Pandora Report: 2.5.2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China & Biotechnology

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

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

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

COVID Performance Index

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

Global Vaccine Timeline Stretches to 2023

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

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

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

How Epidemiology has Shaped the COVID-19 Pandemic

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

Inequalities in COVID-19 Vaccinations

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

This is How America Gets Its Vaccines

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 1.29.2021

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

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

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

She Is Hospitals’ First Line of COVID Defense

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

CEPI Search for Scientific Advisory Committee Experts

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

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

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

Learn WMD

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

First Issue of Relaunched BWC Newsletter

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

Nuclear Security in Review, 2020

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

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

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

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

Catalysts of the COVID-19 Chaos

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

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

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

Exit Interviews

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

Pandemic Shows Need for Biological Readiness

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

Genetic Engineering Attribution

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

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

Event – Flying in the COVID-19 Era

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 1.22.2021

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

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

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

COVID-19 Update

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

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

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

The Independent Panel’s Second Report on Progress

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

The Biden-Harris Administration Pandemic Response & Vaccinations Plans

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

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

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

Retraction of US Withdrawal from WHO

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

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

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

Cyberattack on European Medicines Agency

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

Laboratory Safety Manual, 4th Edition: Risk Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 1.15.2021

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

Limitations of Quarantine

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

Memo to the President: Reimagining Public Health Preparedness and Response

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

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

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

COVID-19 Update

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

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

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

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

How COVID Unlocked the Power of RNA Vaccines

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

Biden’s Foci

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

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

National Security Challenges in 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 1.8.2021

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

2020 Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead in 2021

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

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

A Farewell to Arms Control

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

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

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

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

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

A ‘Come as You Are’ Vaccination Plan

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

New Websites for the BWC & UNODA

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

One Health Awareness Month 2021

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

SARS-CoV-2 Variant B117

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

COVID-19 Open Data

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

Genetic Data and Marketing: Challenges, Opportunities, and Ethics

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

Pandora Report: 12.11.2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 Vaccine Update

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

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

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

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

Dr. Saskia Popescu in This Podcast Will Kill You

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

Special COVID Issue from Homeland Security Affairs

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

Biological Risks in India: Perspectives and Analysis

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

COVID-19 and Healthcare Professional Stress and Resilience

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

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

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

Biosecurity and Genetic Engineering

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 11.20.2020

The Pandora Report wishes everyone an early (and healthy) Happy Thanksgiving! We will be taking a break to enjoy a virtual holiday with our families, but will return to your inbox in December! In case your missed it, a recording and the presentation slides from the event on current challenges to the CWC are available on our website. If you need some holiday fun, in a new video, Lloyd Davies, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert, rates how realistic the bomb disposal scenes are in popular movies and TV shows.

Thanksgiving in COVID-19

Despite the pandemic fatigue most of us are likely suffering, we need to remain vigilant and compliant with the COVID-19 measures in order to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and all the others around us. Now that we are entering into the winter season and seeking refuge from the cold by congregating indoors, we are also seeing terrible surges in COVID-19 cases. Though we all miss our friends and family after these many months of lockdowns, distance, and quarantines, holiday gatherings pose risks for further escalating our case numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided recommendations for a safe and healthy Thanksgiving in COVID-19. Of course, staying home and enjoying a virtual Thanksgiving with those outside your household is the best way to limit exposure to and spread of COVID-19.

Travel may increase your chance of contracting and transmitting COVID-19, so staying home is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones this year. If you decide to travel, make sure that you are following social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines while doing so. Also, whether you will be traveling for Thanksgiving or not, make sure to get your seasonal flu shot ASAP. This year, perhaps more than ever, it is critical that we keep ourselves and those around us as healthy as possible. For those attending an in-person Thanksgiving event, please protect yourself (and your fellow feasters) by wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from those who do not live with you, and washing your hands frequently.

Event Materials – The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The Biodefense Graduate Program sponsored an event, The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapon Convention, in preparation for the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties on 30 November – 4 December, 2020. The chemical weapons nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Chemical weapons have made a comeback with deadly nerve agents being used by Russia, Syria, and North Korea against perceived “enemies of the state.” A new generation of chemical weapons that incapacitate, instead of kill, their victims are also under development. At their next annual meeting, members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons, will confront this resurgence in the chemical weapons threat. This week, a distinguished panel of international experts joined in a discussion about how restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Dr. Stefano Costanzi is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University in Washington DC. Dr. Malcolm Dando is a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent researcher/consultant on disarmament and security based in France. The event was moderated by Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Watch a recording of this event here.

The slide decks from our panelists are available here.

COVID-19 Update

Over the last week, about 1 million more cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States. The running total for the US is over 11,720,300 cases and 252,500 deaths. Globally, cases exceed 57 million and deaths exceed 1,363,000. At present, there are two leading vaccine candidates under development in the United States. One is an mRNA-based vaccine developed and produced by Pfizer – co-developed with BioNTech in Germany – and trial findings have shown over 90% efficacy in COVID-19 prevention. Based on the trial data, it is expected that the vaccine will be administered as a two-series with three weeks between the injections. Unfortunately, the serum will likely require cold storage at a temperature of -81o Celsius, a critical constraint that could limit widespread availability and accessibility in many countries. The other candidate is Moderna’s RNA-based vaccine, which is showing over 94% efficacy in preventing COVID-19.  

