Pandora Report: 2.21.2020

Happy Friday Biodefense Gurus! We have a packed edition of the Pandora Report this week, but before we begin – don’t forget to register and reserve your spot for the “Coronavirus & International Security” panel event this evening in Arlington, VA. The CSPS Distinguished Speaker Series event will be at 5pm and you can find more information and register here.

GMU Biodefense Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
We’re excited to announce the summer dates for the workshop: Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika. This three and a half-day workshop will be held in Arlington, VA, from July 13-16, 2020. Registration links and speaker information will be provided in the coming weeks. We hope you’ll join us for this immersive and engaging workshop with some of the top minds in the biodefense world, where we’ll discuss everything from synthetic biology to MCM, antibiotic resistance, and the current outbreak of COVID-19.

CW Use in Syria – Atrocities and Accountability 
We’ve got the scoop on a brand new article by GMU Biodefense graduate program director and professor Dr. Gregory Koblentz in Nonproliferation Review regarding Assad regime use of chemical weapons. International efforts to hold the government of President Bashar al-Assad accountable for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war have entered a new phase. For the first time, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international organization responsible for implementing the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, has been empowered to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria. The Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which was formed to conduct the OPCW’s new attribution mission, has announced its intention to investigate and identify the perpetrators of nine chemical attacks in Syria, including the April 7, 2018, attack in Douma. This article reviews recent efforts to attribute chemical attacks in Syria, describes what we know about the nine incidents to be investigated, discusses what to expect during the next phase of the attribution process, and offers insights into how the international community can move beyond attribution to accountability. An annex to the article summarizes what is known about the Syrian government officials, military commanders, and chemical-warfare scientists suspected of being responsible for these attacks. As Koblentz notes, “Without attribution, there can be no accountability. Without accountability, the atrocities will continue: if not by the hand of Assad, then by others emboldened by his ability to use outlawed weapons to hold onto power.” You can read the article here, which builds upon his previous research on Syria’s chain of command for the use of chemical weapons and international efforts to hold the regime accountable for these attacks.

Reaping What You Sow: The Case for Better Agroterrorism Preparedness
GMU Biodefense MS student Stevie Kiesel is pulling back the curtain on this all too forgotten aspect of biodefense – agroterrorism. “An attack on the food supply gives the perpetrating group several benefits. First, the psychological and economic effect of targeting food supplies would be substantial. Such an effect could have a powerful pull with a group such as al Qaeda, who has shown interest in biological weapons and in targeting US economic strength. Second, and related, this type of attack would be relatively low cost when compared to the economic effects it could cause. Third, similar to other forms of terrorism, agroterrorism can allow a weaker group to lessen the power imbalance between themselves and the state they are targeting. Fourth, some groups may turn to agroterrorist tactics because these attacks ‘do not harm humans directly and may therefore be more easily justified’.” Read more of Stevie’s highly engaging and relevant article here.

SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 Outbreak Updates
As of Thursday evening, there have been 76,214 cases and 2,247 deaths related to COVID-19. From the realm of synthetic biology, many are rushing to recreate SARS-CoV-2 from its DNA code. Since it only took a few weeks to get the genetic sequence of the virus, many researchers are hoping to start ordering copies of genes to build it for efforts like diagnostic testing and vaccine development. On another front, one of the biggest topics has been that of cruise ships…One in particular, the MS Westerdam, finally docked and passengers/crew disembarked in Cambodia. Unfortunately, following the release of passengers, one was later found to have the disease, which has prompted concern as people have begun their travels home. The other, the Diamond Princess ship, finally saw its passengers allowed to leave the controversial ship-based quarantine. 621 (20% of the people onboard) of those on the ship tested positive for the virus. “Those passengers who have been declared free of the virus and are leaving the ship for the first time in two weeks face a confusing array of circumstances. Many will be forced to undergo a 14-day quarantine upon their return home — reflecting a lack of trust in the effectiveness of the ship’s quarantine. Others can remain in Japan under their own recognizance but are still barred from returning home for two weeks.” Here is a good timeline of the outbreak onboard and how the ship was initially placed into quarantine on February 4th after 10 people onboard tested positive. Passengers being flown back to the U.S. have been sharing their account of the experience, but as these two cruise ships provide unique examples of outbreak response, it sheds light on the limitations of quarantine and challenges of public health efforts during the COVID-19 outbreak. “Based on what is known so far, Cambodia’s approach is preferable to quarantining people aboard a ship where the virus is spreading, said Saskia V. Popescu, GMU Biodefense alum and senior infection prevention epidemiologist for HonorHealth, a hospital system in Phoenix. But that requires educating passengers about reporting symptoms and self-isolating if necessary, and having public health authorities in home countries closely monitor those who have returned. It includes quickly tracing the contacts of anyone who develops the infection. ‘I think we can say if you’re going to quarantine people, doing it on a cruise ship is not the best place,’ Popescu said.” In the face of these exhaustive efforts to respond to the disease, conspiracy theories have been a frustrating distraction – Chinese labs have noted that these often hurt efforts to curb the virus and scientists around the world have been working to condemn rumors and conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the virus. “A group of 27 prominent public health scientists from outside China is pushing back against a steady stream of stories and even a scientific paper suggesting a laboratory in Wuhan, China, may be the origin of the outbreak of COVID-19.” Senator Tom Cotton continues to push such conspiracy theories. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has a new initiative regarding the outbreak, known as the Coronavirus Project. The project focuses on debunking misinformation and providing accurate information from qualified researchers and scientists. “Since late 2019, information about the infectious Coronavirus has been trickling out from sources around the web. But not all information is created equal. Some of this information comes from science and medical professionals, who have years of experience in epidemiology. Some comes from unreliable anonymous internet accounts, bad actors, and hoaxers.” Despite these distractions, a paper in The Lancet recently emphasized the support for scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals in China combatting the disease. “We have watched as the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China, in particular, have worked diligently and effectively to rapidly identify the pathogen behind this outbreak, put in place significant measures to reduce its impact, and share their results transparently with the global health community. This effort has been remarkable.” In times like these, the global health security community truly comes together to address common vulnerabilities and enhance strengths.

