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic includes Dr. Saskia Popescu, graduate of the Biodefense PhD Program and Term Assistant Professor for the Program! Dr. Popescu is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arizona College of Public Health Department of Epidemiology and Biostats. She is an epidemiologist and hospital infection preventionist in Arizona, a hotspot for the virus. To keep up with Dr. Popescu’s insights on the pandemic, follow her on Twitter @SaskiaPopescu.    

COVID-19: Federal Efforts Could Be Strengthened by Timely and Concerted Actions

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congressional Committees regarding federal actions to support public health, individuals, and the economy in COVID-19 evaluates federal actions to the pandemic. The report identified several issues in need of attention by Congress and the administration, including: the medical supply chain is unable to prevent shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies; there is a lack of clarity about the federal government’s plan for distributing and administering a COVID-19 vaccine; COVID-19 data reveal that there is a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths exists among minority groups and those data contain gaps; and the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service lack updated information on the number of eligible recipients who have not received an economic impact payment. Beyond the long list of areas in need of improvement, the report lays out 16 recommendations for executive action, such as better developing and communicating plans that outline the specific actions that the federal government intends to take to help alleviate medical supply gaps necessary to respond to the remainder of the pandemic. Read the full report here.

In Response: Yan et al Preprint

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security published a response to the preprint report, Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route, by Li-Meng Yan, Shu Kang, Jie Guan, and Shanchang Hu. The report in question provides a theory about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, but, according to the Center for Health Security, the authors failed to provide accurate or supportive evidence to back up their claim. In short, the refuted report, which is not peer-reviewed, states that “SARS-CoV-2 shows biological characteristics that are inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus” and that “evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 should be a laboratory product created by using bat coronaviruses ZC45 and/or ZXC21 as a template and/or backbone.” The Center for Health Security response thoroughly details the errors in the report and provides accurate information about each topic.

Lists of Chemical Warfare Agents and Precursors: Structural Annotation and Chemical Fingerprint Analysis

A recent publication by Stefano Costanzi, Charlotte Slavick, Brent Hutchinson, Gregory Koblentz (GMU Biodefense Program Director), and Richard Cupitt (GMU Adjunct Professor) provides “curated and structurally annotated chemical weapons (CW) control lists from three key international nonproliferation frameworks: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Australia Group (AG), and the Wassenaar Arrangement.” These lists were constructed to facilitate communication between scientific advisors and policymakers in chemical weapons nonproliferation. They are also aimed at enabling the work of chemists and cheminformaticians working on CW nonproliferation. The tables include 2D structural images, downloadable 2D structures, and links to NCBI’s PubChem and NIST’s Chemistry WebBook cards that offer quick access to physicochemical, analytical chemistry, and toxicological information. The article examines a discrepancy in a CW control list covering the defoliant Agent Orange and suggests a solution to address it, as well as the results of chemical fingerprinting analyses. The tables for the curated lists of chemicals are available here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 23 September, there is a PhD Virtual Open House at 7pm EDT. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” To read the latest Master’s in Biodefense Career Report, click here. Register for these open houses and lectures here.

Commentary – Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: An Assessment by the United States Secret Service

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

Locations of Mass Attacks in Public Spaces in the United States, 2019

In 2019, 108 people were killed and 178 injured in 34 mass attacks conducted on US soil. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that has already killed 200,000 Americans, this death toll may seem to pale in comparison. However, much like with COVID-19, fairly simple measures could have a significant effect on the death toll. This article reviews recent US Secret Service assessments of mass casualty attacks in public spaces, discusses recommended measures to prevent some attacks, and suggests improvements for future reports.

Since 2017, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center published an annual report on mass attacks carried out in public or semi-public spaces (2017 report, 2018 report, 2019 report). The Secret Service defines a mass attack as an incident “in which three or more persons, not including the perpetrator, were harmed during a targeted attack in a public or semi-public space.” 2017 saw the highest numbers of deaths and injuries from 28 total mass attacks (147 deaths and 700 injuries). The October 1 shooting at a Las Vegas music festival drew these numbers sharply upward – in that incident alone, 58 were killed and 546 were injured. Additionally, two shooting incidents and two vehicle-ramming incidents in that year caused higher casualties than average for these types of attacks. In contrast, 2018 saw 27 mass attacks with 91 deaths and 107 injuries, and 2018 saw 34 mass attacks with 108 deaths and 178 injuries. In both of these years, the incidents with the highest numbers of casualties involved mass shootings. Figure 1 below shows weapons types used by year.

Figure 1: Breakdown of Weapons Types for 2017, 2018, and 2019

These reports identify important similarities among the attackers, as well as potential indicators that an attack may have been forthcoming. For example, each report highlights how these attacks were very often preceded by a significant stressful event in the attacker’s life, such as divorce, death in the family, unemployment, and/or financial hardship. Additionally, many attackers struggled with substance abuse and/or mental health conditions. Each report found that a majority of attackers elicited concern from others in their life, to the extent that these people felt concerned for their own or others’ safety. Many attackers also had some sort of criminal record; a history of domestic violence was fairly common.

This personalized analysis of the attackers leads to several actionable conclusions to potentially reduce the occurrence of and casualties associated with mass attacks in public spaces. The latest report offers five recommendations:

  1. Establish threat assessment programs for commonly targeted areas, such as schools and workplaces
  2. Enforce existing firearms laws – the majority of mass attacks in the US are carried out with illegally owned firearms
  3. Provide crisis intervention, drug treatment, and mental health treatment
  4. Recognize the risk of crime and violence, based on criminal histories (particularly violent criminal histories)
  5. Encourage reporting of concerning behavior

While these recommendations would likely have some impact, many focus entirely on the individual’s personal situation (recent hardships, stressors, and issues with drugs and mental health) and fail to incorporate the role that extremist ideology can play in many of these attacks. In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray highlighted the “evolving and persistent terrorism threat to the homeland,” in which “the greatest threat we face in the homeland emanates from self-radicalized lone actors, of any ideology, who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.” This depiction is in line with many other threat assessments conducted in recent years.

The 2019 report begins to tackle the issue of ideology, highlighting the rising threat of misogynistic extremism such as the incel movement. However, no other ideologies are discussed here. Also, in this section, the report describes the hyperconnected nature of the internet’s potential to radicalize, allowing “those with fringe or extremist ideologies to converge and promote their beliefs to a wider audience.” The report specifically calls out the message board 8kun as a hub for this type of content, particularly among the far right. Simply mentioning incel ideology without discussing white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other forms of extremism, and just mentioning 8kun while saying nothing about Telegram, BitChute, and the many other dark corners of the internet where extremists congregate, makes this section seem woefully incomplete, more of a suggestion of areas for future research than an assessment informed by the 34 mass attacks carried out that year.

These annual assessments could be greatly improved by analyzing the attackers’ ideologies, their affiliations (online or in real life) with extremist groups, and their online presence. In particular, clearing up definitional ambiguity around ideological affiliations could provide much needed clarity going forward. Assessing the importance of ideology for each attack is composed of two steps: (1) determining if the perpetrator had any history of association with extremist ideologies and (2) determining whether the extremist ideology had any impact on the attack itself. For example, the 2018 report finds that only two of 27 total attackers were motivated by an ideology: “one was motivated by anti-abortion beliefs while the other was motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs.” But the report also notes that

[W]hile only two of the attackers were primarily motivated by an ideology, nearly one-third of the attackers appeared to have subscribed to a belief system that has previously been associated with violence. Often the attackers’ beliefs were multifaceted and touched on a range of issues, including white supremacy, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, sovereign citizens, animal rights, and the incel movement.

The nature of extremism today is multidimensional, decentralized, and highly connected; one attacker may be active in many online extremist communities, including those that glorify mass shooters and seek to gain the next “high score” in terms of fatalities when they conduct their own attacks. For future reports, the Secret Service should determine a methodology for identifying the attackers’ ideological affiliations, as well as the level of impact these ideologies had on the attack itself. Making this information public will provide important context to the rising threat of violent extremism in the US.