Federal Efforts Accelerate Vaccine and Therapeutic Development, but More Transparency Needed on Emergency Use Authorizations

Operation Warp Speed (OWS), a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD), is the US government’s initiative to accelerate the development of vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19. Under normal conditions, the vaccine development process takes 10 years or longer, but OWS intends to accelerate that process by completing steps simultaneously. As of 15 October, OWS announced financial support for the development or manufacturing of six COVID-19 vaccine candidates that total more than $10 billion in obligations. It has also revealed financial support for the development of therapeutics, including a $450 million award for the manufacture of a monoclonal antibody treatment (a treatment that uses laboratory-made antibodies, which also may be able to serve as a prevention option). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued four emergency use authorizations (EUAs), which temporarily allow the use of unapproved therapeutics as another method of speeding up access to medical products. The FDA’s rationale for issuing EUAs has not always been clear; therefore, to help ensure public trust, GAO recommends the FDA improve the communication of findings from its safety and effectiveness reviews. GAO also recommends that the FDA “identify ways to uniformly disclose to the public the information from its scientific review of safety and effectiveness data when issuing EUAs for therapeutics and vaccines.” HHS neither agree nor disagrees with this recommendation, but has stated that it shares GAO’s goal of transparency and would explore ways to improve it.

Schar School Power Lunch Recap: Facing the Challenges of Healthcare

The Schar School of Government and Policy hosts a weekly Power Lunch convening political leaders, journalists, and experts to discuss crucial topics affecting the next four years of US public policy. Last week’s lunch featured Dr. Saskia Popescu, assistant professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program; Sarah Kliff, an investigative reporter focused on healthcare for the New York Times; and Tom Daschle, former US Senator (D-SD) and Senate Majority Leader. The discussion focused on the challenges in healthcare created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Justin Gest, the moderator, shared his takeaway:

“Infecting and killing millions, COVID-19 has tested the limits of science, medicine, and healthcare systems in every corner of the globe. Here in the United States, there are debates over the future of the Affordable Care Act and the role of government in the provision of healthcare…Just yesterday, the US recorded more than 145,000 new COVID-19 cases to set a new record-high. In some areas of the country the number of hospitalizations is already pushing hospital staff to the brink.”

Next week’s Power Lunch will focus on economic policy as America looks to the future. See the list of upcoming topics and register here.

Special Forces Bomb Disposal Expert Rates 10 Bomb Disposal Scenes in Movies and TV

Lloyd Davies, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert, rates how realistic the bomb-disposal scenes are in popular movies and TV shows. Davies assesses the land mines in the TV show “SEAL Team” (2018) and other improvised explosive devices in “The Hurt Locker” (2008), “Die Hard with a Vengeance” (1995), and “Bodyguard” (2018). He describes the “red wire, blue wire” movie device from “Juggernaut” (1974) and “Blown Away” (1994). Davies explains that as an EOD operator, you do not “swap between decisions or not do something that you said you were gonna do.” A bomb contains contain at least seven components, which includes a power source, the main explosives, and initiator switches. He also states that, unlike in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018), an explosive would not have two timers counting down at the same time.

SARS-CoV-2 Origins

The World Health Organization (WHO) debuted its plan to investigate the origins of the pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2. The investigation will start in Wuhan, the city in China where the novel coronavirus was first detected and identified, and expand across China and the globe. Although tracing the trajectory of the virus is important for preventing future spillovers, scientists say the WHO team is charged with a daunting task. Most researchers think the virus originated in bats, but how it made the jump to infect humans is unknown. Discovering the origins of SARS-CoV-2 could take years, and the search must navigate the delicate political situation between the United States and China. Martin Beer, a virologist at the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health in Germany, recommends that the investigation prioritize carnivorous mammals farmed for fur, such as raccoon dogs and civets, which played a role in the SARS outbreak.  A spokesperson for the WHO assures that the search will be guided by science, and “will be open-minded, iterative, not excluding any hypothesis that could contribute to generating evidence and narrowing the focus of research.” Dr. David Relman supports a “deliberative process for investigating the origins of this pandemic.” Relman emphasizes that such an investigation must be “representative of all relevant disciplines, expertise, and stakeholders; must achieve political neutrality, scientific balance, and access to all relevant information and samples; and must operate with transparency and independent oversight.” If the effort lacks these features, its credibility, trustworthiness, and efficacy will be in question.

Diagnostics for Biodefense: Flying Blind with No Plan to Land

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense released a report, Diagnostics for Biodefense: Flying Blind with No Plan to Land, which highlights the US’s “limited capacity for diagnostic testing and inability to conduct the necessary research to develop these tests quickly.” The report calls on the US government to ensure the ability to rapidly develop point-of-care and point-of-need diagnostic tests for novel, emerging, and reemerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19. The Commission recommends that the Executive Branch purchase viable diagnostics, identify and articulate diagnostic research and development requirements, and leverage defense research and expertise. The Commission recommends that the Legislative Branch require a national plan for COVID-19 testing, increase reimburse for point-of-care and point-of-need tests, increase testing for diseases likely to produce widespread infections, provide multi-year funding for research and development in diagnostics, and leverage defense research and expertise. Read the full report here.

Journal Highlights Groundbreaking S&T Research on Chlorine Spread

Over the last decade, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), and other US and international partners from across government, industry, and academia have collaborated on Project Jack Rabbit. Project Jack Rabbit is a field and laboratory research program studying toxic inhalation hazards of industrial chemicals, such as ammonia and chlorine. In 2015 and 2016, DHS S&T led the Jack Rabbit II project, which involved several large-scale chlorine release experiments at the US Army Dugway Proving Ground. Nine chlorine release trials were successfully performed, and the research from Jack Rabbit II is in high demand worldwide. In fact, the prestigious peer-reviewed Journal of Atmospheric Environment is featuring this work in a special edition. The special issue will include 18 articles, with two co-authored by the Chemical Security Analysis Center (CSAC). The remaining 16 articles were submitted by subject matter experts and present summary test results used for model inter-comparisons, results from comparisons of different dispersion models, and results of related research regarding flow fields around obstructions and chemical reactions with surface materials. According to Dr. Shannon Fox, Jack Rabbit II principle investigator and director of CSAC, “Jack Rabbit III will expand on previous work and build security, safety and resilience in the chemical supply chain through experimentation over the next five years.”