The Economic Impacts of COVID-19
The ongoing outbreak of coronavirus has already infected over 75,000 people and taken over 2,000 lives. The newly dubbed COVID-19 outbreak originated and remains strongest in China, but the economic effects of the it is already rippling across the globe. As an outbreak disseminates and intensifies, the labor force shrinks (at least temporarily), supply chains fracture, international mobility of persons and products decelerates or ceases altogether, and spending and investment decline. Though the full magnitude of economic effects from the outbreak can only be speculated upon at this point, the downward economic trends have begun. The sectors most impacted and at highest risk, thus far, are technology, oil, apparel, retail, tourism, and automobiles. The losses in production from Chinese manufacturing of key inputs and final products are critical drivers of the losses we are seeing and will continue to see across the globe. These items include iron, steel, aluminum, textiles, cement, chemicals, toys, electronics, and many more. According to the latest Statista Infographics Bulletin, global shipments of various tech products are expected to fall by 4.5 to 16% in this first quarter of the year. China is the world’s primary producer and exporter of textiles, so the fall in Chinese textile production will impact the global apparel and retail markets. Global oil demand is falling for the first time in over a decade as global transit drops from diminished trade and travel. Travel bans are, of course, squelching international tourism and costing travel hot spots to lose revenue. This is compounded as major events that attract troves of visitors are cancelled in response to COVID-19 fears. For instance, projections from the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization expect Japan to lose $1.3 billion and Thailand to lose $1.2 billion in tourism revenue just in this first quarter. Due to the travel bans and the general disinclination to travel at the moment, US tourism from Chinese visitors will take a compounding hit in addition to the losses from the ongoing trade war with China. Relatedly, global airline revenues are predicted to drop by $4-5 billion in the first quarter of 2020 due to flight cancellations. Automobile makers are closing plants in China as the much-needed inputs such as steel and aluminum are shrinking the availability of parts. As ground zero, China is suffering the most so far. China’s growth rate is expected to drop from 6% to 4.5% in the first quarter of 2020. As the infection sweeps through the Chinese labor force, factories are shutting down or lowering output capacity, slowing the flow of parts and final products from China. Virtually all countries are and will be impacted by the break in the supply chain as a result of reduced output from China. The absence of a single small component may render a final product unachievable.  As supply falters across various sectors and products reliant on Chinese manufacturing, we should anticipate a rise in those prices. On the other hand, China is one of the largest markets for US products, especially Apple electronics and fashion items, so we should anticipate a significant decline in demand from that large consumer base as spending shrinks among the Chinese population. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in China in 2003 provides a rough analogue on which to base predictions of the economic impacts of COVID-19. Virulence was highest from November 2002 to July 2003, and that nine month period was all the time needed for the disease to infect almost  8,500 people and kill over 800 people globally. Lee and McKibbin estimate the total economic cost of the 2003 SARS epidemic to be around $40 billion. The geographic dissemination of COVID-19 is currently akin to that of 2003 SARS with cases concentrated in China and small clusters popping up in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. The COVID-19 mortality rate is much lower at 2% versus 10%; however, the total number of coronavirus cases after just a couple months greatly surpasses the total case count for SARS at over 75,000. Though the loss of life may, thankfully, be much less severe with COVID-19, the adverse economic impacts of this outbreak may greatly surpass that of SARS. In 2020, we are more of a global economy than in 2003 and supply chains for a cornucopia of products are spread across nations and even continents, so a kink in one place catalyzes a domino effect across borders and industries. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight for COVID-19 as we approach March; therefore, the hits to the global economy will continue to spread across sectors and countries, as well as grow in severity. Only time will tell the full scale and spectrum of adverse economic effects instigated by COVID-19.

The 2021 Nuclear Weapons National Security Budget Proposal
The 2021 budget proposal exemplifies the continuing shift in the US nuclear posture toward a renewed nuclear arms race. This month, President Trump sent Congress a proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget request of $740.5 billion for national security, 95% of which is for the Department of Defense. The clear priority of the proposed budget is the expansion of investment in and capabilities of US nuclear weapons. The proposal requests almost $29 billion, a 16% increase from the previous year, for the modernization of the US nuclear weapons arsenal. In addition to the $29 billion for modernization, the proposal includes other related items that would bring the total nuclear weapons budget to about $50 billion. The bump in nuclear weapons investment comes at the cost of shrinking most other security and defense programs. This should come as no surprise given Trump’s proclivity for nuclear strength as evidence by his late 2016 tweet, “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Despite recommendations that DOD dedicate more resources on challenges from strategic rivals, namely China and Russia, the proposal outlines cuts to such programs. For example, the Navy is preparing for a significant reduction in funding for new warships. Lawrence J Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Logistics and Materiel Readiness, recommends that the administration extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the Russians and resume negotiations. This would renew efforts toward reducing nuclear arsenals and enable the allocation of limited resources to programs that make our country and the world safer.

