Pandora Report: 7.10.2020

The Pandemic Experts Are Not Okay

A recent article in The Atlantic sheds light on the risk of burnout that US public health specialists face as the coronavirus surges. The public-health experts who advise policy makers, monitor the pandemic, and prepare hospitals for cases are suffering from the physical and emotion exhaustion of their work, but also from the “wrath of a nation on edge” as Americans lash out after months of stay-at-home orders and response blunders. The burnout could leave the US in a “drought of expertise.” Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program and an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, is among the numerous experts who have been dedicated round-the-clock to fighting the pandemic since early this year. As Arizona was reopening, the intensive care unit of Popescu’s hospital was packed with COVID-19 patients, making those in the public health arena very nervous for a flood of new cases against which they may not be adequately equipped. Popescu also touched on the threats and harassment she experiences as an expert in the public’s eye, “I can say something and get horrendously attacked, but a man who doesn’t even work in this field can go on national TV and be revered for saying the exact same thing.” Despite the many struggles and barriers, public health experts are determined to continue their work against COVID-19.  

US Imprudently Initiates Withdrawal from the WHO

The latest miscalculation of the Trump administration is its formal notice of withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO). The withdrawal will not be official until 6 July 2021, so there is a window of opportunity, should Trump lose the election, for the decision to reversed. US withdrawal from the WHO would leave global health governance in a state of uncertainty by bringing up concerns about the economic viability of the WHO, the polio eradication program, the reporting system for infectious disease outbreaks, and other programs such as those combating the spread of antimicrobial resistance. Fears have arisen about the demise of US global health leadership and the future health of Americans. A letter signed by 750 scholars and global public health experts pleads for Congress to block the withdrawal, and argues that Trump lacks the unilateral legal authority to cancel the country’s membership. Given that the US funds the largest portion of the Health Emergencies Program, the letter also points out that the withdrawal will likely cost lives, both American and foreign. Also, the US will lose access to the WHO’s global system for important health data, a severe disadvantage as the US is still struggling with COVID-19. The withdrawal will lessen the capacity of the US and other nations to detect and control future outbreaks, heightening the risk of another pandemic in the not-so-distant future. The American Medical Association (AMA) issued a statement as well, calling on Congress to reject the administration’s withdrawal decision and fight to protect the relationship between the United States and the WHO. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, epitomizes this misstep in one of his recent tweets: “Withdrawing from the WHO in the middle of a pandemic is like shooting yourself in the foot during a marathon because your shoelaces are untied.”

COVID-19 Risk Index

Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program and an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, Dr. James P. Phillips, Chief of Disaster Medicine at GWU Emergency Medicine, and Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, Vice Provost for Global Initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, developed a COVID-19 Risk Index to help you decide what you are comfortable doing as reopening continues. The Index is based on four key factors: (1) enclosed space; (2) duration of interaction; (3) crowds; and (4) forceful exhalation.

Medical Countermeasures for COVID-19

Though the scientific community has quickly designed 1,200 clinical trials for testing treatment and prevention strategies against the novel coronavirus, the data show that panic and disorganization are diluting these efforts. Robert Califf, the head of clinical policy and strategy at Verily Life Sciences and Google Health and a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, stated that studies are often too small to provide valid answers, lack suitable control groups, and overemphasize certain potential treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine. An analysis found that 39% of studies are enrolling or planning to enroll fewer than 100 subjects, so they are unlikely to produce sound results. In short, much energy and money are being wasted on fruitless endeavors. On an encouraging note, the RECOVERY trial has returned three very important findings: (1) dexamethasone, a cheap steroid, reduced the death rate of COVID-1 patients on ventilators by a third; (2) hydroxychloroquine does not benefit hospitalized patients with Covid-19; and (3) lopinavir and ritonavir, a pair of HIV drugs, have also not benefited hospitalized patients. Clinical trials cost anywhere from $10 million to hundreds of millions of dollars, so providing resources for poorly designed or theorized studies is extremely wasteful. The fixation on hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, was the result of research enterprise becoming “lopsided and unfocused.” Hydroxychloroquine showed promise in cell cultures; however, many of the studies testing the drug’s efficacy in patients were poorly designed. The WHO conducted a large study and found that neither hydroxychloroquine nor lopinavir-ritonavir combination therapy were found to benefit patients. Walid Gellad, Director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, considers the lack of leadership for the clinical trial agenda of the US as one of the key failures of this pandemic response.

Operation Warp Speed (OWS), the federal government’s newly-minted initiative to fast-track the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, is an attempt to provide leadership and direction for vaccine development. Despite its objective of transparency, OWS is under fire for its opaqueness about selected COVID-19 vaccine candidates. At a Senate subcommittee hearing about OWS, scientists with the initiative were rather mum when asked about the vaccine candidates that were chosen as frontrunners and the selection criteria used to make those choices. The names of the companies developing these candidates and a scientific review of 50 candidates are not available to the public. Another concern is the hypocrisy surrounding vaccine development with China. General Gustave Perna, co-leader of OWS, stated that he would not work with China; however, 4 of the 18 candidates that have entered clinical trials are made in China and 3 of these are set to start phase III trials. The triad of panic, disorganization, and opaqueness is undermining the ability of the US to quickly develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.

Lecture: Political Implications of COVID-19

Dr. Jennifer Victor, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Schar School, was a featured presenter this week for the COVID-19 and the Mason Impact virtual course. Victor’s lecture, Political Implications of COVID-19, covers why the US is struggling to contain the virus, how the virus affects existing political dynamics in the US, and how the virus may impact upcoming elections. In summary, the pandemic has worsened politics and exacerbated existing systemic inequalities in the US. Watch Victor’s lecture here.

Bipartisan Group of Former Government Officials Demand Science-Based Approach to Pandemic

This week, 57 former government scientists and public health officials released a statement calling for a science-based approach to guide pandemic response, a clear point of failure of the response. They encourage “independent and sound science” as the foundation for response decisions and efforts. Additionally, this bipartisan group criticized the administration for marginalizing the importance of science and expertise. The statement also acknowledges the need for coordination of scientists around the world, a likely reference to the unpopular decision of the Trump administration to withdrawal from the World Health Organization. Signers included officials from the Trump, Obama and George W. Bush administrations. A June article written by Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program – “Hear, see, speak no COVID: Why the Trump administration is bungling the response to the pandemic” – spotlighted the Trump administration’s failure to utilize scientific expertise as the heart of its botched response. Koblentz and Popescu pointed out that the administration has enlarged the gap between science and policy, blighting the efficacy of the US response to COVID-19.  

The Blame Game

Some people don’t know when to give up. Ted Postol, a former MIT professor, has long claimed that the Syrian government was not responsible for a sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 despite the conclusions of investigations conducted by the UNOPCWUS and French intelligence agencies, New York TimesBellingcatHuman Rights Watch, and a variety of Syrian NGOs. His failed effort to publish an article promoting his CW denialism in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal  were recently recounted in the online magazine Undark. Gregory Koblentz, Biodefense Graduate Program director, played a role in blocking publication of Postol’s article. In retaliation, Postol filed a complaint of “academic misconduct” against Dr. Koblentz with George Mason University. Although the complaint did not allege any behavior that meets the definition of academic misconduct (such as plagiarism, fraud, or falsification of data), George Mason University convened an independent committee of senior faculty members to review the complaint. The committee found that the complaint had no merit. 

While Postol was busy complaining, Dr. Koblentz published a peer-reviewed article on the status of international efforts to attribute CW attacks in Syria, including the work of the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). On April 8, the IIT published its first report which found that the Syrian Arab Air Force “pursuant to orders from the highest levels of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces” was responsible for three chemical attacks on the town of Ltamenah in March 2017. Two of these attacks, on March 24 and 30, were conducted the same way as the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun: all three chemical attacks involved a Syrian Su-22 airplane taking off from Shayrat airbase and dropping an M4000 binary chemical bomb filled with sarin produced using a recipe unique to the Syrian CW program.  The IIT examined several alternative scenarios, including that the attacks on Ltamenah had been staged, but “the IIT could not identify any other plausible explanation for the concurrence of information before it.” The IIT report has established yet again that the Syrian regime has engaged in the systematic use of chemical weapons against its own people. It’s time to stop debating what happened at Khan Sheikhoun and focus instead on how the Assad regime can be held accountable for its heinous and illegal acts.

OPCW Decision on Chemical Weapons in Syria

It’s official. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Executive Council (EC) condemned the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian air force in Ltamenah in March 2017.  The OPCW EC adopted this decision by vote: 29 yes, 3 no, and 9 abstain. The EC’s decision shows its deep concern that the Syrian Arab Republic failed to declare and destroy all of its chemical weapons and production facilities for chemical weapons. The decision reflects the conclusion that the Syrian Arab Republic did not cooperate with, and provide access to, the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). The EC demands that the Syrian Arab Republic immediately cease all use of chemical weapons and fully cooperate with the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat. Within 90 days, the Syrian Arab republic should complete three measures: (1) declare to the Secretariat the facilities where the chemical weapons were developed, produced, stockpiled, and operationally stored for delivery; (2) declare to the Secretariat all of the chemical weapons it currently possesses prohibited under the Convention, and the chemical weapons production facilities; and (3) resolve all of the outstanding issues regarding its initial declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile and programme. Within 100 days, the Director-General will report to the EC and all States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convection on whether the Syrian Arab Republic has completed all measures.

UNSC Convenes on COVID-19

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held an open video conference about pandemics and security, taking place the day after the adoption of resolution 2532 on pandemic response. Resolution 2532, which passed unanimously, demands a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations so that efforts against COVID-19 can unite to help the most vulnerable countries. The resolution is considered a compromise as it makes no reference to the World Health Organization or the topic of transparency. A COVID-19 resolution was difficult to pass largely due to the clash between the US and China over reference to the World Health Organization. At the conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres asserted the relevance of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in a pandemic, and urged considerable attention be paid to the deliberate use of diseases as weapons. In short, Guterres recommends a strengthening of the Convention and implores the 14 states that have yet to join to do so immediately. Guterres also emphasized the intersection of resilience against the threat of biological weapons and effective public health measures. He said, “the best counter to biological weapons is effective action against naturally occurring diseases.”

Community Lab in Baltimore Aims to Put Science in the People’s Hands

The Baltimore Under Ground Science Space (BUGSS) is a community laboratory, which was recently discussed in a Pandora Report Commentary by Biodefense PhD candidate Yong-Bee Lim, that provides research space for do-it-yourself biologists, hobbyists, and high school and home-schooled students. BUGGS exists to provide a learning and research environment for citizen scientists who would otherwise not have the space or tools to build their skills or work on projects. BUGGS has played host to several innovative projects in its brief lifespan. For example, Dr. Huon de Kermadec, a “biohacker,” is working with others scientists to develop an alternative to insulin as part of the Open Insulin Project. The Inner Harbor project is a collaboration between BUGGS, the National Aquarium, and the University System of Maryland’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology to catalogue all living species in the watershed of Baltimore.

Making BioWeapons Obsolete

The Council on Strategic Risks and Sandia National Laboratories convened thought leaders in government, academia, and the private sector to discuss the creation of a future in which the threat of biological weapons is greatly reduced. A summary of the discussions, Making Bioweapons Obsolete, covers the spectrum of topics and issues that must be addressed to reduce biothreats. Biothreats are changing due to three factors: (1) advances in technology; (2) increased concern about nation-state peer competitors; and (3) decreased focus of US on biothreats. The report considers bioterrorist and state attacks and assesses the differences in biodefense strategy dependent on the type of adversary. Read the report here.