Coronavirus: Germany Hails Couch Potatoes in New Videos

Our couch was the frontline and our patience was our weapon.” The German government is encouraging staying home through videos offering humorous praise to the nation’s couch potatoes. In the first video, “#specialheroes – Together against corona,” an elderly man looks back on the winter of 2020. He says:

“The fate of this country lay in our hands. So, we mustered all our courage and did what was expected of us, the only right thing. We did nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Watch the German government’s latest coronavirus advert with subtitles in English here.

WWDFD?

Kaiser Health News’ (KHN) latest podcast episode from “What the Health?”  asks what would Dr. Fauci do? Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and has helped guide the US through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, various flu epidemics, as well as outbreaks of SARS, Ebola and Zika. Now, amidst a worsening pandemic, Fauci is stuck between the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration. Fauci has faced criticism from Trump and his supporters for not aligning with the outgoing president’s wishes on the pandemic, and with the delayed transition due to Biden not yet being recognized as president-elect, Fauci cannot work with Biden’s team. In a recent interview with KHN, Fauci answers how Americans might expect to live in the next six to nine months. He recommends a universal wearing of masks and a national surveillance system that takes in a large number of tests. Fauci thinks that the country is “going to have some degree of public health measures together with the vaccine for a considerable period of time.”

Pandora Report: 11.6.2020

Belated Happy One Health Day! The US officially withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement on 4 November. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student and Assistant Editor for The Pandora Report, provides an analysis about vehicle ramming attacks (VRAs) by terrorists. The Biodefense Graduate Program is hosting a virtual event, “The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)” on 17 November.

Driven to Extremes: Vehicle Ramming as a Terrorist Tactic

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, analyzes data related to vehicle ramming attacks (VRAs), which are terrorist attacks that utilize the kinetic force of a vehicle to strike its target. Kiesel uses the publicly available information from the University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database, comprising records of VRAs from 1970 through 2018. Her commentary examines attacks with land vehicles, such as cars, trucks, tractors, and buses, in order to understand how extremists with limited means can still perpetrate a devastating attack with relatively few resources. Read Keisel’s article here.

We Need Science Now, More Than Ever

Sign up for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ free newsletter and get the best coverage of nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. For 75 years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been publishing evidence-based coverage of the critical issues that threaten our world, elevating the experts above the noise. Contributors include Pandora Report regulars such as Greg Koblentz, Saskia Popescu, and Filippa Lentzos. We don’t have a second to waste — sign up today.

Election Excitement

As the country continues to wait with bated breath for the official announcement of the election victor, there are several matters hanging in the balance, many of which revolve around the ongoing pandemic. As Americans flock to the polls or ballot drop boxes, the daily average of newly confirmed cases in the US has reached an all-time high of over 86,000. US cases have broken 9 million and deaths have surpassed 234,000. Even if Biden wins, Trump has over 80 days left in office, which could see another 100,000 US deaths from the novel coronavirus. Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association (AMA), encourages Americans to practice social distancing, frequently wash hands, and wear masks faithfully. In regard to the research and development underway for SARS-CoV-2 treatments and vaccines, many public health experts worry that these efforts will be hurt if Trump follows through with his threats to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci or any of the other top health officials with whom Trump has locked horns. Biden has already pledged to keep Fauci on board and “put scientists and public health officials front and center.” Biden has also promised to reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO) on his first day in office. Biden also intends to establish his own COVID-19 task force to work in parallel to Trump’s sidelined advisory panel. The new task force would include former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, New York University’s Dr. Celine Gounder, Yale University’s Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, former Obama White House aide Dr. Zeke Emanuel, and former Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita.

Regardless of the results, the 2020 election has proven to be a “disaster for public health,” as more than 67 million Americans seem to be following Trump’s lead on public health. According to preliminary exit polls, merely 14% of surveyed Republican voters listed the COVID-19 pandemic as the deciding factor in who they voted for. STAT found that interviewed scientists, epidemiologists, and public health experts were split about the future of public health.

Upcoming Event – The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

The Biodefense Graduate Program is sponsoring an event, The Resurgent Chemical Weapons Threat: Current Challenges to the Chemical Weapon Convention, in preparation for the 25th Session of the Conference of the States Parties on 30 November – 4 December, 2020. The chemical weapons nonproliferation regime is at a crossroads. Chemical weapons have made a comeback with deadly nerve agents being used by Russia, Syria, and North Korea against perceived “enemies of the state.” A new generation of chemical weapons that incapacitate, instead of kill, their victims are also under development. At their next annual meeting, members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the development, production, and use of chemical weapons, will confront this resurgence in the chemical weapons threat. Please join a distinguished panel of international experts in a discussion about how restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons and how the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) can prevent the further misuse of chemistry.

Dr. Stefano Costanzi is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at American University in Washington DC. Dr. Malcolm Dando is a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders is an independent researcher/consultant on disarmament and security based in France. The event will be moderated by Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The event will be held as a live webinar on 17 November from Noon to 1:30 EST. Register at https://bit.ly/34vDJRQ.

