Pandora Report: 1.27.2023

The year of the rabbit is off to one heck of a start. This week we cover COVID-19’s spread in China as the Party increasingly cracks down on Zero-COVID protesters, growing concern amount H5N1 in mammals, new insight into the history of the plague, and more. Several new publications are listed, including a fresh book from Ed Regis about the history of the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program and multiple works on misinformation’s impact on COVID-19 responses. As always, we round out with events and announcements, including multiple great upcoming professional opportunities. Happy Friday!

COVID-19 Multiplying Like Rabbits in China

China’s CDC claimed this week that cases of critically ill COVID-19 patients are down 72% from a peak earlier this month in the country, with daily deaths of hospitalized COVID-19 patients down 79% as well. This comes as Wu Zunyou, Chief Epidemiologist at China CDC, claims that 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people have already been infected. This seems like an effort to indicate that a rebound is unlikely in the coming months amid concerns that the new year travel season will cause further spread and deaths. Just last week, China claimed to have 60,000 COVID-19 deaths in the month since it rolled back its notorious Zero-COVID policies, a number far below the one million some models estimated the country will suffer this winter.

However, CNBC notes, “…some experts said that figure probably vastly undercounts the full impact, as it excludes those who die at home, and because many doctors have said they are discouraged from citing Covid as a cause of death.” This understanding better aligns with reports of over-crowded funeral homes and crematoriums, and reports of coffin makers and funeral decoration companies repeatedly selling out of their products amid the spread. Because of these discrepancies, many are doubtful of the government’s official statistics.

At the same time, reports of Zero-COVID protesters being arrested or intimidated are mounting. Four women in Beijing are known to have been arrested in connection with these protests, seemingly in retaliation for their role in what has been described as “the boldest challenge to the Communist Party’s rule in decades and an embarrassing affront to its leader, Xi Jinping.” The New York Times explains the Party’s need to do this, writing “The party seems determined to warn off anyone who may have been emboldened by the remarkable outburst of public discontent, which was followed just days later by Beijing’s abrupt decision to abandon Covid restrictions. Since then, domestic challenges have mounted: Youth unemployment is high, the economy is slowing, and Covid infections and deaths have accelerated.”

The same piece continues, “The party is also working to discredit the protesters by casting them as tools of malevolent foreign powers. Beijing has long dismissed dissent at home — from calls for women’s rights to pro-democracy activism to ethnic unrest — as the result of Western-backed subversion. The protests against “zero Covid” were no exception: One Chinese diplomat suggested that some of the demonstrators had been “bought by external forces.”

Chunyun, the Lunar New Year travel period in China, typically lasts from mid-January through late-February, meaning opportunities for spread in rural parts of the country are far from over, despite China CDC’s apparent claims to the contrary. The continued supply of highly suspect statistics and crackdowns on Zero-COVID protesters presents a troubling situation and indicates that the Party has done anything but change its ways.

Thinking of Offering a Nice Egg in This Trying Time? Mink Again

US egg prices skyrocketed in price by more than 137% between December 2021 and December 2022, leaving many in constant sticker shock at the grocery store as this once reliably cheap staple becomes increasingly expensive. Much of this is attributed to outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N1), which has been spreading in US flocks since January 2022, resulting in cullings of over 57 million birds across industrial and backyard flocks. However, over the past year, this virus has also demonstrated its ability to spread from birds to mammals, with infections found in several species in the US so far, including raccoons, foxes, seals, grizzly bears, and, most recently, minks. Naturally, this had led to increased concern about potential spread into other mammal populations.

“Transmission electron microscopic image of two Influenza A (H5N1) virions, a type of bird flu virus Note the glycoprotein spikes along the surface of the virion and as a stippled appearance of the viral envelope encasing each virion.” Credit: CDC PHIL

Nature covered this story this week, writing “Until this particular outbreak, all mammalian infections could be attributed to direct contact with virus-contaminated material, says Hualan Chen, a virologist at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute in China. For example, animals that ingest wild-bird droppings, or that prey on infected animals, can develop the disease. But its spread between mammals “implies that this H5N1 virus may pose a higher risk to public health”, Chen says.”

A new article in Eurosurveillance discusses the alarming spread of HPAI A(H5N1) at an American mink farm in Galicia, Spain in October 2022. In it, Agüero et al. explain that the farm experienced an acute increase in its mortality rate (.77% versus an expected range of .2-.3%), prompting the facility’s clinical veterinarian to collect samples from affected animals. These animals tested positive for H5N1, and “Post-mortem examination revealed haemorrhagic pneumonia or red hepatisation of the lungs as the most notable lesions”

The authors further explain the set-up of the farm, which housed 51,986 minks, writing “The minks were housed in wire netting cages placed in rows and situated in a series of over 30 partially open barns, which provided overhead protection but not total shelter of their sides. The minks were fed with raw fish and poultry by-products, cereals and blood meal. Poultry farms and avian slaughterhouses supplying the poultry by-products were located in Galicia. Up to 10 January 2023, H5N1 poultry outbreaks have not been reported from this region.”

The outbreak soon peaked, with a weekly mortality rate of 4.3% documented between October 17 and 23. Culling measures were ordered quickly, and all minks from infected pens were culled by November 17, along with destruction of all carcasses, fomites, and waste. Of the farm’s 12 workers, 11 were in contact with infected and culled animals, though none of them tested positive and they all completed quarantine without any problems. However, as the authors note in their abstract, “The identified viruses belong to clade 2.3.4.4b, which is responsible of the ongoing epizootic in Europe. An uncommon mutation (T271A) in the PB2 gene with potential public health implications was found. Our investigations indicate onward mink transmission of the virus may have occurred in the affected farm.”

While the mink farm seems to have been thorough in its efforts to stop this outbreak, there are concerns that this new variant may be circulating in wild bird populations. Nature writes, “But Puryear thinks that because the new variant contains genetic material from gull flu, it’s likely that at least some of its genetic changes arose in gulls before entering the mink farm. This means that a strain containing those mutations is probably still circulating in the bird population. But for human populations, the outlook is still good: if the new strain did start to infect people, health authorities could probably produce a vaccine quickly, and the antiviral drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir) can reduce the severity of the disease.”

The Nature news piece concludes with, “The potential risk to wild animals is greater. Bird flu has consistently caused high levels of sickness and death among wild birds and mammals over the past year, and how the new variant will affect that trend remains to be seen. “We just simply don’t know,” says Puryear.”

Shake Ups and Mess Ups at the Department of Health and Human Services

CDC Takes Major Steps in Revamp

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announced a number of high-level changes to her agency this week, including the creation of the Office of Health Equity and the Office of Public Health Data, Surveillance, and Technology. These are steps taken in light of last year’s internal review that found, among other things, that the agency struggled with appropriately and rapidly sharing scientific findings, communications in general, and that it needed to strengthen relationships with federal, state, and local partners. Furthermore, most of the organizations under CDC will now report directly to the Office of the Director, moving away from what has been described as a “Community of Practice structure”.

MedPage Today explained this leadership re-structuring, writing “Today, additional details about that leadership structure became clear. There will be a centralized leadership team of experts housed within the director’s office, which will include the director of the CDC/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; the principal deputy director; the deputy director for program and science/chief medical officer; the deputy director for policy, communications, and legislative affairs/chief strategy officer; the deputy director for global health; the chief operating officer; and the chief of staff.”

“These changes will improve efficiency, speed decision-making, and strengthen the communication of scientific information to the American public, ensuring CDC’s science reaches the public in an understandable, accessible, and implementable manner as quickly as possible,” an unnamed staffer told The Hill.

OIG Report Finds NIH and EcoHealth Alliance Fell Short in Monitoring and Oversight

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) at HHS released this week the findings of its audit of the National Institutes of Health’s grants to the EcoHealth Alliance. This audit was initiated because of concerns over NIH’s grant awards to EcoHealth as well as EcoHealth’s subawards to foreign entities. OIG aimed to “…determine whether NIH monitored grants to EcoHealth in accordance with Federal requirements, and whether EcoHealth used and managed its NIH grant funds in accordance with Federal requirements.”

The Office found that, “Despite identifying potential risks associated with research being performed under the EcoHealth awards, we found that NIH did not effectively monitor or take timely action to address EcoHealth’s compliance with some requirements. Although NIH and EcoHealth had established monitoring procedures, we found deficiencies in complying with those procedures limited NIH and EcoHealth’s ability to effectively monitor Federal grant awards and subawards to understand the nature of the research conducted, identify potential problem areas, and take corrective action. Using its discretion, NIH did not refer the research to HHS for an outside review for enhanced potential pandemic pathogens (ePPPs) because it determined the research did not involve and was not reasonably anticipated to create, use, or transfer an ePPP. However, NIH added a special term and condition in EcoHealth’s awards and provided limited guidance on how EcoHealth should comply with that requirement. We found that NIH was only able to conclude that research resulted in virus growth that met specified benchmarks based on a late progress report from EcoHealth that NIH failed to follow up on until nearly 2 years after its due date. Based on these findings, we conclude that NIH missed opportunities to more effectively monitor research. With improved oversight, NIH may have been able to take more timely corrective actions to mitigate the inherent risks associated with this type of research.”

Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz was quoted in the New York Timespiece on this report, saying “Although concerns were identified by NIAID staff, the proposal was not referred to NIAID’s review committee for further consideration.” He continued, saying “On paper, NIAID staff were encouraged to ‘err on the side of caution’ in identifying and referring such proposals…but in practice it looks like they erred on the side of complacency.” 

Woman Pleads Guilty to Mailing Ricin Letters in 2020

Pascale Cecile Veronique Ferrier pleaded guilty this week in a US District Court “…to sending a threatening letter containing homemade ricin to then-President Donald J. Trump at the White House in September 2020, and eight similar letters, each containing ricin, to Texas State law enforcement officials.” Ferrier, a dual French-Canadian national, holds a French engineering degree and admitted in her plea agreements that she made ricin in her Quebec home in September 2020. According to the FBI, “Ferrier placed the ricin in envelopes containing letters she wrote to then-President Trump at the White House and to eight Texas State law enforcement officials.”

“Ferrier was detained in the State of Texas for around 10 weeks in the spring of 2019, and she believed that the law enforcement officials were connected to her period of detention. In early September 2020, Ferrier used the Twitter social media service to propose that someone should “please shoot [T]rump in the face.” The letters in the envelopes contained threatening language, and the letter addressed to then-President Trump instructed him to “[g]ive up and remove [his] application for this election.” Ferrier mailed each of the threatening ricin letters from Canada to the United States. Ferrier then drove a car from Canada to the Peace Bridge Border Crossing in Buffalo, New York, on Sept. 20, 2020, where border patrol officials found her in possession of a loaded firearm, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and other weapons.”

Ferrier is scheduled for sentencing on April 26. She faces 262 months imprisonment if her plea agreements are accepted.

An Oldie, But a (Not So) Goodie: Y. Pestis Strains May Have Been Around Centuries Before Outbreaks

A new article in Communications Biology discusses how Yersinia pestis spread globally over longer periods of time than previously estimated. Eaton et al. estimate that the strain of Y. pestis responsible for the Black Death in the mid-14th century diverged from the ancestral strain as early as 1214, while the one responsible for the Plague of Justinian may have cropped up between 272 and 465–up to nearly 270 years before the epidemic began in 541. “‘It shows that each major plague pandemic has likely emerged many decades to centuries earlier than what the historical record suggests,” study coauthor and evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, director of McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Centre in Canada,” said in a statement to CNN.

The authors write in their abstract: “Plague has an enigmatic history as a zoonotic pathogen. This infectious disease will unexpectedly appear in human populations and disappear just as suddenly. As a result, a long-standing line of inquiry has been to estimate when and where plague appeared in the past. However, there have been significant disparities between phylogenetic studies of the causative bacterium, Yersinia pestis, regarding the timing and geographic origins of its reemergence. Here, we curate and contextualize an updated phylogeny of Y. pestis using 601 genome sequences sampled globally. Through a detailed Bayesian evaluation of temporal signal in subsets of these data we demonstrate that a Y. pestis-wide molecular clock is unstable. To resolve this, we developed a new approach in which each Y. pestis population was assessed independently, enabling us to recover substantial temporal signal in five populations, including the ancient pandemic lineages which we now estimate may have emerged decades, or even centuries, before a pandemic was historically documented from European sources. Despite this methodological advancement, we only obtain robust divergence dates from populations sampled over a period of at least 90 years, indicating that genetic evidence alone is insufficient for accurately reconstructing the timing and spread of short-term plague epidemics.”

Read the entire article here.

“Produced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), this digitally colorized scanning electron microscopic (SEM) image depicts a number of yellow-colored, Yersinia pestis bacteria, that had gathered on the proventricular spines of a Xenopsylla cheopis flea. These spines line the interior of the proventriculus, a part of the flea’s digestive system. The Y. pestis bacterium is the pathogen that causes bubonic plague.” Credit: CDC PHIL

It’s 90 Seconds to Midnight (That’s Not Good)

“This year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.” Read the Bulletin’s statement here (also available in РУССКИЙ and УКРАЇНСЬКА).

Say “Hello” to the International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science

The Nuclear Threat Initiative recently announced the creation of the International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science (IBBIS), an organization “trying to prevent dramatic advances in bioscience from unleashing engineered pathogens from the lab, and wants research funders, scientists and journals to help.” NTI explains: “NTI is working with international stakeholders to establish the International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science (IBBIS), an independent organization dedicated to reducing emerging biological risks associated with technology advances. A core element of the IBBIS mission will be to strengthen international biosecurity norms and develop innovative, practical tools and incentives to uphold them. IBBIS has a broadly defined mission, but initially it will focus on preventing the misuse of DNA synthesis technology—with the understanding that it will expand its remit over time.”

“IBBIS will collaborate with stakeholders across the global bioscience and biotechnology enterprise including academia, industry, the public health community, governments and philanthropy. These activities will complement the important work of the World Health Organization, the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs, and other national, regional, and international organizations. NTI’s work to establish IBBIS is rooted in the vision of a world in which bioscience and biotechnology flourish, with safeguards against deliberate or accidental misuse with potentially catastrophic consequences.”

David Matthews discusses IBBIS in-depth, including the fraught geopolitical situation it faces, in this piece for Science Business.

The Lancet Series on One Health and Global Health Security

Check out this recent series from the Lancet: “Following the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the on-going global COVID-19 pandemic, the One Health approach (bridging the Animal-Environmental-Human Health interface)  has rapidly gained political and financial support, particularly in regional and transcontinental initiatives to improve Global Health Security, including through recently established institutions like Africa CDC and other multidisciplinary consortia. This four-paper Lancet Series explores the adoption of One Health approaches to improve health security and include an analysis of the current landscape of preventive, surveillance, and response measures in outbreak situations of emerging and re-emerging zoonotic infectious diseases with epidemic potential as well as other potential public health emergencies such as neglected endemic diseases, antimicrobial resistance, environmental and chemical hazards and natural disasters.”

“Combating Misinformation as a Core Function of Public Health”

Knudsen et al. discuss the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s role in countering misinformation in this New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst piece: “The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene determined that the spread of misinformation about Covid-19 was having a harmful health impact, particularly on communities of color with low vaccination rates. It established a dedicated Misinformation Response Unit to monitor messages containing dangerous misinformation presented on multiple media platforms, including social media, non-English media, and international sites, and proliferating in community forums. The Misinformation Response Unit and the Health Department collaborated with more than 100 community partners to tailor culturally appropriate, scientifically accurate messages to different populations. The Health Department and its partners were able to rapidly identify messages containing inaccurate information about Covid-19 vaccines, treatment, and other issues and to support the delivery of accurate information to various populations. Although the harms of misinformation and benefits of addressing the problem require additional evaluation, internal and external interviews suggested that the Misinformation Response Unit helped the Health Department counter misinformation and disseminate accurate scientific information to the community, thus improving health and vaccine equity during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“Fault Lines: The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation”

This new report from the Council of Canadian Academies includes a number of important findings, including that COVID-19 misinformation cost at least 2,800 Canadian lives and CAD 300 million in hospital expenses over a period of just nine months. “Fault Lines details how science and health misinformation can proliferate and its impacts on individuals, communities, and society. It explores what makes us susceptible to misinformation and how we might use these insights to improve societal resilience to it. The report includes a model of the impacts of COVID‑19 misinformation on vaccination rates in Canada, producing quantitative estimates of its impacts on our health and the economy, and situating these within a broader context of societal and economic harms.”

“Battling Biological Threats: Complacency, Progress, or Both?”

“As 2023 opens, there is apprehension that partisan divisions and politicized health security approaches may worsen as the United States moves into a divided government of ultra-thin margins. But over the course of 2022, several important new national security directives and policies and bipartisan legislative actions significantly advanced thinking on health security and what is required to better protect Americans—proving that progress remains in reach, despite tough odds. Global health security, including biodefense, has been elevated to new prominence in U.S. national security thinking. The Biodefense Posture Review, expected to be released in early 2023, is mandated to unify and modernize DOD’s broad, comprehensive biodefense capabilities, and synchronize these efforts with those of other federal departments in line with the recently released National Defense and Biodefense Strategies. The United States must be resolute and clear, leaning forward not backwards, investing in new capabilities sustained over many years to protect Americans and the larger world against future dangerous pathogens. In a new commentary, Thomas R. Cullison and J. Stephen Morrison argue that it remains possible to bridge divides and make measurable progress to prepare the United States for inevitable future biological threats.” Read this CSIS report here.

“The Pentagon’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program Moves Towards Modernization, Yet Congress Slashes Funding”

Dan Regan discusses DoD’s seemingly mismatched objectives and funding decisions in this piece for the Council on Strategic Risks. He writes, “To achieve its mission set, including investing in emerging biotechnologies and bolstering industrial capacity to scale MCMs to novel threats, developing and investing in stand-off pathogen early warning detection, and advancing protective equipment for the Joint Force, the CBDP budget requires a nearly two-fold increase from the President’s request of $1.32 billion in FY23 to $3 billion for FY24. However, Congress unfortunately just dealt a 7% cut to chemical and biodefense programs with the FY23 omnibus spending bill, following years of declining funds for CBDP. As the FY24 Presidential Budget Request is being drafted, the Biden Administration and Congress should consider significant increases to CBDP’s budget, along with the other biodefense and global health security priorities outlined in the 10 + 10 over 10 strategy, to combat biological threats.”

“Virology Under the Microscope–a Call for Rational Discourse”

In this commentary in mBio, more than 130 authors call for a return to rational discourse about virology and its role in modern issues like pandemic response and debates over GoF research. “Viruses have brought humanity many challenges: respiratory infection, cancer, neurological impairment and immunosuppression to name a few. Virology research over the last 60+ years has responded to reduce this disease burden with vaccines and antivirals. Despite this long history, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented attention to the field of virology. Some of this attention is focused on concern about the safe conduct of research with human pathogens. A small but vocal group of individuals has seized upon these concerns – conflating legitimate questions about safely conducting virus-related research with uncertainties over the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The result has fueled public confusion and, in many instances, ill-informed condemnation of virology. With this article, we seek to promote a return to rational discourse. We explain the use of gain-of-function approaches in science, discuss the possible origins of SARS-CoV-2 and outline current regulatory structures that provide oversight for virological research in the United States. By offering our expertise, we – a broad group of working virologists – seek to aid policy makers in navigating these controversial issues. Balanced, evidence-based discourse is essential to addressing public concern while maintaining and expanding much-needed research in virology.”

