Pandora Report: 3.5.2021

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) released the National Response Framework Policy Landscape Analysis Tool, the first iteration of a new tool for understanding responsibilities following a disaster or emergency. The norms against the use of chemical weapons have been eroding, adding another challenge for the international community and the new Biden administration. Chris Quillen, a Biodefense PhD student, shares his review of Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World.

The “Red Line” That Wasn’t

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons (CWs) against his own people is the greatest challenge the Chemical Weapons Convention has ever faced. This breach of the taboo against CW use sparked numerous national and international investigations to determine the details of exactly what happened and who had done it. These investigations, in turn, were severely complicated by numerous factors. Investigators had to deal with (1) the dangers of operating during a complex civil war, (2) multiple belligerents using CWs on the battlefield (both the Syrian government and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS), and (3) the Syrian government’s repeated denials and counter-accusations of any CW use. Syria’s dubious position was backed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the public debate and, most importantly, at the United Nations Security Council, which provided Assad significant protection from international sanction. The global opposition to Syria’s use of CWs was widespread, but was led by the United States primarily under Barack Obama and also Donald Trump. The debate about what happened in Syria—and especially about how the world reacted to it—will undoubtedly rage for years to come. Joby Warrick’s Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World is a useful addition to this debate, but the definitive book on the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war remains to be written. Chris Quillen, a Biodefense PhD student, provides a revealing review of the book. Read it here.

How S&T’s Past Bioagent Research Informs Current and Future Pandemic Response

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), along with many other research and development institutions, was suddenly forced to shift priorities when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Researchers at S&T’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) – the first DHS national laboratory – hit the ground running “to learn as much as possible about the coronavirus so that our nation is better armed to fight, control and defeat the deadly COVID-19 disease.” NBACC researchers were asked: When faced with the challenge of a lifetime, where do you start? NBACC was established in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks to study “bioterrorist threats that endanger our homeland security,” so these scientists went back to the basics as it did 20 years ago. For SARS-CoV-2, the group studied how stable the virus is in the air and how it can be transmitted. According to Dr. Victoria Wahl, Deputy Director of NBACC’s National Biological Threat Characterization Center, “The same unique capabilities NBACC has established for biodefense research can also be applied to a new agent like SARS-CoV-2 to help us understand it better.” S&T’s risk assessment practices “consider the risk posed by a variety of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents that could potentially be used by terrorists to harm the US.” Those practices helped S&T develop a Master Question List (MQL) for Ebola, and that list informed work regarding SARS-CoV-2. In the early days of the pandemic, NBACC used the knowledge garnered from the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 outbreak to help inform its efforts to better understand SARS-CoV-2. Turning toward pandemic preparedness for the future, “NBACC is using lessons learned from all these research experiences to refine and streamline the lab’s planning and workflows, so response to future outbreaks will be swifter from day one.”

Introducing the Launch of the National Response Framework Policy Landscape Analysis Tool (NRF-PLAT)

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) just released the first iteration of a new tool for understanding responsibilities following a disaster or emergency. The National Response Framework Policy Landscape Analysis Tool, NRF-PLAT, was inspired by input and questions from users of PNNL’s Biodefense Policy Landscape Analysis Tool (B-PLAT). The NRF-PLAT currently captures 474 requirements, recommendations, value statements and training opportunities excerpted verbatim from the main NRF document, fourth edition. Users can view and parse requirements, recommendations, value statements and training opportunities using facets that include Primary Partner, Specific Designee, Additional Partners/Designees, Specific Roles, Community Lifelines, Emergency Support Functions and Section of the NRF. The facets can also be displayed in visual format using icicle and sunburst charts, which allow a user to graphically display, for example, the relative number of requirements, recommendation, value statements and training opportunities assigned to the federal government versus individuals, families and households. NRF-PLAT is publicly available here.  

Criminal Inquiries Loom Over al-Assad’s Use of Chemical Arms in Syria

Investigations into Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria may soon be underway in France and Germany, and could lead to prosecutions of al-Assad and his associates. Syrian President al-Assad and his accomplices should be held accountable for “some of the worst atrocities committed in the decade-old Syria conflict.” Judges in a special war crimes unit of France’s Palais de Justice received a complaint about the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, which were filed by three international human rights groups. This complaint requests a criminal investigation into al-Assad, his brother, and the senior advisers and military officials that formed the chain of command. Lawyers have stated that the judges will likely accept the complaint. The request for a criminal investigation is based, in part, on a two-year study of the Syrian chemical weapons program, and this study surpasses the work of other international inquires. The study used a variety of sources with links to or knowledge of the program: defectors, former insiders, employees, and engineers. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, reviewed the study and said, “it brings to light new information from defectors and insiders.” Dr. Koblentz called it the “most comprehensive and detailed account of the Syrian weapons program available perhaps outside the intelligence services. It maps out new details on the chain of command and shows how large and complex this program was. And it can name names.”

Chemical Weapons Norms

Over the past four years since now-President Joe Biden was in the White House, chemical weapons (CWs) attacks have continued within and beyond the borders of Syria, and new state perpetrators have emerged. Indeed, the norms against the use of chemical weapons established by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) have been unashamedly violated by state and nonstate actors. Such perpetrators include North Korea, Russia, and, of course, the al-Assad regime of Syria. Any actor that uses chemical weapons must be held accountable in order to reinforce the norms and validate the notion that violations of the CWC will be punished; “consequences can deter other actors from engaging in chemical weapons programs and attacks.” The Trump administration was inconsistent and variable in its responses to chemical weapons uses. Trump mobilized a military response to CW use in Syria, but arranged to meet with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un – after Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam was assassinated using VX nerve agent. The erosion of the global norm against chemical weapons use requires international action and cooperation to counter the degradation and restore compliance. Reinforcement of the norm against CW use will require bolstering the existing mechanisms of the CWC, while simultaneously supporting the ability of the international community to respond to the use of CWs by any actor and to hold perpetrators accountable. Additionally, states should “clarify and codify the rights and privileges a state risks losing for violating the CWC, establish a precedent for challenge inspections, and expand the mandate for the attributive Investigation and Identification Team.” Given the lack of unity within the United Nations Security Council, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) plays a vital role in pursuing actions to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use. As a reminder, the 96th Session of the Executive Council of the OPCW will take place on 9-12 March.

Event – Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads: Russia, Syria, and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a live webinar on 23 March about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists will discuss the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event is moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program. Register here.

Third Vaccine Gets Emergency Use Authorization

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization on 27 February to Johnson & Johnson’s single dose COVID-19 vaccine. This is the third vaccine designed to fight SARS-CoV-2 that has received authorization in the US. It should simplify the logistics of the vaccination campaign, because it is a single dose inoculation and it can be stored for up to three months in a refrigerator. The other two vaccines, which are based on a different technological platform, require two shots and must be stored at extremely low temperatures. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is an adenovirus vector vaccine, a 30-year-old technology based on genetically engineered common cold viruses. The multinational corporation will provide the vaccine on a non-profit basis for emergency pandemic use, and intends to produce 100 million doses in the first half of 2021.

The Last Thing Health Workers Should Have to Worry About

Even as they were making countless sacrifices during the pandemic, healthcare workers were targeted in nearly 1,200 attacks and threats of violence last year, according to a new report by Insecurity Insight and the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center. According to the research, 824 of these attacks were related to conflicts—hospitals bombed in Yemen, doctors abducted in Nigeria, robbery and ransom in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a disturbing twist, 412 of these attacks were directly related to the pandemic, including: threats, beatings, and assaults with stones or hot liquids. Pandemic-triggered violence was especially pronounced in India and Mexico, but it is a “truly global crisis,” affecting 79 countries, said Insecurity Insight’s Christina Wille, who led development of a new interactive map. Additionally, there have been violent reactions to mask mandates and arson attacks on COVID-19 testing facilities. The failures of year one of the COVID-19 pandemic need to be replaced with immediate action to safeguard health workers, said Leonard Rubenstein, chair of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. Rubenstein highlights recommendations in a research brief accompanying the interactive map: counter disinformation; end repression against healthcare workers who speak up; increase protection for healthcare workers; and hold perpetrators of violence and threats accountable.

CID Agent Sought Puffer Fish Toxin Before Poisoning His Wife, Charges Allege

A special agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) is “suspected of poisoning his wife two years ago and allegedly tried to acquire a toxin derived from puffer fish.” This week, Staff Sergeant Lesly J. Lindor was formally charged with the 3 September 2018 murder of Rachelle Lindor, his wife. The couple lived near Fort Hood in Harker Heights, Texas. According to records acquired by Army Times, in the months leading up to his wife’s death, Lindor “attempted to acquire tetrodotoxin for use as a weapon.” Tetrodotoxin is a potent neurotoxin found in puffer fish, globefish, and toadfish. In addition to the murder, Lindor is charged with attempting to violate the Federal Biological Weapons statute.

Pandora Report: 2.26.2021

The global norm against chemical weapons use is eroding and coordinated international action is needed to restore it. Scientists are racing to determine if the COVID-19 vaccines prevent people from contracting SARS-CoV-2 and spreading the virus. Three biodefense graduate students share their summaries and takeaways from the 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium.

6th International Biosafety & Biocontainment Symposium: Emerging Biorisk Challenges in Agriculture

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the chief scientific in-house research agency of the USDA. The USDA ARS hosted the 6th International Biosafety and Biocontainment Symposium, held virtually in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, on February 2- 4, 2021. This symposium brought together experts in academia, research, government, and industry to discuss the emerging biorisk challenges in agriculture. This year, three students from the Biodefense Graduate Program attended the conference: Rachel-Paige Casey, Michelle Grundahl, and Stevie Kiesel. Their summaries and takeaways are available here.

Dual-Use Biology: Building Trust and Managing Perceptions of Intent

Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a mixed methods social scientist researching biological threats at King’s College London, considers how the international community can use the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention framework to strengthen compliance monitoring of rapidly increasing dual-use capacities around the globe. Lentzos’ analysis in The Nonproliferation Review comes at a time of heightened concern about potential future biological-weapons threats. It presents three conceptual layers within the treaty regime which states can draw from to inform their compliance judgments: one legally binding, one politically binding, and one wholly voluntary. The article outlines how these were established and how they have been used so far, and argues for an incremental, inclusive, practical, and forward-looking approach to evolving these structures to better manage perceptions of the intent behind dual-use capacities, and to further trust between states. Read the article here.

Reinforcing the Global Norm Against Chemical Weapons Use

The global norm against the creation and deployment of chemical weapons has eroded, and continues to erode. Coordinated international action is needed to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use, which will require “strengthening existing mechanisms in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) while shoring up the international community’s ability to respond to the use of chemical weapons by any state or non-state actor and to hold them accountable.” Given the lack of unity among the United Nations Security Council, “it is vitally important that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and coalitions of like-minded states pursue actions to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use.” Julia Masterson from the Arms Control Association recommends that states-parties “clarify and codify the rights and privileges a state risks losing for violating the CWC, establish a precedent for challenge inspections, and expand the mandate for the attributive Investigation and Identification Team.” Beyond clarifying and codifying, expanding the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, establishing a clearinghouse for details about perpetrators of chemical weapons, and pursuing the prosecution of users as war criminals could help reinforce the norm.

Event – Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads: Russia, Syria, and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a live webinar on 23 March about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists will discuss the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event is moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program. Register here.

Feds Now Say Right-Wing Extremists Responsible for Majority of Deadly Terrorist Attacks Last Year

For the first time, the US government is acknowledging that right-wing extremists were responsible for most of the fatal domestic terrorist attacks that occurred last year. This acknowledgement is based on an internal report circulated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week. The report was drafted by the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, a fusion center funded by DHS, and shared with police and law enforcement agencies nationwide through an intelligence-sharing system established after the 9/11 attacks. The Center reviewed last year’s domestic terrorist incidents and found that “right-wing [domestic violent extremists] were responsible for the majority of fatal attacks in the Homeland in 2020.” Indeed, in October 2020, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released an analysis of domestic terrorist activity in the US for just the first eight months of 2020, finding that “white supremacists and other right-wing extremists conducted two-thirds of the terrorist plots and attacks in the nation during that period.”

A GDP for Nature: How Measuring the Health of the Natural World Might Prevent the Next Pandemic

SARS-CoV-2 has undeniably revealed that the world is vulnerable to infectious diseases. This is not a new revelation, but one that has long been ignored. The factors that drive zoonoses to jump to humans from animals – the wildlife trade, intensive agriculture, deforestation, urbanization – are well-known. As these factors persist, infectious disease events (epidemics and pandemics) will continue to arise. Zoonoses account for about 60% of all known human infectious disease agents, as a result of direct or indirect interaction between humans and animals. The health and well-being of a country depend on meeting the dietary needs of the population. Dr. Laura Kahn, a physician and research scholar with the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, emphasizes that “to ensure that our food systems do not raise the risks of another pandemic, countries should prioritize the replenishment and protection of their natural resources and biodiverse ecosystems.” Dr. Kahn recommends formulating a One Health calculus akin to gross domestic product (GDP) – the total value of services and goods produced in one year for a nation as a measure of economic prosperity. This calculation could “measure the status of a nation’s natural resources, the purity of its environments, the biodiversity of its ecosystems, the sustainability of its agriculture, the health of its flora and fauna, the resiliency of its food security, and the life expectancies of its peoples.”

