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: 1.6.2023

Happy New Year! This first edition of the year covers a number of updates from happenings over the course of our break, including the announcement of an exciting new book on genome editing from a Biodefense Program alumna. We also discuss the XBB.1.5 sub-variant, Dr. Fauci’s retirement from government, and more this week.

XBB.1.5 is the Most Transmissible COVID-19 Strain Yet According to WHO

XBB.1.5, yet another Omicron subvariant, rapidly went from accounting for just 4% of new US COVID-19 cases to more than 44% in a matter of weeks. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead, said this week “We are concerned about its growth advantage, in particular in some countries in Europe and the Northeast part of the United States, where XBB.1.5 has rapidly replaced other circulating sub-variants.” Thus far, the strain has been detected in at least 29 countries, though the WHO cautions it could be circulating in many more. Importantly, as Politico notes, “Van Kerkhove said the increase in hospitalizations in the Northeast cannot be attributed yet to XBB.1.5 because other respiratory illnesses, including flu, could be partially responsible.”

The WHO does not have data on the severity of the sub-variant yet, though it is currently conducting a risk assessment and monitoring any possible changes in severity via lab studies and real world data. Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, recently Tweeted that immunity against this subvariant is “probably not great” if someone’s prior infection was before July 2022 or if they have not received a bivalent COVID-19 booster. However, he indicated Paxlovid and Molnupiravir as well as current COVID-19 tests should still work sufficiently against this sub-variant.

FY 2023 Omnibus Brings Changes in Global Health Funding, Gain of Function Research

Weeks before the current hullabaloo of the 118th Congress began, President Biden signed the late 2022 Omnibus appropriations bill on December 29, 2022, bringing about $1.7 trillion in funding for different programs that deal with health broadly. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the bill “…ncludes funding for U.S. global health programs at the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and National Institutes of Health (NIH). Funding provided to the State Department and USAID through the Global Health Programs (GHP) account, which represents the bulk of global health assistance, totals $10.6 billion, an increase of $731 million above the FY 2022 enacted level and $15 million below the FY 2023 request. The bill provides higher levels of funding for almost all program areas compared to the FY 2022 enacted level, with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund) and global health security receiving the largest increases; funding for bilateral HIV and family planning and reproductive health (FPRH) remained flat. Funding for global health provided to the CDC totals $693 million, an increase of $46 million compared to the FY22 enacted level, but $55 million below the FY23 request. Funding for the Fogarty International Center (FIC) at the NIH totaled $95 million, $8 million above the FY22 enacted level and essentially flat compared to the FY23 request.”

The new legislation also takes aim at gain-of-function (GoF) research, after GOP lawmakers pushed the administration to halt federally-funded GoF research, citing beliefs that such research is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. On page 3,354 of the more than 4,100 page bill, it reads, “(1) IN GENERAL.—Beginning not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall not fund research conducted by a foreign entity at a facility located in a country of concern, in the estimation of the Director of National Intelligence or the head of another relevant Federal department or agency, as appropriate, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, involving pathogens of pandemic potential or biological agents or toxins listed pursuant to section 351A(a)(1) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 262a(a)(1)).”

The Act also includes provision for tempering undue foreign influence in biomedical research, such as foreign talent recruitment programs, and addressing national security risks related to biomedical research generally. Importantly, too, it provides greater funding for countermeasure development, including $1.5 billion for the recently formed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, and $3.3 billion for MCM research and improving elements like the Strategic National Stockpile.

For a concise run-down, check out the KFF’s budget tracker to see details on historical annual appropriations for global health programming.

On the Topic of Risky Research…

With all the political mudslinging regarding GoF and biomedical research in general, it is important to have access to quality information about the facilities around the world conducting this kind of research. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently highlighted the work of Drs. Greg Koblentz and Filippa Lentzos on this front–Global Biolabs. The Bulletin explains, “George Mason University biosecurity expert Gregory Koblentz, who co-leads the project with Filippa Lentzos, a King’s College London researcher, said shining a light on the proliferation of the labs can help cut through misinformation about them and allow for a clear-eyed look at how these beneficial, yet also potentially risky facilities are managed. “One of the goals of our project is to increase transparency and educate the public and policy-makers about these labs’ activities and what governance measures are necessary to ensure they are operating safely, securely, and responsibly,” Koblentz said. “Accurate information is a prerequisite for an informed debate on the benefits and risks posed by these labs.”

Throughout the rest of the piece, Dr. Koblentz addresses common questions and assumptions about high risk work and the kinds of facilities it takes place in, covering everything from national-level biosafety and dual-use research policies to the time and effort it takes to actually build these facilities, and the challenges in gauging on-the-ground implementation of good policy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci Retires From Federal Service

After a marathon 38-years as the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci retired from government on December 31, 2022. During his tenure, he advised seven presidents on HIV/AIDS and other domestic and global health issues, even serving as one of the main architects of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a program estimated to have saved more than 20 million lives. Having served the American public for more than 50-years, Dr. Fauci has earned distinctions such as a Federal Citation for Exemplary Leadership from the National Academy of Medicine in 2020, the National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush in 2005, and, in 2008, the Presidential Medal of Freedom-the highest civilian award in the United States, bestowed by the President of the United States to recognize those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors.” In a famous 1988 clip from that year’s presidential debate, then Vice President George H.W. Bush identified a then relatively unknown Dr. Fauci as his idea of an American hero, commending his work to fight HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Fauci’s career ended in a rocky last couple years as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world and, amid the United States’ lackluster response, public health and its leadership became increasingly politicized. The GOP has increasingly targeted Dr. Fauci, even going so far as to promise to investigate his role in the COVID-19 response upon taking control of the House of Representatives. Dr. Fauci has indicated he is fully willing to testify and cooperate with such an investigation, saying he has nothing to hide.

Despite the incessant calls to “fire” or “imprison Fauci,” the esteemed former NIAID director has indicated he does not plan to completely stop his work now that he is no longer a government employee. He told the New York Times that he “…hopes to do some public speaking, become affiliated with a university and treat patients if it has a medical center. He intends to write a memoir, he said, and he wants to encourage people to pursue careers in science, medicine and public service.”

When asked, “Are there other threats that you think about beyond infectious disease threats?,” Dr. Fauci responded: “What really, really concerns me is the politicization of public health principles. How you can have red states undervaccinated and blue states well vaccinated and having deaths much more prevalent among people in red states because they’re undervaccinated — that’s tragic for the population,” showcasing his unfailing concern and dedication to the mission to the very end.

IAVI’s Ebola Sudan Vaccine Arrives in Uganda

IAVI, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, announced in late December that the first shipment of its Sudan virus (SUDV) vaccine arrived in Entebbe, Uganda, on December 17. IAVI’s press release explains the goal of shipping its candidate, writing “The IAVI vaccine candidate is one of three intended to be evaluated in a “ring vaccination” clinical trial being planned to assess vaccine effectiveness in preventing Ebola Sudan disease, should the outbreak in Uganda continue or recur. In November, a WHO-convened expert independent group ranked IAVI’s investigational SUDV vaccine candidate as the number one priority investigational vaccine for inclusion in the trial. As public health measures implemented in Uganda have fortunately been successful in limiting new cases of Ebola Sudan virus disease, it may not be possible to conduct a formal ring vaccination study. Even if the ring vaccination trial cannot be conducted as currently designed, IAVI will continue to move our program forward as expeditiously as possible. Alternative clinical studies are being considered that would contribute to the evidence base needed to bring promising vaccine candidates to regulatory approval and support their use to control future outbreaks. These studies will be co-sponsored by the Ministry of Health in Uganda and WHO, with support from other partners.”

“Genome Editing and Biological Weapons: Assessing the Risk of Misuse”

In her new book, GMU Biodefense PhD alumna Dr. Katherine Paris introduces state-of-the-art genome editing technologies, and she assesses the risk that nefarious actors could intentionally misuse these technologies to develop more dangerous biological weapons. Dr. Paris uncovers how concerns over the possible misuse of genetic engineering began in the mid-1970s, and she traces how these warnings unfolded over time. These cautions came to a head in the 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the United States Intelligence Community, which warned about the deliberate or unintentional misuse of genome editing to create harmful biological agents or products. In the foreword of Genome Editing and Biological Weapons: Assessing the Risk of Misuse, Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Biodefense Graduate Program Director, emphasizes the need for a “thorough, informed, and accessible analysis” of genome editing technologies, which Dr. Paris delivers in her book.

Dr. Paris systematically assesses both the risk of misuse and the potential governability of genome editing technologies. Policymakers have the ultimate challenge of protecting and safeguarding the continued development and use of genome editing for legitimate purposes, while putting in place biodefense and biosecurity strategies to prevent misuse. Dr. Paris provides a tailored set of recommendations that are sensitive to the cost-benefit trade-off of regulating genome editing technologies. The book is a must-read for policymakers as well as researchers, defense and security personnel, and intelligence analysts.

Dr. Paris is a Senior Program Analyst with over a decade’s worth of government contracting experience, and she is a certified Project Management Professional. Prior to her studies in Biodefense at GMU, she earned her MS in Biotechnology at Johns Hopkins University and BS in Biology from the University of Virginia. Dr. Paris continues her involvement at GMU as a mentor for students in the Schar School Alumni Mentoring Program.

“The Treaties That Make the World Safer Are Struggling”

Jen Kirby, a Senior Foreign and National Security Reporter at Vox, recently authored this piece discussing current issues in international disarmament and nonproliferation, focusing in large part on the Biological Weapons Convention. Kirby summarizes last year’s BWC RevCon, writing “But after three weeks of discussions that ended about a week before Christmas, the BWC RevCon ended up a modest success. The parties basically agreed to agree to keep talking, establishing a working group, which would meet for a little more than two weeks each year and deal with a long, long list of issues related to the BWC, including evaluating developments in science and technology and potential verification and compliance measures. And the unit that implements the convention would get another staff member. A team of three people tasked with helping to keep the world free of bioweapons became four.”

She then writes, “Modest,” then, is doing a lot of work. But in this geopolitical climate, you take what you can get.”

The piece continues, covering US political wrangling at past RevCons and comparable issues with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. She explains that this is part of a broader issue, writing “The Ukraine war and its fallout may be among the biggest current threats to global stability. But Russia is not alone. China is expanding its nuclear arsenal and has rebuffed attempts to engage bilaterally on arms control with the US even as the competition between Washington and Beijing escalates. North Korea is likely closing in on more nuclear tests. Tensions simmer between nuclear powers India and Pakistan. The United States tore up the Iran deal during the Trump administration, one of a few arms control treaties Washington exited in recent years, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement (INF) and the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed for unarmed reconassaince flights. The latter two exits chipped away at the arms control regime with Russia, even as the US had very valid claims of Russian noncompliance.”

“The 20-Year Boondoggle”

In this piece for The Verge, Amanda Chicago Lewis writes, “The Department of Homeland Security was supposed to rally nearly two dozen agencies together in a modernized, streamlined approach to protecting the country. So what the hell happened?” In it, she discusses the early and enduring challenges of forming DHS and ensuring it meets is goals, focusing in part on the BioWatch program in addition to ongoing issues with Congressional approval and agency morale in the catch-all department.

She writes, “The dysfunction might have been funny, in a Dilbert-meets-Veep way, if the stakes weren’t so high. Albright was overseeing a project called BioWatch, a system intended to detect traces of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. Bush described BioWatch in his 2003 State of the Union as “the nation’s first early warning network of sensors,” which would initiate processes to mobilize hospitals, alert the public, and deploy supplies from the national stockpile.”

She continues, “There was only one problem: BioWatch never functioned as intended. The devices were unreliable, causing numerous false positives. “It was really only capable of detecting large-scale attacks,” Albright explained, because of “how big a plume would have to be” for the sensors to pick it up. And the system was prohibitively slow: every 24 hours, someone had to retrieve a filter and then send it to a laboratory for testing, which might then take another 24 hours to discover a pathogen.”

“The time required after BioWatch might pick up evidence of a toxin and the time required to get it to somebody who might be able to reach a conclusion there might be a terrorist attack — my God, by that time, a lot of people would have gotten sick or died,” former Senator Joe Lieberman told me.”

“Hacked Russian Files Reveal Propaganda Agreement with China”

In this piece for The Intercept, Mara Hvistendahl and Alexey Kovalev cover Russia’s attempts to coordinate with China to spread disinformation about the United States’ Cooperative Threat Reduction program and its facilities in Ukraine. In their piece, they explain that, “A bilateral agreement signed July 2021 makes clear that cooperating on news coverage and narratives is a big goal for both governments. At a virtual summit that month, leading Russian and Chinese government and media figures discussed dozens of news products and cooperative ventures, including exchanging news content, trading digital media strategies, and co-producing television shows. The effort was led by Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development, Communication and Mass Media, and by China’s National Radio and Television Administration.”

“In the propaganda agreement, the two sides pledged to “further cooperate in the field of information exchange, promoting objective, comprehensive and accurate coverage of the most important world events.” They also laid out plans to cooperate on online and social media, a space that both countries have used to seed disinformation, pledging to strengthen “mutually beneficial cooperation in such issues as integration, the application of new technologies, and industry regulation.” 

Read this piece here.

Managing Hazardous and Biohazardous Materials/Waste in the Laboratory Setting

The Chesapeake Area Biological Safety Association recently announced this technical seminar offering from Triumvirate Environmental, which will take place at 6 pm on January 10, 2023 both virtually and in-person in Gaithersburg, MD. “Laboratories can generate biohazardous and hazardous waste. Confusion is not uncommon on what the differences are when it comes to disposal and handling.  This webinar will review the differences and discuss proper handling and disposal of each type of waste.  Potential recycling options will also be discussed.” Learn more 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.

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 “Before perpetrating the infamous Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, this Japanese cult attempted to disseminate botulinum neurotoxin and Bacillus anthracis, among other agents. What was the name of this cult prior to its split/name change in 2007?”

Shout out to Scott H. (a loyal reader and proud parent of a talented Biodefense MS student!) for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “In 2016, there was an outbreak of what disease in reindeers in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Russia?” is anthrax.

Pandora Report: 12.23.2022

Happy Holidays from the Pandora Report! This week we are covering updates on China’s rollback of Zero-COVID policies, outcomes of the Ninth BWC RevCon, the new White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy, and more. There will be no issue next week for the holidays, so we will see you next year!

The Paper Tiger of Pandemic Response? China’s Rollback of Zero-COVID

Shockingly low case counts, the conclusion of the Party’s Central Economic Work Conference, thick smoke emanates from Beijing crematoriums, and reports of a closed-door meeting of the National Health Commission hinting at much higher infection and death counts than those officially reported…The situation in China is complex and dire right now. Rather than packing this weekly issue full of extended analysis on China’s Zero-COVID exit, there is a separate post available here covering everything from confusion over case counts, China’s real estate sector woes creating even more danger for the economy, urban-rural healthcare disparities, and more.

Harbin’s Museum of Evidence of War Crimes by the Japanese Army Unit 731 Adds New Display

China’s Museum of Evidence of War Crimes by the Japanese Army Unit 731, located in the city of Harbin in the northeast, has recently added a new exhibit with more than 20,000 artifacts. The museum, housed in what was the base for the infamous Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731, features artifacts and exhibits dedicated to Japan’s use of biological weapons and other atrocities committed by the unit during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Known officially as the Kwantung Army’s Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department, Unit 731 was commanded by LTG Shiro Ishii and conducted BW testing, controlled dehydration, vivisections, and more primarily on Chinese and Korean prisoners.

Jin Chengmin, the museum’s curator, told state media that the new exhibit includes “2,862 incriminating artifacts, 23,000 pages of historical files, and 810 minutes of video footage, which were obtained through archaeological excavations, transnational forensics, and academic research since 2015.” This includes a roster of those affiliated with the unit, showing that it had nearly 3,500 members. It is thought that 12,000 prisoners, most of them Chinese, were killed at Unit 731’s base in Harbin, with many more killed in field offices throughout Manchuria. The United States, through GEN Douglas MacArthur, traded those involved at Unit 731 immunity for information about their experiments, according to former US officers and declassified documents. Images of the new exhibit are available in Xinhua‘s article about the new displays.

