Pandora Report: 5.13.2022

Happy Top Gun Day to all those that feel the need for speed! Continuing the theme of “things you thought you left in the Cold War,” we’re covering news from Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow in this edition. This week we discuss the official emergence of COVID-19 in North Korea, China’s new 14th Five-Year Plan for the Development of the Bioeconomy, and a WHO European Region proposal to condemn Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian healthcare facilities and even shutter the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of NCDs in Moscow. The new Statement of the G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group and updates on avian influenza in the United States are also discussed. We have included a number of great new publications, including a report from the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense discussing the resources land-grant universities can offer US biodefense and the WHO’s first global report on infection prevention and control. Upcoming events, including one offered by Issues in Science and Technology featuring Biodefense Graduate Program alumnus Dr. Yong-Bee Lim as a panelist, are included. Finally, check out the announcements section for a special One Health funding opportunity and more new works combatting Russian WMD disinformation.

“Maximum National Emergency” in the Impossible State- First COVID-19 Outbreak Announced in Pyongyang

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) announced via the Korean Central News Agency that it is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak this week with multiple people testing positive for the BA.2 subvariant in Pyongyang. At least 187,000 were quarantined due to a “fever” of unknown origin and Kim Jong-un declared a “maximum national emergency” in response. According to the New York Times, “North Korea said 350,000 people had been found to have a fever since late April, including 18,000 on Thursday. It added that 162,200 people had completely recovered.” Six are reported dead (one specifically from Omicron) and Kim has ordered all cities and counties in the country of 25 million to lock down. This is the first admission to having any cases from the regime and, in typical fashion, Kim took the opportunity to admonish his health officials, claiming that the outbreak in the capital “shows there is a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system.” As of late February this year, the DPRK had reported 54,187 COVID-19 tests to the WHO since the pandemic began, all of which it claimed were negative.

The announcement was made the same week the South inaugurated its new president, Yoon Suk-yeol on May 10. Yoon is a conservative who brings a harsher stance on the North than his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, which many think will heighten tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons. While major political events in the South often bring provocations from the North, including nuclear tests, some wonder if this new revelation might temper this tendency. However, former UK Ambassador to the DPRK, John Everard, believes this is unlikely to stop the North’s weapons testing for now. However, it may impact Kim’s promise to rapidly expand his nuclear arsenal, according to some analysts, a promise which he made at last month’s military parade featuring new ICBMs.

Irrespective of what happens in terms of nuclear testing, the public health situation is critical in the DPRK. Like China, it has implemented a Zero COVID-19 policy, which includes lockdowns at the border and strict quarantines. However, it has not yet started a COVID-19 vaccination campaign, making it the only other country to have not done so apart form Eritrea. This is despite multiple offers and refused deliveries from COVAX, including an offer that would have covered 20% of the population. As of February this year, COVAX had just 1.29 million doses allocated to North Korea, a number many organizations are calling for increases in amid the outbreak. The country previously expressed concerns about the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine COVAX had allocated for the country (citing concerns about rare blood clotting following vaccination), though it also rejected over 3 million doses of China’s Sinovac in September of last year, saying they should be sent to severely impacted countries. The DPRK also rejected multiple offers from South Korea and Russia to provide vaccines to the country in 2021. As a result, this is an unvaccinated population in a country plagued by malnutrition and other health crises facing a highly transmissible and contagious subvariant, all while lockdowns make accessing what healthcare is available difficult if not impossible.

Korea experts at CSIS think that the North is probably interested in receiving vaccines, though they specifically want mRNA ones. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is, like Johnson and Johnson’s offering, a viral vector vaccine. Sinovac’s CoronaVac is an inactivated vaccine found to be less effective than mRNA vaccines, like those offered by Pfizer and Moderna. Remember, the PRC has not produced nor authorized any mRNA vaccines, despite its initial claims that it had one domestic mRNA vaccine offering at its reach. The PRC does have some mRNA candidates in phase three clinical trials and review and approval processes, including the vaccine developed by Abogen Biosciences, Walvax Biotechnology, and the PLA Academy of Military Science that is currently in extensive trials in China, Mexico, and Indonesia. However, as China struggles with case counts in places like Shanghai, this is unlikely to be of much help to the DPRK any time soon.

The North has likely been concerned about the monitoring requirements that come with accepting COVAX shipments, which might be mitigated by reframing this as technical support while highlighting the differences between vaccines and other fungible forms of aid. De-linking COVID-19 aid from progress on other strategic goals is another potentially useful tool if the North remains committed to its current approach. Again, however, this is an incredibly serious situation, so the DPRK may be more open to less desirable terms than it normally would be.

Furthermore, the Zero COVID approach has contributed to secondary health and food crises as supplies of medication and access to care evaporate and the food shortage drags on. In fact, “The Great Year of Victory 2021”, the most recent version of the annual, near-two-hours-long documentary praising Kim and recapping the regime’s achievements for that year, even admitted there is a food crisis. According to the Washington Post, “The narrator described a meeting where Kim expressed his concern that “what is urgently needed in stabilizing the people’s livelihood is to relieve the tension created by the food supply,” and he called on emergency measures for the “food crisis,” noting that the country had dipped into its emergency grain supply. In June, Kim called the country’s food situation “tense.”” Border closures blocked shipments of grains, fertilizers, and farming equipment, adding to the pain of a population wherein the UN estimates at least 43% are food insecure. This was all even further exacerbated by severe flooding followed by 2020’s typhoons, contributing to continued low crop yields. Kim Jong-un even remarked at a 2021 Worker’s Party meeting that the “people’s food situation is now getting tense.” Finally, an October 2021 report from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service revealed that Kim ordered an all-out farming campaign, calling for all citizens to “devote every effort to farming, and to secure “every grain” of rice.”

China has indicated it is “ready to go all out” in its support for the DPRK during the outbreak. Zhao Lijian, Deputy Director of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency this week, “China and the DPRK are friendly neighbors linked by mountains and rivers. The two sides enjoy the fine tradition of mutual assistance. Since the onset of COVID-19, the DPRK side has been firmly supporting China in the fight against the coronavirus. China very much appreciates that. We feel deeply for anti-COVID situation in the DPRK. As the DPRK’s comrade, neighbor and friend, China is ready to go all out to provide support and assistance to the DPRK in fighting the virus.”

However, this aid is likely to be slow moving, with the PRC and DPRK having re-suspended overland trade last month. The suspension was previously lifted in January 2022 after the border was closed in 2020 to prevent COVID-19 from spreading into the country. This lack of movement impacted what aid was sent, with a 2020 UNICEF aid bundle sent to North Korea in 2020 sitting idle at a quarantine facility in China until January of this year. Furthermore, trade between the countries dropped over 90% between March 2020 and March 2021, with the DPRK economy contracting 4.5% in 2020, the steepest decline for the country since it endured the massive North Korean Famine of the 1990s. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification announced too this week that the ROK is willing to provide medical assistance and other help North Korea during this crisis.

