Pandora Report: 2.7.2020

ASM Biothreats – Full Coverage
It’s our favorite time of year – sharing detailed summaries of some of the top discussions, presentations, and panels from the 2020 ASM Biothreats conference. Check out the landing page here, which will give you an overview of our GMU Biodefense students who attended and brief descriptions and links to their work. Since this conference took place as the 2019-nCoV outbreak was growing into a PHEIC, these talks are very timely and critical to response and future preparedness efforts. From diagnostic innovations to MSF efforts during outbreaks, this was one of the best years yet – we also have coverage of NIAID Director Dr. Fauci’s talk on coronavirus infections. Don’t miss out on our detailed review of this wonderful conference.

2019-nCoV Outbreak Updates: From Quarantine to PPE Supply Chain Concerns 
It seems like every day is overloaded with new information about the 2019-nCoV outbreak. The rapid pace of information has helped in some ways but hurt in others – from those acting as experts to hastily published papers that grabbed headlines but were fundamentally flawed. Over 50,000 flights to China have been cancelled amid fear of the outbreak and the U.S. is still employing travel bans. Late Thursday, the CDC announced that it would be distributing testing kits to help expand laboratory capacity. “Initially, about 200 test kits will be distributed to U.S. domestic laboratories and a similar amount will be distributed to select international laboratories. Each test kit can test approximately 700 to 800 patient specimens.” The latest case counts are changing frequently, but as of Thursday evening there were 30,818  confirmed. 11 cases have been identified in the United States, fueling concern regarding PPE and other healthcare supplies. Maryn McKenna recently spoke to these issues as mask shortages could potentially spread globally, especially since most of the world’s supply come from China. “95 percent of the surgical masks used in the US and 70 percent of the respirators—thicker, tight-fitting masks that offer better protection against viruses—are made overseas. That leaves the mask supply vulnerable to labor disruption if a pandemic sickens manufacturing workers, as well as to flat-out diversion if a government decides to keep its own stock at home. ‘This is 100 percent a vulnerability,’ says Saskia Popescu, a biosecurity expert who is the senior infection-prevention epidemiologist in an Arizona hospital system. ‘Personal protective equipment is always going to be a problem when there is an outbreak of something novel, because public health guidance will be unclear at first and there will be a run on supplies. Masks being made offshore is one more stress on the system’.” The FDA announced on February 4th that they had issued “an emergency use authorization (EUA) to enable emergency use of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2019-nCoV Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel. To date, this test has been limited to use at CDC laboratories; today’s authorization allows the use of the test at any CDC-qualified lab across the country.” As cases grow, small clusters challenging public health efforts have sprung up, like a cruise ship being held in Yokohama as Japanese health authorities screen and quarantine passengers following the confirmation that ten people aboard have the disease. China has also been sending in spray trucks of bleach to help the outbreak, which has baffled many. “The truth is that coronaviruses have really poor survivability on surfaces,” Saskia Popescu, a senior infection prevention epidemiologist who works at a Phoenix-based healthcare system, told Insider. “This is an organism that is generally spread through respiratory droplets. So that cough, that sneeze, and yes, your hands can get contaminated and then you touch your eyes, your mouth, and things like that.” She said the widespread use of disinfectants like bleach which is what was being used in truck sprayers in at least one Chinese city, Yichang, according to a local report is “a little over the top.” The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense will be hosting a February 10th even – Containing the Coronavirus: Challenges to Thwarting the Outbreak, from 1:30pm- 3:30pm and can be attended in person or via webcast. “Panel participants will offer their perspectives on the role of the federal government in managing the crisis, the lack of transparency by the Communist Chinese Government, implications for U.S national security, and how the country can better prepare for when the next pandemic strikes.”