The Quest to Rid Facebook of Vaccine Misinformation

A number of creative conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines have spread across social media platforms like wildfire: it causes blindness or infertility; it contains a microchip or fetal tissue; and Bill Gates is using it to get even wealthier. An analysis of more than 14 million social-media posts mentioning vaccines or vaccination during a three-month period last year discovered the emergence of two vaccine narratives: (1) emphasis on safety concerns and (2) focus on mistrust of the individuals and institutions involved in vaccine development. Facebook (along with Instagram, its subsidiary)  “drives vaccine discourse on social media” by allowing conspiracy-related content, but it has recently taken some actions to quell the spread of vaccine misinformation on the platform. Nearly one year ago, Facebook stated that it was collaborating with several fact-checking organizations to “detect false claims, hide some groups and pages from Facebook’s search function, and add warning labels with more context.” At the end of 2020, the platform banned certain COVID-19 vaccine-related content, including claims that the vaccine contains fetal tissue or carries the Antichrist’s “mark of the beast.” Now, Facebook is consulting with leading health organizations to expand its efforts to remove false claims on Facebook and Instagram about COVID-19, vaccines for the disease, and vaccines in general. Unfortunately, some experts question if these actions are sufficient to stop misinformation from invading the platform and spreading across its users. A partnership between Critica, Weill Cornell Medicine, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania launched a pilot program that is “deploying infodemiologists to respond directly when misinformation about vaccines is posted by Facebook users commenting on news articles.” Infodemiologists are “health experts who fight false information in a similar way to how epidemiologists with the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service fight epidemics.” These experts work on the virtual frontlines to detect any outbreak of misinformation or disinformation that threatens public health.

Coronapod: Our Future with an Ever-Present Coronavirus

What’s the endgame for the COVID-19 pandemic? Is a world without SARS-CoV-2 possible, or is the virus here to stay? The latest episode of Coronapod, a podcast from Nature that provides a weekly pandemic report, discusses what it means if the novel coronavirus becomes endemic. A recent Nature survey asked over 100 immunologists, infectious-disease researchers, and virologists working on the coronavirus whether it could be eradicated. The survey found that 90% of respondents expect SARS-CoV-2 to become endemic – remain in circulation in parts of the world for many years – but it could pose less danger over time. Listen to the Coronapod here.

Biosecurity Risks Associated with Vaccine Platform Technologies

A new article in Vaccine, co-authored by Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, discusses the biosecurity risks surrounding vaccine platform technologies. Vaccine platforms have been critical for accelerating the timeline of COVID-19 vaccine development. Faster vaccine timelines demand further development of these technologies. Currently investigated platform approaches include virally vectored and RNA-based vaccines, as well as DNA vaccines and recombinant protein expression system platforms, each featuring different advantages and challenges. Viral vector-based and DNA vaccines in particular have received a large share of research funding to date. Platform vaccine technologies may feature dual-use potential through informing or enabling pathogen engineering, which may raise the risk for the occurrence of deliberate, anthropogenic biological events. Research on virally vectored vaccines exhibits relatively high dual-use potential for two reasons. First, development of virally vectored vaccines may generate insights of particular dual-use concern such as techniques for circumventing pre-existing anti-vector immunity. Second, while the amount of work on viral vectors for gene therapy exceeds that for vaccine research, work on virally vectored vaccines may increase the number of individuals capable of engineering viruses of particular concern, such as ones closely related to smallpox. Other platform vaccine approaches, such as RNA vaccines, feature relatively little dual-use potential. The biosecurity risk associated with platform advancement may be minimized by focusing preferentially on circumventing anti-vector immunity with non-genetic rather than genetic modifications, using vectors that are not based on viruses pathogenic to humans, or preferential investment into promising RNA-based vaccine approaches. To reduce the risk of anthropogenic pandemics, structures for the governance of biotechnology and life science research with dual-use potential need to be reworked. Scientists outside of the pathogen research community, for instance those who work on viral vectors or oncolytic viruses, need to become more aware of the dual-use risks associated with their research. Both public and private research-funding bodies need to prioritize the evaluation and reduction of biosecurity risks. Read the article here.

Can COVID Vaccines Stop Transmission? Scientists Race to Find Answers

Even as many countries are administering COVID-19 vaccines, studies are ongoing to assess whether inoculations prevent people from contracting SARS-CoV-2 and spreading the virus. If widely distributed, vaccines that prevent transmission could help to control the novel coronavirus. Preliminary studies suggest that some vaccines likely help block transmission of SARS-CoV-2; however, confirming that effect and determining its strength remains a tricky task. The trickiness is due to the other factors that may explain the decrease in infections in a given area, such as lockdowns or behavior changes. To be frank, it is possible that the vaccines will not prevent or significantly lower the chances of SARS-CoV-2 infection, but they may render individuals less infectious, which will reduce transmission. Measuring viral load – roughly defined as the amount of virus in a person – is a respectable proxy for infectiousness, and it is being studied by researchers in Israel. Scientists are also tracking the close contacts of vaccinated individuals to find out whether those contacts gain any indirect protection against infection.

Executive Summary – The 6th Global Health Security Agenda Ministerial Meeting

The 6th Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting was held in November of 2020. The main objectives of the meeting were to “exchange experiences on disease prevention and control among various sectors and countries, update the progress of action packages implementations, enhance the engagement of multisectoral cooperation, identify gaps in implementation and fill them with through concrete action as well as jointly address means and ways forward to improve the GHSA mechanism and collaboration on the global health concern issue.” The meeting highlighted several issues but also several recommendations. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that the world remains ill-prepared to counter pandemic threats, despite several red flags with previous outbreaks. The negative impacts of the pandemic reverberated beyond public health – severe supply shocks, heightened food prices, widespread layoffs, and compromised education. The official report of the meeting emphasizes that security is a global issue that requires global coordination and collaboration across countries, sectors, and organizations. Another major takeaway is that the economy and health are integrated and interdependent. Also, there is a vital need for “mass compliance” with basic public health preventive measures in order to minimize the transmission of SARS-CoV-2.  New policies should be tailored to support health care systems and improve the socioeconomic situation to aid the recovery of the economy. Also, “health is not a cost, but an investment.” Read the final report here.

In case you missed it, Maddie Roty, a Biodefense MS student, attended a Meeting event, “Incorporating One Health into Global Security: Educating the Public and Governments,” which addressed how to educate students about One Health and how to implement One Health initiatives in US government agencies. Read Roty’s takeaways here.

Three Biodefense Grads Set to Lead Global Health Organization

Three 2019 graduates from the Master’s in Biodefense program have been elected to top leadership positions in the Next Generation Global Health Security Network, an international organization of nearly 1,000 early- to mid-stage professionals and students who work on the full spectrum of issues related to global health, ranging from combating antibiotic resistance to preventing the next pandemic. Next Generation Global Health Security Network—NextGen, for short—is an affiliate of the Global Health Security Agenda, a collaboration founded in 2014 by representatives from 44 countries (now 69) and organizations, including the World Health Organization. The new officers are Kate Madison Kerr, who will coordinate the global network; Anthony Falzarano, who will manage the organization’s finances; and Jessica Smrekar, the newly appointed coordinator for the United States. “It is an incredible feat that three Schar School graduates are assuming leadership of an organization this large, and I’m incredibly proud of it,” said Kerr. “[NextGen] truly was my first introduction to anything on a global scale and it allowed me to begin interacting with and learning from global partners,” Smrekar said of her NextGen experience. “As a mentee in the 2018 mentorship program, I was able to create a research project that was accepted to the inaugural Global Health Security Conference in Sydney, Australia, in 2019.”

Pandora Report: 2.19.2021

Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student, dissects nuclear modernization challenges that the Biden administration will face. The WHO shares mixed messages about the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. North Korea tried to steal coronavirus vaccine information from Pfizer. Many of the superspreaders behind COVID-19 conspiracy theories are exposed.

Nuclear Modernization Under Competing Pressures

Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student, and Rebecca Hersman published an analysis, Nuclear Modernization under Competing Pressures, that dissects the decisions and challenges the Biden administration must address regarding the modernization of critical elements of the US nuclear weapons enterprise. According to the authors, the “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) and its corresponding W87-1 warhead is one modernization program that will face rigorous scrutiny in the early stages of the Biden administration.” The high-profile and pricey strategic delivery systems get the limelight in the modernization debate; however, the “effective modernization of the US nuclear stockpile itself” is a critically underappreciated challenge. There are a couple important steps that the Biden administration can take to enable successful US nuclear modernization: (1) ensure that modernization timelines are feasible and costs are realistic, and (2) engage Congress and international partners in discussions of nuclear modernization. Read the article here.

WHO: COVID-19 Didn’t Leak From a Lab. Also WHO: Maybe It Did

Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a mixed methods social scientist researching biological threats at King’s College London, discusses the conflicting statements made by the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the theories about how SARS-CoV-2 came to be. The joint WHO-China investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic announced that their efforts ruled out the possibility that the novel virus escaped from a laboratory and that it most likely jumped species before infecting humans. A few days later, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that no hypotheses have been ruled out. Lentzos points out the missing pieces of the puzzle in the joint team’s conclusion as well as the inaccuracies in their logic. For instance, the findings assume that all research is published and publicly available, but much of it is not. Indeed, the virus database of the Wuhan Institute of Virology was taken offline at the start of 2020 for “security reasons.” Also, Peter Ben Embarek, co-leader of the mission, commented that laboratory accidents are “extremely rare events.” On the contrary, such accidents are not rare, but accidents that cause documented outbreaks are rare. Lentzos points out that the “publicly-available genetic and epidemiological evidence collected so far about SARS-CoV-2 and the outbreak does not exclude the possibility of a lab leak.” Read Lentzos’ analysis here.

We Need a Global Outbreak Investigation Team—Now

The much-anticipated findings of the team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic proved anticlimactic. In fact, they have also added another layer of confusion given the conflicting statement from the WHO’s director-general that all origin hypotheses remain viable. The team ruled out the possibility of the novel virus stemming from a laboratory leak. The conflicting announcements out of WHO have left many worrying about the many constraints the international body must operate under. For instance, the WHO can “only enter member countries and engage in research there on those countries’ terms, and it has no real powers of enforcement.” Perhaps, something new is needed. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, suggests an international body, similar to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that could “require biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs to report on the activities that go on inside them.” The Biological Weapons Convention, the international treaty that bans the development of bioweapons, already has a legal structure and could, theoretically, create the enforcement authority for such an agency. Alternatively, Koblentz also suggests, the “UN Security Council could establish such a body, the same way it created commissions to inspect Iraq for possible weapons of mass destruction.” Of course, either of these entities would take time to establish and would be based on voluntary participation from states. Dr. Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London, proposed the World Health Assembly as another option for “mandating investigations that can get boots on the ground the moment reports of an outbreak with pandemic potential emerge.” The proliferation of BSL laboratories in response to COVID-19 “should be reason enough for rethinking the status quo.” More labs mean more gain-of-function research, in which pathogens are modified to study how they might become more dangerous, and would require more lab oversight to ensure safety.

North Korea Tried to Steal Pfizer Coronavirus Vaccine Information, South Says

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported that North Korea attempted to hack into the servers of Pfizer, a US drugmaker, to steal COVID-19 vaccine and treatment information. This report belies dictator Kim Jong Un’s “professed view that his isolated dictatorship is untouched by the pandemic.” It is not clear when the cyberattack on Pfizer occurred or if it was successful. This is just the latest cyberattack carried out by North Korea in its “alleged ongoing campaign to obtain sensitive information through nefarious means and its growing cyber capabilities.” In November, Microsoft revealed that North Korean and Russian hackers tried to steal data from pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers; efforts were mostly unsuccessful. Last year, South Korea announced it had thwarted a hacking attempt by North Korea that targeted companies developing coronavirus vaccines.

Weaponized: How Rumors About COVID-19’s Origins Led to a Narrative Arms Race

A joint research project with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) and the Associated Press examined the information environments of China, the United States, Russia, and Iran during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic and the inaccuracies that gained traction in those states. The report emphasizes how “varying, unverified, and outright false narratives that the virus was a bioweapon or the result of a lab accident spread globally on social media and beyond, and the geopolitical consequences of those narratives.” As the country that suffered the initial outbreak, China was “central to narratives that [the novel coronavirus] was a bioweapon either developed by or, conversely, targeting the country.” Government officials in the US – including then-President Donald Trump – took a different approach, implying that the virus originated in and escaped a laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and going one step further by postulating that its release from WIV could have been intentional. Some of the preliminary narratives arose in Russia, which were aimed at furthering its own geopolitical agenda and its anti-US sentiments. Given its fraught political situation, Iran’s messaging targeted its domestic audiences and aimed to renew the “Iranian public’s fidelity to the regime.” Read the full report here.

The Superspreaders Behind Top COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories

The rapid spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories can be partially attributed to states – China, Iran, Russia, and even the US – touting ideas tailored to their own agendas. But certain individuals have also gained traction with the public: college professors lacking evidence or virology training are plugged as experts and anonymous social media personalities masquerading as high-level intelligence officials. The joint nine-month investigation conducted by the Associated Press and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DRFLab) also aimed to “identify the people and organizations behind some of the most viral misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus.” The explosive claims based on weak evidence were shared with the world by COVID-19 conspiracy theory superspreaders. For example, Francis Boyle, a Harvard-trained law professor at the University of Illinois, asserts that SARS-CoV-2 is a genetically engineered bioweapon that escaped from a high-containment laboratory in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Boyle’s evidence is circumstantial: the existence of a BSL-4 laboratory in WIV, the previous virus escape events from other laboratories, and his belief that “governments around the world are engaged in a secret arms race over biological weapons.” Igor Nikulin, who calls himself a biologist and former weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations (UN), claims that the virus was engineered by the US and deployed as an attack in China. Nikulin provides no evidence to support his accusation, nor can his supposed employment history with the UN be verified.