Pandemic Preparedness and Response Gets Permanent Spot at the White House

Ebola czars, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and other ad hoc positions created at the White House in response to everything from HIV/AIDS to Zika could soon be a thing of the past as bipartisan members of Congress look to establish the White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy. According to STAT next year’s funding package includes provisions establishing this office by hiring a director and up to 25 staff. Furthermore, “The new director’s main responsibilities would be to advise the president on preparing for pandemics and other biological threats, to coordinate response activities across the federal government — including research into new countermeasures and distribution of medical supplies — and to evaluate the government’s readiness. The director would also be a member of the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council.” The director would also have to lead an interagency working group that would evaluate biosecurity and preparedness, touching on an area many believe is under prioritized.

It is not clear how much this office would overlap with the existing NSC Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense or whether it would have its own budget. Furthermore, as STAT highlights, “One of the most important factors for the new office’s success would be whether officials leading the defense and health departments truly believe that the new director actually has the backing and authority of the president to direct spending plans and coordinate resources, Bernard said.” The Senate passed the version of the $1.7 trillion spending bill containing these measures last night. It is expected to pass the House before being signed by President Biden.

Outcomes of the Ninth Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference

As we discussed last week, the Ninth BWC RevCon wrapped up recently, bringing a few important changes for the the next few years aimed at improving implementation of the BWC. The US Department of State released this press statement on RevCon this week:

“The Ninth Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Review Conference concluded on December 16 with the adoption by consensus of a final document, which launches a new, expert-led process to strengthen the BWC to address the challenges of the future. We congratulate Special Representative Ken Ward and his team for their hard work during the three weeks of the Review Conference and the numerous preparatory meetings over the past year. We also commend Ambassador Leonardo Bencini, President of the Review Conference, for his dedication in bringing the States Parties to consensus on a final document.”

“The Review Conference established a new Working Group that will make recommendations on measures to strengthen the BWC. These will address advances in science and technology, confidence-building and transparency, compliance and verification, as well as national implementation measures, international cooperation, and preparedness and response.”

“While the final consensus document did not include all the improvements proposed by the United States, we are confident this document is a step forward in improving implementation of the Convention. We will continue to work with other countries who share the goal of a world free of biological weapons, while ensuring that legitimate biological and public health research continues under effective safety and security guidelines and assisting other countries to meet that goal.”

The Youth For Biosecurity initiative also recently released its “Youth Recommendations for the Ninth Review Conference of the BWC,” which was presented by youth delegates to senior leaders at RevCon a couple weeks ago. The Youth for Biosecurity Initiative is “…a project funded under European Union Council Decision 2019/97 which aims at informing young scientists – in particular from the Global South – about their critical role in biosafety and biosecurity and bolstering global capacities against the misuse of biological agents.” The group’s recommendations cover issues in cooperation and assistance; developments in S&T; strengthening national implementation; assistance, response, and preparedness; and institutional strengthening of the convention.

“Experts Debate the Risks of Made-to-Order DNA”

Michael Schulson recently published this piece in Undark discussing concerns about synthetic DNA advancements and services. Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Greg Koblentz is quoted throughout the piece discussing the challenges the government faces in trying to regulate something like this. Schulson writes, “It’s not that I’m worried about something happening tomorrow. But the reality is, this capability is increasingly powerful in terms of how long the DNA fragments can be, what you can create with them, the ability of recipients to then assemble the DNA fragments into a new virus,” said Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense researcher at George Mason University. “This is the kind of thing that we really should be more proactive on — and try to get ahead of the curve.”

Of companies’ efforts to screen customers, he writes “This is the first legal requirement in the U.S. for a user of synthetic DNA to pay attention to the security safeguards that are in place for what they’re ordering,” said Koblentz, the George Mason University expert, who consulted on the bill…Ultimately, Koblentz said, the federal government should do more to incentivize good screening. For example, major federal science funders could give grants on the condition that institutions buy their DNA from more secure providers, using their market power, he said, “to require researchers to use biosecurity safeguards.”

Schulson also mentions a piece Koblentz wrote in 2020 for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists-“A biotech firm made a smallpox-like virus on purpose. Nobody seems to care”.

“Future Planning for the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Enterprise: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic”

This new Proceedings of a Workshop from the National Academies discusses the findings of a virtual meeting of leaders from government, NGOs, and the private sector that aimed to explore the nation’s public health emergency (PHE) preparedness enterprise. Discussion focused on topics like global disease surveillance, health care delivery and core public health functions, supply chain vulnerability, medical countermeasure development, and more. Download this publication for free on the National Academies’ site to learn more about the workshop and its outcomes.

“The Unintended Consequences of Information Provision: The World Health Organization and Border Restrictions during COVID-19”

Worsnop et al. discuss failures of international agreements in the context of border restrictions during the pandemic in their new article in International Studies Perspectives: “Why do some international agreements fail to achieve their goals? Rather than states’ engaging in cheap talk, evasion, or shallow commitments, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Health Regulations (IHR)—the agreement governing states’ and WHO’s response to global health emergencies—point to the unintended consequences of information provision. The IHR have a dual goal of providing public health protection from health threats while minimizing unnecessary interference in international traffic. As such, during major outbreaks WHO provides information about spread and severity, as well as guidance about how states should respond, primarily regarding border policies. During COVID-19, border restrictions such as entry restrictions, flight suspensions, and border closures have been commonplace even though WHO recommended against such policies when it declared the outbreak a public health emergency in January 2020. Building on findings from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, we argue that without raising the cost of disregarding (or the benefits of following) recommendations against border restrictions, information from WHO about outbreak spread and severity leads states to impose border restrictions inconsistent with WHO’s guidance. Using new data from COVID-19, we show that WHO’s public health emergency declaration and pandemic announcement are associated with increases in the number of states imposing border restrictions.”

“Ukraine: The Human Price of War”

Throughout this year, we have covered Russia’s targeting of civilians and healthcare facilities, an under-discussed topic. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security recently presented “Ukraine: The Human Price of War,” a “short documentary series examining the shocking attack on the country and whether Russian President Vladimir Putin and his armed forces will continue their past behavior in Syria and Chechnya – targeting civilian populations and infrastructure – including the medical sector.” The series consists of six videos covering numerous facets of this topic and featuring input from experts and professionals across the world involved in documenting and addressing these acts.

Managing Hazardous and Biohazardous Materials/Waste in the Laboratory Setting

The Chesapeake Area Biological Safety Association recently announced this technical seminar offering from Triumvirate Environmental, which will take place at 6 pm on January 10, 2023 both virtually and in-person in Gaithersburg, MD. “Laboratories can generate biohazardous and hazardous waste. Confusion is not uncommon on what the differences are when it comes to disposal and handling.  This webinar will review the differences and discuss proper handling and disposal of each type of waste.  Potential recycling options will also be discussed.” Learn more 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.

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, we’re turning our attention to sustaining Santa Clause’s operations. In 2016, there was an outbreak of what disease in reindeers in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Russia?

Shout out to Georgios P. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “Who is the longest serving director of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)?” is Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The End of Zero-COVID in China: What’s Happening and What’s Coming Next

Shockingly low case counts, the Party’s Central Economic Work Conference concludes, thick smoke emanating from Beijing crematoriums, and a closed-door meeting of the National Health Commission…

Amid the endless stream of Tweets and headlines warning of a massive wave of COVID-19 deaths in China, there is no shortage of discussion about how serious the situation in the country might become. However, there has been some confusion, incomplete information, and countless questions circulating about what is known right now. We discussed the rollback of China’s Zero-COVID policies and growing problems like antiviral shortages in last week’s Pandora Report, so check there for more detailed discussion on those topics. This update aims to explain and clarify what is known about the current situation and analyze what might happen as a result of it, covering how China is counting cases and deaths, what vaccines are available in the country, critical threats the healthcare system is facing, and what this means in the current economic and political environment in the country.

The Basics

The current wave in China is being driven by BF.7, which is short for BA.5.2.1.7, a sub-lineage of the Omicron BA.5 variant (good luck remembering all that!). BF.7 is reported to transmit faster than other variants, have a shorter incubation period, and be better able to infect those who previously had COVID-19 or are vaccinated. Dr. Li Dongzeng, Chief Physician at Beijing YouAn Hospital’s Infectious Disease Department, reported late last month that BF.7 is thought to have an R0 between 10.0 and 18.6. For context, the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 had an R0 between 2.0 and 3.0 and it officially infected 68,150 people as it ripped through Wuhan in 2020, though estimates of the true case count are as much as three times that number. Given what we have discussed previously about China’s Zero-COVID policy, specifically its failed vaccine strategy, this is incredibly dangerous with many models predicting around one million COVID-19 deaths in China in the coming months. Furthermore, with the rollback of Zero-COVID restrictions, a massive, immunologically vulnerable population is likely to be quickly infected, causing national and global economic problems. This policy pivot is also likely to further complicate business for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as its credibility is challenged by this spread and as the likely economic and human costs it will bring come to fruition.

What’s Up with China’s Case and Death Counts?

The incredibly low case and death counts China is reporting currently have left many highly skeptical of the government’s truthfulness. For example, there were officially five COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, December 20, and just two the day before-and zero in the two weeks prior. The government also reported shockingly low numbers of new cases throughout this week. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization reported that China has 26,878 new cases and 78 new deaths, causing some confusion online and in media reporting. So, what gives?

First-What Counts as China in These Numbers?

Regarding the WHO numbers, it is important to remember that they include Taiwan’s counts in the totals for China. While the WHO’s interactions with and stance on Taiwan made global headlines in early 2020, little has been done to address this issue. Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROC), initially represented China in the United Nations and its umbrella organizations. This was because China was one of the original UN member states during the organization’s creation in 1945. This predated the Chinese Communist Party’s defeat of the Kuomintang-led government of the ROC, which led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the exiling of the ROC to the island of Taiwan in 1949. The ROC (still under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek) continued to represent China in the UN until the passage of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758, or the Resolution on Admitting Peking, in 1971. This resolution recognized the PRC as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations,” giving the PRC its permanent seat on the UN Security Council and expelling “representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.”

Though Taiwan has functioned as a self-ruled democracy since 1949, the PRC insists that Taiwan is a renegade province that will eventually be reunified to the rest of the country. As a result, Taiwan lacks proper representation in organizations ranging from those in the UN System to the International Olympic Committee (where it is listed as Chinese Taipei). While this might normally seem like a purely political issue between the countries, it has important implications, particularly in the context of global health. Taiwan is an excellent international player in pandemic response, as demonstrated in its work to support other countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO has been largely unresponsive, however, which many critics argue is because the PRC forces its view of Taiwan as a province of the PRC on international organizations, irrespective of the potential harm this carries in matters like international development and global health. Earlier this year, there was a movement to allow Taiwan to attend the WHO’s World Health Assembly as an observer, which had support from 13 member states, including the United States. However, this bid was rejected.

Important to also consider is that the WHO counts Hong Kong and Macao in its counts for China, whereas some data sources differentiate between them and the mainland. Hong Kong and Macao are special administrative regions (SARs) of the PRC with their executive, legislative, and judicial powers devolved from the national PRC government. These SARs are the subject of the “one country, two systems” policy in China which came about as Hong Kong and Macao were transferred to the PRC from the United Kingdom and Portugal respectively in the late 1990s. Under this policy, the SARs would continue to have their own governments and maintain functions like overseeing their own legal financial affairs, including foreign trade. This has allowed them to hold onto their distinct cultures and functions with, for example, both SARs maintaining their own currencies separate from the PRC’s renminbi. In recent years, China has aimed to reduce the independence of the SARs, taking aim at Macao’s famous casinos this year and implementing the Hong Kong National Security Law in 2022, which sharply reduced Hong Kong’s autonomy. Importantly, despite these changes, the SARs have separate healthcare systems and have implemented different policies to control COVID-19 than the mainland. As we will discuss later, this has made the SARs an attractive location for mainlanders to seek care and vaccinations. However, the point here is that it is important to take Taiwan and the SARs into consideration when looking at COVID-19 cases and deaths in China.

What Does the PRC Consider a COVID-19 Death?

Irrespective of all this, the low number of total deaths in mainland China is still suspicious given the sudden policy reversals and sub-pay vaccines in the country. This is made worse by reports of funeral homes and crematoriums in the country being overrun by COVID-19 victims. For starters, the Chinese government is very strict in how it identifies a cause of death, which was a point of confusion even before this pandemic in comparing things like influenza mortality rates in the United States and China. However, it is even more important right now. China is only counting deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 deaths. This does not include deaths of COVID-19 patients who had pre-existing conditions, and proof like evidence of lung damage caused by SARS-CoV-2 is required for confirming COVID-19 deaths. This goes against the WHO’s guidelines and helps explain the shocking discrepancies between China and other countries’ COVID-19 death counts. During the outbreak in Shanghai earlier this year, many also claimed that their elderly family members who tested positive for COVID-19 and then later died were not included in the city’s official COVID-19 death count if they had underlying diseases, for example. Essentially this means that, even without overtly concealing numbers, China will always have a lower mortality rate than countries that count deaths where COVID-19 was a factor as COVID-19 deaths.

What About the Case Counts?

Okay, so it isn’t a COVID-19 death if a person has any kind of underlying condition or did not clearly die of pneumonia or respiratory distress after testing positive for COVID-19–but why are China’s case counts still so low? In the last two weeks, China has abandoned its mass testing strategy completely and even gone so far as to stop counting asymptomatic COVID-19 cases. It has also slashed central quarantine requirements, further reducing opportunities to accurately count cases. In May this year, as hundreds of millions were forced into lockdowns, the government ordered all cities with more than 10 million people to implement routine testing requirements and to ensure that testing facilities were available within a fifteen-minute walk from anywhere in the city. Places like malls, grocery stores, and restaurants required people to show a negative PCR test from less than 48 or 72 hours ago in order to enter, meaning that people were constantly testing even if their city, neighborhood, or building were not locked down.

Large scale mandatory testing was also mandated when cities entered lockdowns after cases were detected. For example, when Shanghai shutdown in March this year, the city tested all 26 million residents as it kept them all at home or in public quarantine centers if they were positive. The disease spread widely again this fall, prompting lockdowns across the country in an effort to control outbreaks ahead of the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, further demonstrating that the Party’s Zero-COVID strategy was not working well even with mass testing requirements.

In mid-November, as cases soared in Guangzhou and Chongqing and discontent rose across the country, the National Health Commission announced its 20 rules for optimizing Zero-COVID, which included relaxation of quarantine measures. This coincided with cities like Shijiazhuang, Yanji, and Hefei announcing they would end their mass testing programs. Later, cities like Beijing and Shenzhen relaxed their requirements for negative tests to use public transportation on December 3, which came before the total abandonment of mass testing just days later following the State Council’s announcement of its ten-point plan on December 7. Xinhua News, an official state media outlet, reported on December 7 that the new rules indicate that, “Apart from nursing homes, medical institutions, primary and secondary schools, kindergartens and other special places, people will no longer be required to provide negative nucleic acid test results and undergo health code checks to access public venues or travel to other regions.”

Furthermore, the ten-point plan’s changes in quarantine policies and determination of high/low risk areas are impacting overall case counts. While the previous 20 rules from November cut down central quarantine facility requirements, ended many mass testing requirements, and changed testing and arrival procedures for international flights, the new ten-point plan totally cut central quarantine requirements for mild and asymptomatic cases. It also changed requirements for close contacts to just five days of home quarantine as well, in lieu of being taken to a central facility. While these new requirements are helpful in that people should not be yanked away for an unknown amount of time because they are considered a close contact, these new changes also mean it is not really possible to have a reasonable understanding of the full extent of COVID-19’s spread in the country. While other countries have dealt with similar issues as at-home testing became more common, this is a much more complicated problem as China faces a winter of overwhelming case counts.

However, as we discussed on Sunday, provinces are introducing rollbacks at different paces. Now we are also seeing cities reintroducing stricter measures on their own, with Shanghai ordering schools and childcare facilities to close this Monday as cases climb. This has created a confusing patchwork of different policies and requirements, further adding to the chaos unfolding as China exits Zero-COVID. As we mentioned last time, CSIS has a helpful map tracking where provinces are at in terms of rolling back restrictions, though it is still hard to keep track of how individual cities are responding as the situation progresses.