In February 2021 the CSIS Korea Chair’s podcast, The Impossible State, covered what was then known about lockdowns and the severity of COVID-19 in the North. This is a great source for context on this situation and, in it, Dr. Victor Cha (Senior Vice and Korea Chair at CSIS,  D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies at Georgetown University, and former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council), Dr. Kee Park (Lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School), and Dr. J. Stephen Morrison (Senior Vice President and Director of the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS) discussed issues like a lack of ventilators in the country and, perhaps most interestingly, greater government control of private markets.

These markets gained momentum during the days of the great famine in the 1990s when the regime’s public distribution system failed. According to some estimates pre-pandemic, up to 72% of North Koreans get all of their daily resources from these markets, not from the government. These are also avenues for media from the rest of the world to enter the country, however they also offer the regime and easy resource for hard currency. This was seen in 2009 when the regime redenominated the won and placed restrictions on how much of the old currency could be converted, helping reconsolidate its power from the growing markets. In an effort to recentralize and recoup some of its losses in 2021, the government “..reclaimed control over all foreign trade and domestic markets.” “During the 8th Party Congress, North Korea announced its new five-year economic plan (2021–25). It stresses centralised management in all sectors and advocates greater political control in day-to-day economic planning and management,” according to East Asia Forum. While this indicates the regime feels threatened by the pandemic, it also means that food insecure people’s access to resources was further limited, which will be even worse now with the entire country in lockdown.

China’s 14th Five-Year Plan Gets Boost to Its Bioeconomy Focus

In March 2021, the PRC’s National People’s Congress passed the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan, covering 2021-2025. China’s five-year plans are collections of social and economic development initiatives that the Party issues to help guide policy making. They help the Party outline what each facet of government should be working towards by doing everything from outlining what Chinese communism looks like in a given era to launching comprehensive reforms. Drafted in October 2020, the 14th Five-Year Plan was written amid economic shrinkage (the first in four decades) and worsening US-China relations during the COVID-19 pandemic. It sets forth a strategy of the “domestic and overseas markets reinforcing each other, with the domestic market as the mainstay,” focusing heavily on the economy, environment, energy, transportation, research and development, and urbanization.

China Daily reported this week that the National Development and Reform Commission released a new document outlining a plan to “spur the bioeconomy during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25), in a bid to promote high-quality development of the sector,” called “The 14th Five-Year Plan for the Development of the Bioeconomy.” This is similar in nature to the 14th Five-Year Plan for National Informatization released in December 2021, which seeks to further the country’s digitization during the period covered by the 14th-Five Year Plan. The 29-page bioeconomy plan, available here (no English translation was available at the time of writing) outlines steps “to promote innovative development of the bioeconomy, accelerate the development of healthcare, bio-agriculture, bioenergy, biological environmental protection and bioinformatics, improve the biosecurity risk control, prevention and governance system, and create a better environment for the innovative development of the bioeconomy.”

It begins by explaining broad objectives and indicating it was crafted “according to the 14th Five-Year Plan of National Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China and the Outline of Vision 2035.” It then continues to define goals across 28 sub-topics, ranging from development areas to calls for improved epidemic management and biosecurity. The document outlines a number of basic principles including “Adhere to the innovation-driven”, “Adhere to win-win cooperation”, and “Adhere to risk control.”

The promise of win-win cooperation is a key way China promotes its aid and infrastructure deals with other countries, contrasting its supposedly mutually beneficial offerings with those of the United States. In a statement before the UN in 2015, Xi Jinping took this even further, saying “Major countries should follow the principles of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation in handling their relations. Big countries should treat small countries as equals, and take a right approach to justice and interests by putting justice before interests.” This echoes many claims and promises the PRC makes to differentiate itself from the United States on the global stage. In reality, the PRC is not really interested in win-win situations just as it is only interested in its core principle of non-interference when it is convenient. To achieve this “win-win approach”, the plan calls for, “a higher level of openness to the outside world and greater reform initiatives to gather global bio-innovation resources.” It also calls for China to “Actively participate in global biosafety governance, promote bilateral and multilateral international cooperation in life sciences and biotechnology, and promote the rational flow of innovation factors to achieve mutual benefit and win-win bio-economic benefits.”

Zhou Jian, Deputy Director of the Consumer Goods Industry Department at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said, “The ministry will work with relevant departments to implement moves to modernize the biomedicine sector, including building a modern innovative ecosystem deeply integrating the industrial, innovation, value and supply chains, shoring up weak chains, promoting intelligent and green development of the pharmaceutical industry, driving innovative transformation of large enterprises and supporting the development of small and medium-sized enterprises that specialize in niche sectors.”

According to China Daily, “Under the plan, the bioeconomy-a model focusing on protecting and using biological resources and deeply integrating medicine, healthcare, agriculture, forestry, energy, environmental protection, materials and other sectors-will become a key driving force to boost high-quality development by 2025.

By 2025, the proportion of the bioeconomy’s added value in GDP will increase steadily, and China is set to witness a significant increase in the number of enterprises engaged in the bioeconomy with annual revenues of at least 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) each. By 2035, China aims to be at the forefront globally in terms of the comprehensive strength of its bioeconomy.”

This is of concern, particularly given the strategy’s interest in things like precision medicine (which uses genomic, physiological and other data to tailor treatments to individuals), as US officials continue to warn of China’s interest in Americans’ health data – including DNA information. In 2020, as US states struggled to build their testing capacity, Chinese biotech firm BGI Group (formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute) offered at least six states help with building and managing COVID-19 testing labs. This would have given the company access to Americans’ health data, former Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center William Evanina said during a January 2021 CBS 60 Minutes report. BGI was also scrutinized for its connection to the PLA as it gave pregnant patients’ genomic data from NIFTY prenatal tests to the Chinese military to conduct research on population traits. The Pentagon warned service members in 2019 not to take at-home DNA test kits, stating they create security risks and could impact service members’ careers, following similar concerns. China’s interest in competing in biopharmaceuticals and medical device manufacturing further indicate the country is in it for personal gain, not improving and saving lives- a dangerous prospect in a world threatened by high chronic disease burdens and threats of emerging infectious diseases.