Pandora Report: 9.18.2020

Calling all budding biodefense students and professionals – the Schar School is hosting several virtual information sessions for prospective students!  To add further enticement, Dr. Lauren Quattrochi, an electrophysiologist AND neuropharmacologist, is joining the GMU Biodefense family this spring. In alarming news, dozens of drone incursions have flown over US nuclear sites by unknown operators with unknown objectives. The UN General Assembly just approved a broad resolution about the coronavirus pandemic, despite objections from the US. Also, we are welcoming a new student writer from the Biodefense MS Program, DeeDee Bowers, who is sharing her takeaways from a public convo about the future of DHS.

Commentary – Countering New Threats to the Homeland: The Future of the Department of Homeland Security

DeeDee Bowers, a Biodefense MS student, shares her takeaways from a webinar hosted by the Atlantic Council about the future of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). To achieve its objectives, DHS will have to evolve with the threat landscape. Read Bowers’ commentary here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 23 September, there is a PhD Virtual Open House at 7pm EDT. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” Register for these open houses and lectures here.

Dozens More Mystery Drone Incursions Over US Nuclear Power Plants Revealed

Between 2015-2019, there have been at least 57 drone incursions over 24 nuclear sites in the US. Of the 57 known incidents, 49 of them were classified as “Closed Unresolved,” indicating that 85% of the drone incursions were conducted by unknown perpetrators with unknown intents. Last September, a swarm of about half a dozen large drones flew over a pressurized water reactor at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station for 80 minutes. The timespan of that incursion would be sufficient to thoroughly survey the site.

Welcome, Dr. Lauren Quattrochi!

This spring, the Schar School welcomes a new course (more to come later) with new adjunct faculty member Dr. Lauren Quattrochi! Dr. Quattrochi (aka Dr. Q) is classically trained as an electrophysiologist and neuropharmacologist. Over the evolution of her career, she has worked within the biopharma industry, non-profits and for the past 4 years, in support of the government. She is currently a principal biotechnologist leading national level scientific and biosecurity initiatives within the US government. At the moment, Dr. Quattrochi serves as a technical advisor on both Hantavirus and COVID-19 vaccine development and manufacturing. She has led key projects within the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) on rapid vaccine preparedness, the Biomedical Research and Advanced Development Authority (BARDA) on their public-private partnerships and medical countermeasure sustainability, as well as the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research (OER) on accelerating breakthrough medical technologies from start-up biotechs. Prior to her current work, she spearheaded projects at Pfizer on drug delivery, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and metabolism for Schizophrenia, depression and Alzheimer’s. Dr. Quattrochi has had the pleasure to teach STEM on infectious diseases in partnership with Brown University at the NIH, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and overseas in Greece. In her spare time, she teaches power vinyasa yoga and creates scientifically-inspired jewelry.

The Passing of an Arms Control Legend

The Pandora Report is sad to report that James F. Leonard, passed away recently at the age of 100. Ambassador Leonard was an ardent and articulate advocate for arms control and nonproliferation. As Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) from 1969-1973, Ambassador Leonard was the lead U.S. negotiator for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, the first international treaty to ban an entire class of weapons. Ambassador Leonard recounted his long diplomatic career in a 1993 oral history. Following his retirement from government service, Ambassador Leonard remained actively involved in nonproliferation activities through his work with several non-government organizations. In 1989, Ambassador Leonard was a co-founder of the Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons at the Federation of American Scientists (now the Scientists Working Group on Chemical and Biological Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation). His decency and dedication to the cause of arms control will be truly missed.

Suboptimal US Response to COVID-19 Despite Robust Capabilities and Resources

Frankly, “suboptimal” is probably an understatement. Dr. Jennifer B. Nuzzo, Jessica A. Bell, and Dr.  Elizabeth E. Cameron published a Viewpoint piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) about the poor response of the US to the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors highlight that in September 2019, the release of the Global Health Security Index revealed several weaknesses of all countries, including the US. The Index, however, did not reveal the critical gaps in leadership that would soon lead to a failed pandemic response. The article breaks down the Index and indicator scores for the US and compares the US to other nations whose responses have been significantly stronger. Read the full article here.

Putin Borrowed a Page from Assad’s Chemical Weapon Playbook

The recent poisoning of Alexei Nalvany with a Novichok is just the latest in a series of poisonings by the Kremlin. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, draws on the history of Novichok incidents to compare Russian President Putin’s strategy to that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Like Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Putin’s use of a nerve agent to repress dissidents and critics and shamelessly violate the Chemical Weapons Convention, which explicitly bans Novichoks. Read Koblentz’s article here.

UN Assembly Approves Pandemic Resolution; US, Israel Object

On 11 September, the United Nations General Assembly approved an omnibus resolution titled “Comprehensive and coordinated response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.” The resolution calls for strengthened international cooperation and solidarity for the goals of containing, mitigating, and defeating the pandemic and its consequences using responses that are people-centered, gender-responsive, and respectful of human rights. It was adopted by a vote of 169-2, with the two votes against from the United States and Israel. The US objected to the resolution based on references to the World Health Organization (WHO), from which Trump has cut funding and intends to withdraw. Speaking of the WHO withdrawal, the administration is starting to reassign or recall the US officials working with the WHO. Additionally, the US wanted the removal of paragraphs that refer to women’s rights to “sexual and reproductive health” and to “promoting global sustainable transport.” Finally, the US opposed the any unilateral economic, financial, or trade sanctions.

The Labs Where Monsters Live

Nations are investing in Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories to study dangerous pathogens and better prepare themselves for novel ones, but some scientists are worried about the potential for an accident in high-containment facilities or attacks using the creations of research. In terms of safety from accidents, laboratories must carefully select personnel, create a work culture of trust and accountability, and uphold strict safety protocols and rules. There is also debate about gain-of-function research, which could make a pathogen more dangerous by giving it new or enhanced abilities. Supporters of gain-of-function work argue that such research helps improve detection and create vaccines for future biothreats, but others worry that the risks do not outweigh the benefits. Another critical concern about BSL-4 laboratories is about who will be tasked with monitoring their activities. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, says that government oversight is crucial, but laboratory workers are the linchpins. The insider threat is the greatest security challenge, which is why US labs maintain a personnel reliability programmed designed to monitor scientists for issues like mental distress or financial distress. A worker could be radicalized by a group who encourages that individual to steal research or blackmailed by bad actor who encourages that individual to procure samples for them. Richard Ebright from Rutgers University warns that BSL-4 labs could become “tools for authoritarian governments” if there is not international transparency.

Interdisciplinary Information for Infectious Disease Response: Exercising for Improved Medical/Public Health Communication and Collaboration

Dr. Saskia Popescu, Alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program, and Dr. Nathan Myers, Associate Professor & Director of Public Administration at Indiana State University, published a paper about the importance of communication and training in relation to high consequence pathogens. They point out that recent infectious disease threats – like SARS-CoV-2 – require an increase in preparedness and response capabilities, especially in information sharing. Their policy analysis “reviews the threat that infectious diseases continue to pose to the United States, and the role that the Hospital Preparedness Program can play in countering such threats.” Based on their study, the authors provide recommendations for improved medical and public health communication and collaboration. Read the full article here.

Commentary – Countering New Threats to the Homeland: The Future of the Department of Homeland Security

By DeeDee Bowers, Biodefense MS Student

Since its creation in November of 2002 prompted by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been an all-encompassing entity for protecting America from threats to national security. After almost two decades, the national security landscape has changed, and the role of DHS has been challenged and must evolve. As Charles Darwin once stated, survival of the fittest does not refer to the ones that are the strongest or smartest but rather the ones most adaptable to change. If DHS is going to continue to thrive, regardless of the presidential administration in place, it must adapt from the landscape it was born into to the current unpredictable times of 2020 and beyond.