Priorities for the Next President to Reduce Biological Threats

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) outlined a set of priorities for the next presidential term in a pair of papers, “Reducing Nuclear Risks: An Urgent Agenda for 2021 and Beyond” and “Preventing the Next Global Biological Catastrophe.” The former paper recommends adapting US policies and posture to reduce nuclear risks; working with Russia and China to reduce nuclear risks; strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime; prioritizing efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism in the homeland and abroad; and strengthening cohesion at home and diplomacy abroad. The latter paper recommends rescinding the US withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO); establishing a summit for heads-of-state regarding biological threats; promoting the establishment of a Global Health Security (GHS) Challenge Fund; supporting the launch of a Dedicated Global Entity for reducing the risk of a biotechnology catastrophe; advocating for the establishment of a permanent United Nations (UN) facilitator and unit within the Office of the UN Secretary-General dedicated to responding to high-consequence biological events; and strengthening international capabilities to rapidly investigate biological events of unknown origin.

Pandemic Priorities for the 117th Congress

Congressional Democrats previewed their legislative priorities for pandemic prevention and preparedness if they succeed in holding onto the House and flipping the Senate. In a letter released on October 22 addressed to the Democratic and Republican leadership of the House and Senate, 134 Senators and Representatives outlined a five-point plan to strengthen health security at home and abroad. The letter calls for increased investment in state, local, and tribal public health departments, including hiring 250,000 new public health workers, stronger biosurveillance efforts abroad to detect the emergence of new diseases, elimination of racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to healthcare, and mitigating the effects of environment degradation and climate change which contribute to the spread of zoonotic diseases.

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 12 November, there will be a Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House at 6:30pm EDT, featuring Former Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe. McCabe is now a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Homeland Security at the Schar School and an intelligence analyst for CNN. 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?” There are also several opportunities to attend Admissions Drop-In Sessions for both the Master’s programs and the PhD programs. To read the latest Master’s in Biodefense Career Report, click here. Register for the 12 November open house here.

3 November Was One Health Day!

One Health Day is an international campaign coordinated jointly by the One Health Commission, the One Health Initiative Autonomous pro bono Team, and the One Health Platform Foundation. The purpose of One Health Day is to highlight the need for One Health approaches and initiatives and to showcase existing efforts. In this pandemic era, the importance of One Health has never been so clear given the likely zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2. The One Health concept is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes by recognizing the interconnection between humans, animals, plants, and their shared environment.

UN Report Says Up to 850,000 Animal Viruses Could Be Caught by Humans Unless We Protect Nature

A report drafted from the Workshop on Biodiversity and Pandemics held by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The workshop recognized that pandemics are an “existential threat to the health and welfare of people across our planet.” Infectious disease events are occurring more frequently, largely due to “global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change.” Many of these changes push humans and wildlife together, creating more opportunities for zoonoses to emerge. The report states there may be as many as 850,000 animal viruses that could jump into humans if we do not take the necessary steps to protect nature. The high level of mobility in the world sets the stage for quick dissemination of diseases from one part of the world to another. The report asserts that pandemic risk could be lowered by decreasing anthropogenic global environmental change through the promotion of responsible consumption and the reduction of excessive consumption of meat from livestock production. Given that illegal wildlife trade is a major issue, improving regulations and surveillance of these activities would help lower pandemic risk.

Climate Change Catastrophe

On 4 November, the US officially withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, precisely one year after the withdrawal submission was cast. This move, which is final regardless of the winner of the US presidential election, is a major blow to international efforts to halt global climate change. The goal of the Agreement is to limit global warming to keep the global temperature rise in this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to work toward limiting the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Trump’s climate legacy will center around his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement and his moves to systematically undo federal climate policies instituted under Obama. Dozens of climate-related regulations have been reversed, such as rules on air pollution, emissions, drilling and oil and gas extraction. As the US pulls out, China and the European Union are taking the lead on mitigating climate change. Joe Biden, should he become president, has already stated that he would rejoin the Agreement. According to Michael Oppenheimer, a climate policy researcher at Princeton University, “The United States can’t simply jump back in and pretend it’s all back to 2015; it will need to work to regain trust.”

Biosecurity: The Importance of Digital Information Security

Merrick is hosting a free webinar on 11 November about the importance of data security as a vital element of institutional biosecurity. Merrick and GeneInfoSec Inc, a company that focuses on the security of genetic data and mitigation of related vulnerabilities, will cover the fundamentals of biosecurity and biorisk management, and the information security threat landscape within the laboratory environment. Register for the webinar here.

WH Adviser Scott Atlas Apologizes for Interview with Kremlin-Backed News Outlet

Dr. Scott Atlas, a White House coronavirus adviser, issued an apology last Sunday for doing an interview with Russia’s state-backed RT network. RT, formerly Russia Today, is an international television and news network financed by the government of Russian and its US arm is registered as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 2017. Its designation as a foreign agent means that its content is considered to be “propaganda attempting to influence US public opinion, policy and laws.” RT’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have been flagged as under state-affiliated control. In a 2017 report from the US intelligence community, RT was branded as part of Russia’s “state-run propaganda machine,” which tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and possibly in this year’s election as well. In the interview, published on Halloween, Atlas downplayed the severity of the coronavirus surge in the US and claimed that lockdowns instituted to slow the spread of COVID-19 are “not impactful.” On 1 November, Atlas tweeted:

“I recently did an interview with RT and was unaware they are a registered foreign agent. I regret doing the interview and apologize for allowing myself to be taken advantage of. I especially apologize to the national security community who is working hard to defend us.”

