Pandora Report: 5.15.2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pandora Report: 4.10.2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 2.28.2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora Report: 2.21.2020

Happy Friday Biodefense Gurus! We have a packed edition of the Pandora Report this week, but before we begin – don’t forget to register and reserve your spot for the “Coronavirus & International Security” panel event this evening in Arlington, VA. The CSPS Distinguished Speaker Series event will be at 5pm and you can find more information and register here.

GMU Biodefense Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security
We’re excited to announce the summer dates for the workshop: Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika. This three and a half-day workshop will be held in Arlington, VA, from July 13-16, 2020. Registration links and speaker information will be provided in the coming weeks. We hope you’ll join us for this immersive and engaging workshop with some of the top minds in the biodefense world, where we’ll discuss everything from synthetic biology to MCM, antibiotic resistance, and the current outbreak of COVID-19.

CW Use in Syria – Atrocities and Accountability 
We’ve got the scoop on a brand new article by GMU Biodefense graduate program director and professor Dr. Gregory Koblentz in Nonproliferation Review regarding Assad regime use of chemical weapons. International efforts to hold the government of President Bashar al-Assad accountable for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war have entered a new phase. For the first time, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international organization responsible for implementing the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, has been empowered to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria. The Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which was formed to conduct the OPCW’s new attribution mission, has announced its intention to investigate and identify the perpetrators of nine chemical attacks in Syria, including the April 7, 2018, attack in Douma. This article reviews recent efforts to attribute chemical attacks in Syria, describes what we know about the nine incidents to be investigated, discusses what to expect during the next phase of the attribution process, and offers insights into how the international community can move beyond attribution to accountability. An annex to the article summarizes what is known about the Syrian government officials, military commanders, and chemical-warfare scientists suspected of being responsible for these attacks. As Koblentz notes, “Without attribution, there can be no accountability. Without accountability, the atrocities will continue: if not by the hand of Assad, then by others emboldened by his ability to use outlawed weapons to hold onto power.” You can read the article here, which builds upon his previous research on Syria’s chain of command for the use of chemical weapons and international efforts to hold the regime accountable for these attacks.

Reaping What You Sow: The Case for Better Agroterrorism Preparedness
GMU Biodefense MS student Stevie Kiesel is pulling back the curtain on this all too forgotten aspect of biodefense – agroterrorism. “An attack on the food supply gives the perpetrating group several benefits. First, the psychological and economic effect of targeting food supplies would be substantial. Such an effect could have a powerful pull with a group such as al Qaeda, who has shown interest in biological weapons and in targeting US economic strength. Second, and related, this type of attack would be relatively low cost when compared to the economic effects it could cause. Third, similar to other forms of terrorism, agroterrorism can allow a weaker group to lessen the power imbalance between themselves and the state they are targeting. Fourth, some groups may turn to agroterrorist tactics because these attacks ‘do not harm humans directly and may therefore be more easily justified’.” Read more of Stevie’s highly engaging and relevant article here.

SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 Outbreak Updates
As of Thursday evening, there have been 76,214 cases and 2,247 deaths related to COVID-19. From the realm of synthetic biology, many are rushing to recreate SARS-CoV-2 from its DNA code. Since it only took a few weeks to get the genetic sequence of the virus, many researchers are hoping to start ordering copies of genes to build it for efforts like diagnostic testing and vaccine development. On another front, one of the biggest topics has been that of cruise ships…One in particular, the MS Westerdam, finally docked and passengers/crew disembarked in Cambodia. Unfortunately, following the release of passengers, one was later found to have the disease, which has prompted concern as people have begun their travels home. The other, the Diamond Princess ship, finally saw its passengers allowed to leave the controversial ship-based quarantine. 621 (20% of the people onboard) of those on the ship tested positive for the virus. “Those passengers who have been declared free of the virus and are leaving the ship for the first time in two weeks face a confusing array of circumstances. Many will be forced to undergo a 14-day quarantine upon their return home — reflecting a lack of trust in the effectiveness of the ship’s quarantine. Others can remain in Japan under their own recognizance but are still barred from returning home for two weeks.” Here is a good timeline of the outbreak onboard and how the ship was initially placed into quarantine on February 4th after 10 people onboard tested positive. Passengers being flown back to the U.S. have been sharing their account of the experience, but as these two cruise ships provide unique examples of outbreak response, it sheds light on the limitations of quarantine and challenges of public health efforts during the COVID-19 outbreak. “Based on what is known so far, Cambodia’s approach is preferable to quarantining people aboard a ship where the virus is spreading, said Saskia V. Popescu, GMU Biodefense alum and senior infection prevention epidemiologist for HonorHealth, a hospital system in Phoenix. But that requires educating passengers about reporting symptoms and self-isolating if necessary, and having public health authorities in home countries closely monitor those who have returned. It includes quickly tracing the contacts of anyone who develops the infection. ‘I think we can say if you’re going to quarantine people, doing it on a cruise ship is not the best place,’ Popescu said.” In the face of these exhaustive efforts to respond to the disease, conspiracy theories have been a frustrating distraction – Chinese labs have noted that these often hurt efforts to curb the virus and scientists around the world have been working to condemn rumors and conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the virus. “A group of 27 prominent public health scientists from outside China is pushing back against a steady stream of stories and even a scientific paper suggesting a laboratory in Wuhan, China, may be the origin of the outbreak of COVID-19.” Senator Tom Cotton continues to push such conspiracy theories. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has a new initiative regarding the outbreak, known as the Coronavirus Project. The project focuses on debunking misinformation and providing accurate information from qualified researchers and scientists. “Since late 2019, information about the infectious Coronavirus has been trickling out from sources around the web. But not all information is created equal. Some of this information comes from science and medical professionals, who have years of experience in epidemiology. Some comes from unreliable anonymous internet accounts, bad actors, and hoaxers.” Despite these distractions, a paper in The Lancet recently emphasized the support for scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals in China combatting the disease. “We have watched as the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China, in particular, have worked diligently and effectively to rapidly identify the pathogen behind this outbreak, put in place significant measures to reduce its impact, and share their results transparently with the global health community. This effort has been remarkable.” In times like these, the global health security community truly comes together to address common vulnerabilities and enhance strengths.