Black swan events, or unpredictable events, require a new perspective and imagination within DHS in order for it to better handle the responsibilities of protecting the American people. During the Gulf War, the American Military displayed a strong force to deter our enemies from confronting America on the modern battlefield. Non-state actors instead chose to take alternative actions to inflict damage on America using commercial airliners and the US Postal Service.  Since the early 2000s, threats to America now encompass the “homeland security enterprise.” The homeland security enterprise is a partnership between state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments, private sectors, the public, and the federal government. The homeland security enterprise now has the enormous undertaking of assuring security of the homeland from events such as terrorist attacks through nonmilitary means, natural disasters, immigration concerns, cybersecurity threats, election security, and pandemics such as COVID-19. All of this must be done in a tactful way to instill confidence in the American people that DHS can indeed adapt to the threats of the time while in a highly politicized environment and remain apolitical.

Former Secretaries of DHS Michael Chertoff, Jeh Johnson, and Janet Napolitano spoke during the Atlantic Council’s webinar to share their thoughts on how the DHS will or should evolve. All agreed that a more stable appointment by the presidential administration would be necessary for quality DHS operation and response. In addition, Secretary Jeh Johnson, suggested an apolitical administration to remind Americans of all of DHS’s goals and a change in policy direction would be necessary to include more threats. Experts such as Thomas Fanning, and Amy Rall suggested these threats include biological as illustrated by COVID-19, physical assaults on critical infrastructure, and cybersecurity concerns such as ransomware. Fanning also stressed that vulnerabilities due to ignorance may gain clarity through the homeland security enterprise, where the less restricted private sector works in close collaboration with DHS to convey joint security. In addition, Fanning, recommended a national campaign to inform and teach the public about how to protect themselves from threats they may not be aware of. In the beginning of the webinar, Max Brooks, described how the strength of the American society and governmental departments such as DHS come from the American people whom are presently fractured. To overcome this, Brooks suggested “new ideas [to combat future threats] are useless without the courage to champion them and a society to support these champions.”

Pandora Report: 9.11.2020

This week’s Pandora Report covers, brace yourself, some of the latest developments related to COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2! For those of us desperate for a momentary pause from pandemic news, we also summarized a brief history on assassinations using nerve agents and highlighted a new report about human heritable gene editing (think CRISPR babies). On a lighter note, Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights on arson as an increasingly popular terrorist tactic.

In Memory of 9/11

Today marks the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On that morning, four coordinated terrorist attacks were carried out by 19 members of al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group. The attacks targeted the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center complex and a third plane into the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked crashed into an empty field in western Pennsylvania. The attacks killed 2,997 people from 93 nations.

Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, provides important insight on the use of arson as a terrorist tactic, especially as the pandemic provides opportunities to exploit and amplify public chaos and discomfort.  A video released earlier this month by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center describes arson as a highly effective, low-skill attack with great potential for damage and psychological impact, highlighting the California wildfires as an example for how death tolls in large fires “sometimes exceed the number of those lost in major strikes by the mujahideen in which they used guns and explosives.” The use of arson for terrorist purposes is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to jihadists. Extremists on the far right and the far left, as well as special interest extremists, have used arson to send political messages for years. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

FAO/OIE/WHO Tripartite Statement on the Pandemic Risk of Swine Influenza

A recent report documenting the circulation of A(H1N1) subtype influenza viruses in China’s swine population is an alert for the pandemic risks with swine influenza viruses. A tripartite statement from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and the World Health Organization (WHO) urges the rapid analysis and risk assessment of new and updated swine influenza surveillance data. It also recommends that laboratories continue to conduct tests for swine influenza given the concern regarding human infections with novel influenza viruses including strains of swine-origin.  

Update: COVID-19 Vaccine

With 321 candidates, the COVID-19 vaccine research and development landscape has progressed at a record rate. Of the total candidates, 33 are in clinical trials with plans to enroll nearly 300,000 subjects from over 470 sites in 34 countries. Candidate types run the gamut: live attenuated virus, inactivated virus, non-replicating viral vector based, replicating viral vector based, recombinant protein, virus-like particle, DNA, and RNA. Clinical development requires well-designed trials with a carefully selected endpoint, insight into what constitutes protective immunity, adequate representation of the target population, and strong considerations for safety. Despite the unprecedented headway, there exist several hurdles and uncertainties regarding the approval of a vaccine. In regard to Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that a “deep state” in the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) was slowing approval of a vaccine, the FDA is shielding vaccine reviewers from outside political influence and noise. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn announced that the agency will maintain “high standards that Americans expect for safety and effectiveness,” so there will be no shortcuts taken to perilously accelerate the timeline to approval. In terms of a timeline, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not anticipate widespread COVID-19 vaccinations until mid-2021. According to WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris, there has yet to be a “clear signal” from candidates in vaccine trials that efficacy has reached the minimum 50% level. This week, US public health officials and Pfizer stated that a vaccine could be ready for distribution as soon as late October, right before the presidential election.

History of Nerve Agent Assassinations

On 20 August, Alexei Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption activist, was hospitalized for illness due to poisoning. After being airlifted to Germany for treatment, a German military laboratory confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in a failed assassination attempt. This was not the first case of a political opponent – or a perceived enemy – being the victim of poisoning, as Jean-Pascal Zanders has detailed in his brief history of the use of nerve agents for assassination.  In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo released sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system. More recently, in 2017, a binary version of VX was used to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Two years ago, a Novichok nerve agent was ineffectively used by Russia in an attempt to eliminate a former double agent living in the United Kingdom. Between 1994 and 2020, Zanders has tallied a dozen known assassination operations with neurotoxicants like Novichok. Although only two of the 11 direct targets died, nine innocent bystanders were killed and hundreds more sickened.

Navigating a Post-Pandemic World

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace convened 150 scholars from 20 nations to create a digital magazine that provides “grounded, fresh analysis and new approaches to some of the most consequential challenges unfolding before us.” The magazine, “The Day After: Navigating a Post-Pandemic World,” covers a range of important topics like nuclear arms control, disinformation, climate change, and the foreign and domestic policies of several countries. Current featured essays include “India’s Path to the Big Leagues” by Ashley J Tellis, “Securing Cyberspace” by Michael Nelson and George Perkovich, and “A Coming Decade of Arab Decisions” by Marwan Muasher and Maha Yahya. Read the magazine here.

Half of Troops See Coronavirus as a Major Threat for the Military: Poll

According to a Military Times Poll conducted in partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University, about half of surveyed active-duty troops believe the pandemic poses a “significant threat to military readiness and operations.” On the other hand, respondents were divided over the sufficiency of service leaders’ response. Results found that 48% of surveyed service members “do not believe their chain of command has taken the appropriate steps to respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” but 46% “have confidence in leadership’s response.” Response measures included shutting down most military travel for three months, pausing changes to duty stations, and significantly curbing worldwide operations. As of this week, the Department of Defense has reported over 39,000 COVID-19 cases among military members along with 17,000 cases among civilian employees, military dependents, and contractors. To date, seven service members have died from COVID-19 complications.

Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Pits Spy Against Spy

As the world races to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, countries such as China and Russia are expanding their espionage efforts to steal information at US research institutes and companies. Chinese hackers targeted the University of North Carolina and other universities working on vaccine research against the novel coronavirus, and Russia’s foremost intelligence service, the SVR, is following suit. Iran is also trying to steal vaccine research information form the US. To sum it up, every major espionage service in the world is working to purloin US data and research related to COVID-19 vaccines. The pandemic has created a “grand game of spy versus spy,” with the US as a key target. This newly enhanced threat has prompted the US to expand its protective efforts for universities and R&D companies. Additionally, NATO intelligence is inspecting efforts by the Kremlin to steal vaccine research. According to a current and a former official, China is covertly using material from the World Health Organization to inform its hacking attempts in the US and Europe. In regard to China’s spying and hacking, US intelligence officials first learned about the attempts in early February, the start of the pandemic in the US. In July, the Department of Justice indicted two hackers working for China’s Ministry of State Security spy service for conducting a computer intrusion campaign targeting intellectual property and confidential business information. In response to such discovered attempts, the administration ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston. Members of Cozy Bear, a Russian hacking group, were caught attempting to steal vaccine data. On 11 August, Russia announced that it had approved a vaccine, an event that provoked suspicion that its R&D was involuntarily aided by stolen information. Beyond US universities, it is suspected that foreign spies are targeting biotech companies Gilead Sciences, Novavax, and Moderna. Though no corporation or university has reported any data thefts, some hacking efforts have successfully penetrated network defenses.