Bioweapons, Secret Labs, and the CIA: Pro-Kremlin Actors Blame the US for Coronavirus Outbreak
As the 2019-nCov outbreak rages and experts around the world work to identify its causes and quell its spread, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL) reports that pro-Kremlin actors are blaming the United States of America for this expanding public health emergency. Specifically, these actors purport that the US employed bioweapons to disseminate the virus in China; however, this theory is, unsurprisingly, gaining little traction. Russia and its fringe members possess a history of wielding disinformation as a tactic against the US. For example, in 1983, Russia launched Operation Infektion, which falsely claimed that the AIDS virus was developed in a clandestine US bioweapons laboratory. Related theories continue to pop up from various Russia-based outlets as well as Russian YouTube channels with tales that the US designed the virus with the intent of sabotaging China’s economy from within its borders. These narratives implicate supposed US bioweapons programs, the CIA, and the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi as the origins of the fictitious nefarious plot. Regardless of the spuriousness of these claims, this latest disinformation campaign serves as a strong “reminder of Russia’s long history of employing anti-U.S. influence operations during public health crises.”

Event Summary: Battling Insecurity, Mistrust, and Disease
GMU Biodefense PhD student Greg Witt recently attended an event hosted by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and is providing us with a detailed account of the critical conversations on battling insecurity. The event was a follow-on to a series of technical workshops hosted by NTI and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) as part of the Initiative to Strengthen Biosecurity and Biosafety, which aims to resolve safety and security gaps related to biological threats in Africa. Opening remarks were delivered by NTI Co-Chair and Chief Executive Officer Ernest Moniz, who highlighted the complex, intertwined relationship between conflict and infectious disease and the consequent risks this connection poses to international and health security in Sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Moniz described a tabletop exercise conducted by NTI and partner institutions as part of the 2019 Munich Security Conference, in which a fictional country in the midst of domestic unrest experienced a deliberate terrorist attack utilizing a highly-lethal biological agent. The results of this simulation were, in his words, “eye-opening, and not in a good way.” Read his full summary here.

One Health Advocacy: Education and Policy in Action – Webinar
Join the International Student One Health Alliance as we learn from Drs. Deborah Thomson and George Lueddeke about advocating for One Health through education and policy. Deborah Thomson, DVM is from the United States and is a One Health curriculum developer and the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Congressional Science and Engineering Policy Fellow. Her presentation will be “Non-Traditional One Health in Action.” This event will be held from 9am ET on Sunday, February 9th. You can register here.

Outbreak Updates
There has been one additional case of Ebola in the DRC in recent days. The outbreak has now infected 3,427 people. The CDC has released Week 4 flu data (ending January 25), with a large number of states experiencing high influenza-like illness activity. “Visits to healthcare providers for influenza-like illness (ILI) increased from 5.1% last week to 5.7% this week.”

ASM Biothreats 2020

We’re the source for all things health security and the annual ASM Biothreats conference is no different. GMU’s biodefense program was fortunate to send several students to attend the 2020 ASM Biothreats conference in which topics ranged from diagnostics to technology as a source for biothreats. Held in Arlington, Virginia on January 28-30, this was an exciting event highlighting the importance of conversations surrounding high consequence pathogen research, biological threat reduction, and product development and policy. Our student attendees have reported back on some of the enlightening and captivating sessions during the biothreat event. Below you’ll find several commentaries from each student who attended:

Joseph DeFranco is a Scholar Fellow of the Defense Operational Cognitive Sciences section of the Strategic Multilayer Assessment Branch, Joint Staff, Pentagon. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in biodefense at the Schar School of Policy and Government of George Mason University, and working toward a Ph.D. in War Studies at Kings College, London, with emphasis upon biosecurity and neuroscience. His current research focuses on possible uses of novel microbiological agents, neurotechnologies, and ancillary science and technology as force-multiplying elements in non-kinetic, hybrid, and kinetic engagements; and the role of international agencies and policies in global biosecurity. At ASM, Joseph attended the Innovations in Biothreat Detection Over the past several decades, the United States and the international community have dramatically improved their abilities to identify, respond, mitigate, and manage public health emergencies. Yet, there are demands to strengthen the prevention, protection, and treatment of individuals that may be exposed to dangerous pathogens, such as high-confidence & autonomous biological sensors. These technologies must be able to scan an area or environment, identify specific agents, and quickly inform stakeholders of an event. These sessions examined the recent advancements in rapid, confident, and fieldable biological threat agent – or biothreat – detection. ” Joseph also attended Dr. Fauci’s talk Coronavirus Infections: More Than Just A Common Cold– “Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), spoke at the ASM Biothreats meeting about the advent of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Although scientists first characterized the human coronaviruses (CoV) in the 1960s, CoVs rarely received international attention. Then, in 2002, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a new disease, caused worldwide panic and consternation as the virus spread quickly from China to the rest of the world.”