Europe Pressuring the WHO to Isolate Russia

Many members of WHO’s European region are pushing the organization to remove experts at its office in Moscow. The 53-member region includes Ukraine, Russia and the entirety of the EU. It will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday to consider passing a resolution condemning Russia’s attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine, which could set into motion the removal of WHO experts in Moscow. Politico explains, “If agreed, the resolution would force the WHO’s hand on taking a more political stance on the war. The health organization has in the past been criticized for taking overtly apolitical positions, including for its caution at publicly calling out China in the early days of the pandemic.” The WHO did announce, however, this week that it has begun gathering evidence for a potential war crimes investigation into the more than 200 attacks it has documented by Russia on Ukrainian healthcare facilities on its Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care platform.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visiting Ukraine last week

The draft resolution is sharply worded and demands that the Russian Federation “ensure respect for international humanitarian law, including protection of all medical personnel and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, their means of transport and equipment, as well as hospitals and other medical facilities.” It also asks WHO Regional Director for Europe Hang Kluge “to safeguard the technical cooperation and assistance provided by the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, including the possible relocation of the aforementioned office to an area outside of the Russian Federation.” It also asks Kluge to “consider temporarily suspending all regional meetings in the Russian Federation.” The suspension in the region would be in place until there is a peaceful resolution in Ukraine, according to Politico

However, some argue it will do very little in practice. Lawrence Gostin at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law called it a “weak rebuke that won’t bother Putin,” continuing on to say that the WHO could remove Russia’s voting rights at the World Health Assembly and that the assembly should pass a resolution condemning attacks on healthcare facilities. He also argued that the WHO should take make multiple steps regarding this at the World Health Assembly, including 1) suspending Russia’s WHA voting privileges, 2) passing resolutions condemning Russian attacks on healthcare and blocking humanitarian aid, 3) inviting Ukrainian doctors and human rights NGOs to speak at WHO, and 4) reforming surveillance system for attacks targeting healthcare facilities.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Health has been even less subtle about its view of the matter, tweeting “Due to #Russianinvasion, Ukraine insists on the closure of WHO’s European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, located in Moscow. We are talking about moving the office outside of russia. Ukraine has already submitted a request to the @WHO_Europe.”

Statement of the G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group

The G7 Non-Proliferation Directors Group recently released this statement outlining directions for strengthening the G7’s desires to improve non-proliferation, regulate conventional weapons and ammunition, and secure the sustainable use of outer space. It begins by reiterating “the G7´s profound condemnation of Russia’s premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of choice against Ukraine, enabled by the Belarusian government.” It covers topics like strengthening the NPT ahead of the 10th Review Conference in August 2022, support for the restoration and full implementation of the JCPOA, upholding the global norm against the development and use of biological weapons, honoring the 20th anniversary of the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, defending the norm against the use of chemical weapons and countering impunity, countering the proliferation of missiles and other critical technology, saving lives by preventing illicit transfers and destabilizing accumulation of conventional weapons and ammunition, and addressing state threats to the secure, safe, sustainable, and peaceful uses of outer space.

Bird Flu Updates- US States Confirm Cases in Wild Mammals

Building on last week’s update on Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) cases in the US, H5N1 HPAI is now impacting more than 2/3 of US states, and multiple states in the Midwest have reported cases in fox kits. 37.55 million poultry in the US have died as a result of the virus’s spread. In Michigan, three fox kits have died in Macomb, St. Clair, and Lapeer counties, with the Michigan State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab finding them “non-negative” for HPAI. Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported on Wednesday that a wild fox had tested positive. Two kits were also confirmed to have died from H5N1 in Ontario, Canada earlier this month, with one displaying “severe neurologic signs before dying at a rehabilitation center, according to the DNR.” An estimated 1.7 million farmed birds in Canada have been killed by H5N1 this year. A turkey vulture in Dundas was recently found to be infected, indicating it is spreading even further in Canadian wild bird populations. Wild red foxes in the Netherlands tested positive in 2021 during outbreaks of avian influenza in multiple European countries as well. These cases in the US and Canada represent the first cases reported in wild mammals in North America.

“Testing in Minnesota has confirmed HPAI in nearly 200 wild birds, including 19 species of birds, primarily waterfowl and raptors,” said Michelle Carstensen, the Minnesota DNR’s wildlife health program supervisor. Washington state confirmed Thursday that it has seen six outbreaks in just one week, adding two to that count yesterday. “With so many suspicious cases in domestic flocks and wild birds pending investigation, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to avoid exposing your flock to wild waterfowl, shorebirds, and other domestic flocks,” Washington state veterinarian Dr. Amber Itle said. The CDC still says the risk of H5N1 to humans remains low, but it advises the public to avoid handling sick or dead birds, cautioning them to use a plastic bag or shovel to do so if necessary.

In related news, China recently detected the first human case of H3N8 in a young boy who had close contact with chickens and crows raised at his home. While a single case is not particularly concerning, increases in transmission in birds increases the opportunities for these viruses to mutate, potentially gaining the ability to spread easily from person-to-person eventually. The WHO said of the case, “Currently, limited available epidemiologic and virologic information suggests that this avian influenza A(H3N8) virus has not acquired the ability of sustained transmission among humans. Therefore, the risk at the national, regional and international level of disease spread is assessed as low.”

“Boots on the Ground: Land-Grant Universities in the Fight Against Threats to Food and Agriculture”

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense recently released this report discussing how universities receiving benefits through Morrill Acts of 1862, 1890, and 1994 and Equity in Education Land-Grant Status Act funds offer unique resources to identifying and rectifying critical biodefense gaps. The Commission writes:

The food- and agro-biodefense challenge is different from, but as daunting as, biodefense of human public health due to the diversity of targets (e.g., livestock, crops, soil); spectrum of potential pathogens and pests; and different geographies, ecosystems, and infrastructures at risk. Land-grant universities are uniquely positioned to help defend the United States against biological threats to food, livestock, crops, wildlife, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, textiles, the environment, the bioeconomy, and the food and agro-economy, valued at more than $1 trillion annually. In serving the states, localities, tribes, and territories in which they reside, the land-grant universities have their boots on the ground in the fight against threats to food and agriculture.

The Commission makes a number of recommendations across the subjects of coordination, early warning, research and development, and preparedness, response, and mitigation. These include “Incorporate all land-grant universities in national food and
agro-biodefense activities,” “Expand the role of land-grant universities in international
surveillance and interdiction for food and agriculture defense,” “Establish land-grant university biodefense research coalitions,” and “Establish a cooperative extension preparedness and response framework that extends the capabilities of the Extension
Disaster Education Network,” among others.

Today, the US has 112 Land-Grant Colleges and Universities, ranging from Ivy League Cornell to major state agriculture universities like Kansas State and Texas A&M, both of which have strong backgrounds in biodefense work. “The original mission of these institutions, as set forth in the first Morrill Act, was to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts as well as classical studies so members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education,” according to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The Association also explains, “A key component of the land-grant system is the agricultural experiment station program created by the Hatch Act of 1887. The Hatch Act authorized direct payment of federal grant funds to each state to establish an agricultural experiment station in connection with the land-grant institution there. The amount of this appropriation varies from year to year and is determined for each state through a formula based on the number of small farmers there. A major portion of the federal funds must be matched by the state.”

