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

By DeeDee Bowers, Biodefense MS Student

Since its creation in November of 2002 prompted by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been an all-encompassing entity for protecting America from threats to national security. After almost two decades, the national security landscape has changed, and the role of DHS has been challenged and must evolve. As Charles Darwin once stated, survival of the fittest does not refer to the ones that are the strongest or smartest but rather the ones most adaptable to change. If DHS is going to continue to thrive, regardless of the presidential administration in place, it must adapt from the landscape it was born into to the current unpredictable times of 2020 and beyond.

Black swan events, or unpredictable events, require a new perspective and imagination within DHS in order for it to better handle the responsibilities of protecting the American people. During the Gulf War, the American Military displayed a strong force to deter our enemies from confronting America on the modern battlefield. Non-state actors instead chose to take alternative actions to inflict damage on America using commercial airliners and the US Postal Service.  Since the early 2000s, threats to America now encompass the “homeland security enterprise.” The homeland security enterprise is a partnership between state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments, private sectors, the public, and the federal government. The homeland security enterprise now has the enormous undertaking of assuring security of the homeland from events such as terrorist attacks through nonmilitary means, natural disasters, immigration concerns, cybersecurity threats, election security, and pandemics such as COVID-19. All of this must be done in a tactful way to instill confidence in the American people that DHS can indeed adapt to the threats of the time while in a highly politicized environment and remain apolitical.

Former Secretaries of DHS Michael Chertoff, Jeh Johnson, and Janet Napolitano spoke during the Atlantic Council’s webinar to share their thoughts on how the DHS will or should evolve. All agreed that a more stable appointment by the presidential administration would be necessary for quality DHS operation and response. In addition, Secretary Jeh Johnson, suggested an apolitical administration to remind Americans of all of DHS’s goals and a change in policy direction would be necessary to include more threats. Experts such as Thomas Fanning, and Amy Rall suggested these threats include biological as illustrated by COVID-19, physical assaults on critical infrastructure, and cybersecurity concerns such as ransomware. Fanning also stressed that vulnerabilities due to ignorance may gain clarity through the homeland security enterprise, where the less restricted private sector works in close collaboration with DHS to convey joint security. In addition, Fanning, recommended a national campaign to inform and teach the public about how to protect themselves from threats they may not be aware of. In the beginning of the webinar, Max Brooks, described how the strength of the American society and governmental departments such as DHS come from the American people whom are presently fractured. To overcome this, Brooks suggested “new ideas [to combat future threats] are useless without the courage to champion them and a society to support these champions.”

Pandora Report: 9.11.2020

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

In Memory of 9/11

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

Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

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

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

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

Update: COVID-19 Vaccine

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

History of Nerve Agent Assassinations

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

Navigating a Post-Pandemic World

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

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

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

Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Pits Spy Against Spy

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

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

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

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

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

News of the Weird: COVID-19 Instigates Ad Changes

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

Commentary – Captivating Conflagration: Arson as a Terrorist Tactic

By Stevie Kiesel, PhD Student

In 2018, the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California’s history tore through the state. The Camp Fire killed 85 and caused an estimated $16.5 billion in damage. The towns of Concow and Paradise were nearly completely destroyed. Not even a year later, Australia experienced an uncharacteristically destructive bushfire season that ultimately killed 34 people, burned nearly 50 million acres, and destroyed almost 6,000 buildings. The fires also wrought devastating impacts on the environment, and cleanup costs alone have exceeded $5 billion.

The most extreme terrorist groups aspire to achieve this level of death and destruction. It therefore comes as no surprise that jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State and its affiliates, have touted these fires and others in their propaganda. A video released earlier this month by the Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Center describes arson as a highly effective, low-skill attack with great potential for damage and psychological impact, highlighting the California wildfires as an example for how death tolls in large fires “sometimes exceed the number of those lost in major strikes by the mujahideen in which they used guns and explosives.” Voice of Hind, an online magazine published by an Islamic State affiliate in India, has encouraged adherents to use fire as a comparatively simple means of attack to “annihilate the disbelievers.” Jihadist publications and videos have touted the use of fire for years, from the Islamic State publication al-Naba (as well as their now-defunct magazine Rumiyah) to Al Qaeda’s magazine Inspire. In 2019, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for widespread crop fires that caused a great deal of damage in Iraq and Syria.

