Acute & Chronic Economic Considerations of COVID-19

Rachel-Paige Casey

An Infected Economy

The commonly recited statement that COVID-19 knows no bounds is not confined to its effects on individual or population health; it is also the instigator of our current and growing economic woes. Prior to COVID-19, it was well-established that an outbreak of a reemerging or novel disease with high communicability would ravage the US economy, along with global economy. A combination of industry shut downs to reduce disease transmission and panic-induced risk averse behavior among consumers and producers turns a pandemic into a pestilence for the economic health of countries and their people. Just as the high probability of a pandemic was foreseen so to were the economic effects of such an event. As the Washington Post stated, COVID-19 is no black swan, nor is it an event for which we were not given warning shots.


In September 2019, mere months before the arrival of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, the Council of Economic Advisers published a report, which estimated the likely substantial health and economic losses the US would face as a result of pandemic influenza, another highly communicable virus. In 2018, the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community found that a “novel strain of a virulent microbe that is easily transmissible between humans continues to be a major threat,” and listed pathogens H5N1 and H7N9 influenza and MERS-CoV as potential culprits. Until bureaucracy-fueled abandonment in 2017, the Department of Homeland Security maintained annually updated models that estimated the infrastructural damage wrought by a pandemic. Beyond predictions, the 2019 Global Health Security Index Continue reading “Acute & Chronic Economic Considerations of COVID-19”

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”

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””

Coronavirus Infections: More Than Just A Common Cold

By Joseph DeFranco

On 29 January 2020, 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. Of the 8,098 SARS-infected patients, there were 774 fatalities (9.5% Case Fatality Rate [CFR]), and the pandemic cost the global economy an estimated US$30-100 billion. In the wake of SARS, the World Health Organization (WHO) would implement new International Health Regulations (IHR) to address some of the weaknesses exposed during the 2002 pandemic. Continue reading “Coronavirus Infections: More Than Just A Common Cold”

Lessons from “The Doctors Without Borders Experience: Patients as People and not Biohazards”

By Madeline Roty

Avril Benoit from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) opened the ASM Biothreats Conference by taking a step back from the micro level of a cell and focusing on the macro level of global health. Ms. Benoit is the Executive Director of the U.S. Management Team for MSF, more commonly known as Doctors Without Borders. In addition to the work being done by MSF, Benoit discussed the limitations and challenges hindering its mission. She challenged the audience of students, policymakers, scientists, and innovators, to be committed to humanitarianism over political and financial motivations and to promote human engagement before technology.

MSF is a non-profit medical humanitarian organization that primarily provides medical care to the most vulnerable in society, including those experiencing displacement, conflict and violence, or disasters. Because it is an organization primarily funded by private donors, MSF maintains more independence in decision-making. Fueled by the belief  that “every person is deserving of healthcare,” independence means MSF can “take enormous risks” to deploy personnel to regions other organizations cannot, especially in areas of conflict. In addition to providing medical care and supplies, MSF has epidemiologists, media personnel, and a research and development team. Continue reading “Lessons from “The Doctors Without Borders Experience: Patients as People and not Biohazards””

Event Summary: The Nexus Between Nuclear Energy & Nuclear Security

By Greg Witt, GMU Biodefense PhD student

Greg worked as a senior nuclear systems engineer at Westinghouse Electric Company from 2010 to 2017. He served as the design lead for the AP1000® nuclear power plant’s reactor system and reactor coolant system.

On November 14, the Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies and Biodefense Graduate program hosted an event at George Mason University’s Arlington campus to examine the role that nuclear energy can play in helping the world achieve a low-carbon future without threatening nuclear security. The event featured two noteworthy guest speakers: Dr. Mikhail Chudakov, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, and Dr. Brent Park, Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Dr. Chudakov delivered the keynote speech at the event, entitled “IAEA Assistance for a Sustainable Energy Future.” In this presentation, he outlined his assessment of the present and future landscape of energy supply and demand, as well as his vision for the role that nuclear power could play in creating a more sustainable, equitable future.

Despite the plentiful and relatively cheap energy available in the upper-income countries, nearly 1 billion people worldwide have no consistent access to electricity, with another 1 billion having reduced access to healthcare due to energy poverty and a further 2.7 billion relying on biomass as their primary source of energy. Any program hoping to ameliorate these challenges would almost certainly require a radical expansion in global electricity generation, a development that until now has mostly relied on the increased extraction and burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum. This has had predictably dire consequences over both the short term, generating air pollution, and the long term, contributing to climate change, which disproportionately impacts vulnerable populations in lower- and middle-income countries. Continue reading “Event Summary: The Nexus Between Nuclear Energy & Nuclear Security”