Map depicting land-grant universities across the nation. Source: USDA

“Want to Prevent Pandemics? Stop Spillovers”

Vora et al. discuss how just $20 billion per year in investments could greatly reduce the likelihood of future spillovers in their recent Nature Comment. They write that, “Spillover events, in which a pathogen that originates in animals jumps into people, have probably triggered every viral pandemic that’s occurred since the start of the twentieth century.” They continue, explaining “What’s more, an August 2021 analysis of disease outbreaks over the past four centuries indicates that the yearly probability of pandemics could increase several-fold in the coming decades, largely because of human-induced environmental changes.” They identify four specific actions based on “decades of research from epidemiology, ecology and genetics,” including protecting tropical and subtropical forests, banning or strictly regulating (both domestically and internationally) “commercial markets and trade of live wild animals that pose a public-health risk,” improving biosecurity where dealing with farmed animals is concerned, and improving people’s health and economic security, particularly in “hotspots for the emergence of infectious diseases.” They go on to discuss other measures, like incorporating these actions into the WHA pandemic agreement currently under negotiation and improvements in preventative health care.

“Zero Draft Report of the Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies to the Seventy-Fifth World Health Assembly”

Speaking of the WHA, a working group tasked with finding ways to strengthen WHO’s preparedness and response to health emergencies just released this draft report for the Assembly. In their 56-page report, they provide insight and recommendations for boosting the implementation and compliance of parties to the International Health Regulations and a potential timeline for amending them. According to Devex, “To strengthen equity, the report says member states should establish and scale up national and regional manufacturing capacities for the development and delivery of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and other essential supplies during emergencies. It also asks them “to consider processes for transfer of technology and know-how, including to and among larger manufacturing hubs in each region.””

Much of the report’s proposals are not new, owing to the fact that the working group was tasked with reviewing existing recommendations for pandemic preparedness. Other recommendations, as Devex explains, include “…for the WHO Secretariat to consider a different acronym when referring to so-called public health emergencies of international concern, as the abbreviation “PHEIC” is sometimes pronounced like the word “fake” in English. The report also suggests that WHO publish information on disease outbreaks with pandemic potential “on an immediate basis” and that member states discuss the feasibility of developing an intermediate and/or regional alert systems for health emergencies.” It also recommends the 75th WHA adopts any amendments to the IHR that are ready, while also suggesting the director-general convenes a review committee to “make technical recommendations for proposed amendments submitted to the WHO Secretariat by June 30 of this year.” The group also recommends that the IHR review committee provides a report to the director-general by October. Meanwhile, a member state-led process should finalize their proposed amendments and then submit them to the director-general by January of 2023. If necessary, the report indicates this process can continue until the 76th World Health Assembly, expected to take place in May 2023.

The United States has already submitted proposals for IHR amendments for consideration by the 75th WHA. They are primarily focused on requiring states parties to provide early notification to WHO regarding any events that might become PHEICs. The WHO would also have a 24-hour window to work with states parties to verify reports and determine a disease’s potential to spread abroad. Another US-proposed amendment includes a provision on deliberations of the IHR emergency committee, specifying that if the group “is not unanimous in its findings, any member shall be entitled to express his or her dissenting professional views in an individual or group report, which shall state the reasons why a divergent opinion is held and shall form part of the Emergency Committee’s report.” The US has also proposed creation of a compliance committee for implementation of the IHR.

“The Department of Defense Contributions to Pandemic Response”

CSIS Global Health Policy Center’s Drs. Thomas Cullison and J. Stephen Morrison recently authored this report discussing the Department of Defense’s (DOD) future in the US government’s work on international health security. They write, “A process of strategic planning that encompasses a spectrum of valuable DOD contributions to contain the global Covid-19 pandemic should begin right away. DOD has broad capabilities that have consistently proven their high value in addressing the current Covid-19 pandemic and other historical disease outbreaks, in support of the U.S. civilian-led response. The knowledge and experience gained in crisis response at home and overseas contribute to military readiness and improved coordination of all actors involved in preventing, detecting, and responding to infectious disease events.”

They also provide four recommendations to strengthen DOD’s contributions overseas that advance US global health security interests:

  • Identify a lead federal agency for U.S. international Covid-19 response and future health security crises. DOD should have permanent, sustained involvement in integrating and planning from the beginning.  
  • More closely coordinate and synchronize DOD capabilities dealing with biological threats within DOD and with external partners. 
  • Align funding authorities with desired outcomes. 
  • Maintain military, medical, and scientific expertise. 

“Towards a Post-Pandemic World: Lessons from COVID-19 for Now and the Future”

The National Academies recently published this proceedings of a workshop summarizing discussions and findings from the Forum on Microbial Threats’ two virtual 2021 workshops. The first workshop focused on what it means to frame the response to COVID-19 through a “syndemic” approach, and what the implications would be for global recovery. The second workshop focused more broadly on key lessons and emerging data from ongoing pandemic response efforts that can be incorporated into current health systems to improve resilience and preparedness for future outbreaks.

This workshop explored the long-term effects of COVID-19 on health equity, including considerations for mental health and social determinants of health. It also addressed uncertainties during a pandemic, such as trust, communication, and engagement and explored approaches to systematize recovery efforts to improve the ongoing responses and prepare for the next pandemic. Experts discussed possibilities for a post-pandemic world and a response strategy for stakeholders that ensures sustained community partnerships and prioritization of health equity. This Proceedings of a Workshop summarizes the presentations and discussions from the second workshop.

“The Coronavirus Vaccine Manufacturing Failures of Emergent Biosolutions”

This week, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. James E. Clyburn, Chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, released a staff report on their joint investigation into coronavirus vaccine manufacturing failures of Emergent BioSolutions, Inc. (Emergent). These failures occurred under a contract awarded by the Trump administration despite warnings about the company’s history of serious deficiencies.

According to the Committee on Oversight and Reform, “New evidence shows that nearly 400 million doses of coronavirus vaccines—significantly more than previously known—were destroyed because of Emergent’s failure to meet or maintain quality standards at its Bayview manufacturing facility. Internal communications reveal efforts by Emergent executives to hide evidence of contamination in an attempt to evade oversight from government regulators.” The report also found that Emergent executives promoted their manufacturing capability despite being warned for years by their then Executive Vice President of Manufacturing and Technical Operations that the company’s quality systems were deficient. Furthermore “FDA, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca identified multiple deficiencies at Bayview, which Emergent failed to remediate despite urgent warnings.” The report also determined that inexperienced staff and high rates of staff turnover at Emergent contributed to the vaccine contamination. HHS, under the Biden administration, terminated its contract with Emergent because the company failed to follow federal manufacturing standards. The report notes, “According to HHS, Emergent received $330 million in taxpayer dollars before the Biden Administration terminated the company’s contract in November 2021.  This action saved taxpayers $320 million that remained on the contract and came after the Committees launched an investigation and released preliminary findings about Emergent’s troubling conduct.”

“Global Report on Infection Prevention and Control”

The WHO has launched the first ever global report on infection prevention and control (IPC), revealing that “good IPC programmes can reduce health care infections by 70%.” The WHO explains, “Today, out of every 100 patients in acute-care hospitals, seven patients in high-income countries and 15 patients in low- and middle-income countries will acquire at least one health care-associated infection (HAI) during their hospital stay. On average, 1 in every 10 affected patients will die from their HAI.” This report finds that high-income countries are more likely to be further progressing in improving their IPC, and “are eight times more likely to have a more advanced IPC implementation status than low-income countries.” The report also notes that “…little improvement was seen between 2018 and 2021 in the implementation of IPC national programmes in low-income countries, despite increased attention being paid generally to IPC due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” WHO calls on all countries to increase their IPC investments to help improve quality of care and patient and worker safety.