GAO Report – National Biodefense Strategy
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a new report – “National Biodefense Strategy: Additional Efforts Would Enhance Likelihood of Effective Information”. You can access it here, but the report notes that “There are a number of challenges, however, that could limit long-term implementation success. Among other things, there was no documented methodology or guidance for how data are to be analyzed to help the enterprise identify gaps and opportunities to leverage resources, including no guidance on how nonfederal capabilities are to be accounted for in the analysis. Many of the resources that compose national capabilities are not federal, so enterprise-wide assessment efforts should account for nonfederal capabilities.” Moreover, the report points out that agency officials struggled to identify how decisions were made and there generally lacked a clear process or series of roles for joint-decision making, “As a result, questions remain about how this first-year effort to catalogue all existing activities will result in a decision-making approach that involves jointly defining and managing risk at the enterprise level.”

Pandemics and Podcasts
There are a lot of great podcasts in the infectious disease and biodefense world, so we’ll be spotlighting a few from time to time. Our first is the Next Generation GHS episode from last week, in which GMU Biodefense MS alum Jessica Smrekar sat down to discuss COVID-19. You can listen to it here. Jessica noted that “It was great sitting down with Jono and Taylor to hash out this rapidly developing COVD-19 outbreak in light of Jono’s book, The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity and How To Stop It. We discussed at length the weak links in local, national, and international health structures that leave us vulnerable to disease outbreaks and how we can remedy these in the future. Jono’s book outlines 7 specific actions that, if taken, could reduce these gaps and allow us to create a safer world. We explored the problems we face in developing strong, resilient health systems and how these actions work to solve those problems. Though the COVID-19 outbreak really highlights that we are not where we should be to keep our world safe, Jono expressed ‘the NextGen Group and your leadership and the fact we have such a mobilized network worldwide makes me optimistic. I think we’re building a really powerful network, both internationally and at the national level. And it’s that network of capable, informed, engaged people, who really do care about having a safer world, I think that’s what makes me feel optimistic’.”

News of the Weird
Video games and outbreaks – apparently they go hand in hand. Virus games are growing in popularity right now, in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak, especially that of Plague, Inc. “Plague Inc. and Pandemic may have a certain morbid appeal in the time of the coronavirus. But they have more than that to offer, many experts and players agree. ‘I can certainly understand the hesitation around this — no one wants to trivialize the very real human suffering that this coronavirus has brought with it,’ said Leacock, Pandemic’s creator. ‘But the reality is that playing helps us process the world around us, and people may be turning to these games now for that reason’.”

Outbreak Dashboard 
Qatar has reported a new MERS-CoV case, marking the fourth case since December. The DRC outbreak of Ebola has now reached 3,443 cases with over 330 suspected cases under investigation.

Reaping What You Sow: The Case for Better Agroterrorism Preparedness

By Stevie Kiesel, MS

For years, interest groups, academics, and policymakers have sounded the alarm on the vulnerability of U.S. crops to a terrorist attack. This article briefly reviews the history, risks, and consequences of agroterrorism attacks targeting crop yields and suggests how the recently established DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office could play a role in countering this threat.

Infecting a plant with disease is not always a technically challenging operation, and there are examples of this throughout history. In Alabama in the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan poisoned black Muslim farmers’ water supplies for their cattle. Also, in the U.S., in 1989 a group calling themselves The Breeders spread medflies (an invasive species of fruit fly that has destructive effects on 22 different crops grown in California) in the Los Angeles area to protest aerial pesticide practices. Although medfly infestations are not abnormal in California, the numbers and patterns of this particular infestation raised red flags. Law enforcement also received several letters signed by The Breeders claiming responsibility for the medflies’ intentional release. A few months later, California stopped its aerial pesticide program. Elsewhere in the world, in 1978 the Arab Revolutionary Council poisoned citruses that were being exported from Israel to Europe with liquid mercury as a means of harming Israel’s economy. In 1997, Israel sprayed a chemical on grapevines in Palestinian territory, destroying hundreds of vines and nearly 17,000 metric tons of grapes.

Continue reading “Reaping What You Sow: The Case for Better Agroterrorism Preparedness”

Pandora Report: 2.14.2020

To our amazing readers, we hope you’re having a lovely Friday and a happy Valentine’s Day! Did you know the CDC estimates that every year in the United States, more than 300,000 people cope with Trypanosoma cruzi infections (Chagas disease) due to those pesky kissing bugs.

The Coronavirus and Its International Ramifications
Don’t miss this February 21st event at GMU’s Van Metre Hall in Arlington, VA at 5pm -The CSPS Distinguished Speaker Series Presents: Coronavirus & International Security featuring: Steve Morrison, Ashely Grant, and Ketian Zhang. Join CSPS for a panel discussion on the broad implications of the coronavirus crisis, the role of the international community in global health management, and the implications for China, US-China relations, and East Asian security. The panel will be moderated by Ellen Laipson, CSPS Director. The event is free to the public but please register here to reserve your spot.