Report of the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released its report, Heritable Human Genome Editing, drafted by the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing. Heritable genome editing entails changing the genetic material of ova, sperm, or any cell related to their development (cells of early embryos), and establishing pregnancy. This capability raises scientific, medical, ethical, moral, and societal concerns. In 2018, a Chinese scientist announced the birth of the first genome-edited human babies, commonly referred to as the “CRISPR babies,” which sparked legal and bioethical controversies and widespread disapproval. The scientist behind the CRISPR babies was removed from his research position and sentenced to three years in prison for “illegal medical practice.” This heavily-publicized and criticized event spurred a great debate about the use and ethics of human heritable gene editing. The Commission was convened by NASEM with the objective of developing a “framework for scientists, clinicians, and regulatory authorities to consider when assessing potential clinical applications of human germline genome editing, should society conclude that heritable human genome editing applications are acceptable.”  Read the full report here.

Toward a More Proliferated World? The Geopolitical Forces that Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Toward a More Proliferated World? The Geopolitical Forces that Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, examines key geopolitical trends expected to shape the future nuclear proliferation landscape. The reports identifies and assesses seven trends such as the rise of authoritarian leadership, the increase in nuclear threats and growing tensions within regional security environments, and the swelling competitiveness between the US and China as well as the US and Russia. This report was written with Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student and a Program Coordinator for the Project on Nuclear Issues at CSIS. Read the full report here.

News of the Weird: COVID-19 Instigates Ad Changes

As the pandemic endures, large companies are reconsidering their advertising jingles. After 64 years, Kentucky Fried Chicken (lovingly known as KFC), announced that it is suspending its famous “finger lickin’ good” slogan in order to better support public health measures. Similarly, McDonald’s Brazil debuted a socially-distanced logo with its famous golden arches spread apart. Burger King is also adjusting its store logo by replacing “Home of the Whopper” signs with “Stay Home” signs. COVID-19 has created a unique opportunity for company re-branding, even if only temporarily.

Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

By Stevie Kiesel, PhD Student

In 2018, the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California’s history tore through the state. The Camp Fire killed 85 and caused an estimated $16.5 billion in damage. The towns of Concow and Paradise were nearly completely destroyed. Not even a year later, Australia experienced an uncharacteristically destructive bushfire season that ultimately killed 34 people, burned nearly 50 million acres, and destroyed almost 6,000 buildings. The fires also wrought devastating impacts on the environment, and cleanup costs alone have exceeded $5 billion.

The most extreme terrorist groups aspire to achieve this level of death and destruction. It therefore comes as no surprise that jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State and its affiliates, have touted these fires and others in their propaganda. A video released earlier this month by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center describes arson as a highly effective, low-skill attack with great potential for damage and psychological impact, highlighting the California wildfires as an example for how death tolls in large fires “sometimes exceed the number of those lost in major strikes by the mujahideen in which they used guns and explosives.” Voice of Hind, an online magazine published by an Islamic State affiliate in India, has encouraged adherents to use fire as a comparatively simple means of attack to “annihilate the disbelievers.” Jihadist publications and videos have touted the use of fire for years, from the Islamic State publication al-Naba (as well as their now-defunct magazine Rumiyah) to Al Qaeda’s magazine Inspire. In 2019, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for widespread crop fires that caused a great deal of damage in Iraq and Syria.

The use of arson for terrorist purposes is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to jihadists. Extremists on the far right and the far left, as well as special interest extremists, have used arson to send political messages for years. In a recent example from April 2020, John Michael Rathbun was charged with attempted arson after trying to use gasoline to start a fire at a Jewish assisted living center in Massachusetts. Rathbun was active on white supremacist internet forums—so active, and so lax about what he was posting, that his attack was discovered after he posted his plans on a public calendar on Telegram. Similarly, in 2019 far-right extremist Tristan Morgan accidentally set himself on fire while attempting to burn down the Exeter Synagogue in the United Kingdom. Despite the tactical errors in these cases, the threat of arson terrorism should be taken seriously. Arson has a long history of being used to terrorize black neighborhoods, businesses, and churches in the United States. Even when no lives are lost, the psychological and economic impact of these attacks can be severe.

Environmental and animal rights extremists also have a history of arson attacks. Arson was particularly appealing to their ideology because they wanted to destroy facilities or machinery that they felt were doing harm, but they did not necessarily want to harm humans or animals. For example, the Earth Liberation Front advocated a tactic called “monkeywrenching,” which refers to sabotage and property destruction against industries that they perceive to be damaging the environment. Common monkeywrenching tactics include arson, sabotaging logging and construction equipment, and tree spiking. The Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for a number of fires, the most destructive being the 1998 fire at a Colorado ski facility, which reportedly caused $12 million in damage. Other special interest groups that have a history of engaging in arson include the Animal Liberation Front (animal rights) and the Coalition to Save the Preserves (environmental protection). Anti-abortion extremists have also conducted arson attacks, though organizationally they would be considered lone wolf attacks rather than attacks affiliated with a specific group.

While these cases demonstrate clear interest and intent to weaponize fire by a wide range of terrorist groups, a more systematic look at arson as a terrorist tactic is possible by using the Global Terrorism Database developed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. This database, whose information is publicly available from 1970 through 2018, captures arson as a unique weapon type. The four charts below show some interesting trends about arson use throughout history.

Charts compiled by author using data from the START Global Terrorism Database.

*Note that for Chart 4 (Top 15 Groups Using Arson, 1970-2018), the top result was an unknown group (n=1,792) followed by the groups listed in the chart.

Arson is an attractive tactic for many types of terrorist groups. Fire can be incredibly destructive in terms of lives lost, property and economic damages, and psychological impact. Arson is a low-cost and low-skill tactic, and elements of nature (such as high winds) can be used as a force multiplier. Additionally, arson can function as just one element of a complex attack, with a potential for “ambushes (luring), intentional depletion of resources (diversion), and follow-on or secondary attacks.” Large fires are also incredibly appealing to terrorist groups with apocalyptic or accelerationist ideologies, such as jihadist and extreme right-wing groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a significant impact on terrorism. Because of ongoing public safety measures and many people’s discomfort with crowded areas at the moment, typical soft targets for terrorist attacks are not as plentiful as before the pandemic. Arson may become a more attractive method to terrorists during this time because fires can drive people out of their homes and, much like a virus, once started, fire can spread far and leave devastation in its path. Another worrying development that has accelerated during the pandemic is the rise and increased reach of conspiracy theories. These theories can be incredibly radicalizing, particularly when people are spending more time at home and online while suffering anxiety over the pandemic and the economy. One example of a conspiracy theory whose adherents have committed arson attacks: the theory that 5G cellphone towers are somehow responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. This theory has led to more than 70 arson attacks on cell phone towers, which can put people’s lives at risk if the towers are damaged and access to emergency services is disrupted. Such attacks on critical infrastructure have not gone unnoticed, particularly on white supremacist messaging boards. As COVID-19 forces terrorists to adapt, the potential for arson attacks should not be ignored.

