Pandora Report: 2.24.2023

This week we have several exciting announcements, a leadership change at Africa CDC, and more to cover. We also have plenty new publications, including multiple from our own students and faculty. This edition rounds out with new upcoming events, an AMR resource from the CDC, and, as always, a trivia question so you can show off what you know.

Biodefense Alumna, Faculty Member Named to PLOS Global Public Health Editorial Board

Biodefense faculty (and alum) Dr. Saskia Popescu is now a member of the  PLOS Global Public Health Editorial Board.  PLOS Global Public Health is an open access global forum for public health research that reaches across disciplines and regional boundaries to address the biggest health challenges and inequities facing our society today. ­­PLOS Global Public Health addresses deeply entrenched global inequities in public health and makes impactful research visible and accessible to health professionals, policy-makers, and local communities without barriers. The journal amplifies the voices of underrepresented and historically excluded communities and prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion at all levels – editors, editorial boards, peer reviewers and authors – to broaden the range and diversity of perspectives at the forefront of public health and advance the health of all humankind. 

Dr. Jean Kaseya Becomes Head of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

Dr. Jean Kaseya, a Congolese physician with more than twenty years of experience working in public health both in the DRC government and in international institutions, has become the first Director General of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Kaseya’s candidacy was approved by the African Union this past weekend, and he joins the agency amid a transition designed to allow it to operate with more authority and flexibility. Whereas his predecessors were directors of the Africa CDC (which functioned as a technical institute), Kaseya is director general of Africa CDC that functions now as a public health agency, which will grant him more powers and less expectations of dealing with African Union bureaucratic issues.

Kaseya has indicated one of his main priorities is healing the relationship between Africa CDC and the WHO. Health Policy Watch noted “Today, after the confirmation, my first call was with Dr [Mashidiso] Moeti, Regional Director, WHO/AFRO region to reiterate my commitment to work closely with WHO to address health issues in Africa,” he stated, putting aside the rift that opened between the Africa CDC and WHO last summer over the degree of autonomy that Africa CDC should have in declaring regional public health emergencies.”

While Africa CDC grew its prominence through its COVID-19 response, Kaseya now must manage maintaining that level of prominence as the AU shifts to managing other challenges. The same Health Policy Watch article continues with “But COVID-19 is no longer the priority that it used to be, Guzman noted.  Instead, many countries are now preoccupied with a burgeoning fiscal and debt crisis, as well as multiple other competing priorities.  These include accelerating the African Continental Free Trade Area, the main agenda item at the 36th AU Assembly, as well as confronting the growing effects of climate change and the war in Ukraine on food security, and beyond. “

South Sudan Assents to Accession to Biological Weapons Convention

On February 15, the United States notified the BWC Implementation Support Unit that South Sudan deposited its instrument of accession to the Biological Weapons Convention in Washington DC. This makes South Sudan the 185th State Party to the Biological Weapons Convention. South Sudan joins the majority of other countries as a State Party, including Namibia, which acceded to the BWC less than a year ago on February 25, 2022. Learn more about the Convention and the ISU’s work here.

“How the James Webb Space Telescope Can Inform Health Security”

Biodefense PhD student Ryan Houser recently published this article in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. He writes in part, “In a moment when life on Earth has felt increasingly tragic and troubling based on what has become the background noise of the continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, dangerous climate change impacts, and other international affairs challenges, NASA and its partners released images of the early universe from a historical space telescope. The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in December, 2021 was the result of decades of innovation and challenges, but the images just beginning to be released are awe-inspiring. Not since the release of ‘Earthrise’ from the Apollo 8 mission has images from space highlighted how Earth is both grand and delicate. Against the vastness of the universe, the fragile nature of the Earth is overshadowed by the endless possibilities that exist within the galaxies around us. The images from the Webb telescope are an inspiration for scientific progress and for the next generation of scientists who will lead us into the future. The story of the James Webb Space Telescope and its creators serves as an important and informative lesson for the future of global health security which is still reeling from the continued threat of COVID-19 and the newly emerging Monkeypox threat. The necessary advancements in global health security will be a formulation of great failures such as the overall COVID-19 response, the result of never-ending commitment to progress from practitioners and policy makers, an effort of global collaboration, and one of increasing complexity that requires a diversity of thought to find innovative solutions; all themes which line the story of the James Webb Telescope and serve as an analogy for the mission towards the next great frontier in global health security, one free of global catastrophic biological risks.”

