Pandora Report: 9.25.2020

Happy fall y’all! The first days of autumn have been eventful with the ongoing pandemic and the interception of ricin-laced letters. The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response virtually met for the first time and laid out their plans for investigating how and why COVID-19 became a pandemic. Letters laced with ricin were intercepted in Texas and before reaching the White House, and a suspect has been charged. In wonderful news, our own Dr. Saskia Popescu was named as one of the 50 experts to trust and follow in a pandemic! Also, Stevie Kiesel shares her assessment of the Secret Service’s annual reports on mass attacks in public spaces.

Commentary – Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: An Assessment by the United States Secret Service

Stevie Kiesel, a PhD Student in Biodefense, shares her assessment of the US Secret Service annual reporting on mass attacks in public spaces. Just last year, 108 people were killed and 178 injured in 34 mass attacks conducted on US soil. These annual reports on mass attacks in public spaces could be greatly improved by analyzing the attackers’ ideologies, their affiliations (online or in real life) with extremist groups, and their online presence. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Schar School Job Talk: Careers in Policy and Security

Please join the Schar School at a virtual job talk for prospective students! Panelists will provide insight on how a graduate degree from the Schar School can benefit your career in policy and security. Panelists include Dr. Saskia Popescu, 2019 graduate of the Schar School’s PhD in Biodefense program, a nationally recognized expert in hospital-based infection prevention, and a Term Assistant Professor at the Schar School; Kathleen Lackey, Staff Officer with the Department of Defense and a 2018 graduate of the Schar School’s MA in International Security; Larry Hanauer, Vice President for Policy at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA); and Curt Goucher, Senior Manager of Talent Management and Strategy with the Intelligence and Homeland Security Division of General Dynamics Information Technology. Click here to register.

Scientists Are Working on Vaccines That Spread Like a Disease. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A growing subset of scientists think that the self-propagating properties of a virus could be exploited and used to spread immunity to infection. In theory, conferring immunity through an animal population could lower the chance of a zoonotic spillover; however, there are serious risks related to self-spreading vaccines. Self-spreading vaccines are “genetically engineered viruses designed to move through populations in the same way as infectious diseases, but rather than causing disease, they confer protection.” Dr. Fillipa Lentzos and Dr. Guy Reeves outline some of these risks in their recent article featured in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The primary security concern is the dual-use potential; these self-spreading vaccines could be used as a biological weapon. Though the Biological Weapons Convention bans biological weapons, it lacks any formal measures to ensure compliance. Given the degradation of the norm against chemical weapons, as evidenced by the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny with Novichok, the international community cannot withstand a similar weakening of the norm against biological weapons. The authors encourage “early, open, good-faith conversations about scientific aims and advances that cause particular dual-use concerns” in order to “make a collective decision about the technical pathways we are willing, or not willing, to take as a society.”

Ricin Letters

It was revealed last week that letters containing ricin, a poison found naturally in castor beans, were intercepted. One such letter was bound for Trump, but intercepted at an off-site mail processing facility, and others were sent to a detention facility and sheriff’s office in Texas. Mail address to the White House and other federal agencies in the DC area are irradiated and sampled for suspicious samples prior to arriving at the final destination.  The Joint Terrorism Task Force in DC is the lead on the investigation in partnership with the FBI, Secret Service, and Postal Inspection Service. An FBI statement on Twitter announced that there is “no known threat to public safety.” The investigation into all the ricin-laced letters has led to a suspect: Pascale Cecile Veronique Ferrier, 53, of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. An affidavit in support of criminal complaint was submitted by Jonathon Preston, a Special Agent Bomb Technician with the FBI, states his support of charging Ferrier with Threatening the President of the United States. According to Preston, all seven letters contained similar language, similar material, and four of them had fingerprints matching the suspect. Ferrier also shared Twitter and Facebook posts that used language akin to that in the letters, and the email associated with those social media accounts was linked to her. Further, upon detainment by Customs and Border Patrol Officers in Buffalo on 20 September, Ferrier made statements that she was “wanted by the FBI for the ricin letters.” Ferrier’s detention hearing is scheduled for 28 September.

The Independent Panel Set to Establish the Facts of How and Why COVID-19 Became a Global Pandemic

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response is tasked with providing an evidence-based path for the future to effectively address health threats. The Independent Panel intends to establish the facts of how and why COVID-19 became a pandemic and to generate recommendations for “safeguarding human health and economic and social wellbeing in the face of future global health threats.” The Independent Panel held its first meeting (virtually) on 17 September and it will conduct an impartial, independent and comprehensive review of the response to COVID-19. In the first meeting, members discussed the Terms of Reference to ensure that the Panel works “openly and transparently” and seeks the “best possible advice, experience, and knowledge.” The thematic areas for the program of work include the review of the pandemic from its initial phase and the analysis of broader societal and economic impacts. Scheduled reporting includes a briefing to the WHO Executive Board at its session scheduled 5-6 October, a progress report to the resumed 73rd World Health Assembly scheduled from 9-14 November, a second progress report to the WHO Executive Board scheduled from 18-26 January 2021, and then the Panel will then report to the 74th World Health Assembly in May 2021.

Healthcare Workers Make Up 1 in 7 Reported Coronavirus Infections Globally

One in seven COVID-19 cases reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) is a healthcare worker. In some countries, that proportion is as high as one in three. These numbers are disproportionately high compared with the numbers of healthcare workers, which account for about 3% of the population in most countries. Two factors contributing to these elevated rates are the greater rates of testing for healthcare workers as frontline responders in a pandemic and the high-risk nature of working in healthcare. A study published this summer found that the risk of infection for healthcare workers was about three times greater than the risk for the general community. The WHO did clarify that the data did not provide clear insight into whether healthcare workers were infected in clinical settings or at home.

50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic

A list of the 50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic includes Dr. Saskia Popescu, graduate of the Biodefense PhD Program and Term Assistant Professor for the Program! Dr. Popescu is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arizona College of Public Health Department of Epidemiology and Biostats. She is an epidemiologist and hospital infection preventionist in Arizona, a hotspot for the virus. To keep up with Dr. Popescu’s insights on the pandemic, follow her on Twitter @SaskiaPopescu.    

COVID-19: Federal Efforts Could Be Strengthened by Timely and Concerted Actions

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congressional Committees regarding federal actions to support public health, individuals, and the economy in COVID-19 evaluates federal actions to the pandemic. The report identified several issues in need of attention by Congress and the administration, including: the medical supply chain is unable to prevent shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies; there is a lack of clarity about the federal government’s plan for distributing and administering a COVID-19 vaccine; COVID-19 data reveal that there is a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths exists among minority groups and those data contain gaps; and the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service lack updated information on the number of eligible recipients who have not received an economic impact payment. Beyond the long list of areas in need of improvement, the report lays out 16 recommendations for executive action, such as better developing and communicating plans that outline the specific actions that the federal government intends to take to help alleviate medical supply gaps necessary to respond to the remainder of the pandemic. Read the full report here.

In Response: Yan et al Preprint

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security published a response to the preprint report, Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route, by Li-Meng Yan, Shu Kang, Jie Guan, and Shanchang Hu. The report in question provides a theory about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, but, according to the Center for Health Security, the authors failed to provide accurate or supportive evidence to back up their claim. In short, the refuted report, which is not peer-reviewed, states that “SARS-CoV-2 shows biological characteristics that are inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus” and that “evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 should be a laboratory product created by using bat coronaviruses ZC45 and/or ZXC21 as a template and/or backbone.” The Center for Health Security response thoroughly details the errors in the report and provides accurate information about each topic.

Lists of Chemical Warfare Agents and Precursors: Structural Annotation and Chemical Fingerprint Analysis

A recent publication by Stefano Costanzi, Charlotte Slavick, Brent Hutchinson, Gregory Koblentz (GMU Biodefense Program Director), and Richard Cupitt (GMU Adjunct Professor) provides “curated and structurally annotated chemical weapons (CW) control lists from three key international nonproliferation frameworks: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Australia Group (AG), and the Wassenaar Arrangement.” These lists were constructed to facilitate communication between scientific advisors and policymakers in chemical weapons nonproliferation. They are also aimed at enabling the work of chemists and cheminformaticians working on CW nonproliferation. The tables include 2D structural images, downloadable 2D structures, and links to NCBI’s PubChem and NIST’s Chemistry WebBook cards that offer quick access to physicochemical, analytical chemistry, and toxicological information. The article examines a discrepancy in a CW control list covering the defoliant Agent Orange and suggests a solution to address it, as well as the results of chemical fingerprinting analyses. The tables for the curated lists of chemicals are available here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 23 September, there is a PhD Virtual Open House at 7pm EDT. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” To read the latest Master’s in Biodefense Career Report, click here. Register for these open houses and lectures here.

Pandora Report: 9.18.2020

Calling all budding biodefense students and professionals – the Schar School is hosting several virtual information sessions for prospective students!  To add further enticement, Dr. Lauren Quattrochi, an electrophysiologist AND neuropharmacologist, is joining the GMU Biodefense family this spring. In alarming news, dozens of drone incursions have flown over US nuclear sites by unknown operators with unknown objectives. The UN General Assembly just approved a broad resolution about the coronavirus pandemic, despite objections from the US. Also, we are welcoming a new student writer from the Biodefense MS Program, DeeDee Bowers, who is sharing her takeaways from a public convo about the future of DHS.

Commentary – Countering New Threats to the Homeland: The Future of the Department of Homeland Security

DeeDee Bowers, a Biodefense MS student, shares her takeaways from a webinar hosted by the Atlantic Council about the future of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). To achieve its objectives, DHS will have to evolve with the threat landscape. Read Bowers’ commentary here.

Schar School Virtual Open Houses & Sample Lectures

Calling all future biodefense experts! The Schar School of Policy and Government is hosting a series of virtual open houses and sample lectures for prospective certificate, master’s, and PhD students, which include the Biodefense Graduate Programs. On 23 September, there is a PhD Virtual Open House at 7pm EDT. On 22 October and 12 November, there will be Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open Houses at 6:30pm EDT. Virtual sample classes include “Globalization and Development After COVID-19,” “Energy and Climate Change – The National Security Odd-Couple,” and “Will COVID-19 Inspire Greater Interest in Bioweapons?” Register for these open houses and lectures here.

Dozens More Mystery Drone Incursions Over US Nuclear Power Plants Revealed

Between 2015-2019, there have been at least 57 drone incursions over 24 nuclear sites in the US. Of the 57 known incidents, 49 of them were classified as “Closed Unresolved,” indicating that 85% of the drone incursions were conducted by unknown perpetrators with unknown intents. Last September, a swarm of about half a dozen large drones flew over a pressurized water reactor at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station for 80 minutes. The timespan of that incursion would be sufficient to thoroughly survey the site.

Welcome, Dr. Lauren Quattrochi!

This spring, the Schar School welcomes a new course (more to come later) with new adjunct faculty member Dr. Lauren Quattrochi! Dr. Quattrochi (aka Dr. Q) is classically trained as an electrophysiologist and neuropharmacologist. Over the evolution of her career, she has worked within the biopharma industry, non-profits and for the past 4 years, in support of the government. She is currently a principal biotechnologist leading national level scientific and biosecurity initiatives within the US government. At the moment, Dr. Quattrochi serves as a technical advisor on both Hantavirus and COVID-19 vaccine development and manufacturing. She has led key projects within the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) on rapid vaccine preparedness, the Biomedical Research and Advanced Development Authority (BARDA) on their public-private partnerships and medical countermeasure sustainability, as well as the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research (OER) on accelerating breakthrough medical technologies from start-up biotechs. Prior to her current work, she spearheaded projects at Pfizer on drug delivery, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and metabolism for Schizophrenia, depression and Alzheimer’s. Dr. Quattrochi has had the pleasure to teach STEM on infectious diseases in partnership with Brown University at the NIH, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and overseas in Greece. In her spare time, she teaches power vinyasa yoga and creates scientifically-inspired jewelry.