Finally, in perhaps the most shocking change, many in China are being encouraged to go to work still even if they are positive for COVID-19. Earlier this month, with some hospitals reporting as many as 80% of their staff were infected, healthcare workers were encouraged or required to still come into work in order to keep up with demand. Now several local governments in China have asked workers to continue going to work even if they are sick in what many view as a warning of the coming economic problems that will be discussed later in this post. These complete 180° changes are simultaneously removing virtually all precautions while also overtly encouraging further infections by encouraging or requiring those who are sick to continue going around others.

Announcement of Chengdu’s new “2+3” requirements for people arriving to the city. In this scheme, arrivals will take one nucleic acid test on arrival and one on their first day at a quarantine hotel. They will spend just two days in quarantine before staying home for three days afterwards, in contrast to the 7+3 and 5+3 arrangement previously in place. For context, Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, locked down entirely for four days just in September to test its 21.2 million residents after 157 cases were detected.

A Glimpse Into What’s Actually Happening?

Despite the impossibly low official counts presenting by the government, a closed-door meeting of the National Health Commission reportedly offered a much better look into how many are currently infected. Reports claim that Sun Yang, Director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, informed the commission that at an estimated 37 million people, or about 2.6% of the population, are thought to be recently infected. Estimates from this meeting also indicate that about 248 million Chinese were infected between December 1 and 20, making the cumulative infection rate about 17.56%. The provinces with the high single-day new infection rates are Sichuan, Anhui, Hubei, Shanghai, and Hunan. Perhaps most shockingly, both Sichuan and Beijing are thought to have infection rates over 50%. Finally, infections have spread more rapidly in the Jingjinji Metropolitan Region (the megalopolis of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei), the Chengdu-Chongqing region, Hubei and Central China. In contrast, the Yangtze River Delta (another megalopolis incorporating Shanghai, China’s most populous city), the Pearl River Delta (yet another megalopolis in the Guangdong–Hong Kong–Macau Greater Bay Area), and the Northwest and Northeast regions of the country are less impacted thus far.

Post from popular Twitter account sharing Chinese social media posts and trends, Teacher Li is Not Your Teacher, featuring posts by netizens discussing the National Health Commission Meeting.

Though these reports indicate health officials believe Beijing is past the peak of this phase, this is still very clearly just the beginning of this disaster. Shanghai has already ordered schools to shutdown in anticipation of growing case counts, in contrast to Beijing (which rolled back essentially all of its COVID-19 policies) and Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and the producer of the 2+3 quarantine poster above. As we will discuss further down in this post, this situation is likely to get far worse as the disease continues to spread in other major metropolitan centers and, eventually, across rural regions of the country, especially with the country’s subpar vaccines and the approaching holiday travel season.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger(RNA): China’s COVID-19 Vaccine Problem

Earlier in the pandemic, China claimed that it was nearing production of a domestically-produced mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 (even going so far as to announce the construction of a facility to manufacture ARCoVax/AWcorna in late 2020) and that it would approve the mRNA vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech. Today, AWcorna only has emergency use approval in Indonesia, and the only people who have access to the Pfizer/BioNTech shot in China are German expats. China’s vaccination campaign has instead depended on two domestically-produced inactivated offerings-Sinopharm BIBP and CoronaVac. The country did recently approve and rollout CanSino Biologics’ aerosol offering, Convidecia Air, a viral vector vaccine growing in popularity as more Chinese seek out booster doses.

In mid-2021, the WHO approved the initial two offerings for emergency use based on limited clinical-trial data indicating that CoronaVac was about 51% effective while Sinopharm was about 79% effective. This was alright relative to the 63% efficacy reported for AstraZeneca’s viral-vector vaccine, but it was not as effective as the 90%+ reported for the Pfize-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA offerings. Nature News explained the initial criticism of China’s vaccines, writing “Both the Chinese vaccines are inactivated vaccines, which use killed SARS-CoV-2 virus. Researchers say this type of vaccine seems to be less potent because it triggers an immune response against many viral proteins. By contrast, mRNA and viral-vector vaccines target the response to the spike protein, which is what the virus uses to enter human cells.”

These numbers sound okay, especially with a high number of fully-vaccinated individuals in the country, but these efficacy rates were for the original strain found in Wuhan in 2020 and it has been several months since most people received their last dose of vaccine. 90.3% of the population has received the entire initial protocol, but, as of December 20, just 60.5% of the population has received a booster dose. Worse, those numbers shrink to 65.8% and 40% respectively for those over the age of 80 as of November. During Hong Kong’s outbreak earlier this year, similar hesitancy in elderly people (just 20% were vaccinated at the start of the outbreak in February) contributed to widespread death in the city’s nursing facilities. China announced in late December it would push to vaccinate those over the age of 60, though this is likely too little too late now, particularly given Chinese vaccines’ even more limited efficacy against Omicron and its sub-variants.

Finally, as was hinted previously, Macao and Hong Kong have become popular destinations for mainlanders throughout the pandemic, in large part because Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA offering is available in the special administrative regions. The SARs have also largely sold out of cold and flu medications and painkillers after the rollback of Zero-COVID on the mainland as people rush to find these supplies where they could.

Why Isn’t There a Vaccine Mandate?

This issue naturally leads to questions of why the government hasn’t just mandated vaccines already, even if the ones they can offer are not as effective as the mRNA offerings in the West. A vaccine mandate intuitively makes sense at first look, especially as much of the discourse about China’s handling of COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic centered on the potential benefits of authoritarian rule in pandemic response. However, if it isn’t clear yet, China is playing a unique game and even its brand of authoritarianism is not always black-and-white.

There were attempts to create a mandate, with the Beijing Municipal Health Commission announcing one this summer, for example. Dr. Yangzhong Huang at the Council on Foreign Relations explained the announcement in June, writing “On July 7, Li Ang, the deputy head of Beijing Municipal Health Commission (BMHC) announced that beginning on July 11, those who had not received COVID-19 vaccines would be denied access to public venues including libraries, museums, and cinemas. The mandate also stated that those elderly who live in military and civilian retirement and nursing homes, as well as their visitors, be fully vaccinated.”

Chinese social media was lit up with backlash over the mandate and concerns that citizens’ informed consent was being compromised. Others directly asked the municipal government to reverse the policy, which ultimately did happen the very next day on July 8. Many around the world touted this as a victory for the people, but this is bizarre event points to the difficulty in understanding China’s health policies and to a complicated vaccine hesitancy more than a purely anti-vaccine sentiment. As Huang points out, this reversal came in a city where 98% of the residents were fully vaccinated. Furthermore, that explanation does not explain why the government reversed its policy on vaccines but not on other also unpopular measures like central quarantining. This reversal was also in response to social media posts over the course of a day so, while local governments in China do make similar policy reversals in the face of opposition movements, this usually takes much more time and is the result of backlash that is much more serious in nature. While Huang’s piece focuses on fragmented authoritarianism in the CCP and friction between leaders who supported Zero-COVID and mass vaccination, it also offers very important context for understanding vaccine hesitancy in China.

While there are younger people in China who have openly avoided getting vaccinated for COVID-19, this problem is concentrated in the elderly population. Again using the example of Hong Kong this year, 20% were vaccinated at the start of the outbreak in February, in sharp contrast to the more than 60% in that same group who were vaccinated for seasonal influenza. For reasons discussed earlier in this post, it makes sense for Hong Kong’s elderly to be hesitant to take a vaccine offered by the PRC’s government. However, these low rates were true despite the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine being available.

While some point to the initial focus on essential workers as a likely reason why vaccination rates lag in China’s elderly population, a history of scandal is likely in large part to blame. For example, in 2018, Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences was fined ¥ 9.11 billion (about $1.32 billion at the time) after an investigation by the National Medical Products Administration found the company in violation of eight drug regulations. This kind of punishment was at the very least rare and came after some had severe reactions to the company’s rabies vaccine. The incident led many netizens to express their distrust in the country’s pharmaceutical industry, prompting calls from the likes of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang for severe punishment for the company. However, the effects of this and similar events seem to have stuck around.

John Ruwitch discussed this issue recently in a piece for NPR, writing “It wasn’t always like this, according to Mary Brazelton, an expert in the history of science and medicine in China at the University of Cambridge.​ In the months after the Communist takeover in 1949, the Chinese government launched several successful vaccination campaigns, taking on smallpox, tuberculosis, diphtheria and other diseases.”

He continues, “If you look at earlier periods in the People’s Republic of China’s history…what you see is in some ways almost the opposite in terms of really strong vaccination programs that work quite hard to convince people, particularly elderly people, to receive vaccines against infectious diseases,” Brazelton says. But lax oversight and corruption during recent decades of breakneck economic growth has led to a string of product quality scandals in China — from baby formula cut with industrial chemicals to contaminated blood thinner and tainted vaccines.​”

Now, as the government rushes to try and vaccinate more people, they seem to be pulling out every stop short of using foreign mRNA vaccines, seemingly sticking to the most flawed gun in the safe. Furthermore, this points to a complicated and sensitive situation for Chinese citizens as they try to balance the realities of heavily censored channels of communication, poor signaling and a history of mismanagement from the government, and a desire to protect themselves as best as possible. This situation, unfortunately, is likely to get much worse in the coming weeks as the healthcare system is overwhelmed.

Growing Danger for China’s Broken Healthcare System

Much of the world watched in horror in February 2020 as time lapse footage of Wuhan’s nearly overnight construction of two temporary hospitals to manage COVID-19 cases as the city’s normal hospitals became overburdened dominated news coverage. This wasn’t unique in the government’s epidemic playbook, as it had similarly erected the Xiaotangshan Hospital in Beijing amid the outbreak of SARS in 2003. However, it highlights an important flaw in the playbook. This kind of construction doesn’t really do much in the absence of an appropriately sized and prepared healthcare workforce. China faced a shortage of physicians and nurses well before the pandemic, a fact made much worse once case counts soared in 2020. Furthermore, as diseases spread across the country, Chinese rural citizens are typically left much less protected than their urban counterparts. These are central issues to the looming COVID-19 crisis unfurling in the country today.

The PRC has undergone significant healthcare reforms in the last decade or so, in large part through the Healthy China 2020 initiative, which sought to cut healthcare costs by increasing the percentage of care covered by insurance. Furthermore, as of 2020, about 95% of the population has at least some form of health insurance, though it typically covers only about half of medical costs. Coverage is split between employee medical insurance for employed urban residents, and resident medical insurance for unemployed urban and rural residents. About 75% of those insured in the country are insured by the resident medical insurance program, pointing to the sheer portion of the population that is either rural and unemployed.

This is an especially concerning fact as the healthcare system is overly reliant on urban hospitals for basic healthcare. The United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) notes that hospitals account for 3.5% of medical institutions in China despite handling 45% of all outpatient visits. So, while the Party views quality healthcare delivery as an important part of its political agenda and there have been improvements in coverage and care, there are still serious issues in providing quality care nationally. As is often the case, corruption is a large part of this problem. As the USCC explains:

“Corruption among China’s hospitals and doctors is a widely acknowledged problem that has contributed to a low level of public trust in the country’s healthcare system and at times led to violence against Chinese doctors. In many cases, doctors accept illicit payments, known as hongbao, from patients in exchange for a higher quality of care. The practice of hongbao is widespread in China: in a 2013 survey of residents of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, nearly one-third of respondents said they or a family member had given hongbao to physicians between 2000 and 2012. In addition to accepting these payments from patients, doctors and hospital officials also receive kickbacks for purchasing certain types of medical equipment or pharmaceutical products, a practice that has been described as “endemic” in China. In a 2010 survey of Chinese doctors, 78 percent of respondents said healthcare companies could not compete in China without paying bribes.”

This seems to bleed into patient distrust of medical clinics, interestingly, contributing to the over-reliance on hospitals to treat minor conditions. Beyond simple perceived incompetence of clinic physicians, there is a cycle of patient-physician mistrust at this level, as Nie at al. have discussed in Developing World Bioethics. They write, “Mistrust (particularly physicians’ distrust of patients and their relatives) leads to increased levels of fear and self-protection by doctors which exacerbate difficulties in communication; in turn, this increases physician workloads, adding to a strong sense of injustice and victimization. These factors produce poorer healthcare outcomes and increasingly discontented and angry patients, escalate conflicts and disputes, and result in negative media coverage, all these ultimately contributing to even greater levels of mistrust.”

This is worse at small clinics, with providers enduring verbal and physical abuse at the hands of patients’ loved ones. There is even a recently coined term, zhiye yilao that describes a “medical mob”, or “people who support families and their relatives in demanding financial compensation from hospitals following medical disputes, as Nie et al. highlight. While many of China’s elites can afford to simply seek care at a private hospital, this is not the case for the majority of Chinese who rely on public hospitals and clinics for their care, particularly those who live in rural areas.

Rural citizens typically either use small clinics or travel to wait in lines in an attempt to get into a hospital, further burdening the system. These rural clinics are often understaffed and poorly equipped, and the national health insurance scheme creates incentives to hospitalize people with relatively minor problems, which is especially problematic for these rural populations. Socioeconomic determinants associated with rural living and resources also contribute to the stark difference in health outcomes between China’s urban and rural populations. Rural residents also are at higher risk of developing many chronic conditions like heart disease, putting them at increased risk during outbreaks of infectious diseases like COVID-19.

As cases climb in urban centers, there are distressing signs that the much better-equipped urban hospitals are becoming overrun. As we discussed, many hospitals are requiring sick staff to still come into work as individual patient loads continue to swell. We and others have also stressed, too, that China does not have the kind of ICU capacity needed to deal with what it faces. This is true in urban centers, but even more so in rural areas, where there are also 30% fewer healthcare workers available. Furthermore, retired physicians and other professionals across the country are currently being called upon to help support efforts to combat the current surge in Beijing. All these signs point to major trouble in urban centers, indicating it is likely to be much worse for rural regions of the country.

As the Spring Festival travel rush, chunyun, approaches, many will travel from urban centers to their rural hometowns, likely spreading COVID-19 to these vulnerable areas. While many are currently opting to stay home on their own and a number of universities have given students the option to finish the semester virtually to cut down on travel, these factors might not be enough to protect these places from becoming overwhelmed in the coming weeks. As a result, the Party has urged local governments to upgrade their facilities and prepare for the oncoming waves. South China Morning Post reports that, “In a directive on Sunday, the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council asked rural hospitals and clinics to ensure pandemic medical services and timely treatment for high-risk patients, such as the elderly and people with underlying diseases.”

The directive reads in part, “Rural areas should…improve the ability of county-level hospitals to treat severe cases, and give full play to the role of health monitoring in township hospitals and village clinics to minimise the severity rate and mortality rate.” However, there is clearly no overnight fix for the kinds of deficiencies rural healthcare facilities struggle with. Despite this, Ma Xiaowei, Director of the National Health Commission, demanded on Wednesday that hospitals address swamped emergency rooms and get patients admitted to different departments. Ma also requested that medium and large hospitals accept more severe cases while promising that regulators will not hold them accountable for increasing fatality rates, according to the Financial Times.

Imploring under-equipped rural healthcare institutions and swamped urbans ones to suddenly improve their ability to treat an onslaught of severe cases is almost an unimaginable request, even for the State Council, as the country had over two years to get ready for its Zero-COVID exit. This complete failure of policymaking and pandemic management will almost certainly cost an unimaginable number of lives, irreversibly harm many people who do survive, further damage China’s and the global economy, and leave many demanding to know why the government did not prepare for this during the years the country spent shutdown.

What Does All This Mean Long-Term?

Just a couple weeks ago, testing positive for COVID-19, even if symptoms were mild or non-existent, was an express ticket to a government quarantine center for however long it took until the government decided one could leave. Shanghai shutdown for all of April and May just months ago, wreaking havoc on the local and national economy and causing global supply chain disruptions. The Party spent the last couple years pushing the message that this “devil” virus was so incredibly dangerous that it was worth it to continue these lockdowns and economic hardships. Today, however, the government insists COVID-19 is basically a cold, that nothing much will come of being infected, and that everything from herbal supplements to canned peaches are good remedies for it. This complete turnaround has many anxiously waiting for the economic consequences and wondering what this means for Xi Jinping and the Party in the long-run.