Maddie Roty is a first-year graduate student in the Biodefense Master’s program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. She earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing from the University of Michigan in 2019 and is a registered nurse in the state of Virginia. Her interests include the impact of violence on health, the role of culture on social structures and decision-making, public education, and health preparedness. At ASM, Maddie attended International Collaboration Without Complications and Confusion, noting that it “emphasized the complexity of promoting and protecting biological research and innovation in today’s society. The four speakers featured on the panel discussed what exists now and what still needs to be done to strike a balance between promoting and protecting biotechnology, with attention given specifically to export controls, synthetic biology, the select agent program, and biosecurity.” Maddie also attended The Doctors Without Borders Experience: Patients as People and not Biohazards, finding that “For its relevance, Benoit did make a point to address MSF’s response to the emerging coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately, most of the need is in China, and China has traditionally been resistant to accepting assistance from independent actors. MSF is standing by and continuing to assess for situations in which it could help provide care or supplies.”

Michael Krug is a second-year graduate student in the Biodefense Master’s program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry from Virginia Tech and worked for several years in the biotechnology industry, accruing experience in the fields of molecular biology, drug development, and emerging technologies. His research interests incorporate national security and emerging dual-use technologies, specifically, synthetic biology and genome-editing. He expects to graduate in the spring semester of 2020 and plans to pursue a career in biosafety and biosecurity. Attending From Surveillance to Bedside: Tools for the Next Outbreak, he found that “As new emerging diseases continue challenging global health response, it is imperative that these technologies continue to be developed, tested, and licensed for global use. This session, moderated by Dr. Vineet Menachery of the University of Texas Medical Branch and Dr. Kari Debbink of Bowie State University, touched on cutting edge research for the response to the next emerging infectious disease.” Michael also attended Smallpox: Development and Use of the Panoply of Countermeasures in the Armamentariumnoting that “Variola virus research can often be stigmatized since the disease was eradicated in 1980; however, the risk of potential bioterrorism, even after eradication, supports continued research, especially for the session participants mentioned above. Additionally, as viruses become cheaper and easier to synthesize from scratch, this research could be used at the frontlines against a nefarious release of synthesized variola virus.”

From Surveillance to Bedside: Tools for the Next Outbreak

By Michael Krug

The recent emergence of the novel Coronavirus (nCoV) hdemonstrates an essential demand for tools to rapidly respond to infectious diseases. These tools range from improved disease surveillance to therapeutics that mitigate infection spread. As new emerging diseases continue challenging global health response, it is imperative that these technologies continue to be developed, tested, and licensed for global use. This session, moderated by Dr. Vineet Menachery of the University of Texas Medical Branch and Dr. Kari Debbink of Bowie State University, touched on cutting edge research for the response to the next emerging infectious disease.

First to present was Dr. Amy Hartman from the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Hartman’s presentation was titled In Utero: Transmission of Rift Valley Fever Virus: Ramifications for Future Outbreaks. The takeaway of Dr. Hartman’s presentation revolved around the use of animal models to better understand vaccine and therapeutic effectiveness. One of the projects investigating viable models involved using Rift Valley Fever Virus (RVFV), a select agent and priority disease declared by WHO, to test for vertical transmission of the disease in pregnant women. Limited human outbreak data suggest that vertical transmission of RVFV to a developing human fetus can lead to detrimental outcomes. In order to complete this study, a tested and validated animal model was needed, a difficult task to achieve given the human fetal tissue bans. Using immunocompetent Sprague-Dawley rats infected with a pathogenic strain of RVFV, Dr. Hartman’s lab demonstrated direct vertical transmission, which included fetal death. Additionally, the lab used donated placental explants to show RVFV replication in human cells that are typically resistant to viral infection. With the in vivo model and human placental cell evidence, Dr. Hartman’s lab demonstrated RVFV replication in the human placenta cells, as well as vertical transmission of RVFV in a novel animal model. Continue reading “From Surveillance to Bedside: Tools for the Next Outbreak”