The Passing of an Arms Control Legend

The Pandora Report is sad to report that James F. Leonard, passed away recently at the age of 100. Ambassador Leonard was an ardent and articulate advocate for arms control and nonproliferation. As Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) from 1969-1973, Ambassador Leonard was the lead U.S. negotiator for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, the first international treaty to ban an entire class of weapons. Ambassador Leonard recounted his long diplomatic career in a 1993 oral history. Following his retirement from government service, Ambassador Leonard remained actively involved in nonproliferation activities through his work with several non-government organizations. In 1989, Ambassador Leonard was a co-founder of the Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons at the Federation of American Scientists (now the Scientists Working Group on Chemical and Biological Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation). His decency and dedication to the cause of arms control will be truly missed.

Suboptimal US Response to COVID-19 Despite Robust Capabilities and Resources

Frankly, “suboptimal” is probably an understatement. Dr. Jennifer B. Nuzzo, Jessica A. Bell, and Dr.  Elizabeth E. Cameron published a Viewpoint piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) about the poor response of the US to the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors highlight that in September 2019, the release of the Global Health Security Index revealed several weaknesses of all countries, including the US. The Index, however, did not reveal the critical gaps in leadership that would soon lead to a failed pandemic response. The article breaks down the Index and indicator scores for the US and compares the US to other nations whose responses have been significantly stronger. Read the full article here.

Putin Borrowed a Page from Assad’s Chemical Weapon Playbook

The recent poisoning of Alexei Nalvany with a Novichok is just the latest in a series of poisonings by the Kremlin. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, draws on the history of Novichok incidents to compare Russian President Putin’s strategy to that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Like Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Putin’s use of a nerve agent to repress dissidents and critics and shamelessly violate the Chemical Weapons Convention, which explicitly bans Novichoks. Read Koblentz’s article here.

UN Assembly Approves Pandemic Resolution; US, Israel Object

On 11 September, the United Nations General Assembly approved an omnibus resolution titled “Comprehensive and coordinated response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.” The resolution calls for strengthened international cooperation and solidarity for the goals of containing, mitigating, and defeating the pandemic and its consequences using responses that are people-centered, gender-responsive, and respectful of human rights. It was adopted by a vote of 169-2, with the two votes against from the United States and Israel. The US objected to the resolution based on references to the World Health Organization (WHO), from which Trump has cut funding and intends to withdraw. Speaking of the WHO withdrawal, the administration is starting to reassign or recall the US officials working with the WHO. Additionally, the US wanted the removal of paragraphs that refer to women’s rights to “sexual and reproductive health” and to “promoting global sustainable transport.” Finally, the US opposed the any unilateral economic, financial, or trade sanctions.

The Labs Where Monsters Live

Nations are investing in Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories to study dangerous pathogens and better prepare themselves for novel ones, but some scientists are worried about the potential for an accident in high-containment facilities or attacks using the creations of research. In terms of safety from accidents, laboratories must carefully select personnel, create a work culture of trust and accountability, and uphold strict safety protocols and rules. There is also debate about gain-of-function research, which could make a pathogen more dangerous by giving it new or enhanced abilities. Supporters of gain-of-function work argue that such research helps improve detection and create vaccines for future biothreats, but others worry that the risks do not outweigh the benefits. Another critical concern about BSL-4 laboratories is about who will be tasked with monitoring their activities. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, says that government oversight is crucial, but laboratory workers are the linchpins. The insider threat is the greatest security challenge, which is why US labs maintain a personnel reliability programmed designed to monitor scientists for issues like mental distress or financial distress. A worker could be radicalized by a group who encourages that individual to steal research or blackmailed by bad actor who encourages that individual to procure samples for them. Richard Ebright from Rutgers University warns that BSL-4 labs could become “tools for authoritarian governments” if there is not international transparency.

Interdisciplinary Information for Infectious Disease Response: Exercising for Improved Medical/Public Health Communication and Collaboration

Dr. Saskia Popescu, Alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program, and Dr. Nathan Myers, Associate Professor & Director of Public Administration at Indiana State University, published a paper about the importance of communication and training in relation to high consequence pathogens. They point out that recent infectious disease threats – like SARS-CoV-2 – require an increase in preparedness and response capabilities, especially in information sharing. Their policy analysis “reviews the threat that infectious diseases continue to pose to the United States, and the role that the Hospital Preparedness Program can play in countering such threats.” Based on their study, the authors provide recommendations for improved medical and public health communication and collaboration. Read the full article here.

Pandora Report: 9.11.2020

This week’s Pandora Report covers, brace yourself, some of the latest developments related to COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2! For those of us desperate for a momentary pause from pandemic news, we also summarized a brief history on assassinations using nerve agents and highlighted a new report about human heritable gene editing (think CRISPR babies). On a lighter note, Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights on arson as an increasingly popular terrorist tactic.

In Memory of 9/11

Today marks the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On that morning, four coordinated terrorist attacks were carried out by 19 members of al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group. The attacks targeted the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center complex and a third plane into the Pentagon. The fourth hijacked crashed into an empty field in western Pennsylvania. The attacks killed 2,997 people from 93 nations.

Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, provides important insight on the use of arson as a terrorist tactic, especially as the pandemic provides opportunities to exploit and amplify public chaos and discomfort.  A video released earlier this month by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center describes arson as a highly effective, low-skill attack with great potential for damage and psychological impact, highlighting the California wildfires as an example for how death tolls in large fires “sometimes exceed the number of those lost in major strikes by the mujahideen in which they used guns and explosives.” The use of arson for terrorist purposes is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to jihadists. Extremists on the far right and the far left, as well as special interest extremists, have used arson to send political messages for years. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

FAO/OIE/WHO Tripartite Statement on the Pandemic Risk of Swine Influenza

A recent report documenting the circulation of A(H1N1) subtype influenza viruses in China’s swine population is an alert for the pandemic risks with swine influenza viruses. A tripartite statement from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and the World Health Organization (WHO) urges the rapid analysis and risk assessment of new and updated swine influenza surveillance data. It also recommends that laboratories continue to conduct tests for swine influenza given the concern regarding human infections with novel influenza viruses including strains of swine-origin.  

Update: COVID-19 Vaccine

With 321 candidates, the COVID-19 vaccine research and development landscape has progressed at a record rate. Of the total candidates, 33 are in clinical trials with plans to enroll nearly 300,000 subjects from over 470 sites in 34 countries. Candidate types run the gamut: live attenuated virus, inactivated virus, non-replicating viral vector based, replicating viral vector based, recombinant protein, virus-like particle, DNA, and RNA. Clinical development requires well-designed trials with a carefully selected endpoint, insight into what constitutes protective immunity, adequate representation of the target population, and strong considerations for safety. Despite the unprecedented headway, there exist several hurdles and uncertainties regarding the approval of a vaccine. In regard to Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that a “deep state” in the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) was slowing approval of a vaccine, the FDA is shielding vaccine reviewers from outside political influence and noise. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn announced that the agency will maintain “high standards that Americans expect for safety and effectiveness,” so there will be no shortcuts taken to perilously accelerate the timeline to approval. In terms of a timeline, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not anticipate widespread COVID-19 vaccinations until mid-2021. According to WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris, there has yet to be a “clear signal” from candidates in vaccine trials that efficacy has reached the minimum 50% level. This week, US public health officials and Pfizer stated that a vaccine could be ready for distribution as soon as late October, right before the presidential election.

History of Nerve Agent Assassinations

On 20 August, Alexei Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption activist, was hospitalized for illness due to poisoning. After being airlifted to Germany for treatment, a German military laboratory confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in a failed assassination attempt. This was not the first case of a political opponent – or a perceived enemy – being the victim of poisoning, as Jean-Pascal Zanders has detailed in his brief history of the use of nerve agents for assassination.  In 1995, Aum Shinrikyo released sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system. More recently, in 2017, a binary version of VX was used to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Two years ago, a Novichok nerve agent was ineffectively used by Russia in an attempt to eliminate a former double agent living in the United Kingdom. Between 1994 and 2020, Zanders has tallied a dozen known assassination operations with neurotoxicants like Novichok. Although only two of the 11 direct targets died, nine innocent bystanders were killed and hundreds more sickened.

Navigating a Post-Pandemic World

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace convened 150 scholars from 20 nations to create a digital magazine that provides “grounded, fresh analysis and new approaches to some of the most consequential challenges unfolding before us.” The magazine, “The Day After: Navigating a Post-Pandemic World,” covers a range of important topics like nuclear arms control, disinformation, climate change, and the foreign and domestic policies of several countries. Current featured essays include “India’s Path to the Big Leagues” by Ashley J Tellis, “Securing Cyberspace” by Michael Nelson and George Perkovich, and “A Coming Decade of Arab Decisions” by Marwan Muasher and Maha Yahya. Read the magazine here.

Half of Troops See Coronavirus as a Major Threat for the Military: Poll

According to a Military Times Poll conducted in partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University, about half of surveyed active-duty troops believe the pandemic poses a “significant threat to military readiness and operations.” On the other hand, respondents were divided over the sufficiency of service leaders’ response. Results found that 48% of surveyed service members “do not believe their chain of command has taken the appropriate steps to respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” but 46% “have confidence in leadership’s response.” Response measures included shutting down most military travel for three months, pausing changes to duty stations, and significantly curbing worldwide operations. As of this week, the Department of Defense has reported over 39,000 COVID-19 cases among military members along with 17,000 cases among civilian employees, military dependents, and contractors. To date, seven service members have died from COVID-19 complications.

Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Pits Spy Against Spy

As the world races to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, countries such as China and Russia are expanding their espionage efforts to steal information at US research institutes and companies. Chinese hackers targeted the University of North Carolina and other universities working on vaccine research against the novel coronavirus, and Russia’s foremost intelligence service, the SVR, is following suit. Iran is also trying to steal vaccine research information form the US. To sum it up, every major espionage service in the world is working to purloin US data and research related to COVID-19 vaccines. The pandemic has created a “grand game of spy versus spy,” with the US as a key target. This newly enhanced threat has prompted the US to expand its protective efforts for universities and R&D companies. Additionally, NATO intelligence is inspecting efforts by the Kremlin to steal vaccine research. According to a current and a former official, China is covertly using material from the World Health Organization to inform its hacking attempts in the US and Europe. In regard to China’s spying and hacking, US intelligence officials first learned about the attempts in early February, the start of the pandemic in the US. In July, the Department of Justice indicted two hackers working for China’s Ministry of State Security spy service for conducting a computer intrusion campaign targeting intellectual property and confidential business information. In response to such discovered attempts, the administration ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston. Members of Cozy Bear, a Russian hacking group, were caught attempting to steal vaccine data. On 11 August, Russia announced that it had approved a vaccine, an event that provoked suspicion that its R&D was involuntarily aided by stolen information. Beyond US universities, it is suspected that foreign spies are targeting biotech companies Gilead Sciences, Novavax, and Moderna. Though no corporation or university has reported any data thefts, some hacking efforts have successfully penetrated network defenses.