The use of arson for terrorist purposes is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to jihadists. Extremists on the far right and the far left, as well as special interest extremists, have used arson to send political messages for years. In a recent example from April 2020, John Michael Rathbun was charged with attempted arson after trying to use gasoline to start a fire at a Jewish assisted living center in Massachusetts. Rathbun was active on white supremacist internet forums—so active, and so lax about what he was posting, that his attack was discovered after he posted his plans on a public calendar on Telegram. Similarly, in 2019 far-right extremist Tristan Morgan accidentally set himself on fire while attempting to burn down the Exeter Synagogue in the United Kingdom. Despite the tactical errors in these cases, the threat of arson terrorism should be taken seriously. Arson has a long history of being used to terrorize black neighborhoods, businesses, and churches in the United States. Even when no lives are lost, the psychological and economic impact of these attacks can be severe.

Environmental and animal rights extremists also have a history of arson attacks. Arson was particularly appealing to their ideology because they wanted to destroy facilities or machinery that they felt were doing harm, but they did not necessarily want to harm humans or animals. For example, the Earth Liberation Front advocated a tactic called “monkeywrenching,” which refers to sabotage and property destruction against industries that they perceive to be damaging the environment. Common monkeywrenching tactics include arson, sabotaging logging and construction equipment, and tree spiking. The Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for a number of fires, the most destructive being the 1998 fire at a Colorado ski facility, which reportedly caused $12 million in damage. Other special interest groups that have a history of engaging in arson include the Animal Liberation Front (animal rights) and the Coalition to Save the Preserves (environmental protection). Anti-abortion extremists have also conducted arson attacks, though organizationally they would be considered lone wolf attacks rather than attacks affiliated with a specific group.

While these cases demonstrate clear interest and intent to weaponize fire by a wide range of terrorist groups, a more systematic look at arson as a terrorist tactic is possible by using the Global Terrorism Database developed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. This database, whose information is publicly available from 1970 through 2018, captures arson as a unique weapon type. The four charts below show some interesting trends about arson use throughout history.

Charts compiled by author using data from the START Global Terrorism Database.

*Note that for Chart 4 (Top 15 Groups Using Arson, 1970-2018), the top result was an unknown group (n=1,792) followed by the groups listed in the chart.

Arson is an attractive tactic for many types of terrorist groups. Fire can be incredibly destructive in terms of lives lost, property and economic damages, and psychological impact. Arson is a low-cost and low-skill tactic, and elements of nature (such as high winds) can be used as a force multiplier. Additionally, arson can function as just one element of a complex attack, with a potential for “ambushes (luring), intentional depletion of resources (diversion), and follow-on or secondary attacks.” Large fires are also incredibly appealing to terrorist groups with apocalyptic or accelerationist ideologies, such as jihadist and extreme right-wing groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had a significant impact on terrorism. Because of ongoing public safety measures and many people’s discomfort with crowded areas at the moment, typical soft targets for terrorist attacks are not as plentiful as before the pandemic. Arson may become a more attractive method to terrorists during this time because fires can drive people out of their homes and, much like a virus, once started, fire can spread far and leave devastation in its path. Another worrying development that has accelerated during the pandemic is the rise and increased reach of conspiracy theories. These theories can be incredibly radicalizing, particularly when people are spending more time at home and online while suffering anxiety over the pandemic and the economy. One example of a conspiracy theory whose adherents have committed arson attacks: the theory that 5G cellphone towers are somehow responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. This theory has led to more than 70 arson attacks on cell phone towers, which can put people’s lives at risk if the towers are damaged and access to emergency services is disrupted. Such attacks on critical infrastructure have not gone unnoticed, particularly on white supremacist messaging boards. As COVID-19 forces terrorists to adapt, the potential for arson attacks should not be ignored.

Pandora Report: 9.4.2020

Agroterrorism: National Defense Assessment, Strategies, and Capabilities

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

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

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

COVID-19 Cases Infographic

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

Preliminary Framework for Equitable Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccine

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

Security, Intelligence, and the Global Health Crisis

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

Potential Impact of Science and Technology on International Security and Disarmament

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

Conversations on COVID-19: Impacts on Communities of Color

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

Backlash Against CDC’s Changed Testing Guidelines

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

Navalny Poisoned with Novichok

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

Committee to Review Global Treaty on Health Emergencies

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

The Emerging Neurobioeconomy: Implications for National Security

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

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

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

US Will Revive Global Virus-Hunting Effort Ended Last Year

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

Pandora Report: 8.28.2020

Africa Declares the Eradication of Wild Polio

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

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

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

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

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

CDC Updates

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

Why the US is Having a Coronavirus Data Crisis

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

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

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

Demographic Disparities Among Healthcare Workers Lost in COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

FDA “Grossly Misrepresented” Blood Plasma Data, Scientists Say

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

Pandora Report: 8.21.2020

Welcome Back, Patriots!