Smallpox: Development and Use of the Panoply of Countermeasures in the Armamentarium

By Michael Krug

Smallpox remains one of the most devastating biothreats known to mankind. The reemergence of the variola virus, a member of the orthopoxvirus genus, could result in a catastrophic loss of life worldwide due to high transmissibility and high mortality rates, in combination with a relatively immunologically naive human population. The development of a safer and better tolerated vaccine would greatly ease the threat of a smallpox reemergence. The development of a new medical countermeasure (MCM) is easier said than done. The absence of the disease makes research and development a very difficult task. This session, moderated by BARDA’s Michael Merchlinsky, sought to provide detail into some of the recent breakthroughs throughout the orthopoxvirus field.

The first presenter of this session was Dr. Paul Chaplin of Bavarian Nordic. His presentation, titled The Approval of JYNNEOS, an Attenuated MVA-Based Vaccine for the Prevention of Smallpox and Monkeypox Infections, provided detail on the progression of developing an MCM without the luxury of working with the disease. Due to the harsh complications, especially to high risk individuals, that the traditional smallpox vaccines could cause, the U.S. government sought to develop a safer vaccine. In 2018, after nearly 15 years of public-private partnership efforts between BARDA and Bavarian Nordic, the U.S. FDA approved JYNNEOS for prevention of smallpox and monkeypox. The vaccine is a further attenuated version of the Modified Vaccinia Ankara (MVA) virus. JYNNEOS is unique because it is the first non-replicating smallpox vaccine to hit the market, greatly diminishing potential complications caused by replicating vaccines. When compared to the ACAM 2000, JYNNEOS stimulated an almost two-fold increase in antibody titer. Additionally, with greater than 10,500 clinical subjects, JYNNEOS has been proven to be safe and well tolerated, with no signs of clinical adverse side effects. JYNNEOS’s name was derived from Edward Jenner, the developer of the original smallpox vaccination process, known as scarification, and NEOS meaning new in Latin. Continue reading “Smallpox: Development and Use of the Panoply of Countermeasures in the Armamentarium”

Event Summary: Battling Insecurity, Mistrust, and Disease

By Greg Witt, GMU Biodefense PhD student

Since at least the fifth century BCE, when the Plague of Athens contributed to the outcome of the Peloponnesian War, states have recognized the detrimental effect that infectious diseases can have on their stability and security. In the modern era, as the focus of governments shifted from traditional concerns about national security to encompass new threats to economic prosperity, access to food, and public health – collectively known as “human security” – efforts to combat the risks posed by disease have been given an even higher priority. Nowhere is this connection more central than in the burgeoning field of health security, defined by the World Health Organization as “…the activities required to minimize the danger and impact of acute public health events.” However, just as the burdens imposed on societies by disease pose a threat to the security of states and populations, the inverse is equally true: insecurity tends to exacerbate the harmful effects of disease by displacing vulnerable people, impeding access to medical care, and breeding mistrust against government institutions. This can lead to a vicious cycle in which intrastate conflict reduces the capacity of states to respond to public health crises, which in turn makes it harder to prevent further violence. Continue reading “Event Summary: Battling Insecurity, Mistrust, and Disease”

Innovations in Biothreat Detection

By Joseph DeFranco

On 30 January 2020, Drs. David Walsh  from MIT Lincoln Lab, Timothy M. Reed from the 20th CBRNE CARA Lab, and Phillip M. Mach from the CCDC Chemical Biological Center, presented on their team’s innovations in biological threat agent detection.

Over the past several decades, the United States and the international community have dramatically improved their abilities to identify, respond, mitigate, and manage public health emergencies. Yet, there are demands to strengthen the prevention, protection, and treatment of individuals that may be exposed to dangerous pathogens, such as high-confidence & autonomous biological sensors. These technologies must be able to scan an area or environment, identify specific agents, and quickly inform stakeholders of an event. These sessions examined the recent advancements in rapid, confident, and fieldable biological threat agent – or biothreat – detection.