It’s the Economy, Shagua!

The CCP and State Council recently wrapped up the annual Central Economic Work Conference (CEWC), a meeting that sets the Party’s national economic agenda and directives for the financial and banking sector for the next year. At the meeting, Xi Jinping, who has been remarkably quiet since the end of Zero-COVID, gave a speech in which he indicated that China’s economy is expected to recover and improve in 2023, a tall order given the situation. A number of other critical points were made in an attempt to address the intense downward pressure the national economy is under, explicitly recognizing that the domestic economy has weak prospects coupled with unstable supply chains and shrinking demand.

Another critical point of the CEWC was that, “The meeting urged efforts to deepen the reform of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) while improving their core competitiveness, requiring that legal and institutional arrangements must be made to ensure the equal treatment of private enterprises and SOEs.” While China’s 2001 accession into the World trade Organization was contingent on achieving predominantly “market economy conditions,” the Chinese economy never truly transformed into a market-based one. Rather, despite some reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s, the government has maintained large SOEs in strategic and financial sectors while also maintaining policies that strongly favor these companies. Nicholas Borst explained the logic behind this succinctly for the Lowy Institute, writing “Rather than allowing the private sector more space, Beijing wants a tool for the implementation of government policy.”

In 2021, China had over 150,000 SOEs, with most of its Fortune Global 500 companies under state control. In 2019, SOEs accounted for more than 60% of the PRC’s market capitalization while accounting for 40% of its national GDP. For context, in 2019, Chinese SOEs made up more than 4.5% of the global economy–and now they are going to be treated equally with private businesses in China. This marks an important change as the Party also looks to increase demand by ensuring higher quality supply, and get a better hold on the deleveraging of the country’s real estate industry, stating that bail outs will come only if companies have well-founded plans for recovery. Just last month, amid further reduced apartment sales, the cabinet urged banks (again, most of which are SOEs) to increase loans for completion of unfinished apartments, with the central People’s Bank of China going so far as to reduce “by $70 billion the money that the country’s commercial banks are together required to hold for emergencies, freeing them to lend that money instead.”

Is This China’s Lehman Moment?

The current real estate crisis in China offers a particularly concerning look into just how damaging the sudden removal of Zero-COVID policies in the country could be both domestically and internationally. In recent years, it has been clear China’s real estate market was heading for trouble, with many people paying mortgages on apartments that are not even finished contrasting with the estimated 65 million units (1/5 of the homes available in the country) sitting completely open in China’s ghost cities. In late September last year, China Evergrande Group, China’s second largest property group, was forced to begin payments on its hundreds of billions of dollars in debt amid new regulations on developers’ debt limits. This started the current real estate sector crisis as when it caused several stock market indices to drop on September 20, 2021.

In the last year, it seemed that the Party was concerned the crisis would worsen in the absence of Zero-COVID restrictions. As Keith Bradsher explains in the New York Times, “Real estate development plays an outsize role in China’s economy, representing about a quarter of economic output and a quarter of its bank loans. Housing represents at least three-fifths of household assets in China, and many Chinese regard apartments as the only reliable way to build wealth.” This seemed to leave the Party locked into the restrictions in an effort to protect such an important but struggling part of its economy. Today, however, Zero-COVID is dead and the Party has indicated it wants less borrowing overall and that companies will only be bailed out if they present “well-founded” plans.

In the last year, the government has spent heavily on new railways and other infrastructure investments to try and help the economy amid low confidence, but that was with consistent COVID-19 policies in place. Furthermore, there have been concerns that injecting too much credit too quickly would be counterproductive to the goals of getting companies to borrow less and strengthen their balance sheets. In the real estate sector, the country has to somehow balance achieving sustainable growth and lowering prices, but that is not going to happen if sales keep falling. For example, in Shanghai this year, luxury apartment prices fell as much as 40% after the Party Congress because of concerns about the economic and political direction the country will take in Xi Jinping’s third term.

The CCP is Anything but a Party Right Now

Today, it is hard to fault those in Shanghai for selling off their multi-million dollar properties while they could. Models range in their estimated COVID-19 deaths in China in the absence of Zero-COVID, with some predicting under one million and some going over two million. This high of a number of deaths so suddenly, particularly as a result of the sudden end of virtually all precautions after years of constant testing and lockdowns, will be politically difficult to manage.

This also does not touch on how many Chinese will likely suffer from Long COVID and other long-term conditions if they do recover from COVID-19, something many other countries have had to learn the hard way. In the US, it is estimated that Long COVID costs the economy $3.7 trillion. While the US certainly has struggled with its COVID-19 response, it at least has effective vaccines. In September, Chinese state media was full of pieces talking about the “West’s hidden pandemic” of Long COVID and, now, it is nearly impossible to find any PRC official discussing this condition. The narrative has done a complete 180° on all fronts.

The threat of suddenly losing one million people completely and leaving an untold number burdened with long-lasting symptoms should be enough to make anyone reconsider their policy decisions. However, this is difficult for someone like Xi Jinping who has spent years building an image of infallibility while also championing Zero-COVID the last two years. He has often relied on rhetoric describing pandemic response as a war and continuously touted China’s unique approach as a better alternative to the “chaos of the West.” It is hard to believe what is happening in Xi’s China today is anything but complete chaos, and no amount of internet censorship and state media pieces about the supposed correctness of this new approach can keep the population totally unaware of that fact.

It still is not clear why Xi Jinping suddenly reversed course on Zero-COVID, even in the face of protests against the largely unpopular policy. Furthermore, as Xi begins his historic third term, he does so coming off a year of remarkable failure. As James Palmer recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, the once seemingly boring, safe choice in Chinese politics has proven to be anything but in the years since he took power, eliminated competition, and doubled down on state control over every facet of life in his country. Now, with mass death and further economic turmoil on the horizon, what will happen next for Xi Jinping and the CCP?

Pandora Report: 12.18.2022

We hope you don’t have the Sunday scaries, but this issue will either help them or make them way worse–there is no in between. We start off this week with discussion of the unfolding situation in China as the realities of the sudden absence of the country’s Zero-COVID policies continue to unfold. We also cover a number of updates from the US government, including the formation of a new bureau in the Department of State and the release of several reports from the House of Representatives. As always, we have a number of new publications and upcoming events. This week also includes an announcement from the GHSA Consortium, so be sure to read to the end.

First, a Sunday comic just like back in the day (well, kind of)

Ten-Points to a Million Deaths? China Exits Zero-COVID

What Started All This?

It has been a confusing few weeks in regards to the PRC’s management of COVID-19, with policy reversals coming rapidly in the aftermath of mass protests over the country’s strict Zero-COVID policies of the last couple years. For a brief re-cap, the State Council released a ten-point plan on December 7 that accelerated the country’s shift away from Zero-COVID. The plan marked a number of critical national shifts, including the prohibition of “arbitrary expansion of high-risk areas”, calling for delineating high risk areas in a scientific manner and ceasing to designate these areas based on residential compounds, communities, and towns in favor of targeting buildings, units, floors, and households. It also ended mass testing according to administrative regions while also reducing the scope and frequency of testing, requiring that quarantine measures imposed on high-risk areas be lifted in the absence of new infections after five days, and prohibiting willful closures of pharmacies. Importantly, these points also allow for home quarantine for those with asymptomatic or mild infections.

On December 8, the State Council also released guidelines for home treatment of COVID-19 for asymptomatic and mild COVID-19 cases. These guidelines also indicate that patients with stable underlying medical conditions who are infected with COVID-19 but do not require hospitalization may recover at home. These guidelines also call on local governments to establish channels for rapid transfer of patients between upper-level hospitals and communities, while allowing homebound patients to monitor their own symptoms. Finally, these guidelines indicate “…that the quarantine period ends for homebound patients if all the following requirements are met — their symptoms improve significantly or if they have no obvious symptoms, they test negative in antigen self-test applications and take two consecutive nucleic acid tests with the cycle threshold values not smaller than 35.”

However, provinces are introducing rollbacks at different paces, so Zero-COVID is not being exited uniformly across China. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has an interactive map available detailing which provinces have implemented which rollbacks as of December 14 that is very helpful in visualizing where policies are the most liberal. Currently, Beijing is the most relaxed, having implemented eleven rollbacks as of December 14, including: release home care instructions for patients; resume provincial group tours; open more fever clinics; distribute test kits; end temporary lockdowns; reduce checking of test results; reduce checking of health codes; ease restrictions on cold and flu medicine purchases; allow increased at-home quarantine; ease processes for domestic travel; and encourage vaccination for seniors.

The WHO Health Emergencies Programme Director Dr. Michael Ryan said on Wednesday that COVID-19 cases in the country were already exploding before the State Council effectively abandoned the Zero-COVID policies. Ryan said, “There’s a narrative at the moment that China lifted the restrictions and all of a sudden the disease is out of control…The disease was spreading intensively because I believe the control measures in themselves were not stopping the disease. And I believe China decided strategically that was not the best option anymore.”

The View on the Ground

Whether or not it is true that the initial uptick in cases was or was not caused by the loosening of these policies no longer seems to be relevant. Anecdotally, many in Beijing have said they knew of hardly anyone who had been infected with COVID-19 domestically in the last three years. However, now, many are claiming that most people in the city either have COVID-19 themselves or know someone who does. On December 11 alone, over 22,000 outpatient fever clinic visits were recorded in Beijing, more than sixteen times that of a week prior, in addition to over 31,000 calls to 120 (similar to 911 or 999), which is six times the average. This comes amid reports of soaring infection rates among healthcare workers, driving up hospital and clinic wait times for those who do choose to try and seek treatment outside the home. Treatment facilities, pharmacies, and nursing homes are asking staff to continue working despite testing positive in order to sustain operations.

As case counts grow, concerns about the country’s capacity to handle widespread infection worsen as the Omicron variant rips through China’s population of 1.4 billion people. This is especially dangerous as serious cases requiring advanced care will continue to develop. As Chen Chen explains in Think Global Health, “A Fudan University study from late 2020 utilized data from the “2015 Third Nationwide ICU Census”—China’s most recent ICU census—to forecast the 2021 ICU capacity for different regions around the country. It showed disparities in ICU bed availabilities, with many less developed provinces like Jilin, Guangxi, and Tibet seeing less than half the rate of ICU beds than more developed regions like Zhejiang, Beijing, and Shanghai. Overall, the study concluded that “the number of comprehensive ICU beds per 100,000 residents in China is 4.37.”

She continues, “Data on hospital bed availability in 2021 from the National Bureau of Statistics showed that nearly every province, except Guangdong and Chongqing, had significantly fewer beds per 10,000 people in rural regions. For the twenty-eight provinces in China, urban areas had an average of 25 percent more beds per 10,000 residents than rural areas. Nearly 40 percent of Chinese people reside in rural areas. In comparison, the U.S. rural residents makes up less than 20 percent of the total population.”

Furthermore, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is failing in its promise to maintain adequate supply of key drugs and supplies to treat COVID-19. Demand for fever reducers, cold and flu medicines, and COVID-19 test kits surged on the mainland with the announcement of the rollbacks, as lines formed outside pharmacies and online platforms quickly sold out. In Hong Kong and Macau, as well as internationally, people were trying to buy these supplies to mail them to their friends and family in mainland China. Health authorities in Macau have imposed strict purchasing limits on antivirals as Xiangxue Pharmaceutical, a producer of COVID-19 antivirals, promised it was “going all out” to increase its output in response to shortages. Pfizer’s Paxlovid sold out almost immediately on 111, Inc., an online pharmacy, which priced the antiviral at almost 430 USD.

In light of this, the Party has again turned to promotion of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as an alternative prevention and treatment amid antiviral and painkiller shortages. The Party is not advertising these remedies strictly as potential methods of relieving symptoms, but as ways of preventing and treating COVID-19 cases. Furthermore, the Party has been relying on TCM as a fallback throughout this pandemic, typically while failing to acknowledge the role of modern medicine in treating COVID-19. For example, in 2020, the State Council claimed that 90% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hubei province “received TCM treatment that proved effective.” This also happened during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, during which the Party touted the fact that 40-60% of patients were treated with TCM remedies, largely failing to include the fact that those patients by and large received TCM treatments alongside modern medical treatments.

Specifically, the Party is pushing Lianhua Qingwen (LQ) and Shuanghuanglian, the former of which was developed in 2003 by Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical amid the SARS outbreak. It was listed by the National Health Commission in 2004 as a treatment not just for SARS, but also for influenza and other respiratory diseases. LQ is available in both capsule and granular forms and is made with several TCM ingredients, including apricot kernel and its active ingredient-Lonicera japonica, or Japanese honeysuckle. LQ was approved for use against COVID-19 by the PRC in January 2020 and was distributed throughout Shanghai during a particularly bad outbreak in March 2022. Questionable studies claim that LQ can “block viral replication and change the virion morphology”, despite not identifying a mechanism of action. Shuanghuanglian on the other hand has been used for the treatment of acute respiratory tract infections since the 1970s. It also includes Japanese honeysuckle in its formulation, alongside Baikal skullcap and weeping forsythia. Su et al. claimed in a July 2020 study in Acta Pharmacologica Sinica that the medication is cytotoxic “against a clinical isolate of SARS-CoV-2”. The Chinese government has claimed throughout this pandemic that Shuanghuanglian is effective in preventing COVID-19 infection, driving up sales of the TCM remedy.

This has not been confined to the sale of packaged TCM remedies either. For example, Jin Riguang, a scholar of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has recommended chewing Sichuan peppercorns and drinking ginger-licorice tea as an effective means of treating COVID-19 infection. Products like canned peaches and lemons have also sold out nationally after being promoted as natural remedies for the disease. All of this points to a serious breakdown of planning and a potentially devastating winter ahead.

Potential Outcomes: Party Policy Challenges, a Wave of Deaths, and More Global Supply Chain Disruptions

There are also two critical issues at play here for the CCP: 1) The messaging about COVID-19 now, in the absence of Zero-COVID policies, is fundamentally different than it has been for the last three years in justifying continuous lockdowns and strict testing regimens, and 2) Questions will abound regarding what the Party has actually done in the years of Zero-COVID to prepare to resume normal living. The Party spent the last couple of years treating small outbreaks of COVID-19 as serious threats, implementing harsh lockdowns of entire cities and requiring testing as often as every 48 hours to enter different venues. The shift to what the policy is now, then, has required portraying the Omicron variant as weak and unlikely to cause more than mild illness. While that might be broadly true in a sense, this fails to account for the lack of quality vaccinations across China as well as long-term risks like Long COVID.

Furthermore, the Party pitched Zero-COVID as the Chinese way of handling this virus, almost certainly aiming to stamp it out quickly so that the quick suffocation of COVID-19 could be touted internationally as a uniquely Chinese success story. In the years since the pandemic began, China focused more on lockdowns and strict testing requirements, neglecting other mitigation strategies, most notably vaccines. As we discussed last week, while the government initially claimed it was close to producing its own mRNA offerings and that it would approve the BioNTech offering, today there are no mRNA COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the PRC. China’s vaccination campaign has instead depended on two domestically-produced inactivated offerings-Sinopharm BIBP and CoronaVac. This brand of nationalism is especially troubling as people in Beijing scramble to acquire western antivirals and fever reducers from loved ones abroad. Furthermore, as all of this unfolds, President Xi Jinping, who styles himself as a hyper-capable leader and who has predicated much of his work in the last few years on his Zero-COVID policy, is silent.

Furthermore, while the PRC has not reported any COVID-19 deaths since December 4, reports of untallied COVID-19 deaths continue to grow. For example, staff at the Dongjiao Funeral Home in Beijing claim to be receiving the bodies of COVID-19 victims, numbering as high as 30-40 per day, with those who died of COVID-19 being prioritized for cremation. Body bags have also been observed being taken from COVID-19-specific hospitals in the country, casting further doubt. Throughout this pandemic, China’s COVID-19 case and death counts have been called into question repeatedly. Now, with the population left largely unprotected, it seems even more unlikely that there are not more cases and deaths than the government is letting on. Furthermore, the government announced last week that it would stop reporting asymptomatic infections, which have historically been the bulk of positive test results in the country. This represents yet another potentially critical reduction in data sharing and risk communication. Finally, even if this current wave is fueled by transmission that predates the policy rollbacks, how could deaths be so low, all things considered? This question is fueling concerns that Beijing is concealing important data on this outbreak.