“Archival Influenza Virus Genomes from Europe Reveal Genomic Variability During the 1918 Pandemic”

In the decades since the 1918 flu pandemic, improvements in technology have allowed researchers to learn more about the H1N1 virus that killed an estimated 50 million globally. However, questions have still remained regarding how and why the virus changed as time progressed, especially since its first wave was relatively tame compared to later waves. However, Patrono et al. recently published their research helping answer some of these questions. Dan Robitzski with The Scientist explains, the “researchers managed to extract viral genomes from tissue samples of people who caught the 1918 pandemic flu in different years to show how the virus mutated over time to adapt to the human immune system. They conclude that the virus may have evolved into the pathogen that circulated as a seasonal flu after the pandemic ended.”

Patrono et al. write in Nature Communications,

The 1918 influenza pandemic was the deadliest respiratory pandemic of the 20th century and determined the genomic make-up of subsequent human influenza A viruses (IAV). Here, we analyze both the first 1918 IAV genomes from Europe and the first from samples prior to the autumn peak. 1918 IAV genomic diversity is consistent with a combination of local transmission and long-distance dispersal events. Comparison of genomes before and during the pandemic peak shows variation at two sites in the nucleoprotein gene associated with resistance to host antiviral response, pointing at a possible adaptation of 1918 IAV to humans. Finally, local molecular clock modeling suggests a pure pandemic descent of seasonal H1N1 IAV as an alternative to the hypothesis of origination through an intrasubtype reassortment.

Influenza Milestones, Source: CDC

New York Times- The Daily: “One Million”

Today’s episode of The Daily podcast discusses the impending one millionth confirmed COVID-19 death in the United States, providing stories of some of the lives lost and the impact this has had on the living. “One million empty chairs around the dinner table. Each an irreplaceable loss,” President Biden said in a statement Thursday. “Each leaving behind a family, a community, and a nation forever changed because of this pandemic.” The podcast producers write, “We asked listeners to share memories about loved ones they have lost — and about what it’s like to grieve when it seems like the rest of the world is trying to move on. “Time keeps moving forward, and the world desperately wants to move past this pandemic,” one told us. “But my mother — she’s still gone.”” One million people is a number difficult to comprehend, but humanizing this massive number can help one process the gravity of the loss the country has suffered during this pandemic.

What Is Biosecurity for the Twenty-First Century?

After September 11 and the anthrax attacks in 2001, the United States adopted a top-down governance structure for bioterrorism that famously employed “guns, gates, and guards” to prevent attacks, while keeping track of suspicious “insiders” who might cause harm. But today, after the emergence of the novel coronavirus and its variants, society’s idea of what constitutes biological security and safety is changing. Looking toward a future in which gene editing can be done by do-it-yourselfers, biological engineering is common, and environmental changes shape new biorealities, the old top-down model of biosecurity will not be up to the task.

On May 23 at 3:00 PM ET, join Melissa Haendel (University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus), David Gillum (Arizona State University), Sam Weiss Evans (Harvard Kennedy School), and Yong-Bee Lim (Council on Strategic Risks) for a discussion moderated by Bryan Walsh (Vox Future Perfect) on how to reimagine biosecurity and biosafety—and even the relationship between biological research and society—for a new era. Register for the event here.

The Danger of Disinformation: Understanding Russia’s Propaganda Campaign Against Ukrainian Biological Facilities

Join NTI for a conversation with Dr. Gregory Koblentz, one of the world’s foremost biodefense scholars working at the nexus of health, science, and security, to discuss the ongoing Russian disinformation campaign against biological research facilities in Ukraine.

As part of an effort to justify its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has sought to sow doubt and confusion around the purpose of public health and research labs in the country, spreading disinformation that these facilities are conducting covert, offensive bioweapon development operations. This tactic is a longstanding favorite of the Russian government, going back decades. Koblentz will explore the true aims of Russia’s disinformation campaign in Ukraine and what the international community should do to counter it. This seminar will be held on May 17 at 11 am EST. Register here.

Lessons from COVID-19 for the Public Health Emergency Enterprise: What Happened to the Plans? – A Workshop

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness for Disasters and Emergencies is hosting a workshop exploring the nation’s Public Health Emergency (PHE) preparedness enterprise, through the lens of COVID-19 in the US. The workshop will be hosted on May 17 and 18, and will explore key components, success stories, and failure points throughout the entire PHE preparedness and response enterprise. Participants will also identify opportunities for more effective catastrophic disaster, pandemic, and other large scale PHEs planning at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels. Speakers include Dr. Deborah Birx (former Coronavirus Response Coordinator at the Office of the Vice President) and Dr. Gigi Gronvall (Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security). Register here.

Dr. Gregory D. Bossart Memorial One Health Scholarship Call for Applicants

A $5,000 USD Dr. Greg Bossart Memorial Scholarship is available to a graduate student in wildlife biology, epidemiology, veterinary, medical, public health, basic or social sciences or other post-graduate program focusing on the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment using a One Health framework. The application deadline is July 1, 20022, at 11:59 pm EDT. Learn more about Dr. Bossart and the scholarship here.

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. While a more comprehensive list and tool on the Pandora Report’s website is currently under construction, here are a couple of recent works on the matter:

“Russia Targets Azerbaijan, Others With Fake Bioweapons Claims”

Voice of America’s Polygraph.info fact-checking site published this fact-check discussing Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev’s April 27 claim that, “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its satellites deployed a network of bio-laboratories in the space of the former Soviet republics – in Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, where, under the guise of scientific research, they conduct military-biological activities.” Following Russia’s claim that it “could face biological threats from lab leaks in countries on its southern borders,” Azerbaijan’s State Security Service rejected the claims such labs have never operated in the country on May 7.

“Americans Love Conspiracy Theories, and That’s Dangerous for Everyone”

Matthew A. Baum and Katherine Ognyanova with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists discuss some of their findings from the COVID States Project in this piece. They explain their recent national survey asking respondents to assess the accuracy of eight popular false claims, four of which were about the COVID-19 vaccine. The other four pertained to Russia’s war in Ukraine. They also asked respondents about their attitudes and behaviors regarding both crises. They write, “The results contain both good and bad news. The good news is that in both cases, most Americans did not believe false claims about either crisis…The bad news is that relatively large percentages of respondents were unsure about the accuracy of the false claims.”

Something a Little Less Serious If You Made It This Far… “Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab Wins NPDN’s Rotten Tuber Award for ‘Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!’”