CSHL Trustees Vote on the Future of Graduate School

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), established in 1890 as a biological teaching laboratory, voted to rename restore the original name of the graduate program to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory School of Biological Sciences, dissociating from James D. Watson. Though Watson made considerable contributions to CSHL and science, his views of race are incompatible with the mission and values of CSHL. Additionally, the Board of Trustees endorsed a plan by the faculty to start a new program at the graduate school about the social impact of the biological sciences.

Schar School Employee of the Month for July: Silva Pecini Morris

Silva Pecini Morris is the July Employee of the Month at the Schar School! Morris is the Director of Student Services and has worked at GMU for 15 years. She works hard to make the learning experience, for both graduate students and faculty, as smooth as possible. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, applauds Morris’s role in the education journey of his students:

“I have had several students express to me their gratitude for Silva’s help in navigating program requirements, scheduling, etc. Most of our students work full-time in fairly demanding jobs and some of them get detailed or deployed on short notice. Silva has been instrumental in helping these students stay on track and minimize the disruption to their graduate education.”  

Surveillance and Repression in China

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report on genomic surveillance in China, which is amassing the world’s largest police-run database. Chinese authorities are intentionally enrolling millions of individuals who do not have a history of serious criminal activity, including children of preschool age, and who do not have any control over how their DNA samples are collected, stored, and used. In late 2017, China expanded its DNA data collection beyond Tibet and Xinjiang to include millions of men and boys across the country. This mass collection of DNA data violates Chinese domestic law and global human rights norms. This program will “increase the power of the Chinese state and further enable domestic repression in the name of stability maintenance and social control.” Several biotechnology companies – Thermo Fisher Scientific, AGCU Scientific, and Microread Genetics – are working with the Chinese police to create the database, despite their ethical responsibility to make sure that their products and processes do not violate fundamental human rights and civil liberties.

DARPA’s Pandemic Programs

A recent output by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) provides a summary of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) pandemic-related programs and lists some of the considerations for maximizing biodefense research and development. DARPA established the Biological Technologies Office in 2014 to focus on the biological sciences and biotechnology and to supports programs that address pandemics. In response to COVID-19, DARPA pivoted these pandemic programs to focus on the pandemic. Current DARPA investments include the Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) program aimed at developing methods “capable of producing relevant numbers of doses against any known or previously unknown infectious threat within 60 days of identification of such a threat.” The P3 program focuses on developing a platform to aid rapid development of new medical countermeasures (MCMs) after the identification of any known or unknown infectious threat. An awardee of DARPA funds, Fluidigm, is collaborating with a consortium of medical schools to develop and early detection test for SARS-CoV-2. All of these programs are part wider-ranging biodefense work to address threats from naturally occurring epidemics, accidental biological exposures, biowarfare, and bioterrorism. The biodefense enterprise of the US is dispersed across multiple departments and agencies with varied missions, adding another layer of difficulty to preparing for and responding to a “diverse and evolving set of biological threats.” The General Accountability Office (GAO) recommends developing processes and duties for joint decision-making across these overlapping entities within the US biodefense enterprise. Leveraging the potential of DARPA and its pandemic-related programs could significantly improve the research, development, and commercialization of innovative biodefense technologies associated with preparedness and response.

Preventing the Next Pandemic – Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission

The United Nations released a report about stopping the transmission of zoonoses, diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. The report, Preventing the Next Pandemic – Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission, considers the fundamental causes of the emergence and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and other zoonotic diseases. The fact that diseases are emerging more frequently from animals indicates that rapid action is needed to fill the gaps in science to more efficiently develop tools to reduce the risk of future pandemics. Additionally, unsustainable human activities are contributing the increases in frequency of pathogens infecting humans from animals. The report identifies 7 human-mediated factors that are likely driving the emergence of zoonoses: (1) increasing human demand for animal protein; (2) unsustainable agricultural intensification; (3) increased use and exploitation of wildlife; (4) unsustainable utilization of natural resources accelerated by urbanization, land use change and extractive industries; (5) increased travel and transportation; (6) changes in food supply; and (7) climate change. Additionally, the adoption of a One Health approach is deemed the optimal method for preventing and responding to out zoonotic diseases outbreaks. The One Health concept is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes by recognizing the interconnection between humans, animals, plants, and their shared environment. Rad the full report and its recommendations here.

Pandora Report: 7.3.2020

Commentary – State Department Releases the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism

Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student and Associate Editor for the Pandora Report, provides a summary of the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism releases an annual report on terrorism across the globe. The 2019 report was just released, highlighting successes and persistent threats associated with international and domestic terrorism in nearly 100 countries.  The report begins with a discussion of notable successes in the counterterrorism landscape and identifies the persistent terrorist threats that will dominate counterterrorism policy in 2020. These threats can be divided into four categories: (1) the Islamic State’s ability to build global networks, (2) continued terrorism sponsored by Iran and carried out by its proxies, (3) al Qaeda’s ability to adapt, and (4) the rising threat from what the United States calls “racially or ethnically motivated terrorism” (REMT). These four themes are expanded upon in the country reports, summarized below. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Commentary – Reopening Community Labs in a Time of COVID: Balancing the Needs and Risks of DIYBio Spaces During a Global Pandemic

Yong-Bee Lim, Biodefense PhD candidate and member of the Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS), provides a summary of an event he moderated for a Global Community Bio Town Hall, “Re-Opening (or Re-Booting) Your Community Bio Lab in the Time of COVID.” Panelists for this discussion include Maria Chavez of BioCurious, Dr. Angela Armendariz of Genspace, Dr. Tom Burkett of BUGSS, and Dr. Popescu of University of Arizona and GMU. Topics in this panel included: unique opportunities and challenges COVID-19 has created for community labs; concerns about reopening community lab spaces or remaining closed; and decision-making regarding reopening and how to empower people to make such important decisions in a time of great uncertainty. Read Lim’s commentary here.

New START

The New START Treaty is a treaty between the United States and Russia on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. The Treaty entered into force on 5 February 2011 and both nations were required to meet the Treaty’s central limits on strategic arms seven years later. The aggregate limits include: 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments; 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit); and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. Both the US and Russia announced their compliance with the limits by 5 February 2018, the deadline. New START is scheduled to expire in February 2021 unless Trump and Putin agree to extend it for five more years. In December 2019, the Russian government signaled its willingness to extend the Treaty; the Trump administration recently acknowledged the possibility of the extension, “but only under select circumstances.” As the US continues to stall on the New START extension, concerns mount over the future of the Treaty. If it is not extended, there will no longer be legally binding and verifiable limits on the US or Russian nuclear arsenals.

BioD Alumnus Testified at Senate Panel on Strategic National Stockpile & COVID-19

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND corporation, testified at the Senate panel on the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) and COVID-19. According to Gerstein, COVID-19 has uncovered major weaknesses in the national preparedness and response systems of the Us. One of the main weaknesses was with the SNS, a national repository of antibiotics, vaccines, chemical antidotes, antitoxins, and other critical medical supplies. His written remarks can be read in full here, and his oral remarks followed the theme:

“A bipartisan commission should be established to review the nation’s performance during this pandemic and the use of the SNS. Basic assumptions regarding emergency management and disaster preparedness and response —including the role of government at all levels—should be on the table. One outcome should be an agreement that public health must be elevated to and receive prioritization and funding as a national security issue, just as the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community.”

GAO COVID-19 Performance Audit

The General Accountability Office (GAO) produced a report, COVID-19: Opportunities to Improve Federal Response and Recovery Efforts, which details a performance audit for the period March-June 2020 of  the Department of Labor, Internal Revenue Service, and Small Business Administration. Given the economic hit caused by COVID-19 and the growing federal costs due to pandemic relief programs, monetary and fiscal efficiency and competency are of major concern to the long-term economic health of the US. The report’s main findings include: (1) the federal government continues to lack an aviation preparedness plan for infectious disease crises; (2) the Department of Labor has failed to provide state unemployment agencies with information about the risks of improper payments; (3) the Internal Revenue Service does not intent take additional steps to notify ineligible recipients on how to return payments; and (4) the Small Business Administration has failed to provide details on how it plans to identify and respond to risks in the Paycheck Protection Program to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud.

2020 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition

The 4th Annual NTI-NextGen Biosecurity Competition is underway! This year’s competition is seeking innovative and creative papers for online publication by NTI | bio and the NextGen GHS Network focused on biosecurity related to COVID-19 and future outbreaks/pandemics. The winners can attend the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting in Pattaya, Thailand in November 2020 and present during a side-event. Submissions should address the following question:

What are technical and/or political actions global health security community stakeholders should take either nationally or internationally to reduce biosecurity-related risks associated with COVID-19 and future outbreaks/pandemics?

To be eligible, participants must be current members of the Next Generation GHS Network and currently enrolled in an academic institution or have less than five years professional experience. Also, teams must have 3 participants and be from at least 2 different countries/regions. All submissions must be in English. Participants must consult with at least one expert in the field of biosecurity and/or biosafety, life sciences, or another related field. The deadline for submitting a paper is August 5. More information on the competition can be found here.

Biodefense Graduate Program Sample Lectures

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program and associate professor at George Mason University, is offering a sample class for anyone interested in the program. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the power of infectious diseases to wreak havoc on societies, cause economic upheaval, and weaken military capabilities. Will hostile states or terrorist groups seek to exploit these newly revealed vulnerabilities by developing and using their own biological weapons? How can countries and the international community reduce the risk that biology will be misused for malicious purposes? This sneak peek of the Biodefense Graduate Program will be available via Zoom on 22 July at 12:00 EDT. Register here to virtually attend.

Dr. Tonya Thornton Neaves, Director for Extramural Projects at the Schar School of Policy and Government, is offering a sample lecture on emergency management in the United States. Neaves walks us through how to talk about disasters, the history of relief responses and how we manage them, and even what those pesky “act of God” clauses” mean on your insurance policies. Take a deep dive into emergency management and learn how you and your community can be prepared for whatever might come your way. View the lecture here.

New COVID-19 Data Tools

A network of infectious disease epidemiologists at universities around the world working with technology companies aggregated mobility data to create the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network. The Network provides visualization tools and technical resources for the open sharing of data. The mobility data provides a real-time view of how people are moving around.  The Camber Systems Social Distancing Reporter offers an accurate and actionable understanding about the efficacy of social distancing and other policy measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. The Facebook Data for Good Mobility Dashboard provides anonymized, aggregated mobility data to help us understand how communities are responding to COVID-19 physical distancing interventions. Code repositories contain code, analytic tools, and best practices.

New Leadership at George Mason University

As George Mason University enters a new era of leadership, we wish to thank Anne Holton for her service as Interim President, leading us through much of the COVID-19 pandemic and making critical decisions during the turmoil.

Now, we welcome GMU’s 8th president, Dr. Gregory Washington! Dr. Washington comes to us from the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at University of California, Irvine where he served a dean. As a researcher, Washington specializes in dynamic systems, with an emphasis in the modeling and control of smart material structures and systems, and he is the author of over 150 technical publications. Watch President Washington’s message about what it means to be a Patriot here.

