Event Summary: Building Capacities for Addressing Future Biological Threats

Defining Convergence

By Geoffrey Mattoon, Biodefense MS Student

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

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

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

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

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

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

Event Summary: The American Pandemic Preparedness Plan: One Year of Progress & The Path Forward

By Geoffrey Mattoon, Biodefense MS Student

On Thursday, 8 September, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) hosted “The American Pandemic Preparedness Plan: One Year of Progress & The Path Forward” webinar, which included speakers Dr. Matthew Hepburn, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Senior Advisor, and Dr. Carly S. Cox, CSR Fellow for Ending Bioweapons, and was moderated by journalist Janet Wu of Bloomberg. Dr. Hepburn and Dr. Cox discussed the recently released “First Annual Report on Progress Towards Implementation of the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan,” which they both played a central role in developing, and considered the current state and future goals of pandemic preparedness in the U.S. The lack of COVID-19 in the title of the event and report is intentional and the overarching message of both; do not fail to see the forest for the trees. A more apt statement in this instance may be “do not fail to see the future threats of pandemics and biological attacks for COVID-19 alone.”

This message was emphasized throughout the event, refocusing attention from COVID-19 to all pandemic response, and mirroring the call for greater broad-spectrum protection in biodefense as made by Dr. Gregory Koblentz in his book Living Weapons. Such efforts, according to Dr. Koblentz, transcend the historical “one bug, one drug” paradigm and provide a biodefense countermeasure strategy for both biological weapons and natural diseases. Broad-spectrum efforts such as these have already demonstrated their value in the response to other threats, including the adaption of existing mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 or the JYNNEOS smallpox vaccine for the ongoing monkeypox outbreak, and could prove critical in the event of any future disease outbreak or biological attack.

Dr. Hepburn opened the event with a call to action, stating all the progress we have made is good, but we still have much more work to do. He pointed to the first section of the Annual Report as a reminder of all the government has accomplished in pandemic preparedness. When asked by Ms.Wu if he believed we had learned enough from COVID-19 to prevent the next outbreak from reaching the same level, Dr. Hepburn emphatically replied “Yes.” He cautioned that the hard part is learning the right lessons and making the changes necessary to prepare. Dr. Cox stated she hoped he was right, but we also thought we were prepared for COVID-19.

Speaking on the importance of a diversified public health workforce, Dr. Hepburn highlighted the need for technologically savvy professionals. He asserted future public health workers must be trained in data analysis, program management, and human empathy to be successful. Dr. Cox then stressed the benefit of fellowship opportunities to provide professionals in the field a broader perspective to address biological threats that enhance disease outbreak prevention.

A diverse workforce is not the only ingredient needed for preparedness success. Dr. Hepburn and Dr. Cox also discussed the essential nature of interagency and private sector cooperation to overcome COVID-19 and future pandemics. This message aligns with both the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy Goal 1 and the 2021 Biodefense Vision Memo that call for greater coordination and unity of effort across all biodefense organizations in response to natural and man-made pathogens. This message is also supported by the broad range of organizations and their accomplishments throughout COVID-19 response outlined in the first section of the Annual Report. Such unity and diversity of effort is critical to maximize biodefense; including biosurveillance efforts like that of the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics, biodetection efforts from agencies like NIH RADx, and preparedness guidance from agencies like ASPR. Such multifaceted preparedness and response are essential to provide broad-spectrum protections against future threats.

A specific topic of discussion during the event was efforts in rapid production of medical countermeasures (MCM). Operation Warp Speed demonstrated we now possess the capability to produce effective vaccines within a year, enabling us to respond rapidly to emerging threats. Dr. Shulkin provides a concise summary of the essential lessons learned by Operation Warp Speed that should be applied to future vaccine development in his commentary, “What Health Care Can Learn from Operation Warp Speed.” The speakers emphasized that such efforts must become routine and require global cooperation to be effective in facing current pathogens like malaria as well as future threats. The development of vaccines is a balancing act of cost and innovation which may require government agencies to de-risk programs to incentivize innovation when the cost prohibits private sector interest. They also discussed the importance of novel vaccines that offer shelf-stable solutions as well as varied delivery methods (microneedle, oral, skin patches) to enhance distribution capabilities and capacity. Such technologies would directly benefit defensive efforts nationally and may even enhance defensive deterrence of biological weapons based on a more robust strategic stockpile.

            When asked what efforts give the panelists the greatest hope for the future, they highlighted the need to engage at the local health system and community level. Such efforts enable the establishment of trusted networks that can effectively disseminate critical health information and work to deter misinformation and disinformation. This mobilizes the population in response to threats and provides an added means of innovation that can guide future MCM and biodefense efforts. It is also critical that trust is built in advance within communities, it is not a resource you can “surge” at the time of need and COVID-19 has demonstrated the effects mistrust can have on response. Vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccine sentiments proved to be a serious obstacle in COVID-19 response and must be addressed in a vaccine-agnostic manner to enhance current and future disease prevention and eradication.

The key messages throughout this event were consistent with those throughout the biodefense community. Interagency and international unity of effort, MCM innovation, and community involvement efforts in pandemic preparedness will enhance national biodefense. The COVID-19 pandemic is a world-changing event that may be key to reinvigorate pandemic preparedness and response efforts and, as a result, biodefense as well. As the speakers emphasized, what is critical is that the entire community applies these lessons to the whole of pandemic preparedness and response, not just COVID-19 specifically, to truly benefit from lessons learned. We cannot fail to see the forest for the trees.