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

News of the Weird

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

COVID-19 Data Will Once Again Be Collected by CDC

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

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

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

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

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

Joint Call for Papers – Special Issues on Infodemiology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook’s Threat to Public Health

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

Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 8.14.2020

Commentary – COVID-19 Data and Modeling: Applications and Limitations

Biodefense PhD student Stevie Kiesel discusses the importance of well-represented statistics and the danger of misrepresented statistics in COVID-19. Kiesel also provides her insights on the recently published Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, COVID-19 Data Quality and Considerations for Modeling and Analysis. Read Kiesel’s commentary here.

Beirut Explosions

On 4 August 2020, two explosions involving over 2,700 tons ammonium nitrate occurred in Beirut, Lebanon, a tragedy that has killed over 200 people and impacted several thousand more. Ammonium nitrate is chemical compound that is often used as a component in explosive formulas for mining, quarrying, and civil destruction. The chemical had been in storage for the last 6 years in a warehouse that likely combusted after a nearby fire reached it. The blast is one of the largest industrial accidents involving the explosive compound. The disaster is exacerbated by the lack of available medical care for those injured, either due to hospitals near the blast site that suffered damage or medical facilities already stretched thin under the demands of COVID-19. Additionally, the port in Beirut and the country’s primary grain silo were destroyed, so the entire nation will face economic consequences from the explosions. Lebanon now faces a several concurrent crises impacting their public health, economy, and political stability.

US Seizes Fake Website, Cryptocurrency Assets from Terrorist Groups

The US seized of millions of dollars in cryptocurrency assets is the largest ever of terrorist organizations’ cryptocurrency accounts. The seizure also included fake websites, such as FaceMaskCenter.com, that claimed to sell protective equipment like fake N95 masks and 4 Facebook pages. This was part of an interagency operation targeting the financial foundations of 3 terrorist networks: al Qaeda and the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The entities involved in the operation include the US attorney’s office in Washington, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The case could help justify a desire by the US Department of Treasury to tighten regulations on the cryptocurrency sector.

COVID-19–Related Infodemic and Its Impact on Public Health: A Global Social Media Analysis

A new study published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene analyzes the infodemic of COVID-19 information. An infodemic is “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” An infodemic is comprised of rumors, stigmas, and conspiracy theories and monitoring social media data is the best method for tracking these inaccuracies in real time in order to help “dispel misinformation and reduce stigma.” Islam et al. extracted COVID-19–related misinformation shared on online platforms – fact-checking agency websites, Facebook, Twitter, and online newspapers – and assessed their impacts on public health. The researchers identified 2,311 reports of rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories in 25 languages from 87 countries. Claims covered illness, transmission and mortality (24%), control measures (21%), treatments (19%), as well as causes of disease including the origin (15%), violence (1%), and miscellaneous (20%). Eighty-two percent of the analyzed claims were false. These findings are quite concerning because of the potentially serious health implications of misinformation fueled by rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories.

The COVID-19 Global Response Index

Foreign Policy Analytics released its COVID-19 Global Response Index, which provides an assessment of government responses to the pandemic for 36 countries. This is the first effort to “to track national leaders’ responses in critical policy areas, including public health directives, financial responses, and fact-based public communications.” Additionally, the Index tracks policy response on an ongoing basis. The Index and country profiles are based on data tracked from 31 December 2019 through 1 August 2020. The composite score of the Index contains major policy choices and actions and it reflects government decisions and actions to contain the spread of the virus and to provide financial support during the financial shock. This project was developed with expertise from social scientists, public health experts, and top epidemiologists working at the forefront of the pandemic response.

Virtual Workshop: Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is offering a virtual workshop about the airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on 26-27 August 2020. This workshop is from the Environmental Health Matters Initiative and will delve into the rapidly evolving science on the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.” The event will serve as an opportunity for interdisciplinary discussion, explanations about the basic foundational science, and clarification of terminology used differently among the relevant fields, all in relation to the state of the science on SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Register here.