Of course, this is not very far into what is setting up to be a horrific winter in China. Estimates vary heavily with the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicting that China will suffer one million COVID-19 deaths through 2023. The projections include a peak around April 1, with deaths reaching about 322,000 by then when roughly 1/3 of the PRC’s population has been infected. The Economist released a more conservative estimate predicting 680,000 COVID-19 deaths in the absence of Zero-COVID policies in China. However, this model depends on everyone who needs an ICU bed getting one, which is just not possible in the scenario likely to unfold. Researchers from the University of Hong Kong released a preprint recently that estimates lifting Zero-COVID restrictions and reopening all provinces in December and January without further mitigation would result in 684 deaths per million people, or about 964,400 deaths. The point is, from all angles, this is a looming catastrophe.

While reports indicate many are electing to stay home on their own, this may cease to be the case as the country approaches Chunyun, or the Spring Festival travel period. This period begins about two weeks before Lunar New Year (January 22 this year), lasting for about 40 days. It is traditionally the busiest travel time in the country. In 2020, Chunyun travel and Wuhan’s status as a major regional transit hub were large drivers of the initial decision to lock the city down. In anticipation of this year’s rush, some universities in China are allowing students to complete the winter term virtually from home, offering some attempt to curtail the potential explosion of cases mass travel could lead to.

In terms of the economic consequences of this rollback, China, the world’s second largest economy, is staring down what will probably be the world’s biggest COVID-19 surge ever. The last few years saw China’s frequent lockdowns cause an economic slowdown that had global impacts. China’s 2Q GDP growth slowed to .4% this year, in large part because of the constant lockdowns. This certainly hampered national objectives and created global problems in a world economy already bogged down by inflation, energy crises, and food supply disruptions–and that was when case counts were much lower than they are right now. In major financial centers like Hong Kong, the harsh COVID-19 policies has fueled an exodus of the business community as expats seek to escape the restrictions (though, of course, the National Security Law and changes in Hong Kong’s governance structure also fueled this in recent years). The switch to rolling back Zero-COVID, then, seems like a good step in reopening and growing China’s economy but, again, that is unlikely to work in the absence of widespread, effective vaccination efforts and other long-term mitigation strategies.

Joshua Cohen explains some of this in Forbes, writing “China’s scrapping of its Zero Covid policy is viewed by some as a pragmatic step aimed at reviving economic growth. But, in the short term it may backfire by exacerbating already existing supply chain and labor shortage issues. China is the world’s largest producer and exporter of consumer goods. Disruptions across the Chinese manufacturing sector are likely to impact the global supply chain of goods and the world’s economy as a whole. Multinational companies in China are already feeling the effects of the outbreak, and are straining to keep operations running normally.”

In short, this is a spectacular mismanagement of a pandemic. While no country, particularly the United States, was perfect in responding to COVID-19, China has seemingly both delayed the inevitable while setting itself up for even worse failures. This has consequences not just for the PRC and its people, but the entire world given Beijing’s push in recent decades to grow its economy and international influence. The Party has consistently opted to take whatever was perceived to be the most politically convenient, profitable route, clinging to public health nationalism and ultimately setting many up for unspeakable suffering. This kind of behavior on the part of the CCP has to be taken into consideration when planning for future pandemics and global crises.

The Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference Wraps Up

The BWC’s Ninth Review Conference wrapped up this week, culminating in the adoption of the Draft Final Document of the Ninth Review Conference. Major outcomes of this include growth of the BWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU), establishment of goals to strengthen international cooperation and assistance under Article X and to review scientific and technological advancements relevant to the BWC, and improvements the 2023-2026 intersessional process. One new full-time staff position will be added in the ISU for the period from 2023 to 2027. As of the ISU’s latest annual report, the unit had just three full-time staff members. Importantly, the ISU is funded by BWC States Parties’ contributions, rather than the UN’s regular budget, so States Parties are encouraged to contribute financially where possible.

The 2023-2026 intersessional program will include the creation of a working group on the strengthening of the BWC, which will aim to “identify, examine and develop specific and effective measures, including possible legally-binding measures, and to make recommendations to strengthen and institutionalise the Convention in all its aspects, to be submitted to States Parties for consideration and any further action” Specifically, the working group will address measures on international cooperation and assistance under Article X; on scientific and technological developments relevant to the Convention; on confidence-building and transparency; on compliance and verification; on national implementation of the Convention; on assistance, response, and preparedness under Article VII; and on organizational, institutional, and financial arrangements.

Regarding strengthening international cooperation under Article X (which deals with States Parties abilities, to facilitate “exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes”), the document reads “The Conference decides to develop with a view to establishing a mechanism open to all States Parties to facilitate and support the full implementation of international cooperation and assistance under Article X. In order for this mechanism to be established, the Working Group on the strengthening of the Convention will make appropriate recommendations.”

All of this has not gone without criticism, of course, with many a critique focused on the BWC’s still comparatively toothless nature in light of its lack of a verification regime. Izabella Kaminska discussed this in her piece for The Post, “Why is the Biological Weapons Convention not getting attention?,” explaining “Unlike its chemical and nuclear cousins, the treaty has never been accompanied by a verification regime. This has been a source of concern for some parties because it has made it difficult to determine whether a state is engaging in prohibited activities.” She also notes that, in addition to Russia’s Formal Consultative Meeting under the BWC earlier this year, “Today, the states calling most loudly for a verification mechanism (Russia and Iran) are also the ones undermining verification missions in the BWC’s chemical counterpart.”

Kaminska also includes discussion of issues in this surrounding S&T advancements, explaining that Biodefense Program Director Dr. Greg Koblentz told her “…progress in recent years has been further hindered by documented cases of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea attempting to hack into companies and university labs working on Covid treatments to spread disinformation about these US-developed medical countermeasures.” She quoted Koblentz saying “That is why we need more in-depth discussion about what is possible given scientific and technical developments and political constraints, which is why the US willingness to have expert-level discussion on issues such as transparency and compliance reassurance would be so useful.”

Criticisms also focus on the BWC ISU’s tiny full-time employee roster in comparison to the International Atomic Energy Association’s 2,560 employees and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ approximate 500 employees. Dr. Richard Cupitt wrote about this issue for the Stimson Center in 2020, arguing “Unfortunately, all of this work, including efforts to address assistance requests through an on-line database, must be serviced by a talented but pathetically small support staff, i.e., the BWC – Implementation Support Unit (BWC-ISU), which consists of three full-time staff members located at the United Nations offices in Geneva.  Moreover, even before the pandemic shortfalls in the budget for the BWC and the BWC-ISU have been significant enough to raise questions about even having a meaningful MSP [Meeting of States Parties].”

While this RevCon has been praised as a meaningful step in the right direction for verification and diplomacy, there is still an incredible amount of work to be done to make the BWC an effective piece of international law.

State Department Announces Plans for Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced this week his intention to establish a new Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy to help strengthen the Department of State’s ability to ” strengthen global health security and to address the growing national security challenges presented by global health crises,” and his intention to ask current US Global AIDS Coordinator, Dr. John Nkengasong, so lead the new bureau. Secretary Blinken continued his announcement by clarifying what the new bureau would do, saying “Specifically, the establishment of the new Bureau would bring together the Office of International Health and Biodefense in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES/IHB) and the functions of the Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security (S/CRHS) with the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator (S/GAC), which leads and coordinates the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and is home to the Office of Global Health Diplomacy. These teams, along with critical partners throughout the government, are already leading our international global health security efforts, and their indispensable functions will continue. This new structure would allow our health security experts and diplomats to work more effectively together to prevent, detect, and respond to existing and future health threats.”

This would add a key health security position to the federal government while consolidating many of the Department’s efforts into a more cohesive team. Currently, apart from the State Department’s Coordinator for Global COVID-19 Response and Health Security, the only other federal position that is explicitly and primarily global health security focused is the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense (currently occupied by Dr. Raj Panjabi), though many positions are tasked with global health assignments.

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Releases COVID-19 Reports

This week, the US House of Representatives’ Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) released its declassified report on the Intelligence Community’s (IC) response to the COVID-19 pandemic following a two-year-long investigation. The report “…examines the IC’s posture to support global health security policymakers, the IC’s performance in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the steps the IC must take to strengthen any future pandemic response.” The report finds that the IC was initially not well-positioned or prepared to provide early warnings and analysis of the pandemic because of an inconsistent focus on health security and pandemics as national security threats. The report finds, however, that “…by the end of January, the IC was providing clear and consistent warning about a potential pandemic – including a classified briefing to the Intelligence Committee in mid-February – well in advance of former President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on March 13, 2020.”

In addition to its investigative findings, the report makes a number of unclassified recommendations, including:

1. The creation of a designated center in ODNI with a global health security mission;
2. Major investments in open-source intelligence;
3. Enhancements to the IC’s capability to pivot collection faster when a new disease emerges;
4. Additional resources and support for NCMI;
5. Better collaboration and integration of the IC with public health agencies;
6. Recognition that health security is national security;
7. Additional steps to create a sustainable demand signal for collection on global health security.

HPSCI Republicans also released their report on the origins of COVID-19 this week. The Republican report reads in part: “Every person in America has been directly or indirectly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lives were taken. Livelihoods destroyed. The mismanagement of the response to COVID-19 has led to societal crises like massive education loss for children, drug overdoses across communities, and a stark rise in mental health issues.

“Americans are owed answers about the origins of COVID-19 and future health threats, and they deserve leaders in Washington who remain steadfast in finding the truth.

“Today’s HPSCI report led by Rep. Wenstrup marks significant progress toward that objective. The findings identify more culpability from the Chinese Communist Party, highlight the failures of the Intelligence Community to share pertinent information with the American public and their authorized representatives, and give more credibility to the lab leak theory – which many government officials, Big Tech platforms, and media outlets were quick to label a ‘conspiracy theory.’

“A Republican majority will continue this critical work across all committees of jurisdiction and we commit to finding the facts on a pandemic that negatively impacted millions of American families. By doing so, our policies going forward will strive to ensure that our country is never vulnerable to these threats in the same way again.”

House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Releases Final Report on Nation’s COVID-19 Response

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis recently released its final report, building on previous Select Subcommittee findings and revealing “…new findings from several of the committee’s investigations, including findings related to the Trump Administration’s failure to recognize and prepare for the threat posed by the coronavirus in early 2020, which resulted in inaccurate testing and insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). The report also includes new information from the Select Subcommittee’s investigations into right-wing purveyors of coronavirus misinformation, and into the practices of for-profit nursing home chains and their toll on their vulnerable residents.” The final report also includes 30 recommendations to strengthen the nation’s ability to prevent and respond to public health and economic emergencies, including “accelerating development of next-generation coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics; investing in improved financial relief and public health infrastructure; combating misinformation; and protecting relief programs from fraud.”

Dr. Robert Kadlec’s May 2022 interview with the Select Subcommittee was also recently released to the public. Kadlec, a career USAF physician and former Director for Biodefense and Special Assistant to President George W. Bush for Biodefense Policy, served as Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) from August 2017 to January 2021. Dr. Kadlec previously testified that the US was unprepared for a pandemic prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, he was heavily criticized for focusing his office’s efforts on preparing for acts of bioterrorism (and potentially failing to reveal a conflict of interest in doing so). Kadlec was also criticized for focusing on repatriation flights for Americans abroad early in 2020, rather than focusing on preparing for COVID-19’s arrival in the United States.

Kadlec told the Select Subcommittee in this interview about a number of problems in the federal government’s response, including a lack of information sharing. Kadlec said he struggled to acquire critical information about SARS-CoV-2 in early 2020, saying “My information from our intelligence sources in HHS were, quite frankly, lousy.” He also told the Select Subcommittee that the country was too focused on planning for pandemic influenza, with that planning being premised on symptomatic detection rather than diagnostic testing, which he described as “a significant hallmark and a flaw.” Importantly, Kadlec also discussed how a 2019 simulation run by the federal government identified a number of problems in pandemic response, including a lack of integration across federal agencies and findings that “everything that we probably would need in a pandemic … were sourced from China” and “the likelihood would be the supply chains would be disrupted and we just have just-in-time supplies.” The 329-page transcription is available here on the Select Subcommittee’s site.

“Pathogen Early Warning: A Progress Report & Path Forward”

The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) recently released this report co-authored by Dr. Saskia Popescu, a Senior Fellow at the Council and an Assistant Professor at the Schar school. It builds on a previous CSR report, “Toward a Global Pathogen Early Warning System: Building on the Landscape of Biosurveillance Today,” by aiming “…to update public understanding of contemporary biosurveillance and pathogen early warning capabilities across three dimensions: the United States government, select regions worldwide, and ongoing efforts toward global pathogen early warning integration. This report also seeks to provide an overview of the structural and technical tools required to create effective early warning systems. In doing so, CSR’s objective is to provide context for understanding the current state of biosurveillance, while also highlighting notable shifts since 2021.”

Emerging Infectious Diseases Supplement Issue

This supplemental issue, “CDC and Global Health Systems and Programs During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” includes an overview from CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in addition to a host of articles divided between Surveillance, Information, and Laboratory Systems; Workforce, Institutional, and Public Health Capacity Development; Clinical and Health Services Delivery and Impact; and Commentaries.

“Investing in Global Health Security: Estimating Cost Requirements for Country-Level Capacity Building”

Check out this new PLOS Global Public Health article from Eaneff et al.-

Abstract: “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted critical gaps in global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious diseases. To effectively allocate investments that address these gaps, it is first necessary to quantify the extent of the need, evaluate the types of resources and activities that require additional support, and engage the global community in ongoing assessment, planning, and implementation. Which investments are needed, where, to strengthen health security? This work aims to estimate costs to strengthen country-level health security, globally and identify associated cost drivers. The cost of building public health capacity is estimated based on investments needed, per country, to progress towards the benchmarks identified by the World Health Organization’s Joint External Evaluation (JEE). For each country, costs are estimated to progress to a score of “demonstrated capacity” (4) across indicators. Over five years, an estimated US$124 billion is needed to reach “demonstrated capacity” on each indicator of the JEE for each of the 196 States Parties to the International Health Regulations (IHR). Personnel costs, including skilled health, public health, and animal health workers, are the single most influential cost driver, comprising 66% of total costs. These findings, and the data generated by this effort, provide cost estimates to inform ongoing health security financing discussions at the global level. The results highlight the significant need for sustainable financing mechanisms for both workforce development and ongoing support for the health and public health workforce.”

“Biomanufacturing to Advance the Bioeconomy”

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently released its new report recommending actions to promote the growth of the U.S. bioeconomy in three key areas: “boosting manufacturing capacity, addressing regulatory uncertainty, and updating our national strategy to meet the demands of the 21st century.” The White House press release states that “Specifically, the report recommends that agencies across the government work to establish biomanufacturing infrastructure hubs with the resources and authorities necessary to support new bioproducts moving from prototype to pilot scale production. The relevant agencies should also work together to build a network from new and existing biomanufacturing infrastructure hubs to support further development of biomanufacturing processes and support programs across the spectrum of postsecondary training opportunities in this area.”

Furthermore, “To address regulatory uncertainty that novel, cross-cutting bioproducts face, PCAST recommends that regulatory agencies create both more clear and transparent review and approval processes.  PCAST further recommends establishing a cross-agency rapid response team of regulatory experts that would vet these cross-cutting products, helping those that are safe and potentially transformative reach the market more rapidly…Finally, PCAST believes that a new, data-based, and adaptive national strategy is urgently needed to chart a course for the U.S. bioeconomy for the next decade. This strategy should consider the long-term economic, environmental, and societal benefits and liabilities of biotechnology, as well as the national security implications and ethical and legal issues.”

“ASTHO Unveils Top 10 Public Health Policy Issues to Watch in 2023”

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) released its list of the top 10 state public health policy issues to watch in 2023 this week. Their list includes immunization, reproductive health, overdose prevention, public health agency workforce and authority, mental health, data privacy and modernization, health equity, HIV, environmental health, and tobacco and nicotine products. Be sure to check out their list for their discussion of current challenges within each of these topics.