“Biology Is Dangerously Outpacing Policy”

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program, and Dr. Rocco Casagrande recently published this opinion piece in The New York Times. In it they discuss concerns about dual-use research and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity’s recent recommendation to majorly overhaul government oversight such research. They explain the core problem this recommendation aims to address, writing “Historically, the United States has taken a reactive and haphazard approach to preventing lab accidents and the misuse of high-risk science. A patchwork of regulations, guidance and policies exists based on the specific pathogen being researched, the type of research being conducted and the source of funding. But some research doesn’t fall under any agency, leaving an oversight vacuum.”

They continue, explaining “This fragmented system has not kept pace with the evolving risk landscape. There are now more powerful tools for genetic engineering, and these tools are easier to use and more widely available than ever before. There are also more researchers interested in conducting research with engineered pathogens for scientific and medical purposes. According to the Global Biolabs Initiative, of which Dr. Koblentz is a co-director, there are more than 100 high and maximum containment labs around the world conducting high-risk research, with more planned. The United States has more such labs than any other country. Failure to update bio-risk-management policies is too great a concern.”

They later offer a proposal to create a government agency specifically tasked with managing this oversight: “The United States also needs to establish an independent government agency that has the authority and resources to regulate this research. This agency would serve a similar purpose as the National Transportation Safety Board or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and be dedicated to understanding the cause of accidents and mitigating risk anywhere in the United States. This would provide a central place for scientists to receive guidance about their work or to raise concerns. Such an agency could develop and promote policies so that all institutions doing this work would be held to the same standards.”

“Some researchers argue that these recommendations are too far-reaching and will inhibit science. But many of these measures would align the regulatory environment of the United States with those of its peers, such as Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany. Fears that more oversight will have a chilling effect on research are belied by the robust research programs found in each of these countries. Still, the implementation of these recommendations will require a careful balancing act: fostering innovation in the life sciences while minimizing the safety and security risks.”

“Blind Spots in Biodefense”

In this editorial for Science, Ann Linder and Dale Jamieson discuss the Biden administration’s National Biodefense Strategy and critical areas it fails to address. They write in part “In October, the Biden administration released its National Biodefense Strategy (NBS-22), the first update since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Although the document notes that one of the lessons of the pandemic is that threats originating anywhere are threats everywhere, it frames threats as largely external to the United States. NBS-22 focuses primarily on bioterrorism and laboratory accidents, neglecting threats posed by routine practices of animal use and production inside the United States. NBS-22 references zoonotic disease but assures readers that no new legal authorities or institutional innovations are needed. Although the US is not alone in failing to confront these risks, its failure to comprehensively address them echoes across the globe.”

“More zoonotic diseases originated in the United States than in any other country during the second half of the 20th century. In 2022, the US processed more than 10 billion livestock, the largest number ever recorded and an increase of 204 million over 2021. Risks occur across the supply chain, from facilities where animals are born to homes where they are consumed. The ongoing H5N1 avian influenza outbreak has left 58 million animals dead in backyard chicken coops and industrial farms. It has infected animals in one of the dozens of live poultry markets in New York City (elsewhere called “wet markets”). Of the many agencies that govern food animal production, the US Department of Agriculture is the most important, but even it has no authority to regulate on-farm animal production.”

“Interventions to Reduce Risk for Pathogen Spillover and Early Disease Spread to Prevent Outbreaks, Epidemics, and Pandemics”

This online report by Vora et al. was recently published in Emerging Infectious Diseases. Abstract: “The pathogens that cause most emerging infectious diseases in humans originate in animals, particularly wildlife, and then spill over into humans. The accelerating frequency with which humans and domestic animals encounter wildlife because of activities such as land-use change, animal husbandry, and markets and trade in live wildlife has created growing opportunities for pathogen spillover. The risk of pathogen spillover and early disease spread among domestic animals and humans, however, can be reduced by stopping the clearing and degradation of tropical and subtropical forests, improving health and economic security of communities living in emerging infectious disease hotspots, enhancing biosecurity in animal husbandry, shutting down or strictly regulating wildlife markets and trade, and expanding pathogen surveillance. We summarize expert opinions on how to implement these goals to prevent outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics.”