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced Wednesday that the Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab at Utah State University was awarded first place in the National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN)’s Rotten Tuber Awards for its submission – “Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!” The Rotten Tuber Awards recognize unique samples that leave plant diagnosticians asking themselves, “What was this person thinking when they sent this sample?” From USDA NIFA:

“Enjoy “Hazmat Team Called for Bee Excrement!” submitted by Zach Schumm, arthropod diagnostician and urban IPM associate, and Claudia Nischwitz, plant pathologist specialist:

“In mid-August 2021, the Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Lab received a frantic call from an individual at a local Department of Health regarding a substance that was found on school buses that were about to be sent out to pick up children. They weren’t sure what the substance was and due to safety concerns, they delayed the use of the buses. Thinking the substance could be from a plant or plant derived, they contacted us in the diagnostic lab to see if we could offer any immediate advice. But they made it abundantly clear that they had no idea what the substance could have been. And tensions were clearly high! 

“When we were contacted by the individual, Zach Schumm had them send photographs of the substance and told them we would call back immediately once we got a look. Zach identified the substance immediately as bee excrement and nothing of concern. Within a few minutes, we called the individual back and she immediately put me on speakerphone. 

“Schumm vividly remembers telling them I knew what the substance was, and they replied “Oh my god! Okay wait! I am putting you on speaker phone with others from the department of health, the local sheriff’s department and the hazmat team. We are all stationed on-site under a tent!” This was no ordinary response; it was being treated as a potential threat and public health crisis. So there Zach is, one minute just eating a bland lunch and thinking his job is to identify insects, and the next minute he’s talking to high-level officials with much more authority than himself about the simple fact that bees decided to poop on their school buses.

“To help confirm the substance identification, Zach asked them if there were any agricultural fields nearby that would result in a high abundance of bees. Sure enough, the place where the buses were parked was adjacent to agricultural fields. 

“When Zach applied to his position — arthropod diagnostician — he wasn’t aware that he was going to have to save the day by saying the word “poop” to a hazmat team and the Department of Health. We are eternally grateful about the quick response by Utah officials to keep Utah’s children safe when there was a concern, but you can’t help but laugh at the situation.”

The culprit, pictured moments after terrorizing school buses in Utah. Source: KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Pandora Report: 5.6.2022

Happy National Nurses Day to all our readers in the US and a big thank you to the countless nurses working hard always, but especially during this pandemic! Our main focus this week is on the continued spread of H5N1 influenza in the United States and current challenges and evolving knowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic as BA.2.12.1 accounts for more and more cases. We have also included several new publications, a couple of great new podcast episodes, and announcements, including the launch of CBWNet. Finally, in case you missed it, check out our May 4 special feature on bioweapons in Star Wars on our site.

The Birds, 2022 Edition

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A(H5N1) continues to spread in the United States with 32 states reporting at least one confirmed infected flock as of May 5, 2022. Iowa has the most infected birds currently, with USDA reporting a total of 13,373,901 infections in that state. Minnesota has the most infected flocks currently at 69. 34 states have also reported positive samples in wild bird populations across the country. This has prompted massive poultry culling across the US in an attempt to control outbreaks in commercial and backyard flocks. For example, Rembrandt Enterprises, a large egg producer in Iowa owned by the same person as the Minnesota Timberwolves, has culled 5.3 million hens so far using what some describe as inhumane methods, prompting multiple public protests at Timberwolves games (Rembrandt also laid off most of its staff in the process as well, contributing to the backlash). HPAI spreads rapidly through bird populations and is a particularly painful disease for the birds to suffer through. Many of the H5 and H7 subtype viruses cause severe, systemic disease with near 100% mortality, prompting the culls. Amid skyrocketing grocery prices, eggs and poultry are especially more costly these days, with nearly 9% of all US hens having been culled recently. This is particularly challenging as the world, including the US, has steadily increased its egg consumption over the last decade, with many turning to chicken eggs as a cheaper source of protein compared to meat.

US states with detection of HPAI in wild birds as of May 5, 2022. Source: USDA APHIS

While large commercial flocks are easy targets for rapid infection, illegal cockfighting rings are also pressing dangers. Cockfighting is illegal in all US states and it is penalized as a felony in 42 of them, though enforcement and punishment vary. Oklahoma, a state with at least 20 documented major cockfighting traffickers, is especially at risk as it is a prime location for inter-state shipment of fighting birds who have higher chances of coming into contact with commercial birds along the way. Of the Oklahoma rings, Wayne Pacelle (President of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Human Economy) said, ““Cockfighting has unique potential to make the avian influenza outbreak even more deadly and far-reaching. Cockfighters are orchestrating illegal fights in state that cluster people and their animals from multiple states, creating perfect conditions for birds to contract the disease and then to spread it back home when the derbies are done.”

This comes as some in the Oklahoma legislature seek to lessen punishments for cockfighting. State Rep. Justin Humphrey’s measure would also “redefine the definition of “cockfighting.” Only when the birds are fitted with artificial spurs, knives or gaffs would it be considered a cockfight. Language would be removed from the law that currently includes “any training fight in which birds are intended or encouraged to attack or fight with one another” under the definition of “cockfight.” This bill, HB 3283, passed out of committee with a 5-0 vote before failing to be voted on before the legislative deadline, though Humphrey later amended a similar Senate bill that subsequently also passed the House committee. Oklahoma City’s Journal Record wrote, “Tropical conditions overseas, where there is a demand for cockfighting birds, makes it difficult to raise healthy birds in those climates – that’s why they buy quality birds from Oklahoma, Humphrey said. Purchasers might buy several males aged 10 months, raise them to two years and then choose best to use for breeding the next generation.”

Colorado reported a case of H5 influenza in a person who had direct exposure to poultry while culling animals with presumptive H5N1 bird flu late last month. CDC has confirmed the case and insists that the public health risk of H5N1 remains low as this person had direct exposure to infected animals. The patient experienced several days of fatigue (their only symptom) and has since recovered following isolation and treatment with oseltamivir (Tamiflu). CDC has been monitoring exposed humans for symptoms since the outbreaks were first detected in bird populations in late 2021, finding just one case so far in the 2,500 people tracked. The UK notified the WHO of a confirmed human H5 case in South West England in January of this year, bringing the human case total to two so far this round. Over 880 human infections with previous H5N1 viruses have been reported since 2003, though the predominant H5N1 viruses circulating currently in birds globally are different from previous viruses, according to CDC. 10 people who came into contact with the Colorado case or were also exposed at work are under close observation.

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

Avian influenza (AI) cases have been documented in commercial flocks since at least the 1800s. However, AI became a much more troubling threat at the end of the 20th century when an H5N1 outbreak in Hong Kong resulted in 18 infections and six deaths in the human population and the culling of over 1 million chickens. Outbreaks of H5N1 naturally occur every few years, with the last one in the US occurring in 2014 and 2015. While bird flu viruses typically do not infect humans (and generally only infect those with close contact with infected animals), there is concern that these viruses might mutate and become better able to spread in human populations, potentially causing wide spread disease. There is no indication this has happened yet, but it is important to limit the opportunity for this to happen by containing the outbreak. Read more on precautions, including those for bird feeders, from the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.