Tracking Lost Healthcare Workers in COVID-19

Among the gaps in the COVID-19 information is the lack of limited availability of data regarding frontline healthcare workers and their risk of contracting the novel virus. A new article in The Lancet by Nguyen et al. assessed the risk of COVID-19 among front-line healthcare workers compared to the general public and estimated the effect of personal protective equipment (PPE) on risk. The authors conducted a prospective, observational cohort study in the United Kingdom and the United States of the general community and frontline healthcare workers using self-reported data from the COVID Symptom Study smartphone application from late March to late April 2020. They found that compared with the general population, frontline healthcare workers in the UK and the US were at higher risk for reporting a positive COVID-19 test. In the US, a joint database, Lost on the Frontline, created by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News has catalogued over 900 healthcare workers who have perished from COVID-19. The Lost on the Frontline database was created to count, verify, and memorialize every US healthcare worker – doctor, nurse, paramedic, hospital custodian, administrator, support staff – who dies during the pandemic. At present, the project has added the profiles of 167 workers to the database. The database also tracks the disparities among lost frontline workers. For instance, among those 167 profiles, the majority were people of color and nearly one-third were reported to have had inadequate PPE. Anesthesiologist Claire Rezba started tracking lost healthcare workers by tracking news reports and recent obituaries. Rezba posts memorials on her COVID-19 Physicians Memorial and, similar to the Lost on the Frontlines database, has posted 900 names of US healthcare workers who died from COVID-19. To stop the growing count of healthcare worker deaths to COVID-19, healthcare systems must ensure adequate availability of PPE and develop improved strategies to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19.

NACCHO Releases Comprehensive Survey of US Local Health Department Funding, Programs, and Partnerships

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), an organization that represents the country’s 3,000 local health departments, released its 2019 National Profile of Local Health Departments report. The report is drafted every three years as a census of local health departments regarding the “state of local health department funding, workforce programs, and partnerships, as well as how these factors have changed over time.” The latest profile includes the impacts of COVID-19 on local health departments. The key findings include: (1) workforce capacity is down, (2) resources are limited, and (3) services have been impacted by the demands of the pandemic. Read the full report here.

The Era of DNA Database Hacks is Here

Last month, GEDMatch, an online DNA database that generates DNA profiles for genetic testing services, was breached. The hackers seemed to have gotten their hands on user emails, to which they sent out phishing emails in order to steal the passwords of recipients. The motivation of the hack is not yet clear; the culprits may have been targeting passwords, emails, or credit card information, or they have been seeking access to genealogical data or genetic information. Of course, this attack has likely compromised users’ trust of in the database, a valuable law enforcement tool for solving cold cases, such as the Golden State Killer case. Even if these hackers were not specifically after genetic data, the incident highlights the risk of insufficient privacy protection and security of such sensitive information. Genetic data is “valuable if you know how to use it,” according to genealogist and genetic privacy advocate Dr. Leah Larkin. In the online world of today, companies who maintain databases containing sensitive information should improve their cybersecurity to better protect their customers.

Commentary – COVID-19 Data and Modeling: Applications and Limitations

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

Did you know that since 1999 data has shown a strong correlation between the amount of crude oil the US imports from Norway and the number of drivers killed in collisions with railway trains? When the US imports more oil, more drivers are killed in these collisions. Don’t take my word for it, the proof is in this chart, backed by data from the Department of Energy and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention!

This correlation, of course, is just a coincidence between two unrelated variables. Even though the source data is legitimate, correlation in this case does not equal causation. This image comes from a website called Spurious Correlations, which parses publicly available data to show these types of meaningless, but visually captivating, graphics.

Analyzing data helps us better understand so many questions about the world, but data can also be misinterpreted or intentionally misused to promote a particular agenda. The ways that data can be misrepresented are virtually endless, from a misleading y-axis to inappropriate scaling to cherry-picking what data to include. For an egregious example of bad chart-making, take a look at this comparison of prevention services and abortions conducted by Planned Parenthood, presented by former Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz in 2015.