“CRISPR Technology: A Decade of Genome Editing is Only the Beginning”

Wang and Doudna discuss the first decade of CRISPR in Science: “In the decade since the publication of CRISPR-Cas9 as a genome-editing technology, the CRISPR toolbox and its applications have profoundly changed basic and applied biological research. Wang and Doudna now review the origins and utility of CRISPR-based genome editing, the successes and current limitations of the technology, and where innovation and engineering are needed. The authors describe important advances in the development of CRISPR genome-editing technology and make predictions about where the field is headed. They also highlight specific examples in medicine and agriculture that show how CRISPR is already affecting society, with exciting opportunities for the future. —DJ”

“Zombie Viruses from the Arctic”

Jean-Michel Claverie’s new piece in Think Global Health discusses the threat global warming poses to global health by threatening Earth’s permafrost, potentially releasing ancient microbes. Claverie explains the evolution of this threat and how it may evolve throughout the piece, writing in part “This science fiction scenario became more realistic in 2015 when an international research team succeeded in resurrecting several viruses isolated from permafrost dating back 30,000 years. Following additional experiments, it is now clear that a significant proportion of prehistorical viruses can remain infectious for even longer periods of time. This article reviews the reality of the risks that their release might represent for the future.”

Science, Secrecy, and the Smithsonian

New from Ed Regis, author of The Biology of Doom, is this book, Science, Secrecy, and the Smithsonian:

“This is the story of how the Smithsonian Institute became intertwined in a secret biological warfare project.”

“During the 1960s, the Smithsonian Institution undertook a large-scale biological survey of a group of uninhabited tropical islands in the Pacific. It was one of the largest and most sweeping biological survey programs of all time, a six-year-long enterprise during which Smithsonian personnel banded 1.8 million birds, captured live specimens and took blood samples, and catalogued the avian, mammalian, reptile, and plant life of 48 Pacific islands.”

“But there was a twist. The study had been initiated, funded, and was overseen by the U.S. Biological Laboratories at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The home of the American biological warfare program. In signing the contract to perform the survey, the Smithsonian became a literal subcontractor to a secret biological warfare project. And by participating in the survey, the Smithsonian scientists were paving the way for top-secret biological warfare tests in the Pacific.”

“Critics charged the Smithsonian with having entered into a Faustian bargain that made the institution complicit in the sordid business of biological warfare, a form of combat which, if it were ever put into practice and used against human populations, could cause mass disease, suffering, and death. The Smithsonian had no proper role in any such activities, said the critics, and should never have undertaken the survey.”

Science, Secrecy, and the Smithsonian: The Strange History of the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program explores the workings of the survey program, places it in its historical context, describes the military tests that followed, and evaluates the critical objections to the Smithsonian’s participation in the project.”

Jonathan Tucker CBW Symposium

“The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies cordially invites you to the 11th annual Jonathan Tucker Symposium on chemical and biological weapons issues on February 9th and 10th, 2023.” BW topics include “Revisiting the Siege of Caffa & Catapulting Cadavers” and “Governance of Dual-Use Biological Research,” the latter of which will be moderated by Dr. Gregory Koblentz. CW topics include “Lessons learned from the U.S. Chemical Weapons Destruction Program” and “The 2023 CWC Review Conference”. Learn more and register for the virtual events here.

Novel Applications of Science and Technology to Address Emerging Chemical and Biological Threats

For the first time since 2019, this Gordon Research Conference is back, this time in sunny Ventura, CA. “The Chemical and Biological Defense GRC is a premier, international scientific conference focused on advancing the frontiers of science through the presentation of cutting-edge and unpublished research, prioritizing time for discussion after each talk and fostering informal interactions among scientists of all career stages. The conference program includes a diverse range of speakers and discussion leaders from institutions and organizations worldwide, concentrating on the latest developments in the field. The conference is five days long and held in a remote location to increase the sense of camaraderie and create scientific communities, with lasting collaborations and friendships. In addition to premier talks, the conference has designated time for poster sessions from individuals of all career stages, and afternoon free time and communal meals allow for informal networking opportunities with leaders in the field.” The conference will be held March 19-24, 2023. Learn more and apply here by February 19.

High School and College Student Internship: Data Analytics for Elite Young Scholars – Biology and Medical Science Experience

“This Young Scholars Research Program is designed for Elite High School Students and Undergrad Students, who are interested in pursuing their study and/or career in the fields of biology or medical science with emphasis on advanced data analytics. You will work with our esteemed George Mason University faculty members on a specific team project. The team will consist of about three to four members of both high school and undergraduate students. The project will be assigned to the students at the beginning of the program based on the preference indicated by the students prior to the program. Two outputs will be expected from each team at the end of the programs: i) a final paper which will be published on the Center for Biomedical Science and Policy website as well as a special issue of World Medical & Health Policy; and ii) Team presentation at a symposium at which students compete for prizes.”

“During this program, students will be participating in a research project applying some of the following methods, including but not limited to biostatistics using R or Stata, data visualization using QGIS or ArcGIS, and network visualization using Gephi.”

“During this program, students will be participating in a research project applying some of the following methods, including but not limited to biostatistics using R or Stata, data visualization using QGIS or ArcGIS, and network visualization using Gephi.”

Special Call for Papers-Journal of Science Policy & Governance

The Journal of Science Policy & Governance recently announced a special call for papers “and competition to provide policymakers with a new perspective on how scientific expertise could be useful to the complex brew of 21st foreign policy and national security challenges, resulting in a special issue on Policy and Governance on Science, Technology and Global Security.” The journal invites “students, post-doctoral researchers, policy fellows, early career researchers and young professionals from around the world to submit op-eds, policy position papers and other articles addressing foreign policy and national security challenges. These include concerns about the use of nuclear or radiological weapons driven by the war in the Ukraine, hypersonic weapons, immigration driven by climate change, and emerging threats in cybersecurity and biosecurity.” The deadline for submission is April 30.

Additionally, there will be a science policy writing workshop on January 30 in addition to two webinars on February 20 and March 30 (one on Policy and Governance on Science and Technology and one on Foreign Policy and National Security, respectively) to help prospective authors prepare their submissions. Learn more about these events and register here.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is “On April 22, 1915, the German Army infamously unleashed more than 160 tons of chlorine gas on French trenches near which Belgian city?”

Shout out to Morgan M. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “In 1985, an American extremist group’s compound was raided by more than 300 law enforcement officers from several federal, state, and local agencies following a three-day standoff. Among other items, officers seized about thirty gallons of potassium cyanide the group intended to use to poison water supplies of several cities. What was the name of this group?” is the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord.

Pandora Report: 1.20.2023

Happy (almost) Lunar New Year! This week we are covering several updates, including China’s COVID-19 cases and fatalities, a new GAO report on HHS’ oversight of high-risk research, and more. We also have several new publications this week, an interesting podcast episode on PPE, and plenty of newly-launched resources and open opportunities later on in the issue.

China Calims 60K COVID-19 Deaths as Lunar New Year Travel Surges

This week, China said it has recorded nearly 60,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 since lifting Zero COVID restrictions last month, up from the 37 it previously claimed had died since December 7. Previously, the country had reported just over 5,000 COVID-19 deaths in total since the initial outbreak of the disease in Wuhan in late 2019. The New York Times explains this, writing “Until Saturday, China had reported a total of just 5,272 Covid deaths since the pandemic began in the city of Wuhan in late 2019. That measure was narrowly defined as deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure caused by Covid. The new figure released Saturday included those who had Covid, but also died from other underlying illnesses.”

Reuters explains this figure further, writing “China recorded 59,938 Covid-related deaths from Dec. 8 to Jan. 12, Jiao Yahui, an official with China’s National Health Commission, said at a news conference in Beijing. That figure included 5,503 people who died of respiratory failure directly caused by Covid. Another 54,435 fatalities were linked to other underlying illnesses, Ms. Jiao said.” Reuters also notes that Jiao claims China was unable to release this information sooner because it “required a comprehensive examination of hospital reporting.”

It remains unclear whether or not China has changed the way it counts COVID-19 deaths so that it includes those with underlying conditions that contributed to their death from COVID-19. Furthermore, many are still skeptical of these numbers, and concerns about a further spike amid holiday travel persist. Combined with other factors like the economic impact this has had in China, and attempts to stamp out online discourse about the Party’s handling of the pandemic by blocking “fake information” that would cause a “gloomy sentiment”, this troubling situation is continuing to evolve.

Russia Announces Criminal Case Against Unnamed US Citizen Accused of Espionage Related to “Biological Topics”

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced this week it has opened a case against a US citizen, citing allegations of “…engaging in “espionage” related to “biological topics.” According to The Guardian, ““The American is suspected of collecting intelligence information in the biological sphere, directed against the security of the Russian Federation,” it added, without any further details.” Reuters reports that “The U.S. State Department said it was aware of the “unconfirmed reports” that Russia has opened a criminal case against a U.S. citizen on suspicion of espionage.” Reuters continued, writing “We’re looking into this matter and we’ll continue to monitor,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters on Thursday….Patel added Russia does not generally abide by obligations to provide timely notification of the detention of U.S. citizens in Russia.”

New GAO Report–“Public Health Preparedness: HHS Could Improve Oversight of Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released this report discussing its study reviewing the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) oversight policies and programs (“the Framework”). The report indicates that “GAO found that HHS’s Framework does not fully meet the key elements of effective oversight identified in past work. For example, the Framework does not provide a standard to help funding agencies interpret what “reasonably anticipated” means. Until HHS develops and documents such a standard, the Framework allows for subjective and potentially inconsistent interpretations of the requirement—leaving HHS without assurance the department is reviewing all necessary research proposals.”

The report, available here, discusses the GAO study and findings at length. It concludes with three recommendations–1) “The Secretary of Health and Human Services should work with HHS funding agencies to develop and document a standard for “reasonably anticipated” to ensure consistency in identifying research for departmental review that is “reasonably anticipated to create, transfer or use enhanced potential pandemic pathogens,”; 2) “The Secretary of Health and Human Services should work with HHS funding agencies to identify and share non-sensitive information with researchers, Congress, and the public about the departmental review process for research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens, including information on composition and expertise of those involved in the review process and how the evaluation criteria are applied,” and 3) “As HHS and CDC deliberate any changes to the DSAT program, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should assess and document the risk posed by the limitations of the existing DSAT exemptions for public health emergencies and seek legislative authority as needed.”

“This photograph depicts a microbiologist in what had been the Influenza Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while she was conducting an experiment inside a negatively-pressurized biological safety cabinet (BSC) within the Biosafety Level 3-enhanced laboratory. The airflow into the BSC helps prevent any airborne virus particles from escaping the confines of the cabinet, and as part of her personal protective equipment (PPE), she was wearing a powered air purifying respirator (PAPR), which was filtering the air that she was breathing.”| Credit: CDC PHIL

No More Biowordscramble–NIST Releases Bioeconomy Lexicon

Biosecurity, bioenergy, bioinspired, biorisk…If you have ever started to feel like the new trend in security jargon is adding “bio” to an already existing word, this one is for you. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently released its bioeconomy lexicon as directed in the Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy. NIST explains the need for this, writing “Biotechnology and biomanufacturing are increasingly vital to the global economy, including in the health care, food and agriculture, and energy sectors. Accordingly, there is a need for standardized terms and definitions to ensure a common understanding of the concepts, data, technical developments, and workforce opportunities as the bioeconomy grows both domestically and internationally.”

They continue by explaining the creation of the lexicon: “This initial lexicon was developed by NIST in consultation with an interagency working group consisting of several U.S. government departments and agencies as directed in the Executive Order noted above, and reflects consideration of relevant domestic and international definitions as well as those from private sector stakeholders. The lexicon harmonizes a base set of terms and definitions with the goal of helping to enable the development of measurements and measurement methods for the bioeconomy that support uses such as economic measurement, risk assessments, and the application of machine learning and other artificial intelligence tools. This lexicon is intended to be a living document, and NIST intends to periodically engage with government and private sector stakeholders to inform future updates to the lexicon terms and definitions as appropriate.”

“Assessing the Trajectory of Biological Research and Development in the Russian Federation”

In this piece for Joint Forces Quarterly, Dr. Gigi Kwik Gronvall and Aurelia Attal-Juncqua offer an overview of the Soviet and Russian biological weapons programs and insight into concerns about current Russian research today. Using information from a two-round Delphi study, they discuss their findings related to “Concerns About Management, Biosecurity, and Biosafety of Dual-Use Research of Concern in the Russian Federation” and “Current State of Biotech and Biological R&D in the Russian Federation.” They conclude with a number of observations and recommendations, including insight into how science diplomacy with Russia may be harmed, writing “Historically, science diplomacy has been a useful tool to keep communication lines open when security relations are fraught and has led to positive outcomes for both science and national security. However, Russia’s invasion of the sovereign Ukrainian nation makes any bilateral engagements between the United States and Russia unconscionable at this time. These actions are unlikely to be forgotten or forgiven swiftly, and sanctions are likely to persist for some time. Eventually, at an undetermined point in the future, such engagements will certainly again prove to be important for national security and scientific advancement.”

“The Myth of the “Poor Man’s Atomic Bomb”: Knowledge, Method, and Ideology in the Study of Chemical, Biological, and Nuclear Weapons”

Check out Biejan Poor Toulabi’s interesting recent article in the Journal of Global Security Studies. Abstract: “Chemical and biological weapons (CBWs) have often been characterized as a “poor man’s atomic bomb”: a cheap and easy to acquire alternative to nuclear weapons that is particularly appealing to so-called Third World states. This idea is also reflected in Western government and expert estimates that have long exaggerated the spread of CBWs, especially among states in the Global South. In this article, I break down the ways in which the idea that the spread of CBWs is prevalent and that it primarily happens among states in the Global South has come to exist and persist. By dissecting an oft-cited dataset on CBW spread, I unravel frequently occurring methodological flaws—such as conceptual confusion, misinterpretation of sources, and a bias toward proliferation charges originating from the US government—that breed and sustain inflated estimates and faulty allegations. Subsequently, I show that a dominant cognitive framework that centers on the metaphorical use of the terms “proliferation” and “poor man’s atomic bomb” primes analysts and policymakers to interpret the history and future of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons as being characterized by inevitable spread, particularly among the non-Western “Other.” In conclusion, I offer ways to counter the orthodoxies of this ideology in teaching, research, and policy.”

RevCon Reports 16 and 17

CBW Events’ BioWeapons Prevention Project recently released its RevCon Report 16 and RevCon Report 17, concluding their coverage of the recent BWC Review Conference. Report 16 discusses the final day of the conference and offers reflections on RevCon as a whole. Report 17 provides an outline and discussion of the content of the Final Document. Richard Guthrie also includes discussion of what the Final Document lacks, writing “As well as what would normally be part II of the Final Document, noted above, there were a number of other elements missing. Perhaps the most significant is any substance on the processes that will be established for the review of S&T developments and the promotion of international cooperation under Article X. Other aspects which have had broad support ended up being removed in an attempt to reach consensus included creation of an Article VII database, endorsement of the Tianjin Guidelines, and any reference to gender issues.”

“118th Congress: Bioeconomy and Health Security”

In this piece for the Federation of American Scientists,  Michael A. Fisher, Sruthi Katakam and Maeve Skelly discuss opportunities the 118th Congress has to adopt policies that “help drive U.S. biotech and biomanufacturing to grow regional prosperity, deliver on conservation goals, and improve U.S. competitiveness and resilience.” They offer several ideas for improving competitiveness in the bioeconomy, safeguarding the country against biological threats, and several recommendations for appropriations. An especially interesting portion is that which is dedicated to countering global malnutrition to enhance US security, in which they write “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental impacts, and conflicts like the war in Ukraine, global rates of malnutrition are at eight percent and are forecast to become even worse. Providing life-saving treatment around the world serves a core American value of humanitarianism, and a priority for U.S. national security – the newly released National Security Strategy dedicates an entire section to food insecurity.”

In 2021 legislation, Congress directed USAID to advance programs to prevent and treat malnutrition around the world and develop a Global Nutrition Coordination Plan. That legislation also directed USAID to create the Nutrition Leadership Council, which can help elevate nutrition programs across U.S. global health interventions and foster collaboration with other sectors, development agencies, partner governments, and local actors. These are important steps to create a centralized food security program with harmonized funding – a system to deploy a more effective response to end global malnutrition and improve U.S. national security.”

“Congress should work with the Administration to begin scaling up global malnutrition assistance in FY 2024, in accord with the 2021 legislation.”

“‘Shot In The Arm’ Shows How Disinformation Can Be Deadly”

Dr. Lipi Roy discusses Shot in the Arm, a film that recently premiered at the Palm Spring International Film Festival, in this piece for Forbes. In it, she covers core elements of the film and how it contributes to the broader conversation surrounding vaccine hesitancy and disinformation going on today, consulting experts like Dr. Peter Hotez along the way. She writes in part, “Health-related misinformation can be deadly, and we must actively combat it. Healthcare professionals need to partner with finance, fashion, sports, media and entertainment industries to promote vaccines and science in general. Celebs like Hugh Jackman, Gayle King and Julia Roberts proudly – and publicly – promoted their Covid-19 vaccinations. I also believe that a politicized problem needs a political response: elected officials – guided by health experts – need to create policies to protect the public, as they did with seatbelts, air bags and bike helmets. Lastly, people who actively promote lies about science and medicine need to be held accountable. As a physician, if I lied to patients and withheld lifesaving treatments for their thyroid cancer or lupus, I would lose my medical license. Similar punitive action must be applied to people who actively propagate egregious lies about YOUR health and safety. Shot in the Arm is really the kick in the pants we ALL need to preserve the sanctity of science and protect the most vulnerable among us. Go see this film.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

PPE Breaches: Understanding the Risks and How to Respond 

“On the podcast episode “NETEC Guidance on Breach of PPE,” five NETEC [National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center] experts in personal protective equipment (PPE) talked about breaches in PPE and the importance of preparing health care workers to assess the risks and safely respond to a breach.”

One Health Approach for Effective Biodefense and Global Health Security

“The National Academy of Engineering’s Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable will convene a webinar on January 24 from 1-2 P.M. ET to discuss the latest National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan. Discussions will focus on the collaborative and transdisciplinary ‘One Health’ approach, per the Plan, for effective biodefense and global health security. Speakers (below) will explore the role of cross-sectoral partnerships as well as innovative approaches to achieve the goals and objectives outlined in the Strategy.” Learn more and register here.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) Meeting

The next NSABB meeting will take place virtually on January 27 at 1 pm EST. This meeting will cover “Draft Findings: Ensuring Biosecurity Oversight Frameworks Keep Pace with the Future of Science.” Learn more and register here.

Special Call for Papers-Journal of Science Policy & Governance

The Journal of Science Policy & Governance recently announced a special call for papers “and competition to provide policymakers with a new perspective on how scientific expertise could be useful to the complex brew of 21st foreign policy and national security challenges, resulting in a special issue on Policy and Governance on Science, Technology and Global Security.” The journal invites “students, post-doctoral researchers, policy fellows, early career researchers and young professionals from around the world to submit op-eds, policy position papers and other articles addressing foreign policy and national security challenges. These include concerns about the use of nuclear or radiological weapons driven by the war in the Ukraine, hypersonic weapons, immigration driven by climate change, and emerging threats in cybersecurity and biosecurity.” The deadline for submission is April 30.