Report of the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released its report, Heritable Human Genome Editing, drafted by the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing. Heritable genome editing entails changing the genetic material of ova, sperm, or any cell related to their development (cells of early embryos), and establishing pregnancy. This capability raises scientific, medical, ethical, moral, and societal concerns. In 2018, a Chinese scientist announced the birth of the first genome-edited human babies, commonly referred to as the “CRISPR babies,” which sparked legal and bioethical controversies and widespread disapproval. The scientist behind the CRISPR babies was removed from his research position and sentenced to three years in prison for “illegal medical practice.” This heavily-publicized and criticized event spurred a great debate about the use and ethics of human heritable gene editing. The Commission was convened by NASEM with the objective of developing a “framework for scientists, clinicians, and regulatory authorities to consider when assessing potential clinical applications of human germline genome editing, should society conclude that heritable human genome editing applications are acceptable.”  Read the full report here.

Toward a More Proliferated World? The Geopolitical Forces that Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Toward a More Proliferated World? The Geopolitical Forces that Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, examines key geopolitical trends expected to shape the future nuclear proliferation landscape. The reports identifies and assesses seven trends such as the rise of authoritarian leadership, the increase in nuclear threats and growing tensions within regional security environments, and the swelling competitiveness between the US and China as well as the US and Russia. This report was written with Joseph Rodgers, a Biodefense PhD student and a Program Coordinator for the Project on Nuclear Issues at CSIS. Read the full report here.

News of the Weird: COVID-19 Instigates Ad Changes

As the pandemic endures, large companies are reconsidering their advertising jingles. After 64 years, Kentucky Fried Chicken (lovingly known as KFC), announced that it is suspending its famous “finger lickin’ good” slogan in order to better support public health measures. Similarly, McDonald’s Brazil debuted a socially-distanced logo with its famous golden arches spread apart. Burger King is also adjusting its store logo by replacing “Home of the Whopper” signs with “Stay Home” signs. COVID-19 has created a unique opportunity for company re-branding, even if only temporarily.

Pandora Report: 9.4.2020

Agroterrorism: National Defense Assessment, Strategies, and Capabilities

United States Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies and Auburn University published a collection of academic studies about the challenges of agroterrorism to the United States, titled Agroterrorism: National Defense Assessment, Strategies, and Capabilities. The included papers that discuss the historical threat of attacks on agriculture, contemporary challenges, US policies and capabilities, and recommendations on how to improve policies and capabilities for the future. Three of the co-authors are members of the extended GMU Biodefense family: Janet Marroquin is a current Biodefense PhD student, Douglas Lewis is graduate of the PhD program, and Henry Parker is a former adjunct professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program. Read the report here.

Review and Revision of the Screening Framework Guidance for Providers of Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA

On 26 August, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) issued a Request for Information (RFI) for the Review and Revision of the Screening Framework Guidance for Providers of Synthetic Double-Stranded DNA in the US Federal Register. The ASPR invites public comments on whether and how the Guidance could be updated to mitigate the risks associated with nucleic acid synthesis technologies. These technologies enable the design, modification, and creation of biological systems, and bear the potential to be misused. Due to the dual-use risks, the comment period is seeking public input on changes that would either expand or limit the following areas: Scope of the Guidance, Sequence Screening, Biosecurity Measures, Customer Screening, Minimizing Burden of the Guidance, and Technologies Subject to the Guidance. The RFI is open through noon on 25 October. Submit comments here.  

COVID-19 Cases Infographic

Statista crafted this infographic depicting the global case count of COVID-19 cases as of 30 August, which has surpassed the 25 million mark. The chart also breaks down the case count into active, recovered, and deceased.

Preliminary Framework for Equitable Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccine

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released the Preliminary Framework for Equitable Allocation of a COVID-19 Vaccine. The Preliminary Framework aims to “assist policy makers in the domestic and global health communities in planning for equitable allocation of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.” The discussion considers several issues regarding allocation of a vaccine, including how to assure access to communities of color and what criteria should be used in setting priorities for equitable allocation. Read the full draft framework here.

Security, Intelligence, and the Global Health Crisis

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a non-partisan think tank based in Canada, released an essay series about the interface between health security and national security. The publication – Security, Intelligence and the Global Health Crisis – includes pieces about disinformation in a health crisis, economic security, climate change, and more. As the world investigates the emergence of the pandemic and learns from the global response, it must also consider the role of security and intelligence institutions in protecting societies against disease outbreaks. Read the series here.

Potential Impact of Science and Technology on International Security and Disarmament

The new United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) report, Advances in Science and Technology in the Life Sciences: Implications for Biosecurity and Arms Control, summarizes several trends facilitating advances across the life sciences: immunology, neuroscience, human genetics and reproductive science, agriculture, and infectious disease. Though research and development in these fields is by and large conducted for peaceful purposes in order to benefit society, the same outputs can pose serious ethical, safety, and security concerns if they are misused. Specifically, R&D in the life sciences could contribute to new types of biological weapons with different and more deleterious effects than existing agents. In the same vein, the United Nations General Assembly released a new report, Current Developments in Science and Technology and Their Potential Impact on International Security and Disarmament Efforts, provides a comprehensive update on the innovations of the life sciences that could impact international security and disarmament efforts. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, recently published an article about emerging technologies that present a new spectrum of threats from chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological (CBRN) terrorism. Koblentz names malware, synthetic biology, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, digital currency, nanotechnology, and genome editing as emerging technologies that comprise the start of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This new era is unprecedented in its “global scope, exponential rate of innovation, and the convergence of the physical, digital, and biological worlds.”

Conversations on COVID-19: Impacts on Communities of Color

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) debuted a new resource, Conversations on COVID-19: Impacts on Communities of Color. Though much remains unknown about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, CDC data show that special populations (African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and the elderly) are bearing the brunt of infections and deaths. This new NASEM page includes conversations with experts on a variety of topics related to minority health and COVID-19 and information and resources from NASEM on issues related to health equity. View these items here.

Backlash Against CDC’s Changed Testing Guidelines

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made significant changes to its COVID-19 testing guidelines that loosened its recommendations regarding who should be tested. Due to the inconsistency of the updates with recommendations from experts, most states have rejected the new CDC guidelines and continued to encourage all exposed persons regardless of symptom onset to get tested. An open letter to Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC, and Admiral Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary of Health for the Department of Health and Human Services, expressed the concerns of the nation’s local health departments about the changes. The letter details the lack of scientific evidence to support the adjustments and the lack of transparency, and it implores these officials to revert the guidelines back to the previous version supported by the public health community.

Navalny Poisoned with Novichok

Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent earlier this week. Navalny is “one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critics and has investigated well-placed officials over potential instances of corruption and abuse of office.” There is a theory that Navalny may have ingested the poison through his tea; however, Novichok is not water soluble. Though a fatal dose was not successfully administered, Navalny remains in a medically induced coma. German doctors announced that he is now stable and that his life is no longer in danger. Though a Russian official stated that the country is prepared to fully exchange information pertaining to the incident, officials are also encouraging caution when discussing the poisoning and claiming that the presence of poison in Navalny’s system is “premature and unsubstantiated.” Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, was interviewed about the deadly design of this nerve agent. It was pointed out that the Russians did not abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention by continuing to develop and deploy agents such as the Novichok. The Novichoks were developed in the 1970s by Soviet chemists as a weapon that could be deployed without detection. They block neurotransmitters that control the muscles, including those that control breathing. Only a tiny amount of this chemical is needed to achieve a lethal effect. The agent has been applied to a doorknob and believed to have successfully killed its victims after being absorbed through the skin.

Committee to Review Global Treaty on Health Emergencies

A Review Committee of independent experts will examine various components of the existing International Health Regulations (IHR) relating to preparedness and response in health emergencies. The IHR requires that all countries have the ability to detect, assess, report and respond to public health events, and it was last revised and signed in 2005. The Committee will advise amendments to the IHR that better prepare the world to end COVID-19 and prepare for the next pandemic.

The Emerging Neurobioeconomy: Implications for National Security

Joseph DeFranco, a recent graduate of the Biodefense MS Program, Dr. Maureen Rhemann, Visiting Scholar of the O’Neill-Pellegrino Program in Brain Science at Georgetown University, and Dr. James Giordano, Professor of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center published an article Health Security about the emerging neurobioeconomy. The techniques and tools stemming from neuroscience and neurotechnology have spurred new programs in brain research and innovation, some of which create new security concerns. This article examines the growth of the neuroscience and neurotechnology market, discusses how the neurobioeconomy poses unique ethical and security issues for the general bioeconomy, proposes a risk assessment and mitigation approach. Read the article here.

Poll: Most Americans Believe the COVID-19 Vaccine Approval Process Is Driven by Politics, Not Science

According to a recent poll conducted by STAT and the Harris Poll, 78% of Americans worry that the COVID-19 vaccine approval process is driven more by politics than science. This statistic echoes fears that the current administration may prematurely approve a vaccine. There is growing speculation that Trump may pressure the Food and Drug Adminsitration (FDA) to approve or grant Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 prior to sufficient testing. Interestingly, the poll’s findings were bipartisan: 72% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats shared this concern.

US Will Revive Global Virus-Hunting Effort Ended Last Year

PREDICT was an epidemiological research program housed in the US Agency for International Aid (USAID) that was eliminated last year. PREDICT was often called an early warning system for pandemics. The program is now being resurrected as its critical function is made apparent by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which erupted mere weeks after the PREDICT program was shuttered. Last November, Michael Krug, a recent graduate of the Biodefense MS program, shared his concerns about ending the program, which was carried out despite concerns of public health experts. Krug characterized the decision as an example of how the US government underprioritizes pandemic preparedness, a criticism that was confirmed the following month. A new program, Strategies to Prevent (STOP) Spillover, will be implemented in up to 20 countries across West Africa, East/Central Africa, South Asia, and East/Southeast Asia. A notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) was released for STOP Spillover and an application should be accepted this month.  

Pandora Report: 8.28.2020

Africa Declares the Eradication of Wild Polio

As some much-needed good news, the World Health Organization (WHO) just declared that wild poliovirus has been eradicated from Africa! The last reported case of wild poliovirus was four years ago in Nigeria. The Kick Polio Out of Africa Campaign launched in 1996 when wild polio paralyzed 75,000 children annually. Though this is a significant achievement, vaccine-derived polio continues to pose a threat in the region.

FDA Authorizes Abbott’s Fast $5 COVID-19 Test

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave emergency use authorization to Abbott’s COVID-19 test, BinaxNOW, which costs only $5. The test uses the same technology as a pregnancy test and does not require any specialized equipment to run. The company stated that the test correctly diagnoses a SARS-CoV-2 infection 97.1% of the time, and correctly returns a negative test result 98.5% of the time. Abbott announced that it plans to produce 50 million tests monthly by this October. According to the FDA, BinaxNOW can be used in clinics, emergency rooms, and schools.

New Book: Neuroscience and the Problem of Dual Use – Neuroethics in the New Brain Research Projects

Malcolm Dando recently released a new book, Neuroscience and the Problem of Dual Use – Neuroethics in the New Brain Research Projects. The book covers recent brain research and the dangerous dual use possibilities related to the results of these studies. Dando shows that innovations in civil neuroscience could be exploited for dual use purposes by actors with hostile intentions, and he analyzes the measures planned and taken to prevent malicious dual use applications. Recommendations are outlined regarding what needs to be done to handle dual-use neuroscience in the future.

CDC Updates

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updates its guidelines for COVID-19 testing. On the CDC‘s COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions page, it is stated that not everyone needs to be tested for current infection, particularly those who are not presenting with symptoms. There is a self-checker to help an individual determine if they need to be tested based on these new guidelines. These new recommendations are a significant deviation from the preceding ones, which urged anyone who had been a close contact of a person with SARS-CoV-2 infection or displayed COVID-19 symptoms to get the viral test. Also, the likelihood of asymptomatic or presymptomatic spread of the novel virus necessitates broader, not narrower, testing. Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC, stated that the testing guidelines were changed following updates to the recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force. There are major concerns that this chain of events is indicative of political pressure from the White House.