Dr. Walsh’s team works on biothreat detection research to overcome both the technical challenges (e.g., limits of detection) and operational challenges (e.g., availability of the device). These obstacles are compounded by the real-world environments in which these devices must be deployed versus the more controlled environments often found in hospitals or research institutions. Dr. Walsh’s team strives to create the “ideal” biosensor that would be sensitive to specific species, quick, reliable, and adaptable to environmental parameters. They are currently testing a rapid, autonomous device that performs sample collection, sample preparation, and biological identification.  A microcompactor condenses the surrounding air toward an impaction surface that collects the aerosols in the environment. Then, the device spins the raw sample from the impaction surface into a testable sample. Finally, the purified sample is amplified and analyzed by a relatively new method of detection called Extreme PCR (xPCR). Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique that scientists use to increase the amount of DNA from a sample, a process that usually takes an hour or longer. PCR requires repetitive heating and cooling to denature the original DNA strands, anneal the primer to the target sequence, and synthesize new DNA strands. xPCR uses state-of-the-art technology to accelerate the heating and cooling aspects of the assay and can detect the presence of DNA within minutes. Continue reading “Innovations in Biothreat Detection”

Symposium on “International Collaboration without Complications and Confusion”

By Madeline Roty

The symposium “International Collaboration without Complications and Confusion” at the ASM Biothreats Conference emphasized the complexity of promoting and protecting biological research and innovation in today’s society. The four speakers featured on the panel discussed what exists now and what still needs to be done to strike a balance between promoting and protecting biotechnology, with attention given specifically to export controls, synthetic biology, the select agent program, and biosecurity.

Kimberly Orr, from the Bureau of Industry and Security in the Department of Commerce opened the symposium with a discussion on “Deemed Exports: Sharing Technology or Material with Foreign Collaborators.” When it comes to biotechnology, how do you know if the Department of Commerce needs to be involved? The 2018 Export Control Reform Act (ECRA), codified by the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) establishes regulations on the export, reexport, or transfer of emerging and foundational technologies, including to foreign nationals located in the United States. Orr defined terms and briefly discussed the provisions of the ECRA. The key takeaway from all of this information was that laboratories and companies need to know the classification and licensing requirements, be aware of their personnel, and establish an export control program. In today’s world of interconnectedness, export control systems are essential for national and global security.

The next panelist, Diane DiEullis from the National Defense University, explored “Synthetic Biology: Industry/Government.” DiEullis has conducted research regarding industry practices in synthetic biology in order to identify opportunities for biosecurity. When it comes to biotechnology, there is always the risk for accidental or intentional misuse, but controlling the bioeconomy, comprised of consumer products, pharma, fuel, agriculture, food, material, and digital sectors, is complicated. It is even appropriate to ask if we should be controlling things that have every day purposes in laboratories. The issue does not just concern the United States because industry is becoming increasingly international. Continue reading “Symposium on “International Collaboration without Complications and Confusion””

Coronavirus Infections: More Than Just A Common Cold

By Joseph DeFranco

On 29 January 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), spoke at the ASM Biothreats meeting about the advent of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

Although scientists first characterized the human coronaviruses (CoV) in the 1960s, CoVs rarely received international attention. Then, in 2002, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a new disease, caused worldwide panic and consternation as the virus spread quickly from China to the rest of the world. Of the 8,098 SARS-infected patients, there were 774 fatalities (9.5% Case Fatality Rate [CFR]), and the pandemic cost the global economy an estimated US$30-100 billion. In the wake of SARS, the World Health Organization (WHO) would implement new International Health Regulations (IHR) to address some of the weaknesses exposed during the 2002 pandemic. Continue reading “Coronavirus Infections: More Than Just A Common Cold”

Lessons from “The Doctors Without Borders Experience: Patients as People and not Biohazards”

By Madeline Roty

Avril Benoit from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) opened the ASM Biothreats Conference by taking a step back from the micro level of a cell and focusing on the macro level of global health. Ms. Benoit is the Executive Director of the U.S. Management Team for MSF, more commonly known as Doctors Without Borders. In addition to the work being done by MSF, Benoit discussed the limitations and challenges hindering its mission. She challenged the audience of students, policymakers, scientists, and innovators, to be committed to humanitarianism over political and financial motivations and to promote human engagement before technology.