Additionally, there will be a science policy writing workshop on January 30 in addition to two webinars on February 20 and March 30 (one on Policy and Governance on Science and Technology and one on Foreign Policy and National Security, respectively) to help prospective authors prepare their submissions. Learn more about these events and register here.

Closing the Knowledge Gaps

“BIO-ISAC, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will host a one-day event (with remote participation available) on January 24, 2023.”

“This gathering of thought leaders across the industry and its partners will address knowledge gaps about the bioeconomy itself. The event is expected to deliver recommendations that demonstrate the scope and breadth of industry impacts, identify specific safety needs and goals, and carve the path forward for a secure future.” Learn more and register here.

Novel Applications of Science and Technology to Address Emerging Chemical and Biological Threats

For the first time since 2019, this Gordon Research Conference is back, this time in sunny Ventura, CA. “The Chemical and Biological Defense GRC is a premier, international scientific conference focused on advancing the frontiers of science through the presentation of cutting-edge and unpublished research, prioritizing time for discussion after each talk and fostering informal interactions among scientists of all career stages. The conference program includes a diverse range of speakers and discussion leaders from institutions and organizations worldwide, concentrating on the latest developments in the field. The conference is five days long and held in a remote location to increase the sense of camaraderie and create scientific communities, with lasting collaborations and friendships. In addition to premier talks, the conference has designated time for poster sessions from individuals of all career stages, and afternoon free time and communal meals allow for informal networking opportunities with leaders in the field.” The conference will be held March 19-24, 2023. Learn more and apply here by February 19.

Call for Participants: Assess Biosafety and Biosecurity Oversight of Dual Use Research of Concern and Pathogens of Pandemic Potential

Kathleen Vogel and David Gillum of Arizona State University are conducting a research project to “…understand how dual use research of concern and pathogens of pandemic potential are regulated and how biosafety and biosecurity of this work is implemented, and if there are opportunities to improve the long-term benefits and minimize risks associated with this scientific work.” Their study includes a survey on this topic, which is accepting responses through January 27. Learn more and take the 20-25 minute survey here.

Notice of Funding Opportunity: Evidence-based Approaches to Implementing Biosafety in Diagnostic and Research Laboratories

This opportunity is offered by the Elizabeth R. Griffin Program at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security. Stakeholders can review this funding opportunity and submit applications here. Applications are due February 28.

Wilson Center Launches International Cooperation for Pandemic Preparedness Website

“As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its fourth year, the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center launched a new website today to address the changing paradigms in international health law and the critical need for strengthening global health security for the future.”

“This dynamic website, International Cooperation for Pandemic Preparedness, features renowned international health experts who break down eight critical issues the pandemic exacerbated, revealed, or created. Through video interviews and written analyses, the interactive examines what can happen at the international level when countries and international organizations work together to find needed solutions. In light of heightened demands for a pandemic treaty under the World Health Organization, expert advice on what is achievable at the international level has never been more critical to combating future COVID-19 variants and future pandemics.”

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is “In 1985, an American extremist group’s compound was raided by more than 300 law enforcement officers from several federal, state, and local agencies following a three-day standoff. Among other items, officers seized about thirty gallons of potassium cyanide the group intended to use to poison water supplies of several cities. What was the name of this group?”

Shout out to Tracy S. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “In 1980, a Frenchman entered a cave while visiting Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya. A week later he became seriously ill, eventually dying in a Nairobi hospital. Which cave did he enter and what disease killed him?” is Kitum Cave and Marburg virus disease.

Pandora Report: 11.4.2022

Happy Friday! This week focuses heavily on China and Russia, covering the recent ProPublica piece on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shanghai’s lockdown, Russia’s failed attempt at creating a UN Security Council committee to investigate its false claims about supposed US biological weapons facilities in Ukraine, and more. We also cover new publications, a new podcast release from the University of Bath’s Dr. Brett Edwards, upcoming events, and an exciting fellowship opportunity from the WHO.

About That ProPublica Piece

Late last week, ProPublica and Vanity Fair released a piece in conjunction with the Senate HELP Committee minority’s interim report, claiming to have unveiled new information from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) supporting the lab leak theory of COVID-19’s origin. In it, Katherine Eban and Jeff Kao rely heavily on the work of a single self-proclaimed polyglottal State Department political officer to translate Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “party speak,” which he claims native speakers “can’t really follow…” Now, the piece some have described as a train wreck is being heavily criticized for having faulty translations, mis-matched dates, misrepresenting the sources of the documents discussed in it, not understanding how common VPN usage is in China-related research, and more. ProPublica is reportedly scrambling to review critical details of their piece, but is it too late? Let’s talk about some core issues with the article and what they might mean long term.

‘Party Speak’ or Just Lost in Translation?

The first half of the ProPublica piece is dominated by glowing discussion of Toy Reid, a former RAND Corporation employee and East Asia political officer at the US Department of State, covering his blue collar origins and attendance at Harvard. The authors then discuss how Reid spent over a year working for the Senate HELP Committee, using a VPN to search “dispatches” on the WIV’s website from Hart Senate Office Building and his Florida home. They write, “These dispatches remain on the internet, but their meaning can’t be unlocked by just anyone. Using his hard-earned expertise, Reid believes he unearthed secrets that were hiding in plain sight.”

Plain sight is right! These “dispatches” were updates posted to the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) homepage on the general news tab. In fact, you can go look through this whole tab here to see mundane entries ranging from a recent day reflecting on the 20th National Congress to a July post about WIV celebrating the 101st anniversary of the Party, to general updates about different trainings and publications related to the institute. Therein lies one of the fundamental problems with this piece-these were not secretive dispatches internal to the Party. These are essentially press releases meant to face outward. Yes, they are laden with mentions of comrades, references to struggles and frontlines, and key Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping and the recently ousted Li Keqiang. They are, after all, written by Party members in a major facility of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They are going to have this kind of language by default, especially around times like national congresses and major anniversaries.

To be clear, the CCP does use euphemisms and round-about language at times to describe high-level concepts and goals. In fact, some scholars spend the bulk of their careers conducting political discourse analysis and understanding leaders’ officialease or government-speak. Some do focus on CCP party speak, which has become especially interesting in the Xi years. However, this is definitely not unique to the CCP as one can find scholars dissecting and analyzing any number of world leaders’ speeches and government lexicons. It is also important to recognize that this concept is not some niche or extremely esoteric concept known only to a few in China watching circles. Students studying Chinese politics overwhelmingly have to learn things like “crossing the river by touching the stones” or “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as a Chinese-specific form of Marxism-Leninism throughout the periods of Dengism, Three Represents, Scientific Outlook on Development, and now Xi Jinping Thought. It it core to understanding national agendas throughout different leadership periods.

However, with this comes the understanding that Party documents are laden with this kind of jargon and narrative furthering. This also is not unique to the CCP. In fact, Harry Hodgkinson wrote an entire guide in 1955 on Soviet jargon and unique meanings Communist parties give to particularly terms. While this jargon and overarching nationalistic narratives offer important context for the WIV posts, they do not represent some in-between-the-lines version of Chinese that “even native Mandarin speakers can’t really follow…” Rather, they help explain why the language in the posts seems so dramatic and nationalistic.

What’s in a Narrative?

In October 1949, Mao Zedong declared the official founding of the People’s Republic of China. With Chiang Kai-shek and the remainder of the KMT exiled to the island of Taiwan and the decades long civil war over, Mao was left to figure out how to actually lead the new PRC. Central to this were narratives of overcoming the century of humiliation, protecting the sovereignty and integrity of Chinese territory, bringing justice for China against those who subjugated it, and building a strong, advanced country. These ideas were central to nationalism at the time and drove pushes to modernize like the infamous Great Leap Forward. As Dr. Kerry Brown of King’s College London writes, “That self-designated task of bringing about justice for China was the main justification for the Party’s many mistakes under Mao when the second resolution on its own history was produced a few years after his death in 1981.” Themes of struggle against western imperial powers and self-determination were critical political tools wielded by the Party, even in the face of wildly unpopular, destructive policies.

Though it looks different today, narratives of national struggle and rejuvenation are still important features of CCP rhetoric, even for Party members at a CAS laboratory. Brown discusses the power of narrative in modern China, writing, “For the current dominant leader Xi Jinping, the notion that the Party is a kind of epistemic community, one uniquely placed to carry China forwards to the fulfilment of its great quest for a just outcome to history, is becoming more powerful by the day.  Seen in these terms, the Party is not so much about power per se – but power to deliver this historic outcome. That perhaps explains why, despite the many challenges and problems with its practice and its own history, it still remains so dominant in China.” Today, concepts like the Chinese dream, national rejuvenation, and the goal of becoming fully modernized by 2049 are central themes Party rhetoric uses, even in discussing day-to-day work at different lower-level organizations.

In the context of the Wuhan Institute of Virology posts, this is seen in the framing of work at the lab as some kind of grand struggle. In one of the first WIV posts referenced by ProPublica and Vanity Fair (available here in its original format), the authors claim to have found a dispatch that “…referenced inhumane working conditions and “hidden safety dangers.” On Nov. 12 of that year, a dispatch by party branch members at the BSL-4 laboratory appeared to reference a biosecurity breach: “These viruses come without a shadow and leave without a trace.”

However, as a number of Mandarin speakers and China watchers have pointed out online, this was actually a very general post about how the facility went from humble beginnings at its founding to now being a training hub and “fighting fortress” of China’s research and public health. It is written not unlike other fictional and non-fictional works describing BSL-4 facilities in other countries (The Hot Zone, anyone?)-hours are long in these space suit-like positive pressure suits, the pathogens are unimaginably dangerous, and those doing the work are brave, hardworking, brilliant scientists.

Much of Toy Reid’s interpretation of this post depends on a misinterpretation of “每当这时” (Měi dāng zhè shí, “whenever”) in the context of a description of Party members leading by example whenever handling BSL-4 pathogens. Reid instead took this as “whenever there are biosafety breaches,” and not some inspirational statement about Party members. Other portions of the article focus on visits from Chinese Academy of Sciences officials and seminars on the importance of biosafety and commonly noted issues during safety inspections. However, these were updates about high-level visitors and general efforts to ensure the facility maintained safety standards, much like those any organization anywhere might make.

James Palmer, deputy editor at Foreign Policy and author of Foreign Policy’s China Brief, discussing the normal workplace nature of the WIV posts

The Wuhan Institute of Virology boasts the PRC’s first BSL-4 (P4) facility, which opened in 2018, marking a major milestone for the country. A boastful post about how it came from humble beginnings but, through the work of very dedicated personnel, is now doing important, taxing work and striving to always be better is very par for the course. There is even a corny word play in the post about how Party members “infect” (Gǎnrǎn, “感染”) others with their practical actions and safety-conscious attitudes. As many have now pointed out, this is just the Party bragging about how dedicated their members are, how far the facility has come, and how personnel are constantly working to better themselves and their organization. In other words, it is furthering the Party narrative, not hinting at secret internal problems.

References throughout the posts cited by ProPublica to General Secretary Xi Jinping and his discussion of technology as a weapon make sense in the context of Party-authored news posts. Xi Jinping has achieved power unlike any previous leader, capturing himself a historic third term after the country removed presidential term limits in 2018. Xi Jinping Thought (“Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”) was also formally enshrined in the Party’s constitution that year, further cementing Xi’s unique power over the Party with the CCP describing it as “Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21 century.” With this context in mind, it makes sense for Party members at WIV to frequently reference Xi and his national goals and speeches. However, Reid instead took this as literal input directly from Xi to the lab following the biosafety incident he claims a previous post references.

Zhihua Chen’s thread on translation and dating issues in the ProPublica article

Finally, even if this was all true-the WIV had a 2019 biosafety incident and Xi Jinping was personally concerned enough to send an urgent message about it to WIV himself-why would any of that be posted on the institute’s website? As was just discussed, the narrative matters a lot in Chinese politics; image is everything and the Party is very secretive as a result. As the country continues to compete internationally in all areas, including the bioeconomy, it does not make sense for the Party to air dirty laundry about a supposed biosafety incident and workers’ concerns in a public space. If the core argument is that China is covering up a lab leak, the question of “Why would the Party allow the facility in question to publicly hint at mismanagement and safety issues on its own website?” must be answered.

Implications

Ultimately, bad faith takes on China, COVID-19, and biosafety hurt us all. There is a fundamental difference between calling for an in-depth investigation, holding the PRC accountable for its failures, working towards making sure we are better prepared for the next time something like this happens, and inappropriately equating mischaracterized and poorly translated press releases to some kind of damning evidence of a lab leak origin of SARS-CoV-2. The US-PRC relationship is in a very dangerous place and, while criticism of the CCP’s handling of COVID-19 is absolutely warranted, this article is likely to become political fodder for the Party. In fact, the Chinese government has already condemned the piece, claiming that it was driven by US politics.

While ProPublica claimed to have corroborated Reid’s work with unnamed “experts” on CCP communications, the swift backlash and ProPublica’s moves to reach out to other translators cast further doubt on the caliber and motivations of those consulted initially. This is in addition to concerns about the experts they claim to have consulted on the WIV’s claims about biosafety and time researchers spend in BSL-4. In the end, one can be both critical of the CCP and its practices while not resorting to an overly hawkish view that leads to finding suspicion in the mundane.

Finally, this points to a need for interdisciplinary collaboration and competent understanding of the political realities of the PRC in assessing issues like biosafety. What may look to someone with little knowledge of Chinese political discourse as alarming messages are actually pretty par for the course in terms of statements and news updates on an official website. Outside of debates on SARS-CoV-2’s origin in the scientific community, scholars in the social sciences and humanities and experts working in all sorts of fields can offer important context that, in this case, marks the difference between recognizing standard Party rhetoric and sounding alarm bells over normal updates on the WIV’s website.

For more on this, including discussions of the scientific debate about COVID-19’s origin as discussed in the Senate report and ProPublica article, check out Michael Hiltzik’s opinion piece on this article in the LA Times and Max Tani’s work in Semafor.

It’s the Happiest Place on Earth, Until You’re Stuck There-Welcome to Shanghai Disney

As China continues to cling to its zero-COVID policy, tourists at Shanghai Disney Resort now find themselves trapped in the park until they can test negative for COVID-19 amid yet another snap lockdown. South China Morning Post explains “…new variants have tested local officials’ ability to snuff out flare-ups faster than they can spread, causing much of the country to live under an ever-changing mosaic of Covid curbs.” The city announced Monday that it was going into lockdown and that visitors to the park would not be allowed to leave “until on-site testing returns a negative result.” SCMP writes, “It added that those who had visited the park since Thursday must obtain three negative Covid tests over three successive days and “avoid participating in group activities.’ The announcement came after Disney said it was “temporarily closing with immediate effect … in accordance with disease control requirements”.”

Turns Out the PRC Is Not the Only Place with Biosafety Issues

The discovery of vials labeled “smallpox” in a Merck & Co. facility near Philadelphia last year, last month’s controversy over Boston University’s NEIDL’s COVID-19 work using chimeric viruses, that time the Department of Defense accidentally mailed live anthrax spores to a US base in South Korea…the US is no stranger to biosafety issues and scares. This is the subject of a three part series of The Intercept, “Experimenting with Disaster,” focused on undisclosed biosafety incidents in the US. The first part focuses on a university lab accident, the second on work with the 1918 flu pandemic’s H1N1 virus, and the third on risky work with avian influenza. The Schar School’s Dr. Gregory Koblentz is quoted throughout the series as he provides context to the political and oversight issues surrounding these and other incidents.

Russia Fails (Again) to Garner International Sympathy for Bogus BW Claims

On Wednesday, the UN Security Council (UNSC) squashed Russia’s attempt to create a formal inquiry into its claims that the US and Ukraine are running a biological weapons program in Ukraine. Of the five permanent UNSC members, only China voted in support of Russia’s draft resolution on the measure. The US, UK, and France all voted against it while the other 10 UNSC members abstained from voting. According to the UN “Through the draft resolution, the 15-member Council would have decided to set up a commission to investigate the complaint of the Russian Federation in the context of the activities of biological laboratories in the territory of Ukraine, as well as present to the 15-member organ a report on the issue containing recommendations by 30 November 2022 and inform the States parties to the Convention at its Ninth Review Conference to be held in Geneva on 28 November–16 December 2022 of the results of the investigation.”

“The draft would also have the Council request the Secretary-General and the Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit provide, within their respective mandates, all necessary assistance to the commission.”

Cholera Outbreaks on the rise Globally

In case more COVID-19 variants, monkeypox, polio, and Ebola weren’t enough for you this year, the New York Times reports that a “…record number of [cholera] outbreaks have been reported after droughts, floods and wars have forced large numbers of people to live in unsanitary conditions.” So far, outbreaks have been reported in the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. NYT also explains “Cholera is typically fatal in about 3 percent of cases, but the World Health Organization says it is killing at an accelerated rate in recent outbreaks, even though it is relatively cheap and easy to treat. It is most often fatal in children, who progress swiftly to severe illness and organ failure.”

However, as case counts grow, vaccine supplies are coming up short. The WHO has already suspended its two-dose recommendation in favor of a single dose regimen that can help stretch supplies. “We have never had to make a decision like this about vaccination before, that’s the severity of this crisis,” Dr. Philippe Barboza, head of the WHO’s cholera team, said.

NYT explains part of why this is an issue, writing “The bulk of the world’s cholera vaccine is made by a South Korean company called EuBiologics. Some 15 percent of the global stockpile was produced by Shantha Biotechnics, a wholly owned Indian subsidiary of the French drugmaker Sanofi, but the company decided two years ago to stop production of its cholera vaccine by the end of this year and end supply by the end of 2023. That planned exit from the market coincides with the spike in demand…Dr. Barboza said that EuBiologics was producing at capacity and working to expand its production, and that another drugmaker would soon begin to produce the vaccine.”

“A Multinational Delphi Consensus to End the COVID-19 Public Health Threat”

Lazarus et al.’s new Nature article discusses findings of a Delphi study focused on the COVID-19 pandemic response: “Despite notable scientific and medical advances, broader political, socioeconomic and behavioural factors continue to undercut the response to the COVID-19 pandemic1,2. Here we convened, as part of this Delphi study, a diverse, multidisciplinary panel of 386 academic, health, non-governmental organization, government and other experts in COVID-19 response from 112 countries and territories to recommend specific actions to end this persistent global threat to public health. The panel developed a set of 41 consensus statements and 57 recommendations to governments, health systems, industry and other key stakeholders across six domains: communication; health systems; vaccination; prevention; treatment and care; and inequities. In the wake of nearly three years of fragmented global and national responses, it is instructive to note that three of the highest-ranked recommendations call for the adoption of whole-of-society and whole-of-government approaches1, while maintaining proven prevention measures using a vaccines-plus approach2 that employs a range of public health and financial support measures to complement vaccination. Other recommendations with at least 99% combined agreement advise governments and other stakeholders to improve communication, rebuild public trust and engage communities3 in the management of pandemic responses. The findings of the study, which have been further endorsed by 184 organizations globally, include points of unanimous agreement, as well as six recommendations with >5% disagreement, that provide health and social policy actions to address inadequacies in the pandemic response and help to bring this public health threat to an end.”

“Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Outbreak”

New from the RAND Corporation, a volume on COVID-19 that includes chapters on the need to prioritize biosafety and biosecurity, and GOF research: “The coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic that began in late 2019 and continues as of the writing of this Perspective in summer 2022 has been the cause of both tremendous tragedy—in lives lost and economic hardship—and great triumph in the rapid development of effective vaccines. Many nations around the world have scrambled to respond to a once-in-a-century event that has exposed many weaknesses in response planning and capabilities, including those of the United States. Even as the pandemic continues, it is not too early to reflect on the missteps that have been made and lessons that can be learned so that the United States and nations worldwide can be better prepared for the future.”

“This volume contains a collection of essays that explores topics of critical importance toward that aim and identifies actions that can be taken to not only improve pandemic preparedness but also help prevent the occurrence of future pandemics. The essays center on U.S. challenges and experiences, but the solutions, in many cases, require collaborative efforts that reach across national boundaries.”

“The Global Inequality in COVID-19 Vaccination Coverage Among Health and Care Workers”

Nabaggala et al. discuss COVID-19 vaccinations in HCWs in their new article in the International Journal for Equity in Health. Using WHO data, they found that “Despite being considered a priority group, more than a third of countries did not achieve 70% vaccination coverage of their HCWs at the end of 2021. Large inequities were observed with low income countries lagging behind. Additional efforts should be dedicated to ensure full protection of HCWs through vaccination.”

“Bolstering Arms Control in a Contested Geopolitical Environment”

Michael Moodie and Jerry Zhang’s recent issue brief published by the Stimson Center: “For decades, arms control has constituted one of the cornerstone frameworks for global governance and served as a critical tool for bolstering international security and stability. The global arms control regime is now under unprecedented pressure, due to heightened competition between major powers, rapidly deteriorating security environment, and emerging technologies. Nevertheless, cooperation on arms control is important in today’s contested geopolitical environment as it can encourage responsible competition broadly between great powers, avoid the proliferation of advanced weaponry, and reduce the risk of unintended military escalation. This paper recommends three measures to reinvigorate arms control: sustaining long-term engagement between major powers; adopting a multi-stakeholder approach by including smaller states and non-government entities in the process; and reconceptualizing the fundamentals of arms control.”

“Addressing the Global Shortage of Biosafety and Biosecurity Professionals through Education”

The International Federation of Biosafety Associations recently published this white paper discussing their efforts to build undergraduate degree programs designed to create competent biosafety professionals. They write: “Biosafety and biosecurity professionals provide an essential role in safeguarding infectious disease agents in clinical and research laboratories and other settings where biological materials are handled. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus the significant demand on the profession and many countries face an overall shortage of these specialized individuals. Given that biosafety and biosecurity professionals work in laboratories behind the scenes of the frontline response, the profession remains largely unknown to students interested in pursuing a career in the sciences. As such, students tend to be steered towards more visible education paths in the biological and health sciences.”

“To address this gap, the IFBA is leading a multisectoral effort towards a future sustainable workforce by formalizing a biosafety & biosecurity career path within the higher education system. Now is the right time since the recent lived COVID-19 experiences of youth have motivated them to become involved. Over the past 6 months, and with funding support from Global Affairs Canada, the IFBA has been collaborating with Kenya’s Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST) to develop and pilot a new undergraduate BSc degree program specifically in Biosafety and Biosecurity. This new BSc program leverages MMUST’s existing programs in the Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences. All students undertake related core courses in microbiology and related disciplines in the first two years followed by specialized biosafety & biosecurity courses, practical laboratory and field experience and a capstone project in their later academic years.”

“The lessons learned from this pilot program will be used for future program roll out to additional universities across Africa and globally. This project presents a recommended solution towards a sustainable future global workforce of biosafety and biosecurity professionals. Supporting this approach are multisectoral partnerships committed to biosafety and biosecurity education and our common vision of more graduates and young scientists entering the profession.”

“A Plea for Making Virus Research Safer”

Dr. Jesse Bloom’s guest essay in the New York Times offers an overview of notable pathogen research, efforts over the years to make it more secure, and current concerns. In it she writes “The French statesman Georges Clemenceau said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” When it comes to regulating high-risk research on potential pandemic viruses, we similarly need a transparent and independent approach that involves virologists and the broader public that both funds and is affected by their work.”

“How to Detect a Man-Made Biothreat”

This Wired piece discusses US government funding to develop test that would detect engineered pathogens: “To guard against these potential threats, the US government is funding the development of tests to detect dangerous bioengineered organisms before they have a chance to cause significant harm. The effort was announced in 2017 by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or Iarpa, within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In a livestreamed update in October, Iarpa program manager David Markowitz announced that two platforms developed under the program were both 70 percent accurate at identifying the presence of bioengineering. “We simply never know what sample is going to come through the door in a government lab, and we need to be prepared for anything,” Markowitz said during the news briefing.”

“Why Climate Change Matters for Pandemic Preparedness”

Check out this Nature Outlook piece with computational ecologist Xavier Rodó on climate change’s role in pandemic planning: “Numerous studies over more than two decades have demonstrated a robust relationship between climate and the dynamics of human diseases, such as cholera, malaria and dengue. Changes in climate, including both long-term warming trends and short-term climate variability, might affect patterns of disease. Xavier Rodó, a computational ecologist and climate dynamics specialist at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health and the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Spain, spoke to Nature about how climate modelling could be used to help prepare for future disease outbreaks — and the obstacles he has faced in implementing such systems.”

“Chemical Security Experts Call for Multisector Cooperation Against Terrorism”

From INTERPOL: “The devastating impact of chemical weapons and explosives used in acts of terrorism continues to affect civilian populations and is well known for its destructive and long-term harm.”

“Last year over 1,000 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks were conducted by non-state actors, injuring over 7,150 people in more than 40 countries. Many attacks come from chemicals that criminals acquired through weak points in the supply chain – from manufacturing to storage and retail– and made into weapons.”

“To counter this threat, some 220 chemical security practitioners from more than 70 countries met at INTERPOL’s 3rd Global Congress on Chemical Security and Emerging Threats (25-27 October) to find ways of reducing vulnerabilities by enhancing multisector cooperation and collaboration.” Read more here.

What We’re Listening To 🎧

THE RETORT: EPISODE 4 Gain of Function Experiments

The latest episode of Dr. Brett Edwards’ podcast, The Retort, offers “A straightforward introduction to the past decade of discussion of international oversight of gain of function pandemic research,” with Dr. Nariyoshi Shinomiya of Japan’s National Defense Medical College. This episode and previous ones are available on Dr. Edwards’ YouTube channel. His other podcast project, Poisons and Pestilence, also recently reached 7,000 listens. In celebration, he is hosting a t-shirt give away, so be sure to check that out here.

Conversations Before Midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is hosting its Bulletin Annual Gathering on November 9, 2022, at 5 pm CDT virtually. This is the Bulletin’s “signature event” and it aims to allow guests to engage in high-level conversations with influential voices tracking man-made threats. At the event, “Each virtual table has an expert, established and up-and-coming specialists in the fields of nuclear risk, climate change, disruptive technologies, and biosecurity. These discussion leaders include members of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, Board of Sponsors, and invited experts from around the world. Below are a few samples for this year’s gathering.”‘ Table experts include our own Dr. Greg Koblentz, so be sure to check out this event’s info page here.

Briefings in Preparation for the Ninth BWC Review Conference

From UNIDR: “The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is a cornerstone in the regime to prevent the hostile use of biology. The Ninth BWC Review Conference will take place in late November 2022 and presents an important opportunity to take stock of the past and chart a course for the future of this increasingly important agreement. In support of preparations for the Ninth BWC Review Conference and beyond, UNIDIR has recently published several reports intended to stimulate thinking on substantive issues related to the BWC.”

“This virtual event will bring together the authors of the latest UNIDIR publications on BWC topics to provide short outlines of the key insights and ideas in their respective reports for State Parties to consider ahead of the Review Conference. These include verification, advances in science and technology, international cooperation, and potential outcomes of the Review Conference. The presentations will be followed by a moderated interactive discussion with the participants.” This event will take place on November 7 at 2 pm CET, online. Learn more and register here.

Infection Prevention and Control: Incorporating Lessons Learned in Managing Special Pathogens

“After nearly three years responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and other healthcare facilities have learned many lessons about the management of special pathogens and essential infection prevention and control practices. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response’s Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange (ASPR TRACIE) and the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC) invite you to learn more about some of those lessons. Speakers will share their perspectives on how our approach to outbreaks has changed since the pandemic began. They will address issues such as infection prevention for healthcare workers and patients and mitigating disease spread. Speakers will also highlight newly developed tools and resources. This webinar will take place November 7 at 2:00 pm ET. Register today!”

WHO/AFRO Fellowship Programme on Public Health Emergencies in Africa

“The World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa (WHO AFRO) invites interested and eligible candidates to submit applications for a fellowship programme on improving the management of public health emergencies in Africa under the COVID-19 Incident Management Support Team (IMST).” Learn more and apply here.

Pandora Report: 10.28.2022

Happy Halloween! This week we haves lots of scares for you, including even more misuse of international organizations to further disinformation narratives! This week, we focus on Russia’s request for a UNSC investigation of its bogus BW claims and complaint lodged in accordance with Article VI of the BWC, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions minority report on SARS-CoV-2 origins, and ongoing debates about the SARS-CoV-2 experiments conducted at Boston University. We also cover new publications, upcoming events, and new announcements ahead of One Health Day.

Russia Criticized Heavily After Calling for UNSC Resolution on “Secret Biolabs in Ukraine”

In yet another massive waste of everyone’s time, Russia has continued to press its false claims that the US runs “secret military biological programs” in Ukraine with the UN Security Council, this time drafting a resolution that would establish a commission (comprised of all 15 UNSC members) to investigate the claims. This comes amid a new wave of “transparently false allegations” on the part of Moscow, most recently regarding alleged Ukrainian plans to use a dirty bomb in its own territory. In response to this latest effort at the Security Council, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN, Dame Barbara Woodward, asked the question on everyone’s mind-“How much more of this nonsense do we have to endure?”

This newest attempt includes an official complaint to the UNSC, filed in accordance with article VI of the BWC, in addition to the request for the formation of a formal commission to investigate the October 24 complaint. The complaints continue to center on efforts between the US and Ukraine, largely under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, to support public health research and diagnostic facilities, though Russia insists these facilities are not for peaceful purposes.

In a Thursday briefing before the Security Council, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) reiterated again that it is not aware of any biological weapons programs in Ukraine, echoing its previous statements on the matter made in March and May. In response, Russia’s Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said, “Do you really think that we’re that naïve?…Do you really think that we think that the Pentagon is going to inform the high representative of the Office of Disarmament Affairs within the UN about their secret biological programs in Ukraine?”

US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, summarized the absurdity of Russia’s claims, explaining “We hear Russia raise alarms that biological weapons will be delivered by birds and bats and now even mosquitoes. Birds and bats. Russia knows public health laboratories routinely study migratory animal species to assess and counter animal-borne pathogens. Bear in mind, much like Russia, birds and bats don’t tend to observe or respect sovereign borders. Russia’s assertions are absurd for many reasons, including because such species, even if they could be weaponized, would pose as much a threat to the European continent and to Ukraine itself as they would to any other country.”

Thomas-Greenfield also described the meeting as a “…colossal waste of time… an attempt to distract from the atrocities Russian forces are carrying out in Ukraine and a desperate tactic to justify an unjustifiable war.” She later added, “It doesn’t matter how many meetings Russia tries to call on this subject. And it doesn’t matter how hard it ratchets up its propaganda machine. We must not divert UN resources toward a baseless investigation. And we must not allow Russia’s tactics to distract us from its brutal war of aggression.”

Senate HELP Committee Minority Interim Report Released on SARS-CoV-2 Origins

This week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Minority oversight staff released their interim report-“An Analysis of the Origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic”. The report makes a number of claims, including “While it remains possible that SARS-CoV-2 emerged as a result of a natural zoonotic spillover, facts and evidence found in previous documented zoonotic spillover events have not, to date, been identified in relation to this pandemic,” “Substantial evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic was the result of a research-related incident associated with a laboratory in Wuhan, China,” and “This investigation’s interim report concludes that SARS-CoV-2 and the resulting COVID-19 global pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident associated with coronavirus research in Wuhan, China.”

The 35-page report does not completely rule out a market origin and, importantly, it does not claim that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered as a bioweapon-a popular conspiracy theory. One interesting element it does focus on is that Chinese scientists began testing their COVID-19 vaccines in humans about a month before the United States did. The report implies this means the Chinese had some sort of advanced (pre-January 11, 2020) access to genomic sequencing, though it does still ask “What additional steps, processes, or novel techniques did AMMS [PLA Academy of Military Medical Sciences] researchers take that advanced the development of their vaccine faster than the Operation Warp Speed timeline?” The report states, “While mRNA vaccine candidates were able to design their vaccine construct in two days, because mRNA vaccines only need the coronavirus’ genetic sequence to make a vaccine and no virus has to be cultivated in labs, traditional vaccine platforms take longer.” It continues, highlighting that the first Operation Warp Speed (OWS) vaccine candidates to enter human clinical trials were non-mRNA vaccines-AstraZeneca-Oxford’s offering and Johnson & Johnson’s, both viral vector vaccines.

It then contrasts the 8 months it took for OWS viral vector candidates to human clinical trials with the 67 days it took one AMMS team to do the same, writing “Given Operation Warp Speed’s success, it is unusual that the two AMMS COVID-19 vaccine development teams were able to reach early milestones in vaccine development even more quickly. The Chen AMMS team beat AstraZeneca-Oxford to phase I clinical trials by 38 days. The Zhou AMMS team built and validated the effectiveness of its COVID-19 candidate vaccine 44 days after the sequence of SARS-CoV-2 was released. The extremely accelerated vaccines development timelines achieved by the AMMS teams pose the following two outstanding questions:”

  • “What additional steps, processes, or novel techniques did AMMS researchers take that advanced the development of their vaccine faster than the Operation Warp Speed timeline?”
  • “If no additional steps were taken to speed up the development timeline, when did researchers in China have access to the genomic sequence? Was it before January 11, 2020? If so, how far in advance of January 11, 2020?”

This argument does not address differences in the regulatory environments of the US and PRC. Rather, it seems to imply that this is evidence the Chinese had advance knowledge of this outbreak with no discussion of drug and therapeutic approval reforms in recent years that aim to improve the country’s ability to compete in pharmaceutical manufacturing globally and incentivizes development of vaccines and drugs for rare diseases. The CCP has identified competition in global biopharmaceutical manufacturing as a top priority, so the implication that the faster timeline to clinical trials supports the lab leak theory is unsatisfactory as presented.

It also does not appear to have even won over prominent supporters of the lab leak theory, including Dr. Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University. The New York Times explains, “Dr. Ebright, who was interviewed by the report’s authors, said he supported the argument that evidence pointed to a laboratory origin. But the only new element, he said, appeared to be questions raised about how China could have developed a vaccine so quickly, which he did not find persuasive. Otherwise, he said, “there was no information in the report that has not been publicly presented in the media and discussed in the media previously.”

“This image depicted a test tube with viral transport media that contained a patient’s sample to be tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.” Source: CDC PHIL

Naturally, this interim report has been heavily criticized. The conclusion reached in this report obviously differs from the two peer-reviewed Science articles published earlier this year that found 1) the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was the epicenter of the initial outbreak and 2) that there were at least two distinct spillovers from animals sold at the market. Scientists supporting the market origin still have not identified which animals were infected or where they came from, as no animals were tested before the market was shut down early in 2020. Of this, the report states “Critical corroborating evidence of a natural zoonotic spillover is missing. While the absence of evidence is not itself evidence, the lack of corroborating evidence of a zoonotic spillover or spillovers, three years into the pandemic, is highly problematic.”

Dr. Michael Worobey, Department Head of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona and a co-author of both the Science articles, addressed the report with Science news, with the news team writing “Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona who has co-authored scientific reports examining data from the early days of the pandemic that provide some of the strongest support for a jump from animals to humans, speculates that the timing of the report’s release could be “a cynical effort to try to win Republican votes” in the upcoming midterm congressional and state elections.  Or, Worobey says, “it could just be a bunch of staffers with no ability to understand the science who stumbled across a bunch of misinformation and disinformation-filled tweets.” (“Senator Burr felt enough compelling, open-source information had been gathered during staff’s comprehensive review of the facts that an interim report was appropriate,” a senior aide to the minority staff told Science.)”

After the minority interim report was released, Senator Patty Murray, Chair of the Senate HELP Committee, issued a statement on “continuing bipartisan oversight efforts into the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19” that did not address the minority report. Sen. Murray stated “COVID-19 has caused so much pain, hardship, and loss for people in Washington state, across our country, and all across the globe. As I’ve said time and again, it is absolutely critical we learn the lessons from this pandemic so that we never find ourselves in a similar situation again—and that, of course, includes undertaking a full examination of how COVID-19 first emerged.”

“That’s why I made it a top priority as Chair to craft bipartisan legislation to strengthen our public health and pandemic preparedness systems with the PREVENT Pandemics Act—which, among so many other vital steps, would establish an independent task force to conduct a comprehensive review of COVID’s origins and the federal response to the pandemic. And it’s why, in 2021, I announced a bipartisan oversight effort with Senator Burr into the origins of this virus. The HELP Committee is continuing bipartisan work on this oversight report, and I remain committed to passing the PREVENT Pandemics Act, which advanced out of Committee with overwhelming bipartisan support.”

More on the Boston University Controversy

While the controversy surrounding experiments conducted on SARS-CoV-2 at Boston University has subsided some, attention has shifted to how such research is regulated. The New York Times explains the concerns, writing “But the uproar highlighted shortcomings in how the U.S. government regulates research on pathogens that pose a risk, however small, of setting off a pandemic. It revealed loopholes that allow experiments to go unnoticed, a lack of transparency about how the risk of experiments is judged and a seemingly haphazard pattern in the federal government’s oversight policy, known as the P3CO framework.” It also notes “Even as the government publicly reprimanded Boston University, it raised no red flags publicly about several other experiments it funded in which researchers manipulated coronaviruses in similar ways. One of them was carried out by the government’s own scientists.”

“Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell infected with a variant strain of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (green), isolated from a patient sample.” Source: NIH Image Library

Nature explains the issue further, writing “At issue is whether — and when — researchers modifying SARS-CoV-2 or other deadly pathogens need to keep regulators and funding agencies such as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) informed about their work, even if the agencies didn’t fund the experiments in question. Studies that make pathogens more transmissible or virulent are sometimes called ‘gain of function’ research.”

The issue now being discussed is if federal guidance is too vague in explaining what disclosures are required after a proposal is approved and research is progressing. Dr. Greg Koblentz told The New York Times “The government should be providing the guidance to help people figure this out,” and explained to Grid that “Pandemic prevention and lab safety rules “only move in fits and starts,” said biodefense professor Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University, pointing to the long list of past controversies. “And we only make progress where there is some crisis, or perceived crisis, that grabs people’s attention.”