Why the US is Having a Coronavirus Data Crisis

More than half a year into COVID-19, the US is still lagging and lacking in coronavirus data collection. Instead of greatly expanding contact tracing like South Korea, the US is sidelining its premier disease prevention and emergency preparedness agency. This month, the decision was made to cut out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from coronavirus data collection; however, that decision is in the process of being rescinded. Beyond the confusion related to where a hospital should send its data, the US is “producing little information through contact tracing.” Without reliable and updated information regarding infections, US scientists, decision makers, and the general public are forced to rely on media and independent reports to track the virus. 

New Guidance for Decision Makers on Encouraging Cooperation in COVID-19 Contact Tracing

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a new report, Encouraging Participation and Cooperation in Contact Tracing: Lessons from Survey Research, which provides a rapid expert consultation “to help decision makers in local public health departments and local governments increase participation and cooperation in contact tracing related to COVID-19.” The publication focuses on contact tracing methods via phone, test, or email interviews with individuals who have tested positive and individuals who may have been exposed to the virus. Based on survey research, recommendations are provided about proven strategies that “encourage participation in and cooperation with contact tracing efforts.” These strategies include: (1) providing advance notice to interviewees; (2) partnering with trusted partners like local healthcare providers and tribal elders; (3) offering relevant incentives; (4) improving the skills of the interviewers through teaching techniques like role playing; (5) drafting messaging that appeals to people’s motivations; and (6) accepting partial information from interviewees. Read the full report here.

Demographic Disparities Among Healthcare Workers Lost in COVID-19

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is continuing to track COVID-19 deaths of healthcare workers and share the profiles of those lost. Lost on the Frontline, a joint project between KHN and The Guardian, has found that over 1,000 healthcare workers have died due to the pandemic. Among those 1,000 workers, a disproportionate number are people of color or immigrants to the US: 177 of the 1,080 victims profiled so far. Of those 177, 62% identified as Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, or Native American, and almost 31% were born abroad. Other research on the disparities of COVID-19 outcomes show similar findings. A Harvard Medical School study published in The Lancet Public Health showed that healthcare workers of color were more likely to care for patients with suspected of confirmed COVID-19 than their white counterparts and almost twice as likely to test positive themselves. In the US, immigrant health worker account for nearly 20% of healthcare workers, and they tend to work in the most vulnerable communities. A study from 2018 found that areas with high rates of poverty tend to have more foreign-trained doctors than do areas with more wealth. Read the stories of all the fallen healthcare workers here.

Why It’s So Hard to Find Dumbbell Sets in the US

For those of us frantically searching for kettlebells to add to our home gyms, the lack of availability can be explained by a “colossal increase in demand” at the start of the pandemic and a fragmented supply chain. In March, other kinds of exercise equipment, like treadmills, saw a substantial surge in demand as well. With many gyms closed or with limited services, many people are still hunting for equipment they can use in their own homes. Turning to the supply side of the problem, Colleen Logan, the vice president of marketing at Icon Health & Fitness, said that it takes about a month for these products to be manufactured and then to arrive in the country. In COVID-19, additional delays related to lockdown and social distancing keep these much-wanted products from consumers. Now, fitness equipment companies are working to scale up their operations to meet demand.

Drug Makers Rebut Trump Tweet that FDA’s “Deep State” Is Delaying COVID-19 Vaccines & Drugs

In a recent tweet, Trump accused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of harboring a “deep state” bent on delaying the development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and therapies. Trump also asserts that these conspirators are trying to delay the 3 November election. To be clear, there is no evidence to support these spurious claims. In fact, executives from top biotechnology firms have praised the efficiency of the FDA in facilitating development of COVID-19 medical countermeasures. Jeremy Levin, chairman of BIO, defended the FDA in his statement, “Developing those critical medicines depends on the independent rigorous reviews, integrity and scientific and medical capability of the FDA. The FDA has assisted and supported the industry to become what it has, and is deeply respected in the USA and abroad.” Tal Zaks, chief medical officer of Moderna, praised the FDA for its efficiency in setting up the expert panel that analyzes vaccine data. The development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines is underway at an unprecedented pace: Pfizer and Moderna started clinical trials for their vaccine candidates at the end of July.

FDA “Grossly Misrepresented” Blood Plasma Data, Scientists Say

In a news conference this week, the administration claimed that blood plasma, which just received emergency approval for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, reduced deaths by 35%. What the administration failed to clarify is that statistic is based on a Mayo Clinic study of a small subgroup of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The patients in the study were under 80 years old, not on ventilators, and received plasma confirmed to possess high levels of antibodies with three days of diagnosis. Even more bewildering, many experts, including a scientist associated with the study, were uncertain as to the source of this metric, which was not stated in the official authorization letter nor the study memo. In short, that figure was not calculated by the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics, Evaluation, and Research, said that the agency conducted its own analysis of the Mayo study’s data based on its review of published studies regarding plasma. Additional statements have revealed that the calculation was based on a subset of a subset of the full dataset. This misrepresentation has called into question the credibility of the FDA, despite some of its impressive efforts in the pandemic, as it undermines the results and validity of rigorous trials and research.

Pandora Report: 8.21.2020

Welcome Back, Patriots!

Welcome back for Fall 2020! As we return, there are several resources provided by GMU that we can use to keep ourselves and the campus safe and healthy. Before stepping onto one of the campuses, all students, faculty, staff, contractors, and affiliates must take the Mason COVID Health Check survey daily. Based on your responses, the survey will provide you with one of three statuses – Green, Yellow, or Red – to give you the all-clear to go on campus or to guide you to the next steps if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or you were a close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Many classes are being offered virtually this semester and there are resources to help you optimize your online learning experience: Academic Success During COVID-19, How to Be a Successful Online Learner, Strategies for Online Learning Success, and Online Learning Basics. Also, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a wonderful resource for Mason students to get help from mental health providers and learning specialists. For more information on GMU’s Safe Return to Campus plans and protocols, please click here.

News of the Weird

The COVID-19 pandemic has instigated some odd coping strategies. In order to recreate the feeling of travel and, perhaps, pep up spirits, some airlines are offering flights to nowhere. Taiwan’s Civil Aviation Administration was the first to offer such a service by organizing a flight that never left the ground. This flying experience was complete with checking in, retrieving boarding passes, going through security checkpoints, and even in-flight services. The fake flight was so popular that Taiwan airports now offer “passengers” the option to depart, but land in the same airport. Eva Air, a major Taiwanese airline, held a Hello Kitty-themed flight that made a scenic loop over the country’s northeast coast. Researchers are also getting creative during COVID. A University of Pennsylvania study of nine dogs is testing whether dogs can scent a specific smell in people infected with SARS-CoV-2.  Blaze, one of the dogs, successfully selected a can containing urine from a hospitalized coronavirus-positive patient out of a selection of alternatives.

COVID-19 Data Will Once Again Be Collected by CDC

After a smart policy reversal, hospitals will return to reporting new cases to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Department of Health and Human Services is reversing their recent decision to change the way hospitals report critical information on the coronavirus pandemic to the government and bypass the CDC. Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told hospital executives and government officials in Arkansas that the new system to which hospitals report new cases is just an “interim system” and that data reporting would soon return to the CDC.

A Canary in a COVID Coal Mine: Building Better Healthcare Biopreparedness Policy

Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense Graduate Program, recently published a commentary in World Medical & Health Policy about improving healthcare biopreparedness policy. The COVID‐19 pandemic has overwhelmed much of the US healthcare system and highlighted gaps in preparedness and response to biological threats, such as limited personal protective equipment (PPE) and staffing issues. A lack of prioritization of hospital biopreparedness and inadequate infrastructure left the nation ill-equipped for the novel coronavirus. COVID‐19 has exposed a need to implement regulatory requirements on healthcare facilities to invest in preparedness for biological events. Read Dr. Popescu’s commentary here.

ICYMI: A Deadly Coronavirus Was Inevitable. Why Was No One Ready?

In early 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) added a new threat to its list of diseases with pandemic potential: Disease X. Disease X is not a specific illness, but a hypothetical ailment with the ability to induce an epidemic caused by a pathogen that is unrecognized as a danger to humans. SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, is Disease X. Unfortunately, when COVID-19 hit, the world was under-prepared, because governments had ignored blatant warnings and underfunded pandemic preparedness. The emergence of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 as zoonotic viruses were two such warnings. H1N1, Ebola Virus Disease, and Zika Virus Disease were three more. The risks of new pathogens are greater today than ever; new diseases often spring from animals, so the increases in global travel and components of trade and economic development are driving humans and animals closer together. Despite the threat of emerging infectious diseases, funding for pandemics tends to be sparse and dropping. Most of the efforts carried out for pandemic preparedness in the US focused on influenza, which is among the list of biological threats but not the only one. The Trump administration has supported some pandemic-related programs and added much-needed funds for the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) after money to combat Ebola ran dry. Regrettably, many programs and offices related to preparedness have been dismantled, suspended, or reduced.

Joint Call for Papers – Special Issues on Infodemiology

The World Health Organization (WHO) along with IULM University in Italy, Harvard University, and several scholarly journals just released a joint call for papers about infodemiology. The WHO defines infodemiology as the “science of managing infodemics,” and defines an infodemic as “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – occurring during an epidemic.” As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic and all the uncertainties related to SARS-CoV-2, a deluge of misleading or false information is distorting perceptions of disease risk and spreading disinformation about the disease, potential cures, and possible sources. Many of these inaccuracies are prominently featured on the internet, social networks, and the media. Given the ongoing COVID-19 infodemic, special issues focused on infodemics and infodemiology are needed. For more information on submissions, click here.

What Contact Tracing Data Is Telling Us About How COVID-19 Spreads

Contact tracing is a tool that can help slow the spread of an infectious disease by collecting information on the individuals that have come in close contact with a positive case of a disease.  NPR surveyed the health departments in all US states and territories three times about their contact tracing capacity. The latest survey also asked about what contact tracing data they are gathering and which data they are making publicly available. Most states are collecting data from their contact tracing programs; however, only 14 reported that the data were available on a government website. Only 9 states reported that their contract tracing staff numbers were publicly available.

What We Know & Don’t Know About COVID-19

We are now seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the virus was completely novel, we now know that it can be spread by individuals who do not present with symptoms, whether they be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. Compared to other families of viruses, coronaviruses tend to mutate slowly, which is good news for vaccine research and development. Though we feared that the virus could be spread via contact with surfaces, research is showing that this is an unlikely transmission route. On average, symptoms present 5 days after exposure, but the range for symptom onset is 2-14 days. Infected individuals shed active virus particles for up to 10 days after the onset of symptoms. Though we are more knowledgeable about the novel coronavirus and its effects than we were at the start of 2020, many questions remain unanswered. The Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security released an updated Master Question List for COVID-19. This list “summarizes what is known, what additional information is needed, and who may be working to address such fundamental questions.”

New Data Science Competition: Genetic Engineering Attribution Challenge (DrivenData)

Looking to apply your data skills to improving global health security? In partnership with Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and iGEM’s Safety and Security Program, altLabs is soliciting improved and inventive solutions to a crucial problem in genetic engineering: Where was this engineered? This challenge offers prizes for lab-of-origin prediction accuracy and creative real-world application, with a total prize pool of $60,000. Whether you’re a data scientist, bioinformatician, synthetic biologist, or an interested solver from a different field, we’re calling on you to compete!