The Pandemic Risk of an Accidental Lab Leak of Enhanced Flu Virus: Unacceptably High

Scientists across the globe are working with influenza-causing viruses, possibly making changes that could incite an outbreak or, perish the thought, another pandemic. Lynn Klotz, Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a member of the Scientists’ Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons, lists three ways that a laboratory could spark a human outbreak: (1) an undetected or unreported laboratory-acquired infection hitches a ride into the community on a laboratory worker; (2) a virus is mischaracterized as “harmless” and handled under lower biosafety levels; and (3) a pathogen is intentionally released by someone with malicious intent and laboratory access. Human error is the cause of the most laboratory incidents that lead to potential exposures from BSL 3 laboratories in the US, which are designed for serious, if not deadly, pathogens. Influenza viruses, in particular, are of great concern because many infect humans and unleash deadly consequences, as the world experienced with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Lotz’s basic calculation for pandemic risk includes likelihood-weighted consequences = (probability of an event) x (consequences), and fatality burden = [(probability of a release) x (probability release leads to a pandemic)] x (number of fatalities). An illustrative calculation shows that each year a single facility conducts research, it carries the burden of some of the 50 to 100 million fatalities. Fouchier advises that enhanced biosafety level 3 laboratories are at least ten-fold safer than those of standard biosafety level 3, yielding a significantly lower fatality burden of 1,845 to 3,690 per year of operation. These calculations and comparison serve to support Lotz’s argument that the pandemic risk of an accidental or intentional lead of altered influenza virus is unacceptably high. According to his calculations, the possible benefits of such research do not outweigh the possible costs.

KHN and AP Investigate the State of the Nation’s Public Health Infrastructure

Kaiser Health News (KHN) and The Associated Press (AP) are examining the lackluster state of the public health infrastructure of the US. This newly-launched, multi-part investigation has already determined that the US public health workforce is underfunded and under threat, especially under the conditions of a public health crisis. So far, in the US, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 2.7 million individuals; killed almost 129,00; cost tens of millions of individuals their jobs; and cost $3 trillion in federal aid. The first story of the series, “Hollowed-Out Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus,” highlights the drops in spending from state health departments since 2010, the reduction in the public health workforce since 2008, and the budget cuts occurring across the US.

Mason Offers Free One-Credit Class: COVID-19 and Mason’s Work to Better Understand Pandemic

GMU is offering a free 1-credit course, UNIV: 391: COVID-19 and the Mason Impact, which will feature a different Mason faculty or staff member to lead a conversational presentation about an aspect of COVID-19 that has intersected with their scholarly work. After each presentation, students and faculty will interact in a Q&A. The recorded presentation will be made available for the general public on YouTube after the live session is completed. The course will be held from 5:00 – 6:15 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and will be moderated by Dr. Bethany Usher, Associate Provost and faculty member in Sociology and Anthropology. The objectives of the course include comparing how different disciplines have contributed to learning; demonstrating that research and scholarship at Mason contributes to the rapidly growing body of knowledge, and compare how different disciplines have contributed to the research; and making informed decisions about their own personal behaviors to mitigate risks of COVID-19 to the themselves and their communities. Registration is available until 6 July. Find more information on this free course and register here.

I Feel Fine: Fans of World-Ending Films ‘Coping Better with Pandemic’

Psychologists have found evidence that apocalyptic movies helped prepare people for COVID-19 and made fans more resilient. The desolation depicted by these films seemed to help viewers handle the real-life outbreak and its impacts. Coltan Scrivner, a psychologist specializing in morbid curiosity at the University of Chicago, conjectures that viewers of apocalyptic movies are learning vicariously. A survey of 310 participants were asked about movie preferences and viewing histories and then asked how prepared they felt as the pandemic started and what levels of anxiety, depression, irritability, and sleepless they experienced. Researchers found that horror movie fans reported less distress by the crisis than most; individuals who favored “prepper movies,” in particular, ranked as more resilient and better prepared, both mentally and practically.

GMU Virtual Event: Domestic Violence During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Gender and Policy (GAP) Center is hosting a virtual panel discussion on domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic on 15 July at 12:30 pm. Panelists include Elizabeth Gregory, Professor and Director, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, University of Houston, Founding Director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality; Jhumka Gupta, Associate Professor in the Department of Global and Community Health within George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services; Angela Hattery, University of Delaware, Co-Director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Gender Based Violence; Barbara Paradiso, Director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver; and Tiara Willie, Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Register for this virtual event here.

Workers Filed More Than 4,100 Complaints About Protective Gear. Some Still Died.

Since March, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has received over 4,100 COVID-related complaints about health care facilities. A Kaiser Health News (KHN) investigation discovered that at least 35 health care workers died after OSHA had received complaints about their respective workplaces. According to the complaint logs, health workers are in great need of better protective gear for their hospitals, medical offices, and nursing homes. Roughly one-third of the COVID-19 complaints related to health care remain open and about 275 investigations into these complaints are ongoing. For example, a March 16 complaint about Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, New Jersey states that workers were not permitted to wear masks in the hallway outside of the rooms of COVID-19 patients, and they were not provided with adequate PPE. An RN at Clara Maass voiced her concerns that her patients, who were not in the COVID area, were presenting with “suspicious symptoms.” This nurse ended up being exposed to a half dozen patients undergoing COVID testing before she presented with a cough and headache; she soon died of the virus.

How the World Missed COVID-19’s Silent Spread

The New York Times has launched a series of articles examining the mistakes, misunderstanding, and missed warning signs that enabled COVID-19 to plague the whole world. The two-month delay for a response and control measures likely cost many lives and many infections. Quicker employment of better testing, surveillance, contact tracing, and isolation measures may have saved a lot of individuals from infection and death from COVID-19. Though the actual numbers are yet known, it is now widely accepted that asymptomatic, and possibly presymptomatic, individuals can spread the virus. Dr. Camilla Rothe, a tropical medicine and infectious disease specialist in Munich, sounded the alarm on the virus’s ability to spread during the incubation period. Rothe published an article in Science about the silent spread of COVID-19. Though the World Health Organization noted that patient who have yet to display symptoms may be able to spread the virus, it maintained that symptomatic patients were the primary drivers of the pandemic. Also, soon after Rothe published her findings, her report was deemed “flawed” as the scientific establishment sought to downplay the risk inherent to the existence of spread from infected individuals without symptoms. Weeks later, research entities started to sluggishly concede that asymptomatic transmission is an important element of this pandemic. Though belated and still controversial, better research on asymptomatic spread is underway.

Pandora Report: 6.26.2020

Commentary – Promising COVID-19 Therapeutics: From Remdesivir to Human Convalescent Plasma

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student and newly-appointed Assistant Editor for the Pandora Report, outlines the key takeaways from a virtual briefing held by the American Society for Microbiology, “From Remdesivir to Human Convalescent Plasma: Understanding COVID-19 Therapeutic Development.” In this briefing, Dr. Mark Denison from Vanderbilt University Medical Center discussed his work on two antiviral therapeutics, while Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health reviewed his work on convalescent plasma therapies. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Stevie Kiesel, New Assistant Editor for the Pandora Report

Kiesel is a part-time student in the Biodefense PhD program at George Mason University and a full-time transportation security analyst. Her areas of focus are terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction and the extreme right wing. Kiesel is a regular contributor to the Pandora Report and is now a member of the editorial board as an Assistant Editor.

Schar School Sample Class: Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program and associate professor at George Mason University, is offering a sample class for anyone interested in the program. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the power of infectious diseases to wreak havoc on societies, cause economic upheaval, and weaken military capabilities. Will hostile states or terrorist groups seek to exploit these newly revealed vulnerabilities by developing and using their own biological weapons? How can countries and the international community reduce the risk that biology will be misused for malicious purposes? This sneak peek of the Biodefense Graduate Program will be available via Zoom on 22 July at 12:00 EDT. Register here to virtually attend.

Hill Recoils at Proposed Cut to Pentagon Anti-Pandemic Effort

In spite of the ongoing pandemic, the administration asked Congress to approve a one-third cut the Pentagon’s budget for programs that prevent, detect, and respond to diseases, particularly in other countries. The Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP), charged with finding and fighting emerging diseases, is funded through the Pentagon budget and now faces the possibility of a major budget reduction. The $76 million slash to the Pentagon’s budget was proposed last February, before the pandemic made its mark in the US, but the proposal has received bipartisan pushback. For example, the new National Defense Authorization Act from the Senate Armed Services Committee would restore $50 million of the of the proposed reduction. This proposal is yet another example of the administration’s demotion of public health as a national priority. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, berated the proposal as shortsighted and points out that kneecapping BTRP will reduce America’s warning time for biological threats. Koblentz also points out the importance of global health security as a critical component of national security, perhaps more so now than ever before.

“Sorry, We’re Closed”: Applying Business Models to Failed Terrorist Organizations

Dr. Keith Ludwick, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD program, recently published an article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism about the application of specific, business organizational models to understand terrorism. His article argues that business modes can be used to better understand the organizational behavior of terrorist groups. Leadership and management are examined by combining two traditional business models with two terrorist organization, which successfully show which elements of terrorist group organization can lead to their failure, specifically due to a lack of concern for administrative functions. Broadly speaking, this paper suggests certain models within business organizational theory which offer insights into the future growth or decline terrorist organizations. Read Ludwick’s article here.

Free Book: Preparing for Pandemics in the Modern World

For those of us already worried about the next pandemic, even as we are still fighting COVID-19, a new book, Preparing for Pandemics in the Modern World, is available to the public as a free downloadable eBook from Texas A&M University. The book, edited by pandemic disease policy and control expert Dr. Christine Crudo Blackburn, was already in development before the outbreak of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Authors include Dr. Leslie Ruyle, an ecologist specializing in innovative solutions for conservation, conflict, and development; Dr. Gerry Parker, associate dean for Global One Health at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; Rebecca Fish, Vice President of Marketing and Product Strategy at Emergent BioSolutions; and Richard Crespin, Chief Executive Officer of CollaborateUp. Other contributors include Dr. David Morens, Senior Scientific Advisor for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, Chief of the Viral Pathogenesis and Evolution Section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and GMU alumnus. Topics include lessons from past public health disasters, spillover from zoonoses, the importance of ecological science and conservation to the One Health approach, the national security implications of supply chain disruptions, and the gaps in business planning for pandemics. Read the book here.

A Covid-19 Vaccine Should Be a Public Good. Here’s How to Make That Happen.

Kendall Hoyt, assistant professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and the author of Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense, encourages a coordinated global effort for the development, production, and dissemination of a safe and efficacious COVID0-19 vaccine. The establishment of organizations such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, have been helping shape the institutional framework for developing vaccines as public goods. To help provide low income countries with COVID-19 vaccines, once available, Gavi launched an Advance Market Commitment in which funders determine certain criteria for a vaccine and agree in advance to purchase large quantities of the vaccine that satisfies those criteria. Hoyt emphasizes that the race for a COVID-19 vaccine is not a zero-sum game, and that, through collaboration, political leaders face a historical opportunity to produce a vaccine as a global public good.  

Federal Review Finds Early CDC COVID-19 Test Kits Were Likely Contaminated

According to a federal review by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the early version of the COVID-19 test kids from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were likely contaminated. This review was conducted by HHS lawyers who said that the pressure the CDC faced to quickly provide a testing kit may have contributed to insufficient laboratory practices that lead to the increased risk of contamination. The review does not assign blame to any specific individual. In April, the Washington Post reported that early test kits generated false positive results caused by the contamination at 24 of the first 26 public health laboratories to use them.  A statement from Michael Caputo, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at HHS, defended CDC’s mistake by pointing out that the CDC began developing the kits within days of receiving the genetic sequence of the virus, and that the agency along with public health laboratories are “not intended to bear the weight or capacity of nationwide testing on this scale.” On the flip side, several scientists with experience in infectious disease testing have stated that sending out the test kits without adequate quality control was an indefensible mistake by the CDC, who should have taken more time to ensure the quality and safety of the kits.