Koblentz also commented on the confusion surrounding “gain of function”, telling Grid “‘Gain of function’ — we should retire that term, it really doesn’t help us in that debate,” said Koblentz. “It has become shorthand for a class of research that people are worried about because of the risks it poses, but it is a term that really has outlived its usefulness.” The term garnered attention during a number of political debates, including back-and-forths between Senator Rand Paul and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Grid also noted that, though many experts disagree on the utility of the term “gain of function, “There’s one point all of the experts who spoke to Grid agreed on — the Boston University chimera experiments do point to a need for stronger federal government oversight of potentially dangerous bugs. The fact that we are still debating whether to review genetically altering known pandemic pathogens, not even potential ones, said Koblentz, “is an indictment of both the self-governance model that the virology community largely supports and the current policy.”

NCT Magazine

In this issue focused on 4th generation chemical weapons, several experts offer their perspective on existing and emerging issues. Drs. Stefano Costanzi and Gregory Koblentz authored a piece for this issue, “Controlling Novichok Nerve Agents After the Skripal and Navalny Incidents”. They cover the history of this family of nerve agents and international disarmament and nonproliferation attempts before discussing the Skripal and Navalny incidents as evidence that both the Chemical Weapons Convention and Australia Group Chemical Weapons Precursors list need to be revised to better address Novichok agents. They conclude “The ability of the CWC and AG to adapt to the new challenge posed by these fourth-generation nerve agents demonstrates the resilience of the chemical weapon nonproliferation regime. However, further measures need to be implemented to reduce the opportunities for proliferators to develop and use Novichok nerve agents. Embracing a family-based approach to listing chemicals of proliferation concern would strengthen the nonproliferation regime and the adoption of technologies such as cheminformatics can facilitate the transition to this new approach to containing the threat posed by chemical weapons.”

“Designation of Three Syrian Military Officials Due to Involvement in Gross Violations of Human Rights”

On the topic of chemical weapons, the US State Department recently designated multiple military officials from the Syrian regime, it declared in a press release this week. The statement reads in part, “Of the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, some of which rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity, few are as inhumane and abhorrent as the repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians.  In August 2013, the Syrian Artillery and Missile Directorate of the Syrian Armed Forces launched rockets carrying the nerve agent sarin, a deadly chemical, on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing at least 1,400 people, many of them children.  Today, we are taking additional action to promote accountability.”

“The Department of State is designating three Syrian regime military officials involved in these airstrikes, pursuant to Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2022.  Brigadier General Adnan Aboud Hilweh, Major General Ghassan Ahmed Ghannam, and Major General Jawdat Saleebi Mawas were involved in gross violations of human rights, namely the flagrant denial of the right to life of at least 1,400 people in Ghouta. As a result of today’s action, Hilweh, Ghannam, and Mawas as well as their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States.”

“To Fix American’s Biodefense Strategy, Think Smaller”

From Breaking Defense: “It’s a natural reflex for the US government to try to develop strategies to deal with issues as broadly as possible, to handle a wide array of contingencies. But in the op-ed below, Al Mauroni of Air University’s Center for Strategic Deterrent Studies argues that the Biden administration’s biodefense strategy, expanding on past strategies, has grown too cumbersome and is in need of a cure of its own.”

ASPR TRACIE on Major Radiological or Nuclear Incidents

ASPR’s Healthcare Emergency Preparedness Information Gateway (TRACIE) recently released this updated document providing an “overview of health and medical response and recovery needs following a radiological or nuclear incident…” It also outlines resources for planners. Other relevant resources can also be found on the TRACIE CBRN page.

“Preventing and Preparing for Pandemics with Zoonotic Origins”

This piece from the Council on Foreign Relations discusses how factors that drive pathogen emergence and spread should influence decisions on investments in pandemic preparedness and response. It discusses priority pathogens, primary pandemic prevention, and secondary pandemic prevention and pandemic preparedness, concluding that “There is unprecedented support at the highest levels of government to enhance global pandemic prevention and preparedness. The recent decision to create a new fund for pandemics out of the World Bank and the ongoing negotiation for a pandemic agreement within the World Health Organization are potentially transformational. It is critical that comprehensive action be taken quickly through these efforts before the world’s collective attention moves on to the next crisis. Failure to do so means future generations will live less healthy and productive lives than we have today.”

“COVID-19 Genomic UK (COG-UK) Consortium: Final Report”

In this article from RAND Health Quarterly, Marjanovic et al. write in their abstract “The ability to sequence and understand different variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and their impact is crucial to inform policy and public health decisions. Soon after the UK went into its first lockdown in March 2020, the CCOVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium was launched. COG-UK is a collaboration of experts in pathogen genomics including academic institutions, public health agencies, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, NHS Trusts and Lighthouse Labs. RAND Europe evaluated how COG-UK delivered against its objectives, for example how it contributed to advancing scientific knowledge about SARS-CoV-2, informing public health decisions, and providing information that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments. The evaluation also examined the diverse factors that influenced COG-UK progress and impact, including enablers and challenges, and considered implications for the future.”

Coronavirus Vaccines R&D Roadmap

From CIDRAP: “CIDRAP, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation, has led an international collaborative effort to develop a coronavirus vaccines research and development (R&D) roadmap (CVR). The CVR aims to serve a strategic planning tool to facilitate R&D, coordinate funding, and promote stakeholder engagement aimed at generating broadly protective coronavirus vaccines.”

“A key component of roadmap development is gathering feedback via a public comment period. The draft CVR is now available for a 4-week public comment period from October 24 – November 18, 2022. Feedback gathered during the public comment period will be used to refine the roadmap, resulting in a final roadmap made available in early 2023.”

“The draft CVR may be downloaded in PDF format. Comments should be submitted via this survey, which will be available through November 18, 2022. The survey offers the opportunity to share general and specific comments on the roadmap; the team welcomes as little or much feedback as you would like to provide.”

“The Future of Infodemic Surveillance as Public Health Surveillance”

In this recent piece from a supplement issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, Chiou et al. write “Public health systems need to be able to detect and respond to infodemics (outbreaks of misinformation, disinformation, information overload, or information voids). Drawing from our experience at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 State of Vaccine Confidence Insight Reporting System has been created as one of the first public health infodemic surveillance systems. Key functions of infodemic surveillance systems include monitoring the information environment by person, place, and time; identifying infodemic events with digital analytics; conducting offline community-based assessments; and generating timely routine reports. Although specific considerations of several system attributes of infodemic surveillance system must be considered, infodemic surveillance systems share several similarities with traditional public health surveillance systems. Because both information and pathogens are spread more readily in an increasingly hyperconnected world, sustainable and routine systems must be created to ensure that timely interventions can be deployed for both epidemic and infodemic response.”

COVID Taking the Fun Out of Fungi?

The WHO recently released its first fungal priority pathogens list (FPPL)- “the first global effort to systematically prioritize fungal pathogens, considering their unmet research and development (R&D) needs and perceived public health importance.” The WHO explains that “The WHO FPPL aims to focus and drive further research and policy interventions to strengthen the global response to fungal infections and antifungal resistance. The WHO FPPL list is divided into three categories: critical, high and medium priority. The report presents these categories and proposes actions and strategies for policymakers, public health professionals and other stakeholders; targeted at improving the overall response to these priority fungal pathogens including preventing the development of antimicrobial resistance. Three primary areas for action are proposed, focusing on: (1) strengthening laboratory capacity and surveillance; (2) sustainable investments in research, development, and innovation; and (3) public health interventions.”

This comes amid a spike in certain fungal diseases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the report found that “Currently, fungal infections receive less than 1.5% of all infectious disease research funding,” and that “most treatment guidelines are informed by limited evidence and expert opinion.”

Opinion: “To Fight Misinformation, We Need to Teach That Science Is Dynamic”

In this piece for Scientific American, Dr. Carl Bergstrom, Daniel Pimentel, and Dr. Jonathan Osborne discuss public ignorance of the scientific community, identifying ways this can be rectified. They write, “It’s easy to see why so many of us struggle to distinguish trustworthy science from what is flawed, speculative or fundamentally wrong. When we don’t learn the nature of consensus, how science tends to be self-correcting and how community as well as individual incentives bring to light discrepancies in theory and data, we are vulnerable to false beliefs and antiscience propaganda. Indeed, misinformation is now a pervasive threat to national and international security and well-being.”

They discuss the need to develop a population of competent outsiders, explaining “Giving people more facts is insufficient. Instead, we need a populace that can tell which sources of information are likely to be reliable, even if the science itself is beyond what they learned in school, so that they can identify when they need scientific information to make decisions in their own lives. Just as critically, people must understand enough about how science attempts to minimize error. In other words, every member of our society needs to be what science education researcher Noah Feinstein calls a “competent outsider.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

This Week in Virology 948: Breathless with David Quammen

“David Quammen returns to TWiV to discuss how he wrote his new book ‘Breathless’, a story about the science and the scientists behind the race to understand the pandemic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.” Listen here.

Conversations Before Midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is hosting its Bulletin Annual Gathering on November 9, 2022, at 5 pm CDT virtually. This is the Bulletin’s “signature event” and it aims to allow guests to engage in high-level conversations with influential voices tracking man-made threats. At the event, “Each virtual table has an expert, established and up-and-coming specialists in the fields of nuclear risk, climate change, disruptive technologies, and biosecurity. These discussion leaders include members of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, Board of Sponsors, and invited experts from around the world. Below are a few samples for this year’s gathering.”‘ Table experts include our own Dr. Greg Koblentz, so be sure to check out this event’s info page here.

Briefings in Preparation for the Ninth BWC Review Conference

From UNIDR: “The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is a cornerstone in the regime to prevent the hostile use of biology. The Ninth BWC Review Conference will take place in late November 2022 and presents an important opportunity to take stock of the past and chart a course for the future of this increasingly important agreement. In support of preparations for the Ninth BWC Review Conference and beyond, UNIDIR has recently published several reports intended to stimulate thinking on substantive issues related to the BWC.”

“This virtual event will bring together the authors of the latest UNIDIR publications on BWC topics to provide short outlines of the key insights and ideas in their respective reports for State Parties to consider ahead of the Review Conference. These include verification, advances in science and technology, international cooperation, and potential outcomes of the Review Conference. The presentations will be followed by a moderated interactive discussion with the participants.” This event will take place on November 7 at 2 pm CET, online. Learn more and register here.

Infection Prevention and Control: Incorporating Lessons Learned in Managing Special Pathogens

“After nearly three years responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and other healthcare facilities have learned many lessons about the management of special pathogens and essential infection prevention and control practices. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response’s Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange (ASPR TRACIE) and the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC) invite you to learn more about some of those lessons. Speakers will share their perspectives on how our approach to outbreaks has changed since the pandemic began. They will address issues such as infection prevention for healthcare workers and patients and mitigating disease spread. Speakers will also highlight newly developed tools and resources. This webinar will take place November 7 at 2:00 pm ET. Register today!”

From One Health Commission-World Bank Open Call

“Open Call for Experts to serve on the Technical Advisory Panel to the Governing Board of the Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response Financial Intermediary Fund (“PPR FIF”)”- November 3 Deadline

“World Bank has posted a call for experts to serve on the Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) to the Governing Board of the Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response Financial Intermediary Fund (“PPR FIF”).”

“The TAP will comprise a multidisciplinary pool of up to 20 experts, bringing a diverse range of independent technical and financial expertise relevant to PPR FIF-supported projects and activities. To register your interest in being considered for the PPR FIF TAP, please submit documents to ppr_fif_secretariat@worldbank.org using the subject line “Expression of interest for the PPR FIF TAP

Speaking of One Health…November 3 is One Health Day

Mark your calendars for this year’s One Health Day on November 3. One Health Day is an international campaign that was launched in 2016. The One Health Commission explains that “The goal of One Health Day is to bring attention around the world to the need for One Health interactions and for the world to ‘see them in action’. The One Health Day campaign is designed to engage as many individuals as possible from as many arenas as possible in One Health education and awareness events, and to generate an inspiring array of projects worldwide.” If you are hosting an event on this day, you can register your event here with the Commission. A list of registered One Health Day events for 2022 is also available here.

Pandora Report: 10.21.2022

It’s Friday again and this time we are kicking it off with some great news from our program. We then discuss the Biden administration’s new National Biodefense Strategy and the Boston University preprint controversy. As always, we finish the week out with new publications and upcoming events, including an entire issue supplement of Clinical Infectious Diseases dedicated to anthrax. Finally, mark your calendars, because November 3 is One Health Day (more on that in the announcements section).

First, Some Good News from the Biodefense Program!

Biodefense Faculty Member Joins Council on Strategic Risks and Wins Schar School of Policy and Government Distinguished Alumni Award…All in One Week!

This week, Dr. Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist, prominent infection prevention consultant, an assistant professor at the Schar School, and more (No, seriously, she does all that AND more.) was named a Senior Fellow at the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons at the Council on Strategic Risks. In case that somehow was not enough for one week, she is also being honored today as this year’s Schar School of Policy and Government Distinguished Alumni Award winner. Read all about Dr. Popescu’s hero origin story here on the Schar School site.

Biodefense PhD Student Named Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Editorial Fellow

Kimberly Ma, a first year Biodefense PhD student and senior analyst with the Preparedness division at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, was recently named an Editorial Fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Over the next year, she will author a number of pieces on biosecurity for the Bulletin, so keep an eye out for her upcoming work!

The Biden Administration Releases New National Biodefense Strategy

This week, the White House announced the release of the new National Biodefense Strategy and President Biden’s intent to sign National Security Memorandum 15-“Countering Biological Threats, Enhancing Pandemic Preparedness, and Achieving Global Health Security”. The strategy takes a comprehensive approach, aiming to make improvements in these areas-“detect pandemic and other biological threats, “prevent outbreaks from becoming epidemics and prevent biological incidents before they can happen,” “prepare for pandemics and other biological incidents,” “rapidly respond to outbreaks when they occur,” and “recover from a pandemic or biological incident.”

Among other points about the strategy, the Nuclear Threat Initiative explains that “The new strategy’s requirement that the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy conduct an interagency policy review regarding biosafety and biosecurity norms and oversight for life sciences research also is valuable. As the largest funder of bioscience and biotechnology research and development in the world, the U.S. Government has a responsibility to put guardrails in place to prevent laboratory accidents or deliberate misuse of the tools of modern bioscience and biotechnology. Doing so can have a profound direct impact in reducing global biological risks and serve as a valuable example for other funders around the world.”

National Security Memorandum 15, “National Security Memorandum on Countering Biological Threats, Enhancing Pandemic Preparedness, and Achieving Global Health Security,” directs the heads of agencies addressed to:

  1. “implement the Biodefense Strategy, as well as related strategies such as the U.S. Global Health Security Strategy, and include biodefense-related activities, including resourcing and achieving the goals of the Biodefense Strategy and the priorities, targets, and actions of its Implementation Plan, within their strategic planning and budgetary processes;
  2. in the event of the determination of a nationally or internationally significant biological incident, implement Federal response efforts in accordance with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 of February 28, 2003 (Management of Domestic Incidents), Presidential Policy Directive 8 of March 30, 2011 (National Preparedness), Presidential Policy Directive 44 of November 7, 2016 (Enhancing Domestic Incident Response), and Federal Government response and recovery frameworks and operational plans;
  3. coordinate their biodefense policies with other agencies that have responsibilities or capabilities pertaining to biodefense, as well as with appropriate non-Federal entities;
  4. share information and coordinate decision-making related to the biodefense enterprise; and
  5. monitor, evaluate, and hold their respective agencies accountable for the implementation of section 3(a) of this memorandum.”

The memorandum also states that “To facilitate effective implementation of the Biodefense Strategy, within 90 days of the date of this memorandum and at least quarterly thereafter, the NSC staff Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense shall convene lead agencies identified in the Biodefense Strategy’s Implementation Plan at the Assistant Secretary level.  These agencies shall brief the NSC staff on progress towards key milestones and timelines, as well as on critical gaps and barriers to progress.  The NSC staff Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense shall provide updates quarterly to the APNSA based off of these briefs, summarizing progress towards the implementation of the Biodefense Strategy by highlighting the extent to which the goals and objectives are being met, outlining major gaps and impediments to timely and effective implementation, and presenting options for overcoming these gaps.  The APNSA shall provide to the President, on an annual basis, a memorandum summarizing these updates.”

Transcripts of the background call on this new strategy are available here, and check out the Council on Strategic Risks discussion of the strategy here.

Boston University Controversy

Last week, researchers from Boston University’s (BU) National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) posted results from their controversial work on BA.1 variant spike proteins in preprint. As Science explains, “They took the gene for Omicron’s surface protein, or spike protein, which SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter cells and added it to the genome of a “backbone” virus—a variant of SARS-CoV-2 from Washington state that was identified soon after the pandemic first emerged in Wuhan, China, in early 2020. The objective was to tease apart whether Omicron’s spike protein explains why it is less pathogenic (meaning it causes less severe disease). The answer could lead to improved COVID-19 diagnostic tests and better ways to manage the disease, the preprint authors say.”

“This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).”; Source: CDC PHIL

By Monday, a UK tabloid, Daily Mail, ran with the story, indicating in their headline that the lab had created a strain of SARS-CoV-2 with an “80 percent kill rate,” and had created a much more dangerous strain of the virus. While the Daily Mail piece is very clearly from a tabloid, this did spark debate online, as this preprint describes what some argue is gain of function research. This work was not approved by the National Institutes of Health, though it was approved by the institutional biosafety committee at NEIDL. Critics argue that this study lacks scientific value and that its potential risks were not properly reviewed before it was conducted. Some, including Francois Balloux, a virologist at University College London, expressed concern over the study’s relevance to human health, noting that findings in mice frequently do not carry over to humans. Others, however, are far less alarmed, generally arguing that the hybrid virus is far less lethal than the original, pointing to the extreme sensitivity of the mice used in the study, and highlighting that similar SARS-CoV-2 variants have already emerged before later fading away.

The university responded to accusations made in the Daily Mail, stating “We want to address the false and inaccurate reporting about Boston University COVID-19 research, which appeared today in the Daily Mail,” said the BU statement. “First, this research is not gain-of-function research, meaning it did not amplify the Washington state SARS-CoV-2 virus strain or make it more dangerous. In fact, this research made the virus replicate less dangerous.” BU also explained that “The animal model that was used was a particular type of mouse that is highly susceptible, and 80 to 100 percent of the infected mice succumb to disease from the original strain, the so-called Washington strain,” says Corley. “Whereas Omicron causes a very mild disease in these animals.” On the topic of funding, BU said the lab “…did not amplify the [backbone] SARS-CoV-2 virus strain or make it more dangerous. In fact, this research made the virus replicate less dangerous,” as reason for not reporting the study to NIH. They also stated this work did not need to be cleared by NIH as it was not directly funded by the agency as the lab used NIAID grants only to pay for tools and platforms.

Science reports that “Emily Erbelding, director of the NIAID division that helped fund the work, said the hybrid virus experiments weren’t described in BU’s grant proposal or progress reports. But she said if BU had informed NIAID about its plans, the institute probably would have evaluated it to determine whether it qualified for review by a special Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) committee.”