Facebook’s Threat to Public Health

New research determined that Facebook, a social media platform with over 2.6 billion active users, is directing viewers toward COVID-19 disinformation. Though Facebook vowed to douse conspiracy theories and inaccurate news early in the pandemic, its algorithm seems to have funneled traffic to a network of sites that shares false news. According to NBC News, dozens of public and private Facebook groups with hundreds of thousands of members cumulatively are hotbeds for conspiracy theories and unproven cures related to SARS-CoV-2. Avaaz, a US-based nonprofit organization, analyzed Facebook’s top pages and reviewed all websites deemed untrustworthy in order to assess Facebook’s follow-through on stopping the spread of COVID-19 untruths. The study identified 82 websites and 42 Facebook pages to comprise the sample set of global health misinformation spreading networks. Their key findings include that Facebook has “superspreader” pages of health misinformation and that Facebook is “failing to keep people safe and informed during the pandemic.”  Read the full report, Facebook’s Algorithm: A Major Threat to Public Health, here.

Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem

The Global Engagement Center (GEC) of the US Department of State published a special report, Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem. The
GEC is the government’s dedicated office for countering foreign disinformation and propaganda and is tasked with exposing and thwarting threats from malign actors that employ such strategies. Russia’s prolific use of disinformation and propaganda makes it a top threat. Russia has encouraged the development of a disinformation and propaganda ecosystem in order to undermine democratic values, soil the international credibility of the US, and weaken the cohesion of the US and its allies and partners. This special report details the aforementioned ecosystem with a visual representation to demonstrate “how the different pillars of the ecosystem play distinct roles and feed off of and bolster each other.” Additionally, the report provides short profiles of certain proxy sites and organizations that play an intermediate role between pillars with apparent links to Russia and pillars designed to be completely deniable. Read the full report here.

Department of Defense Warns Troops Not to Catch Fire from Hand Sanitizers

In an unfortunate incident, an employee of the Department of Energy Federal Contractors Group washed his hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer, as recommended, which ignited when the employee touched a metal surface with a static electrical charge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using hand sanitizers containing at least 60% ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Due to an increasing occurrence of adverse events (blindness, cardiac effects, effects on the central nervous system, hospitalizations, and death), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns against using sanitizers containing methanol, or wood alcohol.

Near Misses at UNC Chapel Hill’s High-Security Lab Illustrate Risk of Accidents with Coronaviruses

Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill may have been exposed to lab-created coronaviruses in several incidents since 2015. In February 2016, a UNC researcher in a Biosafety Level 3 laboratory was bit by a mouse infected with a lab-created type of SARS coronavirus. This bite occurred despite the scientist wearing a full-body Tyvek suit and double gloves. After the incident, that scientist was not quarantined, but allowed to go about her normal routines and be among the public as long as she wore a surgical mask and reported her temperature twice daily. Thankfully, she did not become ill; however, this safety breach became one among a list of “near-miss incidents” at the university involving several types of genetically engineered coronaviruses. Though the theory that the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of a breach of the Wuhan Virology Laboratory does not hold water, the novel coronavirus does highlight the pre-existing concerns of scientists regarding the potential for a laboratory accident to instigate an outbreak. After the bite in 2016, UNC deleted the name of the virus from incident reports it released for a public records request. Further, officials from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and UNC declined to explain the potential risks to the public of the 2016 breach or why the researcher was not quarantined. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, stated that “there is no reason for the public not to be informed about the nature of biological agents involved in lab research and accidents.” Indeed, making laboratory accident reports publicly available would help ensure accountability for facilities and funders, and it would “encourage them to learn from mistakes and reduce risk of them occurring.”

Pandora Report: 8.7.2020

Genomic Epidemiology Data Infrastructure Needs for SARS-CoV-2: Modernizing Pandemic Response Strategies

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a framework to “define and describe the data needs for a system to track and correlate viral genome sequences with clinical and epidemiological data.” The report, Genomic Epidemiology Data Infrastructure Needs for SARS-CoV-2: Modernizing Pandemic Response Strategies, also provides a set of question that this framework could answer and explores regulatory and governance factors. Genomic data play an important role in vaccine development and monitoring, because a protein mutation has the potential to alter vaccine safety and efficacy. Such data provide insight into the causes of new cases – local spread or virus importation. Further, integrated analysis of genomic, clinical, and epidemiological data provides a distinct, real-time picture of the outbreak. The report is an output of the Committee on Data Needs to Monitor the Evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and Dr. Saskia Popescu, an alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program, is a member.

The Folly of Circumventing the CDC

Recently, the administration decided to circumvent the Centers for Disease Control in Prevention (CDC) in the collection of data regarding COVID-19 infections in hospitalized patients. Prior to this poor decision, these data were sent to the CDC’s public National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), but it is now sent a new system run by TeleTracking Technologies. NHSN is a 15-year old database that receives data from health care facilities about anything that impacts the occurrence of infection once a patient is admitted. The change was sudden as hospitalization data vanished from the CDC website, sparking immediate outrage. The American Public Health Association (APHA), the Johns Hopkins Center, and Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit led by former CDC director Tom Frieden, released a comprehensive report on COVID-19 data collection, characterizing it as an “information catastrophe.” The circumvention creates further worries that data will be lost or duplicated. A remedy to the catastrophe is not to sideline the CDC, but to untangle the data collection mess by creating comprehensive and standardized network for the US coronavirus response. NHSN collected institutional data, but was not collecting infection data outside of a healthcare setting; however, the network could be expanded to better capture all infection-related data. NPR conducted its own investigation into the new system for COVID-19 data collection, and some of its key findings include that the process by which the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded the multi-million dollar contract is normally used for innovative scientific research and that the contract may have been awarded as a no-bid contract. Such irregularities in the contract process are raising questions about the ethics behind the decision. Suspicious circumstances aside, bypassing the CDC – US authority on infectious diseases – in the collection and use of COVID-19 infection data harms the US response to the pandemic.

How Do We Know If a Virus Is Bioengineered?

Since the onset of the pandemic, theories and accusations that it was intentionally engineered have ricocheted through the public, despite the consensus that the virus’s genetics indicate that it is most likely a zoonotic pathogen. In fact, on 30 April, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) announced that the virus was neither human-made not genetically modified. The intelligence community came to this conclusion based, in part, on a Finding Engineering-Linked Indicators (FELIX) analysis, which found that the virus had not been engineered using foreign genetic sequences. That said, the detection of bioengineering is a “fraught task” given that there are many methods to identify engineering in a virus and there are many methods to engineer a virus. Tools such as FELIX are being deployed to “test the veracity of online stories claiming that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in a laboratory.” Though the result of the FELIX analysis provides evidence against the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was the result of engineering, Dr. Filippa Lentzos clarifies that this finding only rules out certain types of bioengineering. While other methods for testing and detecting intentional adjustments to a virus exist, they share a critical limitation: reliance on the records of known organisms and known “signatures of engineering.” These tools aim to increase biosecurity, but they bear the potential for dual-use purposes – offense and defense. Further, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, asserts that these detection tools send a message to the world the such research is “driven by this perception that the diffusion of increasingly sophisticated biotechnology is creating new potential threats that we are not prepared to detect.” Put simply, the US is signaling that it considers biothreats as clear and present dangers.

New Course Announcement: Building Health System Resilience

Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program, is offering a new course this fall: Building Health System Resilience! This course will provide students with a foundation in how healthcare systems prepare and respond to pandemics, disasters, and biological events. The ability of healthcare systems to respond to biological threats will have impacts at the community, national, and international levels. Health resilience in the United States is a particular challenge given multiple stakeholders, economic factors, and regulatory fragmentation. Students will review case studies, such as Ebola, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and COVID-19, to examine the unique challenges of building and sustaining the resilience of the American healthcare and its role in global health security. Dr. Popescu is an epidemiologist and infection preventionist who is currently working on the frontlines of the pandemic.

The Scramble for Vaccines and the COVAX Facility

The Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is offering an online event, The Scramble for Vaccines and the COVAX Facility. The COVAX Facility is an international initiative to develop and equitably distribute vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 in order to benefit all nations. The discussion panel includes Nikolaj Gilbert, President and CEO at PATH, Kendall Hoyt, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth University’s Geisel School of Medicine, and Nicole Lurie, Strategic Advisor to the CEO at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The event will be livestreamed here on 11 August at 9am EST.

Response Reset

The Center for Health Security in the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University released a report detailing federal, state, and local level policy actions that needed to rein in the COVID-19 pandemic. The report, Resetting Our Response: Changes Needed in the US Response to COVID-19, provides 10 recommendations to “reset” the largely bungled response. These recommendations include reinstituting stay-at-home orders in localities were healthcare systems are overloaded and scaling up contact tracing. Read the full report here.

Desperate Times Do NOT Call for Desperate Countermeasures

The mad scramble for a COVID-19 vaccine may be falling short in terms of safety and effectiveness. A vaccine trial is now underway that possesses a minute chance of supplying a vaccine before Election Day this November. Unfortunately, such a condensed timeline worries many public health experts, because political pressure on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to grant emergency approval of a vaccine could undermine efforts if the final product is unsafe or fails to impart protection against SARS-CoV-2. Prior to the pandemic, the anti-vaccination movement was gaining support from individuals across the spectrum of political ideologies; a poorly designed and disseminated COVID-19 vaccine could provide the movement with leverage to gain even more support. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former FDA deputy commissioner and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, emphasizes the importance of avoiding politicization of public health issues. The landmark phase 3 trial for the Moderna vaccine plans on enrolling 30,000 subjects, and another significant phase 3 trial for a vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech commenced this week. The fear with these phase 3 trials is that a rushed decision could be made to progress a candidate through the approval process before adequate data are collected and analyzed to ensure that it imparts protection against the novel coronavirus without causing severe adverse events. Though it is quite unlikely that the FDA would fail to require clear evidence in support of a vaccine before approving it for the masses, the possibility that political pressure could sway the approval of a vaccine that imbues only partial protection could, in the long-run, undermine testing and uptake for future vaccines. If so, what further restraints and risks will the next pandemic hold?

The reliance and hope to end the current pandemic are concentrated in a still-hypothetical vaccine, but the reality is that a vaccine only allays part of the crisis and the realization of it is likely still months away. Despite the rose-colored outlook of the administration, a vaccine will likely not offer complete protection nor will it be readily accessible to all once one is approved. Though Operation Warp Speed is spurring investment in manufacturing facilities, producing hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine designed using nascent technologies remains quite a challenge. The FDA experienced such a challenge in 2009 when H1N1 (“swine flu”) threatened the world: when millions of doses of a vaccine were in production, there were not sufficient facilities to package them into individual vials. If this experience is repeated with a COVID-19 vaccine, the response would suffer another horrendous failure that could erode trust in vaccines and public health in general for many years to come. The development and quick dissemination of a robust vaccine are certainly critical milestones in the battle against the pandemic; however, the virus is likely here to stay as it is too prevalent. So, a more realistic goal is to design a vaccine that mitigates severe cases of disease and render COVID-19 “easier to live with.”

Update: Mystery Seed from China

The packages of mystery seeds sent via the mail to individuals across the country are continuing to pop up. Unsolicited packages from China have also been reported in Canada, the European Union, and Australia. Officials from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have identified 14 species of seeds found in the packets received on our soil as a medley of ornamental, fruit, vegetable, herb, and weed species. Specifically, cabbage, hibiscus, lavender, mint, morning glory, mustard, rose, rosemary and sage have been identified by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). More species are awaiting identification. All 50 states have issued warnings against planting the unsolicited seeds.

Dicey DIY COVID-19 Vaccine

Nearly two dozen scientists, including a renowned geneticist, are serving as lab rats for a DIY COVID-19 vaccine developed by Preston Estep. This vaccine undergoing an informal human trial is the product of a biologist who possessed no animal data nor ethics board approval. Estep formulated the vaccine in a borrowed laboratory located in Boston with merely its ingredients and a single willing subject. Estep and his posse of researchers established the Rapid Deployment Vaccine Collaborative, nicknamed Radvac, which published a white paper detailing their nasal vaccine. The group asserts that the risks of trying the DIY vaccine exceed the risks associated with the COVID-19 disease; however, the legality of their endeavor is unclear. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires authorization to test novel drugs through an investigational new drug approval, but Radvac does not have permission, nor did it get a seal of approval from any ethics board. The FDA released a statement ruling that self-administered gene therapy, such as Radvac’s DIY vaccine, violates drug safety laws since it lacks approval.