Dr. Saskia Popescu: Hospitals’ First Line of COVID Defense

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, is a go-to consultant for hospitals and the World Health Organization, helping to control infections and prepare for new outbreaks. Popescu also helps educate policymakers and the public using her expertise on the novel coronavirus and the approaches to containing it. She also serves as an infection prevention consultant for larger businesses and the City of Phoenix, Arizona, in their efforts to incorporate COVID-19 safety into the workplace. Popescu has “built COVID-19 response and preparedness programs for hospitals from scratch, and is constantly looking at case counts and analyzing data locally and internationally to ensure she’s providing the most informed recommendations possible.” She explained, “It’s extremely hard to build a robust response and preparedness program and be able to keep it agile, respond to changes in the science and data, and do it in a way that is pragmatic.” Popescu said. George Mason News featured Dr. Popescu on Twitter. Watch the video here.

The CRISPR Revolution and Its Potential Impact on Global Health Security

Kyle E. Watters, Jesse Kirkpatrick, Megan J. Palmer, and Gregory D. Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, published an article in Pathogens and Global Health about the potential impact of the CRISPR revolution on global health security. Global health security is constantly under threat from infectious diseases. Despite advances in biotechnology that have improved diagnosis and treatment of such diseases, delays in detecting outbreaks and the lack of countermeasures for some biological agents continue to pose severe challenges to global health security. In this review, the authors describe some of the challenges facing global health security and how genome editing technologies can help overcome them. They provide specific examples of how the genome-editing tool CRISPR is being used to develop new tools to characterize pathogenic agents, diagnose infectious disease, and develop vaccines and therapeutics to mitigate the effects of an outbreak. The article also discusses some of the challenges associated with genome-editing technologies and the efforts that scientists are undertaking to mitigate them. Overall, CRISPR and genome-editing technologies are poised to have a significant positive influence on global health security over the years to come. Read the article here.  

This new article connects with the two-year multidisciplinary study, Editing Biosecurity, conducted at George Mason University to explore critical biosecurity issues related to CRISPR and related genome editing technologies. The overarching goal of the study was to present policy options and recommendations to key stakeholders, and identify broader trends in the life sciences that may alter the security landscape. Outputs of the Editing Biosecurity project can be found here.  

Pandora Report: 2.12.2021

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Pandora Report! For a safe celebration, the CDC recommends gathering virtually or with the people who live with you. Take a walk outside with your Valentine, enjoy an outdoor picnic, or prepare a special meal or dessert at home. As COVID-19 vaccines continue to be rolled out, the need for equitable distribution has never been more apparent or critical. Alumnus Dr. Daniel Gerstein shares a unique perspective on the role of DHS in economic recovery after the pandemic.

Appreciation and Report for the 6th GHSA Ministerial Meeting 2020

The 6th Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting was held in November of 2020. The main objectives of the meeting were to “exchange experiences on disease prevention and control among various sectors and countries, update the progress of action packages implementations, enhance the engagement of multisectoral cooperation, identify gaps in implementation and fill them with through concrete action as well as jointly address means and ways forward to improve the GHSA mechanism and collaboration on the global health concern issue.” The meeting highlighted several issues but also several recommendations. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that the world remains ill-prepared to counter pandemic threats, despite several red flags with previous outbreaks. The negative impacts of the pandemic reverberated beyond public health – severe supply shocks, heightened food prices, widespread layoffs, and compromised education. The meeting report emphasizes that the economy and health are integrated and interdependent. New policies should be tailored to support health care systems and improve the socioeconomic situation to aid the recovery of the economy. Also, “health is not a cost, but an investment.” Given that health security is a global issue, a multi-government approach including all nations is needed. In case you missed it, Maddie Roty, a Biodefense MS student, attended one of the Ministerial Meeting events and shared her takeaways here.

Biodefense Graduate Program Alumni Join NextGen Leadership

Kate Kerr, an alumna of the Biodefense Graduate Program, was elected as the Deputy Coordinator of External Development for Global Health Security Agenda NextGen. As the Deputy Coordinator, she manages the mentorship program. The mentorship program entails pairing new and mid-career professionals with mid and late-career professionals for the purpose of career development and networking. During a nine-month long research program, individuals work with their partner and the rest of the group to perform research that promotes global health security. At the end of the iteration, pairs present their work to the network at large and may use their work to advance their careers. Kerr graduated from the Biodefense program at the Schar School of Policy and Government in 2017, and earned a powerful education while there. During that time, she also served as a graduate researcher at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. She is currently an analyst with Booz Allen Hamilton and now examines the intersection of health and transnational crime. Kerr shares her insights and plans for NextGen:

“The past several years, NextGen has grown aggressively, thanks to the support and outreach of our current Coordinator, Dr. Taylor Winkleman. Not only has participation risen exponentially, but we continue to expand our global participation. As a graduate from the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School, I recognize the importance of global cooperation and will continue to build the solid foundation contributed by past leadership while ensuring that all stakeholders have a seat at the table. Promoting the next generation of scientists is important now more than ever before, especially in light of the challenges this year has exposed. During this election, we have greatly expanded the leadership structure to boost global capacity, and I will continue to build that structure. I am proud to take the helm, and feel the importance of this position now more than ever.”

Additional alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program elected into GHSA NextGen leadership include Anthony Falzarano and Jessica Smrekar.

Equity in Vaccination

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored inequality, with the virus having a tragic and disproportionate adverse effect on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities across the United States. The number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths related to SARS-CoV-2 is considerably higher in these groups. It is critical that the COVID-19 vaccination campaign deliver vaccines fairly and equitably. The Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University shares a plan that provides the tools to create, implement, and support a vaccination campaign that “works with BIPOC communities to remedy COVID-19 impacts, prevent even more health burdens, lay the foundation for unbiased healthcare delivery, and enable broader social change and durable community-level opportunities.” The plan comprises five key principles: iteration, involvement, information, investment, and integration. With the same goal, CommuniVax is a coalition dedicated to strengthening the community’s role in an equitable COVID-19 vaccination campaign. CommuniVax relies on efforts from three groups: local teams, a central working group, and national stakeholders. Local teams include resident researchers, grassroots leaders, and public health implementers located in Tuscaloosa, AL; San Diego, CA; Bingham and Power counties, ID; Baltimore, MD; and Prince George’s County, MD. The Central Working Group is comprised of experts in public health, public policy, medical science, anthropology, and public involvement. National stakeholders include groups with political, technical, cultural, and social justice perspectives on vaccine delivery and uptake. Together, these three groups are listening to Black, Indigenous, and Latino/Latinx individuals about how best to promote awareness of, access to, and acceptability of COVID-19 vaccines in their respective communities; and developing longstanding, local governance systems that enable underserved groups to exercise collective agency over their own health and wellness, during this pandemic and going forward.

Outreach 2.0: Emerging Technologies and Effective Outreach Practices

Drawing upon existing best practices, risk assessments, surveys, interviews, and stakeholder feedback, a new report from the Strategic Trade Research Institute (STRI) aims to empower governments with tools, in the form of good practices, with which to conduct outreach to emerging technology sectors that could be targeted by non-State actors for malicious purposes. Andrea Viski, an adjunct professor at the Schar School who teaches a course on strategic trade controls, and Scott Jones have identified an advanced outreach model, Outreach 2.0, that can be used by countries to enhance compliance with United Nations Security Council resolution 1540. Outreach 2.0 consists of a more customized, targeted, creative, real-time, and collaborative communication strategy between regulators and technology holders that builds trust, support, knowledge-sharing, and inclusion. Read the report here.

8 Tools that Helped Us Tackle the Coronavirus

Over the last year, scientists have worked diligently to understand, diagnose, treat, and prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, and eight technologies were critical to their successes. Adenoviral vectors, derived from the adenoviruses that cause the common cold, are engineered viruses designed to transport a gene from SARS-CoV-2 into the body so that cells will make coronavirus spike proteins. The creation of these spike proteins is intended to teach the body to quickly detect and kill actual SARS-CoV-2. Another example is Johnson & Johnson’s adenoviral vaccine against Ebola virus disease, which was approved in Europe last year. Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) is a powerful gene editing tool that enables impressive precision. This technology is being used to detect SARS-CoV-2. Cryogenic electron microscopy (CRYO-EM) is a technique that enables scientists to observe how biomolecules move and interact by flash-freezing solutions of proteins then bombarding them with electrons to produce microscope images of individual molecules. CRYO-EM has helped researchers visualize over 150 SARS-CoV-2-related structures. Loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) is a method of copying genetic material for diagnostics. This diagnostic technique is a key component of the first at-home product granted emergency use authorization from the FDA. Messenger RNA (mRNA) is the “universal language” in nature, because all living organisms use it as an “intermediary between the DNA code of their genomes and the amino acid sequences that compose proteins.” In December 2020, the FDA authorized the first two mRNA vaccines to fight COVID-19. Rapid monoclonal antibody development has dramatically shortened the timeline for developing antibody drugs. Indeed, two antibody drugs to treat mild cases of SARS-CoV-2 were granted emergency use authorization only nine months after the drugs were discovered. Single-cell genomics is used to “analyze which genes are active or silent under infectious conditions.”  These studies helped several discoveries such as which cells SARS-CoV-2 infects. In 2020, a protein-engineering trick, the 2P mutation, keeps the coronavirus’ spike protein static in form instead of shape-shifting. The 2P mutation is used in COVID-19 vaccines made by Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax.

Landmark Report from Security Experts Identifies Ecological Disruption as the 21st Century’s Most Underappreciated Security Threat

The Council on Strategic Risks released a landmark report, The Security Threat That Binds Us, which “identifies ecological disruption as a major and underappreciated security threat and calls on the United States to reboot its national security architecture and doctrine to better respond to this evolving threat.” The major stresses on our planet include threats to water, food, wildlife, forests, and fisheries, which amplifies the risks of pandemics, conflict, political instability, loss of social cohesion, and economic harm. The report outlines eight pillars of recommended actors by the US: (1) promote international mechanisms that aim to reverse and reduce the drivers of ecological disruption; (2) promote methods that protect and expand critical systems and services; (3) build and strengthen international alliances; (4) treat environmental crimes as serious crimes; (5) reduce pandemic risk at point of origin; (6) amplify ecological and natural security issues in the US government; (7) initiate an ecological and natural security agenda; and (8) engage the public on ecological and natural security issues. Read the report here.

The Essential Role of DHS in the Economic Recovery from COVID-19

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, released an op-ed about the critical role of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the economic recovery from the pandemic. Gerstein emphasizes that DHS can help “set the conditions for a more rapid recovery, reduce the human suffering and stimulate the development of a more resilient and ‘built back better’ US economy.”  Though indirect, DHS can aid economic recovery by exercising its “vital roles in areas such as emergency management, infrastructure protection and law enforcement that promote economic vitality and security.” In regard to infrastructure resilience and mitigating risks from disasters, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) “examined the COVID-19 implications on the 55 national critical functions and sought to minimize the disruption to these functions.” Law enforcement stopped illegal activities related to COVID-19, such as the distribution of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. Read Gerstein’s article here.

Safety and Security Concerns Regarding Transmissible Vaccines

Transmissible viral vaccines, also known as self-disseminating vaccines, are live vaccines with the ability to transmit between hosts. Transmissible vaccines are cost-effective in the immunization of animal reservoirs to prevent zoonotic spillovers. Nuismer and Bull (2020) endorse the development of self-disseminating vaccines, but may not adequately account for the associated safety and biosecurity risks. A correspondence piece in Nature Ecology & Evolution proposes that “efforts focus on the safer and more predictable transferable vaccine approach to achieve cost-effective vaccination of reservoir populations.” Transferable vaccines, for example, can be applied as a paste to the fur of a bat, and other bats will groom the vaccinated bat and be exposed to the vaccine as well. The authors believe that the significant safety and security risks around the advancement of transmissible vaccines outweigh potential benefits. Viral mutations are unpredictable and they may increase pathogenicity or expand the host range. The development of transmissible vaccines bears dual-use potential. Transmissible vaccine development would require heritable approaches that are applicable to infectious, potentially pandemic agents. Also, research would focus on virus traits that might be directly translated to viruses capable of infecting humans.

USAMRIID’s Biodefense Tool

The United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) released a new mobile app! The Biodefense Tool distils key information presented in USAMRIID’s training and education courses on biological threat agents of concern and serves as a quick reference for the identification of these agents in the field. Links to additional resources and contact information for emergency response to a suspected biowarfare or bioterrorism situation are also available through the application. Download it for free here.

‘Major Stones Unturned’: COVID Origin Search Must Continue After WHO Report, Say Scientists

The World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic have ruled out the possibility that the novel coronavirus came from a laboratory leak. But the hunt is not over as the team’s time in China did not produce answers to how SARS-CoV-2 started infecting humans. At present, the theory that the virus passed to humans from an animal remains the primary hypothesis. The team offered two other theories, which are supported by the Chinese government and media: (1) the virus came from an animal outside of China and (2) once the virus was circulating in people, it could have spread on frozen wildlife and cold packaged goods. These findings have been met with mixed assessments from researchers. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University, said, “there are still major stones that need to be unturned, because any investigation into virus origins won’t be accomplished in two weeks.”