“Hundreds of Incidents of Lost Nuclear and Radioactive Material Logged in Latest CNS Trafficking Database”

From the Nuclear Threat Initiative: “The latest edition of the Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, produced by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) exclusively for NTI, documents 352 incidents of nuclear and radiological material outside of regulatory control between 2020-2021. The Global Incidents and Trafficking Database is the only publicly available account of incidents involving nuclear and other radioactive materials. It aims to give researchers and policymakers a comprehensive picture of the amount and types of incidents that occur, from which they can develop data-driven policy solutions. CNS has logged more than 1,500 global incidents since the database was launched in 2013, emphasizing that the security of nuclear and radioactive materials remains a persistent global safety and security concern.”

“The latest dataset, available as a downloadable spreadsheet, is published with an accompanying analytical report and interactive map to illustrate where incidents have taken place. Delays and disruptions in national reporting due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to the publication of a two-year aggregate report of 2020 and 2021 incidents. The dataset illustrates several alarming trends, including more incidents occurring because of failure of individuals to abide by appropriate procedures and attempts by right-wing extremist groups to acquire nuclear and other radioactive materials. Furthermore, the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the United States, even before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, has stymied progress on nuclear and other radioactive materials security issues on the international stage and the threat of radiological crime and terrorism remains high, particularly in unstable regions.”

“Disinformation in the Kremlin’s Toolkit of Influence: Training Guidance for Scoping the Threat to the Norms and Institutions of Weapons of Mass Destruction Nonproliferation”

The Center for the Study of Democracy recently published this report: “Russia’s hybrid warfare operations utilize a combination of tactics and tools. Disinformation – the deliberate spread of inaccurate, incomplete, or fabricated information – remains one of the core instruments through which the Krem­lin seeks to assert its political authority domestically and exercise influence abroad. During the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Russia has stepped up its disinformation campaigns focusing in particular on technically specific and malign narratives around chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons – collectively referred to as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This training guidance focuses on hybrid threats that involve the use of materials associated with the development of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. It seeks to illustrate 1) how the use of WMD materials fits within the Kremlin’s toolbox of influence and 2) how disinformation activities regarding WMD-enabled attacks can impact the existing WMD nonproliferation norms and institutions. The guidance contains indicative scenarios which are intended to facilitate consideration of the possible manifestations of disinformation activities and the types of approaches and strategies that can be implemented to counter foreign malign activities in the media sector.”

What We’re Listening To 🎧

This Podcast Will Kill You, Special Episode: David Quammen & Breathless

Latest episode of TPWKY: “What do you get when you combine a love of reading with an interest in biology/public health/medical history and a background in podcasting? The TPWKY book club, of course! This season’s miniseries of bonus episodes features interviews with authors of popular science books, covering topics ranging from why sweat matters to the history of food safety, from the menstrual cycle to the persistence of race science and so much more. So dust off that library card, crack open that e-reader, fire up those earbuds, do whatever it takes to get yourself ready for the nerdiest book club yet.”

“We’re starting off this book club strong with a discussion of Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, the latest book by award-winning science writer David Quammen (@DavidQuammen). Breathless recounts the fascinating – and sometimes frightening – story of how scientists sought to uncover the secrets of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. In this interview, Quammen, whose 2012 book Spillover explores the increasing pathogen exchange occurring among humans, wildlife, and domestic animals, shares with us how he decided to write Breathless and why this story of discovery needs to be told. Our conversation takes us into musings over why we saw this pandemic coming yet could not keep it from happening, the controversy over the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and the question of whether future pandemics are preventable or inevitable. Through this discussion, we find that the global response to future pandemics depends just as much on locating the gaps in our knowledge about this virus as it does on applying what we have learned so far. Tune in for all this and more.”

