As the United States continues to struggle amid rising case counts, we again find ourselves addressing a recurring issue- lack of public trust and bad information. That is what much of this week’s issue covers, including the CDC’s current battle to regain the public’s trust, DTRA’s response to allegations it’s running BW labs internationally, and a new study warning of the media’s influence on pandemic response. We also cover a number of new developments before rounding out with fresh publications, events, and a couple of special announcements.
The Biden Administration and CDC’s Ongoing Struggles
As we reached the one year anniversary of the Biden administration’s announcement of its more than 200-page long National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, experts have taken time to reflect on the year since it was introduced. While the plan itself was well-articulated, encouraging, and created a sharp contrast to the prior administration by providing an actual pandemic exit strategy for the country, the U.S. is still struggling with the latest surge. Among other criticisms, some noted the patchwork of masking policies across the country, arguing the Biden administration has missed many opportunities to be more comprehensive in its approach to this measure in favor of pushing others, such as distributing COVID-19 rapid tests to American households. This is echoed in critiques of the decentralized structure of school and business re-openings nationally as yet more argue school districts have essentially been left to fend for themselves. Still, others continued to praise the administration for making the best it can of the situation, particularly amid uphill political battles. The lack of consistency and failure to deliver on some of the key promises of the administration’s initial COVID-19 plan, combined with focusing on certain mitigation measures, some argue, has allowed variants to push the nation’s healthcare system to its brink. However, it is worth noting that the new administration has made good progress on its vaccination goals and did manage to pass COVID-19 relief packages.
Still, one of the biggest concerns that has emerged is waning faith in the CDC and its leader, Dr. Rochelle Walensky. While the CDC once enjoyed broad public trust, it has suffered as pandemic fatigue grows and it struggles to cope with providing new guidance backed by imperfect science. While President Biden entered office promising to restore CDC’s reputation, this has proved difficult, especially in recent months as even some in the public health community have criticized the agency for what they view as hastily issued guidance (such as last spring, when they declared vaccinated people no longer needed to mask or social distance, or recently when they made major changes to isolation and quarantine guidance), inconsistent communication, and, most recently, controversial statements about whom is most impacted by the Omicron variant. As the administration’s ongoing challenges in curbing the pandemic in the U.S. suggest, all the good intentions in the world quickly mean very little without sound policy implementation and effective communication. While we cannot necessarily fault the administration for struggling to adapt to new variants, the breakdown in communication at CDC is a major problem, particularly as some in the public latch onto changes in guidance as evidence that the threat is overblown or the administration has no idea what to do. Dr. Walensky acknowledges that she should have been more explicit about how her agency’s guidance was likely to change as the situation evolved, but it remains to be seen if this will translate into more effective communication from CDC moving forward.
The Continued Fight Against Mis- and Disinformation
DTRA Responds to Cooperative Threat Reduction Program Allegations
The Department of Defense has responded to recurrent Russian allegations that the United States is producing bioweapons in various laboratories around the world. One lab in particular, the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi, Georgia, has repeatedly been targeted by such accusations. These claims, which were first issued by the Russians in 2017, have been refuted by many, most notably the U.S. State Department, Dr. Filippa Lentzos, and Roger Roffey and Anna-Karin Tunemalm of the Swedish Defence Research Agency. The Lugar Center is part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, which works with foreign partners to “eliminate WMD-related systems and materials, consolidate and secure WMD-related systems and materials, and detect and interdict WMD-related trafficking or outbreaks of especially dangerous diseases.” This program was established to respond to the legacy of the Soviet Union’s WMD programs, which, at the time of the USSR’s collapse, still boasted an estimated 30,000 nuclear weapons, 40,000 tons of chemical weapons, and a “robust biological capability” spread over 15 sovereign states, according to DTRA. The video below includes the statement by Chris Park, Deputy Head of Delegation to the Biological Weapons Convention from the U.S. State Department, refuting the claims once more in November 2021. The United States wholly refutes claims it is developing biological weapons, that these laboratories in the CTR Program violate international law, and that it is unwilling to work with the UN and other countries to strengthen the BWC.