Pandora Report: 9.4.2020

Agroterrorism: National Defense Assessment, Strategies, and Capabilities

United States Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies and Auburn University published a collection of academic studies about the challenges of agroterrorism to the United States, titled Agroterrorism: National Defense Assessment, Strategies, and Capabilities. The included papers that discuss the historical threat of attacks on agriculture, contemporary challenges, US policies and capabilities, and recommendations on how to improve policies and capabilities for the future. Three of the co-authors are members of the extended GMU Biodefense family: Janet Marroquin is a current Biodefense PhD student, Douglas Lewis is graduate of the PhD program, and Henry Parker is a former adjunct professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program. Read the report here.

Review and Revision of the Screening Framework Guidance for Providers of Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA

On 26 August, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) issued a Request for Information (RFI) for the Review and Revision of the Screening Framework Guidance for Providers of Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA in the US Federal Register. The ASPR invites public comments on whether and how the Guidance could be updated to mitigate the risks associated with nucleic acid synthesis technologies. These technologies enable the design, modification, and creation of biological systems, and bear the potential to be misused. Due to the dual-use risks, the comment period is seeking public input on changes that would either expand or limit the following areas: Scope of the Guidance, Sequence Screening, Biosecurity Measures, Customer Screening, Minimizing Burden of the Guidance, and Technologies Subject to the Guidance. The RFI is open through noon on 25 October. Submit comments here.  

COVID-19 Cases Infographic

Statista crafted this infographic depicting the global case count of COVID-19 cases as of 30 August, which has surpassed the 25 million mark. The chart also breaks down the case count into active, recovered, and deceased.

Preliminary Framework for Equitable Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccine

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released the Preliminary Framework for Equitable Allocation of a COVID-19 Vaccine. The Preliminary Framework aims to “assist policy makers in the domestic and global health communities in planning for equitable allocation of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.” The discussion considers several issues regarding allocation of a vaccine, including how to assure access to communities of color and what criteria should be used in setting priorities for equitable allocation. Read the full draft framework here.

Security, Intelligence, and the Global Health Crisis

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a non-partisan think tank based in Canada, released an essay series about the interface between health security and national security. The publication – Security, Intelligence and the Global Health Crisis – includes pieces about disinformation in a health crisis, economic security, climate change, and more. As the world investigates the emergence of the pandemic and learns from the global response, it must also consider the role of security and intelligence institutions in protecting societies against disease outbreaks. Read the series here.

Potential Impact of Science and Technology on International Security and Disarmament

The new United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) report, Advances in Science and Technology in the Life Sciences: Implications for Biosecurity and Arms Control, summarizes several trends facilitating advances across the life sciences: immunology, neuroscience, human genetics and reproductive science, agriculture, and infectious disease. Though research and development in these fields is by and large conducted for peaceful purposes in order to benefit society, the same outputs can pose serious ethical, safety, and security concerns if they are misused. Specifically, R&D in the life sciences could contribute to new types of biological weapons with different and more deleterious effects than existing agents. In the same vein, the United Nations General Assembly released a new report, Current Developments in Science and Technology and Their Potential Impact on International Security and Disarmament Efforts, provides a comprehensive update on the innovations of the life sciences that could impact international security and disarmament efforts. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, recently published an article about emerging technologies that present a new spectrum of threats from chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological (CBRN) terrorism. Koblentz names malware, synthetic biology, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, digital currency, nanotechnology, and genome editing as emerging technologies that comprise the start of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This new era is unprecedented in its “global scope, exponential rate of innovation, and the convergence of the physical, digital, and biological worlds.”

Conversations on COVID-19: Impacts on Communities of Color

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) debuted a new resource, Conversations on COVID-19: Impacts on Communities of Color. Though much remains unknown about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, CDC data show that special populations (African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and the elderly) are bearing the brunt of infections and deaths. This new NASEM page includes conversations with experts on a variety of topics related to minority health and COVID-19 and information and resources from NASEM on issues related to health equity. View these items here.

Backlash Against CDC’s Changed Testing Guidelines

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made significant changes to its COVID-19 testing guidelines that loosened its recommendations regarding who should be tested. Due to the inconsistency of the updates with recommendations from experts, most states have rejected the new CDC guidelines and continued to encourage all exposed persons regardless of symptom onset to get tested. An open letter to Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC, and Admiral Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary of Health for the Department of Health and Human Services, expressed the concerns of the nation’s local health departments about the changes. The letter details the lack of scientific evidence to support the adjustments and the lack of transparency, and it implores these officials to revert the guidelines back to the previous version supported by the public health community.

Navalny Poisoned with Novichok

Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent earlier this week. Navalny is “one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critics and has investigated well-placed officials over potential instances of corruption and abuse of office.” There is a theory that Navalny may have ingested the poison through his tea; however, Novichok is not water soluble. Though a fatal dose was not successfully administered, Navalny remains in a medically induced coma. German doctors announced that he is now stable and that his life is no longer in danger. Though a Russian official stated that the country is prepared to fully exchange information pertaining to the incident, officials are also encouraging caution when discussing the poisoning and claiming that the presence of poison in Navalny’s system is “premature and unsubstantiated.” Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, was interviewed about the deadly design of this nerve agent. It was pointed out that the Russians did not abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention by continuing to develop and deploy agents such as the Novichok. The Novichoks were developed in the 1970s by Soviet chemists as a weapon that could be deployed without detection. They block neurotransmitters that control the muscles, including those that control breathing. Only a tiny amount of this chemical is needed to achieve a lethal effect. The agent has been applied to a doorknob and believed to have successfully killed its victims after being absorbed through the skin.

Committee to Review Global Treaty on Health Emergencies

A Review Committee of independent experts will examine various components of the existing International Health Regulations (IHR) relating to preparedness and response in health emergencies. The IHR requires that all countries have the ability to detect, assess, report and respond to public health events, and it was last revised and signed in 2005. The Committee will advise amendments to the IHR that better prepare the world to end COVID-19 and prepare for the next pandemic.

The Emerging Neurobioeconomy: Implications for National Security

Joseph DeFranco, a recent graduate of the Biodefense MS Program, Dr. Maureen Rhemann, Visiting Scholar of the O’Neill-Pellegrino Program in Brain Science at Georgetown University, and Dr. James Giordano, Professor of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center published an article Health Security about the emerging neurobioeconomy. The techniques and tools stemming from neuroscience and neurotechnology have spurred new programs in brain research and innovation, some of which create new security concerns. This article examines the growth of the neuroscience and neurotechnology market, discusses how the neurobioeconomy poses unique ethical and security issues for the general bioeconomy, proposes a risk assessment and mitigation approach. Read the article here.

Poll: Most Americans Believe the COVID-19 Vaccine Approval Process Is Driven by Politics, Not Science

According to a recent poll conducted by STAT and the Harris Poll, 78% of Americans worry that the COVID-19 vaccine approval process is driven more by politics than science. This statistic echoes fears that the current administration may prematurely approve a vaccine. There is growing speculation that Trump may pressure the Food and Drug Adminsitration (FDA) to approve or grant Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 prior to sufficient testing. Interestingly, the poll’s findings were bipartisan: 72% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats shared this concern.

US Will Revive Global Virus-Hunting Effort Ended Last Year

PREDICT was an epidemiological research program housed in the US Agency for International Aid (USAID) that was eliminated last year. PREDICT was often called an early warning system for pandemics. The program is now being resurrected as its critical function is made apparent by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which erupted mere weeks after the PREDICT program was shuttered. Last November, Michael Krug, a recent graduate of the Biodefense MS program, shared his concerns about ending the program, which was carried out despite concerns of public health experts. Krug characterized the decision as an example of how the US government underprioritizes pandemic preparedness, a criticism that was confirmed the following month. A new program, Strategies to Prevent (STOP) Spillover, will be implemented in up to 20 countries across West Africa, East/Central Africa, South Asia, and East/Southeast Asia. A notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) was released for STOP Spillover and an application should be accepted this month.  