Our Evolving Understanding of COVID-19 and Its Impacts

27 months into the pandemic, the United States reached 1 million COVID-19 deaths to on Wednesday. While not as high as they once were, the US is averaging about 600 deaths per day in its current 7-day average. Cases are continuing to climb as well across the country, with the BA.2.12.1 subvariant now accounting for 29% of new infections. The WHO also confirmed this week that the world saw 14.9 million excess deaths associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, a grim reminder of how severe this has been.

This comes as the FDA announced this week that it is limiting the EUA on the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine “to individuals 18 years of age and older for whom other authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccines are not accessible or clinically appropriate, and to individuals 18 years of age and older who elect to receive the Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine because they would otherwise not receive a COVID-19 vaccine.” The FDA stated this is because of the risk of developing thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome associated with the J&J vaccine. Unlike the mRNA offerings from Pfizer and Moderna, the J&J vaccine uses more traditional viral vector technology, using a disabled adenovirus to deliver COVID-19’s DNA to cells, instructing them to produce the spike proteins. This prompts the body to mount an immune response by creating antigens. While the J&J vaccine was initially thought to be a game changer in terms of its potential to increase patient compliance versus that of the two dose vaccines, it only proved to be 66.3% effective in preventing lab-confirmed COVID-19 infection, despite being highly efficacious in preventing hospitalization and death in those who did fall ill. It also was later found to be less effective against the Delta and Omicron variants that emerged in late 2021. This EUA limitation comes alongside pandemic response challenges. With the prospect of more COVID-19 funding for the administration held up in Congress, it’s unclear if the Biden administration could even afford a broader push for second boosters the FDA has hinted at recently.

The recent Omicron subvariants have, in some ways, fundamentally changed how many think of the pandemic. With the federal mask mandate struck down, many, including Delta Airlines, have celebrated the “return to normal” and COVID-19’s transition “to an ordinary seasonal virus.” Megan Molteni with STAT News notes that COVID-19 has yet to find a seasonal cadence and COVID-19 is still more than capable of causing mass death and disability, as recently witnessed in Hong Kong. Omicron has brought a number of changes still, such as drastic differences in how the virus spreads among people. Whereas up to 80% of infections with the original version were caused by about 10 to 20% of those infected, Omicron is spreading much more in places like households, meaning superspreader events might be less important as key drivers of outbreaks. Given the drastic differences in variants, some scientists think it is worth turning to prior variants that never took off as much as ones like Delta and Omicron to better understand what future variants might bring, according to this new article in the New York Times.

Of course, the costs of this pandemic have not been limited to lives alone. A recent article in Nature examines the long-term health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare workers (HCWs). The results are not all that surprising–more front-line HCWs now show signs of PTSD than they did before the pandemic. In the article, Ouyang et al. seek to “investigate the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in HCWs in a longitudinal manner.” They also aim to further explore how risk perception impacts the evolution of PTSD over a longer period of time using a one-year follow-up study. Their study used HCWs in Guangdong, China (a coastal city bordering Macau and Hong Kong) and concludes, “Our data provide a snapshot of the worsening of HCWs’ PTSD along with the repeated pandemic outbreaks and highlight the important role of risk perception in the development of PTSD symptoms in HCWs over time.”

“Risky ‘Gain-of-Function’ Studies Need Stricter Guidance, Say US Researchers”

This new news piece from Nature details experts’ calls for the US government to improve its guidance on experiments that might make pathogens more deadly or transmissible. It covers the April 27 listening session offered by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), to which Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Gregory Koblentz provided a statement. The Nature article explains that, “Many at the listening session pushed for stricter oversight of risky-pathogen research, however. Some suggested that the HHS advisory-panel approach be extended to other US entities. Gregory Koblentz, a biosecurity-policy specialist at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, pointed out that pharmaceutical firms, philanthropic institutions and federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense, also conduct research on potentially risky pathogens. They should adhere to the same guidelines, he said.”

While the debate about gain-of-function (GoF) testing has been strong over the last decade, it has gained renewed attention amid the COVID-19 pandemic and debates about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. In 2014, the US government announced a funding moratorium on GoF experiments that was lifted in 2017 after HHS implemented an extra review layer for such experiments. While most virologists think SARS-CoV-2 spilled-over to humans directly from animals, this has remained a political debate in the US centering on the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Regardless of COVID-19’s origin, concerns over these kinds of experiments and challenges in biosecurity standards should still be reviewed and addressed now before it is too late. Watch the NSABB listening session recording here and read the Under the NIH Poliscope blog post about it here.

“Building a Sustainable Biopreparedness Industrial Base”

The MITRE Corporation recently released this report discussing the state of the American biopharma industry and what objectives the US government should pursue within it. MITRE identifies several shortfalls across USG capabilities, the mRNA industry, and the mRNA supply chain and ecosystem. The report argues that “To counter strategic competition in this industry, the United States needs a focused approach to drive action and accountability on sustaining needed capacity and capabilities. However, a history of inconsistent priorities and funding constitutes a significant barrier to creating a strong partnership between government and industry in this sector.” The report outlines a number of courses of action the US government can take to help improve this capacity and help protect the US population from future biological threats.

“Strengthening Biological Security After COVID-19: Using Cartoons for Engaging Life Science Stakeholders with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention”

Novossiolova et al.’s new article in the Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity reports on the development of an awareness-raising resource which uses the cartoon format to facilitate consideration of biological and chemical security issues. This resource takes the form of a cartoon series comprising five two-page thematic cartoons. The cartoon series was published by the London Metropolitan University, UK and is freely available online in 13 languages. Indicative facilitation notes aim to support the use of the cartoon series for outreach and training.

Critical Federal Capabilities Needed to Evaluate Real-World Safety, Effectiveness, and Equitable Distribution and Use of Medical Countermeasures During a Public Health Emergency

From the National Academies:

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of having access to real-world data and evidence to monitor and assess medical countermeasure (MCM) use and performance so policy makers can make more effective and rapid public health decisions, protect population health, and save lives. During public health emergencies, the use of MCMs, such as therapeutics, vaccines, and diagnostics, can be made available to the public under a range of regulatory access mechanisms.

This Rapid Expert Consultation was produced by individual members of the Standing Committee for CDC Center for Preparedness and Response. Its aim is to review and propose modifications to an initial draft list of critical federal capabilities presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that are needed to evaluate real-world safety, effectiveness, equitable distribution, access, and use of MCMs during a public health emergency. This effort draws from expert input, published literature, and lessons learned from previous public health emergencies, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Summit on Strengthening the Nation’s Early Warning System for Health Threats: A Meeting Summary”

The White House released this meeting summary covering its April 19 Summit supporting the launch of the CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics (CFA). The summit included panels on Next-Generation Public Health Data and Analytics, Enabling Local Governments, Strengthening the System for Patients, and closing remarks from Dr. Sandi Ford, Special Assistant to the President for Public Health & Science, Domestic Policy Council.