Osterholm Update: COVID-19 Episode 125-Masks, Memories, & Middle Ground

“In “Masks, Memories, & Middle Ground,” Dr. Osterholm and Chris Dall discuss the state of the pandemic in the US and around the world, the newly released CIDRAP Coronavirus Vaccine R&D Roadmap, and the rise of vaccine misinformation and disinformation.” Find this episode on CIDRAP’s website.

Personal Protective Equipment and Personal Protective Technology Product Standardization for a Resilient Public Health Supply Chain

“The National Academies will convene a public workshop, March 1-2, to examine standards gaps related to personal protective equipment (PPE) and personal protective technology (PPT). The event will explore innovative approaches and technologies needed to update and streamline the U.S. standardization system for PPE and PPT in support of supply chain resiliency. Policymakers, manufacturers, users, and relevant technical contributors will discuss ways to improve the effectiveness, safety, supply stability, and accessibility of PPE and PPT in health care settings and increase usage by critical infrastructure workers and the general public.” Learn more and register here.

The Biden Administration’s New Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism 

From the Nuclear Threat Initiative: “Join us as White House Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall and other senior U.S. officials discuss the Biden administration’s new strategy to counter weapons of mass destruction terrorism and advance nuclear and radiological security.” This event will be held on March 2 at 11 am EST. Register here.

Report Launch Preparing for Success at the Fifth Review Conference of the CWC: A Guide to the Issues

“The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) is pleased to invite you to the in-person launch of a new report on Preparing for Success at the Fifth Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention: A Guide to the Issues. This is the first in a series of events the Institute is hosting in preparation for the Fifth CWC Review Conference, which is scheduled to take place from 15 to 19 May 2023.” One version will be hosted in The Hague on Monday, March 6 from 12:30-14:30 CET and another in Brussels on Tuesday, March 7 from 12:30-14:30 CET. Both will also be broadcast via Zoom.

CDC Launches Antimicrobial Resistance Investment Map

From CDC: “Antimicrobial resistance (AR), when germs do not respond to the drugs designed to kill them, threatens to return us to the time when simple infections were often fatal. CDC is committed to protecting people and the future of the healthcare, veterinary, and agriculture industries from the threat of antimicrobial resistance.

The AR Investment Map showcases CDC’s critical activities in the U.S. and abroad to combat antimicrobial resistance with investments in laboratory and epidemiological expertise and public health innovation. CDC supports most of these activities through its AR Solutions Initiative, while also leveraging investments from successful programs across the agency for maximum efficiency.

The map also includes projects related to combating antimicrobial resistance that are funded by supplemental appropriations provided to CDC to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the American Rescue Plan Act or the CARES Act. These activities are also highlighted in a fact sheet.

Go To CDC’s Antimicrobial Resistance Website

Sustainable Diagnostic Containment Laboratories – Request for Expressions of Interest

“This Expression of Interest (RFEI) is seeking bold ideas that will reinvent the diagnostic laboratory, making it fit-for-purpose in resource-limited contexts globally. These innovative solutions are expected to reimagine the physical laboratory in order to reduce ongoing operational and maintenance costs and allow sustainable presence of safe and secure handling of high-consequence pathogenic materials, whilst maintaining and/or optimizing core functions of a diagnostic laboratory in low- and middle- income countries.”

“This RFEI represents Phase I of a dual-phase approach to development of a Grand Challenge for Sustainable Diagnostic Laboratories. The pool of Expressions of Interest received will be used to inform the scope of a full Grand Challenge program in Phase II, under which Grand Challenges Canada will award funding. Submission of an Expression of Interest does not constitute an application for funding; however, Expressions of Interest will receive feedback from an external review process designed to improve the quality of full proposals submitted for an open call for funding applications in Phase II. Most promising Expressions of Interest may also be shortlisted for direct invitations to submit full proposals for funding in Phase II.”

Learn more 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 will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, our question is: What is the first multilateral disarmament treaty that banned an entire category of WMD?

The correct answer to last week’s question, “This viral disease is primarily spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and was first detected in humans through a serological survey conducted in Uganda in 1952. What is its name?,” is Zika.

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.