NIH also released a statement this week: “The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, did not review nor issue awards for experiments described in a pre-print article on SARS-CoV-2 research at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL). NIH is examining the matter to determine whether the research conducted was subject to the NIH Grants Policy Statement or met the criteria for review under the HHS Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens (HHS P3CO framework)…”

While the debate is sure to keep raging, it is also likely to add fuel to the ongoing review of federal oversight policies for GoF research led by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). According to Science, “In September, an NSABB task force issued a draft report that recommended the review policy be expanded to sweep in some kinds of research, and some pathogens, that are now exempt. And experts on all sides of the GOF debate have said the criteria for review need to be clearer. The government is expected to release new rules as early as next year. (For more, see this week’s feature in Science.)”

However, as Science has also previously written, “A U.S. clampdown will have no sway over privately funded GOF research or what happens in other countries, which typically lack policies like the P3CO framework. In Japan and most of Europe, for example, oversight is limited to rules on biosafety and, sometimes, biosecurity along with voluntary self-regulation, say biosecurity experts Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University and Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London. It’s too soon to say how a 2020 Chinese biosafety law will affect PPP research, they say.”

“National Security Snapshot: Department of Defense and Intelligence Community Preparedness for Biological Threats”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released this National Security Snapshot co-authored by Dr. Brian Mazanec, an alumnus of the Biodefense PhD program. This snapshot discusses core issues like biopreparedness and the PRC’s intent to exploit US genetic data. The authors write, “We made several key recommendations to improve how DOD and the Intelligence Community prepare for and respond to biological threats. DOD is taking a number of positive steps, such as coordinating with partners to research and develop vaccines. But, DOD doesn’t have a comprehensive strategy that, for example, shows where biodefense resources are needed.”

“Public Health Preparedness: HHS Should Address Strategic National Stockpile Requirements and Inventory Risks”

GAO also recently released this report discussing the Department of Health and Human Services’ inventory planning reports and their failure to “meet most legal requirements enacted in 2019 or communicate risks associated with not meeting recommended inventory levels. This is partly because HHS hasn’t updated its processes for completing the reports and a key advisory body was inactive.” This report makes a number of recommendations while also noting that HHS’s leadership and coordination of public health emergencies is on the office’s high risk list.

“COVID-19: A Warning – Addressing Environmental Threats and the Risk of Future Pandemics in Asia and the Pacific”

From the UN Environment Programme: “This scientific review begins with the history of humans and zoonoses and provides clarity on the issues of zoonoses and emerging infectious diseases. It then presents the seven anthropogenic drivers of zoonotic disease emergence as well as the concept of viral mixing. After providing rich context, this review continues to outline solutions that address the intricate link between nature and human health and strategies to prevent future zoonotic outbreaks.”

“”It was Compromised”: The Trump Administration’s Unprecedented Campaign to Control CDC and Politicize Public Health During the Coronavirus Crisis”

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis recently released its third installment of staff reports detailing the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the report, the committee explains its findings from its investigation into the Trump administration’s “rampant political interference with the federal public health response to the coronavirus pandemic.” Chairman Clyburn released this statement about the report: “The Select Subcommittee’s investigation has shown that the previous administration engaged in an unprecedented campaign of political interference in the federal government’s pandemic response, which undermined public health to benefit the former president’s political goals. As today’s report shows, President Trump and his top aides repeatedly attacked CDC scientists, compromised the agency’s public health guidance, and suppressed scientific reports in an effort to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus. This prioritization of politics, contempt for science, and refusal to follow the advice of public health experts harmed the nation’s ability to respond effectively to the coronavirus crisis and put Americans at risk. As we continue to recover from the coronavirus crisis, we must also continue to work to safeguard scientific integrity and restore the American people’s trust in our public health institutions.”

Clinical Infectious Diseases “Issue Supplement 3, Anthrax Preparedness”

This issue supplement of Clinical Infectious Diseases is all about anthrax, including articles ranging from “Responding to the Threat Posed by Anthrax: Updated Evidence to Improve Preparedness” to “Risk Factors for Severe Cutaneous Anthrax in a Retrospective Case Series and Use of a Clinical Algorithm to Identify Likely Meningitis and Evaluate Treatment Outcomes, Kyrgyz Republic, 2005-2012”. So, if it has been a while since you were deeply concerned about anthrax, this issue is for you!

“How SARS-CoV-2 Battles Our Immune System”

If you like medical illustrations and interactive timelines, this one is for you. This new story available from Science walks readers visually through SARS-CoV-2’s interaction with the human immune system, offering detailed yet easily understood, general explanations along the way. Readers can even learn about the virus’s different proteins and their specific effects on the immune system.

What We’re Listening To 🎧

This Podcast Will Kill You: Episode 107: Sepsis: It’s a Mess

“Over the years of the podcast, we have often struggled with questions of why: why pathogens act the way they do, why certain people get sick while others don’t, or why we know little about some diseases. This episode is no exception – sepsis certainly inspires many “whys”. But for perhaps the first time on the pod, we find ourselves grappling not only with “why?” but also with “what?”. What, indeed, is sepsis? Ask a dozen doctors and you may get a dozen different answers. Our first goal for this episode is to sift through the various definitions of sepsis and what we know about its pathology to get a firm handle on this deadly consequence of infection. We then turn our sights to a thrilling period of sepsis history – Joseph Lister and his carbolic acid spray – before attempting to address the status of sepsis around the world today. By the end of the episode, your picture of sepsis may not be crystal clear, but hopefully the edges are a little less blurry.” Listen here on Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts!

Project Responder 6: Evolving Response Environment Webinar

From DHS: “You’re invited to join the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) for a briefing on the Project Responder 6 report, designed to document emergency response capability needs across significant changes in the operating environment. The innovative approach this data collection effort—now in its sixth generation—takes is to bring together S&T’s First Responder Resource Group (FRRG), which includes responders from traditional (fire service, law enforcement, emergency medical services, emergency management) and non-traditional (public health, public works, medical examiner/coroner, search and rescue) response agencies, to focus on identifying and validating needs across disciplines.” Learn more and register here. Download the report here. This event will take place on October 24, at 11 am ET.

Addressing Health Inequities by Strengthening Antibiotic Stewardship

From NCEZID: “Please join The National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Disease (NCEZID) on Tuesday, October 25, 2022, at 10 a.m. EDT for the next AMR Exchange webinar on addressing health inequities by strengthening antibiotic stewardship entitled Addressing health inequities by strengthening antibiotic stewardship. The discussion will feature experts from CDC, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, and Emory University School of Medicine who work to strengthen antibiotic use and prescribing and improve the quality of health care across the United States. Please register here.”

South Korea as a Global Vaccine Hub

The Korea Economic Institute of America is hosting this event October 27, at 3 pm EST virtually: “Early in the pandemic, South Korea drew widespread praise for the speed and efficiency of its response to slowing the spread of the virus and saving lives. However, despite this initial success, South Korea faced vaccine nationalism and other access challenges in its effort to secure Covid-19 vaccines. Spurred by these challenges, South Korea established a national strategic policy to become a global vaccine hub, not only to meet the current and future public health needs of its own population but also to assist low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) facing even starker obstacles in accessing safe and effective vaccines.”

“Please join KEI for a discussion with the Thomas Byrne, Claire Callahan, Irene Kyoung, and Salomé Da Silva Duarte Lepez about how global vaccine access and equity was hindered by the shortcomings of national and bilateral vaccine diplomacy and multilateral mechanisms during the Covid-19 pandemic, and how South Korea’s demonstrated capabilities to rise as global vaccine development, manufacturing and training hub will help bolster global public health capacities in the future.” Register here.

The Case for the Use of “Red Lines” in the Governance of Life Sciences Research with David Relman

From CISAC: “The nature of evolving risks in life sciences research, a brief history of risk governance, and the case for the use of so-called “red lines” in the governance of life sciences research will be presented. The goals of this presentation are to elicit discussion about the benefits and pitfalls of red lines, or guardrails, in general, including a historical perspective, and options for public policy recommendations to address concerns about the present and future risks arising from life sciences research.” This event will take place on October 27, at 3:30 pm PT. Register here.

Infection Prevention and Control: Incorporating Lessons Learned in Managing Special Pathogens

“After nearly three years responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and other healthcare facilities have learned many lessons about the management of special pathogens and essential infection prevention and control practices. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response’s Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange (ASPR TRACIE) and the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC) invite you to learn more about some of those lessons. Speakers will share their perspectives on how our approach to outbreaks has changed since the pandemic began. They will address issues such as infection prevention for healthcare workers and patients and mitigating disease spread. Speakers will also highlight newly developed tools and resources. This webinar will take place November 7 at 2:00 pm ET. Register today!”

ICYMI: IARPA, Gingko Bioworks and Draper Announce New Technologies to Detect Engineered DNA

This week, Gingko Bioworks, Draper, and IARPA held an event to announce the completion of IARPA’s Finding Engineering-Linked Indicators (FELIX), a program aimed at improving existing biodetection and surveillance capabilities. “The event featured a panel with Catherine Marsh, IARPA Director; David A. Markowitz, IARPA Program Manager; Joshua Dunn, Head of Design, Ginkgo Bioworks; Laura Seaman, Principal Scientist and Machine Intelligence Group Leader, at Draper; and Erin Rosenberger, Senior Member of Technical Staff, Biological Microsystems Group, at Draper. During the panel, the panelists discussed the program findings and also featured a demo of the research results.” A recording of the livestream is available here.

November 3 is One Health Day

Mark your calendars for this year’s One Health Day on November 3. One Health Day is an international campaign that was launched in 2016. The One Health Commission explains that “The goal of One Health Day is to bring attention around the world to the need for One Health interactions and for the world to ‘see them in action’. The One Health Day campaign is designed to engage as many individuals as possible from as many arenas as possible in One Health education and awareness events, and to generate an inspiring array of projects worldwide.” If you are hosting an event on this day, you can register your event here with the Commission. A list of registered One Health Day events for 2022 is also available here.

Pandora Report: 10.14.2022

Happy Friday! This week we discuss the release of the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy and new findings about the prevalence and challenges of long COVID. We also cover a number of new publications, a German podcast episode on the 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk (featuring our own Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley!), and upcoming events.

Biden Administration Releases National Security Strategy

The Biden administration released its National Security Strategy (NSS)this week, building on the 2021 Interim NSS. This iteration of the NSS re-incorporates climate change as a national security threat, continues to define the threats China and Russia pose to the US, and includes “Triad” with a capital “T” to make sure there’s plenty of discussion about the document here in the Beltway. As the NSS has in the past, this version includes a section dedicated to pandemics and biological threats, which estarts by explaining that “COVID-19 has killed nearly 6.5 million people around the world, including more than 1 million Americans, but the next pandemic could be much worse—as contagious but more lethal. We have a narrow window of opportunity to take steps nationally and internationally to prepare for the next pandemic and to strengthen our biodefense.”

This section also discusses the notion that “no one is safe until everyone is safe,” and acknowledges that “some of our international institutions have fallen short in the past and need to be reformed.” It concludes with a paragraph discussing the need to address risks posed by deliberate and accidental biological risks “including through our ability to rapidly detect, identify, and attribute agents, and to develop medical countermeasures,” by working to strengthen the BWC, prevent terrorist acquisition of BW, and reinforcing “norms against biological weapons’ development and use.”

This comes on the heels of statements released this week by the US State Department and German Federal Foreign Office on the need to better cooperate to reduce biological threats globally. Both statements discuss the multi-faceted nature of these problems, including challenges created by mis- and disinformation and the need for increased global cooperation in the face of these threats, again highlighting the increasing importance of these issues.

Long COVID Gaining Recognition…Finally

This week, Hastie et al.’s article in Nature Communications discussing long COVID made waves in the media and online. The authors conducted a study in a Scottish cohort consisting of 33,281 laboratory-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections and 62,957 never-infected individuals. Participants were issued questionnaires at 6, 12, and 18 months. The authors found that “Of the 31,486 symptomatic infections,1,856 (6%) had not recovered and 13,350 (42%) only partially.” They also found that “Asymptomatic infection was not associated with adverse outcomes. Vaccination was associated with reduced risk of seven symptoms.” Notably, participants with previous symptomatic COVID-19 infections reported long-lasting symptoms like breathlessness, heart palpitations, difficulty focusing, and confusion at rates more than double that of those who were not previously infected. They also reported other related symptoms, like muscle aches and other heart problems.

There were some challenges in the study, however. For example, approximately 90% of participants were white, which is not helpful in trying to better understand risks and burdens of long COVID in other groups. Furthermore, only 4% were vaccinated (most with just one dose) before they were infected. However, this study does more concretely demonstrate the breadth of this problem and what it could mean for future pandemics.

A German study was also published this week in BMJ that found a “considerable burden of long-COVID symptoms, especially fatigue and neurocognitive impairment (“brain fog”), at 6 to 12 months—even among young and middle-aged adults who had mild infections,” according to CIDRAP. This study found that women were at higher risk for developing long COVID and “The researchers said the study revealed long-COVID symptom clusters with individually and societally relevant implications that also affected younger adults with mild initial infections. “Given the individual and societal burden of post-covid sequelae, the underlying biological abnormalities and causes need urgent clarification to define adequate treatment options and develop effective rehabilitation measures,” they concluded.”

Other studies have also linked long COVID to conditions like postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS). In the case of POTS, 41% of people diagnosed with the syndrome already reported a viral infection preceding the onset of POTS symptoms pre-pandemic. Because of this connection, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence now even recommends testing for POTS in patients with long COVID. These studies build on mountains of anecdotal evidence from patients and providers alike, demonstrating that long COVID is a very real and serious danger that has already impacted many of us.

The WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently authored a piece in The Guardian discussing long COVID, what WHO is doing about it, and what countries around the world should do to support those suffering with it. He explains, “Mostly data is only available from high-income countries, which means that we don’t currently have a clear picture on how many people are actually suffering. Current estimates suggest that tens of millions, and perhaps more, have contracted long Covid, and about 15% of those diagnosed with the condition have experienced symptoms for at least 12 months.”

He also discussed the shift in investment strategies this requires of countries, writing “Early in the pandemic, it was important for overwhelmed health systems to focus all of their life-saving efforts on patients presenting with acute infection. However, it is critical for governments to invest long-term in their health system and workers and make a plan now for dealing with long Covid. This plan should encompass, providing immediate access to antivirals to patients at high risk of serious disease, investing in research and sharing new tools and knowledge as they’re identified to prevent, detect and treat patients more effectively. It also means supporting patients physical and mental health as well as providing financial support for those who are unable to work.”

WHO/Europe also issued a factsheet discussing the need for rehabilitation, recognition, and research focused on lingering COVID symptoms that is available here.

WHO Europe Factsheet Discussing Long COVID, Source: https://www.who.int/europe/news/item/10-10-2022-rehabilitation–recognition-and-research-needed-for-people-living-with-long-covid–new-who-europe-factsheet

“COVID Prompts Global Surge in Labs That Handle Dangerous Pathogens”

Smriti Mallapaty’s recent article in Nature News discusses the growing number of BSL-3 and 4 certified facilitates globally and rising concerns about the costs and risks they present. This article covers new facilities across Asia as well as Russia’s promise that it will build 15 new BSL-4 facilities. Mallapaty also quoted GMU’s Dr. Greg Koblentz in the article, writing “Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, plans to build 27 BSL-4 labs have been announced worldwide, say Gregory Koblenz, a biodefence researcher at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, and Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity researcher at King’s College London, who have tracked the number and distribution of BSL-4 facilities globally. “These will likely take several years to design, build and commission,” says Lentzos.”

“Pandemic Origins and a One Health Approach to Preparedness and Prevention: Solutions Based on SARS-CoV-2 and Other RNA Viruses”

In this recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article, Keusch et al. discuss the importance of One Health in improving and integrating biosafety and biosecurity. Their abstract explains “COVID-19 is the latest zoonotic RNA virus epidemic of concern. Learning how it began and spread will help to determine how to reduce the risk of future events. We review major RNA virus outbreaks since 1967 to identify common features and opportunities to prevent emergence, including ancestral viral origins in birds, bats, and other mammals; animal reservoirs and intermediate hosts; and pathways for zoonotic spillover and community spread, leading to local, regional, or international outbreaks. The increasing scientific evidence concerning the origins of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) is most consistent with a zoonotic origin and a spillover pathway from wildlife to people via wildlife farming and the wildlife trade. We apply what we know about these outbreaks to identify relevant, feasible, and implementable interventions. We identify three primary targets for pandemic prevention and preparedness: first, smart surveillance coupled with epidemiological risk assessment across wildlife–livestock–human (One Health) spillover interfaces; second, research to enhance pandemic preparedness and expedite development of vaccines and therapeutics; and third, strategies to reduce underlying drivers of spillover risk and spread and reduce the influence of misinformation. For all three, continued efforts to improve and integrate biosafety and biosecurity with the implementation of a One Health approach are essential. We discuss new models to address the challenges of creating an inclusive and effective governance structure, with the necessary stable funding for cross-disciplinary collaborative research. Finally, we offer recommendations for feasible actions to close the knowledge gaps across the One Health continuum and improve preparedness and response in the future.”

Science published a news article discussing this paper, writing “‘Our paper recognizes that there are different possible origins, but the evidence towards zoonosis is overwhelming,” says co-author Danielle Anderson, a virologist at the University of Melbourne. The report, which includes an analysis that found the peer-reviewed literature overwhelmingly supports the zoonotic hypotheses, appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on 10 October.”

The article continued with “The panel’s own history reflects the intensity of the debate. Originally convened as a task force of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission, a wide-reaching effort to derive lessons from the pandemic, it was disbanded by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, the commission’s chair. Sachs alleged that several members had conflicts of interest that would bias them against the lab-origin hypothesis.”

“WHO’s Response to COVID-19 – 2022 Mid-Year Report”

“This mid-year report provides a consolidated update on WHO’s response to the COVID‐19 pandemic between January and July 2022, against the objectives laid out in the Strategic Preparedness and Response Plans (SPRP) for 2021 and 2022.”

“With the aim of ending the acute phase of the pandemic by the end of the year, WHO, in collaboration with partners, has supported countries to further strengthen their surveillance systems; ensure more equitable access to tests, treatments, and essential supplies worldwide; make health systems more resilient; and reduce exposure to the disease by empowering and enabling communities.”

“The report highlights the role of WHO at the global, regional, and local levels, and across the key elements of an effective emergency response – from implementation and operational support, to developing evidence and research, and providing strong coordination and planning. By working with partners, including multi-agency and multi-partner operational platforms, regional and national public health and scientific institutes, governments, communities, donors, UN organizations and NGOs and the private sector, WHO helped bring the world together to provide direct technical and operational support to countries implementing their national COVID-19 response plans.”

“Epidemics That Didn’t Happen”

On a much more cheerful note, check out Prevent Epidemics’ online feature, “Epidemics That Didn’t Happen”. This page explores six epidemics that were prevented thanks to solid cooperation and good public health responses, including averted epidemics of Ebola, Nipah, cholera, rabies, influenza, and dengue. As the page notes, these cases present common themes, including “Speed is essential,” “Well-coordinated action at the local level is crucial to preventing epidemics,” “Community engagement pays off,” and “Health care workers need to be trained, supported, and provided with access to resources and assistance to stop epidemics.”