25% in US See At Least Some Truth in Conspiracy Theory that COVID-19 Was Planned

About 70% of Americans have heard a conspiracy theory alleging that the novel coronavirus pandemic was planned by “powerful people.” A June survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 5% of US adults believe that this conspiracy theory is definitely true and another 20% believe that it is probably true. The poll also asked demographic questions to respondents, showing that those with lower levels of educational attainment tended to believe the COVID-19 origin stories fueled by disinformation. Beyond the unsubstantiated notion that the virus was some sort of evil plot, absurd false claims, including some that have already been studied and repudiated, regarding the pandemic are going viral on social media. In particular, physician and minister Stella Immanuel – who has previously asserted that gynecological issues like endometriosis are caused by demon sperm – is spreading the falsity that the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine is a cure for COVID-19. Adding further fuel to this disinformation fire, Trump praised Immanuel as “spectacular” and supported her inaccurate advice to use the antimalarial against the coronavirus disease. Trump’s praising tweets have been deleted, and the videos that shared Immanuel’s untruths have removed from social media as it violates COVID-19 misinformation policies. Russia, an unsurprising purveyor of disinformation, has been accused of spreading spurious information about the pandemic. Specifically, Russian intelligence services are amplifying false arguments from China that the coronavirus was engineered by the US military. Russia seems to be pushing false propaganda in order to influence the upcoming US election. Though the disinformation spurring from Russia is quite concerning, the litany of disinformation stemming from within our own borders is, perhaps, more terrifying.

Possible Long-Term Symptoms in COVID-19 Patients

As we continue await medical countermeasures to fight COVID-19, doctors are worried about the long-term effects of the disease. A recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adds information about symptom duration and risk factors for delayed recovery. Although relatively little is known about the clinical course of COVID-19 and a patient’s return to baseline health, a new telephone survey of symptomatic adults who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection sheds a little light on the topic. Thirty-give percent of respondents who had a positive outpatient test result indicated that they had not returned to their usual state of health when interviewed 2-3 weeks after testing. Also, among adults aged 18-34 years who did not report prior chronic medical conditions, 1 in 5 had yet to return to their usual state of health. These initial survey results spur concern that COVID-19 can result in prolonged illness in those with relatively mild cases of COVID-19. 

Pandora Report: 7.31.2020

Zombies and Coronavirus: Planning for the Next Big Outbreak

If 2020’s next terrifying curveball is a zombie apocalypse, how will humankind survive given our many missteps in the COVID-19 pandemic? A panel of biodefense experts and a zombie apocalypse novelist weigh in on this question. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, participated in a panel discussing pandemics, bioterrorism, and international security as part of Comic-Con@Home. Justin Hurt – a Biodefense PhD Candidate and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear and Counter-Weapons of Mass Destruction Integration Officer for the United States Army staff –moderated the discussion. Other panelists included Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Senior Scholar and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security; Dr. Shanna Ratnesar-Shumate, aerobiologist and principal investigator at Fort Detrick; Dr. Jarod Hanson, veterinarian and the executive officer at the United States Army Medical Institute of Infectious Disease; and Max Brooks, author of World War ZThe Zombie Survival GuideThe Harlem Hellfighters. Dr. Hanson pointed out that, most unfortunately, humans have yet to learn much in our current predicament, calling the pandemic response “the ultimate group project gone bad.” Dr. Koblentz stated that, like a zombie apocalypse, pandemics are usually a surprise, so the novel coronavirus has taught us to expect the unexpected. Further relating disease outbreaks to zombie outbreaks, Koblentz highlights that the human element is “as much of a threat as zombies early on because of fear and ignorance, misinformation, disinformation.” Max Brooks asserted that the threat of a global outbreak is “no mere sci-fi concept.” Some of the panel’s takeaways include that we are not adept at predicting pandemics and that “science and public health officials need to collaborate with communicators — including those in the entertainment industry — to get their health information to the people.” Watch the panel here

China May Literally Be Sowing the Seeds of Discord

Over the last few weeks, people across the US have been receiving random and mysterious packages of seeds from China in their mail. One recipient of mystery seeds received what seemed like a surprise gift of earrings, but instead found unidentified seeds within. Thus far, the packages have been received by individuals in Minnesota, Utah, Louisiana, Virginia, and Washington. At present, the purpose of this odd conduct is not yet confirmed, but there are suspicions that it is a brushing scam. A brushing scam involves a foreign, third-party seller mailing unsolicited items to a person and then writing a fake glowing review of their own product online. The review is considered a “verified purchase” because the item was delivered via the mail. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued a warning regarding these shifty seeds:

USDA urges anyone who receives an unsolicited package of seeds to immediately contact their State plant regulatory official or APHIS State plant health director. Please hold onto the seeds and packaging, including the mailing label, until someone from your State department of agriculture or APHIS contacts you with further instructions. Do not plant seeds from unknown origins.

A Personal Interview with Rita Colwell in Advance of Her Book “A Lab of One’s Own”

Dr. Rita Colwell is best known for her research on the pathogenic bacterium Vibrio cholera, but she is also pioneer for far-reaching contributions to the fight against sexism in a male-dominated field. In her new book, A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science, Colwell’s shares her unique perspective on sexism in science. Since 1972, Colwell has served as a member of the faculty of the University of Maryland, and she was the first woman to serve as director of the National Science Foundation. She is also the president of the Rosalind Franklin Society, where she uses her leadership for the recognition and promotion of women in science. Julianna LeMieux, senior science writer for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (GEN), interviewed Colwell to ask about her career, the lessons she learned along the way, the messages she would like to pass on to the upcoming generation of female scientists, and why she wanted to add another book to her already impressive list of outputs and achievements. Watch the interview here.

Global Bio Summit 4.0 at MIT Media Lab – Global Bio-Enthusiasts Unite!

Curious about biohackers? Interested in learning more about community labs? Fascinated by how a small online community grew to encompass the globe? Do you want to engage with, virtually meet, and learn from the people that identify with this global community of biohackers, citizen scientists, bioartists, entrepreneurs, safety and security professionals, and other stakeholders? If so, then Global Bio Summit 4.0 is the event for you! The event will take place this year in mid-October in an all-virtual format.

Started in 2017, the Global Community Bio Summit is an annual conference that brings together the “global community of DIY Biologists / community biologists / biohackers / biomarkers and members of independent and community laboratories.” The goal of the Global Community Bio Summit is to bring people together to “convene, plan, build fellowship, and continue the evolution” of the global community biology movement.

The “4.0” represents how this year’s meeting is the 4th Global Bio Summit. In the past, the community has developed several products such as a Statement of Shared Purpose and a shared Document of Community Ethics. The Global Bio Summit is also home to the Global Community Bio Fellows Program, which is “designed to provide professional development, leadership training, and peer support for emerging leaders in the global community.” The meeting is organized by the Community Biotechnology Initiative at MIT Media Lab. Check out the preliminary details of Global Bio Summit 4.0 here.

Look through some of the links at the top of the page to see past Global Bio Summits and key products and projects associated with the Summit!Registration is currently open on the Bio Summit Website. The registration deadline is 11:59 PM PST on 10 August 2020.

A Vaccine Reality Check

The somewhat grim reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the development of a vaccine that can quickly be made accessible to the masses is “only the beginning of the end.” As we continue to wait and hope for such a vaccine, the still raging pandemic may force us to continue to stall any semblance of normal life until it comes to fruition. Uncertainties abound about the timeline of a hypothetical vaccine, the safety of a rapidly created new vaccine, the efficacy of the vaccine against the novel coronavirus, and the accessibility to it once a vaccine is formulated. Given all these uncertainties, many experts have made one prediction. “I think the question that is easy to answer is, ‘Is this virus going to go away?’ And the answer to that is, ‘No,’” says Ruth Karron, the director of the Center for Immunization Research at Johns Hopkins University. At this point, the virus is too widespread. A vaccine could still mitigate severe cases, rendering COVID-19 easier to live with, but the virus is likely here to stay. Thankfully, the pandemic will eventually end.

Fauci’s First Pitch

Though Dr. Fauci’s first pitch at the kickoff of the historic 2020 MLB Season was a flop, his loyal fan base was unfazed. Fauci is the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a key leader in the US COVID-19 response. He threw the first pitch at the seasoning opener game, the Washington Nationals versus the New York Yankees in late July. To commemorate the moment, a Topps baseball card showing a masked Fauci mid-pitch was released. The Fauci card is now the bestselling card in the history of the company’s collection of limited-edition cards, ToppsNow. ToppsNow cards are only available to purchase for 24 hours and over 51,000 Fauci cards were sold.

Designing Pull Funding for A COVID-19 Vaccine

A new research article in Health Affairs by Christopher M. Snyder, Kendall Hoyt, Dimitrios Gouglas, Thomas Johnston, and James Robinson about pull funding for a COVID-19 vaccine is available with free access. A widely accessible vaccine is vital to ease the health and economic consequences of COVID-19. Firms may be slow to develop and manufacture a vaccine without appropriate incentives and coordination. Additionally, competition among countries for a limited supply of an effective vaccine may drive up prices and undermine efficient allocation. Programs relying on “push” incentives – direct cost reimbursement – can be inhibited by a funder’s inability to appreciate a firm’s private cost information. To overcome these hurdles, the authors propose a “pull” program that incentivizes late-stage development (phase-3 trials and manufacturing) for COVID-19 vaccines by awarding advance purchase commitments to selected firms. They calculated the optimal size and number of funding awards using novel cost and demand data. The results of their baseline simulations show that the “optimal program induces the participation of virtually all ten viable vaccine candidates, spending an average of $110 billion to generate net benefits of $2.8 trillion, nearly double that generated by the free market.”

Ready to Play? NTI’s Hair Trigger Game Released!

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) launched a new mobile game, Hair Trigger, at the Games for Change Festival (G4C). Playing the role of a newly-elected US President, the game pits you against “luck and real-life nuclear close calls as you navigate competing pressures to build domestic support and carefully manage international relations while racing to remove all nuclear weapons from hair-trigger status.” The twist? You must do it all in cooperation with Russia. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR put their nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to retaliate against a surprise attack from the other. In 2020, decades later, the two nations combined possess about 1,700 missiles that are armed, aimed, and ready to fire in minutes. Learn about the dangers of the risky hair-trigger status of US and Russian nuclear weapons by playing Hair Trigger here.

GMU Study: Contact Tracing Effective in Controlling Spread of Coronavirus

A new study by professors at the Schar School at George Mason University indicates that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted in densely populated venues, like music concerts, and travels long distances, leading to the infection of new populations. The study was published this month in the journal of the International Society of Travel Medicine. The team of researchers include Schar School Director of Research, Associate Professor Naoru Koizumi and College of Science Interim Dean Ali Andalibi, and Schar School public policy PhD student Abu Bakkar Siddique. They spent two months, beginning in mid-February, following developments from a series of live house concerts held in Osaka, Japan. The researchers, examined the spread of the virus by identifying a “seed” person who then infected over 100 people in 13 prefectures through primary, secondary and tertiary transmissions. After the concert, the virus quickly spread to over 100 people, “but the effective contact tracing managed to stop the transmissions from this cluster completely within less than two months.” Their takeaways include that the US should better prioritize developing and executing contact-tracing methods to reduce the spread of the virus and that individuals should behave responsibly for themselves and for their loved ones with whom they live.