Tests Show Genetic Signature of Virus That May Have Infected President Trump

The White House did not take basic steps to investigate its recent outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 infections, such as extensive contact tracing or genetic sequencing. The New York Times (NYT) worked with prominent geneticists to discern the genetic sequence of viruses that infected two NYT journalists who were likely exposed while reporting on the White House. The two journalists had significant, but separate, exposure to White House officials in late September. Both experienced symptoms several days after their respective exposures, which occurred without being in proximity with each other. After testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, the genomes of their viruses were analyzed and found to share the same distinct pattern of mutations. According to Trevor Bedford, the geneticist who led the research team with NYT, their exposures paired with the shared patterns in viral mutations suggests that the two journalists were infected in the White House outbreak. The White House did not conduct its own genetic analysis of those infected in its outbreak. Dr. David Engelthaler, head of the infectious disease branch of the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Arizona, said, “It’s critical no matter where we are to sequence this virus.”

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

The Schar School of Policy and Government is pleased to offer $250,000 in scholarships, made possible by the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship, to eligible master’s students admitted to a security studies-related program for the Spring 2021 semester. Students in the Master’s in Biodefense program are eligible. The mission of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation is to “promote national security, entrepreneurship, and enhance quality of life by supporting education and global understanding.” These scholarships are intended to support future national security professionals and leaders. “The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation gift makes it possible for many students to attend our high-ranked security studies programs and prepare for careers in intelligence and security policy,” said Schar School Dean Mark J. Rozell. “We are grateful for this new partnership that will advance our shared goal of educating and training future policy professionals in these fields.” Distinguished Visiting Professor and former Director of the CIA and NSA Michael V. Hayden touted the gift:

“There has never been a time when the national security threats facing our nation have been as diverse. The Schar School is growing to meet those challenges, be they from peer rivals, persistent terrorist threats, or the consequences of technological developments. This scholarship fund will enhance the Schar School’s already stellar reputation in attracting a strong and diverse pool of graduate student candidates who will serve as our next generation of hands-on, solutions-driven national security leaders.”

Applications are due by 15 November 2020. To apply, click here.

Pandora Report: 10.30.2020

Happy Halloween! For those of you with little monsters planning on trick-or-treating, consider building in a face covering into their costume to keep them safe from SCV2. Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights on “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland.” Dr. Lauren Quattrochi is joining the GMU Biodefense family and she carved out time to share her academic and professional journey, and impart some words of wisdom to biodefense students and aspiring experts!

Recent Congressional Testimony: Worldwide Threats to the Homeland

Stevie Kiesel, a Biodefense PhD student, shares her insights on FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security about “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland.” He focuses on five main topics: cyber, China, lawful access, election security, and counterterrorism. This article reviews the FBI Director’s depiction of these topics and provides additional characterizations of them, based on recent reports, legislation, and strategic guidance. Read Kiesel’s article here.

Meet Dr. Lauren Quattrochi: Multidisciplinary Pharmacologist, Virologist, Electrophysiologist, and New Adjunct Faculty Member for the Biodefense Graduate Program

Dr. Lauren Quattrochi (aka Dr. Q) is joining the GMU Biodefense family! Dr. Q is a classically trained as an electrophysiologist and neuro-pharmacologist. 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. Q serves as a technical advisor on both Hantavirus and COVID-19 vaccine development and manufacturing. This week, Dr. Q met with the Pandora Report to detail her academic and professional journey, and share her insights on a career in biodefense. Read about Dr. Q here.

Tips for Trick or Treating and Other Halloween Activities

Halloween is tomorrow and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided some guidance on how to stay healthy while trick-or-treating during a pandemic:

  • Avoid direct contact with trick-or-treaters
  • Give out treats outdoors, if possible
  • Set up a station with individually bagged treats for kids to take
  • Wash hands before handling treats or carry hand sanitizer
  • Wear a mask
  • Stay 6 feet away from other Halloween groups

We Need Science Now, More Than Ever

Sign up for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ free newsletter and get the best coverage of nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. For 75 years, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been publishing evidence-based coverage of the critical issues that threaten our world, elevating the experts above the noise. Contributors include Pandora Report regulars such as Greg Koblentz, Saskia Popescu, and Filippa Lentzos. We don’t have a second to waste — sign up today.

A Guide to Investigating Outbreak Origins: Nature Versus the Laboratory

Richard Pilch, Miles Pomper, Jill Luster, and Filippa Lentzos published a report with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey. The report, A Guide to Investigating Outbreak Origins: Nature versus the Laboratory, outlines an easily adoptable step-by-step methodology based on traditional epidemiological principles to guide the investigation of outbreak origins. This guide comes at an apropos time given the major gaps exposed by COVID-19. The risks of natural outbreaks and laboratory accidents are swelling; the possibility of a deliberate biological attack adds to the worries associated with pathogens. The authors aim to minimize the invasiveness of their proposed process while simultaneously enabling a thorough examination of the root cause of an outbreak.   

The Costs of Ransomware Attacks on Hospitals

A joint advisory by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the FBI stated that there is “credible information of an increased and imminent cybercrime threat” from ransomware attacks targeting US hospitals and healthcare providers. Hackers are using Ryuk ransomware to encrypt data and block users from accessing it, and they are using Trickbot to filch data, impede health care services, and extort money from healthcare facilities. Ryuk has hit at least five hospitals this week and could affect hundreds more. According to Brett Callow, an analyst at the cybersecurity firm Emsisoft, 59 US health care providers and systems have been impacted by ransomware in 2020, which has caused the disruption of patient care at up to 510 facilities. Germany is also facing cyber-attacks on their hospitals. After hackers disabled computer systems at Düsseldorf University Hospital, a female patient scheduled for live-saving treatment had to be transferred to a hospital 19 miles away. The patient died during the transfer, and prosecutors have launched a negligent homicide case that could place the blame of her death on the hackers.