“Russia’s Alleged Bioweapons Claims Have Few Supporters”

Jez Littlewood and Dr. Filippa Lentzos recently published this piece in this Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists discussing the outcome of September’s Article V Formal Consultative Meeting requested by Russia. They write “For the fourth time this year, Russia accused the United States and Ukraine of being in non-compliance with the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BTWC)—and once again found little support for its allegations. At the conclusion of the Article V Formal Consultative Meeting in September, no other state formally accused these two nations of non-compliance. Russia stands alone in its allegations, with limited support from eight other states. In contrast, more than five times as many backed the United States and Ukraine in rejecting the allegations; the meeting ended with a procedural report that noted no consensus regarding the outcome.”

“Addressing Inaccurate and Misleading Information About Biological Threats Through Scientific Collaboration and Communication in Southeast Asia”

From the National Academies: “Misinformation about outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics is a decades-old problem that has been exacerbated by the rise of the internet and the widespread use of social media. Some false claims may be addressed through sound scientific analysis, suggesting that scientists can help counter misinformation by providing evidence-based, scientifically defensible information that may discredit or refute these claims. This report explains how scientists can work collaboratively across scientific disciplines and sectors to identify and address inaccuracies that could fuel mis- and disinformation. Although the study focused on a scientific network primarily in Southeast Asia, it is relevant to scientists in other parts of the world. A companion “how-to-guide”, available in print and in digital form, outlines practical steps that scientists can take to assess mis- or disinformation, determine whether and how they should address it, and effectively communicate the corrective information they develop.”

“Counterfeit PPE: Substandard Respirators and Their Entry Into Supply Chains in Major Cities”

This recent article from Urban Crime was co-authored by the Schar School’s Dr. Louise Shelley and discusses challenges in ensuring legitimate PPE is available and what this means for definitions of threats to human life. The abstract reads “Over 58 million counterfeit respirators of substandard quality unable to protect individuals from infection have been seized globally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. These seizures have primarily occurred in urban warehouses and ports around the world according to analysis of public and corporate data shared with the authors. The presence of tens of millions of respirators in storage facilities prior to distribution demonstrates that urban areas are key elements of illicit supply chains. Data suggests that the concept of urban insecurity needs to be reconsidered in light of illicit supply chains for counterfeit respirators and their role in facilitating disease transmission in urban areas. The analysis presented in this article suggests that threats to human life should not be confined narrowly to violent acts or the consumption of drugs. Human life can also be threatened through the massive distribution of counterfeit N95 masks during a pandemic, a problem that has become more acute with more contagious mutations of COVID-19.”

Dr. Shelley is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Endowed Chair and a University Professor at George Mason University. She is in the Schar School of Policy and Government and directs the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. She is a leading expert on the relationship between terrorism, organized crime, and corruption as well as human trafficking, transnational crime, and terrorism with a particular focus on the former Soviet Union. She also specializes in illicit financial flows and money laundering. 

What We’re Listening To 🎧

Waffen der Wissenschaft – Die Spur der Sporen

For our German-speaking readers, a Viertausendhertz podcast episode on the 1979 outbreak of anthrax in Sverdlovsk: “Im Frühjahr 1979 sterben in der geschlossenen sowjetischen Stadt Sverdlovsk Dutzende Menschen an Milzbrand. Ein ungeheurer Verdacht kommt auf: Handelt es sich um einen Unfall mit Biowaffen? Der Forscher Matthew Meselson und der Journalist Peter Gumbel erzählen von ihren Nachforschungen vor Ort. Das Team spricht außerdem mit den Biowaffen-Experten Filippa Lentzos, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley und Andrew Weber.”

Translation: “In the spring of 1979, dozens of people died of anthrax in the closed Soviet city of Sverdlovsk. A tremendous suspicion arose: was it an accident involving biological weapons? The researcher Matthew Meselson and the journalist Peter Gumbel discuss their investigations on site. The team also speaks with bioweapons experts Filippa Lentzos, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, and Andrew Weber.”

Event Summaries

Check out event summaries written by Geoffrey Mattoon, a Biodefense MS student, for two recent events from the Council on Strategic Risks-“Building Capacities for Addressing Future Biological Threats” and “The American Pandemic Preparedness Plan: One Year of Progress & the Path Forward”.

Schar School Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House

Join us for next week’s Master’s and Certificate Virtual Open House on Wednesday, October 19, at 7 pm ET, to learn more about the Schar School of Policy and Government and the Biodefense Graduate Program. The online session will provide an overview of our programs, student services, and admissions requirements. Our admissions staff will be available afterward to answer any questions you may have. Register here!

Infection Prevention and Control: Incorporating Lessons Learned in Managing Special Pathogens

“After nearly three years responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and other healthcare facilities have learned many lessons about the management of special pathogens and essential infection prevention and control practices. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response’s Technical Resources, Assistance Center, and Information Exchange (ASPR TRACIE) and the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC) invite you to learn more about some of those lessons. Speakers will share their perspectives on how our approach to outbreaks has changed since the pandemic began. They will address issues such as infection prevention for healthcare workers and patients and mitigating disease spread. Speakers will also highlight newly developed tools and resources. This webinar will take place November 7 at 2:00 pm ET. Register today!”

Disinformation: An Emerging War Weapon

“Hosted by the National Defense University Foundation and Moderated by President and CEO, James Schmeling, join us for this interactive virtual discussion. Brief Talk Description: Explore how Russia, China and other entities use misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation as weapons of war and their impact on global security and American democracy.” This online webinar will be hosted on October 20 at 12 pm EST. Register here.

Reflections on Science Communication & Human Rights Amid Public Health Emergencies

“On October 20 (10:30-11:30 am ET),  join Dr. Bina Venkataraman, Editor-at-Large for The Boston Globe, and Dr. Chris Beyrer, Director of Duke University’s Global Health Institute, for a virtual discussion of science communication during public health emergencies, the role of public health researchers and journalists in advancing human rights, and emerging lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The conversation will be moderated by Prof. Helle Porsdam, Professor of Law and Humanities and UNESCO Chair in Cultural Rights, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Law, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen.” Register here.

Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing

The Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing will take place March 6-8, 2023, at the Francis Crick Institute, London, UK. “Building on previous events held in Washington, DC (2015) and Hong Kong (2018), this Summit will continue the important dialogue around human genome editing. It will facilitate a global discussion on somatic and germline genome editing, including developments in clinical trials and genome editing tools such as CRISPR/Cas9. Earlier this year a three-part series of online events Looking Ahead to the Third Human Genome Editing Summit discussed some of the key topics of the meeting. The three-day summit is being organised by the Royal Society, the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, the US National Academies of Sciences and Medicine and The World Academy of Sciences.”

“Find out more about the Summit’s Planning Committee, chaired by Professor Robin Lovell-Badge FRS FMedSci. Further information about the Summit agenda will be released soon, and registration to attend the event in person and online is now open.”

Event Summary: Building Capacities for Addressing Future Biological Threats

Defining Convergence

By Geoffrey Mattoon, Biodefense MS Student

On Tuesday, 20 September, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) hosted the “Building Capacities for Addressing Future Biological Threats” webinar, which included keynote speaker Dr. David Christian (Chris) Hassell, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at ASPR, speakers Dr. Pardis Sabeti, Professor at the Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University, and Dr. Akhila Kosaraju, CEO and President of Phare Bio, and was moderated by Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, Deputy Director of the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons and George Mason Biodefense Program alumni. Together they discussed the evolving biological threats landscape and the means that exist to improve preparedness and response. This event follows the previous webinar “The American Pandemic Preparedness Plan: One Year of Progress & The Path Forward,” also hosted by CSR on 8 September, and focused heavily on the need for greater cooperation, collaboration, and innovation to prepare for the next pandemic.

             Dr. Hassell began the event by highlighting the misconceptions associated with the terms “convergence” and “bioconvergence” within the field. His concern was that these terms have become buzzwords within biodefense and their use implies that the different fields and disciplines necessary for biodefense are converging or cooperating organically. Such a misconception leads those within and outside of the field to assume that unity of effort is common and effortless, which is not the case. Barriers to convergence are prevalent and numerous, both in government and private sectors. Dr. Hassell provided an example from his previous experience in the Department of Defense developing chemical detectors, comparing a lack of higher-level convergence to the lack of standardized interfaces on different detectors preventing operators from gaining competency on all systems after mastering any single system. Such stove-piping of systems and efforts prevents convergence and is common across biodefense. The solution is a greater degree of crosstalk between disciplines working towards a unified solution or goal. Providing another example of this failure of convergence, Dr. Hassell highlighted the recent Pentagon appropriations for biodefense failing to account for the need for cyber funding to be successful against future threats as that discipline becomes more critical.

            Dr. Hassell also indicated that biological threats, in addition to the biodefense, are converging. As biotechnology and other life sciences continue to advance, the line between chemical and biological threats blurs. Previous research has demonstrated this growing convergence, from opioid-producing yeast conducted by Galanie et al. published in Nature to chemical synthesis of toxins conducted by Matinkhoo et al. in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. He urges a greater convergence of chemical and biodefense disciplines to effectively overcome these threats in the future. Such efforts would come at a substantial cost and require the reorganization of numerous government agencies, but it may be necessary to respond to the evolving threat landscape and enable more efficient use of future funding to unify efforts.

            Dr. Hassell then commented on the need for greater inclusion of data sciences, data technologies, and nanotechnologies in future biodefense efforts. The necessity of greater convergence between chemical and biodefense and the inclusion of these disciplines is a key requirement identified in Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology, a report prepared by the National Academies for the Department of Defense in 2018. The addition of these technology-based disciplines is indicative of a greater requirement for technology convergence in chemical and biodefense efforts to combat the rising technology integration in the threat landscape. Modern biotechnology has created significant risk of dual use to create ever greater biological threats. Dr. Hassell pointed to the recent “Dual Use of Artificial-Intelligence-Powered Drug Discovery,” published by Urbina et al. in Nature Machine Learning, that indicated how easy it may be for a machine learning system designed with the best of intentions to identify new therapeutic disease inhibitors to be reprogrammed to instead identify novel toxin molecules. In that report, the MegaSyn system was able to generate 40,000 novel VX molecules in less than 6 hours. Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, Associate Professor at George Mason University and author of Barriers to Bioweapons, indicated such results do not directly equate to actionable threats on the Radiolab episode 40,000 Recipes for Murder that covered this journal article, but they still are indicative of the evolving chemical and biological threat landscape. Dr. Hassell also indicated the convergence of other disciplines critical to future biological threats, including climate change, which is enabling greater zoonotic spillover events, generating new and often novel biological threats.

            Dr. Pardis Sabeti underscored deadly infectious diseases as an existential threat to humanity during her remarks. She agreed with Dr. Hassell’s call for greater convergence and stated we must aspire to use technology to outpace the evolution of diseases so that we can be more anticipatory and less reactionary in the face of future outbreaks. She emphasized that COVID-19, though a recent a traumatic pandemic, is not the biggest threat we have faced or could face in the future. She argued we are on the precipice of cataclysm if we do not relentlessly pursue these efforts of convergence to enhance biodefense. Infectious disease is an existential threat that we can address because the tools necessary for biodefense are not bespoke or esoteric. Effective current and future biodefense tools, she argued, must be broad spectrum, offer daily value, contain transferrable benefits and knowledge, and be embraced at a cultural level to be effective. In line with the previous CSR webinar on COVID-19, Dr. Sabeti called for a greater commitment to community engagement as a key effort to combat future biological threats.

            Dr. Akhila Kosaraju then emphasized the need to take novel technologies required for biodefense out of the lab and into the field. She also supported the need for greater convergence, stating such efforts must be intentional to be successful. Her company, Phare Bio, exemplifies such efforts, employing AI and deep learning to enable rapid antibiotic discovery to overcome rising drug resistances. This approach provides Phare Bio a strategy to overcome the drug development “valley of death” where most current pharmaceutical development fails and presents an opportunity for other organizations like it across biodefense.  Modern biodefense efforts must emphasize biotechnology, relying on computational biologists, bioengineers, and other technical experts to maximize advances in the field.  She also indicated a need for organizations like The Audacious Project, a backer of Phare Bio, to effectively unify disciplines to solve intractable problems like drug resistance. The Audacious Project is a “collaborative funding initiative catalyzing social impact on a grand scale” across a broad range of disciplines that seeks to de-risk and encourage innovation. Injection of philanthropic, grant, or even government funding sources to adequately de-risk the “valley of death” and other obstacles is essential to future preventative and treatment therapeutics. Additionally, biodefense must strive to recognize small players in the field that often offer bespoke technologies and solutions that can accelerate efforts beyond that of the usual bigger players, as demonstrated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts like Operation Warp Speed serve as foundational examples to the benefits such efforts can provide to the future of biodefense.  

Pandora Report: 5.15.2020

The Coronavirus Chronicles
We recently introduced our new series,The Coronavirus Chronicles, which is a collection of stories, based on the personal and professional experiences of the faculty, students, and alumni of the Biodefense Graduate Program, about life during the pandemic. From lab safety to parenting and even healthcare work, The Coronavirus Chronicles have detailed the lives of so many of our students and alumni working in COVID-19 response. We hope these stories help the public better understand the challenges posed by COVID-19 and how current and former members of the Biodefense Graduate Program have responded to these challenges and contributed to the pandemic response at the local, national, and international levels. This week, we’re launching a new story by biodefense doctoral alum Jomana Musmar, who shares how she’s responding to COVID-19 with HHS while multitasking as a mother and spouse to an ED physician. Jomana’s experiences provide insight into the challenges we’re facing in terms of pandemic response and lesson we can all take away, noting that “Another important lesson learned is the need for everyone—from households to corporations to governments—to have a Plan B for continuity of operations for every aspect of life. Our reliance on the internet, laptops, and mobile phones has shown how pivotal a role this technology plays in being able to survive.”

COVID-19 Reopening and Recovery: Proposed Plans for the US
GMU biodefense doctoral student and Pandora Report associate editor Rachel-Paige Casey is breaking down the recovery plans to help get the U.S. back from COVID-19. “Throughout April, strategies regarding the reopening of the US economy and its associated public health factors were published by the White House with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. The four strategies discussed here either outline phases for resuming activity or describe systems to enable and assist safe reopening.” Casey details the four strategies, their phases, and provides a risk assessment in this detailed review of what experts are suggesting for COVID-19 recovery. Read more here.

Schar School Event- Public Policy in the Pandemic Age: How COVID-19 is Reshaping our Government, Economy, and Society
Join the Schar School Faculty, Alumni, Schar Alumni Chapter, and Dean Mark Rozell for an engaging virtual panel on the future of public policy post COVID-19 – COVID-19: How the Pandemic is Reshaping our Government, Economy, and Society. This virtual event will be moderated by Biodefense Graduate Program director Dr. Gregory Koblentz, and will be held from 2-3:30pm EST on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting unprecedented challenges to the United States and the rest of the world. Not since the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 have we experienced a pandemic of this scale and severity. Aside from the steep and growing human toll of the outbreak, virtually every aspect of our personal and professional lives are being affected. The sheer breadth of issues impacted by COVID-19 is overwhelming: public health, medicine, government, the economy, international trade, education, national security, politics, and technology, to name just a few. The effects of the pandemic are also magnified by existing cleavages within our society ranging from hyperpartisanship to racial disparities to socioeconomic inequalities. You can read more about our distinguished panel members and register for the event here.

The Future Bioweapons Threat: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic
Looking for a webinar to discuss lessons learned from COVID-19 and the implications for bioweapons threat analysis? The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) is thrilled to present its first LIVE webinar on May 28 from 3:00-4:30pm EST, which will examine the future bioweapons threat from the perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists include Max Brooks, author of World War Z and Devolution, Nonresident Fellow at The Modern War Institute and Atlantic Council, Honorable Andrew C. “Andy” Weber, Senior Fellow at Council on Strategic Risks, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs at the Pentagon, GMU Biodefense alum Dr. Saskia Popescu, Epidemiologist and Senior Infection Preventionist, HonorHealth, and Dr. Alexander Titus, Chief Strategy Officer, Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute and Senior Fellow at Council on Strategic Risks. Register for event here.

 Social Distancing During Pandemics According to the GAO
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a brief report about the science behind social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19. Based on historical studies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asserts that the area of highest risk is within 3 feet of an infected individual, but a buffer radius of 6 feet is recommended. These recommendations are founded on studies in the fields such as fluid mechanics, epidemiology, and microbiology. Other studies found that infectious droplets can travel beyond 6 feet, but the degree of infectivity of particles that travel relatively long distances is uncertain. The distance that an infectious droplet can travel depends on several factors such droplet size, humidity level, and air currents. For instance, the smaller the droplet, the farther it can potentially travel. The goal of social distancing (keeping a personal bubble with a 6-foot radius) is to reduce the rate of transmission; however, it is not a perfect non-medical countermeasure. The speeds and distances of viral particle travel from coughing or sneezing are difficult to determine with absolute precision. Additional challenges beyond the science and calculations are related to the difficulty in application: the psychological impacts of social distancing and isolation are yet to be fully realized. Read the full two-page here.

DHS S&T Launches Indoor Predictive Modeling Tool for Coronavirus Stability
This week, the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a predictive modeling tool that estimates the natural decay of SARS-CoV-2 based on temperature within the 70-95°F range and relative humidity between 20-60%. The current iteration of the model is for stainless steel or ABS plastic surface types; nitrile (a compound used in disposable gloves) surface type will be available soon. For example, on a stainless steel or ABS plastic surface with a temperature of 77°F/25°C and relative humidity of 33%, the half-life of the virus is 11.52 hours, or 0.48 days. This model was developed to inform response efforts regarding the persistence of the virus on certain surfaces (fomites) and under specific combinations of conditions. Additional enhancements in the pipeline for this model include droplets in the air vs. on a surface, expanded temperature and humidity ranges, different surfaces. The model can be found here.

Pandemic dispatch: An infection-prevention expert on shortages, misinformation, and health worker strain on the coronavirus front line
GMU Biodefense doctoral alum and infection prevention epidemiologist Saskia Popescu discusses her experiences on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic. “For the past four months, I’ve had a front row seat to the coronavirus pandemic. Working in a major hospital system, I’ve seen first-hand the issues that have come to define the crisis: the concerns about supplies, the torrent of misinformation, and the critical problem of health care worker exposure to COVID-19. Infection preventionists such as myself work in hospitals to stop the spread of infections among patients, staff, and visitors alike. Despite our training, the coronavirus has tested hospital programs like mine, forcing us to drastically change our daily practices.” Read more here.

News of the Weird: Pajama Sales in a Pandemic
Though many industries are struggling to survive as sales have plummeted during the response to COVID-19. Pajamas, however, are in high demand as many of us remain at home; pajama sales have soared by 143%since lockdown. Real pants are optional when working from home.   According to CNN Business, eCommerce sales were up almost 50% in April, because in-person retail shopping is currently limited, if not impossible. Other items with growing demand include beer and liquor and creative audio equipment like sound mixers.