2019-nCoV/COVID-19 Outbreak Updates
The outbreak of COVID-19 has been quite the whirlwind so far. Case counts are changing so rapidly, that on Wednesday evening, over 60,000 cases were reported and by Thursday, it was well over 64,000. In quite possibly some of the worst timing, the HHS Budget in Brief was released this week, which revealed proposed funding cuts to CDC’s Public Health Preparedness and Response program by $25 million, as well as ASPR’s Hospital Preparedness Program. The CDC’s Global Health Security efforts might get an extra $50 million, which might not feel like much as their Emerging Zoonotic Infectious Disease programs and funding for the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity program are taking a huge hit.  While many were concerned about the rapid spike in cases as China sacked a senior city health official, the rise was due to a change in reporting definition, which was broadened to account for those without lab confirmation but meeting clinical definition. The United States now has 14 confirmed cases. The second case of the novel coronavirus among the U.S. evacuees from Wuhan, China, was also confirmed on Wednesday in the San Diego quarantine site. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the naming of the disease – COVID-19. The virus, previously known as 2019-nCoV, will be referred to as SARS-CoV-2 per the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, meaning that SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness/disease in humans. The role of healthcare transmission has been increasingly brought up, as roughly 500 healthcare workers were diagnosed by mid-January in Wuhan. The JAMA study recently released found that 41% of the 138 hospitalized cases they studied in Wuhan, were related to healthcare transmission. As the world struggles with personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, the CDC has provided guidance to hospitals regarding the shortages that impact healthcare worker safety. GMU Biodefense doctoral alum Saskia Popescu recently wrote on the U.S. healthcare system’s readiness during this time – “For hospital officials, preparing for cases of coronavirus infection means not only ensuring they have adequate supplies, but also the right processes put in place for the rapid identification and isolation of potential patients—which can be challenging during a patient surge.” More concerning, the CDC announced that their rollout of the COVID-19 diagnostic tests will be delayed across the U.S. Also, the cruise ship that has been quarantined for what’s felt like weeks now is finally being allowed to dock and its passengers to disembark in Cambodia.

Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense- Next Evolution: Overhauling Key Elements of Biodefense 
The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense is hosting this March 18, 2020 event “to inform our continuing assessment of biodefense programs with structural challenges that impede the government’s ability to safeguard the Nation. Topics to be discussed at this meeting include the: Select Agent Programs, BioWatch Program, and Hospital Preparedness Program.” RSVP here by March 13. Registration is required and attendance is free. This event will also be webcast (registration for webcast is encouraged). Lunch and refreshments will be provided. WEBCAST WILL GO LIVE just before 10:00 a.m. on March 18.

News of the Weird
Have you ever wondered what an authentic plague mask looked like? Now you can get a glimpse via the German Museum of Medical History as they are showing off a 16th century plague doctor mask here. “The mask had glass openings in the eyes and a curved beak shaped like a bird’s beak with straps that held the beak in front of the doctor’s nose. The mask had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator which contained aromatic items. The beak could hold dried flowers (including roses and carnations), herbs (including mint), spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge. The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells, known as miasma, which were thought to be the principal cause of the disease, before it was disproved by germ theory.”

Center for Health Security Announces New ELBI Fellows
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has announced the new class of fellows for the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI).  “As the current novel coronavirus epidemic shows, preparing for and responding to biological threats requires talented people from a range of fields working together to take on many complicated challenges,” said Tom Inglesby, MD, director of the Center. “Our 2020 Emerging Leaders fellows are the rising leaders who will be part of preparing for and responding to biological threats in our future, and we are very excited to work with them in the year ahead.”

“The Present and Future Promise of Synthetic Biology” at CSIS
Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) launched its Synthetic Biology: The Ongoing Technology Revolution Series with an inaugural forum. The speakers included Dr. Diane DiEuliis, Senior Research Fellow at National Defense University; Dr. Gigi Gronvall, Senior Scholar and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; and Dr. Jason Kelly, Founder of Ginkgo Bioworks. Synthetic biology, SynBio for short, encompasses the concepts, methods, and tools that enable the creation or modification of biological organisms; it traverses the fields of biology, chemistry, engineering, and computer science. Several emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and CRISPR, along with emerging technology companies, such as SynLogic and Evolva, were discussed as boons for a variety of sectors. Further, the exponential improvement in computers, especially in programming, bolsters other technologies and efficiencies in the field. SynBio is growing for industrial, military, personal, and amateur uses. The methods by which a variety of products – medicines, tires, makeup, and more – are made is updating to use more efficient and less extractive means thanks to these tools. Some defense specific technologies mentioned were the LALO tactical boot made from Susterra propanediol, BioBricks made from algae, and structural composite materials derived from a polymer resin matrix. Personalized medicine, such as CAR-T cell therapy cancer treatment, caters to the specific and unique set of characteristics of a patient and her/his health needs. There are a number of advantages to SynBio, but the risks cannot be ignored. As these tools and methods become more available and accessible to more people and groups, the risk of dual-use research of concern (DURC) swells. Specifically, we now must recognize that the misuse and abuse of emerging technologies is no longer limited to states and large groups as DIY biology enables virtually any individual capable of creating or modifying an organism. The sticky situation created by DURC is the continued and encouraged advancement of synthetic biology while also discontinuing and discouraging its misuse and abuse. But, how do we quantify the benefits versus the risks of a new or improved technology? And, by whom? These are questions with currently elusive answers; however, the field of SynBio will not slow so that policy can catch up. There exist some barriers and bottlenecks to the safe and appropriate use of the outputs of SynBio. There is often some level of strategic confusion around a new output, especially given that lack of a one-to-one replacement of old for new. This means that a new technology may not comprehensively replace an old one. Relatedly, best practices are yet to arise and a set of international standards and norms remains unclear. Additionally, the bioeconomy remains largely unmeasured, leaderless, and underappreciated in risk assessment and mitigation. The lack of regulatory standards for any new and incomparable product or process can cripple its advancement and adoption, a current problem for SynBio as well as the bioeconomy in general. On the bright side, there are solutions to these barriers and bottlenecks. Investments in early stage R&D for cutting-edge programming, like that for the Human Genome Project, would provide widespread support to new biotechnologies. Of the same vein, we should target investment in particularly promising innovations like advanced materials and distributed manufacturing. Most importantly, expanding the openness in the life sciences as a whole will gain us more in security than we will lose. A recording of the forum can be accessed here.