Managing Hazardous and Biohazardous Materials/Waste in the Laboratory Setting

The Chesapeake Area Biological Safety Association recently announced this technical seminar offering from Triumvirate Environmental, which will take place at 6 pm on January 10, 2023 both virtually and in-person in Gaithersburg, MD. “Laboratories can generate biohazardous and hazardous waste. Confusion is not uncommon on what the differences are when it comes to disposal and handling.  This webinar will review the differences and discuss proper handling and disposal of each type of waste.  Potential recycling options will also be discussed.” Learn more 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.

An Update from the Global Health Security Agenda Consortium

“On 28-30 November 2022, the Republic of Korea hosted the 7th Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Ministerial Meeting on the theme “Action for the Next Phase of the GHSA after COVID-19.”

“GHSA Member Countries and Organizations pledged to extend GHSA for another 5-year phase (January 1, 2024 – December 31, 2028), and endorsed the New Seoul Declaration which emphasized the need to continue strengthening multisectoral and multilateral cooperation to prepare for and respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as other infectious disease threats. The GHSA Steering Group will work collaboratively to establish plans outlining the goals and the scope of the next phase of GHSA, including revised targets for 2028, by December 2023.”

“Information on the New Seoul Declaration and other upcoming GHSA activities can be found on the re-launched GHSA website ( https://globalhealthsecurityagenda.org/) as well as via the official GHSA social media channels. The GHSA Consortium will continue to contribute actively to GHSA activities, including participating in Action Packages and co-leading the Task Force on Advocacy and Communications.”

You can also keep up with the GHSA on its website, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

The Pandora Report Wants to Hear from Biodefense Program Alumni!

Calling all graduates of the Biodefense Program-do you have any news to share from this year? We want to hear from you! The Pandora Report will be creating a year-in-review for our late December issue, and we want to include updates from current students and alumni alike. It can be anything from promotions, publications, new jobs, etc. that you would like to share. Share your updates with us at biodefense@gmu.edu before December 23 to be featured in the year-in-review and anytime you want to stay in touch.

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). This week’s question is: “Who is the longest serving director of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)?”

Shout out to Olivia N. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “In 1979, there was a suspicious outbreak of anthrax that killed over 60 people in a town located near a military research complex. For years, authorities blamed this outbreak on consumption of contaminated meat, though it was actually the result of an accidental release of Bacillus anthracis. What town did this happen in? (City Name, Country)” is Sverdlovsk, USSR (modern day Yekaterinburg, Russia).

Pandora Report: 12.9.2022

Happy National Influenza Vaccination Week! This edition is heavily COVID-19-focused, discussing China’s rollback of its Zero-COVID policy, probes into government handling of the COVID-19 responses in the US and New Zealand, and how the pandemic has influenced slang terms. We also cover several new publications, newly available research resources, and an exciting upcoming event with the National Academies. Have a great weekend and get your flu shot now if you haven’t already and are able to do so!

Three Years Wasted? China Lifts Zero-COVID Policies

Nearly three years into this pandemic, China is abandoning its Zero-COVID policy. Zero-COVID or Dynamic Clearing aimed to eliminate transmission of the virus in the country through strict testing requirements and lockdowns. This included whole-building lockdowns when one person in an apartment complex tested positive, long lines for COVID-19 testing, and negative QR code requirements to enter everything from coffee shops to public toilets. The Party claimed this harsh system was justified as, supposedly, the country had just two COVID-19 deaths in the 18 months after initial containment. China’s shockingly low case counts and deaths have frequently been the subject of suspicion in the last few years. Interestingly, China went this hard on lockdowns and testing, but did not centrally mandate vaccinations.

The vaccine strategy the country did employ has also been heavily criticized. Today, 89% of the population is estimated to have received their initial COVID-19 vaccine with about 57% having received a booster. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. While the government initially claimed it was close to producing its own mRNA offerings and that it would approve the BioNTech offering, today there are no mRNA COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the PRC. (Interestingly, Indonesia has granted Walvax Biotechnology’s mRNA vaccine an emergency use authorization.) China’s vaccination campaign has instead depended on two domestically-produced inactivated offerings-Sinopharm BIBP and CoronaVac.

Mathieu, E., Ritchie, H., Ortiz-Ospina, E. et al. A global database of COVID-19 vaccinations. Nat Hum Behav (2021)

In mid-2021, the WHO approved these offerings for emergency use based on limited clinical-trial data indicating that CoronaVac was about 51% effective while Sinopharm was about 79% effective. This was alright relative to the 63% efficacy reported for AstraZeneca’s viral-vector vaccine, but it was not as effective as the 90%+ reported for the Pfize-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA offerings. Nature News explained the initial criticism of China’s vaccines, writing “Both the Chinese vaccines are inactivated vaccines, which use killed SARS-CoV-2 virus. Researchers say this type of vaccine seems to be less potent because it triggers an immune response against many viral proteins. By contrast, mRNA and viral-vector vaccines target the response to the spike protein, which is what the virus uses to enter human cells.”

Then the Omicron variant came…This created a situation in which the country had a particularly vulnerable elderly population with very low trust in the government, a Party caught up in its own vaccine nationalism, and a more transmissible variant. As we have discussed previously, this eventually led to even more lockdowns and forced relocations to isolation center than before, eventually leading to widespread protests. Now, after three years, the government is rolling back its strict Zero-COVID policy as concerns about a coming massive wave of cases and deaths grow.

Now people are being encouraged to stay home if they are sick unless they are severely ill as rising case counts threaten to overwhelm hospitals. When people do arrive at hospitals, workers screen them for fevers and more severe symptoms, turning away those with milder symptoms. This is especially problematic as a large part of the public-facing justification for Zero-COVID was that infection often leads to severe illness, conflicting with what the public is being told now.

The New York Times quoted Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese pulmonologist, saying “The infections are not scary. Ninety-nine percent of the people who get infected can fully recover within 7 to 10 days. As long as we get plenty of rest, isolate ourselves and stay at home, we can recover quickly.” However, this ignores the risk of things like Long COVID and is contradictory to models many are now pointing to.

Science Insider explained earlier this month that, “A study based on vaccination rates in March, published in Nature Medicine in May, found that lifting zero-COVID restrictions at that point could “generate a tsunami of COVID-19 cases” over a 6-month period, with 112 million symptomatic cases, 2.7 million intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, and 1.6 million deaths. Peak demand for ICU beds would hit 1 million, more than 15 times the current capacity.” The Economist released a more conservative estimate predicting 680,000 COVID-19 deaths in the absence of Zero-COVID in China. However, their model depended on everyone who needs an ICU bed getting one, “which they would not,” according to the publication.

So, in the face of a potential “winter of death,” many are asking now why the country did not better prepare for this reopening in the three years it spent shutting the country down. Others are asking what this means for Xi Jinping and the Party as it seems likely they will have caved to public demand in a way that will lead to mass suffering in death. While the Party is likely to spin the narrative in whatever way benefits it most no matter what happens next, this is shaping up to be an even more eventful next couple of months for the PRC.

On a related note, James Fallows, President Carter’s speechwriter, interviewed long-term Mandarin translator Brendan O’Kane about ProPublica’s disputed piece on the Wuhan Institute of Virology we covered previously. The interview is fantastic and expertly explains the variety of problems in Toy Reid’s translations and why they fundamentally effect the integrity of the piece.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Majority Releases Report on Federal COVID-19 Response

This week Senate Democrats released their 241-page report covering the Trump administration’s early response to COVID-19, identifying both missteps on the part of the administration and multiple systemic issues in the federal government. The report, released by the Homeland Security Committee majority, relies on “documents and interviews with key Trump administration officials, including Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr. Robert R. Redfield, who served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” according to The New York Times.

The report identifies several issues like that “a public health emergency fund created to support state and local health systems had received no new appropriations since 1999 and had been “virtually empty” since 2012,” and that preparedness planning from 2005 through 2019 was too narrowly focused on influenza. Of the COVID-19 response, Committee Chairman Senator Gary Peters said, “There’s no question that political decisions were being made and that those decisions were unfortunately considered more important than what was being put out by public health officials.” He added, “And so that got politicized in a way that it should have never been politicized — and lives would have likely been saved.”

New Zealand Announces Inquiry Into COVID-19 Response

Prime Minister Jacinda Adern announced Monday this week a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Wellington’s COVID-19 response. Led by Australia-based epidemiologist Tony Blakely, the inquiry has 17 months to conduct research and form its report. New Zealand was both praised and criticized in its initial response to the pandemic, which focused on elimination and included closing the country’s borders and imposing strict lockdowns for much of the first two years. In August 2021, amid community transmission of the Delta variant in Auckland and Wellington, the country abandoned its elimination strategy and accelerated its vaccine rollout.

So far, beyond questions of the efficacy of the country’s lockdowns, a major point of criticism focuses on the country planning for a single disease. AP reports that “COVID-19 Response Minister Dr. Ayesha Verrall said one of the lessons was that having a prescriptive pandemic plan, like New Zealand’s influenza-based plan before COVID-19 hit, was not much use. “I imagine the lesson has been learned that just looking at the characteristics of one bug isn’t going to cut it,” Verrall said. “You have to look much more broadly.”

WHO Members States to Develop Zero Draft of Pandemic Accord

This week, the WHO announced that member states have agreed to develop a first draft of what will eventually become a legally binding agreement rooted in the WHO constitution to help protect the world from future pandemics. The draft will be prepared so it can be discussed in February 2023 at the fourth Intergovernmental Negotiating Body meeting. According to WHO, “This draft will be based on the conceptual zero draft and the discussions during this week’s INB meeting. The INB Bureau is comprised of six delegates, one from each of the six WHO regions, including the Co-Chairs Mr Roland Driece of the Netherlands and Ms Precious Matsoso of South Africa.”

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human lives, economies and societies at large must never be forgotten,” said Ms Matsoso. “The best chance we have, today, as a global community, to prevent a repeat of the past is to come together, in the spirit of solidarity, in a commitment to equity, and in the pursuit of health for all, and develop a global accord that safeguards societies from future pandemic threats.” 

Going Goblin Mode

Coronacation, Miss Rona, the panini/pandemi lovato/✨panorama✨…the COVID-19 pandemic brought lots of interesting new slang. One such term, goblin mode, is getting special attention, however. If you gained a favorite sweatshirt over the course of the pandemic that you don’t wash as often as you probably ought to, this one’s for you. “Goblin mode,” a slang term for a “type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations,” was recently named Oxford Languages’ 2022 Word of the Year. The term dates back to at least 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that it went viral. “It captured the prevailing mood of individuals who rejected the idea of returning to ‘normal life’, or rebelled against the increasingly unattainable aesthetic standards and unsustainable lifestyles exhibited on social media,” Oxford Languages said in a press release.

NPR writes, “The slang particularly struck a chord with people who felt disillusioned by the third year of the pandemic and the ongoing political upheavals around the world. In response, they are rejecting societal expectations and making their own rules of how to live. The trend is marked by a departure from respectability and aesthetic. Instead, it encourages people to lean into their uncurated, self-indulgent and sometimes mischievous ways.”

Now, if you’re saying “But I’ve never heard of goblin mode,” here are some examples: Academic types-there is at least a 50% chance your office qualifies as being in goblin mode.

Cat parents-you know what we’re talking about here.

“Biodefense and Emergency Use Authorization: Different Originations, Purposes, and Evolutionary Paths of Institutions in the United States and South Korea”

Biodefense Program alumnus Dr. HyunJung Kim recently published this article in Globalization and Health. Abstract: “Background: Emergency-use-authorization (EUA) is the representative biodefense policy that allows the use of unlicensed medical countermeasures or off-label use of approved medical countermeasures in response to public health emergencies. This article aims to determine why the EUA policies of the United States and South Korea produced drastically different outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how these outcomes were determined by the originations and evolutionary paths of the two policies.”

“Method: Historical institutionalism (HI) explains institutional changes—that is, how the institution is born and how it evolves—based on the concept of path dependency. However, the HI analytical narratives remain at the meso level of analysis in the context of structure and agency. This article discusses domestic and policy-level factors related to the origination of the biodefense institutions in the United States and South Korea using policy-learning concepts with the Event-related Policy Change Model.”

“Results: The 2001 anthrax letter attack (Amerithrax) and the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak prompted the establishment of biodefense institutions in the United States and South Korea, respectively. Due to the different departure points and the mechanism of path dependency, the two countries’ EUAs evolved in different ways—the United States EUA reinforced the Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) function, while the South Korea EUA strengthened the Non-Pharmaceutical Intervention (NPI) function.”

“Conclusion: The evolution and outcomes of the two EUAs are different because both policies were born out of different needs. The United States EUA is primarily oriented toward protecting homeland security against CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) threats, whereas the South Korea EUA is specifically designed for disease prevention against infectious disease outbreak.”

“Preparing for Twenty-First-Century Bioweapons”

Biodefense Program alumnus Dr. Yong-Bee Lim recently co-authored this piece with Dr. Kathleen Vogel and David Gillum using the ongoing BWC RevCon to discuss the roles NGOs can play in advancing security. They write, “As the BWC enters its 50th year, it’s time to prepare for a future world with weapons and wars that do not look like those that the treaty was designed to prevent. In this complex process, NGOs can play vital, diverse roles in strengthening the BWC and enlarging the field of global actors that engage with nonproliferation and disarmament. NGOs can bring new resources and perspectives to a daunting task of envisioning how the life sciences themselves may evolve to permit new threats, as well as new means of control. By deliberately engaging participants from the entire world, particularly the Global South, the BWC has an opportunity to gain trust and cooperation at the grassroots level. In these capacities, NGOs may be indispensable in establishing global norms and policies against biological weapons threats and continuing the considerable success of the BWC in an unknown future.”

“Recounting the Top IPC Stories of 2022”

Biodefense Program alumna and Assistant Professor Dr. Saskia Popescu recently authored this piece for Infection Control Today summarizing top stories from 2022 and what to expect next year. In it she covers everything from polio, to mpox, to RSV, to Russia’s BW disinformation, so be sure to give it a read.

“Uncovering the Hard Work Behind the World’s Push for an Ebola Sudan Vaccine”

In this piece, Dr. Caitlin Rivers interviews Dr. Andrew Kilianski (an Adjunct Professor who teaches biosurveillance at the Schar School and Senior Director for Emerging Infectious Disease Vaccines at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI)) on his organization’s efforts to develop a vaccine candidate for Ebola Sudan virus. In it, Kilianski discusses IAVI and his role in it, the process of bringing a vaccine candidate through preclinical and clinical phases, and challenges organizations are facing in trying to respond to the current Ebola outbreak in Uganda.

2022 Bioeconomy Executive Order White Papers

From the Engineer Biology Research Consortium: “On September 12, 2022, President Biden released an Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy. This Executive Order calls for “a whole-of-government approach to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing towards innovative solutions in health, climate change, energy, food security, agriculture, supply chain resilience, and national and economic security.” The Executive Order follows additional action by the United States Congress to support the bioeconomy and biomanufacturing, most notably the passage of Title IV—Bioeconomy Research and Development in the Chips and Science Act.”

“To capitalize on this moment of importance and enthusiasm for a growing and robust U.S. bioeconomy, EBRC is publishing a series of policy white papers on topics of importance to EBRC members and the engineering biology community that we believe can provide guidance and recommendations to the federal agencies tasked with responding to the Executive Order.” These white papers are available here. Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz serves on the EBRC Security Working Group and contributed to the “Biosafety & Biosecurity Innovation Initiative” white paper.

“Stakeholder Perspectives on the Biological Weapons Convention”

From UNIDIR: “Efforts to enhance biological disarmament and build biosecurity can no longer be achieved by States alone. It will require support from stakeholders around the globe if we are to achieve progress in the Biological Weapons Convention and wider efforts to strengthen biological security. Unfortunately, stakeholder perspectives are not necessarily always well understood or reflected in biological disarmament diplomacy. And some sectors are almost entirely absent from discussions.”