MSF is a non-profit medical humanitarian organization that primarily provides medical care to the most vulnerable in society, including those experiencing displacement, conflict and violence, or disasters. Because it is an organization primarily funded by private donors, MSF maintains more independence in decision-making. Fueled by the belief  that “every person is deserving of healthcare,” independence means MSF can “take enormous risks” to deploy personnel to regions other organizations cannot, especially in areas of conflict. In addition to providing medical care and supplies, MSF has epidemiologists, media personnel, and a research and development team. Continue reading “Lessons from “The Doctors Without Borders Experience: Patients as People and not Biohazards””

Pandora Report: 1.31.2020

ASM Biothreats
Missed the 2020 ASM Biothreats conference? Next week we’ll have you updated with our coverage across multiple talks, panels, and the highlights of this top conference on all things biological. GMU biodefense graduate students will be providing detailed accounts of these discussions at a pivotal time in international health. “ASM Biothreats is a one-of-a-kind meeting offering professionals in biodefense, biosecurity and biological threats the opportunity to exchange knowledge and ideas that will shape the future of this emerging field. ASM Biothreats offers a unique program that explores the latest developments and emerging technologies in the industry.”

Update: 2019-nCoV
If you have turned on any news channel or navigated to news website, you most certainly encountered a number of discussions about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak originating in Wuhan, China. The WHO was alerted on New Years Eve of this novel pathogen causing pneumonia-like illness and chaos increasingly ensued over the continuing weeks. This mysterious pathogen was identified as a coronavirus (think SARS and MERS) and is currently dubbed “2019-nCoV.” As the disease spreads globally, the WHO is launching a Global 2019-nCoV Clinical Data Platform for Member States to contribute anonymized clinical data that can inform the public health clinical response. On 30 January, the Emergency Committee on the 2019-nCoV under the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) reconvened to determine if the outbreak constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), and, if so, what recommendations and actions should be made to manage it. Thursday evening, the Committee announced declaration of a PHEIC for the 2019-nCov outbreak. As of 28 January, there are confirmed cases in China, Nepal, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Australia, France, Germany, Finland, Canada, and the United States. Within the United States, there are 5 confirmed cases in Washington, California, Arizona, and Illinois as well as an additional 92 suspected cases awaiting diagnostic results. Currently, there are 165 persons located in the US under investigation for 2019-nCoV infection. On Thursday, public health officials reported that the husband of the case identified in Chicago, had tested positive for the disease. This marks a second-generation of cases, or transmission, within the U.S. There are also reports of people running to buy face masks in the U.S., leaving concern for shortages. Experts have been quick though to note that these are not needed as transmission is not widespread within the United States and that hand hygiene is most effective this time of year. GMU Biodefense doctoral alum Saskia Popescu recently spoke to CNN on this, noting that “Wearing a surgical mask helps you prevent sharing your germs if you’re sick,” Saskia Popescu, a hospital epidemiologist and infection prevention expert, told CNN. “Surgical masks do not seal around the face, so while they offer some protection, it’s the N95 mask that offers the most protection.” The CDC released an updated travel warning to its most severe yet – Warning Level 3 – urging travelers to avoid all nonessential travel to China. According to the WHO, the latest figures (30 January) for the outbreak are:

  • 7,818 confirmed cases worldwide
  • 7,736 confirmed cases in China
  • 170 deaths worldwide
  • Global Risk Assessment: High

Experts from the University of Hong Kong estimate the true total number of cases in Wuhan to be about 44,000, and they predict this figure could double by the start of February. The city is already under an unprecedented quarantine and hospitals are overrun as the epidemic intensifies. GMU biodefense graduate program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz recently spoke about the importance of promoting education, not travel bans as coronavirus concerns spread. “Widespread travel bans are ineffective and even counterproductive,” said Koblentz, a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and an expert on biodefense and biosecurity. “The idea that you can quarantine the entire population of large cities is just not feasible.” If people want to travel, they will find a way to travel, but they will be secretive about it, said Koblentz. “Then when they do get sick, they will avoid seeking medical attention because they don’t want to get in trouble,” said Koblentz. “A travel ban basically means that people will avoid getting help and notifying public health authorities, and the spread of the virus will continue, undetected.” Instead, Koblentz recommended that health officials work to get the public on their side by communicating with them about the symptoms and when to seek medical care.