Exhaled Aerosol Increases with COVID-19 Infection, Age, and Obesity

Superspreading events have distinguished the COVID-19 pandemic from the early outbreak of the disease. COVID-19 transmits by droplets generated from surfaces of airway mucus during processes of respiration within hosts infected by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus. A new study in PNAS examined respiratory droplet generation and exhalation in human and nonhuman primate subjects with and without COVID-19 infection to explore whether SARS-CoV-2 infection, and other changes in physiological state, translate into observable evolution of numbers and sizes of exhaled respiratory droplets in healthy and diseased subjects. In an observational cohort study of the exhaled breath particles of 194 healthy human subjects, and in an experimental infection study of eight nonhuman primates infected, by aerosol, with SARS-CoV-2, researchers found that exhaled aerosol particles vary between subjects by three orders of magnitude, with exhaled respiratory droplet number increasing with degree of COVID-19 infection and elevated BMI-years. The study found that 18% of human subjects (35) accounted for 80% of the exhaled bioaerosol of the group (194), reflecting a superspreader distribution of bioaerosol analogous to a classical 20:80 superspreader of infection distribution. These findings suggest that quantitative assessment and control of exhaled aerosol may be critical to slowing the airborne spread of COVID-19 in the absence of an effective and widely disseminated vaccine. Understanding the source and variance of respiratory droplet generation, and controlling it via the stabilization of airway lining mucus surfaces, may lead to effective approaches to reducing COVID-19 infection and transmission.

Event – Red Line: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World

In August 2013, a massive sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs shocked the world and confronted the Obama White House with an agonizing choice: Whether to enforce the president’s “red line” threat with a military strike, or gamble on a diplomatic solution that offered the appealing prospect of the complete elimination of Syria’s strategic chemical weapons stockpile. Ultimately a deal was struck, and within days the race was on to extract and destroy hundreds of tons of lethal chemicals stashed in military bunkers across Syria, in the middle of a civil war. In his new book Red Line, journalist and author Joby Warrick draws from new documents and hundreds of interviews to reconstruct the key decision points as well as the unprecedented international effort to remove the weapons under fire and then—when no country was willing to accept Syria’s chemicals—to destroy them at sea. Warrick argues that, despite cheating by Syria—and in spite of the larger failure to end Syria’s mammoth humanitarian crisis—the disarmament mission was an important multilateral success. The historic undertaking deprived Assad of the bulk of his nerve agents and production equipment, and prevented what might have been a catastrophic leakage of deadly nerve agents to Syrian combatants and terrorist groups.

On 26 February at 11 AM EST, the Wilson Center will be hosting a live webinar about the book. Speakers include the author, Joby Warrick, Public Policy Fellow at the National Security Correspondent for The Washington Post; James F. Jeffrey, Chair of the Middle East Program, Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS; and Robert S. Litwak, Senior Vice President and Director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center. RSVP here.

Pandora Report: 2.5.2021

A new fact sheet highlights concerns for US economic and national security from the data collection conducted by China. Join the Biodefense Graduate Program next month for a virtual event on Russia, Syria, and the future of the chemical weapons convention. Read Biodefense PhD student Stevie Kiesel’s article about conspiracy theories during pandemics, including COVID-19.

Conspiracies, Contagion, and Convergence: Troubling Trends and COVID-19

For hundreds (if not thousands) of years, disease outbreaks have been accompanied by exaggerated or downright false claims of origin, spread, and treatment. Some of these claims are misinformation—incorrect information spread without an intent to mislead. For example, shortly after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, claims that garlic could cure COVID-19 spread across social media. The majority of posters did not appear to have malicious intent in sharing this content, making these claims misinformation. On the other hand, disinformation is deliberately misleading or biased information. Far-right Telegram users planned to weaponize disinformation when they urged followers to spread inaccurate information about COVID-19 safety precautions via flyers in certain neighborhoods. While misinformation and disinformation are both dangerous, disinformation is more insidious. Throughout history, both mis- and dis-information have spread prolifically during pandemics. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, provides a brief history of conspiracy theories during pandemics, discusses some popular COVID-19 conspiracies, and examines a potential convergence of various communities spreading similar conspiracy theories. Read Kiesel’s article here.

Schar School Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House: February 11, 2021

You’re invited to attend a virtual open house to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government and its academic programs. The online session will provide an overview of the master’s degree programs and graduate certificate programs, student services, and admissions requirements. The virtual event will be 11 February at 6:30 PM EST. Register here.

Event – Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads: Russia, Syria, and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a live webinar on 23 March about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists will discuss the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event is moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program. Register here.

China & Biotechnology

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center released a fact sheet outlining the risks to privacy and US economic and national security posed by China’s collection of genomic and healthcare data from the US. These data have been collected via legal and illegal means by a country that uses the mass collection of DNA domestically to help it “carry out human rights abuses against domestic minority groups and support state surveillance.” China has already obtained personal identifying information and personal health information on much of the US population. Chinese companies are compelled to share their collected data with the Chinese government, and there is no mechanism for these companies to refuse their government’s requests for data. These personal data provide China with opportunities to “precisely target individuals in foreign governments, private industries, or other sectors for potential surveillance, manipulation, or extortion.” From an economic standpoint, China’s “acquisition of US healthcare data is helping to fuel China’s Artificial Intelligence and precision medicine industries, while the PRC severely restricts US and other foreign access to such data from China, putting America’s roughly $100 billion biotech industry at a disadvantage.” This disadvantage could translate to Chinese biotechnology firms outpacing those of the US, potentially leaving the US more dependent on “Chinese innovation and drug development for its cures, leading to a transfer of wealth, co-opting of new businesses and greater job opportunities in China.” BGI Group, the world’s largest biotech firm based in China, is under suspicion of trying to collect DNA from Americans through its recent offer to assist in COVID-19 testing in the state of Washington. Supervisory Special Agent Edward You, a biochemist turned FBI investigator, highlights the Made in China 2025 national strategy in which the nation expresses its plans to be the “dominant leader in this biological age.”

A US Law Required the White House to Respond to Navalny’s Poisoning. Why Didn’t It?

Six days after the German Chancellor publicly pointed a finger at Russia for attempting to kill Aleksei Navalny with a powerful Soviet-era nerve agent, the top Democrat and top Republican of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a request to Trump, the US president at the time. The letter triggered a required 60-day evaluation period to assess if chemical weapons had been used by Russia against Mr. Navalny, which then spurs a sanctions process. This evaluation is part of the 1991 law informally known as the Chemical and Biological Weapons (CBW) Act. The 60-day window expired on 8 November 2020 with silence from the US government. Another letter was sent about the evaluation a month later. Speculation as to why the Trump White House stayed mum on the topic ranges from negligence to “interagency bureaucratic wrangling” to the administration’s desire to not upset the Kremlin. Two days after President Biden took office, leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee invoked the evaluation for a third time and accused the Trump administration of violating the law. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of Biodefense Graduate Program, commented on the matter, “The failure of President Trump to impose additional sanctions on Russia for the Navalny poisoning is consistent with the past pattern of the Trump administration refusing to confront Russia on key issues ranging from chemical-weapons use to election interference to cyberattacks.” Biden, however, intends to prioritize arms control and the Navalny Novichok attacks in its policy toward Russia.

COVID Performance Index

The Lowy Institute created a COVID Performance Index that explores how almost 100 countries with publicly available and comparable data on the virus have managed the pandemic to date, following their hundredth confirmed case of COVID-19. The Index sorts countries into broad categories by region, political system, population size, and economic development. Performance was measured using 14-day rolling averages of new daily figures calculated for several indicators: confirmed cases, confirmed deaths, confirmed cases per million people, confirmed deaths per million people, confirmed cases as a proportion of tests, tests per thousand people. Despite being near the initial outbreak site, countries in the Asia–Pacific, on average, proved the most successful at containing the pandemic. On the other hand, the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus overwhelmed Europe and then the US. Europe, however, made the greatest improvement over time. The Index also found that “despite initial differences, the performance of all regime types in managing the coronavirus converged over time.” In terms of population size, countries with fewer than 10 million people consistently outperformed their larger counterparts throughout 2020. Unsurprisingly, countries with higher per capita incomes were better equipped to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and performed better, on average, than developing countries.

Global Vaccine Timeline Stretches to 2023

The Economic Intelligence Unit released a report revealing that the “road to national inoculation protection against COVID-19 might still be a long one” depending on where you live. Indeed, it may take years for many places to vaccinate a majority of the adult population. The major economies in Latin America are on track to achieve widespread coverage by mid-2022, but the timeline for much of Asia will likely be much longer. Many Asian nations are not expected to reach 60-70% of their adult population until 2023. Japan will start its vaccination campaign in late February and should reach majority immunization by mid-2022, along with South Korea and Vietnam. The US along with most of Europe should reach a majority by the end of 2021.

Strong International Relationships Enabled DTRA to Provide COVID-19 Support to Partners Abroad

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program has tapped into existing partnerships and engagements to “enable partner nations to leverage CTR-provided equipment and training to combat this pandemic wreaking havoc in their countries, including assistance with identifying the first SARS-CoV-2 case outside of China.” CTR works with international and interagency partners to mitigate weapons of mass destruction-related threats to US forces, the US Homeland, US allies, and US interests. Global health security and the mitigation of biological threats are key components of national security. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the “value in ensuring that our foreign partners are adequately trained and equipped to secure biological threats at their source.” CTR’s Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP) has provided training and equipment to over 130 institutions in more than 30 countries to help improve their ability to detect, diagnose, and report biological incidents and outbreaks with pandemic potential. Scientists in Thailand used diagnostic equipment and training provided by to determine the first COVID-19 case outside of China. Georgian scientists trained by CTR at the Richard Lugar Public Health Research Center (constructed by CTR) developed a COVID-19 molecular diagnostic testing capability that enabled Georgia to limit the mortality of the virus to five deaths.

How Epidemiology has Shaped the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nature’s third progress report highlights key findings from epidemiology a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Epidemiology is the study of how diseases spread and why. Lockdowns were instituted to quell the virus early by keeping people separated. Mask-wearing also reduces the risk of transmission and infection, a practice that is now largely expected in society as we continue to battle the novel coronavirus and its variants. Though the efficacy of mask-wearing had not yet been tested with controlled trials and direct data prior to the pandemic, by summer 2020, several studies had found that “masks contribute to slowing the spread of coronavirus.” In early 2021, we are facing the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, creating a new questions and challenges for epidemiologists. The pandemic is also reshaping epidemiology, expanding it. Now, epidemiology is increasingly involving physicists, mathematicians, computer and network science experts. The US will establish an interagency National Center for Epidemic Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics. COVID-19 has forced epidemiologists and their models in the policy and media spotlight, so these experts have had to learn how to communicate their analyses and predictions to the whole population. This is especially challenging given the limitations of statistical models and probabilistic estimation, which come with a level of inherent uncertainty but are important tools.

Inequalities in COVID-19 Vaccinations

Black Americans are being administered COVID-19 vaccinations at a significantly lower rate than white Americans, and the gap is not closing as states expand eligibility. In the 23 states with available vaccination data, white residents are being vaccinated at rates double (or higher) than that of Black residents. In Pennsylvania, the black vaccination rate is 0.6% and the white vaccination rate is 2.6%, meaning that white residents are vaccinating at a rate 4.2 times higher. There are similar figures for New Jersey and Mississippi. Several more states are vaccinating white residents at rates double to triple that of black residents. Additionally, on average, the white population is being vaccinated at a rate 2.6 times higher than the Hispanic population. One of Biden’s first executive orders prioritized COVID-19 data collection, and the CDC plans to add race and ethnicity data to its dashboard; however, it is uncertain when these updates will happen.

This is How America Gets Its Vaccines

The Biden administration has pledged to administer 100 million doses in his first 100 days in office. To achieve this, the administration will face an uphill battle with the current system that gets vaccines from manufacturer to patient. Tiberius, the vaccine allocation planning system of HHS, and VTrckS, the vaccine ordering portal of the CDC, are the two central systems that sit between vaccine factories and medical clinics. Put simply. Tiberius turns data into usable information and VTrckS is how states order and distribute shots. At step one, manufacturers, like Pfizer or Moderna, produce a vaccine. In COVID-19, the two aforementioned manufactures developed messenger RNA vaccines, a nascent technology that requires very cold temperatures. This type of vaccine had never been produced at scale before, and manufacturers overestimated how quickly doses could be made and distributed, causing the first major hiccup in the rollout. In step two, the US government sets vaccine allocations based on production estimates and inventory numbers. Tiberius takes that allocation number and divvies up vaccines based on Census data; VTrckS operates as the online store that health departments visit to order vaccines. States distribute the vaccine locally in step three after learning how many doses they were allotted through Tiberius. In step four, manufacturers ship out the vaccine; for the COVID vaccines, that means shipping millions of vaccines to 64 jurisdictions in -70 degrees Celsius conditions. Finally, in step five, local clinics administer the vaccine to the population. According to experts, one of the biggest challenges with the campaign under Trump was the decision to leave administration to the states, straining local governments that are understaffed, possess limited technical capabilities, and work with outdated systems. Several experts have emphasized that the federal government must take greater initiative to supply states with better technology options.

Millions Earmarked for Public Health Emergencies Were Used to Pay for Unrelated Projects, Inspector General Says

An investigation into a whistleblower complaint found that federal officials “repeatedly raided a fund earmarked for biomedical research in the years leading up to the covid-19 pandemic, spending millions of dollars on unrelated salaries, administrative expenses and even the cost of removing office furniture.” This investigation was conducted by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and was overseen by the Office of Special Counsel. The search focused on hundreds of millions of dollars in funding earmarked for the development of vaccines, drugs and therapies by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). The inspector general verified some of the claims made by the whistleblower, discovering that staff referred to the agency as the “bank of BARDA” and admitted that R&D dollars were “regularly tapped for unrelated projects.” Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote to Biden, “I am deeply concerned about [the] apparent misuse of millions of dollars in funding meant for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic.” Kerner also stated that it is “equally concerning how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade.”