“To address this challenge, UNIDIR invited a diverse range of stakeholders and representatives from around the world and with diverse backgrounds to contribute their insights to this report. The contributions reflect activities they had undertaken in support of the BWC, what more their respective communities could do, and provide recommendations on what States Parties to the BWC should do (or not do) to advance the BWC. Collectively, these contributions provide several concrete ideas for BWC States Parties to consider in seeking to strengthen the Convention.” Read here.

Disarmament, Security and Development Nexus: Compendium of UNIDIR Annual Youth Disarmament Essay Competition’s Best Essays

“The first annual UNIDIR Global Youth Disarmament Essay competition was launched in 2022, responding to the calls for giving a voice to young people on the connections between disarmament and development. The Republic of Korea generously supported this essay competition. The theme of the first UNIDIR Global Youth Disarmament Essay competition was the ‘Disarmament, Security and Development Nexus’. Students and young professionals aged between 18 to 29 years old were invited to submit an essay that explored one of the following areas: Disarmament, economic growth, and inequalities; Disarmament for sustainable cities; Innovative disarmament efforts in light of the 21st century’s environmental challenges; Gender mainstreaming for sustainable disarmament and development.” Check out the top five essays from the competition here.

“The Future Home of the World’s Most Dangerous Pathogens”

Sarah Scoles’ recent piece for Coda Media discusses the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility’s (NBAF) struggle to balance the important work it is designed to do with genuine and ingenuine community and broader concerns, writing, “In high-containment biology labs like NBAF, though, the line between antagonistic misinformation and grounded concern is thin. And that means NBAF has to balance (at least) three things: the value of its research, the real risks of keeping big-time germs around and public concerns, both real and imagined.”

Scoles covers the story of microbiologist Lisa Hensley’s journey to NBAF, the security features of the facility, and the public discussion about the lab fraught with fears ranging from “I don’t want my cattle to get sick because of an accident” and “they are planning the next great pandemic.” You won’t want to miss this one!

“Operational Evaluation of the FDA Human Foods Program”

From the Reagan-Udall Foundation: “On December 6, 2022, the Independent Expert Panel for Foods submitted its report on the Operational Evaluation of FDA’s Human Foods Program to FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf. The evaluation and report were facilitated by the Reagan-Udall Foundation at Dr. Califf’s request.”

“The evaluation of FDA’s Human Foods Program launched on September 8, 2022. The evaluation focused on structure/leadership, authorities, resources, and culture, expecting to provide recommendations that would equip FDA to carry out its regulatory responsibilities, strengthen its relationships with state and local governments, and secure the nation’s food supply for the future. (The review excludes cosmetic and dietary supplement responsibilities.)”

Improving the IC’s Leveraging of the Full S&T Ecosystem

From the National Academies: “The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) depends on knowledge of cutting edge science and technology (S&T) to inform intelligence missions and compete with its adversaries. At the request of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Academies established a committee to explore ways in which the intelligence community might best leverage the S&T ecosystem.”

“Please join us for a webinar on our new report, Improving the Intelligence Community’s Leveraging of the Full Science and Technology Ecosystem, on Wednesday, December 14 at 11 am ET. During the webinar, members of the committee will present the report’s key findings and discuss how the IC can better leverage S&T knowledge that exists across the broader government, domestic, and global environments.” Register here.

Call for Nominations: Future of the Nation’s Laboratory Systems for Health Emergency Response: A Workshop

“A planning committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will organize and convene a two-day public workshop. During this workshop, invited participants from government, non-governmental organizations, and private sector organizations will explore the United States’ laboratory and testing responses to past, present, and potential health emergencies (e.g., COVID-19; monkey pox; chemical, radiological or nuclear threats), and will discuss the future of laboratory capabilities, capacities, and coordination for health emergencies response across public and private entities nationally. This workshop will focus on operational aspects of laboratory response, rather than technology development, including topics such as collaboration, coordination, information sharing, workforce, capacities and capabilities, and access.” Learn more and submit nominations here.

Violent Non-State Actor Chemical, Biological Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Data Portal Goes Live

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Unconventional Weapons & Technology Division has launched its new Violent Non-State Actor Chemical, Biological Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Data Portal. START explains that, “In order to provide a basis for rigorous empirical analysis of the CBRN terrorism phenomenon, UWT developed three databases: Profiles Of Incidents involving CBRN and Non-state actors (POICN); Chemical And Biological Non-State Adversaries Database (CABNSAD); and Radiological And Nuclear Non-State Actor Database (RANNSAD). These databases represent the largest open source publicly available databases on ideologically motivated CBRN events and individuals who pursue and/or use CBRN weapons.”

NCSC Safeguarding Science Toolkit

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center and its partners recently announced “a unique collaboration between elements of the U.S. intelligence and scientific communities to help the U.S. research enterprise mitigate the broad spectrum of risk it faces from nation-state, criminal, and other threat actors…The Safeguarding Science online toolkit is designed for individuals and organizations in the U.S. scientific, academic, and emerging technology sectors who are seeking to develop their own programs to protect research, technology, and personnel from theft, abuse, misuse, or exploitation.”

“The Safeguarding Science toolkit was designed with the scientific community for the scientific community. It provides research stakeholders with a single location to access security best practices from across government and academia and to select those tools tailored for their individual needs. NCSC and its partners seek to promote a robust and resilient U.S. research ecosystem that emphasizes integrity, collaboration, openness, and security, all of which facilitate innovation.”

The Pandora Report Wants to Hear from Biodefense Program Alumni!

Calling all graduates of the Biodefense Program-do you have any news to share from this year? We want to hear from you! The Pandora Report will be creating a year-in-review for our late December issue, and we want to include updates from current students and alumni alike. It can be anything from promotions, publications, new jobs, etc. that you would like to share. Share your updates with us at biodefense@gmu.edu before December 23 to be featured in the year-in-review and anytime you want to stay in touch.

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: In 1979, there was a suspicious outbreak of anthrax that killed over 60 people in a town located near a military research complex. For years, authorities blamed this outbreak on consumption of contaminated meat, though it was actually the result of an accidental release of Bacillus anthracis. What town did this happen in? (City Name, Country)

Shout out to Georgios P. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “Which country most recently became a State Party to the Biological Weapons Convention?” is Namibia.

Pandora Report: 12.2.2022

What a week it has been! This time we cover the first week of the Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference, China’s Zero COVID protests, and more. We also have a number of new publications and a new video from INTERPOL about weaponizable chemicals. Make sure to read to the end too for a fun new way to engage with the Pandora Report!

The Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference Gets Underway

It was never any secret that this RevCon was going to be one for the history books, but this first week has delivered on that promise and then some. Of course, the Russian Federation brought plenty of drama to the Palais des Nations, withdrawing from the Eastern European Group and voicing complaints that its invasion of Ukraine, which was referenced in numerous national statements, is outside the scope of the conference and that only Western countries describe its numerous false claims as groundless. In response to the former, Czechia responded with “If Russia doesn’t like it, they should simply not invade their neighbors.” Other countries have taken to selectively switching to speaking in Russian while delivering statements about who the aggressor in this situation is, giving a sense of schadenfreude reality TV could never.

The US used the right of reply to respond to Russia early this week, with US Special Representative Kenneth Ward explaining “During the Article V Formal Consultative Meeting, the United States, jointly with Ukraine, fully addressed the unfounded concerns raised by the Russian Federation. However, it was clear from the outset of the Article V process that Russia never intended to engage constructively with Ukraine and the United States. It came to our attention on the very first day of the meeting that the Russian delegation had already made up its mind and circulated a draft of a proposed “joint statement” to select delegations regarding the outcome of this Article V Consultation. In this draft joint statement, the Russian Federation explicitly concluded that Ukraine and the United States had failed to answer questions regarding the activities of biological laboratories in Ukraine – a conclusion it reached before the United States and Ukraine even began our joint presentation.”

The US also pushed back on Russia’s withdrawal from the Eastern European Group (which, by the way, was done because an unnamed member of the group blocked Russia’s nominations), stating “There is a final issue which I would like to briefly address. As we are all aware, the BWC forum operates based on a three-group system. Yesterday, a State Party indicated that it was withdrawing from its current group and forming a new “Group of One.” This is a new situation, and the United States reserves its position with respect to the implications of any new group for geographical rotation, vice-chair positions, etc. Any departure from current arrangements based on the existing three-group system would require a consensus decision by all States Parties.”

It hasn’t all been drama, however, with several productive side events and remarks from relevant organizations focused on everything from disinformation to discussion of new approaches to protecting the world from biological weapons.

Biodefense Program Students and Alumni Speak at BWC

Naturally, a number of current students and alumni of our program are making their mark at RevCon. Biodefense PhD student Ryan Houser delivered remarks on behalf of the Global Biolabs Initiative, led by Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz and Dr. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London. The Schar School recently posted about Houser’s remarks here, explaining “Houser’s statement called on nations where high-risk pathogen work is conducted to have laws and regulations that provide adequate oversight and to update them frequently. He also called for cooperation among the labs to share best practices and participate in peer reviews.”

Biodefense PhD student Ryan Houser delivering remarks at RevCon in Geneva

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, an alumnus of the program and the current Deputy Director of the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons at the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR), also delivered remarks this week. Dr. Lim spoke on behalf of CSR, acknowledging the importance of this particular RevCon. He said in part, “This Review Conference alone will not solve these issues. Yet what happens here will mark a historic point of departure where the community can choose to go down one of two paths. The first path leads towards a future where nations pursue mutual security through international cooperation and put in the hard work necessary to reduce biological threats together. The second path leads toward a future of even greater mistrust and further fracturing of international norms and practices. For the Council on Strategic Risks, it is our firm belief that the first path, where nations pursue mutual security through international collaboration, is the only pathway towards true security for all.”

Dr. Yong-Bee Lim delivering remarks at RevCon in Geneva

If you’re looking to keep up with RevCon, you can watch public sessions on UN WebTV and summaries of each day’s events on CBW Events’ website.

CWC Coalition Wins The Hague Aware at Chemical Weapons Convention 27th CSP

The 27th Conference of the States Parties of the Chemical Weapons Convention is wrapping up today in The Hague. The winners of the prestigious The Hague Award were announced in conjunction with the event, with this year’s winners including the Special Risks Brigade of the Federal Police of Argentina, the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition, and the Population Protection Institute of the Fire Rescue Service of the Czech Republic. The CWC Coalition, which Biodefense Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz is a member of, “is an independent, international civil society network committed to supporting the aims and universalization of the CWC and supplementing the work of the member states of the OPCW. The Coalition’s work is made possible by the support of the Global Affairs Canada Weapons Threat Reduction Program and the Arms Control Association.”

Dr. Koblentz was also recently quoted in Politico‘s coverage of concerns about Russia using CW in Ukraine. The piece explains “Experts and officials said tracking pharmaceutical-based agents and gathering intelligence about their development, particularly for offensive purposes, has become increasingly difficult. The substances used to develop chemical weapons are concealed easily and can be embedded within legitimate industries, said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.” He also told Politico, “Our traditional intelligence methods that we’re really good at, like satellite imagery and signals intelligence, aren’t really that useful for telling you what’s going on inside one of these core biological facilities,” Koblentz said. “You really need human intelligence to do that, which is very hard to get.”

Between a Rock and a Hard Place-Will China Pick COVID-19 Control or Political Control?

In an especially eventful couple weeks, Jiang Zemin, former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China died aged 96, the infamous “CRISPR baby” scientist He Jiankui announced the establishment of his new laboratory in Beijing after his release from prison, and Rao Yi praised UK Biobank and called for more genetic information sharing in China–all as the government grappled with growing protests and backlash against its Zero COVID policies. Oh, and ProPublica doubled down on its widely criticized article on the Wuhan Institute of Virology it co-published with Vanity Fair.

Lockdown Protests Across China

As images of people across China holding up blank sheets of white paper flood the internet, speculation about protesters’ ultimate desires have swirled as attention has been draw to pushback on the PRC’s Zero COVID policies. China’s approach to COVID-19 control has been incredibly strict, frequently forcing people to remain at home for months with inadequate access to food and other necessities. These are not people protesting normal public health measures-they are pushing back against an authoritarian government that has upended their lives repeatedly while failing to adequately invest in long-term solutions like effective vaccines. Furthermore, Chinese nationalism can be complicated and it is important to consider it in a non-comparative context.

In a wide display of civil disobedience that has been largely absent from the country in recent years, protesters have taken to the streets to call for the end of such draconian policies. This has been fueled in part by access to western media and shots of crowds at events like the FIFA World Cup, and it is especially risky business in the PRC. This is because of the scope of surveillance in the country, with police stations using facial recognition software to identify people captured on the countless surveillance cameras across the country. While the protests do seem to have spurred some relaxation in Zero COVID policies, it has not been without consequences as the police are cracking down on protesters.

China’s New “People First” Approach to COVID-19, Policy Rollbacks in Major Population Centers

Beyond actual outbreak control and prevention, China’s Zero COVID policies have been intertwined with efforts to further narratives that the PRC is more orderly and successful than the West. For example, official publications have contrasted the “rule of China” with the “chaos in the West” throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, using this narrative to counter perceived western political globalization. Xi Jinping has also repeatedly stressed that China’s post-COVID recovery will be “a time of opportunity when “the East is rising and the West is declining.”‘ Zero COVID policies are clearly high stakes political tools that the government has increasingly relied on in the face of poor vaccination rates and struggles with new variants.

However, this has all seemingly been thrown out the window this week as policymakers make major shifts to epidemic control and prevention measures across the country. On November 11, China’s National Health Commission announced its much anticipated 20 measures to further optimize COVID prevention and control, in which it was reiterated that Beijing was not backing down or relaxing its measures at all. However this proved to not be the case.

For example, just three days later, Shijiazhuang (a city of over 11 million and the capital of Hebei province) became the first city to cancel mass PCR testing. However, on November 20, the city restored mass PCR testing in six districts and restricted residents in high-risk areas from leaving their homes, advising others to stay home unless absolutely necessary. Yesterday, China Daily reported that Shijiazhuang will “…gradually resume normal production and life order starting Thursday as the chain of transmission during an ongoing COVID-19 epidemic has been basically cut, a top official of the city said at a news conference on Wednesday night.”

This new brand of optimism has been echoed elsewhere, including in a recent speech by Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, in the relaxation of restrictions in other major cities like Guangzhou and Chongqing (despite rising infections), and in less prominent publications that recently claimed the Omicron subvariant is not very serious and that there is no evidence of Long COVID. These are bold claims that reflect changing policies as the government tries to adapt to the precarious situation unfolding currently. Zhejiang’s CCP Provincial Committee even published a post on WeChat this week titled ‘”People First,” not “Epidemic Control First”‘ claiming, among other things, that “Epidemic prevention and control is about keeping out viruses, not about keeping out people. It has always been about “people first,” not any so-called “epidemic prevention first.”’

Of course, this isn’t entirely a political issue. There are real people’s lives at stake, a fact that is likely to become even more clear as this rollback clashes with the fact that the PRC lags on COVID-19 vaccinations. The country’s vaccination rates have struggled, with just 40% of those over 80 having received a booster shot as of November 11. The government is currently touting its big push to get more people, especially the elderly, vaccinated and boosted, but is it too little too late? The country is still relying on its domestic vaccines, which have proven substantially less effective than foreign offerings, including mRNA versions. During Hong Kong’s Omicron surge earlier this year, two doses of China’s Sinovac proved to be only 58% effective in preventing severe disease or death in those over 80 (in contrast to 87% with two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech offering). Furthermore, a The New York Times notes, “…China’s last major vaccination push was in the spring, an interval of eight months or more since the last dose for many recipients.”

The lackluster efficacy combined with low interest in the vaccine, in part because Beijing’s strategy opted to focus so heavily on lockdowns and widespread testing, are a dangerous combination. This also looks to be poised to cause more issues as, in a rush to vaccinate a hesitant elderly population, the recommended time between the initial series of Sinovac and the first booster dose is also being reduced from six months to three. Whatever happens next, it is likely to be very interesting…

ProPublica Doubles Down on Heavily Criticized Article

Last month, we discussed ProPublica’s article about supposed CCP dispatches from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), explaining the flawed translations and mischaracterization of the website in question. ProPublica has now released an editor’s note discussing criticisms aimed at the October 28 piece that, unfortunately, fails to adequately address the issues raised with the piece. ProPublica’s Stephen Engelberg explains in the note “Over the past several weeks, reporters and editors at both publications have taken a hard look at those criticisms. Our examination affirms that the story, and the totality of reporting it marshals, is sound.”