2019-2020 Flu Season: CDC Preliminary Burden Estimate
While much attention has been to COVID-19, the CDC just released their preliminary estimate for this flu season and it’s no wonder hospitals are feeling overwhelmed. 22-31 million flu illnesses, 10-15 million flu medical visits, between 210,000-370,000 flu hospitalizations, and 12,000-30,000 flu-related deaths. This data provides a good reminder for why vaccination is so important and basic infection control measures -hand hygiene, staying home when you’re sick, cough etiquette, etc.

Rogue Scientists and Deadly Pathogens?
It’s not surprising that the current COVID-19 outbreak is bringing about questions related to synbio and screening gaps that leave potentially damning vulnerabilities. What would happen if you asked a lab to send you the genetic code to the influenza strain that caused the 1918/1919 pandemic? “What if I sent them the instructions for a new disease that I have reason to believe is dangerous? What if I was doing legitimate research, but my lab didn’t adhere to modern safety standards? The answer is that a few DNA synthesis companies will send me what I asked for, with no screening to check whether they’re sending out a pathogen that ought to be carefully controlled. (Synthetic DNA is not a live virus, of course; I’d have to be a talented biologist with specialized knowledge, lots of resources, and access to expensive tools to use it maliciously.)” Screening though, presents its own challenges as DNA is a dual-use technology and tool, and we have existing policies set in place to avoid potentially dangerous events. “So new screening — and new regulations backing the international use of that screening — is needed. The aim of a new screening regime should be to ensure that requests for DNA are checked to determine whether they contain prohibited, dangerous sequences, without adding too much to the expense of screening and without slowing down legitimate researchers, who should be able to access DNA for their projects cheaply and quickly.”

Pandora Report: 2.7.2020

ASM Biothreats – Full Coverage
It’s our favorite time of year – sharing detailed summaries of some of the top discussions, presentations, and panels from the 2020 ASM Biothreats conference. Check out the landing page here, which will give you an overview of our GMU Biodefense students who attended and brief descriptions and links to their work. Since this conference took place as the 2019-nCoV outbreak was growing into a PHEIC, these talks are very timely and critical to response and future preparedness efforts. From diagnostic innovations to MSF efforts during outbreaks, this was one of the best years yet – we also have coverage of NIAID Director Dr. Fauci’s talk on coronavirus infections. Don’t miss out on our detailed review of this wonderful conference.

2019-nCoV Outbreak Updates: From Quarantine to PPE Supply Chain Concerns 
It seems like every day is overloaded with new information about the 2019-nCoV outbreak. The rapid pace of information has helped in some ways but hurt in others – from those acting as experts to hastily published papers that grabbed headlines but were fundamentally flawed. Over 50,000 flights to China have been cancelled amid fear of the outbreak and the U.S. is still employing travel bans. Late Thursday, the CDC announced that it would be distributing testing kits to help expand laboratory capacity. “Initially, about 200 test kits will be distributed to U.S. domestic laboratories and a similar amount will be distributed to select international laboratories. Each test kit can test approximately 700 to 800 patient specimens.” The latest case counts are changing frequently, but as of Thursday evening there were 30,818  confirmed. 11 cases have been identified in the United States, fueling concern regarding PPE and other healthcare supplies. Maryn McKenna recently spoke to these issues as mask shortages could potentially spread globally, especially since most of the world’s supply come from China. “95 percent of the surgical masks used in the US and 70 percent of the respirators—thicker, tight-fitting masks that offer better protection against viruses—are made overseas. That leaves the mask supply vulnerable to labor disruption if a pandemic sickens manufacturing workers, as well as to flat-out diversion if a government decides to keep its own stock at home. ‘This is 100 percent a vulnerability,’ says Saskia Popescu, a biosecurity expert who is the senior infection-prevention epidemiologist in an Arizona hospital system. ‘Personal protective equipment is always going to be a problem when there is an outbreak of something novel, because public health guidance will be unclear at first and there will be a run on supplies. Masks being made offshore is one more stress on the system’.” The FDA announced on February 4th that they had issued “an emergency use authorization (EUA) to enable emergency use of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2019-nCoV Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel. To date, this test has been limited to use at CDC laboratories; today’s authorization allows the use of the test at any CDC-qualified lab across the country.” As cases grow, small clusters challenging public health efforts have sprung up, like a cruise ship being held in Yokohama as Japanese health authorities screen and quarantine passengers following the confirmation that ten people aboard have the disease. China has also been sending in spray trucks of bleach to help the outbreak, which has baffled many. “The truth is that coronaviruses have really poor survivability on surfaces,” Saskia Popescu, a senior infection prevention epidemiologist who works at a Phoenix-based healthcare system, told Insider. “This is an organism that is generally spread through respiratory droplets. So that cough, that sneeze, and yes, your hands can get contaminated and then you touch your eyes, your mouth, and things like that.” She said the widespread use of disinfectants like bleach which is what was being used in truck sprayers in at least one Chinese city, Yichang, according to a local report is “a little over the top.” The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense will be hosting a February 10th even – Containing the Coronavirus: Challenges to Thwarting the Outbreak, from 1:30pm- 3:30pm and can be attended in person or via webcast. “Panel participants will offer their perspectives on the role of the federal government in managing the crisis, the lack of transparency by the Communist Chinese Government, implications for U.S national security, and how the country can better prepare for when the next pandemic strikes.”