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

The Schar School of Policy and Government is pleased to offer $250,000 in scholarships, made possible by the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship, to eligible master’s students admitted to a security studies-related program for the Spring 2021 semester. Students in the Master’s in Biodefense program are eligible. The mission of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation is to “promote national security, entrepreneurship, and enhance quality of life by supporting education and global understanding.” These scholarships are intended to support future national security professionals and leaders. “The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation gift makes it possible for many students to attend our high-ranked security studies programs and prepare for careers in intelligence and security policy,” said Schar School Dean Mark J. Rozell. “We are grateful for this new partnership that will advance our shared goal of educating and training future policy professionals in these fields.” Distinguished Visiting Professor and former Director of the CIA and NSA Michael V. Hayden touted the gift:

“There has never been a time when the national security threats facing our nation have been as diverse. The Schar School is growing to meet those challenges, be they from peer rivals, persistent terrorist threats, or the consequences of technological developments. This scholarship fund will enhance the Schar School’s already stellar reputation in attracting a strong and diverse pool of graduate student candidates who will serve as our next generation of hands-on, solutions-driven national security leaders.”

Applications are due by 15 November 2020. To apply, click here.

Scientists Develop a Potential Antibiotic from Komodo Dragon Blood

As a possible creative basis for an antibiotic to combat the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), scientists at George Mason University have developed a synthetic molecule by combining two genes found in Komodo dragon blood. In preclinical testing, the antibiotic, DRGN-6, killed carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae, a bacterium that causes a particularly aggressive form of pneumonia and is highly drug resistant. This breakthrough discovery is a “critical first step” to a potential novel antibiotic, but research and development to devise a market-worthy product could easily take another decade.

Human Embryo Genome Editing: The Debate Continues

A detailed report, Heritable Human Genome Editing, was published in September by an international commission of the US National Academy of Medicine, US National Academy of Sciences, and the UK’s Royal Society. The CRISPR Journal just released “Reactions to the National Academies/Royal Society Report on Heritable Human Genome Editing,” which proposes a “translational pathway for the limited approval of germline editing under certain circumstances and assuming various criteria have been met.” Three dozen experts in genome editing, medicine, bioethics, law, and more share their frank feedback to the report on Heritable Human Genome Editing.

Women of Color Advancing Peace & Security

The Women of Color Advancing Peace & Security (WCAPS) released Policy Papers by Women of Color, Second Edition: CBRN Policy and Global Health Security. The second edition features articles from members of the WCAPS working groups: Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Security Policy; and Global Health Security. Papers cover topics such as diversity issues in the nuclear threat reduction workforce, threat analysis of small industrial radiological equipment, and the negative impact of AI-enabled automation on the US nuclear command, control, and communications system. Read these policy papers here.

$275 Million Commitment to Brew Better Molecules for Manufacturing

A coalition comprised of the Department of Defense and more than 80 companies, universities, states, and research institutes have committed to invest at least $275 million over the next seven years to augment microbial production of biomolecules. The funding is aimed at supporting the biomanufacturing industry so that it can supply a wide range of businesses with large quantities of chemicals at the low prices needed for them to be competitive with petroleum-based alternatives. The public-private partnership, the Bioindustrial Manufacturing and Design Ecosystem (BioMADE), seeks to “employ the same principles of genetic engineering and engineering biology used in the pharmaceutical industry to produce chemicals other than drugs on a scale similar to that used to ferment corn into ethanol for transportation.”

State Department: Reducing Revisionist State Biological and Chemical Weapons Threats

The Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN/CTR) at the Department of State is funding cooperative agreements to detect and disrupt the ability of “revisionist proliferator states” to develop chemical and biological weapons (CBW) capabilities. Revisionist proliferator states utilize a variety of underhanded or illegal methods to procure sensitive equipment and weaponizable materials for illicit CBW purposes. The Reducing Revisionist State Biological and Chemical Weapons Threats funding opportunity seeks to support “creative and competitive proposals that utilize open-source information to map potential illicit revisionist state CBW procurement networks, develop targeted interventions to disrupt access to dual-use biological materials and equipment, and limit access to necessary biological and chemical scientific knowledge and expertise.”

Keep Focus on Emerging Infections, Disease X: Analysts

A recent report from a global health think tank found that the United States was the biggest infectious disease research donor, but also the biggest funding beneficiary. Between 2014-18, funding for research and development mostly went toward diseases that received much public attention, instead of diseases that were possible causes of future pandemics (like Disease X) or that caused the greatest health burdens. This imbalance shows that funding is not based on a forward-looking approach, hindering our ability to prevent and prepare for the next big outbreak. Madhukar Pai, director of the International Tuberculosis Centre at McGill University in Canada, predicts that funding data will reveal a “100% covidisation” of infectious disease R&D funding for 2020 and 2021.

COVID‐19 and the Boundaries of Open Science and Innovation

As the world becomes increasingly digitized, the concept of Open Science plays an increasingly important role in research and technology. Open Science, empowered by digital communication technologies, endeavors to make publicly-funded scientific research available to any scientist or researcher through the unhindered sharing of results, data, methods, reagents, and technologies. Minari, Yoshiwaza, and Shinomiya point out that mandates and policies designed to support Open Science can clash with privacy, data protection, and security. They highlight that “privacy and data protection legislation… reign supreme over data sharing for human‐related biomedical research.” The sharing of information related to pathogens and infectious diseases can also create biosecurity concerns. The authors recommend a system to trace data back to their origins in order to assure data quality and legitimacy.

Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: What We Know

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released proceedings of a workshop, Airborne Transmission of SARS-COV-2, detailing what is currently known on the topic. Individuals generate aerosols and droplets across broad spectrums of sizes and concentrations, and aerosol production varies based on the person and activity.  Strong evidence exists that aerosol transmission is an important pathway for the spread of SCV2; however, research is challenging and more study is needed. In good news, ultraviolet (UV) light significantly decreases virus stability, but lower temperatures and humidity may increase stability. Evidence also shows that face coverings, like masks, reduce community transmission of the novel coronavirus.

How COVID-19 is Affecting the Global Response to AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria

The COVID-19 pandemic is greatly impacting the world’s most vulnerable communities by threatening progress on the fights against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), and malaria. It is estimated that a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could lead to over half a million additional deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa. Though 2020 celebrated the distribution of the 2 billionth bed net for malaria prevention, the pandemic has disrupted malaria services like insecticide-treated net campaigns and access to antimalarials. As a result of these troubles, sub-Saharan Africa could see a doubling of malaria deaths. Lockdowns and medical services limitations could “erase five years of progress on TB, increasing the annual number of deaths and cases over the next five years.” The estimated cost of a 3-month lockdown and 10-month restoration of services is an additional 6.4 million TB cases and 1.4 million deaths.

Pandora Report: 10.23.2020

Tomorrow is World Polio Day! In 1988, the World Health Assembly pledged to prioritize polio eradication, and the virus was still present in 125 countries. By 2017, only 3 countries were reporting cases of wild poliovirus. Today, the virus has been reduced to only one type and comprehensive eradication is within reach. Also, Happy 25th Anniversary to CRDF Global! This weekend marks the first games for the Big 10. How will this impact rising case numbers in the Big 10 region? The Open Society Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive identified 148 key personnel and 59 facilities belonging to Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC).

In Memoriam: Dennis M. Gormley

We are very sad to announce the passing of Dennis M. Gormley, nonproliferation expert and husband of Biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley.  The Biodefense Program offers its deepest condolences to Professor Ben Ouagrham-Gormley. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, where Dennis worked for several years, issued this in memoriam:

“It is with great sadness that the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) notes the passing of our long-time colleague and friend, Dennis M. Gormley. A recognized expert on arms control and weapons of mass destruction proliferation—and a leading specialist in particular on cruise missile proliferation—Mr. Gormley served as CNS Senior Fellow during the early 2000s, based in the Center’s Washington, DC, office. Among Dennis’s important contributions to the nonproliferation field are Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security (Praeger, 2008) and A Low Visibility Force Multiplier: Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions (National Defense University, 2014, with Andrew S. Erickson and Jingdong Yuan). His articles have appeared in numerous scholarly publications, including the CNS peer-reviewed journal, the Nonproliferation Review. We extend our sincere condolences to Dennis’s wife, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, another former member of the CNS family.”

Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship

The Schar School of Policy and Government is pleased to offer $250,000 in scholarships, made possible by the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Scholarship, to eligible master’s students admitted to a security studies-related program for the Spring 2021 semester. Students in the Master’s in Biodefense program are eligible. The mission of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation is to “promote national security, entrepreneurship, and enhance quality of life by supporting education and global understanding.” These scholarships are intended to support future national security professionals and leaders. Applications are due by 15 November 2020. To apply, click here.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Complex Revealed

On 19 October, the Open Society Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive released a major report on Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), the organization responsible for Syria’s chemical weapon and ballistic missile programs. The report, based on a two -year investigation of information provided by Syrian defectors and open sources, identifies 148 key personnel and 59 facilities belonging to the SSRC. According to the report, Institute 3000 was responsible for developing Syria’s chemical weapons and Branch 450 was responsible for protecting and transporting these weapons and preparing them for use. Branch 410 of Institute 2000 and Branch 797 of Institute 4000 produced chlorine barrel bombs that were used extensively throughout the Syrian civil war. In April, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) identified the Syrian Arab Air Force as being responsible for a chlorine barrel bomb attack against a hospital in Ltamenah in March 2017. Institute 4000 was also responsible for developing the short-range rockets filled with sarin that were used in East Ghouta in August 2013. The role of the Assad regime in conducting the East Ghouta attack and the April 2017 sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun were the subject of separate studies by Open Society Justice Initiative, Syrian Archive, and Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression which were sent to the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office in early October for investigation as international war crimes. Biodefense program director Professor Gregory Koblentz assisted the Open Society Justice Initiative in the preparation of these reports as a pro bono consultant. 

The release of these reports is incredibly timely in the wake of Syria’s refusal to comply with a deadline issued by the OPCW’s Executive Council that Syria comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention and declare all of its chemical weapons and production facilities by early October. On 14 October, the Director-General of the OPCW informed states parties that Syria had not provided any additional information as required. Syria’s non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention will be addressed at the Conference of States Parties which will take place on November 30-December 4, 2020 at the OPCW headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. 

CRDF Global is Celebrating 25 Years of Safety, Security, and Sustainability

2020 marks the 25th year of CRDF Global’s commitment to promoting global security and stability! CRDF Global is an independent nonprofit organization that provides flexible logistical support, program design and management, and strategic capacity building programs in the areas of higher education, CBRNE security and nonproliferation, border security, cybersecurity, global health, technology entrepreneurship, and international professional exchanges. Earlier this month, CRDF global was awarded two subcontracts from Leidos in support of the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP). CRDF Global will be supporting the DTRA-BTRP mission of facilitating the security, detection, and surveillance of diseases caused by exceptionally dangerous pathogens. In the Philippines and Jordan, the organization will mentor and train researchers at government agencies and academic institutions in writing competitive research proposals for international funding and technical articles suitable for submission to peer-reviewed publications.