Cyberbiosecurity in COVID-19

At present, the concept of cyberbiosecurity is defined as “developing understanding of the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of co-mingled life science, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate, and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness, and resilience.” As the term indicates, cyberbiosecurity is the amalgamation of biosecurity and cybersecurity, two intersecting realms that are largely considered and governed independently. The World Economic Forum points out that cyberbiosecurity threats are on the rise – with further exacerbation caused by the turmoil created from the ongoing pandemic  – and that a global prevention platform should be developed to identify and prevent these threats. This global prevention platform should target three critical challenges: (1) growing cyber-, bio-, and human insecurity; (2) disintegrating digital trust; and (3) converging risks in conflict-affected areas. As concerns about cyberbiosecurity mount, more research on the challenges and risks associated with cybersecurity and biotechnology is underway. For example, two recent articles in Health Security focus on such challenges and risks: “Healthcare Challenges in the Era of Cybersecurity” and “Assessing the Risks Posed by the Convergence of Artificial Intelligence and Biotechnology.” The first article details the rise in cyberattacks and the growing need for tools that help experts accurately quantify the impacts of these incidents, improved countermeasures for cybersecurity threats within the all-hazards disaster preparedness paradigm, and further epidemiologic research about the effects on patient care and outcomes from clinical cybersecurity attacks. The latter article explores the criteria required to evaluate risks associated with artificial intelligence and biotechnology, assesses three existing risk assessment frameworks, suggests a hybrid framework, and provides recommendations for future approaches to risk assessment for convergent technologies.

Coronavirus Hearings

Last Tuesday, the Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing entitled “Oversight of the Trump Administration’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Witnesses who testified in this hearing include Anthony Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); Admiral Brett Girois, MD, the Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); Stephen Hahn, MD, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though the White House maintains that the pandemic remains a priority for the administration, Trump continues to downplay the threats we still face from the novel coronavirus. In the hearing, Fauci discussed vaccines under development, and stated that a vaccine candidate from Moderna Therapeutics is expecting to begin late-stage testing in July, pending promising results from a mid-stage trial. According to Giroir, the Trump administration is currently reviewing the COVID-19 testing plans from each state, territory, and major city public health unit. Giroir also purports that the administration’s priority is to ensure that testing is available to those who need it. Hahn stated that the FDA has reached out to more than 1,000 manufacturers since the start of the year and has facilitated an increase in the availability of personal protection equipment for healthcare workers. Redfield echoed the need for Americans to get the flu vaccine due to risk of the coronavirus and seasonal flu placing a “tremendous burden” on US hospitals in the fall. The full prepared testimonies of the witnesses are available here.

Perna Nominated as CIO of Operation Warp Speed

General Gustave F. Perna, Commander of the US Army Materiel Command, has been nominated to be the Chief Operating Officer (CIO) for Operation Warp Speed (OWS). A CIO of OWS, Perna would co-lead and oversee the logistics of US search for a COVID-19 vaccine. In regard to his nomnation, General Perna answered questions for the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) covering duties, challenges and priorities, OWS initiatives, organization and staffing, relationships with other federal officials, research, and congressional oversight. The SASC panel voted to confirm Perna as CIO, advancing his nomination.

The Health Security Nexus: Reassessing Priorities After COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic emphasizes the need to elevate public health as a security issue, the securitization of health creates opportunities and costs that must be considered in the reallocation of military funds for pandemic preparedness and response. At present, there is no universal definition of health security, a concept that generally encompasses the risks and impacts of health crises as threat to peace and security, whether those threats be naturally-occurring or intentionally released. Among others, three important topics have surfaced in regard to health security: (1) protection of the health and wellbeing of the general population; (2) investment in global health security preparedness; and (3) preparedness for possible renewed interests in bioterrorism. One promising outlook is to develop a new global health agenda focused on fairness and collective responsibility, expanding beyond the narrow focus on security threats like bioterrorism.

Third BWPP COVID-19 Impact Report

Since 2006, the BioWeapons Preventions Project (BWPP) and Richard Guthrie teamed up to produce daily reports from intergovernmental meetings of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to arise, this team is providing an additional series of reports that delves into lessons (hopefully) to be learned from past BWC activities, and discusses the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as examines impacts of the pandemic on future BWC activities. The BWPP just released its third COVID-19 Impact Report, which focuses on Articles VII and X of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in relation to disease outbreak response. Article VII covers the provision of assistance by states in the event that a state is “exposed to danger” because of a breach of the BWC, and Article X covers the renunciation by states of hostile uses of biological materials and technologies and the freedom to gain from the benefits of peaceful uses. This report introduces the idea that the shift of political attention toward disease response after COVID-19 will likely spur new discussions within the BWC. The third report is available here.

Pandora Report: 6.19.2020

Stevie Kiesel Commentary: Viruses and Violence: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Extremism

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insight on the how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting extremist behavior. Extremist groups are using the pandemic largely to regain territory and expand their sphere of influence; however, there have been attempts to exploit the virus as a bioweapon. Kiesel’s analysis focuses on Jihadist groups and far-right extremists, both of which are using the pandemic to bolster their recruitment and radicalization strategies. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Hear, see, and speak no COVID: Why the Trump administration is bungling the response to the pandemic

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Saskia Popescu, Alumna of the Biodefense Graduate Program and hospital epidemiologist, recently published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about the failure of the administration to appropriately utilize scientific expertise in its COVID-19 response activities. Koblentz and Popescu assert that the administration has been “deaf, dumb, and blind” during this catastrophe that has already claimed over 100,000 lives in the US. The pre-existing gap between science and policy has been ripped open by the Trump administration. An important lesson learned from this pandemic is the “importance of sound scientific advice and providing public health agencies with the independence to formulate and implement evidence-based policies to respond to threats to health security.” Read Koblenz and Popescu’s article here.

Keeping Up with COVID-19: An Update on Vaccine Development

The race to develop an efficacious and safe COVID-19 vaccine endeavors to reach an unprecedented timeline for FDA approval. The US government established Operation Warp Speed (OWS) to develop a vaccine by the end of the calendar year, a process which usually takes 10-15 years. Challenges regarding the desired speedy timeline may inhibit the ideal due date of OWS for a COVID-19 vaccine; however, scientists are seeing some hopeful signs that we can efficiently produce a safe and effective vaccine.

Unfortunately, predicting the timeline of an effective and safe human vaccine, verified via a phase 3 clinical trial, is extremely difficult. To shorten the timeline of phase 3 clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can authorize the use of a vaccine based on its immune correlate of protection (ICP): a type and amount of immunological response that correlates with vaccine-induced protection against an infectious disease and that is considered predictive of clinical efficacy. A vaccine can receive accelerated approval if vaccinated subjects present with levels of neutralizing antibodies (proteins that block viruses from infecting cells) that, at least, match the levels of naturally infected subjects. Regrettably, there is a lack of certainty regarding the level of neutralizing antibodies necessary to guarantee immunity. The ICP shortcut is favored by pharmaceutical companies who hope to persuade the FDA to soon approve their vaccines, at least for the vaccination of high-risk individuals for fear of dual attacks of influenza and COVID-19 this coming winter. Other scientists caution against the use of proxies such as ICP to determine approval of COVID-19 vaccine due to the uncertainty about immunity and the rocky track record of vaccines for other diseases that have been approved using proxies for efficacy and safety.

On a cheerier note, many experts are optimistic about a successful COVID-19 vaccine because so much effort and money are being poured into its development. Dr. John Mascola, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is hopeful that because our natural immune system is clearing the virus for many patients, a vaccine that closely mimics a natural infection will likely work. Luckily, SARS-CoV-2 has not significantly mutated, thus far, and this stability increases the likelihood of developing an vaccine that works well against the virus. Also, the vaccine need not be 100% effective, either in terms of preventing sickness or preventing infection. A vaccine that can significantly reduce sickness or disease severity along with lowering hospitalizations would be a win against the virus. According to Dr. Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a vaccine candidate worthy of approval should be 50% effective against symptoms and 70% effective against moderate to severe disease.

We Ran the CDC. Here’s How to Talk to the Public in a Health Crisis

Two former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote a commentary urging public health officials to greatly improve their public health communications to the public. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, communications from public health officials in the US and abroad have often failed to be accurate, transparent, and reliable. The authors cite the contradictory statements about asymptomatic transmission from WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove as the latest communication fiasco. They fear that such communication failures coupled with regular disregard for the scientific expertise of those at the CDC are undermining the institutions we need to positively impact public health. To improve communication, public health officials at the federal, state, and local levels must be: truthful and accurate, informed and current, aware of the audience, cautious of communication minefields, willing to quit or face termination. Health communicators play a “vital and visible leadership role” and they serve as the “backbone of the public health response.”

COVID-19 Reports from the BioWeapons Prevention Project

Since 2006, the BioWeapons Preventions Project (BWPP) and Richard Guthrie teamed up to produce daily reports from intergovernmental meetings of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to arise, this team is providing an additional series of reports that delves into lessons (hopefully) to be learned from past BWC activities, and discusses the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as examines impacts of the pandemic on future BWC activities. These reports are available here.

Data Integrity in COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic response has been fraught with inaccuracies and mistakes. Rebekah Jones, a data scientist for the Florida State Health Department, was fired last month; she helped develop Florida’s COVID-19 data portal. After her termination, she created her own COVID-19 dashboard using data that the former superiors wanted her to manipulate to make the number of coronavirus cases appear significantly lower. Her refusal to falsify her findings instigated her dismissal. Jones’ untainted dashboard shows that only 2 Florida counties are ready for the next phase of reopening, a conclusion that her former bosses at the Health Department did not accept. In another abuse of data, Vice President Mike Pence urged governors to spread the misleading claim that the rises in COVID-19 infections are primarily due to increased testing. According to a data analysis by the New York Times, in over a dozen states, the rates of positive cases are outpacing the increase in the average number of tests. Pence also characterized these surges in cases as “marginal.” Data from the CDC show a decrease in coronavirus hospitalizations nationally, but an increase in positive cases, and the number of coronavirus-related deaths could increase as more data are collected.

OpenSmartEDU: Tools & Resources for Higher Education Operations in COVID-19

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and Tuscany Strategy Consulting (TSC) collaborated to develop a free resource, OpenSmartEDU, to “guide colleges and universities in planning operating strategies for both the near- and long-term amid the many challenges of COVID-19.” This resource boasts 3 planning tools: the COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Self-Assessment Calculator, and the Higher Education Planning Tool. The COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education is a practical planning tool to help institutions in two ways: (1) poses four central questions to determine if an institution is prepared to reopen for each of the major COVID-19 Phases and (2) outlines leadership, cross-functional, and functional workgroups to support comprehensive planning efforts. The Guide also provides additional guidelines, resources, and media reports to aid institutional planning. The Self-Assessment Calculator is an interactive Excel spreadsheet designed to help institutions identify and understand their baseline risk and the possible impacts that major countermeasures may have on their risk scores. The Higher Education Planning Tool (coming soon) will allow institutions to assign work, develop timelines, and incorporate important considerations in a live and centrally-located worksheet that available to multiple stakeholders.

Bat-Borne Virus Diversity, Spillover and Emergence

A recent article in Nature Reviews Microbiology discusses the latest advancements and findings regarding bat-borne viruses, considers current gaps in knowledge, and outlines the potential paths for future research, outbreak response activities, and prevention efforts. The majority of human viral pathogens are zoonotic and developed via cross-species transmission. Several human viruses – Ebola virus, Marburg virus, Nipah virus, Hendra virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS), and Middle East respiratory coronavirus (MERS) – have been linked to different bat species. Despite this list, the fields of bat virus ecology and molecular biology remain nascent and largely unexplored, compromising our ability to anticipate and prepare for the next outbreak of a bat-borne virus. Read the article here.