Speculation abounds about the zoonotic origin of the virus, but the prevailing theory (at the moment) points toward bats as the culprit. The source location of the outbreak is the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which did not sell bat meat, so speculation continues. It is possible that another animal provided the channel to human infection. Previous conjecture that snakes are the origin is under criticism as it remains unclear if coronaviruses can infect snakes. Additionally, experts reject the fringe theory that the outbreak is a consequence of accidental release of biological weapons research samples housed in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, stated the virus’s genome and properties do not indicate that it is the product of engineering. Stay tuned to the Pandora Report for updates on the progression of the 2019-nCov outbreak.

Of Quarantine and robots: How China and the U.S. Are Working to Combat Coronavirus
GMU Biodefense PhD alum Saskia Popescu recently wrote on the efforts by both the Chinese and the U.S. in responding to and preventing transmission of the 2019-nCoV. From quarantine to travel screenings, Popescu discusses the pros and cons, but also breaks down the opportunities within U.S. response. “The first case of the coronavirus in the United States received wide news coverage, and rightly so. But the Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash., used some extreme techniques to treat the patient, a man in his 30s who’d travelled to Wuhan. He was taken from an urgent care to the hospital in a negative-pressure transportation device called an ISOPOD that’s more often associated with Ebola care and put into an isolation room, where the hospital used a robot to treat him to reduce health care worker exposure. At this point, though, these extra precautions aren’t required. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that health care workers caring for patients with coronavirus should protect themselves with a gown, gloves, eye protection, and an N95 mask, which can filter out most airborne particles. If the Everett hospital wanted to use its robot and ISPOD to test its capabilities and protocols, it should have communicated this more clearly–to keep from confusing other health care providers about the advice of federal officials.”

ABSA International – Risk Group Database App
The Association for Biosafety and Biosecurity (ABSA) just released their new International Risk Group Database app, which allows users to work offline and access the ABSA database via their mobile device. The ABSA International Risk Group Database consists of international risk group classifications for bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. In many countries, including the United States, infectious agents are categorized in risk groups based on their relative risk. Depending on the country and/or organization, this classification system might take the following factors into consideration: pathogenicity of the organism; mode of transmission and host range; availability of effective preventive measures (e.g., vaccines); availability of effective treatment (e.g., antibiotics); and other factors.

Doomsday Clock
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists released their 2020 Doomsday Clock statement and revealed that the clock is now closer than ever at 100 seconds to midnight. The Doomsday Clock is “universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains.” This year’s statement highlights two coexisting existential threats to humanity: nuclear war and climate change. Adding insult to injury, these threats are exacerbated by cyber-enabled information warfare, which continues to advance in efficiency and capability. The last year saw the dissolution or undermining of several key arms control treaties aimed at quelling the risk of nuclear war – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, for example. Iran, the DPRK, and Russia remain major dangerous players in the nuclear game. On a more positive note, awareness of the adverse effects of climate change swelled over 2019; however, governmental action to counter climate change left much to be desired. The Bulletin implores leaders and citizens to take thoughtful and actionable steps to lessen these threats:

  • US and Russian leaders can return to the negotiating table to reach an agreement on nuclear arms and other arsenals
  • The nations of the world should publicly rededicate themselves to the temperature goal of the Paris climate agreement (limiting warming below 2 degrees Celsius higher than the preindustrial level)
  • US citizens should demand climate action from their government
  • The United States and other signatories of the JCPOA cooperate to curb nuclear proliferation in the Middle East
  • The international community should commence multilateral discussions to create norms of domestic and international behavior that discourage and punish the misuse of science