The Congressman explained his chart by saying it shows “the reduction in breast exams and…the increase in abortions.” And while those general trends may be accurate, in what universe is 935,573 cancer screenings a smaller number than 327,000 abortions? This is the kind of visual trickery you can get up to when you decide a y-axis isn’t necessary. The chart below shows the same data plotted in a more traditional (and accurate) way:

Politicians, media organizations, your uncle on Facebook – anyone can manipulate data and create a snazzy graphic to drive home their particular message. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, such data skewing can be particularly dangerous, obscuring important trends and leading to counterproductive policy decisions. Such is the case even when bad visuals are not malicious. Take for example this visual from the Arkansas Department of Health, which is trying to make some kind of point about COVID-19 cases and preexisting health conditions:

The choice to present the data as semi-circles is curious – it is assumed, but not stated, that these percentages are out of 100. Plotting these statistics on a bar graph, perhaps with a y-axis that goes from 0 to 10% rather than 0 to 100%, would allow readers to see more nuanced differences between these conditions. These graphics also lack the “so what.” A case refers to a person who is presumptively or confirmed positive for COVID-19. A comparison of the cases, hospitalizations, and deaths among the various conditions would provide much more useful insights about how other health issues impact the severity of the disease and a patient’s likelihood of surviving it.

Fortunately, while some in our government are misreading or misrepresenting COVID-19 data, other institutions are working to gather and analyze data in a systematic and defensible way. Toward this end, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published a Technology Assessment GAO-20-635SP, COVID-19 Data Quality and Considerations for Modeling and Analysis. This assessment was undertaken to provide policymakers with context on the proper use and limitations of COVID-19 data and models. This report is a useful explanatory tool for understanding how data is gathered, aggregated, contextualized, presented, and updated.

 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relies on public health surveillance data that originate with health care providers, hospitals, and laboratories and then are reported up to the CDC through local public health agencies and state health departments. Reporting requirements are established at state and local levels, and notification to the CDC is voluntary. A standardized case definition for COVID-19 was not developed until April 5, 2020. Because of these factors as well as local variations (availability of tests and testing centers, contact tracing capabilities, etc.), data consistency is a challenge. Data completeness is another big challenge causing an undercount of the true number of cases (see page 7 of the GAO report). Lack of resources, asymptomatic or mild cases not seeking medical care, and timeliness of test results can all present challenges to obtaining complete COVID-19 data.

Another challenge comes from the failure to systematically collect demographic data. Local and state reporting requirements for this information were inconsistent until June 4, 2020, when the Department of Health and Human Service released new guidance that requires additional demographic data (race, ethnicity, age, and sex) to be reported with COVID-19 test results beginning August 1, 2020. Therefore, even though preliminary evidence suggests demographic disparities in the case load and severity of COVID-19, these data have only begun to be systematically provided for analysis.

The GAO report also provides helpful guidance on when to use certain measures and certain types of analyses. For example, this table shows when to use data on cases versus hospitalizations versus deaths:

And this table highlights common methods for contextualizing data, when each method is most appropriate, and their respective limitations:

The report finishes with several recommendations to improve data collection, analysis, and reporting. First, researchers should examine deaths due to other or unspecified respiratory diseases (including pneumonia and the flu) during the pandemic to determine if some COVID-19 deaths had been miscategorized by analyzing whether higher-than-expected number of non-COVID-19 respiratory deaths were recorded during the pandemic. Second, researchers should examine higher-than-expected deaths from all causes during the pandemic (also called “excess deaths”), also to help address the issue of potential undercount of COVID-19 deaths. Third, in the longer term when data become available, researchers should compare higher-than-expected numbers of deaths from other causes to deaths from COVID-19 to get a better sense of the magnitude of deaths caused by COVID-19. And fourth, while efforts to improve forecasting model accuracy should continue, policymakers and researchers must understand that “during the outbreak of a new disease, models can be most helpful early in the response, but are most limited by a lack of data. Later in the outbreak, more data become available, but there is less time to implement an optimal response for ending the outbreak” (GAO report, page 26).

Pandora Report: 8.7.2020

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

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

The Folly of Circumventing the CDC

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

How Do We Know If a Virus Is Bioengineered?

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

New Course Announcement: Building Health System Resilience

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

The Scramble for Vaccines and the COVAX Facility

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

Response Reset

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

Desperate Times Do NOT Call for Desperate Countermeasures

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

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

Update: Mystery Seed from China

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

Dicey DIY COVID-19 Vaccine

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

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

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

Possible Long-Term Symptoms in COVID-19 Patients

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

Pandora Report: 7.31.2020

Zombies and Coronavirus: Planning for the Next Big Outbreak

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

China May Literally Be Sowing the Seeds of Discord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Vaccine Reality Check

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

Fauci’s First Pitch

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

Designing Pull Funding for A COVID-19 Vaccine

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

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

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

GMU Study: Contact Tracing Effective in Controlling Spread of Coronavirus

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