Bioweapons, Secret Labs, and the CIA: Pro-Kremlin Actors Blame the US for Coronavirus Outbreak
As the 2019-nCov outbreak rages and experts around the world work to identify its causes and quell its spread, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL) reports that pro-Kremlin actors are blaming the United States of America for this expanding public health emergency. Specifically, these actors purport that the US employed bioweapons to disseminate the virus in China; however, this theory is, unsurprisingly, gaining little traction. Russia and its fringe members possess a history of wielding disinformation as a tactic against the US. For example, in 1983, Russia launched Operation Infektion, which falsely claimed that the AIDS virus was developed in a clandestine US bioweapons laboratory. Related theories continue to pop up from various Russia-based outlets as well as Russian YouTube channels with tales that the US designed the virus with the intent of sabotaging China’s economy from within its borders. These narratives implicate supposed US bioweapons programs, the CIA, and the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi as the origins of the fictitious nefarious plot. Regardless of the spuriousness of these claims, this latest disinformation campaign serves as a strong “reminder of Russia’s long history of employing anti-U.S. influence operations during public health crises.”

Event Summary: Battling Insecurity, Mistrust, and Disease
GMU Biodefense PhD student Greg Witt recently attended an event hosted by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and is providing us with a detailed account of the critical conversations on battling insecurity. The event was a follow-on to a series of technical workshops hosted by NTI and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) as part of the Initiative to Strengthen Biosecurity and Biosafety, which aims to resolve safety and security gaps related to biological threats in Africa. Opening remarks were delivered by NTI Co-Chair and Chief Executive Officer Ernest Moniz, who highlighted the complex, intertwined relationship between conflict and infectious disease and the consequent risks this connection poses to international and health security in Sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Moniz described a tabletop exercise conducted by NTI and partner institutions as part of the 2019 Munich Security Conference, in which a fictional country in the midst of domestic unrest experienced a deliberate terrorist attack utilizing a highly-lethal biological agent. The results of this simulation were, in his words, “eye-opening, and not in a good way.” Read his full summary here.

One Health Advocacy: Education and Policy in Action – Webinar
Join the International Student One Health Alliance as we learn from Drs. Deborah Thomson and George Lueddeke about advocating for One Health through education and policy. Deborah Thomson, DVM is from the United States and is a One Health curriculum developer and the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Congressional Science and Engineering Policy Fellow. Her presentation will be “Non-Traditional One Health in Action.” This event will be held from 9am ET on Sunday, February 9th. You can register here.

Outbreak Updates
There has been one additional case of Ebola in the DRC in recent days. The outbreak has now infected 3,427 people. The CDC has released Week 4 flu data (ending January 25), with a large number of states experiencing high influenza-like illness activity. “Visits to healthcare providers for influenza-like illness (ILI) increased from 5.1% last week to 5.7% this week.”

ASM Biothreats 2020

We’re the source for all things health security and the annual ASM Biothreats conference is no different. GMU’s biodefense program was fortunate to send several students to attend the 2020 ASM Biothreats conference in which topics ranged from diagnostics to technology as a source for biothreats. Held in Arlington, Virginia on January 28-30, this was an exciting event highlighting the importance of conversations surrounding high consequence pathogen research, biological threat reduction, and product development and policy. Our student attendees have reported back on some of the enlightening and captivating sessions during the biothreat event. Below you’ll find several commentaries from each student who attended:

Joseph DeFranco is a Scholar Fellow of the Defense Operational Cognitive Sciences section of the Strategic Multilayer Assessment Branch, Joint Staff, Pentagon. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in biodefense at the Schar School of Policy and Government of George Mason University, and working toward a Ph.D. in War Studies at Kings College, London, with emphasis upon biosecurity and neuroscience. His current research focuses on possible uses of novel microbiological agents, neurotechnologies, and ancillary science and technology as force-multiplying elements in non-kinetic, hybrid, and kinetic engagements; and the role of international agencies and policies in global biosecurity. At ASM, Joseph attended the Innovations in Biothreat Detection Over the past several decades, the United States and the international community have dramatically improved their abilities to identify, respond, mitigate, and manage public health emergencies. Yet, there are demands to strengthen the prevention, protection, and treatment of individuals that may be exposed to dangerous pathogens, such as high-confidence & autonomous biological sensors. These technologies must be able to scan an area or environment, identify specific agents, and quickly inform stakeholders of an event. These sessions examined the recent advancements in rapid, confident, and fieldable biological threat agent – or biothreat – detection. ” Joseph also attended Dr. Fauci’s talk Coronavirus Infections: More Than Just A Common Cold– “Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), spoke at the ASM Biothreats meeting about the advent of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Although scientists first characterized the human coronaviruses (CoV) in the 1960s, CoVs rarely received international attention. Then, in 2002, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a new disease, caused worldwide panic and consternation as the virus spread quickly from China to the rest of the world.”