Pandora Report: 1.29.2021

Former members of Trump’s COVID-19 team are defending their failures to the public in various interviews. The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense has outlined a path forward to tackling biological threats. Biodefense faculty, students, and alumni have been busy sharing their knowledge and expertise in COVID-19, biosecurity, and nuclear security! Be sure to read Maddie Roty’s takeaways from a One Health event held as part of the GHSA Ministerial Meeting.

Incorporating One Health into Global Security: Educating the Public and Governments

Maddie Roty, a Biodefense MS student, attended an event held as part of the 2020 Global Health Security Agenda Annual Ministerial Meeting. This discussion, “Incorporating One Health into Global Security: Educating the Public and Governments,” addressed how to educate students about One Health and how to implement One Health initiatives in US government agencies. One Health is an important topic that promotes a multisectoral approach needed to address global health security issues from climate change to zoonotic spillover events, and to improve human and planetary conditions. The main lessons were that One Health is extremely interdisciplinary and requires increased commitment and funding from educators, government agencies and leaders, and the public to protect the human and planetary conditions. Read Roty’s takeaways here.

She Is Hospitals’ First Line of COVID Defense

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program as well as an alumna, is a go-to consultant for hospitals and the World Health Organization, helping to control infections and prepare for new outbreaks. Popescu also helps educate policymakers and the public using her expertise on the novel coronavirus and the approaches to containing it. She also serves as an infection prevention consultant for larger businesses and the City of Phoenix, Arizona, in their efforts to incorporate COVID-19 safety into the workplace. Popescu has “built COVID-19 response and preparedness programs for hospitals from scratch, and is constantly looking at case counts and analyzing data locally and internationally to ensure she’s providing the most informed recommendations possible.” She explained, “It’s extremely hard to build a robust response and preparedness program and be able to keep it agile, respond to changes in the science and data, and do it in a way that is pragmatic.” Popescu said.

CEPI Search for Scientific Advisory Committee Experts

Set up in response to the West African Ebola epidemic, CEPI launched in 2017 as a public-private partnership with the mission to stimulate and accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and enable access to these vaccines for people during outbreaks. Operating as both a funder and facilitator within the vaccine R&D ecosystem, CEPI’s initial focus (2017-2021), set up prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was to advance vaccine R&D programs against its priority diseases: Lassa fever, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Nipah, Ebola, Rift Valley Fever, and Chikungunya. CEPI also invested in platform technologies that can be used for rapid vaccine development against unknown pathogens (Disease X) and has supported enabling sciences activities, including within epidemiology and biological standardization efforts, to guide and ultimately accelerate our vaccine R&D efforts. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, CEPI moved quickly and in collaboration with its partners to build the largest COVID-19 vaccine portfolio to date. The CEPI Scientific Advisory Committee is a pivotal group providing the coalition with key experiences, knowledge and understanding to help guide decisions relating to our work. It has so far played an integral part in getting the coalition started, and in its work responding to recent events including Ebola and COVID-19. CEPI is now on the lookout for innovative individuals and ideas to continue CEPI’s groundbreaking efforts, both in CEPI’s near-term response to the pandemic and as the organization implements its new strategy to accelerate the speed at which it can respond to future infectious disease threats. Interested individuals can apply here.

The Apollo Program for Biodefense – Winning the Race Against Biological Threats

The COVID-19 pandemic, which is on track to take the lives of more than 400,000 Americans and cost our economy trillions of dollars, is a stark wake-up call for the United States to take biological threats seriously. The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense released a report, The Apollo Program for Biodefense – Winning the Race Against Biological Threats, that outlines a path forward to tackling biological threats. According to the Commission, “the existential threat that the United States faces today from pandemics is one of the most pressing challenges of our time; and ending pandemics is more achievable today than landing on the moon was in 1961.” The Apollo Program for Biodefense encompasses four main goals: (1) implement the National Blueprint for Biodefense; (2) produce a National Biodefense Science and Technology Strategy; (3) produce a cross-cutting budget; and (4) appropriate multi-year funding. The report includes input from a variety of scientists, technologists, and policy experts. Interviewed experts include Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program; Dr. Andrew Kilianski, an adjunct professor in the GMU Biodefense Graduate Program; and Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program. Read the full report here.

Learn WMD

Learn WMD is a site dedicated to better understanding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) issues to help benefit scholars, students, and policymakers in the field. It is a one-stop-shop for WMD education. The site offers resources for instructors and learners. The Learn WMD Spreadsheet provides resources on WMD information, policy information, career development, and career and educational opportunities. Visit Learn WMD here.

First Issue of Relaunched BWC Newsletter

The BWC Newsletter just relaunched and will be released on a regular basis in 2021! The BWC Newsletter reports on events, updates, and activities related to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Its first issue looks back on the BWC activities in 2020, a year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, several informal webinars were held to keep BWC discussion going and the recordings and presentations from these events are available online. These webinars cover strengthening national implementation; cooperation; and assistance, response, and preparedness. The BWC website is migrating to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) Headquarters website. The Convention’s 45th anniversary was 26 March 2020, and biological weapons have not been used in war since they were banned in 1975. Read the newsletter here.  

Nuclear Security in Review, 2020

Rebecca Earnhardt, graduate of the Biodefense MS program and research associate at the Stimson Center, and Nickolas Roth, Senior Fellow and Director at the Stimson Center, take a look back at the events of 2020 that influenced nuclear security. The International Conference on Nuclear Security convened experts, policymakers, and government officials to discuss nuclear security progress and future directions. The Advancing Insider Threat Mitigation (INFCIRC/908) International Working Group (IWG) was launched at the conference, and was formed to “raise awareness of the significant and unique threats posed by insiders while sharing best practice guidance on how to best mitigate insider threats.” The COVID-19 pandemic forced nuclear facilities to significantly adjust their operations, which entailed remote work, postponements, and quarantines. The 64th International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference focused on national regulation and compliance with the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM/A). The November 2020 US elections are expected to impact international nuclear security with hope that the Biden administration will renew US nuclear security leadership. The authors assert that 2021 “presents many opportunities for generating momentum in nuclear security cooperation while taking stock of lessons learned through the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Event – Chemical Weapons Arms Control at a Crossroads: Russia, Syria, and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Convention

The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a live webinar on 23 March about Russia, Syria, and the future of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria and Russia threatens to undermine international efforts to eliminate these weapons. How will states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development and use of chemical weapons, respond to these violations of the treaty at their annual meeting in April? The panelists will discuss the challenges posed by the current Russian and Syrian chemical weapons programs, the status of international efforts to strengthen accountability for use of chemical weapons, and the implications for global chemical weapons arms control.

Dr. John R Walker is a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Leadership Network and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Una Jakob is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) in Germany who specializes in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. Hanna Notte is a Senior Non-Resident Scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), focusing on arms control and security issues involving Russia and the Middle East. This event is moderated by Gregory D Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program. Register here.

Catalysts of the COVID-19 Chaos

The big question that we all keep asking remains: How did COVID-19 take over the world for nearly a year and counting? On 1 December 2019, a man in his 70s fell ill with what became the first known case of COVID-19. By the end of December 2019, several people suffering from high fever and assumed pneumonia had been admitted to hospitals in Wuhan, China. On New Years Eve, the director general of China’s Center for Disease Control was receiving offers of help from around the world. That same day, the Wuhan Health Commission issued a press release stating that 27 cases of viral pneumonia had been identified; however, the release also stated that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. Days later on 3 January 2020, laboratories across China were scrambling to map the complete genetic sequence of the virus. Two days later, renowned virologist Zhang Yongzhen obtained a complete sequence. It was not until several days later that it was announced the new virus was a coronavirus and the sequence was released. Additionally, China did not confirm the existence of human-to-human transmission until 20 January 2020.  Wang Linfa, a bat virologist at Duke-Nus Medical School in Singapore, said, “January 20th is the dividing line, before that the Chinese could have done much better.”

A BBC documentary reveals additional evidence of delayed action from China in the early days of the outbreak. A doctor from a Wuhan hospital said he and his colleagues suspected that the virus was highly transmissible in early January 2020, but they were prevented from warning anyone. Further, a Professor at Georgetown University said that China’s failure to report the existence of the virus was a violation of international health regulations. These delays and failures denied the rest of the world that time to prepare, strategize, and warn their own populations of the coming novel coronavirus.

Now, a WHO team of experts, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, are in Wuhan to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2. This week, the members completed the required 14-day isolation upon arrival in China. Specifically, the Independent Panel is tasked with “charting what went wrong, what lessons can be learnt from that, and what could be done better in future.” The objective of this investigation is not to specify a guilty country in the pandemic. Their latest report emphasizes an unequivocal message: course correction in pandemic response is needed immediately. The Independent Panel strongly recommends that all countries immediately and consistently adopt the public health measures which will reduce the spread and the impact of COVID-19: mask-wearing, social distancing, and contact tracing and isolation.

Exit Interviews

Former members of Trump’s COVID-19 team are now attempting to explain the failures in the pandemic response. Moncef Slaoui, an immunologist who was the science head of Operation Warp Speed (OWS), recently resigned from his post, but has agreed to help the Biden transition team into February. In an interview with Science, Slaoui stated that he reluctantly accepted the position with OWS, because he thought he could “help solve one of the world’s most urgent problems.” He asserts that most of the problems with administering OWS vaccine doses “stem from overwhelmed local public health systems, issues outside of Warp Speed’s purview.” This statement does not account for a false claim made by the Trump administration that a stockpile of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses would be made available for immediate distribution. Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s COVID-19 response coordinator, claims that some members of the Trump White House believe that Covid-19 is a hoax. Birx, who promotes data-driven responses to disease outbreaks, “suggested such efforts were undermined by people working in the Trump White House.” Birx also claims that Trump presented graphs that she did not create. Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stated that his greatest disappointment was the “lack of consistency of public health messaging and the inconsistency of civic leaders to reinforce the public health message.” Redfield also proclaims that he “stood up for the agency at every turn,” despite the current tattered state of the CDC’s reputation. Instead, he points a critical finger at federal and state level civic leaders for not echoing the public health measures and mitigation measures recommended by the CDC.

Pandemic Shows Need for Biological Readiness

The Arms Control Association released a new article, “Pandemic Shows Need for Biological Readiness,” written by Andy Weber, a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks and a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors. Weber points out that too many Americans have suffered and perished as a result of Trump’s pandemic response failures. He poses the question, what if, instead, the pandemic was caused by the deliberate release of a sophisticated biological weapon? A bioengineered pathogen could be several times more lethal than SARS-CoV-2, which has about a 2% mortality rate. Not only is technology advancing at an unprecedented rate, but the “taboo against developing and using banned biological weapons is eroding.” Recently, Syria, Russia, and North Korea have used banned chemical weapons in attacks in Syria, the United Kingdom, and Malaysia. Last summer, a Novichok nerve agent was deployed against Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in Siberia. Weber encourages the Biden administration to “make crystal clear that preventing biological threats is a core mission of US defense and national security agencies, in addition to the traditional health agencies.” There are three existential risks to the survival of humanity – biological, climatological, and nuclear – and Biden should use all of the powers of the presidency to lead a muscular approach to reducing these dangers.

Genetic Engineering Attribution

Genetic engineering techniques are used to overcome hurdles in agriculture, manufacturing, and medicine; however, these technologies also carry the potential for dangerous misuse. Tracing the origins of a genetically engineered product, whether for due credit or accountability, is a very difficult task. A challenge critical to security is determining the instigator of a human-caused biological event – attribution. Recent scientific developments have enabled techniques that may be capable of “detecting whether an organism involved in such an event has been genetically modified and, if modified, to infer from its genetic sequence its likely lab of origin.” The authors of a new article in Nature Communications – including Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program – believe that these techniques could be turned into “powerful forensic tools to aid the attribution of outbreaks caused by genetically engineered pathogens, and thus protect against the potential misuse of synthetic biology.”

To help spur invention into the improved tools that are needed to progress genetic engineering attribution, altLabs sponsored the Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge (GEAC) on the DrivenData competition platform, which offered monetary prizes for algorithms that could accurately predict the origin of genetically engineered DNA sequences. Over 300 teams participated and winning prizes were awarded to six of these teams. The best teams were able to accurately predict the source laboratory of an unfamiliar plasmid DNA sequence 95% of the time when given 10 guesses per sequence. These results of the competition reveal the potential for new machine learning approaches to improve existing tools for genetic engineering attribution.

Event – Flying in the COVID-19 Era

Join the National Academies for a two-day virtual workshop on air travel in the age of COVID-19 on February 4-5, 2021. During the workshop, experts will discuss the latest research on COVID-19 transmission, what airlines and airports are doing to keep people safe, and mitigation strategies for preventing the spread of the virus during travel. The workshop will include medical community leaders in COVID-19 research including Dr. Victor Dzau, President of the National Academy of Medicine, and Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. Their keynote addresses will provide the latest medical research updates on COVID-19. Also joining the event is Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program. Workshop speakers from the aviation industry, including airline representatives, aviation support services, airport authorities, and aircraft manufacturers, will discuss their experiences and ongoing challenges. Register here.

Event – Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants: What You Need to Know

B.1.351 in South Africa. B.1.1.7 in the United Kingdom. These emerging coronavirus variants, some billed as more contagious forms of SARS-CoV-2, have dominated reports as they popped up across the globe within the last couple months. Genetic mutation is anticipated, especially for RNA viruses as they multiply, but at what point should clinicians and the scientific community become concerned? With a novel pathogen like SARS-CoV-2, there are still many unknowns. How did these variants emerge? Are they indeed more transmissible? Do they cause more serious disease? What does the scientific evidence support? What should the public response be? Will the developed vaccines provide coverage against these variants?