Pandora Report: 6.12.2020

Dr. Andy Kilianski in Operation Warp Speed

Dr. Andy Kilianski, an adjunct professor in the GMU Biodefense Graduate Program, is one of the newly appointed experts leading the Department of Defense’s arm of Operation Warp Speed (OWS). Operation Warp Speed is a public-private partnership created to efficiently facilitate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 countermeasures. Kilianski was appointed as the subject matter expert in “security and assistance” for this fast-moving Manhattan Project-style initiative. According to Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, “Strengthening cyberbiosecurity is a vital element of our national effort to develop new vaccines and therapeutics against COVID-19. Kilianski’s appointment is a perfect illustration of how the biodefense program tries to bridge the gap between science and policy.” At the start of June, OWS announced five COVID-19 vaccine candidates: Moderna’s mRNA1273, AstraZeneca and Oxford University’s AZD1222, a candidate from Johnson & Johnson, a candidate from Merck, and Pfizer and BioNTech’s BNT162.

New Guidance for Decision Makers on Assessing COVID-19 Data

The newly established Societal Experts Action Network (SEAN) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) produced a rapid expert consultation to guide leaders using COVID-19 measurements, such as hospitalizations and number of confirmed cases, to better understand the disease’s spread in their regions. SEAN connects decision makers with researchers in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences to relay evidence-based expert guidance regarding local, state, and federal policies and responses related to COVID-19. This guide was created to facilitate insight into the strengths and weaknesses of COVID-19 data by applying 5 criteria to 7 types of data available to support decision making. The goal is to guide decision-makers toward the data type most appropriate to answer each of their questions, and then to use that data effectively. The 7 data types are the number of confirmed cases, hospitalizations, emergency department visits, reported confirmed COVID-19 deaths, excess deaths, the fraction of viral tests that are positive, and representative prevalence surveys (viral and antibody tests). The 5 criteria are representativeness; bias; uncertainty, and measurement and sampling error; time; and space. Read the full guide here.

The Military and Pandemics: Early Lessons and Future Actions

This week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted an online event to discuss the major steps taken by the US military toward augmenting the civilian medical system while simultaneously sustaining its own operations. This discussion focused on lessons learned, the possibility of restructuring military services to improve future responses to events such as pandemics. Panelists included Lieutenant General David Barno (Ret.) from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Nora Bensahel from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and Melanie Marlowe from the CSIS International Security Program.

The overarching theme and point of agreement across the three panelists was the inevitability of major changes in direction, priorities, and budget of the US military. Regarding the budget, the Department of Defense (DoD) should expect a significant drop that likely requires scaling back or eliminating large legacy programs and the shrinking of active duty forces. Barno expects priorities to shift from an external focus on protecting Americans to protecting Americans at home as the cyber and space domains continue to surpass the land, air, and sea domains. The traditional defense barriers placed around the world by the US military are ill-equipped to protect those on US soil, as we are currently experiencing in the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, Barno anticipates that the reserve component of the military will play a bigger role now as it is essentially a dual-purpose force that helps provide food and supplies and augments civilian medical efforts in national emergencies along with its more soldierly objectives. Bensahel stressed the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest catastrophe to hit the US since World War II; the death toll from COVID-19 now exceeds that of all US military deaths in overseas events since World War II. She also asserts that national security will now be redefined as Americans shift their notion of national security as susceptible to outside threats, like state or non-state actors, to susceptible to intangible threats. Americans will think more of their own personal security. Marlowe maintains that the military should not be the linchpin responder in a national emergency, such as a pandemic, but that the civilian sector should be the primary responder. As a support to the civilian efforts to contain the spread of the virus and treat infected individuals, the US military erected field hospitals, moved important cargo, evacuated US citizens from other nations, and provided hospital ships. In summary, the US military is about to undergo significant changes in its resources and objectives as the pandemic alters the meaning and parameters of national security. View the recording of this event here.

Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean False Allegations of Biological Weapons Use During the Korean War

During the Korean War, the USSR, China, and North Korea accused the US of using biological weapons against enemies. After the construction of the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, the first high containment laboratory in the Republic of Georgia, the Kremlin accused Lugar Center, along with other US-backed laboratories, of producing biological weapons. Throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, mudslinging accusations that SARS-CoV-2 is a biological weapon are being flung from many China, Iran, Russia, and the United States. China has carried on a disinformation campaign against the US using unfounded claims that the US military introduced the new virus into Wuhan last fall during the Military World Games. Iranian officials have insistently promoted conspiracy theories that COVID-19 is a biological weapon created by the US to target Iran and its pharmaceutical industry. Russia has bolstered the claims of Iran by peddling their conspiracies on social media platforms. US officials have accused China of sabotaging the R&D efforts of Western nations toward developing a COVID-19 vaccine. False allegations of bioweapons use are injurious geopolitical tactics that degrade the legitimacy and authority of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). The BTWC is a multilateral arms control treaty signed by 183 countries that bans the development, stockpile, production, and transfer of biological agents and toxins. False claims of BTWC violations weaken the treaty regime by compromising the efficacy of international cooperation and collaboration against tangible threats of bioterrorism.

Coronavirus: Asymptomatic Transmission Still an ‘Open Question’

Along with numerous other uncertainties persisting in the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of the disease’s transmission from asymptomatic patients is the latest to rouse media attention. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove is an infectious disease epidemiologist who serves as the WHO’s technical lead on the Covid-19 pandemic clarified that the actual rates of asymptomatic transmission are not yet known. Van Kerkhove’s clarification came just a day after her statement in an 8 June Press Conference that asymptomatic transmission is quite rare. At present, the data are not conclusive on the risk of asymptomatic spread. Adding insult to injury, there is confusion regarding the definition of an asymptomatic case. Though some cases of the virus are truly asymptomatic, the term is also applied to patients that have simply not begun to present with symptoms; some patients are in labeled as asymptomatic when they are actually presymptomatic. Asymptomatic cases are those that never present with symptoms, whereas presymptomatic cases are those individuals who test positive when they are symptom-free but later show them. These contradicting statements from the WHO are especially concerning given that research from different entities are finding that asymptomatic patients could be the cause of as much as half of the spread. The Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom has been routinely testing a sample of its population, finding that of those individuals testing positive for COVID-19, less than one-third report “any evidence of symptoms” at the time of testing. The uncertainty and contradicting statements regarding asymptomatic transmission leave the public and its decision-makers in a pickle: are asymptomatic cases fueling the spread of COVID-19, and, if so, how do we adjust our response efforts?

Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker

The New York Times published a Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker that provides updates on the status of vaccine candidates that have reached human trials as well as a selection of candidates in cell or animal testing. Vaccine candidates must make it through four important stages before regulatory approval: (1) Preclinical Testing in animals, (2) Phase I Safety Trials using a small number of human subjects, (3) Phase II Expanded Trials with hundreds of human subjects, and (4) Phase III Efficacy Trials with thousands of subjects. Normally, the process to approval is quite sluggish; however, under emergent conditions, there are options to accelerate a viable candidate to approval. The Tracker categorizes vaccine candidates as genetic, viral vector, protein-based, and whole-virus. View the Tracker here.

Pandora Report: 6.5.2020

Commentary – Violent Non-State Actors and COVID-19: Challenge or Opportunity?

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD Student, attended a Wilson Center webcast discussing the challenges and opportunities for non-state actors around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts on the panel include the Honorable Jane Harman, Dr. Duncan Wood, Eric Olson, Michael Kugelman, Dr. Louise Shelley, and Marina Ottaway. Read Kiesel’s event summary here.

Commentary – The Future Bioweapons Threat: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD Candidate, attended a webinar about the future threat of bioweapons given the ongoing pandemic, preparedness for the intentional use of bioweapons, and strategies for countering disinformation. Expert panelists include the Honorable Andrew C. Weber, GMU Alumna Dr. Saskia Popescu, Dr. Alexander Titus, and Max Brooks. Read Lim’s event summary here.

Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House Library

For anyone who missed the virtual open house or would like to revisit the event, the video recordings of the Schar School program directors are available in the Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House Library! Here, you will also find the application link and additional information about the Schar School and its research. For any questions, contact the Schar School Graduate Admissions Office at schar@gmu.edu.

US “Withdrawal” from WHO

At the end of May, the administration announced its withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) citing the body’s protection of China during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic as the final straw. This withdrawal follows the April decision to halt US funding to WHO. This decision has sparked outrage among the public health and biodefense communities. A statement from Ernest J. Moniz and Beth Cameron of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) warns that termination of the US-WHO relationship will “significantly impair the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, threaten American and global health, and undermine international security.” Instead, they encourage the administration to assume a leadership role in “strengthening the WHO’s ability to reduce biological risks, detect threats early, and respond rapidly and effectively.” The supposed withdrawal does not consider the gap the US will leave open in the international community, providing an opening for another global powerhouse, like China, to better secure its values and agendas. Additionally, there is uncertainty as to the legality of withdrawal from WHO, because the US is one of the state members of the WHO Constitution. According to Harold Hongju Koh of the Yale Law School, the administration lacks the legal ability to withdraw the US from the WHO and there are actions that can be undertaken by Congress or public health advocates to prevent a withdrawal if a method of legal withdrawal is found.

Point of View: Bioengineering Horizon Scan 2020

Horizon scanning is a type of foresight methodology in which systematic investigation is used to detect early signs of weak signals indicating potential change.  This methodology aims to identify the opportunities and threats associated with technological, regulatory, and social changes. This article posted in Genetics and Genomics reports results of a new horizon scan for bioengineering based on inputs from an international group of 38 participants. The authors identified 20 issues identified in the scan that are likely to realized within the next 5 years, 5-10 years, or 10+ years. These issues span several topics such as the regulation of genomic data, increased philanthropic funding, malicious uses of neurochemicals, crops for changing climates, and agricultural gene drives. Early identification of these issues is important for researchers, policy-makers and the general public.

How to Reopen America

COVID-19 has crippled US businesses, reducing the economy to a condition not seen since the Great Depression nearly a century ago. Since pandemic reached our soil, public health experts have stressed the need to practice social distancing and comply with shelter-in-place orders in order to flatted the infection curve and reduce the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and fatalities. Despite these directives and mandates, the impacts of the pandemic on public health, the economy, governance, and social wellbeing have been tremendous. The Brookings Institution just released a report analyzing how to reopen America and how to address fundamental issues. The experts who compiled this report present several ideas for protecting for protecting public health, restarting the overall economy, and improving social well-being. Read the full report here.

“The CDC Waited its Entire Existence for this Moment,” What Went Wrong?

A recent article in the New York Times outlines the critical missteps of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that weakened the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The article cites issues outdated technology, a lack of data, slow bureaucratic movement, conflicting guidelines, and a lack of cohesion within the administration as key factors contributing to the hampered response. Now, as the country initiates reopening, the CDC continues to struggle to provide clear and timely guidance relating to COVID-19. Mistrust is growing toward the once exalted health agency, even as the need for their direction and information remains. Read the full article here.

Did the SARS-CoV-2 virus arise from a bat coronavirus research program in a Chinese laboratory? Very possibly.

Milton Leitenberg, the first American recruited to work at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), discusses the still unknown origin of the SARS-CoV-2. Leitenberg asserts that there is not enough hard evidence to definitely claim that virus originated as a result of natural evolution or as an escapee of coronavirus bat research; the evidence is circumstantial thus far. There are two virology institutes in Wuhan that have conducted sizable projects on novel bat viruses and other animals have been infected with these viruses for research purposes. Unfortunately, laboratory accidents and the subsequent escape of dangerous pathogens are rather commonplace around the world. Suspiciously, Beijing has worked to obscure the origins of the pandemic with disinformation and withholding information. Given factors such as these, there is a possibility that the virus is the product of some type of laboratory accident. Calls continue for an international commission independent of the WHO to investigate the origins of the virus, whether it be zoonotic spillover or naturally-occurring; however, Leitenberg doubts the realization of such a commission. At present, the data indicate that SARS-CoV-2 is “uniquely adapted” to infect human hosts, but they do not provide any definitive insight into its conception.