Pandora Report: 8.28.2020

Africa Declares the Eradication of Wild Polio

As some much-needed good news, the World Health Organization (WHO) just declared that wild poliovirus has been eradicated from Africa! The last reported case of wild poliovirus was four years ago in Nigeria. The Kick Polio Out of Africa Campaign launched in 1996 when wild polio paralyzed 75,000 children annually. Though this is a significant achievement, vaccine-derived polio continues to pose a threat in the region.

FDA Authorizes Abbott’s Fast $5 COVID-19 Test

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave emergency use authorization to Abbott’s COVID-19 test, BinaxNOW, which costs only $5. The test uses the same technology as a pregnancy test and does not require any specialized equipment to run. The company stated that the test correctly diagnoses a SARS-CoV-2 infection 97.1% of the time, and correctly returns a negative test result 98.5% of the time. Abbott announced that it plans to produce 50 million tests monthly by this October. According to the FDA, BinaxNOW can be used in clinics, emergency rooms, and schools.

New Book: Neuroscience and the Problem of Dual Use – Neuroethics in the New Brain Research Projects

Malcolm Dando recently released a new book, Neuroscience and the Problem of Dual Use – Neuroethics in the New Brain Research Projects. The book covers recent brain research and the dangerous dual use possibilities related to the results of these studies. Dando shows that innovations in civil neuroscience could be exploited for dual use purposes by actors with hostile intentions, and he analyzes the measures planned and taken to prevent malicious dual use applications. Recommendations are outlined regarding what needs to be done to handle dual-use neuroscience in the future.

CDC Updates

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updates its guidelines for COVID-19 testing. On the CDC‘s COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions page, it is stated that not everyone needs to be tested for current infection, particularly those who are not presenting with symptoms. There is a self-checker to help an individual determine if they need to be tested based on these new guidelines. These new recommendations are a significant deviation from the preceding ones, which urged anyone who had been a close contact of a person with SARS-CoV-2 infection or displayed COVID-19 symptoms to get the viral test. Also, the likelihood of asymptomatic or presymptomatic spread of the novel virus necessitates broader, not narrower, testing. Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC, stated that the testing guidelines were changed following updates to the recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force. There are major concerns that this chain of events is indicative of political pressure from the White House.

Why the US is Having a Coronavirus Data Crisis

More than half a year into COVID-19, the US is still lagging and lacking in coronavirus data collection. Instead of greatly expanding contact tracing like South Korea, the US is sidelining its premier disease prevention and emergency preparedness agency. This month, the decision was made to cut out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from coronavirus data collection; however, that decision is in the process of being rescinded. Beyond the confusion related to where a hospital should send its data, the US is “producing little information through contact tracing.” Without reliable and updated information regarding infections, US scientists, decision makers, and the general public are forced to rely on media and independent reports to track the virus. 

New Guidance for Decision Makers on Encouraging Cooperation in COVID-19 Contact Tracing

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a new report, Encouraging Participation and Cooperation in Contact Tracing: Lessons from Survey Research, which provides a rapid expert consultation “to help decision makers in local public health departments and local governments increase participation and cooperation in contact tracing related to COVID-19.” The publication focuses on contact tracing methods via phone, test, or email interviews with individuals who have tested positive and individuals who may have been exposed to the virus. Based on survey research, recommendations are provided about proven strategies that “encourage participation in and cooperation with contact tracing efforts.” These strategies include: (1) providing advance notice to interviewees; (2) partnering with trusted partners like local healthcare providers and tribal elders; (3) offering relevant incentives; (4) improving the skills of the interviewers through teaching techniques like role playing; (5) drafting messaging that appeals to people’s motivations; and (6) accepting partial information from interviewees. Read the full report here.

Demographic Disparities Among Healthcare Workers Lost in COVID-19

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is continuing to track COVID-19 deaths of healthcare workers and share the profiles of those lost. Lost on the Frontline, a joint project between KHN and The Guardian, has found that over 1,000 healthcare workers have died due to the pandemic. Among those 1,000 workers, a disproportionate number are people of color or immigrants to the US: 177 of the 1,080 victims profiled so far. Of those 177, 62% identified as Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, or Native American, and almost 31% were born abroad. Other research on the disparities of COVID-19 outcomes show similar findings. A Harvard Medical School study published in The Lancet Public Health showed that healthcare workers of color were more likely to care for patients with suspected of confirmed COVID-19 than their white counterparts and almost twice as likely to test positive themselves. In the US, immigrant health worker account for nearly 20% of healthcare workers, and they tend to work in the most vulnerable communities. A study from 2018 found that areas with high rates of poverty tend to have more foreign-trained doctors than do areas with more wealth. Read the stories of all the fallen healthcare workers here.

Why It’s So Hard to Find Dumbbell Sets in the US

For those of us frantically searching for kettlebells to add to our home gyms, the lack of availability can be explained by a “colossal increase in demand” at the start of the pandemic and a fragmented supply chain. In March, other kinds of exercise equipment, like treadmills, saw a substantial surge in demand as well. With many gyms closed or with limited services, many people are still hunting for equipment they can use in their own homes. Turning to the supply side of the problem, Colleen Logan, the vice president of marketing at Icon Health & Fitness, said that it takes about a month for these products to be manufactured and then to arrive in the country. In COVID-19, additional delays related to lockdown and social distancing keep these much-wanted products from consumers. Now, fitness equipment companies are working to scale up their operations to meet demand.

Drug Makers Rebut Trump Tweet that FDA’s “Deep State” Is Delaying COVID-19 Vaccines & Drugs

In a recent tweet, Trump accused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of harboring a “deep state” bent on delaying the development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and therapies. Trump also asserts that these conspirators are trying to delay the 3 November election. To be clear, there is no evidence to support these spurious claims. In fact, executives from top biotechnology firms have praised the efficiency of the FDA in facilitating development of COVID-19 medical countermeasures. Jeremy Levin, chairman of BIO, defended the FDA in his statement, “Developing those critical medicines depends on the independent rigorous reviews, integrity and scientific and medical capability of the FDA. The FDA has assisted and supported the industry to become what it has, and is deeply respected in the USA and abroad.” Tal Zaks, chief medical officer of Moderna, praised the FDA for its efficiency in setting up the expert panel that analyzes vaccine data. The development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines is underway at an unprecedented pace: Pfizer and Moderna started clinical trials for their vaccine candidates at the end of July.

FDA “Grossly Misrepresented” Blood Plasma Data, Scientists Say

In a news conference this week, the administration claimed that blood plasma, which just received emergency approval for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, reduced deaths by 35%. What the administration failed to clarify is that statistic is based on a Mayo Clinic study of a small subgroup of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The patients in the study were under 80 years old, not on ventilators, and received plasma confirmed to possess high levels of antibodies with three days of diagnosis. Even more bewildering, many experts, including a scientist associated with the study, were uncertain as to the source of this metric, which was not stated in the official authorization letter nor the study memo. In short, that figure was not calculated by the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics, Evaluation, and Research, said that the agency conducted its own analysis of the Mayo study’s data based on its review of published studies regarding plasma. Additional statements have revealed that the calculation was based on a subset of a subset of the full dataset. This misrepresentation has called into question the credibility of the FDA, despite some of its impressive efforts in the pandemic, as it undermines the results and validity of rigorous trials and research.

Pandora Report: 8.21.2020

Welcome Back, Patriots!

Welcome back for Fall 2020! As we return, there are several resources provided by GMU that we can use to keep ourselves and the campus safe and healthy. Before stepping onto one of the campuses, all students, faculty, staff, contractors, and affiliates must take the Mason COVID Health Check survey daily. Based on your responses, the survey will provide you with one of three statuses – Green, Yellow, or Red – to give you the all-clear to go on campus or to guide you to the next steps if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or you were a close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Many classes are being offered virtually this semester and there are resources to help you optimize your online learning experience: Academic Success During COVID-19, How to Be a Successful Online Learner, Strategies for Online Learning Success, and Online Learning Basics. Also, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a wonderful resource for Mason students to get help from mental health providers and learning specialists. For more information on GMU’s Safe Return to Campus plans and protocols, please click here.