Pandora Report: 7.24.2020

Commentary – Event: Advancing Biosecurity in the Age of COVID

The response to COVID-19 has exposed a world that is largely unprepared to deal with emerging and novel biothreats, whether the outbreak is natural or intentional. The Global Health Security Network brought together two biosecurity experts to discuss how current projects to improve global health security can adapt during the pandemic and what changes the world needs to make to improve biosafety and biosecurity. Dr. Rebecca Katz moderated while also providing insight from her position as the Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, while Dr. Beth Cameron provided her perspective as the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s (NTI) Vice President for Global Biological Policy and Programs. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD Student, attended the event and shared her takeaways here.

Cyberbiosecurity and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted to importance of cyberbiosecurity in the protection of US research and development. Cyberbiosecurity is defined as “developing understanding of the vulnerabilities to unwanted surveillance, intrusions, and malicious and harmful activities which can occur within or at the interfaces of comingled life science, cyber, cyber-physical, supply chain and infrastructure systems, and developing and instituting measures to prevent, protect against, mitigate, investigate, and attribute such threats as it pertains to security, competitiveness, and resilience.”

As one of the nations racing to formulate a safe and effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the US is a target for malicious cyber activities aimed at acquiring data and information about vaccine R&D.  A joint cybersecurity advisory was issued by the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) to unmask the malicious cyber activities carried out by the group known as “APT29,” “CozyBear,” or “The Dukes.” The advisory details how the group, most likely a component of the Russian intelligence services, targeted entities engaged in COVID-19 vaccine development in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. This cyber espionage group is likely to working to steal information and intellectual property related to the development and testing of vaccines candidates. Prior to COVID-19, this Kremlin-linked hacking group used malicious software and novel hacking techniques to breach the Democratic National Committee in 2016, target US think tanks in 2017, defense contractors in 2018, and the ministries of foreign affairs in three European countries. A Kremlin spokesperson has vehemently denied that there was and is any involvement of the Russian government in these cyberattacks.

Russia is not the only origin of cybersecurity culprits with aims to steal valuable vaccine data. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has issued charges against two Chinese men – Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi – suspected of spying on US companies involved in SARS-CoV-2 research. These two Chinese hackers are believed to have been stealing trade secrets and intellectual property worth hundreds of millions of dollars since 2009. Their latest crime is the recent research into the “vulnerabilities in the networks of biotech and other firms publicly known for work on Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and testing technology.” The pair are also suspected of targeting firms in Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The ongoing cyberattacks on COVID-19 research and the recent history of cyberattacks on various organizations in the US highlights the need for a strong cyberbiosecurity infrastructure to protect data related to research and development. Beyond this pandemic, cyberbiosecurity plays an increasingly important role in the protection of data relating to public health in general, biotechnology, national security, agriculture, manufacturing, automation, and artificial intelligence.

In Case You Missed Koblentz

This week, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program and Associate Professor, gave a sample lecture entitled, “Will COVID-19 Generate More Interest in Biological Weapons?” If you were not able to attend the virtual lecture, fret not, you can access the recording here.

News of the Weird: Satellite Photos Suggest Russia Sent Trained Dolphins to War in Syria

In 2019, the Russian Navy’s marine mammal project received worldwide attention when a tame Beluga whale, believed to have escaped from a training program, was spotted in Norway. New evidence supports the possibility that the Russian Navy sent its trained dolphins to Syria. Satellite imagery of Tartus, Syria shows marine mammal pens in the water at a port where Russia bases its submarines. To take a gander at these pens yourself, visit Google Earth using the coordinates 34°54’35.16″N, 35°51’46.46″E; 44°34’53.12″N, 33°24’8.36″E; and 69°13’12.41″N, 33°23’4.72″E.

Zombies and Coronavirus: Planning for the Next Big Outbreak

At noon today, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, will participate in a panel discussing pandemics, bioterrorism, and international security as part of Comic-Con@Home. Justin Hurt – a Biodefense PhD Candidate and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear and Counter-Weapons of Mass Destruction Integration Officer for the United States Army staff – will moderate the discussion. Other panelists include Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Senior Scholar and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security; Dr. Shanna Ratnesar-Shumate, aerobiologist and principal investigator at Fort Detrick; Dr. Jarod Hanson, veterinarian and the executive officer at the United States Army Medical Institute of Infectious Disease; and Max Brooks, author of World War ZThe Zombie Survival GuideThe Harlem Hellfighters. Watch the preview here.  

Crushing Coronas in the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the pandemic continues to rage, adults are increasingly seeking comfort from a bottle; alcohol sales are soaring across the US. An RTI International webinar discusses the effects of the pandemic countermeasures on drinking behavior. The March 2020 stay-at-home orders were often accompanied by relaxations of the regulations regarding alcohol, such as allowing curbside pickup. An RTI-funded survey of almost 1,000 Americans in May 2020 assessed the changes in alcohol consumption for the period February to April 2020. The survey found that women, parents, unemployed individuals, individuals of color, and adults with mental health issues increased their alcohol consumption during lockdown. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), recommends that women do not consume more than three drinks per day and seven drinks per week, and that men do not consume more than four drinks per day and 14 drinks per week. The survey showed that among its respondents, 35% reported excessive drinking in April (compared to 29% in February) and 27% reported binge drinking.

Yong-Bee Lim Featured on Titus Talks

Yong-Bee Lim, a Biodefense PhD Candidate, was featured on Alexander Titus’ podcast, Titus Talks, to discuss the beauty of do-it-yourself (DIY) biology and the biotechnology community.  Lim’s studies how community biology laboratories play a significant role in the development of technology and the security implications of garage biology hackers. In this podcast episode, Lim walks through how his thinking transitioned from viewing DIY biology as a national security threat to viewing it as a community project to further technology and knowledge. Listen to the episode here.

Unilever: Ice Cream In, Personal Hygiene Out in Lockdown

According to Unilever, ice cream sales are up 26%, but sales for shampoo and deodorant are down. In regard to ice cream, the Magnum and Ben and Jerry’s brands were the biggest sellers for those buying more ice cream to take home. Sales of many personal care items are down due to the lack of socialization and the trend of working from home.

Biodefense in the Bulletin

GMU Biodefense is dominating the latest issue of the Bulletin Magazine! The magazine for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists currently features three Biodefense Graduate Program affiliates: Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Dr. Glenn Cross, and Dr. Daniel Gerstein. Ouagrham-Gormley’s article, written with Dr. Kathleen Vogel, discusses Jiankui He’s experiment in which used genome editing to create three human babies in in vitro fertilization. The paper explores the sources of funding for He’s experiment in order to determine what Chinese authorities knew or should have known and if He could have conducted the clinical phase of the project with no direct government knowledge. Cross and Lynn Klotz’s article provide a 21st century view of the Biological Weapons Convention and whether the Convention is relevant today, especially given its lack of an enforcement mechanism. Gerstein assesses the US federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and concludes that biosurveillance, leadership, and governance have all been lacking. Gerstein points out the importance of science and technology, areas largely underutilized in the response, and of consistent strategic communication.  

RUSI Virtual Conference

This year’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) conference will be conducted virtually on 23 September 2020 and focus on Countering CBRN At Home and Abroad. The conference offers the opportunity to examine the new norms of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) use; their implications in the future operating environment for military and civilian entities; and to think about how the United Kingdom can ensure deterrence and demonstrate its resilience in a new era of great power competition. For more information, click here.

Oldest Sequenced Smallpox Vaccine & Oldest Confirmed Case of Smallpox

Smallpox is a lethal infectious disease characterized by pus-filled blisters that erupt all over the body and caused by the variola virus. Before its global eradication in 1979, smallpox was fatal in up to 30% of cases. Scientists studying Civil War-era artifacts were able to recover viral particles from specimens left on the lancets, tin boxes, and glass slides included in vaccination kits discovered at a museum of medical history in Philadelphia. From these particles, they were able to recreate 5 genomes of viral vaccines developed in the 1860 to fight smallpox, making these the oldest smallpox vaccine samples ever sequenced. A century after these vaccine kits were used, the eradication of smallpox was achieved using vaccines quite different from the newly-sequenced old particles. In the mid-nineteenth century, vaccines were grown using a human chain of individuals exposed to the a “mild cousin” of smallpox. According to Clarissa Damaso, an associate professor of virology and molecular biology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the genomic sequences of historical smallpox vaccines can provide insight about the viruses once used to immunize against the disease. In related news, scientists recently uncovered the remains of the earliest confirmed case of smallpox. Variola virus DNA was found in the bones of people from Denmark to Russia dated from about AD 600 to AD 1,050, coinciding with the Viking age. A team studying the remains of almost 2,000 humans found variola virus DNA in the teeth and bones of 11 men and women from Denmark and Russia. The find aligns with written accounts that smallpox was in Europe by the late sixth century and discredits the notion that the disease was carried to England by the Normans or brought back to Europe by Crusaders.

Policing the Pandemic Worldwide: Best Practices for Law Enforcement Agencies

A recent op-ed from the Center for Global Policy (CGP) discusses best practices for law enforcement agencies during a pandemic. Law enforcement personnel are among the highest at-risk for infection, because they spend so much face time with the public. The changes instigated by the pandemic have shown that police institutions need significant reforms “to serve their communities better, including adopting new training curricula, establishing links between police and health institutions, investing more in community policing, fighting cybercrime, and increasing transparency in decision-making processes.” Under lockdown measures and restricted travel, reported crimes like theft and burglary have dropped substantially, but there has been a spike in domestic violence and cybercrime. CGP provides a list of recommendations to emulate the best practices of police organizations from nations abroad that are also adapting to the changing needs under COVID-19. These recommendations include developing standard operating procedures for police enforcement of lockdowns and social distancing; joining the Budapest Convention, the only global cybercrime treaty; establishing organizational links between health departments, experts on bioterrorism, and police institutions; and emphasizing transparency in police decision making. To quote scholar Zoha Waseem about policing problems in South Asia, shifting towards a model of policing that puts empathy and compassion at its core demands that police officers unlearn their traditional techniques and methods. It requires cultural shifts within institutions.”

Learning the Right Lessons

After any major event, lessons are often observed, but not learned. As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, questions as to its emergence remain unanswered. Knowing how the novel coronavirus was born would help inform future preparedness and response efforts for when the next pandemic hits. Many experts are calling for an independent and bipartisan panel styled after the 9/11 commission to evaluate the nation’s preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ongoing series of missteps by the US compromises the nation’s ability to stop the spread of the virus, and resulted in calamitous impacts on the population and the economy. Recently, the decision was made to sideline the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the collection and analysis of coronavirus data, a dangerous move as we see cases number rising again. Throughout the response, the politicization of evidence-based decision-making has led to the sharing of inaccurate information and the seeding of confusion on how the country should protect themselves. A coronavirus commission should seek to dissect mistakes in order to provide insight into improved response activities and decisions for the next outbreak.

Taking it one step further, Dr. Laura H. Kahn recommends the creation of a “new interdisciplinary federal agency with a mission to promote, improve, and protect the health of people and the environment as well as that of America’s animals, plants, ecosystems, and agriculture.” Leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been too little focus on pandemic threats and too little funding for pandemic-relevant programs. Given that environmental health and zoonotic threats are heavily linked, the proposed agency must embrace the One Health approach in order to better prepare the nation for the next biological event. Kahn recommends moving the administration of Medicare and Medicaid into the Social Security Administration and establishing a Department of Health Security in order to better position the federal government to protect health and the environment.