The note goes on to recount how the publication re-interviewed some of its original sources and reached out to “…three Chinese language experts with impeccable credentials who were not involved in the original story to review Reid’s translation,” who are also anonymous like those consulted in the original piece. ProPublica first focuses on a post made on the WIV website that the initial piece claimed was discussing a biosafety incident at the facility. As we and others discussed, however, this was a news post talking in very inspirational terms about the day-to-day functions of the lab and the safety culture the organization tries to maintain.

However, ProPublica claims this new batch of experts “…all agreed that his [Toy Reid-the translator ProPublica relied on in their piece] version was a plausible way to represent the passage, though two also said they would have translated the words to refer to the dangers of day-to-day lab operations. The third produced a translation that was in line with Reid’s. All agreed the passage was ambiguous. We have updated the story to underscore the complexity of interpreting that dispatch.” The note later states “It remains clear that in 2019, the WIV was addressing serious safety issues while scientists there faced pressure to perform. Risky coronavirus research took place in laboratories that lacked the maximum biocontainment safeguards, according to the interim report.”

Later on, the note returns to this passage and criticisms of its context, explaining that Reid thought it had a defensive tone, saying “Before we published our story, Reid told us he found the passage to have a defensive tone. In the story, we quote Reid as concluding, “They are almost saying they know Beijing is about to come down and scream at them.” The note also says of the original three translators’ work, “All three of their translations were different from one another’s and different from Reid’s. Yet, each agreed that Reid’s translation was one plausible way to translate the passage into English. Our translators looked at the Chinese characters that Reid had translated to read “Every time this has happened” and instead said they read them to mean “on such occasions” or “at every such an occasion.””

The note addresses other criticisms with varying levels of success, including those focused on mis-matched dates in the piece and confusion over patent filings. However, it ignores a number of other criticisms and fails to address key issues raised with these translations. First, pointing to multiple translators coming up with different versions of this passage than the one ProPublica predicated its narrative on is not sufficient to absolve the publication of poor practices. This is especially true as the note provides virtually no context about who these “Chinese language experts with impeccable credentials” are and how much context they were provided. The original translation notes ProPublica provided seemed to ignore entire halves of sentences in an attempt to confirm a certain narrative, which makes this lack of information in the editor’s note particularly concerning.

Second, this note still ignores critical questions about Reid’s methodology and the core of the piece’s argument. The piece claims to have unearthed “dispatches” from the WIV that hinted at biosafety issues, other security problems, and urgent, high-level visits to the facility in light of these supposed incidents. However, as we discussed last time, these were posts uploaded to the general news tab of the WIV website. The passages the ProPublica piece relies on include propagandistic, general descriptions of daily work in a BSL-4, claims that workers are so dedicated that they sacrifice their time off and well-being to make sure the facility is safe, and the constant push of everyone involved to make the WIV safer and better. However, again, even if these were actually dispatches secretively discussing serious problems at the lab, why would they be publicly available on the WIV website?

The crux of this piece is that WIV and the Chinese government covered up a lab leak that led to this horrible, destructive pandemic. Why, then, would they publicly post and maintain these posts about biosafety issues at this facility? The Party and its organs are secretive and interested in controlling narratives to better their image-especially when it comes to high-profile facilities like the nation’s first P4 facility. If ProPublica wants to portray these posts as damning evidence that the WIV had remarkable biosafety issues that allowed SARS-CoV-2 to escape and spread in Wuhan, then the question of why that kind of information would be allowed to remain on the site of such a high-profile facility must be answered.

Finally, this note did not address concerns about exoticism, Sinophobia, and the general overpromise that this unknown State Department political officer who went to Harvard and worked at RAND somehow has this unique, esoteric understanding of Mandarin. There is a line between understanding how the CCP legitimizes itself through narratives and inappropriately presenting China and Chinese people as an especially unique case beyond understanding. Furthermore, the piece largely seems to have overstated the skills and methods of Reid, relying on building him up to be somehow uniquely well-suited for this work and hyping up, of all things, his use of a VPN to access the WIV website. In addition to the spread of false information, these issues point to a concerning trend in public discourse about China that harms the real people who fall victim to the dangerous rhetoric this feeds into. As we talked about last time, shoddy work like this helps nobody. It ultimately empowers those with prejudiced views, muddies public discourse, and mischaracterizes the very real threats to security posed by the PRC.

Other Updates

World AIDS Day

December 1 was World AIDS Day, an annual commemoration aimed at uniting to show support for those living with HIV and to honor those who died from AIDS and related illnesses. Tens of millions of people have died of AIDS-related causes since the epidemic began and HIV still presents a major global health threat today.

Felix Richter explained this week for Statista that “According to estimates from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, 10 countries accounted for almost half of all new HIV infections in 2021. South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda alone nearly accounted for nearly one third of the estimated 1.5 million new infections last year, indicating that Sub-Saharan Africa remains the epicenter of the HIV pandemic.”

He continued, “While the number of new infections has dropped from 2.9 million in 2000 to 1.5 million last year, the number of people living with HIV increased from 26 million to more than 38 million over the past two decades. According to UNAIDS, the increase is not only caused by new infections, but also a testament to the progress that has been made in treating HIV with antiretroviral therapy, which has vastly improved the outlook of those infected with HIV.”

Credit: Statista

Mpox

The WHO recently announced that it will begin using “mpox” as its preferred term and a synonym for monkeypox. This decision was made in consultation with global experts because “When the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year, racist and stigmatizing language online, in other settings and in some communities was observed and reported to WHO. In several meetings, public and private, a number of individuals and countries raised concerns and asked WHO to propose a way forward to change the name.”

WHO will use mpox alongside monkeypox for a year before phasing out use of the latter term. According to WHO, “Considerations for the recommendations included rationale, scientific appropriateness, extent of current usage, pronounceability, usability in different languages, absence of geographical or zoological references, and the ease of retrieval of historical scientific information.”

WHO also stated “The issue of the use of the new name in different languages was extensively discussed.  The preferred term mpox can be used in other languages. If additional naming issues arise, these will be addressed via the same mechanism. Translations are usually discussed in formal collaboration with relevant government authorities and the related scientific societies.”

This reflects a push in recent years to change how diseases are named in recognition of the stigma and harm brought by naming diseases after places, people, and animals. WHO released its “Best Practices for the Naming of New Human Infectious Diseases” in 2015 to help provide guidelines for using more general terms to describe new infectious diseases. This issue was again brought to the forefront amid spikes in attacks targeting Asian people since the COVID-19 pandemic began in Wuhan as racist rhetoric surrounding cultural practices and the disease’s origin flooded public discourse. The FBI documented a 77% increase in hate crimes against Asian people living in the United States from 2019 to 2020, though it is likely these kinds of crimes are chronically under-reported.

“Health+ Long COVID Report”

This Department of Health and Human Services’ report “highlights patients’ experience of Long COVID to better understand its complexities and drive creative responses by government leaders, clinicians, patient advocates and others.” It builds “on the President’s Memorandum on Addressing the Long-Term Effects of COVID-⁠19 and the two previously issued HHS Long COVID reports. The report was commissioned by HHS and produced by Coforma, an independent third-party design and research agency. It provides recommendations on how to deliver high-quality care, and relevant and intentional resources and supports to individuals and families impacted by Long COVID.” Read the report here.

“WHO Guiding Principles for Pathogenic Genome Data Sharing”

This new set of guidelines from WHO outlines best practices for sharing genomic data: “WHO encourages the sharing of pathogen genome data to protect global public health. Sharing of pathogen genome data is critical for preventing, detecting, and responding to epidemics and pandemics at national and international levels, and is in the interest of all Member States. The regular collection and sharing of such data are also important for monitoring and responding to endemic diseases and for tracking antimicrobial resistance to inform policy decisions. Practices and policies for sharing pathogen genome data must be ethical, equitable, efficient, and effective. After wide consultation, WHO has developed these foundational principles, which focus on public health uses, as well as urgent immediate research priorities.”

Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons: Preventing the Misuse of the Chemical and Life Sciences

This new book “…explores how revolutionary developments and convergence of the chemical, life and associated sciences are impacting contemporary toxin and bioregulator research, and examines the risks of such research being misused for malign purposes. Investigating illustrative cases of dual use research of potential concern in China, India, Iran, Russia, Syria and the USA, the authors discuss how states can ensure such research and related activities are not utilised in weapons development. Although toxins and bioregulators are, in theory, covered by both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention, this apparent overlap in reality masks a dangerous regulatory gap – with neither Convention implemented effectively to address threats of weaponisation. This book highlights the potentially damaging consequences for international peace and security, and proposes realistic routes for action by states and the scientific community.”

“Verification and Transparency: Learning from Project Coast”

In The Trench‘s fifth issue of the Historical Notes story, Professor Brian Rappert, Ms. Lizeka Tandwa, and Dr. Chandré Gould discuss the history of South Africa’s chemical and biological weapons program. The explain that “This Historical Note discusses how transparency and truth-telling have figured in securing confidence nationally and internationally. Our assessment is that fact-sharing, truth-telling and transparency about the apartheid-era chemical and biological warfare programme were not the key ingredients leading to confidence regarding South Africa’s commitment to the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BTWC). To illuminate this position, we evaluate the roles of truth in (1) the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of South Africa, and (2) South Africa’s transparency (or lack thereof) in the BTWC. The authors begin by briefly describing the activities of South Africa’s CBW programme and the questions that linger about it. This serves as an entry to unpacking the roles of truth and confidence, both welcomed and unwelcomed roles.”

“Countering Hybrid Threats in Bulgaria”

JD Maddox, an adjunct professor at the Schar School who teaches courses on countering disinformation, recently delivered the keynote address at an event introducing this policy brief from the Center for the Study of Democracy. The brief explains, “Russia has long prepared its war in Ukraine by deploying the full array of hybrid warfare tools at its disposal in Europe: election meddling and strategic corruption aimed at political parties and media, cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure and disinformation, economic coercion, and targeted assassinations using difficult-to-detect toxic agents, to name a few. Europe has been slow to react, with EU member states failing to anticipate the war in Ukraine even after the Kremlin started preparations for its final act by deliberately reducing gas storage levels in Germany in the autumn of 2021. Some EU and NATO member states and many political party leaders across the continent remain in denial, even as the war approaches a full year of destruction. NATO and European institutions have begun to prepare policy and operational responses to these emerging hybrid threats, but implementation remains slow and uneven.” Maddox also recently released an infographic-“Russia’s Active Measures: Recent CBRN-enabled Influence Operations” that outlines Russia’s efforts across several areas, including cyber.

“An Update on Eukaryotic Viruses Revived from Ancient Permafrost”

Two words; “zombie viruses”-that is how researchers have described thirteen viruses collected from permafrost in Siberia in a recent preprint. “One quarter of the Northern hemisphere is underlain by permanently frozen ground, referred to as permafrost. Due to climate warming, irreversibly thawing permafrost is releasing organic matter frozen for up to a million years, most of which decomposes into carbon dioxide and methane, further enhancing the greenhouse effect. Part of this organic matter also consists of revived cellular microbes (prokaryotes, unicellular eukaryotes) as well as viruses that remained dormant since prehistorical times. While the literature abounds on descriptions of the rich and diverse prokaryotic microbiomes found in permafrost, no additional report about “live” viruses have been published since the two original studies describing pithovirus (in 2014) and mollivirus (in 2015). This wrongly suggests that such occurrences are rare and that “zombie viruses” are not a public health threat. To restore an appreciation closer to reality, we report the preliminary characterizations of 13 new viruses isolated from 7 different ancient Siberian permafrost samples, 1 from the Lena river and 1 from Kamchatka cryosol. As expected from the host specificity imposed by our protocol, these viruses belong to 5 different clades infecting Acanthamoeba spp. but not previously revived from permafrost: pandoravirus, cedratvirus, megavirus, and pacmanvirus, in addition to a new pithovirus strain.”

What We’re Watching 🍿

We’re changing it up this week with INTERPOL’s new a̶c̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ m̶o̶v̶i̶e̶ awareness video about the risks of weaponizable chemicals-“The Watchmaker”. “The Watchmaker, is an INTERPOL-produced awareness video highlighting the need for multi-agency cooperation to share knowledge and identify solutions to mitigate risks posed by weaponizable chemicals. It is part of a broader set of activities entitled, Project Crimp, which provides a platform for multi-agency cooperation between law enforcement, government, academia and the chemical industry to share knowledge, experience and share best practice.”

Maximum Containment Labs and Biorisk Management

From the Global Biolabs Initiative: “This webinar will re-launch GlobalBioLabs.org, an interactive web-based map of global maximum containment labs and biorisk management policies, and introduce new data and analysis. Speakers: Dr Filippa Lentzos, King’s College London and Dr Gregory D Koblenz, George Mason University.” This webinar will take place on December 9 at 8 am ET. Register here.

Applying Lessons Learned from COVID-19 Research and Development to Future Epidemics

Join the National Academies for this workshop taking place in a hybrid format December 7-8. “The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed innovative practices across many sectors to accelerate the development and use of new tools and technologies in response to an emerging infectious disease outbreak. This public workshop will examine lessons learned in creating an environment that strengthens this progress in partnerships, communication channels, and coordination processes to support the rapid development and implementation of new vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostic tests for future outbreak preparedness. A specific focus will be placed on broadening stakeholder partnerships early and throughout the outbreak preparedness and response process.” Learn more and register here.

Canadian Biosafety Standard, Third Edition Webinar

“The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are pleased to announce the publication of the Canadian Biosafety Standard, third edition (CBS3). The CBS3 outlines the physical containment, operational practice, and performance and verification testing requirements for facilities where regulated materials are handled or stored. The CBS has been revised to clarify the biosafety and biosecurity intent of all requirements, be risk-, evidence- and performance-based, and be non-prescriptive and technology-neutral. The CBS3 comes into full effect on April 1, 2023. The Public Health Agency of Canada will be hosting a two-part webinar series dedicated to the CBS3. The first webinar will be held on December 7th, 2022, and will provide an overview of key changes in the CBS3 from the previous edition, project milestones, and highlights from the public consultation.” The webinar will be held at 1 pm ET. Register here. Registration is limited for this event, so move quickly if you are interested in attending.

ICYMI- Impacts of Infectious Diseases on the Military: Lessons Learned

From the Homeland Defense and Security Information Analysis Center: “This moderated panel discussion will engage three subject matter experts who have served at the forefront of public health operations in both the military and civilian sectors. Panelists will discuss lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and other health crises, recommended responses for future infectious disease threats, and near- and long-term mitigation steps which the military can employ to combat infectious disease threats. Threats analyzed will include natural and manmade releases of biological threats.” Watch the webinar here.

BIO-ISAC Call for Nominations for Genomic Security and Hardware/Software Security Working Groups

“To support the execution of the Bioeconomy Executive Order, BIO-ISAC has issued a Call for Nominations for its 2023 working groups focused on Genomic Security and Hardware/Software Security.”

“Each workgroup is expected to meet for at least two hours a month for the initial four months and agree to future meetings as required. Consensus building around organization recommendations and regulatory responses expected with likely on-the-record presentation of findings from the working groups. No working group may have more than two representatives from a single firm or entity.  BIO-ISAC membership is required to serve as chair.

The Pandora Report Wants to Hear from Biodefense Program Alumni!

Calling all graduates of the Biodefense Program-do you have any news to share from this year? We want to hear from you! The Pandora Report will be creating a year-in-review for our late December issue, and we want to include updates from current students and alumni alike. It can be anything from promotions, publications, new jobs, etc. that you would like to share. Share your updates with us at biodefense@gmu.edu before December 23 to be featured in the year-in-review and anytime you want to stay in touch.

Introducing the Weekly Pandora Report Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! At the end of each weekly issue, there will now be a trivia question included. 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). Because this is the first round, we will start off easy-Which country most recently became a State Party to the Biological Weapons Convention?

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.