Analyzing Natural Herd Immunity Media Discourse in the United Kingdom and the United States
This new article in PLOS Global Public Health analyzes news media publications focused on herd immunity in the U.S. and U.K. from March 11, 2020, through January 21, 2021, totaling 400 U.K. and 144 U.S. articles. The researchers found that government figures and a small but especially vocal group of academics played the most prominent roles in promoting natural herd immunity in the media, while critics of this idea largely stemmed from academia and public health. The researchers argue that this false sense of balance in news media coverage contributed to false belief among the general public that natural herd immunity was a legitimate approach to pandemic response while potentially undermining more widely accepted mitigation techniques. They ultimately conclude that, “The presentation of herd immunity in news media underscores the need for greater appreciation of potential harm of media representations that contain false balance.”
New from GAO- HHS is Solely in Charge of COVID-19 Vaccines Now, but it Remains Unclear if the Department is Ready to Handle Them Alone
A new report issued from the Government Accountability Office on 1/19/2021 discusses how federal efforts to develop, manufacture, and distribute COVID-19 vaccines (previously known as Operation Warp Speed) has transitioned from being led by both the Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services. GAO determined that it is unclear if HHS is ready to assume all of this responsibility, particularly in the areas once led by DOD, writing that, though HHS has assessed its workforce capabilities, it has not reconciled the loss of specialized DOD personnel. Of note too, multiple experts have cautioned that the FDA and CDC, both under HHS, struggle to work together cohesively, which doesn’t bode well for this or future pandemics. The report concludes with five recommendations to help HHS better assume this responsibility and coordinate with external stakeholders and prompt the Secretary of Defense to expand the Countermeasures Acceleration Group’s lessons-learned review. Check out this new report here on the GAO website.
Is There Time for Cautious, Preemptive Post-Omicron Optimism?
As many have latched onto the idea that Omicron is “mild” compared to the original and Delta strains, attention has also begun to shift to how Omicron might change the landscape of the pandemic after it dies down. We discussed last week how preliminary studies from South Africa indicate asymptomatic carriage of Omicron may be even more of an important feature than it was with previous strains, but we also have information that, though case counts and hospitalizations are on the rise, the disease is generally more moderate now. This has led some to argue we may have a reprieve after this variant ebbs, though this is hardly encouragement to let down our guard. Rather, it’s a lesson in what relativity looks like in the third year of a pandemic. While some are also insisting Omicron is the last wave of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci argues we are still in the first phase of the pandemic, or “the truly pandemic- where the world is really very negatively impacted as we are right now,” as he explained at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda on Monday. This would mean we still need to get through deceleration, control, elimination, and eradication, the latter of which seems increasingly unlikely as more and more countries begin to seek strategies for living with endemic COVID-19. While the potential for an Omicron-specific booster and the newest data about how a less-severe variant has the potential to weaken COVID-19 overall are hope-inspiring, it’s important to be honest about where we are with the pandemic- the U.S. is still struggling to get it under control at home and vaccination rates continue to lag in much of the developing world, potentially creating more opportunities for new variants to emerge and prolong global suffering. Finally, as Nature recently highlighted, we likely do not even have a correct global death toll for COVID-19. While the current global total is at over 5.57 million, global excess deaths- a number that compares all deaths recorded with those that are expected- are estimated at double to quadruple this number since the pandemic began. So, while we might be able to cautiously prepare to turn a corner, it is important to consider what all we still have to contend with in order to get anywhere near an end to this pandemic.
Walgreens Steps Up to the Plate, Launches COVID-19 Tracking Tool
The pharmacy chain Walgreens launched its COVID-19 Index this week, according to USA Today. The index, which you can access here, provides an overview of national positivity rates and variant proportions by state dating back to 12/21/2021, an Omicron proportion tracker dating back to 11/25/2021, and a variant tracker dating back to 5/2/2021. This index uses data gathered at 5,000 Walgreens stores across the country, using a portion of the PCR tests conducted in storefronts to allow Aegis Sciences Corps. to process the data and update the index every 24-48 hours. Dr. Kevin Ban, Chief Medical Officer for Walgreens, stated that he hopes this national data can “drive down into the state level…and make it actionable.”