Earthquake Sensors Record Unprecedented Drop in Human Activity Due to Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken to squelch it have instigated an unprecedented drop in human activity, the likes of which have never been seen in the history of earthquake science. Earthquake sensors. Seismometers, detected a reduction of up to 50% in seismic noise since the shutdowns. This historical trend is discussed in a new report published in the journal Science. The report also asserts that given the strong correlation between seismic noise and independent measurements of human mobility, seismology offers an “absolute, real-time estimate of population dynamics.”

Pandora Report: 7.17.2020

Commentary – Legislation to Watch: The Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, provides a summary and her insights on Senate Bill 3829, Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020. US SB3829 aims to “advance the global health security and diplomacy objectives of the United States, improve coordination among the relevant Federal departments and agencies implementing United States foreign assistance for global health security, and more effectively enable partner countries to strengthen and sustain resilient health systems and supply chains with the resources, capacity, and personnel required to prevent, detect, mitigate, and respond to infectious disease threats before they become pandemics.” Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Arizona reopened too fast. Epidemiologists knew it, but we couldn’t stop it.

Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program and an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, published a commentary in the Washington Post about the unnecessary hotspot status of Arizona. By mid-July, 1 out of every 59 Arizona residents has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and the state is consistently reporting over 4,000 per day. Though efforts are underway to increase testing capacity, state leadership began reopening too fast and too soon. Popescu and her colleagues have been laboring round-the-clock for months to quell the spread of COVID-19 and keep patients and health providers as safe and healthy as possible. One of her greatest frustrations (shared by droves of other experts in the health fields) is the politicization of masks and health data, which undermines the efficacy of public health efforts and the adoption of a sense of social responsibility. Arizona is again closing down, to an extent, but the delay in the original closures left the state in a no-win situation. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s rush to lift stay-at-home orders and reopen the state in rapid succession has left Arizona hospitals in a terrible jam. Now, 90% of ICU beds are in use and over 40% of hospitalized patients are admitted for COVID-19 infection, forcing Arizona to face an increasingly dangerous situation. Popescu uses her home state as a cautionary tale to warn other states from following in the footsteps of Ducey; opening too early and too quickly will bring the virus back everywhere. Read Popescu’s commentary here.  

Coronavirus Reporting Change to Bypass CDC

This week, the Trump administration announced an abrupt change to how coronavirus data must be reported. Unfortunately, this change will likely “increase the burden on facilities already strained by the pandemic and could impede the distribution of critical medicines.” The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notified state and hospital leaders that this new protocol for sending information regarding COVID-19 patients, supplies, and capacities to the federal government will bypass the CDC and replace its data collection network. Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, sees the change as another move by the administration to sideline the CDC as a primary source of information. Koblentz states that the administration is trying not only to silence the CDC, but also to blind it in the midst of a public health emergency. Many experts in the public health field are berating the replacement of the CDC as a main data-keeper for the pandemic. There are worries that cutting out the CDC will diminish access to important COVID-19 data that are needed to quickly and correctly respond to the virus. Dr. Saskia Popescu, alumna of the Biodefense PhD Program and an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, points out that the CDC database allows experts such as herself to extract helpful reports, but this functionality may not exist in the new system. Additionally, as part of the new protocol, the administration is urging governors to consider sending the National Guard to hospitals to assist with data collection about patients, supplies, and capacities. According to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Deborah Birx, the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator, the suggestion is based on hospital failures to report. A letter to Birx from a coalition of hospital groups counters the accusation by pointing out the that HHS system was flawed in regard to receiving submitted data. Representative Rosa L. DeLauro issued a statement accusing HHS of “operating as a dangerous, political apparatus [that] cannot be trusted to share accurate hospital information with Congress and the American public.” Senator Patty Murray is a ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee and she wrote a letter to Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Robert Kadlec, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), demanding explanations about the awarding of a non-competitive, multimillion dollar contract for a likely duplicative data collection system. In her letter, Murray points out that “clear, accurate, comprehensive data is desperately needed in our fight against COVID-19.”

Koblentz Sample Lecture

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

Schools Should Prioritize Reopening in Fall 2020, Especially for Grades K-5, While Weighing Risks and Benefits | National Academies

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a statement encouraging schools to reopen for full time schooling this fall, especially for elementary students. According to NASEM, “opening schools will benefit families beyond providing education, including by supplying child care, school services, meals, and other family supports. Without in-person instruction, schools risk children falling behind academically and exacerbating educational inequities.” Reopening does not mean ignoring the risks and bypassing protective measures, however. The report provides several recommended precautions for reopening schools: (1) provide surgical masks for teachers and staff; (2) all students and staff should wear face coverings; (3) provide hand-washing stations; (4) limit large gatherings of students; and (5) prioritize cleaning, ventilation, and air filtration.

NTI and the NextGen GHS Network Launch 4th Annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition

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

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

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

Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Theoretical Considerations and Available Evidence

A new viewpoint paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Klompas, Baker, and Rhee discusses the existing evidence regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2. At present, the balance of evidence does not support that SARS-CoV-2 exhibits long-range aerosol-based transmission, at least as a primary mode of transmission. That said, there is no way to completely exclude the possibility of the virus’ transmission via aerosol. Though the data remains limited, the unlikelihood of aerosol-based transmission is valuable information for the public and healthcare settings as we all seek to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Weekly COVID-19 Disinformation and False Propaganda Report

Earlier this month, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) released a COVID-19 Disinformation and False Propaganda Report. Their analysis showed that between 25 June and 2 July, the tweet with widest reach that used the term “virus” was Trump’s claim that “cases up only because of our big number testing.” This claim, which reached over 82 million viewers, is false and misleading. Other misinformation for that week includes claims from a group in Florida that masks can kill. Social media is awash with continued conspiracy theories about the origins of the novel coronavirus. Minority groups are a particular target of misinformation, especially on the topic of vaccines. Claims that vaccinations are unsafe and that certain communities are being secretly used for experiment are trying to sow mistrust about medical research. Read more false claims here.  

Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the ability of a microbe (bacterium, virus, fungus, parasite) to resist the effects of an antimicrobial therapeutic to which it was previously susceptible. Once a microbe develops resistance to existing drugs and vaccines, it can infect a human, animal, or plant with much greater ease. As a microbe develops resistance to a broader range of therapies, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to treat or prevent. Penicillin – once the go-to antibiotic to treat pneumonia, respiratory tract infections, scarlet fever, and more – was considered the miracle drug during World War II. Its discovery by Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming was a serendipitous fluke in 1928, but it did not become widely available until 1945 due to the difficulty of mass production. In 2020, the miracle drug is losing its magic, particularly against infections of Staphylococcus aureus (the cause of Methicillin-resistant S.aureus) and Neisseria gonorrhoeae (the cause of gonorrhea). As AMR spreads across multitudes of microbes, rates of infections grow and new medicines are needed to treat these drug-resistant diseases. Unfortunately, as our need for new and novel medications grows, many of the companies that develop these drugs are running low on cash and investments. This week, 20 of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies announced the creation of a $1 billion fund to support money strapped biotechnology start-ups in developing new antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections, which are the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. The AMR Action Fund was established by the World Health Organization and bankrolled by Roche, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson to provide a “short-term but desperately needed lifeline” for a handful of small antibiotic companies, many of which are based in the United States.

Lost on the Frontline

Kaiser Health News (KHN) and The Guardian debuted a project documenting the lives of the US health workers who died of COVID-19. Thus far, the project has identified 795 workers who likely died of COVID-19 after helping infected patients. Profiles for 145 of these workers are available. View those lost on the frontlines here.

Robotic Sports Fans

The pandemic and countermeasures to quell it have spurred creative thinking in myriad ways, sometimes putting a whole an unexpected twist on the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention.” Since fans are not allowed at most sporting events in an effort to maintain social distancing, some stadiums have tried to fill their stands with “premium mannequins” to provide a semblance of normalcy at sporting events. At the stadium for FC Seoul, the inanimate fans were even sporting the team’s colors and keeping their moths covered with masks! In Japan, teams are employing humanoid and quadrupedal robots to keep the spirit alive. The US is facing the same dilemma of empty stadiums for their players, but fans can purchase cardboard cutouts of themselves to support the Oakland A’s or the San Francisco Giants. Germany is also closing stadiums to fans and offering cardboard cutouts for about $20 each.

Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Implications for Infection Prevention Precautions

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a scientific brief this month as an update to the late March brief about SARS-CoV-2 transmission. The latest brief covers updated insights regarding contact and droplet transmission, airborne transmission, and fomite transmission of the novel coronavirus. The brief also states that persons infected with the virus and present with symptoms can infects other, primarily via droplet transmission and close contact; however, infected individuals without symptoms can also spread the virus. To prevent transmission, the WHO encourages suspected cases to be tested and isolated as quickly as possible; all individuals to wear masks in public settings where social distancing is unfeasible; and everyone should practice frequent hand hygiene. Read the entire brief here.

‘Directing Doomsday’: Lessons Learned from Nuclear Weapons in Film

As you look for more movies to bide your time in quarantine, consider watching (or re-watching) films that underscore the threats from nuclear incidents. Such movies include Dr. Strangelove, Failsafe, Command and Control, By Dawn’s Early Light, and China Syndrome. Currently, there are over 13,000 nuclear weapons throughout the world, any of which could reap horrible damage at the drop of a hat. So, as you enjoy these films, think about the vulnerabilities and potential harm caused by nuclear weapons.

It’s Time for an Equal Playing Field: Diversity in International Security

A webinar offered by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) features a discussion about the lack of diversity in the nuclear threat-reduction field and the need for a dramatic shift toward diversity, inclusion, and equity. Ambassador Laura S. H. Holgate, vice president of the Materials Risk Management program at NTI and co-founder of Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy (GCNP), shared that during she has witnessed women being talked over, disrespected, and harassed in professional settings. Jane Rhee, the executive director for Global Public Affairs at the Estee Lauder Company and a former Foreign Service officer, highlighted that simply asking why diversity matters puts a burden on people of color to have to defend their value. According to Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, founder and director of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS), the obstacles to attaining diversity, inclusion, and equity are created by hiring pipelines. To resolve this issue, Jenkins recommends that institutions develop comprehensive pipelines that recruit from minority-serving institutions. Watch the webinar here.

Overcoming the Bystander Effect in Chemical Ethics

Kabrena Rodda, a chemist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and veteran of the Air Force, worked with the American Chemical Society and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to establish an honor code for the international community of chemists based on The Hague Ethical Guidelines. With grassroots contributions from 18 countries about ethical standards for chemists, the Global Chemists’ Code of Ethics (GCCE) was born. The Code is important, because chemistry can be abused to produce harmful substances or lethal weapons. One of the problems this Code aims to overcome is the bystander effect, a psychological theory stating that an individual considers speaking about a problem to be the responsibility of someone else. Among chemists, the bystander effect is more likely when a chemist is timid about pressuring others or does not want to be viewed as a goody two-shoes by colleagues. The notion behind the GCCE is that “practicing its ideals in low stakes training scenarios can build the muscle memory chemists need to respond ethically if they encounter troubling situations in real life.” These trainings often take the form of role playing to show how a constructive choice can have better outcomes than a negative choice.

Countering Clandestine CBRN Labs: A Virtual Reality Training Tool

Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are a severe threat to international peace and security. Nations working to counter the acquisition of WMDs and materials to build them require technical knowledge to succeed. A collaboration between CRDF Global, the US Department of State, and the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre developed a virtual reality (VR) training tool that enables trainees to “explore realistic nontraditional terrorist workshops and identify signs of possible WMD production.” The VR tool was created with expertise from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Conflict Armament Research, and it was first employed in February 2020. The use of this immersive VR tool “provides spaces for stakeholders to expand their knowledge and awareness of clandestine terrorist laboratories, allowing for critical discussions on identifying possible threats and responses.”