The Council of Europe continues working to enhance international co-operation against terrorism, including bioterrorism

As the pandemic continues, the Council of Europe Committee on Counter-Terrorism (CDCT) is continuing its work to improve international cooperation against terrorism, both “traditional” and biological. Though the CDCT does not possess any concrete evidence of an elevated risk of a bioterrorism attack, it pledges to continue its efforts in developing legal standards, facilitating contacts between competent authorities, and organizing a coordinated and strong response to emerging threats. The CDCT encourages coordinated responses to bioterrorism threats, a variety of expert responders, and health and legal monitoring based on common surveillance systems for case detection. More resources from the CDCT regarding response to terrorism threats can be found here.

Pandora Report: 5.29.2020

Exploring the Frontiers of Innovation to Tackle Microbial Threats

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released proceedings from a workshop, dubbed Exploring the Frontiers of Innovation to Tackle Microbial Threats, help in December 2019. The workshop occurred, fittingly, in the same month as the birth of SARS-CoV-2, the viral agent of the COVID-19 pandemic the world is currently besieged by. This 1.5-day workshop of the Forum on Microbial Threats examined key developments in scientific, technological, and social innovations against microbial threats: diagnostics, vaccine development, antimicrobial therapies, nonpharmaceutical interventions, and disease surveillance tools. The proceedings outline important lessons learned, particularly regarding spurred innovations, from the poliovirus eradication campaign as well as the the on-the-ground work to quell Ebola virus disease outbreaks in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Dr. Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), moderated the panel on incubating R&D through novel ecosystems. The output also includes content from panels regarding systematic approaches to motivate innovations in antimicrobial resistance R&D, barriers to access and use of innovations, and strategies to overcome barriers to innovation uptake. The full report can be found here.

FAS Announces the COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) announced the launch of its COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force, an amalgamation of dozens of scientists and experts from across the United States. The Task Force is being established as a resource for federal and state legislators as well as other policymakers seeking sound scientific information regarding COVID-19 related topics. Such topics span biomedical research needs, diagnostic test development, and contact tracing challenges, all of which are important to reopening while containing the virus. The Task Force provides an open channel of communication to experts in numerous areas of need.

Student Spotlight: Laura Schmidt Denlinger

Schar School Biodefense PhD student Laura Schmidt Denlinger was promoted to the role of Deputy Team Chief for Counterproliferation Programs in the State Department Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation‘s Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction (ISN/CTR). As such, she coordinates CTR capacity-building programs that strengthen foreign partners’ ability to implement United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding WMD proliferation by North Korea and Iran, as well as the Chemical Security Program, Partnership for Nuclear Threat Reduction Program, and other lines of effort to counter emerging WMD proliferation threats.

GHSA Chair COVID-19 Statement

Dr. Roland Driece, Chair of the Global Health Security Agenda, recently provided a statement on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the role of the GHSA2024. Emphasizing the role of international coordination and unification of efforts from governments to NGOs, Driece noted that this event should not be seen as an indicator that our efforts to prepare have failed, but rather that “Because of the work of GHSA, we have more information than in any previous outbreak about which countries have the most prepared systems, and where the international community needs to direct assistance. As countries and partners work to respond to spread of COVID-19, national plans supported by the International Health Regulations and Joint External Evaluations are guiding action and providing resources for decision making, prioritisation, and actions.” Through the extraordinary efforts of everyone ranging from lab to information systems, this naturally occurring event coordinated to respond and it will require the continued investment in preparedness to response and prevent future pandemics.

New Evidence on Disease Dynamics

The raging pandemic has spurred a deluge of interesting new and early release articles in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A study transmission examining a cluster of COVID-19 cases associated with a shopping mall in Wenzhou, China indicated indirect transmission of the causative agent, likely via contaminated objects, virus aerosolization in confined spaces, or spread from close contact with asymptomatic infected persons. Another research team collected information on individual case reports and domestic travel across China to estimate important epidemiological measures, such as the disease’s incubation period and R0. Specifically, they found that in the early days of the outbreak, the doubling time was 2.3-3.3 days and the median R0 could hit 5.7, numbers that support the criticality of surveillance, contact tracing, and social distancing to slow transmission. A third study confirmed asymptomatic and human-to-human transmission via close contacts in family and hospital settings, information useful for practice in clinical diagnosis and treatment. Relatedly, further research found evidence supporting the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 while an infected patient was presymptomatic or asymptomatic. Transmission of the virus from presymptomatic and asymptomatic cases impacts the types of public health interventions needed to contain the virus. An analysis of coronavirus patients from Vietnam indicated that the virus was transmitted from a traveler from China. Additionally, an asymptomatic patient showed viral shedding, more evidence that transmission can occur in the absence of clinical signs and symptoms. An article examining transmission from a presymptomatic attendee at a meeting in Germany found evidence that the disease was further transmitted via handshaking and face-to-face contact. Read all these articles here.

Commentary – Public Policy in the Pandemic Age: How COVID-19 Is Reshaping Our Government, Economy, and Society

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD Student, attended a GMU webinar featuring a discussion among a panel of experts regarding public health response strategies, economic impacts of lockdown, and potential longer-term implications of COVID-19. The panel included experts in economics, presidential leadership, emergency management, and disease transmission. Read the full commentary here.

 

Pandora Report: 5.22.2020

Congrats to GMU Biodefense Graduates and Award Recipients!
While they won’t get to walk across the stage and celebrations are being done virtually, we are so proud of our new Schar School Biodefense graduate students who have completed their studies and are already out on the frontlines working to combat COVID-19. Our new PhD graduates are Ashley Hess, Margaret Midyette, Katherine Paris, and Saskia Popescu. New graduates of the MS program include Daniel Cooper, Edward Cope, Joseph DeFranco, Michael Krug, Alexandra Pugh, Georgia Ray, and Hwa Yun. We’re also excited to announce that Maliheh Bitaraf, Diana Ciricean, and John Kisko have just completed their Biodefense certificates. Congrats! During this graduation, three students are presented with Graduate Student Awards and we’re proud to announce that Michael Krug is the 2020 Outstanding Biodefense MS Student, Saskia Popescu is the Outstanding Biodefense PhD Student, and Yong-Bee Lim has received the Frances Harbour Award. Read more about our recipients here.

‘I Can’t Turn My Brain Off’: PTSD and Burnout Threaten Medical Workers
Though health care workers were already vulnerable to depression and suicide, the additional stress of COVID-19 further threatens their mental health as signs of stress- and trauma-related disorders rise. This New York Times piece by Jan Hoffman highlights how our health care heroes are hurting under the weight and losses from COVID-19. In tandem, a commentary by GMU’s own Madeline Roty describes the criticality of prioritizing the mental health of health care workers in and out of crises. The recent suicides of Dr. Lorna Breen and EMT John Mondello are heart-wrenching wakeup calls about the insufficient resources and support for the mental health of medical workers. Existing resources have experienced a surge in demand since the pandemic started as workers struggle with increased duties ands stress regarding the care of their patients, while being denied sufficient access to PPE and proper training for new policies and protocols. Additionally, workers suffer from the disconnect between themselves and their social networks – families, friends, and physical contact with both. The therapeutic power of a loving hug is no longer an option at the end of a grueling, and likely long, shift. The full article is available here.

The Coronavirus Chronicles
We recently introduced our new series, The Coronavirus Chronicles, which is a collection of stories, based on the personal and professional experiences of the faculty, students, and alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program, about life during the pandemic. From lab safety to parenting and even healthcare work, The Coronavirus Chronicles have detailed the lives of so many of our students and alumni working in COVID-19 response. We hope these stories help the public better understand the challenges posed by COVID-19 and how current and former members of the Biodefense Graduate Program have responded to these challenges and contributed to the pandemic response at the local, national, and international levels. This week, we’re launching a new story by biodefense graduate student Madeline Roty, who discusses the psychology effects of virus outbreaks. As you read above, this is a very real issue and extends beyond healthcare workers. Roty notes that “Fear of infecting others and time in quarantine or isolation contribute to psychological distress. Some healthcare workers have been forced to quarantine due to exposure to the virus or isolate after becoming infected. Many others are choosing to adhere to a modified quarantine in which they go to work but separate themselves from family, even in the absence of a known exposure.” Read her analysis into mental health and outbreaks here

The Future Bioweapons Threat: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic
Looking for a webinar to discuss lessons learned from COVID-19 and the implications for bioweapons threat analysis? The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is thrilled to present its first LIVE webinar on May 28 from 3:00-4:30pm EST, which will examine the future bioweapons threat from the perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists include Max Brooks, author of World War Z and Devolution, Nonresident Fellow at The Modern War Institute and Atlantic Council, Honorable Andrew C. “Andy” Weber, Senior Fellow at Council on Strategic Risks, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the Pentagon, GMU Biodefense alum Dr. Saskia Popescu, Epidemiologist and Senior Infection Preventionist, HonorHealth, and Dr. Alexander Titus, Chief Strategy Officer, Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute and Senior Fellow at Council on Strategic Risks. Register for event here.

Everyone Wins from Vaccine Cooperation
In a time of increasing finger-pointing, the best chance we have at a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is likely through international coordination and cooperation. Dr. Kendall Hoyt, friend of GMU Biodefense, worked with Susan Athey and Michael Kremer to discuss the critical need for vaccine cooperation on international levels. Vaccine R&D isn’t easy and frankly, incurs a lot of risk. “The best way to manage these risks is to collaborate. Multilateral investment in a diversified portfolio of vaccine candidates would help to scale up production capacity as soon as a vaccine’s safety and efficacy have been established. Provided that much remains unknown about the novel coronavirus, we estimate that an investment of about $145 billion (.17% of world GDP) would be ideal, but that a program just half that size would yield substantial benefits. Although the United States and China are pursuing individual investment strategies, both could still advance their own national interests through international collaboration, either by way of the ACT Accelerator or via pooled contracts negotiated directly between countries and firms.” As the authors emphasize, global coordination doesn’t just reduce risk through managing supply chain disruptions, but also ensures export controls don’t interfere and ultimately, the benefits can be more broadly distributed.

Planning for a COVID-19 Vaccination Program
A commentary published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a group of medical doctors at Children’s National Hospital urge the public health community to initiate a proactive educational campaign to inoculate both the general public and health care workers against misinformation about the imminent COVID-19 vaccine. More specifically, this campaign should engage via traditional (television, radio, print ads) and social media platforms immediately to monitor, counter, and prevent the dissemination of false beliefs regarding the forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine.  The authors recommend four steps to promote widespread public acceptance of the vaccine: (1) rapid and equitable distribution of a vaccine immediately after confirmation of its efficacy and safety; (2) any plan for mass vaccination should address probable hurdles to vaccine acceptance using “linguistically and culturally competent messaging”; (3) public health leaders should design a robust COVID-19 vaccine educational campaign that incorporates social and traditional media, with foci on countering misinformation and leveraging the popularity of influencers; and (4) front line health care workers should be trained on how to convey strong recommendations for COVID-19 vaccine uptake. The article is available to read for free here.