2022 Doomsday Clock Still at 100 Seconds to Midnight
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists unveiled the 2022 Doomsday Clock, revealing that it is at 100 seconds to midnight once again. The clock represents the potential for a global, man-made catastrophe and has been maintained by the Bulletin since 1947. The furthest the clock has been from midnight was 17 minutes in 1991, with the closest being 100 seconds (which it has stayed at since 2020). Among top factors influencing the Clock’s time this year were nuclear issues, climate change, disruptive technology and disinformation, and what the Bulletin described as the “burgeoning biological threat to civilization.” Check out Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk’s statement on the 2022 announcement here.
New Proceedings of a Workshop Available from National Academy of Medicine
The National Academies Press has just released the proceedings from its International Workshop on COVID-19 Lessons to Inform Pandemic Influenza Response, hosted in May 2021. The current pandemic has made clear weaknesses in global and domestic preparedness, highlighting the need to improve our planning for future influenza pandemics. The global response to COVID-19 has also demonstrated how quickly we can respond to novel diseases, including through rapid vaccine research and roll-out. As such, the National Academies convened this workshop in an attempt to better understand how we can improve our response capabilities for both seasonal flu and future pandemics. This publication offers a high-level summary of the various presentations and discussions that occurred over the course of the workshop. Sections include global coordination, partnerships, and financing, vaccine R&D, vaccine distribution, and research translation and communication. You can purchase a physical copy or download a free PDF here and watch the workshop’s recording here.
New from CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security
The Center for Strategic and International Studies has released their report, “2022 Is the Year of Decision,” detailing the Commission’s conclusion that, amid the Omicron surge, it’s time for the country to re-think its approaches at home and abroad to not only curtailing this pandemic, but preparing for future global health security threats. Recommendations made in the report include “launch a U.S. international pandemic initiative; appoint a presidential global health security envoy; prioritize vaccines as the backbone of both the domestic and international response; make therapies and tests among the highest priorities; take a strategic approach to developing future vaccines, therapies, and diagnostic technologies; prioritize the establishment and resourcing of a pandemic fund and high-level leaders’ council; elevate the global role of the Department of Defense; and pursue détente with China on global health security.”
“Innovative vaccine approaches- a Keystone Symposia report”
The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences has released a new Concise Original Report detailing expert discussion from June 28-30, 2021, on vaccine research, development, manufacturing, and deployment from the eSyposium, “Innovative Vaccine Approaches”. This report spans a wide variety of topics, including differential outcomes of oral vaccines and use of reverse vaccinology to develop an antigen-based vaccine. It also features a write-up of the symposium’s keynote address from Dr. Rino Rappuoili, entitled “10 months to a COVID-19 vaccine- how did we get here?” The report is available here.
Public Health On Call
This podcast, produced by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has recently released new episodes on the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes one with Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at UC San Francisco and HIV expert, discussing what the pandemic may look like throughout this year as well as an update episode on COVID-19 vaccines and immunocompromised patients. The podcast continues to offer near real-time updates and expert commentary as the pandemic progresses. Give it a listen here.
Strengthening the Implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention
The UN Institute for Disarmament Research is offering this webinar on January 25 at 7 am EST to present findings of the newly published UNIDIR paper, “Enhancing the Management and Enforcement of Compliance in the Regime Prohibiting Chemical Weapons” (link here), and offer an update on the institute’s work on gender and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Speakers will include Dr. Ralf Trapp (independent consultant on CBW), Mr. Cheng Tang (former chair of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Scientific Advisory Board), Dr. Una Jakob (senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt), Ms. María Garzón Maceda (research assistant at UNIDIR WMD Programme), Dr. Renata Hessmann Dalaqua (UNIDIR Gender and Disarmament Lead), and Dr. James Revill (UNIDIR WMD and Other Strategic Weapons Programme Lead). Register for this event here.