Trump Isn’t Contagious Now. But His Administration Will Still Get People Sick.

Dr. Saskia Popescu, Term Assistant Professor for the Biodefense Graduate Program and infection prevention expert, recently wrote an article for the Washington Post about Trump’s recent rallies demonstrating his dismissive approach to the ongoing pandemic. Though the US has surpassed 8 million cases of COVID-19, Trump continues to espouse that the pandemic is NBD and that the disease “affects virtually nobody.” On 2 October, both Trump and the First Lady tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a short hospitalization for him. Trump’s first post-hospital rally was held 12 October, merely one week after his diagnosis, an event that likely exposed many of his own supporters to the virus. Though Trump ignored the safety of our population, Senator Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate did not: she cancelled campaign events due to a staffer and an airline attendant with whom she was in close contact testing positive for COVID-19. Read Popescu’s article here.

Call to Action: CSIS-LSHTM High-Level Panel on Vaccine Confidence and Misinformation

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) convened the High-Level Panel on Vaccine Confidence and Misinformation. The Panel shared a set of five recommendations for US leadership:

  1. The rapid launch of an independent panel on vaccines and misinformation to stimulate an updated national conversation and carry out a swift assessment of the decline in public trust and confidence in vaccines, public authorities, and science, as well as the root causes of these losses and the implications therein
  2. The public sector should guide innovations for reaching diverse and underserved populations with vaccines and other health and social services support
  3. Mainstream traditional and digital media outlets should commit publicly and voluntarily to improving the information climate related to vaccines
  4. Leaders in the critical social and economic sectors should engage in greater activism
  5. The administration should create a new capacity within the National Security Council (NSC) directorate that facilitates collaboration across agencies and sectors to address global health security and biodefense

Read the full CSIS-LSHTM Call to Action here.

Winners of NTI’s 2020 Next Generation for Biosecurity in GHSA Competition Announced

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Next Generation Global Health Security Network announced the winners of the fourth annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition, at which Dr. Gregory Koblentz, the Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, was a judge. The winning team included Jonas Sandbrink, a medical student at the University of Oxford; Joshua Monrad, a master’s candidate in health policy, planning, and financing at the University of London (LSHTM, LSE); and Sriharshita Musunuri, a chemistry and computer science undergraduate student at Stanford University. These three students developed a paper, “Widening the Framework for Regulation of Dual-Use Research in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which argues that governments and research entities need to take special steps to reduce the possibility of dual-use research that can be exploited during a pandemic when the scientific community is focusing on vital research to advance vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The winning authors recommend expanding the definition of dual-use research of concern, strengthening regulatory frameworks for dual-use research oversight, and developing robust mechanisms beyond policymaking to reinforce dual-use considerations in biomedical research.

The Inside Story of How Trump’s COVID-19 Coordinator Undermined the World’s Top Health Agency

In July, a meeting of COVID-19 experts from across the US government received alarming news. White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx removed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s system for collecting hospital data in favor of a private contractor, Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking Technologies Inc. Birx’s decision to pull the plug on the CDC’s data system was based on the agency’s inability to collect 100% of the hospital COVID-19 data every day, a practically impossible expectation. Birx’s demand would require that every hospital in the nation clean and update all of their COVID-related data on a daily basis while also providing medical care for COVID patients and non-COVID patients. The loss of control over COVID-19 hospital data is one among many factors contributing to the ongoing crisis at the CDC. Birx’s public comments lambasting the CDC have further undermined its work and expertise. Though she has received praise for being a “good scientist who gets things done,” she has also been criticized for railroading people, failing to listen to experts, and failing to recognize her own lack of a background in respiratory disease outbreaks. The abandoned CDC system, the National Healthcare Safety Network, used for the better part of 20 years was functional but imperfect; the TeleTracking system is operating with a greater lag, running 3-4 days behind. The CDC system showed 3-6% missing data for items such as COVID-19 inpatient bed occupancy and ventilator use; TeleTracking showed 36%-57% missing data.

As Coronavirus Surges, Select Subcommittee Releases White House Reports Contradicting President Trump on Testing, Masks

Reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force reveal that the administration has been aware for weeks that cases are mounting, spurring a need for mask mandates and increased testing. These revelations arise even as Trump openly downplayed the pandemic and held crowded events for his campaign. The reports validate that testing levels are too low to contain SARS-CoV-2 and it recommends that all 50 states increase testing, laboratory capacity, or testing surveillance activities. The Task Force calls on 11 states to dramatically increase testing at universities, 12 states to increase testing capacity, and encourages test results to be available with 48 hours. At present, report show that 31 states are in the “red zone” to instigate mask mandates.

The Big Ten is Making a Big Mistake

The first Big Ten football games are scheduled for this weekend, reversing the conference’s previous decision to postpone fall sports. Though states in this conference were seeing improvements in their case numbers, most have experienced surges of late. According to the Center for Health Security, all states except Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have reported new record high daily incidence since August. Yesterday, health officials in Washtenaw County, Michigan, home to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, issued a “stay in place” order to college students in response to increasing incidence among students and the university community. Several mayors are concerned that the Big Ten schools are not taking sufficient precautions against the virus and signed an open letter to the conference and universities urging them to heighten safeguards during football games. This weekend will show whether or not increased safety measures were implemented and reveal the impact of resuming football season in COVID-19.