News of the Weird

The COVID-19 pandemic has instigated some odd coping strategies. In order to recreate the feeling of travel and, perhaps, pep up spirits, some airlines are offering flights to nowhere. Taiwan’s Civil Aviation Administration was the first to offer such a service by organizing a flight that never left the ground. This flying experience was complete with checking in, retrieving boarding passes, going through security checkpoints, and even in-flight services. The fake flight was so popular that Taiwan airports now offer “passengers” the option to depart, but land in the same airport. Eva Air, a major Taiwanese airline, held a Hello Kitty-themed flight that made a scenic loop over the country’s northeast coast. Researchers are also getting creative during COVID. A University of Pennsylvania study of nine dogs is testing whether dogs can scent a specific smell in people infected with SARS-CoV-2.  Blaze, one of the dogs, successfully selected a can containing urine from a hospitalized coronavirus-positive patient out of a selection of alternatives.

COVID-19 Data Will Once Again Be Collected by CDC

After a smart policy reversal, hospitals will return to reporting new cases to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Department of Health and Human Services is reversing their recent decision to change the way hospitals report critical information on the coronavirus pandemic to the government and bypass the CDC. Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told hospital executives and government officials in Arkansas that the new system to which hospitals report new cases is just an “interim system” and that data reporting would soon return to the CDC.

A Canary in a COVID Coal Mine: Building Better Healthcare Biopreparedness Policy

Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense Graduate Program, recently published a commentary in World Medical & Health Policy about improving healthcare biopreparedness policy. The COVID‐19 pandemic has overwhelmed much of the US healthcare system and highlighted gaps in preparedness and response to biological threats, such as limited personal protective equipment (PPE) and staffing issues. A lack of prioritization of hospital biopreparedness and inadequate infrastructure left the nation ill-equipped for the novel coronavirus. COVID‐19 has exposed a need to implement regulatory requirements on healthcare facilities to invest in preparedness for biological events. Read Dr. Popescu’s commentary here.

ICYMI: A Deadly Coronavirus Was Inevitable. Why Was No One Ready?

In early 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) added a new threat to its list of diseases with pandemic potential: Disease X. Disease X is not a specific illness, but a hypothetical ailment with the ability to induce an epidemic caused by a pathogen that is unrecognized as a danger to humans. SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, is Disease X. Unfortunately, when COVID-19 hit, the world was under-prepared, because governments had ignored blatant warnings and underfunded pandemic preparedness. The emergence of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 as zoonotic viruses were two such warnings. H1N1, Ebola Virus Disease, and Zika Virus Disease were three more. The risks of new pathogens are greater today than ever; new diseases often spring from animals, so the increases in global travel and components of trade and economic development are driving humans and animals closer together. Despite the threat of emerging infectious diseases, funding for pandemics tends to be sparse and dropping. Most of the efforts carried out for pandemic preparedness in the US focused on influenza, which is among the list of biological threats but not the only one. The Trump administration has supported some pandemic-related programs and added much-needed funds for the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) after money to combat Ebola ran dry. Regrettably, many programs and offices related to preparedness have been dismantled, suspended, or reduced.

Joint Call for Papers – Special Issues on Infodemiology

The World Health Organization (WHO) along with IULM University in Italy, Harvard University, and several scholarly journals just released a joint call for papers about infodemiology. The WHO defines infodemiology as the “science of managing infodemics,” and defines an infodemic as “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – occurring during an epidemic.” As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic and all the uncertainties related to SARS-CoV-2, a deluge of misleading or false information is distorting perceptions of disease risk and spreading disinformation about the disease, potential cures, and possible sources. Many of these inaccuracies are prominently featured on the internet, social networks, and the media. Given the ongoing COVID-19 infodemic, special issues focused on infodemics and infodemiology are needed. For more information on submissions, click here.

What Contact Tracing Data Is Telling Us About How COVID-19 Spreads

Contact tracing is a tool that can help slow the spread of an infectious disease by collecting information on the individuals that have come in close contact with a positive case of a disease.  NPR surveyed the health departments in all US states and territories three times about their contact tracing capacity. The latest survey also asked about what contact tracing data they are gathering and which data they are making publicly available. Most states are collecting data from their contact tracing programs; however, only 14 reported that the data were available on a government website. Only 9 states reported that their contract tracing staff numbers were publicly available.

What We Know & Don’t Know About COVID-19

We are now seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the virus was completely novel, we now know that it can be spread by individuals who do not present with symptoms, whether they be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. Compared to other families of viruses, coronaviruses tend to mutate slowly, which is good news for vaccine research and development. Though we feared that the virus could be spread via contact with surfaces, research is showing that this is an unlikely transmission route. On average, symptoms present 5 days after exposure, but the range for symptom onset is 2-14 days. Infected individuals shed active virus particles for up to 10 days after the onset of symptoms. Though we are more knowledgeable about the novel coronavirus and its effects than we were at the start of 2020, many questions remain unanswered. The Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security released an updated Master Question List for COVID-19. This list “summarizes what is known, what additional information is needed, and who may be working to address such fundamental questions.”

New Data Science Competition: Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge (DrivenData)

Looking to apply your data skills to improving global health security? In partnership with Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and iGEM’s Safety and Security Program, altLabs is soliciting improved and inventive solutions to a crucial problem in genetic engineering: Where was this engineered? This challenge offers prizes for lab-of-origin prediction accuracy and creative real-world application, with a total prize pool of $60,000. Whether you’re a data scientist, bioinformatician, synthetic biologist, or an interested solver from a different field, we’re calling on you to compete!

Facebook’s Threat to Public Health

New research determined that Facebook, a social media platform with over 2.6 billion active users, is directing viewers toward COVID-19 disinformation. Though Facebook vowed to douse conspiracy theories and inaccurate news early in the pandemic, its algorithm seems to have funneled traffic to a network of sites that shares false news. According to NBC News, dozens of public and private Facebook groups with hundreds of thousands of members cumulatively are hotbeds for conspiracy theories and unproven cures related to SARS-CoV-2. Avaaz, a US-based nonprofit organization, analyzed Facebook’s top pages and reviewed all websites deemed untrustworthy in order to assess Facebook’s follow-through on stopping the spread of COVID-19 untruths. The study identified 82 websites and 42 Facebook pages to comprise the sample set of global health misinformation spreading networks. Their key findings include that Facebook has “superspreader” pages of health misinformation and that Facebook is “failing to keep people safe and informed during the pandemic.”  Read the full report, Facebook’s Algorithm: A Major Threat to Public Health, here.

Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem

The Global Engagement Center (GEC) of the US Department of State published a special report, Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem. The
GEC is the government’s dedicated office for countering foreign disinformation and propaganda and is tasked with exposing and thwarting threats from malign actors that employ such strategies. Russia’s prolific use of disinformation and propaganda makes it a top threat. Russia has encouraged the development of a disinformation and propaganda ecosystem in order to undermine democratic values, soil the international credibility of the US, and weaken the cohesion of the US and its allies and partners. This special report details the aforementioned ecosystem with a visual representation to demonstrate “how the different pillars of the ecosystem play distinct roles and feed off of and bolster each other.” Additionally, the report provides short profiles of certain proxy sites and organizations that play an intermediate role between pillars with apparent links to Russia and pillars designed to be completely deniable. Read the full report here.

Department of Defense Warns Troops Not to Catch Fire from Hand Sanitizers

In an unfortunate incident, an employee of the Department of Energy Federal Contractors Group washed his hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer, as recommended, which ignited when the employee touched a metal surface with a static electrical charge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using hand sanitizers containing at least 60% ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Due to an increasing occurrence of adverse events (blindness, cardiac effects, effects on the central nervous system, hospitalizations, and death), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against using sanitizers containing methanol, or wood alcohol.