Maddie Roty is a first-year graduate student in the Biodefense Master’s program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. She earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing from the University of Michigan in 2019 and is a registered nurse in the state of Virginia. Her interests include the impact of violence on health, the role of culture on social structures and decision-making, public education, and health preparedness. At ASM, Maddie attended International Collaboration Without Complications and Confusion, noting that it “emphasized the complexity of promoting and protecting biological research and innovation in today’s society. The four speakers featured on the panel discussed what exists now and what still needs to be done to strike a balance between promoting and protecting biotechnology, with attention given specifically to export controls, synthetic biology, the select agent program, and biosecurity.” Maddie also attended The Doctors Without Borders Experience: Patients as People and not Biohazards, finding that “For its relevance, Benoit did make a point to address MSF’s response to the emerging coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately, most of the need is in China, and China has traditionally been resistant to accepting assistance from independent actors. MSF is standing by and continuing to assess for situations in which it could help provide care or supplies.”

Michael Krug is a second-year graduate student in the Biodefense Master’s program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry from Virginia Tech and worked for several years in the biotechnology industry, accruing experience in the fields of molecular biology, drug development, and emerging technologies. His research interests incorporate national security and emerging dual-use technologies, specifically, synthetic biology and genome-editing. He expects to graduate in the spring semester of 2020 and plans to pursue a career in biosafety and biosecurity. Attending From Surveillance to Bedside: Tools for the Next Outbreak, he found that “As new emerging diseases continue challenging global health response, it is imperative that these technologies continue to be developed, tested, and licensed for global use. This session, moderated by Dr. Vineet Menachery of the University of Texas Medical Branch and Dr. Kari Debbink of Bowie State University, touched on cutting edge research for the response to the next emerging infectious disease.” Michael also attended Smallpox: Development and Use of the Panoply of Countermeasures in the Armamentariumnoting that “Variola virus research can often be stigmatized since the disease was eradicated in 1980; however, the risk of potential bioterrorism, even after eradication, supports continued research, especially for the session participants mentioned above. Additionally, as viruses become cheaper and easier to synthesize from scratch, this research could be used at the frontlines against a nefarious release of synthesized variola virus.”

From Surveillance to Bedside: Tools for the Next Outbreak

By Michael Krug

The recent emergence of the novel Coronavirus (nCoV) hdemonstrates an essential demand for tools to rapidly respond to infectious diseases. These tools range from improved disease surveillance to therapeutics that mitigate infection spread. As new emerging diseases continue challenging global health response, it is imperative that these technologies continue to be developed, tested, and licensed for global use. This session, moderated by Dr. Vineet Menachery of the University of Texas Medical Branch and Dr. Kari Debbink of Bowie State University, touched on cutting edge research for the response to the next emerging infectious disease.

First to present was Dr. Amy Hartman from the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Hartman’s presentation was titled In Utero: Transmission of Rift Valley Fever Virus: Ramifications for Future Outbreaks. The takeaway of Dr. Hartman’s presentation revolved around the use of animal models to better understand vaccine and therapeutic effectiveness. One of the projects investigating viable models involved using Rift Valley Fever Virus (RVFV), a select agent and priority disease declared by WHO, to test for vertical transmission of the disease in pregnant women. Limited human outbreak data suggest that vertical transmission of RVFV to a developing human fetus can lead to detrimental outcomes. In order to complete this study, a tested and validated animal model was needed, a difficult task to achieve given the human fetal tissue bans. Using immunocompetent Sprague-Dawley rats infected with a pathogenic strain of RVFV, Dr. Hartman’s lab demonstrated direct vertical transmission, which included fetal death. Additionally, the lab used donated placental explants to show RVFV replication in human cells that are typically resistant to viral infection. With the in vivo model and human placental cell evidence, Dr. Hartman’s lab demonstrated RVFV replication in the human placenta cells, as well as vertical transmission of RVFV in a novel animal model. Continue reading “From Surveillance to Bedside: Tools for the Next Outbreak”

Smallpox: Development and Use of the Panoply of Countermeasures in the Armamentarium

By Michael Krug

Smallpox remains one of the most devastating biothreats known to mankind. The reemergence of the variola virus, a member of the orthopoxvirus genus, could result in a catastrophic loss of life worldwide due to high transmissibility and high mortality rates, in combination with a relatively immunologically naive human population. The development of a safer and better tolerated vaccine would greatly ease the threat of a smallpox reemergence. The development of a new medical countermeasure (MCM) is easier said than done. The absence of the disease makes research and development a very difficult task. This session, moderated by BARDA’s Michael Merchlinsky, sought to provide detail into some of the recent breakthroughs throughout the orthopoxvirus field.