Join MJH Life Sciences for a COVID-19 Coalition webinar event, “Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants: What You Need to Know,” for an enlightened conversation with a panel of frontline experts, including a virologist, an epidemiologist, and an immunologist, hosted by Dr. Carlos del Rio. Register here.

Pandora Report: 1.22.2021

Felicitations to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris! This week marked the inauguration of our 46th president, but also the one-year anniversary of the first SARS-CoV-2 diagnosis in the US. Biden has grand plans to kick off his tenure, not the least of which is an ambitious plan to vaccinate 100 million Americans in 100 days.

Procuring PPE through Innovation, Evaluation, and Coordination: A Strategy for True Cooperative Procurement

Dr. Nathan Myers, an associate professor of political science and public administration at Indiana State University and an advisor to Continuity of Supply Initiative (CoSI), discusses the need for a more efficient, effective, and resilient system for the continued procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) during a major emergency. Myers proposes the creation of a framework for a master agreement between suppliers and healthcare providers in which PPE would remain available at reasonable prices during normal circumstances and across a range of emergency situations. Read Myers’ article here.

COVID-19 Update

As of 22 January 2021, one year after the first case of SARS-CoV-2 infection was detected in the US, our country has had 24.7 million total cases and 410,000 deaths. Globally, there have been 96.2 million total cases and 2.06 million deaths. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted emergency use authorization to two mRNA vaccines, and 17,546,374 doses have been administered as of 21 January.

The B1117 variant of SARS-CoV-2, shown to be highly transmissible, has now been detected in 12 states. This variant is believed to have emerged in September in the UK and is now the dominant strain circulating there. Several lines of evidence indicate that B117 transmits more efficiently than other variants of the novel coronavirus. New variants identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil that appear to be more transmissible than previous strains are not proving to be more lethal. The modeled trajectory of B1117 in the US finds rapid growth in the early months of 2021, with the strain becoming the predominant variant in March. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, though the COVID-19 vaccines may not be as effective against new, more contagious strains of the coronavirus, getting vaccinated remains critically important.   

That said, a coronavirus virus variant found in South Africa in late 2020, called 501Y.V2, has sparked some concern regarding immunity and vaccine efficacy. The 501Y.V2 lineage carries many mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which is the immune system’s prime target, including some changes linked to weakened antibody activity against the virus. According to Tulio de Oliveira, a bioinformatician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, there is now proof of several reinfections with 501Y.V2 in the country. Two South African teams will soon test the 501Y.V2 variant with serum from people who participated in COVID-19 vaccine trials, but similar studies are ongoing at laboratories worldwide.

The Independent Panel’s Second Report on Progress

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response released its second report on progress, which was informed by the review of hundreds of documents, expert consultations across many sectors, case studies, submissions received by the Panel from Member States, academia, civil society, and citizens, and nearly 100 interviews with those at the frontlines of pandemic preparedness and response. The Independent Panel was established by the World Health Organization and is tasked with “charting what went wrong, what lessons can be learnt from that, and what could be done better in future.” Ultimately, the report emphasizes an unequivocal message: course correction in pandemic response is needed immediately. The Independent Panel strongly recommends that all countries immediately and consistently adopt the public health measures which will reduce the spread and the impact of COVID-19: mask-wearing, social distancing, and contact tracing and isolation. There were critical early failures in the global and national responses to the pandemic, and there were pre-existing failures to prepare adequately for a pandemic threat, despite years of warnings and red flags. Further, the pandemic has revealed the inequalities both within and between nations, and the response has deepened these inequalities. Despite these many issues, this crisis has created a unique opportunity to “reset the system” to correct structural inequalities in health.

The Biden-Harris Administration Pandemic Response & Vaccinations Plans

Newly inaugurated President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris released a National Strategy for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, which outlines seven goals: (1) restore trust with the American people; (2) mount a safe, effective, and comprehensive vaccination campaign; (3) mitigate spread through expanding masking, testing, treatment, data, workforce, and clear public health standards; (4) immediately expand emergency relief and exercise the Defense Production Act; (5) safely reopen schools, businesses, and travel, while protecting workers; (6) protect those most at risk and advance equity, including across racial, ethnic and rural/urban lines; and (7) restore US leadership globally and build better preparedness for future threats.

Biden’s COVID-19 response team consists of several notable experts. Dr. Beth Cameron, NTI’s vice president for global biological policy and programs, is leading the White House biodefense council. Dr. Rochelle Walensky is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); she will “have her hands full rehabilitating morale and the CDC’s public image.” Economist Jeffrey Zients is the COVID-19 response coordinator. Xavier Becerra is nominated as the Secretary of Health and Human Services. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), will lead the new iteration of Operation Warp Speed (OWS). Dr. Anthony Fauci, a familiar and trusted public health figure, will be Biden’s chief medical adviser.

The Biden administration was also left with quite a mess created by the Trump administration’s false claim that a stockpile of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses would be made available for immediate distribution. Unfortunately, no such stockpile exists. Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan includes an emergency vaccination and relief package that aims to administer 100 million shots during his first 100 days in office. The plan identifies priority groups, starting with adults ages 65 and older and essential frontline workers, including teachers and grocery store clerks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will establish 100 federally-supported vaccination centers across the country. Of these funds, $400 billion are earmarked for combating the pandemic, including $50 billion to escalate COVID-19 testing, $20 billion to boost vaccination efforts, and funds to hire 100,000 public health workers.

Retraction of US Withdrawal from WHO

Biden, on his first day as president, wrote a letter to António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, that retracts the US intention to withdraw from the World Health Organization. The US withdrawal was initiated on 6 July 2020 and would have been effective on 6 July 2021. Biden acknowledged that the “plays a crucial role in the world’s fight against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic as well as countless other threats to global health and health security.” The letter makes clear that the US will “continue to be a full participant and a global leader in confronting such threats and advancing global health and health security.”

A Threat to Confront: Far-Right Extremists and Nuclear Terrorism

A new article, co-written by Biodefense MS alumnus Rebecca Earnhardt, highlights the threats from far-right extremists and nuclear terrorism. Acts of violence by far-right extremists are on the rise in the United States, and national security experts are considering whether US far-right extremist groups that espouse violence can carry out something catastrophic. Adding fuel to this fire, recent events raise questions regarding if greater focus should be given in the United States on far-right, domestic extremist threats. These extremists create a unique danger as a result of their prevalence in federal institutions – the military – and the possibility that they might infiltrate nuclear facilities to access sensitive information and nuclear materials. The nexus of violent far-right extremist ideology and terrorism is not new; however, the adoption of accelerationism to this dangerous ideology is spurring the desire to destabilize society. The authors encourage a “robust response to violent far-right extremist threats vis-a-vis nuclear security is necessary to minimize risk.” Read the full article here.

Cyberattack on European Medicines Agency

The European Medicines Agency (EMA), an agency of the European Union that evaluates and supervises medicinal products, experienced a cyberattack targeting documents related to COVID-19 medicines and vaccines. EMA revealed that some of these unlawfully acquired documents have been leaked on the internet. The leaked materials include internal/confidential email correspondence dating from November, which relate to evaluation processes for COVID-19 vaccines. EMA also announced that some of the correspondence were “manipulated by the perpetrators prior to publication in a way which could undermine trust in vaccines.” Near the turn of the year, two EU marketing authorizations for COVID-19 vaccines were granted, pending an independent scientific assessment. Given the high SARS-CoV-2 infection rate in the EU, vaccines are urgently needed to protect citizens from the virus. Criminal efforts to undermine trust in vaccines could leave much of the country susceptible.

Laboratory Safety Manual, 4th Edition: Risk Assessment

The World Health Organization (WHO) Laboratory Biosafety Manual (LBM) has been in broad use at all levels of clinical and public health laboratories, and other biomedical sectors globally, serving as a de facto global standard that presents best practices and sets trends in biosafety. The LBM4 suite consists of one core document and seven subject-specific monographs which were developed in order to accommodate diverse interests and requests for learning more specific details, supplementing the core document. Readers are encouraged to start with the core document and learn the subject explained in each monograph accordingly. Download the LBM4 here.

Event – The Chemical and Biological Non-Proliferation Regime after COVID-19

The COVID-19 global pandemic and recent cases of chemical weapon use – in Syria and against the Skripals and Alexey Navalny – have demonstrated the multifaceted nature of biological and chemical threats that States face in the twenty-first century. These threats have also underscored the importance of strengthening the international norms against the hostile misuse of chemical and biological sciences enshrined in the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). But the centerpiece of international efforts to prevent the misuse of modern chemistry and biology – The Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention – rarely come to the attention of Parliament and public. A recent report from the Parliament Joint Committee on National Security Strategy stated that “future biological risks to the UK will evolve rapidly, originating within or beyond its borders.” These risks include serious disease outbreaks but also the “slow burn” threat of antimicrobial resistance as well as misuse of harmful biological substances.

This webinar will discuss the difficulties of integrating the various means of governance related to biosecurity and national security. The event will also review the state of the BTWC and CWC and identify practical opportunities to strengthen these critical Conventions and guarantee their relevance against the backdrop of rapid scientific and technological advancement and growing international instability. Register here.

Event – Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants: What You Need to Know

B.1.351 in South Africa. B.1.1.7 in the United Kingdom. These emerging coronavirus variants, some billed as more contagious forms of SARS-CoV-2, have dominated reports as they popped up across the globe within the last couple months. Genetic mutation is anticipated, especially for RNA viruses as they multiply, but at what point should clinicians and the scientific community become concerned? With a novel pathogen like SARS-CoV-2, there are still many unknowns. How did these variants emerge? Are they indeed more transmissible? Do they cause more serious disease? What does the scientific evidence support? What should the public response be? Will the developed vaccines provide coverage against these variants? Join MJH Life Sciences for a COVID-19 Coalition webinar event, “Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants: What You Need to Know,” for an enlightened conversation with a panel of frontline experts, including a virologist, an epidemiologist, and an immunologist, hosted by Dr. Carlos del Rio. Register here.

Pandora Report: 1.15.2021

We are days away from a transition of power, welcoming the Biden-Harris administration. A large study in the UK found that those who have had COVID-19 may be immune to reinfection for several months. The Sentinel from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point features commentary on the terrorism and counterterrorism challenges that the new administration will face.

Limitations of Quarantine

HyunJung Kim, a Biodefense PhD candidate, recently published an article in Monthly Chosun, an influential news media outlet in South Korea, explaining the different origins of emergency use authorization (EUA) policies between the US and South Korea. After the 2001 Amerithrax attacks, the US developed its EUA policy with a focus on homeland security, enabling the use of MCMs, while Korea’s EUA policy was developed with a focus on disease containment, only issuing approvals for diagnostic kits. The public health authority of South Korea has hesitated to use COVID-19 vaccines, comparing them to the efficacy and comprehensive use of diagnostic kits in the early days of COVID-19. Political leaders have praised themselves and emphasized their achievements, but they have neglected what the next steps should be. Kim recommends revising the EUA laws in Korea to allow for emergency use of vaccines and therapeutic drugs.

Memo to the President: Reimagining Public Health Preparedness and Response

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND corporation, highlights the unevenness of the US response to the pandemic that has challenged the United States politically, economically, and societally as never before in our nation’s history. In fact, the pandemic and the faltering response is upending 200 years of emergency management doctrine. Adding insult to injury, many Americans are losing trust and confidence in their government. Gerstein points out that as we near a transition of power in the US, the death toll for the first year of the pandemic is approaching the number of all Americans killed in World War II. He believes that a reimagining of US public health preparedness and response is needed to heal the national psyche and restore American confidence in itself and around the world.

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security Voted 2020 Arms Control Persons of the Year

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, the Founder and Executive Director of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS), and WCAPS itself have been voted the 2020 Arms Control Persons of the Year! Ambassador Jenkins and WCAPS were nominated for catalyzing support and action from leaders and practitioners in the national security and foreign policy communities to increase diversity into their ranks and boards of directors and pursue concrete steps to “root out institutional racism” in the governmental and non-governmental sectors in the field. WCAPS is a platform devoted to women of color that cultivates a strong voice and network for its members while encouraging dialogue and strategies for engaging in policy discussions on an international scale. Their vision is to advance the leadership and professional development of women of color in the fields of international peace, security, and conflict transformation. After the protests in 2020 against the police killings of George Floyd and other Black people, WCAPS organized a solidarity statement endorsed by leaders and individuals from 150 organizations and launched working groups to develop concrete strategies and tools to attack the problem.

COVID-19 Update

The B117 variant of SARS-CoV-2 is a new enemy that we are better equipped to fight than we were when the novel coronavirus first hit the world. We understand how this virus spreads, the health strategies that can help contain it, and how to effectively treat those infected with it. The “old” virus is helping us battle the new one, because people who have already had COVID-19 are highly resistant to B117. We must keep in mind that the new variant has two key advantages: pandemic fatigue throughout the population and the variant’s faster spread.

A large study in the United Kingdom of 20,000 healthcare workers suggests that most people are immune for several months after infection with SARS-CoV-2 for the first time. In fact, this research – called SARS-CoV-2 Immunity and Reinfection Evaluation (SIREN) – found that immune responses from past infection reduce the risk of catching the virus again by 83% for at least 5 months. Throughout COVID-19, reports of reinfections of with SARS-CoV-2 have been rare, but the cause of much concern. In the study, less than 1% of the approximately 6,600 participants who had already had COVID-19 suffered a repeat infection. According to SIREN lead investigator Susan Hopkins, the study data suggest that natural immunity might be as effective as vaccination, at least over the five-month period the study has covered so far.

The World Health Organization (WHO) sent a team of international experts to China to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team was initially denied entry, but will be allowed into the country this week. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that studies would begin in the city of Wuhan where the first human cases of SARS-CoV-2 were identified.