Near Misses at UNC Chapel Hill’s High-Security Lab Illustrate Risk of Accidents with Coronaviruses

Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill may have been exposed to lab-created coronaviruses in several incidents since 2015. In February 2016, a UNC researcher in a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory was bit by a mouse infected with a lab-created type of SARS coronavirus. This bite occurred despite the scientist wearing a full-body Tyvek suit and double gloves. After the incident, that scientist was not quarantined, but allowed to go about her normal routines and be among the public as long as she wore a surgical mask and reported her temperature twice daily. Thankfully, she did not become ill; however, this safety breach became one among a list of “near-miss incidents” at the university involving several types of genetically engineered coronaviruses. Though the theory that the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of a breach of the Wuhan Virology Laboratory does not hold water, the novel coronavirus does highlight the pre-existing concerns of scientists regarding the potential for a laboratory accident to instigate an outbreak. After the bite in 2016, UNC deleted the name of the virus from incident reports it released for a public records request. Further, officials from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and UNC declined to explain the potential risks to the public of the 2016 breach or why the researcher was not quarantined. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, stated that “there is no reason for the public not to be informed about the nature of biological agents involved in lab research and accidents.” Indeed, making laboratory accident reports publicly available would help ensure accountability for facilities and funders, and it would “encourage them to learn from mistakes and reduce risk of them occurring.”

Pandora Report: 8.14.2020

Commentary – COVID-19 Data and Modeling: Applications and Limitations

Biodefense PhD student Stevie Kiesel discusses the importance of well-represented statistics and the danger of misrepresented statistics in COVID-19. Kiesel also provides her insights on the recently published Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, COVID-19 Data Quality and Considerations for Modeling and Analysis. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Beirut Explosions

On 4 August 2020, two explosions involving over 2,700 tons ammonium nitrate occurred in Beirut, Lebanon, a tragedy that has killed over 200 people and impacted several thousand more. Ammonium nitrate is chemical compound that is often used as a component in explosive formulas for mining, quarrying, and civil destruction. The chemical had been in storage for the last 6 years in a warehouse that likely combusted after a nearby fire reached it. The blast is one of the largest industrial accidents involving the explosive compound. The disaster is exacerbated by the lack of available medical care for those injured, either due to hospitals near the blast site that suffered damage or medical facilities already stretched thin under the demands of COVID-19. Additionally, the port in Beirut and the country’s primary grain silo were destroyed, so the entire nation will face economic consequences from the explosions. Lebanon now faces a several concurrent crises impacting their public health, economy, and political stability.

US Seizes Fake Website, Cryptocurrency Assets from Terrorist Groups

The US seized of millions of dollars in cryptocurrency assets is the largest ever of terrorist organizations’ cryptocurrency accounts. The seizure also included fake websites, such as FaceMaskCenter.com, that claimed to sell protective equipment like fake N95 masks and 4 Facebook pages. This was part of an interagency operation targeting the financial foundations of 3 terrorist networks: al Qaeda and the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The entities involved in the operation include the US attorney’s office in Washington, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The case could help justify a desire by the US Department of Treasury to tighten regulations on the cryptocurrency sector.

COVID-19–Related Infodemic and Its Impact on Public Health: A Global Social Media Analysis

A new study published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene analyzes the infodemic of COVID-19 information. An infodemic is “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” An infodemic is comprised of rumors, stigmas, and conspiracy theories and monitoring social media data is the best method for tracking these inaccuracies in real time in order to help “dispel misinformation and reduce stigma.” Islam et al. extracted COVID-19–related misinformation shared on online platforms – fact-checking agency websites, Facebook, Twitter, and online newspapers – and assessed their impacts on public health. The researchers identified 2,311 reports of rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories in 25 languages from 87 countries. Claims covered illness, transmission and mortality (24%), control measures (21%), treatments (19%), as well as causes of disease including the origin (15%), violence (1%), and miscellaneous (20%). Eighty-two percent of the analyzed claims were false. These findings are quite concerning because of the potentially serious health implications of misinformation fueled by rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories.

The COVID-19 Global Response Index

Foreign Policy Analytics released its COVID-19 Global Response Index, which provides an assessment of government responses to the pandemic for 36 countries. This is the first effort to “to track national leaders’ responses in critical policy areas, including public health directives, financial responses, and fact-based public communications.” Additionally, the Index tracks policy response on an ongoing basis. The Index and country profiles are based on data tracked from 31 December 2019 through 1 August 2020. The composite score of the Index contains major policy choices and actions and it reflects government decisions and actions to contain the spread of the virus and to provide financial support during the financial shock. This project was developed with expertise from social scientists, public health experts, and top epidemiologists working at the forefront of the pandemic response.

Virtual Workshop: Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is offering a virtual workshop about the airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on 26-27 August 2020. This workshop is from the Environmental Health Matters Initiative and will delve into the rapidly evolving science on the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.” The event will serve as an opportunity for interdisciplinary discussion, explanations about the basic foundational science, and clarification of terminology used differently among the relevant fields, all in relation to the state of the science on SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Register here.

Tracking Lost Healthcare Workers in COVID-19

Among the gaps in the COVID-19 information is the lack of limited availability of data regarding frontline healthcare workers and their risk of contracting the novel virus. A new article in The Lancet by Nguyen et al. assessed the risk of COVID-19 among front-line healthcare workers compared to the general public and estimated the effect of personal protective equipment (PPE) on risk. The authors conducted a prospective, observational cohort study in the United Kingdom and the United States of the general community and frontline healthcare workers using self-reported data from the COVID Symptom Study smartphone application from late March to late April 2020. They found that compared with the general population, frontline healthcare workers in the UK and the US were at higher risk for reporting a positive COVID-19 test. In the US, a joint database, Lost on the Frontline, created by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News has catalogued over 900 healthcare workers who have perished from COVID-19. The Lost on the Frontline database was created to count, verify, and memorialize every US healthcare worker – doctor, nurse, paramedic, hospital custodian, administrator, support staff – who dies during the pandemic. At present, the project has added the profiles of 167 workers to the database. The database also tracks the disparities among lost frontline workers. For instance, among those 167 profiles, the majority were people of color and nearly one-third were reported to have had inadequate PPE. Anesthesiologist Claire Rezba started tracking lost healthcare workers by tracking news reports and recent obituaries. Rezba posts memorials on her COVID-19 Physicians Memorial and, similar to the Lost on the Frontlines database, has posted 900 names of US healthcare workers who died from COVID-19. To stop the growing count of healthcare worker deaths to COVID-19, healthcare systems must ensure adequate availability of PPE and develop improved strategies to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19.

NACCHO Releases Comprehensive Survey of US Local Health Department Funding, Programs, and Partnerships

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), an organization that represents the country’s 3,000 local health departments, released its 2019 National Profile of Local Health Departments report. The report is drafted every three years as a census of local health departments regarding the “state of local health department funding, workforce programs, and partnerships, as well as how these factors have changed over time.” The latest profile includes the impacts of COVID-19 on local health departments. The key findings include: (1) workforce capacity is down, (2) resources are limited, and (3) services have been impacted by the demands of the pandemic. Read the full report here.

The Era of DNA Database Hacks is Here

Last month, GEDMatch, an online DNA database that generates DNA profiles for genetic testing services, was breached. The hackers seemed to have gotten their hands on user emails, to which they sent out phishing emails in order to steal the passwords of recipients. The motivation of the hack is not yet clear; the culprits may have been targeting passwords, emails, or credit card information, or they have been seeking access to genealogical data or genetic information. Of course, this attack has likely compromised users’ trust of in the database, a valuable law enforcement tool for solving cold cases, such as the Golden State Killer case. Even if these hackers were not specifically after genetic data, the incident highlights the risk of insufficient privacy protection and security of such sensitive information. Genetic data is “valuable if you know how to use it,” according to genealogist and genetic privacy advocate Dr. Leah Larkin. In the online world of today, companies who maintain databases containing sensitive information should improve their cybersecurity to better protect their customers.