The Economic Impacts of COVID-19
The ongoing outbreak of coronavirus has already infected over 75,000 people and taken over 2,000 lives. The newly dubbed COVID-19 outbreak originated and remains strongest in China, but the economic effects of the it is already rippling across the globe. As an outbreak disseminates and intensifies, the labor force shrinks (at least temporarily), supply chains fracture, international mobility of persons and products decelerates or ceases altogether, and spending and investment decline. Though the full magnitude of economic effects from the outbreak can only be speculated upon at this point, the downward economic trends have begun. The sectors most impacted and at highest risk, thus far, are technology, oil, apparel, retail, tourism, and automobiles. The losses in production from Chinese manufacturing of key inputs and final products are critical drivers of the losses we are seeing and will continue to see across the globe. These items include iron, steel, aluminum, textiles, cement, chemicals, toys, electronics, and many more. According to the latest Statista Infographics Bulletin, global shipments of various tech products are expected to fall by 4.5 to 16% in this first quarter of the year. China is the world’s primary producer and exporter of textiles, so the fall in Chinese textile production will impact the global apparel and retail markets. Global oil demand is falling for the first time in over a decade as global transit drops from diminished trade and travel. Travel bans are, of course, squelching international tourism and costing travel hot spots to lose revenue. This is compounded as major events that attract troves of visitors are cancelled in response to COVID-19 fears. For instance, projections from the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization expect Japan to lose $1.3 billion and Thailand to lose $1.2 billion in tourism revenue just in this first quarter. Due to the travel bans and the general disinclination to travel at the moment, US tourism from Chinese visitors will take a compounding hit in addition to the losses from the ongoing trade war with China. Relatedly, global airline revenues are predicted to drop by $4-5 billion in the first quarter of 2020 due to flight cancellations. Automobile makers are closing plants in China as the much-needed inputs such as steel and aluminum are shrinking the availability of parts. As ground zero, China is suffering the most so far. China’s growth rate is expected to drop from 6% to 4.5% in the first quarter of 2020. As the infection sweeps through the Chinese labor force, factories are shutting down or lowering output capacity, slowing the flow of parts and final products from China. Virtually all countries are and will be impacted by the break in the supply chain as a result of reduced output from China. The absence of a single small component may render a final product unachievable.  As supply falters across various sectors and products reliant on Chinese manufacturing, we should anticipate a rise in those prices. On the other hand, China is one of the largest markets for US products, especially Apple electronics and fashion items, so we should anticipate a significant decline in demand from that large consumer base as spending shrinks among the Chinese population. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in China in 2003 provides a rough analogue on which to base predictions of the economic impacts of COVID-19. Virulence was highest from November 2002 to July 2003, and that nine month period was all the time needed for the disease to infect almost  8,500 people and kill over 800 people globally. Lee and McKibbin estimate the total economic cost of the 2003 SARS epidemic to be around $40 billion. The geographic dissemination of COVID-19 is currently akin to that of 2003 SARS with cases concentrated in China and small clusters popping up in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. The COVID-19 mortality rate is much lower at 2% versus 10%; however, the total number of coronavirus cases after just a couple months greatly surpasses the total case count for SARS at over 75,000. Though the loss of life may, thankfully, be much less severe with COVID-19, the adverse economic impacts of this outbreak may greatly surpass that of SARS. In 2020, we are more of a global economy than in 2003 and supply chains for a cornucopia of products are spread across nations and even continents, so a kink in one place catalyzes a domino effect across borders and industries. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight for COVID-19 as we approach March; therefore, the hits to the global economy will continue to spread across sectors and countries, as well as grow in severity. Only time will tell the full scale and spectrum of adverse economic effects instigated by COVID-19.