The first presenter of this session was Dr. Paul Chaplin of Bavarian Nordic. His presentation, titled The Approval of JYNNEOS, an Attenuated MVA-Based Vaccine for the Prevention of Smallpox and Monkeypox Infections, provided detail on the progression of developing an MCM without the luxury of working with the disease. Due to the harsh complications, especially to high risk individuals, that the traditional smallpox vaccines could cause, the U.S. government sought to develop a safer vaccine. In 2018, after nearly 15 years of public-private partnership efforts between BARDA and Bavarian Nordic, the U.S. FDA approved JYNNEOS for prevention of smallpox and monkeypox. The vaccine is a further attenuated version of the Modified Vaccinia Ankara (MVA) virus. JYNNEOS is unique because it is the first non-replicating smallpox vaccine to hit the market, greatly diminishing potential complications caused by replicating vaccines. When compared to the ACAM 2000, JYNNEOS stimulated an almost two-fold increase in antibody titer. Additionally, with greater than 10,500 clinical subjects, JYNNEOS has been proven to be safe and well tolerated, with no signs of clinical adverse side effects. JYNNEOS’s name was derived from Edward Jenner, the developer of the original smallpox vaccination process, known as scarification, and NEOS meaning new in Latin. Continue reading “Smallpox: Development and Use of the Panoply of Countermeasures in the Armamentarium”

Event Summary: Battling Insecurity, Mistrust, and Disease

By Greg Witt, GMU Biodefense PhD student

Since at least the fifth century BCE, when the Plague of Athens contributed to the outcome of the Peloponnesian War, states have recognized the detrimental effect that infectious diseases can have on their stability and security. In the modern era, as the focus of governments shifted from traditional concerns about national security to encompass new threats to economic prosperity, access to food, and public health – collectively known as “human security” – efforts to combat the risks posed by disease have been given an even higher priority. Nowhere is this connection more central than in the burgeoning field of health security, defined by the World Health Organization as “…the activities required to minimize the danger and impact of acute public health events.” However, just as the burdens imposed on societies by disease pose a threat to the security of states and populations, the inverse is equally true: insecurity tends to exacerbate the harmful effects of disease by displacing vulnerable people, impeding access to medical care, and breeding mistrust against government institutions. This can lead to a vicious cycle in which intrastate conflict reduces the capacity of states to respond to public health crises, which in turn makes it harder to prevent further violence. Continue reading “Event Summary: Battling Insecurity, Mistrust, and Disease”

Innovations in Biothreat Detection

By Joseph DeFranco

On 30 January 2020, Drs. David Walsh  from MIT Lincoln Lab, Timothy M. Reed from the 20th CBRNE CARA Lab, and Phillip M. Mach from the CCDC Chemical Biological Center, presented on their team’s innovations in biological threat agent detection.

Over the past several decades, the United States and the international community have dramatically improved their abilities to identify, respond, mitigate, and manage public health emergencies. Yet, there are demands to strengthen the prevention, protection, and treatment of individuals that may be exposed to dangerous pathogens, such as high-confidence & autonomous biological sensors. These technologies must be able to scan an area or environment, identify specific agents, and quickly inform stakeholders of an event. These sessions examined the recent advancements in rapid, confident, and fieldable biological threat agent – or biothreat – detection.

Dr. Walsh’s team works on biothreat detection research to overcome both the technical challenges (e.g., limits of detection) and operational challenges (e.g., availability of the device). These obstacles are compounded by the real-world environments in which these devices must be deployed versus the more controlled environments often found in hospitals or research institutions. Dr. Walsh’s team strives to create the “ideal” biosensor that would be sensitive to specific species, quick, reliable, and adaptable to environmental parameters. They are currently testing a rapid, autonomous device that performs sample collection, sample preparation, and biological identification.  A microcompactor condenses the surrounding air toward an impaction surface that collects the aerosols in the environment. Then, the device spins the raw sample from the impaction surface into a testable sample. Finally, the purified sample is amplified and analyzed by a relatively new method of detection called Extreme PCR (xPCR). Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique that scientists use to increase the amount of DNA from a sample, a process that usually takes an hour or longer. PCR requires repetitive heating and cooling to denature the original DNA strands, anneal the primer to the target sequence, and synthesize new DNA strands. xPCR uses state-of-the-art technology to accelerate the heating and cooling aspects of the assay and can detect the presence of DNA within minutes. Continue reading “Innovations in Biothreat Detection”

Symposium on “International Collaboration without Complications and Confusion”

By Madeline Roty

The symposium “International Collaboration without Complications and Confusion” at the ASM Biothreats Conference emphasized the complexity of promoting and protecting biological research and innovation in today’s society. The four speakers featured on the panel discussed what exists now and what still needs to be done to strike a balance between promoting and protecting biotechnology, with attention given specifically to export controls, synthetic biology, the select agent program, and biosecurity.

Kimberly Orr, from the Bureau of Industry and Security in the Department of Commerce opened the symposium with a discussion on “Deemed Exports: Sharing Technology or Material with Foreign Collaborators.” When it comes to biotechnology, how do you know if the Department of Commerce needs to be involved? The 2018 Export Control Reform Act (ECRA), codified by the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) establishes regulations on the export, reexport, or transfer of emerging and foundational technologies, including to foreign nationals located in the United States. Orr defined terms and briefly discussed the provisions of the ECRA. The key takeaway from all of this information was that laboratories and companies need to know the classification and licensing requirements, be aware of their personnel, and establish an export control program. In today’s world of interconnectedness, export control systems are essential for national and global security.

The next panelist, Diane DiEullis from the National Defense University, explored “Synthetic Biology: Industry/Government.” DiEullis has conducted research regarding industry practices in synthetic biology in order to identify opportunities for biosecurity. When it comes to biotechnology, there is always the risk for accidental or intentional misuse, but controlling the bioeconomy, comprised of consumer products, pharma, fuel, agriculture, food, material, and digital sectors, is complicated. It is even appropriate to ask if we should be controlling things that have every day purposes in laboratories. The issue does not just concern the United States because industry is becoming increasingly international. Continue reading “Symposium on “International Collaboration without Complications and Confusion””