To be better prepared for future biological threats, the WHO released guidance for laboratories on maximizing the impact of SARS-CoV-2 sequencing now and other emerging pathogens in the future. Sequencing supports the monitoring of a disease’s spread and the evolution of a virus. Indeed, genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 enabled the world to develop diagnostic tests and other tools for outbreak management.

How COVID Unlocked the Power of RNA Vaccines

In 2013, Andy Geall’s team at Novartis’s US research hub in Cambridge, Massachusetts was asked if their new vaccine technology could be used against a novel strain of avian influenza. Within a couple weeks, the team had synthesized the RNA, assembled the vaccine, and tested the vaccine in cells and mice. At the time, however, the ability to manufacture clinical-grade RNA was limited and Novartis sold its vaccine business a couple years later. Today, as we battle SARS-CoV-2, two RNA vaccines have won emergency approval from public health authorities in several countries, including the US. In short, the era of RNA vaccines is here and all of the major pharmaceutical companies are testing the technology. As a more streamlined technology, RNA vaccine development allows researchers to fast-track many stages of vaccine research and development. RNA vaccines carry the directions for producing the proteins of invaders, aiming to “slip into a person’s cells and get them to produce the antigens, essentially turning the body into its own inoculation factory.” Additionally, this technology is “build for speed.” Using the genetic sequence of a pathogen, scientists can swiftly extract a potential antigen-encoding segment, insert that sequence into a DNA template, and synthesize the corresponding RNA before packaging the vaccine for delivery into the body. This technology may finally enable the creation of a universal flu vaccine, one of the holy grails of vaccine development. Despite its many advantages, there are some kinks to unravel. The need for cold storage of these vaccines can be a major hurdle for distribution. Also, a double dose tends to be needed for efficacy against a disease, a requirement that could lower immunization uptake and adherence. Finally, there is the concern of side effects, namely severe reactions characterized by fatigue or muscle pain. Though these effects are temporary, they may disincentive vaccination.

Biden’s Foci

Biden and his team plan to restructure and expand the operations of the White House National Security Council (NSC) with new senior positions on global health, democracy and human rights, and cyber and emerging technology. This planned expansion signals a significant shift in priorities. Additionally, a “stronger position on China than has been the case in past Democratic administrations” is expected. Also, Russia will again have its own NSC senior director. So far, most of Biden’s top national security picks are veterans of the Obama administration. These include Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, Antony Blinken as secretary of state, and Yohannes Abraham as NSC chief of staff. Dr. Elizabeth Cameron, a biologist and biodefense expert, wrote the Obama “pandemic playbook” as NSC director for global health security and she will return as the senior director for global health security and biodefense.

The incoming Biden administration announced its COVID-19 plan. The Biden-Harris administration is committed to: (1) listening to science; (2) ensuring that public health decisions are informed by public health professionals; and (3) promoting trust, transparency, common purpose, and accountability in our government. The plan consists of seven key points: (1) ensure all Americans have access to regular, reliable, and free testing; (2) fix personal protective equipment (PPE) problems for good; (3) provide clear, consistent, evidence-based guidance for how communities should navigate the pandemic and the to make it through; (4) effective, equitable distribution of treatments and vaccines; (5) protect older Americans and others at high risk; (6) rebuild and expand defenses to predict, prevent, and mitigate pandemic threats, including those coming from China; and (7) implement mask mandates nationwide.

National Security Challenges in 2021

Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware discuss the challenges that the Biden administration will face in regard to terrorism and counterterrorism. The administration will be forced to grapple with old threats, including the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida, but also the ever-changing and deteriorating domestic terrorism landscape. Hoffman and Ware assert that the battle for the safety of the American homeland remains fraught with challenges and risks that will require enduring vigilance and energy, as well as a new set of counterterrorism policies, to more effectively address the totality of the new terrorism threat. Read the full analysis here.

David Lasseter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, supports the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense & Global Security by developing and overseeing the implementation of strategies and policies of all Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction policy issues. These policy issues include preventing the proliferation of WMD-related materials; the DoD Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program; and Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) defense; and overseas Oceans Policy for the Department, which includes advancing global mobility through freedom of navigation policy. In a recent interview with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Lasseter addresses the security implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the biological threat landscape, the changes in perspective about the likelihood or impact of bio-threats, emerging biotechnologies, and the types of terrorist threat actors or groups are the most cause for concern when it comes to weaponizing biology. He mentions several threats across the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threat spectrum. For instance, the lack of transparency on nuclear modernization in China is a concern. Russia continues to violate international arms control treaties and repeatedly use banned weapons, like Novichoks. North Korea comes with a mountain of baggage: WMD development, proliferation, and use; nuclear, chemical, biological capabilities and delivery systems; a history of proliferation and aggressive rhetoric against the United States. Beyond specific country concerns, the threat of dual-use technology and science is always a worry.

Upcoming Event – Combating Wildlife Crime and Reducing the Transmission of Zoonotic Diseases

The Stimson Center is hosting a discussion, “Combating Wildlife Crime and Reducing the Transmission of Zoonotic Diseases,” that will include representatives from Congress, the US Government, Ambassadors, and scientific experts on combating wildlife crime. Wildlife crime is transnational, organized, and often fueled by corruption. It devastates the security of communities, while destroying ecosystems and wildlife. In addition, evidence that COVID-19 jumped from a zoonotic-host has led to renewed calls to further regulate the wildlife trade. In response, the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime is encouraging States to amend international law by adding a fourth Protocol on wildlife crime to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime; and incorporating public and animal health criteria into the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The discussion is scheduled for 25 January at 10 am EST. Register here.

Upcoming Event – COVID-19: UV-C Devices & Methods for Surface Disinfection

The US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Research and Development hosts a free Homeland Security Research Webinar Series. The next webinar is “COVID-19: UV-C Devices and Methods for Surface Disinfection.” EPA researchers are evaluating ways to disinfect large spaces (schools, businesses, mass transit), including the use of alternative methods to kill viruses, such as ultraviolet light (UV-C), that claim to reduce or eliminate virus transmission via surfaces. Because these disinfection devices can be considered pesticide devices, they are regulated by the EPA. Researchers are assessing UV-C methods and technologies on multiple materials against SARS-CoV-2 and potential surrogate viruses. This webinar will be held on 21 January from 2-3 EST. Register here.

Pandora Report: 1.8.2021

Happy New Year! 2020 was a tumultuous year and 2021 is off to a rocky start; however, the COVID-19 vaccines give us hope for a healthier and safer year. January is One Health Awareness Month! For Biodefense graduate students looking for a fascinating course to round out your spring semester, Dr. Robert House is offering a course on the development of vaccines and therapeutics.

2020 Recap

SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19 that emerged in China, took over the world in 2020. The United States suffered 21,299,340 total cases and 361,123 total deaths from COVID-19. The world suffered 87,186,540 total cases and 1,883,761 total deaths. The first case in the US was identified on 20 January 2020, the same day the Chinese posted the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2. The start of 2020 also saw the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

February was the month of the COVID-19 testing fiasco in which test kit availability was severely limited and some available kits were found to be contaminated. Also, in February, phase one of the Economic and Trade Agreement Between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China went into effect. This agreement commits China to undertake structural changes to open up its economy and improve its trade regime, benefitting the United States in the process by increasing China’s importation of US goods.

On 10 March, Italy entered lockdown and on 11 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally declared the COVID-19 pandemic. By mid-March, areas of the US began lockdown and Americans were urged to stay at home as much as possible.

Studies showed that mask-wearing substantially reduced transmission, and on 3 April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that masks were vital weapons against SARS-CoV-2. This declaration was met with confusion given the previous opposing statements by various US leaders that masks were ineffective.

Amidst the pandemic, in May, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota by a white police officer, sparking nationwide protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, this tragic event spurred important discussions about racial health disparities in the US, an issue seen in the COVID-19 data. For every 10,000 Americans, there were 38 coronavirus cases: 23 for whites, 62 for Blacks, and 73 for Hispanics.

When fall arrived, the big debate about sending children back to school in-person arose, with many districts opting to remain virtual. Sadly, on 18 September, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87. A mere eight days later, Amy Coney Barrett was nominated as Ginsburg’s successor.

The presidential election held last November resulted in a new incoming president and vice president: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They will be sworn into office on 20 January 2021. By the tail end of 2020, two newly developed COVID-19 vaccines were granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the first shot was administered on 14 December.

Now, let us all bid adieu to 2020! Although 2021 is off to a rough start, the imminent change in US leadership and the continued administration of COVID-19 vaccines may, finally, turn our luck around.

Looking Ahead in 2021

After nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccinations are underway, diagnostic testing has increased, and some therapeutic treatments are showing promise, giving experts a clearer picture of what the future holds. In a prediction that we all hope comes to fruition, Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that by the end of 2021, the US could “approach some level of normality.”  Unsurprisingly, this forecast depends on the vaccination of 75-85% of the population as well as the continuation of mask-wearing and social distancing. Experts expect that an “overwhelming majority of the population” will be able to get vaccinated by the second quarter of 2021. Hopefully, in summer 2021, we will be able to have large outdoor gatherings without masks. In the latter half of the year, workers may be able to return to their offices. Sometime in mid- or late-2021, we may be able to enjoy indoor dining and a movie without a mask. Safe travel may resume, but gradually.

On 20 January, of course, president-elect Joe Biden will assume office; however, the events on 6 January at the Capitol Building have added concern to an amicable transition-of-power. Last Wednesday, a throng of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building in DC in a raucous attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Biden as the election winner. On Thursday, Congress certified president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris’ victory. On 23 July, the Olympics are scheduled to begin in Japan, over a year after the original start date. What will it look like – a bubble with virtual streaming?

A Farewell to Arms Control

Dr. John R Walker, former Head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Research Unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, shares his insights from a 40-year career in arms control. Science and technology (S&T) will always offer risks and benefits to society. Walker states that we cannot ban technologies or lines of scientific inquiry, though many are inarguably dual-use, because such restrictions could inhibit advances in medicine, neuroscience, plant health, and several other disciplines. Instead, he encourages understanding the possible implications of S&T to ensure their safe and acceptable applications. Patience and persistence of purpose are the keys to establishing arms control and disarmament agreements. In recent years, multilateral negotiations have grown more “ill-tempered and polarized,” requiring “inexhaustible supplies of patience and persistence in the face of multiple challenges and frustrations.” Understanding the long and complex history of arms control treaties can lead to better decisions. According to Walker, we are in a never-ending process when it comes to arms control and disarmament: “Events are but one chapter, one closes and we move on to the next one.” Finally, diplomacy matters, as do the personalities at the negotiation table.

Spring Course with Dr. Robert House: Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics

As the world waits anxiously for a COVID-19 vaccine and various therapies against this virus move through the drug development pipeline, BIOD students have an opportunity to learn from a world-class expert with decades of experience developing MCMs against a range of biological threats. Dr. Robert House holds a PhD in medical parasitology and is Senior Vice President of Government Contracts at Ology Bioservices. Ology Bioservices was recently awarded $37 million from the Department of Defense to support the advanced development of a monoclonal antibody cocktail against COVID-19. The Department of Defense has also awarded Ology Bioservices with a contract valued at $11.9 million to work with Inovio on DNA technology transfer to rapidly manufacture DNA vaccines. Previously, Dr. House worked for over a decade at DynPort Vaccine Company, where he held the positions of Vice President of Science and Technology, Chief Scientific Officer, and President. During this time, he earned extensive experience in winning and managing large USG-funded programs for developing medical countermeasures. This Spring, Dr. House will be teaching the Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics course (BIOD 766), which will explore how the US Government is developing MCM against these threats. Students will learn about the various threat agents, the context of regulatory considerations, and the specifics of how MCMs are developed.

Taking Back Control: A Resetting of America’s Response to COVID-19

The Rockefeller Foundation released a report outlining a plan to reset the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report considers schools to be a critical component, because prolonged closures can negatively impact the success of students throughout their careers and functioning schools are central economic players. To safely teach our youth in schools, an estimated $42.5 billion in federal funding is needed for testing in schools, students should be tested at least weekly, and teachers and staff should be tested at least twice weekly. The plan recommends that the first wave of reopening schools should prioritize all of the nation’s 56,000 public elementary schools by 1 February, requiring about 85 million tests per month. Several weeks later, the 18,000 middle schools could reopen with 70 million tests per month. By 1 March, the nation’s 25,000 high schools could reopen. The report lists several executive actions for achieving its outlined goals, ranging from an executive order that clarifies liability protections for those who make good faith efforts to provide reliable testing to investments in the expansion of PCR laboratory throughput to prioritizing teachers for vaccines. Read the full report here.

A ‘Come as You Are’ Vaccination Plan

Dr. Daniel Gerstein, alumnus of the Biodefense PhD Program and senior policy researcher at the RAND corporation, describes the poorly coordinated and slow-moving distribution of COVID-19 vaccines as another part of the “come as you are” pandemic response of the US. By 29 December, 2.13 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were administered, which is a mere fraction of the year-end goal. The sluggish rollout of vaccines could undermine the advantages of their exceptionally speedy development. Operation Warp Speed (OWS) is a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) established to accelerate the development of vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19. Once vaccines were manufactured and moved to distribution points, state, local, territorial, and tribal authorities assumed responsibility for further distribution and administering the vaccine through public and private industry vendors. The lack of a centralized federal system to provide real-time vaccine availability information is causing severe delays and disruptions in distribution beyond first priority health workers. Several governors have already shared their worries about delays, shorting of deliveries, and a lack of accurate information on the status of anticipated deliveries. Additionally, there has been a communication failure regarding when and how Americans will get vaccinated.