Dr. Andrew Kilianski: Professor, Scientist, and Security Expert
Dr. Andrew Kilianski, an adjunct professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government’s Biodefense Graduate Program, is among the newly appointed experts leading the Department of Defense’s contribution to Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics for use against COVID-19. Specifically, Dr. Kilianski was appointed the subject matter expert leading DOD’s support in the area of Security and Assistance for this new Manhattan Project-style initiative. His role will presumably relate to defending vaccine researchers and pharmaceutical firms against cyberespionage threats. US and British cybersecurity agencies have issued multiple warnings about attempts by countries such as China and Iran to hack universities and private firms in order to steal intellectual property related to research on COVID-19 medical countermeasures. According to Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School, “Strengthening cyberbiosecurity is a vital element of our national effort to develop new vaccines and therapeutics against COVID-19. Dr. Kilianski’s appointment is a perfect illustration of how the Biodefense program tries to bridge the gap between science and policy.” Dr. Kilianski has been teaching courses on viral threat agents and biosurveillance for the Biodefense program since 2016. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced George Mason, and universities around the country, to shift to online teaching, Dr. Kilianski was already in the middle of teaching his virology course online. The Biodefense Graduate Program rotates all of its courses between being offered online and in-person, enabling students anywhere in the world to complete the entire Master’s degree online. The flexibility offered by online courses is not only good for students, but also allowed Dr. Kilianski to continue teaching even while he faced increased demands at work for his expertise. When classes resume in the fall, Dr. Koblentz noted, “Dr. Kilianski will be able to bring unique insights back into the classroom. Not everyone gets a professor with that kind of experience.” Since 2019, Dr. Kilianski has served as the Chief Intelligence Officer (CIO) for Chemical, Biological, Nuclear, and Radiological (CBRN) Defense for the Department of Defense. His previous work at DOD encompassed weapons of mass destruction, infectious diseases, and emerging biotechnology. Prior to joining DOD, Dr. Kilianski was a National Academy of Sciences Fellow with the US Army at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, where he conducted cutting-edge research on integrated biosurveillance and the identification and characterization of novel agents that threaten warfighters. Dr. Kilianski earned his PhD in Microbiology and Immunology from Loyola University Medical Center where he specialized in the study of coronaviruses. His scientific research has been published in an array of notable journals such as PLoS Pathogens, Journal of Virology, and Emerging Infectious Diseases. His research included the discovery of virus-host interactions necessary for coronavirus pathogenesis and research on vaccines and antiviral agents against the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses.

A Healthy Dose of Realism: Stopping COVID-19 Doesn’t Start with the WHO
Dr. Frank Smith III, the director of the Cyber and Innovation Policy Institute (CIPI) at the US Naval War College, encourages a renewed viewpoint on the COVID-19 response and how to make progress. Smith proposes that states, leaders, and organizations abandon their mud-slinging behaviors toward the World Health Organization (WHO) and, instead, focus on leveraging international partnerships and cooperation to combat COVID-19. According to Smith, the WHO is a relatively weak entity that bows to the will of powerful states, thereby echoing the balance of power in the world. Instead of throwing stones at the WHO, focus should shift to power nation-states that can act swiftly and significantly. He encourages concerted action between the United States and China, following the footsteps of the unprecedented collaboration between the US and Russia in the smallpox eradication campaign. The full article is available here.

STGlobal Consortium Seeking Graduate Students for STS/STP Conference
The STGlobal Consortium is now seeking graduate student volunteers to serve on the planning committee for our 2021 STS/STP conference, to be held in April 2021 in Washington, DC.  As you may know, the STGlobal Conference is a student-run and student-focused conference focused on the societal and policy aspects of science and technology, including such related concerns as sustainability, science communication, and science education.  Programming will include opportunities for graduate students to present and receive feedback upon research in a friendly and collaborative environment; workshops for development of research and professional skills; and opportunities to connect with students, professionals, and organizations working in the aforementioned areas. Service on the planning committee offers students a valuable opportunity to gain experience in the organization and facilitation of an academic conference, as well as to communicate and collaborate with other students in their fields from across the United States and the world.  If you know any graduate students who might be interested in serving this year, please pass on this message to them directly; and please feel free to disseminate this communication among your networks.  Students who wish to participate should email contact@stglobal.org for further information.

 

 

 

Pandora Report: 5.15.2020

The Coronavirus Chronicles
We recently introduced our new series,The Coronavirus Chronicles, which is a collection of stories, based on the personal and professional experiences of the faculty, students, and alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program, about life during the pandemic. From lab safety to parenting and even healthcare work, The Coronavirus Chronicles have detailed the lives of so many of our students and alumni working in COVID-19 response. We hope these stories help the public better understand the challenges posed by COVID-19 and how current and former members of the Biodefense Graduate Program have responded to these challenges and contributed to the pandemic response at the local, national, and international levels. This week, we’re launching a new story by biodefense doctoral alum Jomana Musmar, who shares how she’s responding to COVID-19 with HHS while multitasking as a mother and spouse to an ED physician. Jomana’s experiences provide insight into the challenges we’re facing in terms of pandemic response and lesson we can all take away, noting that “Another important lesson learned is the need for everyone—from households to corporations to governments—to have a Plan B for continuity of operations for every aspect of life. Our reliance on the internet, laptops, and mobile phones has shown how pivotal a role this technology plays in being able to survive.”

COVID-19 Reopening and Recovery: Proposed Plans for the US
GMU biodefense doctoral student and Pandora Report associate editor Rachel-Paige Casey is breaking down the recovery plans to help get the U.S. back from COVID-19. “Throughout April, strategies regarding the reopening of the US economy and its associated public health factors were published by the White House with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. The four strategies discussed here either outline phases for resuming activity or describe systems to enable and assist safe reopening.” Casey details the four strategies, their phases, and provides a risk assessment in this detailed review of what experts are suggesting for COVID-19 recovery. Read more here.

Schar School Event- Public Policy in the Pandemic Age: How COVID-19 is Reshaping our Government, Economy, and Society
Join the Schar School Faculty, Alumni, Schar Alumni Chapter, and Dean Mark Rozell for an engaging virtual panel on the future of public policy post COVID-19 – COVID-19: How the Pandemic is Reshaping our Government, Economy, and Society. This virtual event will be moderated by Biodefense Graduate Program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and will be held from 2-3:30pm EST on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting unprecedented challenges to the United States and the rest of the world. Not since the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 have we experienced a pandemic of this scale and severity. Aside from the steep and growing human toll of the outbreak, virtually every aspect of our personal and professional lives are being affected. The sheer breadth of issues impacted by COVID-19 is overwhelming: public health, medicine, government, the economy, international trade, education, national security, politics, and technology, to name just a few. The effects of the pandemic are also magnified by existing cleavages within our society ranging from hyperpartisanship to racial disparities to socioeconomic inequalities. You can read more about our distinguished panel members and register for the event here.

The Future Bioweapons Threat: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic
Looking for a webinar to discuss lessons learned from COVID-19 and the implications for bioweapons threat analysis? The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is thrilled to present its first LIVE webinar on May 28 from 3:00-4:30pm EST, which will examine the future bioweapons threat from the perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists include Max Brooks, author of World War Z and Devolution, Nonresident Fellow at The Modern War Institute and Atlantic Council, Honorable Andrew C. “Andy” Weber, Senior Fellow at Council on Strategic Risks, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the Pentagon, GMU Biodefense alum Dr. Saskia Popescu, Epidemiologist and Senior Infection Preventionist, HonorHealth, and Dr. Alexander Titus, Chief Strategy Officer, Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute and Senior Fellow at Council on Strategic Risks. Register for event here.

 Social Distancing During Pandemics According to the GAO
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a brief report about the science behind social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19. Based on historical studies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asserts that the area of highest risk is within 3 feet of an infected individual, but a buffer radius of 6 feet is recommended. These recommendations are founded on studies in the fields such as fluid mechanics, epidemiology, and microbiology. Other studies found that infectious droplets can travel beyond 6 feet, but the degree of infectivity of particles that travel relatively long distances is uncertain. The distance that an infectious droplet can travel depends on several factors such droplet size, humidity level, and air currents. For instance, the smaller the droplet, the farther it can potentially travel. The goal of social distancing (keeping a personal bubble with a 6-foot radius) is to reduce the rate of transmission; however, it is not a perfect non-medical countermeasure. The speeds and distances of viral particle travel from coughing or sneezing are difficult to determine with absolute precision. Additional challenges beyond the science and calculations are related to the difficulty in application: the psychological impacts of social distancing and isolation are yet to be fully realized. Read the full two-page here.

DHS S&T Launches Indoor Predictive Modeling Tool for Coronavirus Stability
This week, the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a predictive modeling tool that estimates the natural decay of SARS-CoV-2 based on temperature within the 70-95°F range and relative humidity between 20-60%. The current iteration of the model is for stainless steel or ABS plastic surface types; nitrile (a compound used in disposable gloves) surface type will be available soon. For example, on a stainless steel or ABS plastic surface with a temperature of 77°F/25°C and relative humidity of 33%, the half-life of the virus is 11.52 hours, or 0.48 days. This model was developed to inform response efforts regarding the persistence of the virus on certain surfaces (fomites) and under specific combinations of conditions. Additional enhancements in the pipeline for this model include droplets in the air vs. on a surface, expanded temperature and humidity ranges, different surfaces. The model can be found here.

Pandemic dispatch: An infection-prevention expert on shortages, misinformation, and health worker strain on the coronavirus front line
GMU Biodefense doctoral alum and infection prevention epidemiologist Saskia Popescu discusses her experiences on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic. “For the past four months, I’ve had a front row seat to the coronavirus pandemic. Working in a major hospital system, I’ve seen first-hand the issues that have come to define the crisis: the concerns about supplies, the torrent of misinformation, and the critical problem of health care worker exposure to COVID-19. Infection preventionists such as myself work in hospitals to stop the spread of infections among patients, staff, and visitors alike. Despite our training, the coronavirus has tested hospital programs like mine, forcing us to drastically change our daily practices.” Read more here.

News of the Weird: Pajama Sales in a Pandemic
Though many industries are struggling to survive as sales have plummeted during the response to COVID-19. Pajamas, however, are in high demand as many of us remain at home; pajama sales have soared by 143%since lockdown. Real pants are optional when working from home.   According to CNN Business, eCommerce sales were up almost 50% in April, because in-person retail shopping is currently limited, if not impossible. Other items with growing demand include beer and liquor and creative audio equipment like sound mixers.

News of the Weird: Cocktail-Friendly Face Masks
Artist Ellen Macomber designed an unconventional face mask that sports a small hole fit for a straw that allows the wearer to enjoy cocktails in Covid-19. Macomber is based in the Big Easy, also called New Orleans, a city known for its round-the-clock party life. These bedazzled and flamboyant face masks run $60 a pop. She does admit that the masks are not the “best form of prevention” given its opening right into the mouth.

Biosecurity Is the Lesson We Need to Learn from the Coronavirus Pandemic
Dr. Daniel Gerstein, graduate of the Biodefense PhD program, and Dr. James Giordano wrote in The National Interest about the biosecurity lessons we need to learn from the coronavirus pandemic. Though there is no scientific evidence that the novel coronavirus was human-made, humans do bear some the blame for this pandemic. Humans disrupt and destroy the environment and its habitats, mix species as bush meat in wet markets, and experiment with dangerous pathogens. The COVID-19 pandemic and the human behavior that encouraged it signal the need to develop a new approach to biosafety and biosecurity that “addresses the full range of biological threats that humankind and the global environment will face in the future.” As humans continue to intrude into natural habitats, the risk of zoonotic disease spillover continues to increase. Over the last thirty years, 30 new human pathogens have been found, most of which originated in animals. Gerstein and Giordano encourage the expansion of biosafety and biosecurity to include consideration of the global biological ecosystem. Read the full article here.