Emerging Technologies and Customs Enforcement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540
The Strategic Trade Research Institute (STRI) along with representatives from the Republic of Korea and the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs are offering this online event to discuss emerging technologies available to customs, their applications, and national experiences integrating these technologies into customs enforcement. Discussants will include Dr. Andrea Viski (Director of STRI and Schar School Adjunct Professor teaching courses on strategic trade controls), Ms. Milena Budimirović (Senior Technical Office at the World Customs Organization), and Mr. Sanaullah Abro (Director of Risk Management Systems at Pakistan Customs). It will convene on January 27 at 9 AM EST. RSVP here.
Reimagining Preparedness in the Era of COVID-19
Registration for the 2022 Preparedness Summit, entitled Reimagining Preparedness in the Era of COVID-19, is open. While we continue to combat COVID-19 and concurrent all-hazard events, it is important to come together as a professional community to assess where our preparedness and response efforts have fallen short, met the mark, or exceeded expectations, and to explore opportunities to refocus, plan, and reimagine the future. The Summit will provide an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned from current and previous responses, and highlight tools, resources, and learnings that we can be applied in the future. The summit will take place from April 3-7 in Atlanta, Georgia. To learn more, please visit their site here.
Earth Emergency Now Streaming Through 1/28/2022
This revealing film examines how human activity is setting off dangerous warming loops that are pushing the climate to a point of no return – and what we need to do to stop them. With captivating illustrations, stunning footage and interviews with leading climate scientists as well as support from Greta Thunberg, Earth Emergency adds the missing piece of the climate puzzle. Click here to stream it from the PBS website. Other documentaries are also available currently, including Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria, which discusses ongoing challenges with antimicrobial resistance, and China’s COVID Secrets.
14th Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit
The Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit will be hosted from February 7 through 9 at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City (Reagan National Airport) in Arlington, VA. This conference will bring together leaders in nuclear deterrence from across academia, government, and industry to discuss the future of the nuclear deterrence mission and allow attendees to network with one another. Registration is still open here.
Work with Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London and Dr. Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University
Drs. Lentzos and Koblentz are now seeking a Research Associate for their ongoing project, GlobalBioLabs.org. Two positions are available (one for six months and one for nine months). The job description is as follows:
The post holder will be required to undertake and support original, high-quality research to map high biocontainment laboratories globally and biorisk management tools and practices locally. The post is part of a project to update and expand the publicly accessible interactive map of global labs and biorisk governance available at GlobalBioLabs.org. The successful candidate will join a project team led by Dr Filippa Lentzos at King’s College London and Dr Gregory Koblentz at George Mason University. This post will be offered on part time (50% FTE), fixed term contract for 9 months.
Serve as an Editor for Upcoming Collection of One Health Resources Launched by CABI
CABI, the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International, has released a call for editors for its One Health Resources Initiative. CABI explains, “Established over a hundred years ago, CABI is an international, inter-governmental, not-for-profit organization that improves lives worldwide by providing information and applying scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment. It puts information, skills and tools into people’s hands. CABI’s 49 Member Countries guide and influence its work which is delivered by scientific staff based in its global network of centres.” This initiative will consist of CABI One Health (a new Open Access journal focused on the full-scope of One Health), Collection of One Health Cases (a curated collection of real-world examples of One Health in practice), and the One Health Knowledge Bank.
Editor-in-Chief of CABI’s One Health resources, Professor Jakob Zinsstag, and Deputy Editor, Dr Lisa Crump – both of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute – are now recruiting a global editorial board of Senior and Associate Editors for this integrated collection of resources. Senior Editors should have demonstrated significant One Health research output in leading journals, with previous membership of journal editorial boards and experience of peer review. They should have a strong international network of collaborators and partners who could contribute research articles and case studies. Associate Editors should have evidence of an active and relevant One Health publication record for their current career stage, and experience of peer reviewing articles. Experience of delivering One Health educational programs is also desirable. Those interested in responding to this open call for editorial board members of the new CABI One Health resources are invited to contact the Editors at CABIOneHealth@cabi.org for more information. Article and case submissions will open in early 2022, with the first content to publish later this year. The Editors would also love to hear from researchers or practitioners who may have research or practical One Health case studies ready to share.