Alumni Spotlight – NextGen GHSA
A new piece published on the Next Generation Global Health Security Network was co-authored by Anthony Falzarano, Stephen Taylor, Kate Kerr and Jessica Smrekar, graduates of GMU’s MS in Biodefense program (Taylor Winkenfeld is also an author). This Op-Ed, “We Preach Prevention, WHO Practices Response,” chastises the sluggish response of the WHO to the ongoing 2019-nCov outbreak originating in Wuhan, China. China’s President Xi Jinping instituted a mass quarantine of 50 million people, yet the WHO has yet to declare this outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which helps mobilize funding and political will toward outbreak response efforts. In fact, the committee that makes such a declaration met on 30 January, weeks after the start of the outbreak. The WHO possesses a history of delayed action, such as with the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The authors suggest that the delay in PHEIC declaration for the 2019-nCov outbreak is founded in fear of political and economic impacts, especially given the “reach of the Chinese global engine.” This outbreak is yet another example and, hopefully, lesson waiting and watching cannot be the default response to tragic events, especially ones that harm public health, regardless of the political, economic, and social issues that complicate decision-making and action.

The Ethics of Acquiring Disruptive Military Technologies
Technological innovation – especially in human enhancement, artificial intelligence, and cyber tools – continues at an accelerating rate and yield a significant effect on combat by reducing risk to soldiers and civilians, but also broadening the spectrum of actors capable of chasing policy goals through military methods. An article by C. Anthony Pfaff published in the Texas National Security Review expands the discussion about emerging and advancing technologies to include the ethics of disruptive military technologies. Disruptive technologies in a military context are defined as “technologies or sets of technologies applied to a relevant problem in a manner that radically alters the symmetry of military power between competitors, which then immediately outdates the policies, doctrines and organization of all actors.” These technologies necessitate changes in soldier training and identity as well as the relationship between society and soldiers. A technology is considered disruptive based on its attributes’ interactions with a specific community of users in a specific environment. The author outlines a framework to evaluate the moral effect, necessity, and proportionality of technologies to determine if and how they should be developed and deployed. This framework includes consideration for moral autonomy, justice, well-being, transfer of technology, and, of course, the civilian-military relationship. The author recommends eight measures and policies to maintain ethical conditions for developing disruptive technologies ranging from managing the transfer of technologies to greater society to accounting for soldier well-being.  Pfaff’s full article detailing his analysis, framework, and recommendations is available here.

Considering Pediatrics During CBW Preparedness and Response
Often during measures to prepare for a chemical or biological weapons attack, it can be easy to forget about the unique care that children and neonates require. A new article in Physicians New Digest discussed this very critical nuance to CBW preparedness, highlighting the CW attacks in Syria by the Assad regime against civilians, included children, underscoring the need for pediatricians. Often, medical countermeasures require very specific dosages or are contraindicated in children, which poses a very unique challenge for responders. “In chemical attacks, for example, children may be disproportionately affected because they would take in more contaminated air, food and fluids relative to their body weight than adults, said co-author Carl Baum, MD, FACMT, FAAP, a former AAP Council on Environmental Health executive committee member who now serves on the Council on Disaster Preparedness and Recovery executive committee. ‘Children also spend more time closer to the ground, where toxic substances can settle. And they have a relatively larger body-surface area, which makes chemicals that touch the skin more dangerous for them,’ Dr. Baum said.” Children might also have high respiratory rates or present differently, which puts them at an increased risk for both inhalation of a CB agent, but also delays in medical care or diagnostics. The authors highlighted the importance of including pediatricians in preparedness efforts to ensure children have triage and treatment protocols in the event of a CBW attack.

News of the Weird
Sure, the novel coronavirus is in the news a lot right now, but where does beer come into the picture? Unfortunately the whole “corona” portion of the name has been throwing people off. “In the United States, Google Trends calculated that 57% of the people that searched one of those terms searched for “beer virus,’ and the remaining 43% searched for ‘corona beer virus.’ States like Hawaii, New Mexico and Kansas are searching ‘beer virus’ more, whereas states like South Carolina, Colorado and Arizona are searching ‘corona beer virus’ more”