News of the Weird: Cocktail-Friendly Face Masks
Artist Ellen Macomber designed an unconventional face mask that sports a small hole fit for a straw that allows the wearer to enjoy cocktails in Covid-19. Macomber is based in the Big Easy, also called New Orleans, a city known for its round-the-clock party life. These bedazzled and flamboyant face masks run $60 a pop. She does admit that the masks are not the “best form of prevention” given its opening right into the mouth.

Biosecurity Is the Lesson We Need to Learn from the Coronavirus Pandemic
Dr. Daniel Gerstein, graduate of the Biodefense PhD program, and Dr. James Giordano wrote in The National Interest about the biosecurity lessons we need to learn from the coronavirus pandemic. Though there is no scientific evidence that the novel coronavirus was human-made, humans do bear some the blame for this pandemic. Humans disrupt and destroy the environment and its habitats, mix species as bush meat in wet markets, and experiment with dangerous pathogens. The COVID-19 pandemic and the human behavior that encouraged it signal the need to develop a new approach to biosafety and biosecurity that “addresses the full range of biological threats that humankind and the global environment will face in the future.” As humans continue to intrude into natural habitats, the risk of zoonotic disease spillover continues to increase. Over the last thirty years, 30 new human pathogens have been found, most of which originated in animals. Gerstein and Giordano encourage the expansion of biosafety and biosecurity to include consideration of the global biological ecosystem. Read the full article here.

WHO Announces the Launch of New Informational Apps
The World Health Organization (WHO) launched two COVID-19 apps for smartphones. One is for healthcare workers and the other is for the general public. For healthcare workers, the WHO Academy app provides information on COVID-19 resources, guidance, training, and virtual workshops. For the general public, the WHO Info app provides access to the latest COVID-19 news and developments. Both apps can be downloaded for free from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store.

 

Pandora Report: 4.10.2020

National Security in the Age of Pandemics
This week, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Program, and Dr. Michael Hunzeker, Associate Director of the Center for Security Policy Studies, published a commentary asserting that pandemic preparedness cannot be improved if it becomes another item on the military’s infinite laundry list of missions and threats. The COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt forced the ship’s commander to temporarily scale back operations it so that its crew could isolate themselves and later resume their duties after subduing the infection. Now, the USS Ronald Reagan is reporting positive COVID-19 cases and may have no option but to follow the lead of the Roosevelt. These events are warnings to our national security apparatus that pandemic diseases are clear and present threat to our Nation and her allies and interests. Koblentz and Hunzeker urge the US to recognize this threat and adjust to it with urgency and intensity. For more, Koblentz and Hunzeker’s article is available here.

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security 
Are you registered for the summer workshop yet? From July 13-16, 2020, GMU Biodefense will be hosting a three and a half-day workshop on all things global health security. Leaders in the field will be discussing hot topics like COVID-19, pandemic preparedness, vaccine development, medical countermeasures, synthetic biology, and healthcare response to COVID-19. This is also a great networking opportunity as past participants come from a range of government agencies, NGOs, universities, think tanks, and foreign countries. Don’t miss out on the early-bird discount for this immersive workshop – you can register here.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Attacks
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published its First Report by the Investigation and Identification Team, which strongly linked the Syrian government to the March 2017 sarin and chlorine attacks on a rebel town. Specifically, in March 2017, three projectiles – two containing sarin and one containing chlorine – were dropped from aircraft of the Syrian Arab Air Force into Ltamenah in northern Syria. In total, these weapons affected at least 106 individuals. The Washington Post reported on these findings and our own Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Program, stated that strong evidence for attribution is the first concrete step toward punishing such violations of international laws and agreements. The OPCW is not a judicial body with the ability to determine and punish criminal acts, so action must be taken by the Executive Council and the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the United Nations Secretary-General, and the international community. The full report is available here.

Smartphones and Contact Tracing
Contact tracing is a vital piece to not only public health response, but also helping “reopen” the country (keep reading for more insight into this). Unfortunately, it’s quite time and resource intensive and with widespread transmission and not enough public health resources, this can limit our capabilities. Some countries though, are looking to employe technology into contact tracing – “In Singapore, a country that’s turned to cellphone contact tracing, an app called TraceTogether uses Bluetooth to log when a user’s phone encounters another phone that has the app. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, he or she can easily submit a log of all the other people (and their phones) that he or she came in contact with in the last 21 days.” GMU’s HyunJung Kim has recently discussed this approach in South Korea – noting that “The disclosure of epidemic information is very significant for disease prevention and control, because we experienced the failure of disease control and prevention during the MERS of 2015,” HyunJung Kim, a PhD student in biodefense at George Mason University who has written about Korea’s public health system, says. “Information … makes people more comfortable because they can avoid and detour the areas/hospitals where infected people visited.” On the other hand though, such tech has ethical implications. Kelly Hills, Co-Principal of Rogue Bioethics noted that “We really have to keep our guard up against surveillance technologies that could be abused with very little effort, especially since these technologies are almost always going to be used against our most marginalized communities.” Damien P Williams, PhD candidate in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech recently noted that “First and foremost, supposedly anonymized tracking data sits alongside facial recognition as technologies which, in the current formulation of Western society, have no non-oppressive, non-exploitable use. Things developed and deployed in times of heightened fear and concern will very likely become every day violations.” Williams further stated that “Such a tool simply reinforces the trend toward surveillance technologies which are both insidiously abusive and also disproportionately leveraged against already-marginalized communities, as it has been the case with technologies and research in this vein, for literally centuries.” Where do you land on the topic?

Small Groups, Big Weapons: The Nexus of Emerging Tech and WMD Terrorism
A paradigm shift in recent years has seen non-state actors enhance their capabilities to utilize WMDs. A new report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, is shedding light on the changes to capital, infrastructure, and intellectual capacity that are aiding this shift. “The commercialization of emerging technologies is reducing the financial, intellectual, and material barriers required for WMD development and employment. This report surveys three emerging technologies—synthetic biology, additive manufacturing (commonly known as 3D printing), and unmanned aerial systems—and examines the nexus of each with nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons agent proliferation. It examines how non-state actors might use these emerging technologies to overcome traditional barriers against the development and employment of WMD.” You can access the report here.

Inadequate PPE Distribution & Hospital Experiences Responding to COVID-19: A U.S. Survey 
Just how well are hospitals managing the current pandemic? Not well. A survey by the HHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) across U.S. hospitals from March 23-27, revealed some sobering insight into the challenges of COVID-19 response. 323 hospitals across 46 states chatted with the OIG on this (at least the hospital administrators did…). At a glance, the findings aren’t surprising – severe shortages of testing supplies, extended waits for results, widespread shortage of PPE, challenges maintaining adequate staffing and hospital capacity to treat patients, shortages of critical supplies and materials, and changing/sometimes inconsistent guidance. “Hospitals reported that changing and sometimes inconsistent guidance from Federal, State, and local authorities posed challenges and confused hospitals and the public. Hospitals reported that it was sometimes difficult to remain current with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance and that they received conflicting guidance from different government and medical authorities, including criteria for testing, determining which elective procedures to delay, use of PPE, and getting supplies from the national stockpile. Hospitals also reported concerns that public misinformation has increased hospital workloads (e.g., patients showing up unnecessarily, hospitals needing to do public education) at a critical time.” This is an insightful and telling report about the current challenges hospitals are facing in the U.S., not only in responding to COVID-19, but also preparing for it. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only report regarding inadequate supplies and distribution of PPE and vital medical supplies across the U.S. to various states. A new document has been released from HHS on the insufficient distribution of these critical pieces to healthcare response. “Only 11.7 million N95 respirator masks have been distributed nationwide—less than 1% of the 3.5 billion masks that the Trump Administration estimated would be necessary in the event of a severe pandemic. Only 7,920 ventilators have been distributed from the stockpile, even though a recent survey of 213 mayors—which did not include New York City, Chicago, or Seattle—identified a total estimated need of 139,000 ventilators.” Moreover, the report notes that the Strategic National Stockpile has made its last shipment of PPE for states as it now has 10% left, which will be reserved for federal workers and not distributed to states.

When Can We “Reopen” the U.S.? 
The U.S. has over 427,000 cases and 14,696 deaths related to COVID-19, but many of us have been wondering, when will we be able to go back out to restaurants and congregate in public? The answer though, isn’t so simple and frankly, contingent upon a lot of factors like rapid testing and the ability to do contact tracing. First– “Number one: any given state that’s considering relaxing social distancing should have a demonstrated downward trend in cases over the two weeks prior. And we need to get better at being able to evaluate trend data across the country. Ultimately it would be good to have more data that would allow decision makers to be able to look at neighboring states and make sure they’re congruent with others in the region.” Beyond this and a sustained reduction in cases, we need widespread availability of PPE for healthcare workers. An adequately supplied healthcare infrastructure is critical and we must support healthcare workers as they face an onslaught of cases across the U.S.

Biodefense and Pandemic Policy
With each week, we learn more about ignored messages, red flags, and exercises that shed light on the very real failures in pandemic preparedness/response we are living right now. From the disbanding of the NSC global health security team to the failures in following the 69-page pandemic playbook, there have been several missteps and delays in the administration’s response. “The playbook was designed ‘so there wasn’t piecemeal thinking when trying to fight the next public health battle,’ said one former official who contributed to the playbook, warning that ‘the fog of war’ can lead to gaps in strategies.” Pandemic preparedness is no easy task, but many are looking at previous presidential responses to biological threats as an indicator that what we’re seeing now isn’t ideal. Within the most recent International Affairs journal, there is a reading list regarding global health crises that shed light on behavior norms and response measures during such events. In this collection, you’ll see GMU Biodefense professor and graduate program director Gregory Koblentz’s review of the Obama administration’s strategy for countering biology threats. “This strategy represents a shift in thinking away from the George W. Bush administration’s focus on biodefence, which emphasized preparing for and responding to biological weapon attacks, to the concept of biosecurity, which includes measures to prevent, prepare for and respond to naturally occurring and man-made biological threats.” The current COVID-19 pandemic will be a pivotal moment in biodefense and biosecurity policy, hopefully guiding future efforts and investments into pandemic preparedness.

Student Spotlight: PREDICT-ing the Next Pandemic?
Michael Krug, a second-year student in the Biodefense MS program, November 2019 article highlights the critical need for comprehensive and quick biosurveillance tools to aid in pandemic preparedness. Last week, the decision was made to end USAID’s PREDICT project. PREDICT was established in 2009 to help develop wide-ranging detection capabilities; it was a component of the early-warning system. the project identified 1,200 viruses – including 160 novel coronaviruses – with the potential to induce a pandemic. Beyond identification, the project trained and supported staff across 60 foreign laboratories, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Krug points out that the dissolution of PREDICT is an unfortunate reversal away from the US goal of slowing the emergence (or reemergence) of infectious diseases. This week, the LA Times reported on the termination of PREDICT, corroborating the echoed Krug’s sentiments and shared the announcement that the PREDICT program was just extended through September so that it can assist in the COVID-19 response.

Why Giving Americans Checks Makes Sense
In response to the March 22 column by Steven Pearlstein stating that providing funds to every American would be a bad idea, you can now read a rebuttal here. Included in this list of respondents is GMU Biodefense professor Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley, who noted that “The plan to send money to every American may not be economically sound in normal circumstances, but it is an appropriate response to the economic hardships caused by this pandemic. And it could help curb the spread of the disease. True, many people will maintain their income, but what about the short-term burden people will face because of the pandemic? What about the employee who already lost her job and needs to care for her children? What about elderly people who have no one to rely on and who cannot stock up on food? These people need cash now to face the additional (temporary) economic burden caused by the epidemic. More important, they need it now to heed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines: Stay home for a long enough period to break the transmission chain of the disease.”

Pandora Report: 2.28.2020

Welcome to your favorite weekly source for all things biodefense! We’ll be doing a shorter, slightly delayed newsletter next week, but rest assured, your source for global health security news will be back in full force on March 13th. Fortunately, we’ve got a registration page for you to reserve a spot (with an early-bird registration discount!) for the 2020 workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika.

Experts Examine COVID-19 and an Unsettling Response by the Chinese Government
Missed the Coronavirus and Its International Ramifications February 21st event at GMU? Here’s a great recap. While the lively discussion was even-tempered, the information imparted about the global health crisis was often staggering. No less than a longtime veteran of international health emergencies—including investigating Japan’s nuclear reactor crisis—is alarmed. “This is an astonishing outbreak,” said senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Stephen Morrison, director of the center’s Global Health Policy Center. “What we think we know today could change tomorrow.”

International Security Crisis Reader
This week’s International Security Crisis Reader covers biosecurity and the global Covid-19 pandemic. An article by our own Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at GMU, is a featured piece. Koblentz’s Spring 2010 article, “Biosecurity Reconsidered: Calibrating Biological Threats and Responses,” describes how biosecurity arose as a critical component of the international security agenda, scrutinizes the contending definitions and conceptualizations of biosecurity, and outlines a taxonomy of naturally-occurring and human-made biological threats to international security. Other featured articles cover HIV/AIDS amidst the conflict in Africa, globalization and biosecurity, and intelligence assessments for biosecurity threats. The Crisis Reader can be found here.

SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 Pandemic Updates
This week has been non-stop in terms of COVID-19 news and cases. From possible community spread in California, and  8,400 people being monitored, to a state of emergency being called in certain counties, there’s been a lot going on. On Thursday evening, the CDC revised the criteria to guide evaluation of patients under investigation for COVID-19 – this now expands to those with symptoms and travel to an affected area (China, Iran, Italy, Japan, and South Korea), as well as those with severe acute respiratory illness requiring hospitalization without a source of exposure. A whistle blower recently came forward and “is seeking federal protection after complaining that more than a dozen workers who received the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, lacked proper training or protective gear for coronavirus infection control.” On Wednesday President Trump gave a press conference on the pandemic, breaking from what senior public health officials have said about the likelihood for additional cases in the United States. Vice President Pence has also been tasked with leading the COVID-19 response in the U.S., however there was concern on Thursday regarding the communication channels that are now being put in place. Shortages and communication gaps within response has been problematic in recent weeks, with comments of disruption being left to air without more guidance. Many are wondering how they can prepare though and experts have worked to dispel fear but also encourage general preparedness measures. GMU biodefense alum Saskia Popescu recently spoke on this, noting that “‘A lot of preparedness is planning ahead of time,”’ Popescu said.’“Practice makes permanent. If I have a plan, that means I don’t have to panic.’ ‘The most important thing right now is to remain calm,’ she said. ‘Remember, we don’t have that many cases in the U.S., and prevention strategies for this coronavirus are not new. We’ve been doing them for years’.” You can also hear her speak on NPR’s On Point with Jeremy Konyndyk regarding preparedness in the United States. Cases have continued to grow outside of China as Italy, South Korea, and Iran all report many infections. As COVID-19 cases spring up more and more outside of China, thoughts of containment have moved to mitigation. There has been increasing attention to the economic impact of the pandemic, and the UBS Chief Investment Office recently noted “While the situation in China appears to be improving, the next two weeks will be important in determining whether the authorities in Europe and elsewhere can quickly contain the outbreak, or whether there is a further rapid spread of the virus.The full impact on economic activity from the COVID-19 epidemic remains in a state of flux.” Moreover, they note that “In a risk case where containment in China takes much longer or the spread abroad significantly worsens, further reductions to growth would have to be made.” Realistically, how does one keep China’s economy running with 750 million in quarantine? Public trust has been hard hit and overstressed public health/healthcare systems aren’t helping. “The good news for Xi and the party at the moment is a decline in reported new cases and deaths nationwide (the vast majority in Hubei). The bad news, however, is that Hubei’s horrors have tarnished the trust many Chinese had in their officials’ ability to safeguard citizens’ lives and livelihoods.” Realistically, this also calls into attention the travel bans that despite continued use, fail to be truly effective. From discouraging transparency to the realistic issues in focusing on symptoms during respiratory virus season, these efforts appear more taxing than helpful. The economic impact of the outbreak will continue to be a topic of conversation though, as President Trump scrambles to downplay the stock market losses this week.

Synthetic Biology Surprise: Synthesis of Vaccinia Virus
Dr. Gregory D Koblentz, the Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, published an article this week in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about a frightening feat in biotechnology that remains unnoticed amidst the chaos of Covid-19. In January, Tonix Pharmaceuticals discreetly announced that it had successfully synthesized the vaccinia, the virus used for the smallpox vaccine, in a press release about a poster it presented at an American Society for Microbiology conference. Tonix’s “achievement” was sought after despite serious concerns from several biosecurity experts, many of whom raised criticism of the firm’s synthesis of horsepox virus in 2017. Of grave concern is the utility of synthesized vaccinia as the benefits do not outweigh the risks. In fact, synthesis is unnecessary for researching vaccinia as samples are widely available.  Any claims that Tonix’s work was intended to help develop an improved or safer smallpox vaccine are undercut by the recently licensed JYNNEOS vaccine, a 3rd generation smallpox vaccine developed by Bavaria Nordic. The resources and skills needed to synthesize even complicated viruses are becoming more readily available as synthetic biology and the flourishing bioeconomy lower costs and simplify processes. Unfortunately, the lack of regulations and oversight for DNA synthesis, whether in the name of peaceful research or otherwise, is not matching pace with its accessibility to scientists and DIY bio-users. This is yet another example of the possibilities – both beneficial and detrimental – made reality by synthetic biology, and the risks of puny safeguards for its tools and data.

Upcoming Event: The Story of Technology by Daniel Gerstein, PhD
On 4 March 2020, the CSPS Speaker Series is hosting Dr. Daniel Gerstein, a GMU Biodefense PhD alumnus, to discuss his new book, The Story of Technology: How We Got Here and What the Future Holds. The book examines the rapid proliferation and pervasive influence of technology in human societies. Dr. Gerstein is a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, and he has served in the Department of Homeland Security as Under Secretary (Acting) and Deputy Under Secretary in the Science and Technology Directorate. Dr. Gerstein will be joined by Ellen Laipson, Director of the Master’s in International Security program and CSPS, and Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Program. The event will take place at Noon in Room 113 of Van Metre Hall. Drinks and cookies will be provided. Register here.

Opportunities with the GHSA Next Gen Network
The Global Health Security Agenda’s Next Generation Network just announced its 2020 theme: Inclusive Expansion. Toward that, applications for the Next Gen Mentorship Program are open until 18 March and matches will be announced on 2 April. Apply here for the Mentorship Program. Additionally, leadership positions are available as regional coordinators; apply here. Other opportunities include helping to translate documents into multiple languages. To assist, email your name and language proficiencies to the coordinator at nextgenghsa@gmail.com. For more information on the Global Health Security Agenda click here and for more information on the GHSA Next Generation Network click here.

Covering COVID-19: What do you need to know?
Don’t miss this March 10th event hosted by the Association of Health Care Journalists. The COVID-19 outbreak story is evolving quickly and there are many unknowns about the epidemic, including how contagious the virus is, its mortality rate and whether there is undetected spread occurring outside of China. Providing accurate information to the public is more important than ever in this moment of uncertainty. Hear a panel of infectious disease experts and a journalist explain what is known, what to watch out for, where to find trusted resources and how to combat misinformation and confusion. Speakers include: Maryn McKenna, independent journalist, author; Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Human Health at Emory University. Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.A., director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Saskia Popescu, senior infection preventionist at Honor Health, ELBI Fellow, and managing editor of Pandora Report.