The 2021 Nuclear Weapons National Security Budget Proposal
The 2021 budget proposal exemplifies the continuing shift in the US nuclear posture toward a renewed nuclear arms race. This month, President Trump sent Congress a proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget request of $740.5 billion for national security, 95% of which is for the Department of Defense. The clear priority of the proposed budget is the expansion of investment in and capabilities of US nuclear weapons. The proposal requests almost $29 billion, a 16% increase from the previous year, for the modernization of the US nuclear weapons arsenal. In addition to the $29 billion for modernization, the proposal includes other related items that would bring the total nuclear weapons budget to about $50 billion. The bump in nuclear weapons investment comes at the cost of shrinking most other security and defense programs. This should come as no surprise given Trump’s proclivity for nuclear strength as evidence by his late 2016 tweet, “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Despite recommendations that DOD dedicate more resources on challenges from strategic rivals, namely China and Russia, the proposal outlines cuts to such programs. For example, the Navy is preparing for a significant reduction in funding for new warships. Lawrence J Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Logistics and Materiel Readiness, recommends that the administration extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the Russians and resume negotiations. This would renew efforts toward reducing nuclear arsenals and enable the allocation of limited resources to programs that make our country and the world safer.

GAO Report – National Biodefense Strategy
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a new report – “National Biodefense Strategy: Additional Efforts Would Enhance Likelihood of Effective Information”. You can access it here, but the report notes that “There are a number of challenges, however, that could limit long-term implementation success. Among other things, there was no documented methodology or guidance for how data are to be analyzed to help the enterprise identify gaps and opportunities to leverage resources, including no guidance on how nonfederal capabilities are to be accounted for in the analysis. Many of the resources that compose national capabilities are not federal, so enterprise-wide assessment efforts should account for nonfederal capabilities.” Moreover, the report points out that agency officials struggled to identify how decisions were made and there generally lacked a clear process or series of roles for joint-decision making, “As a result, questions remain about how this first-year effort to catalogue all existing activities will result in a decision-making approach that involves jointly defining and managing risk at the enterprise level.”

Pandemics and Podcasts
There are a lot of great podcasts in the infectious disease and biodefense world, so we’ll be spotlighting a few from time to time. Our first is the Next Generation GHS episode from last week, in which GMU Biodefense MS alum Jessica Smrekar sat down to discuss COVID-19. You can listen to it here. Jessica noted that “It was great sitting down with Jono and Taylor to hash out this rapidly developing COVD-19 outbreak in light of Jono’s book, The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity and How To Stop It. We discussed at length the weak links in local, national, and international health structures that leave us vulnerable to disease outbreaks and how we can remedy these in the future. Jono’s book outlines 7 specific actions that, if taken, could reduce these gaps and allow us to create a safer world. We explored the problems we face in developing strong, resilient health systems and how these actions work to solve those problems. Though the COVID-19 outbreak really highlights that we are not where we should be to keep our world safe, Jono expressed ‘the NextGen Group and your leadership and the fact we have such a mobilized network worldwide makes me optimistic. I think we’re building a really powerful network, both internationally and at the national level. And it’s that network of capable, informed, engaged people, who really do care about having a safer world, I think that’s what makes me feel optimistic’.”

News of the Weird
Video games and outbreaks – apparently they go hand in hand. Virus games are growing in popularity right now, in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak, especially that of Plague, Inc. “Plague Inc. and Pandemic may have a certain morbid appeal in the time of the coronavirus. But they have more than that to offer, many experts and players agree. ‘I can certainly understand the hesitation around this — no one wants to trivialize the very real human suffering that this coronavirus has brought with it,’ said Leacock, Pandemic’s creator. ‘But the reality is that playing helps us process the world around us, and people may be turning to these games now for that reason’.”

Outbreak Dashboard 
Qatar has reported a new MERS-CoV case, marking the fourth case since December. The DRC outbreak of Ebola has now reached 3,443 cases with over 330 suspected cases under investigation.