New Websites for the BWC & UNODA

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has a new website! The BWC is a multilateral disarmament treaty that effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. Read the latest related to the BWC at its new website, www.un.org/disarmament/biological-weapons. Information – official documents, statements, presentations – pertaining to all official meetings and conferences of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) can be found at: https://meetings.unoda.org/.

One Health Awareness Month 2021

January 2021 is One Health Awareness Month! US Senate Resolution 462 declared January 2020 as the first US One Health Awareness Month, which occurred just before the COVID-19 pandemic. In support, the One Health Commission and Louisiana One Health in Action created the One Health Awareness Month 2020 Social Media Campaign to urge collaborations between animal, environmental, plant, human, and public health scientists. For instance, today’s (8 January) topic is antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and One Health. To help spread the word, you can use the hashtags #OneHealth and #OneHealthAwarenessMonth!

SARS-CoV-2 Variant B117

A new variant strain of SARS-CoV-2 – dubbed SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01, or B117 – contains a series of mutations that became highly prevalent in London and southeast England in December 2020. Earlier this week, the United Kingdom issued another lockdown to quell a third surge in cases, driven in part by the spread of B117. The variant has now been detected in 40 countries, including the United States. The first identified case of the B1117 variant in the US occurred in Colorado on 28 December. As of 7 January 2021, there have been 52 B117 lineage cases in the US across California, Colorado, New York, Georgia, and Florida. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no evidence that this new variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death; however, it does spread easier and quicker than other strains. Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that the mutations of this variant allow the virus to better bind to the receptors of cells, aiding its transmission. At present, researchers think that the existing COVID-19 vaccines will likely protect against B117, but more data are needed to confirm.

COVID-19 Open Data

On 18 December, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started publishing the COVID-19 Community Profile Report publicly on their websites, which provides the American people with the same community level information that is available to federal personnel. The Community Profile Report (CPR) is generated by the Data Strategy and Execution Workgroup in the Joint Coordination Cell of the White House COVID-19 Task Force, and it provides aggregate information on the overall status of areas across the country. The CPR is managed by an interagency team with representatives from multiple agencies and offices within HHS (including CDC, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, and the Indian Health Service). Access the CPR here.

Genetic Data and Marketing: Challenges, Opportunities, and Ethics

A new study in the Journal of Marketing is the first to systematically assess the implications of individual-level genetic data owned by private firms and government in the field of marketing. The direct-to-consumer genetic testing (DTC-GT) industry has exploded over the last 20 years with over 30 million customers already. Concurrently, many countries have launched large-scale, publicly-funded genetic data collection efforts, creating vast datasets that are increasingly used by companies such as AirBnB and Spotify for marketing purposes. This study reviews current research in behavioral and social genetics to develop a framework that features the genome as a source of consumers’ profiles and actions. The researchers then survey the range of potential uses of genetic data for marketing strategies and research, noting serious ethical challenges. Such applications include the use of “genetic measures as bases for segmentation and targeting” as well as the use of genetic data for “creative strategies that leverage consumers’ fascination for their genomes.” The authors outline four unique features of genetic data that create ethical challenges: (1) individuals can easily be identified by a small fraction of their genetic data; (2) these data are informative about one’s relatives; (3) these data are predictive, to some degree, of almost every human trait; and (4) these data are immutable. These four features present a serious threat to consumer autonomy and privacy.

Pandora Report: 12.11.2020

7 December marked the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. Biden is building a health team that will put science at the forefront and focus on equity. Three PhD students in the Biodefense Graduate Program attended the ABSA Annual Biosafety and Biosecurity Virtual Conference and are sharing what they learned!

63rd American Biological Safety Association (ABSA) Annual Biosafety and Biosecurity Virtual Conference

ABSA International (ABSA) is an organization that promotes biosafety as a scientific discipline and serves the growing needs of biosafety professionals throughout the world. Its goals are to provide a professional association that represents the interests and needs of practitioners of biological safety, and to provide a forum for the continued and timely exchange of biosafety information. The 63rd American Biological Safety Association (ABSA) Annual Biosafety and Biosecurity Virtual Conference convened the global community of biosafety and biosecurity practitioners and experts from November 4 – 6, 2020. This conference focused on a broad variety of topics dealing with biosafety, biosecurity, and bioethics with an emphasis on activities and challenges related to COVID-19. This year, three students from the Biodefense Graduate Program attended the conference: Rachel-Paige Casey, Sally Huang, and Yong-Bee Lim. Read their reports here.  

Spring Course with Dr. Robert House: Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics

As the world waits anxiously for a COVID-19 vaccine and various therapies against this virus move through the drug development pipeline, BIOD students have an opportunity to learn from a world-class expert with decades of experience developing medical countermeasures (MCMs) against range of biological threats. Dr. Robert House holds a PhD in medical parasitology and is Senior Vice President of Government Contracts at Ology Bioservices. Ology Bioservices was recently awarded $37 million from the Department of Defense to support the advanced development of a monoclonal antibody cocktail against COVID-19. The Department of Defense has also awarded Ology Bioservices with a contract valued at $11.9 million to work with Inovio on DNA technology transfer to rapidly manufacture DNA vaccines. Previously, Dr. House worked for over a decade at DynPort Vaccine Company, where he held the positions of Vice President of Science and Technology, Chief Scientific Officer, and President. During this time, he earned extensive experience in winning and managing large USG-funded programs for developing medical countermeasures. This spring, Dr. House will be teaching the Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics course (BIOD 766), which will explore how the US Government is developing MCMs against these threats. Students will learn about the various threat agents, the context of regulatory considerations, and the specifics of how MCMs are developed.

The Stunning Pace of Progress: One Year In, Covid-19 Treatments and Vaccines Are Close at Hand

SynBioBeta – an innovation network for biological engineers, investors, innovators and entrepreneurs – released a clever infographic summarizing the pace of progress in COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.

COVID-19 Vaccine Update

On Thursday, a panel of outside experts, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC), recommended that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issue an emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech (BNT162b2). The recommendation was based on a 17-4 vote. According to VRBPAC, the “efficacy, safety, and immunogenicity data in this EUA application support a positive assessment of risk and benefit for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and fulfill the data requirements outlined in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) EUA guidance.”

The mRNA vaccine was administered as part of an ongoing multinational, placebo-controlled, observer-blinded, pivotal efficacy trial using a total of 43,548 participants aged 16 years or older. Under randomization, 43,448 received injections: 21,720 with the vaccine and 21,728 with placebo. Among participants assigned to receive BNT162b2, eight cases of COVID-19 were found with onset of symptoms at least seven days after the second dose, and 162 cases were found among those assigned to placebo. was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19, and vaccine efficacy proved similar across subgroups defined by age, sex, race, ethnicity, baseline body-mass index, and the presence of coexisting conditions.

The COVID-19 vaccine candidate (mRNA-1273) from Moderna will soon undergo the same approval process when its EUA application goes to the FDA committee on 17 December. Moderna’s vaccine is based on the same messenger RNA technology and its similar effectiveness findings bode well for approval. Moderna’s latest release of trial performance shows an effectiveness rate over 94%. Also similar to BNT162b2, the Moderna vaccine shows consistent efficacy across age, race, and ethnic groups.

AstraZeneca and Oxford University are working on the third COVID-19 vaccine, which uses DNA instead of RNA. The first peer-reviewed results of phase 3 trials of this vaccine demonstrate that it is safe and up to 90% effective in preventing infection. The interim analysis identified no severe COVID-19 disease or hospitalizations in the 11,636 adults vaccinated in the United Kingdom and Brazil.

Dr. Saskia Popescu in This Podcast Will Kill You

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the Biodefense Graduate Program, was featured in the Anatomy of a Pandemic series of This Podcast Will Kill You. The Anatomy of a Pandemic series covers various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic: the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the disease it causes, patterns in its transmission, and how we can best control it. Listen to Chapter 12 with Dr. Popescu here.

Special COVID Issue from Homeland Security Affairs

Homeland Security Affairs, the peer-reviewed online journal of the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS), debuted a Special COVID Issue that features 11 essays chronicling agency and jurisdictional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lessons learned thus far. The essays focus on how agencies or jurisdictions changed their operations to more effectively handle the pandemic, as well as how the conditions of the pandemic constrained normal agency operations. Specific pieces include “Pandemic Policy and the Logistics of COVID-19 Mass Vaccination;” “COVID-19 Effects and Russian Disinformation Campaigns;” and “How Should The National Guard Be Employed for The Next National Disaster?” Read the special issue here.  

Biological Risks in India: Perspectives and Analysis

India is a nation that is especially vulnerable to infectious diseases due to its geographic location, large population, low healthcare spending, minimal spending on research that benefits public health, weak coordination between central and state health authorities, limited involvement of private actors, poor awareness of biosecurity, and the unsteady state of public health infrastructure. A new working paper by Shruti Sharma from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace addresses the various biological risks faced by India. The paper, Biological Risks in India: Perspectives and Analysis, considers threats and risks related to naturally-occurring infections, safety concerns, and security concerns; safety and security regulations and policies; and implementation. It further provides a brief assessment of how these policies are being implemented today along with the scope of enhanced implementation in the future. Sharma encourages the establishment of an agency specifically responsible for preventing and managing biological threats. Such an office should focus on naturally occurring diseases, threats emerging from laboratory accidents, and deliberate weaponization of diseases. Read the working paper here.

COVID-19 and Healthcare Professional Stress and Resilience

The Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) published an issue of its Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange (TRACIE) that focuses on the stress and resilience of healthcare professionals in COVID-19. This output offers resources regarding acute and chronic stressors, strategies for recognizing and managing the negative behaviors and mental health issues associated with stress, and ways to care for staff to bolster their own resilience. Read the issue here.

Biden’s Health Team Offers Glimpse of His COVID-19 Strategy

President-elect Joe Biden is building a healthcare team that is expected to strengthen the federal role in the nation’s COVID-19 strategy, restore the standing of science, and emphasize equitable distribution of vaccines and treatments. For instance, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will be Biden’s health secretary, who has experience managing California’s large attorney general’s office. Jeff Zients was selected as Biden’s White House coronavirus coordinator, and he is known for “rescuing government programs that went off course,” like the healthcare.gov website for Obamacare. Dr. Rochelle Walensky is an infectious disease expert who will head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Dr. Walensky now has firsthand coronavirus experience as the chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Finally, Biden has selected Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith from Yale University, a sign that the incoming administration will aim for equitable distribution of vaccines and treatments among racial and ethnic minorities, who have suffered a disproportionately high toll of COVID-19 deaths.

Biosecurity and Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering is the process of modifying an organism’s genome to introduce new, desirable traits. The potential boons from genetic engineering, and biotechnology in general, are diminished by the potential for accidental or intentional misuse of these tools and techniques. A new paper published in Nature Communications, “The biosecurity benefits of genetic engineering attribution,” discusses the importance of attribution in biology as recent scientific developments have demonstrated a capability for detecting whether an organism involved in such an event has been genetically modified. Attribution has three main security benefits: (1) knowledge of who was responsible can inform response efforts; (2) attribution can identify the responsible parties for appropriate civil, criminal, or diplomatic penalty; and (3) successful attribution followed by meaningful actions to hold perpetrators accountable can deter those inclined to reckless or malicious practice in the first place. Information for attribution can be roughly divided into three categories: (1) non-technical indicators that provide contextual clues to intent; (2) intelligence from human sources, intercepted communications, and surveillance; and (3) technical forensics that unveil the properties and characteristics of the agent. Better attribution tools for ascertaining such information will deter reckless actors as well as malicious actors. The authors believe it is the responsibility of the scientific and policy communities to identify opportunities to create these tools, like genetic engineering attribution, which reduce the risk of misuse. Another article in Nature Communications, “A machine learning toolkit for genetic engineering attribution to facilitate biosecurity,” suggests that a practical and accurate toolkit for genetic engineering forensics is within reach. The authors used recurrent neural networks (RNN) on a model attribution scenario with data from the world’s largest plasmid repository, which achieved 70% accuracy on lab-of-origin prediction.

Koblentz Featured in “Death by DNA” Episode of Apocalypse How Podcast

On 7 December, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, was featured on the final episode of a BBC radio documentary talking about synthetic biology and smallpox. The documentary, Apocalypse How, explores the threats beyond COVID-19 that the world may soon face. Such existential threats to humanity include an electromagnetic pulse bomb, a worldwide decline in pollinating insects, and an engineered deadly pathogen. This episode focused on the question, “Has DNA technology advanced so far that a rogue scientist, or even a competent terrorist, could assemble a deadly pathogen from genetic sequences bought by mail order?” Dr. Koblentz shared his insights on the resurrection of the horsepox virus by a group led by virologist David Evans at the University of Alberta. This team was able to recreate the entire genome of horsepox virus and reactivate live infectious virus from its genome. In short, they reconstructed horsepox virus from scratch, which had been extinct for 30 years. For Koblentz, the concern with horsepox virus is that it is a close relative to variola virus (smallpox) and the demonstrated ability to resurrect an orthopoxvirus is also a demonstration of how to synthesize smallpox. Koblentz argues that this research has created a new pathway for a bad actor to synthesize smallpox and reintroduce this scourge into the world. Viruses spread much more rapidly today than ever before as a result of globalization. The existing stockpiles of smallpox vaccine are not sufficient to protect the whole world. Dr. David Evans, the archvillain according to critics for synthesizing the virus, asserts that there is enough of an understanding about the dangers of using smallpox as a weapon that no one would dare risk it. Resurrecting this virus is not an easy task; it requires sizable funding and requires specialized research infrastructure, likely precluding many bad non-state actors. Listen to the episode here.