WHO Announces the Launch of New Informational Apps
The World Health Organization (WHO) launched two COVID-19 apps for smartphones. One is for healthcare workers and the other is for the general public. For healthcare workers, the WHO Academy app provides information on COVID-19 resources, guidance, training, and virtual workshops. For the general public, the WHO Info app provides access to the latest COVID-19 news and developments. Both apps can be downloaded for free from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store.

 

Pandora Report: 5.8.2020

Welcome to your weekly report on all things global health security – have you been wondering if a gym or coffee shop is safer to visit when things re-open? Check out this review here – but don’t forget to wash your hands!

The Coronavirus Chronicles
Last week we introduced our new series,The Coronavirus Chronicles, which is a collection of stories, based on the personal and professional experiences of the faculty, students, and alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program, about life during the pandemic. We hope these stories help the public better understand the challenges posed by COVID-19 and how current and former members of the Biodefense Graduate Program have responded to these challenges and contributed to the pandemic response at the local, national, and international levels. This week, we’re launching three more stories – doctoral student Janet Marroquin discusses conducting analyses of various chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense capabilities while also starting a PhD and parenting during the pandemic. One feature you’ll see this week is a focus on how labs are working to reopen in the midst of COVID-19. David Grimm noted this recently as “one of the biggest challenges labs face is how to keep their members physically distanced to limit any potential spread of SARS-CoV-2.” Check out our two lab-based stories in this week’s Coronavirus Chronicles for insight into how this unique, but critical work environment is trying to safely reopen. One of our graduate students delves into working in the laboratory setting and the challenges of biosafety and research, followed by Travis Swaggard who is a senior biologist and discusses what it’s like working with SARS-CoV-2 and testing different regions of the SARS-CoV-2 genome from synthetically derived sections of the virus. Read their full stories here in The Coronavirus Chronicles.

Schar School Event- Public Policy in the Pandemic Age: How COVID-19 is Reshaping our Government, Economy, and Society
Join the Schar School Faculty, Alumni, Schar Alumni Chapter, and Dean Mark Rozell for an engaging virtual panel on the future of public policy post COVID-19 – COVID-19: How the Pandemic is Reshaping our Government, Economy, and Society. This virtual event will be moderated by Biodefense Graduate Program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and will be held from 2-3:30pm EST on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting unprecedented challenges to the United States and the rest of the world. Not since the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 have we experienced a pandemic of this scale and severity. Aside from the steep and growing human toll of the outbreak, virtually every aspect of our personal and professional lives are being affected. The sheer breadth of issues impacted by COVID-19 is overwhelming: public health, medicine, government, the economy, international trade, education, national security, politics, and technology, to name just a few. The effects of the pandemic are also magnified by existing cleavages within our society ranging from hyperpartisanship to racial disparities to socioeconomic inequalities. You can read more about our distinguished panel members and register for the event here.

Complications and Misinterpretations about COVID-19 Testing
The development and employment of rapid and reliable diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2 infection are a hot topic as we continue to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first several weeks of the pandemic, the US failed to launch an adequate testing infrastructure that would enable sufficient testing capacity with reliable and valid testing methods. Molecular diagnostic techniques, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19, are espoused for their sensitivity (true positive rate), specificity (true negative rate), and safety. Molecular diagnostics can be performed on inactivated samples and are capable of detecting microbial DNA and RNA that are heavily diluted. An additional advantage of the molecular tests is their ability to distinguish between strains of the same virus, bacteria, or fungus. Serologic techniques look for the antibodies that are produced by the immune system to fight off a microbe; these types of tests can also detect exposure after an infection has resolved. Serology helps identify cases that occurred with very mild or no symptoms. Within the discussions about the need for diagnostic testing for COVID-19, the focus has recently shifted from molecular to serologic tests. It is important to note that these tests do not guarantee whether an individual has developed immunity to a specific pathogen. As of 5 May, the FDA has issued Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) to 60 test kit manufacturers and commercial laboratories producing molecular and serological tests, but only a dozen of these are received approval for serological diagnostics. Most of these EUAs are for diagnostics to be conducted in laboratories certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvements Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) to perform high complexity tests; some are approved for use in laboratories certified to perform moderate complexity tests. A recent survey of New York City discovered that 1 in 5 residents carried antibodies for the novel coronavirus, which indicates that they were exposed to the virus. This result confirms the fear of many experts that the lack of testing has led to an underestimation of the number of infections; for NYC, the estimated was one-tenth of the true number of infections. The fact that 20% of the NYC population may carry the antibodies does not necessitate that all those individuals developed immunity to COVID-19. Dr. Saskia Popescu, a Biodefense PhD graduate, pointed out that epidemiology for COVID-19 is leaning heavily on these imperfect tests, a dangerous move given that many individuals remain susceptible to infection. Popescu’s concerns echoes the cautions raised by other scientists that the presence of antibodies does not signify immunity, and even those who were infected but asymptomatic may be at risk of a second infection. Additional improved tests are needed to better assess the significance of antibodies in previously infected patients.

GMU Institute for Sustainable Earth – Pandemic Webinars
The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic reveal both fragilities and resiliencies in our global society. Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth is hosting a webinar series to investigate some of these dimensions of the current health and economic crises through the lens of sustainability science. In moderated discussions with sustainability experts, these webinars will also explore how society could recover to a more resilient and sustainable state. Each week you can attend a new webinar regarding everything from preparedness and social resilience, ecological health, and social inequalities and the disparities of impact. Make sure you catch the Preparedness and Social Resilience event next week on Tuesday, May 12th from 2-3pm, which will include Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Associate Professor of Government and Politics and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program.

The Conspiracy Continues: Theories Persist that COVID-19 Came from a Lab
Despite a throng of scientists and researchers debunking the theories that COVID-19 was born from a Chinese laboratory, the accusations and fears that the pandemic is the result of a laboratory release linger. On 3 May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there is “enormous evidence” that the novel coronavirus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a claim made despite the assessment of the intelligence community concluding that the virus is neither human-made nor genetically modified. The magnitude of this supposed evidence is repeatedly stated but the specifics of it are not. Actual scientific evidence supports the expectation that SARS-CoV-2 is naturally-occurring and originated from bats before spilling over into the human population. Dr. Greg Koblentz, Director of the GMU Biodefense Graduate Program, further squashed the idea that the novel coronavirus was created in a laboratory based on what is known about the biology of the virus. Koblentz points out that there is little evidence suggesting a cover-up by the Chinese government for a supposed lab breach. The WIV’s transparency regarding genomic sequencing of the virus supports the more reasonable conclusion that they are not the source. Some of these conspiracy theories use the WIV’s extensive research on deadly bat viruses as a foundation for their claims. Such research activities are not hidden and much is event detailed in over 40 published studies and academic papers. Though the source of the virus is quite unlikely to be a villainous origin, its origin may not be isolated to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London encourages carrying out a credible investigation to unveil a complete picture of the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. Further, though there is minimal hard evidence that the pandemic could have been the result of a laboratory failure, even a remote possibility brings into question the stringency and efficacy of safety in basic scientific research. A study published in March found that only 45% of the first 435 COVID-19 patients had connections to the seafood market in Wuhan, supporting the notion that the virus was present in other settings from the beginning. That said, this evidence does not indicate that the origin is the WIV or another laboratory that developed the novel coronavirus through manipulation. The pathogen is almost certainly a product of nature, but a comprehensive understanding of the factors and conditions that led to this pandemic will provide valuable insight for handling the next outbreak.

Arizona Puts Politics Above Pandemic Response
Earlier this week an infectious disease modeling team from Arizona State University, which had been providing models to the state health department and through publicly-available resources, was quietly release from their duties and told to return the data. Not long after, the rumblings of concern that this was a politically-motivated decision, became increasingly loud. The suspension of the COVID-19 modeling working group was just after President Trump visited Phoenix, AZ (where the group is based) and ultimately, their findings weren’t aligning with Gov. Ducey’s sudden push to re-open the state. In fact, the decision to disband the modeling team was made just hours after Gov. Ducey decided to rapidly accelerate the opening of the state. Originally set for May 15th, it was announced earlier this week that businesses like salons and restaurants would re-open starting on Friday, May 8th. The concerns for this as a politically motivated decision were quickly made by AZPHA in their post here, which noted that “The letter asking them to stop work didn’t provide any reason for the request except that it was at the direction of ADHS’ senior leadership. The only remaining predictive model that the state health department is now using has been developed by FEMA.  Neither that model nor the predictive modeling results from the FEMA model are publicly available. Last night’s action to disband the Arizona COVID-19 Modeling Working Group begs the question of whether the Modeling Working Group was discontinued because they had been producing results that were inconsistent with messaging and decisions being made by the executive branch.” Within a few days, it got national attention and gave rise to concern that the push to prematurely re-open states could be impeding public health efforts. “But experts said Arizona’s dismissal of academics, whose analysis seems at odds with the state’s approach, marked an alarming turn against data-informed decision-making.”

Bright, BARDA, and Whistleblowing
Ripples were sent this week as former director of BARDA, Rick Bright, filed a whistleblower complaint on Tuesday regarding his removal from office and reported pressure from Robert Kadlec, leader of ASPR, to “to buy drugs and medical products for the nation’s stockpile of emergency medical equipment from companies that were linked politically to the administration and that he resisted such efforts.” The 89-page complaint was a searing document that noted Bright’s removal due to his efforts to “prioritize science and safety over political expediency.” As biodefense expert Dr. Gregory Koblentz notes, “Rick Bright’s whisteblower complaint contains a litany of disturbing details about the failures of the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House to respond quickly and forcefully to the COVID-19 pandemic. The complaint shines a bright on the Trump Administration’s poor judgment, bureaucratic in-fighting, politically-driven decision-making, disregard for science, corruption, and incompetence.”

How Will We Know When to Reopen? Looking to South Korea Might Help
The hot topic right now in the United States is – when can we reopen? That’s not an easy question to answer though and people may not like the complicated answer. A phased approach means that people will need to slowly reopen businesses and resume normal practices, but this will rest precariously on the public’s ability to maintain infection control measures, social distancing, and businesses to establish safe processes. GMU Biodefense doctoral student HyunJung Kim discusses this and how South Korea’s reopening plan might be helpful, especially since it’s backed up by data. “The South Korean government’s approach to COVID-19, based on massive diagnostic testing, has successfully employed the so-called 3T practices–testing, tracing and treatment–to help continue decreasing the number of newly reported COVID-19 cases in South Korea. As of May 5, there have been 640,000 tests conducted in the country. Nearly 20,000 people were tested per day in the peak period (early March), and as of early May, 3,000 to 5,000 tests were still being conducted daily, even though the number of daily cases had fallen into single-digit territory.” Read more here about how South Korea is shedding light on some efficacious ways to address a pandemic and reopen society.
The Federal Research Enterprise and COVID-19 – The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on the “Federal Research Enterprise and COVID-19
On Tuesday, this group virtually met to discuss critical research during this time and GMU Biodefense alum Dr. Daniel Gerstein remarked to the group – “There is much to be done to get through the current crisis, and it is too early to be developing a comprehensive “lessons learned” assessment. However, it is not too early to understand recent shortfalls and examine ways to steer the United States and international community through the current crisis. Even now, there are many unanswered questions about COVID-19. What percentage of the population that is exposed becomes infected? What accounts for the variations in symptoms and the vast differences in outcomes, ranging from asymptomatic infections to death? Can people become reinfected? What role did humans play in the disease spillover into humans? These, as well as many other questions surrounding COVID-19, will need to be addressed. Filling our knowledge gaps will be crucial to dealing with this pandemic and preparing for the next one.” You can read his full written remarks here.