The Role of Public Health Emergency Management in Biodefense: A COVID-19 Case Study”

Incoming Biodefense PhD Student Ryan Houser recently published a new article in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. Houser uses the COVID-19 pandemic to “explore the biodefense and public health preparedness landscape for tends in federal support and capacity building.” He identifies a number of consistent failures and concludes that, “To counter the increasing biothreats, the United States must invest in revamping the biodefense infrastructure to mimic and support public health emergency preparedness initiatives which will increase our resilience to various biothreats.”

Student Features

Biodefense MS Student Theresa Hoang‘s research paper, “­­The Hidden Pandemic: COVID-19’s Impact on Antimicrobial Resistance”, was recently posted on the Pandora Report. Hoang uses a number of case studies to discuss how AMR has grown as a threat over the course of the pandemic and what might be done to help combat this mounting public health crisis, including improvements in antibiotic stewardship programs.

Biodefense PhD Student Danyale C. Kellogg recently discussed the threat Chinese failed outbreak responses pose to global health security on the Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies (CSPS) website. Kellogg, a current CSPS Fellow, covers prior failures of the Chinese Communist Party in the COVID-19 outbreak response in addition to its efforts to cover up the spread of HIV/AIDS in Henan Province in the 1990s and SARS in the early 2000s. She discusses the challenges of preparing for future pandemics in light of a rising China that is more interested in usurping the international order than promoting global health security.

This Podcast Will Kill You Episode 95, Tetanus: An Inhumane Calamity!

The Erins go beyond the risks of rusty nails and Tdap booster requirements to discuss the biology, clinical presentation, and historical and modern challenges posed by this disease. They provide an especially interesting discussion of how neonatal tetanus in the American South impacted the field of epidemiology on top of all the other great content packed into this episode.

Franklin Institute’s So Curious! Podcast: What is Biohacking? From Bodybuilding to Bacterial Shoes

Episode 9 of So Curious! continues this season’s theme of Human 2.0 by discussing innovations in hacking the human body. Covering everything from cyborgs and laws and ethics, this episode features Ricky Solorzano (CEO of Allevi) and Scott Shunk (a physique athlete who provides an interesting perspective on this topic). Give it a listen!

The 2021 Global Health Security Index: A Tool for Decision-Makers in Latin America

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Initiative for Global Security (IGS) are offering this Zoom event on May 11 at 3:30 pm EST. The GHS Index is a comprehensive assessment and benchmarking of health security and related capabilities across 195 countries. Since the launch of the first edition of the GHS Index in October 2019, much has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second edition of the GHS Index considers lessons learned from this experience and expands upon the measures of national level health security. National leaders across the globe bear a collective responsibility for developing and maintaining robust global capability to counter infectious disease threats. Political will is needed to protect people from the consequences of epidemics, to take action to save lives, and to build a safer and more secure world. Register here.

The Danger of Disinformation: Understanding Russia’s Propaganda Campaign Against Ukrainian Biological Facilities

Join NTI for a conversation with Dr. Gregory Koblentz, one of the world’s foremost biodefense scholars working at the nexus of health, science, and security, to discuss the ongoing Russian disinformation campaign against biological research facilities in Ukraine.

As part of an effort to justify its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has sought to sow doubt and confusion around the purpose of public health and research labs in the country, spreading disinformation that these facilities are conducting covert, offensive bioweapon development operations. This tactic is a longstanding favorite of the Russian government, going back decades. Koblentz will explore the true aims of Russia’s disinformation campaign in Ukraine and what the international community should do to counter it. This seminar will be held on May 17 at 11 am EST. Register here.

Lessons from COVID-19 for the Public Health Emergency Enterprise: What Happened to the Plans? – A Workshop

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness for Disasters and Emergencies is hosting a workshop exploring the nation’s Public Health Emergency (PHE) preparedness enterprise, through the lens of COVID-19 in the US. The workshop will be hosted on May 17 and 18, and will explore key components, success stories, and failure points throughout the entire PHE preparedness and response enterprise. Participants will also identify opportunities for more effective catastrophic disaster, pandemic, and other large scale PHEs planning at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels. Speakers include Dr. Deborah Birx (former Coronavirus Response Coordinator at the Office of the Vice President) and Dr. Gigi Gronvall (Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security). Register here.

Chemical and Biological Weapons Net Launched

The CBWNet research project received funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, lasting April 2022 through March 2026. The project will be carried out by the Berlin office of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH), the Chair for Public Law and International Law at the University of Gießen, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and the Carl Friedrich Weizsäcker-Centre for Science and Peace Research (ZNF) at the University of Hamburg. The joint project aims to “identify options to comprehensively strengthen the norms against chemical and biological weapons (CBW).” The project includes an analysis of the normative order of these regimes and investigation of the potential consequences of certain technological developments in light of changing security dynamics. The project’s site explains, “Wherever research results point to challenges for or a weakening of CBW norms, the project partners will develop options and proposals to uphold or strengthen these norms and to enhance their resilience.”

Russian WMD Disinformation Resources

The mountain of debunkings and academic commentary on the Russian disinformation campaign targeting DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program-supported labs in Ukraine continues to grow. While a more comprehensive list and tool on the Pandora Report’s website is currently under construction, here are a couple of recent works on the matter:

“People’s Republic of China Efforts to Amplify the Kremlin’s Voice on Ukraine”

The US State Department released this Disarming Disinformation piece outlining how China and its state outlets seek to influence public opinion on Russia’s war in Ukraine. It discusses the PRC’s toolbox of methods to do this and offers a detailed timeline of these attempts along with more sources on the subject.

“Ukraine’s Battlefield Is Haunted by Putin’s Chemical Weapons Legacy”

William J. Broad’s new piece in the New York Times begins with the 2017 televised destruction of what President Vladimir Putin claimed was the last of Russia’s CW stockpile before diving into current concerns about his potential to use these weapons in Ukraine. Broad discusses differences between how the Kremlin treats nuclear and conventional war versus chemical war as well as past Russian uses of CW, including during the hostage crisis in a Moscow theater in 2002.

“Are Russia’s Claims of Ukrainian Biological Weapons a Propaganda Ploy?

Deutsche Welle released this English language backgrounder on Russian disinformation focusing on BW. It includes a portion about accusations targeting modern Germany specifically, including the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology’s collaboration with Kharkiv’s Institute of Experimental and Clinical Veterinary Medicine.

EUvsDisinfo Now Available in Mandarin Chinese

The European External Action Service’s EUvsDisinfo is now offering articles published in Chinese to target Chinese-speaking audience with factual information about the war in Ukraine. This is in response to previous alignment of pro-Kremlin and Chinese state outlets using disinformation tactics on subjects like biological weapons and the origins of COVID-19. One report released in March (““生物武器被全面禁止,但是进行生物研究并不违法””/””Bioweapons Are Totally Banned, But It’s Not Illegal to Conduct Biological Research””) discusses the mission of the Nunn Lugar Program and the legal, important public health work it conducts in host countries.